Writer’s Quest – Part 4: The Dark Child

By the time I wrote my first bona fide short story, I’d made only one prior attempt at written storytelling—the little elementary school play I talked about, which we wound up having to turn into a melodrama because, well . . . it sucked.

I’d been creating story in my head all along though. It just happens, I don’t know why. I wind up playing out a scene in my mind—I’ve gone ahead and appropriated adopted Stephen King’s term for this: “mind movies.” But I can’t count these, really. And if I did—and could somehow recall them—there’d be a gagillion of them. And they’re not really stories, as much as vignettes. Beyond, then, the melodrama and my mind-movies, there’s, of course, the writing fugues I’ve also written about—much to my em-bare-ass-ment.

However, when I picked up that copy of NIGHT SHIFT by Stephen King in the Oahu airport on my way back from Senior trip . . . uh, my life changed. A week later I’m sitting in my car at the entrance to a parking lot—I was working as a parking lot attendant—and I began to write: “The Dark Child.”

Yeah, the Dark Child was a young infant.

I don’t even have that as an electronic file. But I do have a hardcopy. So, here it is. Near as I can tell, the first line of fiction I ever wrote:

Goddamnit.

And because it’s a thought, the first full sentence that follows it:

No, God damn him, Margaret thought to herself, throwing the laundry basket down onto her old Kenmore washer.

And because I like the third sentence . . .

She was starting to hate her son.

I wrote this long hand. I still have that, too, complete with margin notes and editing marks (my own, since back then I didn’t know a codified system existed.) I’ve even got a dot-matrix printed version, complete with the pages still attached together all accordion-like.

And my prized possession—something I just re-discovered in prepping to write this little post: a rejection note from Playboy magazine.

See even back then, with the limited research I’d done, I knew Playboy paid real bones for fiction. I was turned on to that by none other than Mr. King himself, who did pretty nicely, as I recall, in the early days selling to these mags. And you know what, I had no compunctions about it, really, since I knew that despite the joke, the acquiring fiction editors knew their stuff. That’s not an easy sell with many folks I know, but oh well.

In any case, the story is very much in the early King short story tradition. And why not? That’s exceedingly good stuff. Still holds up, if you ask me. They’re compulsive reads. I toyed with the notion of synopsizing the story here. I killed that stupid idea for two reasons: one, I hate synopses—I’ll pontificate about that at some point; and two, I may post this at some point, and I hate spoilers. But I will say this, there’s a bit from the final scene that haunts me still, that I can’t get out of my head to this day. I’m guessing that’s a good thing. Or a creepy thing. Pick your poison.

I s’pose the real point in writing about this at all is to give some props to Mr. King—not that he needs them from me. Still, while it’s true that prior to “finding” King I was playing mind-movies and the like, and one could argue I’d have wound up writing anyway, his work kicked me in the arse and got me doing it. I must cop to the fact that it was fits and starts for years: a short story here and there, and a novella at one point—one I still like the concept for, but which I can likely never publish because a few years later Mr. Dan Simmons published a brilliant novel entitled CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT, which pretty much carried the same premise, and did it _way_ better than I did.

Simmons in high form!

I found a way to get at the joy of writing by reading King. Much as I found a way at the joy of rock music by listening to Poison. I moved on from both, which doesn’t mean I don’t still think they’re both fun and filled with awesome (I’m still a fan of both), only that once I got rolling, I found more to like—more fiction, more rock. I’m mighty glad of both.

The other thing this sort of obviates (like that word?), is my affection for dark fiction. My first completed novel was a horror novel. That’s another one I still hope to publish. We’ll see what happens.

As for “The Dark Child,” I still dig the story. I didn’t pull any punches at the end, and there’s some rough stuff there. Oh, the story has rough spots. But I was writing on pure instinct and adrenaline, and honestly, I still think there’s plenty of merit to that.

Writer’s Quest – Part 3: The Book’s that Inspire

Books are like beacons. At least to me they are. I can find my way by them, and can see both where I’ve been and, to a degree, where I’m going.

I can’t say that I’ve always been a voracious reader. To be honest, as a kid, I was more likely to be found playing baseball, playing army in the fields behind my home, wheeling around Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars, and a host of other things. That said, as a very young child, I’m told I loved to be read to for hours, and memorized books in order to recount them.

But somewhere in between, I stopped doing it of my own volition–a high falutent word that means: ’cause I wanted to. But one thing I loved was dogs. I begged my parents constantly to get me one. In a strange, vicarious way, and to appease me, my mother got me WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS to read.

I did read this, and I’m pretty sure I loved it. I can’t be sure, as I think I was like eight at the time. But I recall the boy’s deterinmation, saving money, and all. And I learned how stubburn a raccoon is. all good stuff. But it neither got me a real dog, nor spurred ongoing “volition” reading. Oh, there were books in class, for sure. But there didn’t seem to be any requirement to read books outside class, so I didn’t. Just wasn’t me at the time.

Fastforward five years. I was in eighth grade, and a friend, who has always read vocaciously, suggests a book to me. A great, big fat book no less. It was a bit daunting, but it had a sword on the front, and the recommendation came relentlessly. I ultimately relented and took the doorstop to shut my friend up. That, by the way, is the hallmark of true friendship, shutting them up by doing what they ask. So, anyway, the book is a fantasy entiteld, THE SWORD OF SHANNARA.

This, friends, did impact me in a big way! When I finished, I was floored. One of my favorite characters died, and I was like, “No way!” I was captivated by the journey into the north to the place of the Warlock Lord. All of it. I still remember the impression left on me by Allanon. I liked the book so well, I wrote the author a fan letter. Being as how Terry Brooks wasn’t yet the household name he is now, he wrote me back. I still have that missive. And it could be that this brush with fantasy set the stage for my Dungeons and Dragon days. They happend around the same time.

But I was on the cusp of high school, and the inevitable pressure to be popular, academically successful, in control of hormones that really did rage in my veins, and then make a few of the sports teams . . . well, I again slipped out of much discretionary time reading. What did happen, though, is that I wound up in all those crazy advanced English classes in high school. I read a ton, and so was reading constantly; it’s just that it was mostly assigned stuff. Mostly good stuff, but still “assigned.”

Then–after some more fastforwarding–I graduated, and my buddy (the guy above who recommended SWORD OF SHANNARA) and I got ourselves off to Hawaii for our senior trip. The trip mostly sucked because we were too young to rent a car (no credit card), weren’t very savvy with the ladies, and got stuff on Waikiki for the better part of a week doing little more than buying different colored tank tops and being asked if we wanted to buy some “bud.”

The point of telling you the Hawaii story is the return flight. I was in the Oahu airport and in one of the curio shops. I decided on a complete lark to get a book; and as you’ve probably guessed, my good friend made a recommendation. This time, it was Stephen King’s NIGHT SHIFT.

This took what had been a long mental daliance with the notion of being a writer and gave it the force of a sledge hammer. I remember “I Am the Doorway” and a dozen other great stories in that collection. It was very soon after that I wrote my first short story, a tale entitled “The Dark Child.” I’ve still got that around somehwere. I went on to read a ton of King books. And I wrote, though with infrequency for the next few years. That ground mostly to a halt under the absolute avalanche of getting an Honors English Degree, which I did with the epressed purpose of optimizing my chances of success as a writer. Uh, as an aside, mostly college writing programs aren’t good for the writer who wishes to have commercial success. I’ll do a whole post on that sometime.

Anyway, I read a lot of horror over those years, which led me to a book and writer who still amazes me: Dan Simmons. What Dad did, besides being one hell of a storyteller, was write a book that took as its protagonists a bunch of kids–a favorite trope of mine. If you’ve not read SUMMER OF NIGHT, don’t read another book until you have.

Now, these are imporant sign-posts in my writing and reading life, but my, oh, my are there more. Guys like George R.R. Martin, Clive Barker, Robert Jordan, Harlan Ellison, Orson Scott Card; and then new guys like Patrick Rothfuss, and Brandon Sanderson, and Joe Hill; and ancient guys like Charles Dickens, and Shakespeare, and Thomas Hardy, and Robert Louis Stevenson. I mean, cliche as it sounds, the list is ginormous. I haven’t even listed mystery or thriller or mainstream greats here. It’s just too big a list of sign-posts or beacons or whatever you want to call it.

The point is, these folks inspired me. They inspire me still. I long to join their ranks for many reasons. With luck, I’ll make that happen.

Writer’s Quest – Part 2: When Inspiration Strikes

Even as a fairly young person, I found time to write. It just wasn’t with any frequency or regularity. It was, as they say, when inspiration hit me. It’s actually alarming how often I speak with adults who claim to want to be writers or two write a book and who also say that they hadn’t written in a long while because they just weren’t inspired.

Even as a fairly young person, I found time to write. It just wasn’t with any frequency or regularity. It was, as they say, when inspiration hit me. It’s actually alarming how often I speak with adults who claim to want to be writers or two write a book and who also say that they hadn’t written in a long while because they just weren’t inspired. I suppose, then, my syllogism would suggest they are “fairly young people.”

Well, maybe that’s not fair. But here’s the thing: Writer’s write.

I also know some writers who write work-for-hire stuff. These are talented, imaginative folks; but a few of them have said to me that it’s difficult anymore to imagine writing without guaranteed money. The thing with these cats is that there’s no way they could wait until they’re inspired—companies who pay up front have production deadlines, and deadlines don’t give a whit about whether you’re inspired or not.

Nevertheless, in my youth, I didn’t have deadlines, nor financial commitments, and so when I sat down it was because the muse had descended full upon me.

Muse Descending
Yeah, like that.

This often came as a result of great emotion, ya know. I’d feel a welling of happiness or joy or like I’d had a thought so profound that it simply must be recorded. These last things weren’t inventions or the like. No, they were thoughts that if I’d know the word “epiphany” I might have used that to describe them. Even that may not be entirely accurate, but it’s closer. These moments were times when some feeling or event or such just seemed to come into great focus, and I believed I’d better document them, since I found it unlikely anyone had had such deep revelations before. I s’pose I was precocious; shoot me.

However, I could also induce these states. Not with any prescription medication kifed from my parents medicine cabinet, or by cutting off the circulation to my own head as was a craze for a short time back then. Rather, I used music.

Now, I’m going to guess that many of you have a similar relationship with music; I like to think there’s something universal about music. Not that we all react to the same music the same way. And we certainly all have varying tastes. Still, music evinces a strong, personal reaction in folks—at least their favorite music usually does.

So, with me, at that tender age, it was Mannheim Steamroller. Now, today I still really dig these cats. Chip Davis is the man! And Jackson Berkey is wicked good on the ivory. But back then, I found that it’s somewhat transportive qualities could induce these fugues (as I call them) of writing brilliance.

It really amounted to the power to summon he muse on demand. Just pop in a Fresh Aire album, and the muse had no alternative but to answer my writing need. I think I still have a number of these. I wrote them long hand. They were typically a single page front and back, and they amounted to an outpouring of pure emotion.

Fresh Aire IV

I’ll be honest. I’m not sure I want to go back and read these now—though, like I said, I think I could find them. And it’s not because I think they’ll be awful. Maybe they are. Who knows? But the reason I think I’ll leave them undiscovered is because I still remember the way they made me feel. It was a powerful, genuine response to something I loved. The emotional stamp of that still lives inside me somewhere; I think I’ll leave it be.

I didn’t do this very often, really. I was a pretty typical kid, playing kickball and army and baseball, throwing rocks, getting into a scuffle or two, and eating as much ice cream and potoato chips as I could while watching some tube. Uh, that’s sounding pretty good about right now . . .

But to circle back to the topic, then, this isn’t a process a working writer can really use to be productive or successful. A good writer friend of mine (Jack Whyte) says is this way, “The only way to get it done is to put your ass in the chair.” You have to imagine that being said with a Scottish brogue, and then you’ll hear its real power.

What Jack means is that writing is about determination, and it’s work. Not every time a writer sits down is it all dreamy and romantic. It’s actually hysterical (and sad) that I know people who’ve been hit by the recession, who’ve said, well this will give me time to write, that’ll be a good way to make some money.

Of course, you can make money writing. For sure. But to think that writing is an easy thing to spin up when the job market imposes or provides you the opportunity . . . these poor misguided folks. The writer whose first book shows up on the shelf is a journey of a thousand steps. All those steps are invisible to the person who has that romantic notion in their head, and people seem to believe that writing (since they can make words on paper) is something they can do, separate from other career choices like brain surgery or professional athletics.

There’s a story that goes around writing circles, that I can no longer attribute (though I think it was Stephen King), in which two amiable men are talking at a dinner party—one of them is a writer, the other a brain surgeon. The surgeons says, I think I’ll write a book, to which the writer replies, I think I’ll do some brain surgery. (Note: even if I got that wrong, the point is the same.) And the moral is: Writing takes practice, and more practice, and discipline, and study. You don’t show up at the hospital when you lose your job and say, “Hey, I was put out of work, and I always thought of doing me some surgery. So, here I am. Where’s the scalpel.”

And the writer who thinks that he/she is going to get to publication without trodding the trail of practices and determination and patience, well, that writer should write fantasy, but he/she has got a vivid imagination.

Don’t be crushed by this, if you’re a would-be writer. The journey rocks! It’s worth doing. Don’t let folks, especially other writers, say things to you like: “If you can be discouraged from writing, you should.” Bull!

But having said that, you’ve got to prove those S.O.B.’s wrong. You’ve got to get your ass in the chair, day in, day out.

And here’s the good part: While it’s not always the muse dropping craploads of greatness onto the page. More days than not, most days, the writing is so much fun. It’s, as King often puts it, like going into a trance (mind movies).

The secret is to remember that after you do the hard part of sitting down and starting, what comes after is magical. Really! You’re still going to write a lot of garbage. But so what. Fail spectacularly, then do it again. After enough time, you won’t fail anymore. And the super, super secret is: For real writers, even if you never sell a story, the process is reward enough. I know that sounds maudlin, but hey . . . I’m a writer.

And as for those fugues I put myself into as a kid and young teenager, throwing on some Fresh Aire and letting the music whip me into a writing frenzy . . . I’m not above doing it still. Because for me, music inspires images and story. And when I see them, I want to capture them, and see where they’ll take me. The good news is that I don’t use or need music to do that anymore. But you know, for me, letting the music play and letting my mind go (making up story) even without capturing it on paper, is just all kinds of awesome. I have to believe it’s the same for you. Give a whirl. And if you do, would love to hear about it . . .

Writer’s Quest – Part 1: From hope to publication.

I’ve wanted to be a published writer for . . . well, a long damn time. See, while I think storytellers might tell their stories even if they never got published–’cause we’re all masochistic like that–such is not really the idea.

I’ve wanted to be a published writer for . . . well, a long damn time. See, while I think storytellers might tell their stories even if they never got published–’cause we’re all masochistic like that–such is not really the idea. In fact, there’s a wonderful argument that goes something like: Art is only art if it has an audience. But I’ll come back to that later in this blog series when I have the strength to debate. The point is, Tor bought some books from me, so I’m going to realize one of my dreams. Sweet! And in talking to a friend–Shawn Speakman, whom many of you know–he said, “Dude, write it. The whole thing. How it happened. You’re on the cusp, and there’s folks who want to hear how it goes down. A lot of fantasy and science fiction readers want to be writers.” I believed him, so here we go.

I started, you know, outlining the whole shebang, and before I knew it I had 40 posts worth of [voice of God] “the journey to publication.” That all led to the idea of a weekly blog post to tell the story, my story. But not an atypical story, if human’s share as many chromosomes as science tells us they do. What you’re reading is the first installment. It goes something like this.

I kind of always dug words. I remember listening to my dad speak, fascinated by the nonsensical syllabels that came out of his mouth, but which he spoke with such self-assurance. I suspect it was the same for you, no? And for me, getting to the definitions of these glorious, foreign words … today’s public school psychologists would slap an OCD tag on me in a heartbeat.

Click to embiggen.

Kiddos who discover the richness of so many words, and then have the “oh-my-hell-you-mean-it-has-more-than-one-meaning” realization, are considered precocious. Meh. So I was precocious. A little. It got me into a program called “Horizons,” which meant release from the regular grind of elementary classwork, and a chance at true creativity–like mana from heaven, that. And it was in this Horizons thingy that I wrote my first bona fide anything: A murder mystery play in which I would also perform a title role.

I co-authored this travesty with a gal-pal who had been blessed since the womb, I think, to know she wanted literary fame when she grew up. Took me to the age of about ten or eleven. But something strange happened with that little play: We failed.

We tried hard, we even did some improvisational acting to try and work through the writer’s block. I’m sure it was garbage, but even as I write this I vividly remember thinking at the time, “I could be an actor, too!” (Makes you wonder how many of our living thespians had just such a revelatory momenty, huh? And maybe, like me, they should have let it go …)

Anyway, our “advisor”–by the way, don’t you love that term? kind of makes you feel shepherded along the path to greatness–saw that we weren’t so great in our first play attempt. She steered us toward a mid-stream change. Right in the middle of our little mystery play, we wound up singing a little diddy, the lyrics to which I still know by heart:

Oh, we wrote a play mysterious
And we tried to make it serious
If I took my pen
I could write it all again
And make it hilarious …. ious … ious …

Whereupon the lights went out, the strobe light began it’s maddening pulse, and we began to lumber around the stage of the multi-purpose cafeteria/gym/auditorium. And you know, that’s when I learned that comedy is king. We got so many laughs. It was a triumph! I think the strobe light, mostly.

What we had done is gone from a half-serious little murder mystery to a full-blown melodrama–I got to be the Snydley Whiplash character. How many of us are ever gonna get THAT role? Let me just say: Long black cape, flickering strobe light, skulking about and looking menacing … pretty much the definition of following bliss.

Pretty much a caricature of me.

So, there you have it. My first literary effort. But it did something quietly profound. It set my heart–if that ain’t to maudlin–on a path. Not one I pined for or labored overmuch about. But my love of words themselves, and books–I really liked books–began to percolate in my down low (soul, that is). And even at that tender age, I began to tell folks I had three dreams: musician, MLB (Major League Baseball) . . . and writer.

When I complete this Writer’s Quest blog series–and “quest” is used deliberately in place of “journey,” since I’m writing epic fantasy for Tor–I’ll have seen this last dream become a reality. If you wind up reading and liking the stories I tell, that’s all kinds of awesome. If not, again, I blame the strobe light. But one way or another, that mystery play/melodrama is where my story begins.

Cheers, gang!
Peter

My Personal Brand

Sounds funny right: personal brand. It’s all fun and games until someone shoots their own eye out with a Red Ryder Carbine Action Range Rifle with a Compass in the Stock …. or something like that. I’ll come back to personal injury later.

Sounds funny right: personal brand. It’s all fun and games until someone shoots their own eye out with a Red Ryder Carbine Action Range Rifle with a Compass in the Stock …. or something like that. I’ll come back to personal injury later.

See, we’re all brand managers. Now, maybe your brand is the Safeway with dirty outside walls and the trashcan with a lid that sits askew and has gunk on the flap–and flies, don’t forget flies. Or maybe your brand is Nordstrom. But make no mistake, you have a brand.

It could be that your brand isn’t going to have an impact on your life, not for the most part. You could wear a wife-beater every day, let that gut droop down all linty. Or, it could be that your life IS your brand. Like, what you do has a direct bearing on your livelihood–ya know, groceries–or affects the number of smiles you give–and get!

Think of this way: When you hear someone’s name, what do you think about them. That’s pretty much their brand. The hell of it is, brands are about perception. Which means simply this: You may, in fact, be getting the bona fides of WHO a person is; but you may also be just PERCIEVING something. Ah, the rub, as Shakes (I figure the bard is dead, and he’d be cool with the abbreviation) likes to say. What is this rub of which I speak, you ask? Well, simply that your perception may be all that and a bag of Baked Lays. But it may be, well, just your perception.

Oh, but get ready for it. Here it comes. You ready. The profoundestest thing you’ve ever read on the interweb. And it’s all free, all here, all now: Perception is reality.

SHOCK!

AWE!

SAY IT AIN’T SO, ORULLIAN! C’mon, it’s just a blog, keep the truisms for 500 level direct reading courses where you can actually use the word “truism” and not sound like a turd.

Well, friends, I said it. It had to be done.

Now, let me say something a shade more profound. Perception is NOT reality. Reality is reality. See how that works?

It reminds me of when folks say, “Less is more.” Huh? We didn’t have the same math instructors, I guess. More is most certainly more. Like: More pie! More fries! More books! More pie! If someone tried to take some of the pie, or books, or pie, and say, “Hey, when I take some away, you actually have more … ” Well, I’m thinking about doing something rotten to that someone’s pie hole.

What it really means, folks, at least here on the West Coast, is that we’re breeding a generation of passive aggressive ass holes. But they do have good personal brands, I suppose.

Except … uh, no. Not really. Because here’s the mostest truth. The mostest, mostest: Humans are more “perceiving” than all our talk of perception accords them. What’s that little riddle mean? It means that with few exceptions–in my experience, anwyay–you know if someone’s an ass, even if they’re using the right words, and wearing the right clothes, and have all the latest sound bites to drop when management walks by. I even think the better part of us can hear the hollow laughter. You know what I mean, the one that can be “perceived” as genuine.

The insidious thing, friends, is that despite the real reality that most folks can see through the fascade, we’ve built a layer of crappiness that allows those who can play the “perception” game to succeed, while others fall victim to what amounts to their limit to play the part. It’s not unlike the correlation between good TV presence and the Oval Office, right? I mean, who wants a President who looks bad on TV. Gross.

Similarly, well, the brands of large organizations, corporations, religions … hell, even cliques of friends, have their threshold of tolerance. Even geek groups are guilty–I know, I can qualify there–since I’ve seen chastizement when someone gets a bit too cool … real cool, I mean. Like hitting the juke-box-with-your-fist-to-fire-up-Buddy Holly-without-putting-in-your-nickle cool.

And so back to where we started: personal injury. Be careful that you don’t shoot your Red Ryder gun (or your mouth) off and have it ricochet and hit you in the eye. Injuries to glasses are easier to fix than your personal brand.

I’ll be talking a lot more about this. So, stay tuned, as the saying goes …