Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Conversation with Paul Tremblay

When I first started writing seven (or so) years ago, a lot was made of finding a mentor.  I understood the idea - having someone out there who sort of knew the ropes and could help you along, give you advice, even tell you when you were screwing up.  At the time, the HWA had a mentor program, but it also had something like a two year waiting list.  I wasn't actively searching for a mentor when I first read Paul Tremblay's "The Teacher" (which you can listen to HERE), but by the end of that story I knew Paul was someone I wanted to know.  I emailed Paul that day and soon found out we had a lot in common - we're both freakishly tall (but I'm taller - Ellen Datlow said so!), the same age, both high school teachers, and have the same (good) taste in music.  It wasn't long before he was mentoring me along, but more importantly, became a good friend.

In this conversation held over a week or so, we talked about what qualifies as mainstream these days, writing for both big and small presses, shifty Canadians, and his most recent novel Swallowing a Donkey's Eye.

Me:  Here's what I think is interesting about you - Writing-wise, I think there are two Paul Tremblays.  There's who I would call Mainstream Paul, the guy behind the two Mark Genevich novels, published by one of the "biggies", moderating panels, and appearing in Ellen Datlow anthologies, and then there's Punk Paul, the guy who writes pieces I would consider much more underground such as Swallowing A Donkey's Eye (published by Chizine Publications) and stories like "Two-Headed Girl" and "There is No Light Between Floors".  It makes me curious to your process.  Are you aware of your possible audience or even the market when you write, or do you - as it seems to me - write whatever the hell is interesting to you at the moment?

Paul:  I did just figure out the three chords in Andrew Jackson Jihad's "Hate and Kill."

Yeah, I guess my two Genevich mysteries are my most mainstream stuff I've written. Mysteries/thrillers are practically default mainstream genres, at least, they are in today's publishing world. I like to think most if not all my work is a little skewed, left of center, insert-cliche-equating-to-not-mainstream here. I wouldn't bother writing a story if I didn't think I had something different to say or present. I didn't sit down to write The Little Sleep with the idea I was writing a mainstream novel (with all the connotations that pairing of words might have). I love crime/noir and I thought the narcoleptic PI was a good idea and would be fun to explore. When I finished writing it, I thought I had something that was quirky but would have some "mainstream appeal" (that's writer-speak for sell a boatload of copies). Turns out, it sold a dingy-load of copies. Or a small sailboat-load.

In a way, it's kind of presumptuous for a writer to proclaim they're not mainstream. Does the writer get to make that choice or do the readers? By proclaiming (which I have, believe me) I'M NOT MAINSTREAM, is it an easy out for the ego when a book/story doesn't sell or doesn't perform like we want? I don't know. I'm trying not to be coy. Clearly, there are artists and writers working with subject matters and ideas that are far outside of what can readily be identified as the mainstream's interest.

Already, I'm clunkily talking around this, and working off of a negative connotation for the word mainstream. Does mainstream have a negative connotation for you, Kurt?

To answer the process question, though. I try to only worry about the story, the idea, and try to see it through to the best conclusion I see fit, and then think about trying to sell it after. Since I have a day job with health care, I can afford to be blissfully market ignorant when it comes to what I write. I mean, I'm not putting food on the table solely by writing. I can't imagine that pressure if I had to do so. If I had to, I'd probably write paranormal mysteries from the point of view of the gardener’s dog or something like that. Paranormal dog mysteries sell, man.

Me:  Dog mysteries are big now, so maybe paranormal dog mysteries are the next big thing.  Just add zombie and mix, dude.

"Mainstream" doesn't have a negative connotation for me, really, to me it means broad appeal.  However, it certainly doesn't mean quality in all cases.  I think a lot of it goes along with the market and what sells and doesn't sell.  Your Genevich books - which are quality, btw - are straightforward detective novels and there is a good market in place.  I read a lot of crime/mystery novels and your book fits in with those nicely, albeit with your own clear slant.  There's a quirkiness in those novels that is all you.  You put your stamp on that genre with those books.  Having read almost everything you've written, I know you didn't sit down to write a mainstream novel, but I think there are plenty of writers who do it.  They think "Okay, zombie novels are selling, romance are selling, so I'm going to write a zombie romance novel" and the result usually sucks because it's not who they are. They're chasing something that isn't them, and are almost trying to predict the buying public's needs after the fact.  That pretty much never works, which is sort of what you've said here.

But you're right, you and I both have the benefit and freedom of writing what we want because, as Mort Castle said to me once, we're not "writing for your mortgage."  We have stable jobs and write for the love of it.  The drawback is that sometimes we write things that can never sell for one reason or another and have to accept that.  However, and here's a hypothetical, if you were writing full-time, could you force yourself to write something clearly for the market even if you didn't believe in it?  You have a very defined sense of artistic integrity - at least I think you do - and wonder if you put that on the backburner.  Basically, could you do it for the money?

Paul:  Even with all that we're throwing around about what's mainstream and not, there's certainly no guarantee I (or anyone else) could sit down and say, "All right, bellybuttons-full-of-zombie-bees novels are big right now, so I'll write one of those and have it sell big." Given the lag time between selling a novel and having it published, and the sometimes fickle nature of what sells and what doesn't, chasing the market isn't a guaranteed sale.

Thanks for the kind words for Genevich.

I don't know if I'm totally comfortable with integrity as being the descriptor. In a lot of ways, I'm a selfish writer; I write to please me, and no one else. I like to think I write with the particular story's integrity in mind though: that I'll do whatever it takes to serve the story's needs. If that makes sense.

I think I could do it for the money. Why not? Heck, I already sort of did it for the money with the second Genevich novel. After writing The Little Sleep I had no intention of writing a sequel/follow up. But the two-book deal with Henry Holt called for a second go round with Genevich. No Sleep Till Wonderland was written to fulfill the contract/advance. It was the hardest thing I've ever done as a writer. But I'm glad I did it. I ended up with what I think is a very good book, and I learned a lot. I have huge respect for writers who can put out one novel per year on deadline. I know it isn't easy. Don't get me wrong, I'd love a three book deal from Giant Publisher X to drop in my lap again, but there's less pressure on me when I'm just writing for myself. I don't deal well with real life pressure. Unless you need me to make the game-winning three pointer, then I'm your guy.

I'd love to try and write a tie-in novel. If someone were to offer me a chance to write an X-Files novel, I'd be all over it. Or how about a novelization of the movie Ravenous? Or an American Horror story novel. Let me redo the ending of the first season please, in book form!

Me:  I think when I say you have a sense of artistic integrity I'm referring more to the actual writing.  I think there are writers who only focus on plot and the writing suffers (these books are usually unreadable to me), and writers who focus mainly on the writing and the plot suffers (I hate these books the most).  But you seem to hold both in equal regard.  I don't think enough writers do that.  Even if you were doing it for the money, my bet is you'd still walk that line.  You could write a mash-up book - Glee with werewolves! - but it'd probably be the most literary mash-up out there.

And yeah, to write an X-Files novel?  Sign me up, too!

You mentioned writing under the pressure of a deadline, so what about the pressure or difficulties of collaborating with someone else.  You and Stephen Graham Jones just sold The Unlikely But Totally True Adventures of Floating Boy and Anxiety Girl to the new ChiZine imprint ChiTeen (Congrats, btw!).  How did writing with Stephen come about and how did the process work out?  I mean, that guy turns out two novels a year, it seems.  Did you feel any pressure working with him or was it a relaxed, but serious, project?

Paul:  I had an absolute blast writing/working with Stephen. He's a very nice, patient, and has a easy-going personality. Nothing seems to bother him. I know, you're thinking, "Paul, he sounds just like you!"

Stephen and I struck up an email correspondence after I'd read his novel DEMON THEORY. We got along swimmingly (I've always wanted to use swimmingly in blog conversation). I can't remember when, exactly, I had the idea, but I pitched the idea of doing a co-written YA novel as a fun thing to do. While one person was working on the novel, the other could be doing his own thing, and vice versa. We went into it with no pressure or real expectations. If it didn't work, that was fine, and if it did work, that was great too. Of course, I'd spend weeks toiling on my chapter and Stephen would be done with his in a matter of hours. We paused after rambling on for 20K words to refocus and work on writing a 10 page plot summary. After we had that down, we jumped back in.

The only pressure I ever felt was trying (and failing) to write as well as Stephen does, which is a good kind of pressure. I think the final product is a lot of fun. Very cool to see our two voices sort of melded and merged.

Me:  I'm looking forward to reading it when it comes out next year.  It'll be a nice surprise, as it's probably the only one of your projects of the last couple of years that I didn't do an early critique for.  I remember reading your latest, Swallowing a Donkey's Eye, probably - what? - four years ago?  Can you explain how that novel came about for my reader(s) (Hi, Mom!) and how awesome my critique was in making the book sellable?  (Okay, so maybe not the second part of that question).

Paul:  Sometime in 2005 I was listening to Neutral Milk Hotel's ON AVERY ISLAND and the strange, droning instrumental "Pree Sisters Swallowing a Donkey's Eye" came on. I thought the donkey part of the title was such a compelling and weird image, I wanted to try writing a short story around it. Approaching it somewhat literally, I came up with the concept of Farm: the giant, Orwellian food supplier for City, with indentured workers forced to wear animal suits and the like. From there the story slowly grew into a novel. I took my time with it, with the initial draft taking two years, then a whole bunch more drafts came in the years after. Your awesome critique (dated June 2009 according to my records!) was indeed helpful and helped me tighten up the sections that needed to be tightened, which were mainly the few scenes in the limbo between Farm and City.

Me:  And now that book is currently out through ChiZine publications, which, after The Unlikely But Totally True Adventures of Floating Boy and Anxiety Girl comes out, will be your third book with ChiZine.  You have a long history with them - 2 Short Story contest awards, slush reader, one collection and two novels.  What is the appeal of ChiZine to you and why do you think you fit so well with them?

Paul:  The quarterly webzine Chizine, from day one, published the weird, smart, genre-bending stuff that I liked to read and wanted to write. I spent a few years trying to sell to them and to Gothic.net. In 2003, I obnoxiously, I submitted to their annual contest my story "The Laughing Man Meets Little Cat" with "Here's your winner!" as the cheeky cover letter. I was totally floored and so excited that it did win. Shortly after that, friend/mentor Steve Eller left the editorial staff and he put in a good word for me and Brett took me on as a slush reader. I credit slush reading for Chizine for a few years as really helping me learn what didn't work in fiction writing, which is as important a lesson as what does work. I loved working with Brett Savory and Mike Kelly. We had nary an argument and I wish those issues we edited were still somewhere on the 'net. I'm very proud of those issues. Publishing with CZP feels like a natural progression and I couldn't be more pleased with the job they're doing with my books.

I fit so well with them because we have similar aesthetics/tastes in fiction. That and some of my ancestors are Canadian.

Me:  I'd suggest trying to keep quiet about your Canadian ancestors.  It might hurt sales.  But yeah, you work and sensibilities are pretty much the perfect match for ChiZine.  It has to be nice having found a place you fit in so well, especially considering Brett and Sandra are such good people.  Well, at least Sandra is.  Brett's pretty shady.

I'm going to introduce a new element to these interviews and you're the guinea pig.  I'm calling it The Soapbox.  This is your chance to let fly on anything on your mind: music, sports, self-promotion, embarrassing secrets about family members, the flags of the nation, etc.  You get the idea.  This is also your last chance to say anything on your mind as I'm giving you the last word.  Go!

Paul:  My last chance to say anything, eh? Well, here it goes.

--I grew three (in height) inches in one day.

--If I could remove only two people and their music from existence, it would be Jimmy Buffet and Neil Diamond. There is fierce competition for those two coveted spots.

--Everyone should be listening to Future of the Left.
(Editor's note: This song is brilliant.)

--My donkey novel is surprisingly personal.

--I wish more writers knew or cared about the difference between sympathy and empathy.

--I wish more people cared about my books!

--In high school, I once had to help carry my drunken sister out of the woods and bring her to the hospital. She was okay, but embarrassed.

--Dre (not the doctor, but Andre of Stoughton) wears short shorts.

--In my younger days I used to go to Stupid Dance Party at Club Babyhead in Providence.

--I fear my midlife crisis has begun.

--I'm afraid all the time.

--I am so very fortunate to be friends with so very many talented people. I mean that, truly.

--The Turtleman should wear gloves more often.

--Sometimes I imagine what every person I see that day would look like in a beard.

--I want to write the greatest horror novel ever written; I just don't know what it would be about yet.

Oh, and Brett is very shady.
----

Me:  So there you go.  Really, Paul's just a great guy.  I know I say that a lot about the people I talk with on here, but it's always true.  All of his success is hard-earned and deserved, and he's just a good guy to root for.  Buy one of his novels mentioned above, or hunt down his latest collection In the Mean Time, which not only includes "The Teacher", but "Two-Headed Girl", one of my favorite stories of the last few years.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A Conversation with Sam W. Anderson

Like Erik Williams, who I interviewed a month or so back, I met Sam W. Anderson in Baltimore a handful of years ago.  He’s sort of like my “brother from another mother”, although I hate that phrase.  Sam’s stories have meticulousness about them in both writing and detail that is impossible to miss.  He’s also possibly one of the nicest people I’ve met in the writing business.  His latest, American Gomorrah, A Money Run Omnibus, is just out, and is guaranteed at least a dozen “wait, that didn’t just happen!” moments.  He also has a blog and a great collection, Postcards from Purgatory, which may or may not be sold out. I'm sure Sam'll let me know once he reads this.

Me:  I guess the best place to begin this is with The Money Run. It's one of my favorite worlds, and the focus of your latest collection . Sparring us the boring parts, give everyone an overview of what the place is, it's rules and population, and whatnot. Ready, go!

Sam:  Boring parts? There's no fucking boring parts!

Well, I suppose I could present them in a boring, atlas-like way, so I'll "spar" you that. Sorry - couldn't resist.

The place - the entire good-ol' USA. Specifically its country roads, lost highways, back alleys, seemingly abandoned docks and airstrips. It's the black market network that essentially hides right under our noses because we choose to look the other way. Part of us understand the activities along The Run make our lives better, if not better at least tolerable, but our holier-than-thou side simply pretends such things don't exist.

Rules - Basically three:

1 - Make as much money as you can
2 - Make sure respectable America (referred to as "The Heat" in Money Run lexicon) stays out of the way
3 - Once you are in, you are never out. Never.

Population - Every outsider you can think of. Entrepreneurial outsiders.

Whatnot - Midget handjobs, sex slaves, ice-pick lobotomies, Nipsey Russell, lot lizards, cannibalism...just all sorts of family fun.

Me:  Let's talk about the family fun aspect - your Money Run stories definitely cover a lot of, shall we say, blue topics. Has there ever been a moment when you thought, 'Okay, this is too much?' or a worry about how people will respond to what goes on in such a seedy place?

Sam:  Every story I worry about that a little. The definitive moment on that probably came during TOSSING BUTCH, SAVING THEODORE. I'd written probably the first five pages in one night. The next day, I re-read it and thought "what the fuck is wrong with you?" But somehow I still liked it. I had to send it to a friend, some clown named Kurt Dinan, to see if maybe I'd entered an area that I couldn't return from.

Your advice was to "let your freak flag fly." That is the actual quote. I still wasn't sure about going forward. So, serendipity intervened. I happened to start reading Tom Piccirilli's THE CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN the next day. Once I got through two chapters of that, I knew my story was all good.

The last story I've started for The Run is the only one where I put it away. It was called THE TATTOOS ACROSS HER TITS. Maybe after I get a couple of other projects done I'll revisit it, but the beginning to that one actually kind of upset me a little bit.

Out of curiousity - do you think I've ever gone too far?

Me:  I'm really hard to offend, so I can't think of anything of yours that went too far. In fact, I like when those boundaries are not just crossed, but destroyed. That's when an author really is pushing him or herself. People think it's easy to come up with really messed-up or disturbing ideas, but it's not. Your Money Run stories border on the absurd at times, and it's clear how much fun you have when you're thinking about that world. The "Tossing Butch, Saving Theodore" story is so over the top absurd - midget tossing, handjobs, crazed nuns - that as a writer I can't help but be impressed because I know how difficult it is to get to those areas. At least for me. Never while reading it thought did I think, 'oh, this is crossing the line.'

But I think that's hard for most writers, that "is this going too far?" worry, about their own work. Maybe it's not a worry for writers who do it full-time, I don't know, but I know for myself I'm constantly questioning how my employers would view my work. Lame, yes, but when you have a family who depends on that income, you don't mess with it. That was definitely a worry on my story in Tales from the Yellow Rose, which I thought really pushed the limits of good taste. In fact, I thought of publishing it under a pseudonym.

It surprises me though that you get reluctant about your own work. I guess my impression of you is pretty much nothing offends you. At least that seems to be your sense of humor. So can you give examples of books or movies where you think the writer just went too far?

Sam:  To offend me is hard. To disgust me, not so much. Movies do it all the time. I have a very weak stomach - I literally get sick at the sight of blood. When I was eighteen I took one of them assessment tests that tells you what might be a good career for you based upon your competencies and interests. Doctor came up first. The excitement of that lasted for about 37 seconds. I knew I'd throw up the first time somebody walked through the door with a broken bone poking through their skin.

Something that really bothers me in movies are graphic rape scenes. I couldn't watch the rest of Death Wish after the rape scene, and always have to fast forward through that part in A Clockwork Orange.

I've personally never written a rape scene, either. However, the last two projects I've been involved with have been collaborations and my collaborators have chosen to go that route. Still really uncomfortable with that.

And while not offensive, there are a lot of really disturbing books out there. THE WASP FACTORY by Iain Banks messed me up, but the ultimate was Jack Ketchum's THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. But I learned a ton about writing from that book. The most effective chapter, after all the horrors described before, he had a chapter of a single sentence saying something along the lines that he can't tell you what happened at that point because it's too upsetting. I love that technique...letting the reader's mind take them to places they don't want to go. Just brilliant.

Me:  You're right, that example from The Girl Next Door is perfect. The lack of specifics about the crime make it worse somehow. Like if he'd named it or described it there wouldn't be as much power behind it.

I agree with you on the rape scenes in movies. Over-the-top violence in movies doesn't disturb me, nor does any of the torture porn films. It's all silly and unrealistic in my mind. But rape is real, and somehow seeing it acted out and knowing it's likely way worse in real life makes it difficult to watch. I can't foresee myself writing a rape scene because I'm almost hyper-alert of my portrayal of women. I don't want to just write victim roles, which you can see in most of the examples you listed.

Which leads me to this question - since you deal with over-the-top characters in over-the-top situations, how do you keep your characters feeling real and not becoming cartoons?

Sam:  A lot of time goes into characters for me - especially The Money Run characters because they straddle that line between silly and caring. But I think it's the character traits that make them silly, but the composition of their actions and feelings that make them caring. The reader will accept character tics and eccentricities within reason if you can show them as human beneath those character traits.

There has to be an empathy there for the character - no matter how outlandish he/she may appear on the surface. Some of the best advice I've ever received came from Melanie Tem. She said to make sure your bad guys aren't stereotypes - let the reader identify with them. Even if readers hate what the bad guy is doing, they understand why and understand it's inevitable that the character acts in such a way. I try to apply that to everybody.

Me:  You recently released a Money Run omnibus. Does that signal the end of those short stories or is that a world you'll likely return to? And do you ever get tired of writing about the same place? Isn't the novel you're working on Money Run related?

Sam:  I have a love/hate relationship with The Money Run stories. They are the one thing that publishers will actually request me to write, the one thing that readers respond to most. I feel a little pigeon-holed in doing them, though.

I mean, what if everybody loved your story from The Yellow Rose so much that all the advice you got was to do something else like that?

I can do more than absurd, but that also conflicts with the challenge to see what I can do next with the mythos. I want to get out before it becomes a parody of itself, which is inevitable, I fear.

The upside is I'm not really writing about one place. Gene O'Neill's Cal Wild series are stuck in California. Charles Grant's Oxrun Station stories had a limited area. The benefit of TMR stories is I can set something in New England or Florida or Kansas or Alaska and it's still part of the same overall framework. So, I got that going for me.

I just hope it's a while before that parody thing happens, because yes, the rumored novel is a Money Run story.

Me:  I can understand that love/hate thing. It must be nice to have people requesting them - you've built an audience - but you can't really expand past it if you want to. That has to be hard. (That's what she said.)

Fortunately, in a way it's early enough in your career that you can branch out if you want to. You've been writing for awhile now, yes, and have a nice line of credits, but you're still really working on your first novel and can expand if you want to. Beyond TMR are there other genres you want to explore? Is there a Nicholas Sparks "boy meets girl, girl gets sick and dies" book in you somewhere?

Sam:  In my colon - lodged behind the Circle K burrito I had back in 82.

I've kind of gone with the plan that once this novel is done, no Money Run stuff for six months. Of course, unless somebody comes out of the blue and offers me a buttload of money. I'm a whore.

The next two projects I think will go a long way in helping me establish myself as more than TMR guy. And if it took those stories to get people to try the next things, then I'm okay with it.

Me:  Want to tease (hehe) those projects for us at all? Or promote anything else you have out people should look for? This is your chance to sell yourself, so go!

Sam:  Oh, you are a sexy project, and I will give you some play, but can we please just take it slow? I promise it will be worth it...wait, wrong tease.

I have a story coming out in an anthology edited by Kacey Lansdale, FRESH BLOOD, OLD BONES that should be out around November. NAMELESS MAGAZINE will be publishing a story of mine theoretically some time this century, but it's a while out. Couple of more that have been accepted but not announced yet, and I understand there's the paperback of TALES FROM THE YELLOW ROSE DINER AND FILL STATION that will be out literally any minute now.

Me:  Ooooh, nice mention of The Yellow Rose.

Sam:  May I ask your impressions of that project?

Me:  My memory is how little I wanted to do it. I'm a 'one project at a time' person - and was fully into a draft of my novel and didn't want to stop any momentum I'd developed. I wrote my story full of anger, a sort of 'f-it' attitude and from the idea that if I was going to have to write something it would be as vile as I could make it. Fortunately, that feeling abated as I got moving on the story and am really happy with the result, even if my mom read the first page and refused to read any further. The finished product as a whole is also something I'm really happy with. I love the book itself, and love how all of the stories show our strengths. I think it's also a really fun, albeit dark, read. So that's cool, too.

(Dinan note:  The paperback is just out today!)

Any parting words before I wrap this up?

Sam:  How about this: For the first five people who cite your blog and can produce a receipt for buying AG, I'll send them a copy of the limited edition of THE UNUSUAL EVENTS OF A SATURDAY AFTERNOON AT BIG K'S TRUCK STOP AND FINE DINING EMPORIUM - A MONEY RUN TALE. While the story is contained in AG, it does have the art of Tom Moran and is a limited edition. It completes the Sideshow Press Chapbook Series...somebody's gotta want that, right?

So there you have it.  Go HERE, but American Gomorrah, then hunt down Sam on Facebook (Sam W. Anderson) and he’ll tell you what to do with the receipt to get limited edition Money Run story.  Can’t beat that.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

How Searching for a Literary Agent Has Made Me a Headcase - Part II

So after all of the rejections, here's what happened:

I felt like a failure.

How could I not?  I spent four years on the novel, fully believed in it, had it where I thought it was ready to go...then nothing.  Close to 500,000 words over the course of seven drafts and little to show for it.  (I can hear it now - "Yes, but you learned a lot over those 500,000 words that you can use the next time." I get that, but that wasn't the goal, right?  I'm not bitter, I'm just being honest.  I wasn't writing for experience, I was writing to sell the novel).  It's probably a confidence thing - or a lack of confidence thing to be more accurate - but working so hard on something and having it sit unwanted has a part of me feeling like I wasted the last four years.  That's a lot of evenings, weekends, and early mornings working on something that ultimately rests in a folder on my computer.  By that way of thinking, yeah, I'm a failure.  No pity party asked for, I'm just being honest.

I had two options at this point:

Option A: I could revise the novel again.
Lucky Town's premise is a good one, all the agents said as much, and I thought maybe, just maybe, I could make it work.  I could make it a more clearly defined YA novel (Note: It turns out YA novels should have more than one teenager in it.  Wish I'd known that before).  I could print off all of the agents' comments, make a list of what was needed, and go from there.  It all seemed very doable.  But there was one problem - I didn't want to do that.

Ever go back to the town where you grew up?  Or revisted the college town you spent four (or maybe six, depending on who you are) years at?  Then maybe you know that feeling of "I used to love this place, and this place was very important to me, but I don't belong here anymore" feeling.  That's what I feel when I seriously considered the idea of returning to Lucky Town.  Then there's what Daryl Gregory said was "the danger of overcarving the pumpkin."  I could work and work on the novel until all of the life was beaten out of it and it wasn't the book I wanted and then still, STILL, it may not sell.  Then what?  Probably me in a tower with a rifle, that's what.

Option B:  I could punt and move onto the next novel.
I liked this option a good bit.  In fact, I spent a couple of weeks doing notes on another novel and had some real excitement about it.  I watched a couple of movies on the specific genre I was going to write, I read a few books, and even had the book's soundtrack figured out.  (That's another topic for another time, but I can't write until I figure out the music that would accompany the book's attitude - Lucky Town was written mostly to Trent Reznor's instrumental Ghosts cds).

But then, I froze up again.

Just when I would get some nice momentum, I'd get another rejection telling me how much they liked the book, how they'd like to see a revision, etc.  How could I just walk away from the book?  Wasn't that giving up?  But at what point is it best just to move on?  Plenty of writers don't sell their first book.  When did they move on?  But maybe just one more shot?

See, this is the mental illness - the push/pull - I've been going through.  Embarrassing, right?

My decision - and by no stretch does that mean it's a steadfast decision - came last week.  Stuck and stressed, I called Daryl Gregory who offered some advice - his verdict:  "Stick with the book.  People are interested in it for a reason."  And then that night I read an interview with Stephen Tobolowksy, one of the supporting actors in Sneakers, one of my favorite movies.  Tobolowsky once asked Phil Alden Robinson, the writer and director of the film, how he'd come up with such a great script.   Alden, "blushed and said he had worked on it for nine years. I know spending a long time writing something doesn’t guarantee success. But not giving up on a good idea almost always does."

I like that quote.  No, more accurately, I love it.  It was pretty much exactly what I needed to hear, even if it was said by someone I don't know.

The problem is/was manufacturing motivation to finish the project.  I gave this a lot of thought, and ended up thinking back to when I wrote short stories.  Usually it would take me a couple of months to complete a sellable short story because I would go through 10+ revisions to get it right.  The downside was that this took a great deal of time, but the upside was I always sold those stories.  Even before I started writing Lucky Town, which in the beginning was called Lockbox, I knew I would have to revise a lot to get the novel to sellable quality.  I just didn't think it would take over seven drafts.

In the end, the solution was fairly simple - it's what I used to do with short stories that I felt 'meh' about - I decided to blow up the novel.  What that means to me is taking a hard, objective look at the story and deconstructing it.  Nothing would be sacred, anything could go.  I'd been approaching the revisions like triage, quick patchwork surgery trying to keep the thing alive and stop the bleeding but not doing anything too radical.  But maybe radical is what is needed.  It's worked with my short stories.  And when I applied that to Lucky Town, I saw things and had ideas I never had before.  I've given myself a week to brainstorm this new approach to the book and see how I feel about it.  Already I have a better entrance into the book, and a better set-up for the premise, so that's good.  It'll change the book a good bit, but still remain true to my original idea that I still like a lot.  Oh, and I can put in more teenagers, which would be nice considering, you know, it's a YA novel.  The thought of writing this book excites me a bit, makes me want to write, a feeling I haven't had in a couple of months.  We'll see where it goes.

So that's about it.  There's no end to his drama yet, but it feels closer than before.

Thanks for letting me vent.

Onward and upward!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

How Searching for a Literary Agent has Made Me a Headcase - Part I

I have a lot on my mind (for once) and need vomit it all out.  I'm waaaay out of sorts writing-wise for various reasons, and have decided to use this blog as a therapist's couch.  My plan is to go transparent about my writing life in hopes that it'll set me straight and clear my head.

The goods: Lucky Town is a 75K Young Adult novel I wrote over the course of the last four years.  That's a long time, but when you consider that it's gone through seven drafts, was once a 90K adult thriller, and there are very few similarities between drafts one and seven, it's understandable.  This last draft is good, and I sort of knew it.  Not great, but for a first novel, I knew I had a concept that would attract some attention.

The Numbers:

147.  This is the number of query letters I sent.  I'm not sure if that's a lot or not.  It probably is.  I wrote a decent query letter that was getting form rejected left and right, so I wrote one with some attitude that brought a lot of personal responses.  (I wrote a post about that a couple of months back.)

73.  This is how many form rejections I received.  You'd think this would hurt, but after the first ten or so, they become funny.  I have no problem with form rejections.  In fact, one day I'll get bored and write a post about the art of the form rejection.  Some are very business like, some are written by agents who are clearly afraid you're going to kill yourself and therefore write "Keep at it!" motivational responses.  But hey, at least they responded, so kudos to you.

55.  This is the number of agents who never responded.  They work for agencies who have a "we will only respond if we're interested" policy.  Don't get me started on this policy.

19.  This is the number of requests I got for either a full manuscript or a partial.  This, obviously, is what everyone who queries an agent is hoping for.  Get one of these and you're pretty sure you're minutes away from roping an agent.  The reality is that agents take about three months to get back to you.

15.  This is the number of rejections I received on the manuscript.  I'm not going to lie, these hurt bad.  I'm thin-skinned - a definite character flaw - and I took each one of these personally.  The wife and kids pretty much went underground when I got one of these because I got pretty moody.  The thing is, if you read these rejections you'd probably say the same things other writers told me when I forwarded the rejection emails - "This is a really great rejection!"  And I got plenty of "great rejections".  These are rejections that say things like, "There's so much of this book I love BUT..."  They praised the concept the most, and liked the characterization, and the writing itself was fine.  But the BUT was always waiting.  A majority of the time the BUT was "I can't sell this because it's not really a YA novel but it's not really an adult novel either.  It's too "in the middle" and I'm not sure how to fix that."

(What's sick is that midway through the writing of Draft 5, I told my wife this response was my biggest fear.  Turns out I was right.  Dammit.)

I had a few other BUTS - "I'm already shopping a book with a similar theme", "I didn't connect with the writing", "Too much happens off-screen" and conversely, "Too much happens on-screen and didn't give me enough chance to dream."  It's all subjective in some way, as you can see.

On occasion, I would email these agents with follow-up questions.  Some of them offered really helpful responses.  In fact, I'll name them: Sara Crowe, Kari Stuart, Molly Reese, Steve Troha, and Katie Grimm were all great.  I mean, yeah, they rejected Lucky Town and all, but answered questions I had and were so complimentary of the book that I didn't necessarily want to jump off my roof like I did with other rejections.  They also told me to email a revision if I chose to do one or to send them my next book.  I felt good about that, so at least I have that going for me.

4.  This is the number of manuscripts I still have out.  We'll see what happens.  But really, I sort of know now, right?  In fact, if I were to have someone say, "I want to rep this and we can sell it", I'd be wary.  I mean, the other fifteen agents probably know what they're talking about, right?  Or maybe it's just the "No, that girl can't really like me" syndrome, as my friend (and awesome writer Daryl Gregory) said the other night.  But I can't wait around for them any longer.  It's time to do something else - either revise as has been requested, or move on to the next project.  It's taken a long time - two months, maybe - but I've finally come to a conclusion on that.

(Okay, this is running long, so I'll explain the rest of this tomorrow and why the decision was so difficult.  That'll really be the therapist's couch post because, man, I've been a mess and it's all sort of embarrassing.)

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Conversation with Erik Williams

I first met Erik Williams back in - hmmmm - 2002 (?) in Baltimore at a writer's workshop.  I was new to writing then, showing up at a workshop where I didn't know anyone and with no idea of whether or not I actually had any ability.   At the first dinner on that first night, Erik, who I didn't know, leaned across the cafeteria table we were all at and said, "So I hear you have a car.  We should make a beer run."  That was pretty much the start of our friendship and our writers group, too, as the others who went with us - Sam W. Anderson, John Mantooth, and Petra Miller - are all still close today.

As you'll see, Erik is nothing if not incredibly prolific.  He writes at an amazing clip, finishing a handful of short stories and one or two novels a year.  And he sells them, too, something that not a lot of writers can say.  His latest novel, Progeny, is horror-based crime novel filled with death cults and one super creepy femme fatale.  We talked over the course of last week about his writing philosophy, pulp writers, and his awesomeness.

Me:  You know, I'd prefer to start simple, but I have no idea where to start with you. You seem to have a new book or short story out each month, the latest being Progeny. So let's start with this - how the hell is it possible that you turn out so many works? Or am I just blinded by the fact that it takes me months to finish one story and years to finish one novel?

Erik:  It's pretty simple, really. I just write awesome first drafts. That and I do a lot of cocaine. Talent and drugs are fantastic teammates.

Seriously, though, it comes down to my style. I'm a minimalist who likes the story to keep moving. Lots of dialogue. Short sentences. No dripping prose. By the time I'm done, I don't have that revision where I strip out all the useless adjectives or adverbs. They're not there. All that's left is making sure it all makes sense and flows nicely.

But being awesome helps. And if there's one thing I am, it's awesome.

Me:  I'm sure the coke helps, and yeah, your style lends itself to quick turnover, but what about actual plotting? Does the more creative aspect of the process - the plot, twists, story logic, etc. - slow you down at all? Or are you just awesome all around?

Erik:  I'm all kinds of awesome. But that's a whole different discussion.

Thankfully, plotting comes easy to me. Probably because I tend to visualize the plot like a movie. Lay it all out in my head scene-by-scene. But I don't lay it out in a way that it reads "And then this happens and then this happens and so on and so on..."

I buy into the South Park way. Rather than linking events with a "and then this happens" I approach with either "because this happened" or "therefore this happens". It's a great way of ensuring there's a logic to your plot from beginning to end. So, the plot starts to look like: "This happened because this happened and therefore this happens". A logic tree. Wee!

Then again, my plots aren't overly complicated. Which helps, too.

The only thing that slows me down is enthusiasm for the work. Let's face it, a novel, no matter how fast you write it, can be a slog. There's parts you love writing and parts you have to muscle fuck your way through. It gets easy with each passing book. You learn tricks like "Do I really need this scene that's crushing my nuts as I try to write it?" Nine times out of ten, you don't. Starting scenes closer to the end of them. In late, out early. Don't waste time with shit that doesn't matter. Nobody cares what your character did between work and dinner if it's not important to the character or plot. Just jump to dinner (assuming something important happens there, of course).

Another useful trick is ensuring your story follows a sine wave. If your character starts off a chapter on a good note, throw some trouble his or her way by the end of the chapter. The next chapter, start with the trouble and then end the chapter with maybe a reprieve or at least a sign of hope. The shifts back and forth help prevent the plot and characters from becoming...in professional terms...fucking boring.

Me:  That South Park example is great in terms of plotting. (Note: If you've never seen this clip featuring Parker and Stone, watch it now).  And you're right, your plots don't slog at all. Progency moves very quickly and is very cinematic - moving from scene to scene with very little fat. On one hand it's a detective novel, but there are definite horror elements here. I'm trying to think of a movie or book that smashes these together and Angel Heart is the best I can come up with. Was it difficult to combine these genres?

Erik:  Not difficult at all. If you think about it a moment, there's not much difference between horror and crime novels. The only thing that changes is the monsters is human in the latter. It's not much of a leap to take the natural elements of crime novels and mix in the supernatural.

The great thing about using the crime/detective novel to set a supernatural horror story in is the verisimilitude is already there. You know the characters, the criminal element. The smart ass detective. The femme fatale. The small problem that blows up into something huge and threatens to crush the protagonist. It's all there. We know it. We love it. And it's cool when we see that same smart ass detective try to explain away the supernatural, even as it threatens to eat him alive.

Your example of Angel Heart is dead on. The ending of that moving is so fucking awesome. Murder, mayhem, voodoo, incest, and the fucking devil! Holy shit!

SONG OF KALI is another example of a detective/horror novel, only the detective is an investigative journalist and the supernatural element is Hindu gods.

Me:  Combining elements like this has been pretty successful for you, right? I'm thinking of Demon which takes the basics of the military thriller and adds in horror.

Erik:  You are correct, Sir. Although I've labeled myself a horror writer, my stuff spans multiple genres. You mentioned Demon (military supernatural thriller) and we've talked Progeny (supernatural noir). But don't assume all I do is take a genre and add the supernatural in there. My next book coming out soon is a heartwarming tale about a Bigfoot hooked on meth that goes on a batshit crazy meth rampage. So, it's kind of a mash-up of crime and cryptozoology madness with a little erotica sprinkled in.

Let's be honest, my stuff ain't gonna win the Pulitzer anytime soon. I write pulp. I'm okay with that. But unlike a lot of pulp writers, you can't say one of my books is just like the other. When you get a book by me, you're in for something wildly different from the last one you may have read (unless it's part of a series, then it will be similar to the last book because if it wasn't, you'd just be confused. Fuck it, I'll shut up now).

Me:  Pulp writers get a bad rap, I think. The way I see it, pulp writers are focused more on the story - telling a good tale - than the actual crafting of the writing. Is that how you see it? Any writers you can point to and say, "Yeah, that's what I'm trying to do"?

Erik:  Pulp writers get a bad wrap from assholes literary writers who dig sniffing their own farts. The rest of us love them to pieces. Except the ones that suck. But those are also know as hacks.

To your point, though, yeah, telling a good story is key. And a story that actually goes somewhere is even more key. I mean, when you're writing about whiskey guzzling womanizers who kill monsters for fun, the last thing you're thinking about is how can I make this more like The Great Gatsby. Or Ethan Frome (Christ, that book sucked). Or where can I insert a great symbol like the Eyes of Eckleburg (unless the Eyes are real and belong to some evil lord overlooking his domain).

That doesn't mean there's no place for craft in pulp writing. Some of the best pacing, plotting, characterization, and dialog is found in pulp fiction. Basically, it lacks pretentiousness, characters that stair at the walls, the important symbolism of menstruation, and stories that go nowhere.

As to what I writers I try to emulate: James Sallis, James Ellroy, Norman Partridge, Charlie Huston, Quentin Tarantino, Ernest Hemingway, Robert E. Howard, to name a few.

Me:  It's funny you mention Ellroy in your list. Because as much as he likes to refer to himself as a pulp writer, I don't think anyone works on his prose more than him. The books he's putting out now are so stylized that I almost find them unreadable. But this is about you, not Ellroy so...

Just to finish up this pulp discussion, do you find the genre - this isn't the right word, but I'm struggling to figure out a classification for it - limiting in any way? You've talked about how freeing it is to write over-the-top characters and plots, and those are definite pluses, but I'm wondering about audience. I know you've put a lot of hard work into finding and maintaining an audience, but I think that's an audience that's hard to please in a lot of ways. I'm not really sure where I'm going with this, but you're the one who can never shut up, so there's your topic - pulp audiences, growing an audience, etc. - go!

Erik:  You make the assumption that pulp writers don't give a shit about prose? Tsk. Tsk. You sound like a snotty literary type. Fart sniffer.

Anyhoo...

No, it's not limiting. If anything, you as the writer are limiting. There's tendency to box yourself in. I'm a horror writer. I'm a sci-fi writer. There's a desire to be identifiable but you end up making yourself a slave to a genre. You do that, the only audience you have will be the same one hundred or so mopes who buy all your stuff. Spreading your wings, Lone Eagle, allows you to build an audience. You can attract crime readers, horror readers, fantasy readers, by doing a solid mash-up. By writing what the fuck you want instead of writing what the fuck you think somebody wants. Pulp is freedom.

Fuck.

I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out this audience thing. How to build one. Attract one. What have you. It's tempting to want to tap into, say, the Thriller audience by writing a solid thriller. Guess what, so are about a million other people. That's a lot of competition. How do you stand out in that swamp? By imitating more highly successful people?

I guess I've gotten to the point where I write what I want to write. People seem to like my stuff (all two of them, yay!). If something of mine takes off, cool. But I'd rather people look for the next Erik Williams novel rather than just some ho-hum horror or crime novel. Writer as genre. Fuck yeah!

I tell you, Care Bear, you can worry about growing an audience, chasing an audience, but you still got to write the book. Care about the material. I mean, you can chase an audience and write the next "Fucked Fifty Shades from Sunday" but then, what does that make you? A writer or a copy cat? Desperate hack? Who wants to be that guy?

What, it's not called "Fucked Fifty Shades from Sunday?" That's not its name?

Seriously, that's not its name?

Me:  I'm not assuming pulp writers don't care about their prose, I'm simply going by my definition of pulp vs. literary writers. To me, pulp writers care much more about story than craft. Literary writers, on the other hand, focus more on craft than story. Those are my definitions. There's definite overlap, obviously (and hopefully), but all too often I read pulp novels where I think "this person has a decent story to tell but can't write" and literary novels where I'm thinking, "this person can write, but can't tell a good story." I can appreciate both for what they are, but like it best when the writer obviously (and clearly) cares about both. But then again, it could be that I'm working from faulty definitions.

So to wrap all of this up - what do you have coming out that readers should be on the lookout for? Promote away!

Erik:  Whoa, whoa, whoa. I'm not done with this issue. I have to disagree with you. Good pulp writers care just as much about craft as literary writers. The difference is they don't dwell for ages on a sentence or a paragraph. To Ellroy, yeah, he spends a lot of time on prose BUT he still pumps out a book every five years. He doesn't take a decade or two. And what about Vonnegut? He was a master of craft and his stuff, a lot of it at least, is pulpier than pulp.

I guess you could say pulp cares more about story. But for literary, I would say it cares more about theme. How that theme is conveyed. So much so that story doesn't become important. That's why they're so plot-lite. They're about characters and characters dealing with shit. The shit being the theme. I can see how that would take longer to write than, say, a really well written but also plot driven novel. A to B is easier than AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.

Anyway, agree to disagree I guess.

As for me, PROGENY is out now. GUARDIANS, the sequel to DEMON, is out now in e-book and will be out later this year in trade paperback. CRANK STOMP, my Bigfoot-hooked-on-meth book will be out sometime later this year, early next year. And let me tell you, Thomas Pynchon himself couldn't write a better Bigfoot-hooked-on-meth novel. Just sayin'. To keep up with all things me, check out my website, http://www.erikwilliams.blogspot.com/

Monday, June 11, 2012

Agent Query Update - Write Angry?

So here's what happened - LUCKY TOWN was one of five novels in final consideration at Blank Slate Press for upcoming release.  And I made the rookie mistake of getting my hopes up - like really up - so that when the rejection came last Monday, I got really frustrated and down.   (Fortunately, my students were taking exams, so they didn't catch my wrath).  Part of the problem, I realized, was that responses from agents had slowed to one a week - all rejections - and I'm a definitely a "need something to look forward to" guy.  So then I made what easily should have been rookie mistake number two - I got angry and wrote a new query letter, one I've taken to calling "the pissy version".

Now, it's not like the letter was full of profanity and threats (although I did consider it).  It's  just a lot looser, a lot more in my voice, and with a little bit more "f' it" attitude.  My thought was, If my other query letter is getting nothing but form rejections, why not get them from a letter that contains a little more of me?

From that letter I've gotten four full manuscript requests.

Is the lesson here to write angry?  I'm not sure.  Maybe.  Or maybe it's to put a little more of me in my work.  I'm definitely proud of Lucky Town, but I would never say there's much of me in there.  (I take a jab at home schooling, but beyond that, the novel is pretty serious and dark, as the subject matter calls for). But I've taken the idea of putting more of me in my work - sarcastic, a bit cynical, a smart ass - in my approach to my next novel.  If anything, I think it'll make the process somewhat more enjoyable for me.  And maybe this is the real beginning of finding my writer's voice, something I've never thought I had before.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Conversation with Fred Venturini

I met Fred Venturini at the World Horror Con in Austin, Texas back in 2011.  He was talking with Paul Tremblay and Stephen Graham Jones, and when I joined the conversation, Fred, admittedly drunk at the time, handed me a copy of his novel The Samaritan saying, "Hell, these guys have copies.  You should have one, too - booyah!"  (No, really, he did the "booyah" thing.)  Fred and I wandered to a party later that night where Fred told a lot of "your mom" jokes and the story of how he was once lit on fire.  To be honest, with that foundation I didn't have a lot of hope for the novel.  Man, was I wrong.  The Samaritan is a great novel that, while arguably reminiscent of Chuck Palanhiuk in style, has a lot more heart and rings a lot truer for me, despite its strange premise.  Over the last few days, Fred and I had the following conversation.

Me:  Okay, Fred, let me get this straight - you wrote The Samaritan, somehow sold it without an agent to Blank Slate Press, ended up on Shelf Unbound's "Best from Indie Publishers in 2011" which then ends up running in USA Today, are married to a woman clearly leaps and bounds out of your league, and now the two of you have a brand new baby.  So tell me, did you approach Satan for this deal or did he come to you?

Fred:  As we all know, due to the demon code, Satan is not allowed to decline a rock-off challenge, so I did an amazing Tenacious D impersonation (I like to call it Tenacious V when I’m channeling Jables) in order to get three wishes. I used one wish on my beautiful wife, used the other to get an inordinate amount of lucky breaks when it comes to literary pursuits, and I used the third to get a crave case box of 30 White Castle hamburgers one night. I’m pretty sure I should have used that last wish on the Cubs, but I was pretty hungry and it was 3 a.m.

I hope the literary breaks keep coming. The beautiful wife wish has paid off in the beautiful daughter category, and the sliders were delicious so it was a win-win-win.

Me:  Well at least you're willing to admit your need for supernatural/demonic help in all parts of your life.  So let's talk about The Samaritan.  Admittedly, it's not the most commercial novel, but thankfully it's definitely found a market and an audience.  Were you thinking about an audience as you wrote it?  Or were you just fumbling around in the dark like a teenager in the backseat with his girlfriend, hopeful but uncertain?

Fred:  No audience in mind. Thinking like that can get you in trouble. But to me, of course, it's a commercial idea. I equate "commercial" to "entertaining to a lot of people." Now, was the execution commercial once I got into the actual writing of it? Probably not. Barrel-of-the-gun rape-age combined with everything that Mack Tucker says combined with some what I hope are physically cringe-worthy injury scenes tend to reduce the sheer commercial appeal. It's an R-rated flick that condenses the potential audience, if you get my drift. But I tried to service the idea, fully. I had this jotted down for a long time in my notebook: "Guy can regrow organs, gives them away on a reality show" but I wanted to service that idea and it took a few years to finally fit the right characters into the "strange attractor" that I was sitting on. I actually have a lot of strange attractors waiting around for the right characters. That's sort of how ideas come to and appeal to me--something weird; a one-line hook that might make a movie producer salivate, and then the real work is inhabiting it with characters that get the most juice out of the hook.

The writing of this book was actually quite focused. I had confidence in the characters and the idea. What I didn't have confidence in was the writing itself. I thought that Blank Slate Press was about to publish a terrible novel and I'd be blacklisted forever. That fear is now replaced with that old "your first book will be the noose by which your second book hangs" syndrome that's paralyzing my rewrite of the new novel, which is much bigger in sheer pages, scope, characters, a bigger POV.

 One last thing about the commerciality of the novel--I did have a nice discussion with a movie producer (who has a couple 100 mil hits under his belt, chalk that one up to Satan's influence as well) who loved the novel and called it a "quirky drama that would make a great indy film." That one stuck with me because people have called it science fiction, literary, horror, drama, I mean, I'm not sure what it is. But he sort of nailed it, I think, and we'll find out if it's commercial at all once it gets shopped around a little bit. "But Fred, it's sold and published, by shopping, what do you mean?" I know, I know, but soon I'll be able to talk more about that, but the ink's not dry yet and I don't want to jinx it.

Me:  So it sounds like the new novel is finished, at least that it's in the revision phase.  What paralysis have you felt doing the rewrite?  Second guessing yourself?  Wondering if you'll be able to keep the audience you created with The Samaritan?

Fred:  I  wouldn't toy with the word finished, not yet. These are some massive revisions from a larger book, and rewriting is always a grind for me, especially since I'm not a full-time author. Mix in a job and a few hobbies and a newborn, the writing time gets a little scarce. The paralysis comes from leaving the project for a few days (to cut the grass and take Krissy to dinner and whatnot) and then when I return, there's a certain level of "refreshment" that's necessary to pick up where I left off. Which means the front end of every session is usually catching up on notes and "where were we, where am I going." I sort of waste time re-orienting myself into the world instead of knocking out the real work at hand. What I really need is about 3 days of nothing but the desk to get this rewrite done. I think subsequent rewrites will end up a little lighter, making them a tad easier for my schedule to digest.

It's less about second guessing, not that I don't do that as well. I just think the next book is going to be quite different from The Samaritan and yeah, I'm not sure folks who really, really loved that book are going to love this one. I like to loop love stories into weird circumstances, so that's still there. We've moved on from high school angst to college angst, so there's that. But the POV is third person, so I think it loses a little bit of the humor and the voice that comes when I really devour a character in first person. But it opens the lens up, allows for a little more narrative juggling, witholding of information, building suspense. I've had early readers really love this one and I do think the hook is juicy, but I do look in the mirror and wonder if I'm really slicing this thing wide open and getting the guts out, not wasting a single bit of the idea's potential.

Me:  I should probably mention at this point that your novel has nothing in common with the recently released Samuel L Jackson movie The Samaritan.  (Or maybe it is the same thing, but the producers butchered your book beyond recognition.)  You mentioned earlier talking with a producer who said TS would make a great indie film.  So, play casting director.  Who's playing who and why?

Fred:  At least the Sam Jackson Samaritan movie makes it easy to vet who actually read my book. Doesn't even matter if they've seen the trailer, they can just see the poster and I know they didn't read a page due to the simple fact that you have to reach a long way to cast Samuel L. Jackson as a young, white high school loner who doesn't chew scenery.

Dirty little writing secret: I cast all my characters in my head when I do a novel. I think it helps divorce them from my own reality a little bit. When I was writing The Samaritan Dale was Leo from Basketball Diaries, Mack was James Franco, Doc Venhaus was Nick Nolte and the twins were dark haired Claire Danes (don't ask me why).

If you asked me for a real casting decision with today's actors and I can't travel through time, I would definitely just say Will Smith. Will Smith movies make 150 million minimum. But since there are no aliens or robots in this film, we won't get Will Smith. I like Andrew Garfield for Dale (always have, even pre-Spiderman) and Amanda Seyfried for the twins and if I don't have to worry about looking like a legit high schooler for the first part of the film, Gosling for Mack Tucker. Definitely Gosling and that has nothing to do with me going fanboy for Ryan Gosling. Interpolation: I do like watching his star rise and battle against the looming eclipse of Michael Fassenbender, who's also kicking some major ass.

Me:  Nice, and here I was hoping to make it through one conversation where you don't mention Fassenbender's eclipse-inducing member.  (Obviously you didn't directly, but we all know that's what you were thinking about).

To wrap this up - want to give people a one sentence pitch on your next novel?  Or are you of the (common) mind that doing so may derail the project?

Fred:  I have a harder time writing whole novels than good loglines, so that one is tough. Let's try: College kid learns he is the fourth horsemen and he's responsible for ending the world, but he just fell in love so he battles the other three to prevent the rise of the Beast. I'm truly hoping for a cameo by Michael Fassenbender's penis if it's ever filmed, possibly as the Beast that rises from the sea. That would be quite a sight and no CGI is required.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Standstill

Once I finish one project, I always have trouble starting a new one.  Maybe I need to recharge my battery or some such.  It took me a few weeks, but I've come up with the concept for my new novel, and it's one I'm excited and happy about.  Am looking forward to getting into this summer.

But then my Mac's hard drive crashed completely and I'm out of the game for a few days.  I'll take notes here or there, but it's a momentum stopper.  Everything on the computer is lost, but fortunately I backed up all of my writing recently.  The rest of it - pictures, most importantly - is gone.  Again, I'm fortunate enough to have back-ups of the pictures on my wife's computer, so it's all really just an inconvenience.

Am currently reading John Mantooth's Slip, a novel that I have no doubt will sell soon.  I'll be running an interview with him here soon.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Rejection(s)

Let me be clear about this - rejections suck.  I don't handle them well, going moody for at least a day.  In fact, I can remember most non-writing rejections I've had in my life:

- Mrs. W in high school who said I wasn't mature enough for a job I applied for in the school's radio program. (In retrospect, she was probably right about that one).

- Denise C. in college who, when I poured my heart out to her, said we'd be better off as friends. (I'd have been better off if she'd stabbed me in the throat with a nail file.)

- Not making the freshmen baseball team.  (This was no surprise though.  When I showed up to the first day of tryouts ((in purple sweatpants that belonged to my mom, of course)) I knew I was a goner.)

-  Not getting the department chair position two years ago.  (And thank god for minor miracles that didn't happen.)

- Two women I hit on shortly after my divorce who shot me right out of the water and proved that dating had changed a lot in nine years.

- And others I probably can't remember right now.

I took all of these rejections personally (okay, not the baseball one) and that's carried over to writing rejections as well.  I know I shouldn't take writing rejections personally, but I struggle to compartmentalize business and personal rejections.  So 15 rejections in less than a month  has had me pretty damn moody, much to my family's annoyance.

On Friday, my wife and I had a conversation about my recent moodiness and how I've handled ('mishandled' is probably the better word for it) the rejections.  Being totally honest, I'm a worrier.  And I tend to create things to worry about when really I have little to be concerned with in my life - my kids are healthy, financially we're okay, my wife and I have secure jobs, my parents are doing good.  So really, I just need to relax a bit.  No, relax a lot.  Maybe this novel gets published, maybe it doesn't.  It's important to me, yes, but not to where I need to get angry everytime I recieve a standard form rejection.  Everything's going to be fine.    And really, isn't "I can't find an agent for my novel" pretty much the perfect example of a First World Problem?

So that's where I am.  I've actually done well with this over the last few days, even as one rejection came in that had the phrase "do not despair" in it, something that annoyed me for some reason.

The real test will come tomorrow as I'm expecting news on the novel that could make things really interesting, really fast.  We'll see.

But until then, I guess I'm rejecting rejection.  Or rejecting my taking those rejections personally.  Writing-ones, that is.  Babysteps and all.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Conversation with Daryl Gregory

Daryl Gregory is the author of three (fantastic) novels, a collection of short stories, and a couple of comic series.  I suppose his novels would be characterized as fantasy, but that's not entirely accurate, as we'll discuss below.  I first met Daryl Gregory at ReaderCon in Boston back in...2009?  2008?  Honestly, my years all blend together.  I have mostly crummy memories from that trip, but meeting Daryl was a high point.  At the time I'd read his first novel Pandemonium, and pretty much went all fanboy at a 'meet the author' type of thing.  We struck up a friendship, and he's been a good friend and mentor to me over the years.  He's a hell of a nice guy, an infuriatingly excellent writer, and always offers good advice and a sane perspective on writing and publishing.  What follows is an email conversation we've had over the course of last couple of days.

Me:  Let's start with this - When most people think fantasy novels - and by "most people" I mean me - they (I) immediately think of talking raccoons with swords.  (Unfair, but true.)  Obviously the genre encompasses a lot more than that, as your work proves.  But why fantasy?  What about the genre appeals to you more than others?  (That’s right, defend your genre!)

Daryl: Yeah, Tolkien casts a big shadow, doesn't he? I'm of the generation where if you said capital F Fantasy, people were most likely to think of swords and dragons. But these days, most of the people who are reading fantasy are not reading epic fantasy, and they're calling it something else. "Vampire novels." "Manga." Or just "cool books I like." Harry Potter is casting a bigger shadow than anyone.

But despite growing up on Tolkien, I've never written epic quest fantasy, or high fantasy, or sword and sorcery. (Though I love Glen Cook's Black Company series, and I'd like to take a crack at gritty S&S some day.) I like to write stuff that crosses genres. I write both fantasy and science fiction and some stuff that is both. Most of my short stories are SF, one of my novels is SF but constructed like a fantasy novel, and the books that are supposedly fantasy have a lot of elements that make them feel like science fiction. (Scientists and doctors always show up in my books to argue about why the weird stuff is happening, even if they fail to find an explanation.)

I guess what I'm attracted to is weirdness. I was an English major, and read a lot of the canon, but I was always attracted to the stories that had an odd bent to them, a little bit of the fantastic. When I sit down to write, it's the weird stuff that I'm always attracted to.

What about you? When you started writing, did you start with SF or fantasy stories?

Me:  See, when I started writing, I defaulted to horror simply because I'd grown up on my brother's Stephen King novels.  So when I had to write short story in a writing class, I wrote a King knockoff.  That line between fantasy and horror is so blurred though.  Your novel Raising Stoney Mayhall could be classified as horror because the main character is a zombie, but I see it more as fantasy.  Maybe that's because when most people hear "horror" they picture blood and guts and screaming coeds.  In a way, I'm probably still guilty of that.  Heck, I've sold stories to horror publications that could easily be classified as fantasy stories, but are dark enough to sell.  Again, that line is really blurry, a lot like how your fantasy stories could be labeled SF.

Ultimately, like you, I like weirdness, too.  But it has to be grounded in reality.  My favorite TV shows - Twin Peaks, Lost, The X-Files - gained their audience by being "weird", but were always realistic.  The characters always came off like real people living in the real world, but had fantastic things happening to them.  Your books have all done this really well, and maybe that's why I like them.  Even Pandemonium has a sense of everyday reality to it, even though it takes place in a world where demon possession is a recognized fact of life.  When you're drafting a novel like that or any of the others, how do you manage to contain the fantasy elements in order to keep the book's world recognizable?  Is there ever a point where you think, "No, I'd lose the reader if I went in that direction"?

Daryl: I have a whole speech on what I call "anti-horror," which is what I often write. Take some of the tropes of horror, like zombies or demons, and re-cast them in such a way that the arc of the story isn't about revulsion and rejection of the monster, but acceptance and understanding. But I digress...

Your question was about reining in the fantasy. I think about this a lot in the planning stages. I look for a premise that will let me stay grounded in a world pretty much like ours. I usually change only one fundamental thing, then write whatever follows logically from that premise. And it's usually an event that has happened in the past -- it's a condition of the world, so if the reader's not going to buy it, they can get out early.

In Raising Stony Mayhall, the Romero-esque zombie uprising has already happened, and the ghouls have been defeated. The story is about the few living dead who have survived. In Pandemonium, those demonic possessions you mentioned have been happening for decades. And in Devil's Alphabet, but the big epidemic that transformed the protagonist's hometown happened ten years before.

At some point I realized that I was really interested in what happens _after_ the big climax. The body of the novel is about living in the wake of some catastrophe. Of course, then I get to build to my own big climax. By that point in the book, I'm no longer caring if the changes in the world are too extreme, because the base world we started with is solid enough. If readers have followed me that far, I figure they'll go to the end. By the conclusion of each of my books, either the protagonist is irrevocably changed, or the world has been.  I like that effect, but it makes sequels almost impossible.

So far I haven't written a "second world" fantasy, in which I have to create from scratch an entire environment, history, economic system, magical framework, etcetera. I'd need to spend a year just making notes.

I think short stories are very difficult, because you have to establish the world so quickly. But on the other hand, readers are willing to put up with much more weirdness and ambiguity. Not everything has to be spelled out. Since Stephen King was an early model for you, you've probably tried that out in your stories. Start with a mundane world (say, a town in Maine), escalate the weirdness, then at the end drop the mike and walk away. Or maybe not.

Me:  I think I may start writing my stories that way, with escalating weirdness, but usually all fantastical elements get edited out of my stories in later drafts.  I'm a logical thinker and highly skeptical, so I like to keep my weirdness real.  The stories I've written with monsters or unexplained phenomena are my least favorites.  The stories of mine that I like the most are all realistic in that they could happen - people freezing off body parts to feel included, students trying to drive their teacher insane,  a kid using a huckster to help heal his father's grief.  Those things could happen, but likely never would.  Whenever I come up with a "What if" scenario for a story or novel, I always look for a rational explanation, a characteristic that tends to cripple my creativity.  But the way you create these worlds - where the change has already occurred, maybe explained, maybe not - is really appealing to me.  It could almost be a way to trick my brain around needing to understand the logic of it.

You mentioned the lack of sequel possibilities and not having written a second world fantasy novel. (Although I still say you could write a hundred short stories based on Stony Mayhall's world). However, it seems that nowadays those are the types of books that sell, especially in fantasy and SF.  When you sit down to a new project, how much do you consider how commercially viable the end product will be?  Or do you follow the "write what you would want to read" approach?

Daryl: The market definitely is an influence. If short stories paid as well per page as novels, I sure as hell would be writing more short stories, because I love them. And one of the things I love about them is that the range of what's allowed is much broader -- you can do just about anything you want to do, and if you execute it with skill, you can sell it and find readers. Whereas with novels, there are some books that will never sell to a major SF publishers, no matter how well written. How many Dhalgren's will never see print, because they can't be marketed? We have small press and epublishing, but it's depressing how narrow the categories are for the Big Six publishers.

So, my strategy for novels is to figure out what ideas will work with the main market, and what ideas I will have to reserve for some other venue. So far, I haven't had to _change_ my ideas to match the market. No editor, once they buy, has tried to push me somewhere that wasn't good for the book, or something I didn't want to do. And often you get a chance to subvert from within. You do things in the book that perhaps the publisher didn't know they were buying. But if you make it work, you win.

Every writer's going to have to come to terms with the fact that there are some ideas that he or she loves that publishers won't want to touch. But the thing you can never do-- never never never -- is write something you don't like, just to please the market.

Okay, I lied. If they pay you a shit-ton of money, by all means, write that awful thing.

But otherwise, no. What's the point? I take it as an article of faith that success only comes when you double-down on what you believe in, and that you write what you want to read. Chasing the market when you're a new writer is damn near impossible (and nearly as hard when you've got all the publishing contacts in the world), and will lead you to all kinds of dead ends and dark alleys.

Kurt, you and I have talked about this some before. It can be very discouraging to find out that the market doesn't want what you've created. But what choice do we have? Writing is not for the weak.

Whew! I got all ranty and preachy. That was fun.

So where are you in this process now?

Me: I'm at the start of the process - with a finished book and looking for an agent.  It's frustrating because like you mentioned, the Big Six have very narrow categories, and most agents selling YA are selling a very specific type of novel - ones with a fantasy slant aimed towards teenage girls.  I wrote my book without really considering the market or an audience, a mistake I won't make again, hopefully.  But I do believe that you can still write what you want to read, and please the market, as well.  Maybe.  Still, it's early, and it could just be that the stack of growing rejections is fueling my creeping pessimism.  It's all made me have to define what success in regards to writing would be for me.  So for you, after three novels, a short story collection, and a few comics under your belt - Are you happy with where you are as a writer?  Do you feel you've achieved your writing goals?

Daryl: As Gardner Dozois told me, It's all ladders.  There was a time (and it doesn't feel all that long ago) in which all I wanted in my career was to sell one story to one good magazine. But as soon as I sold that story, I wanted to sell just one more to that magazine, to prove it wasn't a fluke. And then I wanted to sell a story to a different magazine. And then I wanted to sell just one novel...

You see where this is going. No where good.

The Daryl from a few years ago would kick my ass for saying this, but of course I'm not content. I want to keep writing books. I want to sell enough books that the publishing powers that be will buy future books. Career-wise, I'd like to feel more secure.

That's the business side talking. From the "art" side, I have to remind myself that I've written four books that I can stand behind. There's nothing I've written that I'm ashamed of, or that I phone in. And nothing pleases me more when a writer I respect reads something of mine and says, "That was pretty good."

Because look -- I started a sentence with "Gardner Dozois once told me..." I know Gardner Dozois, damn it! I've been in his year's best collections! I know that I'm a lucky man.

But I'm still not satisfied. Perhaps I would be if I were a better person. If there's anybody reading this who's thinking about becoming a writer, see if the feeling passes. Try something else first. Because some day, sooner or later, the business will break your heart.

I will say this, though. The days when you write a few good sentences, those are pretty great.

----
See?  He's great, right?  Do yourself a favor and buy one of Daryl's books.  Not only is he one of the good guys, but his books are great.  His latest, a collection entitled Unpossible, can be found here.  (But if you want my opinion - and who doesn't? - start with Raising Stony Mayhall - a complete deconstruction of the zombie genre that'll make you weepy.)

Monday, May 7, 2012

Where I Am

Writing Update:
So, about a month and a half ago I finished the sixth (and hopefully final) draft of Lucky Town, my 74K YA novel about a boy whose father inadvertently starts a cult.  I sent 40 or so query letters out to possible agents, a process that has been simultaneously humbling, aggravating, and infuriating.  Four have requested the entire manuscript (fingers crossed!) and a whole bunch have sent the form-lettered "this isn't for me" response.  But that's the process, I'm told.  So here's to hoping.

What's been difficult - besides the waiting - has been the shift to the next novel.  After spending three years on the project, characters, and world, it's been hard to start new again.  I wallowed for a couple of weeks, then gave myself three days to come up with my next project and commit to it.  That worked.  Lucky Town was written as a page turner for teenagers, but I realize it's not standard YA fare - not a teen with magical powers or love triangle anywhere to be seen - and so am deliberately working to make my next novel as marketable as possible.  (That whole "write the book you'd want to read" thing?  Yeah, I'm not sure how much I believe that right now).

My goal from here on out is a book a year.  I'm well aware it may take me four or six books before I sell one or even get an agent.  It's a reality I'm slowly coming to terms with, and although I don't fully believe what I'm about to say, that reality is okay.  Onward and upward, as John Barth says.  (And if you get that reference without using a search engine, you have my full respect).

Recent Reads:
Been on a bit of a slog lately.  Most of the books I've been reading have been mostly 'meh'.  However, there are a couple of good ones worth noting:

The Gospel According to Larry by Janet Tashjian.
A kid running an online blog ends up gathering thousands of followers and sets out to change the world.  A YA book actually about something.  Great stuff, and darn, darn fast.

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Most people know this book since it won the National Book Award.  And deservedly so.  Bacigalupi shows just how to write YA Fantasy and not be derivative.  Great world building in this one.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Another popular novel, and a good one.  I'm not a big literary fiction guy - I like things to happen, sorry - but this novel about baseball and romance and finding your place is just fantastic.

Bossypants by Tina Fey
Listened to this on CD.  Fey is hilarious, honest, and self-depricating in the best ways possible.  Just a fun, good time.  Sue me, I like to laugh.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

I Love YA...but

Let me get this out from the start, I love Young Adult.  In fact, the best books I read each year are usually YA.  Go read Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me or Chris Crutcher's Deadline and tell me they're not great.  Heck, the novel I just finished writing and the one I'm working on now are both YA, so I'm a YA fan, got it?

But, a few things bug me, and they show up so regularly nowadays that I have comment:

1. Commonness.
Most YA these days is geared toward teenage girls, is fantasy-based, and follows a pretty common plot -
A girl who:  A. discovers she has a magical power, B.  realizes her ancestors weren't fully human, C.  is sent to some weird place where weird things happen, D. must fight: i. supernatural or mythical creatures, ii. against a clique who is out to get her, iii. some stalker dude, E. must solve a mystery following clues ala The DaVinci Code.
That's about it.  Most of it's fantasy, and I'm hoping there's a shift soon.  I definitely see a place for this, and some of it I love, but the YA shelves are saturated with these novels, and I'm hoping to see more variety.

2. The use of the manic pixie dream girl.
I LOVE this term,  coined by film critic Nathan Rabin, of female characters who are overly full of life, eccentric, sexy, and odd.  (Think Zoe Deschanel in everything she's in.)  They listen to music no one listens to, do spontaneously crazy things no one would ever do, and boys easily fall under their spell, leading them to doing strange and crazy things themselves.  The manic pixie dream girl is always written by men in YA, and my theory is that it's the author writing the girl he wishes he knew.  It's the dream girl of every once-high school nerd.  Hell, they're the girl I wish I'd known.  But of course they don't exist.  They're a nerd ideal.

3.  The use of past generational music.
Pull out ten YA novels that reference music, and I'll guarantee you that 80% of them don't reference any band of the current generation.  In fact, the music referenced will be in direct correlation to the year the author was in high school.  If the author graduated in the 80's, you'll get a main character who loves "retro 80's music".  If the author grew up in the late 70's, you're going to get Springsteen references.  (Crime novelists are the most guilty of the Springsteen reference, and believe me, I get it.  Springsteen is the greatest songwriter of the last 35 years - argue with me if you want, but you'll lose - and he's the one real vice I have when it comes to spending outrageously high amounts of money for great seats at his shows, BUT man, do all detectives need to drive around listening to "Jungleland"?)  I understand why this happens - any lost any real hold I had on 'good' music once I graduated from college - but if you're going to write YA, wouldn't you at least want to be up on what music is good to them now?

(And I completely forgot, the novel I just finished writing, I named it after a Springsteen song, so I'm guilty, too)

((And an additional note - most of the music today that kids listen to is terrible.  And that opinion proves that I am officially old.))

4.  Ideal dialogue.
Look, kids are smart, I get that.  I teach 15-18 year olds 180 days a year.  And they're damn funny and perceptive, too.  (Sometimes).  But do YA authors have to have them speak like they're all self-actualized?  Because here's the thing - they're not.  Give me a classroom of 30 kids, and I might get one kid who really talks like a character from Dawson's Creek.  (Like that past generational reference?)  Again, though, it's like the author's are writing ideals, not reality.  I'm not looking for common dialogue, but at least show some understanding of how kids really speak and think rather than how you wish you'd spoken back in high school.  (Maybe this is all John Hughes' fault.  I'll have to  give that some thought.)

Still, I love YA.  If you're looking for some good places to start, and are looking for novels that don't fall victim to what I've described above, here are some really great (or at least very good) novels I've read in the last couple of years that aren't the usual YA fare:

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Shipbreaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Gospel According to Larry by Janet Tashjian
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
The Schwa Was Here by Neal Shusterman
Marcello in the Real World  by Francisco X. Stork
Deadline by Chris Crutcher
Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott
My Abandonment by Peter Rock
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie