Okay, that might be off-putting. Perhaps a better title would be recycling. Repurposing. Reusing. Renewing. Resuscitating.
But I like the word cannibalism because it brings to mind a survivalist mindset – They cannibalized the wrecked vehicles for parts and were able to get one working. Kind of that whole Flight of the Phoenix sort of thing.
I’m talking here of course about literary cannibalism. Not the kind where you ingest, say, something by Stephen King, and the parts that don’t stay down are used for something of your own creation. No, I’m talking about where you take parts out of something you’ve already created and recycle, repurpose, resuscitate it for use in a new project. Yeah, self-cannibalism. Ewww.1
Part of this comes from the admonishment for writers that I make from time to time, namely never throw anything you write away. True, that novel you started and got 140 pages on before you realized it was, alas, misbegotten2 may never get finished and see the light of day, but there may be something in it – a character, a scene, technology, some bit of great writing – that would have a great life in a future project. You just never know what it might be until you get there.
For example, when I was writing The Company Man, I came to a scene where Andy Birch walked into a greasy spoon and started to chat up the waitress there. I stopped with my fingers on the keys, staring at the screen, and had an epiphany: I’ve already written this scene. And with that I dug out an old, dead pre-Desperate Measures3 unfinished manuscript provisionally titled Book of Dreams and there, 25 manuscript pages in, was the scene I needed. So I put the pages next to my computer and typed them in (the manuscript being from my typewriter days), changing the names on the fly, and there it was.
There are riskier forms of cannibalism. I once came to a point when writing the Pembroke Hall novels where I started to strip The Mushroom Shift for parts. It was an easy decision to make – at that point in the mid-1990s, Mushroom had exhausted the possibilities of where it could go. Editors were shaking their heads over what they could do with it, and my then-agent wasn’t as enamored of the book as I was. It looked at the time like it was one of those novels that would forever remain in the closet under the bowling shoes, so I put it up on blocks and started taking out parts.
Fortunately, I didn’t strip it completely. One of the conceits in Mushroom was two characters with the first name of Steve, both on the same shift. In the we-band-of-brothers mentality of law enforcement, they became one unit, the Steve Brothers. I pulled this out and translated it into Pembroke Hall-ese to show something similar – not the bonds of camaraderie, but how a bunch of creatives treat their own when left to their own devices. In a company where everyone is known only by their last name (and, occasionally, the department in which they work), two employees, Upchurch and Churchill, get branded as… ah, but you’re already of me. This didn’t cause a problem because nobody had read Mushroom, and at the time I thought nobody would. But now I’ve published it myself and run the risk. It’s okay, though, because I’m confessing now… and because not that many people read the Pembroke Hall books.4 And speaking of that…
There is such a thing as cannibalizing yourself a bit too much. I’m thinking of John Irving, whom I discovered as a college student via that made-for-college-student novel, The World According to Garp. I loved the book at the time, and sought to familiarize myself with Irving’s earlier work. I was disappointed to find that each one was the same combination of writers, wrestling, bears, unicycles, and motorcycles, all pillaged from Irving’s personal life5, all of which made Garp so much fun, all of which now seemed so… derivative. It was like this for novel after novel, even into his first post-Garp book, The Hotel New Hampshire, and it felt to me like Irving had just recycled the same elements over and over and over until he hit the lottery.
Now I have to come clean and admit that I have done this myself. And I actually got caught at it. See, the Pembroke Hall novels rolled over and played dead on their release, so badly so that Ferman’s Devils was taken out of print the same month that Boddekker’s Demons was released. In the ensuing years when I was working on Drawing Down the Moon, it occurred to me that I needed to throw readers a curve about a character’s sexual orientation. I knew I had done the same exact thing in the PH books, but I figured – hey, nobody has read them… I can get away with it.
Except I didn’t. See, one of my first readers of Moon had gotten her hands on the PH novels and read them, and so it wasn’t long before I got an email back from her on the former saying, “Do you have a ‘thing’ for lesbians? Just asking since one has featured in both novels (wink, wink)“6
Mousetrap, meet fingers.
All said, there’s a fine line to tread when pillaging your literary past for parts. If you use them enough times they can become a trope, and then a cliche within your writing, like Irving’s writer wrestler bears (although I think he has since left these behind), Dean Koontz’s noble dogs, and Janet Evanovich’s wrecked cars. And while some people might find these recurrences comforting signposts, I personally think it’s lazy writing. But then, I’m not a bestselling writer. Take from that what you will.
Meantime, no more similarly named co-workers or surprise lesbians from me. At least, not until I hit the charts.
1 Now you know why I chose Stephen King as an example.
2 In my case, a little thing called Bellvue Seven, which withered and died between A Death of Honor and The Company Man.
3 Desperate Measures being the novel I wrote before A Death of Honor. The order of publication was, of course, different.
4 Outside of Russia, that is.
5 But we all do that, which is fodder for another essay.
6 Paraphrased to make more funny.
Okay, so you can learn some of the basics of prose with FanFic. But what if you wrote something to that order, and you decided that it turned out pretty darn good, and instead of letting it languish in the fan community, which is the fate of most, you do a little Microsoft Word trickery and change “James T. Kirk” to “Dirk Manly” and “Yeoman Janice Rand” to “Honeysuckle Heartthrob” and “The Enterprise” to… okay, you get the idea. Then you take the resulting mess and pass it off as something original.
That couldn’t happen… could it?
Oh, yes, indeedy it could. And did. And not just with Fan Fic… but apparently with a particularly specialized kind of FF called Slash, in which the “Slash” indicates a certain form of congress between two characters who consent or otherwise during the plot. So you could have “Doctor/Sarah Jane” fanfic (pronounced “Doctor Slash Sarah Jane”) in which those two characters do the horizontal tango, or Neo/Trinity fan fic, or one particularly disturbing subset called “Kirk/Spock”, but we won’t go there. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.
It seems a sharp-eyed reader on Goodreads discovered a very disturbing parallel between a piece of Edward/Bella fanfic called “Master of the Universe” and a certain bestselling piece of erotica.
That’s right, you’re already ahead of me. In “Master”, the Twilight characters get their freak on and it turns out that Edward is more of a freak than the original books hinted, but that’s okay because Bella seems to like it… and what do you know, after some Search and Replace and a little tweaking, Cullen becomes Grey, as in Fifty Shades of.
If you don’t believe me, here’s a link comparing the two. Just keep something in mind – I have not read the entire selection – I just looked at enough to convince me. I have no idea if this is from a particularly graphic part of the novel or not, and take no responsibility for content. This is the courtroom of the blog, and I’m presenting Exhibit A.
I’m not sure where to come down on this. I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey and have no plans to. If I’d been a fan of the series, I’m not sure what I would think. Probably that it was cool that somebody made it out of the bush league and was now swatting for the majors. But as a writer, I can’t help think that this is a huge swindle. When most of us pick up a novel, we expect it to be an original work, and while FSoG is self-plagiarism, it is plagiarism nonetheless, as devoid of originality as most movies coming out of Hollywood nowadays. Oh, wait a minute…
Anyway, there’s one other point that remains as Goodreads reviewer Alicia implies in her review/expose of the book: bad writing is always bad writing.
But on the other hand… the readers of Fifty Shades of Grey aren’t looking for Ernest Hemingway when they pick their copy up to read. And I to be honest, I don’t know what I’m worried about. I suspect it’s too much to ask for Erotica/Slash to have some kind of integrity.
I’m not sure where you come down on the issue of piracy. Not the Somalis in a speedboat with some vintage Soviet RPG type. The new-fangled method of copying intellectual property that has been the bane of folks from the members of Metallica to J.K. Rowling.
And to show that nobody is safe, even I have been pirated. That’s right. No sooner were the Angel’s Luck novels in print over in Russia than somebody with a scanner and some OCR software gutted copies and converted them into files for the RocketBook – a late 1990’s eReader that is so vintage that there’s almost no information on them out in Internet land… not even on Wikipedia. All I could find is this rather odd video.1 Apparently it never took off here, but was popular in Europe, judging from the accents on the video (and the Russian piracy).
It’s probably also worth mentioning that if you’re Russian, you can also read the Pembroke Hall series online – here and here. More wonders from scannerland. I suppose if you’re a dab hand with cut and paste, you could bring up the pages and put them piecemeal into one of the many online translation apps out there and read yourself the books for free. Sorry, I can’t guarantee it’ll be an effective use of your time, but the many quirks of online translation are guaranteed to make the story more amusing than it already is.
So where do I come down on the side of such hijinks?
It doesn’t bother me. Maybe if I were an impoverished musician like the members of Metallica, I’d have a different attitude toward it – after all, what do you do when your “loyal” audience is cheating you out of the money you desperately need to feed your family? But in the case of a writer, the objective is to be read – and judging from the glowing reviews Ferman/Boddekker have gotten, Russians are reading the books.
Plus, to be honest, if I complain about this, shouldn’t I be complaining about that grandaddy of file sharing schemes, the public library system?2
Also, I have a day job that helps me feed my family. Maybe those tapped-out souls in Metallica should look into getting one themselves. Hey, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.
What’s particularly fascinating about piracy of intellectual property is how it seems so boundless. For example, here’s the cover of a Harry Harrison novel that was recently brought to my attention. It’s a version put out by a Russian publisher. Looks pretty exciting – but then notice the odd resemblance between Harry’s Russian cover and this American one by yours truly.
What’s interesting is that we’re getting into a whole different field of piracy here. I’m not sure it was out of laziness (although the artist did take the time to replace the green hologram on my cover with what looks like a full color holo of what might be a pole dancer – although that image might be nicked from somewhere, too.
While I find this amusing, I feel bad for David Mattingly, the artist who did the work on my original cover. Unfortunately, like the online version of Ferman’s Devils, there’s not a lot I can do about it were I so inclined. It’s what comes from dealing with countries with a more relaxed attitude towards intellectual property than ours.
Meantime, I guess we can take consolation in the fact that it ain’t just me and it ain’t just Russia. Witness this cover spotted by my son in a bookstore in Hangzhou, China:
It’s for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I suspect Harriet Beecher Stowe would be amused and even flattered by this whole thing, but no guesses where Mr. Freeman or Ms. Judd would come down on this whole thing.
Oh, and three words of advice for the malnourished members of Metallica: monster dot com.
- Although, admittedly, I only spent about five minutes looking.
- Which I once attempted to satirize here… but nobody got the joke.
Okay, somebody explain why in the heck I do this.
It’s something I’ve been conscious of for years, and it never seemed to bother me until a week or so ago. That’s when I got an email that inspired this recent post. At one point, the correspondent said,
I go out and buy notebooks and pens and write short spurts here and there.
To which I replied, “Yeah, I do that, too.”
And I do. Especially if I’m not working on a novel. An old idea bubbles up, or a couple of notions collide with each other to become an idea, and all of a sudden my brain is saying, This is it… workable novel idea.
What happens next is that I wander into the nearest grocery store, drug store or office supply outlet and buy a notebook or a notepad or a ream of blank paper. And if I don’t have a Pilot G-2 handy, I buy at least one of those, too.
Then I sit down and start writing the book, by hand, because dang it, I really can’t help myself.
I’ve started a great many books this way. Some of them have even been finished – The Mushroom Shift, for example. I’ve got about 20 handwritten pages of the UFO novel that I hope to pick up and start Officially Writing soon. I’ve got almost 200 pages of another novel spread over three or four notebooks that I need to pick up and finish at some point in the future. And I’ve got a ton of one, two, three, four, five page starts laying here and there, ideas begging to be fleshed out with another 500 pages of text.
Since getting the email the other day, I was amused to find out that I wasn’t the only one who did that kind of thing, reading into his words the fact that he indeed underwent the same tortured process I went through.
But I started to become unhappy about it. Because I still don’t know why I do this.
No, it’s not a passing thing. After lunch with my wife and mother-in-law this afternoon, I found myself in a Walgreen’s in that aisle because two notions collided – one of which was a bit I had written one paragraph of on another sheet of paper – and it wanted to come out.
So I weighed my options. I’ve been writing on a pastel green printer paper of late – it’s easy on the eyes. But Walgreen’s only has white. I pass over the spiral bounds – got too many of them at home. Ditto the yellow pads. Never was much for off-size stuff, either, although I used to draw in Steno notebooks.
Ah, there it was! A 120 sheet pack of looseleaf paper, college ruled, on sale for 97 cents. And I have plenty of three-ring binders at home! Huzzah! The planets have aligned!
I’ve tried to do some quick self-psychoanalysis since this started bugging me and have come up with a handful of maybes on why I behave this way:
More great advice from Nancy Curteman that actually applies to any novel. And as always, she says it in a lot less words than I would have.
via Global Mysteries
There’s nothing like getting a bit of information just in the nick of time.
A week or two ago I was approached by someone who said he was doing a book of interviews with Science Fiction writers, a state-of-the-genre and art-of-the-craft sort of thing. I thought about it, Googled the guy but didn’t look in depth, and decided to do it. When he emailed me the questions, it was clear he’d been over my web site and asked some pretty intelligent questions. But me being me, I didn’t jump on answering them right away because I’m still trying to get the final edit of the latest novel done.
Then, this morning, an interesting article turned up in my Google Reader account from A.C. Crispin’s estimable Writer Beware! blog (which you will also find listed in my Writer’s Resources sidebar).
I don’t want to spoil the surprise – you can read the article here.
Suffice it to say that his reputation has not necessarily preceded him, but it is certainly catching up with him.
Oh, yes – I withdrew from the project. With a reminder to myself to Google a little more deeply next time.
Frequent readers of this blog will know that I often invoke “show, don’t tell” as one of the early steps to take in becoming a good writer. Now mystery writer Nancy Curteman has taken all of the, um, mystery out of doing this, explaining it in a much more concise way than I could.
Hat Tip: My Literary Quest
via Global Mysteries
Jodi over at My Literary Quest has made a shocking discovery. In her latest post she describes her discovery that the first draft of her novel will need a lot more work before it is presentable to an agent or editor. And that discovery is unnerving her.Take heart, Jodi. That’s a good sign. It tells me that you can look at your manuscript with a cold reptilian eye and see that there are miles to go before you sleep. You’d be surprised at how many people can’t do that.
Once upon a time, I used to visit schools and talk to students about writing. Many times, at the request of the teachers, I was asked to stress the importance of editing one’s work. “You’d be surprised,” they would tell me, “how many of then think that once they write ‘The End’ on a piece, they think it is done. They need to see it’s only the beginning.”
That was always an easy thing for me to do. I would lug along a giant box containing the various drafts that just one novel went through. I would pull out a 500+ page mass and let them look at it, at the trails of red and blue ink across the print that made each page look like a road map. I’d watch their eyes go big and smile.
After it was over, I’d hear from the teacher: “That was great! I had a bunch of different colored pens on my desk and they all came up and got one so they could work on their papers like a Real Writer.”
Why do so many new writers think they’re done when the last page of the first draft rolls out of their printer? Simple ignorance, I suspect. They may not have researched the issue, and simply have no idea of the amount of work it takes to get a novel written.1 I’m sure a lot of these well-intentioned folk think that Stephen King ripped the final page of Carrie out of his typewriter, stuffed it in an envelope, and the money began to roll in weeks later.2
Don’t think so. When the first draft is done, that is when the fun begins. The Editing.
I learned how to edit when I was made Associate Editor of the college paper. Part of my duty was to clean up other people’s writing to make it suitable for inclusion. It was an odd thing. When I looked at someone else’s work, I could instantly assess what was wrong with it. There wasn’t that closeness, that attachment. I had that cold reptilian eye. I was a predator, and as an efficient predator, I had to look for the weakest prey. It wasn’t long before, knowing what to look for in the work of others, I could turn the same cold eye on my own stuff.
But I have to get a little distance first. When you’re done with a book, there’s that moment of euphoria that you went the distance, you finished the race. If you were coming off of a marathon, you’d be filled with endorphins.3. And those little feel-good thingies are going to predispose you to feel toward your manuscript as a mother bear feels toward her cub: Ain’t nothin’ gettin’ near this young’un!That’s why I let the manuscript sit for at least a month. This is a good thing for me. It gives me a chance to catch up on the stuff that I’ve let go during the writing of the first draft – taking out the garbage, talking to the wife and kids, whatever. That’s when I pick up my editing pen (the one with the red ink) and go after it.
And yes, I edit the book in print form. It started as a holdover from my typewriter days, but I like the tactileness of having the whole manuscript right in front of me, not having to scroll, and turning the whole thing into a red-blotched mess. Besides, the jump from computer screen to printed page is one more degree of separation.
Occasionally something goes wrong. I’ve got at least one manuscript that got through the first draft when I discovered that there was going to be a fat lot of work involved in rehabilitating it into some semblance of commerciality. I thought a longer break was in order, so I moved on to something else… and then something else… and you get the idea. I might go back and fix it someday, but for now I’m considering it another chapter in the saga of me becoming a great writer.
If you’re in the same situation, don’t worry. All those chapters eventually add up. But you have to go the distance in order for it to pay off.
The other distance, that is.
- Click this link. It’s the best video I’ve ever seen about the writing process. I mean it.
- Oh, and that’s another blog entry…
- And I probably literally am, too, after finishing a novel since I usually write the endings in a massive (50 pages or more in a sitting) marathon.
Tonight we wrapped up my VBS play “The Amazing Secret of the Castle Omi La” (except for an encore performance on Sunday night for those who missed episodes or want to see it again). Now I can now turn my attention back to some other pending literary projects – picking up work on converting A Death of Honor into ebook formats, starting work on the final draft of Drawing Down the Moon, and putting the finishing touches on this web site.
And there’s one thing I’m not going to do.
I’m not going to look at anybody else’s manuscripts any more.
As a matter of policy, I don’t do this for anyone who is a member of the general public or a casual reader of this blog. My time is limited, and there are legal issues that could arise from me doing that (and it’s not just me on the latter issue – try getting Stephen King or Tom Clancy or whatsername, the vampire writer, to take a look at your work). But there were always some friends or family members that I made an exception for.And I inevitably let them down. Scheduled reading times always got eaten up, self-imposed deadlines were missed. It’s not that I didn’t want to read stuff and help – it’s just that I always gave reading other people’s manuscripts such a low priority that they were one of the first things that got pushed to the side at times when everything was getting pushed aside for something else. A lousy thing of me to do, but when it’s weighed against my relationship with God and Family, making a living, and trying to get my own writing in, it’s going to give way, no matter what kind of promise I made (I should also note here that in the 14 months before I got my Kindle, I didn’t read any books at all – I might have read a couple of graphic novels in the odd moments, but that was it – so I didn’t even make time for America’s best selling writers).
So, in order to evolve from a Lousy Friend Who Breaks Promises to a Mediocre Friend Who Won’t Read Your Writing, I’m pulling the plug on my literary largesse.
That’s not to say that I won’t answer your questions about writing. Some of the best entries in this blog have come from questions that other struggling writers have asked me. I just won’t look at your manuscript until it is finished and published and (hopefully!) formatted for the Kindle. I hate to do this, but I have to… I think I’m a prettydarngood writer, but I’m still working on being a better human being.
If you’re one of the people I’ve made promises to about such things, please accept my most sincere apologies. I said yes with the best of intentions, but we know what kind of pavers those turn out to be. And hopefully I’ll be able to continue evolving into a nicer kind of human being – one who doesn’t make a promise that he probably can’t keep.
So if you’re often deprived of glory on the cover of a book, why ghostwrite at all? I think that’s all explained in this excellent article on NPR. But I can see from the look on your face that you won’t click the link and read the article. You want me to tell about my experiences as a ghostwriter.
Okay, here we go. But let me say that the number one reason, and the entire raison de etre of the NPR article has to do with financial stability, especially when one’s own projects aren’t selling well.
That was part of what was on my mind when my agent called me up way back in the mists of time ago – what’s it been, twenty years? He told me that the person whom I will refer to as Client #1 was writing a new novel with a science fiction flavor, and needed an actual SF practitioner to make sure it all hung together. When he told me the Client’s name, I was taken aback. I definitely knew the name, and was surprised that this person needed help writing anything at all, their backlist being full of all sorts of writing, including other novels.
Nevertheless, I agreed to the project. I am always interested in new experiences, and I saw it as being more of a book doctor or maybe a midwife to the project. Terms of the deal were disclosed to me. My name would not appear on the cover. I would get one-third of the proceeds. And I was never, ever, ever, ever, to say what I had done for the Client.
So I flew to New York and took a meeting with Client #1, his agent, my agent (the two agents worked in the same agency, which is how my name came up in an earlier meeting) and the Editor. Client #1 brought an outline of the book, some seven typewritten single spaced pages, and read it to us, giving us some asides about the direction the book should take.
And I had an epiphany. I don’t read people at all, to the point where if it’s not obvious, I don’t have a clue, making me wonder if there are a few Asperger’s genes in my makeup. But as Client #1 read the outline, I suddenly understood something: Client wants to be the main character in the book. Badly.
Then I had another epiphany as I looked at the outline: I have an incredible amount of freedom in what this book is to be. Imagine if your client gave you the outline to the book, and when you took out the manifesto part (which made up some 5 pages of Client’s outline), the basic plot of the novel looked something like this:
Two friends sneak into an orchard to pick apples. While picking and stuffing themselves with apples, the two get into an argument. One kills the other with a shovel and buries the body under one of the trees, then tries to live life normally. But then things go wrong. There’s a police investigation, and the family of the deceased wants to know what’s going on. Finally, the murderer’s guilt turns into insanity, everything comes to a head, and the book concludes with an inevitable, yet shocking twist ending. The book’s thesis is that murder is a bad thing.
Can you feel the wheels turning in your head? There are a handful, a dozen, a million ways you can tell this story. Add to that your insight that this book is, say, an allegory for your client’s very public and messy divorce. Writer, you’ve just been given the keys to the playground. All the equipment is there, but you and you alone decide what you play on and when.
I went to town on the book. I wrote about some things I’d wanted to write about but could never fit into my own books. I tried methods and tricks of writing that I would never, ever use in one of my novels. I easter egged some things into it so if I ever had to defend myself as the ghost, I could prove it was my work. I had long phone conversations with… the Editor, one of the last of the hard-drinkin’ literary editors, about where the book was going and things we could do to move it along. I had a lot of fun with the project, even if at the end of things there was some creative dithering at the publishing house, and I kept having to rewrite passages so they would appeal to this or that demographic.
Most importantly, Client #1 loved the book. My insight had paid off. I took the two pages of vague idea that was given me and run with it. As for the manifesto, I took that five pages almost verbatim and turned it into a speech that one of the characters makes in the third act. It was all about the Client, and the client was happy indeed.
And then the roof caved in.
Late in the publication process, the book became orphaned. That means that the Editor behind the book leaves the publishing house for whatever reason, and there is no longer someone there to Champion it. After I had cleaned up the Client’s final edit, and after I had gone over the galleys of the book, a new editor came in with a blue pencil and decided to clean house. I didn’t know about this until a copy of the finished book came to me in the mail. If the editor had only called or asked, I could have helped… but he or she was dealing with an orphan, and so what?
It was a nightmare. I had done things like written A, B, and C – and then later came D, and it was a payoff of some kind. The editor had cut A, B, and C. Clues and characterization disappeared, and the end result was a messy potboiler. I’m not saying I had written some kind of literary masterpiece, but a lot of the structure was butchered, and, well, the critics picked up on it, and they weren’t kind. They especially picked up on the “D’s”, which sorely needed their respective A’s, B’s and C’s to work.
But God Bless Client #1, who soldiered on and promoted the book, and for all I know, it was treated as lovingly as that original outline I had been given in New York months before.
After all the hoo-hah had passed over the book being a bust, I asked my agent something that had been on my mind for some time. “Did Client #1 actually write those other novels that I see on the bibliography?”
There was a pregnant pause. And then, “It is the expressed position of this literary agency that the Client’s books are all self-written.”
So there’s that story. Like everything I write, it has run long – so it’ll be another day for my remaining adventures in Ghostland.
But I still think about that book and what a great time I had in its creation. I still feel bad for Client #1, who so badly wanted it to be something special, but lost control of the whole thing. Then I think in this era of DVD’s with author’s commentaries, why couldn’t the publisher go back and do a restored version without all of the butchery, with A, B, and C put back in. Then I go back to my own writing, and vow to fight to the death if one of my own books is ever orphaned.
Next Episode: The Movie Star. And no, it’s not Shatner.