Category Archives: Writer’s Quirks

Our Novels, Our Children

Like most writers, one of the most commonly asked questions I get from folks who hear I’ve written more than one novel is, “Which one is your favorite?” When I got that question, I used to say, “Whichever one I’m working on at the moment.”

The problem was, people didn’t get that answer. Most of the askers weren’t writers themselves, and the concept of liking something that was incomplete was incomprehensible to them. So I switched answers. I began to say, “Picking a favorite novel would be like having to pick a favorite child.” That tended to satisfy the asker.

But now I’ve hit something that demonstrates to me that maybe – just maybe – the books we write are more like our children than we want to admit.

I’m currently working on programming The Company Man to be read on the Kindle. It’s double duty, as the cleaned-up file will also be the source of text for the trade paperback version. And as with A Death of Honor, I’m doing a little minor restoration on the file as I go, including undoing some minor editorial changes that I disagreed with – but as a professional, went along with.

Now this should be an easy thing, right? Except when it’s not. The file I’m using as the source for TCM is one that I downloaded from a file sharing system. The scan to OCR stripped out all of the formatting: italics and small caps, which I use in my manuscripts without mercy, shrunk em dashes to en dashes, and blew up accented letters in words like cafe and most of the ones used in the book’s “pidgin Spanish” slanguage. It made hash of line and paragraph breaks.

And the last time I read this novel was when it was in galley form – I don’t read my novels after they are published. This would have been in the summer of 1988… nearly twenty-four years ago. As a result, a battered paperback copy of the novel is not too far from me and my Chromebook at any one moment.

Now this should be a pretty tough thing, right? Except when it’s not. And it’s not. I still need to pick up that paperback every now and then, but I’m not having to refer to it as much as I thought. I did a lot more in the beginning, but it’s like the voice of the book, the pacing and the rhythm have all come back to me, and I’m sailing through it effortlessly.

Okay, that might be me picking up cues from things like surviving punctuation and paragraph breaks, but it goes beyond that even. Yes, I italicized titles of things and anything in pidgin Spanish, but I italicize lots of other words for emphasis. I get to a sentence where such a word was, and I think – that word right there I had put in italics. Twenty four years later during which I haven’t done much more than move a copy of the book from one shelf to another, and here I am, remembering specifics on how things were written.

It’s like I know this book as if it were one of my own children.

When I was a kid, I saw a John Wayne movie on TV that was called Without Reservations. It featured Duke as a GI returning home from the war (the film was made in 1946) who has to share a train seat with a woman (Claudette Colbert) on the way to Hollywood because her megablockbuster novel (think Gone With The Wind) is being made into a movie. She’s travelling incognito, so Duke doesn’t know she’s the author… and there’s no love lost between him and her book. They discuss it on a trip, he speaks his mind about why he hates the novel, there’s comedy and romance, and if I recall, she ends up changing the script to reflect her new beau’s preferences.

I only saw this movie once, but here’s one scene that has stuck with me all these years. Our author goes into a liquor store to get some hootch, but it’s in short supply. The storekeeper is reading her book, and she appeals to him to give her some booze because she wrote the book he’s reading and enjoying. “Prove it,” he says. She asks him what page he’s on. He tells her. And Colbert proceeds to recite, word for word, what follows from the point the storekeeper leaves off. Upshot? She leaves with some booze.

The impression I got from that scene as a kid was enormous. Wow, do authors really have to memorize their own books? As time went on and I grew up, I realized it was just a made-up scene, and no, authors didn’t have to memorize their own books.

Only now I’m rethinking that. We might not memorize them, true. But each novel we write is a journey we make, and the only company we have on the trip is… the novel itself, as it grows.

No, we don’t memorize our novels. That’s silly.

But we know these books. They’re with us as they change our lives just by the very act of being written.

So yes, oh yes, most definitely indeed yes. They are our children. Our beautiful, flawed, singularly unique children.

Unwritten Sequels

I don’t know where you come down on the idea of sequels. Cinematically, I’m really tired of them… it’s like proof once again that Hollywood is officially out of ideas.

Not that I haven’t been tempted. With every novel I’ve published (or, as in the case of The Mushroom Shift, am about to publish), I have had a notion to do a sequel at some point in the future. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps it’s because I liked living in that world while I wrote the book and need an excuse to return. Or maybe it’s for another reason. I don’t know.

Just to give an idea of how the process works, here’s a look at the unwritten sequels that have crossed my mind that you won’t see for reasons of time, apathy, or considerations more practical…

Caution… Spoilers abound!

A Death of Honor. Payne and Trinina’s story was pretty much told at the end of the book. But for a while I entertained the notion of an untitled sequel that would show what the rest of the U.S. looked like in that universe. The story would follow Bailey as he escaped from the raid on Payne’s apartment building, hooked up with Karol, and then set off on a cross-country odyssey in a search for a new place to call home.

The Company Man. Two different ideas. First, I wanted to play more with dogbrain technology and PATER. I had done that some with a story called Pins that was picked up by Amazing Stories, but I thought there was still more potential there. And I thought Andy Birch was just the guy to do the exploring. The novel The Inside Man would have been the playground for that. And no, Jade would not have returned. But Lucy would be around.

Also, writing The Company Man was the period when I was learning that not everything in my head about the universe had to go in the book. For example, Howard Kessler and Jack Lime were once partners until the former did the latter dirty, as happened to Birch in his novel. The Company Men would have told that backstory.

The Angel’s Luck Trilogy. The trilogy? The one I famously had to step away from during the writing of the third book and take a month off because I was getting sick and tired of the characters and wanted to kill them off a la Stephen King in The Stand? Yup. I had an idea for a fourth book that reunited the characters twenty years later, when May was about to retire and Duke had become a hotshot pilot in is own right, thanks to Reckless Eric Dickson. Never got any farther than that.

Trust. An unpublished political thriller that I intend to release before the Pembroke Hall reissue. This might have been spun into a whole series of novels about tabloid reporter Annie Graham. The second would have been called Truth, in which Ms. Graham had to match wits with a rather unusual serial kidnapper. Hmm, but when the first book doesn’t find a publisher? Perhaps just as well. The world is only so full of five-letter words that start with “T”, which is what all the titles would have been.

The Pembroke Hall Novels. Was almost a trilogy. Toward the end of writing the second book, it occurred to me that there was one more thing to cover – the aftermath of the reign of the Devals. Hollywood, Arizona would find Boddekker happily working for a non-profit when he was approached by Pembroke Hall to oversee the movie being made about the life of Ferman’s Devils. Life, meet the distorting effects of art. Each chapter would have been preceded by pages from the screenplay that was being produced. Shelved when it became apparent that the published books were a bust.

The Mushroom Shift. You’ll get to read this quite soon. Mushroom was to be the first book in the Badlands County Trilogy, with each title following Monmouth during a different shift. Mushroom was the midnight shift; The Horizontal Tango followed him onto swings; and the final volume, The Sierra Hotel found him on the day shift. Those plans went into the bin when the book didn’t find a publisher. And I don’t think I could write them now.

However, I never throw anything away. The theme of Tango was to write about sexual attraction between two characters in an adult manner while conspiring to keep them apart at every opportunity. That’s now part of Drawing Down the Moon. And Monmouth ages in real time – 25 years – to become older, wiser and the central character of the UFO Novel I’m now working on. Incidentally, Annie Graham is a central character also. As is Robert Grinwald, a refugee from Rachel’s Children, a cycle of novels about an alien invasion that I proposed to Del Rey right before I was dropped.

Part of the allure of my writing the UFO Novel was that it was going to be a place where characters from all of my unpublished novels would get to see the light of day. But now, with these books being published by yours truly, it is going to make for a very interesting collision of universes. Are all these books tied together? I’m not saying. Or maybe I just haven’t figured it out myself.

(Incidentally, I have in my files an unpublished short story called Miss February that features a prominent technology from the Pembroke Hall novels, along with a police lieutenant named Monmouth. Got a migraine yet?)

And what about Drawing Down the Moon? It seems to be the noteworthy exception. I have had it done for a while now, but I have no desire to go and play in Ricky and Kada’s world again. Personally, I think that has to do with the quality of this particular project – along with my actually managing to say everything I wanted to say on the subject during the course of the novel. Well, maybe someday soon you’ll get to read it and see what your opinion is. Meantime, perhaps these unwritten sequels will find a little new life in your imaginations – as they once had in mine.

Thinking About Thinking

I’ve had a chance to do a lot of thinking lately. Okay, technically we think all of the time. I mean creative thinking. After being a bad master for a number of years, I’ve started to walk the dog for a half an hour or so on most days, and having nothing to clutter my thoughts, I’ve been mentally making, um, mental notes on a future novel project.

The thing is, these notes haven’t been for 8000 Days, which is the next book I plan to finish writing. But I haven’t been thinking about that one. And I haven’t been thinking about the UFO Novel, which is the big project that will follow.

No, I’ve been thinking about a whim I’ve had for a number of years, and it has been taking shape rather nicely on these walks.

But why haven’t I been thinking about the book – one that I’ve got about 1/3 written – that I’m about to start work on? I suppose because it’s such a slight thing. I know where it’s going, I have one-sentence descriptions of what is to happen in each of the remaining chapters, and each of those chapters is pretty much set in my head. There’s not much left in the way of mental gymnastics to perform.

So why haven’t these mental gymnastics covered the UFO novel, which may be my biggest novel yet, and certainly has a lot of blanks to be filled in? It could be that I’m not ready to write it yet. But I doubt it. I’ve got tons of notes, handwritten, typed, odd .doc files here and there, most of which have been incorporated into the book’s Scrivener file. Maybe because the idea has reached critical mass and I’m at the stage where I need to begin actually writing in order for the blanks to be property filled in.

But this notion of working in a genre that I’d never had much interest in, never wanted to work in, and that would involve far more up-front research than I usually perform?1 I don’t know. I thought I was over that whole crazy writer thing.

Maybe it’s because it’s been a while since I’ve had the opportunity to engage in unbridled, uninterrupted thought.2 See, if I were to list out the times/places where I tend to engage in the most independent creative thought outside of sitting at the keyboard, it would probably look something like this:

  • Driving/Commuting
  • Shower
  • Repetitive/mundane physical tasks (e.g. mowing the lawn)

Unfortunately, most of these have become compromised over the years. The price of gas has seen me carpooling with my wife, so conversation fills the car there. Even so, my car thought was waning because of my heavy use of the iPod. When I listen to music, I do it rather intensely, and it occupies my mind rather completely.3 Having a spouse and two children long ago put an end to the extended creative sessions in the shower, and allergies put a premature end to the lawn mowing.

To make up for this I developed a method of enforced creative thought where I consciously pick a topic and send my imagination down the resulting alleyway. It’s serviceable enough – so much so that I sometimes teach this method to groups – but it lacks the joy one gets from just letting loose with imaginative thought.

And perhaps that’s why my mind has wandered in the direction it has gone… simply because it can.

Whatever the case, it has taught me this: that it is good for creatives to be able to make such flights of fancy. They’re an important part of the process, and I’ve missed them.

But why… oh, why… that idea?

  1. I prefer to do what I call “on-going research”, wherein I simply read about things that interest me, and, well, if the shoe fits…
  2. Except for that close call with the skunk.
  3. While I can listen to music while I write, I cannot listen to complete albums by the likes of XTC and Elvis Costello. Their superb use of wordplay is just too good – and too distracting.

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

Me and Woody and Johnny

Check out this clip of Johnny Depp appearing on the Letterman show a couple of years ago (circa the release of Public Enemies). More pontification follows the clip:

What Letterman can’t seem to comprehend – and maybe this is what defines what has proven to be his dubious character over the years – is why Depp doesn’t watch his own films once they come out. This makes me wonder if Letterman stays up late to watch his own show each night.

I understand where Depp is coming from. On a small scale, I’ve had the chance to see video recordings of theater productions I’ve been in, and was okay with them until I appeared on the stage, at which point I couldn’t stand to watch/listen to myself. On a larger scale, I can’t stand to read my own books once they’re in print.

I only managed to read A Death of Honor when my first author’s copies came in the mail, largely because of the newness of having published a book. Months later, when I decided to try and read it for pleasure, the pleasure wasn’t mine. It was a bitter experience.1

Why are some creatives repelled by their own work? The reasons seem to vary. Depp’s contention in the clip is that he feels he is done with the film once he wraps up his work. Maybe he had an experience like mine early in his career, and saying “I’m done with the work” is his poetic way of explaining it. Woody Allen doesn’t watch his films when they’re done, either, for pretty much the same reasons that I don’t read my books. Whenever I peek into my old works, I see things on every page that I want to change. This happens, I think, because I’m a better writer now than I was then. And the time will no doubt come when I can’t stand to look at Drawing Down the Moon, either.

Just some of our quirks.

But I should add that it’s not all bad. I like Terry Brooks’ attitude toward his books. One they are released, he contends, they belong to the fans.2 What better persons to take possession of them? They are, after all, the intended audience, and it is in their imaginations that the places and characters will spring to life.

Besides. If I can no longer read my latest book, it’s going to spur me on to write another one. Right?

  1. Not that I’m not capable of hawking my books on a given occasion. I can discuss them with fans and even recommend certain titles to readers like an infomercial pitchman. Just don’t ask me to read them again, okay?
  2. He believes this to the point that he actually changed the way he pronouced Shannara, as his readers tended to pronounce it one way and he the other

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.

A Little Bit of Yourself

No progress last night out of general tiredness. However, my wife read what I have of the play (scenes one and two) and had an interesting comment that I thought was worth exploring.

After reading a bit of business where two parents explain how they deal with their child’s fear of monsters living under her bed, my wife said, “You put some of you into the play.” This is because their solution was to sprinkle ‘Anti-Monster Powder’ around the bed – the powder being baking soda, which not only keeps monsters away (as one character says), but also keeps the carpet smelling spring fresh. This was the solution we came up with during parenthood to keep monsters away.

(Now we live in an enlightened age where we know that the monsters now use laughter instead of screams to power their cities.)

I told my wife that yes, there was a little bit me in the play, just like there is a little bit of me in every book. None of the characters in any one book are “me” at all, but during the course of writing them, I bestowed each lead character with a little piece of me to flesh them out. I don’t consciously have a mental ceremony where I think something like “Boddekker, I formally present you with my disdain of awards” – most of the time I just write something into them and later, when reviewing the manuscript, I realize that they have something of mine.

Sometimes it’s baggage. Poor Payne of A Death of Honor inherited the nightmare scenario of my youth, a Soviet-dominated world. Sometimes it’s a quirk – Boddekker and awards, or Tony Madison (of Old Loves Die Hard) and his allergy to birthdays. Other times it’s to teach myself a lesson. The Company Man Andy Birch got some voyeuristic impulses I developed in college. I would drive by apartment buildings and realize there was a story behind each light that was or wasn’t on, and I thought it would be fun to peek into the lives of each person and see what that story was. But Andy Birch learned something that I think I knew intellectually at the time – that the notion of such spying might be romantic, but most certainly you’re not going to like what you end up seeing.

By the same token, while all of my characters have a little bit of me in them, there’s no one character that is me. They might have some of my hair or bits of my fingernail in them, but there’s no one person in any book who is a stand-in for Joe Clifford Faust.

This isn’t the same for some authors. I have a sneaking suspicion that the writer/wrestler prototype that appears in the first five or six John Irving novels is really John Irving. Some have speculated on whether or not Jack Ryan is really Tom Clancy, stripped of his insurance salesman baggage. Certainly James Bond was the ultimate wish-fulfillment for Ian Fleming. And at one remarkable point in Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut appears as himself (he repeats the trick in Breakfast of Champions, where he sets the character of Kilgore Trout free – a promise he would later break).

I’m not saying this is good or bad. What it is is the struggle of writers to bring their characters to life. Some can create them out of the aether, conjuring them into three-dimensional flesh-and-blood people. Others use them as facsimiles of themselves, putting them through adventures that they themselves cannot have (I suspect this is the majority here, at least for beginning writers). Others of us are more sparing in what we give out to our creations, conferring on them a personality trait or neurosis as if it were the breath of life.

This, I suspect, is a natural outgrowth of the creative process. My wife talks about how, when I’m writing, I kind of live in the world I’m creating. That was certainly true this morning, as I plodded through my shower, onstage with the McLaughlin family, watching and listening as their little drama unfolded, then dictating it into my Palm on the commute into work.

Why not? Your characters already have the time you’ve invested in them. And as long as it helps you create memorable, lifelike characters, I guess that’s okay.

Just don’t do an Irving and give them the same bits of yourself over and over and over.

And don’t give too much of yourself away. You’ll need to have some left to sign books.

Listening: Al Stewart, “Modern Times” (via iPod Shuffle)