Posts Tagged ‘author’


     Plowing through my collaborative novel with my mentor/writing partner Kim, I’ve recently come across some interesting issues.  I’m writing about a guy who lures beautiful women into his home, murders them, and then stores them in a mine he calls, “The Gallery” in some far off canyon.  The problem is that, as far as the death scenes go, I have no idea what I’m talking about.  I did a google search of all things death related and of course, found only meager pieces of valuable information buried deep in the trenches of nonsense, morbidity for its own sake, and things I couldn’t even be sure were true.  I should have expressed my uncertainties on this topic to Kim earlier on.  As it turns out, one of her good friends of about twenty years just so happens to be a mortician. (On a disturbing side note, he is also a professional masseuse, but that, hilarious as it is, is neither here nor there.)  When I told Kim about my uncertainties, she recommended we meet with this guy.  I, of course, was all over it.

     Because of scheduling conflicts, we were unable to meet with the man in person, so instead, we set a time, called him, put him on speaker phone and took very scrupulous notes.  What first struck me about this guy was his incredible sense of humor and lighthearted approach to the subjects of death and dying.  I suppose that on some level, I bought into the cliché that in order to be a mortician, one needed to possess that introverted, far away, brooding disposition, complete no doubt, with an eerie glazed over look in the eyes.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  This guy was completely normal (well, except that he’s a mortician/massage therapist anyway).  The point is, I felt comfortable with him immediately and had no hesitation to ask him even the most hideous questions concerning the macabre topic of death.

          He left the conversation wide open to us, answering whatever questions we had, no matter how intimate, about the dying process, rigor mortis, decomposition, and even, for story purposes,  what effects a snug plastic wrap job would have on a body.  I was repeatedly stunned by his easy way of describing to us the goriest details of this sensitive topic.  Many people are not comfortable with those details, and so for their sake, I will forego them and simply say that yesterday, I learned more in under an hour than I have in just about any classroom I’ve occupied in the past.

     I’m glad we asked.  As it turns out, there were a couple erroneous pitfalls that blew holes in the story which really needed to be fixed.  Consequently, I will need to tweak the murderous methods of my main character to match reality, but I’m glad I found out now rather than later. 

     I blogged not too long ago on writing research and the fascinating places it takes you, but my experience yesterday, I must say, trumps even the kink parties and church hopping.  The reason I say this is because the things this man told me went far beyond necessary informational material for me.  It’s death, after all.  It’s personal, and I was D, all of the above! (startled, mortified, relieved and baffled) by the things I learned.  And this is just one facet of writing that I love.  Granted, I had terrible dreams last night and was plagued throughout the day by images of things I’d never before conceived of, but that is, in all its terrible glory, the beauty of writing.  The mortician, or as I called him, “The Stiff Stacker,” turned out to be an invaluable resource, one that, given the general direction my writing tends to go, I will undoubtedly utilize in the future.  Kim and I are setting another date with him, in person this time, do further discuss the horrible truths of this topic.  I figure as long as he doesn’t look like John Wayne Gacy, I will be okay.

   And by the way, before I got off the phone with him, I did say to him, “I have a personal question for you.  Tell me… do you see the morbid humor in the fact that you are both a mortician and a masseuse?”  He was quiet for just a moment and then, “Yes,” he said, “as a matter of fact… I do.”

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     Every writer must eventually part ways with some of his or her favorite creations for the sake of the greater good.  There are dozens of names for this process:  Slaughtering your sacred cows, Killing your darlings, or the term I find most fitting, Cutting the fat.  No matter what you choose to call it though, it sucks.

     There are two types of “cuts”, and although both can be equally painful, the first one (which is the removal of an unecessary sentence) is substantially less time-consuming than the second (which is the deletion of an entire scene.)  In deleting an uneeded sentence, I can at least take solace in the fact that I didn’t spend hours and hours working on it.  For me, these kinds of space-wasters are usually just flowery details that, for some reason, I’ve become unreasonably attached to.  I guess this is where my inner poet likes to rear his stubborn but eloquent and impassioned (and often pompous), beautiful head.  (Uncle Carlos is only there to give dirty looks to the main character.  Does he really need to be “a blandly handsome man with an air of quick-thinning tolerance about him”?) But over all, I am able to see the ultimate detriment to this kind of self-indulgence, and generally have no trouble toning down the details.

     Then there is the second kind of cut: scene deletion.  This, for me, has always been far more demoralizing.  It’s one thing to just clean up the excess portions of a scene, and quite another to look at it in its entirety and disheartedly realize (or worse be told by an outside source) that the entire piece is basically no good.  I got my first real lesson in this right off the bat when my mentor, Kim (Williams-Justesen), and I did the first read through of my first manuscript, The White Room.

     We were at the cemetery downtown, (now that I think about it, that sounds very odd.  Why were we at the cemetery?  Oh yeah… because it’s peaceful, beautiful and well, dead people don’t tend to interrupt), sitting on the lawn on a warm spring day.  I was all kinds of excited because it was the first time I’d be able to hear my story out loud and with continuity.  Kim began reading.  It was a disaster.  Instead of gently rowing down the stream as I believed we would be, the first thirteen pages or so felt more like being in an aluminum canoe on a wind-peeved sea.  Had I had any Dramamine handy, I would have taken it… and without protest to the inevitable drooling drug daze those pills always put me in.  Anyway, Kim was kind enough to continue to the end of the chapter which thankfully, had smoothed out a bit.  When she was done, she looked at the pages in her hand and then looked at me.  “You want to know what I think?” she asked.  I said that yes, I did indeed want to know, but in truth, I wasn’t sure I really did.  She turned the manuscript back to page one, and then one after another, plucked page after page away from the stack.  Somewhere around mid-chapter one, she stopped and pointed to a paragraph in the middle of the page.  “I think this is where your story starts,” she said.     

     I was stunned.  I argued.  I made excuses.  I rationalized and justified.  But worst of all, in truth… I agreed with her.  The reality was that the first half of that chapter was nothing more than a confusing warm-up.  I’d struck on some significant points in those pages, but over all, it was crap.  I stewed the rest of the day as we read the other chapters, and that night, I went home with my tail between my legs and started re-writing and implanting the few decent scraps from the trash pages, as needed into the newer, better beginning.  I made a decision that day that I would never let that happen again.  Unfortunately, however, I think that, at least to some degree, writing some crap is inevitable. 

     For me there are two reasons an uneccessary scene gets written in the first place.  The first, and most common reason, is that my “muse” gets an inspired hair up his ass… and just runs like hell with it, as if trying to outrun my sense of good judgment and discrimination.  I start with a plan… and end up not only in left field, but in an altogether different tennis tournament entirely.   When the muse gets this kind of head start, I find myself reading page after page of unholy gibberish that, if ever seen by a professional, would seal my fate as a failed writer.  Forever.

     The second reason I write bad scenes is simple: laziness.  I don’t feel like writing, but I know I have to, and therefore, I sit down and very simply fill white space with whatever nonsense comes into my mind.  Perhaps my character needs to pee.  At times like these, that seems pretty important.  Or maybe Henry the optometrist will spend a few hours petting the dog.  Nevermind that there was no dog before now.  Now Henry has a dog.  Yep.  Pet the dog, it is.  That will fill the empty space.  That being said, I actually prefer this kind of “very bad scene.”  It’s much easier to say goodbye to utter nonsense than to the flowery grandeur of my terribly possessive (and I suspect, alcoholic,) muse.

    Any way you look at it, editing is a bitch.  You wind up deleting hours of your life you will never get back, but alas… it’s necessary, and what works for me is I try to get it as close to perfect as I can, not because I’m such a perfectionist, but because I am insecure enough that I really don’t want to invite any more criticism than necessary. Still, it’s a drink-inducing, hair-pulling, teeth-grinding emotional calamity that although I might (let’s be honest) wish on my worst enemy, I do not wish on you.  Happy travels!


     In September of 2010, I met my first literary agent at a writing conference in Salt Lake City.  She’d flown in from New York City to be on the panel and to meet new writers.  At that time, I was just more than half way finished with my first full-length novel, The White Room.

     This agent is maybe five feet tall, weighs perhaps ninety pounds wet, and is probably nearly ten years my junior.  I had no reason to be intimidated by her.  However, as we talked and she asked me more and more questions, I grew very anxious.  For the first time that I can recall, I broke out into a terrible and embarrassing sweat.  I was that nervous.  But she was very polite.  She asked me all about the story, the dynamics between the characters and how the story would end.  After trembling my way through the conversation, she did something every aspiring writer dreams of: she handed me her business card.  Then she said something every aspiring writer hopes to hear.  She said, “When you are finished, and if you are interested, I’d like you to send me the full manuscript.”

     “I’ll be finished by the end of November,” I said, and even as I spoke the words, I mentally kicked myself for having said them.  No way was I going to be finished that soon.

     “Don’t rush,” she said, “I want you to write a good story.  But if you can have it finished within the next six months, just send me the manuscript and your cover letter.  If it takes longer than six months, send a query letter as well, just to remind me who you are.”

     I went downstairs, not really understanding the weight of what had happened.  My mentor, Kim Williams-Justesen (Mimi) was sitting on a sofa in the lobby (we were at a hotel by the airport).  When she asked me how it went, I told her placidly that I guessed it had gone okay.  As I told her the details of my conversation with the agent, she became ecstatic.  “Do you realize what this means?” she said.  I replied that no, I really didn’t.  “It means she asked you to send your entire manuscript!  And you can send it ‘requested material!'”

     I went home that night and plowed into the story with everything I had.  For the next two months, I did nothing but write.  I wrote sometimes for twelve hours straight.  I didn’t eat.  I didn’t go out with friends.  I didn’t do anything outside The White Room.  I even called in sick to work on several occasions to write. 

     I finished the first draft of the manuscript on October 24th, 2010.  With the help of Kim, I’d been revising and polishing quite a bit as I went along, but I still needed to do a full read-through and incorporate more revisions.  That took just over a month, and by the seventh of December, Kim and I were standing in line at the post office, manuscript in hand.

     We got into my car after mailing it off.  I looked at Kim and I remember saying to her, “It’s going to kill me if she doesn’t take it, you know that, don’t you?” 

     I’d promised myself I wouldn’t get too excited.  I was fully aware of the odds.  To meet one agent, one time, on your first book, and being taken by that agent… well, that’s a lot of lightning to strike in same place at once.  I knew this.  So I wasn’t going to get my hopes up… but a funny thing happens when you’ve finished a novel and sent it out to an agent that has expressed interest in you:  you get your hopes up.  Despite the odds, despite the plethora of rejection letters every writer is wise to expect, you get your hopes up. 

      “It won’t kill you,” Kim said, “this is just part of the game.  If she says no, you’ll send it to someone else.  And if they say no, you’ll send it out again.  I hate to tell you this, but writing the book is the easy part.”

     For the first month or so after sending the manuscript off, I was fine.  By week seven, I was a mess.  According to the website, it takes four to eight weeks for the agents to respond to manuscripts sent Requested Material.  Despite my efforts, I was obsessed with whether or not the agent had read it and whether she loved it or hated it.  Then I began obsessing over whether or not it even made it to her.

     In the meantime, Kim and I began a joint project we’re currently calling An Evil Heart.  This new book was the only thing that distracted me from the imagined fate of The White Room.  It makes no sense to write a book, send it off and wait.  Most agents require sole viewing rights to your manuscript, which means you can’t print off a hundred copies of your book and send each one to a different agent to further increase your chances of snagging someone’s attention.  Well, you could do this, but it is considered unethical and unprofessional, so I surmised that with me being so new to the game, I would be wise to play by the rules.  Since this agent had personally requested my manuscript, I figured she deserved that much from me.

     But here’s the hard part about that.  As of tomorrow, this agent will have had The White Room for three full months.  If I get an e-mail, a phone call, or a letter in the mail saying, “Thanks, but… well, this sucks,” that’s three months the book could have been circulating among other agents who might be interested in the story as well.  I’d be lying if I said that didn’t bother me just a little bit.

     On the plus side, I did receive an e-mail from the agent on February 8th saying that due to the holidays, she was behind schedule and thanks for understanding.  I guess that’s something.  But again… that was a month ago.

     Truth is, I don’t know if I’m tough enough for this.  I’m not saying I will quit if the agents passes on The White Room, but I am saying that, despite my efforts otherwise, it will not be easy for me to accept.  I went into this business full knowing I was in for a lot of waiting and a lot of rejection.  I thought I could handle it.  But what if I can’t?  The waiting alone just floors me some days and I am continually astounded by the wide range of emotions this whole thing invokes.  It’s exhausting is what it is. 

     There are days I think I’ll be okay if she says no to me.  After all, there are thousands of agents out there, not to mention, I have about a hundred more books to write before I die.  But then there are the other days when I am sure that if she says no, especially after all this time, I will implode on myself and lose faith in my writing… and never dare put myself through this again.

     But this is part of the game.  This is how it works, and I know of only one thing that alleviates the agony: keep writing.  Write your ass off and start dreaming of the next storyline, the next agent… the next novel.  So that’s what I’m going to do.  I’ve decided that I need to understand the difference between the things I can control, and the things I can’t.

     This is what I can control:  I can keep writing and I can write damned good if I want to.  I can continue to search for the next great storyline and I can learn and improve the skills I need to execute it beautifully.  I can present myself accordingly and hopefully garner a reputation as professional if not a marketable writer. I can understand how this business works and continue to send my work to agent after agent after agent if I have to…

   And here’s what I can’t control:  I can’t control who publishes any of my work or when.  I can’t control what anyone thinks of my style, my content or my talent.  I can’t control the market, nor can I accurately predict what’s hot and what will sell.  In short, I can’t control the world or anyone in it.

     But, despite the agent’s silence, I am at peace now.  I’ve decided that I’m not in the results business.  It’s up to me to do the footwork and write the books, and write them well.  But it’s up to the agents, the universe, whoever… to control the results.  I can’t control any of that.  All I can do is write and be good at it, and that’s okay.  The writing of the story is the real joy of this process.  That is a fact I nearly forgot.  So I don’t need to think about my manuscripts once they’re in the mail.  It’s not my business anymore.  All I can do is… keep writing…

     So I’m gonna.


     There is a famous adage in the writing world that says, “write what you know.”  I hate that adage.  It suggests that we never move outside the confines of our current knowledge and that, in essence, we reiterate and recycle that knowledge for all our years.  It prompts a timid and all-too-cautious approach to writing that is the ultimate cause, in my opinion, of very boring material.  But I do see the point.  After all, if you don’t know anything about football, writing a story about a professional football player’s anxiety over the big game is not going to come off well.  It will be superficial and ultimately, unconvincing.  That’s why I think that whoever first made the statement, “write what you know”, really should have said, “know what you write.” 

     And that is where research comes in.

     Research for me is mostly a proactive practice.  Although sometimes you are limited and must do a lot of reading on a subject, I think it’s important that, as often as possible, you experience the things you are writing about.  For me, this has meant some very interesting and mind-expanding adventures.  Most recently, for the sake of an idea I have for an upcoming story, I have made great friends with the nicest little Jehovah Witness woman.  She’s got to be a hundred and twelve years old and she is probably the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen.  I invite her into my house and listen to her stories, all the while trying not to stare too intently at her eyebrows which, bless her ancient heart, she is no longer able to paint on straight.  We know each other on a first name basis now, and although we more often talk about her past than the Kingdom of the Lord, I fully enjoy her company and have come to consider her a great friend.

    For another project, I spent some time in a Catholic church.  I wasn’t raised Catholic and so I knew nothing about the religion except what I’d seen on television.  Attending mass, I was surprised by how aerobic being a Catholic is. Sit, stand, pray, repeat!  I left exhausted, understanding not only why their services only last about forty-five minutes, but also why they give you a cracker at the end.  Later, I had a friend of mine who is educated on the religion go with me to the cathedral and explain all the different meanings of the trinkets and shiny things therein.  It was fascinating!

     Probably the most compelling experience I’ve had in research was my exploration of the BDSM community.  I was writing something that needed my understanding of the dynamic between Masters and their human slaves.  I spent a year searching for the local kink subculture before, quite coincidentally, finally happening upon it.  I was informed of a local fetish website, which I joined and soon began making friends.  Eventually, I realized that kink was all around me.  They even have kink classes at the local university!  Soon, I was invited to an actual “play party”, which is where kinksters get together for a night of fulfilling their fetishes.  I connived some friends of mine to go with me as my human slaves.  I wore eyeliner and dressed my pets in next to nothing, put them on leashes on headed to the event with an odd mixture of trepidation and awe. Had I been more practiced, I suppose the four of us would have even gotten in and out of narrow doorways with a little more grace, but hey… I dare you to try toting two women and one man around on leashes in a cool, debonair manner!  For the most part though, we fit right in and I was able to meet some of the most fascinating people I ever have, some of whom I remain good friends with to this day.   I saw all kinds of things that fueled my imagination.  I was hesitant about participating much, with the exception of letting a trusted kinkster hit me with a bamboo stick, (yes, Martha, I did!), and I left with a deeper understanding of and respect for the community and it’s practices (as well as a big bruise on my ass).

     Perhaps hardest of all, is the research I have been doing for the project I am currently working on.  I’m writing about a narcissistic serial killer who was abused severely by his mother and later, his foster-father.   Since it’s in no ones interest for me to experience this stuff first hand, I have been doing a lot of reading on the minds of serial killers and the lives they lived.  It’s disturbing and  hellish and I am eager to be done with it.  I have learned things I’m not sure I ever wanted to know, but it’s important to me that I understand the characters I write. 

     So no, I don’t believe in only writing what you know, but I do believe in knowing what you write.   Research is a necessary part of writing, the great myth being, of course, that it involves hours of tedious reading about dull subjects.  In truth though, research is, in some ways, the best part about writing.  Something I have come to understand is that there’s a big difference between knowing a thing on an intellectual level, and truly understanding it.  I think that in order to write a convincing account of anything, a writer must possess full comprehension of his subject.  When you write something without that base understanding, readers know. 

     A lot of writers take the liberty of assuming a position of superiority.  After all, writing is a one way form of communication; you can not be interrupted and argued with mid-sentence.  But, what writers should realize is that, in truth, the reader has the power.  All he or she has to do is close the book.  And this knowledge is what prompts me to continue knowing what I write.


     Collaborating on a writing project is vastly different from working by yourself.  It’s been said that no novel is ever written entirely by one person and that is true.  No matter how seasoned the writer, we all need to stop at some point and seek advice from others, and if nothing else, writers depend on other people for inspiration.  But all in all, writing is a pretty solitary venture; one that you suddenly realize has engulfed you for hours and sometimes days at a time, and only when the phone rings or someone stops by do you become aware of the time that has passed.  For the most part, I am okay with this.  I don’t mind spending time alone.  Even as a kid, I seemed to require substantial allotments of alone time, so this is nothing strenuous to me.

     So writing with someone, in terms of a 50/50 effort, is a unique experience.  First you have to be sure of the person you’re writing with.  It’s natural to become possessive of your work and overly sensitive to criticism, so the relationship between two writers of the same project needs to be professional.  As I write this, I am about 30,000 words into an alternating chapter-style collaboration with my friend and mentor Kim Williams-Justesen, author of My Brother the Dog, Love and Loathing, and the three-part series of Hey, Ranger! books for children.  So far, so good.  Kim was an integral component of my last (and first) full length novel (which is still in the hands of a literary agent I met at a writing conference – no word yet, although I did receive an e-mail from her saying she has received it and, due to the holidays, is a little behind schedule).  So when Kim introduced me to the idea of collaborating, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.  I still have a lot to learn and it felt like the next natural step.  I figured it would be an oppurtunity to work one on one, side by side, quite literally, with someone who has not only the education, but experience in the world of publishing. 

     The first thing we had to do was decide which story we wanted to tell.  We both have a vast mental backlog of pending storylines, so it was just a matter of choosing the one that we both felt would most equally utilize our strengths and most effectively blend our voices.  Our first choice was a Gothic-era supernatural thriller.  I made it clear very early on that whatever we wrote together would need to fall into the “creep-factor” category to some degree, as experience has shown me that this is where my style naturally flows.  She agreed and we began.

     I hit a brick wall right off.  I don’t know as much about the Gothic era as I thought, and this became embarrassingly apparent as soon as I sat down to write.  Unfortunately, even when you’re writing fiction, there must be truth in your story.  If it doesn’t feel like the truth, readers sense this and they do not like it one bit.  So we had two choices:  I could spend several months emerged in the world of Gothic history, or… we could write something else, something contemporary.  What it came down to was scheduling.  I had just sent my first manuscript to the agent and Kim was in the revision process of a finalized work, so neither of us were wanting to put off beginning this project for several months, as it is important, (due to the expected dozens of rejections a writer will acquire and the fact that most literary agents demand sole viewing rights to your book), to have more than one manuscript out there circulating at all times.

     So, we settled on what we currently refer to as “Project: Evil Heart,” a kind of he said/she said thriller that, thanks to me, has become more horror and gore than anything, hee hee.  This is the kind of story that I will not be urging my mother to read.  In fact, when I think about that, I cringe.  I have no doubt that Kim and I will both be clobbered by all kinds of criticism when it is complete.  But that is a risk we are both willing to take.

     One thing I didn’t expect when collaborating are all the little differences of understanding.  When my character walks into the same restaurant as Kim’s, it’s interesting to see how different it looks.  To a point, this works.  Our characters are very different from each other, so they are not going to see things the same way, however, there are certain facts that need to be in synch.  If the restaurant has dividers between booths, for example, this can’t change.  If the waiter is a blond guy, no unexplained dye job is going to satisfy the reader it’s the same dude.  This can become challenging.

    Another thing I naively overlooked is the amount of time she and I would spend together.  Our goal is to have this baby ready to be looked at by June 15th of 2011.  That gives us, as of today, just over three months.  We began in January and are just about to the half-way mark so we’re doing pretty good, but there isn’t a lot of time to dilly-dally.   So she and I meet twice a week and not a day goes by without several phone calls or e-mails on the topic.  Right now, Kim is in Las Vegas, and I am stuck on a plot problem.  I need to know if her character answers the phone when mine calls, and if not, why… so I am waiting for her reply to my e-mail and hoping I’m not disrupting her business out-of-state.  These are the challenges.  But I have no complaints.  Our egos are such that we can collaborate with our claws sheathed and our tongues civil.  We have yet to get into even one of the brawls I anticipated when we first began this (well, she did angrily hurl a sizable bag of gummy  bears at my head once, but that had nothing to do with writing… and I deserved it).

    Within the next chapter or two, our characters will meet face to face and this will multiply the time Kim and I spend together.  Then it will literally become a side-by-side enterprise, and it is my hope and belief that we will continue in the same vein of professionalism, respect and allowance of expression that we have thus far. 

     Also, this has been a strain on the people around us.  I am, for the most part, very lucky to be surrounded by a supportive and understanding network of friends and family.  There are those folks though, who take it personally and I don’t know what to say to them except, “I’m sorry.”  There just isn’t any way to do this without sacrificing a hell of a lot of my time.  Those who will understand and accept this, I suppose, are the true friends.  The others will inevitably fall away, bitterly perhaps, but I can’t control their responses.  That’s their bag. 

     Overall, I would say the pros far outweigh the cons.  This is, after all, everything I ever wanted.  Of course, it would be great to be published and that is my ultimate goal, but I try not to get wrapped up in that.  The real joy of this though, is the process, the creativity, the expression.  I need to understand the business side of this, sure, but ultimately, I would rather be at home, “bloodletting” as I’ve come to term it, than twiddling my thumbs waiting for an agent to call, or networking in some hotel somewhere at a writing conference.  But that is a different blog topic entirely.

     As for collaborating, I think it can be done… and well, under the right circumstances.  I am lucky to have had as much opportunity to learn and grow as both a writer and an individual as I have.  Aside from being my mentor and co-writer, Kim is also my friend.  It’s impossible after all, to spend this much time with a person without either loving or hating them to some degree.  It is my sincere hope that this relationship will continue for many years to come.  Not many people have the opportunities I have received. 

     I don’t take that for granted.