Category Archives: Writer’s Problems



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.

On Fan Fiction

Is this a sandbox that you really want to play in?

Okay, I’m going to do it. I’m going to discuss fan fiction. I’ve been avoiding the subject for many years because I don’t think much of it. To me it’s like cheating, playing in somebody else’s sandbox. I suppose it has its uses – supposedly some successful writers started out writing FF, and it let them cut their writing eye teeth. From my point of view though, writing FF, even if you’re going to go into “regular” fiction later, deprives you of the experience of developing characters and world building because you’re writing about Kirk and Spock or The Doctor or Harry Potter, ad nauseam.

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.

Piracy on the High E’s!

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.

The Russian Cover for Harry Harrison's "Galaxy Hero Returns"

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:

Photo courtesy of my globe-hopping son.

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.

  1. Although, admittedly, I only spent about five minutes looking.
  2. Which I once attempted to satirize here… but nobody got the joke.

Curious Affectation

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!

But why do I do this? Not just sometimes. A lot. It’s like part of my personality or something. A behavior pattern.

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:

Continue reading

How to Avoid “Automatic Rejection” of Your Mystery Novel (via Global Mysteries)

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.

How to Avoid “Automatic Rejection” of Your Mystery Novel When you submit your mystery novel to an agent or publisher you hope to some day see it on a bookstore shelf. Then why do so many excellent novels end up in the slush pile? The answer is many novelists sabotage themselves and end up with what I call an “automatic rejection.” This kind of rejection has little to do with your storyline. It has to do with carelessness on your part. The best way to avoid the “automatic rejection” of your mystery nove … Read More

via Global Mysteries

Writers Beware

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.

Curteman on “Show, Don’t Tell”

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

4 Do’s and Don’ts of “Show, Don’t Tell” When an editor says, “Show, don’t tell,” what exactly does that mean? It’s more than a string of adjectives or details. Showing allows the author to tell the story through the action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings of character's. Perhaps this list of do’s and don’ts will clarify. When an author “shows” s/he: • makes description part of the action. Not: The floor was old. But: The worn floor creaked with each footstep on the warped boards. … Read More

via Global Mysteries