This week I’m off to Phoenix Comic Fest, and I can’t seem to access their schedule on their site? So I’m gonna post my (tentative, subject to change) schedule here in the hopes that it will help you Arizona-dwelling pop culture vultures.
HERE BE MY SKED-YOOL, YARRRR
Wednesday, May 23rd
Elevengeddon: A Multi-Author SciFi Event — seriously, tons of authors going to this free SFF bookish event, mega authors like Daniel Jose Older and John Scalzi and VE Schwab and Delilah Dawson and, of course, me bringing down the grade curve.
Please note: you do not need to be attending PHXCF to come to this!
SO YOU SHOULD COME
The Poisoned Pen Bookstore
4014 N Goldwater Blvd
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
Thursday, May 24
PANEL: It’s a Mystery
Location: North 125AB
Description: You don’t have to be the World’s Greatest Detective to attend this panel. Guest Authors will clue you in on the most compelling mystery stories.
Location: North 124AB
With Melinda Snodgrass, Sylvain Neuvel, Jason Fry
Location: Del Rey Booth #1697
With Jason Fry
Friday, May 25
PANEL: It’s the End of the World As We Know It – Apocalyptic Fiction
Location: North 126C
Description: There’s something utterly fascinating about the end of the world. What would it be like to survive the end of civilization and how would we start to rebuild?
Location: Changing Hands Author Signing Area
With Emily Devenport, Alexandrea Monir
EVENT: Drinks with Creators!
Location: North 120CD
Join authors and other creators for a glass or two in an informal setting. Door prizes, giveaways and raffles to support Kids Need To Read.
Saturday, May 26
PANEL: Writers Pay Homage to Their Forerunners
Location: North 126AB
Description: Join Chuck Wendig, Gail Carriger, Katherine Arden and Myke Cole as they talk about the writers that influenced them most.
With Gail Carriger, Myke Cole
Location: North 124AB
Location: Del Rey Booth #1697
With Aaron Mahnke
PANEL: Writers Would You Rather
Description: “Would You Rather” is a hilarious game where your favorite authors get asked questions like, “Would you rather have magic powers only activated by eating kittens or magic powers that could only affect someone’s butt?” In previous years, this game has generated raucous laughter and exposed some interesting things about what our authors would rather do.
Panelists: Chuck Wendig, Scott Sigler
With Alexandra Monir, Melinda Snodgrass and Kristi Charish
Location: North 124AB
Sunday, May 27
PANEL: Star Wars Books
Location: North 126AB
Description: Meet the authors of your favorite stories set A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far Far Away….
Panelists: Jason Fry, Daniel Jose Older, Chuck Wendig, Alan Dean Foster
SIGNING: Star Wars
Location: Del Rey Signing Booth #1697
With Jason Fry, Daniel Jose Older, Chuck Wendig, Delilah Dawson
So that’s that for me in Phoenix. Come say hi! Even if you’re not in Phoenix, get there! Hop a plane! A train! A trans-dimensional desert portal! Or just drop acid and hallucinate me!
I wrote on Twitter this week that one of the chief themes behind the current MCU films is that revenge runs counter to heroism — Tony, Thor, Star-Lord, they fall prey to revenge and it causes them to derail their goals and fail the mission(s) at hand.
I want you to write a story of revenge.
How it ends up is all on you — I’m not asking you to confirm the thesis that it runs counter to heroics, that’s the MCU thing. You can do different, if you choose, but I think a good revenge tale always makes for interesting reading, and fitting it int0 1000 words is an extra special challenge.
Length: ~1000 words
Due by: Friday, May 25th, noon EST
Give a link below.
(Also note that next week there won’t be a flash fiction challenge — I used to try to schedule them while I’m gone, but lately WordPress has had scheduling issues, and gives me an error when I try to schedule half my posts for some reason, and they never go up. I’ll be in Phoenix, AZ, for the Phoenix Comic-Fest.)
And many of you did. Between Twitter and Facebook I stopped counting at 50 attempts by folks to make and enjoy the sandwich, and countable on one hand were those who didn’t actually like it. Those who did like it have joined me at my new cult compound, where we eat the holy sandwich — now dubbed THE WENDIGO, by the way — and we play cornhole (tee-hee) and sing camp songs and go canoeing and also sacrifice the unrighteous to the Antediluvian Sandwich Gods that live underneath the compound and who have been recently awakened by the glory of so many Sanctified Sandwich Eaters having been summoned by the tasty, tasty Wendigo. Or something. I ate some more yard mushrooms so a lot of this might not be real?
Again, to remind you, the now-official Wendigo Sandwich is this:
Peanut butter (crunchy or smooth, but not sweetened, and not too goopy-oily)
Mayonnaise (Duke’s is king, don’t @ me)
Pickles (sweet or dill, your call).
Put it on the bread of your choice (I like sourdough).
BUT OF COURSE, a cult is nothing without its DELICIOUS SCHISMS and SCRUMPTIOUS HERESIES, and in this cult, we welcome such deviations, because we are a cult of deviants. And so, I offer the following Wendigo Configurations, and please feel free to make and try your own, popping them into the comments below. (Sidenote: The Wendigo Configurations is my favorite Robert Ludlum thriller and also the best Mumford & Sons album.)
How you make it spicy is up to you, but here’s my preferred way to kick it the fuck up and make it perform excellent BDSM with your mouth:
Mayo, same. Bread, same. Bacon, same.
Peanut butter? Okay, spicy peanut butters do exist, but you’re gonna just go ahead and make your own — take a couple tablespoons of peanut butter and whisk into it a teaspoon of chili oil and a teaspoon of gochujang. Whisk that shit together.
Feel free to up the spice quantity for, well, a spicier peanut sauce.
Replace bacon with Spam. Make the Spam extra crispy, which I did not do at first, as you can see here in this photo:
Which means yeah, you gotta fry that business. Thin slice. Fry till crisp.
And don’t bring your SPAM SHAME to me — Spam is delicious, and your noxious nose-pinching when I talk about it is classist and you should be ashamed. Not to say you need to like it! But if you’re all elite about it, yeah, you can stow that. Spam is great when fried.
The Spicy Spamdigo
Same thing as above, but dip it in gochujang as you eat it.
Take all of it and put it in a high-test blender and make a smoothie okay ha ha ha Jesus Christ don’t do this this might be a bridge too far even for me.
The Drunken Wendigo: Cocktail Edition
Can we make a cocktail out of this thing? Probably not, but by golly, let’s try.
For bread, we want rye whiskey.
For peanut butter, we shall infuse the rye with peanuts. Let’s go with honey roasted peanuts, for the sweetness. You can also make them yourself, by the way. Then take a cup of them and put them in, I dunno, eight ounces of rye. Or sixteen? I dunno, whatever, we’re making this up as we go and you’re not going to do it anyway. Let it sit for as long as you can muster, maybe 24 hours, then strain a couple times (cheesecloth is your pal).
So, let’s go with 2 oz of whiskey? Maybe 1.5?
For mayo, we’ll do an egg white and lemon juice. (The logic being, mayo is an aioli, and your basic aioli contains egg and lemon.)
Well, okay, if we’re being authentic, you probably want a shot of pickle juice in there. And pickle juice cocktails are actually a thing, soooo. I’d keep the quantity of it low — a half-ounce, maybe. I’ve had pickling juice in a martini and it was way too intense. If you wanna go with just vinegar, instead, you could use apple cider vinegar or aged balsamic vinegar for its sweetness.
You’re basically making a weird whiskey sour.
My guess is you’d put all this shit in a shaker — 1.5 oz of your peanut-infused whiskey, a half ounce of pickle juice or vinegar, the white from one egg, half ounce of lemon juice, and if you didn’t use honey-roasted peanuts in the whiskey then add a bit of sweetness (in the form of honey or maple syrup). Shake shake shake, Senora, shake it all the time. With ice. When cold, pour into a glass. Then you… drink it? I guess?
This started as a joke but it could maybe work…
Testing is required, I think.
Your Turn, Cultist
Got a variant on The Wendigo? Pop it in the comments below. Note that for it to be a proper variant it must still ultimately look like the sandwich — you can’t say, “My variant is tuna, ketchup, Havarti cheese, and bees,” because that’s a whole different sandwich. You’re looking to take one, maybe two of the ingredients, and tweak them by a degree or two — so it resembles the original without being the original.
That photo is of a dandelion gone to seed after a light rain. Gives me the vibe of a UFO coming down though — lights and beams and abduction. That also might be the weird mushrooms in the yard I ate? They just looked so tantalizing!
MISTER STARK I DON’T FEEL SO GOOD
Not much going on here except I am eyeballs-deep into a copy-edit of WANDERERS, a book that will soon have cover copy I can share and also a cover I can share — right now I kinda pitch it as “What if Stephen King and Michael Crichton wrote an epic-length Black Mirror episode?” but that’s not quite right. And saying it’s The Stand meets Station Eleven isn’t quite right either. It’s a little bit The Passage? I dunno. It’s big. It’s sprawly. It’s scary. It has a lot of surprises.
And coming soon too: a cover and copy reveal for Vultures, the sixth (and final, holy shit) Miriam Black novel. That cover I have, and it’s one of the greatest covers I have of all my books — it pops. Adam Doyle knocked it out of the park. Cover release, I think, next week.
Also next week?
I’m at Phoenix Comicfest! I don’t think the schedule there is firmed up, so I’ll share mine next Monday. But be advised that, even if you’re not attending the show, you can attend ELEVENGEDDON, which is a huuuuuuge author event at the Poisoned Pen bookstore. Takes place next Wednesday, 7pm, and contains the following authors (and more):
K. Arsenault Rivera
Victoria (V.E.) Schwab
That’s a lotta damn talent in one room. I only hope I don’t bring the quality down.
Real estate is fascinating. The buying and selling of houses. The buying and selling of homes — not just a place you rest your head, but for some, your heart. And then there’s the potentially criminal aspect. Or the callous capitalist aspect.
And then if you contextualize it across genres — real estate horror, real estate sci-fi, real estate in fantasy, what the hell does that look like?
I dunno. You tell me.
Your job this week is to write about real estate.
In some way.
In some fashion.
Make this strange topic interesting in whatever context you find interesting.
Yigris is a city divided by more than just ideals. Above, ruled by a patriarchal and controlling society has long relied on the matriarchal Under, home of thieves, whores, and assassins for more than just financial gain. When the rulers of Above and Under are both murdered on the same day, their heirs apparent must work together to save their country and themselves.
Gemma, the new Queen of Under, faces loss, betrayal, grief and a transformation into the queen she must be. Tollan, the young King of Above has an even more personal crisis. He’s fallen in love with Elam, a young man trained as a sex-priest in Under, while his city burns and a war threatens to consume them all. And if that wasn’t enough, his mother, a pirate queen who abandoned him years before, has just sailed into port.
My instincts are crap.
The first two manuscripts that I wrote when I finally got “serious” about writing, I went with my gut. Every character, every interaction, every setting, every bit of those books was created entirely by instinct. And then, I did the thing and sent the book out to agents and crossed my fingers and prayed to every god that would have me. And invariably, the response I got was “The writing is great, but the story is pretty basic. I’ve read this before, and it’s not what I’m looking for on my list.” So when I started writing TQU, I made a conscious effort to go against my gut. I pushed aside my ingrained tendencies and inserted a hefty helping of the exact opposite of my gut instinct. It wasn’t just my heroine that got a makeover. The heroes became men who had feelings, who learned to express them, and weren’t afraid to appear soft. They even cry, on occasion. If I was leaning towards using a trope, I turned it on its head. My whore-with-a-heart-of-gold is a man and a priest. My sexy heroine is a plus-sized woman who isn’t ashamed of her body or speaking her mind. And the prince is neither equipped to become King, nor is he a man seeking a damsel in distress. I chose to embrace the opposite of my instincts, and in doing so, I created something different. Something new. In choosing to approach the book in this manner, I was forced to face my own ingrained culpability in the systemic -isms that perpetuate in our society. I was forced to examine why I felt compelled to write a certain scene or a certain character, and what life would be like in a society where things don’t look the same as they do in our world. And though the exercise sometimes chaffed against my usual mindset, it opened my eyes to limitless possibilities, and I hope that Yigris is better for it.
Backup, Backup, Backup!
When I was 65,000 words or so into the first draft of TQU, my laptop crashed. I was writing in Scrivener at the time and I was unaware of the incompatibility of Scrivener to with Google Drive. So, while I thought I’d been backing up effectively, when I logged back onto my traitorous laptop, I learned different. The manuscript was gone. 100% erased from my hard drive, garbled nonsense in my Google Drive. And suddenly, like the revelations of a hundred prophets, I knew that if I’d finished that book, it’d be published, and all my dreams would come true.
I wasn’t a very pleasant person, that day. I was basically a one-woman soap opera, running through the entire range of human emotion all at once. If I’d had super-powers that day, I expect it would be my Super Villain origin story. So obviously, I panicked. I contacted every person I knew that had ever touched a computer and finally, a friend of mine said that I should call Google directly. After about 12 hours, several shots of liquor to calm my nerves, and the assistance of an incredibly understanding guy who worked at Google named Hutch, he was able to help me access a plain text, unformatted version of the manuscript. He emailed the file to me and told me to print right away, because he couldn’t guarantee that the manuscript wouldn’t disappear entirely. I printed out the 200+ pages and sobbed like a baby. Hutch had saved my future bestseller.
I spent a month retyping and reformatting the manuscript, and for obvious reasons, I started using Dropbox. (I also stopped using Scrivener because I had nightmares about it for a while. One day, I’ll be brave enough to give it another try.) In the end, those prophetic panicked thoughts were right. This was the book I would sell and debut with. It was the book of my dreams. And I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that had I truly lost that manuscript, I don’t know if I could have done it again. It might be that Hutch saved my writing career.
Writing isn’t about how you write, it’s about what you write.
When I first started writing TQU, I was a stay-at-home mom, with three of my four kids in school full-time. I had oodles of hours to write. Sometimes whole days, spread out before me like a picnic blanket, waiting for me to dig in. And I was one of those writers who believed, down to my bones, that I would only be able to do the publishing thing if I forced myself to write. Every. Single. Day.
By the time I had finished a first draft and a couple rounds of revisions, my youngest was in school. I had sent it out into the interwebs to hopefully snag an agent, and it was time for me to get back into the world of the employed. So I went back to work. At first, I worked part-time, and I signed with my agent about 6 months after going back at work.
I hadn’t written a useable word in six months.
Then we revised and sent it out on submission and waited, as you do. For me, it was about a year before the whisper of an offer came through. Then another several months doing an R&R, and finally, after nearly 18 months, an offer. I still hadn’t written a damn thing.
And there I was, having just accepted a full-time promotion and having sold my debut novel (yay!) and I started to think, ‘Maybe I’ve only got this one book in me.’
After innumerable rounds of revisions, when the stress of ‘will it sell or will it die?’ had disappeared, I finally began to chip away at a new idea. And you know what?
I wrote another book. Sometimes I wrote for eighteen hours on both Saturday and Sunday, every weekend for a month. And sometimes I didn’t even open the document for four weeks. But eventually, it became a book shaped thing, and I realized that I didn’t have to write every single day to be a writer. I have to write when the ideas won’t simmer anymore and come to a boil. I have to write when I’m able to devote my thought processes to the project at hand, and not the one that hasn’t sold, or the one that I need to revise. I have to write when my job or my kids or my yard work or any of the other responsibilities I have aren’t dragging at my thoughts. Sometimes that happens every day, and sometimes it doesn’t happen for a month, but the fact is, just because my life gets in the way sometimes does not mean that I’m not a writer. If book shaped things eventually come out of my brain, then I am, by definition, a writer.
Pick well the hills you choose to die on.
Just like any baby writer, I had no idea the level of revisions that would need to be tackled before my book would ever see the light of day. Despite being told, time and time again, that I’d have to revise until I couldn’t stand the sight of my own manuscript, I just wasn’t quite prepared for professional revisions. And just like all writers, there were plots, scenes and characters that ended up laying on the revision floor – plots scenes and characters that I loved — elements of the story that I thought were load bearing walls. But there was one thing that, for me, wasn’t up for discussion. It was a minor part of the story. Not even a support wall. But it was an element that I had included for the girl I once was, who had never read that type of scene when she was young. A scene that I needed to exist but had never encountered. And my editor didn’t think it belonged. It wasn’t necessarily a YA theme, and I understood that. But I stood on top of that hill, sword (or pen) in hand, and chose not to budge. It was a risk, since I had no reputation or backlist to support my demands. I argued my case, and explained my reasons, and in the end, my editor came to understand my reasoning. When readers hit that scene, they might shrug and wonder what it’s doing in a YA book, or they might read it and know someone that it has happened to, and understand, just a little. And someday, those young women may be older women who experience something similar, and I want them to know that it can happen to anyone – even heroines – and that it can be overcome. It would have been easy to prune that storyline from the novel, but for me, it was a hill worth dying on. It wasn’t a story I wanted to tell without it.
This isn’t your mother’s YA.
Which leads me to my final point. We live in a world where teen activists are leading the charge for common sense gun control. We live in an America where TEEN VOGUE is doing some of the most subversive and hard-hitting journalism in the nation. We live in a society where young people aren’t protected from the outside world – it’s projected straight into their brain, twenty-four hours a day — via the internet, social media, and traditional media. There has never been a more difficult time to be a teenager, in my opinion.
And like most people my age, my first instinct was to call TQU an adult novel. Despite the fact that many of the characters were just figuring out their place in the world – a clear element in YA – my gut argued otherwise. My instincts said that the nature of the story — the sexual content, the violence, the societal messages – were too dark, and too mature for a YA novel. But as I’ve already stated above, my instincts are garbage. My agent said it was YA. My editor said it was YA. Even my kids said it was YA.
And then I thought back to the books I was reading when I was a “young adult.” Books like ARE YOU THERE, GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET and THE OUTSIDERS. Books that my mom had thought were a little too mature for me. And then, when I got sneakier, I was reading THE THORN BIRDS and FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, books that probably were to mature for me. So, here’s the thing. Young adults have always read the controversial, the dark, and the stories that push the envelope. From TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD to THE KITE RUNNER, SPEAK to THE HANDMAID’S TALE, YA has always been on the edge of what’s “allowed.” Today, we are seeing some of the most progressive leaps in media happening in Young Adult publishing – books like DEAR MARTIN and THE HATE YOU GIVE, THE ART OF STARVING and THE BELLES. Add to that the fact that today’s young people are vastly more informed, vastly more active in the world, and vastly more affected by the world at large, and you begin to see that the teenagers of today can handle things that I couldn’t have dreamed of at their age. Unfortunately, they’ve already been forced to.
When I first finished writing TQU, my gut reaction was, “I don’t want this to just be a YA novel.” But like I said, my instincts are crap, and the more I learn about the teens of today, the more I want to shout, “Hell, yes. This is a YA novel.” I can only hope that I’ve written something to inspire, encourage, or entertain the teenaged superheroes in our midst, because we’ve left them to do the heavy lifting.
* * *
Stacey Filak was born in a small town in Michigan, where she dreamed of hero’s quests, epic battles, and publishing a book. At least a couple of things have come true. She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with her husband and four children, and a menagerie of pop-culture named pets. She manages a veterinary clinic as her day job and aspires to someday write something that means as much to someone else as her childhood favorites mean to her. THE QUEEN UNDERNEATH is her first book.
A mass murder in an ethnic ghetto sparks racial and political tensions that could lead to genocide or civil war on the corporate-controlled planet Gattis. Eric Matheson, an idealistic rookie cop trying to break from his powerful family, is plunged into the investigation in his first weeks on the job in the planetary capital, Angra Dastrelas. A newcomer to the planet, Matheson is unaware of the danger he’s courting when he’s promoted in the field to assist the controversial Chief Investigating Forensic Officer, Inspector J. P. Dillal, the planet’s first cybernetically enhanced investigator. Coming from a despised ethnic underclass, the brilliant and secretive Dillal seems determined to unravel the crime regardless of the consequences. The deeper they dig, the more dangerous the investigation becomes. But in a system where the cops enforce corporate will, instead of the law, the solution could expose Gattis’s most shocking secrets and cost thousands of lives—including Matheson’s and Dillal’s.
Suspense is killing me.
Although it is, at heart, a police procedural, the usual “slow burn” school of suspense is a little too slow for many cross-genre readers. Pacing and world-building can work against each other, since both mystery and science fiction stories require information be shared with the reader in order to “play fair,” keep the reader informed of the essential facts, and build the plot/character tension that propels the story. Information insertion, background “color,” and world context also have to be present, but can really slow things down if they’re lying about in bloody great chunks. It’s a hell of a juggling act; editors have a desire for everything to be clear, but over clarifying undermines suspense and speed, and damned if I didn’t realize how much of that I’d gotten into the habit of doing.
Initially I found it easier to throw all the info into the first draft and then slash mercilessly in the second draft. And the third draft. And the editorial revision. And the copyedit. But I’m finding a more minimal approach better with the next book in the series, writing smaller and adding only where I have to. Whittle each sentence and paragraph as small and tight as possible. Cut every word that doesn’t lift a ton of concept or descriptive work. Eliminate every bridge, set-up, and explanation that can be inferred, suggested, or taken for granted, so you can get to the good parts faster. It’s also more fun to torture the characters, as well as the readers, with minimum information and a lot of uncertainty, which adds to the suspense.
The better your world building, the less it looks like world building.
I got an early review that was critical of the “minimal” world building in Blood Orbit. That was a gleeful moment. The world building is intended to sneak up on the reader and encourage them to see reflections of the real world, so I’m fucking chuffed. But it’s still a beast of a thing to build a whole world and it’s so tempting to put it all on display. Don’t. You don’t even have to know everything about the world you’re writing at the beginning, so long as you understand its essential questions: what’s valuable; who controls it, how, and where does it come from; what about sewage and unpleasant tasks; how does the society deal with all this; what are the wacky things about the world and its history; what is the dominant society’s working premise of the basic nature of humanity (or whatever lifeform it is). Like character, the world you start well will reveal itself over time as you write; yet most of it is the body of an iceberg—90% of it hidden and just waiting for a chance to rip open the Titanic and kill everybody on board (too bad about the artist-fella.) Vary the revelation of your world by breaking it up and scattering it around. Give the obvious out in lots of tiny pieces, like the clear, cold night at sea with the terrible unseen beneath the surface: as character context, implication, demonstration, voice, social hierarchy, food… And only occasional Titanic-sinking.
Politics makes strange (fictional) bedfellows.
Politics and social commentary. Yup. Went there. People who fall in… whatever won’t always have the same ideas about the world, but they can still fuck each other over, no matter how good they are in bed. I took a certain glee in making characters who started out with one set of ideas about other each other and ended up with a different one. It changed the story track I’d originally imagined, and the first redraft was a bugger as a result, but it was worth it. The actual sex scene ended up in the editing bin, even though how they did the horizontal tango was as important as the fact that they did. But I didn’t have to show it to get to the gist—sometimes tell is better than show—especially when you can let the hedging and embarrassing silences do the talking. Putting the political in place of the personal surprised the hell out of me and made the story much more interesting, but it was a tricky bit of revising to hit the sweet spot (hah!) between character motion and mechanical porn.
Changing genres is hard (or not)
A lot of my previous work was fantasy, but the story and the subtext of Blood Orbit were better served with a technological world and the reference base of current reality and human history. So change had to be made. There’s a lot of weight in an established career and byline: you have a reader base, they know and like (and buy) what you write, you have a reputation with reviewers and your part of the publishing world. On the other hand: your reader base has certain expectations, reviewers and other readers have preconceived notions about what you write, and you’re never going to make everyone happy anyhow (get used to it.)
In my case, I chose SF and a pseudonym. I think of it as testing a new product-line. It is a little risky, because I may not reach the additional, new audience I want, and I may lose some of my established reader base. But a clear differentiation between the current work and my previous work has to be made, so the book can find its own audience, and be measured on its own merits. This won’t always be the case for every writer, and it may cease to be the case for me, but right now, it’s the best choice for this book. It wasn’t an easy decision. My agent and I went round it for a long time, weighed the advantages and disadvantages and how “secret” the pseudonym should be and settled on “not too much”—I’m not J. K. Rowling, after all. Readers who already follow my earlier work shouldn’t have difficulty finding the new one if they are interested, and readers who find the book without knowing its connection can like or dislike it for what it is, rather than for what it isn’t.
It’s easy to take success for granted.
I had assumed that a decent degree of success and a long-running series assured my new project would also meet with approval and success. Initially it didn’t. But not because the new book is bad—it’s fucking brilliant if you ask me. My measure of “success” was faulty. I thought of it in terms of money and numbers of units sold, and the amount of those that met my needs. I assumed that and my skill were sufficient and would allow my success to continue because… well. Because.
So, for a while, I looked on the effort as a failure until the book finally found a publisher at its eleventh hour. But success is not in the publication, or the potential sales, or the viability of a long-term series. Success is that I love the end result of the work: this difficult, complex, troublesome, wicked-cool book. It’s not perfect—but it’s pretty damned good and better than anything I’ve done before. I’m not going to lie and say I wouldn’t like to have a pile of money, fans, and the award-night adulation of my peers, but they aren’t necessarily the only way to measure “success.”
* * *
K. R. Richardson is the pseudonym of a bestselling Washington-based writer and editor of Science Fiction, Crime, Mystery, and Fantasy. A former journalist with publications on topics from technology, software, and security, to history, health, and precious metals, Richardson is also a lifelong fan of crime and mystery fiction, and films noir. When not writing or researching, the author may be found loafing about with dogs, riding motorcycles, shooting, or dabbling with paper automata. Learn more at: www.gattisfiles.com
Ladies and gents: the inimitable Alex Segura. And I say he’s inimitable because I’ve tried very hard to be him, but he keeps evading capture. If you see him, bring him to me.
* * *
The 24-hour news cycle.
The shrinking media landscape.
Those darn millennials.
Social media, amirite?
We’ve heard every reason possible for why it’s hard to get any traction for your book – people read less (not true), it’s a conspiracy (rarely, if ever, true), my publisher screwed up (sometimes, but too easy a default setting). The time right before your book launch is fraught with stress, anxiety and anticipation. You’ve put in the hard work, written a book and seen it through every iteration — from nasty first draft to pretty polished oh-my-god-I-cannot-read-this-again final manuscript. You’ve written your guest blogs (yuk yuk), done your interviews, booked events and begged and pleaded with authors you admire to read and blurb your book. It’s the calm before the storm, and damn wouldn’t you just kill for something to do to distract you from the looming launch of Your Very Important Work?
Here’s an idea: plug another writer’s work.
“Huh-what? Why would I do that? This is my time, Alex. MINE.”
I get it, I do. If you’re anything like me, the weeks before launch are loaded with lots of follow-up emails, unhealthy Google searches and nail-biting. This time is all about Your Book and How It Lands. It’s an offshoot of a bigger Please Love Me feeling all authors share to varying degrees. We work hard and want our work to be appreciated and gushed over. It’s kind of why we do it. I just went through it with my new crime novel, Blackout, which comes out…ahem…today!
But here’s the thing: you’re not alone, writer pal. Writing itself is a lonely crusade – done in solitary spaces and in the dark, winding labyrinth that is our own whacked out headspace. If you’re a novelist, you probably don’t even share what you’re working on until the first draft is done – an arduous, drawn-out process that could take months or years. And now, as you peek out from your little blanket fort, the laptop closed and file sent off to the publishing gods, you wonder – what’s out there? How can I get people to read this damned thing? Hello? Is this thing on?
The sad reality is, there’s no magic bullet. There isn’t a single, definitive thing that will ensure your work gets in front of readers beyond, well, the work itself. Make it good. Make it sing. Labor over it. Write it. Rewrite it. Read it aloud. Edit it. Cut from it. Send it to people you trust not to BS you and do it all over again. Keep doing that until the finished product is something you’d read and enjoy, then do it all over again. That’s the stuff you can control. The rest? Like “building your brand,” “marketing” or “going viral”? That’s all out of your control. Now, you can and should do the things put in front of you – interviews, blog posts, events, you get it. Do it all. But do it with the knowledge that if your book does resonate – if it does catch fire – it’s not because you did 100 blog posts or sent out 1m tweets. It’s because the book is good, people are liking it and spreading the word. What matters is the work.
Which brings me back to this moment. You’re feeling stressed. You’re wringing your hands. You’re waiting and waiting for this damn book to come out already. What are you supposed to do?
Promote another writer.
Talk about the book your reading now. Talk about an author friend who has a new book coming out. Share the cover of a book you got in the mail. Let people know about the books you love. All (good) writers are avid readers, too, and that’s a wonderful, warm and welcoming community – embrace it. It’s a surefire way to clear your head and get your mind off the stuff you have very little control over.
Case in point: every few weeks, I send out a tweet reminding people that Amazon and Goodreads reviews matter. They do. They help improve book visibility and help authors get eyeballs on their books. I don’t link to my books. I don’t demand that people say nice things about books they review. I just ask that people talk about books more. Share what you’re experiencing and reading. Spread the word. Let an author know that something they wrote resonated with you. I’m not pointing to this tweet as a great example of anything, it’s just a little something I like to do that helps remind folks that there are people behind the books they read, and those people would like to write more books for more people to read.
Kind of like you, huh?
So when the stress of working on your own stuff is eating your insides, step back and think about the stuff that made you want to write your own work in the first place. Think of the last book that made you sit up and take notice. List some of the authors you’re eager to see more from. Cruise your bookshelf and see what the DNA of your current book looks like. Then talk about it and spread the word. It’s the least you could do.
* * *
Alex Segura is a novelist and comic book writer. His latest installment in the Pete Fernandez Miami Mystery series, Blackout, is out today from Polis Books.
One of the questions I get most frequently over email is this:
What should I write?
The question presumably meaning, what kind of thing should I write? What genre? What story? Maybe it’s the first thing you’re ever going to write. Maybe it’s just the next thing in a long line of written things.
And the answer to this question is simple.
That answer is:
How the fuck should I know?
I mean, I’m not you. At least, not until I get my SOUL TRANSPLANT HELMET working, but that’s at least five years off — maybe seven if Elon doesn’t call me back (seriously, Elon, get your shit together, gimme a ring, Musk). Because I am (presently) not you, I have no idea what you should write. Because the advice of what to write is not a thing that has an easy answer — or, really, any answer. You want the answer to be something concrete, something that is the result of plugging variables in and punching the CALCULATE STORY button, but no such thing exists. You can’t “run the numbers” and end up with the perfect answer (“Ah! I should write — let’s see, mumble mumble, carry the three, put the DNA on the slide, shake the shoebox with the cat inside of it, et voila — I should write The Terminator meets The Gilmore Girls as if written by Mary Shelley. Bestseller status, here I come.”)
It doesn’t work like that.
But what I can do is tell you how I come to terms with what I should write next. Because this isn’t a question just some writers have — it’s a question that plagues us all, I think. It plagues us at the start. It plagues us throughout our career. It plagues n00bs, midlisters, even bestsellers. It plagues traditionally-published authors and indie authors. It is a question I ask myself even as I’m writing one thing because I always need to know what’s next? And what’s next after that? If this book is successful, what else can I write in that vein? If it tanks, how do I move to an adjacent track that still makes sense? Where am I? Why am I wearing pants? Is this a curse? Did I spit in the Pants God’s eye? WHY HAS THOU FORSAKEN ME, OH PANTSLESS PANTHEON
Here is what I do to determine what I’m gonna write next.
First, fuck your brand.
I know, I know. But seriously, any brand you have in mind is a box, a fence, a limitation. Said it before, will say it again, but a brand is the thing a farmer sears into the ass of his livestock to make sure they don’t stray.
If I thought about my brand I’d never write anything.
Second, it bears mentioning that I no longer write my ideas down. I used to. I used to hoard them like jewels until I realize they weren’t gems — they were bits of aquarium gravel. They’re dross, they’re dribble, they’re just a building material like dirt or concrete. Not valueless! But also not precious. Ideas ping my brain daily the way we’re all pelted by solar radiation. I submit ideas to Idea Thunderdome, and only those ideas that emerge victorious — by which I mean, they are persistent, like carpenter bees thumping against the window-glass — get to stay. And even then, I don’t write them down. If the idea is good, it will continue to percolate. It will bother me. It will live with me, lingering in my head like a beautiful or traumatic memory.
I usually have four or five of these ideas swirling around my head at any given time. Fireflies in a fucking jar. So, when it comes time to figure out what I want to write — I look at these effulgent little weirdos to see if there’s anything there, and if there is, I pluck it out, smash its glowy butt, and smear the bioluminescent innards onto my face like phosphorescent war paint.
If there’s not, or if I remain uncertain, onto step three:
I ask myself two questions.
a) What is exciting me right now? I don’t mean that way — not “in-the-pants-excited,” because if we’re talking about underwear excitement, I’d be writing fan-fiction about shirtless Thor and Cate Blanchett as Hela and also Loki and definitely Valkyrie and, inexplicably, the ghost from Booberry? I dunno. Don’t kinkshame me, you monsters.
No, what I mean is, what’s geeking me out right now? Not pop culture geekery, but topic geekery. You can look through my books and see the things I’m feeling dorky about at any given time — birds! ants! hackers! agriculture! mythology! — and see how that translated into those stories. Basically, I just want to be interested in something, because that gives me a reason to research it and involve myself in it and then be passionate about it on the page.
Like, have you ever been sitting down with a friend or loved one or captive enemy and you’re all like, “Man, I just read the CRAZIEST THING today, Elon Musk and this guy named Chnurk Mandog are inventing some kind of soul-stealing helmet or maybe it’s a body-snatching helmet I’m not really sure?” And you just wanna keep talking about that really cool thing? Yeah, put in a pin in those kinds of topics. If something gets you all nerdy, that’s a thing you might wanna fold into your work at some point, and it can help form the skeleton that will support the flesh of an idea, narratively.
b) What is bothering me right now? I don’t mean “that rash” or “mosquitoes,” but I’m asking you to identify something that’s troubling you. Something that’s making you scared. Or upset. Or anxious. Something that’s scratching at your brainstem like a sick rat. Again, you can look to my work and find the deeper, scarier shit (death! surveillance! artificial intelligence! class warfare!) that serves as my effort to… make sense of it. Not for you. But for me. Fiction is a great way to explore the snarliest, gnarliest depths of That Which Troubles You, just as it’s a great place to explore the heights of That Which Geeks Your Ass Out.
And fiction is best, for me, when it’s combining those things.
If it’s just troubling stuff, it ends up dour, dire, not much fun.
If it’s just the geekery nerdery excitement, then it’s light, or twee, or conflict-free.
The first is too deep, too dark.
The latter too shallow, too bright.
For me, it’s the perfect combination to find the next damn thing to write.
And here you might be saying, WHOA WHOA WHOA, WHY ARE YOU NOT TELLING ME TO CONSIDER MY CAREER, OR THE MARKET, OR TO CONSULT THE ORACLES OF PUBLISHING.
Listen, you can care about that stuff.
Maybe you even should, I dunno. It’s certainly not the worst idea to try to imagine what things might sell and what things might not. But… the reality is, nobody actually knows anything? I’ve made this point before but it demands a return visit: nobody knows anything inside publishing. They can make guesses. Many can make educated guesses based off insight and experience. But there’s no answer. And by the time you actually write the thing that might serve the market, the market will have changed. As I’ve said before, you’re aiming your spaceship at a star that has already burned out — the light from it just hasn’t caught up yet. The market is an unknowable entity. It is a lightless, doom-filled eye whose only language is chaos. It’s Sauron, it’s the Death Star, it’s Kanye West’s Twitter account. My advice is to stay away from it.
And this is where I exhort you yet again to say fuck you to branding. Because branding is you imagining yourself in relation to the marketplace. It leaves little room for you to be you, or for you to explore these questions that are uniquely your own. It leaves room for you to Provide Content, but that’s it. There’s little passion there. Little interest. Little fear. It’s finding a market niche and filling it with whatever narrative widget or story hamburger you choose to provide.
Do not worry about brand.
Worry about voice.
Voice meaning, who you are as an author. What things that speak to you as an author, and that will end up on the page because you just can’t help but put them there.
Of course, all of this is useless to you if branding is exactly what you want. And that’s okay if it is what you want — no harm, no foul, if it makes you happy. But for my mileage, the market is so unknowable, and this career so unpredictable, you might as well give writing to your own needs and desires a healthy shot.
So, when it comes down to the question of, what do I write next?
Return to this post.
Maybe it will help you.
Maybe it won’t.
Can’t hurt to try, though, can it?
* * *
DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative
What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho’okipa Beach have in common? Simply put, we care about them.
Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.
Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, video game, or comic, this funny and informative guide is chock-full of examples about the art and craft of storytelling–and how to write a damn fine story of your own.
You’re thinking, as I thought: well, that’s fucking gross.
I mean, shit, I like pickles. I like peanut butter. I am nothing if not a fanboy for bread. But my brain could not get around globbing these things together into a single Combiner Transformer in order to eat it. It seemed like some kind of heresy.
Let’s rewind a little.
The PB & Pickle sandwich got some love thanks to a recent NYT appearance. And initially, I assumed the NYT was just being the NYT, which meant it was offering treasonous nightmare opinions, probably either to troll us or to ruin democracy. And this sandwich definitely felt like a democracy-ruiner.
Just the same, I am wont to chastise my child — you can’t say you don’t like something without first trying it. And in the last ten years, I’ve come happily to terms that most of the things I feared were gross were… nnyeah, actually pretty dang tasty. Sweetbreads? (Spoiler: not actually bread.) Delicious. Spam? Amazing. Sushi? What the fuck was I thinking not eating sushi? Bugs? Hell yeah I’ll eat bugs. I ate a chapulines taco and it was legit wonderful.
So, I thought, I can eat this fucking sandwich, and it’ll be weird, and I can tweet about it, and my Twitter feed for five minutes will be a hilarious respite from the neverending DIPSHIT WATERGATE that is the true Infinity War.
I made one:
You can see what pickles and PB I used — the bread was a sourdough.
I made it.
I took a bite.
And whoa wait what the fuck.
It was good.
No — it was actually pretty great.
Here’s why it’s great — first, it does the thing that you might find in, say, Thai food, or some Vietnamese food — you’ve got sour and savory, plus the fattiness of the peanut butter (not to mention the salt), and the pickles bring some nice crunch. It’s eerily satisfying. And it helps then too to decouple your assumption that PEANUT BUTTER = SWEET, because it ain’t. Think satay. Normal peanut butter is savory as shit, we just happen to use it a lot with sweet things, combining it with jelly or chocolate or honey or whatever.
So, then authors-extraordinaire Kevin Hearne and Adam Rakunas said, no no no, you need food lube for that sandwich, and they said the true magic is adding in mayo to that motherfucker —
What ha ha no, that’s a bad idea, don’t do that, don’t add mayo. Like, what? Who hurt you? How did you get this way? I’m not a mayo-hater, I mean, I’m a white guy, it’s literally in my blood, but at the same time, I’m not cuckoo bananapants. I’m not putting that goop on this already-wonderful sandwich and OH FINE FUCK IT I decided to try it.
Duke’s mayo, of course —
And whoa wait WHAT FOOD FUCKERY IS THIS because…
…because it also was great. Maybe even better.
The mayo was food lube. It made the sandwich even more sandwichy.
So, a week or so later, I ran a couple miles, felt pretty good, decided to have a treat, and weirdly, my mind ran to this sandwich. As a reward. I had been reprogrammed — brainwashed! — by this sandwich to consider it a trophy. My brain said, “That sounds like a way to treat yourself.” So I decided to make one. Except… oh, hey, what’s this? I have some extra bacon in the fridge? Ha ha, okay, listen, I am generally of the belief that bacon is an overdone food fad. “Put bacon in it” is a lazy way of making something hipstery and salty and meaty, and generally a good way to overpower a thing with little nuance. At the same time, it’s… also tasty. Bacon is nummy. I like bacon. And I figured I’d slap some bacon on this mad motherfucker of a sandwich —
And by all the saints and all the sinners, all the gods and all the devils, this is a truly sublime sandwich. It is satisfying on a deeply primal, weird level I can barely begin to describe — salty, crunchy, a bit sweet, a lot sour, it’s like a FLAVOR PINBALL going full-tilt in your happy mouth.
Since then, others have hit me up on Twitter with their attempts at making one of these bastard sandwiches and then eating it — and I’d say 90% of the time, people expected to be revolted, but actually really dug it. A lot of folks also added their own delightful ingredients, too: Spam, bacon-flavored Spam, turkey bacon, other pickled veggies, Miracle Whip, jelly, bologna. And it’s versatile, as well — you can go from sweet to dill, you can use all kinds of different bread choices, different meat, different kinds of peanut or nut butters.
And you have to try it.
You don’t get to say it’s gross until you try it.
Because that’s a lesson even my soon-to-be-seven-year-old knows: you can dislike something after you’ve tried it, but not before. Because a lot of foods in particular seem pretty gross. I mean, cheese? Cheese, if you have never before beheld it, is nasty. My understanding is that some cultures view our consumption of cheese the same way we view the consumption of bugs, or stinky tofu, or rotten fish — I mean, cheese is like, THERE’S A BIG LUMBERING ANIMAL, GO SQUEEZE ITS TEATS, GET THE LIQUID, BUT THEN YOU WANNA CURDLE IT WITH ACID, AND THEN YOU WANNA LET IT SIT WHERE IT’LL GET SOUR AND WEIRD, AND SOMETIMES YOU REALLY WANT SOME MOLD TO GROW ON IT, OR EVEN THROUGH IT, AND SOMETIMES IT SMELLS LIKE A DEAD GUY’S FEET BUT HERE, EAT SOME.
Fish sauce is basically, hey, let fish get so rotten that they liquefy, now, put that rotten fish liquor on some rice, mmm.
Meat is, hey, kill that thing, bleed it out, then press fire to its carcass, then eat its carcass.
Eggs: “Hey, this oblong object fell out of that chicken’s nebulous under-hole, maybe it’s a baby, maybe it’s not a baby, but I’m gonna go ahead and open it up and pour the bird-snot I find inside into a hot pan, get it sizzlin’, see what happens.”
Honey? BEE VOMIT.
So, food is fucking weird.
Get past that.
Make the sandwich.
Try the sandwich.
I’ll wait here. Report back.
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