10 Steps for the Miserable Writer

-or-

How to turn this:

brooks-was-here

Into this:

so-was-red


Pitch Wars selections end soon. With all the successes and good vibrations, it’s easy for those of us who didn’t get requests or become mentees to get frustrated or down.

Keep things in perspective, writers, and figure out how to get out of the funk. To succeed, you need to learn these emotional tools as much as you need to learn the craft of writing itself.

1. Pitch Wars is just one step in the process. A very cool, very enthusiastic one. But even then it’s optional.

The event is bonkers, and it becomes very easy to get wrapped up in. Brenda Drake & Co. organized this to help you, not to disappoint you. They aren’t winning awards, and neither are you. It’s networking, honing craft, and hopefully connecting to agents. Don’t lose sight of that.

2. With genuine respect to talented, insightful mentors, many are still only a few steps farther along the journey. Remember!

This is no dig at mentors. They’re great. But they’re not the Editor in Chief of Penguin, either. They’re mostly just writers like you who – in some cases – beat out a colleague by subjective whim. Without that, they’d be in the trenches with you.

They probably do differ from you in how much effort they put into reading and helping others. Learn from that, too. Just keep in mind most are also chasing dreams like yours.

3. That mentors are just a little further along probably means they’re more accessible. Interact with them. Read them.

Again – they’re just like you. They’re busy and tired and excited and love that one book you love. Ask them something. Say hi. Thank them. The worst thing that can happen, I wager, is that you get no response. And that’s different from where you are right now exactly how? Right, it’s not different.

And, yes, go check out their books if you can.

4. “Never give up” may not feel good now. Think about the real steps you need to do in the next week. One. Step. At. A. Time.

I’m a jaded son of a bitch sometimes. I hate hearing “never give up” when I feel like giving up. It’s a hill too big to climb. So just take a step. Tomorrow, go fix that one chapter you know you need to fix. Hell, go fix that one paragraph. Sentence. Word. Do it. Then do it again. And again. Progress is amazing. Look back in a week, and know you climbed out of the mud.

5. Set your goal. Pitch Wars is a means, not an end. You should set your goal on getting an agent. Not getting picked next year by mentors.

Is your goal what you think it is? Mine wasn’t for another event. But you learn. You don’t have to have it in writing (but it can’t hurt). But you do have to actually think about it. Think about it for your immediate work. What is your goal with this book? Have one.

You can have goal for your life as a writer. That’s great, but it’s too big right now. Set a goal for your book.

6. Many of us want to belong to a club of insiders. It’s not wrong, but it’s not being published, either. Reach out to outsiders.

This might be the most important point on this list. Pay attention.

Get serious about understanding why you’re disappointed. Is it really because the novel you submitted isn’t good enough? Or is it really because you don’t feel like you fit in? Or that you aren’t good enough?

I can’t solve that for you. Neither can Pitch Wars unless you’re that talented-cum-lucky one person in 114 who submitted and became a mentee.

Someone else out there is having the exact same thoughts you are. Right now. Find them. Misery loves company, as they say. And company brings validation. Validation brings confidence.

Confidence writes books.

7. Wait for the off season. In a few months, when mentors can breathe, ask one for a single tip on how you could have improved.

Screw summer. It’s too damn hot in Iowa. Give me fall any day. This October, when the Steelers and the Hawkeyes are undefeated (hey, it’s my dream), I’ll forget to reach out to Dan Malossi or Kellye Garrett & Sarah Henning or Kristen Lepionka about my Pitch Wars submission.

But that’s just four kinds of stupid. Maybe something in my query was awful or vague. Maybe my first chapter didn’t help them see the book’s direction. If they can tell me one thing to change, that’s one thing that might matter to others. If they can’t tell me even one thing, the least I can do is take that time to say I didn’t forget that they read my work.

8. Get over it however you can. The emotions you have are valid. But they also absorb your time, and time is your best resource.

I’m driven, but when I mope around my wife wants to strangle me. I’m a real bastard to live with that way. Mostly, it’s because I get down, and then get cranky because I feel like I’m wasting precious time.

I am.

Take care of yourself. My long experience with writers says they’re prone to melancholy. Find a single, simple thing to do and find what you can be proud of. And if you are prone to mental illness or depression, talk to someone. Find help however you’re able. There is no shame in this. Seriously.

9. Go love a story with great characters. Movies are allowed. Remember why you did all this in the first place.

You already know what your favorite movies and books are. What are you waiting for? I guarantee that if you re-read or re-watch one of those you’ll learn something. You’ll learn something while watching something new. Go get a little inspired. It’s why you did all this in the first place, damn it.

Me? I’m gearing up to watch There Will Be Blood and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, both of which I’ve seen. I’m reading Leviathan Wakes, which I’ve never read. All of these are thick, heavy duty stories that I can’t wait to dive into.

10. Read someone else’s whole manuscript. You both need this. Others are working on CP exchanges. Find one.

This isn’t easy. Finding someone or a group to critique with is tough. But I also guarantee everyone who submitted to Pitch Wars wants someone to read their work and offer ideas. Keep a look out for people organizing CP (Critique Partner) events, but you don’t have to wait. Just watch the feed. Stalk people’s Twitter bios. Figure out if they’re in your “camp,” and ask them to read their stuff.

Do so respectfully. The great thing is that as you read, you’ll automatically learn from their writing. Whether it’s their mistakes or their brilliance, you’ll learn. You won’t be able to help it. Yes, it takes time, but it also directly helps your craft and theirs. Do it.

11. Also, whiskey. (Contents may vary.)

It doesn’t have to be booze. It does have to be relaxing. Get some chocolate chip cookies, BBQ, sushi, a massage, a hike – whatever your particular poison happens to be. You can’t get out of a fog by working harder. Well, you can, but you’ll still be miserable at the end anyway. Take it easy once in a while.

Girls Go to Jupiter … To Kick Ass and Take Names

I spent the last week obsessing over a Twitter event called Pitch Wars. It’s a mentorship contest where writers team up with writers and editors to workshop a full manuscript, then parade the selected winners in front of literary agents later this year.

The whole thing is a fascinating study in community and identity. Brenda Drake is the queen bee for the event, having started it a few years ago. I don’t know her, but kudos to her spirit to help others. Sure, it promotes her own work. Why shouldn’t it? The same is true of her colleagues who help.

Pitch Wars, and other events she organizes, is by writers, for writers. They just went out on social media and did it, demonstrating many times over how the Internet empowers people. The mentors volunteer a huge amount of effort and time. Judging from the blog posts and especially the Twitter posts, writers get swept up with enthusiasm and camaraderie.

The community is mostly women. Most participants are in Young Adult or Middle Grade fiction. Romance comprises a huge majority. Science Fiction and Fantasy are widely represented and celebrated. My manuscript is an adult international thriller, which absolutely is part of the contest, just in the minority overall.

It’s the kind of exercise my skeptical, cynical brain can’t figure out. Hell with it, I thought. Why not! So, I participated this year. I submitted my query and first chapter to three mentors (one is a tag-team duo). My expectations for response were low given the descriptions of what mentors said they wanted. 

That’s not meant as criticism. I’m wading into dangerous waters here. Pitch Wars and all its participants are doing a good thing. It’s worth celebrating. If I’m criticizing anything, I’m criticizing myself and possibly others like me — especially other men.

I’ve spent the last couple years attending various writers groups, workshops, and conferences. The women outnumber the men at these events by a huge margin. Several times, I’ve been the only guy in the room. This isn’t by design to exclude men. It’s just the tendencies of who participates. That’s not very surprising. Besides, we men could use a little dose of experiencing the minority position to better understand things in general.

What is surprising to me is the spirit these women engender. The feeling is one of open-armed, de facto sisterhood (who also welcome men, I should note). They are enthusiastic and emotional in a way many men usually aren’t. They make what appear to be sincere and strong relationships in ways the men I know don’t. They organize and support one another, leveraging their strength as a group.

Men, by contrast, seem to stand against the crowd. I observe a kind of individualism among male writers I know. They’re not withdrawn misanthropes. But each tends to be making a name for himself, without anywhere near the level of mutualism I observe in women writers.

When a guy like me wanders in, doubt wanders in too. Am I too off the mark for their interests? Does my writing have a shot? Maybe it’s not fair or right to think that way, but I think it’s honest.

I’m speaking in generalities here. Of course there are many healthy exceptions. And, of course men participate in Pitch Wars. Of course there are more individualistic women and more community-minded, more emotive men.

But, on the whole, the difference to me seems significant. Many men are working just as hard with — anecdotally — less success and support. Some become bitter, and they think that proves their point. It’s a lousy reaction, but I understand the frustration in that.

Remember that skeptical, cynical brain of mine? I suspect there’s more behind-the-scenes drama among the women (and the men, for that matter) than I realize. The cynic in me sees all the congratulatory enthusiasm and the dreamy, hyper-referential animated GIFs and it just feels … off. I don’t know if it’s an age thing, a gender thing, a social media thing, or whatever else. It’s not my “scene” or sense of humor. There’s no harm in that. I’m not asking the tribe to change for me. That’s on me to adapt or be the change. And they’ve done nothing but welcome anyone willing to participate. Still, I keep wandering the wilds for my tribe.

Without a doubt, finding writing partners has been the hardest, most frustrating reality for my writing path. I think that’s mostly from my cynical nature. I’m awful at making new friends and fitting into social circles, though I’m no misfit either. I’ve got a strong individualist nature that resists community, all while knowing I’d benefit from a bunch of fellow creatives.

It’s not that have I none. I’m in two local writer’s groups, and I’ve started working with a good friend on a “guy’s fiction” (as in: action thrillers) cooperative that I’m hoping takes off.

So, here’s to hoping communities like Pitch Wars thrive. It’s a fantastic event. I sincerely hope it helps many writers — of all kinds — achieve their dreams.

Unpacking from Thrillerfest 2016

I went to Thrillerfest in New York City in early July, and I’m still trying to unpack.

The clothes I wore are still on my bedroom floor while my wife waits patiently for me to put them in the hamper. Then there’s the confounding jumble of thoughts I can’t make sense of while my wife waits patiently for me to figure out what the hell I want to be when I grow up.

Matt at Thrillerfest 2016
Still in the dark …

I put everything I had into that trip. It was my self-imposed deadline to finish my first novel, and I did that. I spent the month of June between my day job and my night job of editing, and I just about hit my limit.

I spent the first day at the conference with a small workshop led by Gayle Lynds, spy writer extraordinaire. Our group gelled, and Gayle dispensed reams of advice. I floated away, ready to brave her edits for my first chapter and conquer the publishing world.

Day two was good, too. I happily volunteered for seminars and handing out registration packets. The rest of the time I attended several seminars by published authors that varied from good to so great I can’t tell you. Walter Mosley just about had me standing in my chair shouting “O Captain! my Captain!”

Day three things hit home. More morning seminars, with some interesting fireworks among a panel of agents. I ignored that, my head focused on the afternoon of PitchFest. Think of the event as speed dating meets sales pitch to land an agent. They packed us into a ballroom, then into a serpentine line I still don’t know where it started and ended, then into much smaller conference rooms packed with anxious writers and waiting agents.

My pitches went well. I had two request a full manuscript, a few more request partials. I paid dues with a couple that weren’t much interested. I had every reason to walk out of there excited to conquer the publishing world. Instead, I exited in a state of emotional confusion that I still can’t figure out.

With all the feedback from agents, and all that I observed, I can’t make sense of any of it. I don’t know how to make my manuscript meet what they want at this point, but I think that’s what they need from me.

Much of the industry baffles and terrifies me. I see my potential future selves walking around and wonder if I want to be them. Or wonder if I have the writing chops they have. I wonder if it’s too limiting to follow the rules they live by. Or do they find it freeing to be published? I know I want to publish my work. But the day taught me my goal isn’t as clear as I thought.

I’m a thinker that way, which doesn’t mean I’m smart. I brood and think through things. Three weeks later I still can’t figure this one out. It’s driving my wife nuts even today, which is our nineteenth anniversary.

I’m at the edge of a next novel, and two very different ones are fighting inside my head for attention. I don’t know what I should do.

One thing I do know is that behind me was a guy who didn’t write, and that guy’s not ahead of me anymore. I hear him sneaking up on me, always.

Stranger Things, my childhood nightmare

I watched Stranger Things (a miniseries on Netflix), and it was like having a nightmare about my childhood. That’s supposed to be a snappy way of saying I loved it.

Stranger Things
Yes, Barbara, there really is a demogorgan.

The story’s fun and creepy. The characters are mostly adorable. They nailed the trappings of 1983, with only a few forgivable music nods out of the timeline. The story opens with kids playing D&D in the basement. They ride dirt bikes. Missing children. Cold war paranoia. Grainy intro titles and a synthesizer soundtrack. The Thing references.

The episodes hold up. It’s creepy and tense when it’s not lovable and sweet. It’s a love letter to moms, and a complicated message about dads.

I can point to pieces of Tupperware and cars and movie posters and electronics brands and toys and say, “I remember those.” It was like I could smell the food cooking in the houses and feel the heavy plastic of the radios.

There are fabulous nods to beloved movies like E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Goonies, and especially The Thing. (Man, I love The Thing!). The Stephen King nostalgia and references are thick.  It’s Stand By Me on LSD. His books literally appear in the show as nods and references.

But most of all, it was the first time watching anything that I felt like my stereotypical Midwestern childhood was legitimate grounds for storytelling. I don’t know who the Duffer brothers are, but they seem like all my pals from when I was about the age of the kids in the movie. Radical, man.

On critical reviews

I am a hard critic of what I read, especially in the thriller genre. I think it earned me a couple side glances from other authors when I post reviews. But I have nothing but respect for them. I’m thinking of a few specifically, and I really admire them. 

The author, left. His conscience, right.
The author, left. His conscience, right.

I’m no one. I haven’t yet published. I push myself and think too much about others. It’s hard to share that sentiment across the Internet transom

I want fiction to be better. I want writers to push themselves. I want nothing more than to have them see me as a colleague.

I’m in a strange infancy with writing where I know I can do this, but almost no one else does yet. I have nothing to show for it. No way to connect with others except for the obvious — reading their work and providing some reviews.

I like to think I understand the grit it takes to write fiction. And for that, my hat is off to those who do it.

Book Review: The Killing Kind by Chris Holm

Chris Holm’s The Killing Kind is a hit man tale with a twist. He’s an assassin who hunts others like him, an effort to redeem his mysterious past and failure to come home from war to a woman he loves.

The Killing KThe book is a solid thriller with well paced chapters. Holm’s action scenes flow, sometimes at breathless pace, and he grounds everything in a practical detail that brings real clarity to the action.

The primary characters of the novel work well for the concept and situation they’re all facing, but each needs more depth and nuance to justify their larger than life calamities. Then at other times, lesser characters come to life only to disappear with insufficient resolution (the casino ventriloquist, for example).

The book takes a dark twist with a mostly convincing psychopath villain, and Holm builds a little sympathy for the FBI characters trailing the hero hit man. But it’s too little too late for the book’s otherwise well paced structure. The ending is momentous, too much so. The hitman earns his explosive climax, but it’s hard to justify his choice.

All told, The Killing Kind is an entertaining read with a hard edge that needs just a little honing.

The Killing Kind by Chris Holm: ★★★

Cowboys and Spies and Zombies, oh my!

In college, we studied the death of the cowboy as the popular American icon, who gave way to the inventor. It was a study in popularized fiction as generations changed amid urbanization. Westerns became science fiction in the span of a couple generations.

Randolph Scott
Whatever happened to Randolph Scott?

That always stuck with me, the too-eager fan of fantasy and science fiction. My father’s generation had greater fondness for earnest old Westerns and detective serials than they did for high flying laser beams. Those sf lasers crossed swords with the worlds of fantasy, which began a slow grind out of the back shelves and into the mainstream.

Fantasy became pervasively mainstream in its many forms since my youngest days ogling at Star Wars on screen. My father wouldn’t recognize Harry Dresden’s sorcery alongside his Mickey Spillane and Spenser mysteries. The Halloween hordes long since took over popular reading — and watching — with vampires, then were-anythings, and now endless zombies.

Somewhere the mashup became a selling point. Pride & Prejudice & Zombies is in movie theaters as I type. Kung fu westerns. Robot pulp heroes. Steampunk this. Zombie romance that! Hell, bog standard science fiction like my recent favorite, The Expanse, on SyFy is almost novel in its lack of cross-genre tropes. Nary a space-wizard in sight.

Edward-sparkling
No. Just … no.

I lived geek culture, though I never figured out how to make it cool like “these kids today.” My geek-ery was more of the Patton Oswalt club of shame who loved Chris Claremont’s X-Men and remembers Ice Pirates in the theater. Today, I recognize the Marvel movie cameos and understand the background behind the zombie craze. I know the references and easter eggs. I cheered most of the geek rise along the way. Ok, so I was a little late to the zombie love fest, but I did draw the line at scintillating vampire dreamboats like a proper geek.

As much as I loved this speculative wonderland, I always kept one foot on less fantastical ground. I cut my teeth on Tom Clancy novels and Alistair MacLean films. James Bond may dabble on the moon, but he’s still a Cold War cast off near and dear to me.

Now I’m writing a spy thriller novel. All those years of geeking out, and I went legit. No fantastical elements to be found — as they say on Seinfeld, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Moonraker James Bond
“Where’s this Princess Leia I heard so much about?”

But is there? Did I come too late? Cold War’s over. The big successes are a mature bunch. For every young spy thriller writer I come across, I can find another who made it “spec ops with magic.”

I look around at the run-away successes in fiction, and the go-to fan bases. Harry Potter. Hunger Games. Paranormal romances. There’s surprisingly little demand for George Smiley or Ethan Hunt, or even Alex Rider.

Are my spies and real-world heroes becoming like my father’s old worn out cowboys? A dying breed in changing times? Should I change with them?

I do wonder. Still, I keep writing. Working hard. Enjoying it. Dad, at least, will really like it!

Book Review: Inspector of the Dead by David Morrell

Inspector of the Dead is David Morrell‘s second successful effort to resurrect Victorian London in prose. In this second novel, he improves upon his own formula for a much more gripping read.

Inspector of the DeadLike Murder as a Fine Art, the previous book, this one centers on Thomas De Quincey, a real life writer of the period who Morrell drags into fictional detective work. Opium-addicted De Quincey and his doting daughter pair up with detectives Becker and Ryan, and the four of them annoy the aristocracy as they unravel the rampage of a murderous “revenger.”

De Quincey works as a pitiful old genius who challenges London’s sensibility with radical ideas of perspective and reality. It’s one of the book’s greater charms for modern readers already familiar with his ideas enjoy the reactions of Londoners who find the ideas so strange — including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

The book spends slightly less time exploring on De Quincey’s idiosyncrasies than its predecessor, and shines less spotlight on the physical Detective Ryan. The detective quartet bounces about London at an enjoyable, often exciting clip, practically inventing detective work and psychological profiling. It’s one of the books charms as De Quincy and his daughter challenge Victorian sensibilities with new ideas modern readers recognize, like Immanuel Kant’s notions of perspective and subjective realities. There’s still time for Emily and Becker to become more familiar with one another. But the pace of the book rises above. It’s full of surprises and shocks, and the pages turn easily with the well-crafted action.

The revenger, the villain at the heart of a long conspiracy, has a woeful tale that Morrell divulges bit by painful bit. He does share several similar characteristics with the villain from the previous book’s villain. But, Morrell creates a more developed, even more sympathetic antagonist, one that expands rather than strains the immersive setting of the book.

Morrell’s fascination with and exhaustive research on Victorian London underpins everything about this enjoyable book. He captures incredible details, political sentiments, and even the form of the novel itself to immerse readers in a foggy-bound world that breathes and seethes London at the murky dawn of the modern age. Mimicking Victorian novels, he combines the narrative with explanatory passages and first-person journal entries from De Quincey’s daugther, Emily.

Inspector of the Dead is an expertly paced historical thriller and a joy to read.

Inspector of the Dead: ★★★★★

Curse of the Present Participle Phrase

Diction’s a real bastard. It’s what gives writers their identity. It’s our word choices and style, which creates voice. This is the art, but this requires real craft.

Craft is work. We can get to the art later, when it emerges from better work.

One of the most common problems I see is overuse and abuse of the present participle phrase. I’m sometimes guitly myself.

For those who need a grammar school refresher, here it is. And, yes, I had to look this up. Forgive me. Ms. Lawson’s class was 25 years ago.

The present participle phrase:

Running out the door, he grabbed the car keys.

The verb is grabbed. The noun is he. He grabbed. Hell, it’s even in active voice!

The present participle phrase is: Running out the door.

What’s wrong here? Nothing. Just stop over-using it!

I’ve read whole paragraphs where every sentence used the past participle phrase. It’s lousy diction.

I get it. The sentence structure is so useful, especially for tense, action-filled scenes that are common among fellow action and thriller writers. I use it myself, like I said.

Find these in your writing. Use them more sparingly. Then, rewrite those sentences. Often, they can be even better at ramping up action or tension.

Here’s a real life example I just read in an indie thiller:

Scanning briefly over the information on each man’s DOJ application he settled on the fact that the information was likely real.

Here’s another one, on the same page as the above even:

Pressing the send button, he waited as the service connectioned and uploaded the pictures.

Both are legitimate sentences. They’re a bit of a mouthful at a tense scene. How about reworking those?

He scanned the DOJ applications. Each familiar face of his attackers, every line of their information was real. He knew it.

He pressed send. The phone delivered the evidence in agonizing seconds he didn’t have to spare.

That’s just my stab at it. Season to taste. My good-faith intent is to show how much more we can pack into better sentences that still amp up the suspense and action.

The point is to reconsider when you hear yourself writing those phrases. Past participle phrases just roll off the “tongue.” It’s the kind of writing we hear in our heads that ends up quickly on the page. With overuse, it becomes predictable diction. A poker tell for an eager, crafty audience.

Get crafty right back at them.

The casualties of ideas

Have you learned lessons only of those who admired
you, and were tender with you, and stood aside
for you?

Have you not learned the great lessons of those who
rejected you, and braced themselves against you?
or who treated you with contempt, or disputed
the passage with you?

Have you had no practice to receive opponents when
they come?

-Walt Whitman

I’ve spent far too much of my time in the odd corners of the Internet conversing with strangers.

The messenger evolved. I’ve read and participated in dozens of online channels. Usenet, the old ISCA BBS, LiveJournal, forums, blogs, article comments, Facebook, Twitter. You get the idea. I gave as good as I got, mostly. I watched subcultures flourish and squander. I encountered new friends and some troubled souls. I cheered and jeered. So did almost everyone else. We still do.

The internet is an idea amplifying engine.

Through the miracle of transfer protocols and pseudo-anonymity, we rally around fellow digital wanderers. We generate heat and a little light in a crucible of ideas. At last! We abandon the vagaries of our geography and find kindred spirits who think and feel like us.

We form tribes. Yes, they are fluid and even overlapping, and we navigate among our own tribes as easily as we drive down the road. But they are tribes of ideas. And, inevitably, of ideals and ideology. Tribes protect their own. Tribes lash out. I’ve watched my own tribes do this over the years, and borne the brunt of other tribes doing their own identity protection.

I hear friends and acquaintances lament the state of politics, especially in America. It may be an American phenomenon, but I doubt it. I do know it’s clear to me that my country has become more polarized in my lifetime, not less. More tribal, not more diverse and open-minded. We have less in common, yet insist the contrary. No “side” is immune. If only this experience were limited to politics. It’s not.

As the internet amplifies our ideas, it weakens our empathy.

We’re less able to forgive heated words. Not everyone and not all the time, but our ability to get over it and get along anyway ebbs away on the screen. We dehumanize those with different ideas. We call them names and think impossibly nasty things about them.

I think it’s because ideas become our bond. With ideas as our common ground, we react violently when that’s threatened. Our noble ideas drive us toward stridency. Toward puritanical attitudes about our mores, whatever those may be. Toward moral panics. The world’s going to hell in a hand basket! Oppression reigns!

We shout down others. We say things most of us would be ashamed to shout to someone on the street. We close our minds and latch on to certainties.

Ideas seem to be our most important things.

I love ideas and this idea-amplifying engine. It brings me new friends and helps me figure myself out and learn about the world. I love my tribes, though I hate yours at my folly. Besides, why shouldn’t our ideas be our most important things?

Our experiences know better.