You Can’t Outrun Who You Are

IMG_0163Enough’s enough.

I give up.

Take this job and shove it.

I quit.

We’ve all been there. Hell, we’ve all very likely been there more than once. There was this one job, way back in college…

Never mind, let’s…err…not discuss that particular incident.

Bad jobs aside, that “I quit” moment can come all-too often in the other spheres of our life just as much as it does with work. I have, for instance, mentioned my serial bachelorhood more than once, I believe.

But what happens when that moment hits you as a writer? Writing isn’t, for me, a job; it’s who I am far, far more than what I do. So what happens when you face that Johnny Paycheck moment in regards to the words? That’s more than the song, that’s more than walking out on a shitty job, that’s real.

I hit that moment.

Oh, I fought it and fought it. I did whatever I had to to balance the “real world” with the writing. But still everything paled and faded. The words and emotions and thoughts weren’t the same.  I wasn’t even connecting with myself, let alone with a reader.

I’ve said it before: I write this blog for others, but I write the stories for me. When even that fails, something has to give.

I had to give up, I had to shift my focus and my efforts. I had to quit.

I quit the real world.

As writers we always talk about the stakes for our characters. What do they have to lose? What is at stake?

Well, for me the stakes were huge: I had writing to lose.

I gave up everything else instead. I put my life into storage, grabbed a couple of bags and agreed to a deal to live and work in Yellowstone for the next six months.

It’s made all the difference.

The words are back, and the honesty and truth of the emotions. I work my ass off five days a week…I hike and camp and drink my ass off the other two days…and I write every chance I get.

Wait, you thought I was gonna quit writing? Are you nuts?

It’s who I am.

Ruts, And The Strangers You Meet

I’ve talked a bit before about characters, and about the thought and effort we put into them. But just as important are the assumptions we make about them…assumptions both as readers and as writers.

Jumping with both feet into a an entirely new group of folks, very few of whom know each other, is one hell of a way to start testing your assumptions and judgements about people. It is, honestly, like going to summer camp…just one with plenty of booze to smooth over the awkward bits (and create other awkward bits).

For someone like me, it is also a topic of some interest to expand that thought and wonder how my assumptions about strangers affect those I make about my own characters. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I also weigh all these strangers and new folks for personalities and life experiences to use for my characters…

People surprise me…all the time. In many ways that’s a good thing, since it means I’m not as jaded and cynical as I like to pretend. In other ways, it’s not so good since it means I probably made an ass of myself about them in the first place.

I think we can all agree on the need to be fair and honest in those snap judgments we make, and in the value of that fairness. But to those who read or write, or just plain dream, I will reiterate the broader question I posed above:

How often do you treat the characters that matter to you as strangers? How often do you step back to examine and reevaluate the snap judgments you made about them in the first place? Remember: good characters – characters that are complete and whole – should talk to you, should have depth and demands of their own.  Just like real people. Just like the strangers you meet.

I made assumptions and a snap judgment about one of my characters in Wrath & Tears that I regret to this day. The flaw is not so fundamental that I can’t go back and fix it, but it does mark a failure on my part to let her stand and tell her own story.

I knew, after all the revisions and edits, that I had not done her justice, but it wasn’t until I started trying to think about the assumptions I’ve made about the folks I’ve met up here in the park that I forced myself to really go back and look at her.

You never realize just how much of a rut you can fall into: a rut of people, places and things as much as of thought and experience. I had fallen into seeing and talking to the same people in the same places over and over. A couple of workers put together a “movie night” last night, and I was sitting and having drinks and a good time with several folks that never would have entered my orbit back home in my usual “rut”.

I love it. As a writer I love it, and as I person I need it. I joked about this in Monday’s post, but it really is like summer camp. Or better yet, your freshman year in college. You are, pretty literally, forced into close confines and friendships with folks from far outside your usual norm.

That is an experience and a skill that far too many of us who’ve made it through those early-twenties years tend to forget. Especially when you’re of the more…ahem…introspective type.

The Middle Way

The first bit of advice anyone gives when you start writing is “don’t quit your day job.” That’s not because they want to keep out any new competition, as some people like to charge, but rather it is hard-won common sense.

Writing is a hard way to make a living. Very hard. Even if you bust out short stories and freelance projects every week (along with whatever novels you’re writing, or are intending to write), the money is…well, terrible. And freelance writing is a whole lot like prostitution: you have to get out there and hustle yourself constantly, then be whatever your john…err, client wants you to be.

It’s also a lot of work just to drum up business. I know, I’ve done it…to an extent. It is exhausting, time consuming, and frustrating in the extreme. But writing novels is worse. Those people you see on TV? The writers with the huge advance for a first book, a massive apartment in downtown Manhattan, and hot chicks hanging on their every word? Yeah, they’re about as real, and as watchable, as a Jar-Jar Binks rendition of MacBeth

But how do you write, I hear you ask, when you have to work full-time as well?

It sucks, but there are folks who pull it off. The hard part, unfortunately, comes when your job takes so much time and energy that you don’t have anything left for the writing. There is also, in all honesty, that feeling that you’re not a “writer” at that point. And that is frustrating on an inner level and can (and often will) affect your ability to, well, write.

But there is another concept, one that tries to walk a fine line down the middle of those two options (suffering as a freelancer or suffering as an office monkey). You have to decide what is more important to you: the writing, or the security of steady work. For me, it is – and was – the writing. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I had left a perfectly good career to start my own business anyway…when that business failed, turning to writing just made sense.

Writing had also become more important to me, by that point, than a traditional career.

So I currently try to walk that middle line. That means the writing is first priority for me: everything I do is there to support the words. But, to help with the writing (and the reality of life), I take other work…more than I’d like, actually. Quite intentionally, I do not pursue or get into high-level work. I can’t (well, won’t) commit to a serious, non-writing career-path again, so I focus instead on work that offers the flexibility to live my life the way I want, but also isn’t completely pointless and soul-destroying*.

*By the way, if anyone out there is looking for an ex-sales&marketing-monkey with an overactive imagination and expertise in beer, history and pop-culture trivia, drop me a line…!

When I wrote the post a few days ago about self-confidence – about “the clothes that don’t fit anymore” – this is part of what was on my mind. I gave my youth to work and career (sorta). I don’t regret it, aside from some missed opportunities, but I can’t see going back to that life. How the hell could I ever get the same satisfaction from a sales report, or a marketing plan (or a fucking TPS report, for that matter) that I get from seeing my thoughts and words come to life on the page?

By the way, if you’re wondering, living as a full-time novelist does begin to open up as a possibility (barring amazing luck, perfect timing or pure genius) by the time you publish your fifth or sixth book. Yay, something to look forward to!

Self-publishing, on the other hand, is a different beast entirely. It is also, most assuredly, no faster to reach that point of self-sufficiency than is traditional publishing. Self-pubbing also has its own unique challenges and problems, and is not the “fast cash” many people seem to think (and want).

The Price Of The Words

IMG_0163

There’s an image out there – one I’ll admit to having held myself back in the “good ol’ days” – of the starving, suffering artist. Somehow that suffering, that instability and desperation, made it all…well…better. You could only create if you were broke and on the edge of personal disaster every moment of every day.

What a crock of shit.

I’ve been (relatively) rich, and I’ve been dirt poor. On the whole, rich is better. Anyone who says differently, anyone who points to their “happy days” of poverty, is living in a utopia of nostalgia and selective mental editing.

It is neither noble nor artistically enabling to have no idea if you can make rent next month. Throw in shit like wondering how far you can stretch $3 worth of cheap pasta and canned sauce…or like knowing the places that offer free bar snacks because at those you can get a “meal” for the price of a happy-hour Bud Light…

Why am I talking about this? Mostly because I was thinking about what it takes to write. I do suspect this is a question with no single answer, so all I can do is talk about what’s true for me. And what it takes, for me, is self-confidence. No self-confidence and there are no words on the page.

That is the difference between those who can (and do) write and those who just think/dream of writing. You’ve heard it a million times already: writers write. Well, take it from someone who knows: it is hard to think and dream and plan and then actually put it all down on paper when you’re obsessing about the demands of the “real world”.

Without the self-confidence – and the mental & emotional space – to lose myself in the writing, it is very, very hard to actually write. Honestly, that’s why you see so few new and/or fresh voices published nowadays. It is hard as hell to find (or make) the time & freedom – not to mention the access! – to break into the profession enough to succeed.

This is not a purely economic thing, by the way, and I don’t want to give that impression. I focused on that aspect in this post because, well, money matters. It matters a lot.

This life ain’t Star Trek…there is no space-magic to meet our daily needs. We have to fend for ourselves. Later, in another post (or two) I’ll tackle other aspects of self-confidence, other things that help and hurt. For now, however, I just wanted to note that which ties so many of us together: the frustrations of daily survival and how those affect the work. And note, specifically, how hard it can be to trust yourself, and to find the right thoughts and words, when the light at the end of that tunnel is oh-so-goddamned-far-away.

Sorry, but I have no answers. There are no magic words, and no easy solutions. But, and this is the important bit to know and to remember: you are not alone.  No writer, however we feel, suffers alone.  Whether you know them or not, there are others out there sharing your struggles…and, hopefully, your triumphs!

Want a beer?

[N.B. – this is the post I mentioned a while back, the one I was sitting on…]

The Clothes That Don’t Fit Anymore

I have a post I’m sitting on at the moment. It touches on the challenges of economics for writers. Well, not so much on the specific economics, but rather on the confluence of frustration and desperation that so often comes with that topic for us. And how the despair and pressure can build into a hopelessness that makes it hard to actually, you know, write.

But there’s a hell of a lot more to the frustrations, and the lack of confidence, than just money. So I decided to write a follow-up to a post I’m not sure I’m even going to use. Huh, go figure.

I’ll repeat something I’ve said before: every single writer out there should do something else, something in addition to writing. Some other form of artistic outlet to hone and strengthen your creativity and brain in different ways. Personally, I do photography. I’ve even gone so far as to use it for another (small) source of income.

Now, maybe it’s because photography really is just a hobby for me, but that avocation very much comes second to writing in every way. It has also never ground me down in the same way writing has.

Sure, from time to time I look at a few of my pictures and think, “What the hell happened with this?!” But then that reaction turns into a shrug and recognition that I’ll keep shooting pictures anyway. I can only get better, right?

So why do I struggle to do that with writing?

I have my issues in life, God knows, but there really is nothing so up and down for me as writing. Nothing else that leaves me so often questioning my basic assumptions about myself. Nothing else that can – and does – grind me down in the same way, and make me wonder if “You want fries with that?” is such a bad career move, after all…

We all have them: those days and times when you just can’t muster the energy – or the drive – to craft the words. When that little demon at the back of your mind whispers, “This isn’t for you. You’re not smart enough, not experienced enough, not ready.”

Not, when you get right down to it, good enough.

That demon doesn’t yell and screech. No sir, not for me. But his quiet little voice never goes away. He just whispers and whispers, and sometimes – more often than I’d like to admit – those whispers get through.

I’ve done my time working in offices. I wore the clothes and lived the life of a successful sales & marketing guy. When that little demon gets through, and when the grinding of reality starts to hurt, that’s when I start thinking about putting on again those clothes.

But…

But then those times come when it all clicks. When you craft a scene that, no matter what that little demon whispers, you know just plain worked. For me, those are the times that remind me that being a writer is less what I do and more who I am.

I wear the clothes of a writer now. Every time nowadays that I try to put on those old, professional clothes, it turns me into a dancing bear: a freak and a fool pretending to be something he is not.

I’ve been that guy that parties and has a good time. I’ve also been successful and serious. I’ve seen and done things a lot of folks can, honestly, only dream of. And in the end, nothing I’ve ever done or seen or been can come close to that feeling when a scene just works. That time when the payoff makes all the pain and doubt and despair worth it.

Music and writing go hand in hand for me, so I’ll close with a line from the song that got me thinking about this:

“But the clothes I wore / just don’t fit my soul anymore” – The Gaslight Anthem, “Orphans”

When Creativity Turns To The Dark-Side

I’m a hockey guy.  That, err, might be a bit of an understatement.  I need a hockey 12-step program, to be honest.  We will, however, leave aside my OCD for all things hockey for the moment.  At least for long enough to make my point, anyway…

Both of my teams in the NHL were eliminated from playoff contention a while ago*, so I have this empty space to fill.  This does not make me happy.image

*Yay teams!

So, here I am, writing this post on the weekend of the Masters tournament.  Now, I should point out for the less “sporty”: there is no universe or reality in which golf is a suitable stand-in for hockey.  Shit, golf isn’t even a stand-in for freaking curling!  It does, however, make good background noise for napping and other sedentary activities (like professional bar-flying, for instance).

So one of the sports guys is on TV talking about how the favorite to win the Masters dropped out because his back was sore after tripping on the stairs.

Oh, for fuck’s sake!

Peter Forsberg played a hockey game with a ruptured goddamned spleen!  Shit, I wrenched my back (wiping out on my bike…don’t ask) and did I stop going to the brewery?  No, no I did not.  Now that is professional dedication!

Okay, Mr. Minion, so why the hell are you talking about this?

Excuses.  And, specifically, the making thereof.

Don’t get me wrong: I am a world-class excuse maker.  An old boss of mine finally told me to stop giving him reasons why I wasn’t coming in because they were far more entertaining than the rest of his day.

I’m pretty sure I reached peak-bullshit when I called in sick because I wrenched my elbow saving a toddler from vicious, marauding kangaroos…

img_0011I have mentioned my commitment to full-time slackerdom, have I not?  Believe it or not, I had ambition once.  Once.  Then it met someone better and dumped me.

Shit…now that was a serious squirrel-moment!  Never mind.

Ahem…back to excuses: “I’m still not sure about the direction of the scene.”  “I have more research and prep to do.”  “I’m just not in the mood.”  “I have writer’s block.”

We call ourselves artists and creative professionals…but we are oh-so-good at finding reasons to not do what it is we do.  You cannot be a writer if you do not…I don’t know, let’s see: write.

For me the big problem is being at home versus out in the wild.  I have convinced myself I can’t write at home, so now I can’t write at home.  That, at least, is the excuse I tell myself.  Marauding kangaroos would be more believable…or a sore back from tripping on the stairs.

I am a month behind on Silence at this point.  I have let myself make too many excuses, and found too many reasons to not write.

Writing is, very literally, who I am: if I’m not writing, then who the hell am I?  An under-employed ex-sales&marketing-monkey with delusions of adequacy…?

Hell, the shame alone is enough to make me start writing again!

Crowe T. Robot For President!

In a world that’s given us the Pyramids, and the Great Wall, and the Colosseum…

In a world with sonnets and haiku, painting and sculpture…

In a world with the Kardashians and shows about house flipping…

Err, scratch those last two. Please, God, just take them away…now!!

IMG_0039But in the world I hint at above, just what is the apex of human creativity and endeavor?

That’s right: Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Sadly, MST3K ended almost two decades ago. There is, however, a successor* that makes me very nearly as happy: RiffTrax.

*There is a second, different successor in the works from NetFlix…great, now I have to subscribe to NetFlix!

Now, if you are so culturally-deficient as to know nothing about these shows, let me proselytize for a moment. Take a bad movie* and have three very funny people make fun of it while it runs. It doesn’t sound like much, but you haven’t lived until you’ve watched “Manos: Hands of Fate” from MST3K. If you want to go for your pop-culture PhD, you need to step up to “Birdemic” from RiffTrax.

*Not always bad, actually – RiffTrax has commentary tracks available even for legitimately good works!

I have been, for the last couple of weeks, binge-watching the shit out of RiffTrax now that they have a bunch of stuff available on Amazon Prime. You have to understand the depth of my love for these guys: their stuff is FUNNY. I have almost pissed myself laughing more times than I can count just in the last three or four evenings.

Now, what does this have to do with writing?

Believe it or not, there IS a point to this post!

One of the things the guys do is mock – mercilessly – all the shitty scenes that (inevitably) make up bad movies: “So, we’re just driving I guess…” “No, don’t stop the scene! I need to see at least five MORE minutes of some nameless guy making coffee!” “I don’t know, an hour of tensionless exposition seems appropriate for a ninety minute action movie…”

You get the point. And, yes, I’m just throwing together context-less memories of their comments…watch their damned show(s)!

When I was sitting there planning the scene list for Silence – and even as I began writing and revising the actual story – those voices were bouncing around inside my head.

“Err…what would Bill, Kevin and Mike say about THIS scene? Dammit, now I have to change the whole stinking thing…”

I wonder if anyone else hears several snarky, cynical comedians inside their heads when they consider their own stuff? Or is it just me?

Never mind, even I know the answer to that one…

The bottom line is this: if you want to figure out what’s wrong with your story, watch MST3K/RiffTrax. Enjoy the shows, laugh your ass off, but pay attention to those things they are mocking. The same sins that ruin so many movies can very easily ruin just as many (if not more) novels.

 

I Reject Your Reality…

Meaning and subtext. Well, hell, why not take a shot at it today? I’m behind on posts, so I have to get one or two prepped and scheduled if I want to actually stay ahead of the game. And, yes, that means the once huge backlog I had (about two weeks’ worth of posts that were stacked up and scheduled) is officially gone.

I got sidetracked by…well…the real world.

Damned real world.

IMG_0145LEAVE ME ALONE, REALITY!!

You know that old MythBusters saying? Yeah, that’s me…

Err, sorry…lost the thread for a minute there. Back to the point.

Wrath & Tears was a story about corruption and revenge and, most of all, love. But – yep, always a but – that wasn’t what it was about. It was about suicide. More specifically, it was about the despair and pain that lead to the act.

It was about a friendship and a love that, in the end, weren’t enough to save a life.

I’ve lived that. I’ve been in Connor’s shoes. What Wrath was about was both easy for me, and was the hardest thing in the world.

Silence is different. Where Wrath was external – about something outside of Connor (and me) – Silence is very much internal. It is about Connor’s own despair and survivor’s guilt. More than that: it is about the search for some form of faith and meaning in life, both for Connor and for me.

It comes down to a “quest” to justify and fulfill the sense that life is meant to be…more.

How do I do that?

Good question.

The simple answer is: I lose the inhibitions. I pour myself, emotionally as much as mentally, into the writing.

But that answer is trite and facile.

The reality is that I have to think and plan. Any good story has meaning and subtext. It may or may not be obvious, but I guarantee you: if you remember a book (or play or movie…) it said something to you.

But when said story gets preachy, or – worse, by far – self-indulgent? The journey from memorable to shitty happens at Warp 9. I try to very much keep that in mind. When I plan out the scenes, I (try to) ration out the emotion and subtext as much as I do backstory and exposition.

It ain’t always easy. Err, it ain’t ever easy, to be honest. But then again, that’s why writers get paid the…err, let’s just stop that line of thought right now. The damned real world is still lurking, in spite of my best efforts to ignore it…

When you get right down to it, hitting the right tone and level of subtext with Silence is a real challenge for me. In some ways I’m not quite as openly invested as I was with Wrath: the memories of those suicides that touched me personally are very real, and are in their own way concrete and “quantifiable.”

In other ways, however, I am far more invested in Silence: the emotions and thoughts are mine, which makes them rather more powerful, if somewhat nebulous and hard to “use” on an intellectual level.

Not to mention the fact that I have to take a plot about greed and corruption* and factional/corporate politics and weave it on top of a story about guilt and pain and the quest for meaning…

*Err, yes, that is indeed a focus for all of Connor’s stories…

Maybe I should switch to decaf for this one.

Living With The Ghosts

Now that the writing is in full swing, I’m thinking about characters.  Every day – hell, every hour – I’m thinking about characters.  The ghosts are, to me, very real at this point…and will be until I finally exorcise them by putting words on the page.

In more detail, I’m currently thinking about how to communicate all the little details and realities of my characters without resorting to the dreaded “info dump” of exposition and backstory.

One of the things I love about writing – and reading! – is when a well-crafted and well-used phrase, laden with emotion and meaning, communicates far more than 500 words of info-dump.

Now, there is a lot I’m proud of in my writing…and an even greater amount that I know needs work.  It’s not better editing, it’s not better vision, it’s simply becoming a better writer.  But…that does not mean there aren’t things I write that I don’t look at and think, “Fuck, yeah.  That worked…”*

*Goddamned triple-negative sentences!  Maybe it IS better editing I need…and, yes, I’m way too lazy to just go and fix the sentence.  Besides, it’s more fun to write this little aside and mock myself.

Heading that list of things that worked?  Oz.

Of course it was Oz…  He is still my favorite character, and is far and away the character most personal to me.  Shit, he’s still the only character that can bring me to tears…

There is a lot to Oz: a lot of meaning and a lot of emotion.  More than I ever describe, honestly, even in the text.  He is, after all, my stand-in for those friends of mine who committed suicide…and for my own issues with that same impulse.  One of the keys to Oz as a character, and who he is as a person, is his history…

Connor describes a bit of that history to Nat in one particular scene, but that description is matter of fact and simple.  He explains Oz’s life of rape and degradation in the bluntest, coldest way.  That’s all he really can say: he has no way to express to her the truth and honesty of Oz’s past, nor to soften his life of horror and pain…the life that Connor himself barely avoided.

His statement to Nat tugs at you, yes.  It communicates something about Oz, yes.  But it isn’t real.

No, for me the real success came with what I mentioned above: that one key phrase/sentence that captures everything in just a handful of words.

“…Oz was a lump in his bed, a tight ball pressed deeply into the corner—his normal sleeping position, a hunt for the safety he’d never known.”

I know I wrote the fucking thing, so I’m pretty damned biased, but to me that phrase still captures Oz’s history, and his reality, far better than all the exposition in the world.

As I get better at writing, I’m realizing more and more that you really have to be careful with your words.  You have to minimize.  A good writer can communicate in ten-fifteen words what a bad writer needs a hundred to do.

Now, I’m nowhere near that “good writer” point…and I know – being as competitive and self-critical as I am – that I will never consider myself to be there.  But that just drives me to work and practice and strive for constant (if slow) improvement.

The best personal sign of that development?  When I go back and re-read older stuff, I cringe at my wordiness…and at the lack of focus in my vision and in my words.  That I see and understand those problems is an official Good Thing, by the way.  Well, good nowadays…not so good back then.

There was, to tie everything together, no key phrase to identify the emotion and honesty of those older characters in just a handful of words.

Shit, maybe Steven King was right: the first million words really are just practice.

It’s The Old Paul Harvey Thing: The Rest Of The Story

So there’s a story in the news right now about some magician found dead outside the doors of the, err, “magician’s guild*”.

*Sorry – have to put that in quotes because it makes my computer-rpg-nerd nerves tingle…

Now, if I was a plot guy – more specifically, if I was a crime/mystery guy – I’d be all over this story. I can sit here and just imagine all kinds of theories…

Potential villains abound!

But…

I’m a character guy.

No one killed this magician, he was depressed.

Because of failure and frustration in his career…

Because the girl down on the third floor would never talk to him…

Because he owed money, and the debt collectors wouldn’t leave him alone…

Because he actually wanted to be a cop, but the old convictions kept him out…

Because he was a direct descendant of Odin, and the Templars could never let him live…

Oh, God, I love making shit up.

This is why I gave up on ‘real work’ as a career: how many bosses want some bitter sales & marketing monkey who can’t help but make up the most convoluted, impractical theories on the face of the planet?

God forbid I ever become that boring guy who says, “Naw, it was just bad luck.”

It can actually be somewhat hard to “think around corners” when it comes to characters. What I mean by that is it can be hard to look for the unusual, less-common answer. It is far easier to use the surface answer when it comes to motivations and backstory than it is to make a character a unique, memorable individual.

But who are the characters you remember? That’s right, the individuals, those with some depth and some honesty…and with real, honest-to-God flaws.

Lestat was an interesting character because he was somewhat unique at the time he was created. Since Anne Rice wrote Interview With A Vampire, however, that whole thing has been done to death…and in all those thousands of stories how many had interesting characters*?

*And by interesting, I don’t mean the romance-softcore porn that is normal for the genre – hey, I like Kate Beckinsale’s ass, too, but it wasn’t enough to make the Underworld series any good…

I’m a fan of Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series because of the characters and the writing, first and foremost. Only after that does my love of history start to play a role. But which of those characters is the most memorable and interesting?

The most flawed and fucked-up one, of course (just as he was in real-life): Sulla. I’ve written academic papers on Marius, Caesar and Augustus; I know them very, very well. But Sulla? He’s the one that really sticks with you because there is more, err, there there.

So, when it comes to your own characters, are you worrying about the rest of the story? Not what serves your story, but what defines their story (the bigger picture that makes them unique). Are you committed to what makes them the people they are, warts and all?