C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

Write and publish with love and fury.

Writers: Who influences you?

NEW THL COVER JAN 2015 COMPLETE

FYI: Grab your free dark fantasy and a free crime novel here. The Haunting Lessons is free today and tomorrow only!


Everything that has ever happened to us goes into our books. Every slight and terrible vengeance, real or imagined, gets poured in. Here are some of my influences:

1. During a podcast, the guest talked about the Hagakure, the book of the Samurai. It had been a long time since I’d read it, but as soon as he mentioned it, I knew I had an empty place for that puzzle piece in the next book in the Ghosts & Demons Series.

2. When John Cleese was a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Jon mentioned the Choir Invisible. Besides being a funny sketch and a great poem, the reference set off fireworks in my mind. The Choir Invisible became a complex secret society that fights evil in The Haunting Lessons. (We don’t read enough poetry anymore, by the way. Lyricism seeps into our writing when we drink enough of it.)

3. William Goldman, author of The Princess Bride (among many other wonderful novels and screenplays) always catches the reader by surprise. When you are sure what is going to happen next? That’s when he’s got you. I love that. I do that. It makes plot development a joy and dares you to stop turning pages, even when it’s late and you have to be at work early in the morning.

4. I studied The Divine Comedy in school. When you’re writing about demons and the fight between good and evil (or bad and evil), a quote from the classics slipped into the narrative makes for a big moment that adds to the depth of the atmosphere I want to achieve in a key scene.

5. I loved the action in Mickey Spillane novels. Film is definitely in the mix, as well. When I’m writing the Hit Man Series, Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers and Guy Ritchie are never far away.

6. Stephen King’s structural devices from The Stand and It went into This Plague of Days. Chuck Palahniuk’s appreciation for the macabre is in all the horror. Contextualizing the bizarre with the weird and real is a lesson learned from The X Files.

7. As a disappointed humanist, I want to be Kurt Vonnegut. Not the writer per se, but the man. If I ever release my time travel novel, he’s in the mix in a big way. I miss him.

8. When I’m writing action and suspense, Skrillex, Eminem and Everlast are playing in the background. Visceral goes with viscera. A steady diet of standup comedy balances out the blood. The path between horror and humor can be a knife edge. 

9. Fight scenes and sex scenes: draw on experience and each variety of conquering and surrender is all the more delicious.

10. Director Kevin Smith and comic Joe Rogan inspired me to write my first book, Self-help for Stoners. Chasing that dream long into the night continues to keep me going in the face of adversity.

I write original books (if it can be said there is such a thing.) However, we all have our artistic ancestry. What’s yours? What do you recommend?

~ FYI, one more time: The Haunting Lessons is free today and tomorrow and my first crime novel, Bigger Than Jesus, is also free everywhere. Hit AllThatChazz.com now for the links.

Bigger_Than_Jesus_Cover_for_Kindle

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How to write more, faster, now

After I publish a book, I tend to fall into a mild bout of postpartum depression. To head that off, I’m writing a new crime novel as I prepare to launch the finale to This Plague of Days. This new one has a very fast pace and I’m also writing it fast. This isn’t going to fall into a plotting versus pantsing discussion because, Thor knows, we’ve all hit that gong plenty hard already. Today, let’s talk about how to discover your story.

Here’s four writers to pay attention to, in case you don’t care what I think:

1. Anthony Burgess had a cool trick I’ve used. Pick three words at random. Those words will appear in your next chapter.

Go! You’ll find gooey, fudge brownie richness with that one tool alone.

2. E.L. Doctorow said writing a book is, “like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

When I wrote my first crime novel, Bigger Than Jesus, I knew the last line of the book, but I had no idea from one night to the next what tomorrow’s chapter might bring. It worked out in a really peachy way.

3. Stephen King talks about excavating the story, discovering and unearthing dinosaur bones.

Some people start with character. I often find my brush and trowel to dig the dirt away is conflict. Everybody wants something. It’s more interesting if everyone’s competing for the same thing but use different methods to get what they want. (Game of Thrones, anyone?) Through conflict, character and snappy dialogue often emerge. Direction and velocity will reveal themselves as you discover how the story evolves. It may divert from your outline. That’s okay. Follow the drama. It might lead you off the map to a beautiful place.

4. Chuck Palahniuk suggests writing each chapter as a short story.

As each story connects to the next until the end, this process cuts down on a lot of intimidation. It also lessens the danger of a saggy middle because you’re demanding more of each story element instead of relying on the reader’s patience. Each chapter is a pillar. Don’t build a weak one and depend on it to hold up the structure.

I’m going to suggest the writing process as an exercise in free association.

Free association emerged as a counselling approach in Freudian analysis. The core of the therapy was to let the mind wander and for the patient to tell his or her own story rather than take on the worldview of the therapist. This was resolution by exploration.

The key is to let ideas bubble up and connect unhampered by the choke valve of self-criticism. Criticism is for later. In the creative process, let it go and flow. You’ll go faster and arrive in places that aren’t mundane and expected. Using these methods, you’re going to cut down on procrastination, too. You’ll write more because you’re having more fun. Stop agonizing. This is entertaining fiction you’re writing, not a eulogy.

In This Plague of Days, the autistic hero of my zompoc epic (Season 3 coming June 15!) is Jaimie Spencer. He’s obsessed with the dictionary. That’s me. I collect odd factoids. I let one Wikipedia entry lead me to another and to another until I free associate my way to new plot developments. The world is made of details and small components build bigger things. That’s also true if your world is fictional. The dictionary and Wikipedia are full of the atoms of your next story.

For instance, take a swig of Doctorow.

In my current WIP, I know the destination and I have a hastily drawn outline of how to get there. It’s not deep in details. I came up with most of it while watching my son’s soccer game. The first atom was a small conceit. The idea exploded when I had my hook. More on this later this summer.

Enjoy a tall, cold glass of Burgess.

Take a random fact from Wikipedia and see where that leads you. Your foundation is already getting poured.

In the crime story I’m working on, I needed to show the love interest’s character. She’s an underdog determined to win. That led me to a story from Wikipedia she could identify with. By showing the tragic, yet heroic story that guided her life, we understand her better and we like her immediately. (Me? I’m big on pathology. Give a character a medical problem and I can use that, for them and against them. Desmoid tumors saved the life of one character in This Plague of Days, for instance. Read the books. You’ll get that reference.)

Free association comes faster from good questions.

Quick! What are the hits playing on the radio in 1974? Which manager was first to get kicked out of a baseball game twice in the same day? What was happening to your protagonist that day in 1974 when he was thinking about baseball and listening to the radio? What song titles spoke to his state of mind? These are the connections I made to write a chapter (a pillar, if you will) that could stand on its own as a short story. Hello, Mr. Palahniuk!

As the factoids build and scenes connect into a river of stories that collect and flow into one ocean of words, new connections are made. New developments float to the surface. You’ll discover new intersections in the network of your story you didn’t suspect were there when you began to write.

That’s Stephen King’s story archeology.

Good stories aren’t written. They are discovered. It is the nuance we find in the depths of free association that contribute to verisimilitude and character interplay. It’s nuance that builds, not just a book, but a believable world.

Those details you’ll use through free association? It’s not the only key to Creativity’s lock, but it’s a good one. Try it.

~ I wrote Crack the Indie Author Code and Write Your Book, Aspire to inspire. Check out AllThatChazz.com for affiliate links to all my fiction. That would be double plus cool. Thanks.

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#NaNoWriMo: Take a chance. Deliver.

I’ve finally begun reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63: A Novel.

Feeling a bit burnt out, I reached for an old reliable author to get me into relaxed creativity mode. The fire in the wood

Stephen King at the Harvard Book Store.

Stephen King at the Harvard Book Store. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

stove is burning bright and hot as a cold blizzard’s squalls pull at the house. Under my wool blanket, I’m cozy and this book feels comfortable, too. Different story, same old friend in King. I’m one of his Constant Readers. To my delight, King has an Easter egg for writers right off the top. 

His hero, a teacher grading essays, complains about his students “writing like little old ladies and little old men.” Heh. Yeah, I know exactly what he means: Grammar and spelling correct, but boring. Tried and true narrative, but too safe. I want surprises. The development of the story has to be logical, sure, but please, take a chance! Dare to take the reader by the hand and shove them on the roller coaster they didn’t plan to get on. Give them the adventure they didn’t know they wanted.

For instance, in Season One of This Plague of Days, I did a lot of plausible things with strange characters (and I put the implausible in a context that makes it believable.) In Season One, you see a kid on the autistic spectrum operating in our world (i.e. at the end of it.) That was cool, but to heat up the narrative and quicken the pace, I had to go deeper into the implausible and still attempt to make it as believable as it was fanciful. 

In Season Two, the story takes some new turns and we’re in Jaimie Spencer’s world more than he is in ours. Though many people loved Jaimie in Season One, I wasn’t interested in making Two a copy of One. If One is a siege and Two is basically The Road, I had to take the crazy train to places people hadn’t seen before in an apocalypse. The virus that came to kill humanity keeps evolving and that takes us down unfamiliar roads. The Plaguers and I are happy with it.

People love Same Thing Only Different. Too different is a gamble, but some gambles pay off.

Changing a character people love is uncomfortable at times, but certainly do it if the story demands it. (By the way, nobody loves Jaimie more than I do, but he ends up doing a lot of questionable things for a Christlike figure.) I demanded development and change, so I got dreams, a touch of magic and some big questions for the surviving humans caught in the teeth of the gears of existence. If Sartre could read my apocalypse over a lunch of cold milk, ham sandwiches and angst, I think it would spark an interesting discussion about the existential subtext of ambition versus chaos theory. You know…sliding in the thin spaces amongst the bloody zombie attacks, scary new species and terrorized, grieving humans.

Dare to be wrong and, surprise! You’re right.

Sometimes it’s just simple mechanics where writers wimp out and opt for their grammar book over Art with a capital A. In Higher Than Jesus, for instance, a character uses the non-word “father-in-laws”. The correct plural is “fathers-in-law,” of course. Trust your readers to figure out that you know when you’re wrong. Better to stick with what’s true rather than what’s correct. The speaker of “father-in-laws” is an old, homeless guy whose education isn’t terrific. Talking like a Harvard law professor does not fit, so wrong is right.

Most readers will go along and the very few who will think you’re an idiot were never going to like your work, anyway. Grammar fascists don’t read for the enjoyment of reading, so relax and focus on the readers who are with you for the right reason. That reason is Story (and to forget we’re all going to die, and maybe soon, in Death’s razor claws and unforgiving, crushing jaws.)

I like prose that is edgy. Lots of book lovers love it when we’re gutsy.

I like Chuck Palahniuk a lot, perhaps especially when he cruises the experimental. I like much of Norman Mailer’s work for its simplicity. However, I love Stephen King. The narrative is straight A to B. Snobby readers might call it “muscular” or “workmanlike.” That’s old code for not “literary” enough or too pulpy by half. But who do you want telling you a story? An arid auteur who tells it correctly or a writer who get it across right? The writing I’m talking about is visceral. It affects you. It makes you think but it doesn’t have to call attention to itself too much. Have something to say and mean it. Lofty’s fine if your feet stay on the ground. 

Don’t give me fancy writing tricks. Tell me the story, please.

You know all those New Yorker short stories with the super-opaque endings where it’s so very arty you can’t figure out what the hell the last paragraph is supposed to mean? Where they try to trick you into thinking vague ends equal powerful conclusions? You’ve surely read those stories so bathed in antiseptic that they have no honest feeling or real humor. The words are all in the right order but they can’t make you care. It’s hard to define, but when a book has no heart, you know it. 

I suggest you do the opposite of all that empty scribbling and I’ll try to do the same.

A good short story, or a solid book, should deliver a punch and satisfaction (or at least anticipation of the next book in the series) with its last line. It should not generate a confused look on the face of an intelligent reader. 

A great story can be read aloud in the flicker of a dying campfire. If the story’s solid, your rapt audience will worry about the characters in the book. They will be blissfully unaware of the starving bear watching from the woods behind them, sniffing the air, drooling, and measuring the distance to the fading circle of light.

~ I’m Robert Chazz Chute: author, podcaster, perpetually worried. If you want to learn more about This Plague of Days, go to ThisPlagueOfDays.com. Or just zip over to AllThatChazz.com and buy some books. That would be good. Also, Season One of This Plague of Days is in paperback and Christmas is coming. I’ll let you connect the dots from there. Thanks!

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Ultimate Blog Challenge: How to avoid signal fade on your blog and in your books

Authors, podcasters, bloggers, bloviators and cultural icons of all kinds: Everyone is subject to signal fade.

Encoding the MP3 after the Memorial Day podcast

Encoding the MP3 after the Memorial Day podcast (Photo credit: rbieber)

Signal fade equals audience entropy. Most people stop reading and listening over time because there are so many new things that demand our attention. Most of the fans and followers you have now will not be your fans and followers in the future. You might make one wrong move on Twitter and insult irradiated Japanese disaster victims like Gilbert Gottfried did. Maybe your fans will jump ship to the new simply because we’re programmed to seek out fresh experiences. They’ll get bored of your schtick. If you’re Jay Leno or Dennis Miller, it’s over, but for the rest of us, there’s still hope. What to do?

1. Don’t fall into schtick. Keep your writing and your words fresh. The person the masses will listen to the longest and with the most interest will be the one who says the unexpected. When I write a Facebook post or have some fun on Twitter, there’s probably a joke coming. Ah. But how will I arrive at that twisted coda? “Expect the unexpected.” That’s what my wife says when I tickle her. I didn’t take the threat seriously until I woke up in the middle of the night with her braining me with a frying pan. (See? Twisted coda sneak attack!) A better example is Chuck Palahniuk. He didn’t write Fight Club and then keep writing the same book again and again (as many authors do). He dipped into experimental fiction and several of his books are a jazz fiction fusion. It’s not all the same. You don’t have to change your unique voice, but be flexible how you use it.

2. Grow your base. This is tricky, because you don’t want to waste energy chasing down people who won’t dig you. Director Kevin Smith, for instance, was flummoxed to learn that one of his movies was advertised at great expense in The Ladies Home Journal. There’s not a chance that advertising paid for itself. That magazine’s readers probably couldn’t abide his penchant for profanity and Star Wars-obsessed dialogue. Instead, be you but in more places, so people can find you. Do guest blogs, grow your twitter following, appear on podcasts or whatever other book promotion you do. Most important on this to-do list, and the only one that is critical, is write more books. Be prolific. If your bookshelf and your base isn’t growing, it’s shrinking and dying faster than grandma.

3. Add to the mix. Host guest posts on your blog. Do interviews to get out of your head and into someone else’s. Link to a variety of blogs using Scoopit! to give your readers a smorgasbord. Bring more minds into your mix. Co-author a book. Have a guest on your podcast or play off your stooge of a brother. Try joining a writing group. Try a writing partner. Add a new voice to your old formula.

4. Set your mind free. This step is one way to accomplish #1. Too many people have the same thoughts because they’re talking to the same people all the time. Check out a book, a topic, a podcast or a blog you wouldn’t ordinarily read to get some fresh input to fuel your output. Go to court and watch arraignments for a couple of mornings this week. Get a tour of a morgue. Read this for a change of worldview instead of watching regular news. Take a language class and hang out with your fellow students. Learn the piano. Buy a homeless guy a coffee and talk to him. Go to a different church or hang out at a gay bar. Do something different from what you’ve done.

5. Step away from the keyboard. If it were up to me, I’d never go anywhere and never take a vacation. However, She Who Must Be Obeyed insists on vacations once a year at least. I hate leaving my writing bunker. I’m always here! Why try to alter my agoraphobic tendencies? However, every time I come back, I have fresh insights, more energy and new, aired-out ideas. You need a reboot, too.

Small-town terrors and psychological mayhem in Maine.

6. Write in more than one genre. If you’re into different types of fiction or want to branch out into non-fiction, do that. Cross-pollination will feed both grafted branches on your tree. More new people will have another way to discover The Magic That is You. Aside from my crime novels, I’ll publish a book on writing and I just published another fiction collection of suspense recently. Don’t just sit there. Juggling is energizing.

7. Or narrow your focus. The alternative is to own a topic so much, to be so unique, that anyone interested in a particular topic will have to read you. Certain names spring to mind for this rarified stratum of writer: Malcolm Gladwell, Seth Godin, and Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone. Of course, these guys take on big topics like economics and entrepreneurship and how to achieve success, but maybe you’re the master storm drain coupler of the Midwest. If you can drill down deep and achieve mastery of a subject to the degree that it makes you a specialist, your audience will have to read you to know what’s up. Whatever you do, own your category or aspire to own it.

8. Expand your outlets. You write, say, books of horror. What about podcasting about it as well as writing it? What about audiobooks? What about t-shirt sales on Cafe Press or Zazzle.com? How about graphic novels of your existing work? What about serious speaking engagements or stand-up comedy? How else can you not just monetize, but be different? Different and more is good. Different boosts your signal to a wider audience. More is more. Some people say less is more, but those people flunked math.

9. Change your process. So you’ve always outlined and plotted your books in great OCD detail? Instead, start pulling it out of your butt and see what surprises you’ve got stuffed up there. Or vice versa. Do you write one book a year or one book every three years? Resolve to write your next book in one month and then hold yourself to that promise. Do you write longhand in a library? Go to the coffee shop opposite the men’s mission and get a window seat and write there. Surprise yourself not just in what you write, but how you write it.

10. Change your support system. For my crime novel, Bigger Than Jesus, I added an ex-military buddy to my beta read team. I didn’t know he’d be interested in the book, but on a whim, I asked because of his military expertise. He read it in a day and was very enthusiastic. When he came over with the marked up manuscript, we talked for three hours. Not only did he give me helpful ideas for the current book, I got great ideas for future books in the series. For my next book, I’m hiring a new editor to add fresh insight and plan to mix and match my beta read team.

Your signal won’t fade so fast if you vary its energy, amplitude and range. New people will tune in to replace the fans who wandered away. As for the fans that stay with you through all your books, podcasts and creative incarnations? They’re the ones on your mailing list you should pay particular attention to. Encourage conversation with them. They may even hang in long enough to warn you when you are getting stale, selling out or losing your freaking mind.

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Author Blog Challenge: Writers to adore

The Princess Bride writer William Goldman His ...

The Princess Bride writer William Goldman His Q&A closed the Expo and included the largest audience of the Expo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another writing prompt for the Author Blog Challenge is: Which writers do you most admire? In a week or so I’ll release Bigger Than Jesus, my first crime novel in a series. In part, the book is dedicated to William Goldman. You know the movies he has written: The Princess Bride, Marathon Man, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But you probably don’t know his many novels: Edged Weapons became the movie, Heat with Burt Reynolds; Brothers (a sequel to Marathon Man); and my beloved The Color of Light. What sets Goldman apart is his plotting, his humour and his enormous capacity to surprise the reader. Just when you think you know what happens next, he sucker punches you. I’m all about surprises, too, so I love that.

Who else? Stephen King gets a nod for telling a story straight and well and for sheer output. Chuck Palahniuk is another favorite because we share an interest in the weird but true. Also, Chuck does not rest on his laurels. He takes chances with his books. He’s not trying to do Fight Club over and over and he has even jumped boldly into experimental fiction here and there (like Pygmy and Rant.) What distinguishes his style is that he does not judge his characters. Things happen. Morals are for readers to come up with (or not). There are traits from Goldman, King and Palahniuk I either came by one my own or absorbed. I don’t really believe in emulation of other writers, but I recognize similarities in process.

Recently, someone on a podcast reported that fiction is dead. They said people don’t have time for novels anymore. They want it short and then? Make it shorter than that. The death of the novel has been predicted almost as many times and with as much certitude as “Vampires are so over, man.” I’d worry about the state of fiction, but then I read Run by Blake Crouch and I don’t think we have to worry. Write a great book and tell the story in such a way that the reader can’t put it down. Make them laugh. Make them cringe. Sucker punch them with surprise. The novel will survive. I hope so, anyway, because I am otherwise unemployable.

With each opening, with each beat, with every chapter that ends with a cliffhanger:

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

When Bigger Than Jesus comes out, you’ll see exactly what I mean.

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Wussies! Creativity and the boneheads in the way of artful risks

Jay McInerney at Tribeca Film Festival 2010

Jay McInerney at Tribeca Film Festival 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I just read something from a writing advice book that annoyed me and I have to pull this sharp and spiny burr out of my nethers. It’s about what I’m going to do with point of view in the crime novel I’m writing. I’m taking a risk with this book and I know it. It’s written in second-person, present tense. That’s right! Now you’re wondering if I’ve lost my mind or if I’m just into quirky gimmicks. You’ll soon find out, but let’s talk about why I’m annoyed and you might get that way, too.

I ran across a chapter on point of view. The upshot on using second-person was that it’s best for short books (good, mine is) and is tricky to pull off. I agree with that. It is tricky. However, I have had good experience using it and several stories in Self-help for Stoners have more punch in part because of that unorthodox choice.

Then I got really annoyed because the author warned that editors and agents would be quick to reject any such manuscript because the attempt screams: I’m a Jay McInerney knock-off! You’re trying to do Bright Lights, Big City! I’m paraphrasing rather than quoting because I didn’t buy the book. I will buy the digital edition to delve further, by the way. I don’t write off a book or conclude the author is wrong just because I disagree with one paragraph. I’m annoyed not because the author is necessarily wrong, but because he may very well be right that traditional publishing is that quick to pull the trigger on any book that challenges the status quo (as if the status quo is all that hot.)

Bright Lights, Big City is a novel I admire. I found it quite engaging and funny. I wasn’t put off by all the “You, you, you,” that got so much press and critical attention but misses the point of the novel entirely. It was considered somewhat experimental at the time (and I guess it still is if the author of the advice book is correct.) Bright Lights was different, but it didn’t really deserve the “experimental” label. Aside from the use of the second-person point of view, it’s really quite a conventional novel that reminds some of Catcher in the Rye. (Try Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk if you want experimental fiction. That’s far more daring and demanding of readers.)

The use of the word “you” — some would say overuse — doesn’t get in the way of my enjoyment of Bright Lights because it’s the jokes, the hipster context of New York ’80s nightlife and a stab or two at the literary establishment that appealed to me. I was working in the Toronto literary establishment at the time I first read it, so it spoke to me even though I didn’t have the cash or inclination to indulge in Bolivian marching powder.

We used the word experimental because there weren’t many well-known antecedents that employed second-person point of view. Now Bright Lights, Big City is the well-known antecedent and apparently some publishing professionals have long memories but very narrow minds. Bright Lights, Big City came out in 1984! So…Jay McInerney did it once and now the use of second-person is a reason for quick  rejection? He slipped under the gate but it must never allowed again! Really? They haven’t got over the shock after 28 years?

Wussies!

When my novel comes out this June, readers will agree it’s awesome like chocolate croissants, merely palatable or they’ll decide it sucks like a Dyson vacuum cleaner powered by the fearsome gravity well of a black hole. I’m betting it works and fortunately, my imprint, Ex Parte Press, will publish it. The boss can be kind of a dick, but I’m tight with him. The only gatekeepers I have to worry about are the readers traipsing the digital forests of the Amazon. I know it’s a gamble, but I don’t write so I can sound like everyone else. As much as I respect Jay McInerney*, I’m not trying to emulate him. We write to express ourselves. This is me being me. I hope you’re being you and taking some artful and calculated risks, too.

*If you’re a martial artist, please try Jay McInerney’s Ransom. If you want a distinctive voice by a confident author, read McInerney’s Story of My Life. These, along with Bright Lights, Big City, were Mr. McInerney’s first three books. They were his least conventional and I believe they were his most successful. They were the ones that were most successful with me, anyway.

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Save Your Darlings

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

~ William Faulkner

There’s lots of writing advice out there. I never worry about giving anyone advice that is incorrect because experience tells me people will only take the advice that appeals to them anyway. That said, save you darlings. Resuscitate them. William Faulkner’s darlings are not your darlings. Maybe that suited him, but that doesn’t mean it suits you and your book.

For instance, I once read Famous Agent’s argument that killing your darlings equates to getting rid of the stuff that is “too clever.” Oh, Jesus, no! We wouldn’t want anything in there that’s too clever! Make it all bland and uniform. Or waitaminute! Why don’t we want it clever again? In fact, wouldn’t it be great if you published a book that only contained your darlings? Wouldn’t it be great to have a book that was so clever that it was the common ideas that stood out for deletion and not the clever ones? I’m not arguing for self-conscious writing that sounds “writerly.” I am arguing for writing that takes a chance, challenges a reader once in a while and becomes distinctive art.

Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club is packed with clever ideas, for instance. The interesting thing is, Fight Club was a reaction to the rejection. Palahniuk submitted something else first and got negative comments. His solution? Go even further and stay true to his voice. What I’m saying is, killing your darlings sounds like clever advice until you think about it a moment longer. Killing your darlings could lead to a lot of bland writing. I like intellectual engagement in my reading. I prefer surprises. Give me a ranty sprinkles of philosophy. Ladle in the new and different. I’ll love you for it. You can take a foray into something that doesn’t move the plot forward. If you make it entertaining, it will work. (Stephen King has also urged young authors to kill their darlings, but I don’t believe him. His fiction often goes off into side tracks and detailed forays that don’t necessarily advance the plot.)

Worse? I accuse William Faulkner of fraud. He didn’t kill his darlings. Faulkner is one of the greats precisely because he didn’t kill his darlings. Had he taken his own advice, As I Lay Dying wouldn’t have this:

“My mother is a fish.” 

Mr. Faulkner? J’accuse!

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Stats on literacy & the literary: Books aren’t that important

42% of university graduates never read another book after they graduate.

Whoa! Wh-wh-what now?!

Yes, you read that correctly. When it comes down to it, books aren’t all that important to a staggering number of people. 

I’ve found several scary statistics for this post, but that 42% bugs me most. Those are people who can read, but choose not to.

I used to think that once you made someone a reader, you had them for life. Not so!

Like you, I’m a big fan of books, of course. But this post is about perspective and where we stand in the flood of things to do.

1. Market fragmentation: There’s a lot going on. Literally. I don’t watch TV much anymore. I used to schedule my life around television programming. I could read more books in a week, but I don’t because I also make time to listen to a lot of podcasts. So many websites call my name. Plus, I have a lot to do. With so many demands on my time, a lot gets curated. I use the word curation here as a synonym for “flushed.” I filter out a lot of things I don’t have time to read, watch and listen to. (Also, I’m on Team Coco, so Leno’s banished and cursed.) There are only so many waking hours in a day, and, frankly? I’ve got more free time than most people do.

2. Market skew: You only think you love all books. But you really love a small fraction of books, no matter how much you read. How many readers do you meet who say, “I read everything”? (Sarah Palin who was lying and has officially “authored” more books than she’s read.) My point is, niches are narrow. For instance, I love Chuck Palahniuk’s work and have read all of his books. I wouldn’t have to look very far to find someone who has read Fight Club. But I’d have to travel far to find someone else who has read them all. Chuck’s very successful, but he’ll just never have the market penetration of Hemingway because Hemingway is taught in schools. (In other words, a lot of high school and college kids are forced to read Hemingway. Snuff, a book about a porn shoot,  won’t make it into many curricula.)

As an author, you’re going to meet a lot of readers, but sadly, they won’t be your market because you’re into A, B, and C and they’re into X, Y, Z.

Worse? They’ll sneer at you for it because people don’t make any distinction between what’s to their taste and what’s good.

3. We say we’re a society that values reading and education. But we don’t. Here’s a few illiteracy statistics to blow your brain around: About three in five of America’s prison inmates are illiterate. The cost of illiteracy to business and the US taxpayer is $20 billion per year. More than 20 percent of adults read at or below a fifth-grade level – far below the level needed to earn a living wage. 44 million adults in the U.S. can’t read well enough to read a simple story to a child. Nearly half of America’s adults are poor readers, or “functionally illiterate.” They can’t carry out simple tasks like balancing check books, reading drug labels or writing essays for a job. 21 million Americans can’t read at all. 45 million are marginally illiterate and one-fifth of high school graduates can’t read their diplomas.

4. Number 3? That’s about people who can’t read. But many people just don’t: The average reader spends about 1/6th of the time they spend reading actually rereading words.* One-third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year. 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years. 57 percent of new books are not read to completion. 70 percent of books published do not earn back their advance. 70 percent of the books published do not make a profit. (Source: http://www.JenkinsGroupInc.com)

5. If you’re self-published, a lot of people won’t read your stuff, perhaps because of prejudice fueled by bad experiences with the previous generation of self-publishing. Traditional publishers aren’t generally that much further ahead anymore, either. (See #3 and #4.) Bookstores (remember them?) are reluctant to stock the self-published. They don’t even have space for traditionally published midlist authors anymore, let alone the indie unwashed masses. And newspapers? (They used to be on paper and very profitable. Ask your parents.) Newspapers still don’t review the self-published. We’re also shut out of many literary awards so there’s not much notoriety gained there. That situation will change, but not soon. We may have to wait for a bunch of old school book critics to die.

Great, now your depressed. So what do we do about it? Well, first, think about these stats and honestly evaluate your chances as an author. This post is essentially a test. If you think about your chances (for realsies!) and are still undeterred, congratulations! There is no hope for you. You’re doomed to take your shot at a life in letters. This choice is, for most writers, really no choice at all. Many of us will fail. A few of us would have been great at something else. Some are a great loss to the fields of animal husbandry and the manufacture of novelty chattering teeth toys.

We choose to write books despite the scary stats. Somewhat perversely, we may choose to write books because of those scary stats! If we can write books people want to read, maybe we can save humanity and turn things around. (I think JK Rowling got not a few kids reading who otherwise might not have.)

Kurt Vonnegut wrote in A Man Without a Country:

“If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts.

I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way to make life more bearable.”

(Kurt was the kind of wise-ass I love.)

 

I’ll leave you with something else positive to think about. I heard Red State director Kevin Smith say this on a podcast recently:

“Surround yourself with Why Not? people.”

Too often you try to do your art and people say why? Forget them and go do your thing. 

I mean…why not? 

*All the stats above the asterisk can be found at readfaster.com.

Filed under: Books, publishing, self-publishing, , , , , , , ,

Publishing: How important is nationality anyway?

I can’t say I’m proud to be Canadian. Proud suggests I’ve achieved something by accident of birth. Pride of nationality is like being proud of being tall. I say instead that I’m lucky to be Canadian. It beats a lot of  other possibilities. (I think George Carlin had a bit about that, I’ll have to look for it. Ah. Obviously I found it.)

Since Americans have more e-readers than Canadians, a Canadian author recently wondered aloud if Canadians had a chance of making any money in e-books.

It has always seemed strange to me how parochial many readers can be. Instead of seeing a story set in the Arctic as exotic and interesting, they tend to see it as too Other. In books, the wisdom has long been that people want “the same thing only different.” Americans want to read about Americans and Canadians are the only ones who will put up with sodbusters set in historic Saskatchewan.

This is true and it’s not. We generalize with confidence to familiar settings. New Yorkers enjoy reading about New Yorkers. But what’s true generally is not true in the particular. When Yann Martel wrote Life of Pi, how many people could relate to lion-taming on a raft in the Pacific? For that matter, how many people can really relate to foreign spy thrillers and the intrigue of the Pentagon and State Department? Instead, they read to escape into the unfamiliar.

Can Lit is somewhat fetishized by many Canadians, especially if they are part of the publishing establishment or Canadian media. It’s not that I’m saying it’s all bad, but I would say it’s not the only game in town. I mostly read American authors and personally, I don’t have much patience for a lot of Can Lit. It’s a matter of taste. You can argue I have none, but the heart wants what it wants and I don’t think Chuck Palahniuk‘s artistic sensibility would have been nurtured as a hoser. In college I steered away from Robertson Davies and opted fro Mailer.

But e-books cross all borders. Publish an e-book and you can have english-speaking fans downloading your work in Sweden. Borders don’t mean much anymore. What’s more, come up with a good story—a really good story—and I don’t think it matters much where it’s set. And it doesn’t have to be high art conquering us all, either. Think of all those plot-oriented books English Majors are programmed to hate:  Angels and Demons, Da Vinci Code, The Girl Who Played with Fire etc.,… A bunch of unfamiliar names isn’t deterring anyone from enjoying the Stieg Larson books.

So write a good story. In my novel, the protagonist has identifiably American goals. He wants to be a movie star. He live in New York but wants to live in Hollywood. He idolizes movie stars you know. He has to be American.

I can’t take that story and artificially transplant it so he’s a kid from Moncton who wants to make it big in Toronto. Canadian stars typically head south anyway, make it big in the States and only then are they recognized as talents. We’re Canadian. It’s what we do. Canadian celebrities are the equivalent of D-list celebrities. We’re really proud of them once they prove themselves elsewhere. In fact, Canadians don’t have “celebrity” per se. We just say they are “known” or “recognizable” or “familiar but…” or “Who’s she?”

There are other issues for Canadian authors. If you write SF, chances are excellent you deal with an American publisher directly or have an agent based in the US. Yes, there are some SF Canadian agents and publishers, but relatively few. That’s unfortunate, especially since three major SF authors are Canadian: William Gibson, Robert J. Sawyer and Spider Robinson. (Of those three, Robinson, the man named heir-apparent to Heinlein, is under-appreciated these days because his work is funny SF.)

The main issue is about the numbers. The USA has a huge population and Canada has a small one. Focusing your work exclusively on the Canadian market while ignoring the potential south of the border takes a special kind of focus. To sell more of anything, you have to go where the people are. Bands and authors hit as many cities across the US as they can. For many, if they come to Canada at all, it’s Toronto and that’s it. That’s just how the math works. Canadian tour dates are an afterthought. Authors in the United States may think of Canada kindly, but they’re not getting rich off us.

Nationality isn’t important. Story and marketing is.

 

 

Filed under: Books, publishing, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , , , ,

Editing Part V: The Dead Grammar Rules Freedom Manifesto

William Shatner photographed by Jerry Avenaim

Image via Wikipedia

Certain grammar guidelines have changed. The classic one everyone knows is the death of the split infinitive rule. When I was a kid, some teachers were still strict grammarians on this point. I call that generational inertia (wherein one espouses the rules of the previous generation even though old rules no longer apply. Generational inertia shows up everywhere but has been particularly egregious in the publishing industry on the subject of digital books. (Chazz now dismounts from the usual hobby-horse and goes on with dead grammar rules. Ahem.)

William Shatner singlehandedly killed the split infinitive rule in the late 60s. At the opening of the original Star Trek, it was he who spoke the immortal split infinitive: “To boldly go where no man has gone before!” Patrick Stewart updated the phrase over the opening credits of Star Trek: The Next Generation with “To boldly go where no one has gone before!” The captains of the Enterprise changed things up from the proper, traditional (and stiff): “To go boldly.” After Star Trek, everyone eased up and some grammarians will still tell you that was an early sign of the decline of civilization.

Heavy-handed grammarians amuse me. Sometimes it seems like they fetishize the rules without respecting the point: effective communication. Usually traditional rules serve us well. However, rules shouldn’t get in the way of creativity just as expression shouldn’t get in the way of communication.

When expression doesn’t respect the reader’s right to clarity, it better be doing so intentionally for a particular effect. For instance, Michael Ondaatje or Maya Angelou write in complex skeins that require double espresso and a very quiet room to appreciate. Chuck Palahniuk wrote Pygmy in a distinctly ungrammatical style so you see America through the odd mind of a tiny immigrant assassin who speaks English as a second language. (That worked great for me though, usually, if something isn’t clear it’s probably because it sucks.)

I once heard an ancient grammarian with a very plummy British accent (it was as if  Central Casting sent over The Stereotypical English Professor) complain about how fast and loose modern teenagers were with language. (He brought to mind Socrates whining about “these rotten kids today!”) Plummy Accent Guy spoke as if he wanted to freeze the language at about 1901. But languages are organic.  (Look! I just started a sentence with a conjunction! My eighth-grade teacher would rap my knuckles with a ruler right about now.) Conventions change and grow and a mid-eighteenth century grammarian would be appalled at Plummy Accent Guy’s use of language. (They’d also cringe at my overuse of the parenthetical in this paragraph but to make a stale subject even vaguely entertaining, I think it works. So there.)

Just last summer I watched an author wring his hands over texting. “Text abbreviations dumb kids down,” he said. Yeah? I don’t think there’s any real scientific support for that view and he came off sounding stuffy and quaint. Kids are reading more than they ever did, they’re just doing so on screens. It’s not that they are losing the English language. It’s that they are learning another text-based language.

True, our literacy rates are awful. But that doesn’t mean drumming old grammatical rules into kids is the cure. Things change. School programs used to spend a lot of time teaching beautiful handwriting. If you’ve ever seen letters from before mid-last century, much of the handwriting looks so precise in its swoops and curls you’d be forgiven for thinking it was produced by a machine. However, elegant calligraphy is out. I loved it and my calligraphic pens made note-taking on intolerable subjects more interesting but it’s gone with the art of letter writing. Even simple handwriting isn’t a high priority in the educational system, either. The way the world has gone, teachers want to move on quickly to teaching kids how to type and cursive writing is a low priority. Your kids will be able to write with a pen but they’ll probably write by hand in block letters.

Lots of old assumptions are out. In fact, studies show that, despite what your momma told you, spelling isn’t all that important. Try this: Can you raed tihs snetnce? You can probalbly raed tihs amlst as fsat as you wold nromally raed. Studeis sohw taht as lnog as teh fisrt letr and teh lsat letr are corect, yuo wll unerdstnd my maening prefctly.

And people mistype ‘teh’ for ‘the’ so often,

it’s been suggested ‘teh’ should be an accepted alternative to ‘the.’

Remember, for a very long time there was no universal standard for spelling so Old English spelling was all over the map. There were no dictionaries so our greatest philosophers spelled idiosyncratically and phonetically. I’m not proposing we spell poorly. I’m saying ease up on rules whose basis is somewhat arbitrary.

The key for grammar rules now is: Respect the writer’s voice and the reader’s mind. And time. That’s right. Time. Serial commas are out (unless you need to keep them in particular sentences for clarity.) Serial commas often introduce pauses and separation where none are needed. If I write “apples, oranges, and plums,” I’m not letting the conjunction ‘and’ do its work. The reader doesn’t need the comma before the ‘and’ because the reader gets it.

Same with the conjunction ‘but’: “He chose the oranges and apples, but not the plums,” contains a pause after apples that you don’t need. You can do it if you want, but that’s a different point I’ll slap down five paragraphs hence. (Also, unless you’re trying to strike a particularly arch tone, stop using hence, boon and behooves. Old words die and new ones are born every day. Stop keeping outmoded words on life support as if they’re a regular part of the lexicon. It annoys your reader if it’s apparent you’re using a thesaurus or if you expect them to run to a dictionary every few paragraphs.)

Stop throwing fits over verbed nouns. I’ve heard stick-up-the-butt English majors grouse about ‘Google’ as a verb (still! Really!) And some still haven’t gotten over impact as a verb. Let this impact you: Nouns become verbs because books shouldn’t use humans. It’s supposed to be the other way around as long as we’re at the top of the food chain and until our robot overlords rise to sentience.

Also, lose the double space after the period. That’s a holdover from typing class when people used typewriters. There are far fewer typing teachers now. Instead computer programs like Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing do that job. (And now they call it keyboarding class, by the way, presumably because it’s not just about the letter and number keys anymore. It’s about keyboarding shortcuts and formatting.) From a design perspective, the double space after the period leads to what are called rivers in the text, distracting routes of white space that  pull the eye down instead of across the text. (Okay, Elmore Leonard still uses a typewriter. If you’re Elmore Leonard, do what you want. If you’re Elmore Leonard, you can strangle a hobo on live TV and just about everyone would forgive you.)

Design questions sometimes factor into grammatical decisions. For instance, at Five Rivers — the publishing company for whom I’m Editor-at-large — we put spaces around em dashes (like I just did.) Lorina Stephens, the publisher, likes that look. It gives an airy look to the text on the page. For ’emphasis’ of a word, single quotes are used where I might otherwise switch to italic. As long as it’s consistent, makes sense and makes Lorina and her authors happy, it’s right. Internal consistency rules.

Have you read a book without quotation marks yet? I read Suckerpunch last year (a mostly excellent YA novel, nothing to do with the coming movie.) No quotation marks. I didn’t miss them a bit.

With the wave of more self-published books, you’re going to see more rules loosened. Grammar is supposed to be the servant, not the master. As the self-published author, you’ll set the rules you prefer for your book (hopefully with respect for the reader’s mind and time.) The Chicago Manual of Style is an excellent standard to fall back upon, as is AP Style. For language quirks and questions, you can’t go wrong with Eats, Shoots and Leaves and the Grammar Girl book and podcast.

Just remember that grammar rules are made by humans. They can and will change.

As long as your preferences are logical and consistent, you can get creative with your book in ways that would outrage strict grammarians.

BONUS:

Please don’t ask me to edit your book if all the dialogue is dialect. This is my personal preference and it has been done effectively, of course. However, it’s such a slow read, I have to say it just annoys the shit out of me and I am not up to that task!

Please do write a book in the second person. I loved Bright Lights, Big City and, with that notable exception (from the 80s!), traditional publishers have pretty much bricked ‘You’ away behind their arrogant Wall of Acceptability. If you’re indie, you can do it without asking for a gatekeeper’s permission.

Please do put your novellas and short stories up for sale. E-books are a perfect venue to do what paper can’t: bring back the power of short form fiction!

Take a risk. I recently edited a novel coming out from Five Rivers that combined a novel with a screenplay format. It works.

Suck on that, Mrs. Wilson!

And don’t be comin’ round heah wid no ruler or

Ah’ll rap y’knuckles so hard y’eyes’ll bleed.

Filed under: authors, Books, DIY, ebooks, Editing, Editors, getting it done, grammar, publishing, Rant, rules of writing, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , , , ,

Winner of Writer's Digest's 2014 Honorable Mention in Self-published Ebook Awards in Genre

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