What the Hell is Wrong With You People?

This post is for the writers or others who think that in order to succeed, they must first tear someone else’s success down: What in the hell is wrong with you people? And yes, before anyone else says it:

But I’m being serious here, dammit. Here’s what someone posted to YA author Ellen Oh’s Tumblr account: No on (sic) wants to read your shitty books. I hope you get fucked over by white men as bad as you are fucking them over you slanty eyed whore. (Oh has this account set where anonymous people can leave comments/questions in order to interact with fans. This was, naturally, an anonymous comment.)

I don’t know Ellen Oh at all. Don’t follow her on Twitter, haven’t read any of her books (sorry, Ellen). But you don’t have to know the author to be outraged over something like this. That comment is hateful, racist, and everything that’s wrong with free discourse on the Internet. If you don’t agree, you might want to go ahead and see yourself out the fucking door right now.

Posts like that, though, are part of a larger pattern I’ve begun to observe. I follow and interact with a couple of editors from BookRiot on a pretty regular basis, and looking back through their Twitter feeds, it is AMAZING the amount of racism and sexism they have to put up with on a daily basis. I couldn’t do it. Thankfully, they’re tougher than I am, because they have some really cool insights into 1) the world of publishing; 2) the reasons the publishing industry needs to represent diverse voices. Note that these women aren’t even novelists. They report and opine about the book industry. That’s all.

And yet they’ve been threatened, been told to shut up, been informed that their views aren’t welcome.

Fuck that.

A lot of what I see–especially on Twitter–is white guys telling other races, genders, and sexual orientations to shut up, telling them that they have no right to their voice, saying that their experiences don’t matter, that their writing–their work–should take a seat in the back of the bus.

Fuck that, too.

And when these other voices refuse to be stilled or silenced, suddenly the white guys are offended. That’s when they back away and say “It was just a joke,” or “Oh no, you must have misunderstood me,” or “What do you mean you don’t feel safe because of what I said? What does that have to do with anything?”

Fuck that bullshit, too.

If you are a writer, another writer’s success or failure doesn’t define you. You are not threatened because a person of different race/gender/orientation is writing and publishing in the 21st century. You are not diminished because a writer of another race or gender got published and you didn’t. They didn’t take your spot at the table. You are not entitled to a spot at the table, motherfucker.

You want a spot at the table? Write your own novel. Submit it. Get it published. Or, if you want to be a critic, find something worthwhile to say, build a platform, and say it. Say it publicly. Attach your fucking name to it. I wrote opinion columns for a lot of years, and I put my name (and my photo) with every one of them. You know why? Because I was accountable for what I said. I was (and sometimes still am) a professional fucking writer, and I am responsible for the words which appear under my byline.

I get that white guys (why is it always white guys?) are feeling squeezed out lately. It seems harder and harder to get published. But EVERYONE thinks it’s harder and harder to get published. Those female writers who get signed? They’re good. They’re not part of some dastardly plot to squeeze out white voices. In fact, it’s probably still much harder for minorities to get published.

“There can be a zillion white authors who write [whatever kind of book] but if one marginalized author exists who does it, that’s enough,” YA author Malinda Lo writes on her Twitter account. “It goes like this: Publisher: We already have [name of black author]. We don’t need another one. Other black author … [emphasis mine.] There are also unacknowledged but real quotas, like a publisher will only publish X number of diverse books/authors. (Usually 1 or 2.)”

Again, I get it. White guys are having a harder time getting published. But diversity in publishing isn’t pushing you out. There is still room for you at the table, but you have to earn it. Everyone does. And that may be the key difference: Now unknown white guys may have to struggle a little more than in years past. Things were easier for white writers when the door was very nearly closed to women or people of color. I’ve had those thoughts myself: If only I’d been born in a different time, writing for the pulps or the Gold Medal paperbacks, I might have already published a novel (or series of them) … or I might not have. Who knows?

But all of this new diversity isn’t a danger to me, either as an author, or a reader, or a human being. I’m still a good writer. I still enjoy reading good authors. If you feel that diversity is a danger to you, you might want to look around you, at the people of color, the LGBTQ folks, the differently abled, those scary women … The world is a diverse place. All of those people have a voice. Trying to silence that wave of voices is like trying to hold the ocean back with a fishing net.

It’s an exercise in futility. And it’s wrong.

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Where I am right now

This blog has been pretty dormant for the past few … months?

Yeah, sorry about that. But I’ve gotta be honest about something: I haven’t been writing. I’ve got some non-fiction and ghostwriting stuff going on, but as far as fiction? Fuhgeddaboudit. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero. Nil.

I’ve tried returning to some previous work to try to jump-start the writing, and nothing is working. I’m not sure why. My friend, Cassandra Rose Clarke, has published her first novel (with at least two more coming out). It’s terrific, by the way. And I’m reading tons of Sue Grafton and Elmore Leonard. My other friend, TL Costa, has a novel coming out this year. The amazing Jennifer Echols continues to write and publish incredible work. My friends Kait Nolan and MB Mulhall continue to carve out a niche for themselves in the self-pubbed world. Anne-Mhairi Simpson continues to write and publish with more and more success.

In other words, life moves on apace.

I, however, am not writing. Or publishing. Not the stuff that matters. The fiction is the thing, and the lack of driving force in my fiction-writing is driving me a little bit crazy.

Okay, a little crazier. Happy now?

Frankly, I want to quit. I want to put my head down on my desk and scream and pound my fists and cry. I want to quit.

No, seriously. I know this is a whiny writing post. But, folks, there’s just no forward momentum in the fiction world for me. Sucks. But that’s the way it is. I don’t begrudge any of those writers I named. They’ve earned their success, and I’m proud to know them.

But damn it, I want that success, too.

I’ve lost … something. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t know how to get it back. There used to be a–I don’t know–a pure kind of pleasure in seeing the words move across the screen. I knew, even if I was getting rejected, that it was just a matter of time (and maybe a little luck). I felt inevitable.

I don’t feel that way anymore. I feel the sense of time and mortality crashing down on me. I’m 41 years old. Every day I don’t write is a day wasted. And I don’t really mind those wasted days all that much anymore. Those days have begun washing over me like a relentless tide that takes more and more of my willpower out to sea. That’s what REALLY troubles me. I have no urge to get to the keyboard. I have no unrelenting need to tell the multitude of stories that swirl around in my head.

That’s the trouble. I’ve lost something precious to me. I have to figure out a way to get it back. Or I have to come to terms with losing it. Right now I’m stuck in the middle. I’m not writing, and I’m at peace with that. That’s the part that makes me angriest. I’ve always been fairly optimistic. I knew I had potential. I knew I had talent. I knew I was good. At what point did it become okay for me to give up?

Where was the turning point?

I need to find that place again, find my confidence again. I want and need to get back to that place where writing was like breathing for me. It wasn’t an option. It was simply what I did. I know I was good. Over the last several years, I’ve taken some blows and some shots to the ego. I’ve gotten worn down like the nub of a pencil.

Can I rebuild? Can I get “it” back? Or am I so worn down, so tired, that I can’t come back? I just don’t know at this point.

Sweet Home Alabama

My friend Laurie Christolear (a talented poet and storyteller in her own right) has asked me some questions about why I use places in Alabama as the setting for some of my stories. I answered her questions, but felt like I should expound upon my thoughts a bit.

Even though I consider myself an Army brat and only have a trace of a southern accent, I consider myself an Alabama native. No, I wasn’t born in the state, but nearly all of my family was. Roots run deep in the red clay down here. I’ve lived in other places, but no other state has ever really been home. And now that I’m married with a kid and own a home — it really is Sweet Home Alabama.

And always will be.

That said, I use my hometown of Enterprise as a fictional jumping-off point for a lot of stories. And if I want to change or make up landmarks? Well, I usually keep the name, simply as an homage to the place I grew up. In one particular instance, I made the setting an amalgam of Enterprise and Tuscaloosa (where I live now). If I want to set a piece in a larger city, I usually don’t give the city a name. That way I can make up stuff wholesale, without anyone telling me I got it wrong.

And here’s another reason to use Alabama as a setting: This state has a lot of character, and a lot of insanity. There are things that happen in Alabama that could only happen here. (And I mean that in every good and bad way that you can think of.) If I find I can’t use the actual place, I can use the mindset, if that makes sense.

And I do take inspiration from Alabama writers. It’s probably trite to list Harper Lee as an influence, but let’s face it — To Kill A Mockingbird was saying incredibly smart things about race relations in Alabama before I was even born. I re-read it occasionally to remind myself that race relations in our state haven’t come as far as I’d like to think.

I’m writing a novel set during Prohibition, with a black protagonist. He falls in love with a white woman, which was a dangerous thing to do back in those days. Possibly lethal for him if he gets caught, so yeah, I’d definitely say I can feel Harper Lee’s influence on what I’m writing, even if it’s accidental. My biggest influences, though, are much more eclectic.

Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Jennifer Echols, a Birmingham author who is writing smart, popular fiction that really embodies the Southern zeitgeist. I think she’s a much more immediate influence. I’d love to have a career like hers. Her book, Going Too Far, is one of the best pieces of pop fiction I’ve ever read. Incredible talent.

So yeah, where I’m from definitely influences how and what I write — and I think that’s true with any writer.

The people who make you

I often think about the people who made me.

I don’t mean my mom and dad. Jeez, mind out of the gutter, please. That’s not a mental image I want! Ack! Stop thinking about that! Ew ew ew. Okay, seriously, what I mean is the people who helped make me into the writer I am today. There are a lot of people I could talk about — I had encouraging parents and family who thought I was talented — but two people really stand out.

Janice Morgan taught ninth grade English, and in her class I should have been the star pupil. I aced nearly every exam. I read and understood the literature probably better than anyone in the class. I was the kind of kid who always wanted to keep his lit book at the end of the year … except for that year. I remember a looooooooong section on Flowers for Algernon, although let’s face it — two sentences on Flowers begins to be too long.

I was, however, adamant about not doing homework. I hated homework. I saw no need for it. In fact I had something of a narcissistic view: THOSE people might need homework, but by God I was special. It was a rare moment in junior high and high school when I cared enough to turn in homework. I was satisfied with crushing the tests.

I liked Mrs. Morgan, though, and as such I showed her some stories and poems I’d written. At the time I was enamored with Stephen King, and so everything I wrote would probably result in a hastily called parent-teacher conference nowadays. Mrs. Morgan was encouraging. In fact, she chose me to be the school’s representative at a ‘young author’s conference’ in a nearby town. I was allowed to exhibit two pieces, so I chose my most carefully crafted poem and a short story I really liked.

I also remember a couple of silly writing seminars from there that I didn’t take very seriously. In those days I had an extreme “I am better than you” attitude, which masked a whole hell of a lot of insecurities. That false pride wouldn’t let me take anything seriously. I wish I’d understood better back then that I should have been laying the groundwork for a real writing career.

Anyway, Janice Morgan also took a huge chance on me by placing me on the school’s English team for a regional competition. I came back with a first-place trophy in the vocabulary competition and an honorable mention in the essay-writing competition. I disagreed with that assessment. I should have won first place in both, dammit. Again, that was my unchecked ego.

But Mrs. Morgan was the first person outside of my immediate family who believed in me and thought I had talent. I appreciated that so much, and I still remember her fondly. I also remember that she was extremely fair. While she thought I was talented, she was hard-nosed about homework. I won awards and got to go on trips — but I also only scraped by with a D.

Imagine what I could have done if I’d applied myself. (And yes, I know I’m echoing words she actually said to me many times. Often on a daily basis.)

Dr. John Strength was another huge influence on me. Senior English with him was a breeze, but he challenged me, too. I discovered poets I’d dismissed (Shelley, Byron, Keats), and got huge encouragement to break out of the reading rut in which I’d stuck myself. I still remember Byron’s Stanzas Written on the Road Between Florence and Pisa in its entirety, and could recite it on command if the need ever arose.

No, I don’t know why or how the need might arise. I’m just saying I could do it.

He also pushed me to be a better writer, to give concrete examples in my expository essays, to embrace description and find beauty in the proper and well-timed use of words. I owe him a debt that won’t ever be repaid, unfortunately. An ugly, ungainly blog entry like this is probably the closest I’ll ever come to really saying thanks.

If you write, there are people like Janice Morgan and John Strength in your life — people who helped lay the groundwork for the writer you’ve become. Spend a few words to say thank you, if you can.

Why I do this

Sometimes I remember why I write.

I had a moment like that yesterday, when I was going through and rewriting the first novel manuscript I ever completed, a bloated crime tale I called Twisted. In the midst of the rewrites I found the voice I’d looked for when I first tried to write the novel: clipped, cynical, stark.

And then I wrote what seems to me to be a perfect line. It’s in the midst of describing a bank the characters are heisting (I like that word. Heisting.) … Here’s the line:

The bank looked like it should, a cathedral to the Almighty Dollar, with marble floors, a high, rounded ceiling and plenty of dark mahogany. A basilica for the Benjamins.

No, it’s not high art. But anyone who has ever stood in line for a teller knows that feeling — that hushed, nearly awed reverence for banks. This is where the money sleeps. It’s a good line. A crafted line. No need to go into detail about what the bank looks like because we’ve all been in one before. More important, it seems to me, is to remind readers what a bank feels like. Does that make sense?

Writing, when I do it well, fills me with wonder and happiness that few things can match. That sense of passion is one of the biggest reasons I write. Not for publication. Not even for anyone else. I write, first and foremost, for me–because I love it. That’s the truth of the matter. When it’s just me staring down the blank page, filling it to the brim with ideas, with words, with anger and despair and hope and heartbreak and love–that’s when I’m at my best.

Anyway, I had a pretty decent writing day yesterday. Got 3,000 words down, and ended up cutting 8,000 words from the manuscript right off the bat. After reading through the first thirty-five pages or so, I realized that all I had in the beginning was backstory. Maybe some of that stuff will filter in later, but for now it’s out.

After that literary circumcision, I was able to start my crime novel with something important — the actual crime. I read over what I did yesterday, and this version is stronger, so far. The story is leaner and meaner, and the characters are no longer feasting on a gluttony of meaningless dialogue.

So yeah, a productive day. Sometimes that’s all you can ask for as a writer.

Coming up with a great line, too? That’s just gravy.

Rise and grind

By the time you read this, I’ll probably be on my way to Birmingham, AL, to visit doctors in my day job as PR Guy Extraordinaire. But right now it’s late Sunday night, and I’m finally feeling a little better after battling a migraine for most of Sunday.

Monday is the day to rise and grind, to get to work on the manuscript for the novel formerly known as Twisted. I’m shooting for 25,000 words by the end of the day on Friday — a unique challenge, as always, because I’ll be sitting in doctor’s offices for most of the time that I write. During that time, I’ll also field calls, approve ads, make appointments for other visits.

In some ways, writing is the easy part. Making time for it is tough.

But success doesn’t come automatically. Former University of Alabama running back Mark Ingram was the first guy I ever heard use the term “rise and grind” — and he was relating it to offseason workouts prior to starting his NFL career with the New Orleans Saints. But I immediately got his point: It’s a new day. Get to work. I’m a better writer than I was yesterday. And the day before that. And the day … well, you get what I mean.

The more I work, the better I get. To reach the potential I have, I’ve got to be willing to put in the effort.

Bring it on.

Gotta get down on Friday

Thank you, Rebecca Black, for ruining one of the best days of the week.

This is one of those posts about nothing and everything, so be prepared. The work week this week has been … meh. For those of you who don’t know, I do public relations by day, donning my BobtheWriter cape and mask by night (or early in the morning, as the case may be). This week was tough, however, because I never got into the writing groove I wanted.

I watched the week go by, all the time thinking to myself that THIS should be the day I get the ball rolling. Didn’t happen. I’m not going to worry with all(any?) of the psychological reasons this may have happened. Instead, I want to focus on my goals for writing this year. By the end of the year, I want to have three finished first drafts done. Taking an extra week off isn’t helping.

My next project should have been (and is) updating a manuscript that I finished several years ago. I called it Twisted, because that’s what the story was: it was a convoluted robbers-and-no-cops sort of story. Just the sort of thing I like, in other words. But at 120,000 words, it was too long to see published. My plan is to refurbish this manuscript and see if I can sell it. My mission, should I choose to accept it (and I do, I really do! I swear!) is to carve this manuscript down to 90,000 words, max — 80,000 if I can. It’ll be like a whole new book, and I hope by now I have enough distance to treat my own work with some objectivity.

Of course, I have to READ. THE. DANG. THING. And I just can’t make myself sit down and do that. I’m not sure what I’m scared of. Is it that the book is bad? Maybe it is. I really don’t remember enough at this point to tell you if it’s bad or good. I remember enjoying the hell out of writing it, so I expect there’s some redeemable value somewhere in that first draft.

My goal for this weekend is to have several hours where I shut myself in a room with this old nemesis — just me, the pages, and a red pen. I expect the manuscript to be a bloody mess when I’m done.

So I count this week as a loss and keep going. The battle is lost, but the war isn’t over. I can conquer the book if I want to. If I’ll make myself.

Have a good weekend everyone.

Idea central

I suffer from an odd ailment–a plethora of ideas. It’s so difficult for me to focus on any one idea that I’ve got several stories ongoing at any one time on paper and four or five others floating around in my head.

You can imagine it’s hard for me to finish a draft of something when I have so many other ideas competing for my attention. Like a magpie, I am always in danger of haring off after whatever shiny new bauble of an idea catches my eye.

That’s where the idea of fast drafting entered my consciousness. Credit where it’s due: I’d never really heard of the idea until the brilliant Hannah Moskowitz (author of Invincible Summer and Break, plus several upcoming works) shared a little of her process. During the first draft stage she says she often writes 3,000 to 5,000 words a day. When I first saw that number, my mind simply boggled. I couldn’t accept it.

And then I tried it.

Writing 5,000 words a day is a uniquely terrifying process. The first time I did it, it felt like my mind had been totally blown up, and I carried that spacey, heady feeling to bed with me. The next day I banged out another 5,000. And then another and another. By the end of the week I’d written 30,000 words on Little Miss Perfect and finished my first draft.

Now I’m a believer. Fast drafting works. It’s ridiculous, but it works. I had to let go of several of my own prejudices to utilize the theory of the fast draft, however. One thing that often slows me down is that I hate to put a word down on paper if I know I may change it later. I want everything to be perfect. After a lifetime as a reporter (getting used to doing a single draft and being done), it is almost impossible for me to put down a word I don’t think will see publication.

But I’ve come to realize that writing a novel is far different than being a reporter, no matter how good I may have been. There is draft and redraft, the painful process of taking things out or putting things in. There is the re-reading and realizing you should have used the one word you meant instead of the four you didn’t.

It’s a tough gig, but it’s wonderful, too.

And the best thing about fast drafting? I MISS WRITING. After a week of conditioning my output to its optimum levels, I now am missing the time when I sat down to draft. I made myself take this week off, because no matter how effective writing at that volume is, it will burn you out sooner or later. A week off seems good to me, even though I feel antsy about not working at the craft.

My week off ends Monday, when I’ll choose between two projects. I’ll either rewrite an old (and I mean OLD–it’s at least a decade on since I finished it) manuscript or finish a partial manuscript I’ve been working on since the first of the year called The Bootlegger.

My aim is to have three finished first drafts by the end of the year, with one of those polished and out on submission to agents.

It’s good to have a goal.

Getting a move on

Sometimes you get a good idea, spend months writing it, and suddenly it peters out on you. Awhile back, I was working on something I thought was very good. But it just suddenly didn’t seem like it was there anymore. I hate when that happens, and unfortunately it seems to happen an awful lot to me. I think it’s mostly when I come to the limits of my knowledge — I hate to make certain things up, knowing I’ll have to go back and research something to fix what I screwed up in the first draft.

Yes, I’m lazy. Sue me.

And of course, it’s horrible when you want to write and simply have no idea. Or maybe I mean Idea. You know, something that hits you like a big bang — starting all life as your novel will know it.

But what’s just as bad — if not worse — is getting multiple ideas for novels when you’re concentrating on finishing one. It’s distracting, dangit. Those new ideas may not be the big bang — not the Idea — but I’ve found they can break your concentration as you’re sprinting toward the finish line. Of course, at this point I’m not sure I’m sprinting. I’m mostly just hobbling along, hoping for the best.

On another note, I just finished re-reading Stephen King’s novel, Misery. I’m not sure why, but King’s writing probably inspires me to get back to the keyboard more than any other author. And I write nothing like him. But I love his sense of story, his ability to create characters that seem real, that resonate with the reader long after the tale is told.

Inspiring when you find it, you know?