Unsolicited Advice

Over the past several weeks I’ve found myself engaged in numerous conversations about the craft and business of writing, and it got me thinking about how I started out and how I fumbled around because of all the things I didn’t know.

(There’s still a ton of things I don’t know, BTW. Indie authorship still is and I suspect always will be a learning process. If I feel I’m not learning anything new, that’s the time to start worrying.)

So I decided to jot down various points I’ve discussed with other authors, established and aspiring, as a sort of living master post of advice to writers — and I’m going to stress now that these are all my thoughts and opinions and they should not be taken as gospel. In fact, I’ll make that my first point…

  • No one’s rules of writing are the be-all and end-all and should not be taken at face value. What works for one writer might not work for another, so figure out what does work and adopt it, and ignore any advice that doesn’t work for you.
  • You do NOT have to write EVERY DAY. Get that out of your head now. I know authors love to throw that one out — “You must write every single day! Even if you don’t feel like it!” — but it’s BS. Artists are not machines. Our creative energy ebbs and flows and it is not limitless. Sometimes what you need is to step away from your project, go do something else, and clear your head. It is okay to not write every single day.
  • That said, you do need to write. I know that seems like an absurdly obvious statement, but I’ve met so many aspiring writers (emphasis on aspiring) who spend more time building their social media presence (more on that later) or world-building or polishing their outlines than actually writing their book. I don’t know if they have a serious procrastination problem or a fear of failure or what, but they seem destined to always be in pre-writer mode and will never actually finish a project. Don’t be that person. Write your story.
  • Cover art featuring CG pseudo humans. My god, don’t. They are always, always terrible and cheap-looking. Note that I am not talking about digital art as a medium, I am talking specifically about anything that features a fakey, cheesy, PlayStation One-era video game cut scene-quality figure. I don’t want to pick on any one cover as an example, so instead I’ll send you over to Lousy Book Covers so you can bask in the awfulness of the site’s “pseudohuman” tag.
  • When you’re looking around at publishers and small presses in particular, remember the Neil Gaiman rule: money flows toward the author. If you’re asked to shell out money for anything — editing, formatting, cover art, printing, distribution — you’re either dealing with a shady publisher or a self-publishing platform masquerading as a publisher. When dealing with any entity calling itself a publisher, your sole responsibility as the author is to write the book, not finance its production.
  • On a related note: there is a predatory cottage industry that’s sprung up around indie authorship — everything from writing contests to pay-to-play fake awards to marketing and publicity services, all designed to capitalize on authors’ desperation to succeed. Be skeptical of anyone who asks you for money, and question the value of whatever they’re offering.
  • Sending press releases about your book to the media is the second biggest waste of your valuable marketing time. I say that as someone who worked in the media for 15 years. Large outlets don’t care about Joe Nobody releasing his self-published book because they have bigger fish to fry, and smaller outlets need to be convinced to care because a lot of people are competing for not a lot of space, so the outlet is going to be very particular about what they give free publicity to. Besides, even if you do get some ink, chances are you’re only going to reach a tiny fraction of your target audience. It’s just not the best ROI.
  • The biggest waste of your marketing time? Throwing up promotional posts on any Facebook page that claims to connect writers with readers. They don’t. They’re all just echo chambers, nothing but authors all shouting “Buy my book!” to other authors too busy also shouting “Buy my book!” to give a toss about what everyone else is pitching.
  • Speaking of social media, there is this (to my mind) baffling philosophy among new writers that before they release their first novel, they first have to create a massive online following so they have a fanbase ready to scoop up their book when it drops. If you’re an as-yet-unpublished author and you’re spending as much time on establishing an online presence as you are on finishing your first book, STOP DOING THAT and finish your damn book. One, publishers and agents considering your work are going to consider your work, not how many followers you have on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Two, if you’re going the indie author route, you can only string people along for so long. If your release date is weeks away, and is firm, and you have good stuff like excerpts and cover art to post to rev up interest, then go for it, but you can’t start talking yourself up months or even years in advance and expect everyone to stick around until you finally get off your ass and finish your book.
  • Part of this job is talking yourself up, but you can do that without sacrificing honesty or indulging in puffery and self-aggrandizement. Getting a positive review from one guy in Australia does not make you an “internationally renowned author.” Receiving a pay-to-play award from some nonentity does not make you an “award-winning writer.” Cracking the top twenty of some tiny, obscure subcategory on Amazon does not make you a “best-selling author.” You should be able to promote your work based on its merits rather than front-loading your pitches with artificial accolades.
  • Also? Avoid backdoor promos of your work. I belong to several online writer groups and some of them have a strict “no self-promotion” policy to keep the spam down, but there is always that one guy who starts every post with, “As the writer of the Such-and-Such Trilogy, I think…” There’s a time and place for self-promotion; the time is not all the time and the place is not everywhere.
  • Writing the middles of stories sucks. Beginnings and endings, when you’re setting all your pins up and then knocking them down, have an energy to them. Middles, when the ball is rolling down the alley, are boring. I always struggle during the second act, as do a lot of writers. If this is you, take heart — you are not alone.
  • Quality, not quantity. It’s true that indie authors need to be fairly prolific, and putting out a decent number of books in a relatively tight time frame can be very beneficial, but it’s not a contest to see how many books you can churn out. Stephen King, considered one of the most prolific writers of the modern age, has produced 59 novels — over the course of 44 years. That’s about 1.3 books released per year. And he has the luxury of being able to do nothing but write. Not everyone can be Terry Pratchett.
  • Do not ever dub yourself the King/Queen of (Insert Genre Here). Just don’t. It’s pretentious and presumptuous as hell, more so if you’re producing crap. Let someone else give you an impressive sounding title after you’ve earned it.
  • Test readers. Get some. Use them. Listen to them. Having test readers is not creating art by committee, as I’ve heard some claim. As the author, you quickly grow blind to your own story’s flaws and faults, and the best thing you can do is get fresh eyes and outside opinions on your work. That does not mean you have to implement every suggestion you receive — you are still the ultimate arbiter here — but test readers are your eventual reading audience in miniature; their issues with your book might well reflect issues others are going to have with it.

Have any tips or advice for writers? Post them in the comments section!

Sharing The Love – The Halloween Series

It’s October! It’s officially Halloween season!

Friday the 13th posterHalloween is my favorite holiday, and every year I have my own little lead-up celebration in the form of a continual horror movie marathon. This is the time of year I pull out all the old classics, and I got an early jump on things when I stumbled across Friday the 13th on SyFy last weekend. The channel showed the first three movies and I happily let them run (even though I own the entire series on DVD).

I will be the first to admit that the Friday the 13th franchise really is not the best of film series. Some of the entries are downright terrible, trite, and more about gross-out kills than legit scares, but I have a soft spot for them. When I was a kid, the fondly remember Movie Loft on channel 38 (back when UHF was a thing) showed the original movie, mostly unedited for gore, and it freaked the hell out of me good…especially the final jump scare at the end.

Fun little side note here: years ago I wound up working a show with Taso Stavrakis, who aided and abetted Tom Savini on the make-up FX, and provided the hand that held down Kevin Bacon for his death scene — which puts me two degrees away from Kevin Bacon.

The next day, I decided to indulge in a “slow burn horror” run, movies that take their sweet time building up tension before going batshit at the end, and I started off with The Shining, mainly because I had just finished re-reading the book for the third time. I’ve had a strange obsession with this movie ever since I was little. I remember seeing ads for it on TV and thinking it looked like the best scary movie ever, after Halloween (more on that in a bit).

The Shining PosterOf course, none of my family would take me to see such a movie, so I had to settle for grabbing the novel…which, I would like to note, mysteriously disappeared before I could read it. Fortunately, our town library was well-stocked and didn’t blink at a 10-year-old checking out a Stephen King book.

I re-read it in high school, when I went on a hardcore horror novel binge, and again recently, and it wasn’t until the most recent re-reading that I fully appreciated the fact that if you were to remove all of the supernatural elements — entirely, or just play them as background rather than something that actually existed in the story — you still have a great horror tale about a man slowly losing his mind and wreaking havoc on his very trapped family.

I know King is no fan of the movie, but I absolutely love it. The atmosphere, the tension, the slow build toward the end…it still holds up for me.

As does my next selection, Alien, another movie that, as a kid, I knew mostly through TV ads, by reputation, and through other media (Alien: The Illustrated Story, which I read in a bookstore and lusted after for many years before finally snaring a copy of the reprint when it was released a couple of years ago).

Alien PosterThere are a few spots where the movie shows its age — Mother the computer, Yaphet Kotto wrestling with what is clearly a mannequin — but man, it holds together otherwise, and the chestburster scene remains an iconic moment in movie history. I recall reading some interviews with the creative team, which wanted to create a “haunted house in space” movie, and I think they nailed it pretty well. Re-watching it makes me lament all the more the missed opportunity that was Prometheus.

PS: Despite what the poster image I use here suggests, I watched the original cut of the movie. The director’s cut has some interesting changes, but it also has one of the ballsiest shots in the movie: in the scene in which Harry Dean Stanton goes looking for Jones the Cat, Ridley Scott adds in a POV shot looking up into the cuts of the ship, up at the jungle of swinging chains — and the xenomorph is HANGING RIGHT THERE and you’d never see it unless you knew it was there. Love it.

The day ended with my all-time favorite horror movie: Halloween. The original not the remake. God, no.

Halloween PosterOnce again, this is a movie that, as a kid, I fell in love with simply through the TV ads. The ads alone creeped the fuck out of me, and once again, when my family refused to take me to see it, I got my hands on a copy of the novelization (which, I’ve learned, is one of THE most sought-after out-of-print books out there. Who knew?).

A few years later, NBC showed Halloween on TV — heavily edited, which I find funny considering that it is such a bloodless movie — and I watched the entire thing from between my fingers. I was terrified of going outside at night for years — YEARS afterward, because I was convinced Michael Myers was out there somewhere.

As hinted above, I am no fan of the Rob Zombie remake. It’s everything the original isn’t: loud, gory, and legitimately scary, in part because Zombie makes what I consider a horrible mistake in trying to explain Michael and give him a backstory. In the original, he was a mysterious force of evil. He had no motive. He was the boogeyman…and he remains my favorite boogeyman.

Fun fact: studio heads saw an early cut of the film, before John Carpenter added the soundtrack, and they weren’t impressed. They changed their tune once Carpenter added the iconic soundtrack.

Sharing The Love: The East Hartford Public Library

Why, you might ask, am I spotlighting the East Hartford Public Library? Because they’re spotlighting me! Check it out…

Pinterest Page

That’s right, the EHPL has Action Figures – Issue One: Secret Origins on its official Pinterest page as a staff pick! I don’t care what the context is, I’m thrilled to be featured in the same general vicinity as Stephen King and David Byrne.

Sisyphus As Writer

My first-ever writing pitch was made to DC Comics way back in 1990. I stumbled across an obscure character named Dr. Occult, an early and lesser-known creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (who also created a character you might have heard of by the name of Superman), and thought he had potential.

At the time DC was keen on reviving its C-list characters and taking chances with edgier mature material — this was the era of Grant Morrison‘s brilliant relaunch of Animal Man and Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman — so I developed a proposal that brought Dr. Occult into the modern era, gave him a purpose in the Modern Age DC Universe, fleshed out his supporting cast, etc.

I submitted it to DC Comics and, lo and behold I received my first-ever rejection letter. It was on cool official DC Comics stationery and hand-signed by the editor I sent it to. Even though my idea was rejected, I had this awesome rejection letter. I still have it.

I still have all my rejection letters. Every last one. And when I finally get that letter that tells me yes, we will buy your novel/screenplay, I will buy a nice frame for my DC Comics letter (it’s that cool, people) and burn the rest. There may be naked dancing around the fire. I haven’t decided.

I admit, I am growing impatient for that day to arrive. My pile of fuel is a little too high for my liking, and it’s grown a bit — virtually speaking — over the past weekend.

Satisfied that Action Figures was as complete as it was going to get, I e-mailed it on November 4 to a prospective agent, who took eight days to send me a form rejection e-mail. I spent a day feeling lousy and drowning my sorrows in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, then got back on the horse. I sent a query out to another agent, who was far more efficient than my first victim, taking a mere two days to tell me thanks, but no thanks. So, another day of moping, then two more queries out the proverbial door.

This whole process is perhaps the most frustrating for me because of the nature of the beast. Agents and publishers get slammed with submissions, and for that reason many of them ask for just a synopsis and sample pages, sometimes nothing more than a bare-bones initial query letter in which I have three paragraphs to accomplish phase one of my mission: I have to hook the reader on the concept with the first paragraph, sell him on the concept with the second, and sell myself as a writer with the third. If I’m successful, I may be asked for a synopsis, a detailed chapter-by-chapter breakdown, and/or a full manuscript.

I understand the whys and wherefores of this process, but I hate hate hate it nonetheless, because the sum total of my effort is being judged on a small sampling — sometimes literally nothing more than a one-paragraph summary. Worse, with big publishing houses the first reading in carried out by low-level editors who decide whether to bump the query up the ladder. It’s publishing triage, and again it’s a necessary evil, but it means that every given submission could be shown the door because the low man on the totem pole is having a shitty day and taking it out on writers asking nothing more than a fair chance at success.

You might argue that a stellar pitch will overcome all obstacles, but I dare say you have never attempted to reduce a full story to one paragraph. Just for fun, go ahead and pick your favorite movie and then describe it in one tight paragraph. Chances are it will not sound anywhere near as awesome as a lengthy, detailed description. More likely, it’ll sound boring, or ridiculous, or like a story you’ve seen or read a hundred times before.

If you still think it’s not all that hard to make a story sound enticing in one measly paragraph, consider: Stephen King’s Carrie? Rejected 30 times, and one publisher declared it would never sell because it was so “negative.” King actually threw the manuscript in the trash in frustration (his wife Tabitha saved it and, unwittingly, her husband’s nascent career as one of the best-selling authors in history). The Chicken Soup for the Soul series, which currently boasts about 200 titles? Rejected 140 times. The only reason J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s (Sorcerer’s) Stone saw the light of day after receiving dozens of rejections is because one publisher’s eight-year-old daughter read the manuscript and loved it and begged her dad to publish it.

Do a Google search for “rejected authors” and you’ll find several lists bearing some of the greatest names and works in modern literature, and you’ll see that some of these people and their books were sent away, sometimes rudely, dozens upon dozens of times before someone decided to take a chance and give the author a shot.

What’s the take-away from this? To me it’s that talent seems to be, for good or ill, almost a negligible element in the process, because there are some truly awful books out there that someone somewhere thought were good enough to print; rather, the key appears to be persistence to an obsessive degree.

That’s not entirely fair, but I learned long ago fairness doesn’t enter into it. There are too many variables at work and you can’t compensate for them all. All you can do is, as the saying goes, just keep swimming, just keep swimming.