Just Like Starting Over

Happy Wednesday, everybody, hope your week’s going well so far? Mine’s going okay, certainly better than the last few weeks. No sprained knee (well, still sprained, but feeling much better), and no cold. Some allergies, but hey, it’s Spring, and at least it comes along with the annual Springtime energy boost.The rites of Spring, you know: flowering trees, watery eyes, and 10,000 words a week. Or something like that.

Work on Came to Believe is moving along at a much quicker pace these days. Finished Chapter 17 yesterday, which brought the incubation time to a little over two weeks. Sounds slow, but believe me, it’s a major improvement on the debacle of Chapter 16.

So this means that self-edits on Chapter 17 are knocked out and to the critique group. Then the beta readers and editor and so on. I think that means the chapter will have gone through six or seven drafts by the time it reaches your hands? Anyway, we’re all about the rigorous quality control over here, that’s what I’m trying to say. The chapter came out better than expected, as digs into Lindsay’s more awkward (and endearing) qualities and draws the reader closer to understanding her, all the while showing a growing self-awareness in Dean’s head.

Stepped a bit outside the box on this one by doing something I had not done before: for a brief moment I separated the narrator from Dean’s headspace. Here’s the deal: at this point Dean is starting to experience new emotions, but he doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to sort through them or to even begin to put words to what they mean. Normally I’d just refer to them as an amorphous blob that he didn’t understand, but in this chapter his actions are kind of inscrutable without understanding the ambivalence he’s suffering. So I took the risk. I ran the idea (and the paragraphs) by a few people and they thought it worked okay, but we’ll really see if it pays off when I put it to the critique group. I just don’t want to risk the reader losing their connection to the character. We shall see.

Next up is Chapter 18, which I’ve described before, I believe. This is the scene where Dean goes back to Lindsay’s place for the first time and gets his first real glimpse into her day-to-day. I’m looking forward to it, as it’s a  joy to write Lindsay and this is another Lindsay-centric chapter. I’m getting really excited about writing her novel.

Not sure how much of Chapter 18 I’ll get to work on this week, as this is our critique group weekend and there are three sets of pages to which I must attend. No resentment here, though; the process always energizes me and makes me more excited to return to my  work with new insight. Good stuff, always.

 

Really rediscovering my love of writing. I suppose the “love” has always been there, but at times it’s the equivalent of a marriage: stable, happy, and reliable, but sometimes it’s a great deal of work. That sort of love. I’m talking more about the honeymoon phase, the very romance that led me to name this site Shaggin the Muse. Everyday I look forward to spilling  new ideas and emotions onto the page, really digging in and spending time with the characters. I can only credit the time off for illness a few weeks back, but whatever, it’s paid off. I’ve missed this feeling and hope that it can keep going for awhile. Writing  is awesome when you strip it of the desperation and frustration of the business. Sometimes you just need a reminder of the beauty that’s contained within the process, of the transcendent qualities of art, regardless of whether you reach an audience at all. Hopefully it shines through in the final product.

That’s all I have to say for this week. I’ll be back next week with some more information on Chapter 18 and maybe some more information on that Lindsay novel and my vision for the series.

 

Re-Invention is Fun

Character re-imaginings are a funny thing. You’d think I’d have gotten used to the concept by now, as I’ve done so many of them. Hell, Room 3 turned out to be a never-ending exercise in re-inventing those characters and while it turned out great, the characters had become radically different people by the end of the writing process, often of “their own” volition.

That’s the thing about character re-inventions: nine times out of ten, they seem to happen on their own. Take my most recent one, for example. In the original draft, I had crafted Stephen as a stick-in-the-mud sexual addiction sponsor, a bit of a narcissist with a difficulty in relating. He happened to be gay, but it wasn’t a main function of his character outside of a few lines with Dean. His sexual addiction centered around writing erotic stories and sleeping with his groupies, but that didn’t come up in anything other than a passing fashion.

In creating the new version of the novel, I decided that Stephen would need to be the one who got Dean into treatment in the first place. Biggest problem? The original Stephen would never have associated with Dean were it not for the group. It required a rethink on the character. I decided he would be arrested at the same time as Dean on an unrelated charge, leading them to meet in jail (which later became a bench waiting to see the court clerk).  The original Stephen would not have ended up in jail, so…time to re-mold the character.

I had envisioned this new version as a redneck in the closet who got picked up on soliciting a male prostitute and had figured out a dodge to get out of jail time – he would propose counseling for sex addiction, a strategy that he would share with Dean.

At some point in writing this, however, the character took a left turn. By the time I finished, he remained an in-the-closet redneck, but one who would moonlight as a gay prostitute. But that’s not all. I needed him to be the kind of guy who talked to strangers as a matter of course, who would always be looking for some advantage in a situation.

Thus Stephen became the guy who wears the “witty” T-shirts, can’t sit still, and sees life as a continuing long con. When we first meet him, he is the kind of guy who wears this shirt:

Half Man

I loved the visual and I loved this quirk, so I put together a collection of shirts that he wears throughout the course of the novel. Now, his character changes during the course of the story and he is born again, becoming a more fitting choice as a sponsor, but some of those parts of his personality don’t change, they just get directed toward “good”. He will continue to wear this style of shirt, just the Christian versions of them. Something like this:

Noah

Annnnyway, he’s a fun character who I look forward to writing. If only all re-imaginings could be such fun. I’ll keep you posted on the character as he progresses.

On Beauty, Innocence, and Broken Wiring

warning_pageWarning upfront: this might be a slightly uncomfortable topic, one that looks at the roots of sex addiction and the abuse that creates it. I want to talk about it because the psychology behind it increasingly driving my next book and I’ve actually learned something from writing about it. Imagine that!

Yesterday I mentioned that my protagonist, Dean, is addicted to hiring prostitutes who are college freshmen, typically of the “barely legal” variety, and I want to talk about that a little today. You see, there’s something more going on with him that goes beyond an obsessive early-book need to possess women as if they were rare cars: Dean’s fundamental operational wiring in his brain is broken, though not permanently. Here are the relevant paragraphs that have made me think more about this:

Her face shifted and he caught a glance of the child that had so recently disappeared into this budding woman.

It made his heart ache. He had no idea why he found the combination of beauty and innocence so intoxicating, surely something from his distant past, but he didn’t worry about that. He was no monster; he had no desire to steal away her remaining naiveté, but at the same time it worked like a powerful aphrodisiac. He simultaneously wanted to protect her and fuck her.

Now make no mistake, gong into this I did not personally understand this point of view; it came from the testimonies of more than one sex addict in the course of my research into the topic. It initially repulsed me, but I couldn’t let it go for some reason. I didn’t have a problem understanding the underlying sentiment: plenty of beautiful, innocent things can make you pause and re-consider the very context of life. Baby bunnies, kittens, and puppies come to mind without too much effort. The very concept of their existence is a fragile, precious thing and worth consideration as an important part of the life cycle.

My misgivings lay in sexualizing this, for what I hope are obvious reasons.  I simply don’t look at something innocent and beautiful and start to feel any of those stirrings. The impulse to protect, yes, I absolutely get that, like I said, it’s a fragile thing in a chaotic, dangerous world. But sexualize? Why? What could cause such a thing?

I honestly failed to comprehend right up until I wrote Dean’s story and the pieces started falling into place. Without giving too much away, something traumatic happened to Dean when he was on the cusp of puberty, which is not at all uncommon for sex addicts. Current psychological theory for why sex abuse causes sex addiction is complex, with many different reasons coming together to create a web of maladaptive behavior, but basically the concept is that an abused person seeks to recreate their trauma and master it this time. This is why you’ll sometimes hear about rape victims who then go on to put themselves into extremely dangerous situations.

This is essentially what Dean is doing. The innocence and beauty in his life was stolen from him at a very vulnerable age and in a sexual manner. The people who should have protected him for one reason or another failed to do so, leaving him open to the dangers of the world, which ultimately consumed his own innocence. When Dean becomes entranced by the quality of beauty and innocence in others, on one level he recognizes some lost component of himself and wishes to protect it, but at the same time the assault has crossed up the wiring in his brain so that when he recognizes this rare and precious trait it’s inexorably associated with sexual trauma.

Essentially, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a hell of a thing that screws with you to the very core.

Combine all of that with the addict’s core belief that “I am inherently a bad and unlovable person” and we get the mess that is Dean Rohrer’s brain at the opening of Came to Believe. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that his behavior or any similar behavior is a good thing – it’s a destructive adaptation that destroys lives. But it doesn’t arise in a vacuum and it can’t be fixed without some understanding and attempts to correct that behavior.

So the bulk of the book is about him untangling those threads and learning to appreciate the beauty in life without compulsively sexualizing it – essentially breaking the compulsive patterns. It’s not an easy path for him, nor is it for anyone who has to follow it in real life. There are many pitfalls and sometimes the slightest thing can throw someone off the rails of recovery (as it does for Dean), but it is possible. I’m hoping that Dean’s redemption rings true for folks. We’ll see. I’ll share more on the dynamics of addiction and trauma as I go through the book.

The Jerk Line

HannibalBeing married to a fellow writer can be an illuminating experience. Mary and I don’t always see eye-to-eye on what makes a compelling story. She, for instance, can’t stand post-apocalyptic stories and war movies and I’m not the world’s biggest fan of musicals, though some are all right. One thing that we do agree on, however, is the importance of compelling characters. We don’t always agree on what makes a compelling character, but fascinating ones can keep either of us hooked on a story for far longer than we should be (hello most recent season of Hannibal).

Which brings me to the point of this post and something that’s been knocking around in my head the last few weeks: how do you find that line where a character goes from sleazy but interesting to just a total turn-off slime ball? I call it the Jerk Line. It’s a valid question more than ever now that I’ve transformed Came to Believe into a more linear story.

DentistYou see the protagonist, Dean Rohrer, is a sex-addicted small town dentist who actually begins his journey as a cocky creep. He hires expensive Freshmen from the local university who highlight as hookers for one reason or another. He has a thing for “barely legal” women. He’s a seemingly incurable porn addict, and he exploits a legal loophole in order to avoid jail time and/or a fine. Of course, there’s also a thoughtful, tortured guy underneath it all, but the more linear structure of the story demands that he begin as a shallow creep who slowly finds that shining gem of a person within him. The book is about him seeking to become a better person and the various ways that he fails before creeping up to the line of being what he hopes to be.

depressed-manNow the previous structure accounted for this. We see uber-creepy Dean, but we also see a more broken, humbled Dean in the future who still has severe problems but is a little more sympathetic. The problem I faced was how to make uber-creepy Dean interesting even if he wasn’t fully sympathetic yet, and where was the line between creepy and too much to take? How did I keep from crossing that Jerk Line?

The answer, as it turned out to be, was a leveler. A humbling experience that dials back the creepy just enough that the new person begins to emerge almost immediately, albeit at a snail’s pace. We still see him have plenty of compelling jerk moments, but we also witness him humbled, at a low point, and ready to at least feign some change to get himself out of hot water. It’s a start toward him being a genuine human being and I think it will teach me more about the balancing act of writing an anti-hero.

Oh, and on that note, finished up the re-sequencing and am starting on the new version. I had feared that my original opening sentence would be lost, but I think I found an even better one:

“Try as he might, Dean Rohrer could not remember the name of the gorgeous young redhead sitting in the passenger seat of his BMW X5.”

Says a lot about the guy and the situation right away. Pretty happy with it. So far so good! Now to start the day proper…

Untangling the Knot

Ah, Friday the 13th! I’m not given to superstition, but confirmation bias tells me that Friday the 13th is typically pretty awesome for me and I choose to believe that little demon because…hell, why not? Better to think it’ll be a good day than a bad one.

You can probably guess what I did yesterday. Well, other than my day job. Writing. Lots of it. Not a one-day record for words or anything, but the most that I’ve written in 2014. Like, 4500 words. And it kept on! Even as I lie (lay? We had a great discussion about this in the critique group once) in bed trying to drift off to sleep the ideas kept hitting me.

Here’s what kept talking to me last night. Brian and Mark in my critique group pointed out that they didn’t 100% buy Dean being assigned to Sex Addicts Anonymous as part of a sentencing in 2001, and it was a good point. Some brainstorming and I had come up with the idea of showing him in jail learning about the group. But how to tie that into the sentencing?

That is what kept hitting me over the head last night. My plan: Dean meets Stephen in jail when Stephen is picked up for an indecent exposure rap, a bit of he-said he-said involving a male prostitute on the North Side of town. Rather than being a self-centered, standoffish sponsor, Stephen is the polar opposite: kind of clueless about himself, in the closet, and overhelpful to the point of being obnoxious. This version of Stephen simply claims that he ran into the prostitute on the street, the prostitute followed him, and watched him as he pissed on fence.

For those who have read the early versions of this novel, you’ll see the massive change in character. Stephen was once something of a cloistered monk. The new Stephen is louder and brasher, but with some of the same spirit as the original, and having that character in place makes it much easier to understand how he lets things decline the way he does. For both of them the sex addiction thing – both the idea and the recovery – are little more than dodges to get out of jail time. The catch is that Dean thinks Stephen is sincere at first. They both go in and genuinely fall in love with the whole thing, but it starts from a faulty premise.

This strengthens the novel’s opening, answers a lot of questions right out of the gate, and allows the story to grow organically along its natural timeline. I’m happy with the approach. I don’t know how it’s all going to shake out, but I have a good feeling.

Still deciding which chapters stay and which go before I get back to finishing the first revision. A lot of the end-state chapters are probably gone, so finishing that revision shouldn’t be too difficult.

I don’t know, I’m just excited to share the novel with you. We’ll see how it evolves and grows and I’ll try to keep you appraised every step of the way. Appreciate having you with me.

K.I.S.S. Bad Writing Goodbye

Hi folks! Today we have a guest post from Grammarly.com’s Nikolas Baron, who’s written an excellent piece that offers great advice on how to keep your writing simple and easy to digest. I learned a lot from this piece and highly recommend it. Thanks for sharing it, Nick. Now without further ado…

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In this post, I’m going to try to convince you that not only is simple writing more pleasant for readers, it is also a perfect method to KISS bad writing goodbye. Our mantra for today – K.I.S.S. Keep It Super Simple.

With this goal in mind, my entire entry will be written whilst I refrain from using any words more than two sound units. I borrowed this superb idea from Ruth Randell, a writer who wrote a novel that targets British adults whom she has observed to struggle with getting past the headlines in the press. I must admit that this exercise practice, with the added constraint, was initially a challenge at the beginning start, but trust me, with some effort, your brain will rewire itself without much of a struggle.

The thing about writing is that the more complex it is, the more readers you’ll be leaving out. And frankly, unless you’re writing a PhD in neural science on lab monkeys, I’m guessing you’ll want as big of a target audience as you can get. No one wants to be baffled by hard words or abstruse terms. So my first advice is to keep the jargon at the door.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that you should unlearn what English teachers taught you since grade school. I don’t want to be the one children quote when they want to drop out. What I’m saying is quite the contrary opposite REVERSE (that’s the word). Big words do have their rightful place as well, but that isn’t what makes for the kind of poignant writing we’re striving towards. What is helpful about giving this practice a shot is that it forces you to exhaust every single word that you can think of in an attempt to convey your thoughts in a clear and concise fashion.

Next, don’t pen down the first thing you think of. That is a feature linked to writers who can’t quite be bothered to invest time in cutting down their ideas. Your final product shouldn’t look like an exact copy of your draft. The process of any skilled writer will bring you through a journey, from a series of cluttered musings due to the urge to say many things, to a shorter, more modest display of words. This very aptly discerns between a novice and a writer who has honed his skill.

If you’re now starting to fathom how simple is really not that easy, I’ll let you in on the golden rule. Keep it to one idea per sentence. Not only will this be the ticket to solving your grammar issues, shorter lines also make for writing that brings more of an impact to your readers. Research shows that a normal person can focus without strained efforts for up to eight seconds, one second less than a goldfish. Now, I’m not sure what you inferred from that, but as the species that reside on top of the food chain, let’s pray that the goldfish don’t find out their knack for longer brain function than us. Who knows what a world governed by fishes would be like.

Lastly, keeping it super simple usually requires a heavy changing of words and phrases, where the delete key will become your best friend – don’t hate it. Always look out for words that you can cut out. Usually, a ‘finished’ text can be reduced by at least ten percent. At the same time, don’t forget to check for slip-ups with grammar. Be a grammar Nazi and grammar check every line, leaving no stone unturned. To lighten my load, I like to employ the help of Grammarly (the only three-sound unit word I’d use) to double-check certain rigid rules of the language.

And it’s done! We survived this post using only of two-sound words! It wasn’t that hard, was it?

By Nikolas Baron

Burnout and the Ambition Room

Good Monday, all. It’s been a work since you heard from me and let me tell you, it was one odd week. Burnout is always a looming specter when you write on the side of a full-time job, and it’s been looking over my shoulder quite a bit over the last few weeks, poking its bony finger into my shoulder every time my guard drops for even a minute. It’s not easy to guard against it, either, as writing moments are so often snatched from thin air, conjured when walking to my car or waiting in a crowded elevator. Those little moments add up in terms of word count and story development, but they also add up when it comes to burnout, too, and I reached saturation point on Friday.

This has been a difficult novel to write, and I’m well behind the schedule that I maintained for Room 3. It doesn’t help that with each passing day I feel as if the writing world itself might be leaving me behind. I can’t keep up the same pace as many other writers, and I know this about myself but I can’t seem to accept it. A part of me always insists that I could crank out more words if only I did this or did that, that the key to success is accepting “good enough” and not worrying about lingering issues like plot holes or consistent writing, but that just doesn’t seem right, and so it ends up taking far more words than usual to craft a story; City of the Dead, for instance, has easily 110,000+ words of material out there right now, but the novel itself is sitting at 83,000 words. Some of that excess is re-usable for future works (one deleted scene in particular is earmarked for Portal of the Dead), but you can see how frustration sets in.

Frustration, and doubt. I don’t know whether my problem is what fellow author Aniko Carmean refers to as “The Ambition Room”, but it does become rather easy to doubt the validity of what you’re doing in the absence of a growing readership. I’m well aware that it’s become more difficult than ever to capture that audience, but there are times that it can’t help but settle on your bones.

Anyway, that’s where I am at the moment – trying to ward off burnout and stay on target. Been here before and gotten through it, so now it’s just a matter of pulling through once again.

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Sweating the Science: Five Reasons To Read

Reading is pretty damned awesome. You know it, I know it. Regular readers see numerous personal benefits from their practice and “experts” back this up by hammering home the importance of reading in personal development, but there are plenty of people out there who don’t read regularly and wonder why we make such a fuss about the practice. It’s a valid question if one views reading as a similar activity to watching a movie or listening to music. The latter are great pursuits, don’t get me wrong, but reading offers some unique benefits that drive our minds in ways that few other media can touch.

So, why? Why does this happen, and what, exactly, are the benefits that a reader gets from his or her regular reading habit? I decided to cut through the anecdotal stories and get to the meat of the issue. I found these five benefits time and time again.

Reading Lowers Stress

1. Reading Lowers Stress. The science is in on this one: reading lowers stress more effectively than listening to music, going for a walk, or having a cup of tea. Studies found that reading for just six minutes helped the reader to ease the tension in his or her muscles and cardiovascular system. The key seems to be the fact that your concentration is completely absorbed in the story being told, which draws consciousness away from the problems that are plaguing your mind. Music followed just behind reading, but it’s something to remember the next time that you feel you’re going crazy from stress.

Reading makes one more likely to volunteer

2. Reading has a positive impact on social and emotional performance. A recent NEA study found that readers are more likely to become socially conscious and perform volunteer and charity work. Regular readers are also more likely to be able to understand an opposing point of view and attempt to bridge the gap between his or her own perspective and the perspective of the other person. This leads to improved social status and cooperation and an overall healthier emotional outlook.

3. Readers gain knowledge. This one seems the most obvious, but it’s not just about the knowledge that you gain in the book itself – study after study finds that reading enhances a reader’s ability to learn in all areas of his or her life. It sharpens mental acuity across the board and encourages the reader to look for hidden knowledge in her or his everyday life. Reading has also been found to increase your vocabulary more than talking or teaching, as it forces the reader to see new words in their proper context. I don’t need to tell you just how valuable an increased vocabulary is when it comes to writing. This is why it’s so crucial for writers to read.

Reading Increases Focus

4. Reading improves your memory and hones your attention span. The method by which we read inherently improves memory – as with the vocabulary words above, reading forces you to contextualize the concepts that the writer is communicating (how’s that for alliteration?). Often you have to hold a complex idea from earlier in the paper/story/novel in mind so that the payoff later in the novel makes more sense. The more books you read that require this kind of memory, the better your mind gets at holding those memories in place – and the better your memory gets in general. This helps to ward off the mental effects of aging.

Reading helps analysis

5. Reading enhances your critical thinking and reasoning skills. Ever have a moment where a twist happens and your mind flashes back to something that happened earlier in the novel, providing a clue for that twist? You know that sensation that you get, the “ah-hah” moment? That’s more than just satisfaction, that’s activity ramping up in your brain, and it’s been shown time and time again to lead to more expansive modes of thinking. Reading fosters this by providing “artificial” moments that prime your mind’s analytical skills and help you to better spot patterns in your environment.

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Writers and the Just World Fallacy

BrokenClock

Monday morning after the onset of Daylight Savings Time is just the worst, isn’t it? Don’t get me started on the advent of DST, either. The whole thing seems like an abomination to me, and for whatever reason people have become more and more zealous about embracing it. Now I hear that the UK is thinking of going to DST full-time. I don’t even…I don’t think you can call it DST at that point, can you? Anyway, my point is that I resent losing an hour of sleep and my writing will probably suffer for the next week, so thanks for that!

Now I’d like to address an issue that’s been bouncing around in my head for the last few weeks and came to a head on Friday: the Just World fallacy.

You see this one a lot in political circles, the idea that people who are suffering somehow deserve it because they a. didn’t plan the way they should have, b. obviously did something wrong and this is karmic payback, c. are part of an inferior group of people, d. some other reason that makes the person an “other”. The fallacy, obviously, is that the world is always fair and if something happens it’s the result of a cosmic tally sheeting being balanced out by some divine accountant.

Rub

It’s an alluring idea; it’s comforting to believe that everything happens for a reason, that there is no such thing as dumb lousy luck or random chance. Just as it’s easy to believe that a run of good luck is evidence that we’ve been favored by some unseen force, we can also believe that we somehow deserve the bad that’s randomly befallen us. You can see how such an idea pretty quickly becomes destructive.

Author note: This is not to suggest that things never happen for a reason. I’m more a firm believer in a higher order of chaos, that what appears to be random chance does balance out at some level, but one that happens far above our own level – that accident that sets you back thousands of dollars isn’t retribution for something that you did wrong, but rather a result of a chain of events that are a larger pattern that we can’t perceive. I suspect that Buddhists have a rather keen grasp of this concept.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, there seems to be a somewhat pervasive mythology that some magic combination of factors can guarantee success for just about any author (when it seems that just about every author needs his or her own individual approach). One of the common tropes is to “just write, and it will all work out”. I certainly agree with the first part – doing the work is the most crucial thing. Write, write, and write some more until your fingers are about to fall off and you best position yourself for any opportunity that may come your way. That’s fundamental to being a good author.

The second part is more troublesome, the idea that “it will all work out”. Perhaps on that macro scale, yes, but the truth is that lots of extremely talented, brilliant writers get left behind by the industry every day. Recognizing this fact is imperative for your sanity.

Wrong

The implication here is not that successful authors don’t deserve it – that seems to be a common counter-argument to this observation. It certainly can sound like I’m implying that this is all blind luck, and any idiot who stumbles through the door can win a roll of the dice. It’s not, and that’s just as destructive a belief. Success is almost always dedication meeting opportunity; you have to be prepared, and busting your ass is the only way to be prepared. That concept underlies all of my writing, and it’s why I have things like weekly word goals and milestone requirements on novels. It’s why I write this blog. It’s why I schedule appearances, and all of that. You must be prepared for those opportunities.

The opportunities, though; that’s where chaotic chance hits. They are typically a function of circumstance and luck, a function of those cosmic patterns shifting in one’s favor. You need only scour thrift store bookshelves to see this principle at work. I like to sniff out obscure older sci-fi and horror to sell on Amazon, and the contents of those books are quite sobering. Some is trite crap, yes, but some is quite brilliant and it’s difficult to understand what separated it from the Asimovs or Kings of their day. The answer, of course, is that random stroke of opportunity. If Doubleday passed on Carrie, would most people even know who Stephen King is today? Difficult to say, but one has to wonder.

okayguy

This always draws me back to one particular story that grabbed hold of my imagination, way back in 1998. The Roanoke Times published an article about an elderly mid-list writer who had been waiting for his big break since his mid-30s; he was in his 70s at the time and still the cosmic wheel hadn’t come around to him. I wish I could remember his name, but alas I can’t, a face that continues to haunt me. You couldn’t help but admire his persistence. He still wrote because he felt the compulsion, like most of us, but he also hoped that this particular book would be the one to put him over the top. His work had received positive reviews, but as far as I know, that break never came, and surely he’s passed on by now.

It’s a sobering reminder of the reality of what “success” means in this business. There are no guarantees. A writer can crank out consistently sharp work for forty years and still only end up a bit ahead of where he started; it’s vital to keep this in mind every minute of every day. This isn’t meant as a discouragement, but a message to temper expectations and be gentle with yourself – you could be doing everything right and just not hit, for whatever reason. The most important thing is to do this for the love of writing, not for dreams of fortune and fame or, heck, a steady paycheck. It’s far too fragile a thing to be certain.

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The Alternative Booker Award

Hey there, readers. I had a few ideas for today’s blog bouncing around in my head and had planned to save this one for Friday, as I already have one book blog post a week, but this thing just kept bouncing around my skull. First off, shout out to Cindy Young-Turner for tagging me in her post about the same subject. I’d encourage you to check out her list first, because she has some fantastic nominees, some of which just missed the cut on my list (especially Mistborn).

That said, here’s the deal: I name five of my favorite books. I’m taking it that these don’t have to be my top five or anything like that, and thank goodness because it could never be narrowed down that far. I’ve done a few lists like this before, so I tried to avoid listing too many duplicates, instead opting for books that have been both influential in my writing and had a wide-ranging scope when it comes my own tastes.

These are not in a “Top Five” format, by the way. That would be outright impossible. Instead, I’ve chosen to list these in chronological order of when I first read them.

So let’s start the show, shall we?

Prince of Tides

1. The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. The gold standard, the grandaddy of my “personal canon”. I had only just begun to peek my literary head out of its shell when this gem entered my life. I would have to tell the long story of how I even came to write fiction in the first place if I were to give you the entire context – let’s just say I had several encouraging teachers, one of whom noticed a similarity between my nascent style and that of Pat Conroy. I still go back to this one every few years to renew a hold on my roots, and it’s still good 20 years later. Some folks might be surprised by its inclusion here, but I’m not a die-hard genre reader; in fact, I can’t stand genre writing that doesn’t feature strong, interesting characters. It’s one of the things that set literary works like PoT apart, and I wish that more genre writers would dip their toes into this sort of fiction.

600full-the-dark-tower-3--the-waste-lands-cover2. The Waste Lands by Stephen King. I’ve mentioned it on this site before as an influential work, but I’ll never stop beating the drum for The Waste Lands. Some people cite Drawing of the Three as the high point for King’s Dark Tower series, but this is the shining zenith for me. The characters are finally comfortable in one another’s company, and each experience significant arcs throughout the novel. King manages to weave these arcs together all while maintaining the overall narrative and infusing the story with a sense of wonder that took my breath away when I first read it and continues to enchant me all these years later.

secretshow

3. The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker. I’ve mentioned Imajica many times before, so I thought it time to give TGaSS its due. This novel has significantly more flaws than the former, but it was the first to open my eyes to something wider. This, more than anything, shows the difference between King and Barker: King’s fantasy worlds have a more grounded feel. Even at its most creative and ambitious, the Dark Tower series maintains its ties to what is, essentially, our reality. Beginning with Weaveworld and working through this book to Imajica, Barker showed an increasing bifurcation between our reality and the realities visited by his characters. There’s something almost elegant to the fantasy worlds that Barker fashions, yet he still maintains a connection to our world that transcends the more workaday connection established by King. I aspire to find this elegance, and while I think I see how he got there, I’m nowhere near the same heights that Barker reached. Maybe one day.

BlackSunRising

4. Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman. This one is particularly funny, as I picked it up for superficial reasons: I loved Michael Whelan’s fantastic cover art. I read the back cover copy and it sounded all right, but I figured I would read it and forget about it. Now here I am, about 17 years later, ready to extol its virtues, and the virtues of its successors in the Cold Fire Trilogy. This book showed me that you could ignite the same sort of response that Barker and King’s works elicited while working in a more traditional fantasy framework. At first glance, Friedman’s world appears similar to a fantasy world that you would read about in any other book: there are magicians, lords and ladies, castles, swordplay, and strange creatures that resemble the old standbys of goblins and orcs, and yet Friedman turns those on their heads. I can’t give away too much lest I ruin the book, but I can say that the anti-hero on the cover kills his entire family in the opening pages in return for an unspeakable power, one that actually proves useful in his attempt to save humanity. Add in a strong female protagonist and it’s worth a read.

Red Dragon

5. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. Abnormal psychology has always fascinated me, and there’s something about Red Dragon that grabbed hold of that part of my psyche and refused to let go. It helps that the book defies expectations. Oh, sure, it’s about a detective trying to track down a serial killer who has become detached from humanity and believes he is becoming a creature from a painting with each murder, but the more fascinating story is how the detective is the one that’s truly being transformed by this experience. Strong characterization, tension that refuses to let up, and a clever plot make for a timeless read. Oh, and there’s also this Lecter guy.

Several China Mieville books get honorable mention here, especially the genius City in the City. My problem with Mieville is that he’s so very close to the elegance that I described with Barker, but no one book has quite managed to put it all together. Sooner or later I think he’ll get there, though.

Now then! I also need to tag five bloggers for this treatment. I’m in…

Marie Loughin

Paul Dail

Red Tash

Cabin Goddess

Aniko Carmean

 

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