A great animator-cartoonist once asked: “Can you remember, or care to remember, the plot of any great comedy? Chaplin? Woody Allen? The Marx Brothers? It’s all about character. Personality is everything.”
Mark Twain wrote: “The writer merely has some people in his mind, and an incident or two, also a locality. He knows the selected locality, and he trusts he can plunge those people into incidents with interesting results.”
For me, and I suspect for all writers who’ve come into their own (although not necessarily into money or critical acclaim), this is exactly how it is. Someone, a character, a personality, enters my head and starts talking. Sometimes a place comes first, or a time in history. What does NOT come first is story, a plot, a structure. I’m suddenly filled with a personality seemingly not my own who wants to act out her or his own story. And I follow, often blindly, but I follow, always in the dark.
I’ve read writers who tell you that you can’t know your tale unless you know your ending. They mean a goal. Writing means reaching that goal. I’ve read writers who tell you before you write a word you must write a detailed outline of all that will happen. When I was young and had not come into my own, this kind of thing seemed true. And I despaired. I never know my ending. As for an outline, well, one always dislikes a thing one cannot do. I cannot write an outline because for me story is not a mechanism, a Lego structure, a feat of engineering. A story is organic and it flows from the personality of my main character. He or she knows what she wants. I write as I’m told by some inner voice whispering as I go, trying to keep up. I make wrong turns when I don’t listen, when I impose “me” on my character. Hypatia of Alexandria fought back. I knew I’d lost the story when I felt her struggle with me. But when I stopped messing with Hypatia’s one true voice, the story once more wrote itself.
I have no idea if the advice I heard when I was young works for anyone. All I know is that it doesn’t work for me and it’s lovely to know it didn’t work for Twain or for the man who created some of the world’s most iconic cartoon characters.
If it doesn’t work for you, stop doing it. Sit in front your computer, your typewriter, your pad of real paper, and just listen. Someone will begin speaking to you. Write down what they say. And word by word, day by day, they will tell you a tale no one else has ever told before.
I once knew Henry Miller. I stayed for a time in his house in Pacific Palisades. Aside from his telling me that with a name like Longfellow I was born to be a writer, I remember two things very clearly. One was that the rich suburban tract house on Ocampo Drive was nothing like you’d expect the likes of the infamous Henry Miller to hang out in. The second was his special bookshelf. It stood against a wall no one could miss packed from top shelf to bottom with only his books: every book he’d ever penned in every language and every special edition ever printed. I was enthralled by it. I was secretly puce with envy. I hadn’t begun writing yet. I was still pretending I’d be a writer one day. (Not to myself though, I never lied to myself. How could I be a writer? I had nothing to say.)
Running my envious fingertips over all those hardback books, all I wanted was a bookshelf of my own like Henry’s.
All these years later I have one. I wish Henry could see it. He’d say: “Whatcha expect, kid? You got the name, doncha know.” There it is now, a few feet to the right of me. It’s much smaller than his was, but it’s mine. One whole shelf holds foreign editions.
I don’t sell like Henry. I’m not a name like he still is. I don’t expect I ever will be. But there’s one thing we have in common. We write Holy Crap books. (Note to me: this does not include my latest foodlings, the Sam Russo noir mysteries… but a few genre books never hurt any of us Holy Crap writers.)
What’s Holy Crap Fiction? I just found out today by reading a piece in the New York Times Book Review.
Holy Crap Fiction is not genre writing. It’s not necessarily an easy read. Airplanes and sand are not its natural habitat. It’s seldom, if ever, found on a bestseller list. And it polarizes people. They love a Holy Crap book or they hate it.
The writer of this piece makes pretty much the same case for the New York Times Book Review that William Randolph Hearst’s daddy made for his newspapers. He told his reporters that if what they wrote didn’t make a reader sit up and say: Good God! they wouldn’t be Hearst reporters for long. This chap says why review genre fiction? All you can say about historical fiction/murder mysteries/thrillers/chic lit/etc is that it worked within its genre or it didn’t. How interesting is that? Interesting is reviewing books that make the reader say: Holy Crap! What the hell was that? Is it good? Is it bad? Why? What? Who? Huh? Now that’s interesting.
Houdini Heart (one of my efforts) is Holy Crap Fiction. It’s not horror even though it was selected as a candidate for a Bram Stoker Award for Best Horror Novel of the Year. It’s not fantasy although it has fantastical elements. It’s not romantic or a mystery even though… hells bells. It’s all of the above and none of the above. it doesn’t have a pat ending. Anyone who manages to get to the end is stuck deciding for themselves what it is they’ve just read.
Houdini Heart’s reviews range from raves to outright loathing. One fellow wanted it pulped. One girl said it proved anyone could get published considering what total dreck it was. Someone wanted their money back. (Sorry. I spent my cut on a stamp.)
Now all I have to do is get Houdini Heart into the hands of the fellow who wrote this piece, a certain Christopher Beha. Anyone have any ideas?
For more than three months this year I wrote nothing. In the middle of a film script and a new book, I just stopped. It wasn’t writer’s block… not that I’d recognize writer’s block. I’ve never sat down to write and had nothing spill onto the page or the screen. It was health. And on and on it went until one day I awoke without fretting that I would not write that day. I awoke to find myself thinking of other things I might do. I woke without obsession or guilt. And from this, I realized I am NOT what I do. It was a wonderful thought. I am what I am whatever I’m doing and I don’t need to DO something or BE something to be me. I have value solely in my being.
Having spent so many years not knowing that, I suffered. If no one read my books, who was I? If I didn’t write my books, who was I? My answer—until I stopped writing—was no one.
As I’ve already written somewhere, the writer Philip Roth said “real” writers don’t get read. He said entertainers get read. What he meant by “real” was the artist. What he meant by entertainers wasn’t a criticism, simply a fact. He had no problem with those who sold books by the train load. He understood the human desire to be entertained. He understood that entertainers are more than useful, they’re vital. And they like getting paid for it. Who doesn’t? He also meant that the artist is not always an entertainer. (Although some are. There are artists who sell. A wondrous feat.) Artists of all stripes make things that might be difficult. They make things that often cause unease. Artists are truth tellers. Artists open doors. Many people who love to read entertainers don’t like being shown open doors. Fine with me.
I don’t know if I’m an artist. I don’t know if what I write entertains. From certain reviews I’m neither. From other reviews I’m both. But I no longer care. I’m back writing again. But I’m free from the nagging thought that it matters if I do or I don’t. Now I’m just a kid playing with my favorite toy.
I’m not a writer or an artist. I’m Ki. And I make things. That’s all.
I can’t fool myself. Like any writer, I’d like to think at least a few people are reading what I write.
But as a novelist I struggle with a huge disadvantage, one that few writers overcome. I can’t write the same book over and over. I can’t even work in the same genre.
Someone who can write the same book over and over is someone who gets read. Someone who writes in at least the same genre over and over gets read.
But someone who writes what I think is mainstream fiction one day (CHINA BLUES & CHASING WOMEN) , then historical fiction the next (that was one long day: it took seven years to research and compose THE SECRET MAGDALENE and three years to create FLOW DOWN LIKE SILVER, HYPATIA OF ALEXANDRIA) can’t build a readership.
So then what do I do? Instead of building on the interest of a major publisher when Random House bought my Magdalene and encouraged my Hypatia, I have to go off and write HOUDINI HEART. I didn’t know it was horror as it appeared on my screen each day, fully formed in the mind of its nameless lead character. But apparently it is. The Horror Writers of America certainly saw it that way else why ask me to submit it for a Bram Stoker Award for the Best Horror Novel of 2011? It didn’t win but it came horrifyingly close.
And now what do I do? I’ve been taken over by a would-be noir private detective. He’s named himself Sam Russo. He was dragged up in a Home for Kids Nobody Wants. He lives in Stapleton, a town nobody knows, on Staten Island, a place nobody takes seriously. I was born on Staten Island. I haven’t seen it since. But Sam has.
For Sam, it’s the late 1940s, he’s survived the Second World War fighting on the Pacific Front in the last cavalry unit of the US military. Sam loves horses and horse-racing. He likes reading dime crime paperbacks in his one room four story walk-up. He’s crazy for the movies. Jimmy Cagney. Edward G. Robinson. Bogart! He wants to be Bogie. He wants to solve crimes. He wants to be hard-boiled. He wants to swap wisecracks with great lookin’ dames. He doesn’t want a dog.
I’ve written three Sam Russo cases, now available in all the latest formats books appear in these days. SHADOW ROLL is set at the Saratoga racetrack in Saratoga Springs, New York. Three young jockeys are dead. The town would like ’em to stay that way and get on with their lucrative racing season. Sam wants to solve all three cases like Bogie would. GOOD DOG, BAD DOG takes him and his new-found friend, the one he’s brought back from Saratoga, up and down Broadway: “The Great White Way.” They’re in and out of one hit show after another looking for a giant killer. THE GIRL IN THE NEXT ROOM is all about his neighbor Holly. She has the single room next to his. Holly is a girl. Or maybe he isn’t. Whatever Holly is, Sam and his new friend like her. They like her a lot. So when she disappears off her street corner, they take it seriously, very seriously.
Now I’m writing DEAD ON THE ROCKS. Sam is on a huge first class yacht headed for Florida. And so is his friend. Sam hates water.
You see? As a writer, I’m all over the place. What next? A surreal musical film called THE LAST SHOWBOAT?
I’d ask for professional help, but I love writing. Apparently, I’ll write pretty much anything. Well, maybe not a western. But then, but then… there’s all those pretty horses.
T’would be nice to know what I was doing. It seems that for the moment I drift. No particular place to go. Nothing in particular to do. No particular goal to achieve. (Except writing two books and co-writing a film script for a film that will most certainly get made…but enough of that. Such stuff doesn’t seem to count when one feels rootless.) I live in a charming little cabin in the deepy woods that could be taken away at any time. An interesting place to be. Like being weightless in a space capsule floating about in uncharted space. I could float off at any time. Yet I look out my tiny porthole with an eye just as it has always been: timeless, curious, eager, expectant, and fully believing in magic. Magic is nothing more than intent. I intend – ah, that’s how I started this paragraph.
To speak of freedom, one usually means freedom from the physical oppression of one’s fellow man (or woman…once us females get the chance and if we take it). Here I speak of a much more insidious lack of freedom, or slavery to come closer to the truth. To be burdened by something like our new corporate state is bad enough, but to be controlled by a system of belief is crippling. In Flow Down Like Silver, my true-life heroine, Hypatia of Alexandria, struggles against the blind beliefs of her students in the hope she can open their eyes to a broader deeper truth.
You and I, we all of us come dragging behind us as much “belief baggage,” and are weighted down with as many chains of unquestioned assumptions, as Jacob Marley’s ghost. We have to be. We’re human. And no human alive lives without a set of beliefs firmly embedded in their psyche, maybe even encoded in their DNA. Not only were we taught these belief-truths from the moment we opened our brand new eyes on this gorgeous world, we had them hard-wired in as a means to survival. Our assumptions about “truth” are the glue of our personal reality.
Come to Earth as humans, we all share human beliefs about reality–but modified if we are born, say, a Hindu. In other words, if born to Hindus, we should be Hindus. If born to Jews or to Muslims or to Christians or to atheists, we should all almost certainly be as they are. Arriving in a clutch of Born-Agains, we go through hell on earth–and pray for the Rapture to get us the heck out of here. Even born to the once-lovely Hippies, we come into this world trailing yards and yards of gauzy wide-eyed belief.
Unless we learn to ask questions.
Most of us have much to thank our parents for. Quite a few have a lot to complain about. As for me, I have really only this (which is both gift and curse): my parents taught me nothing. I missed out on the usual indoctrination. I can’t recall a single conversation about religion. Or one about social status, ie: racism. Or politics. Come to think, where the hell were my parents when I was growing up? Not parenting, that’s for sure. When they were around, I remember gossip. I recall fights. They weren’t exactly drunks, but the smell of liquor still makes me ill. There was always the television, and they certainly watched that. While they were doing all this, I was reading books. Even so, I had a roof over my head, and food more often than not. I had clothes and toys and whatever else a child needs to stay alive. What I did not have was cherishing. Or instruction.
All this became part of Houdini Heart, a book of supernatural horror heavily based on my youth.
As I said, this is a curse. But it’s also a blessing. I did not have to unlearn what was taught me as “truths.” I did not have to struggle to rid myself of my parent’s beliefs. I did not have to free myself from church or mosque or temple or even nude dancing in the woods. I held fast to no social dictum. I was born free of these things. And that includes the freedom to embrace any of them all by myself should they ever appeal. None of them have.
Which means I was born free to create myself out of nothing but my own thoughts and reactions to the Grand Mass Illusion I’d opened my illusory eyes on.
I paid a heavy price for this, but it was worth every anguish along the way.
Dear you and me,
I want to write mysteries like Raymond Chandler wrote mysteries. Chandler created an LA I look for even now in the shabby streets of Hollywood. Or in the oiled ooze of Long Beach or La Jolla’s shadier sections…not that La Jolla has any. His world isn’t there. It never was. But I see it anyway because Chandler made us all see it that way.
I want to write horror that trails its fingers along the spine as Shirley Jackson’s did. Shirley was not a happy woman. She ate and chain smoked her life away writing her strange and perfect sentences.
I want to write poems as precise as Emily Dickinson’s and as lyrical as a line by Dylan Thomas. Emily wrote like silver bullets shot from a small caliber gun, her words drilling precise holes in the mind and in the holes bulleted worlds of intense meaning. Emily’s subject was “Eternity,” her name for divine reality. Her subject is my subject.
I want to write literature that lasts as Vladimir Nabokov’s will last. I want to write like Flann O’Brien, wee coy disappointed man that he was. I want to leave something of myth in the world. An Oz of my own.
In short, I want to write in any genre as one of the greats. Instead, it has always been my curse to suffer “for my art” as sensationally as Poe ever did and yet never to be Poe. The hell with it. I write anyway. I wrote Houdini Heart. A surprise to me: supernatural horror. It just came and I let it.
I do have this: that I write at all is all my own doing. I am not the spawn of greats or semi-greats or even half a great. My stepfather could barely read much less write. I never saw a book in my mother’s hands. There were no books in my houses. (Imagine what Cicero would have said.) So many Navy houses and Duty Ports when you get dragged around by a pint-sized sailor and a frantic woman who’s just biding her time until she thinks you’re old enough to get along without her. I could always have gotten along without her, and though she was almost there, I did get along without her. And yet I wrote my first book, a fantasy, when I was four. Come to think, I was also a publisher at four. I wrote and illustrated my little book; then, like Emily, made a tidy packet of it and hid it. I don’t recall much before the age of 7 or 8 but I do remember that. I have a strong feeling there’s a good reason I forgot everything else.
I have a stronger feeling that writing, at least for me, is a place to go just to be somewhere I belong.
I AM, therefore I write.
Over the last few years things have changed radically in the world of the writer. For a hundred years or so, the publisher has been mightier than the pen. A tremendous industry grew up around us. They told us what we could write and how to write it. They designed our covers. They pushed us into bookstores. Or out. If we would not or could not comply, we simply weren’t published. That is, unless we dared to publish ourselves. And oh, what an outcry from the “industry”. Vanity press, they called it. Conceit and folly! Only worthless writers need publish themselves, said they. Writers like Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, T.S. Eliot, Deepak Chopra, Margaret Atwood…and other such worthless ilk. They sneered, they laughed. And we bought it. Everyone bought it.
They broke our hearts.
And for those they “allowed” to join them, those they considered “real” writers? For those, they cooked the books.
Wee sidebar: I’ll never forget being shunted into a rather shabby, rather useless little room at the London offices of Harper Collins (my first publisher) and being told by the receptionist, oh so secretly: “They think you writers are nuisances. We’re told to keep you in here so you won’t wander about and bother people.”
But ah, the internet has changed all that, oh lordy has it. The industry that lived off us for so long is scrambling for its very life. Just as the rapacious music “industry” went down, the publishing industry is going down. One by one, the houses disappear, or get bought by Bertelsmann, the German behemoth. I think there are seven majors left. As I write this, we could be down to six. We writers are supposed to mourn this. We’re supposed to feel we are bobbing like small wee boats on a tossing sea with nowhere to land. And I do admit that the cache of standing on the decks of a great and venerable ship like Random House or Doubleday (I’ve stood there; it’s cold) still has its romantic grip on an unpublished writer’s mind. But that will pass. It’s passing now. And all because of the internet which spawned Amazon and those who would be Amazon like Barnes & Noble. It gave birth to the ebook.
A revolution has taken place in the world of publishing, one that’s been stewing for quite some time, one only recently taken seriously by the industry. And for them it might be too late. Amazon has announced it is hiring editors and other publishing professionals to launch its own in-house publishing business. They now are not only selling more books than anyone else, they may soon be publishing more.
What does this mean to writers? Without fear of snide remarks, we can publish ourselves. We can promote ourselves. Bedad, we can design our own covers! In the day of the Big Publisher, we weren’t allowed a single word about how our book would look. I always thought that how my books looked meant that the door in a big publishing house with a sign that read: Art Department opened into a broom closet.
If our work is worthy, we will sell. Maybe not quickly, maybe not to the masses, but it will pass into the hands of that truly beloved person out there waiting, a reader. And maybe it will sell quickly and to the masses. You never know. If it’s not worthy, we can still look at our work, bound or kindled or nooked, and know that we wrote it. It’s ours. No one can send us those horrid form letters writers used to paper their walls with. “We’re sorry, but your book isn’t suitable for us at this time.”
I’ve been lucky. I have an agent and it’s your agent who sees such things and doesn’t tell you. I’ve also known what it’s like to be published by the big names, quite a few of them. A moment’s heady rush and then the frustrating truth. If your book doesn’t sell well enough in its allotted time span (a matter of weeks), it’s literally trashed. Every unsold copy is destroyed.
But that too has changed. If you publish yourself you will never go out of print. Your books will never wind up on a tacky remand table for a buck a copy. My latest book, my one and only (so far) tale of supernatural horror, Houdini Heart, will live as long as I do. And hopefully a lot longer.
As I said, the industry built on our hopes and our dreams and our talent once had the power to break our hearts. Only our writing, published or not, read or not, could mend it. But now their power is waning. Publish and be damned. Publish and be blessed. But bloody hell, publish. They can’t stop you. And they can’t trash you.