Writing is Hard: Starting with short stories

At SpringCon this year I had the pleasure of sharing a table with Mike Bullock (The Phantom, Lions Tigers and Bears). Mike and I had been acquaintances for a while, but it was the first time we’d had the opportunity to sit down and really talk. We chatted about a lot of things – books and comics we like, the recent resurgence in pulp, stuff like that – but one of the things that’s stuck with me longest from that conversation was Mike’s interest in writing prose, particularly short stories.

I’d already begun thinking in that direction when I discovered how much fun it was to write “Bigfoot and the Bone Face Murders” for the Mondo Sasquatch anthology. The more I think and learn about it, the more I want to work in that format. Jeff Parker recommended short-story writing in an interview he gave to Newsarama shortly after my conversation with Mike:

It really is mostly practice, the art. Writing too, but you have to go through a number of stories to start making leaps. That’s why short stories are important to do, and there need to be more venues for them.

That’s similar to advice George RR Martin recently gave at a signing. Literary agent Kristin Nelson was there and summarized Martin’s comments this way:

…he said that being a beginner, unpublished writer declaring that he’s writing a 7-book series is kind of like being a guy who has just started rock climbing and announcing to the world that the first climb he’s going to do is a little hill called Mount Everest. That’s absolutely not what you want to do. It’s too hard. Too big in scope. If you are a beginning rock climber, you want to start with the climbing wall at your local REI or a small hill that won’t kill you first.

As an agent, I’ve given this advice any number of times but in the end, writers don’t believe me. Okay don’t believe me. Believe George instead! Forty years in this biz, he knows what he’s talking about…Start with short stories where you are forced to have a beginning, middle, and end. You are also forced to nail plot and character in a short amount of space. Then graduate to something bigger–like a novella or one stand-alone novel. Master that. Then tackle the big series.

I’m not planning any multi-novel sagas (though I’ve certainly got ideas!), but I’m still taking to heart the encouragement to practice my writing through short stories. I’ve sold three of those now and loved the experience each time. They don’t take a lot of time, but Parker, Martin, and Nelson are right: writing those has taught me more about the craft of writing than any number of author interviews, articles, or books (though I’ve learned a lot from those too). When Jason and I finish Kill All Monsters, I’m going to take some time off from comics and focus on short stories for a while. I’m already working on the first of them, a mystery about a guy in the 1940s who wears a Freddie Krueger-like mask to fight crime.

Advertisements

The Mighty Cave of Cool Survey

[From CCCoC, of course]

Ice cream!

NAME: David Michael May, Jr.
NICKNAME(S): Michael, Mike
BIRTHPLACE: Cocoa Beach, Florida
WEBSITE: Yer on it.
FAVORITE SALAD DRESSING: Ranch. Just ’cause it’s so versatile.
FAVORITE ICE CREAM FLAVOR: Kemps’ Under the Stars (peanut-butter-filled chocolate stars in chocolate ice cream with peanut butter swirls).
FUTURE CAREER GOALS: Write more.
PROBABLE CAREER: Write more.
FAVORITE FOOD: Lately, chili.
FAVORITE NON-ALCOHOLIC DRINK: Lately, coffee.
FAVORITE SCHOOL SUBJECT: English Literature
FAVORITE SCHOOL ACTIVITY: Reading.
LEAST FAVORITE SCHOOL SUBJECT: Gym.
LEAST FAVORITE SCHOOL ACTIVITY: Running

Bearded dragon

WHAT DO YOU LIKE MOST ABOUT YOUR TOWN: Lots of places to see plays, movies, and concerts.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE LEAST ABOUT YOUR TOWN: Concrete.
GREATEST ADVENTURE: Visiting Haiti during food riots.
MOST ROMANTIC MOMENT: Too many to pick one.
HOW MANY PILLOWS: Three.
PETS: He’s actually David’s, but a bearded dragon.
THREE FAVORITE MOVIES (SO FAR THIS YEAR): Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Attack the Block, and Crazy Stupid Love.
THREE FAVORITE MOVIES (ALL TIME): Casablanca, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark

Justified

THREE FAVORITE TV SHOWS (THIS YEAR): Justified, Downton Abbey, and Modern Family.
THREE FAVORITE TV SHOWS (ALL TIME): Batman, Doctor Who, and The X-Files.
THREE FAVORITE SONGS: It’s futile to try to pick just three, but ones that have endured for me have been “Ruby” by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, “Gloria” by U2, and “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash.
THREE FAVORITE ALBUMS OR CDs: The Joshua Tree by U2, Cosmic Thing by the B-52s, and No Angel by Dido.
THREE FAVORITE MUSIC VIDEOS: “White Wedding” by Billy Idol, “Why Can’t I Be You” by The Cure, and “Brand New Lover” by Dead or Alive.
FAVORITE SINGER: Bono.
FAVORITE MUSICAL GROUP: U2
FAVORITE CELEBRITY: Right now, Timothy Olyphant.

Action hero

LEAST FAVORITE CELEBRITY: Anyone who’s only famous for being rich, on a reality show, or both.
FAVORITE MALE STAR: Harrison Ford as Han Solo or Indiana Jones.
FAVORITE FEMALE STAR: Kate Beckinsale in any film where she kicks butt.
WORD OR PHRASE YOU OVER USE: Absolutely.
BODY PIERCINGS OR TATTOOS: I have my left ear pierced.
IF YOU COULD WITNESS ONE EVENT IN HISTORY WHICH WOULD IT BE AND
WHY WOULD YOU GO THERE: Probably something from the American Revolutionary War. Maybe Paul Revere’s ride? Washington’s crossing the Delaware? The signing of the Declaration of Independence? It was such a cool, adventurous, but totally scary time in the history of my country.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OTHERS ADMIRE ABOUT YOU: My beard.
WHAT DO YOU ADMIRE MOST ABOUT YOURSELF: My hat.
WHAT WOULD YOU CHANGE ABOUT YOURSELF IF YOU COULD: I really should lose some weight. Fortunately, I can change that.

I could spend the rest of my life right here.

IF YOU COULD LIVE ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD WHERE WOULD YOU GO AND WHY: An isolated island in the Caribbean. With WiFi. I’d be near the ocean and away from crowds, but with the ability to interact with people and enjoy culture when I wanted.
WHAT WOULD BE YOUR LAST MEAL (INCLUDE EVERYTHING): As long as I’m able to pig out: chili (topped with shredded cheese, sour cream, and tortilla chips), pizza (Italian sausage, mushrooms, and onions), a burrito, cream cheese won tons, Vietnamese egg rolls (with fish sauce), a prime rib sammich (with A1), and Mountain Dew. Pecan pie for desert.
WHAT LIVING PERSON WOULD YOU MOST LIKE TO HAVE LUNCH WITH: Bono.
WHAT DEAD PERSON WOULD YOU MOST HAVE LIKED TO HAVE LUNCH WITH: Jesus Christ.
THREE BOOKS TO TAKE TO A DESERT ISLAND:  The Complete Sherlock Holmes, The Riverside Shakespeare, Bone One-Volume Color Edition.

The perfect spaceship

THREE PEOPLE TO TAKE TO A DESERT ISLAND: My wife, my son, and Alexander Selkirk (the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe)
THREE WISHES (NO FAIR WISHING FOR MORE WISHES): World peace, enough food for everyone,  and my own spaceship with a hyperspeed drive.
SPORT YOU MOST LIKE TO WATCH: American football
SPORT YOU MOST LIKE TO PARTICIPATE IN: Bowling.
WHAT DO YOU COLLECT: Books and movies.
WHO DO YOU ADMIRE MOST IN YOUR LIFE: My dad.

Welcome to the 18th century

WHAT HISTORICAL PERIOD WOULD YOU HAVE LIKED TO LIVE IN: The eighteenth century. You’ve got pirates, revolutions, and gothic romances all in one place.
FAVORITE MONOPOLY PIECE: The dog. And don’t you dare run it over with that car.
SPIRIT ANIMAL: The bear.
FAVORITE ANIMAL: Today, gorillas.
BEST AND WORST PARTS OF LIVING IN THE FUTURE: The best parts are the jetpacks, flying cars, rayguns, and bubble helmets. The worst parts are all the alien warlords.
DO YOU PREFER CATS OR DOGS: Cats. For the most part, they mind their own business.
WHAT WOULD BE YOUR SPICE GIRL NAME IF YOU WERE IN THE GROUP: Pumpkin Spice.
DO YOU PREFER COKE OR PEPSI: Pepsi! If a place serves Coke products, I’m ordering the water.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

Like Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon is a mixture of an Arthur Conan Doyle short story and then-current events. Unlike the previous movie, Secret Weapon successfully inserts Holmes into a spy thriller while keeping everything likeable about him.

The secret weapon of the title is based on the Norden bombsight, a revolutionary device manufactured by the Carl L Norden Company in WWII. It was a closely guarded secret (in fact, airmen who flew with the device had to take an oath that they’d destroy it if they landed their planes in enemy territory and would defend its secrets with their lives), but the technology was leaked by a German spy who worked for Norden.

In Secret Weapon the bombsight is developed by Dr. Franz Tobel and the Germans are already after it when the movie opens in Switzerland. In a great cold open, Holmes uses his mastery of disguises and his gift for subterfuge to help Tobel escape Nazi agents and flee to England. But because no one but Tobel knows the secret of the sight’s design, the danger to him isn’t over once they hit London. Moriarty himself (Lionel Atwill) is after Tobel and his secret, hoping to sell it to Germany.

The Doyle story comes in when Tobel sneaks out of Holmes’ house to visit his girlfriend who lives in London. It’s not just because he wants to see her; Tobel’s devised a scheme that will allow the Allied forces access to his bombsight without letting anyone know exactly how to make it. He’s divided the sight into four pieces and distributed each piece to four London scientists, none of who know whom the others are or how his piece fits into the larger puzzle. The only clue to Tobel’s plan is a cipher like the one used in Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Dancing Men.” Tobel gives it to his girlfriend with instructions to hand it over to Holmes if anything happens to the scientist. Unfortunately, Moriarty gets his hands on both Tobel and the code.

Tobel resists Moriarty’s torture and Holmes is able to reproduce the code from Tobel’s notepad, but it’s a race between the detective and his nemesis to see who can decipher the note and get to the four scientists first. Basil Rathbone is always brilliant as Holmes, but it’s nice to see a film (the first since Hound of the Baskervilles) in which the character lives up to its actor.

Nigel Bruce’s Watson has his bumbling moments (like sleeping through Tobel’s escape from Baker Street), but he’s also the first to recognize the page full of dancing-men as a secret code. Atwill is fine as Moriarty – I always enjoy Lionel Atwill – but I missed George Zucco’s deliciously evil performance from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Secret Weapon’s Moriarty is a good super villain – complete with a trap-filled secret lair – but though he’s clever, he’s not Holmes’ equal. I’d prefer to see Adventures’ Moriarty vs. Secret Weapon’s Holmes, but if there has to be an imbalance, I’m relieved to see Holmes as the smarter one.

Choosing a bookseller (and books)

As someone who enjoys shopping for and buying books, I struggle with where to spend my money. Movies are an easy decision because the only specialty store for movies I’ve ever seen was Suncoast and it was their lack of knowledge about their product that drove me into Amazon’s loving arms in the first place. I got tired of being told that a movie wasn’t available to buy only to go home and find out from Amazon that it was. But bookstores…

The Twin Cities has a ton of great, independent bookstores and I try to use them as much as possible. It hurts to pay more for the same product I can buy online, but I remind myself that I’m also paying for the knowledge and curation of the staff. And I’m a big fan of forming relationships with people I do a lot of business with. As much as I love Amazon’s customer service, there’s no one for me to talk to when I shop there. Sure, they can generate recommendations based on my purchase history and I can read customer reviews and those things are great. But I can’t have a conversation with an expert about books we both liked.

Though I struggle, I do have one rule that’s served me pretty well. As much as possible, I reward recommendations by purchasing the recommended book at the place where it was recommended. I’m in my local comics shop every week and buy all my single, periodical issues there, but I’ll often buy graphic novels and collected editions from Amazon, especially expensive hardcovers. The exception to that is when someone at the store recommends a book. If they sell me on it, they have the right to my money. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to hit a lot of other independent bookstores to just visit and browse.

Instead, I get my recommendations online. Not directly from Amazon most of the time, but there are a couple of great sites that cover books I’m interested in. Bookgasm is awesome and offers reviews of all sorts of genre books, but one of my favorite features there is Book Whore. I like reading reviews, but Book Whore is great because it’s purely a browsing experience. They just post book covers and short blurbs from the publisher. If I see something I like, it goes on my Amazon Wish List. I’ve started browsing Bookgasm’s reviews the same way; looking first at the cover, then – if I like that – reading the first sentence or two to get a feel for what the book’s about or if it’s any good.

Another great review site for genre books is Calico Reaction by my friend Shara. I still tend to browse covers to help me decide what I want to read more about, but Shara helps with that even further by the way she formats her reviews. She’s always got a clearly marked publisher’s summary of the book right near the top of the review and if I’m still interested I can either read the review (she also lets you know up front whether or not there will be spoilers) or skip to the end for her rating. (I just noticed that she also puts the rating at the top of the page for quicker browsing, but I’ve come to love scrolling down to see what it is if a book’s grabbed my attention that far.) She also has other sections in each review where she reviews the cover art and talks about why she picked the book (she buys most of the books she reviews). It’s an extremely well-done site.

Another great site for finding new things to read is Goodreads. I’ve been on that site for a few years, but they’ve recently made it extremely easy to find new books by introducing a monthly newsletter tailored to your preferences. Since it’s a social site in which you’ve been recording (and rating) your reading choices, it’s easy for them to highlight new books by authors you’ve liked. And if nothing in that list tickles your fancy, they also include new releases in broader genres and categories. From there, it’s just a couple of clicks to the online retailer of your choice.

The problem with making online browsing so easy is that it doesn’t help with the guilt I feel over not supporting more of my local bookstores. But that guilt isn’t entirely external. In other words, I don’t feel guilty just because people tell me I should. I feel guilty because there’s something I love about physical bookstores and I don’t want to see them go away. As Pimp My Novel once pointed out, physical bookstores have some advantages that online retailers can’t replicate: in-store appearances and community events, for example.

One of the things my comics store has done really well – though I haven’t taken enough advantage of it yet – is to build a sense of community with their customers. Even my local Barnes & Noble does a fantastic job of hosting book clubs and writers’ groups, though I haven’t participated in those either. That’s just because I’m busy, but I love knowing that those things exist and I know that they exist in the independent stores as well. Minneapolis has a fantastic mystery bookstore called Once Upon a Crime that always has signings and readings and launch parties going on. I only get to one or two a year, but I’d feel incredibly guilty thinking that I contributed to that store’s hypothetical demise by only shopping Amazon because they have the cheapest deals. If I want to buy a mystery book, I make a point to drive over there.

It’s tough to balance these loyalties and I don’t think I’ve hit on the perfect formula yet, but it’s worth trying to figure out. I’m curious to know what other people do. Do you choose retailers based on price, convenience, community, loyalty, or something else?