On the face of it, it hasn’t taken me that long to write any of my books. The long short stories are very quick: I wrote the first draft of 1NG4 in about three days last year, and had it published in a couple of weeks. Vespasian Moon’s Fabulous Autumn Carnival took about two weeks to write, and about a month before I finally published it.
As for novels, I started writing The House of Teufelvelt in mid-February, and had it finished by late July or early August. And The Directorate, my longest book, as I have recounted before, I started on August 17, 2017, and finished a first draft by October 5 of that year. For the next two months, I did revisions and gathered feedback, before publishing it in January.
Looking at the start and end dates of when I began writing something and when I finished, it seems logical to conclude that a long short story takes about a month to produce, and a novel takes maybe 4-5 months. Not too bad, right?
Except this is deceptive. Because when I first began putting down the words on what would eventually become a recognizable first draft of something is not really when I started working on it.
Take 1NG4: I’d wanted to do a weird, cyberpunk-ish story full of mystery and conspiracies for years before writing that. My 2014 novella Start of the Majestic World is a primitive forerunner of it. The November before I wrote it, I wrote a complete first draft of another story full of weird conspiracies and hints of the paranormal. And I was completely unsatisfied with it. Only one line from it lives on in 1NG4.
Vespasian Moon’s Fabulous Autumn Carnival is another example: I’d been obsessed with doing a story about a mysterious cryptid living in rural hill country since reading Lovecraft’s TheWhisperer in Darkness in 2009, and doubly so after discovering the Mothman legend in 2013. A lot of the scenery and descriptions came from trips to West Virginia and Southern Ohio made in 2012 and 2015. (Again, my less-successful attempts at these ideas appear in Majestic World.)
With novels, it gets even more dramatic: The House of Teufelvelt was also the title of a short unpublished novella I wrote in 2013. It also featured a character with a dark past named Roderick Teufelvelt, a place called Leviathan State University, and a few other shared story elements. But it was very different in a number of ways, and I was a not happy with it, even after reading every bit of Gothic literature I could find for inspiration. I had to let it simmer a bit, and come back with a fresh perspective.
Taking this more expansive view, the true “production time” on 1NG4 goes from two weeks to at least five years, Teufelvelt’s goes from six months to six years and Vespasian Moon’s goes from one month to ten years.
And then, of course, there’s The Directorate. I’ve discussed this before, but to recap: In 2002, I tried making a stop-motion film with action figures about a station, accessible by a space elevator, that had an ulterior purpose unbeknownst to most of the occupants. In 2007, I made another animated film around the same theme. In 2012, I wrote yet another outline of the same plot, but eventually abandoned it.
I essentially kept playing with the same idea for fifteen years before I finally told the story in a way that satisfied me. I didn’t realize this until after publishing The Directorate, but in retrospect, it looks as if I was on a schedule where I would try telling a new version every five years. That wasn’t deliberate, though; it just worked out that way.
In summary, while the time from when I began writing might seem short, in reality there is a much longer, less obvious stage of storytelling, during which ideas get generated, examined, changed, and in some cases, thrown out and replaced with new ones.
This isn’t a huge revelation. Indeed, it may seem quite obvious to creative types. But to their audiences, it may be completely invisible. This, incidentally, is probably why sequels are almost never as good as originals, and why artists so often “burn out” at some point in their careers: they amass a stock of ideas they work on in the back of their minds for years, and finally are able to mold them into a coherent whole, which they are able to show to the world. And if their work is popular, people immediately want more, not realizing that what they have just enjoyed is the result of years, or perhaps decades, of the creator tweaking various aspects of a concept.
It’s commonplace to hear of creative people being “out of ideas” or feeling like they’ve lost their creative energy. I wonder if this is actually because it’s not obvious, even to them, how long it takes their mind to create ideas. I know I didn’t realize how long I’d worked on some ideas until I made a conscious effort to remember. An analogy: if you were used to going out to harvest the crop from a flourishing garden, and then one day you arrived to find that it was all gone, it would be kind of a shock, especially if you’re not aware of how the growing process works.
Generating ideas—for stories, for music, for art, for new inventions—takes a long time. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that our brains do it best when it’s not their primary focus. The idea of a flash of inspiration is largely an illusion—but it’s a powerful illusion, because the moment the “missing piece” clicks into place and you have a great idea is so exhilarating that it feels as if it just came to you all of sudden, rather than being the last step in a long, laborious process.
So if you’re having trouble coming up with ideas, a good cure can be to revisit old ideas you hadn’t thought about in a long time. If you’re a creative person, and I think everyone who reads this blog is, you very likely have some. In fact, you might even have some you didn’t remember you had. While I was working on this post, I suddenly remembered the existence of a short story of mine that I had completely forgotten about. It’s an uncanny feeling, reading something you know that you wrote, and all the time wondering Why did I write that?
But uncanny is good.It means you’ve found something interesting. Which is why it pays to revisit your old ideas—it’s the best way our minds’ have of looking at something from the perspective of the creator and the audience at the same time.
It’s a gloomy, wet, unseasonably warm night here in Ohio. It feels like a good night to write a story, although I’m not sure what it would be about. But it set me thinking about how the immediate environment can influence one’s writing.
For example, I’ve never been to sea. I was on a boat in Lake Erie a couple of times, and I’ve been to the beach twice. So when I wrote 1NG4, I mostly used my imagination–but I did go down to a bridge over a river the day I wrote the first half of the story. I stood around, soaking in as much detail as I could. Doing that helped me write some of the description of the sun reflecting off the water.
Another example: for the scene in Vespasian Moon that takes place inside the title character’s cabin, I purposely stayed up much later than I normally do, turned out all the lights except for a flickering jack-o’-lantern, and then wrote the scene. That helped me with describing the way the shadows on the wall moved in the candlelight.
As someone who has long struggled with writing description, I’ve found this is a helpful trick. Of course, it has its limits. I doubt I’ll be traveling to any other planets to get the vibe I want for my science fiction stories.
This film is the apex of horror for me. It’s about an American diplomat named Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) who gradually comes to believe that his son is the antichrist. As eerie events surrounding the child escalate, spearheaded by the mysterious governess, Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), he eventually becomes convinced he has to take drastic measures to save the world from Satanic annihilation.
This film was made as part of the 1960s-’70s spate of what MAD magazine called “Devil Flicks”—demonic horror movies kicking off with Rosemary’s Baby and most famously represented by The Exorcist. People often call the latter one of the scariest films of all time, but in my opinion, it’s just a distasteful exercise in gross-out scenes and cheap parlor trick special effects.
The Omen isn’t like that. Oh, sure; it still involves a child who is somehow an agent of Satan, but what I like is that nothing he does is clearly supernatural. The most action we ever see Damien take is throw a tantrum when he is near a church. But even that isn’t necessarily unusual behavior for a small child.
The horrific things are what unfold around Damien—the mysterious black dogs that appear, the way other animals seem to fear the child, and of course, Mrs. Baylock, the seemingly sweet but also sinister woman who cares for the boy.
Think about the level of confidence this takes. It’s easy for a writer to make the villain a winged demon, or a hideous ogre, or some other well-worn theatrical manifestation of evil. The on-screen antagonists in The Omen are (1) a five-year-old kid (2) a quiet, polite woman and (3) some dogs. That doesn’t sound particularly scary, but they make it work—thanks in large part to Whitelaw, who was a terrific actress capable of conveying subtle menace with just a look.
Now, while the film isn’t a gore-fest, there are still some violent scenes. The most shocking is probably the suicide by hanging early on, though perhaps the impalement midway through or the decapitation or the death by plunging from a tall building close to the end are worse. But while these are powerful and disturbing, they aren’t what make the movie scary. What makes it scary is the slowly growing feeling of menace as Thorn, with the help of photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner), gradually pieces together the eerie coincidences and unsettling circumstances surrounding Damien’s birth. Starting with the scene in the obsessed priest’s apartment—wallpapered with Bible verses and newspaper clippings, like any good conspiracy theorist’s would be—there’s a part of the film that’s basically a horror road picture, culminating in what might be the creepiest revelation of all, set in an Etruscan cemetery.
And the soundtrack! I’ve talked about this before; but I can’t overstate how terrifying it is. Just the opening theme by itself is scarier than all but about a half-dozen of the horror films I’ve ever seen. It’s bone-chilling.
Now, there’s the elephant in the room: the religious themes of this film. It’s about the Antichrist, so naturally, the film is filled with references to scripture, in particular the Book of Revelation, and it tracks fairly closely with the prophecies recorded in the final book of the Bible.
Did I say “tracks fairly closely?” Sorry, no—what I meant was, hasn’t really got much of anything to do with it at all.
The main prophecy that the film wants us to believe Damien is fulfilling is this poem, which Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) quotes to Thorn:
When the Jews return to Zion
And a comet rips the sky
And the Holy Roman Empire rises
Then you and I must die.
From the eternal sea he rises,
Creating armies on either shore,
Turning Man against his brother
Till Man exists no more.
He says this, and then adds, almost as an aside to himself “The Book of Revelation predicted it all.” Troughton really sells this line too, like the Biblical scholar just can’t get over the uncanny way events are playing out just as scripture foretold.
He says it so convincingly that I totally believed it. It was decades before I discovered that the poem is, in fact, completely made up for the movie and has basically nothing to do with the Book of Revelation. In fairness to me, I saw The Omen for the first time as a 12-year-old kid who most certainly would never win any prizes for scripture knowledge. (And yes, I know the movie is R-rated and a 12-year-old really shouldn’t see it. But that is also exactly why 12-year-old me just had to see it!)
The only real ties the movie has to anything Biblical is the quote from Revelation 13:18 at the very end: “Let him that hath understanding count the number of the Beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is six hundred threescore and six.” And, as we’ve just seen, Damien has the mark of the Beast on his scalp.
So, yeah. A number. That’s basically all they used from the Bible—that, and of course a bunch of religious imagery. Damien is scared of churches. A church steeple gets struck by lightning. Damien’s shadow forms an inverted cross in the opening credits. There are a bunch of references to the Christian religion and symbols, but really none of it feels integral to the plot. In principle, I think you could, without too much effort, make Damien an avatar of Nyarlathotep or some other “generic” evil instead.
You see, fiction writers love prophecies. I think it’s because it can help to give your story weight if you say it’s all the fulfillment of something foretold long ago. But you have to be careful, because if you just make up a prophecy out of nowhere, it feels contrived and silly. (Hello, Anakin Skywalker, the “Chosen One!”)
The Omen’s fundamental trick is to take a prophecy that has rather a lot of cultural clout backing it up. Christian texts are so familiar to virtually everyone in the United States, Christian or not, that it gave the movie instant weight. You don’t have to be Christian to know 666 = Bad News.
I can see that Christians might be offended by this, since this film is essentially trading on their holy texts in order to give extra weight to the apocalyptic plot. And, weirdly, I can also see how non-Christians might be offended because the film seems to implicitly endorse Christianity… kinda.
I tried reading the Book of Revelation as a kid after I saw The Omen. Couldn’t make heads or tails out of it, even though I think the Biblical Beast is supposed to have lots of both. Although I think that might be a metaphor? Anyway, you see what I’m saying: I was not cut out to be a Biblical scholar.
But getting bogged down in ecclesiastical scholasticism is just not what this movie is really about. The religious imagery is just a convenient shorthand for Good and Evil.
The Omen is really about a child who, for various reasons, a bunch of people believe is going to destroy the world. The child himself never does anything especially out of the ordinary. And this fact lends itself nicely to my personal hobby: alternate interpretations of movies.
Come on; you knew it was coming.
Father Brennan thinks Damien is going to destroy the world and tries, in his own cryptic, abrasive way to prevent it, in the process bringing all sorts of bizarre ideas to Thorn’s attention. Mrs. Baylock thinks Damien is going to destroy the world, and is all about keeping him alive so he can do it. All of this triggers a weird and ultimately tragic series of events, but at no point does Damien deliberately do anything evil. (He does seriously injure his mother, but that is obviously orchestrated by Mrs. Baylock.)
Now, as much as I would love to argue for this being one of those unreliable narrator deals where there’s nothing supernatural going on at all, there’s just no way to make that case. There’s no rational way to account for stuff like the weird images that Jennings captures in his photographs or six Rottweilers showing up staging an ambush in an ancient cemetery. Clearly, some sort of unseen malevolent power is at work in this universe.But is it really Damien? Or is he just an innocent kid, caught up in events beyond his control that make people around him do insane things? The film doesn’t say.
Well… okay, this film doesn’t say. But The Omen was a box office success, and that of course meant they just had to make a sequel. And so we have Damien: The Omen II.
I haven’t actually seen this film, so don’t take this to be a review of it. But I have read a summary with spoilers, and I know the basic plot of it: it follows Thorn’s brother, Richard, who gets custody of Damien after the events of the first film and…
…wait for it…
…gradually pieces together bits of evidence which ultimately lead him to believe that…
…are you ready?
…DAMIEN IS ACTUALLY THE ANTICHRIST.
Yes, the plot of the sequel is just the first one over again. Now Damien is older, and now there are different prophecies involved, but… yeah, it’s the same thing.
Watching a guy gradually come to believe that his son is probably the Antichrist was interesting the first time. Watching another a guy come to believe that the guy we already discovered is probably the Antichrist is still probably the Antichrist is boring. But when movie producers know they have a title that they think is a safe bet to sell tickets, they’ll milk it for all it’s worth.
So, yeah; the first film in the Omen series was interesting. The second seems to be just a re-hash of the first. I don’t want to comment on it beyond that, because I don’t think it’s very fair to discuss a film I haven’t seen. I’ll just conclude with the simple fact that they made a sequel to a film I loved, but it had a premise so lackluster it couldn’t convince me to see it.
Ugh. Make that two sequels.
Right then, Omen III: The Final Conflict. I’ll keep it short, as I have also not seen this film. Damien is still the Antichrist after all these years, and has now become the ambassador to Great Britain, just as Thorn once was. However, this time, after the good characters once again uncover that the Antichrist is, in fact, the Antichrist, they take decisive measures, bringing an end to “the Omen trilogy.” This is, after all, the final conflict.
ARE YOU KIDDING ME????
I can’t even follow the synopsis of this one… there are two Antichrists, I think… one of them is a girl, maybe? It seems like they did come up with a different plot for this one, replacing “people gradually realize someone is the Antichrist” with “a bunch of weird Devil-type stuff happens.” I don’t know, and I don’t care.
I want to make it very clear that I don’t have a problem with sequels as such. If you’ve created a world that is so rich it has room for more than one story in it, then by all means, tell all of those stories across multiple installments. Likewise, if you’ve created a sprawling, epic tale best told in episodic format, then sequels are completely fine.
Neither of these things can be said about The Omen. The first film was a simple concept well-executed, with good writing, intelligent direction, and strong performances from a good cast. But that’s all it was, or needed to be. To me, the thing that proves beyond a doubt that this parade of Antichrist movies was driven by studio executives is the fact that they clearly didn’t even understand what made the first film good.
If you’re going to make a sequel to a successful film, it’s logical to include the central character from that film. And Damien isn’t the central character of The Omen.I mean, sure; he’s the center of the plot, but he might as well be a McGuffin as far as what he’s required to do from an acting perspective.Which is smart, by the way. You don’t want a child actor to have to carry the movie.
And no, Robert Thorn isn’t the central character either. I’m sure Gregory Peck got paid the most for being in the film, but that’s just because he was Gregory Peck. The central character of The Omen is Mrs. Baylock. She’s the driving force of the whole thing.
Or, maybe more accurately, Billie Whitelaw’s character is the driving force. If they were going to make more Omen movies, they needed to bring Whitelaw back as a similar character. Or just straight-up give Mrs. Baylock the Captain Phasma treatment. But she had to come back in some form for any sequels to work. Having a sequel to TheOmen without Mrs. Baylock or someone like her is like having a sequel to Star Wars without Darth Vader. It just reduces the series to an uninteresting mess.
But the original Omen will always be memorable to me. It remains the most scared I’ve ever been of a film. I first saw it on the day before Halloween, and I will never forget lying in my bed early that Halloween morning, worrying that there might be demon dogs breaking into the house. (This pales next to my mom’s experience of the film. She saw it in theaters when it originally came out, and the next morning, she stepped outside her apartment to see, standing around in the morning fog, a bunch of Rottweilers.)
So, bottom line, it will always be a favorite horror film of mine, no matter how many uninspired sequels they may have churned out. The original is good enough that it can survive that. The only thing worse than unnecessary sequels is second-rate remakes produced solely for the sake of a marketing gimmick like releasing on a specific date.
A big problem in my fiction is that my endings are too rushed. I used to think this might be part and parcel of the No Description problem, but I realize now it’s a separate issue. A number of readers raised this complaint with all my early stories, and while I tried to improve in The Directorate, it still came up.
It’s also proven to be a problem with the novel I’m working on now. Several beta readers have said the same thing, and I agree with them. The ending is, once again, too rushed.
At this point, you might be thinking, “So add more stuff then, stupid!”
The problem with that is I can think of nothing else to add. The ending comes along when it does because all the pieces are in position, and it seems natural to tip the first domino and set things in motion. If I add extraneous material, readers will notice that I’m just killing time.
I hate when authors drag things out. The best example I can think of is Stephen King’s 11/22/63. While I liked some parts, there were also times when I wanted to yell, “Just get on with it already!” Since the book hinges on an event which happened in the past and which the reader is anticipating, the way King stalled with one “the past is obdurate” setback after another was annoying to read.
In general, I’d rather something be too short than too long. If a reader thinks it’s too short, it implies they want to read more. Whereas if it bores them by being too long, they’re unlikely to read anything by the author again.
But, better than being too short or too long is being exactly the right length. I have reached a paradoxical point where the book isn’t as long as it needs to be, yet making it any longer would feel too long. Which is another way of saying that something is missing, but I don’t know what it is.
The first thing to know about The Unpublishables is that when you open it in the Kindle reader, you need to make sure and scroll back to see the epigraph. At least for me, Kindle wants to launch right into Chapter 1 without showing this important front matter. But you don’t want to miss this epigraph; it really sets the tone.
The Unpublishables is narrated by a man named Daniel, who is the only person in America immune to a virus sweeping the country. This virus attacks the mind, and causes its victims to become obsessed with writing novels.
Everywhere Daniel goes, people ask him, “What’s your novel about?” He gradually learns that the best way of deflecting this question is to ask them about theirs—which of course they’re only too happy to tell him about.
But one day, Daniel meets a young woman named Abigail at lunch, and the two of them instantly connect over their shared love of books—reading them, rather than writing them. In a desperate effort to impress Abigail—and if nothing else, have a reason to talk to her again despite her pretentious, arrogant boyfriend, Chadwick—Daniel realizes he must write a novel. On the spur of the moment, he chooseslife among the homeless of San Francisco as his subject
The best way to write about the homeless, Daniel soon decides, is to become one of them. And so he becomes a vagrant, living with nothing but the clothes on his back and begging for food and money. And in doing so, he encounters a wide variety of strange characters, from a woman who resembles a witch to a sinister figure known simply as “The Knifeman,” who has a penchant for telling gruesome historical stories with a curious sci-fi twist.
The Unpublishables is, of course, a comic novel, and as in his previous efforts, Goats shows first-rate skill at writing lines that make you laugh out loud. Early dialogues are Wodehousian, in more ways than one. The descriptions are vivid and memorable. And the books–oh, the books! The way he writes about books is beautiful. I’ll talk more about this later, but if you’re in a hurry and have to make a purchase decision by the end of this paragraph, know that you can buy The Unpublishables for the descriptions of books alone and you’ll be a happy customer.
And although it’s mainly comic, The Unpublishables has some emotionally powerful moments that are not played for laughs. Some of the passages about the homeless are truly moving. In particular, one section where Daniel ponders why so many homeless people talk to themselves. It’s a moment of genuine compassion and empathy, as well as being a really surprising idea that I had never considered before. But you’ll have to read the book to see what I mean.
The descriptions of life on the street are properly gritty. Goats is never afraid to go into detail to describe every facet of what it means to live without money, food, or shelter; no matter how unpleasant it may be. It’s raw and tough to read at times, but the grit balances the wit, and it makes the whole thing feel real, instead of just a simple comedic puppet show.
Does Daniel succeed in his quest to write a novel and win Abigail away from her obnoxious partner? Well, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling that! This book is hot off the presses (figuratively speaking; it’s on Kindle) and hardly anyone has had a chance to write about it yet. I know I typically spoil things, with appropriate warnings, but in this case I’m just not going to talk about the ending. It’s one thing to spoil a Hollywood film or a novel by a famous author—when I do that, I know that there are probably dozens if not hundreds of spoiler-free reviews out there that people could read instead. But as of this writing, if you want to read about The Unpublishables, you pretty much have to read this review.In fact… well, never mind, I’ll come back to that.
The book is, by the author’s own admission, a bit weird. If you’ve read this blog before, you probably know that “weird” is not considered a bad thing here. In fact, as often as not, it’s a compliment. So yes, the book is decidedly weird; but in all the right ways.
Also, there are a handful of typos—but way fewer than in many indie books. And their existence is even lampshaded by the narrator, who asks us to “pretend” they are stylistic choices, and not simply the result of him being a sloppy writer. This is one of the things I love about the Daniel character; he’s a bit of an unreliable narrator, but he tells you so up front.This sums him up pretty well. Oh, and one other technical note: there’s a formatting issue in the form of a completely blank page between two chapters. (This might be a result of reading in landscape mode, which seems to do odd things to the ereader.)
All right, now let’s get to the heart of things.I promised on Twitter that I was going to break one of my own rules of writing reviews. What did I mean by that?
Once in a while, when you read about fiction, you’ll see something referred to as “significant” or “important.”For instance, Wikipedia informs us that James Joyce’s Ulysses is one of the “most important works of modernist literature.”
Anytime I see words like “important” or “significant” used in regards to fiction, it sends up a major red flag. Why, I ask, are people describing this thing as “important” when the word “good” is shorter to write and easier to say? If somebody wants me to read a book, they had better tell me “It’s good,” and if instead they come and tell me, “Read this book, it’s important,” it seems to me like they are hiding something. They may be trying to induce me to read a book that is not good for some nefarious reason. Thus, I try never to say something is “important” when “good” will do just as well.
But that isn’t to say that a book can’t be both “important” and “good.” In my opinion, To Kill a Mockingbird is both important, due to its relationship to the Civil Rights movement in the United States, and also just generally good as a story that is enjoyable to read. (In my opinion, if it had been bad, it would never have been widely-read enough to become important.)
So, first and foremost I want, to make it very clear that The Unpublishables is a good book. It’s a fun story, with memorable characters and witty descriptions. That’s really all a book needs to be to be good, in my opinion.
But I also feel that it is an important book as well—and not because of its depiction of homelessness, even though that is another very strong element of the novel.
As I said above, throughout his travels, Daniel meets all kinds of odd characters, all of whom have written or are writing a book. Each of them is an example of some aspect of indie publishing. The Unpublishables is a fine title, but the book might as easily have been called The People You Meet in Indie Publishing;because so many different quirks of the world of independent writers are covered, from ham-fisted author-insertion to blatant plagiarism. At one point, Daniel comments that more people are writing books than have read one.
Daniel finds fragments of manuscripts of historical fiction, hears summaries of wild science fiction and fantasy adventures, and meets shameless self-promoters.Some of the aspiring writers he meets are ground into despair after all the rejections, while others are still brimming with optimism. One of them even hides his own novel in the shelves at a used bookstore, in the hopes someone will find it and read it.
The book pokes a lot of fun at indie authors, and at times, Daniel makes some biting commentaries about the whole process of writing and publishing. I was quite amused by it, and at the same time, as Jack Point from The Yeomen of the Guard would say, “My laughter had an echo that was grim,” because, like the targets of Point’s jokes, I recognized a little of myself in the figure being roasted.
Now, you might say, “How could he make fun of indie authors?!? What a rotten thing to do; kicking a person when they’re down like that!” Well, that’s the thing: Goats isn’t laughing at us; he’s laughing at himself—obviously; because he’s an indie author, too. And it is so abundantly clear that all of the jokes in this book are born of affection, rather than malice, that it’s impossible to be offended by them.
Paul Graham once wrote that “To have a sense of humor is to be strong.”The humor of The Unpublishables is the humor of strength, the humor that comes from people who can laugh at themselves because, to be blunt, they know they’re doing something important. After all, Goats wrote a whole book that made fun of the process of writing books. One assumes he must have really believed in what he was doing to essentially be half-laughing at himself while doing it.
And that’s what I mean when I say The Unpublishables is an “important” book: it’s important to the indie author community.To us. I say “us” because I am an indie author, and I know that nearly everyone who reads this blog is as well.
The appreciation Daniel (and by extension, Goats) has for books is evident throughout The Unpublishables–both books in physical form and as a medium for telling stories, for capturing some part of a person’s life. Underlying all the friendly ribbing about the oddities of the indie author world is a deep love for the written word. Plenty of all-time great authors and books are referenced throughout, and indeed, one of them is used as the catalyst for bringing the hero and the heroine together at the beginning.
That’s what I ultimately got out of The Unpublishables: at its core, it’s about the power of books—reading them, discussing them, and writing them—to bring people together; to let people share a bit of themselves with someone else. A book is a hard thing to create, but when it is done out of love, something magical happens.
And this is where you come in. Again, I know most of you reading this are indie authors, and many of you have blogs of your own. I highly encourage you to read this book, and to write about it. Partially, I’m doing this for selfish reasons: there are things in here I want to talk about with other people—including some alternate interpretations of certain elements, as well as how different parts all tie into the theme. But it’s hard to talk about that when I don’t know anyone else who has read the book.
But apart from my own self-interested reasons, I think this book is important for indie authors. Because it’s by an indie author, and it’s about an indie author, and in some sense, it tells the story of all indie authors.
Hardly anybody likes H.P. Lovecraft’s short story The Dreams in the Witch House. Even H.P. Lovecraft didn’t like it, and subsequent readers have generally considered it one of his worst.
And, by pretty much any objective measure, it’sa bad story. For one thing, there’s no surprise or subtlety to it—Lovecraft beats the reader over the head with the legend of Keziah Mason, and her rat-like familiar, Brown Jenkin. I think he was trying for ambiguity, but he was failing spectacularly at it. Walter Gilman, the doomed protagonist of the tale, should be able to see what’s coming a mile away; the reader certainly can.
In a good weird tale, there should be some question as to whether the supernatural doings are real, or simply a hallucination by the protagonist. Lovecraft was trying to do this, but he didn’t. The evidence favoring the supernatural explanation is simply overwhelming. And needlessly drawn out. When an author tells you on page one that a witch and a rat-like monster are up to no good, the final page should contain a bigger pay-off than “a witch and a rat-like monster were up to no good.”
Lovecraft, I’ve come to realize, had no idea how to hint or imply something. This is a problem when writing horror, because it is a genre that depends heavily on subtle hinting. And Lovecraft kind of knew this, but he couldn’t do it. So what he would do instead is write this:
“Eventually there had been a hint of vast, leaping shadows, of a monstrous, half-acoustic pulsing, and of the thin, monotonous piping of an unseen flute—but that was all. Gilman decided he had picked up that last conception from what he had read in the Necronomicon about the mindless entity Azathoth, which rules all time and space from a black throne at the centre of Chaos.”
He seems to have believed that by prefacing an outright statement with “A hint of…” that it would count as an actual hint.
Also, there are a number of lines that just sound downright silly. Like:
“What made the students shake their heads was his sober theory that a man might—given mathematical knowledge admittedly beyond all likelihood of human acquirement—step deliberately from the earth to any other celestial body which might lie at one of an infinity of specific points in the cosmic pattern.
Such a step, he said, would require only two stages; first, a passage out of the three-dimensional sphere we know, and second, a passage back to the three-dimensional sphere at another point, perhaps one of infinite remoteness.”
It sounds so easy! And then we have this masterful bit of understatement:
“May Eve was Walpurgis Night, when hell’s blackest evil roamed the earth and all the slaves of Satan gathered for nameless rites and deeds. It was always a very bad time in Arkham…”
In addition to these technical flaws, Witch House is one of Lovecraft’s nastiest tales. The sacrifice scene at the end is grotesque, and of course, it wouldn’t be Lovecraft without casual racial bigotry. What’s truly odd is that Lovecraft creates a story in which the poor, un-educated, and superstitious immigrants are clearly right in their beliefs, and the WASP upper-class is demonstrably wrong, and yet Lovecraft likes the WASPs better anyway.
It’s a badly-constructed, badly-written, and badly-paced tale, with a heavy emphasis on gore and none of the subtlety that Lovecraft at his best was capable of. And it comes with a side-serving of class arrogance and racial hatred. (BTW, I am a descendant of Eastern-European immigrants to the northeast United States, rather like the ones Lovecraft treats with utter contempt in this tale. Who are you calling “clod-like,” HPL?)
So, why do I re-read this horrible little tale every April?
Part of it is, I read it for the first time as a college student during spring term, and so I had some instant sympathy for poor Walter Gilman. Studying for exams is stressful enough without being abducted by long-dead witches and taken into other dimensions.
Also, Gilman is, in his own way, kind of heroic. He does ultimately fight back against the evil cosmic forces, and to some extent succeeds in thwarting them—even if it doesn’t work out well for him. Unusually for a Lovecraft character, he doesn’t just observe the horror and go mad, but takes some sort of corrective action. I kind of like that, even though the scene itself is six different kinds of ugly. (Also: why does the witch recoil from the crucifix? Oops, did someone have to undercut his entire atheistic literary philosophy in order to make his plot resolve itself?)
And finally, this book introduced me to Walpurgis Night, which is a great way for a Halloween-obsessed lunatic such as myself to get a mid-year fix. It’s not the really strong stuff, but it can keep me going for those long six months.
In his essay Good Bad Books, George Orwell defined same as “The kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished… They form pleasant patches in one’s memory, quiet corners where the mind can browse at odd moments, but they hardly pretend to have anything to do with real life.”
This is what Lovecraft and a lot of the “pulp” writers of the era were doing. There aren’t any pretensions about these kinds of stories. (Indeed, since Lovecraft never intended to publish Witch House, he had no reason to be pretentious.)
That’s probably why stories like Witch House, that suck by standard measures, still have this quality of being re-readable. They’re authentic—when you read Lovecraft, you’re not getting what editors and publishers thought was a good book. You’re getting undiluted “Yog-Sothothery,” as Lovecraft called his peculiar style, straight from the bottle.
It’s almost like Lovecraft, in spite of his prejudices and unwillingness to curb his own bad writing habits, was able to tap in to some core principles that make for a good horror story.
Describing Keziah Mason, Lovecraft wrote:
[S]ome circumstance had more or less suddenly given a mediocre old woman of the Seventeenth Century an insight into mathematical depths perhaps beyond the utmost modern delvings of Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein, and de Sitter.
Similarly, it seems as if some circumstance gave a mediocre man of the 20th century an insight into writing horror that is perhaps beyond many modern practitioners of the genre.
This is just a video of a bonfire I had on April 30 a couple years ago. Not really related, but do you know how hard it is to find free images associated with Walpurgis Night?
If you got it immediately, congrats! This was the icon I used when this blog first began, back on Blogger. (The old url is written at the top, in barely-visible red.) I got the idea from the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, and then I made it yellow, because… I dunno; the King in Yellow, probably.
When I started this whole thing, I had no idea where it would lead. I was on break from college, and felt like I should be doing something at least vaguely productive. So, I started a blog, and posted about whatever random things struck my fancy.
I don’t know if I’ve ever written about this before, but I almost quit blogging in 2012. I came very close to it. I had my farewell post written and everything. But then I thought, nah, maybe a change of scenery is all I need. So I switched to WordPress, and here we are today.
I looked back at some of my old posts while I was writing this, and I noticed something: many of them–perhaps most of them–suck. I cringe while rereading them: Why did I ever write that? I ask myself.
But that’s okay. In fact, it’s a good thing–it means I’ve gotten better. Far worse would be if I looked back and wished I could write as well now as in the past.
I was able to pick out a few of my personal favorite posts, though:
My review of the movie Jackie. The least fun things to review are the ones you enjoy. It’s tough to write something interesting when the point is just “I liked it.” Writing reviews of things you hate is a bit more fun. But best of all for a reviewer are things that are just freaking weird.
My Halloween Special. I’ve wanted to make something like that for years. Finally getting to do it was awesome.
My page of indie book reviews. All right, that isn’t really something I did. It’s just a list of things that better writers have written. But read on to see why it’s included.
For a long time, at the top of the site, I had a motto: Quis leget haec? which is Latin for “Who will read this?” Originally, this was just a joke. But over time, I have received an answer to that question: writers will read this.
I’m incredibly lucky to have so many writers who read and comment on this blog. That’s the main reason I’ve improved: I’ve gotten to know all of you wonderful folks offering feedback, as well as serving as great examples with your own work. It’s been invaluable to me, as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction.
Thanks for reading. Thanks for commenting. And thanks for writing.
[Thanks to Lydia Schoch for inspiring me to write this. Be sure to check out her post on fictional romances.]
You’ll notice I don’t often write romantic sub-plots in my stories. I was feeling pretty bold with 1NG4 and included one, but it’s largely implied and in the background of the larger story.
Romance is hard to write. You need characters who work on their own, and also complement one another. It’s about balance. If you get unbalanced characters, it doesn’t work—or at best, it only works as wish-fulfillment for people who want to imagine their perfectly ordinary self being married to a demigod or goddess.
And if you’re writing a story where the romance is the plot, then you also have to come up with some reason why two characters who clearly belong together aren’t. Usually social expectations are the best mechanism for doing this, to the point that it’s a cliché—A can’t marry B because it would violate all of their society’s most sacred traditions!
The problem with these sorts of stories is that too often, it becomes more about the pursuit, and in the process, one character gets reduced to nothing more than a McGuffin that the other character is trying to get. I hate that.
Here are some fictional romances I consider effective. You’ll notice that they are generally sub-plots, or at least not the sole focus of the story.
Evie Carnahan and Rick O’Connell (The Mummy)
This works because it’s pretty well-balanced—Evie’s brains and Rick’s adventuring skills make them a natural team. This is what I mean—if Evie were always a helpless damsel in distress, or Rick were always a big stupid lug, it would be dopey. But as it is, you can see why they would gravitate to one another, apart from “It’s a movie and we need a romance.”
Thomasin Yeobright and Diggory Venn (The Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy)
When you read about Return of the Native, 90% of what you hear about is Eustacia Vye this, Damon Wildeve that. I love the book, but as far as I’m concerned, both of them can go soak their heads. Oh, wait—I guess they do. Sorry if I spoiled this 141-year-old book. Anyway, what I like about the book is Venn’s loyalty to Thomasin, and his (admittedly credulity-straining) adventures as the almost super-human “Reddleman” looking out for her.)
Miranda Lawson and Commander Shepard (Mass Effect 2-3)
Am I the only person who doesn’t hate Miranda? I might well be. Most players find her stuck-up, but I like her. Maybe part of it is that because ME 2/3 built up Commander Shepard as this awesome hero, and Miranda seems like the nearest thing to his equal in a universe that otherwise regards him as something close to a God. She saved his life, and she’s genetically engineered to be perfect, so shecan meet him on even ground. I like that. I don’t see an equivalent romantic interest for female Shepard.
But maybe it’s just my fondness for Australian accents that’s making me biased here.
Honorable Mentions: Unrequited Romances
I started out to make a list of good requited romances, because those are harder for me to write than unrequited ones. But that’s not to say that an unrequited romance can’t make for a good story, because it absolutely can. In fact, the advantage of these stories is that they have conflict inherent in them, as opposed to having to be introduced externally. So, here are some good ones:
– The Atris/Jedi Exile relationship in Knights of the Old Republic II. I talk a little about that here. Actually, KotOR II is brimming with tons of unfulfilled or outright doomed romances. Chris Avellone is great at writing those.
-Elsie Maynard and Jack Point in The Yeomen of the Guard. Just listen to this.
And now, for my favorite fictional romance…
Jane Ballard and Dan Frost (Jane Got a Gun)
Come on, you all knew this would be here. I love this movie, and a big reason why is the relationship between the two leads. The way they gradually rekindle their relationship under brutal circumstances makes for a great story, and the carefree romance of their past contrasted with the grim present is very powerful. True, a lot of what makes it work is the acting as much as anything—the same lines with lesser actors wouldn’t work as well.
I suppose that writing romance for the screen or the stage is easier than writing it in a novel. In a visual medium, putting two attractive people with great chemistry together gets you at least halfway to making the audience to buy in. On the page, though, you have to do a lot more work.
[This started out as a comment on this post by Phillip McCollum. Then I couldn’t post it for some reason, and I realized it was really too long to work as a comment anyway. But you should read Phillip’s post before reading this.]
The big mistake I initially made when I started writing fiction was not doing enough description. I’ve talked about this before, and how it took my friend Pat Prescott repeatedly encouraging me to do more description before I finally got the message.
In my arrogance, I thought that description was boring and a waste of time, and that I was a genius for not doing it. But description isn’t boring—only bad description is boring. Done well, it seems like an integral part of the story.
There are probably other ways that I’ve gotten better at writing over the years, but this is the one that comes immediately to mind. And I want to stress that it was only because I was lucky enough to have a reader like Pat who would tell me (more than once; kudos to him for his patience) that I needed more description. If not for that, I would probably still be blithely bumbling along, writing stuff that contained no description, and thinking I was brilliant for doing so.
The real point here is less about description than about listening. Listen to what your readers tell you. A reader who is willing to comment honestly on your work is the most valuable thing a writer can have.
A.C. Flory wrote a brought up a good point about Theresa Gannon, the protagonist of my book, The Directorate:
“I couldn’t relate to the main character… I simply don’t see her as female… to me, Gannon could be a he just as easily as a she.”
I know exactly what she means. Honestly, I’m surprised more readers don’t mention this, because I feel the same way. There was never much of anything distinctively female about Gannon.
“Well, you’re the one who wrote it!” you are no doubt thinking. “Why didn’t you fix that, dummy?”
Good question. As a male, writing a good female character is something I find difficult, for a number of reasons.
The lazy, quick-fix approach to make a character seem distinctively gendered is to resort to stereotypes. I could have made Gannon interested in things like clothes, or shoes, or something like that. That would be stereotypically feminine.
But I hate stereotypes. It’s not that there isn’t any truth to them; most people are stereotypical in one way or another. That’s why stereotypes exist, after all. But the point of writing fiction is to give people something new and surprising. Stereotypes are, by their nature, not new and surprising but old and familiar. So in general, I think it’s good to avoid them whenever possible when you’re writing stories.
This is another way of saying that it would just feel ham-handed and rather disrespectful to have my space soldier run off to go shoe shopping. Other, more skilled writers probably could pull that off, but I couldn’t.
Writing From A Female Perspective
You don’t have to resort to stereotypes to write plausibly feminine characters, though. You can write plausible, relatable, well-rounded characters who are also distinctly women.
The big problem I see in a lot of female characters written by men is that they tend to be distinctly women first, and characters second. Usually this manifests itself in female characters being preoccupied with sex in one way or another, or else being described largely in sexual terms. I’ve read way too many female characters who seem to exist solely as sexual beings, and it gets tiresome. With Gannon, I consciously strove to avoid this. In doing so, I think I made her too non-sexual, and that makes it hard to relate to her.
The Miranda Lawson Problem
Making a character sexy is a risky proposition. If done right, it can make a character that much more memorable. But more often than not, I feel like the risk outweighs the reward, and you can end ruining a character by trying to sex them up.
Miranda Lawson is one of my favorite characters in the Mass Effect video game series. Part of it is Yvonne Strahovski’s performance (I love Australian accents, OK?), but she’s also a pretty well-written character. She’s been genetically engineered to be the “perfect woman”, and as a result, she feels a lot of pressure to be the best–pressure that sometimes makes her do morally questionable things. All in all, a really good character.
But! There’ s a major “but” here (pun not intended): for some reason, BioWare designed many of the game’s dialogue and cinematic scenes to focus, ridiculously, on her backside. Miranda wears a white catsuit, and the animators missed no opportunity to show her from the back, the most egregious example being a dialogue scene where the view “pauses” there for as long as the player wants until they choose to advance in the conversation.
BioWare defended this by saying it’s part of Miranda’s “character” that she’s genetically-engineered to be beautiful, and supposedly all this was to underscore just how sexualized she was, and how that impacts her personality.
Maybe that was the idea, but it totally didn’t come across that way. It became a running joke by Mass Effect 3 that if Miranda was around, the “camera” had to be positioned behind her. It made her seem less like a character and more like a sex object–which was too bad, because she actually is a good character, and it’s a shame she became the butt of jokes instead.
This is something that’s always bothered me, and what I took away from how Miranda is perceived is that making a character sexy is a very dangerous thing to attempt. It can very easily turn your well-crafted character into a ridiculous figure. I think this is especially true for men writing women.
Mary Sues vs. Competent Men
There’s another common criticism that I’m surprised no one has yet leveled at Gannon, but which I fully expect I’ll hear someday: that she’s a “Mary Sue”. “Mary Sues” are “idealized and seemingly perfect” characters, as Wikipedia puts it. Characters who exhibit preternatural skill in a variety of areas. Such characters seem too good to be true, and as such are hard to relate to.
The term “Mary Sue” comes from a parody of Star Trek fan fiction, so this is an issue for sci-fi writers especially. And the original Mary Sue was even a lieutenant, just like Gannon is! So, I probably am guilty of this.
Here’s my defense: there’s another stock character in fiction, referred to as the “Competent Man“. This character archetype is strongly associated with the work of science fiction author Robert Heinlein, who wrote a passage extolling the virtues of having many skills, concluding with the famous phrase, “Specialization is for insects.” His heroes tend to have a wide variety of skills.
And indeed, having many skills is rather key to becoming a hero. Incompetent characters would not be terribly effective at having heroic adventures.
As a few readers noticed, many elements of The Directorate are intended as an homage to exactly the kind of military science fiction that Heinlein pioneered. I think such stories lend themselves to having competent protagonists–after all, usually people who are or have been in military service possess a lot of training in a wide variety of skills.
Have Female Editors
One piece of advice for any men who are writing female characters: make sure you have female editors and/or beta readers. I would never have attempted to publish a novel with a female protagonist if I hadn’t known women who could critique it first. And am I ever glad they did, because their feedback improved Gannon tremendously from the first draft to the one I ultimately published.
That said, there were still times when I would overrule their objections and refuse to modify something. Because, first and foremost, Gannon had to be somebody I understood. If I didn’t do that, I would have no chance of writing her plausibly. So when somebody suggested changing the character in a way that didn’t sit right with me, I would stick with the way I wanted her. I feel it had to be this way, but it’s quite possible this made her less-relatable to everyone else.
As I’ve discussed before, my early writing has been rightly criticized for having too little description. I tried to correct this in The Directorate, and not just in describing the setting–which is essential in sci-fi–but also in how I described the appearance of the characters.
The exception is Gannon. I was deliberately vague about how she looked, because I wanted the reader to project their own image of Gannon. For most of the book, she is the proxy for the reader, and they experience the world through her eyes. My idea was that by leaving her description largely to the reader, they could create their own image of a character they found relatable. (This is something I picked up writing horror: what the reader imagines for themselves is usually way better than whatever you as the author create.)
It’s possible I made her too vaguely-defined, however; and this could make her difficult to relate to.
Creating convincing female characters is one of the biggest challenges of writing fiction for me. I try to avoid obvious pitfalls that I’ve seen a lot of male writers fall into–lengthy descriptions of their anatomy, character traits that are nothing more than clichéd stereotypes–but I’m still not entirely satisfied with what I’ve done so far. The good news is that I can tell I’m improving, and the more I write, the more I feel emboldened to experiment with characterizations, which hopefully will lead to better and more relatable characters.