Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Mark Twain's Rules of Writing

Everything a writer should know can be found in Mark Twain's Rules of Writing. In honor of the author's birthday this month, I present them here:

1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.

2. The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.

3. The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.

4. The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.

5. When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.

6. When the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.

7. When a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a Negro minstrel at the end of it.

8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader by either the author or the people in the tale.

9. The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.

10. The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.

11. The characters in tale be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.

Also, the author should:

Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
Use the right word, not its second cousin.
Eschew surplusage.
Not omit necessary details.
Avoid slovenliness of form.
Use good grammar.
Employ a simple, straightforward style.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

What's So Scary About...?

I've got an inkling of an idea for a novel that involves some kind of horrific or disturbing element. So that's led me to think about what I find scary. Or, as a place to begin, what I don't find scary.

Vampires. Werewolves. Zombies. Any of your run-of-the-mill monsters I find tedious and dull. Even with all the re-imagining these "classics" have received in recent years, predictability runs amok. Not to mention, as soon as something becomes popular, it looses its edge.

I also don't find the standard slasher-flicks particularly scary. Having the characters make stupid choices for the sake of creating suspense and the endless teasing toward the inevitable gory, violent end is far more annoying than scare inducing. Films like Saw and Hostel and other torture-porn are much more effective in creating shocking, disturbing images that stick in the craw of your memory long after viewing them. (Not to be confused with that delicious creepy feeling you get from a good M. Night Shyamalan movie.)

That's what it really comes down to for me - a story or film's lingering factor; how disturbing was it that I'm prompted to look twice into a dark corner for fear of what may be hiding there, or how easily do I jump at a sound from the shadows when I'm out walking the dog?

So, then, what is the impetus for such a reaction?

For me, it is the reality of such a horror; the likelihood of something terrible. If I hear a stirring in the darkness, the first thought that comes to mind isn't something as ridiculous as a zombie, but rather, a psychopath with a crowbar. An episode of Criminal Minds has a greater fear-factor to me than, say, Paranormal Activity 3. It's been fifteen years since I've read Ellis's American Psycho and there are still passages I can't forget. Why? Because serial killers are real. (Slasher characters like Michael Myers or Jason don't count; they're too cartoonish.) Women and children being abducted; people being brutally murdered in their homes; someone shooting up a school or coffee shop or movie theater - these are all too common horrors in our daily life.

It's this connection to real fears that makes the work of authors like Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King so effective. My own leanings toward claustrophobia prevent me from wanting to read Poe's Premature Burial again. And who'd have thought clowns were scary. King did. (In Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's brilliant The Cabin in the Woods, of all its monsters and demons, the one moment that sticks most with me is the image of a clown laughing while it stabs someone to death.)

I guess what scares me, then, is the all too real inhumanity, the common disregard for life, that has become such an integral part of our culture - even generated by our culture, as American Psycho implies.

Okay, now that I've answered that question for myself, am I ready to venture into the darkest recesses of my imagination?

Mmmm...perhaps one more visit to the happy place of Star's Hollow and the Gilmore Girls first.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Writer's Block?

I don't get the whole "writer's block" thing. I mean, I understand this concept that a writer's creativity can go through ebbs and flows, but it's often referred to as though it were some kind of affliction. Someone asked me the other day how my writing was going, and I answered, "Slowly," because, well, I tend to write slowly, with lots of revisions as I go. His response was, "Oh, writer's block, huh?"

"No, it's not writer's block," I snapped back, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop when one of the students tells him he has a brain tumor because he complained of a headache. ("It's not a tumor!")

In his book On Writing Well William Zinsser explains the process of writing as nothing more than problem solving. He refers specifically to non-fiction, but the same applies to fiction. How should the story unfold - linear or non-linear; chronologically or through a series of flashbacks or both? What's the best way to express a particular idea - through narrative, action, or dialogue? What's the best path of events from point A to point B? What word(s) works best to say what I want to say? What the heck is the story about? The "problems" go on and on.

My biggest challenge comes in the form of transitions. Before I start physically writing, I have outlined the beginning, middle and end, as well as key scenes of my novel's plot. The "transitions" are everything in between - exposition, character development, settings - and I strive to make them as smooth and seamless as possible. I don't like clunky writing.

In any case, none of these problems or challenges are blockages. Rather, they are part of the method of getting all the elements to a novel - character, plot, dialogue, theme, etc. - into a coherent, cohesive form on paper (or screen, if you prefer). 

I mentioned in a previous post that I spend a good deal of time thinking about what I'm going to write before actually writing it. To non-writers this appears as though my creativity has dried up and I've been stricken with that seemingly incurable disease "writer's block." To other writers, I hope, they see it as, "Oh, he's just working out the details."

Not counting the book I'm currently working on, I've got a pretty good idea of what my next eight novels are going to be. What are all their titles, characters, plot points, and themes? I don't know, I haven't worked out the details, yet. But, in my best Austrian bodybuilder accent, I say, "It's not writer's block!"

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Writing with Tunes

I like to listen to music while I write. Not the radio, mind you, unless it's classical music on the public supported KING FM (98.1), Seattle, or KEXP (90.3) "where the music matters"; otherwise, all the banter and commercials between songs are too distracting. And, usually, the tunes I choose to play have a connection to what I'm writing; they help set a mood or tone.

In the early drafts of "Gospel...", when I was going for something with a harder edge, it was heavy-metal: Metallica, Megadeath, Godsmack, System of a Down, and especially this one compilation, Nativity in Black (Volumes I and II), where classics of Black Sabbath are covered by the likes of Biohazard, Faith No More, Type O Negative, Pantera, Slayer, and Primus. It's awesome! I highly recommend it.

But later, the tone of the book became more brooding, and I changed the musical selections similar to the pieces mentioned in the book's party scene - the adagios and Gorecki's 3rd Symphony, and lots of Tangerine Dream.

Currently, I'm working on a novel with themes of the wild west, so I've got some Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam, and Del Castillo often playing. A bit cliche, I guess, but it's all about adding a certain flavor to the words. 

Monday, August 12, 2013


I have a confession to make: 

Given the choice between reading a novel and watching a movie, I choose the movie. This is because reading makes me sleepy. Two, three pages, and I'm out. It doesn't matter what time of day. (Frank Zappa admitted to the same problem in his autobiography, so I like to think I'm in good company.) Perhaps there should be a name for this condition, like readarcolepsy, or something. 

Because of this "condition," it can be quite laborious for me to get through a book, fiction or otherwise. It took me nearly a year to read Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars. By no means should this reflect on Robinson's fine writing; it's me, the guy who falls asleep reading the Sunday comics. And it explains why many of my favorite novels tend to be short - Fahrenheit 451, Siddartha, Notes From the UndergroundRumble Fish, Illusions - and why I'll probably never write something of "epic" stature. Don't look for something longer than 60,000 words from me anytime soon.

So, as sacrilegious as it may be, I'll take a couple of hours in a movie theater over battling with the R.E.M. inducing effects of the latest best seller.

Now, let me just read through this post again and check for editing issu--ZZZZZZZZ!  

Saturday, August 3, 2013

My Writing Process

As I mentioned earlier, I really didn't know what I was doing when I began writing my first novel. By the time I was done, I had developed a pretty good process (one that works for me, that is) which I'm applying to my current projects.

Naturally, it all begins with an idea. But exactly where these ideas originate is hard to say. They may come from the interest I have in a variety of subjects, like the wild west, silent movies, travel and the open road, or linguistics. Sometimes an idea will germinate simply by looking at a genre I find intriguing: speculative fiction, or steam-punk, or the mystery-thriller. Mostly, though, ideas come from observing the world around me - watching the news, reading periodicals, or simply taking a walk. On occasion, I'll develop an idea from nothing but a phrase or word. That's a good title for a book, I may think, or what a great opening sentence. From wherever it starts, the seed is then planted in my little brain and left to grow, often unconsciously, into a story concept.

From there, I think a lot about the plot. I like to know where the story begins, where it's going, and how it ends. This works in hand with developing the characters, though I don't always have a clear idea who they are until I actually begin physically writing; the action of the plot and how they interact with the other characters brings out details of who they are, and dialogue seems to naturally spring from there. I also do a lot of reading on subjects that I believe will contribute to the richness of the story, give it depth or a certain authenticity. 

And then starts a series of outlines, each one progressively more detailed, sort of like using a Google Earth map where you zoom in closer and closer for a better look at where you're going. This technique might be criticized for creating a story that is too plotted, sterile, predictable, or contrived. But as I begin typing the first draft, I get a better perspective on the best way to communicate what is happening and take steps to make sure it doesn't seem forced.

The creation of the first draft is a slow, meticulous task for me because I edit and revise as I go; I can't just spew words onto a page and then go back and sort it all out. The OCD in me insists that every word, sentence and paragraph be just-so before I can move on to the next. While this is painstaking and time consuming, it makes for a nearly finished manuscript that requires little rewriting.

Still, I rewrite, making all kinds of tweaks and changes to bring all the details into something cohesive and readable; for me, it takes a lot of effort to create prose, dialogue and plot that appears effortless. This rewriting happens after I have two or three people give it a read and make critical notes.

What I give little or no consideration to are the elements of motifs and themes. This is what I enjoy most about writing: seeing what emerges once I've got all the pieces of the puzzle in place. For instance, the parallel drawn between animals caged in a zoo and humans confined within a quarantined environment behaving unnaturally in "Gospel..." came about entirely on its own; I did not consciously put it there, and yet, it's become, I believe, one of the book's defining themes.    

So, how do I know when a book is done? When I can't add or take anything more from it, I guess. It's done when...um, well...when it's done.  

Saturday, July 6, 2013

(Some of) My Influences

I think every writer learns something from everything they read - good or bad; what works or what doesn't - but there are select authors that have had the greatest influence upon their own writing. At least that's how it is for me. Here are a few of my influences:

John Irving To me, Irving is a writer's writer. The intensity of commitment to his work, his love and knowledge of literature comes through page after page of his writing. That alone I find inspiring. But equally impressive is the way he makes his well-layered plots, in-depth characters, and thematic motifs so readable. The Hotel New Hampshire and A Widow for One Year are two of my favorites of his, while A Prayer for Owen Meany is my all-time favorite novel.

Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451 was the single greatest influence upon my first novel. They are really nothing alike, but the minimal manner in which he created a fantastic yet believable world as the foundation for his book's ideas and themes was impressive. My own effort, I think, was a little forced at times, but satisfactory for my first time.

Sherman Alexie I generally prefer writing that is to-the-point, prose that "eschews surplusage" (as Twain put it), like Hemingway or Carver, and Alexie is one of the best. His narrative has a poetic ring to it, and his unique world-view (unique for White people, anyway) makes for absorbing, powerful reading. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven and Reservation Blues are especially good.   

Iain Banks As I mentioned in an earlier post, what I like most about Banks is that I have no idea what to expect from one of his books to another. From the disturbing short work The Wasp Factory, about a sixteen-year-old serial killer, to Walking on Glass, a novel of three men in virtually different universes that have an unexpected connection, to Canal Dreams, about an Asian cellist who takes on terrorists in Panama. You can't get much more unpredictable than that. I look forward to experiencing the whole of his body of work.

Harlan Ellison I had the pleasure of seeing Ellison speak many years ago. He's intense, feisty, and always ready for a fight. His writing is the same way. He's as original and prolific as they come. You may not like everything he writes, but he is never boring. Check his classic novella A Boy and His Dog, as well as the short stories "Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman and All the Sounds of Fear.
     What I learned most from Ellison, however, is something from an introduction he wrote for the reprint of an essay by him nearly thirty years prior in Writer's Digest: "...never let mere money be an influence. A good writer can always make money, even if he or she has to drive a truck or lay brick or work in the steno pool."

Algis Budrys An above-average writer of science fiction, his influence for me came as editor for the wonderful, yet now defunct, magazine Tomorrow Speculative Fiction, and author of Writing to The Point -  a mere sixty pages on everything you need to know about writing fiction that sells. He was also one of the few editors to respectfully decline publishing one of my earliest stories. Even though I was rejected, he made me feel like a real, honest-to-goodness writer.

Valerie J. Freireich She creates other worlds of intricately layered social and political structures. And she does it seamlessly. She explains nothing, but rather drops you into the middle of the society she created as though it were the very universe you lived within and understood. I love her novels Becoming Human and Testament, and my all-time favorite short story is her Convert, which I read in the #13 issue of Tomorrow Speculative Fiction in 1994.



Tuesday, June 18, 2013

My "Genreless" Style

One of my goals as an author is to not to always write the same kind of novel. I don't want to be stuck in one particular genre. Sure, I will probably have some recurring themes, but one story may be speculative while another may be a western, and the next a mystery thriller.

My first rule of writing is to create something that I would want to read; I write for myself, in other words. With that, I've enjoyed reading a variety of genres - science fiction (Asimov, Clarke); mystery (John Straley); action-adventure (Clancy), and literary (John Irving, Umberto Eco) to name a few.

Also, I don't want my work to be predictable. One of my favorite authors is Iain Banks because when I crack open one of his books I've no idea what I'm getting myself into. All too often I've enjoyed a particular writer (or filmmaker, or band) only to not want to read them ever again because they simply become a predictable derivative of themselves.

When it came to market my book, I had to put it into some kind of category, wherein I discovered the wonderfully ambiguous and interchangeable labels of literary, mainstream, and contemporary - the perfect homes for writing that doesn't adhere to strict guidelines of any one genre.

The irony here being, of course, that literary, mainstream, and contemporary are considered specific genres.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Why Publish Independently?

After completing my book, I took the traditional path in pursuit of publication. First, I submitted query letters to a number of agents, and received a number of polite, respectful rejections. (Unlike the rude rejection I got for my short story mentioned in a previous posting.) One agent even expressed enough interest to want to read the first three chapters, but found it wasn't a novel she would normally represent.

Then I went to submitting to publishers directly. Again, a slew of polite rejections. While not interested in "Gospel...", one publisher did invite me to send in any future manuscripts, as they did like my writing in general. (So, I've got that going for me.)

Two years later, I was left with a lesson learned: The best way to get published is to have first been published. A classic Catch-22. It was about that time that my wife suggested I self-publish through Amazon. Their CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform was exactly what I needed, comprehensive yet inexpensive. I chose the mostly DIY approach. I laid out and designed the book's interior, and through a vague description of what I envisioned, my wife created a great cover. (Of course, she thinks it could be better, so don't be surprised if you see a new design in the near future.) 

I chose to make my novel available only online so that I could keep the cover price down. Who wants to spend fifteen-plus dollars on an author they've never heard of? That's what I would've had to charge to sell in bookstores - the extra dollars simply going to cover costs of distribution. I don't need middlemen; I need to entice readers to take a chance on a new writer.

Whether this publication garners the attention of any publishers and/or agents is yet to be seen. But with the creative freedom and higher royalties that using CreateSpace allows, I wonder now if I will ever go with traditional publishing. (We'll see if I can be bought with a substantial enough contract offer and advance.) 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

My History of Writing

I've been writing for as long as I can remember, or rather, I've been creating stories, which for me is a good 90% of my writing process; the act of transferring those stories to the physical form of words on paper - writing - plays only a small part.

Like any child, I created adventures to put upon my plastic soldiers, or whatever toys I was playing with. Yet, unlike many children, I think, I would imagine an adventure in great detail - all the plot points, the protagonists and their enemies, and the story's conclusion - long before beginning to play.  

I recall one particular day when I laid out a rather involved war story, a Where Eagles Dare kind of adventure. I had all my men in place, arranged the living room just-so to accommodate the landscape I'd envisioned, and prepared for battle. Just then some friends of the family showed up with their son, who was about my age, and who I was instructed to play with. He immediately tore into what I had painstakingly set up and proceeded to ruin my plans with some kind of improvised conflict he made up as he played. (Sacrilege!) I was very unhappy, as much by having my "story" dashed aside as by his encroachment upon my maturing anti-social tendencies. 

My writing would take many forms. I created comic books, complete with advertisements. Mind you, these were not artful in any way, the drawings were simplistic and rudimentary to say the least, but they were a means to put my ideas to paper. 

I typed up short stories on an old Remington. Very short stories, with random plots to no logical conclusions. And then, I discovered a friend's Super-8 movie camera! From there, for many years to follow, I put a great deal of energy into film making. (Wasted energy, it turned out, as my heart was never really into the technical aspects of making movies; it was only about the telling of my stories.) I attended the San Francisco Art Institute and discovered the world of avant-garde film...which I had no idea what to do with, but loved.

I wrote a horrible one-act play in college, and throughout the 80's and into the 90's I penned a few screenplays. Action movies, mostly. None of which, of course, made it to the big (or any-sized) screen. There's one, however, that I was quite fond of, which I co-wrote with a friend. It was a horror story about a newly married couple who are killed in a car accident. The man is brought back to life by an experiment with a regenerative spell cast by a coven of would-be witches. Unfortunately, the man comes back to life in the same condition as when he was dead - with a broken neck and mangled limbs. He takes revenge on those who caused his car to crash, and hunts down the witches with the intent to use their spell upon his dead bride. It was sort of an homage to the Dr. Phibes movies, starring Vincent Price, that I loved so much as a kid.

From there, I tried my hand at short stories, again, and...that takes us to my previous posting.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

My First Book

I finished writing my first novel, Gospel for the Damned - about a journalist who spends three days within the quarantined city of San Francisco - a little over two years ago. I had developed it from a short story I wrote in 1994, almost thirty years before! 

The short story, A Little Reality Never Killed Anyone, is about a group of teens in some kind of dystopian world who play dangerous truth-or-dare games to conquer their fear of living day-to-day. It's not very good. I'm not just saying this to be humble or self-deprecating, it's really not good. (One magazine that rejected my submission wrote - and I'm paraphrasing, only slightly - "We're not interested in your story. We only publish good writing.") But, it was one of the first and few short stories I ever wrote, and I will always cherish it as one of the many, necessary steps I took in becoming a novelist.

So, why thirty years to write my first novel?

Several reasons:

First, I didn't know what the hell I was doing. A story of a few pages length is one thing. A book of 200-plus pages, with real character development, detailed settings, and a cohesive story arc is a whole other realm of organization and creativity. I must have written a dozen or more outlines, trying to figure out how to connect all the different elements that were swirling around in my imagination.

Also, I had a number of strong characters with very distinct experiences. So I wrote three or four first drafts, each from the perspective of the various characters (written in first person). Yet, none of the early drafts worked because I couldn't coherently tell the story of all the characters from the point-of-view of only one of them. I also tried approaching it as a collection of stories connected by a common thread, like Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, or Hemingway's Nick Adams stories. But that merely complicated what had already become a daunting task.

How about writing from the omniscient or detached viewpoint? I thought to myself. I wrote one such draft that just didn't sound right; the story called for a more intimate narration than that. 

In 2004, I took a course in the writing of research papers. (I had a vague plan of getting a degree in the field of linguistics.) I wrote two pretty good papers, if I do say so myself, both of which had an unintended journalistic voice to them. And there was the answer to my dilemma: write my novel from the point-of-view of a journalist, from the outside, looking in. It was quite astounding how everything fell into place with that realization.

The second reason (or excuse, depending on how you look at such things) was the single greatest challenge that I think every writer faces - Life. It can sure get in the way. Working to pay the bills and a difficult first marriage, to name two things. But, and this would be my first piece of advice to any aspiring author, it's amazing how much you can produce with only one hour a day dedicated to writing and only writing. That's all. An hour a day. 

Lastly, the greatest deterrent to the completion of my first book was, simply, fear of failure. I'd spent (or wasted, depending on how you look at such things) so much of my life chasing rainbows (like a linguistics degree) that when it came to doing the one thing I felt I had a certain amount of skill in and true passion for - writing - I became incapacitated with the fear of it not working out, of failing, and then where would I be?

Well, it did work out, because I realized the only way I would fail is if I didn't try.

You can find my book on Amazon, in a paper version or for Kindle, at 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Welcome to my blog!

A couple of months ago I released my first novel through the self-publishing platform CreateSpace, an Amazon company. And now, as my audience slowly grows, I want to also develop a correspondence with everyone, and I can't think of a better way than through this page.

Here, I will talk about my process, projects I'm working on, or anything that strikes my fancy regarding my life as an aspiring, and finally published, author. I hope you'll find my posts, if not informative, at least entertaining, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Thanks for reading.