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.
First of all, I call everybody “man” or “dude” or some such. I don’t assign gender to anything except genitals. And, even then, only to my own. Yours are none of my business.
With that out of the way, I’d like to talk about how to beat the shit out of your characters and why.
Okay. First of all, let’s clear the air about one thing: I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume you are horror (or at least dark speculative fiction) writers. We are not talking about romance, or YA or light fantasy where everyone lives happily ever after. Those stories are fine. Some people like them. So I hear.
Me? I like to hurt my fictional playthings. A lot.
Let’s start with why, shall we? Okay. This should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway, just in case you’re one of those writers who feels guilty about hurting people.
Make your characters suffer!
Because (we’re doing “why” remember?), if they are not suffering, they are boring.
Nobody wants to read about Tommy Twiddlefuck having a nice day, sipping a latte and having pleasant discourse with his boyfriend, Benjamin Twatwaffle. Not because they’re gay either. That part, at least is mildly interesting. But, it’s only interesting if it draws a rabid, slavering homophobe into the story who wants to kill them both and mount their dicks on the hood of his car.
Otherwise, people having a nice time is boring as hell. Nobody cares. You need to heap abuse on your characters. Especially the protagonist. Make that motherfucker bleed. Copiously.
Break his bones. Ruin her life. Turn everyone they love against them. Beat that fucker down.
Sorry. I get excited about this.
Okay. Moving on the “how” of things. I know I just touched on it in general terms, but I’d like to get a little more specific.
Of course, we know that we need to hook the reader with the first couple lines, right? Especially in today’s world where your average person has a four-second attention span.
Still with me? Good.
So, hook ‘em. Get ‘em interested enough to keep reading. Then, you start small.
Let’s say Tommy of the unfortunate surname is heading out to meet his heart’s desire at the cafe. Benjamin had texted him saying, coffee, bitch usual place now. But, when Tommy steps to the curb, wearing his fly as hell chinos, Bam! A car hits a mud puddle, splashing it up to his thighs.
Tommy’s pissed, but whatever, they’re just pants, right? So, he walks on. The man needs his coffee.
He’s almost to the cafe, when a couple dudes see the rainbow lettered “PRIDE” on Tommy’s T-shirt. One hits the other’s arm. He mouths “fag” and points at Tommy with his chin.
Tommy sighs. He rolls his eyes.
“Look, fellas. I don’t want any trouble. I’m just heading out for some coffee. I’ve already been splashed with mud. Give a guy a break, huh?”
One of the dudes grins, gives an exaggerated shrug and slaps Tommy on the face, open palm.
“Fuckin’ degenerate,” he says. He and his friend laugh. They jostle Tommy as they pass him, nearly knocking him on the sidewalk.
With a handprint clearly visible on his cheek, and wet, muddy pants, Tommy enters the cafe with wide eyes, verging on tears. That slap hurt!
(So, here’s the moment where you give your protagonist a tiny reprieve. You let them think everything’s going to be okay after all. It’s not.)
When Benjamin sees Tommy, and the state he’s in, he rushes over.
“Are you okay?”
“I’ll live. Rough morning. And, I could really use that latte.”
They order, and sit silently for a bit. Benjamin is waiting patiently to speak. Tommy senses it.
“What’s up? You look like you’re about to burst.”
“Oh, Tommy. I’ve met someone else. I’m sorry.”
Tommy is stunned.
“You asked me out to coffee to break up with me? Jesus, Ben.” He shakes his head, blows on the coffee and takes a sip. “Who is he? Anyone I know?”
“I was so horrible, you’re leaving not just me, but our whole gender?”
“You’re not horrible, Tommy. What a thing to say.”
“Then why are you leaving me?”
Benjamin won’t meet his eyes.
“You’re … boring.”
There. You have (I guess it was me, but go on, take some credit; I don’t mind.) successfully beat this guy down. You made him miserable. You upped the motherfucking stakes!
If anyone wants to get pissy about gay-bashing here, I’d like to point out that I regularly beat the shit out of straight characters, too. I don’t discriminate. If you’re in my story, fuck you! You’re going down, baby.
That’s the other thing about being horrible to your characters: not only should you do it, because it makes a better read … it’s fun!
Sure, people say it’s cathartic. Gets all the venom out of your system so you’re a nicer person. And, yeah, there’s probably some truth to that. But really? It’s fun. I enjoy it.
I recently saw a discussion on Facebook (which is, sadly where most of my social interaction takes place these days) about self-publishing vs traditional publishing. The theme wasn’t so much about the validity of either approach or the potential benefits of one or the other. Which, since you are all writers, I imagine you have at least a passing understanding of those things, so I won’t go into it. We all know trad-pubbed writers and self-pubbed writers and I imagine most of us are one or the other, or both. I myself have only gone the trad-pub route so far. I may dabble in self-pub at some point, just to see what it’s like.
Anyway, the point here is that some people (on both sides) are casting aspersions on the other way of doing it. Self-pubbers are slamming trad-pubbers for giving away some of their profits; Trad-pubbers are slamming self-pubbers for, I’m not really sure, doing all the work themselves, maybe? I have a hard time finding issue with self-publishing. I mean, you put up all the money, do all the work and reap all the reward. Where’s the problem?
My only negative experience with self-publishing was this: I asked a local bookstore if they would carry one of my books. Without even looking at it, they said, “We don’t carry self-published books.” When I explained that it was out of a small press in New York, they looked at it. A few minutes later, they said, “No thanks.” So, yeah. Didn’t matter much who put it out, I guess. Not that I’m bitter.
Now, this particular topic got me thinking about something that bugs the shit out of me: shaming.
Slut-shaming; race-shaming; fat-shaming; skinny-shaming; gender-shaming; class-shaming; religion-shaming; any fucking kind of shaming at all. It boils down to making someone feel like shit because of who they are, and that, folks, is about at horrible as it gets.
Now, I’m a 49-year-old white guy of average height who has a decent job and a house (which I bought damn cheap, but I own), two kids and a working car. What do I know about being on the wrong end of shaming? Well, first of all, who hasn’t been the victim of it at some point? When I was younger, I had hair down to my lower back. I got called a “faggot” and a “hippie” and a “freak” plenty of times. I got followed by security guys when I went to upscale stores. I got harassed by cops a lot. Because I had long hair. Asinine. I still get crap from people because I have tattoos, though not as much now, as most people seem to have them. When I was 19 and got my first one, I caught a lot of flack for it. That doesn’t even bother me anymore, though. A man said to me a few years ago, “You have a lot of tattoos to work at a library.” I shrugged, smiled and said, “I have a lot of tattoos everywhere I go.”
So, I’ve been there. Been told I’m inferior, been told to conform, to fit it. I’m not having it. I like who I am and I don’t particularly care if you don’t like me.
Not every lifestyle, or fashion choice, or sexual proclivity is for everyone. We all have our own thing we get into. That’s what makes this world the wonderful, messy, stinky, diverse, exciting stew of madness it is. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
So, please, everybody, stop being shitty to people who are different from you. Because it’s a dick move. No more shaming.
I don’t care if you self-pub, trad-pub, write stories in pink ink on a dry erase board naked in the bathtub. We’re all writers here. We’re all human beings. We all have feelings that are oh-so-easily hurt. So, please. Be nice. Don’t judge.
A little love and understanding goes a long, long way. Peace.
What do I mean by this ridiculous joke title? That we do not exist in a vacuum. Not as writers, not as purveyors of our word-vomit to the readers, not as human beings.
When I first started screaming into the void, crying out to whomever would listen, “Look at the weird stuff coming out of my brain!” I thought I was alone. I thought it was me against the tide of rejections and likely inevitable failure.
I was wrong.
From the very beginning, I found other writers, professionals, who were happy to help me. Seasoned wordsmiths reached out to me to let me know they were there if I needed anything. Well, maybe not *anything*, but advice, a sympathetic ear, help finding markets, yeah.
It was like I had opened the door to a old west saloon. I had expected the piano to stop cold and all eyes to turn my way, hands on the butts of their six-shooters. What I got instead was a friendly handshake, a hug, a “this first round’s on me.”
I simply could not believe how … nice everyone was. How supportive. How excited they were to meet someone who was new to the field. I was flooded with gratitude, and I never forgot that feeling.
So, when a new writer approaches me, I do my very best to help them out. I point them toward good source material. I tell them how to find markets for their work. I even (sometimes) offer to beta read for them. This last one has backfired on occasion: it’s really hard to communicate in a nice way when a story is truly, deeply flawed. If it’s something fixable, I give them advice on how to maybe make that happen. If it’s just awful, I try to find a way to let them know that they should maybe take some classes or something. I don’t want to crush a person’s dreams. However, I also don’t want to give someone false hope. Telling someone that their story is good, or has potential when it’s garbage is not doing them any favors.
Here’s how I curb this potential problem: up front, I say, “I will give you feedback, yes. But, I will be honest. And, you may not like what I have to say. If you still want my feedback, send it. If you have a hard time taking criticism, you may not want to have me read it.”
This particular, unpleasant scenario aside, I love it when I can help another writer. This is true whether they are novices or friends of mine who are already established.
When a writer friend has a new book out, I’ll read it and review it on Amazon. I’ll share the link on Facebook. I’ll tell people to read it. When I see a writer I admire pimping another writer’s work, I am interested. I want to read it.
Whereas, my gut reaction when I see a writer shouting “Buy my book!” on every social media platform under the sun, is to *not* want to read it. I’m not even sure why this is. Maybe it seems like they’re trying too hard. It makes me wonder, “do they have to scream about it? Why? Can the book not sell itself? Why is the writer the one talking about it and not someone who read it?”
When a book first comes out, I totally get the writer saying, “Hey! Look at the cool thing I just did!” I get that. I do it myself. But, when the same writer is still doing that months later, hitting all the relevant Facebook pages and tweeting about it every nineteen minutes, come on. It smacks of desperation, man. And, desperation is unattractive. Nobody wants to go home with the person at the bar who is wearing the “fuck me tonight” shirt. Nobody. Unless you’re shit-faced. Which is probably the only time you’ll buy that writer’s book, too. Don’t shop drunk, kids. You’ll end up with bad books and that stuff that makes your poop sparkle.
All of this is, somewhat surprisingly still on task with my original topic. By promoting other writers’ work, instead of our own, we are not only more credible to readers looking for a good story, but we are also helping our fellow wordsmiths.
And that, ladies, gents and people who identify otherwise, is what it’s all about. Give it back. Pay it forward. Be the karma.
But, don’t do the thing where you say you’ll promote someone else’s work if they promote yours. This is shallow and self-serving and not cool. I made a lot of rookie mistakes early on, and this was one. Of course, I also used to review anthologies in which I had a story (do not do this – I can tell you from experience that some publishers won’t touch you if do) – I have since deleted all of those. Shudder.
We learn from our mistakes. We learn from others’ mistakes, if we’re paying attention. We can also learn from others’ successes. We can pass on our own knowledge learned from all of these, and we should.
To quote words of wisdom from a great couple of guys who will, I hear, be making a comeback soon, “Be excellent to each other.” Ken MacGregor 2016
The title refers to my career. Probably yours, too. When I was first starting out, trying to write stories, I had a hard time getting the words out. I had a ton of ideas – hell, I still do – but, the sitting at the keyboard, knocking ‘em out thing was hard.
I read a bunch of books about writing, written by writers, so I could see how they did it. Some of them were really good. My three favorites were On Writing by Stephen King, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. If you haven’t read these, I strongly recommend them. One of the latter two (I think it was Bird by Bird, but I can’t find my copy to confirm), suggested writing 300 words every day.
I was like … What? That’s impossible!
Yeah. 300 seemed like an awful lot of words to me back then. And every day? I couldn’t imagine it. Looking back, after co-writing a novel and over a hundred short stories (many of which come in between 2.000 and 7,000 words apiece), I can hardly believe I was ever daunted by 300 words a day. Just yesterday, I finished the final edits on a horror tale that came in at 7,140 words and sent it to the editor. Hope they like it. Well, let’s be honest: hope they buy it.
Jonathan Maberry once said he writes 4,000 words every day. That’s a big number. I actually managed to pull that off recently. One day. 4,000 words. I was super-proud of myself and immediately sent Jonathan a message on Facebook. He was excited for me. It was pretty gratifying to have someone I admire tell me I was doing a good job. You know? Anyway, 4,000 words sounds insane, but that’s his job. I have a day job, as I think most of us do. So, when one of us pumps out a ton of words like that, it’s pretty amazing.
Where was I going with this? Oh yeah. The more I do this, the easier it gets. I mean, I’ve already written 350 words on this post. Uh huh. Ten minutes. 350 words of thought-vomit. Easy peasy. But, that’s because I’ve been at this writing thing for five years now. Well, seriously for five years. I’ve been tinkering with it for pretty much my entire life. I had my first (and only) poem published in fourth grade. Sure, it was in the school newsletter, but it counts. I didn’t get a single other thing published after that until five years ago. In my defense, I only tried once. I sent a short story I had written to a publisher I found online. It wasn’t formatted correctly, and frankly, it was pretty awful. It got rejected, of course. The publisher? Apex.
I had no idea just how high I was aiming. I still haven’t sold to them. And, I’ve tried, believe me.
However, I have sold my stuff to a lot of other people, including several professional markets. And I’ll tell ya, when I open up an email from a publisher and it says they want my story, it never fails to make me grin like a damn fool. Acceptances never get old.
So, if you’re struggling to get the words out, and we all do sometimes, that’s okay. It happens. Rest assured though, it gets easier. The more you do it, the easier it gets. Before you know it, the words will flow from your mind like arterial blood from a nicked femoral.
I look back on the stuff I wrote when 300 words a day seemed daunting, and shake my head. Not only is most of it under 1,000 words, but the words themselves are kind of embarrassing. I mean, I had some great ideas back then, and I was writing stuff nobody else was, which is cool. But, the writing itself? Not great. So many amateurish errors. Dialog attributions! Passive voice! Exclamation points!
I am leaps and bounds better now than I was when I started. But, every time I encounter a new editor; every time I work with a new publisher; every time I read an amazing piece of writing (Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, for example – if you haven’t yet, drop everything and go read it right now) I learn something. And, everything I learn makes me a better writer. I haven’t peaked yet, I don’t think, and frankly I don’t know if I ever will. I hope not. I want to improve with every story. I want each to be just a little better than the last.
They’re longer now. They’re better, too. That’s all a writer can ask for, I think. That, and for readers to enjoy them.
Incidentally, this is just over 800 words right here. And, I’m planning to work on some fiction today, too. Ken MacGregor 2016