Austin Scott Collins's Blog: Upside-down, Inside-out, and Backwards

August 12, 2019

Originality vs. Marketability

One of the worst things you can call a novel is “derivative.” Authors take pride in being creative. Although at the deep core there are only a few basic story types out there—some say twelve, some say three, some say seven, I say who cares?—each storyteller has the ability, maybe even the obligation, to spin it in a unique way. After all, what’s the point in flagellating a narrative equine that is already thoroughly deceased? No one wants his or her work viewed as a rip-off. Even when it is meant as a compliment, when a reader says, “this reminded me of [well-known book],” it’s hard not to take that as a bit of an insult. So we struggle to find new, fresh ways to tell inventive, imaginative stories unlike what’s already out there, stories that fill a space that’s not already filled. We are determined to be different. It’s practically an artistic requirement.


AND YET . . . in seeking representation, the author may find himself or herself stumbling up against a rather infuriating and perhaps unexpected obstacle: agents and publishers want a sure thing. You can hardly blame them. They are trying to make a living in a tough business.


Pretend you were putting on a fund-raising event for a charitable cause about which you care deeply. If your goal is to make money, do you sell a familiar and popular thing, like cookies and chocolate bars? Or do you offer fermented octopus nuggets infused with effervescent rutabaga vinegar and suspended in nitrogen-fluffed mango gravy foam? Your exquisitely refined culinary stylings might strike a connoisseur as acts of inspired gastronomic genius, but how much cash do you think you are going to rake in to save the old community dance hall, Skippy?


Your story might be weirdly brilliant and brilliantly weird, and you might be able to truthfully claim that no one has ever seen anything quite like it before, but 99% of prospective agents and publishers are likely to focus unfavorably on the “weird” part.


The novelist might even be affronted to be asked to name some other books that are similar to the work being considered! Sometimes, even confining yourself to a genre label can sting a little. Most of us like to think of our work as transcending, warping, and blurring those kinds of distinctions. The “right” answer, from a business/marketing standpoint, would be to name five wildly successful bestsellers virtually identical to this title, and a neat, easily defined set of demographic parameters (such as males between 24-38 who live in the Midwest, have two years of college, shop at Target, own a dog, and watch the Discovery Channel). Publishers want to focus those advertising dollars like a laser beam on classifiable segments of the population. Agents want to sell manuscripts to publishers; it’s their job to entice them with something they think they can sell to actual book-purchasers.


The wrong answer, on the other hand, is “what do you mean, what’s it like?? It’s not ‘like’ anything! If I thought this book was similar to something else, I’d change it!”


There is no simple solution for this paradox. The savvy author negotiates the swamp by emphasizing the various ways in which this book can be positively compared to other well known, successful books. The dialogue is reminiscent of THIS, the action is evocative of THAT, the plot follows an analogous structure HERE and explores equivalent themes THERE. “Readers who enjoyed [book A] might also enjoy this for the style and tone,” you could say. “Readers who found the symbolism of [book B] might like the way this story uses coded allusions.”


Then again, if you’ve written something that really is a shameless knockoff, separated from unalloyed plagiarism only by the flimsiest of legal technicalities, then you’ll have an easier road to follow in this regard. Barry Motter and the Magical Chalice of Bogshorts is likely to have an unmistakable appeal to a certain kind of publishing house looking to make a quick buck. But for most of us, that’s not the goal. So tell your story, craft and refine it to the highest essence of what it can be through a thousand rounds of edits, re-writes, and improvements, and be proud of that. And if in the end it’s just too strange for an agent or a publisher to take an interest in it, well, good for you!

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

My author page:
www.AustinScottCollins.com

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Recent popular posts:

The Things We Hate

Sleeping With My Editor

Answering the Inevitable Questions

Deconstructing DTfG

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Share twitter circle
Published on August 12, 2019 13:40

March 15, 2019

The Things We Hate

Every reader, every writer, and every editor has a focused loathing for some grammatical construction, syntactical convention, peculiar spelling choice, stylistic conceit, or punctuation usage. It takes on the aspect of a holy crusade. These peeves become so deeply ingrained with time (and repeated annoyance) that they are eventually assimilated into the flesh and marrow of who we are as language enthusiasts. It’s funny, because logically these perceived transgressions do us no harm. Why not skim over them? Why not accept a particular wordsmith’s decision as a charming quirk, or at least an inoffensive deviation? We all have the right to be odd, after all.


Of course we aren’t going to do that! We get so boiling mad when we see someone violate a personally cherished rule that we can scarcely contain ourselves. Whether it’s the deployment (or omission) of the Oxford comma, the overuse of the passive voice, an excessive reliance on literary clichés, pretentious word choices, the jarring insertion of slang and dialect, or the utilization of “not un-” instead of the corresponding antonymic adjective, these things send us into a righteous philological rage. Some despise parentheses. Some scorn one-sentence paragraphs. Some shriek when confronted with a sentence fragment. There are those who consider the very presence of an adverb discordant, like a fart during a symphonic performance. I have a friend who fought with her editor over the matter of whether to put foreign-language text in italics. One author memorably explained in her preface why she preferred to use “bluegreen” as opposed to “blue-green.” (She felt that the hyphen constituted a visual hiccup.)


Mine is excessive dialogue tags. I remain fully aware that numerous copy editors hold the opposing view here, and feel that any line of speech without a tag assigning it to a speaker is a glaring lapse. But it drives me crazy.


Allow me to illustrate.


“Is this your bow tie?” she said. She held it out.
He shook his head. “No,” he said. “I never wear bow ties. I put live snakes around my neck and stick luminescent jewels on my forehead.”
She cocked her head to one side. “How do you make them adhere?” she wanted to know.
“I dip them in the sap of an Aztec Murder Tree,” he explained.
“Where do you find those?” she asked.
“I have one in my apartment,” he explained.
“Just for the sap?” she probed further.
“Also for the way it smells, but yeah, mostly for the sap,” he replied. “And with a luminescent jewel on my forehead and a live snake around my neck, who needs a bowtie?”
“I can’t argue with that,” she said. “But what about when you sweat?”
“It doesn’t bother the snake,” he stated.
“I meant vis-à-vis the forehead adherence issue,” she clarified.
“You underestimate the holding power of the sap of the Aztec Murder Tree,” he told her.

OK, OK, I could go on like this all day. But don’t you find the presence of dialogue tags in every single fucking sentence irritating? Or at least distracting? To me, it really disrupts the flow.


Now, for contrast, read the same passage without any tags at all, just dialogue and action:


“Is this your bow tie?” She held it out.
He shook his head. “No. I never wear bow ties. I put live snakes around my neck and stick luminescent jewels on my forehead.”
She cocked her head to one side. “How do you make them adhere?”
“I dip them in the sap of an Aztec Murder Tree.”
“Where do you find those?”
“I have one in my apartment.”
“Just for the sap?”
“Also for the way it smells, but yeah, mostly for the sap. And with a luminescent jewel on my forehead and a live snake around my neck, who needs a bowtie?”
“I can’t argue with that. But what about when you sweat?”
“It doesn’t bother the snake.”
“I meant vis-à-vis the forehead adherence issue.”
“You underestimate the holding power of the sap of the Aztec Murder Tree.”

Now doesn’t that have a much nicer rhythm? It’s brisk, it’s snappy, and there is never any doubt who is speaking. I feel dialogue tags should only be used in cases where there might otherwise be some reasonable degree of confusion about who is doing the talking.


“I feel I have made my point,” the author said, speaking pompously in the third-person voice.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

My author page:
www.AustinScottCollins.com

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Recent popular posts:

Crazy People in History #1

A Brief Guide to Writing Terrible Fiction

Martinus or Martino?

I Interview the Lovely Dalia Lance

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Share twitter circle
Published on March 15, 2019 15:51

January 21, 2019

Going Full Throttle (For Once)

In general, I am a huge fan of peace and quiet. I don’t like noise, conflict, or chaos—unless it’s for the sake of doing or accomplishing something really interesting and/or exciting and/or arousing and/or fun. I hate rushing. For example, I prefer to wait until everyone else gets off the airplane, so that I can get up, gather my bags, and stroll off in a relaxed manner. It’s a great luxury, not being in a hurry.

And here’s the thing: all those people pushing and shoving and elbowing each other, snarling and grunting, they’re wasting their energy. We’re all going to wind up in a group together at the boarding platform for the terminal shuttle, and then we’re all going to wind up in another group together at baggage claim. Or in a slightly different group at the gate for our next flight leg. It’s all the same.

Same principle applies on the highway. Unless there is a good reason to do otherwise (such as an emergency), I drive at a nice, normal, safe speed. I watch these people speeding, tailgating, weaving in and out of traffic, and generally being impatient, aggressive, and reckless, and all I can do is sigh. I refuse to believe everybody is really in that much of a legitimate hurry. My suspicion is that in reality, most drivers are not going anywhere important, and aren’t going to do anything important when they get there, either. I think it’s just the primordial desire to go faster than other people. But guess what? No matter how fast you go, no matter how many people you pass, there will always be someone ahead of you. Everybody just chill the hell out!

My writing technique also follows this philosophy. I tend to take a highly methodical approach. I begin with a summary of the entire story, beginning to end. Then I create a chapter-by-chapter outline. I have always felt that good chapter should feel a bit like a complete story; it should have a starting point, a middle, and a satisfying stopping point, with some kind of arc holding it all together. Furthermore, my personal opinion is that a chapter should be summarizeable as a single sentence. If you don’t feel like you can summarize the chapter as a single sentence, it probably wants to be more than one chapter. (Again, just me.)

Once I have completed these steps, only then do I embark on the actual writing, which I usually do somewhat out of order. I write whatever scene happens to inspire me that day, based on random thoughts and ideas. During a walk, for example, I might think, “of course Sheila would make that comment to Reginald in chapter four! Or, “of course Darren would refuse to stay in the room after what Ludella told him about the old key in chapter seven!” This process is highly dependent upon me knowing the entire plot. I need to know where this is all going. I need to have the entire framework built. Then I add to it bit by bit, fleshing it out and fluffing it up, putting meat on the skeleton, putting ornaments on the Christmas tree. I take as much time as I need, letting the story rattle around in my brain, allowing the insights and revelations to come to me, trusting that as I life my life, have experiences, read other books etc., I will keep having these fresh flashes of creative inspiration, and I will be ready, because I will know exactly where each new piece fits into the puzzle.

With all this in mind, it might come as a mild surprise that I did NaNoWrimo in 2018. Most people who read writing blogs like this one probably know what National Novel Writing Month is, but if not, look it up. Basically, you commit to writing 50,000 words in 30 days, and when you sign up they provide robust graphical tools to track your progress. That might sound entirely antithetical to the process I just described—and it is—but it’s also a very interesting exercise and I highly recommend it to any author. The real point, obviously, is not to have a finished manuscript at the end of the month. Instead, the goal is to discipline yourself to set aside some time each day for writing. This means setting boundaries and holding yourself accountable. So you have to learn to say, “not right now, guys. I need to get another thousand words in. I’ll catch up with you later.” It means knowing when to shut the door, knowing when to turn off the phone, knowing when to close every window except Word and ignore your incoming notifications for a little while. It means writing something, anything, even when you don’t particularly feel like writing. There were days when everything seemed to be conspiring to keep me from getting any writing done. On a day like that, normally I would be inclined to say, “well, it’s just not going to happen today.” But during NaNoWriMo, you power through, you don’t make excuses, and you get it done.

At the end of November, I had about 51,000 words of what I’m sure will be about a 72,000-word, 300-page first draft soon—maybe in just a couple more weeks of work. NaNoWriMo gave me a significant boost in the right direction, a head start that encouraged me to keep pushing forward. It took me eight years to write the three novels in the Victoria da Vinci trilogy; with this story, I went from a chapter outline, a character list, and a bunch of sketchy notes to a what I felt was a strong and nearly complete preliminary draft in four weeks. Sure, it has some thin spots and a few gaps where I skimmed from one part to the next, but that’s how you make progress. If you get stuck, switch to a different paragraph or even a different chapter. Just add something. You can always fix it (or remove it) later.

I don’t advocate hurrying or forcing it as your standard authorial technique—unless it’s your full-time job and you’re working on a deadline, in which case, A. good for you, and B. quit reading this and get back to work! But I do urge everyone who is serious about finishing a project to challenge yourself to try something like NaNoWriMo at least once. You might surprise yourself.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

My author page:
www.AustinScottCollins.com

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Recent popular posts:

Crazy People in History #1

A Brief Guide to Writing Terrible Fiction

Martinus or Martino?

Worms Uncanned

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Share twitter circle
Published on January 21, 2019 15:15

October 7, 2018

Being in the Moment

Like any other creative enterprise, writing is a way to capture, amplify, comment on, analyze, criticize, and appreciate human experience. All art strives, in some manner, to express feelings and desires, but each form has its own special power. Music, for example, can strongly convey mood. Visual media can evoke a sense of illusionary reality so effectively that it can trigger terror or delight. And writing has a unique capability to distill, clarify, and preserve complex emotions and abstractions.

Imagine a small group of people standing at a scenic overlook. The tide crashes against the cliffs below; the sun dips below the western horizon amidst an uproar of vermillion, tangerine, and rose. The trees flanking them reach for the sky with gnarled branches, bristling with needles and pinecones, sturdy trunks resisting the sea wind with a tangled network of roots plunging into the rocky crevices.

Each of the observers processes this moment in a different way. One is sitting in front of a canvas on an easel, painting. Another is taking pictures with a film camera from the 1960s. Another has a sketchbook, and is using charcoal pencils to render one particular tree that caught her eye. Someone is using an ink pen to compose a poem in a spiral-bound notepad. And one is just standing there, taking it all in.

The one person who is just standing there is not necessarily any more or less engaged in the experience than the painter, the photographer, the sketch artist, or the poet. In fact, who knows? He might be zoning out, thinking about something else entirely, not really present at all. There is no intrinsic virtue in doing nothing. Doing nothing is also not inherently bad; by standing there in quiet meditation, perhaps that person in more intensely focused on the fleeting beauty of this time and place than anyone else at the overlook.

But there is another person there, too. That person has a phone, and is alternately taking pictures and typing.

There is perhaps an instantaneous impulse to judge that person for paying attention to a phone instead of paying attention to the sunset. But is taking a picture with a phone any different than taking a picture with a vintage Franke & Heidecke 35-mm Rolleiflex? And maybe what that person is typing is an essay or a sonnet, or field notes. Let’s not jump to the conclusion that this person is playing Minecraft and ignoring the splendor of the natural world.

There are as many different ways to participate in life as there are intelligent beings on the planet, and they are all valid. When somebody says, “I wasn’t taking pictures, I was just being in the moment,” that negates the value of taking pictures as a means to be in the moment. When someone says, “put down your notepad and just pay attention to what’s happening right in front of you right now,” that refutes the usefulness of writing as a way to tangibly snare an ephemeral state in the careening flux of human existence.

Perhaps we would all be better off if we could find it within ourselves to do less judging and more living—whatever “living” means to each of us.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

My author page:
www.AustinScottCollins.com

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Recent popular posts:

I Interview the Lovely Dalia Lance

The Joy of Being Finished

Answering the Inevitable Questions

Sleeping With My Editor

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Share twitter circle
Published on October 07, 2018 15:15

July 22, 2018

Marching Onward Through Fields of Gray

(Warning: mild, general spoilers ahead. Don’t read this if you want to be completely surprised by what happens in Book III, Hate's Profiting.)

Book II, Crass Casualty, ended on a decidedly grim and despairing note, and that bleak tone carries over into Book III, despite some significant positive developments in the intervening decades.

Hate's Profiting alternates between two parallel frames of reference, one set in October of 1923 and the other set in October of 1993, 70 years later. (It’s not a coincidence that Book I takes place largely in the spring, Book II takes place largely in the summer, and Book III takes place largely in the fall.)

I really wanted to explore the theme of moral ambiguity as it relates to social progress. On one hand, in many ways one might validly argue that Victoria lost in her struggle against systemic economic and social oppression. She did not accomplish her objectives during her lifetime (although there are some hints in the text that suggest how she spent the decades after she is last seen by the other main characters).

On the other hand, here we see our newest protagonist, Daytona: a mere three generations after the events of Crass Casualty, she is living a life that in more than one sense epitomizes everything that Victoria believed in and fought for. She is a college graduate with a high-paying career, she is independent and self-reliant, she is a skydiver and a motorcyclist. Victoria would have been thrilled to see the headway that had been made. She would have been delighted about the freedom and opportunities that Daytona enjoys compared to women of her own era. Yet we also learn that the circumstances that led to Daytona’s relative affluence and privilege are sordid, stained by a shameful old family secret.

And as Lillian and Pearl remind Victoria and Constance at multiple points throughout the story, people of color are often the last to see the benefits of cultural advancement, and frequently find themselves left behind in the self-congratulatory progressive parade.

I also wanted to shine a spotlight on the banality of evil. For Percy and Tatiana, sadistic cruelty is not an active choice but a course of least resistance, carried out casually and mindlessly as a series of mundane tasks. They have each so deeply internalized Bam’s homicidal career into their normal boring daily routines that they are utterly untroubled by conscience, and instead spend their time complaining about how unfair life is and wishing for greater personal fulfillment, all while trying to gain the advantage over the other and position themselves in Bam’s greater favor. All remorse—if they ever had any—has been ground out of them along the way by the tedious and repetitive life they lead.

But we would be mistaken to think this is purely a reflection of their intrinsic moral vileness. Reality is messy and complicated, and it has a way of corrupting and tarnishing even the most virtuous people in the most righteous movements. Nothing is immune.

Hate's Profiting, above all else, is intended to illustrate that no great social advancements come without great costs, and no great struggles remain untainted by great human atrocities.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

My author page:
www.AustinScottCollins.com

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Recent popular posts:

I Interview the Lovely Dalia Lance

Sleeping With My Editor

The Unique Challenge of Writing Sequels

The Perfect Ending

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Share twitter circle
Published on July 22, 2018 16:01

May 22, 2018

Thank Goodness the Weatherman Told Me It Was Raining, Or I Wouldn't Have Known

Preface and disclaimer: I tend to approach mass-market self-help and management psychology books with great skepticism. I want to know if there have been multiple well-designed, double-blind, objective, empirical studies conducted by serious researchers at well-regarded institutions and published in respectable journals showing that this theory you are selling has any actual value, or if it’s just a bunch of buzzwords and pseudo-scientific nonsense strung together to sell hardbacks to the gullible.

So many popular and often-referenced “exciting new approaches” to whatever-it-is have been thoroughly, comprehensively, monumentally debunked by legitimate investigators who, through carefully controlled experiments, determined that they are nothing but fluff and noise. I don’t care how smart it sounds, or how intuitively appealing it is, if it doesn’t cause something useful to come out of the end of the pipe, please don’t waste my time with it. The first thing I do when somebody tells me about a fresh, thrilling idea that will “change my life” (yeah, sure) is go online to find out what grown-up inquiries have been made against this assertion, and 8 times out of 10 someone at a university has already proven that it’s a load of ill-conceived, poorly constructed, blithering gibberish.

So when I was given the assignment of reading CliftonStrengths, you must understand that I approached it with a high degree of cynicism, fully expecting to find it to be the usual silly and illogical quackery packaged as revolutionary business insight. So imagine my surprise when I found myself in agreement with much of what the introduction had to say!

One of the funny things about me is that I emerged from the womb with a fully formed personality. I often hear people say things like, “I just want to figure out who I am and what I want,” and I cannot relate to that at all. When somebody tells me, “I want to take a year off to find myself,” I am confused. HOW CAN YOU NOT KNOW WHO YOU ARE?

I have never had the slightest doubt about who I was or what I wanted. From my earliest recollections, I had very specific desires. I wanted to fly. I wanted to skydive. I wanted to sail. I wanted to ride motorcycles. I wanted to travel. I wanted to scuba dive. And most of all, I wanted to write. I have never not wanted to be a novelist. I have never not wanted to be a pilot. None of that has ever changed.

So I took the evaluation, and the results were pretty much spot-on. This didn’t surprise me much; no one is better equipped to be a personality-type identifier than Gallup, the master of polling. They correctly pegged me as being intellectual and analytical, a strategic thinker interested in context, and a “maximizer,” which I took in the spirit of taking a first draft through 47 revisions until it was as good as it could possibly be.

All of that is accurate. Where I remain skeptical, however, is in the application of this information in a real-world context.

Do you know what I’d love to see? A serious research study in which one group of businesses has their employees take this test, and then takes vigorous, assertive action based on the results. The second group of businesses would have their employees take this test, but then would take no particular action based on the results. And the third business (the control group) would not take this test. The researchers would follow all three groups of businesses for several years and see if any trends emerged.

It would be interesting to see what the results were after, say, five years. I have a hypothesis: the first two groups would show a brief bump in employee engagement, simply because management seemed to be taking an interest in their well-being, but it would soon fade back to the normal, pre-test levels. But all three of the groups would show roughly the same overall average performance, when corrected for fluctuations in the economy. I also predict that the mangers in group one would express a strong, unshakeable belief that their performance had improved based on the test and the actions they took following the test, and that they would refuse to accept the statistical reality that it had made no difference, even when confronted with the hard data proving it. “I know we got better, I don’t care what the numbers say!” is something they would be likely to sputter in defense of their program when handed charts and graphs demonstrating that the gains were negligible or negative.

I mean, come on. In the history of business, has anybody’s boss ever really taken someone out of their present position and put them in a different, better position where that person could more effectively use their strengths?

“Fred, I know we hired you to be an engineer in the Gaskets and Seals department, but we’re going to reassign you as a public-relations expert with the Marketing team, because that’s where your survey results say your talents would be best utilized.”

“Janet, we hired you as a real-estate attorney, but we actually found that you would be better suited in Events Planning.”

I rather doubt it.

No, this is probably just yet another in a long, long chain of efforts by managers and supervisors to get people to do the same jobs, but to work harder for the same compensation.

At any rate, I already know what my ideal career is.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

My author page:
www.AustinScottCollins.com

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Recent popular posts:

Crazy People in History #1

A Brief Guide to Writing Terrible Fiction

Martinus or Martino?

Worms Uncanned

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Share twitter circle
Published on May 22, 2018 15:04

April 23, 2018

Being a Novelist Sometimes Means Doing Things for No Apparent Reason

Kurt Vonnegut famously pointed out that literature should not disappear up its own asshole. Writers shouldn’t just write about being writers, which means sometimes they need to get out there and actually do stuff. To create compelling fiction and vivid prose, one must seek out authentic life experiences. Although the occasional sequester is sometimes necessary to meet a deadline, one must not retreat into permanent isolation, hunched over a keyboard, slowly disconnecting from the world, spilling out words in a torrent of unraveling sanity.

Using that justification, I recently embarked on an adventure that had no particular point other than doing something random enough to be appealing and challenging enough to be interesting: I took nine and a half days and rode my motorcycle from one end of U.S. Route 19 to the other, across 1,400 miles and seven states. I deliberately sought out unusual places to stay along the way. It was not a high season for travel, nor was I going to popular tourist destinations. In fact, every single night of the trip, at every single place I stayed—with the exception of one night at a popular motorcycle-only road house—I was the only paying guest.

This was not the biggest trip I’ve done, either in terms of days, mileage, or number of states, but it was still a moderately ambitious endeavor that I had been arranging and strategizing since last November. So when I woke up on the morning of leg four and saw that the forecast was for snow and ice all along my intended path for the day, I was deeply demoralized.

My gear is comfortable down into the 50s for a few hours in dry, sunny conditions. It’s adequate down into the 40s in damp, misty weather. But on this day it was raining, with intermittent snow flurries and temperatures hovering in the high 30s. I had about seven or eight hours of riding ahead of me. I was only about halfway through this trip that I had planned and looked forward to for so long, and now I was facing the heartbreaking possibility of seeing it all fall apart. At a moment like that, you have to ask yourself some tough questions. I decided to go for it. I’ll see how it goes, I told myself, and if I’m too miserable, too tired, or too cold, or if the road conditions get too hazardous, I’ll give up, find a place to stop, and abandon the rest of the journey.

So I rallied my nerve and embarked. And even though there were periods during which I seriously doubted that I would, I made it.

In retrospect, it is difficult not to see the whole undertaking as a fitting allegory for writing a book . . .

1. You have to
Just.
Keep.
Going.

When you are two or three hours into a cold, wet ride, the prospect of another four or five hours of the same punishment seems like too much to face. The urge to give up becomes overwhelming. But no—one more sentence, one more paragraph, one more chapter.

2. It is supremely solitary. No one can ride those miles for you. You are trapped inside your own head, locked in combat with the road (or the manuscript) in front of you. It’s an emotional battle against that voice telling you to quit. “No one is forcing you to do this,” the voice reminds you. “Why are you punishing yourself? No one will care if you ever finish or not.”

3. There is not much of a well-defined support system. Trying to write a book, especially an unusual book, is like being the one motorcyclist on a snowy highway filled with cars and trucks. People look at you like you’re insane. And they’re not wrong.

4. Life isn’t fair. And that’s encouraging. Sometimes, you spend weeks and months planning and working towards a goal, only to have it nearly torpedoed by factors absolutely beyond your control. Why is that encouraging? Two reasons. First, you made it, didn’t you? And second, since the universe is obviously meaningless and indifferent, it’s just as likely that the Law of Averages will dump some marvelous undeserved success in your lap one day.

5. The rewards of the destination are worth the temporary pain and suffering that got you there. The final goal fills you with such pride, with such a transcendent, soul-inflating sense of accomplishment, that the agony along the way is soon forgotten. And that’s why there will always be another book . . . and another ride.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

My author page:
www.AustinScottCollins.com

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Recent popular posts:

Crazy People in History #1

A Brief Guide to Writing Terrible Fiction

Martinus or Martino?

Worms Uncanned

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Share twitter circle
Published on April 23, 2018 18:10

March 18, 2018

I Interview the Lovely Dalia Lance


ASC: Your book, My Home on Whore Islandgreat title, by the way—tells the story of your protagonist Randi Michaels, an HR professional who gives herself permission to sleep with everybody on her list. It feels semi-autobiographical. How much of Randi is you?

DL: It’s about 90% based on real-life experiences . . . [pauses] All right, so maybe my age and hair color are different now. But most of Randi is me in terms of personality, looks, et cetera. I went through similar situations as her, and I made similar choices.

ASC: In the book, Randi’s sexual adventures (and misadventures) range from super-hot to super-awkward. It must be a delicate line to tread as an author, maintaining a tone that’s both farcical and erotic.

DL: I think it can be hard to break the mold of using traditional men, these Greek god types, in romance. But sexual attraction and then the lack thereof, it’s based on more factors than simply good looks. There are a lot of things going into having sex with someone, even in the bathroom stall of a club. [laughing] Living the adventures made it easier to set the tone, since I knew exactly how each different experience felt.

ASC: It certainly felt authentic. My Home on Whore Island gleefully tramples all over the sexual double standard so prevalent in modern American culture. Do you think Randi’s fearless, shameless, unapologetic aggressiveness towards the men she wants to sleep with makes her a kind of modern hero?

DL: I think so. I want her to be. I think there is still too much stigma around women in this regard. I look forward to helping make that stigma disappear more rapidly. And of course I want a cape. [laughs]

ASC: I have to ask, have any former lovers read the book and recognized themselves—or thought they recognized themselves?

DL: Yes.

ASC: How did they react?

DL: Well Jesse read it and was terribly flattered. [grinning] We hooked up again. BONUS!

ASC: Perks of being an author, huh?

DL: Definitely. I mean, look at you. Your wife is unbelieveably hot.

ASC: It’s true.

DL: I’d be all over that.

ASC: Can’t say I blame you. Did you have anybody who wanted to know what page they were on?

DL: I have had a few ask me where their chapter is, yeah. I had to tell them to wait for the sequels.

ASC: That’s one way to keep your readers coming back for more.

DL: Sleep with as many of them as possible?

ASC: That’s not what I meant, but yeah, sure. And on that subject, as sexually confident and forceful as Randi is, she ultimately just wants to please her partners. She is very generous and open-minded in bed, and seems to get off on fulfilling fantasies. So despite her protestations to the contrary, is her deepest, ultimate desire really just to feel wanted? To feel appreciated and desired?

DL: Wow . . . you’re asking her to open that door she closed in chapter one.

ASC: Well, you know what Chekhov said about doors.

DL: I think that was guns, Austin.

ASC: Guns, doors. Whatever.

DL: Honestly, I think that is actually everyone’s true desire. We all want to feel those things, I just think this is the way she gives that to her partners and in turn hopes to get that for herself. Finding a way to feel like you matter is different for everyone.

ASC: Your male characters have varying reactions to Randi. She’s so forthright and out there, and they don’t always know what to make of it. Guys lust after strong, sexually expressive women in theory, but they often seem threatened by them in real life, and they lash out with insults, trying to diminish them. It’s a strange, stupid paradox. Can you talk about men’s conflicted relationship with sexually powerful women, and how that plays into the plot of My Home on Whore Island?

DL: I love this question! I think most men actually, whether they realize it or not, have a “hero” complex. They want to be the one saving the girl. I find that it is the exception where men can like or love a woman like Randi. Of course having sex with them is very different than being in a relationship with them. I think for casual partners it is easier to let that part of them go, because it isn’t for long and that can be part of the fantasy. The deeper issue is that I find men will play games to get a woman in bed. When you are the one asking for sex, this throws off their “game,” so to speak, and then you really have taken the position of strength in that dynamic. I think Randi shows how to balance this in both the good and bad (Plank) in the ways this happens.

ASC: I should mention for the benefit of our readers that you are six feet tall. You have an ample bosom. You are smart and opinionated . . .

DL: Is there a question?

ASC: Be patient, it’s coming. You have a big, loud, brazen personality. You love to have fun. You write stories that are a bit outrageous. People have been known to find you intimidating. So let me ask you two things: first, how does your “I-am-what-I-am-and-if-you-don’t-like-it-fuck-you” attitude inform your writing style? And two, what advice do you have for an introverted woman who wants to unleash her inner Slut Goddess?

DL: As far as my writing style: I wanted to always tell a really good story. I want grab you—inappropriately if possible—and make you laugh, smirk, cringe, tingle in your pink parts and leave you with big smile because I took you on this journey with me. Of course I also want to leave you wanting more.

For advice, interestingly enough, I have #WHORETIPS throughout the book. I also have them on Twitter. I think there are over a hundred. These are little pieces of advice gleaned from all the experiences Randi shares. However, the best advice I can give it to remember that really the only person who matters is you. You have to be who you are and find those people who want to be with, around, and inside of you because of that. Confidence is the sexiest trait in the universe. Trust me on this!

ASC: Agreed. OK, so writing a book is a lot of hard work. You know this, I know this. What is your process like?

DL: Painful! I’m kidding. (Kind of.) The biggest problem is making the time to write. I don’t get writer’s block or have problems with story creation. It’s just a matter of finding the time to sit down and type the words out. I work best on a deadline. With My Home on Whore Island, I made a list of all the “experiences” (and by that I mean playmates), and then I decided which ones I wanted to include in this book. The rest was all filling in the story line. I knew where I wanted it to begin and end, so that made it easy.

ASC: Did anything about the way My Home on Whore Island turned out surprise you? Or was the final product pretty much exactly what you visualized when you started?

DL: Actually there were fewer playmates then intended in book one, but otherwise it was exactly what I wanted. I am super-proud of how it turned out.

ASC: Are there any scenes that really stand out for you? Anything you are especially proud of?

DL: The one that gets commented on the most is the Panties-on-the-Door chapter. Randi meets a guy, sight unseen, at a hotel room. She leaves her wet panties on the door knob, lights off (you have to read the book for this part), and only sees his face for the first time after the encounter. I have had several people comment, “that would never happen,” but it did. It’s a true story, and it was a very interesting choice that not everyone could or would make. I also love the “Plank” chapter because it still makes me laugh out loud when I read it.

ASC: The book is organized into chapters based on the men Randi sleeps with. How did you come up with that structural device?

DL: They are mostly in chronological sequence, following real life. Although they are somewhat fictionalized. I also made sure that the good, the bad, and the interesting were mixed around in there enough to make the whole ride fun.

ASC: One thing I really love about My Home on Whore Island is that there is no romantic fairy-tale ending. Randi was a hot single mess at the beginning, and she’s still a hot single mess at the end, itching for more escapades. There is no rich, handsome dude who rides in on a white horse to save her from herself. Do you think publishers who stuff implausible, formulaic resolutions into mass-market fiction are really giving the public what they want? Or is it just another not-so-subtle admonition from the patriarchy?

DL: Well, as a reader of romance novels I can say there is a reason that this is the hottest selling market. The women that buy them love that fantasy. They want to be the girl in the book being swept off her feet and proving that love is forever, blah blah blah.

But My Home on Whore Island isn’t a romance book. It was never intended to be. I call it “chic-lit erotica” because they haven’t fully named this genre yet. I know there are other authors out there who are writing like me and I love that it is gaining popularity.

ASC: This is the beginning of a series. Tell us about the next installment. What’s coming up for Randi?

DL: Well, she is moving from Whore Island and will be Slumming it on Slut Street. I am presently working on that book. When we last left Randi she had a regular rotation, however, we find that dipping her toe over the line from sex to dating doesn’t work when most of her is covered in other men.

ASC: And when will it be coming out?

DL: I hope to have it out by October of this year, if not sooner.

ASC: I’m sure your readers will be excited to hear that. I’ll be first in line to buy it! Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.

DL: Any time, Austin.


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

My author page:
www.AustinScottCollins.com

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Recent popular posts:

Crazy People in History #1

A Brief Guide to Writing Terrible Fiction

Martinus or Martino?

Worms Uncanned

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Share twitter circle
Published on March 18, 2018 20:02

February 18, 2018

Looking Back and Cringing

Strap yourselves in, because this blog is going to wander a bit.

I never had “The College Experience,” and for a long time I was pretty resentful about that. But now I have a different perspective.

Sure, I went to college—three of them, actually—and after changing majors a few times I did eventually get a degree. (They gave me one if I promised to leave.) But I never had the kinds of adventures that all those 80s movies I grew up watching had led me to believe I would have.

There were two major things I felt like I was missing out on. First, I wanted to have the academic and intellectual immersion that I had been hoping for and wishing for throughout my public (and briefly private) elementary, middle, and high school days. I wanted to go to a place where knowledge was prized, where learning was cherished, where people went not to get trained to do a job and be “productive”—which of course is capitalist code for being a useful revenue-generating tool of the plutocracy, trading your time for a few bucks as a worker and then trading your money for frivolous material things as a consumer, all for the sake of funneling wealth upwards to the ruling class—no, not just that. To become wise, informed, enlightened citizens; that was the goal. I wanted to go to a place where people stayed up late talking about writing and philosophy. Well, long story short, it didn’t happen. It turned out to be less of a goal and more of a fantasy.

The second thing I was looking forward to was the party scene. Having spent my childhood and early adolescence watching HBO and Cinemax, I was expecting college to be a non-stop riot of naughty, bawdy fun. I did not find this to be the case. For one thing, I never drank in college. (I didn’t start drinking until I was almost 30.) So a lot of the binge culture sort of failed to connect. Also, I had no friends. (That’s not exactly true, but if you round to the nearest ten, I had no friends. If you round to the nearest five, I had five, but just barely.)

Looking back, I’m really glad I wasn’t a part of that world, because now I understand that what I was seeing in those cheesy movies wasn’t harmless fun, it was misogynistic violence. Breaking into sorority houses to steal underwear? Spying on women in the shower? Secretly filming sexual encounters? Tricking women into having sex through elaborate plots involving mistaken identity? Using water-soluble material to leave women naked in the ocean? Those are not harmless youthful high jinks, that’s criminal behavior. The fact that Hollywood normalized it is horrifying in retrospect.

Sexual discrimination and assault stand out as persistent recurring themes in the Victoria da Vinci series. The main characters are accosted, molested, threatened, harrassed, terrorized, and marginalized in a multitude of ways that any modern-day female reader would find familiar and plausible. (Not much has changed.)

Indeed, being unfairly pushed out of the scientific community came to be the central, defining struggle of Victoria’s life. The unwillingness of male academics to accept her and take her seriously forced her down the path of secrecy and subterfuge.

In 2010, when I first started working on this story, long before it began to expand into a full-length novel and then eventually into three novels, I did not know that when I finished the trilogy at the end of 2017 there would be such a watershed moment happening. It was the year of rising awareness, with #MeToo trending and a group of “Silence Breakers” on the cover of Time magazine — a term I don’t actually care for, since there was never any real silence. Women have been screaming about this problem publicly for decades, and men have been downplaying and dismissing it.

Now that I’m an adult, I have on numerous occasions gone to parties where things do sometimes get quite out of hand (in a good way), and plenty of crazy stuff happens. But there is an important difference: empowered consent . The key word is “empowered.” In a situation where the dynamic is wildly lopsided, sex is always problematic, even when it is technically consensual. It is questionable whether a woman can truly consent to sex when she is under arrest and a police officer is propositioning her. It is questionable whether a woman can truly consent to sex when she is a low-level employee who desperately needs her job and a senior executive is propositioning her.

I am in no way anti-sex. To be clear, I am pro-sex. I am super-pro. But not without stipulations. When a young woman gets naked and/or performs a sex act in a swimming pool at a party at her friend’s house, for example, and it’s not because she particularly wants to but mostly because she is afraid that she will be rejected or ridiculed by her peers unless she does it, that is absolutely not cool. It’s just another form of subjugation; in that scenario she is being involuntarily commodified, and she is likely to deeply internalize that for a long time. If she does it when she’s 47 and married and her partner is standing nearby holding a beer and enjoying the show, on the other hand, it’s not only cool, it’s awesome. She’s having a good time for her own reasons and in her own way, not because she feels obligated but because she freely, willingly chooses to do it and thinks it’s fun. Nobody is pressuring anybody to do anything. Everybody is having a good time. Even more importantly, if another woman at the same party chooses not to do that, it’s also fine and no one is judging her for it.

To summarize: it’s OK to regard a woman as a sex object under two—and only two—circumstances:

(1) when she is in a position that enables her to grant empowered consent;

(2) when she makes it abundantly, enthusiastically clear that she wants to be regarded as a sex object . . . right now. It doesn’t mean it will be OK tomorrow. Or even ten minutes from now. This is a moment.


The VdV series is about burlesque dancers, so I'll use that as an example, When she is up on stage dancing for you, by all means, go ahead and look at her. (And don’t forget to tip her.) Hoot, clap, and whistle. She wants you to. But understand that it's her job. And once she's standing outside in the parking lot in her civilian attire waiting for her Uber, it is no longer all right to lurk in close proximity, ogling and leering. That will rightly make her feel nervous and uncomfortable. To summarize: on stage during the show=OK. Parking lot after the show=not OK. It's really not a difficult concept.

I do not blame cable TV for my college social failings—just for the false expectations. I was never a very outgoing or extraverted kind of guy. I was always socially inept. Not shy, just incompetent. I don’t lack confidence, I have just always lacked the ability to interact with other human beings in any normal way. (I have come to know that this is called “being a writer.”)

These days, I’m still socially inept, but now the Internet exists. So I can surround myself with other interesting people who are also mostly socially inept, and it’s all good. (Hi, everybody!)


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

My author page:
www.AustinScottCollins.com

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Recent popular posts:

Crazy People in History #1

A Brief Guide to Writing Terrible Fiction

Martinus or Martino?

Worms Uncanned

Dicing Time for Gladness by Austin Scott Collins Crass Casualty (The Victoria da Vinci novels) (Volume 2) by Austin Scott Collins Hate's Profiting (The Victoria da Vinci novels, #3) by Austin Scott Collins
1 like ·   •  1 comment  •  flag
Share twitter circle
Published on February 18, 2018 12:17

January 15, 2018

Worms Uncanned

On Monday, January the 8th, 2018, exactly seven years and ten months — that’s 2,857 days — after I started working on the story that would eventually expand into a three-book series (you can read about the origin of the idea HERE if you are interested), Hate’s Profiting, the third novel in the Victoria da Vinci trilogy, was released for sale to the public. That was seven days ago, but I am still in the midst of a long, slow, decompressing, uncoiling sigh of relief.


When I embarked on this project, I had no idea what I was getting into. Let’s do the numbers:


Book I (Dicing Time for Gladness) - 59,933 words.
Book II (Crass Casualty) - 62,697 words.
Book III (Hate’s Profiting) - 57,523 words.


Grand total for the trilogy: 180,153 words.


So if you divide the total number of words by the total amount of time from inception to release, you get 63 words per day. And there you have it: the most meaningless and irrelevant figure ever derived.


When I finished the final, final, final, final draft of the manuscript for book III and it was time to start thinking about the cover design, I realized it would be nice to create new covers for Dicing Time for Gladness (book I) and Crass Casualty (book II) as well, with some consistent unifying visual elements.


Well, as long as I was going to go back and fiddle with the covers (I reasoned), I may as well seize the opportunity to fix a few shortcomings in the text that had been bothering me. One writes a book, time goes by, and as one continues to read and write and just generally be alive, hopefully one’s style improves and matures. One gains confidence in one’s voice and trust in one’s reader. Lines that I used to find acceptable now sounded forced and clunky; descriptions that I used to think were vivid now felt overwrought.


I realized almost immediately that I was accidentally embarking on a major rewrite. But it was too late. I was already down the wormhole.


I am not alone in this dilemma. Late in 2017, Trish and I were having drinks with a journalist friend and her husband after one of her public appearances. We were talking about a non-fiction hardcover project she had finished a while ago. She confided to us the mortification she felt when she noticed a factually significant spelling error that had slipped past multiple copy editors — and she noticed it after the book was released. That’s one of the hazards of working to a publisher’s deadline.


So yes, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword having a looming business entity involved in your creative effort. On one hand, you do have extra resources — everything from research support to professional proofreading. But you’re also under pressure to rush things to completion, when maybe an additional year or two would have yielded a superior product. Some stories need time to ripen in the author’s mind, and age slowly over the span of many drafts, perhaps with long reflective intervals in between.


Ever read a book that was really good until the last ten pages or so, and then you got the impression that the writer either just got sick of it and gave up, or else was told by the publisher that there would be no further extensions to the deadline?


That’s one of several reasons why I’m glad to publish independently: I have the luxury of going back to make these tweaks and adjustments. I’m not stuck with years of regret over an awkwardly constructed sentence.


Also, it’s nice to have total, final, and absolute control over all aspects of the novel, from the fonts and layouts of the interior to the art design of the exterior. Having to argue and compromise over all those things with a publisher whose vision might differ seems exhausting and potentially heartbreaking.


So I go in to add a comma here, break up a run-on sentence there, delete an adverb, tidy up an expository passage, remove an extraneous detail. But every author is familiar with the cascade that comes next: you change one word, and that changes the meaning of the sentence. So you rework the sentence. But that changes the meaning of the paragraph, so you rework the paragraph. But that changes the flow of the chapter etc.


Ultimately, the changes were (comparatively) minor; there were just a lot of them, and the cumulative effect, I think (I hope), is a significant improvement.


Honestly, I was a little afraid to go back and re-read what I had started in 2010. But I was deeply gratified to discover that the story itself — the characters, the dialogue, the plot — still felt strong to me. I was not disappointed by the narrative decisions I had made in the beginning. That would have been deeply demoralizing. Instead, I walked away feeling validated.


Now that I’m done with this trilogy, I’m going to keep a promise to myself and to my long-suffering wife: I will not write any novels in 2018. (I swear!)


My author page:
www.AustinScottCollins.com

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Recent popular posts:


So, What Do You Do?


A Brief Guide to Writing Terrible Fiction


Crazy People in History #1


Sleeping With My Editor

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Share twitter circle
Published on January 15, 2018 09:47

Upside-down, Inside-out, and Backwards

Austin Scott Collins
My blog about books, writing, and the creative process.
Follow Austin Scott Collins's blog with rss.