Tuesday, May 31, 2016

What makes you a writer?

I live in a town rife with weird people, hipsters, artists, yuppies, hippies, yippies, dippies, stoners, boners, phonies, bronies, furries, and freaks. Yes, Austin is all that and more. But there's something else that has been pointed out elsewhere that bears repeating.  For some reason everyone in Austin calls themselves writers. Oh, there are quite a few writers here, to be sure. But it seems that everyone has, or is working on, the great American novel/screenplay/world-changing-poetry. The majority of them head to one of Austin's many coffee shops with their laptops, camp at a table, and sip their double-espresso-mochachino-soy-non-fat-whipped-latte while they tappy-tap-tap on their keyboards. Do you have any idea how many coffee shops there are in Austin?  Not counting Starbucks? Like, a billion.

The life-blood of writers...
And for many of them, the lure of free wi-fi and comfy seats are what draws them to the coffee shop, and that's fine. The writing muses know I don't function without coffee in my veins (not stomach, mind you, veins... I'm known to hook up an IV...), and while I can't function in an environment with so many distractions, I begrudge no one their own writing process. You do you, boo.  I'll do me.

Pictured: Kevin Hart Wisdom
But there's another group that sits at coffee shops. I'm talking about the douche-bag wannabes that show up so they can make a great show of "writing" in public. Keep in mind, if you go to coffee shops to write, and actually write, I'm not talking about you.  Jog on. But, sitting near the writers, is that guy.  You know the one. I'll give you an example. 

I was at a coffee shop once, not to write but to drink coffee. As I said, I can't work in coffee shops. A fellow walked in with his hair swept up in a man-bun/topknot, an unseasonal scarf (it was summer), a wispy beard, and converse high-tops.  He was also carrying a black case, the like of which I've not seen in years, and hope to never see in motion again. He ordered his coffee (I wasn't really paying attention at this point because, as I said, I don't go to coffee shops to write) then sat down at a table.  From the case, he pulled, I kid you not, an old Royal typewriter. 

One of these bad-boys...
The first thing anyone should know about a Royal typewriter is that they're noisy as hell. I mean, they are as jarring as gunfire. Second, there is no spellcheck, no correction, and, in many cases, no auto-return.  And when you do hit return, it jars the whole table.  He loaded his paper and began his aural assault.  The writers (the real ones) that were there were greatly annoyed.  Especially when he struck up a jaunty (and loud) conversation about his latest opus, and how it was probably to forward-thinking to ever get published by a mainstream publisher, so he'd probably have to self-publish it. 

Pictured: Rage Rising
I'm not sure if he was a writer, a wannabe, or a performance artist who was parody-ing all the writers that hang out in coffee shops.  In this case, however, it was fairly obvious that whatever he was, there was one additional thing that could not be denied.  He was an ass-flapping douchebag. 

So how, I hear you ask, can I tell the writers from the non-writers?  How can I tell if I am a writer? How can I not be like Douchy McDoucherton who will assuredly win the Putz-Puller Prize of the year? Calm down.  Listen... Here's how you tell the real writers from the not so real writers. 

In my experience, most writers (in coffee shops and otherwise) are very focused on their work, and dislike being disturbed. They don't loudly talk about their work, and you rarely see them look up from their keyboards. Why? Because we're writing. Sure, we're perfectly willing to talk about our projects, but when we're working, it's not a good idea.  See, it takes a while to get into the headspace we have to be in to be creative. And if you break that concentration, we can't pick up where we left off... We have to try to get back to that place. 

But here's how to know if you are a writer:


No, really.  You don't go to show off how creative you are.  You don't draw attention to yourself in hopes that someone will want to strike up a conversation about your work. You don't act like a snob about the type of coffee or beer or whatever. You, in fact, sit your keister in a chair and you put fingers to keys, and you write. End of story. You want to be a published author? You have to write something first. You're not a writer, no matter what you do, if you don't write. No matter what you wear, what you drink, who you talk to, what school you go to, or how many books about writing you read, you are not a writer if you don't actually sit down and write. 

So, see? It's easy to see if you're a writer.  Do you write? Yes? Then guess what.  You're a writer. By definition. Now the question is this: What kind of writer do you want to be? Bloggers are writers. Critics are writers. Novelists, poets, short-story-writers, all writers. So I guess that answers the question in the title of this post. What makes you a writer? You write. Period. What makes you a good writer? Honing your craft, educating yourself, and about a million other little things. What makes you a successful writer? Opinions vary.  Is it two parts luck to one part talent to sixteen parts tenacity? Maybe. But if you don't sit down and write, you aren't any kind of writer. 

And leave the goddamned antique typewriter at home. 

Until next time...


Thursday, May 19, 2016

But that really happened!

When my novel City of Demons came out, there was a scene in particular that pulled people out of the story because it was just too unbelievable.  The scene in question was one in which one of the lead characters discussed learning martial arts from a legit grandmaster who happened to teach at the college she attended. Magic murder, they can deal with.  But learning a devastating fighting style in a college?  Too much. Yes, in a book where a killer can crush a person without touching him and a cop can feel the last few seconds of a dead person's life by touching his corpse, the moment that was too big of a stretch was one that actually happened to me.

See, when I went to college, I signed up for a karate course. I thought "it's a college karate course...how hard could it be?" Then I met this guy.

That's Dann Baker, legit Grandmaster in Kajukenbo. And one of the best martial arts instructors on the planet.

We've all been there.  Writers are told every day to use real life experiences as fodder for their stories.   Write what you know, and know what you write! And yet, there are certain experiences that, if we use them, we're told they're too unbelievable. Your story may contain magic, demons, monsters, and superheroes, but coincidental things that really happened to you are considered too unbelievable to go in a book of fiction. It's enough to drive you mad.
Don't call me crazy...
It's happened in other situations too.  Students of mine have replied with passionate anger when I tell them that a scene in their thesis is unbelievable. "But it really happened that way!" they scream. "You just don't know what you're talking about!" Fair enough. You're right, I've not had that particular experience that seems to defy logic or physics. The coincidental continuum seems to have collapsed on a convergence conveniently. And it's still unbelievable. "But here's proof!" they shout. They wave photos, articles, protestations and proclamations all day long. And, in the end, I concede, yes, it happened the way you said it did. 
But here's the problem:  If I thought it was unbelievable, it's likely that everyone else who reads it will find it equally hard to believe. And what are you going to do? Run around and wave proof at everyone who has purchased your book?  Accompany your manuscript to the acquisition editor and prove your story to him? Take out a full 60-second ad during Superbowl halftime to explain that this scene in your book really happened that way and that's how you know it could happen? No... Probably not. What's more likely to happen is this:  You send your manuscript out, your agent or editor reads the scene, snorts derisively, and tosses your legit memory into the trashcan. Why? Because it came off as too unbelievable. 
Pictured:  You.
The following are a list of unbelievable things that I've actually done or have witnessed:
  • Honked a live squirrel's tail.
  • Tailed a 9' Texas Black rat snake
  • Skidded on a wet road and done two complete 180-degree turns, banging my car on the rail both times, and gotten away with no discernible damage
  • A person backflipped off a second-story balcony to impress a girl - Survived
  • A person survived having a full-sized telephone pole hit him in the head
  • Had an 800lb roll of plastic fall on me. Didn't die
  • Shot a near perfect round my first time shooting a pistol
  • Studied with a real grandmaster that I met at college
  • Rescued a 1-week old deer and let it sleep overnight in my bathroom
  • Rescued an equally young possum
"How dare you, sir?!?"

I have proof of every one of those items, yet I know that if I put them in a novel, someone would cry bullshit on it because, while people can suspend disbelief in the fantastic, their belief in the mundane needs to stay constant. In turning the world inside out and molding it to our peculiar vision, we need to make sure that we give the reader a foothold. A talking squirrel, sure. Sneaking up behind a normal squirrel and honking his tail?  Bullshit. 

The point I'm trying to make here is simple:  If it comes across as too much of a coincidence to one reader, it might do so to the rest of them. I'm not saying you can't include unbelievable life stories in your fiction.  What I'm saying is to be careful. "But it really happened" isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card. It's a tantrum. It's a child's argument. You will never get the chance to explain that it really happened or how to an agent, editor, or to your audience. Once you've lost their interest, you've lost them. So make the best of it. 

Until next time, write on!