For over the twelve-plus months that THE GUTTERS ran, I unpacked the spaces in between writing and success in publishing my first major novel, HEX-RATED. Because the kids these days love listicles, I thought I’d round up the year by distilling 10,000 or so words into ten points so that I can defeat the entire purpose of THE GUTTERS (we spend most of our time between successes, not under their glow) in a tenth of the time it took to write them. So, for all of you who think CRACKED.COM is a fount of wisdom, REJOICE!
No one ever suspects Canadians can do anything other than fly the Starship Enterprise, pose for Playboy, or write and perform the best sketch comedy show in TV history (screw you, Laugh In!). So when you get big and successful like me, you won’t need to be made (as the mighty pro wrestler the Iron Sheik would say), HUMBLE! Just say you’re from Regina or Medicine Hat or Toronto and people will leave you alone. If you can’t be Canadian, try and be something just as nice, like a puffin.
I’ve got a PhD in War Studies and am a professional historian. I’ve worked as a cemetery groundskeeper, security system salesman, retail cashier at cool indie bookstores, and more. I’ve performed punk rock and improv to crowds of dozens (literally dozens) of moderately interested fans for years. All those experiences get mined. They make my work different. I can write about different stuff with authority and authenticity on top of doing cool research. All of that has led to short stories and novels about graveyards, punk detectives, improv cults, and more!
If you’re just a reader who loves to write, cool. But LOVE THE FUCK out of what you read and write about, be it sexy elves of fifth-wave-intersectional feminist critiques of sexy elves. Just love all the weird shit you’re into. Understand it. Dissect it. Get why people hate it. Get why it’s awful as well as cool. Love doesn’t mean being blind to limitations or negative impact. Don’t just enjoy it, Frankenstein it. Tear it apart and examine aspects in detail, including the ugly bits (did you know wrestling can be racist, sexist, and horrific?) or look at how it permeates other parts of the cultural marketplace. Sure, READY PLAYER ONE is awful. But man-o-man does he love his subject matter. Why not do the same . . . and write a cool book. Maybe you’ll get paid for it! Libby Cudmore did it with her love of OCD music trivia via an amateur detective story! Sylvia Moreno-Garcia did it with record collecting in Mexico City and tangled it with a young-love story! HECK, IT HAPPENED WITH HEX-RATED! I crammed that novel full of stuff I dig, like noir and PI pulp tropes from the 1970s, groovy Marvel Comics aesthetics, military history (especially the Korean and Vietnam War), Gonzo journalism, the dark drug culture of rock and roll in 1970s, the Golden Age of Heavy Metal, and an academic interest in the early days of naked cinema. VOILA! Instant classic!
Short stories are laboratories of learning, failure, and wild experiments. I honed my voice in short stories. I take more chances in short stories because who the hell reads ‘em besides other writers of short stories? Freedom from external validation is guaranteed and that often leads to more creative growth as an artist. In short controlled bursts you learn pacing, dialog, plot, and scene work at a great rate, and how to fucking end a piece of dramatic writing. Plus they can make you money! I’ve received more cash from short fiction than some folks have for novels. Why not get paid to learn?
Don’t just write short stories, you dolt! Novels are their own beast and require much attention to detail and finesse. Just make sure to jam them with million-dollar ideas and award-favorite tropes like Latvian werewolves, fat kids as heroes, and dystopias where people of color are the heroes and pretty white people are always the villains. Pretty sure these elements are why I’m a success, actually.
I’ve got five novels available on Kindle. Love ‘em all. They sell like soap at a pig party but garnered me mild acclaim and a small rep as that pretty good writer of wrestling and fighty-fight novels. Just make sure they are well formatted, edited, with good covers and, last but not least, ACTUALLY GOOD NOVELS! How will you know? See next two points.
The worst writing I’ve done has been when I’ve ignored the joy of internalizing narrative by reading, seeing how words, ideas, stories, and more function in fiction and non-fic. Highbrow and low-rent stories can teach you many things (including what to avoid) Read widely. Read people who write BETTER than you as well as folks who don’t but have something to teach. Learn from everyone who impresses you and KEEP finding more people who do. Don’t be lazy and just read the stuff you liked when you were learning to write. Love that shit to death, then find other stuff to love to death. As they say, if you’re not growing, you’re dying, including in your reading life. Granted, if someone is paying you good money to not change . . . TAKE IT!
Avoid idiots who say you can’t be a good editor of your own work. If you ONLY listen to others about what makes your stories work, you are forever enslaved to their judgement. But that doesn’t mean ignore the opinions of good readers. That’s also stupid. Editors and agents are valuable resources for feedback, as are writing groups, workshops, classes, MFAs, if they know what you’re trying to do! In the end, you’re the final arbiter of your work. The better you get as a reader, the more tricks you’ll learn along with writing to know the difference between shit and Shangri La.
Don’t be precious poets or novelists. Try new mediums. I’ve written comic books, video game scripts, lesson plans, role-playing-game reference books (including getting paid real money to make imaginary weapons), media-tie in fiction, historical works, a biography, academic articles, interviews, sketch comedy, poetry, and more. Why? When you become poor, you realize you don’t have the luxury of only using your skill set for your “passion project.” The result? I can write compelling pitches as well as novels and stories, I can write comedy as well as horror and fantasy, I can write fiction and history, I can write for the stage as well as the page. I’ve used all of these skills along the road to write HEX-RATED.
Worst thing I did in my writing career was believe my willpower could make publishing . . . do anything. Best thing I learned recovering from it was just to make as much really good work as I could, get it out, and game the system as much as I can. The opportunity to write The Brimstone Files came about because of all of the above. I was given an opportunity I had not looked for and was prepared to make the best of it because I busted my ass for seventeen years.
Or you could buy a book on how to become a bestseller in a handful of years.
I’m sure it happens every day. Maybe you’ll join the ranks of the 1% in publishing. I hope so. Writing so well and successfully that you don’t worry about how many asthma attacks you have in you before you run out of puffers is a hell of a thing. I wish we all could be so lucky.
But wishes and luck never got me far.
Want to know what did?
Because the 17 years I spent learning how to be a writer before I got a book deal weren’t a fail. They weren’t holding time. They weren’t “waiting.” They were filled with the stuff of great writing. What the late God of Sex and Guitars called . . .
In the end, that’s all we have.
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