The Writing Life

The Writing Life: Reflections, Recollections, And a Lot of CursingThe Writing Life: Reflections, Recollections, And a Lot of Cursing by Jeff Strand
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A charming and highly readable non-fiction book about what it’s like to be a writer. Author Jeff Strand doesn’t offer the reader any how-to-write advice in THE WRITING LIFE (there are plenty of those kinds of books available already) but instead focuses on what to expect once you’re published, liberally peppered with his own amusing and often self-deprecating anecdotes. It’s a fast, funny read that will have Strand’s fellow authors nodding in agreement and chuckling in recognition, while giving aspiring writers a chance to rethink whether the craziness of a writing career is really what they want. While there’s a definite “isn’t this funny and/or ridiculous” tone to Strand’s authorial voice, there’s actually a lot to be learned from THE WRITING LIFE, not the least of which is how to cope with a writing career that, to paraphrase the author, you quite honestly thought would be more successful by now. Highly recommended for writers and interested readers alike.

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The Scariest Part: Keith R.A. DeCandido Talks About ANIMAL

This week on The Scariest Part, I’m delighted to host my good friend Keith R.A. DeCandido, whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for some years now. His latest novel, co-written with Dr. Munish K. Batra, is Animal. A portion of the novel’s proceeds will go to the San Diego Humane Society, as well as a number of other animal funds and sanctuaries. Here is the publisher’s description:

Renowned surgeon and humanitarian Dr. Munish K. Batra and international best-selling author Keith R.A. DeCandido have worked together to bring you Animal, a pulse-pounding, thought-provoking thriller that will leave you questioning whether noble intentions justify horrific acts.

Interpol Agent An Chang has been chasing a masked serial killer for more than twenty years, a killer who targets those who harm innocent animals. When the serial killer strikes again — two people dead near a meatpacking plant by a culprit wearing a cow mask and soon after the CEO of a water park is brutally killed by someone wearing an orca mask — Chang heads to California to finally catch his vigilante killer.

What Chang shockingly discovers in California sends him on a wild-goose chase from the streets of Shanghai to around the globe. What Chang is beginning to understand is that the killer’s motives and history are far deeper than anyone realizes. So, who is the real animal?

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Keith R.A. DeCandido:

I don’t know if Chapter 15 of Animal is the scariest part of the thriller that I cowrote with Dr. Munish K. Batra, but it was certainly the hardest part for me to write. And that was against some pretty stiff competition…

Animal is about a serial killer who specifically targets people who harm animals. Dr. Batra has spent a great deal of time travelling the world providing humanitarian aid to Third World countries as well as nations that have suffered natural disasters, and in those travels, he’s observed a lot of instances of cruelty to animals.

An incident that particularly stuck with him was seeing dog and cat carcasses being hung in shops in China, intended for food. As someone with a dog as part of his household, Dr. Batra found this appalling — as did I when he and I discussed it. The backstory of our killer is that he was living in Shanghai when his dog was taken and killed to be made into food, along with many other dogs.

When it came time to write that part of our killer’s backstory, I was dreading it. I wrote it from the POV of the child, who was five years old at the time. I had to draw on my experiences dealing with five-year-olds (I teach karate to children, including a lot of four, five, and six-year-olds), as well as my memories of having a Golden Retriever, Scooter (who unfortunately died at the ripe old age of fourteen in 2015).

One of the scariest aspects of growing up is losing your innocence. A child is often lucky enough to see the world as uncomplicated, rarely having the need to make hard choices about life—or even easy ones, truth be told. Particularly children who are fortunate enough to live in stable households, they’re able to live their lives without worry or cares.

So when tragedy strikes, it can be devastating. In this case, we have a kid whose father (a diplomat) is away from home a lot, and his mother is emotionally distant. He loves his older sister, but she can’t spend every moment with him.

Their dog Nandita, though, is another story. She loves the boy unreservedly, and is always there to play with him and snuggle him and run with him and lick him and love him. There is no love on this Earth more devoted and all-encompassing than that of a dog — especially a Golden Retriever.

Which means that losing Nandita is the worst thing that can possibly happen to him. A five-year-old can barely process the notion of loss as it is. To make the loss be of the thing in the five-year-old’s life that brings him the most joy, the most delightful, wonderful, unconditional love is simply devastating.

And holy crap, was it devastating to write.

I’ve never been hugely affected by gory horror or psychological horror. I mean, I appreciate it and enjoy it and love it when it’s done well, but it rarely affects me on a visceral level. But the horror of loss for a small child is something that always gets me, because that level of betrayal, of fear, of devastation is so much greater in someone who hasn’t experienced enough of the world to be mature and/or cynical about it. Which makes it that much nastier.

The worst nightmare I ever had as a kid was when I was around ten or eleven. At that age, I had a tiger puppet that I wore on my hand constantly. Daniel Striped Tiger (named after a character on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) only came off my hand when I was eating or bathing. And then one night I had a nightmare that I was walking alongside a set of train tracks near our house that was about thirty feet below the sidewalk. Somehow, even though there was a fence to prevent it, Daniel had come off my hand and fallen down onto the tracks where I would never ever see him again. I could see him down on the tracks, but there was no way to get him back.

I woke up screaming, and then I stopped wearing Daniel on my hand all the time. (Mind you, I still have that puppet, sitting on one of my bookshelves…)

When I wrote Chapter 15 of Animal, I tried to re-create that feeling I had when I woke up from that nightmare.

Whether or not it worked I leave to y’all to decide if and when you read Animal.

Animal: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powells / Bookshop / Animal website

Keith R.A. DeCandido: Website / Twitter

Keith R.A. DeCandido is the author of more than fifty novels, more than seventy-five short stories, a mess of comic books, and more nonfiction than he’s willing to try to count. Recent and upcoming titles (besides Animal) include the Alien novel Isolation, the fantasy/police procedurals Mermaid Precinct and Phoenix Precinct, the urban fantasies A Furnace Sealed and Feat of Clay, the military science fiction novel To Hell and Regroup (written with David Sherman), the graphic novel Icarus (with Gregory A. Wilson), pop-culture commentary for the award-winning web site Tor.com, and short stories in the anthologies Bad Ass Moms, Pangaea Book 3: Redemption, and Horns and Halos. He’s also working on more projects in collaboration with Dr. Munish K. Batra. In addition, Keith is a third-degree black belt in karate (which he also teaches), a freelance editor for clients both personal and corporate, a musician (currently percussionist for the parody band Boogie Knights), and possibly some other stuff he can’t recall due to the lack of sleep.

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas CarolA Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a re-read for me, although the last time I read it was probably in high school way back in the 1980s, so in many ways the book felt brand new to me again. I was struck, as I always am when reading Dickens, by how charming and witty the prose is, and by the enormous amount of creative imagination on display. A CHRISTMAS CAROL is best remembered for its message that kindness and generosity make for a happier life, as it should be, but there’s so much more to discover in these pages. Scrooge is a jerk, no doubt about it, but Dickens also gives him all the best lines. (There’s a great deal of humor in the first half of the book, before it turns more sentimental.) A CHRISTMAS CAROL has withstood the test of time for a reason, and I’m so glad I returned to it this holiday season. I might just make a tradition out of it!

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The Scariest Part: Jeff Strand Talks About THE WRITING LIFE

This week on The Scariest Part, I’m delighted to host my good friend Jeff Strand. I’ve known Jeff for many years now, and together we co-host the infamous annual Necon Roast at the Northeastern Writers Conference, or Necon for short. His latest book, The Writing Life, is a special one, not just because it’s his fiftieth book, but also because it’s his first work of non-fiction. Here is the official description:

Jeff Strand, whose work Publishers Weekly has called “wickedly funny” and Kirkus has called “ridiculously stupid,” has had one of the least meteoric rises to success in the publishing industry. But he eventually got there, even if he should probably put “success” in quotes.

He’s been at it a long time, and has learned a lot of lessons along the way. And he shares them with brutal honesty in this very book, along with plenty of hilarious (and sometimes painful) anecdotes about his career.

This is not a book that will tell you how to format a manuscript or write a compelling query letter. It’s a book about how to cope with rejection and bad reviews. Book signings where nobody shows up. Helplessly watching your peers go on to greater success than you. He’s been through all of that and so much more, and in these pages you’ll have a bunch of laughs as you commiserate and figure out how to get through it all.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Jeff Strand:

The idea of writing my first non-fiction book wasn’t scary. It would be about my own experience, not a meticulously researched book about 14th century gardening techniques and how they related to the class struggle. Excluding the infant and toddler years, I’ve been doing this my entire life, and with my fiftieth birthday looming, I knew I had plenty to say.

I also wasn’t scared to be sharing a lot of embarrassing, sometimes painful anecdotes. This book is not a celebration of my career. When choosing which tales of my writing life to share, I went with the ones that were useful and funny. Nobody needs my advice on how to cope with good reviews. An anecdote about having a well-attended, successful book signing is not nearly as funny as the one where I got kicked out of the store.

The premise of The Writing Life is not “Learn from my success!” but rather “Oh, yeah, I’ve been there, and here’s how I kept going.” I’m not the hero in all of the anecdotes, and that’s the whole point.

But my other books were all completely made up. People might’ve been offended by the gore or the potty-mouth, but I wasn’t going to hurt anybody’s feelings. The Writing Life is not a blistering takedown of the publishing industry by any stretch of the imagination, and nobody gets hit harder than me within its pages, yet there’s still some collateral damage. My fear would be somebody saying, “Hey, it’s really not cool that you shared that.”

The obvious solution was to get permission. Author Stacie Ramey got kicked out of the bookstore along with me, and it was mostly her fault, so I sent her the appropriate section for her blessing. Jim Moore, my co-author on The Haunted Forest Tour, signed off on my delightfully amusing tale of what it’s like to write a book with Jim. My best friend as a kid said it was okay to write about this one time that we did something really, really stupid.

In other cases, I knew I would never get their blessing and didn’t care. I went with the “Don’t name names, and stick to the truth” approach. If an unnamed editor shakes his fist in rage because I wrote about him being a total douchebag…well, I can live with that. The target of one scathing anecdote about unprofessional behavior at a book signing probably isn’t going to read it, and if he does and says “Hey! That’s me!” maybe he’ll recognize that you need to behave better at these kinds of events if you don’t want to make an anonymous appearance in a non-fiction book.

Then there was the middle ground. I wasn’t going to try to track down every single person who is referenced in this book, and in most cases their actual identity is irrelevant to the story. I ultimately wasn’t happy with my last agent, but in the extremely unlikely event that she reads this book when she couldn’t be bothered to read the last novel manuscript I sent her, I think she’d agree that it’s a fair account. I write about my frustration with some editing experiences, but it’s also balanced out by sharing examples where editors saved my ass.

That said, the whole concept of sticking with “funny and useful” anecdotes means that I’m not focusing on the positive. I was one of the pioneers in the field of e-books, long before the Kindle came around, and it sucked. I worked with a lot of great people and have a lot of fond memories, but I do not write about the early years of being an e-book author with much in the way of nostalgia.

My hope is that if my fellow authors from that era read the book, they’ll laugh and nod and say “Oh my God! He totally nailed it!” My fear would be that they read it and think, “WTF? We had fun and we were way ahead of the curve! What’s with all the trash talking? Screw you, Strand!”

Yesterday, after Nick invited me to write this guest blog but before I’d decided what I specifically wanted to write about, I got a Facebook message from Susan Bodendorfer. She published my very first novel in May 2000. She wished me a happy birthday, said how proud she was of my accomplishments, and said that she couldn’t wait to read The Writing Life.

And I broke into a cold sweat.

I could say many, many great things about my experience with Wordbeams. But in The Writing Life, my point is that people in the year 2000 frickin’ despised e-books. I didn’t write about working with a wonderful editor; I wrote about beginning my career with everybody saying “That’s not a real book!” and how I coped with it.

Also, there’s a part where I talk about Enclave, a round-robin novel that Wordbeams published. It’s a very funny story about being the final author in line and having to wrap up a narrative that had become a complete disastrous mess. After getting Susan’s message, I quickly re-read that part. Maybe it wasn’t so bad…ummm, nope, I sure wasn’t very kind to the Enclave experience, was I? Damn.

It’s been twenty years. Will she laugh? Will she wipe a tear of heartbreak from her eye? Will she vow blood vengeance against me?

I don’t know. And that, kids, is the scariest part!

UPDATE: Her reaction was 1) Ha ha, oh yeah, it totally sucked to be part of the e-book world back then, and 2) Yes, Enclave was total garbage.

The Writing Life: Amazon / Powell’s / Bookshop

Jeff Strand: Website / Twitter

Jeff Strand is the author of 50+ books, including Pressure, Dweller, My Pretties, A Bad Day For Voodoo, Wolf Hunt 1-3, Clowns Vs. Spiders, and a bunch of others. His greatest glory is co-emceeing the Necon Roast with Mr. Nicholas Kaufmann.

 

 

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