What Does “Writing” Mean?

I used to beat myself up over the fact that I didn’t actually write words on paper as often as I thought one was required to do in order to call oneself a writer. The simplest advice anyone offers when faced with the question “how do you become a writer?” is to say “write.” They imply that it should be done every day, that you can’t BE something unless you DO that thing regularly. I mean, sure, you can call yourself an astronaut, but unless you’re in outer space, you’re just a person in a funny suit.

Writing, they say, requires repetition and volume and schedule. Writing professionally takes practice. Writing is an acquired process, it doesn’t just happen.

This last part is the biggest truth out there: WRITING DOESN’T JUST HAPPEN.

 

When I sat down to write my first book back in 2011, I had no idea what I was doing. I had a main character and a vague plot with a rickety outline. I wrote the thing like I was talking to a guy at a bar who had a vague interest in what I was saying. I tried to describe action movie scenes on paper. I figured as long as I wrote two or three pages a day, I was being a writer.

Granted, that first book got me an agent, but it didn’t get published. The second book got a bit of attention, but it didn’t get published either. The third book excited my agent but I couldn’t get through the rewrites. Finally, even I lost interest in the fourth book, with its nonexistent conflict and unsympathetic characters.

 

A month or two ago, I sat down to start book #5 (though, honestly, it might as well be called book #1 at this point). I’m nearly 40 pages into it and it doesn’t even have a title yet. I wrote out character histories nearly two years ago. Scenes were scribbled out on index cards over a year ago. Bits of dialogue and ancillary character names and suggested quirks and idiosyncrasies were jotted down on backs of scrap paper and other paper-clipped forms. I even wrote the first page a while back.

Then I chucked it all.

Why? Because I wanted to slow down. I wanted my writing to take up more space. I didn’t want to rush from one thing to the next simply for the sake of getting it done. This book is going to be written on my terms, no schedule, no outline, no pressure.

Sometimes, I go to the library and sit there for an hour, scrolling through Instagram photos until something inspires me. Sometimes I hop on the treadmill and run a couple miles, singing songs in my head, stirring emotions that can be harnessed. Sometimes I’ll chop up vegetables for a salad, the rhythm of the knife knocking ideas loose. EVERYTHING I DO IS WRITING.

 

I’m pretty sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

My new book, the nameless one, deals with a Hollywood has-been trying to get his groove back. He’s offered the job of a lifetime and tries his hardest to screw it up. He’s the proverbial square peg being jammed in a round hole, except in this case, the round hole is life itself and he’s had enough of it.

Pressure and expectations and self-loathing are powerful forces. Sometimes you just need to do it your own way.

Snowballs vs. Tumbleweeds

WIFE: “I’m glad you finally got some of those ideas out of your head. Now maybe one of them will tumbleweed into something.”

ME: “Snowball, dear. SNOWBALL. I don’t want any more tumbleweeds. They just drift aimlessly, solitarily across vast deserts.”

And this is the problem.

I’ve been visibly frustrated the past week or so. The rewrites on Book #3 went swimmingly through the first 120 pages. Now I’m at the hack-and-slash phase where there are bits I can keep, but a whole lot more I need to resect, revamp, and redo. I sat down and tried to map out a new outline, tried to figure out what these characters were going to do to each other with all that other plot stuff now out of the picture. I tried to slow it down, to find spaces for each of them. I tried to play it safe.

Now I realize I can’t do that.

I need an idea that I can push off a cliff and watch it flail for its life. I need an idea that is willing to jump into a fire for me, to take a bullet and still finish the job.

I started reading Sean Howe’s great book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story last weekend. Coupled with the podcast I’ve been doing with a friend, and an overall reinvigoration between myself and the medium, I’m thinking about comics again, not only what they stand for, but how they’re made, how they’re perceived. I’m appreciating the art in tandem with the writing, the concepts. I’m trying to visualize some of these artists putting my words into shapes.

For those who don’t know, I used to own a comic book store. It didn’t end well. I don’t really like dealing with people, especially people who expect things from me. I think it was my way of getting into that world – sneaking in the back door. My wife tells me that she always thought I should get into comic book writing, that it was a better fit for the types of ideas I usually come up with…more cinematic than literary (which I think is a nice way of saying I’m shallow).

I started really getting into titles from Jonathan Hickman, Nick Spencer, and Ales Kot. In some ways, I saw them as parallels to my previous love of fiction from Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, and Bill Mantlo…some “out there” ideas grounded in a not too distant future.

Then I got mad at myself for not being able to match those ideas. I realized I have fragments in my head and, once I think about them, they disappear. They’re little squiggly bits at the corner of my eye that I can’t look at directly. They’re shadows. They’re fairy dust. And they’re clogging my sinuses like ragweed in deep April.

So I’ve started writing these tidbits down, bullet-pointed, in one of those steno pads like court reporters use. They’re all train of thought, unrelated, chaotic. Some are two words. Some are paragraphs. Some are job descriptions, or colors, or funny locations. But they’re all tumbleweeds.

After three or four pages, and twenty-some internet sites and cross-references and research, the last idea on the last page turned into a tiny snowball.

Now I will carefully shove it downhill and see what builds up…

Let Me Explain.

I started this blog, like, seven or eight years ago as a repository for my pop culture musings while I was doing government work. It ebbed and flowed with activity as the years progressed, mostly resembling a dried up creek bed experiencing sudden flash floods. Things picked up when I turned my focus towards a burgeoning writing career. Then, somewhere towards the end of 2013, it ground to a halt.

The summer of 2013 hit me hard on the personal front. A lot of my relationships with people changed. Friends died. Others left. Everything suddenly fell apart.

It took a little over a year to piece myself back together. During that time, I didn’t write a word. I barely left the house. I drank a lot. Watched some soccer. Took to running and yoga fairly consistently. Slowly, and carefully, things gained some normalcy. My wife took the same job as me and we now work together every day. Our kids got a year older and more capable, more independent. I started caring what my home looked like. And I picked up a pencil again.

Before I go any further, here’s a quick cheat sheet for new readers:

  • Wrote Book #1 and got an agent.
  • Wrote Book #2 and got the attention of some Hollywood folks.
  • Wrote Book #3 and…my agent wanted me to rewrite the second half.
  • Tried to rewrite, then gave up, then tried again, then gave up.
  • Tried to write Book #4 and gave up after one page.
  • Tried to rewrite Book #3 again and gave up.
  • Started writing a different Book #4, got halfway through, and hit a wall.

NOW, I’m going back to rewriting Book #3 and…so far so good. It’s amazing what a little time and distance can do. The characters feel alive again. The setting feels like home.

I’ve also started reading more and doing a biweekly comic book podcast with an old friend. If that’s your thing, check out Super Comic Disco Party Time!

With things back on track, I hope to provide more consistent updates for that scant handful of people who read this. I’d also like to offer some quick advice: PERSEVERE. Things can get difficult. Life is full of obstacles. Just keep going. You can do it.

 

Writing and Talking.

While nearly halfway into scribbling out my fourth novel, I’ve shared some attention with my other hobby: COMIC BOOKS. Though I only really read them in trade paperback collections now (aside from the occasional 1970’s back issue), I’m clearly still influenced by and opinionated about them.

To that end, my friend John and I have launched a new podcast called Super Comic Disco Party Time! that you can find on our website and also on iTunes. Our first episode went up last week and we’re recording #2 this Thursday. We basically talk about characters and storylines, both good and bad, and what we would do differently with them. We’re so humble.

Please take a listen. If you like it, let us know by email (SCDPTshow@gmail.com) or on Twitter (@SCDPTshow).

Meanwhile, I will continue writing this book and hopefully have some cool publsihing news to share later this summer…

End of Summer Summary

The trip to Portland was eye-opening. We’d move the family in a second, if we could. A few things need to work out first.

School is back in session. That means my schedule has changed. After surviving high school and doing some creative course selection in college, I never thought I’d be a morning person again. Welcome to adulthood. I hope I won’t be staying in this weird place too long.

As far as writing goes, there’s some bad and worse news…

After my last check-in with the west coast branch of my agency, they decided to close the place down. My book has been relegated to Hollywood limbo, most likely forever. I begged my agent to submit the manuscript to a couple smaller publishers in a last ditch effort for publication. Nothing else to report there right now.

As soon as I’m done here, I’m going to finish typing up the last few pages of Book #3. My agent then asked me to sit on it a month and re-read it to make sure it’s as good as can be before we try to throw it at editors. We’ve surmised that this is the most mainstream thing I’ve written (and plan to write at least for the next two or three books), so it’s best to take our time and perfect it.

In the meantime, I’ve ordered some research materials for Book #4. It’s going to be a fun one, so I want to take my time with it. Always need to have something in the pipeline to distract me from the crushing emptiness of reality, right?

Keeping the Plates Spinning…

One month later and there’s still no word from the West Coast. All I know is that the producer has given the book to the director. From what the agents tell me, this is Step #1 on a list of steps that continues to grow as the days go on. Apparently, from here, the two of them decide if they want to pursue the book as a movie without paying me up front for it. If not, then we’re back to square one and my agents will re-submit it to the next producer on their list.

If, however, this producer fancies it, then we move on to the next step which also does not involve me getting paid. In fact, I’m not exactly sure where on this list of steps that payment to me actually comes into play. It’s the thickest onion, layers-wise, and it’s already making me cry.

From what I can gather, the producer then shakes my script at some studios, some investors, maybe even a famous actor or two, and sees who is willing to throw money at it. Then there’s a screenwriter involved. Some casting decisions. Maybe a caterer. I dunno.

I won’t lie. It’s both a fun process and an infuriating one. When book #3 stalled a bit, the non-action on Sleep Suits Irish was driving me crazy. I have no patience. Now that I’ve gotten back on track and only have about 100 pages left in the new book, my focus has returned and I feel better about things.

Plus, you can’t help but be excited when you know that the producer-director team responsible for one of the most famous late 80’s action-comedy movies is considering adapting your book for the big screen. I mean, the film these two did basically created a new genre when it exploded onto the scene. It was the biggest box office success of the year, even garnering an Academy Award nomination.

We shall see.

In other news, I’ve got pages of notes for book #4 and I’m very excited to start writing it. I’m going to be exploring some new formatting and digging into some of my favorite childhood pasttimes. Book #3 is rounding the last corner and getting ready to hand off the baton.

Also, the wife and I are heading to Portland, Oregon at the end of the month. We’re on a bit of a recon mission, hopefully considering a relocation at some point. If anyone has any places we should check out, please let me know…

Not Quite One Third Plot-wise

I lied.

First of all, I haven’t been sticking to my writing schedule. Or at least I’m not sticking to it EXACTLY. See, I had a lot going on last week…in fact, today is my first full day of work at my office since the end of May. I ended up taking last Friday off and had HOURS that I could’ve written something.

Instead, I took a nap. Unintentionally.

See, I thought I was at “that point” in the book where I was ready to bring all the plot points together and start snowballing the whole thing. Last Friday was supposed to be the day that I began that chapter. The only problem was, I had no idea what I was going to write. It turns out that the book was nowhere near where I thought it was. I have this thing in my head, I guess you could call it a defense mechanism of sorts, where I play out a book from beginning to end. Then, when it comes time to actually write it, I don’t want to. I want to move on. I feel like I’ve already done it.

So, the second way I lied is by saying the book is a third of the way done. It’s not even close. I sat down on the couch last Friday and went over all the characters in my book (in between games of solitaire on my Kindle and actual napping), figuring out where they are now and what their destinations are by the end of the book. I realized I have some more development to do before the plotlines coalesce.

So I spent an hour outlining almost the entire book in a two-page summary.

Then, through a comical series of printer ink mishaps, eBay issues, forgetfulness, and general frustration, I ended up skipping library time and hating myself all weekend.

The good news is that I wrote yesterday, nearly 5 pages hand-written, and I’m following my new outline to the letter. I’m now writing chapter 9 and it looks like everything will come together in chapter 13…so even though I’m a third of the way through in page count (approximately), it looks like the climax of the book may actually happen at the halfway point. Seems appropriate.

And the book FEELS better now than it did before. All the foreshadowing leads somewhere. All the characters have a purpose.

It just sucks that I’m so impatient…I’ve already got the opening line to a new book in the back of my head…

 

One Third into Book #3

Book #3 is officially over 100 pages now. Finished chapter 8 yesterday. Word count is just under 23,500. That puts me one-third of the way to the finish line. More or less.

I don’t want anyone to think that I’m basing my book’s progress strictly on word count or page count, because that would be ludicrous and arbitrary. I’m only ludicrous and arbitrary in my normal day-to-day dealings (such as parenting, or driving, or mowing the lawn). Writing is much more serious to me.

No, I know I’m a third of the way through because chapter 8 was the last “set-up” chapter. I’ve established the setting and my main characters. I’ve created an introductory conflict and some inner turmoil. I’ve dropped in some background info that puts some other characters’ motives into question. The next chapter begins phase two where everything ramps up.

I’ve been playing with a new structure (new to me, at least) on this project. See, I basically have two protagonists that, so far, have been following parallel paths with their own problems. My narrative voice has alternated between the guy on odd chapters and the girl on even chapters. The narration is third person and doesn’t skew specifically to one character or another, but the story follows either the guy or the girl. It’s been an interesting experiment. I’ve noticed that the guy chapters move faster for me and have a lot more going on. The girl chapters are slower and more emotional. This has nothing to do with my ability to write female characters (which I think I’m rather capable of doing), but more about what’s going on in their lives.

With chapter 9 (or 10 at the latest), I merge the two storylines. From there, I’ll be able to focus on either (or both) of the protagonists as well as turning the narrative onto two of the supporting characters. I’d turn the narrative onto the protagonist too, but aside from a minor character who acts as a conflict catalyst, the book’s protagonist is really the setting itself and the circumstances that setting has caused for the characters. There’s also a Macguffin thrown in there that swirls everything up for the cast.

It’s all so meta, huh?

On a scheduling front, I’ve finally managed to make Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays my writing days…2-3 hours after work on each day. A bit of structure always helps and sometimes forces me to write when I don’t really want to. Poor me.

As for book #2: I’m waiting. My agents have the updated manuscript and are, hopefully, reading it now. Fingers crossed that it moves forward…

 

It’s All Different a Few Days Later

Right off the bat, I have to admit that being rejected sucks.

You don’t even realize how much it sucks until a day or two after it finally happens. And it’s such an odd phenomenon, because when your book gets sent out, it’s not to one person at a time. There’s no receiving line where an editor shakes your hand, reads your book, and hands it back to you with a snort or a disapproving head shake. No, your baby goes out to a dozen or more editors at once…the “Big 6” publishers, smaller imprints, some indie houses…and the rejections trickle in over weeks or months. If you’re anything like me, you do a quick Google search on the editors your agent has submitted to in order to determine if you recognize any of their back catalog, if any of the books they worked on are staring at you from the shelves across the family room. You may ultimately have a favorite or two that you’re waiting to hear from and the others don’t matter as much.

The range of rejections is understandably odd too. Some editors just say “Sorry, it wasn’t for me” while others praise your strong voice and solid writing and go in-depth about what they liked and how much they liked it but there’s that one thing they didn’t like (that’s probably easily fixable) that made them pass. Some rejections you shrug off and others you go back to and re-read over the course of a couple days, trying to parse some hidden meaning from them.

When that closing day hits though, and you know you’re not getting any more rejections or offers, it’s a dismal feeling. I had held out hope for a month that the one editor would come through. He seemed to really champion the book over the phone. He was as excited about it as I was when I wrote it. When it didn’t happen it was like getting punched in the gut on the school playground and being left gasping for air while the other kids went off to play dodgeball without you. Not that that ever happened to me…

Basically, I was in a funk for the past week or so. Couple that with the fact that I hadn’t written anything substantial on Book #3 in a month, and you may be able to understand why I’ve been feeling like a failure, like nothing will every change, like I’m not even spinning my wheels but rather sitting on the curb staring at the parked car instead. My first two books went nowhere. My third book isn’t moving forward. Things look bleak.

My shiny little ace-in-the-hole is the fact that the agency’s LA office still likes the book. There’s still a window to sell it to some producer somewhere. The setting is gritty. The characters are complex. The plot is unique.

Well, I just got off the phone with the LA office and I can tell you they REALLY like the book. We had a great conversation…up to the point where we started talking about rewrites and I hemmed and hawed a bit too long for their comfort (I think). Last night, I had re-read a chapter of Book #3 and I had discovered an angle I didn’t see before. My interest in writing Book #3 was back on track and now this phone call happened.

My mind flashed back to writing Book #2 when I was doing rewrites on Book #1 and how odd and disjointed it all felt. My last blog post talked about how Book #2 was in the past now and I was moving forward.

Well, like any good writer, I lied.

Rewrites for Book #2 are happening NOW. I’m going to fix the ending, to satisfy the LA office. I’m also going to implement some of the changes that the one editor and I had talked about. I sent an email to the LA office telling them to give me two weeks. It may not be a full, comprehensive rewrite, but it should be adequate to fix some issues and reposition some characters. If I do enough, my agent may even send it back out to a few editors who gave us rejections along the lines of “I may have liked it more IF…”

Bottom line is: I’m rejuvenated.

Let’s see where all of this stands in another two weeks…

What’s the Next Step?

Project #1 was pitched last year. There seemed to be one editor interested in it. I went away on vacation in August, hoping to get a call from my agent that never came. That project has now been tossed in the archive…maybe some day, if I ever get published, someone will want to trot out a collection of my early work. If not, it’ll just rot.

Project #2 has now run its course. At least at the “Big 6” level. And at least through its first round of submissions. The question now is what to do with it next. Like I mentioned yesterday, there’s talk of trying to sell the film rights. I’m waiting to hear from the LA office about what that might entail. I’ve heard they want a “happy ending” for Hollywood, instead of the realistic ending I slapped on it. My question is, why rewrite it at all? Aren’t the film people going to just do whatever they want with it once they secure the rights? Maybe they’ll like my current ending. Maybe they’ll like everything. Hell, maybe they’ll go in and change all the characters names and ethnicities and have it take place on a cruise ship in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. At that point, check in hand, what do I care?

On some level, my agent is thinking about asking me to do a more substantial rewrite and try to re-submit it to the two or three editors who said “I might be interested IF…”, but I’m not sure I have it in me. There’s an old saying that’s been attributed to William Faulkner (or Twain or Fitzgerald or King or Christie or Nabakov) that says “Kill your darlings.” It’s meant as a warning to writers to not hold on to some bit of plot or character or dialogue just because you may like it. Don’t try to wedge it into your story because you think it’s so clever. If it doesn’t work, scrap it.

After having an idea in your head for more than 10 years and finally getting it out on paper, there’s a finite amount of additional time you’re willing to spend with it before it bores you, angers you, or disappoints you. I’m approaching that limit faster than a greased seal going through a bobsled course. When I conference called that one editor, and he was feeding me ideas for making the book stronger, I was all on board. When that editor ultimately failed to come through with an offer, I was deflated. Not sure I see the point of going through it all again on the slim chance it may succeed.

That brings me to Project #3. I just finished writing chapter 7 and I’m at 22,000 words and 98 pages. By the time chapter 8 is finished, I’ll be a third of the way through the book, which feels perfect for where the plot is headed. The second third gets into the meat of things. And then the final third brings it all snowballing downhill gracefully. I’ve been a bit lax with reading chapters out loud and marking them up. I still need to do so with 5, 6, and now 7. And, in a haze of rejection, disillusionment, and general laziness, I may have stepped on a few plot points that I wasn’t ready to accelerate yet. May need to go back and re-plot the next few chapters to cover it…or “kill my darlings” of dialogue and character interaction that I wrote. As long as I can keep busy, I’ll be able to slough off the frustration of having two novels fail to make it to print.

Oh, the fragile ego of the lonely writer.

At least I can look back at my past work and know that my writing is getting stronger. Maybe Project #3 will be the one. If not, I’ve already got numbers 4, 5, 6, and 7 germinating in my head (and in my notebook).

I hope to make these updates more often. And I hope to have some good news soon…