Monday, July 27, 2015

On Being a Writer and a Professional

Time to dump reality and politics for a week (at least) and talk about something more fun, entertainment.

The creative process, then sharing with and hopefully fascinating people in maybe perhaps hopefully making them happy, or in possibly making them sad, but doing it all in such a way that they forget their own reality and enter mine, is what it's all about. At very least to have them enter a story that I have weaved for them to experience so they can attempt to wrap their consciousness around it for at least the short time they lend me their attention.

If they might happen to later think of it again at a later date, say the next day or better still the next week, just adds icing to the creative cake.

It is my responsibility to keep their attention, at least until they want to let it go. If things go really, really well, then hopefully I will be done with their attention before they are done with lending it to me.

Hopefully, I will leave them in a state of mind where they will still want more from me. If not now, then at some future point in their entertainment universe.

Hook them, then make them want to come back for more. It's what it's all about. Attempting to be fascinating and addictive.

This all started for me in 10th grade I suppose, with my first short sci fi story after written after having just finished reading Dune, by Frank Herbert back in 1970. When I finished that book I couldn't believe I had only just gotten it from my sci fi book club when it had actually been released five years previous. I was to say the least, inspired.

Maybe in part because I had been into sci fi for years already and had started so young. Science Fiction back then wasn't really a part of American life as it is now. Maybe because I had read Asimov's Foundation Trilogy years before written in the early 1950s, though I didn't get to them till the mid to late 1960s. Still, I was properly prepped for a book such as Dune when I read it. Or maybe it was because Dune was just that good of a book.

That short story I wrote the day I finished reading Dune, was the last complete short story I produced until college. I knew I could never aspire to be such as a "Writer". Or even more difficult to achieve, an Author of a Book. My first university fiction writing class in my senior year showed me something different. In fact it was actually my professor in my earlier and first college composition class in my sophomore year who made it clear to me that I had a spark and a talent for writing.

He was a man of passion and energy and he begged me to consider being a writer. I was impressed. More so than I think he was impressed with me. He both scared me, and motivated me.

It's an odd feeling to live your entire life dreaming of an unachievable thing and then to have someone you respect, and who is paid to know what's up in that area, tell you that you have a talent for achieving that dream. Then later on to find others consistently backing up that contention to where finally it seems as if you will allow actually that possibility to seep in, to take you over. To allow for he possibility that you may indeed have something to work with.

As with most things however, there is more to it than just having the talent.

Just as there are brilliant chess masters out on the streets playing for a buck a game. Masters who no rated chess master anywhere could ever beat. And yet those virtuoso live and play and die on the streets where no one knows their names. Their fortunes are only in the awe of those who do know of them, or have been lucky enough to have gotten to play one of them. For a great story on this see Jerry Seinfeld's interview with Michael Richards.

To paraphrase as has been said, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." I'm unsure who actually said that first. The point behind that statement however is that living is one thing, trying to entertain is another universe entirely. Where one might think they are the best, there may very well be another field or another section of a field where others are even better.

Art, is not something that should be easy to do. Otherwise everyone could do it and it would lose all meaning. Though there are a few special cases who may seem to be able to do it more easily than the rest of us, even they should strive to push their limits. Like loving ice cream and trying to eat five gallons at a sitting, the quality is not in the eating. It's in the creating and a well trained palate will always discern the difference between the tasty and the truly delicious.

All that being said, I've always been able to spin a good yarn. I used to love to practice telling a story, to see how long I could draw it out before I began to see the attention wan in someone's eyes. Then spin it up again to see if I could once again enrapture their attention.

How long could I tell a really boring story in yet a very entertaining way? It was amazing how long I could go at times, how long some people would let me go on. It was also good training that I didn't realize I was exhibiting in the long run, more for myself, than for others.

One day a guy listened to a story of mine for about twenty minutes. When I got done he realized that the substance of what I had just told him could have easily been told in a sentence or two and he commented on that.

"I can't believe you just took like twenty minutes to tell me all that. But don't get me wrong, it was very entertaining to listen to. Thanks."

High praise. It was around that time in starting college when I realized I could put pen to paper and do the same. That writing was simply an extension of my verbal storytelling. So I began to do the same too, on paper. How long could I spin a story out, say almost nothing but in such a way that is very entertaining to read?

I first noticed this with some of the old writers like Edgar Allen Poe. Years later with Clive Barker. I found I really didn't care where they were taking me, as long as they kept spinning those amazing words in the order they ordered them up in. Beautiful prose. Something that has gotten somewhat lost today as we want writings that we can read quite easily on a train, in a bus station, during a few free moments. Rather than devote an evening to reading a good book, we mostly now prefer to watch a show on TV. Or, the Internet.

I guess I've gotten somewhere along those lines as an author who reviewed my book, "Death of Heaven" (now in its second edition) had to say:

"[Death of Heaven] ... has a Books of Blood vibe [referring of course to Clive Barker's seminal horror books], which really works well. It's in these tales that the author's writing ability shines. He demonstrates a lovely turn of phrase and some of the writing is almost poetic in its beauty."
From Author & Reviewer Michael Brookes.

You can also get just the first full chapter of my book by itself in ebook or audiobook format as, "The Conqueror Worm". I tell anyone semi-jokingly, I dare you to read that first full chapter and then honestly say that you have no desire to go on to the next chapter of the book.

That's not bravado, it's an accurate observation. I simply did a very good job on that story and of all my writings it's the one story, when every time I read it and get to the ending I get emotional. It's almost impossible not to. It is as I said, a well written piece of horror.

Or as one first chapter contest write up put it:

"The story itself is very strong, lulling the reader into a false sense of security as two young boys hunt for treasure, before ultimately morphing into a violent and sometimes disturbing tale of horror. This is done with such swiftness that it takes the reader almost completely by surprise, which only enhances the effect." from WILDSound Writing Festival's First Chapter Contest

Please feel free to drop by my website sometime. There's much more available there. Don't let that web site freak you out either. It's just oddness there, is all. Hang out on there for a little while, you'll see what I mean.


I just finished reading Tough Love Screenwriting by John Jarrell, I very much enjoyed that smack in a screenwriter's face by someone who should know all about it. I'm also re-reading Syd Field's seminal Screenplay, The Foundations of Screenwriting. As well as Storyline, Finding Gold in Your Life Story by the charming and talented Jen Grisanti.

They say, "write what you know" but people take that wrong. Most do, perhaps.

You need to know what you know and write from that perspective. Taking those diamonds of experience, you then need to be able to recognize them from you life and spread them around in your writing or storytelling for others to experience in such a way that it fits your purpose.

You can also then use them over and over if you just use them properly to your advantage. Twist them around until they are unrecognizable and remember, these are yours to use.

I'll give you an example. I used my son's CD of music from high school that he wrote, played and produced in my video book trailers. But you can only use so much of a limited amount. Eventually I started using pieces I had used before and by using some music editing software (Audacity) I twisted them, running them backward and playing with them until even my son didn't recognize his own music. In this music, only we have license to it (as he gave his permission) and I don't have to use music I need to pay for, or even make my own to use

Interesting story there. To keep it short, for years (since the 80s) I've kept a few cassette tapes labeled "practice tape #x" with music from when I was playing guitar alone, practice and simply enjoying myself.

Recently I pulled them out to possibly use on my videos, but none of that music survived for some reason. Ruined, lost or recorded over either on purpose or inadvertently, or perhaps an ex did it as I'd experienced that kind of passive \ aggressive thing before.

I was truly unhappy about the loss of those tapes because I remember really liking some melodies I came up with. I had planned to keep them in case I wanted to use them later or to finish out a song or two. But now sadly they are lost forever.

In that train of thought, that reminds me of another truism in writing: "kill your children" or "kill your darlings." Meaning that when you have some writing in a story that takes the reader out of the story and they see or realize they are reading the author, then you need to cut those pieces. Do not slow down the reader just to enjoy your brilliance. It should flow seamlessly. So either be brilliant always, or avoid hills and valleys whenever possible.

Yet also do not throw away your brilliance. Ever. Print them out or store them in a digital file, but don't delete them, that would just be showing your mind disrespect for the effort and intelligence it has shown and you should reward that whenever possible.

You can always use them in another story later. I've actually looked these tiny gems up and built entire stories around them. Freebies if you will. The work put into those gems came from my brain originally and eventually the processes leading up to the creation of that gem were stored in long term storage. So in using them later you access entire passages of your mind that you don't even know exist now. Time savers, really and truly.

Here are some of screenwriter John August's comments on writing. Among films he's written are, Big Fish, Frankenweenie, Dark Shadows, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie's Angels, and Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle and more. It's just always nice to hear another writer's perspective on writing, on life, on the effort it takes, and the payoffs it can give you.

All I have said here has only one thing tying it all together. That is, why did I write all this today? To sell my wares? To make you think I'm "somebody" (I'm not)? Or that I'm wonderful (I am)? Or that I'm some kind of genius? I'm not, I assure you, otherwise my life would be way better than it is now.

No. The common thread in all the above is this:

Entertaining people is a wonderful thing to do. You too can do it. If you really want to.

That's it. That's all I had to say in this blog for this week. Though I did try to add something more in case you were interested in writing yourself, or like once I was, thought you could never write anything worthy of others reading, thinking it was quite beyond you.

The mechanics of writing was what stopped me for decades until that first professor I told you about said, "Hey, don't think about the mechanics. That's what editor are for, after all." Thus giving me license to relax and simply tell my stories.

That's true and everything about editors but honestly in the end, we want to be our own editors as much as possible. It only enhances your writing and saves time. Sure get one, but make their job as easy as possible and learn from their work on your writings. If for no other reason it's cheaper for you that way. Not to mention they will brag about you to others which is just free marketing and publicity.

So how does one write a fiction story?

Pen to paper, really. Fingers to keyboard. Mouth to microphone. Just get the story out because in the end, writing is really rewriting. More rewriting for some than others surely. But to write fiction you have to write.

Find your idea, think of a kernel of a thought. Stabilize it on audio recording, or analog with pencil or pen or, digitize it with a keyboard. Whatever it takes for you to get your brilliance down where others can examine or enjoy it.

Give it a middle, as you have to start somewhere. Or give it a beginning or an end. Then write forward from that or backward, out outward. Then, read it back in it's entirety. Missing a good beginning or end? Write backward to the start, or forward to the finish. Play with it. The biggest obstacle I've seen is options.

Beginning writers (and experienced ones too) simply see too many options in what to write, what direction to take. But that gets narrower with experience, so relax. The more you write the easier it gets.

For myself I don't worry too much about an ending. For me in the beginning, for many years, that was my killer. A fear of endings. My friends told me years ago that they loved my writings but they told me, with love, "Give it a damn ending!" But I was terrified of endings. An ending meant you had put your stamp on it and if others didn't think it was brilliant, you were an idiot. It wasn't until I had to turn in many non-fiction papers in college that I started to feel the confidence to generate decent endings.

Once you have the elements in place, a fun story (fun in funny, or fun in sadness, but entertaining, scary, intriguing, etc., whatever). Then read it and fix any issues that bug you, that stop you, that slow you down. You need to do what I used to say as a tech writer was "massaging" the text. Smoothing it out, perfecting it. Read it as if it's not yours. Wait a day or a week and read it. Then as you read it once through keep in mind the stuff that bugs you, slows you, speeds you up, gets your blood racing or kills your mood. Keep notes if need be.

Then read it again and fix it. 

Read it again then and if you find now (after two, or twenty rewrites or re-edits) that it flows smoothly to a conclusion, but there are some really good parts that stop you dead, even if they are brilliant, that's when you kill your children, slaughter your darlings. Cut them. Save them. Move on.

Once you are past a first draft, get someone to read it. Someone you trust not to damage you over it, who can give you some advice ("I don't like this character, or this part", or "I love this part but...."). I had to do this on my own because for many years no one would read me. Certainly not family, not girlfriends, not wives. They couldn't seem to be less interested and that seems to be a common thread.

"No one listens to the prophet in his own village." There is a reason for that, so don't feel bad if no one is all that interested in your writings. 

Mostly, I got here by myself. It just takes practice, perseverance.

It was only in the past few years that I found some good readers and an editor to whom I'm forever grateful. In doing it myself all these years, it was not unlike playing chess by myself. Reading my own writings as if I'd never seen them before (usually waiting a week allows for that),

I have gained a lot in having had to do it all by myself. But then in getting an editor I learned that little bit more I just couldn't have done alone. Also, watching massive amounts of videos and documentaries about writers, reading their (only the good ones) good books on writing, I continued to educate myself

And then.... read your writing again. In the beginning of becoming a writer there are many rewrites. But as you do this over and over you do get better and better. The rewrites become fewer and fewer. Read it again. Edit it until it flows as well as you want it to.

In my beginning years I would say that I did this process until I wanted to throw up and could no longer look at a story, then I knew it was done; because I couldn't look at it anymore. Some would ask me back then, "how do you know when to quit writing and editing?"

I would tell them I would know because I simply couldn't read it anymore. So it had to be done. That was when I needed an editor however. I sent those stories out to sell to magazines and I did that for a long time until one day, someone actually bought one.

I'd finally gotten there and on my own.

Anymore? I just know when I'm done writing a story now. I have tied up all the loose ends. The beginning is intriguing enough to draw a reader on, the ending is entertaining and satiating enough that a reader may want to try reading something else I've written.

After a while you get to where you just know. My editor has said that I quickly caught on from her edits, my writing has gotten better, and she has to edit less and less. Considering that my writing was already good enough to sell to the market, it was good to hear that I have gotten even better.

Sometimes, a second pair of eyes are just golden. 

In summation if you want to write, if you have a passion for it, write. If you don't have a passion for it, then don't bother. But if you do bother, then do it right. Learn, but don't waste. Don't spend money where it's useless but at some point, you may have to put your wallet where you desires are. Just don't do it too soon because so much can be achieved in spending so little money. So many writers simply throw their money at and away (those who have it anyway and some who sadly, don't) and yet they never really learn a thing from it, or never get anywhere for all that money and wasted effort. 

There are multitudes of people out there wanting to take your money for your writings. I learned long ago that if I were to sell my writings, people would have to pay me. I wasn't going to pay them. 

Now I'm not talking about contests. That's entirely another cup of tea. But just as dangerous. Learn to verify, validate, check and double check. Never spend money on your writing unless you are absolutely sure you are getting value for it.

Track down who says what contest is good and which are the ones to avoid. The information is out there. Use it. Look before you leap. Validate before you spend. And only send something when you think it really has a chance, otherwise, keep working on it and yes, it can seem to take forever.

In the end if you want to be a writer you will.

Nothing will stop you. No one will hold you back. It's something that just has to come out, and it will. But how soon, how wisely and how effectively will you be at the post creative process, the marketing, selling, spreading around the word of your brand, your name?

It seldom happens overnight. For some it does. Luck does have something to do with it, sometimes even nepotism. But the skill has to be there to begin with. You have to be in the right place, have the (right) material available if someone asks. Make sure it's golden and don't fear success. The fear of success is a big killer of so many talented people. Just as they are making it they sabotage themselves, fearful of failure or in not knowing how to handle success when it happens, usually unexpectedly.

A famous author once said he wallpapered his home office with rejection slips until a wall was full. Then he filled another and another and then started on another room. I took that to heart only I kept a scrapbook of them until finally one day I got accepted and realized I was sad that I didn't get a rejection slip in order to see what theirs would have looked like.

I had to convince myself this sale was good. This after all was what I had been shooting for, for years. After a few days I did start to feel good about it. 100% good. You have to steel yourself to the reality of the pain of the business, the let downs, the lack of returned calls or emails, the rejections. Everyone is hustling and they forget you quickly if you're not right in front of them.

Talk about an industry with ADHD! The entertainment industry is brutal. You're only as good as your last work. You only exist if someone already wants you. To get a job you have to have had the job before. So on and on. 

But when it works, when you make a sale, when someone says how good you are or you see or read or hear someone compliment your works, it's really pretty amazing. But you have to get that going in a steady and continuous stream in order to make it all worth it. Otherwise, what you have is just a hobby. 

Make up your mind. Is this going to be a hobby or a business? Because if it's a business then you have to be professional. You have to do the work. It's hard work, just like any job. Don't just love the romance of being a writer, because so many do that and then fail or give up. Learn to love the hard, lonely hours spent producing words on a page. Love the process. Love the journey. The destination then will come but if you only love the romance or the destination, you may find yourself sorely lost.

So many marriages fail because people don't get that it can work and should be work because anything you really and truly love and want, takes effort to achieve and hang onto. Otherwise it's gone on the next tide. And that tide is relentless. So you have to be too. 

Success comes to those who wait it out, who work harder than they need to, who always expand their horizons so they will be ready for whatever comes their way. Inevitably when opportunity knocks on your door, you won't be ready or in the mood or it will be wearing a disguise just begging you to say no, to turn away or to give up. 

Remember that one all important thing if you want success.

Well okay, I don't really know what that is and it can be different for everybody. You have to find what that is, for you.

Just know that when it shows up, you'd better be ready for it because it will come at you full bore and from an oblique angle. You won't see it, you won't be ready for it and you may not even notice it when it zips by.

But if you do notice it, grab hold, hang on and the final key is...don't let go. Because then is when things get really interesting.

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