From the Master

People may not like Stephen King’s writing but he is one of the best-selling authors in American history.  I think his book On Writing is an essential text for writers looking to hone their craft.  He was featured last year in Business Weekly and 22 nuggets of wisdom from the book were refined out of his book for the article.

Anyway, here’s a link.  Good stuff.

Is it Live or Mythological?

So….

A few months back, I mentioned that I would address the concept of spec fiction that deviated from mythological roots.  I realize this is a somewhat contentious issue and many authors may feel differently than I do – but fuck it, it’s my blog, so I’ll say what I want.

Mythology is one of those awesome part of a writers toolkit; it contains romance, father-son strife, monsters, acts of heroism, and all other aspects of the human experience.  It also has good concepts of origin stories, world-building, and apocalypse scenarios.  Western mythology, especially Greek mythology, is firmly entrenched in the foundation of first-world society, and is woven through the fabric of our culture.  Its facets are identifiable and relatable to readers.   Is it any wonder writers love incorporating it?  And writers being what they are, tend to take some liberties with the body of work.

(Muse:  Uh, ain’t no one taking liberties with this mythological body.)

Quiet, you.  The fact is that when writers take that incredible mass of tales and works, they warp them to fit their own stories.  You see in work such as the Percy Jackson series or in the Clash of the Titans movies, both versions.  Minotaurs and medusae (plural, since the both titles originally referred to one monster) run loose in tabletop role-playing games and video games.  The mythology written in Marvel’s Thor comics deviates significantly from the original Norse (and Greek, Egyptian, Celtic, Hindu, and others, for that matter).  Tolkein’s and Michael Moorcock’s works were heavily influenced by Norse and Finnish mythology, respectively.  Even Stephen King incorporated (highlight for spoiler) Greek goddess Persephone as his antagonist in Duma Key.  In no case did the authors/creators stick strictly to the original tales.

And is that wrong?

Well, according so some authors, yes.  A sample:

Rick Riordan screwed up Greek myths in Percy Jackson
Marvel screwed up Norse myths in Thor
The Mummy got everything wrong about Egyptian mythology
Hollywood screwed up everything in Immortals (somewhat true; myths aside, the movie was awful)

And I have spoken with some authors who feel like this an offense on par with plagiarism.  But again, I ask:  so what?

I fall in the camp that fiction authors have exactly one duty:  they have to tell the best story they can, that comes from their heart.  They are writing entertainment, or maybe something that makes people think.  They aren’t writing reference books, they aren’t writing textbooks, where accuracy is not only desirable but compulsory.

Ah, but I hear you say, what about other accuracy?  Do good authors not go to great lengths to provide details that add realism?  If a scene is set in a smithy, and they are unable to describe an anvil, does it not detract?  I agree, it does, but there is a key difference.  Anvils exist.  Smithies exist.  Medieval cottages exist(ed).  People cook real chickens over fires.  Et cetera.  Myths?  They were made up to begin with.

I guess I just find it hard to believe that we can shift a story to an alternate earth where magic or walking zombies are accepted without a glance – but because someone had a yellow-haired God of Thunder instead of a red-headed one, that the story is somehow less authentic.  In any event, who is to say the myths aren’t authentic to the world in which they take place?

And even this is situational.  If a story involves a literature professor who is on the run from vampires and he has to remember the password to the safe containing the blow-up doll that glows ultraviolet in the dark which he will use to seduce the vampire king and then fry him, and is told the password is the name of the Greek hero who slew the Hydra, it would best if it were accurate to understanding of the world.  (It’s Hercules, by the way.)  But that’s detail, not driving plot device.

Making a mountain of a molehill?  Perhaps I am.  I just don’t feel this is a big deal.  I do love the richness and depth of mythological tradition, and not just those of western cultures.  The ramayana is one of my favorite epics.  But as I look at all those tales, all that information, the wealth of wonderful ideas … and I can’t help but steal it, bend it, make it my own.

And those mythical characters would want me to.

Little girls and big bows (and not the hair ribbon kind)

So ….

Since I came to the Middle East, I have been very much enjoying my Kindle.  It’s perfect for exercise time, since I don’t have to hold it open.  As I mentioned above, I downloaded The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, as it was on sale.  I finished this morning in the middle of a four-mile power walk on the treadmill.

Short summary:  set in Panem, a dystopian future America, the story concerns teenager Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers to take her conscripted sister’s place in the Hunger Games, a gladiatorial contest pitting youngsters from around the country in a grisly battle to the death, until only one remains.  Katniss is plunged into the Games, with nothing but her bow-hunting skills and wits to save her.

What did I think?  Well, it was a mixed bag.  On the plus side the characters are believable and varied.  Katniss has a lot of turbulence under the hood and Collins lets the veneer crack at just the right times.  The melodrama never felt overbearing and I think the pace was dead on.  There was little deus ex machine; with only one real exception (a forgivable one in context), the characters mostly thought or fought their way through the plot in plausible ways.  I thought the world-building was thorough and was revealed in manageable chunks for the reader, to let the true nature of the society sink in.  And I can’t deny that it was a quick, pleasant read.  As light entertainment, it appealed.

In the neutral area, I can see the young adult appeal.  The writing style is quick and tumbles loose the way an adolescent thought process might.  It’s written in present tense, which tends to exhaust me reading-wise but after a while, I got used to it.  I don’t think the book gains anything from it, though.  I’ve read any number of “lessons” to be drawn, criticizing religion, godlessness, femininity, feminism, capitalism, and communism, and the Iraq War.  I think you will take away whatever you want.  Dialogue was passable.

On the downside, I saw the major plot twists coming a mile away.  That’s not necessarily bad (I am as much a sucker for cheesy entertainment as everyone) but it did lessen the suspense.  At no time did I think Katniss would die.  Also, the populations of the Districts seemed too small (District 11 is said to have something like 8K pop) to sustain themselves, let along others.  A dozen districts with similar pops and a capital full of useless choads would have had a total pop of 200K or so, which isn’t enough to sustain the industrialized wonder that is the Capital.  I am sure I am overblowing it but those kind of details tend to annoy me.  Finally, while the book has – as someone else put it (forgive me for not citing) – “it’s own cultural baggage,” the idea itself is derivative enough.  It’s been compared to the Japanese book Battle Royale (which I haven’t read) and the Stephen King books The Long Walk and The Running Man, both of which, in my opinion, were a more adult treatment and deeper character explorations.

Overall, I would call it a slightly above average – maybe a “B-,” if I were forced to give it a grade.  I know there are two more books (here and here for those who care).  I'll watch the movie once it makes its way over here.

I’ll probably read the others … you know, if they come on sale.

Stephen King and the Creative Process

In an interview last week from The Atlantic:

JP: Well let’s go to the story itself, which I read today. It’s such a gut-punch of a thing — it couldn’t have been anything other than a short story, right?

SK: Yeah I think it’s only a short-story idea. The motorcycle accident made me think of this terrible crash that happened on Mother’s Day — these two women, and they were going upstate with a whole bunch of kids, and there were eight or nine fatalities, and the van was going over a hundred miles an hour, and nobody knows why. Okay? Were they arguing? Were they maybe on a cell phone? There was no alcohol involved. And I think sometimes we write a story to try and figure out what happened, to our own satisfaction.

You can read the whole thing here.

I’m asked by some folks what drives me to write; i.e., "Why you bothering with that crap?"  Well aside from the option of not having to find a real job when I retire, and Mrs. Axe’s relentless encouragement/whip-cracking, I think that last few lines above sum it up.  When I find myself imagining how unknown events unfolded, I become intrigued with telling my own story.

Some other random King quotes on writing:

"Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s."

"Monsters are real … they live inside us, and sometimes, they win."

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot."

"Nobody likes a clown at midnight"   (Nothing to do with writing, but I just like it.  The possibilities ….)

"You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will." (Great advice for budding authors.  I know one friend in particular who needs this advice.)

I’m not 100% in Stephen King’s corner; his later writings have been tedious and lack the beauty and style of his earlier work … and his politics are the worst kind of reactionary liberalism.  However, I have always admired both his no-nonsense approach to writing and his prolific ability to develop story after story after story, when the rest of us would have long since hung up our atrophied writing muscles. 

For those reasons, I will always thank and admire him.

Omega Mage Progress

So ….

Anyone who reads this blog routinely – both of you – knows I am writing a novel.

To be honest with you, it’s harder than I ever would have thought. I have … I dunno, maybe 75-80 short stories of various length (between 500 and 20K words).  Short stories aren’t easy to write either, since you have to cram your entire story in fewer words – but they do have the benefit of having a quick beginning, middle, and end.  When you write 2000 words, it’s pretty easy to edit in a single sitting.  Hell, it’s easy to write in a single sitting.

A novel, though, is harder.  Target novel length (according to publishers) for new authors is 80-120K words.  That shows that you can sustain a story but not so long that readers may give it an unknown factor a chance.  In other words, readers may slog through The Stand, because Stephen King is a known entity, whereas Jonathan Pembroke being a new writer, they may not chance an 800-page novel – but will chance a 250-300 page book.

Don’t get me wrong; I am making progress.  I think I registered around 5K words this week.  So the story is moving.  But there is an exhaustion factor there I never felt in short stories.  In most short stories, I told the thing and then was done with it, whatever the length.  Now, I have to make it go …. and go, and go …. etc.

I know some folks that are terrified of writing a novel.  I understand it.  But if I can get it finished in good order…what an accomplishment that would be.

Enough bitching, on to the good stuff:

– As stated, I did about 5000 words this week.  Good progress, plus I have this afternoon to add to it.  I am starting to get to where the story really turns and sends the main character off in an unexpected direction.  Unexpected for him and – I hope – the reader.

– I have a page full of notes for revision.  I think I might have diluted the bad-guy pool a little much so subsequent edits will shake that out.  Of course, once finished, I will be looking for beta-readers (hintity-hint-hint).

– I also have some revisions for the world writ at large.  I mentioned in another blog post that world-building is not my forte but I think this one is coming together nicely.  The meshing of technology and magic is always tricky; I even have a steampunk-ish flavor to some of the contraptions here.  I think it works; readership will tell me one way or the other.

– Still searching for a title.  "Omega Mage" isn’t a good enough one.

Okay, back to work.  I did manage to get a rewrite request (separate project) in this morning, so fingers crossed.

Advice to Writers

Every once in a while, I get asked for advice on how to get started writing.  Mostly, this comes from friends and coworkers, who have an interest in writing and since I love to talk about it, they ask questions.  I try to offer good advice, based on my own experiences and research.

Anyway, here’s a version (edited to protect any names) of what I tell them.  Comments are welcome; am I giving good advice?  Should I just shut up?  (Yeah, right.)

*****************

Your concern is a very real one and frankly, there’s no sure method to avoid it.  [JP: When they state they are concerned they may work hard and get nothing back from it.]  This business is as much about the luck of the draw as anything – of catching the editor/publisher on just the right day, when your work really connects with them.  You might end up with something that you can’t sell.  But would it be a waste of time?  A lot of people start writing a book.  Very few finish.  It’s an accomplishment.

How serious is this dream of yours?  A lot of the memoirs by published authors state that they work on their writing 4-6 hours a day.  Stephen King said that "Amateurs wake up and wait for inspiration, professionals get up and get to work."  I don’t say this to discourage you, only to present the reality.  Being a writer is a job, like any other and there is a lot of work involved – work that may not pay off right away, if ever.

Here are a couple of pointers:

1) Read voraciously.  Read like you’re a death inmate and books are your last meal.  Books, short stories, journal articles….  Reading a lot does several things for you:
– One, it exposes you to a lot of different styles and author word choices. 
– Two, if you read in the genre which you’re writing in, you get a good sense of what’s hot and not in the market.  Some established authors, like Brown and Clancy, can write about anything and be good to go.  But when trying to break in, it helps to know what’s being read.  For example, if you want to write chick-lit, writing something about vampires (a la the Twilight series) might be helpful.  You’d think that market was saturated but it’s not quite there yet.
– Three, read books on how to write.  You may not agree with everything but there is a lot of good advice and gets you to consider a lot of pointers.

2) Join a critiquing group.  I’m part of several online critiquing groups, where I can submit my work and get other people’s reactions to it.  That helps tell if my characters are realistic, if my plot is non-sensical, or if I am using the same word too often (something I’ve done a few times).  Also, while they can be a terrible time sink, discussion boards on writing provide good info.  Some groups require you review other people’s writing before you can post your own – or that you review a minimum amount of other work, so it is a cost-benefit analysis for you.  I find it useful.  I write speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, & horror), so I don’t know the critiquing groups for your genre – but they must exist.  Troll the web – or even look around locally for a live version.

3) Consider professional editing – but carefully. 
There are professional editing services out there that can – for a hefty sum – review your book and provide you a critique from a "professional."  This can be quite costly ($500-$1000 for a novel is not uncommon).  For your payment, they will do any number of things, from copy editing to offering ideas on character development and tying up loose plot elements, and usually you can buy these services a la carte.  This is slightly different than what I discuss in #6 below, as editing is a precursor to submitting to the publishing house.  I only bring this up because you may run into it during your writing forays.  For myself, I have never used one and cannot see myself ever using one, other than maybe copy editing (grammar, punctuation, etc.), as I never catch my own typos.  I see a lot of these editing sites push their services but to me, the product is a complete unknown.  Many claim to be professional but there is no certification and very few credentials on such a thing – so what makes them an expert?  If they say your main character is un-engaging, that’s only their opinion and you just paid $1K to get it.  You can get a 90% solution from a review site per above.  The opinion isn’t as refined, but you can get multiple views for free (or for a time investment).  I’m not saying it’s useless but consider it carefully, and only after research.  It’s not a requirement to be published, even though some of the services present their product as it were.

4) Know your markets.  Don’t submit romance to a publishing company specializing in kid’s books and don’t submit a techno-thriller to Harlequin Romance novels.  You can buy a Writer’s Market guide, or check one out from the library – but I prefer just to look up things online.  The Market is good but gets outdated way too quickly, as publishers change their requirements or even wants.  When you go to the bookstore, note the publishers and Google their names.  Most major book companies have blurbs about what kind of fiction they publish and what they’re looking for.  Also, you can consider online publishers and e-books.  It’s not an enormous market yet but it is going to get bigger. 

5) Follow submission instructions to the letter.   If I could only offer one piece of advice, this would be it.  Nothing will get your manuscript ash-canned faster than failing to obey the publisher’s directions for submissions.  You can find submission guidelines on every publisher’s website.  Some only accept agented submissions (see #6).  Some only want a page-long synopsis and will request the rest later if interested.  Some want the whole thing.  Some ask for electronic submissions, some want it via snail-mail.  There are font, margin, and page-numbering variations.  Follow … them … all.

The way the process works in all but the smallest publishing houses is via something called the slush pile.  Manuscripts come in and go to the slush pile.  Then, they pass through a pre-reader, who is looking to see if you followed the guidelines and can spell and punctuate properly.  Having been a slush reader for about a year for an e-book publisher, I can tell you that you would be shocked at just how many manuscripts are rejected on this basis – a good third, I bet.  Then it will go to several other readers.  If it does not get a pass from enough of them (or all of them), it never makes it to the final editor.  If it makes it that far, the final editor will take a look and make a decision.  For short stories, the final acceptance rate can be anywhere from 10% to less than 1%.  That includes the 33% bounced for not doing something as simple as following directions. 

If you want the publisher to pay you, make sure you give the publisher precisely what they want.  Double-spaced 12-pt Courier, with one-inch margins and your name/title/page number in the header may feel like a pain in the ass to format but it is the industry standard.  Oh, and don’t right-justify text unless they specifically want it.  I have never seen a publisher that does but almost all warn against it, so enough people must do it.  They want ragged right margins.

6) Money always flows to the author.  If you need to get an agent, the process is a lot like finding a publisher:  find out their interest/wants, and follow their guidelines explicitly.  The benefit of an agent (to a publisher) is that they are a BS-filter for the publisher, and the publisher doesn’t pay for it.  You do, kind of.  An agent can be a great boom in getting you published.  They know the markets and often personally know the publishers.  But they take a percentage of your royalties – usually 10-15%.  Read that closely:  they take royalties, not a fee.  So if they don’t sell your book, they don’t get paid – so it is in their interest to sell to the biggest publisher possible, which translates to more sales, and thus more money for them.  You don’t have to wait; you can get submit to an agent even if your target publisher doesn’t require it.  The agent may be helpful in identifying your ideal market. 

There is one kind of agent to avoid:  the one that requests a fee to get your novel published.  99% of the time, these people are scammers.  They have no incentive to get you published once you’ve paid them.  Legitimate agents, like legitimate realtors, never take money up front.  The phrase "money always flows to the author" is all you need to remember.  Research, research, research an agent before you submit to them or sign anything.

Recognize that most of the advice I gave has little to do with writing a book.  It’s like any other product:  salesmanship gets it sold.  If you read Crichton, Brown, Clancy, Patterson, and Cussler, then you know what kind of story gets sold.  Writing it and getting in good shape is just the first step.  As you go through this, you will get a lot advice from a lot of people.  Take it all with a grain of salt – including everything I just told you.  It’s advice, not the holy word.  The closest thing I would say to an absolute is #5.  Be flexible, be optimistic.

Once you start submitting, you will get rejections.  It’s inevitable.  Don’t fold, and don’t give up, regardless of what happens.  Keep a stiff upper lip and stay positive.  I get about fifteen rejections for every short story I sell.

Hope that was helpful.  If you have any more specific questions, I will try to answer them.

G’luck!

Daily Update #16

Ah, so….

– I am still plugging away at Omega Mage.  The first draft is over halfway done.  Keeping up momentum has been the biggest challenge; if I get a rut where I can churn out 1-2K words a day, I can keep that pace.  I take three days off and it’s like pushing a Ford Explorer uphill.  It’s tough to get going again.

– I received a re-write request on a project I’d had in for eighteen months.  I was bowled over, as I had half-forgotten about the story and the submission.  The editor apologized for the delay and frankly, I was glad just to hear that they wanted a re-write, as I had looked back on the story a few times and wanted to re-work it.  Well, this forced my hand, so I revised it.  I think it is much better and am going to take another look at it this weekend, before I resubmit it.  Cross your fingers.

– I finished a short story about a guy who has an unusual relationship with a piece of art.  Nothing sexual, mind you (in this case, it would be bizarre on about six different levels).  It’s kinda tongue-in-cheek but I hope the good message leaks through in the end.

– I recently – well, within the last two years – read two of Stephen King’s latest novels:  Duma Key and Under the Dome.  Reflecting on that yesterday, I had a mini-revelation.  Maybe it’s just me but King’s latest work doesn’t seem nearly as innovative or entertaining as his earlier works.  That’s disappointing but also got me thinking:  is this the ultimate end of all writers?  At some point, does their creative spark – after years of erosion – finally break down?  Does everyone have a finite number of good stories to tell before they’ve exhausted their capability?  Or is this just a case of King having some bad books – or worse, some lazy books?  Do we all have that bitter future in store?  I think I just made myself sad.  😦

– In my fleeting spare time, I started playing a turn-based strategy computer game called Heroes of Might and Magic V.  I’ve been a fan of the series for fifteen years.  This is the hardest one of the series yet and I, a veteran computer-gamer (though not as veteran as these guys), am having some real problems beating it.  Meh, gotta have some challenges in life.

That’s it, true fans, ’til next time.