How To Be a Writer

I have become friends and colleagues with a lot of writers over the last couple of years so I’ve therefore seen a lot of blog posts, status updates and list-making about the writing process. The Dos and Don’ts. The Do’s and Don’t’s. Most Common Grammar Mistakes. Biggest Pet Peeves. Etc Etc. I’ve been on a creative surge lately, after coming THIS close to telling my publisher “I Give UP!” so I thought I’d throw my own hat in the ring as far as giving writing advice. …Step One is obviously Don’t Give UP!

***JUST DO IT. The most common thing I see on people’s timelines and in advice blog posts is “Want to be a writer? Write something. Congratulations, you’re a writer.” Perhaps a bit snarky, but it is spot on. If you are serious about being a storyteller, don’t let anything stop you from trying it. Get something down. If it sucks, don’t worry, there will be plenty of people who will tell you so on the internet; that’s what it’s for. The digital revolution has made it infinitely easier than it used to be to get your work out there in the world. I was scared to death when I posted ‘The Last Mailman: Neither Rain, Nor Sleet, Nor Zombies!’ to the Kindle store. But it sold. And it sold so well that I ended up getting an email from Permuted Press asking me if they could polish it up and add it to their library. I got to fulfill a dream, make all the new friends and colleagues I mentioned above and best of all, I got some validation that writing could be a viable career option. Okay, so I’m not there financially yet, but I still feel like a success when I pick my own book off my shelf and show it to people. It would not have happened if I had chickened out at the moment of truth.

***READ, WATCH TV, LISTEN TO MUSIC “Read” shows up on a lot of lists too, because that one is also true. But I would expand it to “absorb anything creative.” You never know where your inspiration is going to come from. I wanted to write a zombie novel because my brother and I watch a lot of zombie movies. It’s common to think that every story has been told already or that you might be ripping someone off. Well, sorry, it’s probably true that out there somewhere someone has told stories similar to yours. That part can’t be avoided. BUT… no one else is you. As long as you’re not plagiarizing someone word for word, it’s fine. Twilight lady didn’t toss out her novels because there was already a book about vampires. She put her own twist on them. There’s always a way to make something your own. You think I didn’t know there was already a ton of zombie stuff out there? I have my share of bad reviews, but no one has yet accused me of ripping off George Romero or Max Brooks. You are allowed to be influenced by and pay homage to those who came before you. Otherwise, we’d all be wringing our hands at the royalties we have to pay Shakespeare’s estate every time we tell a tale. So absorb every piece of modern art you can, whether it’s books, movies, TV or modern art. I broke my most recent crippling writer’s block by watching Under the Dome. It made me want to READ Under the Dome to see how it was different. Reading Stephen King made me want to write again. So I sat down and forced myself. And the words started coming again. I didn’t have any new ideas, but the process of just doing it led to the ideas coming. See, the second list item brought me back to the first one. It all leads back to just doing it.


The thing about Under the Dome that inspired me to get back in front of the keyboard myself was that it is not THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL we all think we have to aspire to create. It’s just a guy who’s pretty darn good at telling stories doing his thing. I am sure an editor or an English teacher could comb through it and find a hundred examples of things “not to do.” In the end, it doesn’t really matter. I read that gigantic book in a week and I enjoyed every page of it, even the stupid parts. Life is full of nitpickers who criticize because it’s their job or they’re bolstered by the anonymity of the internet or, hell, it’s just easier than doing something for themselves. Even the squiggly line that appears under your sentence fragments doesn’t get a vote. The only one who can tell your story is you and if it’s a fun ride, the readers will like it even it has bad grammar or is lacking in hyper-realism. The guy who complains, “That’s not how guns really work! Do your research!” is always going to find a flaw somewhere. It’s better to make your book fun and accessible to the masses than appease that one guy by adding five pages of what kind of gun it is and making your book infinitely more boring. If you’re a gun person, then sure, include more details about the gun because it’s being true to who you are and what you like. But don’t force yourself into doing something you’re not comfortable with because someone else says so. Which leads me to…

***DON’T TAKE ALL THE ADVICE I don’t just mean the criticisms like I listed above. It’s pretty easy to get derailed by the squiggly line telling you your grammar is bad or the firearms enthusiast telling you to do more research, but you can also get hung up just as much by people who mean well and are sincerely trying to help you. I’ve read all the advice lists and blog posts that I mentioned at the start and I will admit it occasionally gives me a temporary panic attack or a crisis of confidence. Take the recent passing of Elmore Leonard, for instance. This led to a widespread re-posting of his rules for writing. “#3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.” “Oh my God! My character just “muttered” something. I must be a terrible writer because I broke one of Elmore Leonard’s rules and he was way more successful and probably better than me! And I just used an exclamation point, which he also said not to do! I Give UP!!!”
Listen, you don’t believe everything you read in the paper, or that everything the government says is true or heed every single piece of parenting advice. So don’t let yourself fall into the black hole of writing advice. Don’t overthink it. Read the advice, agree with it or disagree as you see fit, and take the stuff you like into consideration. I have never read any of Leonard’s work but if he really did use “said” every single time, I think that’s kind of stupid. I do, however, agree with his assertion that you shouldn’t go into too much detail about characters or places. BUT… I was already naturally not doing that anyway, so maybe I just saw that and said “YES! That’s right!” because it was the way I work. You know, exactly the way I disagreed with the part of the list that is opposite of my style. Find the style that suits you, take the advice that works for you and, you guessed it, just keep going! (I think exclamation points have their appropriate place, Elmore!!!!!!)

***SAVE!!!!! Nothing hurts a writer more deeply than the words he or she so carefully crafted disappearing into thin air. I’ve been the victim of a broken flashdrive. Last week this very website decided to not save a post I spent an hour and a half on even though it automatically says “draft saved” every couple of minutes. I hit Preview and it was blank, and when I went back to the draft, it was all gone. I was heartbroken. Nothing demoralizes or disrupts the writing process more than having to go back to something you already did. So save it and then save it again somewhere else. I’m about to highlight this whole thing and ‘right click, copy it’ because I learned from my mistaken notion that WordPress drafts are always going to be there.

And then I’m going to get back to my novel because this blog is distracting me.


Zombie Movie Night- August ’13

For what I believe to be the first time, ZMN featured two films that were released the year we watched them.  It just goes to show that the zombie revolution is not a fad.  Dead people wanting to kill you and eat your guts will always be in style.

First up was Infected, starring Michael Madsen and William Forsythe as old army buddies meeting up for a hunting trip as a chance to bond with their adult children.  But a blood virus passed from ticks to deer to humans has other plans for the weekend.  Zombie plans.

This film’s biggest problem is its disjointed narrative.  It opens with a big zombie attack scene and then quickly flashes back to “12 hours earlier” so we can see how we got there.  Which is fine, in theory.  Why it doesn’t work all that well here is because the back story doesn’t really give us any new information except for character names and relationships.  (And it doesn’t even do a great job with the latter.  It gets distracting wondering which son belongs to which dad… and is that guy also a son… and whose grandma is that… oh it’s that woman’s… but who is that woman… and who is that other woman one of the guys is trying to hook up with?)  You basically spend most of the movie waiting to get back to the place where it started just to get things moving along.  When you do a set-up like that, you’re supposed to reveal stuff along the way so when the audience  meets the dominatrix ninja we can go, “Oh so that’s why that guy had both arms chopped off and a ball gag in his mouth at the beginning!”  (Disclaimer: I made that up.)  Then once we finally catch up to the opening scene, there’s a few more minutes of action followed by an epilogue where basically everyone has died off camera.  Madsen narrates while his son scavenges and this goes on for so long that it feels like the beginning of a new movie.  Really, compared to this ending, Lord of the Rings Part 3 could be praised for its brevity.

Still, the movie is the good kind of bad, elevating it from trash heap to middle of the pack.  There’s some fun to be had with characters being psychic by script requirement , gratuitous nudity, as well as characters who seem to react to the film score.  Scary music, run!  Also, Madsen gets a speech where he growls like Sgt Slaughter and seems to have deluded himself into thinking this will be his Oscar clip.  The movie does too, since they show it twice.

This is a bad movie for general audiences but if you’re a zombie fan who loves snarking on things, you probably won’t be disappointed.  Grade: B-


Next up was Detention of the Dead, which sets itself up as Breakfast Club with Zombies played as a screwball comedy.  It gets better as it goes along, but for the first half, it flails and fails at its own premise.

I have written plenty in general about bad comedy and how much I hate it, but in this case I can pinpoint my exact problem with “Detention.”  The apocalypse is serious business and any attempt to not play it straight, even in a comedy, is a grave misstep because it requires too great of a disconnect from reality.   Simon Pegg deciding what part of his vinyl collection he can fling at the undead lands as a gag because it’s an absurdity drawn from character.  A high school kid cracking wise about how his classmates are eating each other rings false because no one would react like that.  An apocalyptic comedy works when the characters are funny within the scenario, not when the characters are being funny AT the scenario.  Characters in “This is the End” arguing over the rationing of a candy bar- yes.  Girl getting upset over blood on her clothes while her teacher is being eaten alive right in front of her- no.

Fortunately, there comes a point in every apocalypse where shit starts to get really real, and once the survivng group of high school cliches starts acting scared and contemplating their own mortality, the film upgrades itself from unwatchable screwball comedy to slightly more watchable zombie movie.  It hits all the usual zombie beats: hiding a bite, stay put or run for it?, sacrifice, etc.  It’s unoriginal, sure, but at least it’s treating the zombies and the end of the world with the respect they deserve.  It’s weird for a comedy to get better when it stops being a comedy, but that’s the case with “Detention.”

I have to add that the best part of the production is that they paid the money for a real soundtrack and have that Golden Zombey pretty well locked up.  It seems like they made an apocalypse playlist of alternative/indie songs and then went out and got it.  Matt & Kim’s ‘Good Ol Fashioned Nightmare’, a cover of Pixies’ ‘Where is My Mind?’ and ‘George Romero’ by Sprites all contribute to making the music better than the movie deserves.

Grade: C