Friday, November 20, 2009

To Be Professional: The Harlequin Debacle

Okay, I know I already did one blog today, but this seriously needs to be addressed.  I know I'll ruffle a few feathers with this, but what I'm going to write here is the truth, plain and simple, and if you ask any professional writer, they'll agree. Here it is:


Simple statement, eh?  Here's the problem.  Say you're an aspiring writer.  You've just written your 400+ page opus, and you start sending it around.  And you get rejected.  Then along comes some company...Oh...Let's say Publish America, or Harlequin, who says "You too can be a real live author through our imprint, if you agree to pay for the publishing costs!"  You agree to fork over a boatload of cash and suddenly, you have a book!  You're a professional author, right?  Not so fast, Sparky...Not even close.

If I wanted to, I could put together a book consisting of 400 formatted pages of the words "Dog Excrement" over and over, design it myself and publish it myself.  Seriously, you could do that.  It's easy...and all it takes is money.  But if I did that, would I consider myself an author?  Who would edit my work?  Would would have the gonads to stand up to me and say "Hey, Scott, y'know that crap book?  It really is crap?"  Not only that, but what stores would carry it, and just who would buy the thing?  Sure, my mom would.  She buys all my books (and doesn't read them for some strange reason), but who else?  So now you have a print run of 2,000 books sitting in your garage.  Still feel like an author?

Folks, the point I'm trying to make here is this:  What separates the wannabes from the professionals?  Easy:  Being Professional.  I wouldn't trust an amateur surgeon, and I wouldn't trust an amateur writer.  The bottom line is this...Listen well and listen hard...Professional writers (with very few notable exceptions) do not self-publish.  Period.  End of story.  I can count the number of well-written and successful self-published writers on one hand, and I don't even need all my fingers.

So Harlequin has decided to go into the vanity-publishing business.  Dandy for them.  Glad to hear it.  They weren't high on my list of publishers in the first place, but what respect I had for the grand old house is now gone.  By becoming a "pay-for-play" site, they've joined the ranks of bottom-feeders like Publish America in the publishing game.  And that's really just sad.  A publisher I once worked with pulled this same "marketing move" and began to offer "co-publishing" contracts.  I quit sending them stuff.

Folks, I've had nine (count 'em) books published, and I've never paid a dime to do so.  I do not, nor shall I ever, pay to have my work published.  Why?  Because I'm a professional writer, that's why.  Just like it says on the brass plaque.  This is my job.  I don't pay you to do my job.  I get paid for my job.  There are safeguards for me to do my job.  Editors, designers, marketers...Those help my work be the best it can be.  Without them, you may as well find another line of work.

The Other Senses

Just pick up a book, any book, I don't care which, and flip through a few pages.  For many of them, what you read there is a running commentary of what the characters see and hear.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you, but the truly great writers don't stop there.  You've got five (or more, depending on whether or not your character is in some way psychic) senses to work with, so you, as a writer, should bloody-well use them.  And, as usual, Uncle Scott has an exercise or two to help you along the way.  But first, let's take a look at the five senses (the "standard set").

  • Sight - Easy, right?  This is what the character sees.  But there can be more to it than just what's right in front of them.  This also covers what the character doesn't see, things that are missing from the landscape, things that give off a hideous shadow (but turns out to be a hedgehog...Seriously, have you seen the shadows those little monsters give off?  Brrrr...).  
  • Hearing - The absence of sound can be just as, if not more, disturbing than the sound of breaking glass or screaming.  And again, what you hear makes strange pictures in your head.  How many times have you, a person, heard a "funny" noise that scared the crap out of you because you couldn't identify it?
  • Smell - One of my favorite senses, smell is one of the most often overlooked senses that we have.  If you don't believe me, go into an antique bookstore and just breathe.  Those old musty books give off one of my favorite scents.  Everything has its own particular odor, from poop to blood to steel.  Yes, steel.  Oddly, it smells metallic.  Plus, phantom scents (like the scent of almonds) can be a "tell" of when someone is going to have something traumatic (like a seizure) occur.  
  • Taste - I'm not saying your characters should run about licking everything (though that might be an interesting trait).  But think about the way the spit in your mouth tastes when you're afraid.  Or when you just ran a marathon.  Blood has a coppery taste, and some scents permeate the air so much that you can taste them. 
  • Touch - We take our skin for granted.  How many doorknobs have we turned or buttons have we pushed without really considering the texture under our skin?  What does the air feel like where you are?  Can you tell if someone brushes against your hair?  Yes, you can.  Your skin is the largest single organ in your body (or on your body, if you prefer), and it's very sensitive (in some places more than others).  
So writers can, and should, use all the senses to help paint the picture of what's going on in their novels.  I'm not telling you to get bogged down in the minute details of every moment, but for every moment, something, sensually, is important.  And many times, authors forget that.  Here are a couple of exercises to help you see what I'm talking about. 
  • Open Channel - Go to any random place.  It doesn't matter whether it's in your house, in a field, in a mall, just a place where you can sit.  Bring your notebook with you.  Now have a seat.  Make a grid on your notebook with all five senses listed, and start using yours.  Write down what you see, what you smell, what you taste, etc.  Be exhaustively detailed.  Trust me, I know you'll feel dopy doing this, but it really is a great way to get you to notice things that you wouldn't have otherwise.  See if you can get the scent of the place, the feel of it.  Visit the place several times to see if you can identify when something changes. 
  • The Notebook - Also referred to by its common name, the "I've-suddenly-become-obsessive-compulsive-and-my-family-wants-to-have-me-committed" exercise.  Take that notebook that you always have with you (you're a writer, remember?) and begin recording interesting tastes, scents, sounds, etc. in it.  With each new and interesting sensory treasure, try to describe it to the best of your ability.  Keep them for use later.  
Above all else, remember this:  You, as a writer, are trying to put your reader in the thick of things.  You are trying to emotionally involve your audience.  Take any of your scariest movies and cut the soundtrack off, and you'll get a pretty boring movie (with a few notable exceptions).  Cut the other senses out and you get an incomplete picture.  Also, remember that this doesn't mean that every frickin' scene has to be the grande tour of sensory perception.  Some of what we see and feel and taste and touch and smell is important.  Some isn't.  Leave out the miniscule things that aren't important, leave in the things that are.  Hint:  The coppery smell of blood?  Usually important. 

Until next time, WRITE ON!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Good...Bad...I'm the guy with the gun.

One of the more interesting conundrums that many writers face is the whole "good-guy/bad-guy" dynamic.  In many cases the writer feels compelled to have a hero and a villain, and they do everything in their power to make the good-guy likable enough that people actually want to see him win.  But then there's the "bad" guy.  The antagonist, if you will.  Nothing, in my opinion, is as boring as a bad guy who is just...well...bad.  "Why'd he blow up the orphanage?"  "Because he's evil!" shrieks the writer.  *snore*

Here's the thing...Everyone has motivation for something, and no one believes themselves to be evil.  Think about it...When you get up in the morning, have you ever said to yourself "I think I'll do something particularly evil today?  What a wonderful day for...*cue music*...EVIL!"  No.  Not really.  Not if you were being serious.  The thing is, every "bad guy" is pretty much doing what they believe is right for them.    Of course, there are a few exceptions, but they are the ones that prove the rule.  So lets look at situations in which an "evil" person is doing what he feels is right:

This man enters a small bare room where a person is laying strapped to a table.  He injects something into him, killing him.  Another person, after watching atrocities performed on his family, decides to exact revenge (which, Karmically speaking, is cool).  Still another finds himself disrespected by someone, and feels that, in order to protect his way of life and his family, must make an example of the person disrespecting him.  So what if the people above are a state-employed executioner, a vigilante-cum-serial-killer, or a street drug-lord?  From their point of view, what they're doing is right.  And that's the crux of the lesson.  Five simple words:

From their point of view...

As writers, we strive to create believable characters that the audience feels some way about.  Love them, hate them, nothing could be worse than have the audience not care about them at all.  In doing so, we have to take the character as a whole and put forth his or her point of view, no matter how messed up that point of view might be.  Look at the most "evil" men in history.  Dollars to doughnuts, none of them believed they were being evil.  They believed that what they were doing was the right thing, from their own twisted point of view.

So when you create your good guy or your bad guy, remember that no good character can be so one-dimensional as to say "he does bad things because he's evil."  He does what he thinks is right in his warped little world, and letting the reader glimpse that world will make him all the more real and all the more chilling.

Until next time...Write on!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The New Breed/The Standing Guard

Everyone knows who my influences are.  I've touted the works of Lovecraft, Matheson, and others for years, and I'll keep doing so forever.  But there's another side of that.  Sure, these guys made me want to become a writer, but who are the top names now?  And who are the names to watch in the future?  I know a few of these fellows personally, but their work stands above all else.  These are the current guard, and I say that instead of "old" guard because they consistently put out good gut-churning horror.

  • Gary Braunbeck - Reading Gary's work is like living the most frightening acid trip you can imagine.  Good stuff, especially his "Coffin County" series.  Good and scary.
  • Ray Garton - Let me just say this:  No one does werewolves better.
  • John Everson - John has a real sense of the macabre, and some really twisted storylines. 
  • Jonathan Maberry - I recently met Jonathan, but long before that, I read Ghost Road Blues and was hooked by his work.  A fantastic writer.
  • Scott Nicholson - Hauntings?  Check.  Vampires?  Check.  Carniverous demon-possessed goats? Check.  
  • Deborah LeBlanc - The heiress to the throne of Southern Gothic, Deborah LeBlanc is a first-class writer. 
  • Sarah Pinborough - I'm almost ashamed to admit that I only recently discovered Sarah's work.  I'll be reading the rest of it...Fantastic, gritty, visceral...She made the favorite list easily. 
  • Tim Waggoner - Do yourself a favor...Read Nekropolis.  In fact, read everything the man's written.
And who are the "New Breed?"  Who are the up-and-comers to whom all should pay attention?  There are a few...Good writers are a dying breed, but they haven't died out yet.  My pics for authors to watch are:
  • David Dunwoody - Consistently referred to as one of the burgeoning talents in horror.
  • Eric S. Brown - If for nothing else, sheer volume of work, this guy is a writing machine.
  • Rhiannon Frater - Her series "As the World Dies" is beautiful, and haunting. 
  • Mike Carey - His "Castor" novels are impressive.
  • Norman Prentiss - His debut Invisible Fences has received impressive notices.
  • Norman Partridge - While he's only got two books (that I know of) out right now, he's an impressive voice.
Of course, there are others.  If your name is not on the list, don't feel slighted.  These are the people who've impressed me the most.  Give them all a read.  Some of these guys are fans of mine, others don't know who I am.  I'm not pimping their work because I know them, but because I genuinely believe their work to be worthwhile.  

I save the blatant pimping for my own work. ;-)

See you next time!  Write on!