Thursday, August 26, 2010

Writing: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Now and again, I get interviewed for this and that. Most recently, for somebody's webzine, and they asked some questions that, odd as it may seem, nobody had ever asked me before:

What are the best things about being a writer? The worst things?

The good first: I make up stories. I get to sit in my office at home, whatever hours I want to keep, dressed however I want, and I tell tales and now and again, somebody sends me money for this. You can't beat that with a stick.

I get to entertain people, and occasionally, inspire them. I love hearing from readers about how they stayed up half the night because they couldn't put down one of my books without finishing it.

Sometimes, I hear from somebody who says my stuff inspired them to do something. I got a great note from a bouncer once, told me he used some of the material I had my bouncers using in the Matador books. Had a couple folks say they got into writing because of a book I wrote.
Had martial artists name things after my made-up arts or characters.

I had a multimillionaire New York Times Bestselling writer gush over my Batman animation episodes. I've had women tell me that my strong female protagonists were role models.

I've gotten nasty letters taking me to task for killing off a favorite character. And that's good -- if somebody cares enough about a fictional character to get upset when they die? You're doing your job. Unless that turns them into stalkers, of course -- remember Misery ...

Google "Pentjak silat in fiction" and five of the first six links lead to something I wrote. I can brag that the Tom Clancy Net Force series probably exposed more readers to the Javanese version of our art in this country than any other novels, before or since. I know people who took up the art because they read about it there.

I've gotten to play in shared universes and create backstories for characters I loved reading about or seeing onscreen: From Bruce Wayne, to Conan, the Ghostbusters, Ellen Ripley, Luke, Leia, Han, Darth, and Chewy. I know from Indiana Jones's hat and handgun.

I've gotten to meet writers I've admired and talk to them as peers. I did an autographing at Disneyland. Was once picked up in a limo for an autograph session. Sat in a projection room on a major Hollywood studio lot and had a private screening of a movie-in-progress so I could do the book tie-in.

Those are perks.

Bad stuff? Well, rejections, of course. You labor over a story or a book or script, polish it up, and ship it out, and it falls short. Doesn't work for editors or producers, and while they often will tell you why it doesn't work for them, sometimes they can't, or it's something you can't fix. Those go into a drawer -- never throw anything away, because what goes around sometimes comes around. I know a guy came up with the general idea for YouTube -- had streaming videos and all, but it was in the dial-up days. Sometimes there's nothing wrong with a piece save that it is ahead of its time.

And cash flow can be iffy. Nobody in the book biz ever issues paperwork on time -- if you are due a royalty and the statement is supposed to be out in June, you are lucky to see a check or statement until September. Money comes in chunks, and a big piece of it right off the bat has to be stashed for taxes. Whatever your bracket.

When you work in a shared universe, you have to remember that it is their toy, and even if you are sure your way is better -- cleverer, or funnier, or whatever -- they get the final thumb-up or down. I've had a couple of great scenes in books I had to cut that I was certain would have made the books better. You can argue, but in the end, it's up to them, and you have to go with that.

You have no objectivity about your own stuff. Sometimes books you think will bowl everybody over don't take off. They hit the racks and disappear. And sometimes books you don't expect anything from will sell better than you thought, so this one is mixed.

The ugly ...

Well, there are always things you can't control, and maybe the worst of these is dead air. An acceptance is great. A rejection is bad. But when you send something out and nobody responds? That doesn't help at all. Did they hate it? Or did they like it but for some reason couldn't accept it? Is it me? Them? What? What?

When Stephen King talks about creating scary monsters, he allows that the one you don't see is always scarier than the one you do see. If a ten-foot-tall monster pops up, a reader or viewer might say, "Oh, yeah, well, but I was expecting a hundred-foot-tall monster, so it's not so bad."

Give them a hundred-foot-tall one? They were looking for an even bigger one.

Give them one they can't see? You partner with their imagination and that can be much scarier.

Dead air works on your imagination ...

In Hollywood, such is SOP. You work on a script, everybody loves it, they love you, everything is beautiful, you turn in the draft, and --

-- the phone stops ringing. Your email announcer doesn't chime. Might as well have stuck the script in a bottle and tossed it into the ocean. The default position is, of course, that they didn't like it. Because if they did, they'd still be calling to talk about it. But if they don't like it, nobody wants to say that, maybe hurt your feelings, and get cast as the bad guy, so they just don't speak to it at all. Doesn't do any good to call or email to check, because they won't answer those, either. It's frustrating, but it's part of the biz.

Usually in the magazine or book circles, it doesn't happen that way, though I've been hearing through the grapevine from other writers that such a thing is becoming more common. Having had a little brush with that myself, I find it unsettling: Hey, here's an idea, whaddya think?

Dead air ...

There are other ugly things, ranging from defaults on contracts, to outright scams, and you have to be aware of these. If you sign a book deal, don't go out and start looking for that new car until the check clears -- especially in Hollywood. No matter how enthusiastic an editor, publisher, or producer is, no matter how much they wax about how the project is a go, here is the bottom line: It ain't a done deal until your check clears. Don't spend a dime of that theoretical money until it is in your hot little hand. Trust me. I've been there, and I know other writers who have, too. The contract is signed, the money is practically on its way, and oops, here's a problem, um ... the deal is, alas, off, sorry ...

I could go on, but that's enough. These are the big highs and lows for me, and they happen to every writer I know at one time or another, so if you are experiencing the good, congratulations. If you are dealing with the bad or the ugly, don't take it personally. As long as you are buying a ticket, you have a shot at winning the lottery, no matter how small.

If you quit, you can't win. Don't give up.


Kris said...

"I can brag that the Tom Clancy Net Force series probably exposed more readers to the Javanese version of our art in this country than any other novels"

Yes, you can. My buddy is in his third year of silat and kali, thanks to The Net Force series (the similarities to sumito made it irresistible, it seems). It is, by far, his favorite art that he's studied.

Shady_Grady said...

If you had the capital and/or interest to self-publish do you think that would be a good thing or bad thing for you-considering your statement about objectivity.

How would your writing have changed , if at all?

Steve Perry said...

At this point, I think whatever I self-publish would be professional and readable. Bristlecone, my old spies novel, and Master of Pamor are two books I've done that way, and I'm pleased with both of them. They said what I wanted to say, and, I think, pretty well.

Mostly, the books I've done on my own have been edited lightly, and that tells me I'm not too far off the mark.

If you can tell a story, that's the main thing. Everything I've done could have been brushed up and made better, but several of the books sailed through with nothing but copy editing.

Not to say I never need an editor, but after sixty-odd novels, I have a little feel for the craft.

Steve Perry said...


But for a beginner, self-publishing could be a trap -- if you can't tell when you are making mistakes, those will get translated. Having a good reader to offer suggestions would be useful, but even then, a "good reader" is not the same as a good editor. I've seen book mss by folks read by folk who offered help, but who missed some basic beginner errors -- or didn't want to point them out -- which is the same difference in the end result.

Many new writers make the same mistakes because nobody ever told them. Said-bookisms and adverbial swifties are common, but easy to fix. Have a look:

Turning around, Tom was surprised to see her behind him. "OMG -- what are you doing behind me?!" Tom queried wonderingly.

"Oh, well, whatever -- it's good to see you," he rasped contentedly.

If those sentences work well for you? You need an editor.