Pen Names For The Win

Okay…so you’ve decided to take up your pen and start Writing for Fun & Profit*, but you have questions.

*Err…not Trademarked because, well, no one in their right mind believes there is much in the way of “profit” in writing…

Honestly, when I talk to folks about writing, I tend to get the same questions…over and over.  Here is what that generally looks like:

“Do your characters talk to you?” — Yes.  Yes, they do.  They make fun of me, too…all the damned time.    {Shut up, Oz!}

“How do you come up with your ideas?” — Beer.

“What’s the best way to write convincing dialogue?” — Read your stuff out loud.  When you read out loud, especially dialogue, you better understand the rhythm, pacing and problem areas.

“How do you deal with writer’s block?” — More beer.  Or, for the really acute cases, scotch.

“What advice would you give aspiring, new writers?” — Walmart offers benefits.

“How much money did you get in advance?” — What’s an advance?  For that matter, what’s this money thing you speak of?

Okay, okay, I admit it — I may be a wee bit cynical and irritable today.

Let’s go to one of the few questions that doesn’t give me (as much) room for sarcasm:

“Should I use a pen name when I write?” — I do.

**Sarcasm alert!**  Of course you should use a pen name*!  Do you really want anyone to know that you chose to do this for a living?  If ever I go to a high school reunion (not freaking likely, by the way), I’m pretty sure I’ll tell folks I’m the cleanup boy in an adult bookstore before I admit to being a writer…

*It’s interesting, by the way, that my spellcheck system likes to correct “pen name” to “penance”.  Is the Universe trying to tell me something?

Now, look, if you’re using a pen name to hide who you are — from, say, the mob, or the IRS (same thing), or the court system, or student debt collectors — don’t bother.  The courts and the mob will just call the student debt people, and there is NO hiding from those assholes.

If, however, you have legitimate reasons — or even semi-legitimate — then have at it, I say.

Look, I use a pen name for a couple of reasons…reasons I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before…

The DockRat series is sci-fi.  Not just that, it’s a series with a very specific tone and feeling to it.  It is, when you get right down to it, bitter, angry, pained…and personal as all hell.  I’ve mentioned before that Oz represents, in many ways, those friends I’ve lost to suicide; that, of course, means that I’m writing with…well…baggage.

I prefer to keep my baggage semi-anonymous, thank you very much.

Alright, so that’s the personal part of it.  The personal, by the way, is the less important part.  The more important part?  That’s simple: I’m a former Marketing & Sales monkey.Chimpanzee_seated_at_typewriter

Besides being the main reason why I’m drinking scotch at this particular moment, that former career also left a legacy of knowledge and awareness.  Specifically, that worst and most abused of marketing-knowledge: Brand Identity.

The only people who get pigeon-holed and type-cast worse than actors are writers.  I’ve been beyond-addicted to sci-fi and fantasy since…well…let’s not get into just how long…and still I can count on one hand the “names” who succeeded commercially at both sci-fi and fantasy.

Honestly, when folks check out the aisles at the local bookstore — or (far more often) the categories on Amazon — they look for names they know.  And not just know, but know are good at the genre/story for which they are looking.  They look for the brand, in marketing-speakthat oh-so-important confluence of author and genre and reputation.

I am, by the way, as guilty of this as anyone else: I know the writing team known as “James S.A. Corey” is good at writing sci-fi, but what if they came out with a fantasy story?  Yeah, I’d probably wait to buy it.

The simple fact of the matter is that I don’t want to be pigeon-holed into one genre.  I already have a story series in mind for when DockRat is done, and it’s completely different.  Not just different in genre — fantasy versus sci-fi — but different in tone and voice and message, as well.  As you probably guessed, that series will “live” under a different pen name than does DockRat.

When you get right down to it, Connor & Oz are unique to their setting, and to their stories.  And I refuse to have the other stories I want to write be judged by the “reputation” of two drug-addicted, criminal characters — much as I love them.

Ignore The Writer In The Corner

“Hey — I was wondering if you could give me a hand…wait, are you okay? What’s wrong?”

A wipe of the eyes, and an excuse: “It’s nothing, just some allergies…what do you need?”

There’s a reason why I train the staff and regulars at the brewery to leave me alone when I write. I get very into what I’m writing at the moment; if I don’t care about the characters, and about the death scene I’m writing, why the hell would any reader?

This is part of the deal, for me, as a writer. I’ve described before how my ideas are the ghosts that float around the back of my mind…and about how Connor & Oz were those ghosts who just wouldn’t shut the fuck up, who wouldn’t leave me alone and let me get on with other shit. No, they demanded to be written…and they became, over the course of all the effort and thought and emotion I’ve put into them, real.

Do your characters talk to you?

Is there any question more awkward to answer to non-writers? Because…well…of course they do, of course my characters talk to me.

If they didn’t talk to me, they couldn’t tell their own story. If they didn’t talk to me, they couldn’t force me to change my plots and plans and ideas to suit themselves. If they didn’t talk to me, they couldn’t, in the end, be real.

But it does make things awkward as hell when you write in a public setting. Especially when you’re killing one of those characters off…

I have become, it must be said, incredibly scattered today.

One (death) scene written…not really planned, nor really tied into the other stuff (because it’s the end of Flicker, and has nothing really to do with Silence), but written nonetheless. A second scene half-finished, before the emotion and the words ran out…

Hey, let’s try something different! I know — blog posts!

Two blog posts — yep, TWO — half-finished, as well. After the intensity of the first scene, it’s just hard to truly follow through and finish…well, anything.

This is why I usually try to have a plan for what I’m going to write in a given session. This is why I (usually) don’t just “wing it”.

On the other hand…I made myself cry. And, yes, as much as all the rest: this is why I write.

Grumpy And Distracted

I don’t really have a post in me, today.  Too busy, too tired, too frustrated.  Nothing terrible, just one of “those” days…

So, rather than put up something completely pointless and thoughtless, or delay posting until tomorrow, I figured I’d pop up another snippet.  The scenes are still going in order (well, theoretically in order).  As ever, this is the first draft of a work-in-progress:

A one-gallon bladder, soft and flexible — bought from a kitchen worker with the promise of free booze — was no easy thing to hide in a four-by-eight cell of concrete and steel.  Not when it was filled to the brim with a mash of ingredients busily fermenting away.  No easy thing, but not impossible.  No, sir, not impossible…not to someone who had grown up on t-deck.

Connor’s thin, cheap mattress might never be the same again, but a minute or two to open it and rearrange the stuffing and he had a neat little hiding spot.  If the mappo didn’t look too close.

That was the trick, of course: to distract the guards while they searched, and to point their attention elsewhere.

A shrug, then, and a mental sigh.  They’d find it or they wouldn’t.  Shou ga nai.

He took a moment to look out the small window in the now-securely-locked cell door.  There were just two teams tossing the cells, but they were doing a pretty damned thorough job.  Clothes and mattresses and knickknacks were flying out of the first two cells to land haphazardly on the dayroom’s floor.  Typical mappo bullshit: make as big a mess as possible to remind the animals just who ran the fucking zoo.

They were taking the cells in order, starting with the first floor.  That was a good thing; it meant they weren’t targeting specific people, nor looking for anything in particular.  The downside, for Connor, was that it also meant it would likely be a long while until they got to his particular cell, tucked as it was into the far corner of the second level.

A cheap, rudimentary ‘screen sat on the meager desk, called to him.  It connected only to the prison library, that ‘screen, but Connor had long ago learned the value, and the truth, in the written word.  Oz had taught him that.

His jaw clenched, and he fought the past.  The demons — those demons of memory, and of pain — they were always threatening to break loose, and that he did not need.  Not here, not now…not ever.

He drank the remainder of the jar in a single gulp and rinsed it carefully in the small sink bolted to the wall.  Why waste perfectly good booze on a shitty drain?

A moment more to consider, but the decision was easy.  No reading, not now.  His prize possession was calling even louder than that ‘screen, and the words and wisdom it contained.  Connor was one of the few in all of Chapman Pen with no cell-mate — few knew how much effort that had taken to arrange — and the cell’s top bunk served only one purpose: to cradle and hold his guitar.

That guitar was a cheap, battered pity-gift given by a sympathetic guard.  It was also Connor’s most precious possession.  His only possession, when you came right down to it.

Music…music mattered to him.  The only thing that mattered as much as reading.  It was equally a gift from his past, of course.  If Oz had given him reading, Marie and Vin had given him music.

And he’d killed all three.

There were those demons again.

Shit.

Teaching himself to play had been a slow process at first, but that same guard had linked him several songs and manuals, and Connor had worked hard to learn.  Harder, in fact, than he’d worked even to learn the languages and culture of his new ‘home’.

The desk was a tiny bit of metal sticking out from the wall, and its seat was an even tinier bit of metal.  No one could be comfortable sitting there, but Connor decided a perch on his bed would just attract attention to the fact that he did, indeed, have something to hide.  Onto that uncomfortable metal seat he went, then, guitar in hand.

He’d made the mistake of remembering, of course.  The past had power, tremendous power.  Even now, a year later — even after the demons had gone quiet and were staying in their little holes at the bottom of his mind — the past still called.  The emotion…the experience…the reality…the pain.

Around him echoed the typical prison cacophony: yells and insults between cells, inmates pounding and kicking at doors, the sheer joy of noise and chaos for the sake of noise and chaos.

It was complete misery to Connor.  Silence, and a bit of peace: the things he had never had in his life.  The things he wanted more than anything else in the universe.

He started to play, then, and to sing.  Quietly, yes, but with all of the honesty and emotion that Marie and Vin had taught him lay at the heart of music.  Emotions he could express in no other way.

Images went through his mind, carried by the music.  Flashes of those he had known.  Those he would never see again.  Marie.  Vin.  Oz…Oz’s blood, Oz’s body.

His friends.  His brother.  Everyone he loved.  Everyone he had.

The song was almost automatic, one he had played many times before.  It carried everything he could never express.  Not in prison…not in life…not ever.  Only through the music.

Every time he played that song, he found another layer to the music, to the words.  Every single time.  It said what he could not, carried everything he kept buried.

He had no idea how long he played, how many songs he sang.  It couldn’t have been long — he didn’t know all that many songs — but it felt like forever.  That was the only time in his disaster of a life when the prison went away, and the bitter rage with it: when he was playing.  When he let himself feel.

It was the closest he came to feeling that peace he and Oz had so wished for.  That peaceful place to die.

Oz had found his peace, but Connor?  Connor had found everything but.

He never heard the guards arrive outside his cell, so lost in the music was he.  Never heard the whirring of the lock.

“Shut the fuck up, you piece of shit!” a voice screamed, right next to him.

That he did hear.

A surge of violence in him, then.  It was a surge he resisted, but barely.  It was no easy thing.  The one thing that finally stopped his rage was the weapon in his hands; there was just no way he would waste his precious guitar on the head of some useless prison guard.

Snippeting, For Fun And…Well…

I started to write a post today…I started and failed.  It was pretty much on the far side of terrible, and I don’t really have the patience to try and punch it all the way up to “acceptable”.

Ah, well, time for my old writerly fall-back: the snippet.  I posted this one several months ago…but it’s going up again to stay in line with my theory of posting the scenes for Silence in something resembling proper order.  A couple of weeks ago I did the first one, so here is the second.  As ever, remember all the standard snippet-warnings about this being the rough draft, etc…:

The door slid aside and the guard who had silently escorted Connor from Admin motioned him inside with a peremptory wave. He had turned on his heel and was marching away before Connor had taken so much as a single step.

Shit…marching — the guy was literally marching. Connor could all but hear an imaginary band playing some old parade song. Terra Uber Alles, or some such bullshit.

A small laugh, then, cold and bitter, and he stepped through that door. The dirtsiders were even more nuts than the fucking takies.

From the quiet of the corridor, Connor stepped into a completely different universe; a universe of noise and chaos and stench to numb even the most jaded senses. He had grown up on the poorest and most crowded station in all of human space, but even Port Oblivion’s infamous dockside had little to rival an enclosed cell-block on a harsh frontier world.

The sound of the lock sealing behind him broke Connor’s miserable reverie and he moved forward with a snort. Yells and curses all around, fists banging on metal tables, a poor quality holo blaring some idiotic children’s show, the stench of several dozen men of doubtful hygiene confined and competing for everything.

Home sweet home.

A place he hated. A place he resented. A place he had earned. Three times over, he had earned it.

A wave from a table drew his eye. A table off to one side, under the stairs and isolated…as much as anyone or anything could be isolated in this place. Brian and Rahm. The closest thing he had to…acquaintances in here. Not friends, no. Never friends. Connor had a bad habit of getting his friends killed.

He waved back and moved at a jog to his cell on the second level. Cards and conversation could wait, he had something else to do. Something he did every day, without fail. Something he had avoided for much of his life. It was a lesson and a task he had truly understood only once he’d entered Chapman Pen.

A quick change into another of the ubiquitous prison uniforms, this one ratty and worn. Blue, Connor’s were, noting him as an inmate considered non-violent and worthy of trust. New prisoners, still untested and unknown, wore orange. The longtime inmates with no particular standing were stuck with tan uniforms that looked as shitty as they smelled. And the red? The red were for the violent crazies, the cvok: those who raped and murdered, even in prison.

Down the stairs and he was pedaling a stationary bike, as fast and hard as he could. Lifting weights, also fast and hard. Stretching and movement, continuing to develop and hone his impressive speed and agility. Connor had never wanted to workout as a kid, had relied on his charm and his brain. And had been sent to prison for five years. No, Oz had been right, as usual: Connor could never again be the skinny, out-of-shape kid he used to be.

The others in the cell-block’s small gym gave him space. Whispered comments, yes. Strange looks, yes. But plenty of space. Throwing an erojiji asshole over the second-level railing would do that for you.

“No, officer, he jumped, I swear…”

No inmate would disagree with Connor. Especially not after he had cracked the prison’s datanet to erase the automated holo-recordings.

Reputation and respect were life itself in prison. Just like dockside. Just like home.

He would never let this be home, not Connor. No more than he would let himself be a victim. Not again. Not ever again.

A shower, then, fast but thorough. Water wasn’t limited in Chapman Pen, but old habits died hard. Water was precious where Connor came from. Water was life itself. He’d seen people killed for less water than he used in his two-minute shower.

Work: done. Workout: done. Now it was time for school.

He dropped a small jar in the middle of the table as he sat. A grin, then, for the two old men at that table. Both had been inside Chapman Pen almost as long as Connor had been alive. Neither was likely to ever see again the world outside its walls.

It still took thought, and effort, but it was getting easier: the accents and words of dockside were erased from Connor’s tongue, replaced by the still-uncomfortable cadences and slang of Redux’s east side. The poor neighborhoods. The criminal neighborhoods. Connor’s natural habitat.

“Just pulled that shit from the fermenter,” he said with a wave at the plastic jar that once had held soy paste masquerading as peanut butter. It now held something very different: a liquid dark and thick and just slightly effervescent. “I used more fruit this time, so it should be a bit sweeter than the last crap.”

“It better be,” the shorter of the two said with a grimace. “That last batch about peeled the goddamned paint from the walls.”

Short and stout he was, but the fat did nothing to hide the size and strength that even age had not stripped from his frame. The knuckles of his hands were scarred and battered, as was his face. Brian had led a long life before Chapman Pen, a life as dark and dangerous as Connor’s own.

“Screw it, na zdravi!” the other laughed. A reach and a twist of the cap and he took a long gulp. Then he coughed. He coughed a great deal. “Kurva! Boy, is there anythin’ but booze in this? The fruit is about the only thing keepin’ me alive right now!”

Rahm was tall and spare, dark of skin and of eye. His white hair was the barest fringe, clinging desperately to his scalp like some frightened animal. Few teeth remained to him, but he still would never visit the prison’s doctor. “Fuck ’em,” he would answer whenever Connor asked, his voice always full of anger and resentment, “they wouldn’t do shit for me on the outside, why the fuck would they care now? Svine.”

The drink was called pruno, the men had taught Connor, and it was one of the most valuable things you could get your hands on in Chapman Pen. Men with nothing but time and grudges would pay almost anything for the escape of a stiff drink.

If not hard to make, it was challenging to hide from the guards. The fermenting slop that was its base was fragrant, to say the least. These two old men had taught Connor the tricks to use for that, even as they had taught the recipe.

They had, in fact, taught him a great deal more: the language and culture of Redux’s slums, and of her underworld. It didn’t matter where you went in human space — didn’t matter how wealthy and powerful, how perfect, the world — there were always slums and criminals. Always people like Brian and Rahm…and Connor.

Nothing would mark Connor a stranger in those neighborhoods more than the mix of Japanese, Thai and English that was dockside’s everyday language. No, Redux’s poor spoke something very different, and Connor had to learn how to speak, and how to act, if he were to have any hope of survival on the outside.

Strong the drink might have been, but that was no sin. The cards were dealt and the game began, the jar making its own rounds among the three. Connor still had no idea just what were the rules of this particular game; he just played his cards and moved his little peg on the board when they told him how many points he’d scored. Winning wasn’t really the point, anyway.

He’d tried to live in his cell when he first arrived, in the isolation and loneliness of his own mind. Tried to read, and to practice the guitar. Peaceful and quiet, most would have thought. A reprieve from the colossal noise and crowding he had grown up with, a chance to mourn and to heal after the death of those few he loved.

It was anything but.

The constant screaming and cursing, the banging and fighting, the sheer idiocy of the other prisoners. At least three hundred people, a place this size would have housed back home. Here, on this planet, the sixty-four inside made it feel more crowded than even t-deck. And louder.

He’d been going slowly insane, isolated and alone and searching desperately for silence, when the two had poked their way into his cell. There was no hesitation with these two, never any reticence or reluctance. Both were inside for the rest of their lives, so what the fuck did they have to lose, anyway? From his first words, Rahm had started making fun of Connor, laughing and mocking, while Brian asked questions.

Connor’s impatience and anger had not made things any better. They had, in fact, made things worse as the two pressed all the harder.

Connor had started to feel ridiculous, then, yelling at two men so impossibly old they looked ready to die at any second. Then the unlikeliest thing in the world had happened: he’d started to laugh. For the first time since Oz’s death, he had laughed.

It made all the difference.

They weren’t friends, could never be friends, not to Connor, but they were a connection.

Alone was worse…alone was always worse.

“You’re doin’ your time better, Connor,” Brian said as he gathered the cards for a new hand. “That job you weaseled in admin agrees with you. You play this right, you not only live more comfortable but you also maybe squeak a year off your time.”

Kecas,” Connor answered with a laugh that held only a tinge of his usual bitterness, “what in hell I do if I get out anyway? Sure as shit no one here needs a kid who ain’t never lived under a sky.”

A shake of Rahm’s head, then, both at Connor’s words and at the cards in his hand. “You get out, you go look up my boy. He didn’t follow his papa into the dark side of life. Was too smart for that, my boy. He runs a place in the Camp. Nothin’ special, but he knows plenty of folks.”

The old man’s look intensified and his voice turned from his habitual relaxed drawl to a tone sharp and intelligent, “I’ll tell him to give you a hand, but no favors. You take care of him in return, and you keep your ass out of this shithole, rozumis?”

Connor did understand. Nothing for nothing. No matter where you were in the universe, that rule never changed. Rahm’s humor and relaxed old-guy attitude were an act, just as much as was Connor’s play at naivety. He could never allow himself to forget that this man had once run the biggest, most violent gang in the Haze. This was no soft old man, and definitely no fool.

He nodded, then, but deliberately did not match the other’s intensity. No, better to play it soft and easy. Better to always let these two feel they had the upper hand; Connor needed what they had to teach. “Crap, Rahm, I got four more years in this hole. What was it you told me back when? ‘Do your own time and live in the day.’ That’s me, jus’ doin’ my time.”

A joke from Brian, and the game continued. And Connor continued to lose. He could count on one hand the number of games he’d won in the eight months he’d been playing cards with these two.

The big door by the guard station opened and all eyes turned, as they always did when that door slid aside. It was a necessary habit in prison, a tool of survival ignored only by the terrified new inmates — the fish, as they were called — and the crazies who had lost themselves.

All were expecting the dinner cart, pushed by blue-clad inmates. The younger, and stupider, prisoners were already lining up, eager to receive the shit-filled-trays the prison called food. Only the colors and textures on those trays changed, the taste never did.

But it was not the cart, not the blue-clad kitchen workers.

Instead in rushed a group of guards. A lot of guards. A godawful lot of guards.

“Shakedown!” the watch sergeant bellowed. “Into your cells! Move it!”

Connor wasn’t one of those screaming curses and abuse at the guards as the inmates all moved to their cells. No, he had bigger things to worry about…like where to hide a gallon of illegal prison wine.

Shit.