April 17, 2018 / 9 Comments

We’ve Never Met, But…

            I wanted to take a brief moment to re-address an issue I’ve seen pop up a few times recently.  It’s happened to me, it’s happened to friends, it’s happened to acquaintances.  Josh Olson and David Gerrold have both written impassioned pieces about it in the past.
            So let’s talk about bad networking…
            Yeah, this is going to be one of those divisive posts.  I’m betting a third of you walk away thinking I’m a jerk, and another third (possibly some overlap) walks away thinking this was aimed specifically at you. Very sorry in advance.  It’s really not aimed at anyone, just general observations from the past… oh, thirty years or so.
           These days it’s almost too easy to get in touch with people.  Especially famous (and semi-famous) people.  Email.  Social media.  Appearances.  It’s not uncommon to get a like, a response, maybe even a follow from somebody you admire.
            Of course, it’s important to be honest about what kind of relationships these are.  Mark Hamill’s liked two tweets I wrote, but I don’t think he’s going to be showing up to offer friendly support at my next book signing (even though we’re in the same city). Hell, Leslie Jones follows me on Twitter, but I’m pretty sure it’s just because I replied to a comment she made about Timeless and made her laugh.  That’s all it is.  I’ve gone to three Bruce Campbell signings, and the last two he pretended not to know me.
            Sounds a little creepy, that last bit, doesn’t it? 
            That being said…
            At least once a month I’ll get contacted by complete strangers or vague acquaintances, asking if I can read their manuscript or just a few chapters or maybe the final product for a blurb. Most of them are polite.  Some are… not as polite.  A few are flat-out arrogant.  I had one person demandmy time—insisting that I owed it to people to help them out.
            Actually, let’s talk time for a moment.
            I write full-time.  It’s my job.  It’s how I pay for food, rent, bills, everything.  I work forty to fifty hours a week.  Sometimes closer to sixty as deadlines loom.  I don’t think I’m terribly unusual in this.  I know a few professional writers who still have unrelated full time jobs, and then they’re still putting in twenty or thirty hours writing on top of that.
            Plus, there’s probably another ten or fifteen hours of various social media things mixed in there.  Posts, answering questions, chatting with folks online.  Tossing up random tips and ideas here.  It’s fun, and I enjoy talking with people, but that visibility is also part of my job.  Yeah, even when I’m drinking and ranting about bad movies on Twitter. Yes, I’m drinking on the job.
            And I get sent stuff professionally.  We’re just barely into the fourth month of the year and I’ve already been sent half a dozen books by editors, publicists, and my agent.  That’s part of the job, too.  Blurbing books helps out all of those people, so it’s just good office politics to read them.
            So—even on the very low end—we’re looking at a 55-60 hour work week.  I don’t think that’s out of the ordinary for a professional writer. Heck, it might be even a bit sub-par, by the standards of some folks.
            When someone asks me for a favor, they’re asking me to cut into that time.  To cut into the “this is how I make a living” time.  Oh, sure, I could cut into my free time instead, but… well, I don’t get a lot of it, so I tend to be protective.
            This isn’t to say I—or any professional—won’t help people.  I’ve got several writer-friends who help me with projects and I’d gladly help any of them with theirs.  There are people I’ve known for years and I often offer them tips or suggestions, when they’re wanted.  A few folks have standing offers from me to read their hopefully-soon-to-be-finished manuscripts.
            Again… I don’t think I’m out of the ordinary here.
            Alas, there is still this school of thought that successful writers must help less-successful ones.  Under any circumstances.  Bring their careers to a dead halt and do absolutely anything they’re asked to do.  Countless gurus push this idea, and spin it so the professional’s the one being rude or unhelpful is they don’t immediately leap to assist.  Especially when I call them on it in public.  Heck, if they don’t go above and beyond to help me… well, it’s just proof of what a selfish jackass they are. 
            But, hey, if I never ask, I’ll never know, right?
            Well… maybe, I should know.
            Here’s a handy checklist of things to keep in mind before I start asking favors of people.  If none of these apply to me… maybe I’m being a little forward asking a professional to give up part of their work week.
            And, yes, I’m mostly basing these off my own criteria and experiences.  But going off other interactions I’ve seen… I think most professional writers would agree with these.
[  ] I’m literate.
            If I’m trying to convince a chef to take me on as apprentice, what’s he going to think when I tell him my secret pizza topping is iron filings?  Or if I tell a doctor my last patient’s midichlorian count was super-low because Mercury’s in retrograde?  If I want help from a professional, I’ve got to show them I’ve got a firm grasp on the basics of my chosen field.  For us, that’s spelling and grammar.
            If I send a letter to pro-writer Wakko full of txtspk or weird references or just tins of spelling mistakes, I’m showing him I don’t know what I’m doing.  I don’t know the basics.  If I’m telling him this right up front, why would I expect him to spend several hours wading through my manuscript?  Or even part of it?
[  ] I’ve known them for several years 
            Just to be clear, if I said hello and shook hands with Wakko at a party three years ago, this really doesn’t mean I’ve known him for three years.  Do you remember that guy you met at a party three years ago and then never spoke with again? No? Odd that…
            This also holds true for being part of the same Facebook group.  And for following the same person on Twitter.  Or shopping at the same stores.
            Wait.  How do you know what stores they shop at…?
[  ] I’ve shared several meals with them 
            This doesn’t include me eating in the same food court while I stalked Wakko in the mall.  Again, what is it with following people around stores. Cut it out. That’s just creepy.
            No, this means me repeatedly sitting down with Wakko and chatting over drinks or maybe pizza and a bad Netflix movie.  What does it mean when I say I grabbed a bite with one of my friends?  Those are the same conditions I should be applying here.  That’s what real networking is.
[  ] We communicate with each other (via phone, email, social media) on a regular basis
            The key thing here is I need to remember communication is a two-way street.  Me spamming Wakko with messages and responses through multiple channels does not count as communicating.  Just being someone’s friend on Facebook, Twitter, or Mastodon doesn’t qualify, either.  No, really.  Check the terms of agreement—none of these websites have a “guaranteed friends with benefits” clause.  
            (If they did, we’d all probably be a lot more careful about accepting friend requests…)
[  ] I’ve lived with them
            This should be self-explanatory.  Not in the sense of “on the planet at the same time” or “crashed on the couch for a week,” but more in the “sharing rent and chores around the kitchen for several months” way.  After living in the same apartment/house/hostel for six months, I shouldn’t feel too much reluctance about asking Wakko to take a quick look at something I wrote. 
            Unless I really screwed him over on the last month’s rent or was a serious nightmare roommate
[  ] I’ve slept with them
            In any sense. Again, this should be self-explanatory.  I’d very much advise against making this an active networking technique, though.  For a whole bunch of reasons.
            But if I’m already sleeping with someone and they won’t look at my writing? Wow.  There’s some issues there I might want to address…
[  ] I actually want to hear what they have to say.
            Okay, here’s one of those ugly truths, and if you’ve been listening to me rant for any amount of time you’re probably already aware of it.
            Lots of folks say they want feedback, but what they’re really looking for is to get back wild praise and promises their manuscript will be passed on and up to agents, editors, publishers, and whoever makes the big Hollywood movie deals.  In my experience, very few people actually want to hear criticism of their work (even if it’s constructive).  They just want the fan mail and to skip to the next step. 
            Reading takes time. Writing up notes and thoughts takes time.  Honestly, if all I want is the praise and the handoff, I’m wasting Wakko’s time asking for feedback.  And he’s a pro, so his time is worth money.
[  ] I haven’t asked before.
            When I was in the film industry, there was kind of this unwritten rule—if you had some passion project or low budget thing you wanted to do, you could ask your professional friends to help out.
            The idea is that I’m acknowledging their skills and experience, but also that I’m calling in a big favor asking them to work for little or no money.  So, again, the quiet, unwritten rule.  You got one. It would be tacky and unprofessional to ask for more unless a lot of time had passed.  Like, several years.
            And since everyone knew and understood this, people were much more cautious about asking.  They’d make sure their project was solid and ready to bring other people in on, because nobody wanted to waste their one shot.  It would suck to get Wakko on board and then realize my script needed another draft.  Or two more drafts.
            I don’t want to waste that opportunity.
[  ] I’m not asking for something I could find out on my own.
            Look, when I was starting out as a writer you had to dig through magazines, make phone calls, send request letters, then go dig through more magazines, make different phone calls, and send different letters–and keep track of all of it. 
            These days all of this information is available with a bit of thought and a few keystrokes.  Really, there’s a huge amount of information I can get all on my own without bothering anyone else.  Honestly, the fact that we’re all right here looking at this post means we all have access to Google, yes?
            I think a lot of time when this happens, people are looking for the “real” answers.  They don’t want to know someplace to sell short stories—they want to know the ‘zine that pays a dollar a word and always gets the Edgar/Hugo/Stoker Award for short stories and inevitably lands their contributor with a big five publisher within a three-week window.  They want to know the agent who has a direct line to Simon & Schuster and takes unsolicited submissions.  Because there has to be one out there, right?  Surely all those big authors didn’t spend time in the junior leagues.  They just leapt from obscurity to six-figure incomes… like I want to do.
            If I want to make writing my career, part of the work is… well, doing the work.
            If I can tic off a couple of these boxes, I’m probably in a good place.  I’d feel pretty good about dropping someone like me a note, so to speak.  Again, I can really only speak for myself, but I think most professionals would feel the same way.
            If I can’t put any check marks up there… maybe I should reconsider that email or tweet I’m about to send out.  I might be burning a bridge—perhaps even a couple bridges—before I get anywhere near it.  And if I try anyway…
            Well, I shouldn’t act indignant or surprised when things go up in flames.
February 18, 2016

My Dream Woman

First, before I forget…  Folks in the Los Angeles area, this weekend is the Writers Coffeehouse. Sunday, noon to three, at Dark Delicacies in Burbank. It’s free and it’s open to writers of all levels—from bare-bones beginners to seasoned professionals, and even a few mid-list hacks like myself.  Stop by, ask questions, have fun.

Speaking of writing advice…

This week I wanted to prattle on for a moment about one of those off-topics I tend not to talk about much.  It’s more of a mindset, and it applies to writers of prose and scripts alike.  I’ll give you a hint—it’s not a good mindset to have.

Let me toss out a hypothetical situation for you.  More exact, a hypothetical person.  I’ll call her Phoebe.  If you want to substitute a different name or gender, please go right ahead.

Just for the record, I have never known a Phoebe. I know two or three folks who’ve changed their names, and they weren’t a Phoebe before or after. That’s why it’s one of my four fallback names I use here all the time (the other three belonging to the Animaniacs). If I randomly referred to a woman in one of these examples as Colleen, Becky, Jennifer, or Katie, for example… I would get many calls/messages from people I know asking “is this supposed to be me?”

So… Phoebe.

Phoebe is, for the record, my dream woman. She’s what every man aspires to in a significant other. Smart.  Funny.  Kind.  Sexy.  Gorgeous. I can’t think of anything I’ve wanted more than to be with Phoebe. Feel free to take “be with” any way you like–you’ll be right.  She is, in all ways, perfect.

Well, perfect might be overstating it.

Just a bit.

To be honest, she could use one tiny improvement in the facial region. Her chin is kind of sharp. Makes her face a bit too triangular and pointy. A rounded chin would bring out her cheeks and her smile more.

Also… slight overbite.  You can’t really notice it until you’re close to her.  That’s when you can also see one of her incisors has this little twist to it.  Nothing braces couldn’t fix, though.  Maybe those transparent ones.  Invisalign?  Something like that.

Plus, she’d be much hotter if her hair was a bit lighter.  And not so long.  If she was more of a platinum blonde, Phoebe would be unbelievably hot.  So really she’s just a haircut and a box of dye away from being my perfect woman.

Speaking of which—please don’t judge me for this—Phoebe is a touch on the small side. Not flat, by any means, and they’re nicely formed. Really nice.  I’m not talking about anything grotesque, mind you, but something in a B-cup would give her an absolutely killer figure.

Again, though, that’s minor. Really minor. Heck, I think it’s just outpatient surgery these days.

Y’know, thinking about it, if she wore some nicer clothes, it’d help show off that figure, too.  Everything Phoebe owns is that kind of frumpy-baggy look.  It was kind of cute in college, but come on.  Dress up a bit now and then.  Would it be so wrong to wear something eye-catching?  Once we’re together, I’ll take her on a nice shopping spree before we go out anywhere.

Although I don’t know where we’ll go out.  We don’t have many of the same interests. She can’t stand superhero movies.  Or shows.  Or books (which is a bit of a sore spot).  I’ll work on that, get her to watch something better and stop subjecting me to that crap stuff she likes to watch.

And, I mean… I sit in a chair nine hours a day and she makes me look kind of athletic. She’s still got that young metabolism, lets her eat half a pizza before bed and she actually wakes up weighing less than she did the night before.  That’s not going to last forever.

At least, with that body—well, the potential body we’re talking about—the sex will be worth it.

As long as she doesn’t make that same weird noise she makes when she’s excited. That sound creeps me out.

Still my dream girl, though, and I’d love to be with her—in any sense of the phrase.

So, at this point I can guess what a lot of you are thinking.  Why the hell is Phoebe my dream girl? She sounds like a good, solid person as she is, but it’s pretty apparent she’s not what I’m looking for, despite my insistence that I want to be with her. I mean, why would anyone want to be involved with someone just to change everything about them?

Which… is the point I wanted to make.

Between this ranty blog, conventions, signings, Twitter, Facebook, the Coffeehouse I mentioned up above… I meet a lot of writers. Several of them are so far past me I’m astonished when they strike up a conversation. A couple…I think it’s safe for me to say I’m on the same level as them.

Most of them are beginners, though. Maybe they’ve got a small sale under their belt, but often not even that much. You probably know some folks like this, yes? Maybe you’re one of them. These folks will talk about how much they want to be writers, how it’s been a lifelong dream to see their name on a shelf in a bookstore, or to hear actors reciting their dialogue.  There’s nothing they want more, and they’ll do whatever it takes, to make that dream become a reality.


Just after this, some of these folks follow it up by explaining how biased and unfair the publishing industry is. Or maybe listing off all the things that are wrong with Hollywood.  Don’t even get these folks started on agents. Agents of all types need to be a lot more open, especially considering they usually do nothing and then take a cut of your money.

Or maybe they swing the other way.  Perhaps they’ll  point out how much self-publishers are screwing things for everybody. It’s not even real publishing, right?  They’re just oversaturating the markets with all their crap and making it harder for good stuff—my stuff—to get noticed.

As a finale, these people will announce all the things they’d change about the industry.  All the things they’re going to change once they’re in that position of power.  In fact, the industry’s changing now and they’d better watch out!  We don’t need any of those dinosaurs anymore, right?!

By what I’m sure is a complete coincidence, very, very few of these people have ever sold a book. Or a screenplay. Or a short story.

Which only shows how corrupt and broken the system is and why it needs to be fixed. Right?

Y’see, Timmy, I can’t go into any sort of relationship thinking I’ll be the one to change her! Or him. Or them, if I’m feeling adventurous. Those relationships are always doomed one way or another. Either they fail horribly or they “succeed” with one person or the other becomes a twisted, compromised version of themselves (and probably hating the other person for it).

Likewise, I can’t expect to have any sort of success in the publishing world or in Hollywood if I’m starting from the mindset of “they’re all wrong.”  Definitely not if it’s my main focus.  It’s no different than my mad pursuit of Phoebe just so I can change everything about her.  I’m either looking for a relationship or I’m looking for someone to be my Eliza Doolittle-esque test subject.

My main focus as a writer should be (ready for this?) my writing. It needs to be my main concern. It’s very good to know about different forms of publishing, about marketing and networking and social media… but first and foremost, I’m a writer. Personally, when someone introduces themselves as a writer and the first thing they want to talk about is everything wrong with traditional publishing… I get a little cautious.

What’s your first concern? Do you want to date Phoebe… or do you just want everything on your terms?

Next time…

Oh, almost forgot! This Tuesday, Ex-Isle is finally out on audiobook after delays that are pretty solidly my fault. And they brought back the whole cast for the production. Check it out!

So… next time, if I may, I’d like to talk about your purpose.

Until then… go write.

            2014!  Welcome to the world of tomorrow!  Just with no flying cars.  Or jetpacks.  And far less moonbases than Space: 1999, Inherit the Stars, or 2001: A Space Odyssey led us to expect.
            Wow.  We’re only two days in and 2014 is kind of a letdown so far.
            Anyway, as I often do at the start of the year, I’d like to take a minute or three to talk about this page and the kind of stuff I babble on about.  And touch on a few of the things I don’t.
            And to do this, I’m going to dip my toe into a potentially controversial subject.  So hopefully I won’t offend anyone too much
            Maybe it’s just the circles I travel in, but I tend to see a lot of “after the fact” material.  It’s on pages I get links to or I get spammed with messages about it.  People with blogs about how to self-publish and why traditional publishers are dinosaurs.  About how to get past those evil “gatekeepers” and why they’re pointless.  Which ebook platform is best.  How to format for said platform.  Where to find a good agent. Where to find a good artist for my cover.  How to network.  Good places for self-promotion.  How much I should self-promote.  How much I should pay for that promotion.
            The reason I call this “after the fact” material is because it skips a major step.  Every one of those issues is about getting my book in front of readers.  None of it addresses the important question…
            Shouldmy book be in front of readers?
            Is my book ready to be published, by me or anyone else?  Does it deserve to make it past those gatekeepers?  Do I have something worth promoting?
            And that’s what I don’t see a lot of out there—help to get past that first step.  Because the best chef in the world can’t do anything with no tools and an empty kitchen.  If I don’t have a full, polished manuscript, all those other tips are kind of useless.
            This is why, in my opinion, self-publishing still has—and probably always will have—a stigma hanging over it.  There are some absolutely phenomenal self published books out there, and some authors who are making great money as self-publishers.  But the ugly truth is that, statistically, most self-published material is bad.  Now that it’s so easy and cheap to self-publish, I’d even say that these days the vast majority of self-published stuff is awful.  There’s a lot more good stuff than a decade ago, absolutely, but by the same token  there’s tons and tons more bad stuff.
            So, that’s what I want to do here.  I try to help with that first step. Every week I toss out some advice, tips, and observations on how to improve a manuscript and turn it into something people want to buy and read.  Things I was told or stumbled across (or learned the hard way) in the thirty or so years that I’ve been stringing words together.
            Now, the two main things you’ll find here is advice on writing and ruleson writing.  Yes, there are rules.  No, I don’t care what he said.  No, I don’t care what she said either.  There are rules that have to be followed.  Bear with me.
            Adviceis optional.  When to write.  Where to write.  What to write.  How to develop characters.  How to edit.  How many drafts I need to go through.  What kind of structure a particular story should have.  What point of view to use.  I’d say the ranty blog is about 60-65% advice.
            This is the kind of stuff that’s going to be individual to each writer.  I like to write in the afternoon, but you might be more productive in the morning, and she’s more productive after midnight.  I tend to plan a rough outline in my head, but you might need three really detailed pages before you begin, and he might be fine with a dozen notecards taped to the wall.  I might need music to write but you need absolute silence and she can’t write unless she’s outside and wearing a Ren Faire outfit.  The thing about advice is that it’s rarely wrong, it just might not be advice that works for me or you.  That’s one of the main tenets here, my golden rule.
            It drives me nuts when I come across someone insisting advice must be strictly followed.  I think a lot of would-be writers get messed up by this, and these are the folks who end up staring at a blank page every morning in a silent room, wondering why they can’t write the opening of the goth-witch-lit novel they have no interest in but were told is going to be the new big thing.  They often get stuck wearing an itchy corset, too.
            Y’see, Timmy, rules are the real non-optional stuff.  Spelling.  Grammar.  Structure (you have to have some kind of it).  Likable characters (not necessarily good characters, but someone my readers won’t mind following) with believable arcs.  Flow.  Coherency.  This page is maybe 35-40% rules, at any given time.
            Most of us had at least five or six teachers during our lives who tried to teach us the rules of writing—the basic mechanics of how words go together to express ideas.  If I want to make a living at this, I need to know those mechanics.  If I don’t know how to spell, if I don’t understand structure, if commas and apostrophes are baffling to me, if I can’t sense how my readers will react to something… well, it’s going to be very hard for me to have any success as a writer.
            The flipside of what I mentioned above, it’s also very damaging when some folks try to insist that rules are just loose guidelines, that it doesn’t matter if I follow them or not.  I think a lot of that comes out of folks who see the rules broken by an experienced professional and assume they can be ignored from the start.  They point to the exception and use that as their reason to not learn the rules.  This kind of deliberate ignorance leads to poor writing and bad habits, and it means a lot of potentially good writers never improve. 
            Y’see, Timmy, if I don’t understand the rules, I’m not going to know how to break them.  A good writer can break some of the rules, but it’s like playing Jenga.  I can’t pull out all the blocks holding up the stack, and if I’m going to pull out this one I need to make sure that one is rock-solid.  If I don’t understand the basic rules of how the tower stands, I’m going to bring it crashing down on my second turn.  Maybe even my first.

            Actually, that’s an even better analogy.  Breaking rules is like demolishing buildings.  It looks simple, but the folks who do it actually need to know more than the people who built it.  They need to understand which walls are load bearing and which beams are supporting, but they also need to know how the material’s going to break or crumble or shatter and how much explosive is needed for each result without there being so much that the building collapses out rather than in.

            Because it might look really cool and fun when the building collapses out across the city, but it doesn’t get a lot of repeat customers.
            What else, what else, what else…
            Do I repeat myself here?  Well… yeah.  Especially if you’ve been following along for two or three years.  I try to come up with new ways to approach the same problem.  Sometimes I’ll hear something new and clever that I’ll try to share, or maybe even expand on.  At the end of the day, though, this page is more like a mid-level class on writing.  You can take the same class twice and get more out of it, but by the third of fourth time there’s a serious case of diminishing returns.  I’m not saying any of you long-time followers should leave, but don’t be too surprised if I end up talking about dialogue or character voices or something like that.
            Speaking of which, next time I wanted to talk about dialogue and character voices.
            Until then, go write.
June 6, 2013 / 1 Comment

Where The Problem Is

             A quick pointer…
            Every now and then I throw open the floor here to suggestions.  What would people want to hear me ramble on about next?  What topics or elements are giving them trouble in some way, or maybe they just want a few pointers on something?  Pretty much every time I do this, someone will ask about agents or networking or publishing, and I will politely explain I don’t cover that stuff here.


            When asked for screenwriting tips, Oscar-winner Billy Wilder would often remind would-be writers of a simple rule of thumb.  To paraphrase, a problem with your third act is usually a problem with your first act. 
            In other words, if the end isn’t working, it’s probably because of the way I did things in the beginning.  Perhaps I didn’t establish characters well or set up things for that twist.  Maybe the gruesome, depressing ending just doesn’t work after two acts of comedy and slapstick.
            My career as a writer has three acts, too.  A beginning, middle, and an end.  I learn the basics and practice a lot.  I write a good book.  Someone gets interested in the book and offers me money for it (either in a contractual or individual sense).
            So if I’m having trouble with that last part, the third act of my writing career, maybe the problem is in my first act. 
            Maybe it’s not that publishers and agents are jerks who won’t recognize my genius or try anything new.  Perhaps the problem rests in that first part of the equation.   Do I even know my basics?  Did I bother to practice and polish my skills?  Or did I declare the first thing I scribbled out perfect and leave it at that?
            It’s just possible, believe it or not, that I can’t get anyone interested because I didn’t write a good book.
            Next time, I’d like to share some thoughts about a new topic I’ve been researching.
            Until then, go write.