Pulling Teeth

A word is not the same with one writer as with another.  One tears it from his guts.  The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket. –Charles Peguy

Sometimes, a writer sits down in front the word processor and taps into a productive flow immediately, gliding into it as easily as soft butter oozes around the edge of a knife. Those are the times when the words seem to drip not from synaptic outlets in the right side of the brain, but directly from the fingertips onto the keyboard, as if some unseen force separate from the author is holding him by the wrists, guiding his hands.

The work is easy. It’s good. And it’s beyond the writer’s control.

Then there’s the other extreme; the times when it’s easier to stab yourself in the eyeball with an icicle or gargle a mouthful of sand and glass than to set your thoughts down in a hardened, printed form. Those are the times when you’d rather just go back to bed because the half-formed, symbol-filled, illogical, and cartoony world of your dreams seems to have a more cohesive reason for living than any of the plot twists you’ve tried to manufacture in your waking life.

I am happy to report that today I was fulfilled by the former state, the one in which the writing flows and works and feels satisfying. The down side? I was working on a project for my day job, not on my novel.

Oh, well. Someday I’ll get back to that second draft and feel that same sense of well-being, satisfaction, and accomplishment that I felt today from my work project.

Until then, I’m just glad I live in the middle of the Southeastern U.S., where the icicles are few and far between and it takes more than half a day to drive to a beach.

Of Inspiration, Motivation, Perspiration, and Irritation

Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration. –Thomas Edison

I’m about to say something that might sound wrong coming from the fingertips of a writer. Ready? Here it is: I don’t believe inspiration has so much to do with the process of creating a work of literature as I believe motivation does.

I know. I know. I’ll give you a moment to pick your jaw up from your keyboard.

I urge you to think about this, though. Inspiration is the stimulation of the mind, the forming of the idea. In the grand scheme of the process of creating your masterwork, the idea is only a beginning. And most of the time, it’s not a particularly good beginning. Many writers get rolling on a general idea that popped into their heads at some point and end up fully forming something completely different. Other writers tell the same story over and over again with different characters and a slightly different setting. Yet those stories still work, because it is the writer’s skill at storytelling rather than the idea itself that makes the work entertaining.

Motivation, on the other hand, is more a important force in the creative process because it’s the force that keeps the writer plugging away at the idea until completion. Many times, the external stimuli that is initially responsible for the inspiration can help fuel the motivation. Ever seen the training montage in Rocky IV and suddenly felt the desire to go work out? Ever follow up on that desire by listening to the Rocky IV soundtrack to help you fuel the desire to keep your legs moving on the treadmill? Come on, I can’t be the only one.

In any case, it is my experience that motivation is more important and, unfortunately, more difficult to summon than is inspiration. I have dozens of ideas (inspirations) for novels filed away on my hard drive in a little folder with the highly likely name of "Ideas." Yet for the past several years I have completed a first draft on exactly one of them. And I still haven’t completed the second draft of that.

I wonder what the Rocky IV soundtrack would have sounded like if Sylvester Stallone had been playing a novelist?

Stranger Than Fiction

You don’t need me to remind you that this coming Sunday is the 10th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks on America. You know it. I know it. And if you don’t know it, you’ll be reminded of it on Sunday the moment that you login to any social network or tune in to any media outlet.

I’m always reminded on this date of how much more horrifying reality can be than anything even the most demented creator of fiction can conjure by typing words into a piece of software. Horror fiction, like most fiction, is an escape. We all know it is fantasy, that it is not really happening. We even enjoy the thrill of being scared.

All too often we want to live our real lives as if we were simply watching them through a lens, detached from the world by a technological or media barrier: the Web, social networks, television, books, magazines, and more. The rise of reality television throughout the past two decades is testament to that. Reality is no longer lessons learned through the process of living. It’s entertainment.

However, September 11, 2001, was not horror fiction, not entertainment. It was reality dealing a powerful upper-cut that knocked the majority of us American citizens off our feet. For a few short moments in my generation’s lifetime, the invisible barriers in which we shelter ourselves on a daily basis were shattered. The bubble burst, forcing us to briefly consider that we regularly live our lives in a state of passive receptivity, convincing ourselves that we are simply watching the events of our lives unfold before us rather than participating in them. We were reminded that we are human, that we are not here to simply be entertained, and that we truly can be hurt.

In all the years that I’ve entertained myself by reading horror fiction, I have never yet read any so terrifying that I had to look away.

I cannot say the same about the real world.

Looks Count

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works. –Steve Jobs

Would you want to read a book that is typeset in 18-point cyan bolded Comic Sans with all the "important" words (and sentences…and paragraphs) in all capital letters, underlined, and italicized? 

If you say "yes, I would indeed enjoy reading a book formatted that way," then I shall label you a spiteful teller of tall tales. Take that!

If you really want to tick off an editor or an agent and have them immediately toss your hard work into the recycle bin, submit an improperly formatted manuscript. What’s an improperly formatted manuscript? Anything that doesn’t fit the submission guidelines of the publication or agency to which you’re submitting. Always read the submission guidelines before you send a manuscript.

Barring that, an improperly formatted manuscript is anything that doesn’t fit within the generally accepted standards of manuscript format. Generically, a standard manuscript should have the following characteristics:

  1. one-inch margins all around
  2. an easy-to-read typeface, such as 12-point Times New Roman or 12-point Courier New
  3. left justification, not full and not center; the words on the right side of the page should form a ragged pattern as you scan down the page
  4. a half-inch indent on the first line of each paragraph
  5. double-spaced paragraphs, which means that the lines of text on your page are separated by a full blank line that is generated by your word processor’s paragraph formatting function (not the Enter key); it also does not mean that you should manually include a blank line between paragraphs
  6. your name, the shortened title of the story, and a page number in the upper right corner of every page except the first/title page
  7. your name, address, email address, and telephone number in the upper left corner of the first page of the manuscript
  8. the approximate number of words in your manuscript (your word processor’s word count rounded to the nearest 100) in the upper right corner of the first page of the manuscript

Admittedly, the above guidelines were created before we regularly communicated our thoughts as bits over global network media, so they probably seem dated. Editors stick with them because not everyone’s standard of "looks good and is easy to read" is the same. The guidelines ensure that writers do not try to become graphic designers and that the quality of the written work takes center stage in the mind of the agent or editor.

You’re a writer, after all. You should be painting pictures with the meanings of your words, not with fonts, italics, bolds, colors, justification, and other word processor magic.

Travels Through Time

I hope people are reading my work in the future. I hope I have done more than frightened a couple of generations. I hope I’ve inspired a few people one way or another. –Richard Matheson

I have a confession. Until very recently I had never in my life sat down and read a Richard Matheson novel.

That’s not to say I was unfamiliar with his work. Matheson’s 1954 vampire novel I Am Legend  inspired the films Night of the Living Dead, Omega Man, and, of course, 2007’s I Am Legend. His novel Bid Time Return became the cult classic film Somewhere In Time. Hell House naturally became The Legend of Hell House. He also penned the teleplays for many of my favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone. Therefore, I was familiar with Matheson’s work for the screen, but not especially with his prose. For that, I am deeply regretful.

I am now a Richard Matheson fan.

Stephen King, of whom I’m also a fan, has stated that Matheson’s work was influential on his own. Upon reading I Am Legend, I can see that. King’s narrative style is quite similar to Matheson’s, particularly in the early works of King’s career (The Shining, Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone).

For me, dusting off and finally cracking that copy of I Am Legend was like finding an early unread King story crammed behind the volumes of his other works on my bookshelf, or like traveling back in time to when I first discovered King’s work. I Am Legend stirred the same page-turning excitement in me that I experienced from King back then, an effect that has not been reproduced in me by King’s post-1980s work (although Bag of Bones is an exception).

If you’re a fan of early King and have never read any of Matheson’s work, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of I Am Legend or download the recently released eBook. As for me, I’m ready to step back in time again, to experience those old familiar creepy sensations of horror that only works like these can produce. I’ll be adding more Matheson to my library.

Headline TK

I suppose some editors are failed writers; but so are most writers. –T.S. Elliot

An acquaintance of mine recently lamented that we now live in a "first draft society." To protect the bottom line, newspapers have slashed editorial roles the same way that the folks who formerly filled those roles slashed unnecessary commas and participial phrases. As a result of these cutbacks, my friend is noticing more mistakes in his daily fish wrap.
Writers–especially beginning writers–can be a sensitive lot. Often we display an aversion to constructive crticism that causes us to dismiss it out-of-hand. Why have an editor when you have a non-judgemental word processor that has built-in spell-check and built-in grammar-check? Why pay someone to catch a misplaced comma that only the most pucker-mouthed of English PhDs would ever notice?
The answer is simple: editors are the writer’s conscience and voice of reason. They’re not there to simply bleed red ink (or Track Changes comments), cutting up our work in a fashion similar to the way Sweeney Todd gives a shave. They see our mistakes in logic. They point out paths we started and never followed. They see the obvious forest in our work that we often cannot because we are so entrenched among the trees.
When you’re trying to get a newspaper out the door to the printer, it’s important to have someone examining that forest. Otherwise, that scandalous front-page story about a well-respected politician could be received by readers in a way different from the way you intended because beneath the most shocking of the story’s accompanying photographs will be these two words: cutline TK.
For those who don’t know, cutline is another word for a photo caption. TK is an editorial abbreviation that means "to come." If you see cutline TK anywhere in a newspaper, the subtext of what you’re reading is this: "I don’t have enough information to finish this cutline right now and there are other things on my plate that have to get done before we can send the paper out the door. I’ll just type cutline TK here and move on to my other duties. Hopefully, someone will notice it before we go to press and call me after I’ve forgotten about it and headed down the street to pound a few beers."
Sure, editors won’t catch everything. And many, many times writers will disagree and argue with them over trivial things. But they’re an important bridge between the information the writer is attempting to communicate and the audience for whom that information is intended. Without an editor, a writer’s best work is perpetually TK.

The Waiting

Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience. –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Time and technological progress sure do change things. Twenty years ago, I had to wait until I received a paper statement from my bank to balance my checkbook. Now I can just download transactions any old time I want. Back then, I had to wait until a television show that I missed showed in a rerun unless I had the foresight to record it on my VCR. These days, I might just be able to stream an episode of my favorite show any old time I want.

I also remember submitting short story manuscripts to magazines back in the late 80s and early 90s. Very few publications accepted electronic submissions at that time. And even if they did, you couldn’t email them. You had to copy them to a–gasp!–floppy disk and drop them at the post office [cue a toddler asking "Mommy? What’s a floppy disk?"]. Worst case, you typed or printed the manuscript and paid the postage to mail it along with a self-addressed stamped envelope to ensure its safe return when the publication rejected it. (Did I say when? I meant if.)

Once your manuscript was loaded onto the postal truck and en route to its destination, you could wait anywhere from six weeks to six months to a full year for a response–if you received a response at all.

The best you could do to mitigate such delays was to cull through the most recent edition of the Novel & Short Story Writers’ Market, hoping against hope that you’d find a market that accepted your genre, accepted your word length, accepted stories from your region, happened to be open to submissions at that particular time of year, and promised a reply in less than six weeks.

Thank heavens for progress! These days you can often submit a manuscript to a magazine in a few seconds (any old time you want), just by clicking your email client’s Send button, or by filling out a form and uploading the document through a Web browser. After much anticipation, you can expect to receive your response… in six weeks to six months to maybe even a year! If you receive a response at all.


I guess some things don’t change after all.

What’s more, that process of submission and acknowledgement probably won’t change much. The slushpiles on the desktops (real or virtual) of agents and editors might decrease a bit as a result of the new popularity of self publishing. Still, they’re called "slushpiles" for a reason. They’re massive. They’re hard to drive through. And they sit there forever, not melting away.

So, here’s one writer that you won’t typically find complaining about the length of time it takes to get a response on a manuscript submission, even if it’s a rejection (and most of them will be). Honestly, I’m happy if someone at a publication I submit to actually takes the time to pick up my submission and read through the whole thing.

Besides, our new culture of immediate gratification wears on me.

It’s kind of nice to wait for something for a change.

The Stuff of Nightmares

Writing a novel is like making love, but it’s also like having a tooth pulled. Pleasure and pain. Sometimes it’s like making love while having a tooth pulled. — Dean Koontz

Ever had a nightmare?

I’m not talking about the uneasy "I went to school in my underpants, whatever will I do now?" types of dreams. I’m talking about a full-on, dear-God-in-Heaven-where-am-I-and-how-am-I-ever-going-to-get-out-of-this-alive-and-where-is-everybody-and-what-the-hell-is-that-crawling-up-my-leg type of nightmare; the ones where you wake up sweating, screaming, kicking, running, or any combination of the four.

Sure you have.

We all have.

Know what’s potentially more frightening than your own nightmare? Experiencing someone else’s. If you’ve ever been startled awake in the dead of night by someone you love screaming in her sleep, you know what I mean. Your first instinct is to leap out of the bed and scream along with her. Next, you struggle to to clear enough of the fog of sleep from your head to put together exactly what’s going on and to fix it, to rescue her from whatever’s "after" her and bring her back to safety.

Writers, especially beginning writers, put quite a lot of stock in dreams as a plot device. Even experienced professionals rely on it from time to time as a means of prediliction, psychological evaluation, or–in the case of 1980s nighttime soap Dallas–erasing an entire plotline.

As a result of its commonality, writing a dream sequence is something I mostly try to avoid in my own fiction. That’s not to say I’ve never written one. I have. And I was never happy with it. Besides, I find experiencing a dreamer’s nightmare from outside their head much more terrifying.

Perhaps I’ll write about that experience the next time I feel the urge to use a dream sequence as a plot device.

Reflections on Slowing Down to Look at the Accident

I resolved to spend at least a few hours every night of my eight days of vacation time working on the rewrite of my novel-in-progress. I failed at that endeavor. I have no excuses other than I was not, in the words of Stephen King, "brave enough to start."

It is true, that starting is the hardest part. During the course of my vacation, I became cleverly adept at finding excuses to not write, such as building an entertainment center in my living room.

I believe King also once described an audience’s desire to read horror novels or watch horror movies as akin to "slowing down to look at the car accident." I would swear I read that in Danse Macabre many years ago, but I can’t seem to find the precise quote now. The closest I could find is King’s oft-quoted assertion that "we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones."

Regardless, slowing down to look at the car accident is an apt metaphor for horror readers. From personal experience, I believe there are typically four types of people involved in a car accident, even if the accident directly involves only two parties.

  1. victims, those directly involved, whether at fault, killed, injured, or suffering some kind of property damage
  2. aiders, those witnesses to the accident who are first to render aid by tending to the wounded; rescuers and heroes also fall into this category
  3. communicators, those who place the call to 911, who help to divert traffic until police arrive, who pray, or who otherwise relay information from the scene
  4. rubberneckers, those who stand by and watch or (assuming traffic is flowing past the accident) slow their vehicles to a crawl and crane their necks out their windows to get a better look at what’s going on

In the world of fictional horror entertainment, only two of the above four are real-life people: the communicator and the rubberneckers. The communicator produces the narrative and the rubberneckers purchase and read it. The victims, the aiders, and the accident itself are all products of the communicator’s imagination.

It might sound like a pejorative term, but there’s nothing about being a rubbernecker that isn’t also a part of being human. You need only confirm by looking to the millions of people who tune into reality television shows, who watch news stories about natural disasters, or who tune in to the murder trials of parents of deceased children. Humanity is fascinated by the tragic and the macabre, real or imagined, and we rarely turn away from it.

A Would-be Novelist Looks at Forty

Do not write to make a living; write to make living worthwhile. –Robert Fulghum (What on Earth Have I Done?)

With apologies to Jimmy Buffett for the title of this post, I turn 40 on Saturday.

Based on everything I’ve heard up to now, I should expect any or all of the following:

  • a mid-life crisis that forces me to buy a Corvette or some other masculinity affirming vehicle or device
  • body breakdowns that are not too dissimilar to the automotive breakdowns one experiences the day after the warranty of the aforementioned masculinity affirming vehicle expires
  • tears; lots of tears.
  • the sudden dawning of the realization that I no longer understand those doggone young’uns and their crazy music

In truth, I have exactly one regret about turning 40, and that’s the fact that I haven’t finished the second draft of my novel. I finished the first draft way back in October of 2009, when I was still a young man.

It’s not that I’m no longer interested in the story. Nor is it that I find the rewrite process difficult. The problem, as unfortunate as it is, is time.

The novel is a personal project, something I’m doing for my own pleasure. I also have a full-time job writing for a living, a family, a lawn to mow, and dozens of other things to do on a daily basis. So I put off the rewrite.

And put it off some more.

Partly in celebration of my 40th, I’m taking a week’s vacation next week. I have made a resolution to myself that I will spend every night that week working on the rewrite, as much time and energy as I can possibly muster will be devoted to it.

I’ve already started flexing my non-technical writing muscles in anticipation. For example, yesterday I wrote my wife a love poem for her own birthday.

The quote at the beginning of this post is from one of Robert Fulghum’s writing memoes to himself. He posted it at his desk to inspire him to write and to remind him why he does it. After I presented my wife with the love poem, I suddenly understood the post-semicolon portion of that quote.

And so, upon my 40th, I will not only write for a living, but also write to make living worthwhile. Onward.