The Challenge of Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone

I have always believed the best stories and the best writers are those that operate outside a comfort zone.

Don’t get me wrong. I like easy-to-read and quick stories sometimes. But when I first envisioned this novel I instinctively knew it would A.) Be hard to write, and B.) Be challenging to write because it was outside my comfort zone.

I am not interested in playing it safe with this novel. I have written safe stories. I have read more than my share of safe stories. I won’t go into detail what exactly I want to accomplish with this book because I’ve mentioned it before. But for me it’s a big thing. Well, every story is, to be honest. But especially this one because I don’t think the story itself can work if it’s not somewhat dangerous.

So with this in mind one of the hurdles I keep coming across is forcing myself to think in a very different way when working on this novel. By instinct I keep holding back. I have to push myself past that barrier. I have to shred it and move on. I find that difficult because it’s almost like I am trying to elevate the story beyond what I may have the talent for.

In another words, I am not sure I have the talent to do this thing correctly. But I want to try. I don’t like to fail. If failure was an option I would never have been published in the first place, become a member of SFWA and HWA, or even finished a story. I have passed those hurdles. This is a new hurdle.

I believe in myself. I believe I can do this. No one will be more surprised than I if I fail on this project. And that more than anything else is what I like about this current project. It’s a real challenge. I am calling upon all my talent and knowledge to find a way through this story.

It’s literally like nothing else I have ever written or done or thought about. That’s awfully cool. As a writer I can tell you that is awfully, awfully cool. 🙂

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A Conversation with Story: Advancement of Plot through Conflict

Story: What’s up?

Me: I’m writing a love scene.

Story: I see that. Where’s the conflict?

Me: What conflict? It’s a love scene. They’re in love.

Story: You delight in making my life difficult, don’t you?

Me: Of course not…oh, I see what you did there. You advanced our dialog through conflict.

Story: Exactly. All scenes must have conflict of some kind. All stories must have conflict. That conflict can take many shapes and many forms, but it has to be there. It can be outward conflict, an inward psychological struggle, conflict through dialog, even conflict through the way the story itself is written. But it has to be there and it has to operate on some level, even if it’s below the radar.

Me: I understand what you are saying, but this is a love scene. These characters have been through toil and fire to reach each other.

Story: Okay, go ahead and finish your love scene.

Me: There. Done.

Story: Good job. Now delete it from the manuscript.

Me: What? No. I worked hard on this. It’s a love scene. It stays.

Story: I agree it’s a love scene, but does it advance the story in any way through conflict?

Me: The hero has trouble unbuttoning his shirt.

Story: Besides that.

Me: Well, no, not really. There isn’t any conflict here that relates to the plot or character development.

Story: Then the scene isn’t needed. All good stories have conflict. All good stories are made up of scenes that incorporate conflict within. Yes, even love scenes like that one. All scenes. If the scene doesn’t have the element of conflict then it’s nothing but an aside…and an aside is not necessary, or needed in anyway, to advance your story. A scene without conflict is a stone around a story’s neck.

Me: Okay, I’ll get rid of the scene. Hey, what do you know, the story reads faster without it.

Story: Of course it does. That’s what conflict does both for the story and the reader. It advances the plot and gives structure. It serves double duty.

Me: Story, I think I love you.

Story: Muah.

Conflict gives structure to the story and advances the plot.

The Organic Process of Novel Writing (a personal experience)

I have been making slow but steady progress on finding an entry point into the new novel. I had a false start last week but this start feels more solid to me and I think it has promise. Anyway, what I am saying is I think I can go on from here.

This is a tough novel. It it were another Haxan story it would be less difficult to write. I am trying to do something different. I might not be successful but I like the fact I am challenging myself. I think that, more than anything, is what drives me. Fortunately I have no deadline for finishing this book. I can pour all my creative energy and time into it. Well, what time is left over from other writing duties, of course.

I am planning a road trip along the US-Mexico border next spring. A majority of the book takes place there. I spent all morning yesterday plotting out the journey that the characters would take. I don’t plan to follow that exactly, but I want to drive to some points along the way. I always feel if you can do eyeball research it is helpful. It helps me but to be honest another good resource is YouTube.

One thing I can say for this book, it is hard to force myself not to hold back. We are conditioned by culture. I have to watch that because if I do that in this book then I am not being true to how the people were and how they acted in 1869. I would just be skirting the issue. I am not out to perpetuate Hollywood stereotype and cliches with this story. I guess you can view this novel as the anti-John Wayne, the anti-John Ford.

I think there will be elements of romanticism at least insofar as delineation of character, but not romanticism drawn from outdated ideas and popcorn stereotypes. I am making a conscious effort when a Hollywood cliche rears its head I go the other way. To borrow a phrase, I want to take western icons that have burrowed into the American culture behind a barn and kill them with a dull axe. And I want them to suffer.

Meh. Maybe I won’t be successful. But I feel the novel has to be written. I always go with my instinct on these things. It’s all a dangerous phase right now where I am bombarded by the creative energy and maelstrom of ideas and fragmented voices. The difficulty is pulling it all together and integrating it. I am hoping once I get that firm foundation beneath me I can move with more authority and confidence on the novel.

We will see.

But I do not mind admitting it is a stressful time right now. There are so many unknowns at play. Then again, I know from experience all new stories are like that for me. I hope my confidence will last!

I am not even kicking myself over the false start. Writing is organic it is not immutable. I’ve always believed that. The false start was a necessary step in the creative process. I can’t change that.

Pride and Prejudice: If People Were Ants We Wouldn’t Need Stories

About three years ago I read the first 100 pages of Pride and Prejudice and then I bailed.

I was taking some very heavy damage from several hardened missile silos down below me. I had lost all aileron control and the self-sealing fuel tanks, well, were no longer self-sealing. I had to eject fast or I would auger in from 10,000 feet. I fought my way out of the pilot seat against the compiling G-forces and scrambled with a sob in my throat through the open hatchway.

Tumbling in free fall. Feeling of helplessness. Cold air rushing past my ears. I pulled the rip cord and felt the hard snap I once tried to read Pride and Prejudice. I almost didn't make it out alive.as my parachute opened and the last I ever saw of Pride and Prejudice was the book dwindling against the bright stars overhead, lost to me forever.

I’m telling you I barely made it out of that book alive.

Lots of readers have experiences like this one. We have comfort zones of genres we like and understand and want to wallow in. This is normal, and I would argue healthy. But as for writers, what do we say when we come across readers who say, “Oh, I don’t read that crap” when you tell them what genre you work in?

As a western writer I totally understand and have experienced this genre myopia myself. Sometimes I might explain how some of the Haxan stories actually have dark fantasy elements or romance or mystery or what have you. It never works. The missile silos are too hardened. All they hear is “western” and their immediate reaction is “Oh, I don’t read that crap.”

So what do I do? I have the stories inside me and I have to write them. That’s out of my control. I can’t stop writing even if I tried, and trust me I have tried. Scientists have yet to develop a super-methadone that will allow me to get that monkey off my back.

Do I abandon everything I’ve learned during my years as a professional and start writing for what’s popular on the markets right now? I can’t do that, either. My personal philosophy about writing won’t allow me to jump on bandwagons with their colorful balloons and bright ribbons. Or maybe I can try and fool myself into believing the western genre, even blended western genres, aren’t that bad right now, that they are more popular than I think. But the evidence shows the genre is, at best, on life support and someone is standing next to the sick bed with a loaded gun against the patient’s temple.

Westerns are not in a healthy and popular place right now. They might be again someday, but that day has not yet arrived.

Here’s the rub. You arPeople and writers are not ants. We have different genres for a reason.e never going to be able to write something that satisfies everyone. Everyone is different. We all bring different experiences and backgrounds and expectations and loves to the table when we open a new book. I may not like one genre but that doesn’t mean it has no worth for a majority of other people. I know this from experience because a majority of people sure as hell don’t read westerns.

But I keep writing them anyway because there are some who do and I have what I hope are good stories to tell them.

Read what makes you happy. Forget what anyone else says. But most of all, write what makes you happy. Your readers, and your inner peace, will thank you for it.

Conversation with Story: Trusting the Reader to Trust You

Story: What are you doing?

Me: Writing.

Story: No, what are you doing?

Me: I thought I was writing.

Story: You don’t see what you did back there, did you?

Me: Back where?

Story: Five pages back. I’ll wait.

Me: Oh. Yeah. Well, you see, I wanted to make sure the reader understood what was happening in that scene so I took the extra effort to explain in detail what the characters were feeling and doing at that point in time.

Story: I see. Can I ask you something?

Me: Make it quick. I want to finish this story.

Story: Do you hate the reader?

Me: Hate the reader? Of course not. I want the reader to like the story, that’s why I went the extra mile to point out the deficiency of that character in exposition. I mean, that’s why I did that. I want the reader to understand the story,  so I had to add that extra stuff.

Story: You went the extra mile and told the reader what was happening rather than showing the reader what happened?

Me: It’s an important scene. The story hinges upon this scene. If it doesn’t work, the story doesn’t work.

Story: Here’s a clue. The story doesn’t work now because of what you did. Not only did you tell instead of show, you didn’t trust the reader to understand what he himself was reading. Instead, you felt you had to hit the point again to make it apparent to the reader that what he was reading was important. Rather than letting him trust the story you have written, and to trust you.  Not only do you not trust the reader in this case, you don’t trust the story. You don’t trust me.

Me: I think I see what you’re getting at.

Story: Believe it or not the reader is pretty insightful. They see deeper into a story than you might think. You don’t have to spell everything out in careful ABC language. They’ll get what you’re going after if you trust them to do so. It’s one of the most powerful lessons any writer can learn, but when you do, your fiction will open up because you enter a synergistic relationship with the reader himself. It’s pretty amazing when it happens, and it happens more often than you think.

Me: I’ll fix it right now. Hey, writing is easy!

Story: Hang on there, spanky. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. That’s a conversation for a future date….

You don't need to overwrite. Trust the reader to trust the story, and he will.

The Chaotic Cuisinart of Novel Writing (and by extension, writing in general)

The deeper I get into this novel the more I am bombarded by all sorts of ideas and impressions that come and go like koi rising to the surface in a green pond. I examine each one in turn and decide whether or not I will use it in the novel. It’s a heady time but not unusual when beginning a project of this scope, or fiction in general.

One thing I have learned is to trust my confidence and instinct. I’m not saying I am infallible, but after doing this a while and selling a few pieces you learn to start trusting your instinct. Many new writers I come across either have too much confidence for their current talent level or they don’t give themselves enough credit.

The novel I am working on now is tough. It is outside my comfort zone. It’s a challenge. But with all that, and even though I am bringing some amount of professionalism and experience to the table, I am being somewhat taken aback by the huge amount of crackling creative energy that is demanding attention.

But this is normal with any new undertaking. When a writer begins a new story, novel, whatever, he is always opening fA novel is an accretion disk of ideas that slowly evolve into a world.loodgates of creativity. I like doing research for projects. I like learning new things. As I delve into topics it opens new avenues for scenes and plot lines I had not previously considered. Not all of them will be used. Some have to be discarded. That’s where intuition, for want of a better word, comes into play. (Confidence, instinct, intuition, they are part of the same dynamic decision making process you have to develop when you write. A sort of awareness by extension.)

As I write and think about this novel (and I am still in the “thinking” phase more than the “writing” phase, though neither one ever really ends) I am also realizing this is going to be a marathon. Especially since it is like nothing I have ever attempted to write before. I can’t sprint through this story and hope everything falls into place. This is turning more into a puzzle. All right, all stories and novels are sort of like puzzles. You have to put things together coherently so your main idea will come across to the reader. But in something like this which is outside my experience a little bit, not only am I being bombarded by ideas I am also just standing by and watching the whole thing come together in my mind. All the little pieces tumble past the sieve of instinct and intuition and find their place in the story.

It’s like an accretion disk of matter that through its own gravitational power slowly forms the shape of a living, breathing world over time. It’s actually kind of neat if it weren’t for the fact it’s also stress-inducing at the same time.

And so the race begins. The evolution of the novel while I slowly go bonkers, haha. What fun.

This novel is a tough challenge, but that’s why I want to write it

One of the things I have to keep reminding myself is writing a novel is a marathon. Another thing I have to keep in mind while working on this new project is “Don’t hold back.”

As I write this I keep coming up against a mental block that makes me stop, and I have to switch mental gears and tell myself “No, this is a different kind of story, don’t hold back.”

There is no doubt this new novel is a big challenge which is why I wanted to tackle it in the first place. If I were writing yet another Haxan novel it wouldn’t be this difficult. I already know the voice for those stories. But I am attempting to do something different here. I may be unsuccessful. The novel may be unpublishable. But I am confident it needs to be written, if that makes any sense.

I admit I am having fun shattering cliches with this project. Every time I feel “Hollywood” coming on I peel in the other direction. But it’s tough, it’s tough.

The novel may even anger a lot of people. I don’t care about that, either. It has to be written — at least for my sanity if for no other reason. I’m a writer. I’m not out to be liked and loved. I’m out to tell the truth and that’s what I’m attempting to do with this new western.

Meh, we’ll see if I can even write it. It’s a challenge, that’s for sure, but I am enjoying the new ways I am thinking about the west and how to bring it to light. The mental aspect if that exercise is fun, the rest is donkey work.

Conversing with Story: Cloaking Uncertainty with Genre

Me: I want to write a historical science fiction horror story today.

Story: How nice for you.

Me: I haven’t written one in a long time. Come to think of it I’ve never written that blend of genre. Plus, they’re really hot right now.

Story: That’s true. They are selling like hotcakes.

Me: So I thought I would write one today. I think I’ll write a story about an alien robot stranded in Whitechapel who accidentally comes across Jack the Ripper. I don’t have the ending entirely worked out, but there will probably be a vampire comet about to hit the earth in there somewhere. I like comets, and vampire comets are really hot right now.

Story: Oh, joy. So let me get this straight. You thought you would sit down and bang out a science fiction horror story today. Is that right?

Me: Pretty much. Yeah. What’s wrong?

Story: Do you purposefully make this hard for me?

Me: What are you on about now? It’s always something with you.

Story: Listen, Einstein, you don’t just pick a genre, or several genres, and start slamming characters and events into it to see what happens. This isn’t Dark Age alchemy. You have to have some method, some process to follow. You know what this tells me? It tells me you have no firm vision as to what you want the story to be about. You are cloaking your uncertainty with genres. Want to write blended genres? Fine, do that. But don’t sling genres around like hash and hope they turn into something palatable for the reader. That is never going to work. Furthermore, while I”m berating you, what in the name of ink and typography are you doing writing for a market in the first place?

Me: Science fiction horror stories about vampire comets are hot right now. They’re selling like–

Story: Like hotcakes, yeah, I know. Okay, I’m going to make this real easy for you and I want you to listen because it’s very important. Never write for the market. You know why? Because you’re not writing to truth when you do that. Okay, if, for some ungodly and unfathomable reason, you are a writer whose one specialty is science fiction horror with vampire comets, then by all means go ahead. But whatever you do don’t jump on cultural bandwagons. Or at the very least, think twice before you do that. Do you realize what the lead in time is between writing a story, getting it right, submitting it, going through the editorial process, the art direction, the whole nine yards, until your story sees print? By the time that happens this whole vampire comet craze will be over and everyone will be on to something else. There you are left behind and covered in comet dust.

Me: But they’re hot right now. Vampire comets.

Story: Is that really what you want to do? Write what everyone else is writing? I mean, I have nothing personally against vampire comets, if that is your goal. Go ahead, write it! But do you want to do that…or do you want to work in your own world, with your own characters, and develop your own ideas with unlimited freedom?

Me: I guess I’d rather work in my own world. Okay, I think I understand what you are getting at. Rather than work off an idea someone else had, it would be better to use that as inspiration and develop my own ideas and my own stories.

Story: Now you’re getting it.

Me: Can I still have a comet in the story?

Story: I don’t see why not. It would make a good metaphor for the last days of the robot as he tries to catch Jack the Ripper while his internal power runs down. Something like that.

Me: You’re so helpful.

Story: That’s why I’m here. To keep you out of trouble.

Me: Full time job.

Story: You don’t know the half of it. Now quit gabbing, start writing.

Don't write for the market. Write from your heart. You'll be happier, and probably better off.

 

 

 

A Polite Conversation: First, Enter an Idea. Later, Enter Story.

Idea: Hello.

Me: Who are you?

Idea: An idea.

Me: Hey, you’re not too bad.

Idea: I know. I think I have promise.

Me: So do I. Excuse me a moment.

Idea: Where are you going?

Me: I’m going to write.

Idea: Whoa! Hold on a minute. You’re going to write me?

Me: Why not?

Idea: Because I’m not a story. I’m only an idea.

Me: So?

Idea: You can’t make a story out of an idea. I mean, you can, but you can’t write an idea in place of a story, and then pass that off as a story. My stars, don’t you know how to do this?

Me: Sometimes I get confused.

Idea: I’ll say. Look, genius, I’m an idea. I’m not a story. You have to develop me into a story before you write the story. You can’t just slap down unrelated ideas on paper and call that a story. You have to develop them with characterization and atmosphere and plot points and imagery and…uh, oh. Wait a minute.

Me: What’s happening?

Idea: Something funny is going on here. Feel it?

Me: I sure do. Hey, where’d you go?

Story: I’m right here. Hello.

Me: I thought you’d never get here.

Story: Better late than never. Let’s get to writing.

An idea is not a story, but a story must have an idea to begin its existence.

Started a new novel today, and one almost-nervous breakdown later….

Oh boy. What a nervy day. I got up early because I couldn’t sleep. Today was the day I picked to start the new novel so I was eager to see how it would all pan out.

I had breakfast and drove to the coffee shop to meet my writing buddy where I often worked. About six half-starts later I had nothing to show for my effort except a blank page. Absolutely nothing. Hoo boy, I knew this would be a hard book to write but I didn’t expect this. So I packed up and went to lunch at a Lebanese restaurant. I came back home with more than a little starch knocked out of my sails. This was not a good start at all. I had the story in my mind but for the life of me I couldn’t find an entry into the story.

I am not writing this like another Haxan story. If I was doing that I believe it would have been much easier to find a beginning. I am trying to do something more with this book.

After coming home I grabbed a cigar and a cup of coffee and went into the backyard to do some hard thinking. I looked over some of my notes. I was still confident the story was good. But where was the entry point? I thought back to the messed up starts I had encountered that morning. Something didn’t seem right about them. Maybe I had something in the wrong place? Maybe this was a structural problem? I was a little stressed and like any other writer suddenly all the doubts began to ball up inside me. I knew them for what they were, though, and wasn’t ready to freak out.

Not completely.

I went back inside and talked to a couple of good writer friends, Jennifer Brozek and Mary-Grace Ellington, who talked me off the edge.  After convincing me not to jump I wrote the epigram to the novel and sent it to them to read. (The epigram is pretty important. It’s a structural pivot point for the book. If it doesn’t work I’m in trouble.) They both liked it and had suggestions. It was a start. It was something I could work with and polish as the months wear on. I began the first chapter and knocked out seven more pages. (Edit: Ha, knocked out. Yeah, right. It wasn’t that easy.)

Whew! So far I think I can work with what I have done. It’s nothing more than a shovelful and that’s not enough to build a castle from, but it is a start. Tomorrow I’ll read what I have written today and try and finish the first chapter. That should give me a better perspective as well.

Kind of a long post about nothing, but I have a start on the novel and I think it’s something I can build on. I don’t have a title yet, just calling it The Sunset of Destruction, the Ashes of the West. I don’t expect that to hold up, it’s just a working title, but it gives me constant reminder of the underlying theme and color of the novel.

Long day, but so far so good, I think. Hope.

At least I got a start on the novel today....

Another Conversation with Story: The Synergy of Creativity and Process

Me: One thing I don’t understand.

Story: Just one? I doubt that. Anyway, that’s why I’m here. Shoot.

Me: Why is it sometimes you seem to write yourself, and other times it’s like pulling teeth from a wolverine to get you finished?

Story: Oh, boy. I was afraid you were going to ask me that some day.

Me: Well?

Story: Are you sure you’re ready for this?

Me: I think so.

Story: I hope so. Okay, here goes. It’s not me, it’s you.

Me: Well, that figures.

Story: No, it goes deeper than that. It’s what you bring to the table in the first place. Look, none of this process happens in a vacuum, bunky. I’m not created out of nothing. At the very first blush I am pure mental energy. Energy. The fabric of the entire universe, of which you are a part. When you first conceive of me I exist solely within your thoughts, and the limited framework of your imagination. And, boy, if you don’t mind my saying, it’s very limited up there indeed….

Me: Can’t we have a private discussion without you dinging me all the time?

Story: Who’s dinging? I’m telling you the truth. It’s limited up there in your mind. But when you let me out and start working with me, molding me, letting me grow and develop….oh, boy, that’s when the fun starts.

Me: Fun?

Story: Fun. Because then it’s not only you, or only me, it’s us. We’re working together as a synergistic whole. I am part of you and you are part of me, and together we make something outside ourselves that exists beyond ourselves. We start playing off one another and using elements from all around and throughout your entire experience. That’s story. That’s the history of human expression and artistic creation. That synergy of the creative process goes back to the first human beings who sat around a flickering campfire under the stars. Humans have carried that fire of process forward for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years. Pretty awesome when you think about my lineage.  Understand?

Me: I think I’m beginning to. A little bit.

Story: Well, the longest journey always begins with a single step.

Me: You’re very patient with me. Thanks.

Story: Now you’re getting mushy and sentimental. Next thing you know, you will want to hug me or something. Shut up and write.

Me: Okay. Like this?

Story: Yes. See? It’s easy when you know how.

At its very essence story is creative energy....

Endings Are Hard, Except When They’re Easy

Writing is hard enough. Everything about is is hard. Except thinking up new ideas. That’s actually easy.

People who don’t write sometimes think the idea phase is difficult. Nope. That’s easy. I have way more ideas than I will ever write. The trick is choosing the best idea among them and elaborating on it. Part of that ability comes from confidence, some from experience. But, trust me, if you are balking about getting into writing because you are afraid you won’t have enough ideas…well, you’d be wrong about that, haha. It was a fear of mine, too, in the beginning. I promise you it is unjustified.

Starting stories are tough, too. You have to hook the reader hard and keep him interested. He’s got a million other things impinging upon his time. You are trying to shoehorn yourself into that and keep him interested and entertained long enough to finish your story. So, yeah, beginnings are hard. So are titles, and pacing, and tone, and…well, you get the idea. There are a lot of crystal goblets you have got to keep in the air when writing a story.

But that’s a post for another time.

Endings are really tough, though. I see more good stories collapse from bad endings than anything else. I’m not talking about the lazy “and they woke up” kinds of endings. That’s hackery and that’s not what I’m talking about.

Many times when we start talking about endings we get caught up in the “My genre is better than your genre” argument. I don’t want to get into that thicket, either. This post is about endings. Let’s stick with them.

I’m talking about endings that fail to deliver on the basic contract you make with the reader when she picks up your story. Above everything else the reader wants to be entertained.

What’s that, you say? You only write stories with depressing endings? Fine. Write them with sad endings, thoughtful endings, explosive endings, happy endings…write whatever you want. But no matter what emotional level the story ends on, it has to be entertaining.

Obviously this doesn’t mean “Yay! Let’s have a party!” entertainment. Romeo and Juliet has an ending that’s a bit of a downer. It’s still an entertaining story.  Gone with the Wind is an historical romance and the guy and girl don’t end up together on the last page. It remains  entertaining. Ulysses is damn near impenetrable. It’s entertaining.

All good writers know this. If you are beginning to write, you should keep it in mind, too. There are thousands of other examples. I expect you can pick half a dozen without thinking about it.

So let’s forget the “Oh, by entertaining you mean happy” meme that often confuses writers. No, I mean entertaining in the sense that, when the reader puts down your story he will stop for at least eight seconds and think about how he feels and how the story made him feel. If you accomplish that much the editor might buy your story, or the reader might buy another of your stories.

If you hack ’em off in some way, make ’em mad, don’t deliver the goods, they might turn away and not give you a second look.

The beginning of the story only hooks the reader. That’s important, but it doesn’t sell the story. The ending sells the story.

So. How do we do it.  How do we know when we have an ending that works?

Here’s the good news. That’s the easy part! It’s so easy you probably already know the answer without me telling you, but it’s my blog so I’m going to tell you anway.

Here’s all you have to do:

Make the story as long as it needs to be.

That’s it. What. You thought there were magic beans or something you had to plant by the light of the full moon? No. I told you it was easy.

Make the story as long as it has to be, and then stop. Just like in Monopoly. Don’t pass Go and collect two hundred dollars. You stop when the story is as long as it needs to be. Then you sell it and then you collect two hundred dollars.

That’s the easy part. Doing it well is the hard part. Lots of stories go on and on until we zone out in a red haze of forgetfulness. Remember the movie Avatar? Of course you do. Perfect example. That damn movie goes on forever.

Some stories end too suddenly. He woke up! is the classic example. It’s classic because it cheats the reader. Thee are lots of other endings that cheat the reader. More often than not it’s when you go against character.  Again, I’m sure you have lots of other examples you’ve come across.

Writing is difficult. You have to keep the reader engaged from start to finish. But you still have the reader for that final eight seconds after he finishes your story. How do you want him to feel? Happy? Sad? Thoughtful? Go for it. Just make sure you deliver the goods so he’ll buy the next story you write.

So keep that in mind when you are finishing your story. Make sure it’s only as long as it needs to be, and when you reach the end, don’t write another

A Story Cannot Exist Without A World

Every time you write a story you create a world.
When you write a story you create a world.
It’s a simple idea at its core. You take the reader by the hand and say, “Here is a place I want you to visit. A place you can believe in. Something will happen here. I want to share it with you.”

Writers talk about world building all the time. Especially genre writers. But I believe every writer creates a world when he writes a story. It is a microcosm of what might be, or what is, or what was…but it is a world, make no mistake about that. No matter how long or how short, that story you present is part of a world.

Of course, we are familiar with the big examples. Dune by Frank Herbert comes to my mind when we talk about world building in SF. You can live in that world. It’s full and rich and there’s weight to it.

Dune is a real place. You can live there. Die there. Love there.

For fantasy I always think of Middle-Earth. Deep history, language, races, culture, creation story….that’s a living, breathing world. You can live there, too, thanks to Tolkien’s imagination.

All fiction is rich with worlds we can live, and believe, in. And, with some stories, there are worlds you don’t want to live in. They are too mean and nasty, like 1984 by George Orwell. But, even with their crushing horror, they are no less fascinating.

These are obvious examples. I’m arguing every story has a world, even if it’s only background support, or stagecraft. For the story to work, the world has to work. Even if it’s no more than window dressing, or a simple stage which allows the story to progress.

A story cannot exist without a world. If the story is about non-existence, that framework in which the story exists must be believable. The non-existence must be believed by the reader. The psychological underpinnings must have some fundamental truth to them or the story won’t work.

Worse, the reader will feel cheated. There aren’t many cardinal sins in writing, but cheating the reader is definitely one of them.

So the long and short is, every time you write a story you make a world. The trick is to make the world believable enough to support the story you are trying to tell in turn. I’m not saying this is easy.

I’m simply arguing it’s necessary.

Haxan is My Corner of the Universe – You Need One Too

I have often said Haxan is my own little corner of the universe where I can play with matches. That much is certai"All men are born of blood...."nly true, but I don’t think it would be as much fun if it weren’t for the fact Haxan is a series.

Maybe it’s somewhat surprising, but working in a series appears to give me more running room and allows for more sustained creative energy than I would have writing singleton-genre stories. At least this is how I view it. I suppose if I never created Haxan, and the characters who inhabit that world, I would be writing about something else. Come to think of it I know I would.

I’ve been thinking about this since I read Richard Parks’s blog entry entitled “Series Seriousness” in which he describes the fun and problems of working with a series. Parks has done quite a bit of work in series from his Eli Mothersbaugh stories to the excellent Yamada tales. He describes the problems of trying to find a steady platform or venue for readers and fans to find the work. But underlying all these problems is the fantastic fun you can have working with a series.

One of the nice things I like about Haxan is how it lends itself so easily to many different genres and interpretations. I can do horror, dark fantasy, fantasy, straight westerns, weird westerns, romance, mystery…the only genre I don’t see working well in this mythos is science fiction. I have yet to write a straight SF story in Haxan and I doubt I ever will. It doesn’t fit my view of Haxan and what that world entails. But many of the other genres, especially horror and dark fantasy and western, certainly fit, and it is here I am most comfortable.

One of the problems with a series is bringing fans from one venue to another. You might cross many different genres and publications in a  series and your fans can lose track of where to find you. Unless you make a special agreement with a publisher or something you will have to work doubly hard to make sure your fans know when and where the next Haxan story (or whatever series you are working on) will appear.

Also, and Haxan is a good example here, you might run into the problem with some fans who are not interested in one particular genre. Like I said, Haxan runs from horror to western to dark fantasy. Sometimes mixing all three at once. If I have a fan who only likes the straight-up western stories, he might not like the ones that have stronger elements of dark fantasy. That’s not his fault. We all like reading particular things that are in our comfort zone. I don’t like some genres. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect them, it’s just not something I read. So if I have a reader who likes a Haxan story based on horror, she might not care for the fantasy story that takes place in the same mythos in another magazine.

Not every series runs into this problem. You might develop a high fantasy series that remains high fantasy. Or dark mystery, or a blending of science fiction/horror, or whatever else interests you. I’m saying from my perspective I think fans of my Haxan stories kind of learn to like and appreciate the mythos of Haxan, and the idea of Haxan, more than any one particular genre. Especially since Haxan sort of straddles so many different genres at once. So that’s what I try and concentrate on, or allude to in every story I write: the mythos.

If I want to bring more people on board as fans I need to sell the idea of Haxan rather than any specific a genre. If I say, “Oh, yes, they’re dark fantasy,” and someone reads a Haxan story that is a straight-up western…I’ve probably lost a reader. Conversely, I know I am starting from behind the eight ball because these stories have a western background. A lot of readers hear “western” and immediately turn away. Not their fault. It’s not something they read or are interested in.

Therefore, Haxan is not necessarily genre specific. It was never meant to be from the outset of its creation. I don’t know if that limits the numbers of my readers. I’m rather afraid it does, to be honest. But I can only write the stories as they come to me. I have been doing this long enough to know you can’t force something, especially a story, into something it’s not meant to be. That doesn’t work and will never work. I can’t bend a Haxan dark fantasy story into another genre because I think it would be more palatable to readers and editors alike. I don’t write that way and I never have.

I don’t think it would be fair to the reader, and I know it wouldn’t be fair to the story.

So that’s my cross to bear, for what it’s worth. Putting aside that I think it’s a great thing for a writer to work in his own series. It’s your entire creation. No one owns it, or owns you. And you can do literally anything you want in that world, as long as it remains logically consistent.

Even though I mostly write Haxan stories now I still write other stories in other genres from time to time. I have fun in Haxan, but I don’t feel limited by it. I don’t feel the series owns me or that I own the series. As long as I have interesting stories about the people in Haxan I will continue to write them. If I have an idea about ballerinas, high-energy physics and the universal power of love, I will write that one, too.

I’m a writer. I’m not a stenographer. I write stories that need to be told. I don’t pick and choose, the story chooses itself.

I am not limited by my Haxan series or imprisoned. But having the series at my elbow, knowing I can walk into that world anytime, and knowing I have structured it in such a way I can tell stories from a variety of genres — I find that liberating.

So here is my advice to you. If you have a particular genre, or idea of place, that you want to write about, I suggest you look into developing it as a series. Not only will you have the continuity thing going for you, which readers love, it will be your own little corner of the universe.

And while you’re working don’t mind me over here in my little corner. It’s a universe. There’s enough room for everybody out there, along with their ideas. 🙂

Writing 101 – Three Rules for Success

Many of my writer friends who are starting out sometimes ask if I have any rules they should  follow.  Now, I’m not one who believes there’s a magic bullet to get your work published or attain literary success. In fact, when I hear someone say there is only one way to write I immediately put that person on my “DO NOT LISTEN TO” list.

But there are three basic rules I personally try to follow with every story I write. Your mileage may vary. Over time you will likely develop your own plan and it will work for you. But this is what I try to keep in mind when I write, and I thought I would share it with you today.

1.)  TELL A GOOD STORY. This should be self-explanatory. Sadly, for many new writers, and not a few older ones who should know better, this is a perpetual stumbling block.  Let’s say you have two story ideas.  One is completely mapped out.  It’s about puppies romping through flowerbeds in the summer sunshine.  The other you’re not quite sure about.  It’s hazy, somewhat disturbing, and probably controversial.

You write the second story.  I’m not saying your puppies-in-the-flowerbed story won’t be good.  But the second story will often be the better story.  How do we know this?  Well, that brings us to our second rule:

2.)  TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. Put more simply, write what you feel and don’t be afraid to take chances.  Herman Melville knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote Moby-Dick.  He knew it would challenge readers. (There are people today who still think that novel is about whales.)  Mark Twain knew what he was doing when he wrote the line “Okay, I’ll go to hell, then,” when Huck Finn decided not to turn Jim in as a runaway slave.

So did Henry Miller, Upton Sinclair and Eugene O’Neill.  But since we often talk about genre fiction here the same rule applies.  Joanna Russ, Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison and Daniel Keyes all understood this basic concept, along with a ton of other successful writers.   Appropriately, SF is perfectly suited for pushing the envelope because it’s a genre composed primarily of ideas. But that aspect is not limited only to science fiction. It’s appropriate for all genres.

But you can only attain success if you arm yourself with my last rule:

3. ) PERSEVERE. I have written about this before. You must have the courage to fail if you want to be successful. Remember, the unsold story is the unread story. I know, sometimes it’s like banging your head against a brick wall. Trust me, I’ve been there. But don’t give up. There are a LOT of writers out there who get published, and I’m willing to bet some of them have less talent than you.  In fact I know they do because I’ve read some of their work.

You know why they keep getting published? Because they don’t give up.  They keep submitting their story and working at their craft until they find a market that will accept them.  You should, too.

You can do it. I did. So have thousands of other writers. Good luck!

My 10 Favorite Opening Lines for Fiction

Here are my top first lines from books I’ve read.  These books have had an impact on my maturity and growth as a writer.  But they aren’t arranged in any particular order.  I’ve tried to include  lines that weren’t selected a while back by American Book Review, though there are one or two I couldn’t help but pick. There are also lines I’ve liked over the years but didn’t include them because I don’t have the book here with me and I can’t remember the line exactly. One is the opening from Of Mice and Men which reads something like “A few miles south of Soledad they threw me off the truck.”  But since I don’t have the actual quote, I didn’t include it in this current list.  It’s a great first line, though, especially when you know “Soledad” means loneliness in Spanish.

An other fun first line that got some play in the SF community a while back is from John Varley’s novel Steel Beach, which reads something like “In twenty years the male penis will be extinct.”  Funny and novel, worth a grin and definitely memorable, but pretty shallow otherwise. I include mention of it only if you run across the book so you can look up the line as it was actually written.

So here are some of my personal favorites:

1. Call me Ishmael.    –Herman Melville, Moby Dick

It’s really hard to ignore this opening line. Aside from the fact it’s world famous, I argue the line itself, from a lot of different perspectives, is not only well written, it’s a super grab-you line. Three words, but weighty with significance before and after you read the novel.  Absolutely perfect in every sense of the word.

2.  You don’t know me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.  –Mark Twain,  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Another perfect first line. Evokes character, gives setting and hooks you hard all because of the dialect and the tease “You don’t know me….”  A great first line from one of the greatest books ever written.

3. They’re out there.  –Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

I like this a lot. Total paranoia that hits you between the eyes like a two-by-four.  At first blush you might think it’s a short and pithy line. Look deeper.

4. It was eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.  –Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

I think this is a great first line. Gives place, some depth of characterization and emotional content. You can’t wait to see what is going to happen next….

5.  It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.  –George Orwell, 1984

Wow. There’s a lot going on in this first line, isn’t there? Where to begin? You know you’re in a very different world after you read this line, and you can’t wait to find out what it’s like. Also, you know it’s not a world you would probably want to live in…if this society has clocks that strike thirteen….

6. The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.  –Ian Fleming, Casino Royale

I love this line. I think it’s great. It gives you everything and is a strong hook for the reader. A great first line. Fleming had many of these; he was good at first lines.

7. He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.   –Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

I really like this one. You can feel the pine needles and hear the wind blowing through the tops of the trees. You know right away this is a character and a scene worth reading about.  Really well done…but then again we’re talking about Hemingway. Sadly, as good as the book is, it doesn’t live up to this opening line. However, this is what we writers call a circular line because the book ends with him lying on the pine needles, his heart thumping….so this first line provides an entrance to the book and also closure.

8.  It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed.  –Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

Typical Bradbury, both poetic and romantic at the same time.  Maybe a funny pick, but I like this one, too. Though, I admit, the first line from Fahrenheit 451 gets more play, and perhaps deservedly so.

9. “Tonight we’re going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man.”  Joe Haldeman, The Forever War

Another winner. Gets you into the action right away and keeps you reading. Sadly, most science fiction writers don’t write great first lines. Asimov never did, Heinlein wrote a couple of memorable ones. It’s as if the focus of the genre is not on hooking the reader — SF readers don’t have to be talked into reading a novel, they’re usually happy to do it anyway, especially if they already know the writer’s work — but on the world building. But when a killer first line does come across, like this one, the book finds popularity outside the SF audience.

10. I am living at the Villa Borghese.    –Henry Miller,  Tropic of Cancer

This one is a bit of a cheat. The line itself isn’t high-powered, but that’s because it leads naturally into the next line, and that into the following. So it’s the first paragraph that is really killer. Here is the entire paragraph:

I am living at the Villa Borghese.  There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.   –Henry Miller

Now that’s a great opening. You’re totally hooked. The writing is terse and novel and Miller has put words together in a new way to make you think like “crumb of dirt….” and the shock of  “we are dead” that brings the reader up short. So in that context it’s a fantastic opening line, imo.

I would be interested to see lists of your favorite opening lines if you want to share them.  🙂

Seven Deadly Qualifiers that Weaken Fiction

One thing I do when I edit or reread my story before I submit it,  is to use a search function to find and zap qualifiers in the manuscript.

Qualifiers are a pain.  They weaken sentence structure even though they are all but invisible.   Okay, sometimes I admit you need a qualifier, and having one in dialog isn’t the kiss of death.  Go ahead and listen to the way people speak.  They use LOTS of qualifiers in their speech.  But what works in real life doesn’t always work in fiction, and you have to be careful when using them in a short story.

Below is a list of qualifiers I search for when I’m finished with a manuscript:

Very
Rather
Just
Quite
Really (This one is truly insidious. Remove it whenever possible)
Still
Almost

There are many others, like “Seem” which I see a lot even from professional writers. But these are the seven I always search for. You should too if you want your fiction to be taken seriously.  I really mean it! 😛

Isn’t Fiction Just Making Stuff Up?

I’ve been thinking more about history and the role it plays in genre, and more specifically with the art of story telling.

I tend to get in trouble when I start thinking, but here we go anyway.

I am fascinated how our perception of history often outweighs verifiable facts and evidence. Especially when it comes to genre. Writers have to be aware of this dichotomy and must be prepared to juggle everything in relation to the story they are trying to tell. It’s a big mental multi-tasking process, but I think it’s necessary.

I am one of the writers who believes story comes first even at the expense of accuracy. If a story calls for something that you know isn’t true, but the story needs that aspect, then you probably should think about putting it in. This is funny because a lot of people who aren’t writers (and some who are) think fiction is just making stuff up anyway. What could be easier than that?

I have never subscribed to this interpretation for fiction.

Fiction isn’t about making anything up. It’s about relating truths on the human condition. That’s when fiction is most powerful. When it is shining a harsh and unforgiving light upon how we view ourselves as human beings it becomes memorable.

As I said in a previous post, not every story calls for this. A writer would be ill-advised to force this aspect into every one of his stories. Some stories are light and airy, some are dark and heavy. In between are about ten million other kinds of stories.

There is a story for every story, if that makes sense. There is no right way to tell a story, and no wrong way. There is just the story itself. A writer must be true to that element alone.

If you do that, if you keep that foremost in your mind, you will rarely go wrong, and your story, and your growth as a writer, will begin.

The Importance of History to the Western Genre

I’m still trying to sort this out. I am wondering if certain genres rely more heavily on history and historical interpretations than others. I mean, I guess that’s true to a degree for any genre, right? I’ve read lots of science fiction stories that either A.) took their ideas from history, or B.) were set in historical eras and told their stories from that viewpoint and in that context.

So history, and our view of history, and more importantly our perception of history, has always played a big role in story telling. Even when our perception is skewed and our facts are wrong they still play an important (and sometimes a debilitating) role in a story.  But I wonder if the western genre doesn’t tend to lean a little more heavily upon history as background and context, and if, ultimately, this might not be a mistake?

Now I understand when you’re writing about events that took place in the past you can’t help but have a historical framework there working for you, even if it’s window dressing. If you’re setting your story in the Old West then you are probably going to have the trappings present for the reader to recognize. This does make some sense. It gives the reader a touchstone, something familiar she can draw from. I think all good writers do this in all genres, to be honest. It isn’t specific to westerns. But one of the problems with a western is we are so inundated by its tropes, and they have become such an indelible part of our culture, that I can’t help but wonder if it has become too easy to use them as background. Until we reach the point and just throw them about like disposable stage furniture?

Like I said, I’m not sure any of this makes sense, and I’m still trying to work it all out.

You mention “Old West” and a hundred people will conjure up a hundred different images, thoughts, and ideas as to what the culture was like and the social mores people had to endure. Some of these individual ideas will be right, but almost all of them will have some mental elements that are similar. Whether it’s a feeling we have about the west, or verifiable historical knowledge, there are some tropes and images that have become so universal when you mention them, or allude to them, everyone knows what you are immediately talking about. They see it, and they feel it.

Case in point: a person on a horse. But the west was peopled by hundreds of thousands, and ultimately tens of millions of people. They didn’t all ride horses. But that image endures throughout our culture today. Just that one image. You can extrapolate what you like from that image, expand it however you wish and ultimately tell the story you want that will move people on an emotional level.

But the fact remains most people didn’t ride horses. They walked. Or they rode a horse-drawn buggy. Or,  they just walked some more. But the scene of a man or woman sitting a horse continues to hold power in our collective consciousness. And I’m not so certain that’s always a good thing because it makes it kind of easy. People, old and new, come to the genre thinking they know it pretty well. And, by certain standards, that might be a valid judgment.

I am reminded of Gene Roddenberry and the trouble he had with NBC in trying to create a believable spaceship for Star Trek. Executives kept telling him “put some rocket fins on it and let’s go, baby.”  But Roddenberry knew if you didn’t believe in the starship, the entire premise of the show would unravel.

So here’s my point. (And I confess I am probably making it rather badly.) When we write westerns, or any story, I think we should always be aware of all the other facets that come into play with a particular image we are using. Rather than go for the cliche, we should try and use the western to elevate what we think we know about ourselves today. And yesterday, too, for that matter. Again, I believe all good stories do that on some fundamental level. All good stories let the writer and the reader grow together in some sense and find common ground.

Look, I’m not arguing every short story should be some literary lodestone that elevates the consciousness of humanity. I’m just saying be aware of the world of the genre you are working in, and let your characters move and interact with that world the way they would have done in real life.They way real human beings move around and interact with the world today.

Anyway, those are the kinds of stories I like to read, and those are the kinds of stories I try to write. Sometimes I am successful and sometimes I am not. But it’s always something I try to keep in my head when I write.

I Will Sail My Ship Alone

Science fiction grew up in the New Wave era. That’s when editors and writers began to push the genre past its pulpish roots and demand better writing, better stories, better literature overall. Readers responded. SF literature will never return to its past of Flash Gordon rockets and bug-eyed monsters in anything other than nostalgic retrospective, or self-parody. And that’s a good thing.

Science fiction grew up. Took it a while, but it did. Mystery has long been mature since Poe. Horror was born mature. Even romance, sometimes nailed for its frivolity, is/was a mature and serious genre.

Not so westerns. I see a lot of bad elements in this genre, a genre I currently work in and love.  It’s like myth and stereotype are considered the norm. Way too many writers seem to be okay with that.

That really bothers me.

I’m not talking about the writing itself. There is bad writing in every genre. I’m talking about the perpetuation of myth and hoary stereotype as the foundation for the genre itself.  That bothers me because it’s a sign of laziness from the writers and no expectation of anything other than sameness on the part of the reader.

Yeah. That’s upsetting to me. These are people who view Matt Dillon and Kitty Russell as iconic, Americanized and Anglo-perfected figures, instead of the flawed characters John Meston intended them to be: A violent psychopath aborning and a two-dollar ragged-out whore with no future. Two lost people marking time with each other as the land and culture change irrevocably around them. That’s what Gunsmoke was about, envisioned by its creator, John Meston. He went out of his way to challenge every stereotype and myth perpetuated by people like Howard Hawkes and John Ford, along with cartoonish icons like Roy Rogers, the Cisco Kid, Tom Mix, and the LI will sail my ship alone.one Ranger. Kid stuff. Maudlin melodrama. Popcorn.

That took real courage on Meston’s part, his desire to bring a level of adult power to the western genre. I respect that. I respect anyone who is willing to buck the system and challenge trends and expectations.

There are good  writers out there working right now to change the genre. Ed Gorman. Loren D. Estleman. Matt Braun to some extent, though he can be iffy. In the weird west category Jennifer Brozek comes directly to mind as one of my contemporaries. But these people are/were good writers to begin with, so it’s no surprise they write westerns that don’t depend on hoary myth as a backdrop, or mawkishness as a foundation.

As a reader I personally enjoy stories that challenge perception and expectation. Stories that elevate the reader’s experience and broadens their emotional horizon always have my respect. All good stories do that on some level. All good writers do that. Popcorn is fun to munch on, but it’s not good for long term sustenance.

I think the one medium where westerns have gone a long way in growing up are, surprisingly, the movies. There are still western cartoons being produced, or aspects of western cartoons. But there have been many fine adult western movies that push the envelope. I see many more examples of that in movies than I do in current literature.

It’s a shame. I don’t know why western literature can’t seem to grow out of its juvenile past. But I refuse to write pulp, or myth, or stereotype. I know it’s the accepted norm in a lot of western literature.  But I will sail my ship alone.

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