Where Ideas Collide

“Where do you get your ideas?”

First off, ugh.  Second…no one’s ever asked me that.  Seriously.  It’s such a stereotypical, annoying question, and no one has ever even hinted like they were going to ask me.  Maybe that has to do with having a relatively small readership, or maybe it’s working in the small press, where the fans are generally more knowledgeable about both the genre and the writing process. Shit, maybe it’s my generally abrasive demeanor.  I dunno.  All I know is no one has ever asked me where I get my ideas.

“Nate, get to the goddamn point.”

I’m working on it!

So, last night I was talking to an old friend of mine, and somehow we started talking about how ideas eventually turn into stories. For me, a good idea is seldom enough to hang a story on. The way I work, I sort of collect ideas and information, and eventually a few of them fit together in a way that makes for a good story (yes, this is also what Warren Ellis does, proving there is nothing I can do that a better writer can’t do…better).

A great example of this (and one I used during last night’s convo), is my recent story “Bottle. Paper. Samurai.” The earliest seed of this story idea is eight years old, when I had an idea for a book called Firewater. In that idea, a dying angel gives a homeless man a bottle of whiskey that may or may not contain the soul of Christ (holy shit, that sounds dumb). I took a stab or two at writing it, but it never really came together. the idea was too thin.

Years later, I tried to write a story called Omizawa about a man who is so good at origami that the things he creates become real. Same deal: took a few shots at it, but it never came together.

Finally, I had this idea for a voice, a clipped, fractured voice from someone whose mind had broken in some way.  I tinkered around with it some, seeing if I could get a feel for it. While I liked it, I didn’t know what kind of story I could use it to tell. As I was driving home from work one day, I was creating little sample sentences in my head, and suddenly it happened…

First fold. Easy.
Second fold. Easy.

By the time I got home, I had the first few hundred words in my head, and everything made sense. This fractured voice had brought together Firewater and Omizawa.  It was the bridge that took pretty good ideas and brought them together to become a great one.

So if you have an idea you can’t make work, just file it away until later.  Maybe it’s missing a piece.

The Hardest Part

Sometimes, I wonder what the hardest part of writing might be.  I’m not sure why I do this.  Maybe I just like torturing myself.  There’s certainly evidence to support that theory.  Then again, writing is a huge part of my life.  It makes sense that it would infect my thoughts more than a little.

So what is the hardest part?  I think it’s different for everybody.  For some, it’s just sitting down and doing the work.  For others, maybe it’s finding markets for their work (though let’s be honest: if you think there aren’t enough horror markets out there, you have far too narrow an idea of horror).  A few find promotion to be a chore and a half.  For one of my friends, the hardest part appears to be sitting down and writing without chain-smoking.  For another, the hardest part appears to be success.  They really appear to hate being successful.  Weird.

But what’s the hardest part for me?  I’ll admit I have a few problems with promotion.  The gears in my brain just have a lot of trouble working that way.  Other times, it’s writers’ ticks.  My good friend Lee Thomas is usually my first reader, and not a story/book comes along where he doesn’t find some character train or turn of phrase that pops up again and again.  In Scavengers, for instance, characters kept getting sick.  It seemed the zombies weren’t dangerous becuse they could eat you so much as their presence made you lose your lunch.

If I really had to choose the hardest part of writing for me though, it would have to be improvement.  More to the point, it’s very difficult for me to improve my craft as quickly and thoroughly as I’d like.  A long time ago, I decided I wanted everything I wrote to be better than what came before it.  I made constant improvement as a writer one of my longterm goals.  That, at least, I can control to some degree, which isn’t something I can say about finding an agent or landing a book with one of the big New York publishers.  So now, every time I write I find myself constantly analyzing.  Is the prose tighter?  Are the characters deeper?  Almost always, they are, but I find I improve by inches.  There are no great leaps forward.

And this drive to improve really kicks the self-doubt up a few notches, let me tell you.  Recently, I wrote a 10,000 word novelette for an upcoming anthology.  When I landed the assignment, I thought it would be easy.  He Stepped Through was roughly the same length, took about a week to write, and was one of the best pieces I’ve written.  However, when I turned in the story two months and four aborted attempts later, I felt like I’d been in a bar fight.  Everything about writing that novelette just exhausted me.  Every sentence I had written filled me with emotions ranging from frustration to sadness to disgust.  The novelette was good–really good, the editor tells me–but I thought I could do better.

Now, I’m moving on to the rewrite of a novel.  Three months ago, I thought the book was in great shape.  Lee Thomas eviscerated it, though.  It needs a ton of work, and I’m just hoping I can fix it instead of having to scrap it.  I’ve had to do that in the past.  In fact, both Down and the upcoming Pale Horses were each written at least three times.  I’m not even talking editing/rewriting.  I mean I finished the book, thought I can do better, and started over completely from page one.

Look, I don’t know if I’ll ever land an agent or get that big book deal.  I can’t promise I’ll keep putting out books with the frequency I have been.  There’s no telling if I’ll ever be successful enough to have a ‘writing career’ in the long run.  All I can control is my writing, my craft, and my desire to constantly improve.  So that’s what I’ll be doing.  For me, it’s the hardest part, but it’s also the best part.

Suicide by Metaphor

(Author’s Note: what follows is a long, honest blog entry about a dark time I’ve been going through and how a friend of mine helped me turn the corner and climb out of it. It is in no way meant to make light of suicide.)

I won’t lie to you, because one thing I promised myself when I started this writing gig was that I’d always be honest with my fans, readers, and friends.  I suppose if I was hip to how the young kids talk today, I’d say I’m being ‘real.’  Like most folks these days, I come from a long line of people with problems.  Growing up, my mother was hospitalized with emotional problems several times.  My alcoholic uncle committed suicide when I was four.  I moved to Austin, Texas when I was 22, partly for school and partly to get away from my past.  I met a girl, fell in love, and left my past behind.

It caught up to me. Continue reading

Let It All Come Down

The last few years have been tough ones.  When I look back and think about everything that’s happened, I find myself amazed I can still stand up.  I’ve lost both parents to cancer, a brother to the long-lasting effects of drug addiction, and I recently found out my dog has cancer.  In the meantime, I’ve helped run this year’s World Horror Convention, spent over a year in therapy, learned some shocking truths about my family, and found myself single after eleven years.

Some days, the simple act of waking up feels all but insurmountable.  Some days, it feels more like a habit than something I really want to do.  I still do it, though.  Partly because it feels good to stare deression in the face and tell it to fuck off, and partly because I’m out of vacation time, and finding myself unemployed is not going to make my life easier.

But I don’t want to complain too much.  The fact of the matter is, I’m still alive.  Sometimes, being alive kind of sucks, and sometimes being alive means you’ve survived three years of really shitty existence.  You get through how you can, and you take stock of the good things.

So let’s take stock…

My ex-girlfriend is still my best friend.  We care about each other and our pets, and I still feel closer to her parents than I ever did to my own.

I’m busy.  I have one novel due on the 1st of January, and another due four months after that.  It’s possible that I’ll have a third due in August, but that’s just in the talking stages right now.

My writing continues to get better.  For a writer, that’s all you can ask for, even if you suspect you’ll never be as good as you want to be.

I have an amazing network of friends.  This reminds me that I really need to see about getting Coffee with Lee Thomas.  It’s been too damn long.  I need to roll a d20 with my Friday night friends, too.  Or at least play a game of Zombies!!!

Muay Thai.  I started training with Wrath James White back in June, and it’s been a blast.  I can feel how much healthier I am, and there are few things as stress-relieving as knocking the crap out of a heavy bag once a week while Wrath pushes you harder and harder.  I thought I’d broken a sweat before, but nothing’s ever pushed me as hard as this.

So that’s where I am.  A lot of life is hard, but a lot of it is pretty fucking great.  You guys remember that, and I’ll do my best to do the same.

What’s happened, what will happen soon…

Hi, everybody.  Sorry for the lack of updates.  To say the summer has been busy and rough is a pretty big understatement.  In truth, this summer has been awful.  After the busy time that was World Horror, I had to jet back north for a family funeral.  In the months that followed, enough personal stuff happened to make me want to close myself off from the world.  I should have been keeping this place updated, but I haven’t had the will, strength, or the feeling that I had anything interesting to say.

So yeah, that’s how that went.  Most of the summer was spent moping and trying not to go crazy.  Lot of therapy and not a lot of writing.  It doesn’t help that the three years leading to this summer have seen me lose both parents, learn a few particularly devestating family secrets, and generally have my life turned upside-down.  Rough times, friends.  Rough times.

But enough about that.  Let’s see where things are and where they’re going.

Last month, I got to attend Killer Con and Armadillocon.  Armadillocon was pretty tough for me, as it came right on the heels of the worst of the summer.  I basically showed up for my assigned panels, reading, and signing and then rushed out of there, desperate to not interact with people. 

Killer Con was better.  Just Like Hell was officially re-released, and there was a release party for This Little Light of Mine.  I had great conversations and fun times with John Skipp, Weston Oches, Gene O’Neill, Jonathan Maberry, Bailey Hunter, RJ Cavender, Ed Kurtz and his lovely wife Megan, Ed Lee, Rose O’Keefe, Jeff Burke, Carlton Mellick, Jack Ketchum, Rena Mason, Laura Hickman, and probably dozens of others.  I got to enjoy a bit of Vegas, taking in dinner at Craftsteak and watching Zumanity, Cirque du Soleil’s “adult” show.  A good time was had, as long as you ignore the early morning sight of me walking around the casino, moping and trying to pretend I was in a good mood.

November 11-13, I’ll be at the Austin Convention Center for Austin Comic Con.  At this point, I’m not sure if I have a booth or a table, but I’m reasonably sure I’ll be spending part of the weekend trying to seduce Mercedes McNab.  It’s good to have goals, I guess!

It was recently announced that I’ll be writing a novel for Sinister Grin Press.  The novel, which is currently untitled and in its third draft, is one of the best things I’ve written to date.  While a lot of writing can drift into that “This is hard work” feeling, this one’s been nothing but sick fun.  I think you’ll dig it.

Once I’m done with that, I’m gonna get cracking on a fun zombie novella for Creeping Hemlock’s Print is Dead line.  RJ and company did an amazing job on Scavengers, and I’m sure they’ll do just as great a job on this one, which features zombies, go-go dancers, hot rods, and a fun little story-telling device I’ve been itching to try.

Finally, my next novel, Lights Out, should see print from Thunderstorm Books early next year.  This is another brutal one, taking place in a maximum security prison and featuring a wonderfully over the top amount of bloodshed.

So that’s about that.  Thank you for your patience and understanding.  I’m getting better every day, and I’m hoping the next year will be better than the last few.  Have a good week, everybody.

A Different Level

(Warning: rambling thoughts ahead) 

Depending on the path you take in your writing career, you might find yourself in a few interesting places.  See, there are all these different schools of thought for when it comes to building a career.  Some talk about submitting work to the highest paying markets and then working your way down.  Others say that those markets are your barometer, that if you can’t land a story there then the story wasn’t that good in the first place.  Still others swear by starting at the lowest rung possible and working your way up.  Every proponent of one of those methods will swear the other two are followed by idiots or elitists or idiotic elitists or, possibly, elitist idiots.

At this point, you’re probably expecting me to promote one of those viewpoints.  I’m hesitant to do that, though.  I took a dash from each as I moved through the earliest stages of my career (feels weird to call it that).  See, I still consider myself a writer who’s learning, who really doesn’t know much of anything yet.  I’ve written a few books, and folks have purchased and read them.  Some people have told me they like my work.  That’s all great, and I’m grateful for all of it.  Doesn’t mean I’m not still learning.

This is where we reach some of those interesting places.  Right now, I find myself in one.  At World Horror this year, I had numerous fans come up to me and tell me how much they like my work.  That’s always great to hear.  On the other hand, a week later I was in Indiana trying to explain to family members that they can’t get my books in stores and I don’t even have copies of my short story collection left.  For every fan that says they pre-ordered a book and can’t wait to get it in their hands, I have to explain to some friend why their book won’t arrive for another five months and why it had a $60 cover price in the first place.

Really, these are all minor issues, and they’re ones I deal with either gladly or begrudgingly, depending on the day, my mood, and how much coffee I’ve inhaled.  What it really means to me is that I’m at a level where I’m considered a professional author by some while I consider myself something else.  I can walk into a store and buy books by Sarah Langan, Peter Straub, Gillian Flynn, Joe R. Lansdale, Rhodi Hawk, Joe Hill, and Tom Piccirilli.  Now that Scavengers is out, I can go into a bookstore and kindly ask them to order a single copy for my own enjoyment.  It’s not hanging out on the shelves.  Not bad, but not exactly the same thing.

Every now and then, I see other writers at this level (and sadly, sometimes I see myself) start speaking like some kind of authority on writing and publishing.  You see them popping up on message boards all the time, offering helpful advice to some newcomer when they’ve done nothing more than sell out a 100 copy print run of a novel.  Shit, I’ve been guilty of it.  Not proud of that fact, but I might as well own up to it.

Here’s the thing, though.  Deep down, I know I’m not where I want to be.  I know I have a lot to learn and a lot of progress to make, both in my writing and my career.  I try to keep all of that in mind when I consider the big picture.  “In the Middle of Poplar Street” was nominated for a Stoker Award, and that’s awesome, but “Going Home, Ugly Stick in Hand” received an honorable mention in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, and that’s worth ten times more to me.  Why?  Because Ellen knows her stuff, and odds point to more people reading her anthologies than searching out the latest Stoker list.

Look, I’ve got nothing against monster stories or pieces that are big, dumb, and fun.  I have two zombie novellas due by the end of the year, and they’re big, dumb, and fun as they come.  I also have a monster novel in the works that’s trying to be something a little more.  I mean, there’s a pretty huge difference between Simmons’ The Terror and the average Leisure release, and it’s not just page count.

I’ll admit I’m almost never happy with my prose.  Come to think of it, I know few writers I admire who are.  The really good writers don’t look at a completed manuscript and say, “Perfect.”  They look at it with this mix of heartbreak and determination, knowing it can be better.  That’s what I want, for everything I write to be better than it was last time.  I want to improve, to be the best writer I can be, and that means effort, even if you’re working with something like zombies or vampires.  Alden Bell’s The Reapers Are the Angels is a masterpiece, and it’s a zombie book.  It’s a wonderfully crafted one, too.

So that’s the goal…and the endgame of this little rant.  I want to reach a different level.  I want to be better than I am now.  Hell, I just want to be better.  Sooner or later, I will be.

And then I’ll still want to improve.

Returning to Rundberg

Back in 2005 (was it really six years ago? Weird!), Frequency Press had just released my first graphic novel, Drive.  It wasn’t exactly setting sales records, but the fine folks at Frequency were itching to get started on something else, and I wasn’t about to look that particular gift horse in the mouth.

At the time, zombies were already hitting big in comics.  It was early enough that folks weren’t talking backlash, and I thought zombies would allow me to tell a ridiculously over the top action story, which I really wanted to do.  My brain started turning, and by the time I came back from a weekend camping trip, I had the first draft of A Trip to Rundberg‘s script written down in a notebook.  I was excited about the book, which told the story of a band of survivors in the small Indiana town of Millwood, and I thought we might have something really cool on our hands.

That December, A Trip to Rundberg hit stands.  It did pretty well, certainly better than Drive.  So maybe it wasn’t setting sales records or anything, but it wasn’t performing pathetically.

In the following years, however, I started wanting to go back to Rundberg.  I’d promised to tell more stories of the Millwood survivors, and I had dropped a short story or two.  The Rundberg story nagged at me, though.  Through a few script decisions that were completely my fault, I had told a story that I thought I could have told better.  I had designed the book to read fast.  Not just fast, but ridiculously fast.  Looking back, it wasn’t the best choice.  The characters were interesting folks, and I had every chance to let them breathe a little more.

So that’s what I decided to do.

At first, my return to Rundberg was going to be a novella.  I wanted to release a 40,000 word novella with periodic illustrations.  I don’t know why I had this scheme.  It just seemed like the way to go.  As I started writing, however, I kept looking back at these characters to see what they’d been up to before their trip to a zombie-packed town in search of food.  How had they live before and during the zombie outbreak?  I wanted to find out.

Due to a ridiculous timeline that saw me wanting to bust out the novel in time for an upcoming deadline, I wrote the first two drafts of the novel in about two weeks, sending chunks at a time to my pre-readers.  I made the deadline, but the book wasn’t in any kind of publishable shape.  So I took my time and crafted the story more thoroughly.  As I wrote, I started toying with what I thought was an interesting theme.  There had been too many zombie novels that made mankind the ultimate villain.  “Man is the real enemy” is kind of a zombie staple.  I wanted to tell a story where mankind deserved to survive.

I like to think that’s what I did.  You’ll have to be the judge of that, though.  What I can say is that I’m very proud of Scavengers.  I think it’s one of the strongest things I’ve written, and I hope you enjoy it.  If you’re coming to World Horror in a few weeks, pick up a copy of the paperback. Until then, grab it for your Kindle. 

Boycott Dorchester

For years, Dorchester Publishing and their Leisure Books line felt like the Holy Grail to up and coming horror authors.  Their open door submissions policy almost made up for the fact that their covers looked like warmed-over ass.

Then they got nasty.

So some of their former writers have decided to play their game.

As an author, I hate publishers who try to screw their former authors even more than I hate most people (I’ve mentioned I’m not much of a people person, right?).  So I’m throwing my support 100% behind this boycott.  Why?  Because it’s the right thing to do.

So there.

Norm Partridge lays down the wisdom

Over on his excellent blog, American Frankenstein, Norm Partridge has spent the last week or so talking about first time novelists and what they can do in the current genre environment.  Norm covers a lot of problems I’ve been churning over in my own head, including that horrific head scratcher “What do you do when your first novel has a print run of barely 100 copies?”

So go check it out.  You’re sure to learn something as Norm lays down the wisdom…

First Novels and Micro-Runs, Part I

First Novels and Micro-Runs, Part II

Putting You First Novel to Work

The Magic Bullet