Brain Babies: Level Up!
By: Ken MacGregor
Okay, so this post is about getting your game face on, arming for war, mastering your craft, leveling the hell up! I just finished a novel by an author I hadn’t read before. It was one of those things where a writer I respected was singing its praises so I bought a copy. You probably know that word-of-mouth is a writer’s lifeblood. This is exactly how it works. I saw someone else saying, “You have to read this!” and I said, “Okay.” Just like that. Cool, right?
So, this book, THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS, by this guy I’d never heard of (why hadn’t I heard of this colossally talented human being until now!?), Stephen Graham Jones, blew me away. So damn good. A gut punch so satisfying you can’t wait to get hit again. Wow.
So, naturally, after coming down from the initial high of a spectacular read, I think to myself, “If I were only half this good…” And, you know? I might be. Half as good. I’m getting better. I know this. People are buying, and raving about, my books. Pretty cool, right? But, he is So Much Better than I. He’s not the only one, obviously. There are lots of writers whose skill and mastery of language put me to shame. I don’t mind this though. I’m thrilled! Because I’m not just a writer, of course. I’m a reader too. And I love me some good books.
But it makes me think pretty hard about my own work. How do I get to that level? What can I do to be the kind of writer people read and shout, “Holy shit! Have you read the latest MacGregor? It’s off the hook!” People still say ‘off the hook’, right? I have a tween and teen in my house, so I’m utterly uncool now.
I honestly don’t have the answer to that. Except maybe I do. I don’t think there’s a magic wand you can wave, a potion you can drink, a deal with a demon, that will make me (or you) the kind of writer whose name appears on bestseller lists. I do think there are ways we can get there, incrementally. Pieces we can seek out and find places for in our writing puzzles. Insert your metaphor here.
One thing we can do, and this is great, because I know I’m already doing it, is to read damn good books, like the one Mr. Jones wrote. Incidentally, I’m going to read everything else he put out too, ‘cause…wow. In this way, we can see what good writing is, and strive to be on that level ourselves.
Another thing we can do is to read bad books. This is less fun. However, it does tell us what not to do, and that, too, is important.
You can read slush for a publisher. I have. It’s pretty awful sometimes. But, it gives you a great feel for what publishers go through, and some empathy for them. Also gratifying to know that a lot of what is getting submitted is way less quality than your own stuff. Big ego boost there.
Watch people, on TV, in real life (but carefully: you don’t want to be creepy about it). Observe posture, movement, facial expressions. Listen to how people talk. Take in their idiosyncrasies. All of this stuff, even if you don’t use it in the text, will help with characterization and dialogue. It helps your characters come alive. Just knowing how people do things will reflect in your fiction. You don’t have to spell it out. Maybe don’t. Keep it subtle. Subtle is better, almost always.
So, yeah. Read. Watch. Take feedback to heart when you get it. If your rejection has notes, read them. Incorporate them before subbing it again. Learn from your mistakes. And, over time, you’ll get better. I’ll get better. You’ll get more feedback with your rejections. You’ll get fewer of them, and (hopefully) more acceptances. You’ll start getting paid better for your work. People will ask you to contribute to their projects. All of these things have happened to me. I’ve been selling fiction for almost ten years now, and I finally feel like I might be getting the hang of it.
However, I still have so much to learn. I have so far to go. I’m not Stephen Graham Jones. I’m not Paul Tremblay, or Jonathan Maberry, or Tananarive Due. I’m certainly not Anne Rice or Stephen King. I’m Ken MacGregor though. And, I’m doing my damndest to be the best storyteller I can be. As should you. That’s the thing you can control. That’s the path to your success, or at least your contentment. Maybe. I think. I hope.
In my recent novel, the two main characters are discussing their enemy, a Master Vampire. One asks, “How you get to be a Master Vampire anyway?” The other says, “I don’t know. Ten thousand hours?” Put in the time. That’s how you do it.
Thanks for listening.
- About the Author
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Ken MacGregor writes stuff. Sometimes, he edits stuff too.
He has two story collections: AN ABERRANT MIND, and SEX, GORE & MILLIPEDES, a young adult novella: DEVIL’S BANE (YA winner of the 23rd annual Critters Readers Poll), a co-written (with Kerry Lipp) novel: HEADCASE (available in serialized form), and is a member of the Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers (GLAHW). He is a somewhat regular contributor to HorrorTree with his column Brain Babies. He has also written TV commercials, sketch comedy, a music video, some mediocre poetry, and a zombie movie. Ken is the Managing Editor of Collections and Anthologies for LVP Publications. He’s curated two anthologies: BURNT FUR for Blood Bound Books, and STITCHED LIPS for Dragon Roost Press..
When not writing, Ken drives the bookmobile for his local library. He lives with his kids, two cats, and the ashes of his wife.
Ken can be found at the staggeringly egocentric-named website kenmacgregor.com.