Tag Archives: write

There’s No Success Like Failure

"The future ain't what it used to be."

“The future ain’t what it used to be.”

Sophistry and card tricks. Monday morning quarterbacks and backseat drivers. Data mining, info-graphics, ten-best lists. Rankings and reports and royalties and reviews and readings. The stuff of success?

Am I above the all-American dream? In by nine, out by five and make your first million before the first pot brews? Of course not. I’m a yankee doodle dandy as much as the next fella. But as soon as notions of success-measuring cliches enter the mix, I’m overwhelmed. Besides, a million isn’t cracked up to be what it used to be cracked up to be.

I wouldn’t turn down commercial success. Not on your life. But I can’t measure myself by it. That’s not why I do what I do. I haven’t made any New York list or bestseller list or even some Hoboken list. I’ve still got to do what I’ve got to do. I’ve got to create. I’ve got to produce. I’ve got to get it out and put it on paper or turn it into pixels or some damn thing.

Sure, I’ll promote myself. I’ll pitch. I’ll sell. But there’s boundaries. There’s some reasonless gut level line drawn in that invisible sand I’ll never cross. My writing isn’t based on market analysis or Pew polls or the latest Amazon stats.

I get an idea, see? I imagine an image or hear a voice. An artistic question pops into my little head that I’ve got to try to answer. It ferments and bubbles and boils over. It spills through my fingers and onto the electronic canvas.

Spinning on the so-called creative process leaves me with dizzy dissertations such as this with no business prospects in sight. Left brain-right brain? I sometimes wonder if they’re connected.

I meant this post to hold forth on measuring success, and here I am slinging in circles. But my hourglass is running on empty and I have writing to do. Maybe I’l be a success tomorrow. Or next week. Or next leap year. Maybe I’m already a success and I don’t even know it. Sure.

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Money is Art Shmart?

Do you like dough as much as the next guy? Apparently the next guy likes it like a kid likes fun. Blind, unthinking, hypnotized. He needs it like a wildfire needs some schmuck with a match.

I belong to lots of writers groups. I get a lot of links from writers. I scan, skim and read tons of industry blogs and put in plenty of related research. I know it’s a business. I know that side of the endeavor’s the point for most of these groups and posts. But I can’t help but reel from the abundance of crass commercialism.

Do not pass go, etc.

Do not pass go, etc.

Here’s a big-daddy tip to keep your readers turning pages. Find out how to generate more five-star reviews on Amazon. Here’s how to suck up to an agent or a publisher. I get that. There’s a major business side to this business. But once in a while, at least every blue moon or so, just as an exceptional goddamn change of pace, could someone hint that there’s an art aspect to all this?

That hint is out there if you look for it. If you’ve got a high-powered sight on your browser or your RSS feed. If you can weed through ninety percent of the cold, harsh, show me the money takes out there.

I’m sure there’s plenty of starry-eyed sights and blogs out there, all about dreamy aspirations, inexperienced hopes and unprofessional, uncommitted wannabes with naive principles and the raw inspiration to match. That’s swell, and let them have at.

I’m talking about writers who are “out there,” the pros and seasoned authors hitting their heads against the walls of keyboards and publishers and agents and magazines and ebook distributors. Do they still have the fire in the belly? The magic in their fingertips waiting to cut loose? A lit spirit drunk on the idea of achieving the purely creative?

Maybe most of these people and places still got it. Maybe they simply don’t get around to expressing art for art’s sake, for one reason or another. Could be a matter of time, platform and format, or I might be missing a trick altogether. Sure.

But I’d sure like to read about it every once in a great while. I can’t expect to achieve any kind of literary greatness. That’s beside the point. It’s what I strive for. That’s the point. Something special in the words, the flow, the ideas and their translation to the page. That’s what it’s all about and that’s why I do what I do. I’m compelled, riveted by it, obsessed with it and hooked like a strung-out addict.

And as long as I’m at it, how about making as much money as the next guy? I wouldn’t kick.

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The Beat Goes On: Year Two

I’ve just posted the lastest yarns in  “The Hard-Boiled Detective” series online. This new trio of tales kicks off the second year for this old-school, retro-detective, publishing effort. An effort and something of an experiment, too.

For the curiously uninformed, subscribers to the series get access to three new adventures every month. They download the stories in whichever electronic format floats their boat—ePub, mobi or PDF. The stories are what they sound like, a throwback to the days of the “Black Mask” boys, inspired by the likes of Chandler, Hammett and Spillane. As the website’s tagline goes, “Old-school detective fiction.” Sure.

I’ve always considered myself egotistical. Plenty arrogant. I admit I’m far and away my favorite subject. But maverick? I never gave that attribute much thought, but I’ve still never seen anyone trying out anything like this. Hard-boiled fiction short stories? By the month? On the installment plan? I simply figured it was the most natural thing in the world, as natural as Chandler dropping a simile, or Mike Hammer cracking open a skull. Sure.

Plenty of folks give me with the mouth dropped open when I tell them what I’ve got going. They act all impressed and bowled over and downright stupefied at my Herculean effort. I get a kick out of the reactions, even. Yeah, it’s somewhat humbling for my writing to make such an impression on people before they’ve even read one word.

The funny thing is, despite having cranked out 39 stories and more than 200,000 words, it feels to me like I write awful slow. There’s never enough time, never enough distance, and plenty of times the deadlines approach like a head-on collision. I always wish I could do more, do better. Maybe that’s the nature of writing. Maybe that means I’m still progressing. Or maybe that means I’m not good enough. Lucky for me I don’t have time to dwell on it.

Coming up with three yarns a month doesn’t leave for hardly any kind of dwelling time. I’ve got this terrific core of subscribers, but the series is by no means a rousing, commercial success. But there’s no time to worry about that. Right now I’m more concerned with the latest plot corner I’ve painted myself into. And then there’s the first collection I’m starting to edit and put into book form.

You can drive yourself over a cliff worrying about this and that and the other thing. Taking such a nose dive isn’t the kind of clear sailing that interests me. Besides, I haven’t enough time as it is. All I can do is what I have to do, what I need to do. All I can do is my best and let the rest take care of itself.

 

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Writing Indefinitely

Truman Capote, 1959

Truman Capote, 1959

Ever come across it? A passage in a story that makes some vague remark? It could be a description of a character or a scene. It could be the take on a given situation. It ain’t necessarily the bunk, but it’s the kind of thing that can sometimes drive me nuts.

You’ve read it before: “She was a good looker. Not too pretty, not too plain. Maybe 25. No more than 30. ”

That roundabout description’s okay with me. Sometimes. That’s the subjective eye coming into play. That’s expressed by a character or a narrator from their limited point of view. Fair enough. But when something indefinite is laid down by a character who otherwise knows their beans, or especially when it’s put across by an objective narrator in the third person, hazy text won’t fly.

Have you come across it? You’ve got a neutral narrator who knows every last thing about the story he or she is relating. Every plot point is ticked off thoroughly. Time, relationships, locations—all as set and obvious as a three-way intersection. And then the author gets all murky on a room or a character. Why the sudden ignorance?

The best authors fall into this trap. Even the ones I humbly aspire to. I won’t name names, I’ll just let them roll about in their graves. But a sudden lapse on the part of the author weakens the whole shebang. The telltale words leap out and muddy the proceedings: almost, kind of, sort of, nearly, close, maybe. And there’s plenty of etcetera from there.

The writer’s telling us maybe? Hell, if they don’t know, who does? And that leaves us with a namby-pamby sense of the action and people. The point’s not about getting cutthroat over minutiae. You want your prose to ring, to sing, to maintain its power and strength.

So watch your sense of things. It’s like maintaing present tense versus past tense. If you’re telling your readers everything for sure, keep it up. If you’re sure about one thing, be sure about another. Get me? Sure.

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Vacuum—the Final Frontier

I love nature as much as the next sap, but I gotta a say I love a vacuum more. I can’t picture a more perfect workplace than an empty, quiet room. And the odds of attaining that? Fat chance.

Kids, phones, family, neighbors. Seems there’s always more interruptions than you can shake a keyboard at. I don’t abhor me any vacuum. I relish a vacuum. The vacuum ideal. A vacuum is my fantasy, my pin-up girl, my unrealized idyll. I dream of vacuums.

Working in a vacuum emulates the blank page, the empty screen, the bare canvas. In a sense, you create out of nothing. You start with zip, and then there are words, sentences, thoughts, meanings.

The struggle is to juggle the wailings of the broad downstairs disciplining her three-year-old. Keeping the aural tones of the microwave from getting in your head. Maintaining the mood, rhythm and momentum while trying to break a ten for the daughter-in-law. Sure.

Feeding the mood can be as dicey as protecting a souffle. Don’t get me wrong. I ain’t no dilettante or prima donna. I don’t believe in waiting for the mood to strike or for inspiration to strike. “Writers write,” as the saying goes, and you’ve got to do it no matter the day, the time, the obstacles you’re presented with or those you create for yourself. But it can prove a touch disconcerting to attack a hard-boiled narrative with strains of rap music filling the air.

I suppose murder’s an option. That can tidy things up in a jiffy. A jail cell sounds like a swell vacuum.

 

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Hearing Voices: The Story Speaks

How many voices do you run across in a yarn? Typically you run into three types. Sure, we got types. And they’ve all got to play in order to make a story sing.

In a previous post, I rambled on about the most obvious of voices, dialogue. More subtle, perhaps more cunning, is the voice of the story itself.

Every yarns has its own point of view, perspective, take. It’s the voice that sets the tone and creates the story’s narrative form. It’s the brain and the heart behind the story. It ain’t easily achieved, but the idea’s as simple as asking, “Who’s telling the story?”

Leave it as easy as that for the moment. Imagine someone else is telling you the story, imagine the possibilities, and wake up to all those possibilities. Who, exactly, is putting across your little adventure? Your eight-year-old grandchild? A rummy at the bar? Your main character from her jail cell? That effects everything, from the subjectivity to the vernacular to the point of reference. Is it told with a sense of humor or as dire as hard-boiled can get?

Think about the heavy contrast going from a story narrated by Mister Rogers to one related by Rod Serling. Your story has its own, peculiar voice. It speaks up from the very first word, the initial combination of words, the very weight or weightlessness of the first idea or description. Name your poison and lay it on.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago–never mind how long precisely –having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

 

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Hearing Voices: The Dialogue of He Sez, She Sez

How many voices do you run across in a yarn? Typically you run into three types. Sure, we got types. And they’ve all got to play in order to make a story sing.

The most obvious type of voice is character, and most obviously expressed by what a character literally says. Plenty of authors complain about it, claiming they have heaps of trouble with dialogue. I haven’t made a study of it, but I’ve read plenty of bad dialogue. You’d think we’d all be better at it ’cause we seem to be surrounded by nonstop yapping. But it ain’t the case.

I don’t believe in rules and I don’t believe in absolutes when it comes to plenty of things, writing included. But there are plenty of principles and guidelines to rely on.

1. What does the character sound like, verbally?

If it’s a contemporary piece, he won’t be saying “swell” an awful lot. He probably won’t be speaking in complete sentences. And there’ll probably be a whole lot of contractions. The choice of words, including slang, should be guided by more than time period, but also by the age of the character. Throw together a 20-something dame going to college alongside an 80-year-old broad who worked stand-up and they’ll almost be talking two different languages. Think about diction. Think about formal versus informal.

2. What does the character want?

We’re always motivated. Some more negatively than others. But we’ve always got something going on, something stirring up within our excuse for gray matter. It goes a lot deeper and gets a lot more complex, but the idea’s as basic as that mug trying to win over that blonde at the bar. What will he say, exactly, and how will he say it? In turn, the lady in the case has her own agenda and will respond appropriate-like. Maybe she’s waiting for her boyfriend, her girlfriend, a blackmailer. Maybe she’s got a cold, a run in her stocking, lead poisoning, three months to live. All of that will feed her response.

3. What you don’t say says a lot

There’s a few basics that strengthen prose. Active choices, etc. Omit words such as “will” and “can.” Cutting to the chase usually provides a whole lot more pop. In a similar way, leaving things unsaid often gives dialogue a crisper quality.

Sarcasm, for example. When it fits the character, this can evoke plenty of attitude while striking a contrary chord. If someone pulls a bonehead move, and you want a character to respond, what resonates more? Sometimes it’s shorter and sweeter to hit the nail on the head, but other times there’s a strength in opposites. Here’s a flat example:

“So’s I fumble for my rod and go all nervous and winds up shooting myself in the foot.”

“That’s pretty stupid.”

Even the simplest, sarcastic response is an improvement of unparalleled heights:

“So’s I fumble for my rod and go all nervous and winds up shooting myself in the foot.”

“Brilliant.”

Maybe that’s no Pulitzer Prize example, but you catch my drift. Most of the time dialogue’s more powerful when a character gets their meaning across without saying what they mean.

Of course the bottom line is that it all has to play. The dialogue’s got to the fit the character and it’s got to serve the story. It’s got to move the plot along, set up or resolve a conflict, make for a little comic relief. It can introduce a new character or information or pivot the proceedings 360 degrees. Any or all of that.

Nothing to it, right?

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Nine Months in the Life of a Nameless, Fictional, Hard-Boiled P.I.

So this Ben Solomon character’s been spinning my yarns for 9 months now. Real proud of himself, too. Sometimes, at any rate. Sure.

He scratched out my first adventure back in August of 2012. As he put it, “It was a gas to write.” Sure it was. So he pens another one and tells himself he’s having a ball with the style and the lingo. Now the bird thinks he’s a on roll, for crissake. The third tale practically wrote itself, so he tells everyone.

I’ve provided him some set-up, a nice little threesome, and he’s all tickled about it. I’m the one taking the lumps while he’s cooking with gas. He gets so wound up, as a matter of fact, he decides to turn my adventures into a damn series. He goes and puts it online and charges dough for subscriptions.

And what kind of thanks goes with such an honor? My name in the title? A clever pun or take-off on my moniker? Not from Solomon. Not this joker. He makes it a point not to give me a name.

I’m forever just “The Hard-Boiled Detective” to him, eternally dancing around it in dialogue, in making my introductions, and even in plot synopses. So I ask you, as one fictional character to an invisible reader I’ll never hear from again, does that seem right to you? He won’t name the burg I work in or even identify what era I’m in. Is this the 1920s, ’30s, ’50s? He won’t give me that much.

I’ve already starred in 27 adventures—what more does he want from me? By my quick count, you can tally up 39 deaths in those 27 yarns—no less than eight in the current month’s edition. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been sapped, slapped and otherwise bounced around. I’ve been chased by car, on foot and shot at. And I’ve eaten my share of lead.

All of that and we’re still in the first year. I’m thinking I’m just downright unappreciated. I’m thinking, maybe, I should start a fictional detective union. How would you like them apples, Solomon? Just trying to keep you honest, buddy. After all, what am I, really, but one more shadow?

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Plotting It? Winging It? Faking It?

I write short stories any way and every way I can. These are very short stories I’m talking about. Anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 words.

Least of all I plot. Only once in a while will I outline the plot points from beginning to end. I’ll rely on it when the story hits me in so much detail that it’s the only way I can keep up with it. It’s a great way of letting it rip, narratively speaking. Forget about the quality and finer details. Just get it all down, recording every “what happens next” until it’s exhausted, until there is no more “next.” Technically speaking, it’s the only sound way to attack a story. If you know where you’re going, you can set it up, augment it, point to it, point away from it. You can even change it.

But I do wing it plenty. Maybe that’s because I’m plugging out a considerable volume on deadline. Maybe, too, because I’ve been getting away with it. One of my personal favorites began merely with an opening line, an entreating hook I just couldn’t resist. The rest of it wrote itself, so to speak, in one sitting. Sure, I lucked out that time.

On another occasion, I didn’t make out so well. Not at first. I had a terrific set-up, plenty of punchy dialogue, and some swell contrast of characterization. But where was it all heading? Sure, I had the resolve in general, but not the specific. The ending lacked the exclamation point. It didn’t come to me for days. But I happened upon it eventually.

Improvisational theater teaches that there’s always a response. There’s always a comeback, a reply, always another reaction to be found. Maybe that’s the real foundation of my technique, or lack thereof. Maybe I should be writing on stage.

You have to work with confidence. You’ve got to trust your head, your heart and your fingers. For now, I’m trusting myself to know when I need to outline and when I can just let it spill out. Either I’m that good, that cocky, or, if I’m real lucky, some of both. Maybe that’s the only way to be, whether I’m fooling myself or not. Sure.

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Deadlines—Real and Otherwise

Back in the days when I worked for a living–that was just a few months back–I coined a few phrases. None made into tablet form, stone or iPad. None were scribed upon the walls, hall or lavatory. But I remember them all, sure.

I’ve always been in printing and publishing, so one came up a lot. In fact, it came up a whole lot–not too much, just more than enough. See, deadlines came, deadlines went. Deadlines loomed forever. Just over the horizon, around the corner, the next morning, that night, later that afternoon, in the next half hour. Deadlines on top of deadlines. If there’s one thing we never ran short of, that was deadlines.

We had short deadlines and long deadlines and extended deadlines. On occasion we received extra deadlines. There were realistic deadlines, there were unrealistic deadlines. We even had constant deadlines. There were daily deadlines and deadlines generated by the week, month and year. The holidays always brought their own, seasonal deadlines. And if you were real lucky, at year’s end you received your bonus deadline.

But those aren’t the topper. They don’t even come close. No, my personal favorite, my all-time deadline to beat all deadlines had nothing to do with production cycles, press schedules or anything of a professional, practical nature. Not in the slightest. My number one deadline occurred by special, exceptional circumstance and never ever, not once, had anything to do with work.

I’m talking about the “fake deadline.” That’s what I called it whenever something came due for all the wrong reasons. A project wasn’t due for the next six weeks, but the client was leaving for Yosemite with the whole family in two days and needed to see the proof tomorrow. The owner of the company will deliver a job that’s due the next day, except he won’t be coming in, so he needs it now. A salesman hasn’t won over a client for weeks and is sleep deprived or over-medicating, or both–he promises delivery in a couple of hours just because he thought it sounded good.

Fake deadlines. Like telling myself I better knock out this column today so I can go to the vaping lounge tomorrow…

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