April 8, 2021 / 2 Comments

…In The Trunk

A few weeks back (over on Twitter) I tossed out a general question to any writer who wanted to answer—“Do you have a trunk novel that you wouldn’trelease right now?” And I wasn’t really surprised to see a fair number of folks respond affirmatively. One or two were almost enthusiastically affirmative. In fact, only one person said no, and even their no was couched in the acknowledgement said novel would need to be rewritten.

And, okay, maybe I’m skipping ahead a bit. Does everyone here know what a trunk novel is? Let’s start there.

Really short version, a trunk novel is a finished (or maybe close-to-finished) novel that I’ve decided to put aside for a while. Usually a long while. It gets its name from ye olden times, when authors had to write everything on crushed papyrus. And if you had something that didn’t work out (for one reason or another) you either had to throw out that physical copy or, y’know, put it away somewhere so it wasn’t taking up desk space. Like, say, in a trunk. Because everyone had steamer trunks back then.

Nowadays we don’t have the space problem (yay, electromagnetic memory bubbles), but a lot of us still end up with stuff we can’t find homes for right now. And that’s what I wanted to talk about. Why things get put away and what happens when we pick them back up.

Right off the bat, there’s nothing wrong with needing to put something aside. It doesn’t mean I’ve failed or wasted time. If anything, I think it can be kind of mature and healthy when someone sets things aside. From a writer-ly point of view, it means I’ve realized this isn’t going to work, for one reason or another. Maybe I’ve admitted I don’t have the skill yet to make this particular story work the way I want it to. Perhaps I’ve determined the market’s not good for my story right now. Hell, it could be that I’ve realized the story just doesn’t work. It seemed clever at first but now that I’ve cleaned it up and expanded it… yeah, that is a massive, gaping hole there in the middle of it. Like, highway-swallowing-sinkhole massive.

So, yeah. Absolutely nothing wrong with taking something I spent a lot of time on and just wrapping it up in a blanket to sleep while I move on to other things.

Because after a point there are choices to be made. I can just keep plugging away at this again and again and again until I get it right. Or I can keep hunting for a market to take it, until I’ve been hunting so long I can circle around to those first submissions again and say “well, how about now?”  But this is a tricky balance. Because there is a point that I’m spending so much time on this thing—trying to make it perfect, trying to get it sold—that I haven’t done anything else. And the months and years I spend doing that are months and years I could’ve spent writing something new. That’s a tipping point we all need to find for ourselves, when “not giving up” becomes “putting off doing anything else.” It’s the polar opposite of the shiny new idea.

And, yeah… I’m speaking from experience here. A lot of you have heard of my trunk novel, The Suffering Map. I worked on it on and off for years. Maybe three years of solid work altogether, spread out across almost four times that. I rewrote it again and again. I showed it to agents and editors. I rewrote it some more. And finally I realized, like I just said, that I’d been working on this thing for over a decade. I was in my thirties and I’d been working on it pretty much since I got out of college.

So after my latest round of rejections, I put it away and called it good. And went on to start writing a book about a government teleportation projectwhich, oddly enough, I set aside when I got a really good opening from a publisher to deliver a zombies vs. superheroes book.

Which means putting The Suffering Map aside and moving on was a really good decision on my part.

But let’s look at the second half of this. What about picking it up again? I mean, trunking a novel isn’t like shooting it into a black hole. Or being like Robert Louis Stevenson and burning a whole manuscript because he felt it was just way too disturbing for the current market (no, seriously, he did). We can pull it back out, rework it, and maybe find a home for it.

Let’s really consider this, though. Because we can’t just leap back into something from five or ten years ago (or more) and expect it to work just like it did then. For a couple of reasons.

F’r example… hopefully we’ve grown as writers. I think most of us realize the stuff we did when we were fifteen might not hold up as well as the stuff we did at twenty-five or thirty-five. I’m not the person I was then, and I hope you’ve matured too. As a person and as a writer. We’ve (hopefully) grown our vocabularies a bit, learned some new structure tricks, maybe gotten a bit better with subtlety and nuance. We may realize, wow, that whole thing I did there was a bit pretentious, wasn’t it? And maybe that other bit was…

Okay, look, we can just cut all of that bit. Nobody’ll ever even know it was there. Plausible deniability. It’ll be fine.

But the world’s also going to change. Yeah, even in just a couple of years. I mean, go back just five years—April 2016. Obama was still the USPresident. There were two people vying for the Democratic ticket, but three fighting for the GOP nod. The majority of people went around without masks. Technology was different. Entertainment was different (we were all still waiting to see this latest Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War, due out that summer). Society was different. Hell, 2020 was a horrible year in so many ways, but it also opened a lot of eyes to the injustice and social issues millions of people deal with on a daily basis.

And that’s all stuff that should be reflected in my writing.

F’r example… let’s look at The Suffering Map again.

As I’ve mentioned here once or thrice, I can look back at the things I did with this book and see flaws that weren’t apparent to me then. Problems with the dialogue, the structure, and some of the characterizations. There’s a lot of stuff in there I’m very proud of, but there’s also a lot of stuff that makes me very glad nobody outside of a small circle ever saw it. And I absolutely understand why the agents who liked my pitch and read some of it ultimately rejected it.

One of the big issues with it, which I’ve mentioned before, is that I had the wrong character as my protagonist. In retrospect, I stuck with Rob for eight drafts because Rob was, well, the most like me. The easiest to write. And I might not have consciously realized it, but I knew I didn’t have the skill at that point (or the confidence) to write a female character who didn’t feel kinda like… well, kind of a cliché.  A bunch of clichés, honestly. So it was easier then to make Sondra a supporting character, even though I realize now her arc is way more interesting than Rob’s. If I ever decided to pick it up again, no question I’d rewrite the whole thing to make her the protagonist.

Plus, let’s look at the world between when I started writing The Suffering Map and now. Answering machines were still a thing then. Same with Walkmans. Cell phones have become much more common than they were then, and they’ve become smartphones. All this means major changes for four or five chapters in the book (plus fallout from those changes), and even some structural changes because smartphones have completely changed how we interact with each other and the world. I mean, I had a scene where Rob gets a call at work, and two others where he uses a Thomas Guide. Anyone remember those?

Politically/socially we were in the height of the Clintonyears. Roaring economy. Big business being taxed. Budget deficits shrinking. Small businesses are a large part of the book, and they couldn’t really be presented now the way they were then (although one side hustle aspect of Rob’s life would seem more believable).  No 9/11 yet, either, and that really showed in a lot of places. And there’s at least one chapter that’d play out really differently because of this.

Here’s another thing. In early drafts of The Suffering Map, Sondra was a woman who’d worked in adult films, and as a dancer in later revisions. It was a “young and needed the money” thing. But truth be told, the sex industry has changed quite a bit in the past twenty-five years, and so has many folks’ views of it. It’s still rarely seen as a great thing, but it doesn’t have quite the massive stigma it used to. Which makes it worth mentioning—when you add in the cell phone/internet issue—if I did want to keep something like this hidden, it’s a lot harder these days. Also, a lot of these jobs doesn’t pay as well as they used to (that damned internet again).

So this is a whole character element that would need major revision—if I even decided to keep it and not just have her be an Uber driver or something.

Any of this make sense? I know I’m babbling a bit because this is kind of a big, sprawling thing and I’m trying to cover a lot of it and give some examples.

The two big things to remember are this. There’s nothing wrong with setting something aside, for whatever reason I decide to do it, because I can always pick it back up again. I just need to remember the world is going to change. And if I’ve been doing things correctly. Hopefully I’ve changed too.


Next time, I want to talk to you about a very important saxophonist.

Until then, go write.

March 12, 2015 / 5 Comments

Quitters Prosper

            Never say never…
            I wanted to blather on about quitting for a couple of minutes.  There comes a point in many endeavors when you realize you’re not getting ahead.  That all the time, effort, and enthusiasm that’s been expended on this project just isn’t enough. For one reason or another, I didn’t make the cut.  The team picked that skinny kid with the limp and the glasses over me.
            At which point, I need to make a choice.  Do I keep trying to get on this team? Do I continue throwing myself unto the breach?  Forging on despite all odds with the strength of my convictions?
            Or should I give up?
            Honestly?  After working at this writing thing on one level or another for a good chunk of my life…
            I think it’s time to quit.
            If I’ve spent the past decade trying to get any publisher in the world to just look at one of my book manuscripts, and they’re not interested… that’s a sign.  If I’ve spent thousands of dollars on screenwriting classes and books and contests over the past ten or twelve years, but I still don’t even have a toe in the door…I should consider saving my money this year.  When I submit a story to a hundred magazines, journals, and anthologies and get back a hundred rejections… I need to take that hint.
            I should quit.  Cut my losses.  Stop beating my head against the wall, demanding to be recognized, and move on.
            No, hold on.  Don’t leave yet.  Keep reading ‘till the end.
            What I’m getting at ties back to an idea I’ve talked about a few times here.  I need to be able to look at my own work honestly and objectively.  Knowing when to give up on a project is part of that.  After querying a hundred or so reps or editors and not getting a single nibble, I need to consider the fact the problem may not lay with them.  My writing may be perfect, it may be gold, it may be what everyone in America is dying for.  At the moment, though, for one reason or another, it’s not what those specific people—those, dare I say it, gatekeepers—are  looking for.  And, right or wrong,  they’re  the ones who make that decision. 
            Now… here’s that important part.
            I’m not saying I’m going to stop writing altogether.  This doesn’t mean I should never touch a keyboard again or that it’s time for me to forget the big leagues.  It’s just time to sit back and look at what I’ve done and how I’m doing things.  Maybe the problem is the characters.  Maybe it’s dialogue.  Perhaps even something as basic as an overwhelming number of typos.   Heck, it could just be my cover letter.  At the end of the day, something is holding me back, and that needs to stop happening.
            I’ve met people who wrote one novel way back in college and have spent the past twenty years sending it to agent after agent, publisher after publisher.  They haven’t changed a single word since they first set it down on paper.  They haven’t written anything else since (“Why should I write something else nobody’s going to pay me for?”).  They’ve just got that one novel going out again and again and again…
            Same thing in Hollywood.  People write a screenplay over a long weekend, never polish or revise it, but try to use it as a calling card for years.  I know of a guy on the contest circuits who pushed the same script for almost a decade.  He hasn’t done anything else in the meantime, just sent that same script to contest after contest, waiting for fame and fortune as if winning was a lottery and he had to keep playing his lucky numbers.
            Knowing when to quit and move on isn’t a weakness. It’s not a flaw in my approach.  It’s a strength.  It’s the only way I can grow and learn new things, because I won’t get any better if I keep rewriting the same manuscript again and again for decades.  Sometimes you just have to give up on something. 
            It took me almost eleven years to finish my first solid novel, The Suffering Map.  Not an idea, not a work in progress, not something I’ve been poking at.  A complete, polished book manuscript, first page to last page.  Beginning, middle,and end.  Yeah, that’s a long time, but close to a decade of that was the film industry convincing me to go work on screenplays instead.  It probably only took about two years of actual work.
            So, eleven years of on-again-off-again work, and then the querying.  Letter after letter, rejection after rejection.  Go through it again, create a new draft, and then start the letters again.  Some folks asked to see it (one or two of them were powerful, well-placed folks).  Many letters and emails were traded back and forth. 
            In the end, though, after almost a dozen very major revisions, all of them passed on it.  And then I realized, this was done. I’d been working on that book on and off since graduating from college.  It was time to expand my horizons and write something else. 
            And that something was an early draft of a book about a government teleportation project gone wrong.  Which I followed up with a book about superheroes fighting zombies.  And then a few things since then.
            If I’d stayed focused for years on that novel no one wanted to see, though, I wouldn’t’ve done any of it.  I’d still be back there at square one.  And my list of published credits wouldn’t be the size it is now.
            I’m not saying I’ll never go back to The Suffering Map.  Many writers will tell you if your screenplay or novel gets rejected, put it in the drawer and wait a few years.  I’m also not saying it will sell in a heartbeat if I decide to try again in five years.  For now, though, I’ve given up on it. 
            So the next time you’re frustrated by months and months of trying to find a home for your work… stop and really think about it.  Maybe it’s time to move on and try something different.  Something new.
            Because that next thing could be the big thing.
            Next time might be a bit delayed.  Sorry. But when it happens, let’s flip this around.
            Until then… go write.
February 26, 2010 / 5 Comments

Finish Him!!

Pop culture reference. It’s been a while.

So, first up, I have to do that awful self-promotion thing. Sorry. If you don’t want to see me stoop to shameless commercialism, skip ahead to the paragraph after next.

Over on the side bar, you’ll notice a new addition. The Amazon link for Ex-Heroes, my new novel which came out earlier this week. It’s a story about superheroes battling the zombie apocalypse. If you’re into that kind of thing, you’ll have a lot of fun. If you’re not, it might change your mind and you’ll still have fun. If nothing else, you’ll be able to go back over the rant blog here and understand some of the references I’ve made to this book over the past year and a half or so. You can also hop over to Facebook and join my fan page to get updates on various writing projects, interviews, and the like.

See? Told you it was shameless.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled rant about writing…

A few years back I got to speak with a writing coach named Drusilla Campbell She tossed out an interesting little statistic–one I think has probably expanded in recent years. According to her, out of every 100 people who call themselves writers, only one of them will ever actually finish a project.

One out of a hundred. That was five years ago. I’d be tempted to say it’s probably closer to one in 200 these days. What, with the number of people starting serial novels on the web and such.

By an astonishing coincidence, the number of people who succeed at writing is a somewhat smaller percentage than that. According to Drusilla, it was one out of ten of those folks who completed a manuscript. I think that number’s probably shrunk a bit, too, but not by any more than the other one’s expanded. Maybe one out of twenty or so. I don’t have any hard numbers to back it up, but I have a couple of really solid hunches and chains-of-logic I can share if anyone really wants to see them.

As I mentioned above, a lot of people have trouble finishing stuff. More than 99% of the people who like to say they’re writers never do. There are a couple different reasons for this.

The most common one, of course, is real life. We meet someone who demands more of our time. Something unexpected comes up. Work wants a little more out of us. Sometimes it’s just impossible to give writing the commitment it needs

Some people use it as a sort of fail-safe excuse. Until I finish it I can’t submit it or show it to anyone, and as long as no one sees my writing it can’t be rejected or criticized. So, consciously or not, some people come up with various excuses never to finish anything.

And then there are the folks who just thought it would be easy to write. I mean, anyone can write a book, right? It’s not like it’s a skill you have to learn or practice. We all learned how in grade school, fer cripes sake. These folks get a few dozen pages in and discover writing isn’t easy and it does take a commitment. Some give up quietly while others fall back on some excuse. Worse, a few of these folks actually do rush out an ending just to have it, and often get angry when this slipshod conclusion gets criticized.

I joke a lot about Lizard Men from the Center of the Earth, but here’s an ugly truth about it. I never finished it. Yeah, it was written on yellow paper and twenty-three pages is still impressive for a third-grader, but in the end it was never completed. Even when I revisited it in seventh grade and added illustrations and a shovelful of Arthurian legends. I also didn’t finish the cliché-filled sci-fi epic Piece of Eternity, a God-awful fantasy thing I’ve been trying to block for years (we’ll chalk that one up to excess hormones at puberty), my Boba Fett fan-fiction novel (long before there was such a term as fan fiction),or even the college novel I’ve mentioned a few times, The Trinity. Not one of them finished.

By an astonishing coincidence–the same one I mentioned above, in fact–not one of them sold.

The first long-form project I ever finished was a script for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine called “Point of Origin.” It got me fifteen minutes in a room with Ron Moore to pitch story ideas, plus repeated invites to come up and pitch other stories at the Star Trek offices.

The first novel I finished was The Suffering Map. It got several requests from agents. Big agents, as people like to call them.

A large part of my success as a journalist is the editors know they can toss me an assignment and I will finish it on time. The fact that I’m a competent writer is a big part of it, too, of course, but a lot of it is just the simple fact that they know an article that gets assigned to me will get done by the deadline.

Y’see, Timmy, the point I’m trying to make is that no one’s going to be interested in a partial manuscript or a script fragment. You have to finish something in order to achieve any sort of success. Unless your name is King, Rowling, or Brown, you will not sell an idea to anyone. Don’t assume it’s any different in Hollywood, no matter what some vehement film professor–or film student– tells you. I keep track of script sales for a living and the last time I remember hearing of someone selling a raw idea was five years ago, when David Koepp sold his idea for the film Ghost Town. In other words, to the best of my considerable knowledge on the subject, the last time anyone at a film studio bought just an idea it was a small, indie film concept that was coming from one of the top ten money-making screenwriters in the world.

In other words, for the purposes of all of us here at the ranty blog, it doesn’t happen. You will not succeed as a writer until you finish something. It doesn’t matter that you did nine-tenths of the work and you know how it’s going to end, people want to see all of it–especially that spectacular finish.

We have to write. And we have to finish what we write. If we don’t, we’ve got nothing.

Next week, if no one suggests a new topic, there are going to be some cuts.

Until then go write.