Don’t Look Back

There’s very little in this world as humbling as writing a novel. Anyone who says it’s easy hasn’t actually tried writing one—no, it’s not hard labor, so bellyaching about how difficult it is is just First World problems, but it is challenging.

For me, every novel starts off easy. The premise is clear, the plot is easy to see in the basic outlines. All I have to do, I tell myself, is write the damn thing! Meaning that I approach each novel initially as a time management problem. And also a whiskey-drinking management problem, a binge-watching management problem, and a hey-look-a-butterfly-let’s-chase-it management problem.

I lead a rich inner life.

Anyways, what always happens is things get complicated. I lose track of the plot, I get lost in the weeds and everything slithers out of my grasp, and there is usually a point where I realize I’ve forgotten something. Sometimes it’s a character I forgot to introduce much earlier, or a clue, or a sequence that’s vital to the comprehension of the story or the back-story. I realize with dismay that the next bunch of words I’m about to write just won’t work in the larger whole unless that earlier work gets done.

I take a deep breath, pour a fresh drink, and then I don’t do it. I don’t go back to fix things up. I just plunge ahead.

That’s What the Revision is For

It’s almost irresistible, that urge to go back and fill in the blank space you’ve just noticed. But you really ought to resist. Sure, that means the draft you’re writing is flawed. It won’t make sense, things get introduced in clunky, awful ways. Anyone reading it will throw your manuscript across the room, enraged.

But, that’s just it, isn’t it? No one will read this version. You’re going to revise it. You’re going to let it sit in the drawer and marinate for a few months and then go back and start re-working it. So you’ll have time to fix everything—and you’ll see even more that needs to be fixed.

The urge to stop forward momentum to go back and fix something you’ve just thought of is a powerful one, but trust me: Don’t so it. It will just stop your train of thought and ultimately slow you down and make the story worse. If it’s really a problem, it will still be there when you revise. If it wasn’t really a problem in the first place, you just saved yourself weeks of unnecessary work.

I like to use the time I save by not wasting time doubling back on myself to drink a little more. What will you use the time for?

Book Promotion: Don’t be a Jackass

Promoting a book can be a confusing, demoralizing process. Many authors spend a lot of time and energy and money crafting a comprehensive but affordable book promotion campaign, only to feel like they’re shouting into the wind, and no one is paying any attention to them. Some spend a lot of money and feel similarly, wondering why some books seem to just get a lot of attention naturally.

Along the way, you’ll no doubt play around with various free modes of book promotion, because why not? If it doesn’t amount to much, it was free, so nothing lost. And with social media platforms it’s pretty easy to do some basic book promotion using just your personal accounts and a little mental elbow grease.

But how do you decide what’s worth doing? Every week finds another social media trend, after all, another viral quiz or game that everyone is passing around, or a sudden wave of rhetorical tricks that other authors are suddenly engaged in. How do you decide if something on social media is worth jumping onto for the sake of maybe selling a book? You could use my simple guide, which pretty much serves me well in every situation: Simply don’t do things that make you feel like a jackass.

Jackassery: The Problem of Our Time

Look, social media can be fun. Dumb quizzes, memes, and trending hashtags can pass the time and connect you with your audience—that’s more or less the whole purpose of social media. Great! But sometimes people start doing things just because everyone else is, and then they try to layer on their own special brand of arch sarcasm, or ironic appreciation, or just general assholery, trying to simultaneously engage with the viral moment and be above it. And sometimes you’ll be tempted to do dumb things on social media that make you feel like a bit of a jackass, and my advice is: Don’t.

Everyone’s Jackass Limit is different. What you might see as jackassery of the highest kind might seem like hilarious clean fun to someone else. Don’t worry about everyone else. When you see all the other authors in your social media garden doing the same trendy thing, something likely born in a book promotion listicle the week before, don’t worry about whether they’re being jackasses. That’s between them and their readers. Worry about yourself. If you feel like a jackass just thinking about it, then the answer is simple: Don’t do it, no matter how many other people are.

Because, for one thing, if every author is doing it then people are gonna notice that it’s just promotion, artificial and grasping. For another, you can’t differentiate your brand by doing what everyone else is doing. And finally, feeling like a jackass is never going to be the right decision. Take it from someone who spent about 10 years in his youth being a jackass: It’s no bueno.

The Art of Rejection Part Four

Once again, I’ve taken a walk through my many, many, many rejections letters in search of interesting or humorous things. This time I switched over to my pile of short story rejections.

I write a fair number of short works out of love, and also because I think writing short stories keeps you in practice. By forcing myself to think up a premise and knock out 1,000 – 5,000 words that conclude with a recognizable ending every month, I’m keeping my skills sharp. Or so I tell myself. Whatever, shut up. Anyways, as a result of this practice I have tons of short stories to sell, and so I, er, sell them. I’ve been trying to hawk my short stories for decades, and I have the rejections to prove it.

These days, most of those rejections are emails, because I don’t submit via paper any more. But back in 2006 I was still sending out paper submissions, with HILARIOUS cover letters. Trust me: Hilarious cover letters for the win. I got this response for a short story called “Time’s Thumb”:

NO PANTS for the win.

I don’t recall what I wrote in the cover letter about my pants, but it amused the editor enough to invite me to submit again. Did I? I honestly can’t recall right now. Probably not, because I am incompetent.

I do think selling writing is 50% finding someone on the other side that sees things the way you do, who gets your jokes and references. Making an editor laugh is a good way to be memorable to them, and to wedge your story into their brains. Also, it’s one more step towards a world where everyone just accepts that I don’t wear pants. Mission: Accomplished.

The Art of Rejection Part Three

As I continue to trawl my own storied past of rejection letters for blog fodder, I came across this significant bit of personal history. The year was 2002, the novels was called In Sad Review, which is a terrible, awful title, but it’s the novel that, several re-writes later, finally sold to Tyrus Books as Chum.

Now, those re-writes were done with the occasional advice of my agent, who returned to it every few years with ideas and kept trying to sell it even as other books of mine sold, and even as other clients of hers took off and became Big Deals. And this is all interesting because the rejection I got in 2002 was this one:

So, a rejection, but one that prompted me to send In Sad Review to the person who would become my agent, and a mere ten years later she in fact sold that novel. Just goes to show, even form rejections can sometimes lead you to something good.

The Art of Rejection Part Two

Here we are in the second installment of essays about rejection letters I’ve received, because it’s educational and also because this blog is a hungry time-devouring beast that demands content, content, more and more content! until I lay awake at night wondering how in the world I will attract eyeballs tomorrow, and the next day, and the next until sleep is a distant memory.

Also, going back through these rejection letters has been eye-opening. First of all, I don’t recall being this industrious. I’m typically a lazy, lazy man. Secondly, I don’t recall being this hilarious.

Back in the Day I bought a Writer’s Market and read all the advice within and then promptly ignored it all and wrote these sloppy, funny, shaggy-dog type query letters based on the theory that I didn’t want to work with an agent or editor who didn’t “get” me or my sense of humor. This has proven to be excellent advice from my younger self, which is an unusual condition as my younger self’s advice is typically horseshit along the lines of “Sleep more” or “Dude!” – that’s it, just the word dude.

Anyways, here’s a query letter I sent out to a small publisher in early 1997, which was sent back to me with the handwritten notes on it, requesting the manuscript, and then my follow-up letter delivering the manuscript and the handwritten notes rejecting the book. I thought I’d share these because the query letter is a disaster in many ways, and yet it got a request for a full solely because I amused everyone in the room – in fact, I have another rejection somewhere that tells me flat out they would publish the query letter but not the book.

Yet Another Query letter from a Desperate and Violence-Prone Writer of Fiction
My God You Want to See the Book

The book itself was title Shadow Born (yes, yes, I know – my titles are awful and everyone knows this) and is one I still quite like, actually, although it is definitely juvenilia. It’s set at a college party where something terrible happens, is told from various POVs and employs some minor experimental things (experimental for me, not, you know, literature itself). The bit about my brother’s feedback is true. When he read the MS he complained that the final chapter, which was the MC ranting in a stream-of-consciousness way, should be titled “Lord Kincaid’s Farewell Address” because of its pomposity, so I promptly re-titled the chapter “Lord Kincaid’s Farewell Address” in a fit of pique. BURN.

Anyways, I had a lot of success getting responses from agents and editor by sending humorous, self-deprecating queries. I also had a lot of blank, form, and slightly negative responses to this tactic, so Your Mileage May Vary.

The Art of Rejection Part the First

SO, every weekend I sit here hungover and desiccated and try to think of something to write about on this blog that will make me feel like a Real Writer, entertain y’all, and possibly win me some sort of obscure blog award (do they still do that?). So I try to think about my few skills, which is always depressing. Aside from the ability to drink heavily (right up until the moment I lose that ability) and a certain skill in manipulating remote controls, I have disturbingly few talents. Oh, sure, the whole writing thing. So let’s amend that sentence to read “disturbingly few remunerative talents.”

And then it hit me: I do have one skill: The ability to collect rejection letters. I sent out my first fiction submission when I was 11 years old, and since then I’ve collected tons. Tons! of rejections.

These days they are largely electronic, of course, but I am so old I actually have a stack of rejection letters that I keep like the proverbial slave whispering in Caesar’s ear during the Triumph. So I thought, let’s examine some of these. It can be fun to humiliate yourself by exploring your failures. We’re starting off with this gem from the late 1980s.

What’s my name, Baen?

SO: Cravenhold was an awful fantasy novel I wrote when I was about 14. It was inspired a bit by The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and I took from that series the idea of a person from our universe being transported to a fantasy universe where he had immense power but very little understanding of it or how it worked.

It’s not good. Still, because at the age of 14 I hadn’t yet realized that “good” is generally a requirement for manuscripts, I submitted it. Also, I had no idea that different publishing companies had different styles or flavors, and Baen was almost certainly not a good fit for my work.

Now, back in those days submitting a manuscript was a damn job, kids. I had to photocopy 360 pages of typewritten work, smeared with white-out (or, more accurately, pester my father to bring it into work and photocopy it for me) then type out a cover letter where I bragged about being 14, then stuff it with an SASE into a manilla envelope, then take it to the post office.

So, you can imagine my adolescent outrage when they sent back a flimsy form letter without even bothering to make a note of any kind to indicate that my manuscript was not immediately fed into a machine that turns manuscripts into dark black cubes that are then used to build more machines that in turn transform manuscripts into dark black cubes, and so on. Today, of course, I can only imagine the hilarity that ensued when Baen received a novel from a bragging 14-year old that contained as much awful writing and borrowed ideas as Cravenhold, and so I now think I got off easy.

The form letter rejection, of course, lives on, and I’ll admit that even today I am more surprised when places I submit (on my own, typically magazines) don’t use a form rejection, because I totally believe the line about how they have so many stories competing for attention, yada yada. So when I get a “Dear Jeff” and a line about the story itself, I am generally made very happy.

I’ll be posting more exciting moments of Fail from my literary life as we go. Because all y’all seem to really enjoy it when I fail. <bursts into tears>

When to Give Up

Like most writers I have met, my mental health is suspect. No one chooses this career out of rational sanity; it’s a lot of work for (mostly) low pay, and all you really get is criticism and mounting suspicion that you did not really think through your plot before settling down to write. And so you wind up spending all of your energy arguing that yes, the fact that a character you described as one-armed in chapter one did, in fact, grow a second arm over the course of the book (the hidden literary clues are there, man, you just have to be smart enough to notice them), all over a book you sold approximately 33 copies of, 23 to yourself as you tried to correct a maddening kerning problem in your Word Doc.

So, stipulated: We’re all crazy. When are we craziest? When our work-in-progress (WIP) isn’t going well. Because we so often give up.

Take It to The Limit

So, when should you give up on your new novel? You gonna get differing opinions on this, and some folks will have a pretty complex equation involving word counts and palm readings and what quadrant of the sky Mars is currently sailing through, but here’s my answer: Don’t.

Don’t give up on your projects. I don’t care how borked they are (borked being a legal term meaning “incoherent and incomprehensible”), there’s gold in there if for no other reason than the simple fact that you were inspired enough to start writing. There’s a few thousand words or a plot twist or a single golden sentence in there that’s worth saving, so instead of giving up on a WIP that’s not working, start cutting. Hit Save As and start stripping away all the non-working stuff, starting with the most recent work you’ve done. When you start hesitating about the deletions, stop. Think about what you can re-purpose, what could be revised, re-used, stolen.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be a novel. Maybe it’s a short story or novella that got uppity, or maybe it’s an epic poem, or a scene from another novel, or the backstory to something else. The point is, use the material you’ve created, somehow. Don’t just walk away from it.

Book Promotion: Readings Are the Worst

The classic question of an author’s existence is, if you write a novel and no one ever reads it, does it exist? I think most of us would be relatively unsurprised to discover one day that all of our terrible buried novels had simply disappeared, as if the universe had decided to give us a pass and burn their thread from the pattern, setting us free.

But what about the books you do like, once you’ve written them? Generally speaking you’ve got to get out there and try to sell them. Whether this involves finding an agent and a traditional publisher or self-publishing that sucker, the next step is to, you know, try to sell them. Which means promotion and marketing, which means, very likely, someone will suggest to you that you organize a reading. or will announce they’ve already done so.

Punch them. Punch them hard. Readings are terrible. And what’s more, they don’t accomplish much.

Welcome Back My Friends

Look, in theory Readings are perfectly reasonable. They give you something to advertise and promote, they offer your fans a chance to meet you and hear you read your novel, and you might sell some copies.

The reality is somewhat different. Now, if you’ve got a lot of fans you’ll likely get a decent showing, and they might buy your book to get it signed, or because it’s launch day and they couldn’t buy it beforehand. That’s all good! And yet it’s not worth it, because Readings are awkward horrorshows and you will never sell enough books to make them worthwhile, for a number of reasons:

  • The probability that the people who will come to your reading are already fans and would buy your book anyway is at least in the high 90s.
  • Chances those same people would buy a copy just to chat with you and have you sign it even if you didn’t bother doing a reading is about 100%.\
  • The chances that a person who has never heard of you will choose to attend your reading and then be persuaded to buy your book is very, very close to 0%.

So, what you get is a stressful performance conducted by people who were not put on this Earth to perform (most writers are the sort, like me, who hiss and spit whenever sunlight hits them), all in the service of selling books to people who would buy it anyway.

You might enjoy doing readings. Certainly they can offer promotion beyond the actual physical event, if you get some press coverage and the like. But don’t imagine for one moment that they’re really worth the effort, because they are soul-killing humiliation pits, and everyone who comes to laugh and jeer at you would have bought your book anyway.

Short Stories Ain’t Novels

When people talk about the craft of writing, there’s a tendency to focus on novels. Everyone’s writing a novel, hoping to sell a novel, or discussing someone else’s novels. Few writers seem all that interested in the short story; in fact I sometimes get the impression that a lot of writers view the short story as a quaint concept not worth exploring, or as a receptacle for failed novels—if your idea didn’t have the legs for 80,000 words, settle for 15,000 and call it a day.

Now, that can work, actually, and I’ve done it. And short stories don’t pay well (neither do novels, really; if you do the math I was paid 7 cents a word for The Electric Church) or sometimes at all, and for a long time now short stories haven’t exactly made anyone famous. But the fact that short stories aren’t like novels is precisely why you—yes, you—should be writing them. Every writer should be working on short stories, in fact.

The Pressure’s On

Short stories can be anywhere from 1,000 to 20,000 words—the exact word count definition varies depending on who you talk to. In general if you’re going to try to sell stories anything over 10,000 words will have a limited marketplace, but just from a writing point of view this range is fine. Because of their brevity, a lot of writers avoid working on them because they’re much more difficult than novels. In a novel, you can wander about and noodle for 10- or 20,000 words and no worries. In a story, you have to be a lot more efficient, which means you have to know pretty much what you’re doing.

The skills that short stories teach you are numerous, however:

  • How to resolve a plot quickly, efficiently, and entertainingly
  • How to boil a story down to the basic essentials
  • How to establish a setting, sketch a character, and establish a premise in a very short amount of time
  • How to plot around tight corners

I could go on. Basically, writing successful short stories is like a tiny writing class each and every time. I strongly suggest you work on short stories regularly. You can always try to sell them if they’re any good, and if they fail the extra credit benefit here is that you’ll have shit the bed with an idea in a short story you spent a few days or weeks on, instead of a novel you spent six years and and 100,000 words on.

And if you really want to push yourself, try your hand at Flash Fiction, 1,000 words or less. Here’s the shortest story I’ve ever written, 204 words:

Fick Meines Lebens

by Jeff Somers

 

HE knew, on some level, that nothing had really changed, but it felt different, and that was all that mattered. He’d taken action, and the end result was indistinguishable from success.

Until the storm.

The texts had begun as annoyances. Someone somewhere had mis-typed a phone number into a text and he’d been looped into a conversation in German. He ignored the incessant blooping of his phone as the texts rolled in, sometimes several every minute, one after the other. Then he replied asking to be removed from the chain.

The texts came faster.

He ran some through a translation web page. They were a running commentary on his decisions: The clothes he wore, the route he rode his bike to and from work, his diet, his shoes, his musical taste.

He downloaded blacklist Apps that didn’t work. He changed his number, and the texts came. Frantic, one day he carefully wrapped the phone in plastic and submerged it in a plastic container of water, and then put the container in the freezer.

And that worked. Until the thunder, the lightning, and the pounding rain. With a click, the lights went off.

And he thought: Fick meines Lebens.

Conflict is Easy

We all know what conflict is, right? It’s one of those essential ingredients to a story. You need a setting, you need characters, and you need those characters to have to fight for or against something—i.e., you need conflict.

You get much deeper into the weeds of what conflict means in terms of good storytelling, but essentially that’s all it is—something for your characters to struggle for or against. It’s kind of necessary so that your story isn’t just 100,000 words of people sipping tea and commenting on the weather. At the same time, conflict doesn’t necessarily mean evil wizards, despotic kings, assassins, or even office rivals. In her classic book Steering the Craft, Ursula K. Le Guin boils conflict down to an even more essential element: Change. “Story,” she wrote, “is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.”

The Change

Where a lot of writers go wrong is in assuming conflict must be huge and oversize. It must be fighting Nazis or slaying dragons, murdering husbands or surviving terrible torture. But of course there are plenty of stories that exhibit low-key, subtle conflicts, and our everyday lives are filled with conflict that doesn’t qualify as epic.

And that word—epic—is the problem, often enough. Writers can get so fixated on the idea of “epicness” (no matter the genre) that they start to imagine stories where every single scene is like something out of The Matrix movies, with rain pouring down and people shouting as they fly through the air, metaphorically or literally. You can’t craft a successful story where the emotional charge is always at 10, and your conflict doesn’t have to be “something something save the world” or “something something we’ll all die horribly otherwise” or any sort of similarly “big” problem.

It’s also a mistake to think that you have precisely one conflict in a story, or that your conflict has to be a thread through the whole story. Think about what Le Guin says, again: Conflict is change. Thus it can change. The conflict that motivates your character in the beginning of a story might be resolved and replaced—or augmented or transformed. Say your character has been hired to break into a safe in an old mansion. The first few chapters are about their research, prep, and hiring a team to help. Then they get into the safe—and discover a portal to another dimension inside and are promptly sucked in. The conflict changes.

Of course you could make it your goal to write the ideal conflict-less story, but there’s a good chance your characters will still be sipping tea by page 300.