MY LIFE AS A WRITER -- BY THE NUMBERS
by Chris Bauer
Dinner speech 8/25/09 at Plumsteadville Inn, Plumsteadville, PA
Thanks, Don. Hi, folks. A big welcome and thank you to Lafayette College Creative Writing Assistant Professor and published author Alix Ohlin. Very nice interview with Don Swaim, Alix. I encourage anyone who hasn't yet tuned into it on the workshop's website to do so. Again, nice job, Alix and Don.
I'm Chris Bauer. There's a character actor with the same name who currently stars in HBO's vampire series "True Blood." Since I couldn't get him to change his stage name even after that awesome breakout year I had a few years backăyou know, the year I won this workshop's short story contestăI decided instead to write as C. G. Bauer rather than Chris Bauer and be done with it. And, truth be told, I don't even have a middle name.
I'll humbly make some general comments here about the horror genre as well as some personal writing process comments, and I'll bore you with some advice even though I don't consider myself all that qualified to deliver it. Still, Don strongly suggested I do this dinner speech gig, so here I am.
Here we go: comments general and specific with some apologies in advance. You'll hear me refer to my debut novel SCARS ON THE FACE OF GOD a few times. I too would much rather be referring to my experiences of having written, say, THE DA VINCI CODE, or any of the Harry Potter books, but I suggest you look at it this way: Had I been the author of either, your dinners would have been a lot more expensive.
So. Regarding inspiration & memorializing it: My novel SCARS ON THE FACE OF GOD in outline form was an untitled mainstream novel. One of my muses, my wife Terry, passed a comment re a few of the characters before I'd written a single word of the novel; something she saw in them that I hadn't. The comment would be a plot spoiler here so I won't mention it, but it totally changed the complexion of the novel, moving it from one genre, mainstream, to another, paranormal/horror. The point I'm making is that a writer must pay attention to his/her surroundings and record inspirational ideas whenever and wherever they present themselves. The question some of us are asked from time to time is, where do you writers get your stories from? Generally speaking it's from paying attention. This one suggestion about the characters of my novel germinated over dishes of flat bread pizza and spicy Rattlesnake Pasta, menu selections for my wife and me respectively, at an Uno's Restaurant in Warrington PA, in case you needed to know.
Re the Horror genre: It can be categorized as anywhere from hard core blood, guts, gore and entrails to the more subtle variety of personal loss: the loss of a child, wife, faith, innocence, etc. My debut novel, vetted through our writer's group, first takes the reader through the horrors of the characters' personal tragedies and their attempts to make sense of them. Your subtle, garden variety personal horror. But it soon moves into the fairly familiar old-school horror genre neighborhood of evil vs. good, heaven vs. hell, don't go in that dark room, don't look under the covers, don't unwrap that blanket, etc. So, recognizing that I currently have but one "horror" novel and one "ghost" story to my credit, I need to admit that my horror genre leanings so far have been more like "horror opportunistic."
Another comment re the Horror genre: Horror should be considered part of the Thriller genre. Its antagonists are perhaps less physically appealing, or better suited for pitch black or dimly lit rooms and closets, or as in the case of my novel, better suited for early- to mid-twentieth century sewers, orphanages and church sacristies. I'm apparently in good company here with this perception. It seems Mr. Stephen King, one of Don Swaim's favorite authors I might add -- not -- decided he's a thriller novelist rather than a horror novelist. It must be nice to be able to make that declaration and have the publishing industry defer to your opinion but, in my opinion, he's probably right.
Regarding Peer Critiquing: Here I'm stealing comments from Rick Daley, a writer who I ran across when he guested on a blog by agent Nicholas Branford with the Curtis Brown Literary Group.
What Not to Do When Giving a Critique
- Don't be overly apologetic or you will undermine your own opinions.
- Be careful if you re-write something as an example. A short clause or sentence is one thing, but if you start re-writing paragraphs you're providing more than advice ‚ you're providing voice.
- Don't hunt for flaws just because you feel you have to suggest something. Sometimes the work we review is really good. However...
- Don't limit your feedback to praise just because you're afraid to hurt someone's feelings. Paula Abdul has cornered that market.
- Don't be a ruthless jerk. Simon Cowell has cornered that market.
Receiving a Critique -- More of Daley's suggestions
- Don't pout if you hear something negative.
- Wait until all the feedback is in before you contemplate changes.
- Seriously contemplate your changes. Take time. Work through them. You never microwave a roast. Slow cooking always turns out better.
- Look for common threads in the feedback and start there. The advice of many outweighs the advice of the few.
- Regarding re-write feedback. If someone provides a re-write as an example, don't just copy it. Try to understand why they suggested those changes. Otherwise you may dilute your own voice and miss the opportunity to learn something.
- Ask for clarification if you don't understand something, but do not do this with agents who sent you a form rejection. Agents are not critique partners no matter how much we want them to be.
Back to my comments. Another consideration: Read your prose aloud. Can't stress this enough. Unwanted pauses, incorrect punctuation, missed inflections... reading it aloud will identify many of these flaws.
Regarding uniqueness: In genre fiction, you should go for the distinctive character. Quirky, unusual, distinctive characters will equal memorable characters. Horror writer Dean Koontz slaps you in the face with this with a very successful series of horror novels that follow one character, a nomadic young clairvoyant fry cook named "Odd" Thomas. No forgetting that name, right? Some of you may recall Wump Hozer, the protagonist in my novel SCARS. He earned his adult nickname from "the sound a crowbar makes when it hits a man's head." Unusual, right? But even quirkier than that was his childhood nickname: Dogshit Johnny, whose pooper-scooper collection business earned him money from a local tannery plus his distinctive nickname. Unusual name and character to a higher power. And a tip of the hat here to the workshop's John Scioli. John's real-life grandfather was the original Dogshit Johnny, whose colorful childhood days begot similar childhood days for my protagonist. Yes, I recognize a good nickname when I steal it.
My two cents on another debatable topic: Don't be afraid of going non-conventional in your approach to getting published. Ezines and eBooks are becoming more mainstream now. Print publishers are struggling, which means they are less open to taking chances on new writers. Print on Demand technology whether used by yourself or in my case, used by my small press publisher Drollerie Press, is also now more common. That's not to say you shouldn't grab for the brass ring at the beginning, as in look for agent representation with someone who can open doors at the larger publishing houses. That of course is what all writers should aspire to. But if that doesn't happen for you your first time out, be creative. You need to get your work out there for one very self-serving reason: validation! Your first contest honorable mention, your first request for a manuscript partial, your first short story published, even your first personally signed rejection letter from an agent: you'll get a rush from all of it. Indulge yourself; it's all part of the process. My book came out first as an eBook and through some quirky Amazon.com mathematical sales rankings formula it gained notoriety, albeit limited, by coming in at #3 on Amazon's Top Movers & Shakers list for one week in March. This list appeared in Publishers Lunch, a daily internet publishing mainstay with a wide readership. It actually generated some agent interest for me, a door that hasn't closed just yet. So hey, you never know.
Finally, since I'm a numbers guy when performing my Evil Day Job, I'm going to leave you with these personal statistics, taking you right up to the brink of wearing out my welcome up here.
My life as a writer, by the numbers. It continues to be a most humbling experience:
Novels written: 2
Novels in progress: 1
Short stories written: 8
Short story submissions to publications: 61
Short story submission rejections & non-responses: 58
Short story acceptances: 3
Short story acceptances by a magazine that went belly up before the story could be published: 1
Published short stories: 1
Recorded short story audio podcasts: 1
Song lyrics written, complete: 1. It was a weak moment inspired by singer-songwriter John Denver, rest in peace, emboldened by our Philadelphia Phillies winning Major League Baseball's World Series last year and fortified by patriotism regarding the city of Philadelphia, plus about six cups of coffee. Or maybe it was a six-pack of beer.
Contests entered: 12
Contest First Prizes: 3
Contest Honorable Mentions: 1
Literary agent rejections and non-responses: 65
Unsolicited novel partials to agents: 20
Novel partials solicited by agents: 6
Agent requests for full manuscripts: 2
Cursed manuscripts: 1, SCARS ON THE FACE OF GOD
Let me explain, again with numbers:
Novel partials submitted to agents on Halloween: 1, in 2005
Agents who died after reading a novel partial submitted on Halloween: 1, in 2005, a month later
Requests for a full manuscript from another agent at the agency where the agent died after reading a partial: 1
Requests by an agent for "a full manuscript written in past verb tense rather than present, if you happen to have one available": 1
Complete manuscript rewrites where verb tense was changed from present tense to past: 1. Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do.
Complete manuscript rewrites where verb tense was changed from present to past tense rejections by an agent: 1
Complete manuscript rewrites where verb tense was changed from present to past tense acceptances by a publisher: 1
Agent acceptances: 1
Agent rejections after the author received the agency contract because the author asked one question too many, specifically, "What have you sold lately?": 1
Agent representation: alas (long sigh), still zero.
Publisher requests for full manuscript: 2
Published novels: 1, SCARS ON THE FACE OF GOD, as an eBook now, and as a trade paperback in November, both from small press Drollerie Press.
Dinner speeches delivered: 1, with this writer thrilled at having been asked, and even more thrilled now that he's delivered it.