What Did You Write That For?

“Any writer overwhelmingly honest about pleasing himself is almost sure to please others.”

~ MARIANNE MOORE

I have had a long and preponderantly happy life, and a good deal of that happiness has come from my writing, and the response of both friends and strangers to it.  I’m a guy who dropped out of school after 11th grade, joined the military and had a big adventure while learning what they could teach me.  Returning to civilian life, I continued to write, my four years in the navy providing a rich mine of characters, locations, and situations as grist for my mill.  As an author, I am technically, I suppose, self-taught, as I couldn’t afford college or writing retreats.  I did have the wherewithal to discover, seek out, and filter what spoke to my developing style into a concise library from among the thousands of how-to-write-books books that are available, so in that sense, you could say that I’ve been taught by the best, from Evan Marshall to Stephen King.  In spite of all this, when I began to finish books and seek publication, America’s acquisition editors proved to be the one group that I couldn’t crack, and I managed to collect rejection slips from more publishers than most people know exist.

Apparently, reading instructional manuals written by great authors isn’t quite the same as sitting in their classrooms, reacting to their lessons and being able to ask pertinent questions, yet in spite of this, with the exception of those editors, virtually everyone I have been able to get my work in front of professes to like it a great deal.  It began with friends, family, and coworkers, when I would hand them a manuscript and say, “Tell me what you think.”  I found an extended audience in writing.com, when I joined back around 2011.  I began the construction of Beyond the Rails, shared every story there, and scores of strangers loved it.  When I discovered CreateSpace in 2013, I published the first six stories as a book.  Reviewers and critics ate it up, and that was all the encouragement I needed.  I have since stepped away from writing.com, and I’ll concede that that could be a mistake, but I felt like I needed a professional-looking “me-only” web page to represent me to the world, so here I am with four books published and more on the way, and with the kind assistance of WordPress, a most professional-looking page to represent me to the world.

So, given my background, what is the secret of my success?

“Success?” you ask.  “But you never inked that big contract with a publisher.  Where is this success you speak of?”

Well, success has as many different meanings as there are people seeking it, and my success has been vindication, validation of the fact that I really can tell a good story that can hold a reader’s interest from the first hook to the final victory.  I get three or four Emails a day about my work; Stephen King gets three or four thousand, but I’m happy.  Like most writers, I’m essentially a private person, and I’m not sure I’d do well if thousands of people were clamoring for interviews, TV appearances, convention panels and the like.  Monetarily, sure, but there are other measures of success besides money, and to me, having that little intimate group of fans, and a few book sales each month lights my heart with joy.  In essence, I had a long, productive career, I have a better-than-adequate retirement package, and my days are devoted to my loving family; I’m not sure I’d enjoy being yanked out of here to put on a Halloween costume and strut around some hot, crowded convention over a long weekend.  But being appreciated as a writer?  There are few rewards that approach that feeling.

So how did a barely-educated high school dropout reach this point?  I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and I think the answer has to be by writing what I love.  I was a child in the 1950s, and we weren’t well-off.  One of the things I vividly remember was a near-weekly trip downtown to hit the Goodwill and Salvation Army stores.  As a young child, I always picked over the toy bin to see what treasure some anonymous little kid had parted with, but as I got a little older, I developed a love of reading, and if there’s one thing that thrift stores have in burgeoning abundance, it’s books.  Back in the 50s, I was poring over shelves and bins of books written in the 30s and 40s, and even then, I loved action and adventure.  But books in those days, even books aimed at adults, could be read by children, because they weren’t dripping with gore and torture scenes, the women didn’t fall into someone’s bed every time they tripped, the heroes were heroic, and the villains didn’t have to have some redeeming quality.  I began to miss those books as I grew to adulthood and they fell out of favor with whoever decides what books make it to our bookstores, and since no one else was going to write them, I decided I would write them myself.  My surprise was complete when my modest modern audience embraced them like they had never seen them before!

I think there’s a moral here somewhere, something that writers can take away and use, and I think it might be to write what you love.  Not what you know, what you love.  If you write the stories you love, and let that love of your chosen type and genre show through on the page, you will have won 90% of the battle…  At least, that’s my experience.

In Other News…

I have already mentioned the fine work of Bryce Raffle and David Lee Summers in the short life of this site.  Today I have the pleasure of directing you to the place where you can find both of these upright gentlemen together and interacting.  Allow me to present the latest edition of Dead Steam, Bryce’s blog, where he interviews David about his career as an author.  Very much worth getting to know these two, and as an added bonus, you might find a new read or two among his eleven novels, eighty-five short stories, and fifty-five poems.

Well, that’s it for me.  Join me again Friday for a Blimprider Times where I’ll feature a site that I’ve found entertaining, and bring you up to date on what’s been happening around the intergalactic airship of your mind.  See you then!

Blimprider Times, No. 9

“A novelist, in his omniscience, knows the measure of his characters, out of his passion for all sorts of conditions of human life.  The biographer, however, begins with certain limiting little facts.”

~ LEON EDEL

BtR2Full - Copy

I’m halfway through my third month as a member of the WordPress family, which is plenty new enough to be a relative unknown (despite all the noise I’ve been trying to make on the site), and while I’ve filled out those ridiculously tiny Bio sections, I don’t feel that a couple of hundred characters in any language can explain who I am, so I’m going to squander a Times on the subject, and we’ll see who finds it interesting.  In it I will explore the events that brought me to this point, how my defining work came to be, and where I might be headed in the future.  Once I have this ego attack satiated, I should be able to get back to work with a clear head, so we might as well get it over with.

I am a 69-year old navy veteran, decorated seven times for my participation in the Vietnam War, and once for my work as a civilian on behalf of the navy as a fuel safety, fire, environmental, and contract specialist later in life.  None of my medals, the National Defense Medal, five Vietnam Service Medals, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, nor the Meritorious Unit Commendation, was given for individual valor.  I’m not that guy.  They represent my “proof of purchase,” if you like, demonstrating the fact that I was there and involved.  In the navy, I trained as a Radioman, and served in minesweepers and fleet oilers.  It was a long time ago, and distance has removed any urge to relive those days.  After a few years of nursing my great-grandmother, working odd jobs, and being a hippie, a pot-head, and a street urchin in a California beach town (boy, those were the days!), I took the civil service test because you can’t be a street kid forever, and went back to work for the navy.  I began in an aviation parts warehouse where I met my future wife on the first day, went on to work in clerical and accounting positions, and for the last 25 years was the aforementioned safety guy with the highfalutin’ title of Contract Surveillance Representative.  I retired on May 2nd, two years ago to the day, when after a quarter of a century, my department head decided that I was doing it all wrong, and that I would be “redirected” to fall into line with the navy’s revised needs.  My reply was, “Direct me to the gate!” since I was two years late for the door, and had no desire to learn a new job at this age.  I had never planned to retire, never considered it.  When people would ask me when I was retiring, my answer was always, “From what?”  Oh, ignorance, thou art bliss!  After going two years without hearing an alarm clock, attending a meeting, being evaluated, or sitting in traffic, I will never be able to thank that man enough, and this is what makes May 2nd the most neon-red holiday on my calendar!

Now my job is writing (oh, and being a husband and grandpa, but those are for a different blog), and what I’m going to explore here is how this background brought me to the African veldt in the late nineteenth century.  As I mentioned in my bio, my dad was a navy diver, and my mom was a professional gambler.  Dad disappeared before I was born, and a gambler, living on the road and out of a suitcase, has no business trying to raise a child, though mom visited often, and I tried living with her a couple of times; a few months was enough to convince us both that that wasn’t going to work out.  So I was raised by my grandmother and great-grandmother.  Great-grandma’s son was Major General William H. Holt, U.S. Air Force.  He was on perpetual deployment, but he bought his retirement home in 1955 in the very upscale neighborhood of Point Loma, overlooking San Diego.  He installed his mother as caretaker, and as she was my primary care giver, I grew up lower-middle class in these very affluent surroundings.  If you weren’t privileged to grow up a poor kid among rich ones, it’s an experience I might recommend to give you a devastatingly sarcastic outlook on humanity.

The first time I noticed that my writing was entertaining people was in fifth grade, which would make me nine, then ten a month after the school year started.  Our teacher would give one-page creative writing assignments, then read them anonymously before the class.  Mine were always well-received, and I never got tired of that one little facet of life where these rich kids who believed I wasn’t good enough to smell their poop were entranced by something I could do.  I wrote and told stories all the way through school, then wrote more during my time in the navy, incorporating my ever-growing life experience.  I wrote about whatever was popular, war, spies, explorers, private eyes.  I still had no voice, as I was in the navy at an age when many people are in college.  In many ways, the navy was my university; the University of Hard Knocks, and I got my postgraduate degree in Practicality.  Synopsis:  You do whatever works, and you haven’t failed until you quit.

After the navy, I spent four years taking care of my great-grandma, who had lost her mobility to a broken hip, and working odd jobs like dog-walker, lawn-mower, and for a time manning a shop counter in the little mall across the street; anything that didn’t take me too far from the sick bed.  I had made some friendships that weren’t based on money, or the lack thereof, and when grandma was home taking her shift, I was over at the little beach town nearby living the hippie life with them.  Had some great times and met some colorful people that continue to inform my writing today.

I had always written in longhand in a loose-leaf notebook, but one day a neighbor offered me an antique typewriter in lieu of cash for some yard work.  I accepted eagerly, and never looked back.  My first attempt at a novel was most certainly a Star Trek derivative, Tribes of the Southern Sky.  It concerned the operations of a frigate of the Terran Space Agency and Colonial Administration, the TSAS Chippewa.  The frigates were named for native American tribes, hence the name; each crew identified themselves to each other as being Sioux, Apache, or in the case of my heroes, Chippewa.  The viewpoint character was a Combat Technician, literally a professional redshirt.  His training was in how to keep all the science personnel around him safe, which made it considerably more action-oriented than a typical Star Trek episode.

But it petered out because, for all my interest in writing, I had never learned a thing about The Craft.  I just wrote what was interesting to me, and tried to emulate the form of the books I had enjoyed.  That didn’t come out so well, but I knew where I wanted to go.  I couldn’t afford the time or money to take any courses, but I soon discovered that there were books on How to Write Books, and I began to read with a new objective.  It was also around this time that I discovered John Norman’s Gor series, which was set in a fantasy world without any magic.  This was unique in my experience, but I loved the early entries, and began to dabble in epic fantasy.  It still went nowhere, and I was still poking around in mystery, horror, and a number of other fields.

In 1996, when I was 48 years old, my wife was able to accept an early retirement.  Hers was the classic story of being the only girl in a boys’ club, and they harassed her mercilessly.  It took a lot of my attention and energy just to help her keep her equilibrium.  At about the same time, my hooligan sons were twenty, transitioning out of the street gang environment and into the work force, and I suddenly found myself with nothing much to worry about.  That year I began what was to be my first completed novel, Temple of Exile, a fantasy in which modern characters find themselves transported to a land of sword and sorcery, and have to find their way back.  I did the whole thing with no planning other than a general feel for the story, a method I have since come to know as “pantsing,” or flying by the seat of your pants.  It was a decent story of 140,000 words that might have been tight and gripping at 90.  One agent offered to do an edit for $3500; I still had a lot to learn.

One of the big things that I learned next was how to plan.  I mean, how can I tell you a story if I don’t know what it is?  My next project was Chameleon, the story of Coleen O’Reilly, an IRA bomber who had grown a conscience and become a paladin.  That was meant to be a series, but the IRA screwed me with the Peace Accords, and I moved on.  I finished the epic fantasy Flight of Heroes, the first volume of The Questor Journals, with my daughter, which was supposed to be the first book of a trilogy.  She decided she didn’t want to write anymore, and I didn’t want to carry on alone without her voice in the story, so that went by the wayside.  Bloodline came next, the second Coleen O’Reilly adventure.  She could still be a paladin even if the IRA weren’t hunting her, right?  But I lost interest in the concept during the writing, and that project died off.  The fourth novel I completed was Broken English, a combination spy/police thriller that went pretty well, but like the others before it, garnered no interest from agents or publishers.  Finally, the “cozy fantasy” The Wellstone Chronicles left the launch pad, and joined the others on the wildly successful quest for rejection.  For ten years I pimped these books to anyone who would provide a PO Box number to send them to, and collected enough rejection slips to wallpaper my bedroom.

Then came “Chops,” the nickname of my best friend of close to 40 years.  We were both wargamers, introduced by my sister who knew of our common interest, and I never wavered from naming this guy my best friend until the aftermath of the 2016 election, when he just couldn’t bring himself to slow down his program of telling everyone who didn’t vote for his man-crush how retarded, criminal, and sub-human we were.  After fifteen solid weeks of this, I gave up trying to delude myself that a friend would call me such things in a public forum every morning for over three months, and let him go his way, but back in 2012, he approached me with the backstory material from a game called Dystopian Wars.  He was keen on us writing some fiction together based on that backstory, which is pure, hard-core steampunk.  Shortly thereafter, he got a promotion which called for a lot of overtime and world travel, and we were never able to make it happen.  But I was hooked.

I cast about for a place to set my own unique steampunk fiction, because I would never steal my friend’s idea and run with it.  I wound up moving my world 4000 miles in space and 40 years in time, and the result was Beyond the Rails.  I started writing it as an occasional hobby in 2011, and in 2013 self-published the first book of interconnected short stories involving an ensemble cast of misfits and outcasts trying to make a living moving passengers and cargo by blimp on the African frontier.  A reviewer once described it as “Jules Verne meets Firefly.”  I am, as I have said many times, very proud of that description, but I want to clear up one thing:  I did not set out to copy Firefly, but once the similarity was pointed out to me, I embraced it wholeheartedly; there are a lot worse things to have your work compared to than a Joss Whedon masterpiece.

To bring the story full circle, volume II, another story collection, was published early in 2015, and volume III, a novel, in 2016.  Finally having had the taste for traditional publishing beaten out of me by traditional publishers, writing has become very much my hobby.  I do it now out of a love for doing it, and consider the ability to self-publish a fortuitous development that allows me to share it with a wider audience than just a few friends.  I have probably sold under a hundred copies, and have given away as many more.  The three books have garnered a score or so of reviews, and cumulatively hover around a 4.5 out of 5 average rating in various places around the web.  I think it’s a good story, and so do most who have read it.  I would like to share it with you, and as my personal gift to readers, I have posted three samples, including two complete stories, to read for free at the tabs above.  Drop in when you have a half-hour to kill, and see what the buzz is about.

So that’s the story of how I became a writer.  Basically, I had to relax first.  Stress and tension seem to be the death knell of creativity.  Being relaxed, I have been able to embark on a spinoff of Beyond the Rails called The Darklighters, a Victorian steampunk Man from U.N.C.L.E.  There’s a free sample of the work under construction under the Works In Progress tab above.  Look into that if the concept sounds intriguing.  You never know, you might find a new guilty pleasure!

View from the Blimp

It’s past time to make some decisions about the many projects I have been carrying in the hold.  My efforts have been diluted by these scattered and varied ideas that are constantly being kicked upstairs by the Muse, and I need to get that under control so that I can actually bring something to completion.  Here is what I envision at the moment:

  • The Darklighters, a spinoff from Beyond the Rails, will be the front-burner project until it is completed and published.  The format will be that of a series of 20,000± word novellas connected by a larger story arc, and published in a single cover.  This has become my preferred format, the novella being long enough to introduce some subterfuge, but not so long as to require what amounts in my mind to padding; the narrative can be terse and immediate without sacrificing complexity.
  • Stingaree is my full-size novel of the gritty side of an imaginary steampunked San Diego, my home town.  I’ve been working on this for two years, and it is about two-thirds finished.  I’ve hit the wall several times, the issue being that I’m headed into the climactic confrontation, and have thought of several directions I can take it, none of which is precisely right.  I still ponder this on those days when The Darklighters isn’t flowing, but I may have to confront the Muse with a list of demands.  That will be an interesting day!  Regardless of that, I expect this to be my last novel, though I may clean up and publish Broken English for it’s 20th anniversary.
  • Looking far into the future, I see getting the battered ship and crew of Beyond the Rails back into the air.  The Nexus Chronicles, my horror series, isn’t demanding any attention, and right now I would have to say that Possession of Blood, the first story, will be all there is to it.  Finally, it has been requested that I write more Brass & Coal.  That was a short story that I wrote for an anthology, and while I am flattered by its acceptance, they aren’t a pair that lend themselves to a major series.  I do plan to keep them on tap for any future anthologies I may be invited to participate in.

And that’s my outlook for the next few years.  It’s fun to plan, and hopefully fun to read, as long as you all understand, as I do, that it is likely to change by next week…

Speaking of which, my next scheduled post will be on Sunday the 6th.  Join me for a discussion of the Presentation of Story.  I’ll try to entertain you; at the very least I’ll make you think!

The Burden of Being a Writer

“When you’re a writer, you no longer see things with the freshness of a normal person.  There are always two figures that work inside you, and if you are at all intelligent you realize that you have lost something.  But I think there has always been this dichotomy in a real writer.  He wants to be terribly human, and he responds emotionally, and at the same time there’s this cold observer who cannot cry.”

~ BRIAN MOORE

Let me begin by making one thing perfectly clear:  I am a hobbyist author.  For most of literary history, the term “author” has described both a professional and his or her profession, and by no means has that profession fallen by the wayside.  But over the past decade or so, through the magic of the internet, it is the case that anyone can write anything they choose and, without regard to whether they have any idea what they’re doing, make a few mouse clicks, and voila, their opus is for sale on amazon.com.  These are the hobbyists, myself among them, who publish 5,000 new books every day.

Those 5,000 new books run the gamut from “How does this guy not have a book deal?” to “This guy couldn’t write a grocery list.”  The only statistic in question is how many of us admit that we’re hobbyists, and how many put that unedited, virtually unreadable first-draft up for sale, and immediately list “Author” as their profession on their tax return.  But there is one area in which the professional and the hobbyist are indistinguishable.  I refer here to those hobbyists who have put at least some level of effort into learning The Craft.  You’ve taken a class, read some how-to books, or otherwise made some effort to grasp the basic principles of what you’re trying to do.

Once you understand how plots and characters are created and developed, you always have one eye out for another author’s technique.  Now, when I read The Sword of Shannara, I’m no longer just on an epic quest through the wild with Shea Ohmsford.  Part of me is standing behind Terry Brooks watching his technique, second-guessing his choices, trying to understand why he gave the reader this critical piece of the puzzle now, and not earlier or later.

You are told what the author feels you need to know at the time you need to know it.  That’s all well and good, and when you are immersed in a tautly-crafted read, you aren’t even aware that you’re reading; the experience being described in the book is going on around you, and you aren’t just reading.  You’re hearing the twig break in the darkness, smelling the prosecutor’s harsh after-shave lotion, feeling the sweet lips of your paramour, and even though there is nothing to hear or smell or feel, you are there!

Compare this to what happens on a movie set.  The camera is dollied along a suburban street, and you as the viewer take in the details of everything from the house numbers to the garden gnomes, and maybe wonder what sort of life is lived in this house or that.  But those houses are only the fronts, plywood cutouts hung on scaffolding, and as a writer, part of you is constantly trying to pull back the veil and see how this other writer built his scaffolds.

I myself write in third-person viewpoint, which means I tell a story in the form of “he did this,” and “she said that,” but I’m not completely omnipotent.  Each scene has a “viewpoint,” a character through whose eyes that piece of the narrative is told.  I aim for 80-100 scenes in a novel, generally four to a chapter, with plot twists at the quarter, halfway, and three-quarter marks, and never more than six viewpoints.  The majority of the story is told through the eyes of the Protagonist, with a lesser number of scenes falling to the Opposition, the Confidant, and the Henchman.  My protagonist always has a distraction going on, rats in the basement, so to speak, while he’s trying to deal with the wolf at the door.  Sometimes this distraction takes the form of a fifth viewpoint character, and on rare occasions, I’ll use a sixth just to stir the pot, but never more than that, and when I see a well-established professional introduce that seventh main character, I’m out of the plot.  I want to know why, what story point made it necessary, what was the author trying to accomplish, did she succeed, how did she make it work?

And that’s the burden.  You’re a reader trying to have a good time, but you’re also a writer trying to improve your own Craft, and how better to do that than to crack the code of J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or Michael Crichton?  If you’re a writer, you know that it never stops, and it does interfere with your enjoyment.  I can’t say whether it’s worth it.  Financially, certainly not.  I often joke that one month, my book sales paid for my internet service, but that isn’t really a joke.

But as a hobbyist, it has been very much worth doing.  I have a number of writing friends that I get to rub elbows and compare notes with, and the feeling you get when someone tells you in person, or better yet, posts a review praising your stellar work and divine skills is worth almost any sacrifice it might take to get it, even if the numbers aren’t that great.  And in my case, they won’t be.  I have turned down a book-signing, a couple of conventions, and a radio interview, because even though the chances are infinitesimal, there is that fraction of a percentage point of possibility that some unsuspected event could catapult me to celebrity, and I don’t want to live that life.  I’m happily retired, have a great relationship with my family, and that’s the way I want to keep it.

None of that means that I don’t carry the burden, though.  How about you, my writing friends?  Do you experience anything like this?  How do you maintain your enjoyment in the face of that “need to know?”