Brain Babies: Thoughts from a Mid-list Writer

I use the term “mid-list” with a certain amount of pride, but also a healthy dose of humility, I think. I have been selling stories for six years now, sometimes at professional rates, mostly not. I’ve been asked to write for specific calls, which is flattering as hell. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to make the deadlines for most of those, which makes me feel like an ass.

I’ve edited a novel and three anthologies of other people’s stuff. I’m reading slush for a small press.

I have a small, but loyal, fan base.

I’ve got some chops.

However, I’m far from well-known. In some horror circles, my name might be recognized, but more likely I’d get a “who? Never heard of him.”

And, I’m okay with that. I really am. It’s cool. I mean, sure, I’d love to be well-known. I’d love to make it, to have my books explode and have readers gushing about me. I’d love to be able to quit my day job (I wouldn’t though, because I like my day job, and I’ve got damn good bennies, but having the option would be cool as hell).

There are writers who are doing it for a living, and I admire the hell out them. Some are wildly successful, and I think that’s awesome! I applaud them. I’m excited for them. Yay!

Which brings me to the point of this post. In the last six years, I’ve learned a lot about, not just writing, storytelling, and publishing, but also about how to conduct myself.

Things I will not do, and would strongly encourage you not to do as well are:

  1. Don’t be an asshole. You would think this is obvious, right? Apparently, it’s not. Shrug.
  2. Don’t shout “BUY MY BOOK” in my face every five minutes. Fucksake, buddy. Calm down. I get it: you’re excited. That’s cool. I get pumped when something new comes out, too, but tone it down, okay? The more you hit me over the head with how badly you want me to buy your shit, the more I don’t want to. Think about that for a minute, okay? Yeah. Cut it out.
  3. On a related note, don’t pimp your shit when people ask for reading recommendations. This is tacky as hell. It’s like the unsolicited dick pic of writer behavior. No one wants to see that; keep it in your pants. But, go ahead and recommend your writer friends’ stuff, if you like it. Don’t do it just because they’re your friends, because books you recommend reflect on you. If you pimp shitty books, no one will trust you, and won’t want to read your stuff.
  4. Don’t get on social media drunk. Just don’t. It won’t end well. I trust I don’t have to explain this one to anyone.
  5. Support your fellow writers. If someone you know has a new book, share that shit. Celebrate their successes (I know I’m repeating myself, but this bears it) with them. Get their work in front of readers. The more books sold in general, the better for all of us. It’s not a competition. My success doesn’t mean you lose. There’s no downside. Do this, and do it a lot.
  6. Be yourself. Seriously. You’re interesting. You are a fascinating motherfucker. No one else is you. People want to know who you are beyond your stories. You don’t need to hide behind some public persona, and (unless you’re hiding from a stalker), you should not. I see a few horror writers especially who create this whole dark, scary persona, who try to come across as Evil Incarnate. Yeah. Lighten up, Francis.
  7. Keep at it. Even when you’re tired, or depressed, or frustrated, you need to hit the keys (or grab the pen, or talk into your voice-recorder thing). I’m not saying you have to write every damn day, but you do have to write. We’re writers. That’s what we do. It’s cool to take breaks. I do that. I go for days without writing sometimes. When I do that, I usually read a lot, or sometimes edit, or both. But, I always get back to writing. Because, ultimately, that’s where the fun is. Making shit up. I fucking love that.
  8. Always strive to be better. Read authors whose words sing. Study books on writing (there are some damn good ones out there). Up your game. Read poetry (I personally don’t care for poetry, but it’s a good exercise in controlling language, using the fewest amount of words possible, and it’s good for you). Read bad stuff, too, so you know how not to do it (I highly recommend reading slush: you’ll read a lot of terrible fiction, but once in a while, you’ll find something brilliant, too).
  9. Listen to feedback. Unless it’s from a reader who says something vague like, “this sucks,” or “you’re awesome, dude!” This is not constructive. Real feedback, especially from editors (frequently found in rejection letters) can improve your writing immensely. Pay attention. Use it. If they took the time to say something, it means you’re on the right track.
  10. Enjoy yourself. I mean that. If you’re not having a good time writing, if it’s torturous to get the words out, maybe you should stop. If I’m having fun writing something, I’m fairly confident a reader will have fun reading it. If it’s a chore, well, you see where I’m going with this.

All right. That’s all I got for now. Not sure if any of this helps, or if any of you needed my unsolicited advice, but I had to get it off my chest. So, I feel better anyway. Thanks for listening.

Brain Babies: How to Nickel-and-Dime Yourself to Death!

(satire)

 

Probably, like me, you’ve been told your whole life that you need to save, Save, SAVE!

Set up that nest egg, that rainy day fund; make sure you have enough when you retire.

 

Where’s the fun in that?

 

Okay, so you might find it difficult to kick the saving habit. I’m here to help.

There’s something you’re probably doing already, that you can increase with surprising ease

Drink more coffee!

If you drink, say, two cups a day now, drink five! And none of that “free refill” nonsense either. Go to different cafes; don’t bring your own cup (they give you discounts for that). And, if you drink the regular stuff, switch to lattes; they cost at least twice as much.

And the best part? You just piss it all away!

Speaking of which, alcohol is another great choice: not only is it even more addictive than caffeine, it’s also more expensive.

You may be a collector. I know I am. Now, here you have to be careful. Things like stamps, coins and baseball cards can actually increase in value. Nobody wants that.

I used to play Magic the Gathering. When I finally kicked the habit, I sold all of my cards (some 200 or so) at once at a con. I had two Mox Pearls and a Black Lotus; I got $10 for all three. Nowadays, those are worth hundreds, if not thousands of dollars! The key is getting rid of them in a timely fashion, before they appreciate too much.

But, hey! If you somehow miss that window, it’s okay. Remember, trading cards are made of paper, and paper is flammable. In fact, so is money!

 

Stop working. Right now. This instant. Walk up to your boss, look them straight in the eye, and let them know just how much you really hate them. Then, because this might not actually be enough to get you fired (especially if you’re in a union), pee on their shoes. This is easier for people with penises, but manageable for everyone if you’re willing to put a little effort into it.

That, right there, will drastically decrease money coming in, and make it so much easier to get rid of what you have. You see how easy it can be?

 

Give whatever you might have saved up away to a charity, but don’t get a receipt. This is crucial, because, at the end of the year, you could get money back in taxes. Nobody wants that.

If you have a car, leave it running somewhere. Don’t worry; someone will steal it, even in a nice neighborhood. Teenagers, in particular, just can’t resist going for a joyride.

But, please, make sure you don’t have insurance on it. It’s important to plan ahead.

If you own a home, great! Most of your money is already going into paying for it! However, if you’re not careful, a house can actually become more valuable. Be sure you don’t fix anything! It’s also helpful to leave your doors and windows open at all times, so that wildlife can come in and help destroy your environment. Bonus: thieves will have full access to your other possessions, which frees you up from having to find other ways to get rid of them.

If you rent, even better! You’re basically throwing your money away! I strongly suggest you also rent your furniture and appliances, too; this is a great way to hemorrhage your cash.

Did you know you can rent cars, too? Find a really nice one: they cost a freakin’ ton every month.

 

Well, there you have it. In no time at all, you can be freed of your worldly assets, and live your life not having to worry about paying the bills or sending the kids to college.

No responsibilities. No pressures. No cash.

For the complete how-to guide and workbook, please send $17,000 to Ken MacGregor. It’s a great start!

Brain Babies: Trigger Warnings

I’d like to believe I’m sensitive to people’s feelings. I would. And, I think, for the most part, I am. But, I gotta tell ya, this whole “trigger warning” thing has gone too damn far.

I recently heard from a guy who does stand-up comedy, in a New York City burlesque club, for fuck’s sake, that he got complaints about his material. Someone felt that they needed a “safe space” and that his material had “triggered” an upsetting emotional response.

I’m sorry, but … WHAT?!? It’s fucking comedy, you asshole. It’s supposed to push the envelope, to shock, to disturb. Why the hell were you in a burlesque club for a comedy show in the first place? Why were you even outside of your cozy little room, if you’re so sensitive you can’t take a joke?

(Takes a deep breath to calm down, so he can type again without bashing the keys)

All right. So, let’s talk about trigger warnings and books. I write horror, among other things, as, I imagine, do many of you. I’ve written some pretty sick shit, too. Body parts being hacked off, people being eaten, genital mutilation (yeah, I went there) and other stuff I won’t mention here because it’s too gross.

I’m pretty sure some of that stuff is going to trigger a reaction. In fact, I’m fucking counting on it. I want to spur an emotional response in my readers. I want them to care about the characters, to really develop a meaningful attachment to them. That way, when I stick a knife in the character’s lower back, severing the spine and paralyzing them from the waist down, the reader feels it¸ too.

Here’s my take on the whole thing: if you feel something might be upsetting to you, that it might cause some trauma to resurface from the depths of your subconscious … don’t go anywhere near that thing. Simple, right?

If you’re reading horror, or, say, going to a comedy show (in a fucking burlesque club in NYC!), you should be prepared to experience some shit you might find disturbing. And, you shouldn’t expect an apology from the writer/comedian/whatever.

You sure as shit shouldn’t demand one.

It’s not my job to protect you from the things that might hurt you. It’s your job to protect yourself. Stop blaming the artists for your own discomfort. Fuck you. You know what my job is? It’s to make you uncomfortable.

So, yeah. With all due respect to people who’ve had traumatic experiences (haven’t we all?), it’s on you to stay away from the stuff that’ll trigger you. It’s not up to me. It’s not up to the stand-up comic. We’re supposed to be edgy. We’re expected to be dangerous.

If you want someone to hold your hand in the darkness, fine. No problem.

But don’t ask me to do it. You’re likely to pull back a stump.

Brain Babies: How are We Supposed to Compete?

Okay, so this is HorrorTree, right? So, I’m going to go out on a limb here, and assume that the majority of the people reading this are, in fact, horror writers. Or at least writers who dabble in horror. Dabbling in horror sounds ridiculous. Like “dabbling in murder.” Which I may have to use somewhere, ’cause I like the sound of it.

Anyway, I, at least, write horror. I write other stuff, too: fantasy, (light) SF, and even kids’ stuff. All under my own name. I catch flak for this once in a while. People are all like, “You write erotic horror (I do) and children’s books under the same name?!? What if someone reads your kids’ books and decides to see what else you write?”

Um, great! As long as they don’t show my erotic horror to their kids, I don’t see a problem. And, even if they do, that is not on me. That’s shitty parenting. Not my fault. I sure as fuck don’t show the nasty stuff to my own kids. Hell, I don’t even show the creepy, unsettling stuff to my kids. When they’re older, sure, if they want to read it. But, no way am I going to scar my children for life as they read graphic depictions of torture and dismemberment (along with a joke or two, usually). They can read that stuff when they’re teens, I guess. But, not the erotic stuff. They aren’t reading that until they’re, I don’t know, thirty? Maybe when I’m dead. I don’t want them to have to look at me afterward, to know the kind of sick, evil shit that goes on in my mind.

My six-year-old, after I said “Hi” to about four total strangers in a row (she and I were walking home from the park), asked me why I did that.

“I’m being friendly,” I said. “I like to be friendly. I think the world would be a better place if more people took the time to say ‘hello’.”

She said, “Okay, yeah, but why are you friendly? You write horror.”

I explained that I write horror to get rid of the ugly, unpleasant things in my mind. To give an outlet to the more disturbing, awful thoughts we all have. And, in a way, this makes it easier for me to be friendly. I’m generally in a pretty good mood most days. I don’t think it’s all because I get the icky stuff out in fiction. I have a lot to be happy about, too. But, you know, I think it helps. Maybe a lot. Most of the horror writers I have met are really nice people. Some of the sickest fuckers on the page are some of the kindest and most supportive friends you could ever want.

Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not.

Which brings us back to my original topic for this particular Brain Baby: how are we supposed to compete? What do I mean? I mean the real world, folks. The real, sick, twisted, violent world.

I’m trying to wrap my head around everything that’s going on around me right now, and to tell you the truth, I’m having a hell of a hard time.

Cops are killing people because of the color of their skin. Snipers are shooting cops. Terrorists are blowing up buildings, trains, buses, themselves. The presumptive Republican President of the United States is a bombastic, hate-spewing bigoted Oompa Loompa with a dead mongoose on his head. His opponent damn near went to jail.The potential leaders of the free world, folks!  Kids – fucking high school kids – are walking into schools and shooting their classmates. And, most of this is happening right here in America. In the good ol’ U.S. of A. My home. My backyard.

What the unholy fuck, world?

In the face of this, I wonder why I even bother. How do I compete with such utter appalling atrocities? And, why should I? I’ve had people tell me, “I don’t read horror. The real world is bad enough.”

They’re right. The real world is bad enough.

But, here’s the thing. I’m gonna keep on writing it. You know why? Because, as I told my daughter, I do this to get the icky stuff out of my system, to make it easier for me to be a happy person, to be friendly.

And, maybe, just maybe, something I write will resonate with a reader. Maybe one of my stories will speak to someone who is on the edge of doing something ugly, something in the real world, something permanent.

I know it’s a long shot. I know my stuff may never do anything more than entertain (I hope it entertains. Or makes your skin crawl. That’s entertaining. For me.) But, what if it works? What if someone reads one of my horror stories and thinks, “I get this! I have all this horrible shit in my head, too! I need to write it down, maybe get someone to read it. Maybe get it published.”

And, if that happens, ladies and gents (and others), maybe the world will have another horror writer, maybe a damn good one. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll have one less horrible statistic. One less young life lost. One less hate crime.

I don’t know if what we do makes a whole lot of difference, but I hope so. If we, as writers, can make even a little difference, make the world a little less terrible, then it’s worth every rejection. It’s worth all the research, the editing, the self-doubt.

‘Cause, unless something changes, this world is fucking doomed.

Thanks for listening.

Brain Babies: A Crisis of Faith (in Oneself)

Recently, a writer friend (who shall remain nameless because I didn’t ask if I could talk about this) stated that they might just be done trying to be a writer. The reason they gave (see how careful I’m being about using gender-neutral pronouns?) was that the industry seems driven by cronyism (my word choice) and numbers (I imagine this is alluding to boosting sales via pushing rankings on the various book-buying platforms, but again, I didn’t ask).

I said, in a nutshell, Hey! Don’t let that stuff get you down. I said that, while I haven’t made more than a few thousand (dollars, not words – I’ve made a few hundred thousand of those) over the last five years, I’ve made some amazing connections with some super-cool people. Hell, I even wrote a book with one of them. We are still impatiently waiting for that to come out. I also said that what really matters, to me anyway, are the readers.

So what if I’m not ever going to be a New York Times bestselling author? So what if I never quit my day job (I actually like my day job. How crazy is that?)? So what if they never make a movie out of one of my stories? Again. I’d like to point out here that there is, in fact, a 16-minute short film out there that I wrote, co-directed, co-produced, and acted in. It’s on YouTube, all free and shit. Called “The Quirk and the Dead.” It’s a horror/comedy, zombie love story. Go check it out. I can wait. No, really. It’s funny.

(Sixteen minutes later.)

Good, right? Thanks. I’m really proud of that one. It was nominated for an award at one of the film festivals. Didn’t win, but that’s cool.

I’ve completely lost track of where I was going with this. Oh yeah! Why we write. I remember now.

So, I said to this person, and am clearly elaborating far more here (and plugging my movie – did you watch it? No? What are you waiting for? Go. This will still be here.), the reason we write is not to get famous. It’s not to make a bunch of money.

It’s for the readers.

When someone reads something of mine, someone I’ve never met before, someone maybe on the other side of the world, takes the time to seek me out, to tell me something I wrote moved them in some way… My god – that is an amazing thing.

So, I tried to impart to this other writer, who was clearly experiencing a crisis of faith in themselves, that it’s not about the numbers, or who you know (their words this time). It’s about the readers.

It’s about getting the words out, and trying to make each new story better than the last. It’s about sharing these crazy little Brain Babies with the world and maybe, just maybe, connecting with someone who just fucking gets it.

So, my fellow scribes, wordsmiths, hacks (I use this in the complimentary way, like when you’re such good friends with someone you say, “What’s up, dickhead?” – Other people do this, right? It’s not just me?), if ever you are feeling (and who among us does not, from time to time) that the whole thing is worthless, pointless, that you’re never going to “make it”, take heart. It’s not about you, babe. It’s about the reader. That’s why we are doing this.

Never forget that.

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