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The not-entirely-random thoughts of Chris Brecheen about writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

I Will Share My Experiences in Real Time

Part 2 of my Mission Statement

So I’m fresh out of a creative writing program and ready to set the world on fire! But once I’m out of prison for the arson charge, I will rock the party that rocks the party.

And while I'm at it, I'm going to find out what that even means.

And when I do, I’m going to post it right here.

Sometime around nine years prior to this writing, I hung up a sauce-stained tie, stopped managing The Old Spaghetti Factory in Concord, and gave up the USDA, public service announcement recipe for Happiness And The American Dream, and struck off on my own path. I had tried the "real" job, "real" life, "real" responsibilities, and even saved up for a "real" house and was talking about "real" kids with my "real" wife.

All that realness sucked balls. Sadly, not in the way that is vaguely tantalizing.  More like in the way that an overenthusiastic teen with braces does it.

So I dumped all that "real" crap (except the "real" wife; she did the dumping in that case) and I started writing. I got a flip over haircut and I told my mom I just really needed to focus on my art.

This was after I visited Esma's secret lab.
Why does she even HAVE that other lever.
Unfortunately, what I produced was little more than a steaming pile of crap. That is when I began my mission.

Well, really I began a quest.

Many years earlier I had become "A Writer"....Dorothea Brande style...but I needed help with the craft itself. My prose was rough around the edges. My grammar was pretty atrocious. I liked writing about farm boys fighting dark lords. I had to learn to do with quality what I loved to do with quantity.

And so I began my quest. I was told the location of an ancient, magical sword by this venerable dude who looked amazingly like Burgess Meredith. I had to kill a troll. (There was even witty banter.) I got the sword. I went back to the guy and asked him how this was supposed to make me a better writer, and he kind of stared at me blankly and blinked."

Writer?" he said. "Who the hell would ever want to be a writer? There's no money in that. What you need to do is lop the heads off of dragons. The bigger the dragon, the better. Lots of money. Pussy too. You'll be drowning in that shit. And not that second rate stuff either; I'm talking the ones with the legs that go all the way up! Chicks dig dragonslayers."

 Turned out I we’d gotten our wires crossed somewhere. And when I said “learn to write” he had heard “kill the hydra.” (Not sure where the hell that came from. They barely even rhyme.) I left him the sword, in case he found the right sort of hero, and headed off.

 Fucking sexist kook.

Without a wizened old mentor cliche, I didn’t see how I was ever going to learn to write. I kept putting on montage music and then sitting down to the keyboard, but by the end of the song, I was still looking at mediocre writing. (What do you expect, those songs are only like two minutes long.)

I tried to catch a chicken, but even when I did, my prose did not improve. I also had a horrible case of histioplasmosis from fungus in the droppings. That put me in the hospital for like a month.

So I decided to quest for the secret to craft myself. No mentor.

Perhaps I would assemble a rag tag group of misfits along the way--hopefully including a ninja who is looking for his father–a ninja who can pull fish right out of a river. We would hopefully be joined by a talking firedog, a gruff dude with a machine gun for an arm, and a giant stuffed animal ridden by a cat with a megaphone. And if I was very, very lucky, my team might also have a Mandroid.

Each of them would join me for their own purposes. But we would face the Dark Lord together.

The....um...."dark lord" of shitty writing.

Regardless, I was going to walk this road, mentor or no. Nothing was going to stop me. I even queued up "Break My Stride" I looked to the horizon, where the sun was setting, and dragged a blade across my palm (different blade—I gave the enchanted sword back to Burgess remember; try to keep up). As I did, with wind whipping my hair, I cried, “I swear by my blood, I will learn to write.”

And it was pretty dramatic except for fucking Matthew Wilder's voice.

  If we never ever again–as a culture–permit the combination of hippie mustaches and leather pants it will be too soon. 

To this day, if you go to that spot, where the wind tousled my hair, and my blood spilled to the ground, and you look where my life fluid touched the fecund soil beneath me, you will find.....nothing of any particular significance.

My quest led me to college....where some said mentors still lived. But where the demon to be defeated was college itself.

Thus I battled with college. For seven years we fought. College smashed me, beat me, slammed me into walls, threw me to the ground, chewed me up and spit me out, and once swallowed me and digested me. But every time it thought the fight was over, every time I looked well and truly dead, and it turned away, I would stand up, grab my Trapper Keeper and mechanical pencil, and say, “I’m not done. I’m going to be a writer. Is that the best you've got?"

College lays dead at my feet.  Yet the quest goes on.

I found that college (even a creative writing degree) had very little to do with being a writer, and a lot more to do with a firm basis in general education, literary analysis, and following directions. It had some to do with writing (though not as much as I'd have hoped), but almost nothing to do with being a writer. It also probably wrung out the desire to write from more writers than it ever taught the craft. Now I had to fuse the knowledge of how to write with the love of writing itself, and combine it with one serious fuckton of work.

That's where you tuned in. And even though most of this post is about the past, what I'm trying to get at is that you found me still gathering up my motley crew on my way The Black Fortress (even though neither they nor my sentient ninja star will be nearly as useful at defeating The Beast as the Flamethrower of LOVE™). I haven't even found the firemares yet.

Damn, Colwyn, you can really make your "love" shoot far...and hit faces with amazing accuracy.

Here is my pledge, however. Whatever I discover, I will share here. If I learn a trick, I’ll put it here.  If I discover a sure fire way to network, it’ll be up here by the next weekday. If I hit pay dirt along one avenue or hit nothing but walls along another, you will know it happened. If there's a wait involved in an acceptance process, I'll detail every agonizing day of it.

It will also show you the banal in excruciating real time. No overnight success stories. If I start to carve out something, you will see how it took me years of writing every day to get there. You will watch me improve from old articles to new. You will see my career as it happens. You will know what to expect.

The new leg of my journey begins, and I’m going to chronicle it here. And if any insight I glean helps you in your own quest--be it the weaknesses of trolls, the fact that kingsfoil stimulates creativity (because that shit is the best medicine ever, for anything, even though only one person seems to know it), or that publishers have a weakness for silver and cold steel--I will rejoice. And if any place I point out troll droppings, ogre sniper rifle laser sight dots, or vampric agents, because I went through it and was able to warn you off, I will also rejoice.

The tricks and the pitfalls: I will share them all. And we can take the next part of this fantastic quest together.

Best to imagine me as Madmartigan looking at Arik with an impish smile. "Wanna come with us?"

Or if your bent is a little more sinister and Sithy, you can imagine Darth Vader at the end of Empire: "Join me! Together we can rule the galaxy."

You know...whatever bakes your churro.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Multi-Author World: Last Chance to Vote

Mr. Crusher....we're in first place.
Don't say ANYTHING.
Less than a week remains in our Best Multi-Author World Poll. So rock the vote that rocks the vote......um....or something.  

Only a few days remain to get your vote on in our multi-author world poll. Our poll didn't provoke our resident Pratchett fan to tap British forums and release the Kraken of the rabid fan base, so it's been a much more mellow poll, but there are still some very close races. Plus, those of you who voted right away will probably find that your IP addresses are able to vote again.

So take a moment to scroll down to the long black poll on the lower left and give the world of your choice some love.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Mailbox: Traditional Publishing Questions

Must a writer have an agent? How do you write a good query letter?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. And I will take a shot at questions about traditional publishing, but there are obviously better people to ask.]  

Steven asks:

I was wondering, to finalize a story to be sent out to a publisher, what things must I consider (rewrites, research, etc.) Please reply soon. Also, MUST a writer HAVE an agent? I heard agents are somewhat good to have but then they're demanding, needing a piece of work within a period of time.

My reply:

Both of today's questions came through my Facebook page from Steven.

First of all, I'm not the best person to ask about traditional publishing. There are lots of writers who haven't just declared (in their best Cartman voice): "Screw you guys in Traditional Publishing; I'm going home."

But I'll tell you what I know.

Any manuscript you submit (solicited or not) should be the best you can possibly make it. I don't mean "I checked it twice! I even found a missing comma." I mean the best fucking shit you are capable of producing.

For real real (not for play play).

You should have completely rewritten it at least once and revised it multiple times. These revisions may be major. They may involve cutting out whole scenes or entire characters you realize are doing the same thing. They may involve changing up the point of view. They may require completely reworking the entire story. You have to trust this part of the process.

I know what you're thinking. Not MY manuscript. Yes YOUR fucking manuscript! One of the biggest mistakes most young writers make is thinking that THEY will be the exception to this and that THEIR manuscript is ready after only one draft, a quick revision, and some grammar polishing.

Nope nope nope nope nope!!!

You have to rewrite that puppy. Then revise. A lot. And you have to be ready to make some major changes. You can't fall in love with that first draft. You must kill your darlings. That doesn't always just mean those characters you are in love with. It also means the paragraphs you thought were so clever or that whole brilliant secondary plot that really just isn't working. Take a machete to that bastage.

When you're finally ready for editing it (which should happen only after several revisions), you should go through it with a fine tooth comb for every grammar mistake you can, and if you're not good at proofreading your own work (and I mean REALLY, REALLY good), consider hiring a copy editor.

Don't worry about grammar, young writer.
You will be assigned an editor because you are
JUST. SO.
FUCKING.
BRILLIANT!!
Me? A myth? Pfffffft.
The myth that the publisher will edit your book is delicious, but it is a myth.

They will assign a copy editor to go through your galley proofs with an eagle eye, but you will never ever ever ever ever ever EVER get to that point if you submit something with a lot of mistakes.  I've worked on the other end of this transaction. You might think your brilliance will get your grammar errors forgiven, but what actually happens is that the first person to encounter your manuscript will probably be the type of person who will notice you used the wrong they're/their/there long before they notice your brilliance.  Most have some rule like "Error on the first page?  ROUND FILE!" "More than one error a page? ROUND FILE!" "Stupid junior high error that shows me you didn't give this the professional courtesy of someone expecting the professional accolades that you are hoping I will give you? ROUND FILE!"

Round file is the trash, by the way.

As for agents....get one.

A writer doesn't HAVE to have an agent, Steven, but...if you're going to go the route of traditional publishing, I can't stress this enough: get an agent. I could go into the pros and cons of having an agent in the traditional publishing world, but everything I have ever read says get one. Those who publish unsolicited say they should have had one. Those who are famous writers still have one. Those who get one say it was the best thing they did. So even though agents are elusive motherfuckers who spend more of their time trying to build defensive structures and laser targeting auto-cannons that will keep writers at bay, you still need one.

Only a handful of publishers will take unsolicited material, and it usually goes into a slush pile.

Let me tell you a little about the slush pile.

Bottom section.
Left column.
Eight from the bottom.
That one's mine.
I'm sure they'll read it any day now.
It is this HUGE pile of manuscripts that they give either to interns or to very bored publishers to go through at a pace that makes snails look like fucking Speed Racer, and most of them are NaNoWriMo and/or first drafts. You don't want to be in there. Sometimes it can take eighteen months (or longer) before some bleary eyed intern, who just read 20 first drafts in a row that were obvious rip offs of Dresden, Star Wars, or Willow, finally hits your story.

An agent will represent you; they will pimp out your work; they will sell you; they will get you in front of the eyeballs that matter; they know what venues are most likely to find an interest in your work. And they will almost always get you more money than you would get without them–that's even after you take into account their take. They are trained negotiators and your gain is their gain. They know what a good deal and a shitty deal look like, and--unlike you--they won't be wetting themselves just at the prospect of publication and take a shitty deal without thinking it through.

Plus they can help you with your manuscript in a way that a publisher will not. If your book is close, but not quite ready for publication yet, or needs a few tweaks to be commercially viable, they can help you get it to that point.

Steven, your idea of agents being demanding comes later. Usually it is the PUBLISHER setting things like chapter deadlines when an author has something called an "advance" on a book. In today's market, you're not likely to get an advance until you've published a few books. If an agent is harping on a writer, it's probably because the writer has asked them to do so (because they need a little external motivation) and that is a part of their professional relationship. But the agent works for the writer and they've obviously negotiated that ahead of time. The writer can call off the agent at any time.

"You're fired" is remarkably effective as a safe word.


What advice do you have regarding query letters and is there an electronic version of the writer's market book on the net? One where you can fill in a search and it'll bring up a list of potential publishers?

My reply:

Again, there are probably better people to ask about traditional publishing than me, but here is what I know.

A query letter should be formal, concise, and impeccably professional. It should never be informal or familiar in tone ("Hi there! Lemmie tell you about your next blockbuster" ROUND FILE!), and it should never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever EVER be more than one page. (Please fucking trust me on this one. I have known agents who go through their stack of query letters and throw out everything with a staple. ROUND FILE!) Agents get dozens, sometimes hundreds of query letters every week. If you can't even follow the most basic directions, they're not going to want a professional relationship with you.

Before I talk about the query letter, I want to make one thing absolutely, crystal clear. Like mountain lake after a spring thaw crystal clear where there are fucking snow capped mountains in the distance, your face is about to freeze off, and the light sparkling off of everything is a razor blade across your pupil.

DO NOT SEND A QUERY LETTER BEFORE YOUR BOOK IS DONE.

Just don't.

In non-fiction there is something called a proposal which you can write before you're done if you query with a table of contents and sample chapters, but in fiction, you need to be sitting on a final project. Not a few chapters. Not a first draft. Not "still needs some cleaning up." Done. An agent who asks to see more and finds out you're not done will ROUND FILE your query and probably put your name in the "Do Not Reply" section of their rolodex for the future.

Paragraph one is the hook to your story. Describe your book like you would someone you met on a subway who was about to get off at the next stop. Or better yet someone who was about to do their first unassisted parachute jump. This isn't the place for plot points beyond the basic description. In storytelling terms, use one clause to describe "the mundane world" and one clause to describe the inciting event.  ("Chris couldn't hook up a groupie threesome to save his life until one day he met a pair of gothic lingerie models who loved blogs about writing.") Be careful of making it as formulaic as I have here, but that is the basic idea. This is also the place to mention setting, or any stylistic decisions you've made that you think are very unique.

Paragraph two is a brief synopsis. Let me say this again with the proper emphasis. Paragraph two is a MOTHER-FUCKING BRIEF synopsis. Brief. Hear me on this. Brief. If your whole query letter is over a page (which will get it ROUND FILED) it will probably be because you are trying to introduce too much detail into your synopsis. You don't need to tell the agent the whole story, just get them interested. This may actually be some of the most difficult writing you've ever done, because this is what the agent is going to focus on.

Tell the picture finding intern that she can't just Google the big word in the paragraph and pick any picture!
She has to actually read it and know what it's about.

Paragraph three is about you as a writer. Degrees you hold. Places you've published. If you don't have a lot of that, increase the length of your synopsis (paragraph two) but don't bullshit your way through this. You're dealing with professional bullshit sniffers who have epic reading skills. Don't even bother. An agent doesn't care about your job (unless you're writing a story about that job). An agent doesn't care about your education (beyond the fact that you have a degree). If you have a lot of writing accolades, keep it to a few that you're most proud of, and keep it short. Journalism publications, awards or contests you've won, or literary publications.

Lastly, don't forget to thank them for their time and attention and to tell them the full manuscript is available on request. (And make sure that is true.)

As for the Writer's Market, I'm afraid it's not available online--but just about everything in it is. It's one of those books that is valuable because it takes a gillion bits of information that anyone could find out without any trouble and puts them all in the same place. Nothing in The Writer's Market isn't researchable, but when it's all in one place it's damned convenient. If you're looking for particular venues to submit I suggest Googling "Publishing Venues for XXXXXX" where XXXXX is the genre you are writing in.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

So You Want to Start Your Own Blog? My Best--AAAAAAAAAAAHHH!

OM NOM NOM NOM!!
We apologize for the inconvenience, but this entry has been consumed by Project Sanity and it revolving days off. Please join us in one week to find out the best advice for starting your own blog.

Only two days of teaching 4th-9th graders about study skills in a thrice weekly recreation of the battle of Leipzig. (I play Napoleon, of course.) Tomorrow at approximately 4:10 and two seconds, I will cry out "FREEEEEEEEEEEEDOOOOOOOOOM!" in my best Mel Gibson impression.

On Friday we will be tackling some questions folks have written in about the traditional publishing industry. I have some plans for this weekend, but it sort of depends on how quickly I get back into the groove.

On Monday the 28th, Project Sanity will consume its last entry as I violently eschew pants and take a well-needed day completely off from the last six weeks of 80+ hours. Then I will hit the ground running on Tuesday and self-loathe with renewed vigor if I should happen to miss a post.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Opting Out: My Dubious Future in Traditional Publishing

I may never see one of my books on a stranger's shelf. Not because I'm not read by strangers, though.

I figured I would stop my weekly whine sessions about teaching summer school to young, budding psychopaths (even though this is my last week ~squee~) and talk about something a little different.

Two years ago, if you'd asked me about my die happy moment, I probably would have told you about "The Dream of a Stranger's Bookshelf™" (I mean besides the other die happy moment involving the Swedish Bikini team being REALLY into blogs about writing.) That is the dream that one day, somehow, either because I'm in a stranger's house for some reason, or I just met someone, or I see it in the background of a selfie or something, I would see a book I wrote sitting on the bookshelf of a complete stranger. That would be....the moment.

That dream is gone. Or at least deferred for a significant hiatus.

A few people who either heard me talk about opting out when I did the Ace of Geeks Podcast or when I answered my hate mail about picking non-traditional publishing, have asked me if I really meant it. And a LOT of people have wondered (some playfully and some in a way that is like sucking lemons) when I'm going to be putting out my first novel.

The answer to the latter is that there is no book coming out because the answer to the former is a big affirmative.

I really meant it.

Really.

I'm currently all in with non-traditional publishing.

If there is a book deal out there it will happen because a publisher will come to me....preferably by sending Michelle Rodriguez to my house with a duffle bag full of hundred dollar bill stacks, some strappy pumps, and a anything-to-close-the-deal attitude.

But despite how many novel ideas are clacking around in my brain like loose marbles in a bathtub, I'm going to be electronic publishing or serial posting all of my longer fiction works. There may be physical copies through self-publishing if demand is high enough one day, but that is more like a pipe dream than something I am working directly toward right this minute. I also hope mayflies lay their eggs in Glen Beck's eye, but...you know.

There are two reasons why. One is more important to me, but it would be dishonest of me to completely leave out the other.

First the lesser reason: there is something to embracing the internet/free content culture. Knowing pirates are out there and that the industry is changing, one can cling to the old ways or embrace the new. I don't condone pirating or the entitled snots who've convinced themselves they're doing artists a great favor by ripping them off or those who can't even be bothered to turn off an adblocker as they gorge on free content, but it's equally ridiculous to pretend it doesn't happen or that there is really anything to be done about it.

A generation of writers exists now who fetishize the physical book as the pinnacle of writing success. They are competing with growing numbers for a shrinking market share of traditional publishing opportunities because physical books, book deals, publishing contracts, agents and such feel more "legitimate" to them. Their route is the traditional route even though it will likely lead to fewer readers, more logistics, less writing time, and less money.

I may have to deal with people who don't think a blogger is a "real" writer, but I've written more, been read by lots more, and at this point made a shit ton more money than many of those with the street cred to look down their noses at me.

What is happening more and more is that artists are striking gold--artists who recognize how the internet is changing the way in which they make money instead of trading away their control for the legitimacy of an increasingly obsolete "middle man" industry. As I write this, Weird Al Yankovic is wrapping up his eight videos in eight days. He released all those videos for free to the internet and let the websites that covered their production costs get all the web traffic revenue. They scrambled to promote themselves as hosting sites including all over social media and basically became a non-stop, EIGHT DAY commercial to buy his latest album. Now he's number one on the charts–that's record SALES if you didn't know.

Genius.

The more artists that are willing to step outside the control of these huge production and distribution centers and the paradigm that they are somehow more legitimate, the more the artist has the power and control and rewards from their art. And that leads me to my real point....

However this is the main reason: The traditional publishing industry is a broken system. It is horribly classist, sexist, racist and still often heteronormative. Gatekeepers are almost always upper middle class white men, and even when they are not, they often carry those "dead white guy" aesthetics and values. Most of the western canon is little else. Even though a few cracks have shown in this hegemony, traditional publishing still has a reprehensible track record with publishing other voices (be they women's voices, people of color, and even a rainbow of sexuality beyond just the L and the G in LGBTQIA).

I'm white. I'm male. I'm middle class. My most non-hetro thought involves high-fiving another dude after we just rocked a woman in an MMF threesome. I benefit from this system of systematic prejudice.

I don't have to give a crap, and in fact, it would be better for my career if I didn't. I have the opportunity to blow it off or mansplain it away or to care only in a beard-stroking way like I'm some fucking Berkeley soccer parent with one kid, driving around in a passenger van that gets 14 miles to the gallon on my way to a global warming rally.

The "problem" is that my concern doesn't end as soon as it actually affects me, and my activism goes beyond arguing with friends of friends on Facebook. I don't just do that lips pressed half smile and say "But what can we do?"  I've listened to the people who have told me what we can do.

An ally's most powerful action of genuine support is to opt out of those systems which advantage them because of the unearned circumstances of their birth.

Essentially if you are accepting the status quo and the advantages that it provides, you are part of the problem, not the solution. No matter how many links you share from The Social Justice Warriors website. I don't besmirch any white males who got themselves a book deal, and please don't think I do. I don't think anyone is less of a person for not torpedoing themselves out of spite. But I see this system as broken, and if I can work around it, I'm going to.

I'll admit that I did not always think this way. I started in non-traditional publishing because it looked like that might be the quicker, easier, more seductive route to building up an audience that could then be yoked for marketing in traditional publishing contexts. ("Hey blog readers! Check it out, I have a book out!!!")

But my position evolved over the last couple of years.

As I've gotten further involved in researching the publishing industry, read lots of writers who wouldn't be viable candidates for traditional publishing, seen the kinds of ideas that can only prosper on the internet, encountered the deep seated prejudices and value judgements of traditional publishing, and witnessed how damaging this system is for talented voices outside their schema, I have begun to realize that FOR ME, for MY moral compass, publishing a book through the traditional route would be like buying shares in Hobby Lobby, taking an executive job at at Chick Fil A, or making a fortune selling Duck Dynasty merchandise.

If the publishing industry can get its shit together in my lifetime, maybe I can revisit this question, but they suffer pretty badly from being blind to it right now–to say nothing of addressing it.

I know I'll do other things with inadvertently problematic outcomes, and I know some advantages I have for being white and male (and het and cisgender and able bodied) are not systems I can opt out of, but letting my career flourish within such an unequal system is one place I can opt out.