Thursday, March 20, 2008

Support Systems

On p. 94 of ON WRITING, Stephen King concludes his CV section with this:

"...put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support-system for art. It's the other way around."

Ha! is my first reaction. Easy for him to say. He who could wipe his snot in Courier 12-point and make millions.

He's right, though. As much as we authors (especially beginning ones) get wrapped up in living the author's life, whether it be the work itself or learning the ins and outs of the business or learning how to promote, or going to conferences and networking on-line, we all got into this field for one reason. All of our lives have been enriched through reading. And at some point, we all wanted to become a part of that enrichment for other people. Everything else is just details, different paths on the way to the ultimate goal.

The trick, I'm finding, is to not let the one supplant the other. Reading and writing do not exist outside of life, but life does exist outside of reading and writing. And there are people more important to you than the ones that live inside your head. And you are more important to them, as well.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Bad News

In a bit of actual news from me, I recently got a letter from Malice Domestic saying I did not recieve one of the William F. Deeck Grants this year. Although it's news, it's not an actual surprise. I re-read my rewrite and realized that it all had to go.

That's right. All of it.

I'm rewriting the book. That's right. All of it. I realized that I was trying to make The Book too many things, trying to shoehorn a lot of things into the narrative that just didn't fit, or made it awkward. The result is something that had some good writing, but an inconsistent tone and sketchy detection.

The new version is much lighter in tone and more focused on the characters than the plot. So far, it's going well. I won't know for a while how well, but it makes me feel good, and there's something in that.

The upshot of not getting the grant means that I will be attending only one conference this year, and that's the big one. Bouchercon in Baltimore. And let me tell you, I am really looking forward to it. I'll see friends I haven't seen since the Madison B-Con and I will be much more comfortable and hopefully do some great networking.

Until then, it's up to me to work away and get something good written for people to read.

Friday, March 14, 2008

On Success

Between pages 60 and 80 of Stephen King's ON WRITING he relays three stories of his early success: Selling his short story "Sometimes They Come Back" for $500; the hardcover rights to CARRIE for $2500; and the paperback rights to CARRIE for $400,000.

I get choked up every time I read or listen to these stories. It's not because of the money, although those are certainly chokable amounts. Hell, they could choke a deep-throated mastodon.

Instead, it's because of what has come before. King gives us the portrait of a little boy with a dangerously inventive older brother and a long history of illness, a boy who grew up reading comic books and watching "poepictures," who got into trouble, got drunk, fell in love and had kids. And all the while, he was writing. Writing a lot. He wrote what he enjoyed and picked up advice along the way. He got better and he got published. It seemed that the Kings were always just making ends meet. Y'know, just like us.

It's a little ridiculous to say, but sometimes you forget. We use big names like Stephen King as icons, to compare yourself and other authors to, both critically and financially. But he had a beginning, just like everyone else. He has a family, just like everyone else. And he writes, just like you and I. What's the difference? According to King himself (and I'm paraphrasing here, I can't find it in the book right now) it is "a lot of hard work, perseverance, and a little bit of talent."

Mr. King, may a follow (very remotely) in your footsteps.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


On p. 65 of ON WRITING, Stephen King says:

"And whenever I see a first novel dedicated to a wife (or a husband), I smile and think, There's someone who knows."

Make no mistake. When I publish my first novel, it will definitely be dedicated to my wife. I won't spoil it here, but I know she knows what it will say before I put inkjet to paper. That's just who she is. She knows me before I know myself.

But that's not all she is. She's supporting, loving, funny, beautiful, caring, mischievous, self-effacing and, most importantly, patient. I could go on and on with specific examples, but I know she'd rather I use those words on the book.

Suffice it to say, without her I wouldn't even be this close to being published.

Monday, March 10, 2008

On Children and Self-Discovery

On p. 56 of ON WRITING, Stephen King says:

"We had two kids by the time we'd been married three years."

Wow. Yikes. I've had two kids for about three months now, and I can't imagine having done this in our first three years of marriage, let alone at the age that King and his wife did it. It just wasn't right for us. If there's something that we've done together that I'm most proud about, it might actually be the family planning that we've done, and are now done with. We had over seven years together, five of them married, to enjoy each other before the kids came along, and we've had them nearly four years apart. So far, it seems to be working out pretty well for the family, if not for our upkeep of the house and my writing. They sure do take up a lot of time, them kids.

This is one of the things that I love about King's ON WRITING. Fully one-third of the book is taken up by a curriculum vitae, a "making-of-a-writer" sort of memoir. It serves to help us better understand the author, which lays a groundwork for us to understand why he writes what he does, how he does it, and why. I don't want to go into too much detail about it. I really do want you to pick up the book. I think you'll like it.

This "CV" portion of the book, I think, is what makes King's book on writing unique. It recognizes that each person's makeup and process are unique. It successfully lays out the individual techniques and background of one person and allows you to make the choice if this is right for you. I'm not going to say he doesn't preach, because there's certainly some of that in there. But it's much more palatable coming from someone you just spent 90 pages getting to know.

I'm very much into self-knowledge. And I think that's part of what my writing is about, finding out things about myself through the content of the work, but also finding out things about myself through the process. It's not a revelation. The information comes in a bit at a time. But I'm still working at it.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Movies

On p. 33 of ON WRITING, Stephen King says:

"What I cared about most between 1958 and 1966 was movies."

While I can't relate to the timeframe, it can't be overstated how much of an impact film has had upon who I have become. Heck, I work at a film archive after having gone to a school that specialized in film preservation. But it's more than that.

One of my earliest clear and persistent memories is that of going to see STAR WARS. It was at a drive-in, in Greece, NY if memory serves me right, and it was the front half of a double-feature with ORCA: THE KILLER WHALE. This would have put it in July or August of 1977. We weren't allowed to stay and watch the second film because I was 6 and the film started out with them cutting open a whale. I couldn't go to sleep after STAR WARS had blown my mind, so we went home instead.

As kids do, I latched onto this piece of entertainment (it wasn't hard to do, with the merchandising being everywhere) and it started to infect my everyday life. My dad had a company car that had a bench seat in the front (God, remember those?) that I could lean over to see the dashboard. I pointed to a button with a tiny light on it, excited to find out this new car had a rear deflector, only to be disappointed to be told it was a rear defroster.

But this was typical of how I functioned. I would relate things happening in real life to what I saw in the movies, and later on TV. And even though I held a love for STAR WARS through April of 2002, I moved on to what I learned that I truly enjoyed, the more mystery- and adventure-based entertainment, such as STAR TREK, THE WILD WILD WEST, MAGNUM PI.

I first started to see these things with a critical eye in 1984, when I saw IRRECONILABLE DIFFERENCES, with Drew Barrymore. I loved ET, and she was good in it, and this film looked like a fun comedy for the whole family. Well, it wasn't. It was about a little girl suing her parents for a divorce because she feels like she's been neglected. Hi-frickin-larious. I never watched a trailer or TV spot for a film with complete trust from that point on.

It only grew from there. I got into more serious cinema, and more serious critique. I started following awards and Top 10 lists. I gobbled up AMC and my PBS station looking for older films.

When I started writing, it was usually for or about film. Two from the early 80s come to mind, when I was writing the sequel to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, called RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK II, where Indy and Marian discover not the Ark of the Covenant, but Noah's Ark. Then there was a one-act play that took place on Dagobah after the events of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. This we performed with myself, my sister, and two kids that were visiting from our old neighborhood, neither of whom could remember their lines. I remember actually getting into a fist fight with the older boy.

When I got to college, I doubled in Journalism and Film History, looking toward film criticism, but it wasn't until I discovered The L. Jeffrey Seznick School of Film Presrvation and the George Eastman House that I knew I had found my niche.

Even now, when I'm writing, I take a lot of inspiration from film. My current project is heavily indebted to film, and I can see projects in the future that touch on it as well.

I don't get to go to the theater as much as I used to. The home theater is nice, but certainly not the same. The little ones prevent me from going out too much, but I've started to take the older one to the movies. He looks forward to it now. And so do I.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Knowing What We Do

In his Second Forward, on p. xvii, Stephen King writes:

"Fiction writers, present comapny included, don't understand very much about what they do -- not why it works when it's good, not why it doesn't when it's bad."

This is a statement that contains more truth than fact. There is definitely a sense that, since most writing is done in a vacuum, the author isn't going to know what does and doesn't work until the book is read, at least by himself, if not his first readers.

But writers know what works, at least the good ones do. They know what word to choose to achieve an effect. They know how to structure a book, or pace a scene. They know how to bring their ideas to life through words.

And they know what doesn't work. That's what rewriting is for. An author can read his own work, before it even gets to a reader, and identify things that are working and things that aren't. He can't find all of them, but he can find some.

But in that moment of creation, it's true, you don't know. You sit there in front of the screen and try. You bring yourself, your vocabulary, your sensibilities to the page, but in that moment of creation, you don't know whether it will work or not. It takes time, distance, a lot of patience. I guess the goal is to create more that works than doesn't.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

New Beginnings

Yikes! Has it really been almost a month since I've been here?

Wait, why am I surprised? Based on my past history, it's really not that unusual.

Well, I hope I can be excused. Just this one time. I've been home taking care of my newest little one. Amazingly, it involves virtually no physical activity, but requires almost all of my concentration. It's an excuse, to be sure, but it has, unfortunately, been used to excuse myself from several things, including blogging. And writing.

But I'm working my way back into it now that I've found a rhythm, and often sleep when the baby sleeps. (When I go back to work in two weeks, it will all fall apart again.) And quite a while ago, I had an idea of a long-lasting approach to my blog.

I had been listening to my Book-on-CD version of ON WRITING by Stephen King (yes, again). And I found myself talking back to it, saying things akin to "Man, I could never do that" or "I see what you mean" or "I don't know..." and I realized that, for the first time, I was listening to it as a writer, and not a fan. It was a thrilling realization that I was having my own little professional conversation. And then the idea hit me. I may never get to meet Stephen King (who I greatly admire), and if I do I don't think I'll be allowed to go over the book point-by-point, bringing up certain issues and asking clarifying questions. But what I can do is bring them up on my blog, try to work through them myself, and see if anyone has anything they'd like to bring to the conversation.

So, I'll be starting that tomorrow. I'm going to go write the first post right now. I'm using the MMPB version, if you want to follow along. In the meantime, this is what I'll be seeing for the rest of the day: