May 30, 2024 / 4 Comments

Five by Five

Tomorrow’s another big birthday for me. I think Patton Oswalt called it “the double nickel” a few months back when he also hit said milestone. I’m probably going to spend it doing something silly. Maybe random toy shopping. Maybe playing games. I’m probably going to watch a Godzilla movie or two and try to keep up that tradition.

Anyway, I often try to mark the day by offering you some semi-useful thoughts on writing in general. More the whole big idea of writing and being a writer than the nutsy-boltsy stuff I tend to blather on about most of the time. And this is going to be one of those posts. Apologies if it’s a little long.

So, for my 55th birthday, here’s five things I wish I’d known at various points in my writing journey.

1) You’re never too young
For a long time I thought I wasn’t old enough to tell stories. I was writing well before I hit my teens, yeah, and even submitting some of it. But that was all just being young and stupid and not knowing any better. Once I started taking my writing seriously, I felt like I needed more experience—in just about every way possible—before anyone was going to give me any consideration. And I didn’t shake this feeling until well into my twenties. It took me a long time to believe my work was going to measure up to all these other folks.

What I discovered much later was that so many of those people I’d admired as writers hadn’t been much older than I was when they started out. Some of them had only been a few years older than me at that point. It’s not so much that they’d been drastically more experienced, they’d just been willing to take a few chances. Not wild, longshot risks—there’s still a wide swath of property between “brave” and “foolish”—but they decided to try rather than wait until they’d hit some self-imposed limitations.

So don’t rush to do something as soon as you can… but also don’t wait to hit some weird benchmark you read somewhere on the internet or just made up yourself.

2) Don’t worry about getting it perfect
I went through a long phase of trying to get everything perfect. Of trying to make it all, y’know, real writing. And I was usually trying to do it on the first try. I’d spend hours on each paragraph, trying to find the perfect phrasing, the perfect word, not moving on until I’d gotten things just right.

Of course, what this really meant was it was taking me ages to do anything. My first complete draft of The Suffering Map took actual years (plural) to get done. Because I was so wrapped up in what it should be like by the time it was done, I wasn’t acknowledging how many more steps there were before it was done.

It’s something a lot of folks have to get past, but the truth is… there’s going to be a second draft. I’ll get to clean and polish and, yes, pick better words. In fact, they’ll probably be much better because I’ve had time to think about them in context rather than obsessing over this single phrase in chapter three for an hour or so.

Which means for the first draft, I can just write. Not sure about that word? Just say “fast” for now and we’ll find the perfect word in the next draft. Not sure about her name? She’s “Phoebe” for now and if a better name comes to me I’ll start using it then. It took me years to realize this, but once I did my productivity probably quadrupled.

3) Finish things
For the longest time, the biggest thing holding me back was that I never finished anything. Which sounds silly but… there it is. All those early submissions I made to Marvel? I was sending in the first issue of what was clearly a multi-issue story. And in complete honesty, I had no real idea how the rest of it would go. A lot of the early “novels” I’ve mentioned here? Lizard Men From the Center of the Earth? All that Doctor Who and Boba Fett fanfic? The Werewolf Detective? The Trinity? None of them were ever completed. Still haven’t been. I’d just rocket from one thing to the next. Usually just writing the fun, cool parts before I got bored and moved on.

Weirdly enough, my first real, serious interest came from a completed script for Deep Space Nine, which got me half an hour in a room with Ron Moore, and then later another half hour or so with Hans Beimler. Later, when I actually finished a novelThe Suffering Map—I started getting interest from agents.

Yeah, some of the fun goes out of writing when I made that jump from “writing the fun parts” to “writing all of it.” But it was also a huge moment when I realized I’d actually finished an entire, start-to-finish book manuscript—something Drusilla Campbell once told me less than one out of a hundred people who call themselves writers ever do.

And, off my own experience, I’d guess it’s something 99 out of a hundred agents and editors want to see.

4) You’re never too old
Every now and then someone starts talking about ageism in publishing. Or Hollywood. Or comics. A friend’s dad once told us, right after college, that if you haven’t made your mark by age 25 it was never going to happen. End of story.

And it’s easy to see why people feel this way. Society loves youth (sometimes, but that’s another discussion). You don’t hear about a lot of forty year old breakout stars. Forbes doesn’t do a “Sixty under Sixty” list. And yeah… publishers aren’t always as eager to publicize their *cough* more mature writers.

But the simple truth is, there are countless stories out there of people over the age of twenty-five writing their first book or making their first movie and finding success. I sold my first novel at 39 and it didn’t see print until just before I turned 41. This keeps happening, even as people say it doesn’t happen. I mean, just think about it. Can you honestly picture a publisher saying “Damn, this is the most page-turning, uplifting manuscript I’ve ever read and we’ll sell a million copies, easy… but the author’s forty-three.”

I think—and this is just me spitballing with a bit of evidence—that a lot of ageism complaints come from people who aren’t willing to change or adapt. “This is how we did it thirty years ago and it worked just fine then!” When I used to read scripts, I got some that were clearly very old scripts that had gotten a fresh coat of paint to update them. But often this “update” made it clear the screenwriter didn’t understand a lot of the terms they were using and that they were… well, old.

(seriously, how do you not know how an iPod works?)

Look, I’m minutes away from turning whatever-that-double-number-is years old. I grew up in a very different world than most of you reading this. Different views and values. Different technologies. And very different ways of telling stories. I’m trying hard to be better when it comes to writing the world as it is, not as it was—in so many ways. It’s not about whether I can do it, or if anyone will let me do it–it’s about whether I can learn to do it or not. Am I willing to change and grow, or do I want to keep insisting it’s 1988 and complaining that nobody else understands how things should work?

5) Do it because you love it
This may feel obvious, but I honestly couldn’t tell you how many folks I’ve met who look at writing for all the wrong reasons. They think it’ll be easy. That they’ll get rich quick. That it’ll get them invited to all the cool parties. They think it’ll get them a movie/ streaming deal. I’m talking probably hundreds of people I’ve personally been in the presence of.

On a similar note, there’s a lot of people who write in certain genres or formats because of… well, all those above things. It’s not what they’re interested in, but scribbling out a romance will be easy, right? First person is what everyone’s buying. Fantasy means I can just make it all up—it doesn’t have to make sense. Thrillers are where the big money is right now.

I tried chasing the boom for a while. I tweaked my writing to what I thought it needed to be to succeed in this genre or that style. And doing this led me down a lot of dead ends. Stories I didn’t enjoy writing. Stories I wasn’t all that excited by. Stories that went nowhere.

Again, the response to my work got a lot better when it was my work. The kind of weird, twisty stories I liked. The kind of characters I liked. All written in the style I enjoyed writing in. Because I really, truly believe readers can tell how the author felt about a story. They know if I had fun writing this or not. If I was excited about writing it, and about them reading it.

So don’t worry about meeting someone else’s expectations or about what’s hot right now. Write the things you want to write. Tell your stories the way you want to tell them. They’ll be stronger, they’ll be more authentic, and that love you have for them will show through.

Anyway, that’s all the old man birthday wisdom I’ve got for you. Hope some of it was useful or encouraging. Or at least entertaining. All birthday thanks can be given in the form of action figures or rum. If you don’t know how to get action figures or rum to me, you don’t need to worry about it (but thanks of the thoughts). Please don’t sing. I really can’t stand that.

Next time, I’ll probably talk about some of the people I’ll be talking with at StokerCon tonight.

Until then, go write.

January 18, 2024


Okay, one last start-of-the-year post. I promise. I won’t ask you to think about anything else writing-related.

Well, not until next week. But that’ll be different stuff.

Last week I talked about process and diminishing returns. That maybe the way I’m doing things right now—no matter how long I’ve been doing them—might not be the best way for me to do things. Maybe just for this project, maybe… overall. Sometimes we just need to look at what we’re doing and how we’re doing it and figure out if there’s room for improvement.

The catch here, of course, if I have to be willing to improve. I have to acknowledge there’s a problem that needs to be fixed. Or at least a rough spot that could use some sanding or lubrication or something.

And like I mentioned before, that can be tough. Nobody wants to admit they’ve been doing things wrong or that they’ve possibly wasted a lot of time beating their head against a wall when the door was right over there. I mean, it even had a bright red exit light over it.

So look… here’s four things I should be willing to graciously acknowledge about my writing.

1) My first attempts at writing aren’t going to be good
When we first start writing, it’s tough to admit something we wrote isn’t good. We put in the time and the effort (okay, maybe we only put in one of those) and ended up with a solid three pages that were… mediocre, maybe. Possibly just bad.

But this isn’t anything to be bothered by or ashamed of. It’s normal. You didn’t expect to make a perfect three-layer cake the first time you tried. Didn’t think the first time you started jogging it’d be as effortless as some runners make it look. Why would writing be any different?

None of us like to be the clumsy rookie, but the fact is it’s where everyone starts. Especially in the arts. People love to tell stories about those gifted prodigies who won awards and prizes with their first attempt at something, but the truth is most of them are just that—stories. It’ s folks cherry picking (or ignoring) the facts to create a narrative that helps them push an idea. Sure, there’s a few actual gifted amateurs out there—very, very few—but the vast majority of us have to work at something to get good at it.

You noticed I said “us,” right? Lots of folks think of Ex-Heroes is my first attempt at a novel, but it wasn’t. There was the very clumsy early work Lizard Men from the Center of the Earth, a super-derivative sci-fi novel called A Piece of Eternity, a puberty-fueled fantasy novel (embarrassing on a number of levels), some Star Wars and Doctor Who fanfic, The Werewolf Detective of Newbury Street, The Trinity, The Suffering Map, about half of a novel called Mouth… and then Ex-Heroes.

And I can tell you without question that most of those sucked. In many different ways. It doesn’t mean I didn’t try to sell some of them (we’ll get to that in a minute), but I couldn’t improve as a writer until I accepted that I needed improvement.

2) My first draft isn’t going to be good
There was a point where I ‘d fret over my writing. I’d worry about individual words, each sentence, every paragraph. I’d get halfway down the page and then go back to try to rewrite the first paragraph. And then I’d get to the bottom of the page and rewrite it again. My productivity was slowed to a crawl because I kept worrying about what had happened in my story instead of what was going to happen.

It was a very freeing moment for me when I realized my first draft was pretty much always going to suck. And that’s okay. Everybody’s first draft sucks. We all have to go back and rework stuff, no matter how long we’ve been doing this. Everyone. I’ve seen some folks argue that they don’t technically do drafts, per se, but if you look close even they admit they rewrite a lot.

Once I could admit that and shrug off all those worries about word choice and sentence structure and dialogue and everything else… well, it became a lot easier for me to finish a first draft. Which meant I could do a second draft and a third draft. And then maybe even sell something.

3) My writing’s going to need editing
Okay, this seems like an obvious second half of the last admission, doesn’t it? If my first draft is bad, clearly it’s going to need some editing. Thing is, there’s a lot of folks who hear “it’s bad” and immediately move on to the next thing (I’ve got a whole school of thought about why this is, but that’s a different topic). Because my writing is perfect, so you saying it’s bad must mean there’s some inherent flaw in the plot or the characters that would mean rewriting the whole thing and who has time for that?

Look, we miss a lot of stuff on a first draft. On reflection, that character may be a bit of a stereotype. That dialogue could be a little sharper. I use that one turn of phrase a lot. I mean, seriously, it’s in every chapter.

And holy crap. Chapter nine? What was I even thinking? That’s just gone. Deleting the whole thing. Best if nobody ever sees that. It seemed like I needed it at the time but now that we’re doing this whole “admitting” thing… yeah, it should go. Doesn’t matter that I spent three days writing it. Gone. Remember to fix all those chapter numbers now…

Truth is, the editing is where we actually start to get better. It doesn’t happen by going to seminars or reading how-to books, it happens by sitting down and working on the writing until it’s better. And sometimes, yeah, it takes time and effort and multiple tries to make things work. Worse yet, no matter how much we learn, we’ll always find new mistakes to make and new things we can mess up.

Ha ha ha, you say. Well, only for so long, right? Eventually I’ll hit the point where I’ve figured it all out and writing holds no more mysteries. I will solve writing, yes?

Ehhhh, not really.

One of our goals is to come up with something new. We’re going to try these characters in that setting, this plot with those characters, maybe even some types of characters I’ve never tried writing before. And all these new combinations mean new things to learn and new mistakes to make in my early attempts. Running some quick and kind of horrying numbers, I can safely say I’ve been trying to tell stories for over forty-five years now (which is really weird when you consider I’m definitely still in my late thirties) and I really wish I had this down to a science. But the truth is I just finished a major rewrite on a book that’d already gone through four drafts. Because… well, it needed the editing.

4) My writing’s going to be rejected
Look, not everything’s going to appeal to everyone. Doesn’t mean it’s bad, it’s just that people have different tastes. They have different moods. No matter how hard we try to be fair, we like and dislike things for random reasons. Maybe it was a good story but the main character has the same name as an ex things ended really poorly with. Maybe I’d just seen one too many journal-style stories that week. Heck, maybe I had mild food poisoning at the time.

Good stuff gets rejected sometimes. It’s just a fact of life. Heck, even with the list of publishing credits I’ve got now, I’ve had short stories rejected, book proposals, comic proposals, all sorts of stuff. Rejection got less painful once I realized it wasn’t some personal attack, just a person who didn’t connect with my story at that moment for some reason.

Also probably worth admitting the ugly truth. Sometimes we also get rejected because… well, our stuff’s just not that good. Two agents asked to see The Suffering Map and both sent me a polite “sorry, not for me” letter. And they were (in retrospect) 100% right to do so. It wasn’t a great book and it had a lot of problems.

Oh, and please don’t fall into the trap of thinking something’s automatically good because it got rejected. We’ve all seen the folks who see rejection as proof their book is too good for those agents and Big Five publishers. We’re being honest here and admitting the truth, remember?

Y’see Timmy, if I can admit some of these things to myself, it can only make me a better, stronger writer. These aren’t flaws I have to wear forever like a big red letter A. Really, if I look at the above statements and my gut reaction is “Well, yeah, but this doesn’t apply to me,” it’s probably a good sign I’m not admitting some thing to myself.

So as you step fully into this new year, take a good look at your writing, and be willing to acknowledge what’s there.

Next time, I may blather on about first drafts a little more. Or tabletop games. Or maybe something else, if anyone has requests.

Until then, go write.

June 17, 2021 / 1 Comment

Experience Points

I’ve mentioned experience once or thrice over the past few posts, and I figured it might not be a bad thing to blather on about. It’s one of those things we all talk about and acknowledge, but also all like to believe we’ve got enough and don’t need any more. Mostly because… well, how much is enough? How do you even measure experience? Are there real-world units of experience?

Anyway, let me toss out a few things we can all think about. Like this story you may remember. It’s funny and I’ve told it before.

As it says over on the About page, I’ve got really old New England roots. I mostly grew up in Maine, but I spent my high school years down in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Yes, with the Rock and the Mayflower and all that. One of the big tourist attractions there is Plimoth Plantation, a sort of ongoing LARP museum/interactive show of the original colony in the year 1627. Likewise, all the actors there are playing specific, actual historical figures from that year. You can walk in, talk to the different “residents,” and they’ll answer questions about what they’re doing at the moment or “current events.” Sometimes, depending, they’ll also ask about your odd and extremely improper clothing (young lady, are you showing your shoulders?!? In public?!?)

(weird fun fact—if you’ve ever seen that late ‘80s movie Warlock, the whole “Boston Colony” sequence they show at the beginning with the little town is actually Plimoth Plantation)

Anyway… a friend of mine from high school worked at the Plantation. They assigned her an age-appropriate historical role, and part of that role was getting married at the end of the summer to another character, Experience Mitchell (ahhh, Puritan names). The thing was, my friend kinda had a behind-the-scenes thing for another Pilgrim. So on the big day, she told me one of her co-workers gave her a “wedding gift” in the changing room, a t-shirt that said…

            Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.

It was a clever pun, yeah, but the phrase stuck with me because… well, it’s true.  If you talk to anyone who’s considered experienced, it’s because they failed or screwed up. Probably a lot.

Now—somewhat back on track—in one of the Sandman books, I remember someone (I think it was Eve?) told Matthew the Raven that everyone has at least three great stories in them. This is true, but I think there’s also an unspoken corollary there which is just as important. And it gets ignored a lot.

Yes, we all have at least three great stories in us, but we also have all have lots and lots of bad stories in us. Dozens of them. Maybe even hundreds. We have awful characters, contrived plots, cringe-worthy dialogue, and some incomprehensible structure. We’re not even going to talk about those horrible twists or the very awkward sex scene.

Yes, I’m saying we. I’ve written sooooooo much bad stuff none of you are ever going to see. My third grade attempt at a novel, Lizard Men From the Center of the Earth.  My middle-school sci-fi novel.  My Boba Fett and Doctor Who fan-fiction. My junior high fantasy novel.  My high school werewolf-detective novel.  My college novel, The Trinity.  My after-college-moved-to-California novel, The Suffering Map. And mixed in there are a ton of comic scripts, short stories, screenplays, and I think even one solid attempts at a stage play. Thousands of pages.  Thousands of hours of work.

And pretty much across the board, all that work sucks.

It sucks on different levels, for different reasons, but don’t doubt that most of it sucks hard. I spent weeks and months and years in one case writing stuff that should never again see the light of day. I’ve got no problem admitting it. In fact, being able to admit it let me move from being a random dabbler to a serious writer. I spent about twenty years digging through all those bad stories and found the good ones underneath.  Maybe even one or two great ones.

Writing all those stories was my experience. I had to get them out. Whenever you hear about an overnight success or an amazing “first” novel, odds are that writer’s got a really long string of awful work behind them. Sure, there’s always a chance they really are an overnight success—sometimes those great stories are right on the surface, the way a prospector might kick over a rock and find a gold nugget just sitting there. But for the most part, becoming a good writer means a lot of, well, not getting what you want. Doing the work and then doing… more work.

Y’see, Timmy, there’s an all-too-common belief that just finishing something means it’s good. I mean, I made it all the way through to the end on my first try. That’s a lot of writing. That novel must be worth publishing and being read, right?

But the truth is, the vast majority of first novels are awful. And that’s okay. The second ones are pretty bad, too. Ex-Heroes was my first published novel, yeah , but it was my seventh-and-a-half attempt at writing one. And, as I hinted above, I’m really glad it was the first one people saw.

Because that junior high fantasy novel… jeeeeez, less said about that one the better. So embarrassing. On so many levels.

Sometimes we pour our hearts into something, spend weeks or months or even years on it, and we still don’t get us what we want. But at least we get some experience. If we admit we need it.

Next time, I think I want to talk about what was happening a few days before this.

Until then… go write.

November 29, 2018 / 3 Comments

Next Time, Gadget! Next Time!!

            Wow, November’s almost over.  Where’s this month gone?  Hell, where’s this year gone?  Can you believe Black Panther only came out a little over eight months ago?  Seriously.
            The end of November also means we’re closing in on the end of NaNoWriMo.  About, what, a day and a half left?  Maybe a little less, depending on when you read this?  I hope it’s going well for you.  I’m sure you kicked ass, but I hope you realize that.  Whatever you got done this month is an achievement.  So many people talk about writing, but you went out and did it.
            How much did you get done?  Thirty thousand words?  Forty five?  Sixty?  Are you one of those inhuman folks who closed in on ninety thousand words (an average of 3000 words a day—I know lots of pros who’d envy that kind of stamina).
            Which brings me to one of the best things you’ll get out of this.
            Let’s say you ended up with 45,000 words.  An average of 1500 a day.  Not a novel, but it’s halfway there, easy.  It’s a good solid novella as is, and there are some markets opening up for that sort of thing.

            But here’s the thing…

            If I did this once, I can do it again.  Those 45,000 words are inarguable proof that I’ve got the ability to produce words at a good rate.  At a professional rate!  Which means I could do it again in December and boom look at that! A ninety thousand word manuscript, if I keep going on the same thing.  That’s a novel.  Any publisher on Earth would call that a novel.
            Are they 90,000 perfect words?  Ehhhh… probably not.  But it’s a very solid first draft.  And if you produced a first draft, it means you’ve got it in you to do a second and third draft.  You can’t deny it.  The proof is right there.
            Even better—you can do it again!  Maybe in March and April.  Keep up that same rate and there’s another 90,000 word first draft.  Hell, maybe next time you’ll be just a little faster.  Now that new manuscript’s 100,000 words long.  One.  Hundred.  Thousand.  Words. 
            And we both know you can do it, because you just did it now during NaNoWriMo.  And you can do it again.  And again.  And again..
            A bunch of times here I’ve mentioned my early attempts at writing novels.  The Werewolf Detective of Newbury Street.  The Trinity.  Even the wonderfully goofy, very early-oeuvre masterpiece Lizard Men from the Center of the Earth.  One thing they had in common was that I didn’t finish any of them.
            Another thing they had in common is that nobody bought them.  Nobody was really interested in them.  Because they were incomplete.  I didn’t have the stamina—or the confidence—to finish them.

            The Suffering Map is the first thing I finished.  It’s the first thing I wrote that made it to second and third and fourth drafts.  It’s also—no coincidence—the first thing of mine that got any interest from agents and editors.

            Did they buy it?  No, of course not.  It’s still awful.  I mean, let’s be honest–it was my first finished book.  There was so much clumsiness in it, on so many levels.
            But I finished it.  So I knew I could finish another one.  A better one.
            And I did.  I wrote my next book in almost a third the time.  Or a tenth, depending on how you want to look at things.  And that book sold.
            Being able to produce words is a huge accomplishment.  Having the discipline to keep doing it is fantastic.  And if you’ve managed to do ninety, fifty, or even just ten thousand words this month, you’ve proven you can do this on a regular basis.
            So, congratulations.  You just won NaNoWriMo in one of the most important ways you can.
            Next time, I thought I’d bounce a couple character ideas off you.
            Until then… go write!