Monday, November 11, 2019

How to Be a Writer - Part IV (Managing the Day Job)

Today, in Part IV of our series about how to be a writer, we're going to discuss one of the most hated aspects of being a creative of any type: The day job. I know, we've all been fed the image of the professional writer who flies off to make movies of his work and has a huge mansion and a private plane and gobs of money that would make Scrooge McDuck envious, but that's now how it actually works for the vast majority of us.

Of the thousands of writers in the world today, according to many sources, only about 300 of them can actually make a living at it. Think about that for a moment. Judging by the numbers of attendees at writers conventions that I go to, that's like one out of every thousand or so. Or more. So what chance to do you have? Same as anyone else, I imagine. And, while it's noble to say "I will be the exception!" and go whole-hog into it without a net, most folks have to do things like pay rent (and the electricity bill for your laptop from part one of this series) and like to do silly things like eat. So what does that mean? You need the dreaded day job.

I've been fortunate my entire working life in that I've worked (with very minor breaks) in university settings. Currently, I work for Texas State University and Seton Hill University. Why? Because they give the predictability of a steady schedule, health insurance, paid vacation, a retirement plan, etc. But working for a university is just not an option for some folks (trust me, I know how lucky I am). So how do you navigate both careers at the same time? The key, of course, is planning.

If you work hourly, let's say retail, without a fixed schedule, you need to make sure you take time for your writing career. It may not be every day, but you need to make it a priority in your life. For example, let's say you work the morning shift (8am - 5pm) M-W-F. That means that on M-W-F, you need to carve out a block of time when you get home to do your writing. T-TH, you have all day. Does that mean you can just write whenever? Theoretically, yes, but I find it better when I have a set schedule. That's me, though. What if you work mornings one day, evenings the next? Besides trying to find a new job, the same thing applies. You need to carve out a time when you can work. Wake up early to get it done. I don't recommend staying up until all hours because that becomes a vicious cycle of self-abuse. Since I work from 7:30am to 4:30pm every weekday, my writing schedule is easy. I get home at around 5 or 5:15pm every day, and I decompress for about thirty minutes (pet my dogs, sit on my porch), then I eat dinner. After dinner, I go into my office and bang away until I get 1000 words written (more on that in a future blog).  On weekends, I actually still do work, but I also take time out to be with friends and family, pet my dogs and ride my motorcycle.

The point is, I know it seems impossible, but it isn't. With planning, you can accomplish juggling the two careers. It's difficult, and it sucks, but only until you get used to it as your "new normal." Once you figure out the whole scheduling thing, it becomes a question of discipline and drive. Think of it like this: If you want to lose weight, there's a very simple calculus for doing so - Eat right and exercise. Every now and again, you have a "cheat day" where you can eat carbs or pizza or whatever, but then you have to have the drive to get back in the gym and hit it hard. Writing is the same way. You want to write that novel? You have to put in the time. You have to set a routine. It's okay to take a day off every now and again, but once that day off is done, get back into your writing gym and hit it hard.

A few other tips:

  • Do not write at work on work-owned equipment - Check your contract, if you have one. Chances are, anything written on company-owned equipment becomes owned by the company, and that includes your novel.  Dropbox is a great thing, but if you put it on your work computer to access your work, then guess what. Everything in your dropbox could be argued to become company property as well. Want to take the guesswork out? Just don't do it 
  • Do keep a notebook at work - You don't need to write the whole plot line, but keep a notebook and a pen handy and make notes when you get ideas. I keep a pocket-sized composition book in my pocket when I'm at work, and it's full of random little notes that wind up in my books later. 
  • Read on breaks - Part of being a writer is reading. It's a thing that we all do, and it's a way to continually stay sharp in our genre and take ideas from other genres. On your lunch break, have a seat, eat your lunch, and read a chapter in a book. It's good for a brain break. 
  • Post your schedule - I don't just mean your work schedule, but also your work schedule. Put it on your refrigerator. 8am - 5pm, work. 7pm - 9pm, writing. Post it so you and everyone else you live with can see it. 
  • Don't talk about the book you're writing to just everyone at work - Sure, if you have a friend at work, that's great. But people don't want to hear about what book you're writing. Especially ad-nausium if you're just now writing it. From experience, depending on where you work, mentioning that you're a hopeful writer will get you a combination of snide comments, pithy nicknames, and outright jeers. 
  • Do tell folks when it gets picked up - Folks love to pick up books by people they know. Just be ready to educate people on what it's really like to be a writer (i.e. my first book got picked up and, no, I'm not a bazillionaire yet).
  • Join a writers organization - Seriously, whatever genre you write in, there's an org for it. Horror? Join the HWA. Romance, RWA. Sci-Fi/Fantasy? Join SFWA. Why? Because these organizations are there to help their members succeed. Some even offer health insurance discounts. No kidding. 
Being a writer with a day-job (full or part time) is manageable. It's a pain, but manageable. The hardest part is to never let your day-job-self crush the ambition of the writer-self. With discipline, determination, and planning, you can do this.

And one more thing... This image made me think of this entry.

Next time, we talk about making routines and setting goals.

Until then, write on!


Monday, November 4, 2019

How to Be a Writer - Part III (Self Care)

This is a very sensitive subject, and one that is very close to my heart. I talk about mental health and physical well-being all of the time, but I think there are aspects of being this weird "writer" creature that many people do not take into account. Someone has to talk about it, so it may as well be your old Uncle Scott.

First thing's first: This whole "writing" thing? It's hard. Really hard. There's no stability, no retirement plan (unless you make one), no healthcare (unless you buy it), and no steady paycheck. Sure, you're your own boss, you set your own hours, etc. But there's a downside to that: It's all on you. And that leads a great many of us creative-types (not just writers...) to have a particular mental outlook on the world. Yes, I'm talking about depression. Serious, severe depression. Studies have shown (links below) that writers and creative types (musicians, artists, comedians) are more prone to depression than the so-called "normal" folks, and while theories abound as to why, no one really has clue one about the solid concrete cause. Of course, I have my own theories. Shall I share them?

To my mind, part of what leads the humble writer to depression is that we are constantly bombarded with rejection. Literally, our worth in our chosen field is determined by a group of strangers who don't know us, the random masses who may or may not read our work, and even people that may or may not "get" what we were going for in a story. And those things are not objective at all. They're all determined by taste, upbringing, what they had for lunch today (you try being nice with heartburn...), or even how their day is going. So you, the writer, spend months writing what you think is the greatest story you've ever written, then you send it out to agents and editors, and the response you get is "no." Or worse, "meh." And suddenly, the invasive thought appear. "I suck." "I'll never be good at this." "Why do I bother?" "I should've been a veterinarian." We fall into a hole of self-doubt and beat ourselves up until one of two things happens: We either quit, or we get stubborn about it and keep moving on.

Another reason for this issue in our lives is that writing is largely a solitary endeavor. As social creatures, we crave human contact. Even if you say you hate people and want to live as a hermit, for the most part, there will come a point where, if you don't have human contact, it's unhealthy. So we want people in our lives, friends, spouses, significant others, but we want them to leave us the hell alone when we're working.

We impose deadlines on ourselves and feel guilty when we don't meet them. We set impossible expectations for our work and fall into despair when it comes up short. We all have dreams of being the next big thing, and those dreams are constantly being smacked with a hammer.

So what can we do? Give up? Nope. I'm stubborn. I've got some things that I do when I'm on a downward swing that may help you.

Give yourself permission to suck. Look, not every word you write is going to be gold. Every first draft sucks, and that's the truth. So when you read through something, try to see your intent when you wrote it as opposed to how many times you wrote "there" instead of "they're." If you find something that sucks, mark it, revisit it, and ponder on what you could do to make a stronger choice. But don't beat yourself up over little mistakes or first-draft fuckery. It's fine. Everyone does this, from King to someone you've never heard of. Every first draft sucks.

Give yourself permission to step away from the keyboard. You know what happens when you're at your keyboard and the words won't come, but you're still sitting there determined to force them to appear? Nothing. The words still won't come. And you begin to feel depression jumping on you because you're obviously not a real writer because you can't just summon the muse from the ether and  make her shit out a few dozen pages at will. It doesn't work like that. Never has, never will. Yes, set a daily word count goal, and hit that goal, but also recognize when you need to step away for a few minutes. Realize that, at some point, you're going to get blocked and you may need to take a lap to get that creative magic back in your fingers.

Take a walk. When I'm having difficulty, I like to do things that I don't have to particularly "think" about. Typically, that means taking a walk through the neighborhood. See, if I sit and watch a TV show, I get involved in the plot. Hell, I wind up binge-watching the whole thing, and that's just a giant time-suck. Same thing for movies, though I love watching movies in the theater. Instead, I go for a walk through my neighborhood. I don't have to think about where I'm going so long as I follow the sidewalk, and that gives my brain a chance to kickstart itself back into working.

Exercise. One of the other pitfalls of this lifestyle is that it requires large amounts of time with butt in chair, which isn't conducive to a healthy lifestyle. Realize that the amount of time we spend in the chair for each novel is directly proportional to what I like to call "ass-spread." At least, it's that way for me. When I graduated from high school, long before I realized I wanted to be a writer, I weighed 142 pounds soaking wet and had 6% body fat. After more than a decade of being a writer, I saw my weight soar to the heaviest I've ever been, which is 240 pounds. Every joint I had hurt, and I got winded going upstairs in my own house. Since then, I've been on an exercise program, and at the time of this blog entry, I'm at 211. Exercise is a great way to turn off your brain and let it do the processing for you.

Read. How did we first learn to tell stories? By reading the works of the masters of our craft. How can we recharge when we feel that our batteries are low? By reading the works that inspired us to start with.

Connect. As I said, we are social creatures, whether we want to be or not. It's biology. So you do occasionally have to get out and (*gasp*) hang out with your friends. Reconnect with the people in your life that care about you and want to know where the hell you've been. Remind yourself that you do have people who love you. And if you don't think you do, I'm betting you're wrong. And if you want a more "writerly" way of connecting, have I got a solution for you: Writers' Workshops. I regularly attend In Your Write Mind, a writer's retreat created by alumni of Seton Hill University, at which I work. There are writers' retreats, workshops, and conventions in every state all year through. There are organizations for your genre as well. I'm a member of the Horror Writers Association and the International Thriller Writers Association. Why? Because it's nice to not feel alone in this endeavor, and it's nice to have other people to talk to, to ask questions, and to basically bullshit around with.

Get help. There is no shame in the realization that you need help. Everyone needs help. Invasive thoughts, feelings of depression, hopelessness... These are signs of a larger problem, and one that a qualified, trained professional can help with. Please, before it's too late, get help.

These are the things that work for me. And you may need to find more that work for you. I was diagnosed with what was at the time known as severe manic depression years ago. I also have a touch of PTSD, the reasons for which I won't go into now. I have been on that ledge, on that chair, at the proverbial tipping point where my life could've ended. One thing that helped me walk away from it with my life still intact was this:  YOU ARE NOT ALONE. There are people who can help you. And here's one other little thing that I do when I'm having a mental health crisis... I write about it. The books that I wrote after a major trauma in my life feature some very heart-crushing themes, and they were my way of getting them out of my soul and healing. I'm not saying it's a magical panacea for everything what ails you, but I'm saying that, for me, it helped. I have lost too many friends to suicide, and I've had a couple of friends come awfully damned close. I don't want to lose any more, and I don't want to be the cause of anyone else's misery if I be the one taking my own life.

The point of this entry is very simple: You can't be a writer if you're not around to write. Make your goals, set your deadlines, whatever, but you have to make time to take care of yourself. Read that again. You have to make time to take care of yourself. Take a hot bath, take a nap, go grab a coffee, reconnect with friends... Do something that makes you feel good about who you are as a person. Take care of yourself.  And don't you dare let anyone shame you for it. If anyone says "well, you're not a real writer unless..." Kick that person squarely in the junk. Tell them I told you to. I gave you permission. G'head. Send 'em my way.

Remember, your story will not get written if you aren't around to write it. You are valid. You have worth. And there is an audience for your work.

Next time, we'll talk about that pesky day job.

Until then, write on!


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Monday, October 28, 2019

How to Be a Writer - Part II (Your Writing Space)

Last time, in part one of our multi-part series, I talked about the basic tools that you need to be a writer. This time, I'm going to talk about where you write. Keep in mind, there is no right answer for this. There is what works for you. I'm going to be talking about what works for me, sharing a few glimpses into my writer's lifestyle, and what works for a few of my contemporaries (with their names redacted so you won't think I'm name-dropping anyone).

So what do you look for in a writing space? Well, if you're like me, you look for a few things. Darkness, few windows (I'm easily distracted), and a frickin' door, to start with. For me, a writing space becomes holy ground. When I'm in that space, I am not to be disturbed, and everyone in my life, in theory, knows that. It's not as pretentious as it sounds, really. The thing is, I have to be in a certain mindset when I write. When I hit that point, I can type for hours on end without a single break and not even realize the time has passed. But the thing is, it takes me a while to get there, and only an instant to pull me out of it. So, before we look at some different type of writing spaces, let's talk about the whole "sacred space" thing.

A Sacred Space is a place in the home that is used to unplug from everything else in your life so you can focus on one thing and one thing only (whatever that is). In most cases, when people talk about sacred spaces, they're talking about focusing on their spirituality, loving the world, or some other aspect of spiritual growth. Now take that concept and apply it to your writing room. Your writing room/space/garage/nook/ironing board should be that sort of place for you: A place where you can tune out the rest of the world and focus on what truly matters. In this case, it's your writing (and let's be honest here... Writing is a form of spirituality. And therapy.). It should be filled with things that help your writing, not distract you from it. Let me explain.

My writing room is an ode to chaos. Contained therein, you will find dozens of occult curios, reference books, novels, books by friends and former students. You'll find Captain America's shield hanging on the wall and my pug's bed in the corner. You will find my guitar behind my desk and paintings by my wife around my desk. In short, the room is me. It's everything that I need to feel comfort. It's everything that I need so I won't worry, look around, and find excuses not to write. One thing you will not find: Bills on my keyboard. See, nothing goes into my writing space that causes me anxiety because, well, that's not how I work. When I write, I write in silence with only ambient noise from the house around me.

But that's not how everyone works. One author I know finds his creative juices in a booth an the local Starbucks, surrounded by people and with noise all around. That's his sacred space. That's the space he goes to when it's time to go to work. Ernest Hemmingway wrote standing up with his typewriter on his dresser. That was his sacred space.  Some people write with music. Some write in silence. I know at least one writer whose typewriter used to sit on an ironing board in a very small cubby.

The point I'm trying to make is this: Find yourself a space that, when you are there, it's time to work. Why? Because you are training your brain to get into its creative state. It's a trigger. Think of it like a Pavlovian response. We ring the bell, you drool. You sit in your writing chair, you start thinking like a writer. Then comes the tricky part: EVERYONE ELSE.

I got lucky. I married an artist who understands that, when I'm working, I need to be left alone. She needs the same thing when she works. When we bought our house, we each created a space that was uniquely ours. I have my writing room downstairs, she has her art studio upstairs. And we both know when the other is in their sacred space, we leave them the hell alone.  And, yes, I'm aware that this makes us sound unbearable to live with, but that's what it is to live with creative people. We complement each other, and we deal with it.

But most folks aren't that lucky. The key to dealing with this? Ground rules. Communication. You can't just assume your partner(s) will understand what's going on in this room if you don't tell them. So you need to very carefully and explicitly set some ground rules for how you would like the world to operate if you're in your writing space. And then be expected to make compromises. For example: "I'd like to not be disturbed if I'm in this place, because I'm working on a novel." "Okay, but if we haven't seen you in eight hours, I'm breaking the door down." "Fair." Remember, a temperamental creative type you may be, but you're not allowed to be 100% asshole. Your partner's feelings are just as valid as yours, so you need to respect them. But you also need time to do what you need to do. Communication is the only way to solve this problem.

The point I'm trying to make is this: Find your space. Whether it's in a coffee shop, an office, your back porch, or even in your kitchen, find what works for you. Find the place that, when you sit there, your brain knows it's time to go into a creative cycle. And if you're one of those people who can work anywhere and anytime, more power to you. I wish I could, but I can't. And that's okay too.

Oh, and just in case you're wondering, here are some photos of my indoor and outdoor writing rooms.  Yes, I write on my back porch some times.

Next time, we're going to talk about one of the most important, and often ignored, aspects of actually being a writer in part three of our three-part series.

Until next time, write on!


Wednesday, October 23, 2019

How to Be a Writer - Part I (Tools of the Trade)

As writers, we spend a lot of time dealing with mechanics. Punctuation, grammar, spelling, storytelling, plot, etc. We spend so much time learning the craft of being a writer, but no one ever really tells us how to be a writer. I get it, sure, if you don't have the tools, you're not going to get very far. But let's say, just for the sake of argument, that you've finished your MFA, you have a head full of ideas, and you're raring to go. So then what? I mean, writing a story is one thing, but how does one actually be a writer? What are the pitfalls of the writing lifestyle that people don't talk about? For the life of me, I don't think a single person ever said "hey, yes you can write, but do you know about...?" concerning the lifestyle of a writer? How do relationships work? What equipment do you need? Where do you write? How do you support yourself while you write? Do you have a day job? How long before a publisher offers me a suitcase full of cash and lewd promises of questionable morality?

I'm going to attempt to answer those questions. At least, I'll give you the insight that my experience has taught me. I don't pretend to be the end-all-be-all expert on all of this, but if you let me, I think maybe I can help. So let's start with Part I - What tools do you need to be a writer?

This is not going to be some esoteric discussion that ends with "all you need is imagination and gumption." Sure, those are nice, but let's start with the obvious: A computer. Laptop, desktop, iPad, Windows, Mac, Linux, it doesn't really matter what the specifics are. You just need some sort of word-processing apparatus that facilitates the recording of your story/novel/play. Before you get your shorts in a knot, let me explain. Nothing against the people who prefer to write longhand, but I have yet to meet or even see an editor or agent that accepts hand-written submissions, no matter how pretty the handwriting. I use a combination of my desktop (older 27" iMac), laptop (Macbook Air, provided by one of the universities for whom I work) and an iPad with a bluetooth keyboard, depending on where I am. None of that matters, however. Go ahead and draft on a yellow legal pad. But before you get ready to submit your stuff, you're going to have to enter it into the word processing software (or pay someone else to). Which brings me to my second point: Software.
Trust me... No one cares what you use. 
If you walk into a room full of writers and loudly ask what writing software they use, you will get as many different answers as there are people in the room. What's more, each one will extol the virtues of the software they use, and try to convince you that theirs is the OMGBEST for writing. And it's all bullshit. Look, every writing software out there does basically the same thing. Some help you keep track of plot points, others help you keep track of characters. Some are free, others are quite expensive. But the absolute truth of the matter is this: It doesn't matter. Whatever software you choose, choose it because you like it, not because some over-caffeinated lunatic told you to. Try a few. They all have trial versions, and chances are you'll find one you'll like. Me? I use good-old Microsoft Word for two reasons. First, every publisher I've come across requests manuscripts in one of three formats: .rtf (Rich Text Format), .doc (Word Document), or .docx (updated Word Document). Most word processors will have these formats listed under their "save as" menu, but I figure I'm just cutting out another step, and eliminating the chance for the formatting to be off. The second reason? Both the colleges I work for provide the Microsoft Office Suite for free to faculty and staff members, as well as students. So... Yeah. I use it because it's powerful, does what I want it to do, and I don't have to pay for it.

So what else do you need? Well, obviously, a place to write. We'll go more into the details of your writing space in a later episode of Strange Words, but suffice to say you need a place where you can sit with your thoughts and put your words down. It can be an empty room, the middle of your kitchen, or even a crowded coffee shop. What matters isn't the trappings themselves. What matters is that you are comfortable there. What matters is that the place is conducive to your creative process. Wherever that place is, don't let anyone tell you that it's wrong. A very dear friend of mine (who is incredibly well accomplished and published) writes at Starbucks. Trying to do such a thing would drive me insane, because I would keep getting distracted. But it works for him, and that's all that matters. So you need to find a place where you can gather your thoughts and lay them out.
I love office supplies...
Everything else is just window dressing and props. There are things that are useful to have, sure, but not necessary. For example, I carry around a composition book and a pen everywhere I go, even though hand-writing stuff out drives me up a wall. Why? Because I don't know when I'm going to see something that will spark an idea. I don't know when I'll need to make a note. And flipping open a notebook takes way less time than unloading my laptop, firing up the word processor, creating a new document....blah blah blah. I also use composition books to keep track of things in my books so I don't have to keep going back thirty or so pages to figure out what a certain character's middle name is (it's Irving, by the way).

There are a few things I would suggest you have, but none of it is necessary. Pens, reams of paper, stickies, a cork-board, all help make the job easier, but they're never necessary. I also suggest that every writer should have a good quality laser printer. Why? Because they last a good long time, and editing is easier on paper than it is on the screen.

Next time, we'll talk about your sacred writing space.

Until then, write on!


Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Readings in the Genre: MONSTERS

Hey, everybody! Remember me? I'm back!

For the past ten or so years, I've been teaching in Seton Hill University's MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program. What that means is that I actually teach in a college masters program that's dedicated to horror, sci-fi, romance, mystery, etc. etc. etc. Such things exist. This semester, my RIG (Readings in the Genre... Keep up) class focuses on monsters. Not human monsters, mind you, of which there are plenty. But zombies, werewolves, vampires, and other creepy beasts that lurk under your bed at night.   Here's an excerpt from an older blog that bears repeating.

The Seton Hill "Readings in the Genre" course has begun, lead by your's truly. Our subject this time around?  Monsters.  They hold a dear place in my heart because, really, aren't we all monsters of a sort?  More on that in a minute. 

I've chosen a motley crew of misanthropic mayhem masters about whom my students must read.  Included are Vampires (that don't sparkle, dammit), werewolves, golems, demons and... well... snow.  Trust me, it all works somehow.  But I think the question that begs answer is this:  Why are we so fascinated by monsters?  Lets look at the famous monsters of literature (I'm not talking movies...Most of those are one-dimensional sacks of fetid dingo's kidneys) and see what makes them so special.

Adam (the creation from Frankenstein... yes, his name was Adam) fascinated us with his simplicity, his desire to be loved.  Child-like, he was dragged into this world and before he could even begin to question his existence, he was rejected by his creator.  Anyone who's ever watched children on the playground knows how children act:  As Adam himself stated, "If I couldn't inspire love, I would then cause fear."  How many children react to rejection with more rejection?  Most of them.  Adam is, for all intents and purposes, a child in the body of a man, lacking the maturity that comes with age, but possessing all the tools to destroy his enemies.

Look at Quasimodo from Hunchback of Notre Dame or Eric from The Phantom of the Opera and you'll see miserably misshapen men brought to their demises by the search for love and the madness that comes with it.  But the last two aren't "monsters," are they?  Not really, but they became monsters.  Much like we do.

Monsters, historically, take one of our darkest desires, one of our emotions, one of our flaws, and amplify it (or them) to ridiculous degrees until the creature in question becomes the stuff of nightmares.  So if that is true (and it is), then why are we so fascinated with monsters? 

Because they are us.  They are our fear.  They are our passions.  They are our souls, twisted almost beyond recognition and then shown to us.  They are what happens when we forget our humanity.  They are what happens when we lack the wisdom to walk away.  Monsters are designed to teach us lessons about ourselves.  You'll notice, I never called Adam a monster.  Because he wasn't.  His creator, Victor, blinded by ambition and selfish pride, was the monster.   Yet it was Adam with whom we identified.  Because we've all been that creature.  We've all felt betrayed, thrown out by those who should, but don't, care. 

They are us.  We are them.  When you read about monsters, think hard about them.  Sympathize with them.  Because they are our brothers and sisters.

So what's changed? Quite a bit, actually. The reading list has gotten longer, as have the lists of movies and short stories. And I think that's because monsters are still relevant. They are parables. They teach us what we fear, and show us paths through our own psyches. If you're in the class, strap in. If you're not and want to play along at home, here's the reading/viewing list:

  • I Am Legend- Richard Matheson
  • Breeding Ground- Sarah Pinborough
  • Cycle of the Werewolf- Stephen King
  • World War Z- Max Brooks
  • Snow- Ronald Malfi
  • Relic - Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
  • 30 Days of Night- Steve Niles
  • The Call of Cthulhu- H.P. Lovecraft (Download)
  • Packman's Model- H.P. Lovecraft (Download)
  • The Outsider- H.P. Lovecraft (Download)
  • The Yattering and Jack - Clive Barker from Books of Blood
  • Rawhead Rex- Clive Barker from Books of Blood
  • The Funeral- Richard Matheson from I Am Legend
  • Alien- Sigorney Weaver, Ridley Scott
  • An American Werewolf in London- (1981) David Naughton, Griffin Dunne
  • Night of the Living Dead- (1968) Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Kyra Schon
  • The Thing- Kurt Russell, John Carpenter
  • Godzilla (2014)-Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe
  • The Blob (1988) - Shawnee Smith, Chuck Russell
Writer's Workshop of Horror - Michael Knost 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Shy Grove and Self Publishing - Part I

Last year, I enrolled in an MFA program in Publishing and Writing Popular Fiction through Emerson University in Boston. My first two semesters (summer) went exactly as I thought they would. Literature courses, things of interest, and processes that would turn me into a more well-rounded writer. I went into the program without illusions and without thinking I'd be the most published person they'd seen (hear me roar). Rather, I went into it trying to find out where I was weak, where I could improve, and where I could grow.

Then the third semester hit. This was the semester I both most anticipated and most feared. See, it was the first one where work of my own would be thrown into a ring for open critique, a thing I've not had the luxury of in years. So what if there was another course on... lemme see... Book design? What the hell is that?

Turns out, it's exactly what you think it is. We were to take a manuscript (ours or someone else's) and build the publishable book for it from conception to completion. I've done similar work before, but never like this. About a month in, it occurred to me that, at semester's end, I'd be about a gnat's whisker away from having a publishable manuscript on my hands. Should I self-pub it? Or not?  Those of you who know me know that I've always been a vocal proponent of taking the traditional route (except on Droplets, which was extreme circumstances which I'm not getting into here). But the stigma of self-publishing has largely gone away in recent years, so I decided why not? I have two completed manuscripts that my agent (through no fault of her own) couldn't place, and they're doing no one any good just taking up space on my hard drive. What do I have to lose?

So here, then, is the process I went through with this new journey into self-publishing. There'll be several parts to this, so stick around for a while.

Step One - The Manuscript

Right. The first step to self-pubbing anything is to actually have something to self-pub. For me, I had two possibilities:  Shy Grove: A Ghost Story or Ungeheur. The first one is, as the title implies, a ghost story. It involves supernatural elements, possession, religious cults, dead babies, and a holy gang-bang. I can't imagine why any publisher would pass on that. The second is monsters that eat a small town. It features gore, depression, sorrow, sexual frustration, strong women, and monsters. Which one to pick...

Monsters or holy gang-bang... Hmmm
As you can guess, I chose the first one. Shy Grove: A Ghost Story clocked in at 81,000 words (novel length by any measuring stick) and had lots of positive feedback from publishers, with one telling me that they'd have taken it in a heartbeat, but they were squicked out by dead babies. Fair enough.

Once you get the manuscript chosen, it's a good idea to have your beta readers (you have those, right?) give it the old once-over to try to catch any and all of the nastiness that your mind didn't catch on your last read-through. Things like missing words (ahem), misspellings, punctuation errors, etc. Then it's time for your first big decision.

Step Two - Trim Size

The big question at this step is: what size do you want your book to be?

"What do you mean? Book sized!"

Right. But that's not how that works. Go to any bookstore and have a look around. Books come in all shapes, sizes, covers, etc. So how big do you want it to be? Didn't think about that, did you? Createspace, Amazon's self-publishing service, offers fifteen different sizes of books, all of which are available for you to use. You could have a book that's the size of a sheet of standard copying paper, or you could go all the way down to 5" x 8." It just depends on how you want your book to look. How much shelf-space do you want it to take up? Do you want it to fit in a back pocket? Do you want it to dominate whatever coffee table upon which it sits? Think hard about this step, because it only gets harder from here.

For me, I chose the 5"x8" option. Why? It doesn't matter. What matters is that's what I wanted to do, and you can make your own decisions on how big of a book you want.

Next blog, we'll discuss the fascinating, frustrating, and fun job of designing the cover!

See you next time!


Thursday, June 29, 2017

Growing as a Writer

At each Seton Hill Writing Popular Fiction MFA residency I attend, opening night is punctuated with a question that is designed to foster discussion throughout the week. We're supposed to use these questions if we finish our critique sessions and discover that we have time left over. It happens. The question at this residency was especially poignant, so I figured I'd discuss it here too. Quite simply:

How do you continue to grow as a writer?

The question, while directed at the students, is appropriate for every writer. The question actually was "How do you continue to grow as a writer once you no longer have grad school breathing down your neck," but it is appropriate for anyone who fancies themselves a writer. And there were lots of good suggestions. Form a writing group. Attend conferences. Write every day. Everything that was stated was geared toward the writing life and the output for which we all strive. But there was something that I felt wasn't mentioned. Something so simple, most people don't think of it.


"I'm going on an adventure!" -Bilbo Baggins

Let me explain.

If you've read this blog before, you know I'm a big proponent of primary research, which is a fancy term which means "experiencing the things you write about." It's different from the old chestnut of "write what you know" in that you go and research things. "Know what you write," if you will. It's well-documented that I've done some interesting (silly, weird) things in the name of primary research.  How does this relate to my advice? Simple.

Every experience you have makes you grow as a person.

Think about that phrase for a moment. Every. Experience. Things you love, things you hate, pain, pleasure, fear, exhilaration... They all do one thing: They add to the tapestry that is your life. They give you experiences upon which to draw. They change your perspective, micron by micron. They make your life experience richer, and allow you to know things that others might not know. In short, they help you develop into a more well-rounded person.

Those experiences also make you grow as a writer. They allow you to draw upon the emotions you felt, the revulsion, the joy, the fear... All of it. And they allow you to write with more authenticity. They allow you to reach into your own personal history of experience and distill it down for the world to experience.

So that's my advice to you. Live. Live fully. Live out loud. Live boldly. Have those experiences. Try these on for size:

  • See something on a menu you've never had?  Try it. If you hate it, use the experience. 
  • Make a point to visit a new restaurant every month. One with cuisine you've not tried. 
  • Go camping. 
  • Walk around the city about which you're writing. 
  • Go to a concert for a band you've never heard of. 
  • Take up a sport.
  • Learn to shoot.
  • Learn to ride.
  • Find out what it's really like to walk around in armor.
  • Find out how long you can actually swing a sword. 
Take the back road to your next destination. Stop along the way. Love with all your heart and let it get broken. Talk to people who know about your novel's subject. Here's an example:  Two students this past term (whose names I won't divulge here because I've already bragged on them in public enough) followed this path long before I suggested it. One of them went camping, alone, in the UP of Michigan. Did I mention she went BY HERSELF? Because she did. She said it was the most scared she'd ever been, and now she has an amazing point of view to write about. The other one wanted to know about suspension piercing. While she didn't go to that extreme, she did contact a local BDSM group and had them tie her up and suspend her from the ceiling. She now knows what that's like. How many of you out there know? I'm betting the number is small (though probably larger than I expect). 

So that's it. Live. Live boldly. Explore your tastes, your passions, your emotions. Build your tapestry of experiences, and live without boundaries. And then use those experiences in your fiction. Go out and dare yourself to be amazing.