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Fresh Dirt Archives: October 2000-March 2001

March 20th, 2001:
Survived the weekend at StellarCon, was struck by the smallness of the world and how it's really kind of foolish to want to be a fish in the pond. That is, how some writers have such monstrous egos and little else besides their writing. Big deal. Who cares if you can slap sentences together? The real question is, are you a decent human being?

Just finished my screenplay Calling In The Fire, as well as the second draft. Now to get it registered, and it has a friend who wants to send it to a few very good places. We'll see. In the meantime, I'm ready to start the next, which will be a simultaneous screenplay and novel called Dying Is A Full-Time Job. My current novel project Troubled (ooh, I do need to change that working title) is in a very lucky place, Chapter Thirteen.

Editors have hammered me with numerous rejection slips, though I'll be getting an online reprint sale for "Homecoming." The rest of the real-life world is hammering me with rejection slips as well. Maybe I'll figure out that "human being" part sooner or later.

March 11th:
In other completely-undeserved recognitions, my book Thank You For the Flowers made the preliminary ballot for the Stoker Award for Best Horror Collection of the Year. This is beyond ridiculous, since I beat out Joe R. Lansdale's two collections for a spot on the ballot. Luckily, I will go no farther, because I'm up against people like Peter Straub and David Morrell (who wrote the "Rambo" stuff before Stallone stoned it to death). The Stoker Ballots also feature other unknowns, with works judged by members of the Horror Writers Association.

Feb. 27th:
Got another good review for Thank You For The Flowers, again with words comparing me to Ray Bradbury. That's an easy comparison, since Bradbury is one of my idols, but it's also fairly ridiculous to compare idiotic, bumbling, but persistent me with one of the greatest short story writers of the 20th Century.

I saw my book in the local library, and at least three people have checked it out. It's kind of fun to see a worn copy on the shelves. I'll be a guest at StellarCon in Greensboro NC on March 17-18, and am doing a panel with four other artists on March 31st at the Asheville NC Barnes & Noble. I'll also be signing at the Greensboro Barnes & Noble on March 17th. Did a public radio interview last week, I was supposedly the expert on horror and scary stuff, especially the movie "Hannibal" and how violence sells. I faked it like a true expert.

Feb. 14th:
When is a sale not a sale?

Hopefully you are lucky enough to hear this question in the demented, tilted voice of Frank Gorshin, who played The Riddler on the old Batman TV show. If you are a writer, the answer might be much worse than the question. Believe it or not, amidst the vast torrent of rejection slips, an occasional fish leaps from the stream and lands gasping at your feet: a real live honest-to-goodness acceptance.

But just as the fish out of water often gasps its last, your "acceptance" may be as good as the paper it was printed on but nothing more. Here are things that have happened to me this early in my so-called career:

A) my story was bought at professional rates and appeared over a year later in a national, glossy magazine, I never got paid and spent a lot of energy continually making the publisher aware of the fact before eventually agreeing to take a banner trade on their web site in exchange for the money that would never be mine.

B) my story was bought at reasonable rates for a respected small-press magazine, to be the cover story as illustrated by a well-known artist. Said magazine folds. Story subsequently is accepted for limited-edition hardback anthology. Said anthology folds. Story goes on to continue gathering rejection slips to this very day.

C) my story was accepted two years after being sent off, but after a year of waiting I'd already sent it off to another market which accepted it and has been trying to get the issue published for over a year

D) a well-paying and popular webzine accepts my story to be published in a few weeks. Four months later, the editor sends a form reject on the same story, apparently forgetting he'd liked it enough to buy it the first time.

And, judging from the horror stories I've heard from other writers, I've actually been pretty lucky. Most of my contracts have been honored, and no editor has buried me yet. But the truth is that sometimes having a story accepted is not the end, it's only the beginning. Sometimes a sale is worse than a rejection, because it ties up the story and keeps it from other markets that might treat it more kindly. That's why sane writers have skin of titanium Teflon. When is a sale not a sale? Too often.

And, by mutual consent, let's not mention Valentine's Day at all.

Feb. 2nd:
Often in freshdirt I am spewing about my writing, as if that's all that matters. Truth is, that's probably the thing I'm most willing to share with those of you who stumble upon this page. I'm honest about this site being a way to build my artificial writerly persona. You can have anything you see here, and you can hoard any information about me that you glean from my writing.

Most of the rest is off limits. When I worked in radio, the GM was always saying, "You have to open up to the audience. You gotta share yourself and let the listener get to know you." Well, sorry. Now I am out of radio and will likely never work there again. I don't want to share myself with complete strangers unless it's on mutually-acceptable terms.

In writing, I can dump my demons on the page and pretend it's all make-believe. Somebody asked me why I write a lot of scary made-up stuff, and I replied, "Because the real stuff is way too scary to write about." That's why my ambition is not to write the Great American Novel and dispense Truth to the masses. My goal is simply to tell stories. Probably some truth will emerge from time to time in those stories, most often a truth that the reader discovers for herself. I admit I don't know the truth. I merely like looking for it, and I invite readers to come along for the ride. Because you might see it before I do, and I'll need you to show it to me.

Jan. 25th:
Looks like it's going to be a wonderful spring. I'm finally regaining a lot of momentum with my work, I have a plan, and exterior-world matters are melding their atomic structures into a favorable and interesting alignment. In short, I'm ready to rock and roll.

Occasional visitors to these pages may have learned that I'm a control freak with a massive ego and a serious streak of ambition that would have humbled Orson Welles. I have yet to resort to doing wine commercials and nobody has heard of me enough to loathe me yet, so I still have miles to travel. The truth is, all I really care about is what's going on in the modern moment. I don't dwell on the past and I don't plot too far into the future.

So where does satisfaction come from? I know people who believe that the goal is to hoard money, invest wisely, follow the markets, and, after a lifetime spent worrying about money, finally be ancient and financially secure.

I know people who believe that life is all about mortal love, pursuing a single person and consuming that person's spiritual resources for their own personal benefit. To them, a broken relationship is a failure, and a string of such failures means they have no self-worth. Contrarily, I know a few people who believe that life is about cosmic love, loving thy brother and thy sister and sexually-transmitted diseases be damned.

I know people who think that the opinions of those around them are all that matters. If they walk down the sidewalk in pink sweatpants, they are worried about how they appear to others. Does "The Crowd" think they are cool, courageous, or a simpering clown? In fact, there's an entire army of people who are almost universally and wearyingly similar in their striving to be different.

I know people who believe the meaning is out there, that a distant conception will bestow peace and happiness upon them and upon all those who believe the same. I know people who give all glory and place all blame on the Maker or Fate or the Big Karmic Wheel. I know people who get more use out of their knees than their hands.

So, you may be wondering, where does satisfaction come from? Believe me, when I find out, you will be the first to know.

Jan. 11th:
Compiling my records for this year's taxes, I found that I had traveled 4,500 miles for my book signings last year. I can't decide whether I'm a large fool or a big idiot. Ah, well, at least I made new friends, browsed some cool stores, and drank some killer coffee concoctions that ended in "o."

Found some great new research material for my current novel. I've got a twelve-year-old manic-depressive who's occasionally telepathic, a group home full of troubled kids, a good-hearted counselor, and an obsessed pseudoscientist using electrical gizmos to experiment with treating disorders. Oh, yeah, his experiments just happen to bring back the ghosts of the home's former occupants...who happened to be asylum inmates many years before. Stay tuned for details.

A friend of mine looks like he's going to get some push behind his screenplay adaptation, which he also hopes to direct. Edwin has always been one of these artsy, independent-film types, and I've been encouraging him to write something that will SELL. The project is "The Year Of The Perfect Christmas Tree," which we're all sure will be an instant holiday classic, based on a young adult novel by Gloria Houston.

Jan. 5th:
I've found that every time I'm working on a novel, all sorts of happy accidents occur that help move it along. The best of these is called "research." I decided I wanted my current project Troubled to contain some science elements to augment the ghosts and mainstream suspense, so when I came across something concerning electrical stimulation of the brain to treat psychological disorders, I was set. Now I just need to do a few more lifetimes of Internet searches and it will all come together.

Jan. 3rd, 2001:
Turned the corner on my last century ever. Stuff out is an anti-anti-censorship piece at Twilight Showcase and something coming soon to Black October, a story called "Penance" which a little-bit-late apocalyptic piece. Apparently I will have my first publication in Espanol, as Darktales announced plans for a Spanish version of The Psycho Ward anthology.

I was reading a Jonathan Kellerman psycho thriller, but it is so stiffly written that I had to give up after 40 pages. Since I want to be a mainstream suspense-type writer, I have to read all these kinds of things, and am shocked that some are so poorly done and sell so well. These people should read Barbara Michaels and William Goldman, where you get plenty of plot without the hacking.

My novel at Tor bounced back, but I've got a place to send it after touching it up. Still waiting on word from an agent on another.

  Dec. 22nd:
Upon the world descends a chill, and in the backyard deer. Boots crunch and the air tastes of silver. The trees tangle themselves in their own dead arms. My lungs are icicles.

Ah, but seriously, folks...
Books I'm reading: Mostly bits and pieces, the transcript of Capt. Henry Wirtz' trial for offenses as head of the notorious Andersonville Civil War prison, for which he was eventually hanged; the opening of Mankind: Have A Nice Day, pro wrestler Mick Foley's book (he's not too bad, and he apparently used no ghostwriter); still working on Peter Straub's Julia, I keep dropping it behind the couch and places; and Writers of the Future Vol. XVI, which is my "feeding the baby" book.

Music of the moment is XTC's Wasp Star, along with some Robyn Hitchcock and a bit of Meat Puppets.

Of things ironical, I read a literary anthology to review for my day job, and found many of the stories to be that narrow, slice-of-life, angst-ridden stuff that all "serious" writers are told they should be writing. I almost took the opportunity to rail against it in print, since I'm of the "story with character, problem, and beginning-middle-end" school. Then I caught myself and realized that I shouldn't inflict my prejudices against the collection. Instead, I rightly praised it for what it was: a solid sample of earnest work directed toward a small and intellectual audience.

Too often I have heard genre fiction such as mystery or fantasy being put down as "little" or "easy." The truth is, none of it's easy, no matter the style, no matter the intended audience. Let everything exist on its own terms, whether standing on its own legs or drowning in its own sauces.

Dec. 7th:
You ever notice how the best colors of sky occur in winter? The stars are clearer, the nights blacker, the sunsets redder, the day sky a mix of periwinkles, lavenders, and light blues. Spring may be the season of flowers, summer the season of clouds, and autumn the season of trees, but give me those most frozen months anytime for straight-out staring up at little bright lights.

Dec. 1st:
I love meeting deadlines. That is fortunate, because working as a newspaper writer is all about procrastination and then eventual redemption, or at least surviving another edition. I have often used that same motivation in fiction. Last night, for example, I wrote a micro story several hours before the final deadline, though the anthology editor had asked me about two months ago if I would submit something. Five hundred words took me an hour to write.

I was at no point afraid that I would fail to come up with a story, and if I had started it two months ago I would have fiddled with it incessantly. I like the story I submitted. Working blindly in a controlled state of panic brought forth some strange sentences that might otherwise have never written themselves.

Months ago, I wrote an entry for Chicken Soup For The Sports Fan's Soul two hours before deadline, again spending about an hour on it. Mine was one of 101 selected from thousands of stories sent in from people around the world. How could I have done any better by spending more time?

I also work well under self-imposed deadlines. My wife says I pay a price for my ambition, that I've become less happy as I set higher goals and demand more of myself. Maybe so. The Buddhists says "Desire is the cause of all suffering." But, you know, I like to suffer a little. I don't believe writers have to drive razors under their fingernails in order to learn about (and write truly about) pain. If you're alive, you're feeling some kind of pain. Or you've felt it in the past, and maybe it's waiting in the shadows around the next corner.

And ambition is fine, because it sets up my favorite motivator: fear. Not "fear" as in being scared of the dark or a serial killer or an inquisitive call from the I.R.S. or a surprise bogie on a medical scan. "Fear" as in lying in a deathbed and looking back on opportunities lost and having never dared to breathe. I want my final breath to be sweet, full of all that I shouldn't have been able to do. I want it to taste of impossible things.

Nov. 13th:
It's this review, see. It won't be out until December but it brings up something that more than one reader or critic has observed about my writing. Apparently, they say, I tend to get emotional.

Baryon reviewer Jim Brock says such things about my story collection Thank You For The Flowers as "The tales in this book cover such a range of feeling- from tender to traumatic- and the reader will experience the full range" and "The emotions get a full workout. Some are gently real, some are sadly real, and some scary real- but all of them will please you and entertain you and stay with you for a long time."

Now I find all this exceedingly strange, because many times when I'm writing I have no feeling at all except the fear of how terrible the story will be. If I went about trying to write a story to evoke a specific response in a reader, I'd probably end up with a stupefying mess as confusing as the pattern that Hemingway's brains made on the wall of his den. In fact, I classify myself as an "emotional cripple" because I don't know how I'm supposed to react in normal life circumstances and at times am amazed to find myself performing the most incredibly insensitive acts.

When I read the works of others, I sometimes throw a book across the room if the characters are acting shallowly. Sure, the writer may have taken pains to disrupt a family bond or build up a character's failure, but in those cases I could care less about the failure because I don't care about the character. Orson Scott Card wisely observes that it's never the reader's fault if he or she doesn't "get" the story. It's always the writer's shortcoming.

Maybe that's why I don't read a whole lot of science fiction. Too much of it seems to be simply logic puzzles undertaken in a distant vacuum. I'd just as soon be watching someone solve a math problem for all the pleasure it gives me. Same goes for my old pal Hemingway. He knows emotionally-dead characters like it's nobody's business. Well, I know plenty about being dead myself, thank you. I want to be alive a little bit. I may not know how to achieve it through writing, but I can get it through reading, and in occasional bright moments I actually discover it through living.

So if one or two people are moved, tickled, or touched by a string of words I happened to spew across a page, maybe I've lived a few more times than I realize. And perhaps, for the briefest of heartbeats, those readers and I are alive together at the same time.

Nov. 8th:
Momentum fading, strength...ebbing away...must...make...saaaale...

No, those recent rejections haven't dragged me down. I'm still here, typing, writing, making it up as I go along. And though I get as many rejections as ever, hey, I know I'm a better writer now. Not a great writer, maybe not even a good writer, but a better writer. My screenplay is between a third and a halfway done.

Books I'm reading: Julia by Peter Straub; Nightwork by Irwin Shaw; The Color of Light by William Goldman.

October 25th:
I'm enjoying writing a screenplay. I'm sure I will do more of them. I try to knock down a scene at each sitting. Doesn't always work that way but it keeps the project moving along. I have one other idea for an original and I think I'll adapt another of my novels. I have two unfinished short stories at the moment, which is odd for me because I usually do those straight through, over the course of a day or two.

I probably won't have my latest novel done by the end of the year, which was my target date. I didn't know the screenplay would take this long. That's okay. I've got enough novels stacked up at the moment. I'm about halfway through with giving Thank You For The Flowers its big push, so I'm eager to get back to other projects. Got back my first review, and expect more to follow soon.

This weekend should prove interesting, as I return to sign books at my high school hometown. The signing tour has produced mixed results, but it's been great fun meeting people and thinking about those books seeping out across the country.

What I'm reading: Dead Lines by John Skipp & Craig Spector, just re-read The Red Pony and The Pearl by John Steinbeck (he is amazing), and still working on Dan Simmons' Summer of Night and James Hall's Rough Draft.

October 10th, 2000:
Three book signings down. Lessons learned so far: it's very difficult to get a small press book into the distribution system. Essentially, one major distributor (Ingram's) controls most of the market. Some chain store managers can only order a book if it shows up in Ingram's computer database. And you wonder why a Congressional committee blocked the merger of Ingram's and one of the major chains: if you think there's a paltry book selection now, imagine what would happen if one company had a monopoly on product all the way down the line. Simple math (not the "fuzzy" kind) shows that it's easier and cheaper to offer 12 books instead of 120. No matter that the consumer might want that 13th, or 50th, or even the most obscure title.

This system is frustrating to all but the five or six major publishers, who benefit tremendously. Many bookstore managers are frustrated by the system as well. Certain chains treat books as pure product, sold without love as if a book were a fast-food burger. Too many chain employees have that same "fries with that" mentality. That's why I predict the demise of a couple of the biggest, most corporate-minded ones, and a rise in independent stores. Now that electronic book dealers such as Amazon are ending their suicidal discounting programs, expect more stores with actual personalities to arise.

More options are coming along: print-on-demand, electronic books, multi-media CD presentations, more specialty publishers. Maybe one day the midlist books will return. Perhaps in our very lifetimes. In the meantime, anybody want to buy a book?

-- copyright 2001 by Scott Nicholson

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