The Unexpected Journey

Life’s funny. When I was younger, I never imagined I’d someday be a Contributing Editor at Writer’s Digest Magazine with a book on writing coming out (Writing Without Rules, natch) and a solid freelance writing career going. There was also a time when I didn’t see myself as a science fiction guy, and yet seven of my nine published novels are SFF.

On the other hand, I also never saw myself married and living with five cats. Make of that what you will.

FIVE GODDAMN CATS

The point is, your writing career may not go exactly as you imagine. When I sold my first novel, Lifers, I thought it was the first step in a very literary career; I saw myself as writing a series of realistic novels with subtle genre twists. When the book got reviewed by The New York Times I thought that was the next step. And then literally nothing much happened until I sold the sci-fi cyberpunk novel The Electric Church that I didn’t even tell my agent about until it had sold.

Every time I thought I knew where my career was going—or where it should go—I’ve been pretty much wrong. I’m at a point where I’ve stopped trying to guess—I just follow my opportunities combined with my imagination and passion, and hope that the combination of the two leads to something interesting. There’s just no point any more of trying to figure out whether a certain book will sell, or some kind of master plan for literary domination. I’m just along for the ride.

It can be frustrating to realize you’re at the mercy of forces. Forces like the market, which may or may not be buying what you’re writing. Forces like your agent or editors, who may or may not like your latest project. Forces like the fact that you need to make a living and therefore take writing jobs you might not have ever imagined yourself taking—which in turn lead to unforeseen moments of grace.

So, just write, submit, revise, and say yes to opportunities. No other strategy makes any sense.

I’d also suggest “drink heavily” as a way of blunting the horror that is writing for a living, but that seems like something y’all will figure out on your own.

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The Less is More Approach to World Building

I’m a writer who believes fervently that less is more in just about every aspect of writing a novel. Nothing you write will ever beat the magic movie machine that is your readers’ imaginations, and the more you let your reader infer, imagine, and guess at what lies behind stuff, the better your universe, characters, and mechanics will be.

Not every writer agrees, of course, and some of them are extremely successful. Some writers want to invent languages with complex grammars and extensive vocabularies. Or write book-length histories that will never be published. In other words, some writers are Method and want to have all this stuff under the surface that informs their work. That’s fine, but it’s not me, and if it’s not you, you have to be honest with yourself. The problem we all run up against is that the folks who believe more is, well, more are often the ones that get all the attention.

Seems Like Work

I’ll admit to being jealous of the folks who can invent languages and adapt existing religions into a wholly new form for their novels, but I’m also not very interested in doing so—unless those things are the point of the story I’m telling. When it comes to languages, specifically, I prefer to invent a few words, hint at a grammar, and leave it at that. In fact, for almost all the details of world-building I prefer to use hints and shadows instead of details and pages and pages of detail.

Part of this is admitting that you have to write the stuff that excites you and not the stuff that bores you, because your attitude towards your own material will come off the page like radiation. The other part is the diminishing returns of details: At first your reader will be excited to learn about the fundamentals of your universe, but familiarity breeds contempt, and if you don’t withhold some of the information you run the risk of your reader seeing you behind the curtain madly pulling levers, and the magic is gone.

The TL;DR version is: Don’t force yourself to do world-building work you don’t want to. It’s never worth it.

This applies to household chores, too, which is why I turned my crawlspace into one huge cat litter box. It’ll be years before I have to burn this place down, change my name, and start over.

When It’s Not Ready for Prime Time

I don’t know about you, but as a writer I tend to think every idea I have is brilliant, at least for a while. There’s the sunburst of inspiration, a period that can last anywhere from a minute to a year, wherein I am convinced I just changed literature forever. Then there’s a variable period of actually working on the idea, which as every writer knows usually involves suddenly realizing just how worthless and tired the idea actually is. And then, if you’re lucky, there’s the discovery a nugget of something shiny in all that collapsed shit, something you can polish and melt and cast into a book you want to write.

That’s not the hard part.

The hard part is when you finish a book after going through that process and someone—a Beta Reader, your agent, that insistent voice in your head, tells you that it’s not ready for prime time. Simply put, effort doesn’t always equal brilliance.

Patience, Grasshopper

This happens to me all the time. One specific example is a book I wrote long ago. Shortly after being signed by my agent, I was pretty psyched and confident. So I thought about what my next book should be—after all, once my agent sold Chum and it became a worldwide literary phenomenon, I would need to quickly offer up my next novel to my publisher, right? So I started working on an idea I had, and a few months later I sent it off to my agent, fairly confident she would be excited.

She was not.

Gently, she told me it just wasn’t ready. What she actually said is that it felt like half a story. Looking back, she was absolutely right, because what I wound up doing with that book (ten years later) was combining it with another not-quite-finished novel, and that Frankenstein’s Monster of a book did win my agent’s heart (we haven’t sold it yet, but give it time). The point is that being told your novel isn’t ready for prime time is far from the worst thing someone can say. And sometimes it’s going to take you ten years to figure out exactly what your book is missing.

In other words, just because you wrote a bad book doesn’t mean it can’t be a great book—someday. Uncork a bottle of something inebriating and drink until you can be honest with yourself, then start working again.

Be careful with the drinking-until-you’re-honest thing, though. Trust me: You can become too honest with yourself.

Bad Ideas: Speaking in Speeches

Everyone loves a good dramatic speech. Whether it’s the hero taking a stand against one final act of evil or humiliation, or the villain declaring his hatred for humanity on a grand scale, or even a supporting character suddenly making their case for their very existence in a story, a speech can be a powerful moment. There’s a reason, after all, that even people who’ve never read Hamlet can quote the beginning of his most famous soliloquy—because speeches kick ass.

Which is why it’s tempting to basically make your story a series of impassioned speeches by your characters. This temptation is supported by a lot of current pop-culture, as there are several TV shows on the air right now where characters basically communicate through lengthy, impassioned speeches. The folks on these shows and in these types of stories stop on a dime and launch into eloquent, frequently well-written speeches defining their worldview, or justifying an odd life decision, or just dragging another character on the carpet for bad behavior. It can be thrilling.

It’s also very bad writing.

Bringing a Gun to a Knife Fight

Speeches are powerful because of their inherent drama; in real life people rarely make lengthy speeches aside from the boring kind made at events. If someone in real life stood up in a crowded place and made a five-minute speech about why they love you, or hate you, or why they’re about to drive into the desert and leave everything behind, it’s a powerful, unexpected moment.

Like all powerful moments, you’ve got to meter your usage of them. Building up to a powerful speech for a character over the course of chapters and thousands and thousands of words? That’s effective. Having characters pause every three pages to make a speech? That’s lazy, and every time you do so you take away some of the power of the speech. Eventually, as we see on TV, speechifying becomes so familiar it becomes the new normal, and at that point the Speech as writing technique has no power left. It’s just characters interacting in stilted, unrealistic ways.

This rule isn’t limited to speeches—any writing technique can be overused. Right now speechifying has a certain currency because it retains its power while also being overused in hit TV shows and books, so it’s tempting. But bad writing is bad writing even if it’s currently having a Moment.

On the other hand, I kind of just made a speech against speeches, didn’t I? Goddammit.

Freelancing: Never Say No

The title of this blog and the book I’ve written is Writing Without Rules, so naturally enough I’m going to talk a bit about a writing rule, and how it changes over time.

The thing about a lot of writing advice, whether it’s about career or craft, is that rules change meaning over time, depending where you are in both. For example, a good rule of thumb for freelance writing is to never say no.

No Habla No

When you’re first starting out as a freelance writer, this advice is good because you need the one thing you don’t have: Clips. You need to get experience, examples, and to prove that you can hit deadlines and write to someone else’s style guide. You need jobs, so you really shouldn’t be too picky unless you have the platform and/or connections to just dive into well-paying, high-profile work.

That’s solid advice when you’re just starting out, but what about when you’ve advanced your career a little and you have more choices? Surely you have to start saying no to low-paying jobs, or jobs that involve subject matter or workflows you don’t enjoy?

Yes, that’s true. But the rule of Never Say No doesn’t go away—it changes. I argue you still shouldn’t say no to jobs. You should instead decide how much money it would take for you to do it. In other words, saying no ends the conversation. Saying, I’ll do it, but you’re going to have to pay me a mint might have the same effect but it keeps your options open.

Say an old client you used to write boring catalog copy for a penny word contacts you; they have a dull writing project and they want you to help out. Your instinct is to say no—you make too high a rate now, and you’re writing about subjects you enjoy—why would you ever go back? But instead of saying a flat no and ending the conversation on a sour note, think about what they would have to pay you to make it worthwhile. A dollar a word? Two dollars? Don’t get into the weeds of whether or not it’s a reasonable ask, or whether or not they’ll accept it. Once you decide the rate you’d need to take the work you can’t lose: If they turn down your pitch, you didn’t want it anyway, and if they accept you’re getting a ton of money.

Best of all, even if they turn you down they don’t think of you as the person who simply laughed at their job, they think of you as someone who’s out of their price range.

To do this at a Somers level, of course, you have to go beyond your per-word rate and demand the client supply free whiskey and address you as Lord Somers in all correspondence. So far no one’s taken me up on it, but a guy can dream.

A World of Pure Imagination

Every writer struggles with ideas sometimes. A lot of writers work on a specific idea for a long time, something that’s haunted and inspired them for years, and when they finally finish they have no idea what else to work on. Some writers just hit a wall and no new ideas inspire them. Call it Writer’s Block if you want (though I’d argue Writer’s Block doesn’t exist as a single affliction, but is instead a collection of problems writers run into), but whatever it’s called it’s distressing. Writers deal in ideas, after all, and if you’ve got no ideas you’re in deep trouble.

Relax, it happens to everyone. The longest I’ve ever gone feeling like every idea I had was terrible as a few months when I was a much younger man—for a while every single thing I wrote seemed stupid and trite. I did keep writing, though, because step one of working through a lack of ideas is to keep grinding. Work with what you have, even if what you have are lame retreads of overused tropes and half-baked concepts that fall apart when you work at them.

And if you’re going to say you literally have no ideas, I don’t believe you. Because like Seinfeld once said: That’s a show.

And the Show Must Go On

Seinfeld of course used that line when it was explaining the concept of a “show about nothing.” But the key mechanic applies to any writer struggling with ideas: Just think about what you did today, or yesterday, or last week. That’s a story. Or it could be—if nothing else, it’s the beginning of a story. If John Updike can write a classic about shopping at the A&P, why can’t you write a story about your trip to the Post Office, or your day at the museum, or how you would solve the rush hour traffic problem if you had the power to set people on fire with your mind.

Sorry, I already wrote that last one: Watch the World Die.

The point is, sometimes we can be a bit too precious about our ideas, demanding that they be absolutely amazing and unique and tremendous from the get-go. The truth is, ideas are rarely amazeballs from the moment you have them. To paraphrase Don Draper, that’s what the writing is for, to take a modest idea and make it amazeballs.

Speaking of Don Draper, it’s time for a drink. It doesn’t matter when you’re reading this, exactly, chances are I’m pouring myself one right now.

Characters: Write Until You Meet One you Like

Writing a novel or a story of any kind always begins in that infinite white expanse, that void. It’s like you’re beamed down to this arctic wasteland with a bag of tools and it’s up to you to build a shelter, get a fire going, and hunt down some people to help you create a whole universe. Those people are your characters.

This can all go different ways. Fairly often, the shelter you build will be flimsy and leaky, the fire you start will gutter and smoke, and the people you drag out of the featureless wilderness will be the sort of assholes you can’t bear to spend one minute with. That’s when you pull out the satellite phone and call for the chopper, soak the campsite in gasoline, and set the whole place ablaze as you hang from a rope ladder being carted off to the next featureless campsite.

Even if you manage to get a toehold in one of these wildernesses, the problem of populating it can remain. Sometimes your characters just don’t work out. And sometimes you just have to hang around trapping characters until you meet one you like.

The Most Dangerous Game

Our characters are usually based at least in part on people we actually know, either consciously or unconsciously. And that means that sometimes the people we sketch out in an early draft are not people we want to spend any time with, which can poison the whole story. Even villains need to be entertaining and interesting on some level; after all, we don’t always like the people we spend time with, do we? But sometimes those people are goddamn entertaining.

The trick with characters, sometimes, is twofold. On the one hand you have to remember that characters can be portable—just because a story you’re working on isn’t working doesn’t mean that one or more of the characters you’ve created can’t be moved into a different story, a new setting. On the other hand, coming up with characters you want to spend time with is sometimes just a matter of hanging out in a story long enough to meet one you like. In other words, just keep inventing people until you Frankenstein one that catches your interest.

Once you have one or two worthwhile characters, you can surgically remove them from the mess you’ve been working on and start fresh—and now that you have characters you like, the story might come easier, because just imagining two characters interacting often results in a story more or less organically.

Of course, as in life, sometimes you’ll find yourself in that wasteland of ideas until 4AM, headachy and bleary-eyed, surrounded by assholes. When that happens … gasoline and a chopper.

Chasing Sales Never Works (for Me)

I don’t know about y’all, but I always liked to imagine I was in charge of myself, of my life. That while I might not have a lot of influence on global events or the future of mankind, I did have total control over my own creative faculties. If nothing else, I could write anything, and write it well.

That’s true to a certain extent, but one area it’s never worked out is when I’ve tried to write a novel solely because I think it’s the right move career-wise, or a novel that will sell. This doesn’t work out for one simple reason: Whenever I write a book because I think I’m going to sell it it, it turns out to be a really, really shitty book.

Shitty Books, I’ve Written a Few

If you’ve written more than one novel, chances are you’ve written a shitty book or two (and sometimes all it takes is one novel, sadly). It can happen at any time, for any reason—you lose purchase on the concept or the characters or the plot, and the whole thing staggers towards the finish line as a stinking mess. You finally stick a disgusted “THE END” on its ass and stuff it into some dark closet, ignoring the smell.

Sometimes it happens just because. For me—and I’m not speaking for any other writers here—it happens most often when I try to write something for reasons other than pure inspiration. The more calculated I am, the less successful the book is. The nine novels I’ve sold have all been the result of pure inspiration instead of canny marketing speculation, and the times I’ve tried to be “smart” about the book I’m writing have always turned into abject failure.

Which is frustrating. Unless you’re selling books at a brisk pace and always signing new contracts with publishers, the thought will enter your mind that maybe you need to be more calculating. After all, the last few books your wrote in a fever of inspiration didn’t sell, or your Beta Readers didn’t like it, so why not look at what’s trending and go for that, or look back at your own past successes and try to replicate them?

And maybe for some writers that works. For me, it always ends in tears. And drinking binges.

The Debt

Writers owe all sorts of debts to all sorts of people. Even if you’ve never sold a word of your work, if you’ve ever taken joy in the creative process you owe a debt to someone, and probably a lot of someone’s. Teachers, your parents—other writers who have inspired you.

Growing up, my parents were always very supportive of my creative endeavors. This was always offered within the confines of maintaining other parts of my life—my grades, a part-time job. As long as I was doing well in school and otherwise taking care of my responsibilities, my parents were always thrilled to read something I’d written, and always acted like it was the coolest thing in the world. My father would take my typewritten manuscripts into work with him, photocopy them, and show them to his co-workers.

One of those co-workers actually copy-edited one of those manuscripts, once, peppering my pages with comments and feedback. It was my first experience with editing, and it had a profound effect on me.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Without all of these people who directly or indirectly inspired me to write, I probably wouldn’t be. Or I’d be doing so in secret, never having gotten the support necessary to believe that my words are worth showing around to folks. As much as I like to imagine I am totally in charge of my life, the fact is a lot of people helped me figure all this writing stuff out, and it’s necessary to remember that.

The other side of the coin, of course, are the folks who discouraged me, and they’re just as important. Because if all you ever hear is praise and encouragement, there’ll always be a little seed of doubt, a little voice that keeps asking if it’s possible that someone only gets encouragement. It starts to feel a bit fake. Having a few folks shit all over your writing is healthy, because it legitimizes everything else.

And then, of course, there are the people who have bought me drinks over the years. Those people are the real heroes.

Choosing Not to Compete

Professional jealousy is pretty easy to fall prey to. Whenever I talk shop with other writers, there’s a prevailing sense that there are some pretty awful books out there getting published and hoovering up all the marketing budgets, and that’s true in some sense, although the implication that our novels—published and unpublished—are much better and thusly deserving of more attention is not necessarily true as a result.

This sort of jealousy also seeps into the creative side, when you read something really good that you wish you’d come up with, or that seems frustratingly close to your own WIP in terms of concept and execution, rendering months or years of work kind of wasted. It can also be healthy, in that it inspires you to work harder and take more risks.

We Are Not Good People

My novel We Are Not Good People was inspired by this sort of jealousy. I went to a conference and witnessed other writers who were getting a lot of attention, getting a lot of support from their publishers, and I had the sort of panicky reaction you might expect: I had to get something really good out there or my career would be over. It’s a familiar feeling for a lot of writers.

I’d already started work on what would become WANGP, but on the way home from the conference I attacked that book like nobody’s business, fueled by a sudden desperation. And the result is, I think, one of my best books, and one that sold to a publisher pretty quickly.

So, it can work for you. But it has to be aimed properly. Using that sort of desperate panic to make yourself write faster and better? Great. Using it to fuel some sort of shadow competition with your fellow writers? Not so great. In other words, creative competition—trying to outdo their fantastic ideas and plot twists with your own amazeballs creativity—is great. Career competition is pointless, because you don’t control the market, sales figures, or budgets (unless you’re self-published, but even so you don’t control anything).

Easier said than done, of course, especially when your peers nail a big contract, or get a rave review, or have a film made of their novel. How do I handle it? I drink very, very heavily and then I write in a sweat-dripping panic, thinking of my own impending death and how I need to leave more books behind, and soonish.

Yep: Death and whiskey, the Jeff Somers story.