Category Archives: Desperate Measures

Cannibalism

literary-cannibalism

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.

To Thine Own Writing Be True

It’s been an interesting experience getting The Mushroom Shift ready for publication.

I mean, here is a novel I wrote almost 25 years ago, and as I’m reading it, and as I’m having my Kindle read it to me as part of the proofreading process, I’m discovering something about it that I hadn’t expected.

It’s a really good book.

Yeah, authors are supposed to say that sort of thing. But I don’t say that about many of my others – not A Death of Honor or The Company Man, or the three books of the Angel’s Luck trilogy. While I can chat them up to interested readers, I don’t think they’re particularly good, largely because I hadn’t yet hit that mystical One Million Words mark.1 Of my published novels, Ferman’s Devils/Boddekker’s Demons is the first one I can page through without cringing, largely because (I believe) by that point I’d actually Gotten Good.

Yet here is a novel that was my third (written after Desperate Measures and Honor2), before I had Gotten Good – but I can mostly read/listen to it without wincing. Plus there are moments in the book that make me marvel at how good it really is.

Granted, there’s one scene in The Mushroom Shift that I have long considered one of my best pieces of writing ever – but one scene does not a great book make. Mushroom I think is a great book, in spite of the fact that my writing style hadn’t completely evolved. Why?

Well, I’ve been thinking it over, and I believe I might have the answer.

The Mushroom Shift was written for love. It was written for the sheer joy if sitting down and telling a story. It was written because the story was coming out of me, and not for any sort of commercial consideration.

The others from that period were, well, written to try and make money.

Ditto the story about Ferman and Boddekker, which was something I wanted to write for a long time, and had a great time doing so when I finally did it.

Ditto again for Drawing Down the Moon, in which I defied my then-agent’s advice and sat down and wrote it because it was a story I wanted to tell. Well, DDtM is also a great book because I think I have officially Gotten Good now, but you see the pattern forming.

There’s something to be said for tossing commercial considerations out the window and writing for the love of the process.

Need more proof?

Open up your web browser, point it at Amazon dot com, and look up the Stephanie Plum series of novels by Janet Evanovich. Check out the reviews of the early series; One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly

People love ’em.

Now check out the reviews of books Fourteen, Fifteen, Sixteen, Seventeen. Evanovich’s readers are turning on her, accusing the writer of making her books dull, boring and repetitive – basically phoning it in for the score.3 One reviewer even accuses her of milking the series after allegedly reading an interview in which Evanovich advocated doing exactly that.

I’m guessing that the one thing on the minds of all of Evanovich’s disgruntled readers right now is, “Where is the love?”

Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing bad about writing for money. But there seems to be a strange phenomenon that occurs when you do that. You start keeping commercial considerations in mind, and perhaps you start getting a little shy about letting loose for fear of offputting your readers. And pretty soon you’re doing that thing of stamping the novels out using a cookie cutter formula.

I suppose it’s nice work if you can get it.

But so much more satisfying… and a much richer legacy you will leave… if you be truthful with yourself as a writer, if you push yourself out of the box, and simply write for the sheer joy of creating, of telling a story you want to tell rather than shooting for the lowest common denominator.

Who knows? Your fans might even like it, too.

  1. Or that new iteration of skill honing, the Ten Thousand Hour mark.
  2. That’s right – those early novels weren’t published in the order in which they were written.
  3. And actually, in the interest of full self-disclosure, I found her books dull, boring and repetitive after just two. Along with highly irritating. But she makes more money writing than I do, so you can’t argue with success.

Wanted (No Questions Asked)

Have you seen me (in HTML or Plain Text)?

Walter Jon WIlliams is looking for pirated scans of his novels. In this article on Torrent Freak, he explains his rationale, and it’s a good one.

Having recently scanned and coded the forthcoming ebook issue of A Death of Honor, I can see the genius of this move. Why bother scanning when there’s someone out there who may have already done it? Or somebody who can be bribed with autographed books, a mention in the appropriate ebook edition, or perhaps even small amounts of cash to produce a new scan?1

So if any of you ace searchers out there can point me to a torrent where any of my titles (except A Death of Honor – done already) can be downloaded, let me know. Or if anyone out there is willing to do an OCR scan of one or more of my titles (preferably into html format), get in touch also.2

As I said, bribes are definitely in order. Although baked goods might be a bit hard to ship.

  1. Hey, we are in a recession, folks. If I were Stephen King, I’d be more generous. But then, if I were King, I wouldn’t have this issue.
  2. To answer an obvious question – I do have electronic copies of all my novels except Honor (which was written and edited entirely on an old device called a typewriter). The problem with these is twofold – one, they are all stored on 5 1/4″ floppies. Two, they are not the edited version as produced by the publishers.

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.

The Cliff’s Notes Version of How to Be a Writer

A lot of my posts come from questions I get from aspiring writers struggling with some part of the writing process or another. The other day I got an email peppered with questions I had mostly already answered. However, it occurred to me that there might be others out there who, like this particular reader, who haven’t had the chance to wade through the 700+ posts here to find what they want.

So instead of cutting and pasting a whole bunch of links to essays in this side, I went for the short answer, knowing I would post the results in a kind of Cliff’s Notes version of this blog.

So here’s the short answer version of many popular writer’s questions. For more detail, see the rest of the blog.

(Note: questions in parenthesis are paraphrased by yours truly for the sake of brevity)

(Reader mentions different jobs he has had, including a recent stint in the military)

Thank you for serving in the military. I can’t thank you enough for doing that.

It sounds you have a lot of different experiences, which is a good thing. A writer doesn’t have to have experience in a lot of different jobs and rely solely on imagination, but I think experience helps. Your resume sounds a lot like my early one before I settled down.

(Reader asks about how one should go about tackling a writing project)

If you’re reading my blog, you’ve probably found tons of information about writing from my particular point of view. You should hunt up some blogs from other writers to see how they’re handling things. I’m a big proponent of finding out what works for you as a writer, because what works for me or another writer might not be your cup of tea. Plus, the way I write has evolved over the years.

I’m 39 and I’ve wanted to write my entire life but have yet to finish a book. I have multitudes of ideas streaming in my head with good ideas.

Yup, you’ve got it bad. Welcome to the club. Most writers have tons of ideas (I even do a writer’s seminar called “The Idea Is The Easy Part” to show how easy it is to come up with a concept for a novel). Our big issue is time to do something with those ideas.

I have a friend who is a brilliant idea man. He’s always coming up with a new idea for a book. His problem is, he gets these new ideas when he’s supposed to be working on another book, and he gets so taken with the new idea that he abandons his in-progress for the new idea. Those writers who are published learned to discipline themselves and pick one idea, working on it until it’s done. If the new idea is really good, it won’t go away.

I go out and buy notebooks and pens and write short spurts here and there.

I do that too. I have notebooks with notes and starts of books all over the place. It’s like buying a new notebook and/or pen validates the new idea. But again, that discipline is the key.

But I make excuses and think that I can’t make money doing that.

It’s hard. And it’s hard for outsiders to understand that, for every Tom Clancy or Stephen King, there are 1,000 writers like me who do it for the love of writing, and of course, for a shot at that brass ring.

Fortunately, with the advent of the Amazon Kindle and other e-readers, it’s become easier to make money on one’s work by self-publishing. Good money. One woman just signed a $2 million contract with a major publisher based on the Twilight knockoff novels she was self-publishing. But it needs to be good. Or shamelessly commerical.

Do I need an agent?

There’s a joke in the industry that you can’t get a book sale without an agent, and you can’t get an agent unless you have sold a book. If you want to get published by the Big Six, you need an agent. If you’re willing to go the self-published route, no. If your self-pubbed stuff catches on, the agents will find you.

The story of how I got my agent is on my blog. It helped that I went in through the Science Fiction/Fantasy Door. That genre is more open to new writers and unsolicited submissions than the more mainstream stuff.

How do I get a book contract?

By writing a darn good book. And you do that by writing and writing and writing and writing. Every time you write you get better at it. No anabolic steroids necessary.

How can I get a publisher to pay me while I write?

1) Write a darn good book

2) Sell it to a publisher

3) While you are marketing the first book, start on the next one. This way you can tell your publisher you’re working on a new book and they will understand that you’re serious about writing.

4) If your book gets buzz, or hits it big, or perhaps even breaks even, your publisher will want to tie you down with a multi-book contract. When that happens, congratulations!

That’s approximately the way to do it. Fortunately for us all, publishers want to make sure an author can go the distance and produce something both readable and salable before committing to their writing careers.

I’m sure some people have gotten contracts without going through some version of this, but they were either celebrities who could be hooked up with ghostwriters, or had established themselves as writers in another area (short fiction, journalism, etc.)

When you were writing the Angel’s Luck series what was your writing process?

It depends. The first book, Desperate Measures, was the first novel I ever wrote. During its writing I was going to college, getting married, and looking for a job. It was written piecemeal over the course of 4 1/2 years, and the original version was twice as long as what was published. While it was at market, I wrote A Death Of Honor, then The Mushroom Shift (about police work – I worked for a few years as a sheriff’s dispatcher), then The Company Man. By then I was a better writer and was able to hack the mess that was DM into shape.

The other two books in the trilogy I was under contract to write. I had said I was never going to write a trilogy, but the characters wouldn’t leave me alone. So I pitched DM to my editor as the first book, said a few words about what the other two books would be like, and Del Rey bit. I wrote those two as a full-time writer, and I treated it like a full-time job.

How many hours a day did you write?

Again, it depends. When I’m writing a novel, I tell myself my daily goal is 5 pages, and I take however long it takes to get there. Many days I’d get on a roll and write more in just a couple of hours. If I was having a bad day, I told myself I had to get through at least one page. More often than not, getting through the first page made it possible to write four more. But sometimes one was all I could struggle through.

WARNING: Telling friends and family that you are writing full time will often lead them to think that, since you are home, you are “not doing anything”, and are therefore eligible to do things like help them move pianos.

How did you find a decent Editor to read your work?

I was marketing A Death of Honor, and since it was Science Fiction, I was going the Slush Pile route (SF is institutionally more friendly to unsolicited submissions than any other genre – although romances may be this way also… I wouldn’t know). A bunch of smaller houses turned it down. A big house wanted it, but they wanted changes that I felt would have damaged the integrity of the story. My wife kept telling me to send it to Del Rey, and I kept saying no because they published Heinlein and Clarke – what would they want with me? She persisted. I gave in. And I can’t count over the years how many times I have been grateful for my wife’s encouragement.

I do want to write and I feel that is my talent.

If you really, really want to write, nobody can stop you. Not even yourself. All sorts of people have told me they wanted to write, but when it came down to it, no encouragement I gave could make them actually sit down and write. A few did and succeeded, but if they didn’t have that spark inside driving them, they never would have made the commitment. Many others tried and gave up, or ended up not trying.

I said that it took me 4 1/2 years to write Desperate Measures. That’s because I wanted to be a writer more than anything else. And I wrote whenever I could steal the time to do it. A lot of times it was a half-page, page, two pages here and there. It added up. When I finally finished, I learned that I could write a novel. I started to get an idea of how I worked as a writer. I learned that, every time I wrote, I got better at it. And I learned that, having done it once, I wanted to do it again.

And I’m still trying. I’m not where I’d like to be as a writer, either. But I haven’t given up because I know how much writing means to me, and I know I’d rather be writing novels than anything else.

So steal what time you can to pile up those pages and see what happens.


And that is Volume One of the Cliff’s Notes. Feel free to question or append in the comments.

Disenfranchised

Coming off of a trilogy about Ghostwriting, it’s only appropriate that I address the issue of franchises. After all writing for a franchise is a lot like ghosting – there’s more money involved than the average writer bags for his/er own work, and while your name is on the cover, it’s somebody else’s sandbox you’re playing in and you have to follow their rules.

And as it happens, I’ve had a couple of chances to do franchise work.

The first time was after Desperate Measures was published. My agent at the time was Kurt Busiek, who was on hiatus from the Comic Book industry. As my agent, Kurt worked at an agency that also happened to represent the estate of James H. Schmitz, author of the cult favorite The Witches of Karres.

Kurt saw a resemblance between the witty, rollicking space opera I had written and Schmitz’s witty, rollicking space opera. He said that the agency was always looking for ways to further monetize their clients’ properties1. They’d been talking at the agency about what they could do to get The Witches of Karress back into print, and one of their ideas was to have somebody write a sequel to it. Thing was, they hadn’t found the right person yet, but in yours truly Kurt was confident he’d found a match.

When he called me with his proposal, I had two thoughts. First, wow, I can’t wait to tell my wife. She was a huge fan of Karres, and was the one responsible for my reading it. Second was, how do I explain this to Jerry Oltion? I’d met Jerry a year or two earlier at a science fiction convention. His first novel was a rollicking space opera of sorts, and in our writer’s bull sessions he mentioned that he was working on a proposal for a sequel to… guess what? I didn’t want him thinking that I had stolen his idea, although in retrospect, it was apparent that a lot of people were thinking about sequelizing the book.

I decided not to do anything about Jerry. He was going to the agency with his idea, and the agency was coming to me for my idea, so I figured I could avoid any potential conflict. And who knows? Maybe Jerry’s proposal was what made the agency think about doing a sequel. I don’t know.

So over the next couple of weeks I reread the book and then slowly put together my proposal for the novel. Because I wanted to make sure it advanced the Karres universe while staying true to the original book, I kept running it past my wife and bouncing ideas off of her. Once I had something that met with her approval, I sent it to Kurt and company. Then the verdict came back. They loved it. They thought it advanced the Karres universe while staying true to the original book.2 It was all looking like blue skies and green lights as they sent it off to the publisher.

And the publisher said “No.” Their reasoning? It was too much of a cult novel to justify republishing it, let alone a sequel. I moved on to other things.

A decade or so later, this cult novel was picked up by Baen, and in 2004 they issued a sequel, The Wizard of Karres, by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint, and Dave Freer.3 Then in January of this year, Flint and Freer’s name appeared on The Sorceress of Karres. What is curious is that the original and the first sequel are seemingly out of print. New hardcovers of the Schmitz book are going between $50 and $80, while paperbacks run about $30. Of more interest to me is the fact that the first sequel is going for $60 for a new hardcover. Hmmm, I guess somebody wants to read them.

My second brush with a franchise was much briefer. Kurt had returned to comicdom and I had another agent, who called me up out of the blue one day, again not with news of an update on one of my own manuscripts. Instead, he asked me if I’d be interested in writing a Star Wars novel.

Because I once promised my wife that I would listen to any offer with an open mind instead of laughing and hanging up the phone, I asked my agent, “Why me?”

Here’s how he explained it. The Star Wars franchise had started with Del Rey books many moons ago. Over the years, it left Del Rey for, I think, Bantam. Even more years passed, and, as is the manner of all things, Star Wars returned to Del Rey, under the editorship of Shelly Shapiro. Shelly, it turns out, was the editor of my five Del Rey novels, so my agent knew that she knew that I was capable of turning a good phrase and getting a clean manuscript in on deadline.

Impressive. My agent had done his homework.

I asked, “Would my name have to be on the cover?” Meaning, I might do it for money, but let me salvage my personal pride, since I loathe Star Wars.

He said, “Well, I think the whole idea is to have a name author on the cover.” Nice gambit there, appealing to my writer’s ego.

But I ultimately said no, and for the most part was glad. I found out later that the Star Wars franchise paid the author a Big Advance up front for writing the book, and then paid no royalties after that. That’s not something I would have liked.

Do I have any regrets about saying no?

Only one. A year or two later, there was a lot of hoo-hah in the press that Vector Prime, the new Del Rey Star Wars novel by R.A. Salvatore was about to be released, and Chewbacca was killed off in the book. Yeah. you’re thinking what I thought when I heard that. If I had known that I would’ve had the chance to kill off Chewbacca, I would have been all over it, lack of royalties notwithstanding.

Oh, well. Maybe someday the wheel will turn full circle and I will be offered the chance to kill off Captain Pausert of Nikkeldepain in something called The Last Sequel of Karres.

But I really doubt it.

  1. Okay, but not in those words. Monetize seems to be more a modern term, used a lot with the way people make money off of their blogs. Me excepted.
  2. Or words to that effect.
  3. Hmmm, let me figure out who wrote the outline, who tweaked it, and who did the actual writing on that one.

Size Matters

In a conversation via some comments on this post, Weirdwriter asked me if I wrote many short stories before diving into the novel form.

Um, not exactly.

I know there’s this conventional wisdom that you start small and work your way up to the big stuff, right? In fact, every creative writing class I ever took in my early years was structured just that way – some simple word play exercises, then you started writing poetry, and, inevitably, the climax of the class would be… the short story. It’s like you have to start small and then build those muscles up before moving on to something bigger.

But that might not necessarily be the easiest way to do it.

For example, I just gave a writing tip to one of the interns at the ad agency where I work. She was working on writing 30- and 60-second versions of the same commercial for a client, and I said, “Write the 60 first, then cut it down to make the 30.”

Why? Because it’s easier to write a 60-second spot than it is to write one only 30 seconds long. You get better story value, and more time to tell your client’s story (yeah, I know, big conglomorate-owned radio stations are pushing 30’s as the new 60, but there’s a complicated math lesson behind it that I won’t go into right now1).

I know this belies all of our notions of bigger is better, but bigger is also harder, but that’s the way it works with writing. Bigger is easier because the smaller you get, the more important each word becomes. It has to bear a greater weight, a greater burden, and must be sufficiently powerful to contribute in the most efficient way possible.

Therefore, at one end of the spectrum you have the novel, which allows you to stretch out with words, with story, with subplots and characters and place and theme. It’s a leisurely walk in the park. Wordwise, then, a novel is easier to write than a play, which is easier than a short story, which is easier than poetry, which I suppose is easier to write than something like a tombstone epitaph. And note that by the time you get down to writing poems, you’re the watchmaker, sweating over every word with a pair of tweezers and a jeweler’s loupe, praying that what you’re assembling will keep time and have the desired impact.

It does seem kind of backwards. But that’s the way it’s taught because in most of the rest of the world, that’s the way it works. If I’m going to build a mansion for myself, I’m going to start with something like a dog house first to make sure I can get the angles cut right.

I suppose if we educated people, this whole notion would change. I can just hear it being said in classrooms across the nation – “All right, students, get out your pens and a stack of notebooks. We’re going to start our novels today! And if you’re lucky, by the end of the school year, we’ll have worked our way up to limericks!”

No, I don’t think so.

I think another reason for this concentration on the short works is because at one time, there was a huge market for that kind of stuff. Once upon a time, selling short stories was an excellent way to get your name out there – a literary apprenticeship of sorts. And once your reputation started to grow, then you cracked your knuckles and sat down at the old Underwood and typed “Chapter One.”

Sadly, that’s no longer the case. There’s not much mass market short fiction out there anymore, with the exception of the Science Fiction genre, where agents still prowl the pages of Asimov’s and Fantasy and Science Fiction looking for new talent. But I didn’t go that route, so when A Death of Honor was published, some critics noted that the author Joe Clifford Faust seemed to have come out of nowhere. That was kind of a cool thing to have said about me.

Coming back at last to Weirdwriter’s question, as for the actual sequencing of my writer’s apprenticeship, it went something like this: Over the course of my early schooling, I wrote the required number of short stories for whatever class I happened to be in at the time. But when I started writing projects on my own, they were always novels. It was as if I had some kind of internal instinct for concocting the kind of story that took place on a big stage.

When I was in high school, I wrote a play during study hall. And one short story, for my creative writing teacher. It was so ghastly that the next year she changed the parameters of what could be acceptably turned in. Made a couple of false starts on projects that were novels.

In college I got wicked turned on to the possibilities of the short story form by a high school literature class where we read everything from Faulkner to Barthelme. Did one short story for a class and a bunch for myself. I wrote another play. I finished it when I had mononucleosis, and looking for something else to do, started yet another novel. Got fifty pages into it and quit.

The next year I started yet another novel. Four-and-a-half years later, it would finish under the title Desperate Measures, although it would be a while (after some serious editing) before it actually got published.

Out of school and married, I took writing seriously. I found a publisher for the play I’d written in college. I found my way into the small press community and discovered I could turn out Stephen King-like urban creepshow short stories and sell them to horror zines for copies, and sometimes, a small check for five or ten bucks. Between stories I wrote a novel called Amendment XXXI, and when Shelley Shapiro at Del Rey asked for another title, it became A Death of Honor and I was off and running.

As you can see, I didn’t serve the traditional literary apprenticeship of writing short fiction. Short fiction was always secondary to my interest in writing longer works. At this point in my career, the number of novels I have published outnumbers the short fiction – and the total number of novel manuscripts I have is probably pretty close to the number of short fictions I have written. And I haven’t written a short story in a long time – the mid-1990’s was the last time I was sufficiently motivated (and inspired) to write one.

So, did I write a lot of short fiction before I started in on novels? No. Are they important to writers? Only in the sense that it’s something you can start and finish in a relatively short time – which means relatively fast feedback on your writing. Should a lack of short story experience stop you from writing a novel? No – but remember, you’re not exactly looking at instant gratification with the novel form – another advantage of shorter stuff.

Of course, endorsing the novel form like this opens all other kinds of worm cans – like learning how to edit yourself, and the sad state of a publishing industry that has become too nervous to make writers like Stephen King and Tom Clancy edit themselves into manageable manuscript lengths, and how you know what to cut and when, not to mention the courage it takes to go back to that finished novel manuscript and start hacking it to bits.

I’d go there now, but then this post would run long. Yeah, it’s that easy.

Listening: Marillion, Incommunicado (Clutching at Straws)


1 Okay, you talked me into it. Spots that are :30’s generally sell for 60 – 75% the price of a :60. So let’s say you charge a base rate of $100 for a 60. What would you rather get out of that sixty-second bit of dead air – $100 or $120 – $150? Take some time to think it over if you need it.