Steel Breeze is intense at almost every moment. It’s unpredictable and well written and defies you to put the book down. I cannot recall a thriller in a long time that had me so captivated. Douglas Wynne is the real deal and I’m certain we will be enjoying his books for a long time to come.”
–Benjamin Kane Ethridge, Bram Stoker Award Winning Author of BLACK & ORANGE and BOTTLED ABYSS
What a writer is writing about is seldom the main point. It’s what he’s doing with his left hand that really matters.
I posted this quote on Facebook yesterday. Like any quote, it’s open to interpretation (hey, get your mind out of the gutter), but outside of any context, it might have befuddled a few people, and after mulling it over for a day, I think it’s worthy of a blog post.
To me this quote sums up the job of fiction. Non-fiction is all about what the writer is saying on the surface. But in fiction, good fiction anyway, we get subtext, suggestion and inference; an opportunity for things not literally stated by the author to form nonetheless in the reader’s mind. It’s a process of completing a circuit in the reader’s imagination by not saying all that we mean.
People who dismiss genre fiction think that Tolkien was just writing about elves, but readers who see The Lord of the Rings as literature know that he made some of the greatest statements of the 20th century about war and the nature of power, obsession, and addiction. Themes that are still relevant today precisely because they’re set in a mythic world apart from the particulars of our own. And that’s not the same thing as allegory. It’s subtler.
To take an example from the other end of the quality spectrum in genre fiction, Stephanie Meyer (who lacks subtlety in all other aspects of her writing) didn’t sell a bazillion books to teenaged girls because she was writing about vampires and werewolves. She had a runaway hit because those girls recognized a story about the animal and social tensions surrounding their virginity dressed up as a story about vampires.
The best stories are about more than what they appear to be about on the surface. Harry Potter isn’t just about racism, but it wouldn’t have the same resonance if it didn’t address the issue in a variety of subtle and not so subtle ways.
That’s why the old myths have endured. They seem to be about gods and monsters, but they’re really about what it means to be human. All good fiction can tap into that, but I would argue that genre fiction is especially well suited to the task.
Visual arts can also use the powers of suggestion and subtlety, but usually to a lesser extent. Is Breaking Bad so compelling because it’s about drugs? No, it’s about a million other things, some of them barely mentioned. It’s about marriage and mortality and subverted male empowerment and the economy and healthcare and lies, lies, lies. The story is compelling because it’s a tragic character study that forces us to infer Walter White’s shifting motives at any given time despite what he’s telling himself and the people around him on the surface. It’s the closest I’ve ever seen a TV series come to tapping into the powers of the novel. Vince Gilligan has a very adept left hand.
I think the most compelling TV encourages the audience to come to their own conclusions. It invites us into the process. True Detective comes to mind as a great recent example. But in fiction we are already engaging the reader in a process of filling in the details in her own mind. A book is a collaboration between writer and reader. The writer sketches lines and the reader embellishes that sketch with the details of her own experience. She even renders the tone of voice of each line of dialog in her head. And writing fails when the writer fails to make it easy for the reader to do this.
But a writer also fails when he makes it too easy for the reader to know what it all means. The right hand tells you what you need to know. The left hand knows what to leave out.
A few years ago I was out grocery shopping when I noticed a helicopter circling the parking lot and sweeping out over the surrounding streets and fields. I would later learn from the news that it was a police chopper scanning the bushes for heat signatures in an effort to find a masked man who had pointed a gun at the attendant of the local tree dump before running off in the direction of the middle school.
On this outing, I needed to hit two different supermarkets and a drug store, all in the same plaza. At the checkout of the first supermarket, I heard the cashiers talking about a guy with a gun on the run somewhere between the middle school and the stores.
Needless to say, this added a bit of an edge to my second stop. I gathered my groceries in a heightened state, worrying about my toddler, who was spending the afternoon at his grandparents house in the same neighborhood, and wondering exactly what I would do if a maniac appeared around the bend and started popping people in the produce section.
By the time I entered the pharmacy to the sound of rotors from a not-so-distant stretch of gray sky, my heart rate was up and my breath was shallow.
But then…walking over the electric doormat, I was enveloped in the incongruous sounds of Steely Dan playing loud and clear through the overhead speakers. The song was “Hey Nineteen,” with its laid back, feel good groove, and my tension melted away.
It’s just not a song people get shot to.
It wouldn’t even be ironic or blackly comic to get shot with that relaxing grove playing in the background. And I realized in that moment that it is physically impossible to feel fear while listening to Steely Dan.
I don’t know what you can do with that information; if the Department of Homeland Security can utilize the fact as part of some kind of mass panic prevention strategy, I just know it’s true.
The guy with the gun was never found and no one was hurt.
Now, I’ve been playing guitar since age ten, I’ve been to music school, and worked in a studio for a while, but I learned something that afternoon about the power of music to hijack the autonomic nervous system and change your emotional channels instantly. Something I already knew intellectually (same as anyone who takes note of the tension in a horror movie soundtrack), but in that moment I learned it anew on a more visceral level.
So I could never write horror to Steely Dan, but I do sometimes use the emotional energy of music as fuel for writing. Especially when starting a book, I’ll loop a playlist of songs that capture the feelings and themes I’m going for, and invite them to get under my skin for the duration of the project.
My current book is an urban Lovecraftian thriller titled Red Equinox, and it has been fueled almost entirely by Tool. In particular, the song 46&2 is the leitmotif of my main character, Becca Philips.
Now that I’m digging into the final drafts and deepening her character, I’m finding this cover version with female lead vocals especially inspiring. Check it out. These kids will take your breath away.
This winter I grew a beard because I work outdoors and was too busy writing a book to shave. Those are good reasons to grow a beard, but I’ll probably have to shave soon because it turns out hipster douchebags everywhere now have beards to go with their cubicle jobs and $6 lattes.
Apparently they even put product in their beards. This is all kinds of wrong. It’s an affront to those of us who know that the whole point of growing a beard is to not have to waste time in front of a mirror, doing shit to your face.
And so, gentlemen, I present this handy checklist to help you determine whether or not you should grow a beard.
1. Do you work outdoors?
2. Can you drive a stick shift?
3. Can you ride a horse or motorcycle without breaking your fucking neck?
4. Can you play a convincing blues lick on an electric guitar?
5. Can you break shit with your bare hands or feet using some kind of Kung Fu?
6. Are you a rugby player, a Muslim, or a bathtub meth chemist?
7. Have you written a goddamned book? Yes, this gets you into Beard Club. It doesn’t even have to be a good book, or a published book, but it does have to have a beginning, middle and end, and be taller than the head of foam on a douchebag’s latte when printed on paper.
Those are my criteria. Tell us yours in the comments.
If you take the easy path, life is difficult
If you take the difficult path, life is easy
I’m currently working on the revisions for my third book, working faster than I ever have before in an effort to get it out this year. Usually I don’t let anyone see the first draft of a novel, but this time I’ve been handing the marked-up pages over to my wife before even typing in the changes.
She’s making her own notes on the same pages. A few days ago she said to me, “I hope I’m not being too hard on you.”
“Too hard?” I said. “There’s no such thing. And somebody has to be before the reviewers are.”
I’m a big believer in beating the hell out of a book before submitting it to the editor. Stress testing your story with a few trusted readers and running diagnostics on it with a few good writing manuals can make the difference between a book that lives up to its potential and one that doesn’t. And once you click “submit,” it can get harder to make big changes.
If you’re a writer revising a novel, I can’t give you my five or six beta readers (they’re mine! Mine!) but I can give you six writing books that will kick your novel’s ass and toughen it up before it has to fend for itself out in the world.
You know those talks you have with beta readers where you’re trying to justify your weak execution of your underdeveloped idea? Yeah, you don’t want to be doing that in response to Amazon reviews. Take the beating now, in private. And if you feel like you have to explain or justify something, there’s a good chance it’s a weak point that needs to be worked harder.
I liken it to training in a martial art. If your dojo buddies go easy on you, how will you ever be prepared to handle a real altercation with a stranger?
So here they are: Six black belts who won’t let you off easy. Click on the images for Amazon links.
1. Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King – This book changed the way I write, but I still go through a checklist of its main points when polishing a novel.
2. Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass – This one was recommended to me by Jonathan Maberry, who said he buys a new copy and fills in the exercises before starting any novel. Yeah, we owe him big time for not keeping that to himself.
4. The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman – An agent gives you a point-by-point look at all of the things that will get your book rejected in the first five pages. And guess what? Most of them apply to the rest of the book, too.
Those four are for strengthening the book; these last two are for strengthening the writer.
I read NOS4A2 on summer vacation last year and had meant to review it sooner, but then I lost track of my notes on the book. I’ve learned to keep pen and paper handy when reading Joe Hill because invariably there are brilliant lines and passages that I want to go back to later, and I don’t want to underline or highlight in a hardcover. In this case I was lucky enough to attend the launch event at Water Street Books, so I definitely wasn’t going to mark up a signed copy.
But some of Hill’s best lines are like classic song lyrics; they stick in your head so well that you don’t even need to jot them down to remember them later. Like this one from his second novel, Horns: “Talking to her now was like flailing his hands at a storm of hornets. It did nothing, and it stung, and yet he couldn’t stop himself.” Pretty fuckin’ awesome, huh?
Anyway, I finally found my notes right after NOS4A2 was nominated for a Bram Stoker award, which it totally deserves. It was the best horror novel I read in 2013.
A friend asked me recently, “What’s the premise? Is it about a vampire?”
That’s not exactly an easy question to answer. Yeah, it’s sort of about a vampire, but not like any vampire you’ve seen before. It’s a big, deep, rich book about a lot of things. That’s why it’s so good.
The monster at the heart of the story is Charles Manx, a creepy old bastard who abducts kids and takes them to a dark fantasy realm called Christmasland. He’s your nosferatu, but he and his demonic Rolls Royce Wraith don’t consume blood, they consume souls. Children who end up in the back seat of Charlie’s car are drained mile by mile until there’s “nothing left in them but hate and teeth.”
So it’s also a demonic car story, but again, not quite like any you’ve ever read, although it does consciously riff on that and other themes frequented by Hill’s father, Stephen King, along with a treasure chest of other geek culture references and Easter eggs. It’s a fun ride.
It’s also about motherhood, and madness, regret and redemption, and the nature of art.
It’s about Vic McQueen, a tough chick who was the only one of Manx’s victims to escape, and who has since spent her life thinking she might be insane because of the things she’s seen. You see, Vic has a magical vehicle too, a bike that enables her to travel through the Shorter Way Bridge and traverse the distance from Lost to Found. She starts out using this portal to locate lost objects, and later uses it to track down Manx after he has abducted her son.
It’s a high concept, big metaphor story that never gets bogged down in all that meaning, because it moves like a high-octane muscle car.
NOS4A2 has a rock n roll heart, but I found myself hearing “Amazing Grace” while riding with Vic, because she’s fighting to keep her shit together while moving from lost to found on many levels.
One of the big themes of NOS4A2 is that we all have an inner world, and with the right tool some people can turn their inscape into an external, tangible thing that others can experience. It’s what Manx does with his car to manifest the realm of Christmasland, what Vic does with her bike to find the bridge, and what Hill does with his pen to immerse you in this crazy, dark, utterly believable fantasia.
Like David Mitchell, Joe Hill is a master of writing about two things at once with subtle economy. Check out these lines from a scene in which Vic and Lou (the father of her child) finally talk about her past at a Fourth of July picnic:
Lou was waiting for something to detonate—it was coming, any moment now—when Vic wandered over with her hands shoved down in that army jacket of hers and said, “This chair for me?”
The emotional potential of the scene is front-loaded in the setting, a fireworks display, which presents an opportunity to do a whole lot of story work with just a few razor sharp lines of dialog because of the association to her father, a demolitions expert.
“ANFO. It’s an explosive. What my dad uses to take out stumps and boulders and bridges and so on. It’s basically a big, slippery bag of horseshit, engineered to destroy things.”
“What is? ANFO? Or your dad?”
Just one example of a scene that does more than you realize at the time because of how entertaining it is. It’s also the scene that Hill featured in a great blog post he wrote about his drafting process. That post actually got me to start re-typing my late drafts in full because I’m a masochist and Joe is my Sensei.
The man has some serious chops and NOS4A2 gives him the room to use them. It’s a tour de force that finds him at the top of his game, simultaneously scaring the shit out of you and making you laugh. You can tell he’s having fun when the language can shift from the road poetry of this passage…
How she loved the smell of the road: asphalt baking and soft in high July, dirt roads with their dust-and-pollen perfume in June, country lanes spicy with the odor of crushed leaves in sober October, and the sand-and-salt smell of the highway, so like an estuary, in February.
…to this image of Vic in a leather jacket and no pants scaring away a pack of yuppie bikers just a few paragraphs later:
She raised her bottle of whiskey to them and wolf-whistled with her free hand, and they grabbed their throttles and took off, tailpipes between their legs.
We get pretty deep into Vic’s character: her backstory, her creativity, and her rough-around-the-edges persona. The supporting cast is also well developed. I adored the geeky, overweight Lou, and found Bing (aka the Gas Mask Man) at times more terrifying than his boss, Charlie Manx. But it never feels like all of that character exploration slows the story down.
And that might be the author’s greatest accomplishment. At almost 700 pages, with a story that spans decades and the breadth the continent, NOS4A2 is an epic. But oddly, it doesn’t feel like one. It’s almost like an optical illusion. You never feel like you’ve spent 700 pages slogging toward Christmasland with the crawling pace of a trip to Mordor. I suspect it’s because we flip back and forth quite a bit in both time and space. Hill even breaks chapters in mid-sentence and titles the next chapter with the end of that dangling line just to keep moving the reader forward into new places, speeding along with barely a breath to notice the transition. In the end the book itself becomes a kind of Shorter Way Bridge from Near to Far, and from Lost to Found.
Joe Hill knows exactly what he’s doing, and comes closest to commenting on it in the voice of Maggie Leigh, a librarian who uses magical Scrabble tiles for divination. Here she is about to consult them near the climax of the book:
She had a brief window in which to use the tiles, to force sense out of gibberish: a minute or two at most. It seemed to her sometimes that this was the only fight that mattered: the struggle to take the world’s chaos and make it mean something, to put it to words.
Here’s an interview I did recently for the program Write Now with Gayle Henney on HCTV. Got to talk about samurai swords, dirty cops, beheading, and book promotion.
There’s been a lot of online debate lately about the benefits of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. Some of the best summary of that debate can be found at Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog, and I’ve followed it with interest but haven’t participated much because most of the time it doesn’t look like a debate so much as a food fight or a shit flinging frenzy in the monkey house. Chuck is a braver pen monkey than I. He doesn’t mind putting on the Hazmat suit and venturing in there on a regular basis.
But I might finally have something to contribute.
A radical idea.
A guiding light.
A pole star by which the intrepid up-and-coming author might steer his or her ship.
It’s great that authors have so many options these days in the digital marketplace, but it can be difficult to navigate the world of publishing and I think most writers will find themselves circling around certain questions as they progress.
Should I self publish? Should I seek an agent? Should I submit to small presses? Should I sign with this particular agent or press? Should I blog? Should I write short stories? Novellas? Should I write this idea or that?
Most of the people arguing about Kindle Direct Publishing vs. Gatekeepers, most of the folks trying to interpret Hugh Howey’s author earnings charts like some kind of ink blot derived from a printout of a photo of Jesus’s face descried in the water stain on the ceiling that is Amazon’s Author Central ratings…they’re framing all of the above questions in relation to the Big Question:
Will I make more money if I do X?
Sure, money is important if you aspire to do something professionally. For me writing is a second job that I put a lot of hours into. Hours away from my family and friends. Hours that could be spent playing guitar or going to the dojo, or watching movies. Of course I want it to pay off in the long run, and it’s starting to.
But I suggest that a better Big Question for writers is:
Will it help me up my game?
Take that as your pole star.
Will writing this book or that book next help me up my game?
Will querying agents who will only look at the first five pages of my novel force me to scrutinize those pages and hone them into razor sharp, mirror polished steel? Hell yes, that’s a trial worth engaging in because it will force you to up your game.
Will clicking PUBLISH on Amazon temper your work in the same fire? Ehhh….
Will working with a great editor who had to earn his job with a publisher push me to up my game? Yes.
Will writing short stories or tweets or blog posts help me to hone my craft and up my game? Only you can answer this for yourself, but asking the question might affect your approach to such endeavors.
Will self-publishing and getting my work in front of people who can critique it in reviews help me to up my game? Maybe.
You have to decide how much of your growth you want to do in public, right?
If you are looking to paying customers to provide the pressure that will turn coal into a diamond, you’re also leaving a public trail of your development. I guess any published author who continues to work at improving their craft is also growing up in front of an audience, but I believe that “gate keepers” are valuable because in the early stages of your career when you don’t have a lot of perspective on your own work, it’s kind of cool that the rejections and critiques are kept between you and an agent or editor who knows better.
I’m aware that bad books do get published by big houses, but I also feel sure that Hugh Howey’s Wool would have been a success no matter how it was published because it’s a damned fine story by a writer who had honed his craft before putting it out there.
If you want to be a pro, you should develop yourself before you sell yourself.
Even in the little choices throughout the day, you can keep asking this question. There’s a place for marketing and for educating yourself about the marketplace, but if you have twenty minutes of reading time available to you on a busy day, you might ask yourself what it’s best spent on. Will reading your Facebook or Twitter feed and related links help you to up your game? How about reading a few pages of a great book?
I have musician friends who practice non-stop to perfect their technique, even when they have no intention of gigging, because mastering music is a heroic quest to them. Others may find that the experience of playing in front of people is something they have to force themselves to do because it develops different skills and helps them to master their nerves under pressure.
I remember my Ear Training teacher at Berklee, an old jazz cat, laying this hard-ass lecture on us:
(Morgan Freeman voice)
“You can go on ahead and make music without practicing. Sure. Go on and do it for the love. But don’t book a gig and subject the general public to your lack of musicianship. Don’t make those poor people paying their hard earned cash for a good time on a Saturday night suffer through your not giving a shit about being in tune. That’s just wrong.”
I know this ain’t Medicine or Law and you don’t need credentials to practice an art, but looking at the writing community, I’m often reminded of the martial arts. My six-year-old has been doing karate for almost a year now, and he’s somewhat motivated by the color of his belt. He’ll also tell you that he knows most of the kicks and punches already. And yeah, he “knows” them, but all of the adult black belts I’ve met will tell you that learning the full range of techniques and proving that you can execute them under pressure is just the beginning. When I took my first black belt test I was told that a black belt is kind of like a Bachelor’s degree. It’s a starting point, a basic competence that says you’re ready to embark on the real work of refining your technique and developing your own unique strengths.
I suggest that more writers should view getting published in those terms. A professional editor, publisher, or agent is a kind of sensei. They’ve seen a lot of red belts who thought they were ready for the tournament get the shit kicked out of them. There’s something to be said for finding a sensei who will push you beyond your comfort zone into a new range where you don’t know if you can meet the challenge. There’s something to be said for the day when your sensei tells you you’re ready to go out there and do it for real, and that it doesn’t mean you’re perfect or finished. Because it’s never time to rest on the laurels of your belt color, or your publishing contract, or your audience. It’s just time to keep working.
Keep asking: Will this help me level up? Will this choice challenge and refine me? Is it for my ego or for my craft?