Storyville: 20 Things I've Learned About Writing
What have I learned over the past five years, as a writer, a reader, and a patron of the arts? Here are twenty items—I hope they help you with your career.
1. FIND YOUR VOICE
One of the most important aspects of being an author is understanding who you are, what your influences have been, and how best to use that knowledge, plus your life experience, to create new stories. When people say that everything has already been done, yes, I suppose that it is difficult to create a new plot structure. But what makes reading exciting and compelling is discovering new voices. No matter how much I may love Stephen King or Will Christopher Baer or Cormac McCarthy, I am not any of them—I can only be Richard Thomas. And that’s what makes me unique.
2. CREATE A NETWORK OF SUPPORT
Writing can be a very lonely business. We sit down at a desk, typing away, isolated from the world, trying to play God on the page. We create flesh out of thin air, spill our hopes and fears onto the screen, and build worlds out of our imagination. So when we struggle, and when we fail—we need somebody to turn to for support. It has to be above and beyond our family and friends—because if they’re doing their job, they’ll always be supportive (and unfortunately, that’s not always true). You need a network of peers, writers, and other happy people to talk to, share your writing with, people that understand. They will be there to build you up, but also to help celebrate in your success—and both are important.
3. TAKE RISKS ON THE PAGE
The best stories I’ve read have always risked something. Maybe it’s a unique format, or perspective, maybe it’s the subject matter, or the language. The best writing that I’ve ever done has been when I’ve tried to tap into those moments in my life when I’ve been the weakest, those moral dilemmas, the failures and moments of fear that haunt me to this day. Did your father yell at you when you were young, take a belt to your bare bottom, leave his hand on your leg a little too long when he was drinking? Those are the stories you need to tell—not to trivialize them, to titillate, but to show others how you survived. Whatever scares you the most—write about it: snakes and spiders, death and solitude, or baring your soul to a lover in the dark of night.
4. DON’T BE A DICK
I know that sounds obvious, but I can’t begin to list how many delusional egomaniacs, self-serving assholes, and rude pessimists I’ve run across in my life as a writer. It takes so little effort to be professional, gracious, generous and kind. If you think for a second, “Hey, I wonder if this sounds bitchy?” then it probably does. If you hesitate in your actions because you feel like it may be shallow, greedy, or harsh, then it probably is. We’re all out here struggling to break through, fighting to beat the odds on a regular basis—build people up, don’t break them down. And that doesn’t mean be dishonest. Somebody commented on my Goodreads account that I put a lot of 4 and 5 star ratings up there, that something smelled fishy. Well, I just don’t go out of my way to put up a 1 star review of a book that I don’t enjoy, especially if it’s a new author at a small press (and that’s mostly what I read these days). That gives me no pleasure. I will certainly give a 1 star rating to a BIG name, because they can handle it. But I’m not going to go around pissing in people’s Wheaties.
5. SOCIAL MEDIA IS IMPORTANT
As much as I’d rather be writing, I do love hanging out on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, etc. I know that many authors avoid it, and grumble the entire time they are on these various media outlets, but these days, we need to be out there hustling, connecting, promoting and being a part of a community. Sure, I may go a bit overboard at times, I’m sure people get sick of hearing me talk about myself, but I do try really hard to promote a wide range of artists, other authors, filmmakers, editors, actors, musicians and philanthropists. Make a blog, join a few media websites, and have fun with it. You’d be surprised how often you inspire somebody when you share with them the struggles you are going through, and how happy they are for you when years later you finally break through. People will notice you, and they may come knocking at your door. It happens every day, but not if you don’t put yourself out there.
If you want to be a writer, you must read—voraciously. Read the masters in your genre, and every genre close to it. Read other genres that you would never write, just to see how they handle the conventions of that work. Read the literary masters to see what all the talk is about, and read books and stories that are burning up the New York Times best seller lists. Read anthologies that focus on the best of horror, the best of fantasy, the best of literary fiction. They aren’t the best for nothing. Read work that makes you happy, no matter what it is, Stephen King or Harry Potter or Agatha Christie. And stretch yourself reading difficult books, whether it’s the language of Cormac McCarthy or the plot and typesetting of House of Leaves. Read literary journals, genre magazines, and Playboy. Seriously. In time you will increase your ability to recognize greatness—in your own work, and that of others.
7. WRITE SHORT STORIES FIRST
If at all possible, when developing your voice, and figuring out how to master the classic, dramatic arc of storytelling—try to write short stories first. When you fail, there is a shorter distance to fall. You will be more prone to experiment and try out new things, new genres, and new voices. Build up your tolerance, like a long distance runner, starting with sprints and flash fiction, then longer runs and short stories, then even longer stories, then maybe a novella. You don’t master a 10,000 word short story all at once, let alone a 60,000 word novel. The risk of writing a novel first, is that if you fail, it could cripple you, it could end your career. And we don't want that. Earn those muscles, build them up, and THEN, go for the gold.
8. YOUR FIRST BOOK WILL SUCK
This is not an opinion, it is a fact—your first book will be terrible. You will be preachy and you will try too hard to emulate the authors you have read, a poor man’s Palahniuk, a thinner Ketchum, a wannabe David Foster Wallace. You will tell and tell and tell, when all we want is for you to show us the story, these wonderful scenes that have been flitting around your head for years. You will render judgment on your characters, when we want to do that—that blonde whore is my mother, how dare you show her that way. You will fill in all of the blanks and leave no room for our own histories. You will most likely fail. Let it go, and try again. My first effort was called Remembering, and you will never read it. You will learn from your mistakes, and you will get better. Unless you are a genius, and in that case, can I get a signed copy? Thanks.
9. WHEN THE WELL IS DRY, FILL IT UP
There will be times in your literary career when you will be drained of creativity—spent, exhausted, and empty. It’s okay. You just need a break—you need to fill up again. So do that. Step away from the computer, your notebooks, your library and go see a movie, go see a live band, spend time with your family, go on a trip, run around your city getting drunk, dropping LSD, and have a lot of sex. Do it. Sometimes we just use it all up, we’re empty and bitter and that’s not a sign of our weakness, our inability to write, it’s just the universe saying take a break, go kiss your spouse, toss a ball with your kid, and live a little. And then come back and put it all on the page.
10. DON’T BE AFRAID TO PUT YOURSELF IN YOUR WORK
I use my real life all the time. I have probably written fifteen stories that are set in my old apartment on Milwaukee Avenue, in the Wicker Park area of Chicago. I have killed off my children, I have made my wife into a bitch, and I have shown my neighbors here in the suburbs to be overweight deviants with little or no generosity in their hearts. FICTION, people, this is fiction. So use the forest that runs behind your house, open a window and listen to the birds, stop in that trailer park and take notes on the kinds of objects that litter the ground. Write about your fears, and your hopes, what you’ve learned, that threesome you had that one time back in college, the night you tried to kill yourself, the day you saw a man jump to his death at the base of the St. Louis Arch. Use it. And then deviate from the truth and make it a great story. Fill in the blanks, round it out, let it breathe, and make it sing.
11. LOOK FOR EMOTIONAL TRUTHS
One of the reasons that the academic bible of literary fiction, the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, has stories by authors as different as Ray Bradbury and Flannery O’Connor, a wide range of genres and voices, is that no matter whether or not you call it science fiction or literary, horror or Southern Gothic, if you speak the truth, then the messages will be universal. We all want to be loved, we all have families, and we all have dreams. Tap into those truths, and put them on the page. Frankenstein is not about a monster, a mad scientist—it’s about a simple creature that wants to belong, to feel special and needed. He wants the same things that we all want.
12. AIM HIGH, BUT STAY REALISTIC
There are really two approaches to sending out your short stories—aim high or aim low. When you are just getting started, your work will certainly still be evolving. You may look back in a few years and feel like that writing is weak, but that’s okay, it’s part of your growth. I always advocate aiming high, but even as I say that, if I’m 100% honest, I know that I don’t send every literary story to The New Yorker or The Paris Review. Why? Because I just don’t think the work is good enough. See, we all feel that way sometimes. When doing research on where to send a story, I first figure out what genre it is—and typically my work falls into one of two camps: literary or genre. Once I’ve figured that out (and some work does cross over, for sure) I narrow it down even more—is this straight horror, or does it have elements of the fantastic or scientific? Is it crime and noir? Then I send my stories to the best markets out there. I have tiers, based on pay, prestige, etc. I start at the top and work my way down, but it can be rough. I’ve been shopping some of my thesis stories for over a year, but I know that the acceptance rate for those literary magazines is typically <1%, so I do my best to be patient. So when I say aim high, but be realistic, understand that you could take six months and aim for the best markets and still get rejected but that doesn't mean your story is bad. It just means you didn’t get in. Work your way down, don’t let the rejections bum you out, and understand there are a ton of great publications that aren’t “elite,” but still worth your time, and placing your story there is also a cause for celebration.
13. DON’T GET JEALOUS
You just can’t keep up with the Jones’s—and by that, yes, I do mean Stephen Graham Jones. But that doesn’t mean you can’t chase that rabbit. You may read a novel and think to yourself, “Why is this book getting all of this attention? I can write better than this.” Or, you may see somebody succeeding and think, “Man, I’m so sick of listening that that jerk get published. He’s so annoying.” But do you know how much work goes into sending out work? We’re all working our asses off—writing, editing, submitting, and waiting. Don’t begrudge anyone their success—I guarantee you that whoever it is, they are working really hard. I mentioned Dr. Jones above because he is an author that I chase, he is that rabbit running around the track, the bar I set, the career I am trying to emulate. And that’s a good thing. Find yourself a rabbit, too—somebody who has been doing this longer than you, has had more success, published more, and then chase them. See where they submit, listen to what they have to say, see how they make it happen. And support their career. We all have mentors, teachers, and authors we idolize. Use that as an inspiration, but don’t get jealous. There will always be somebody more successful and prolific, just like there will always be somebody richer, better looking, younger and thinner. Use it as a motivational tool, and keep pushing yourself to succeed—and in time, you will.
14. SUCCESS WILL COME IN WAVES, SO RIDE IT
It’s always been feast or famine with me—drought or rainstorm, calm or waves of success—so when it comes, ride it. I can’t explain it. I’d like to think that my planets align—I’d like to believe in some random occurrence. But the more realistic answer is that when you plant a lot of seeds (yes, I know I’m mixing metaphors here) they will eventually sprout, sometimes all at once. Run with it. But keep planting those seeds—don’t rest on your laurels. Much like every time I get rejected by a publication, I send them a new story immediately (if I have something appropriate, of course), don’t let a few placements of stories, novel sales, nominations or awards allow you an air of satisfaction and complacency. Sure, be happy, celebrate, spread the news, you worked hard to get here, but understand the wave you are riding is created by the flurry of activity you did over the past weeks, months, and years, so don’t let the waters become still—keep making waves, paddling out, splashing around, creating great work. And hold on to these moments, because when the drought comes, and you are crying over your keyboard because nobody loves you, you’ll need to cling to these memories, and remind yourself that you are indeed a talented writer.
15. NO IDEA IS TOO STRANGE
Don’t ever censor yourself. You may get an idea and think there is no way you’re going to write a story about a shooting in a grade school, about a couple that has plastic surgery so they can turn into animals and have sex, about rape or molestation, about the death of a child, about a man who masturbates over his dead wife’s body to bring her back to life. Yes, I’ve written all of these stories, and yes, my stomach churned at various times when the ideas presented themselves. Don’t be afraid of the unknown, of the strange or surreal, the dark, the sexual—the transgressive. I’m not saying that there aren’t various ways of telling the same story—there is literary sex, all in the mind, as well as on the body physical sex, there is erotica, and there is straight out pornography—and they all have their place in the world. The same goes for violence—there is the idea of it, the psychology behind the things we do, the physical gore, the horror and disgust, the brutality of it all. But even in the same genre, the horror of Stephen King is much different than the horror of Jack Ketchum. Sit with your idea, and find a way to make it happen. If it’s too current, too soon, put it aside and present it later—people do forget. Allow yourself the luxury to always be a creative first—worry about the content later. Look at the risks that were taken with The End of Alice, Lolita, American Psycho, and The Girl Next Door, just to name a few novels.
16. BEST SELLERS
Take a moment and go look up the current New York Times best sellers list. Go on, I’ll wait. Did you do it? Really? No? Seriously, just Google it or pick up the latest edition of Entertainment Weekly. Now, look at the names that are filling up the top ten, the top twenty. I’m willing to bet all of the cash that is in my pocket RIGHT NOW (a total of $12.25) that you will find several names on there that you’ve NEVER heard of before. I’m constantly surprised by this fact, and I’d like to think I read a lot. Just keep that in mind—there are a lot of “unknown” authors that are selling like hotcakes. For every Stephen King and John Grisham there is a Gillian Flynn, E. L. James and Stieg Larsson waiting to get discovered. Maybe that’s you, yeah?
17. KEEP IT IN PERSPECTIVE
I know, you’re on deadline to send in that zombie story that pays exactly .01/word, you’re in a competition where you have to address a prompt about an obscure poem, you have to read that story your workshop buddy sent over—so could the rest of the world please shut up and let the genius work! Sound familiar? Yes, I know you’re trying to find the time to write, to go after your dreams, to break through. I’m right there in the trenches with you. But when your wife asks you to take a break and help her in the garden, when the kids are asking you to come play Legos, when your friend calls up to chat about a horrible date—stop writing, and go back to living. None of us are millionaires yet—this is probably not our “day job,” what pays your rent or mortgage (if you’re even getting paid at all for your work). I’m not saying don’t fight for it, I’m not saying you aren’t getting there, that this isn’t important (it is) but don’t let your desire to succeed overshadow the relationships that are already there in your life, don’t push away the people that love you. Take a deep breath, hit the save button, and know that your story will be there when you come back to it. If it isn’t there, then it probably wasn’t that great to begin with, right?
18. THE LIBRARY IS YOUR FRIEND
It took me a long time to figure this out, but you can actually read books for free, you don’t have to buy every title that comes out! Believe me, I spend hundreds of dollars on books every year. But I’ve also been using my local library more, and more often for research, to read new voices, and even to rent some free games and movies. I’ve been editing more and more anthologies lately, and no, I don’t own every short story by every author I love. Go to your local library, or online even, and look for that obscure collection that went out of print three years ago, put a hold on a title and wait for it to get shipped over from Libertyville or Crystal Lake or Evanston. Save some cash, and do your research, and find new voices. If you really love that book, then go buy it later. My library has a sale every month, too, so if I’m going to spend some cash, this is a good way scratch that itch (I recently picked up six first editions by Robert A. Heinlein—beautiful books, and I was thrilled to acquire them). I still buy a lot of books, don’t get me wrong, and I support my friends of course, buying their titles, but don’t forget about your library.
19. IGNORE THE BAD REVIEWS
You can’t please all of the people all of the time. I never understand it when people say something like, “Oh, I’m a huge fan of X, but in reading his book Y, there was all of this X going on. Yuck.” Well then why did you read it? I hate kittens, so I’m going to buy this book on kittens and rail against everything that is kittenish. However people get to your work, they did pick it up. And if they totally tear it apart, going on and on about how it wasn’t coherent, how it was too this and not enough that, and give it a one star review, you know what? They aren’t your audience anyway. Let it go. Ignore the bad reviews. Now, I know you want me to say that you should also ignore the GOOD reviews—no, the FANTASTIC reviews, but I’m not going to say that. Don’t let it get to your head, but sure, enjoy it! Why not? Although, try to give your friends, your peers, your workshop buddies a little less power. If you find a total stranger in Germany, however, gushing about your prose, your setting, the way you stole his heart and then shoved it back into his chest cavity, yeah, that might carry a bit more weight. Your friends will be kind and generous, that’s why they’re your friends.
20. FOLLOW YOUR HEART
In all matters, do this. Trust your heart to inform your mind, to guide your soul, to push you in the directions you need to go. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what I say, or Stephen King says, or your professor says. This is your writing, this is your passion, your guts spilled on the page, your heart revealed in all of its beautiful and horrific wonder, so trust it. Be who you are, not who I am—find your own process, tell the stories that you want to tell, unicorns and kittens for everyone, and have no regrets. Do it now, do it with everything you have, and don’t look back.
This week I thought I'd do something a little different. Instead of directing you to a short story by an author I love, I have decided to direct you to some people that talk and blog about writing. These are powerful, insightful voices that you should be sure to check out when you get a second: Chuck Wendig, Roxane Gay, Chuck Sambuchino, J. A. Konrath, and Nathan Bransford.
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