Writing the Chorus

Chorus of Dust is a book I never really meant to write.

That might sound like a strange thing to say, as the first part of writing anything comes from first sitting down and deciding what story you want to tell. Even if that story is a technical procedure on how to install a light fixture, there must be a starting point. Though the finished product is rarely what you have in mind when starting out, there’s usually at least a decent portion of your original intention still laced throughout your story. With Chorus of Dust, this wasn’t the case at all.

It began out in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico back in March of 2011. I had traveled out to one of our company’s offshore production platforms for work. It wasn’t the first time I’d been offshore, but it still wasn’t something I’d done enough yet that I was totally comfortable with the idea. While lying in bed one night at 8:00 PM (the days start early, so you have to hit the sack early as well if you want any decent amount of sleep), I was thinking about just how isolated we were from everything. It was true that we had phones, internet access, plenty of food, and most of the other creature comforts from home. Physically though, I’ve never felt as isolated as I do when I’m out there.  You’re literally surrounded on all sides by at least 100 miles of ocean, and at night when you look out into the darkness over the waves, it becomes impossible to see where the water ends and the black sky begins. It almost feels like you’re sitting out in the middle of outer space. Naturally, this gave me the idea for a story.

I won’t go into all the details or else this post will take you all day to read, but the long and short of it is that my thoughts on isolation eventually turned to my Grandfather’s cotton farm. We used to visit him and my grandmother (we called them Nana and Grandaddy) about twice a year. He had owned the farm since my dad was little, a sprawling plot of land that seemed to go on forever. It struck me how, in many ways, that farm was just as isolated as we were out in the middle of the gulf. If something happened there, something terrible, who would know? What secrets could be held in that place for years, or even decades?

This is where the eventual story of Chorus of Dust took root, and though it was nothing like I originally intended, I’m glad it developed the way it did. It was not an easy book to write. I started the first draft in April of 2011, and didn’t truly complete it until July. After that I went back and worked it over again, then sent it out to a couple of people I occasionally chatted with on a writing forum who agreed to beta-read it for me. When their comments came back, I went back for another round of edits, and then another. Eventually, I finally finished the book as it is now in December of 2011, a full nine months after I started it. Great for creating a baby, but for a 25,000 word novella, this isn’t a real good turnaround time. Still, despite the difficulties in writing it, I’m proud of what eventually turned out. What difficulties you ask? There were two main areas that really hung me up.

(1) Thematic Elements

Religion plays a large part in this book. My faith is a big part of my life, and so I find it hard not to bring it up in my writing. Here, I wanted to ask the hard questions.

The first question was, what is the absolute most frightening thing I could imagine? For me, the answer was simple: the concept of atheism. The idea of there being nothing after death is terrifying to me. So, my way of addressing this was to make the main character, Adem Comeaux, a die-hard atheist who feels the same way. What if the belief you held closest to you was also the one thing you were the most frightened of? That’s the essential conflict Adem must face in the story.

After that, the second question became, what hope can you possibly have when you have nothing to believe in? I won’t go into too much detail on this theme (you’ll have to read the book!), but the story deals with a number of issues in addressing it. The corruption of the church, the abandonment of faith in our society, and secrets that we all pass on from one generation to the next, to name a few. It was difficult to examine my own viewpoint with a critical eye, but in doing so, I believe my own faith has grown because of it.

(2) Swearing

Following from the first issue, this one was particularly difficult for me. Anyone who knows me knows that I do not swear, period. It’s just one of those things I don’t do. So when I sat down to write about this character Adem, and he naturally progressed into this rough-around-the-edges guy with the mouth of a sailor, I was genuinely concerned. How was I going to do this? I could take the easy way out and simply replace the bad words with words that were less-bad, or remove them altogether, but when I tried doing so it simply felt wrong. It didn’t feel true to the story or the character.

So in the end, the bad words stayed in, every last one of them. I’ll be honest, I’m concerned about what people are going to think of me when they read this book, especially people who know me well. I hope they’ll understand that this is a fictional story and the characters in it are not a reflection of me as a person or what I believe. Instead, they reflect a narrative that was begging to be released, and I had no choice but to tell it in exactly the way that I did.

I hope that they’ll understand, but if they don’t, there’s nothing I can do about it now. It’s brutal, it’s harsh, and it can be hard to read. It is by far the darkest thing I have ever written. It’s also beautiful in its own way, and I won’t apologize for it. That will have to be enough.

That’s all for now.  Chorus of Dust will be released soon in eBook format, so keep checking back. As soon as it goes live you’ll find out about it here first!

…and a Happy New Year

So, it looks like 2012 is finally upon us. This last year hasn’t been everything I hoped it would be in some ways, and more than I hoped in others. Perhaps it’s time for… an accounting!

Positives in 2011:

  • Was finally published
  • Won NaNoWriMo for the first time
  • Started this website
  • Lost a lot of weight
  • Found out I’m going to be a Daddy again!
Negatives in 2011:
  • Got way more rejections than I hoped
  • Did not actually finish said novel
  • Failed to update site as often as I wanted
  • Have become fairly jaded with my day job
  • Should have written more than I did
Is it a wash? Maybe, maybe not. I generally try to focus more on the positives than the negatives, so all in all I’d call 2011 a decent year. Still, I’d like to think I could do better. I’m not exactly the type of person to make resolutions every year, but we do like to set goals for ourselves. Here are the things I would like to accomplish in 2012.
  1. Finish My Novel – I’ve never written a complete novel, but right now I’m as close as I’ve ever been. I don’t want another year to go by without being able to cross this one off my bucket list. Hopefully I won’t stop with one, but it would be a good start if nothing else.
  2. Establish a Second Source of Income – I’m a little fuzzy on this one, but I want to figure out a way to bring in some kind of income other than my primary job. Even if that income is only a fraction of what I normally make, it’s still something I need to do. I don’t know if that will come from another job, from opening a business, or (by some miracle) from my writing, but it needs to happen.
  3. Sell More Stories – And when I say “sell” I mean that I want to get paid for my work to be published. I’m shooting for a minimum of three.
Naturally, I do have other goals in my personal life, but professionally, that’s where I’d like to be at the end of this year. At the end of 2012, I’d like to look back at this post, nod my head knowingly, and congratulate myself on a job well done. Either that or I will curse my past self for setting myself up for failure.
So, future Justin, if you’re reading this, please don’t hold it against me. I only wanted the best for you.

Winning (NaNoWriMo)

It is 12:42 AM on Sunday, November 27th, and I am proud to announce that I have officially won National Novel Writing Month 2011!

It’s been a long month, but I’m happy to say that it’s finally over and that I accomplished what I set out to do.  In the end, my final word count was 50,148 words.  When I went to validate my word count, it actually gave me about a thousand extra words, mainly because it counted all the repeated headers on every page and the titles to chapters that hadn’t been written yet.  I actually knew it would do this going in, but I wanted to do it the right way and not cheat with a bunch of filler, so those 50k words are absolutely legit.

Now, that’s the good news.  The bad news is, according to my outline, I’m less than halfway done with this novel.  So while I did technically win NaNoWriMo and write 50,000 words in a month (27 days, actually, but let’s not split hairs), I did not write a full novel in that month’s time.  Honestly though, that’s fine with me.  It’s good to know that I still have more to look forward to, and it’s certainly a heck of a start, so I can’t complain too much.  I think before I tackle the rest of it though, I’m going to take a couple of weeks off of writing.  I need a break.  Getting some time to actually read again will be a welcome change.

How about a final excerpt?  In celebration of the win, I offer you an entire scene from Chapter Eight.  As usual, rough draft, go easy on me, blah blah blah…

 

The only sound Echo could hear was the whiz of his arrows cutting through the air and striking the thin trunk of a lone cottonwood tree.  He preferred to practice at night when the sole illumination source was the residual light from the Summit.  The arrows he had already fired stuck out of the tree in a perfect vertical line, each spaced a precise ten centimeters from the one above it.  He slotted another arrow and started to pull it back when he heard movement through the grass behind him.  Echo listened for a long moment, gauging the interlopers position, then turned and prepared to fire.

“You really shouldn’t be out here after what happened last night.”  Liam strolled toward Echo, who let out a deep breath and lowered his bow.

“That’s a good way to get a hole in your skull, mate,” Echo said.  He quivered his arrow and walked over to the tree to gather the others.  “You should know better than to sneak up on me like that.”

“From the look of it, I wasn’t doing much sneaking.  Then again, I never was one to beat around the bush.”  Liam stuffed his hands into the pockets of his thick overcoat.  “You need to come back inside.”

“Bugger that, I’ll do as I bloody please.”  One by one, he yanked the arrows out of the tree trunk.

“I know,” Liam said, “you always have.  Still, I would hope you have enough common sense to realize that hanging out around here is pointless.  They aren’t coming back, not tonight anyway.”

“That right?  And how would you know that, Mr. Chairman?”

“Call it a gut feeling,”  Liam turned around to face the Summit, his profile emanating a soft glow from the lights of the city.  “She looks like she’s dying, doesn’t she?”

“Pardon?”

“The Summit,” Liam said.  “It’s like the life has drained out of her.  I guess that, in a way, it has.  I’d give anything to go back to last night and stop those beasts.”

“I learned a long time ago not to dwell on the past,” Echo said, brushing the tips of his fingers across the burn scar on his cheek.  “It will drive you insane eventually.  Believe me, I know.”

Liam turned back around to face Echo.  “Do you trust him?”

“Who? The walker?”  Liam nodded.  “No, I don’t.  Then again, that’s not saying much.  I don’t trust you either.”

“Ben is convinced that he had something to do with the attack last night.”

“Hmm.”  Echo slung the bow across his back.  “I don’t know, it doesn’t feel right to me.  There are some ghosts in his past, certainly, but he hates the Giants as much as we do.  I think he would rather die than help them.  On that note, believe me when I say that killing that boy would be no easy task.  When he first came here I was skeptical of his story.  How could anyone go through that and survive?  Now though, I understand.  I’ve trained with him every day, and even in the short time he’s been here, his abilities and dexterity have increased beyond my wildest expectations.  I no longer wonder how he survived the Giants; now I’m more curious how the Giants survived him.”

“You’re that confident?” Liam asked.

“I am.”

“Echo, I hope you understand how much we have riding on this.  If Micah isn’t ready…”

“At this point, I don’t think it matters whether he’s ready or not.  We need him.”

Liam cleared his throat.  “Alright then.  We’ll see you off in the morning.  Just remember, there are other enemies out there besides the Giants.  I want to believe in the walker as much as you do, but he is cut from a different cloth than you and me.  You need to be prepared for anything.”

Echo smiled.  “Would you expect anything else?”

 

Last, but certainly not least, I want to give a huge thanks to Jennifer and Claire.  I haven’t been too available for them during this month, and despite that they’ve been nothing but supportive.  When I needed to be left alone, they did so, and when I needed encouragement, they gave it to me.  I couldn’t have done it without them.  Don’t worry, I’ll make it up to both of you in December!  Love you!

That’s all for now.  Expect your normally sporadic and random updates to resume in a week or so.  Until then, fine readers.

Stuck in a Rut

Though it’s true that I’ve been busy with other things in my life over the last few weeks, it’s also true that I’ve hit a bit of a lull in my writing.  Frankly, I haven’t written anything worthwhile in what seems like weeks.  It feels like I’ve entirely run out of good ideas for stories, and on those rare occasions when an idea does pop up, I’m only able to write a few paragraphs before I realize it wasn’t such a great idea after all and scrap it.  It feels like, after a good year of writing and churning out content, I’ve completely hit a stall.

So, what do I do?  I’m honestly not one of those guys that can just keep writing no matter how bad the quality is.  Some can do it – the goal isn’t quality, but quantity, writing in the hopes that sheer volume will somehow give them the practice needed to improve their skill.  These are generally the folks who succeed at NaNoWriMo every year.  I think there’s some value in that philosophy, but I’m not totally sold on it either.  Mainly because, from what I’ve read at least, those who adhere to this way of thinking often don’t improve all that much as they go along, continuing to churn out nothing but drivel year after year.  Sure, you can write a 150,000 word novel, but if it stinks and you aren’t really growing as a writer, then what was the point?

Personally, I’ve tried this method, and it just doesn’t work for me.  If I’m writing something and feel like it’s not very good, I’ll either obsess over it until I’ve improved it, or I’ll throw it out.  There’s no way I can take the beginning of a story that I know isn’t going to work and force myself to follow through with it until it’s done, regardless of the outcome.  This of course presents a few issues though.  Like anything else, the only way for me to get better as a writer is to practice all the time.  That means I need to be writing something every day.  But if I can’t think of anything to write, what am I to do?

So you see the issue I’ve been having.  I don’t have a solution.  I know what needs to be done, it’s just a matter of doing it.  Now that I have a couple of published stories under my belt (one that appeared in the eighth-most challenging market according to Duotrope), I know that I’ve reached a level of skill in my writing that I can actually churn out a decent story now and then.  However, I don’t want to stall here.  It’s time to progress to the next level, where the quality of my writing is consistently good enough to be published.  The only way it’ll get there is for me to buckle down and start writing something.  Anything.

I just have to start.

Shock Totem #4 Is Here!

That’s right folks.  Nearly eight months after being accepted, my short story Lobo is now in print in the latest issue of Shock Totem Magazine!

 

 

You can purchase this issue from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or directly through Shock Totem’s Website.  I personally recommend this latter method, as it ensures that more money goes directly to the publisher, but that’s up to you of course.

In celebration, I officially declare this horror-week!  Stay tuned in the next few days for an all new horror-themed entry of Literal Daze, as well as an original horror piece from me that has never appeared anywhere else.

So, thanks to K. Allen Wood and the rest of the crew over at Shock Totem for bringing this issue together, and especially for making me a part of it.  They will always hold a special place in my heart for being the first publication to accept my work, so best wishes of continued success to their top-notch magazine!

Why I Don’t Write for a Living

At this moment, I’m sitting here at my computer ripping a 17-CD Audiobook into iTunes.  So I figured, hey, I’ve got some time, why not write a blog post?  The only problem is, I have no idea what to talk about.  Therefore, let’s discuss something everyone’s interested in: Money!

More specifically, the business of writing fiction.

For a long time, actually up until probably just the last couple of years, I always thought that anyone who was able to get a novel published was made in the shade.  If they could finish that novel and get into an agents hands, and eventually sell it to a publisher, that was it.  They would be set for life financially.  On the surface, this seems to be the case.  You hear all the time about author’s first novels busting out and becoming huge successes, about how they go on to sell the film rights and make a killing.  You look at the big guns like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, James Patterson, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, etc etc, and it’s hard to see how an author could not find a way to be rich beyond their wildest dreams.

The only problem is, the whole thing is a huge farce.

You calling me a liar? Come at me, bro!

There’s no doubt that the author’s mentioned above make some serious dough, but the idea that their success is typical is absolutely false.  Of course, no one believes that every author who gets a book published becomes as prominent as they are, but I think the general perception is that, if you have a physical book in a bookstore that was picked up and distributed by a major publishing house, you’re probably doing well.  Well enough to not have to work any other jobs, right?

Wrong!

I recently read an article over at Cracked that talked about one writer’s experience publishing his first book.  The publisher payed him something like a $30,000 advance, plus royalties from sales of the book. Doesn’t sound too bad on paper, but the truth is far less optimistic.  $30,000 sounds nice, but when you consider that it took him over a year to write and edit the book, that’s not so hot.  On top of that, he had to pay his agent a good chunk of it, and there were taxes of course, so let’s say he ended up with $22,000.  If you work a 40-hour workweek, that’s just over $10 an hour.  But of course, he probably put more like 50 or 60 hours a week into writing this thing, so that realistically becomes more like $7 an hour.  In other words, less than minimum wage.  Oh, but we forgot about the royalties!  Yeah, here’s the thing about royalties.  Remember that $30k advance?  That wasn’t free money; he has to pay that back out of the royalties from his book.  So only once he’s paid back the full $30k does he actually start making any money off of his book.  And by then, who knows how successful it will be?  It may fall off the charts within the first week or two, assuming it ever gets there in the first place.

If you become a writer, this guy will make more money than you.

This might sound like an exaggeration, but from everything I’ve read on the subject, this is actually quite typical.  And what’s worse is that many writers can only dream about that kind of success.  Many writers who are still trying to break into the business write a lot of short stories with the hope of submitting them to literary journals and magazines.  The competition for a coveted spot in even some of the more obscure journals is fierce.  We’re talking maybe 1 out of 100 stories is accepted, if that.  If you happen to write a story good enough to be accepted, and if you were lucky enough to be accepted by one of the few of them that actually pays professional rates, what kind of money can you expect?  $0.05 a word is typical, and most places won’t take anything over about 6000 words or so.  So at most, if you hit the jackpot in terms of selling your story, the most you can expect to make is about $300.  Unless you can bang these things out at a rate of about two a week, and somehow sell every single one of them, there’s absolutely no way to seriously make any money in the short-story market.

For reference, I’ve had two stories accepted so far for publication.  One of them doesn’t pay anything, it’s basically just for me to have the writing credit.  The other one actually does pay pro rates, but since my story is under 1000 words, I’m barely looking at enough money to take my family out to dinner at the Olive Garden.  Not that I’m complaining of course.  This publication is probably struggling to even pay me that much, so I’m more inclined to just donate the payment back to them to help them out.  But as you can see, it’s no way to make a living.

So where does that leave us?  Everyone wants to find a way to take what they love and make a living out of it.  I love to write, and lots of other people do too, so it’s natural that we all want to be wildly successful and become famous authors one day.  Realistically though, the chances are against it.  Way, way against it.  Does that mean that I give up writing altogether?  If financial success were the only measure of worth, then the answer would be yes.  But we all know that isn’t the case.  We do it because it’s what we want to do.  It is a compulsion, driven by some desire inside all of us to create something out of nothing.  If we can find a way to get paid to do so, then that is a wonderful thing.

As for me?  As much as I love writing, I also love not being poor.  I’ll never give it up, but I also won’t be giving up my day job any time soon.

Story the Second

Not much to report on lately, except that I found out earlier this week that I had another story accepted for publication.  I’m not going to give many details yet, since there’s obviously plenty that can change between now and when it is supposed to appear in September.  However, it is an online literary journal that’s updated quarterly, so there’s as much as I’m willing to give for now.

I’m thrilled, obviously.  It’s a non-paying market, but I honestly don’t care.  I have no aspirations of making a living writing short stories.  The important thing is that it’s another writing credit, and the more of those I can get, the better.  At the moment, I still have something like 15 other submissions out there, so I’m certainly doing my best to stay in the game.  Here’s hoping that #3 will be coming soon.

Shocked

I’m pretty excited.  Why?  Because the official Table of Contents was just posted for Issue #4 of Shock Totem, which will feature the first published work by yours truly!

Go here to check it out, or read on as I repost it below:

Miracles Out of Nowhere: An Editorial, by Nick Contor
Beneath the Weeping Willow, by Lee Thompson
Full Dental, by Tom Bordonaro
Tragic and Gorgeous: A Conversation with Rennie Sparks, by Mercedes M. Yardley
Web of Gold, by Rennie Sparks
Weird Tales, by David Busboom
Playlist at the End, by Weston Ochse
Lobo, by Justin Paul Walters
Strange Goods and Other Oddities (Reviews)
Living Dead: A Personal Apocalypse: An Essay, by K. Allen Wood
Dead Baby Day, by Michael Penkas
Long Live the Word: A Conversation with Kathe Koja, by Nick Contor
Fade to Black, by Jaelithe Ingold (2010 Café Doom Competition Winner)
Bloodstains & Blue Suede Shoes, Part 2, by John Boden and Simon Marshall-Jones
The Many Ghosts of Annie Orens, by A.C. Wise
Howling Through the Keyhole (Authors’ Notes)

Yeah, that’s my name in print up there!  Or at least, it will be when the issue comes out sometime in July.  The great thing is, it’s not only the fact that I have a story appearing in this issue that’s exciting.  The thing I’m most looking forward to is reading the other stories.  The first three issues of ST were pretty much excellent all around, and I can’t wait to see what the editors have put together for this one.

Once the issue is available, I’ll post a link up here in case anyone wants to check out a fantastic collection of horror stories (along with my own drivel).  Until then!

Tweedious

I’ve noticed quite an annoying trend on Twitter lately.  Yes, even more annoying than the usual brain-dumbing drivel you typically see on Twitter.  See, I follow a lot of writers and literary magazines.  It’s nice to see what others writers are talking about and stay up to date on the latest news.  However, it seems lately like these writers only tweet what they’re currently writing about, at that very second.  Tweets like:

Just finished writing another 200 words, yay me!

or

This character I’m writing is making me so mad!

or

Please come smash my laptop to pieces because I’m a brainless tool that can’t keep a single thought to myself!

Okay, that last one is just wishful thinking, but you know what I mean.  It’s hard to explain why this bothers me so much, but it really does.  The thing is, I know for a fact that many of these people have yet to publish a single book or short story in any major literary magazine.  Of course, neither have I, but you don’t see my tweeting about my latest creation 500 times a day either.  There’s a difference between updating a blog a few times a week and chronicling every insipid moment of your life.

Look, I don’t mind people talking about what they’re working on, but there’s only so much of that I can take.  When you become a NYT Best Seller, then I’ll be happy to listen to your creative process in real time.  Until then, I implore you, please shut your virtual trap.