Detonation #23: On Professionalism

You are not special. If nothing else, this is the takeaway. You are not special. I’m not saying you don’t matter as a person or even that your book isn’t any good. Jesus Christ, stop crying… this is the tough love we all need. Lots of folks have written books. Lots of folks have talent. These things are neither rare nor unique. I’ve written books and I promise you I’m loads happier knowing how unspecial I am.

All that is to say that as writers, we need to get over ourselves. Because you know what will serve you better and longer in this biz than any amount of specialness? Professionalism, that’s what.

“But Lola?” you might ask. “Why should I listen to you?”

And the answer is that you probably shouldn’t, but here are a few reasons why you might want to.

  1. Writing professionally for 10yrs with 4 published books
  2. Teaching/Editing professionally for 7 years
  3. Bookseller for 7yrs
  4. Publisher for 4yrs
  5. Wrote a college admission essay for a kid. A freelance gig that, while ethically dubious, got him into Cornell and got me $1000USD

See? Aren’t I special? The answer is no. Always no. But am I qualified to speak to the fundamentals of professional competence as a writer? You bet your sweet ass.

“Cool story, Lola. But maybe you could arrive at your point sometime before 2023?”

Right, I’m getting to it.

While my tentacles bristle at anything deemed to be a rule, I really like the idea of blasting MY rules into stone, so here they are.

Lola Silkysocks’ 10 Commandments of the Professional Writer

  1. Though shalt read all information and guidelines provided by the folks you hope to work with, be they publishers/agents/editors/reviewers/booksellers. Trust me, we know if you haven’t read the material and it displeases us.
  2. Thou shalt acquire basic computer literacy. “I’m not good at computers” will not fly. Get good at them. And trust me, if you have the wherewithal to go on Facebook and spread vaccine misinformation, you can email a high-res image file of your front cover.
  3. Thou shalt not talk shit about rejections on social media, even if they’re anonymized. Rejection is not fun for anyone, but it is part of the job. So be cool.
  4. Thou shalt accept critique gracefully. Once your work is out there, people get to have thoughts about it. Any thoughts at all. My advice? Stay off Goodreads.
  5. Thou shalt not hassle people for reviews. I get it, algorithms and all that. You can ask politely, but if someone bought your book, they’re already supporting you, so don’t be a dick about it.
  6. Thou shalt read. I’ve said this before, at length, and with a lot of profanity. But read, or listen, to a fucking book once in a while. I’m quite serious. We all have ADHD and dyslexia, but find a way. Reading is essential professional development for a writer.
  7. Thou shalt support others. Locally and virtually. Go to literary events, tweet up your fellow inkslingers, spend some money at an indie bookstore because they are a vital part of your cultural community.
  8. Thou shalt learn to compose a clear, concise, and pleasant email. It AMAZES me, ASTONISHES me, and has me UTTERLY SHITTING MY BRAIN how many grown-ass adults don’t know how to communicate professionally by email. I could write a whole detonation about this. I still might.
  9. Thou shalt meet thy deadlines. Yes, life happens and we’re all doughy flawed humans blah blah blah. But deadlines aren’t put in place for funsies. As the name would suggest, projects live and die on the basis of deadlines, so the second you’re aware that a deadline is in peril, you communicate that shit.
  10. Thou shalt cultivate the ability to speak in public. Don’t give me that look. I get it. Extroverts suck so why would you want to be one? But this is something you must be able to do. A professional writer gives readings, answers questions, and has the capacity to exist in front of a crowd without fainting. I’m not asking you to change your fundamental nature, just like…suspend it for half an hour. Do what you have to do to make it happen. Don’t torture your audience by making them sweat through your anxiety attack.

Don’t be overwhelmed, this is good news! These commandments require no talent at all and will ensure you’re putting your best foot forward in a business that turns entirely on first impressions. Maybe some writers are special. For sure some are lucky. But whatever pacts they’ve made with their devils, the fact remains that nothing will shut a door in your face faster than behaving like a boob. You want to be a pro? Then goddamn well act like one.

Detonation #22: Why So Serious?

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, right? Nope. Not since 1963. If they remade that classic Spencer Tracy flick now, it would totally be called It’s a Sad, Sad, Sad, Sad World. A world choked with endless wastelands of gut tearing grief. No joy to be found. Not in the important things like five-gallon pails of hagfish slime lube, not in the minor things like senior discount McDonald’s coffee nursed for sixteen hours. Instead of a madcap, zany, over the top flick where greedy idiots rush around in search of cash buried under a big W, it’d be about a bunch of bullied earless albino orphans desperate to find both their identities and lost parents who abandoned them due to crushing poverty and substance abuse and who died horribly in a Moldovan prison carving literal regrets into soviet era concrete with toothbrush shivs fashioned from their own femurs.

I’m going to write the novel version to that one, by the way. Probably snag myself a Pulitzer or Booker or, heaven forbid, an Aurora if I’m unlucky. People will snap it up, devour every wretched, miserable word, comforted by the knowledge that they aren’t the only ones suffering in this cold, terrible planet. Commiserating. People love to commiserate. It’s become a top tier hobby, right up with doomscrolling and trying to find something to watch on Amazon Prime video.

So… while I’m not saying that the world’s Boomer mangled and storm ravaged corpse isn’t becoming a forlorn, dreadful hellscape, cause it most certainly is, what I’m saying is I’m fucking tired of reading about it. The last two years have been rough for a lot of people, do we really need to dwell on the emotional wrecks we’ve all become? I say NO! Cast off those chains of loss and grief and read (and write) something less forlorn, whether it be cheesy pulp or twisted erotica or weird fiction involving combines and Mexican Mennonite tacos.

Now I can tell you’re totally thinking “but Noggy, that’s the shit you write. Are you sure this isn’t just a cheap plug disguised as a timely rant?” Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But my friendly neighborhood psychoanalyst bar tender assures me that at my discount McDonald’s coffee age, self-promotion and yelling at clouds are valid coping strategies. And my writing can’t sell itself. Apparently…

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, so many goddamn loss and grief riddled books feel like award bait these days. And yes, I’m sure I’m exaggerating, but those are the books that get all the press and attention and critical acclaim. Lola loves them, of course. She leaves them lying around to tempt me into reading them, talks about the exquisite writing and fabulous depth. How the authors turn a despondent phrase. How they rock gloomy readings. How they dress like 70’s era drapes. Flashes her… exquisite covers.  I never fall for her tricks. Grief and loss. Loss and grief. Real god damn life!

No thanks.

I’ve had my fill of real god damn life and I’m hungry for Mexican Mennonite tacos. And you should be as well.

Today’s non-grief filled Detonation happy hour(s) cocktail is the appropriately named A Short Trip To Hell.

  • 2 parts Peach Schnapps
  • 2 parts Strawberry Schnapps
  • 2 parts Wildberry Schnapps
  • 1 part Jagermeister
  • 8 parts Energy drink of Choice.

Shake the energy drink and Schnapps in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Strain into a tumbler. Put the Jagermeister into a shot glass, drop in the shot, and take the express elevator to Hell.

Detonation #20: Sour Grapes

Everyone loves the idea of an egalitarian prize bestowed on a truly meritorious work of literature as determined by The People. Something like the Goodreads Choice Awards should be the ultimate in democracy, yet isn’t, for… reasons. So many reasons. Like Stephen King winning the horror award every year, even for his crime novels, ‘cause he’s the only fucking name anyone recognizes.

Next rung down this wretched ladder are the awards created by readers and writers, for readers and writers. Unfortunately, what follows in practice is an award by writers for writers. Which sounds close enough, but in fact couldn’t be further afield.

The bullshit mechanism of reader’s choice awards is not often discussed openly. It’s considered bad form to acknowledge honourees as anything other than purely deserving. Fortunately, Lola and Noggy don’t take anything that seriously and will always find a way cut off their nose to spite their face.

Noggy: So… writers submit to these snobby awards AND vote for them?

Lola: Yeah, by paying to become members of the association organizing the award. Publishers can and should submit, but in practice it’s writers, especially for anthologies and self-pub’d work.

N: The writers nominate and vote through long lists and short lists and then?

L: As voting members they typically get a package containing digital copies of all the shortlisted works.

N: Wait, isn’t that like…dozens of books? You have to read them all?

L: Jesus Christ, no. Who has time to read?

N: No one writing horror poetry and tweeting 89 times a day, that’s for sure. How does voting work then?

L: Easy. In categories where you’re a finalist you vote for yourself. In categories you aren’t, you vote for your friends. Chances are the only book in the pile you’ve actually read is your own. Isn’t that wild? The short story categories are the best though; for that one I’d recommend roulette, a lottery, or pin the tail on the jack ass.

N: So much for democratized literary utopia…

***

We’ve ranted about this before. The dirty secret of how little most writers actually read. And those of us who do read a lot are not going to waste our time consuming a reader’s choice award voting package because most of the material is honestly not that good. But we’re all too busy blowing each other to say it.

Yes, juried awards have their flaws but at least you can be reasonably certain the adjudicators have read the fucking book they’re voting for.

Reader’s Choice Awards are equivalent to The Emperor’s New Clothes. We ooh and ah at the grace and dignity with which he carries himself in his exquisite robes. When in fact he’s naked and eating a chili dog while fucking a pelican. But hey, we weren’t actually at the procession that day, and he’s our friend, so he’s got our vote.

***

N: You done ranting? It’s time for Arby’s.

L: Not even close. The other thing I’m going to get mad at. Awards for best anthology. An honor that belongs to all and to none. As an editor you can say you’re a winner for a book you didn’t write. As editors we consider this a dickwad move, considering the actual authors can only say they contributed to the project, which is hardly worth wedging into their bio. So, this award sits like a square egg in a kind of purgatory for unclaimed miscellany that no one quite knows how to handle. Is there even a word for adjacent congratulations?

N: I’m sure there’s a German word for it. A long, angry German word. Hmm, probably something like Beglückwünschung – that’s sort of terrifying.

L: Germans have more efficient things to do than acknowledge reader’s choice awards.

***

You could accuse us of being fucking jealous. Sour as hell. Green little goblins, ejaculating envy in thick bitter ropes. And you’d be right. But it doesn’t mean we’re wrong. And if you think we’re sore losers? God forbid we ever actually win anything.

#17 – Don’t Bend Over and Take that Advice

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

I’m not in the habit of taking advice. Of any sort. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure a lot of advice is wonderful, applicable in a variety of circumstances, and sincerely helpful. And it’s not even that I don’t think it applies to me, or I know better. Cause I damn well don’t. I just choose not to take it. Why? I’ve a stubborn streak a mile wide and I grew up telling myself I’d never let anyone tell me what to do, or how to do it. I’d find my own way – good or bad, hard or easy. My boss of the last twenty years used to growl that he may run the company, but he didn’t run me. I think he’s dead now, but it’s not my fault. I don’t listen to my wife’s advice either, though some consideration must be made to prevent marital Armageddon and all out thermonuclear war. Friends? Colleagues? Authority figures? Smile and wave boys, smile and wave. Of course, you can only pull it off with an excessive level of insanity, be willing to ignore any and all dire consequences, and have a cavalry worth of horseshoes up your ass. Your own results may vary.

But I’ll come right out and say that everything amazing comes from not listening to advice. Cases in point:

“Don’t eat a hotdog from the back alley food cart in Mazatlán at 2 a.m..”
“Don’t drink behind, under, on top of, or in that burning dumpster.”
“Don’t run a hundred miles in eyeball melting heat without pickle juice.”
“Don’t pet that beaver. Even if it’s a porcupine. Especially if it’s a porcupine.”
“Don’t stick your arm in that hole.”
“Don’t start that publishing company.”
“Um, you should see a doctor about that.”

Advice given. Advice not taken. Stories for the ages.


That’s life though, and we’re here to trash talk and throw shade on more literary pursuits. Now you’re probably thinking “But Noggy, we already know better than to become a poet-musician.” And you’d be right. But that’s just common sense.

I’m way more interested in thrashing the pile of advice you’ll find spouted from many a famous author and quoted from many a writing craft tome and lapped up by the desperate and sycophantic masses.

And I understand the irony of providing advice about ignoring advice. Please ignore everything I’m about to say. Trust me, it’s for the best.

The Road to Hell is Paved with Adverbs: Sure, sure, adverbs can be lazy crutches used to hobble through flowery prose where stronger words, built up through years of soul sucking thesaurus drudgery, might be considered better. But if adverbs weren’t useful, they wouldn’t exist. There’s what, literally a thousand adverbs in the English language? So, if you feel like using a fucking adverb, use a fucking adverb. If you use too many? Well, then you’re probably a poet, in which case all bets are off anyways. Besides, you need to give your editor something to bitch about.

Show Don’t Tell: Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Sometimes it’s just the moon. And it’s shining. This is the reason people write two hundred and fifty-thousand-word fantasy novels where absolutely nothing happens. They’re too busy showing you every god damn thing. Yes, yes, a story that’s all telling reads like a Pontiac Aztek repair manual, but when your character walks out of the house into the rain, you can just say “Jesus, it’s fucking raining again, where’s the damn umbrella? I’m going to chug a gallon of whisky and call in sick.” instead of “The splash of God’s tears washed away my anxiety and fear, leaving me cleansed and refreshed as I made my way to the bus stop to be whisked away to my dream job as a Walmart greeter.”

Kill Your Darlings: Why? I swear this advice is half the reason most writing is so wretchedly dull. Yeah, kill all the cool little bits that you love and may or may not need to be in the story just because some rich, famous mansion dwelling uber-author tells you to. Then again, my definition of darling may vary from the norm. Cause honestly, if something great in your story really needs to go for the good of the entire story, then it’s probably not that that darling to begin with.

Write What You Know: If everyone wrote only what they knew, all writing would be memoirs and grocery lists. All literary – all the time. How many writers have been to a galaxy far, far away, or Faerie, or belong to some super-secret spy organization that regularly assassinates brutal dictators with weapons that can’t possibly exist? Sure though, if you have some cool personal experience or skill or knowledge you can transfer directly to your story to make your Arby’s meatcraft salesman more authentic, by all means give him that Hentai tentacle fetish. And be specific. Most writers like to think they’ve had an extraordinarily cool life they can draw upon. ROFL. Pulease. So, write whatever the hell you want as long as you’re mindful of your subject. Expropriate and die. Simple as that.

Write Every Day: Nice thought. And yes, actually decent advice. I’d love to be able to write every day. And I do when I can. But I’m not going to beat myself silly trying to make it the #1 priority that trumps all others. I got a bloody life that’s full of frankly other priorities, some of which I’ll write a book a book about when I’m dead.

Write Drunk, Edit Sober: While this quote is attributed to Hemmingway, I think it was Faulkner who actually subscribed to it. Good ole Faulkner. A legend really, I’d call him a demi-god if he hadn’t dabbled in poetry, but nobody’s perfect. Could have went further though. Write Drunk, Edit Drunker, Publish Drunkest. Best to dull the pain at every step. And writing is pain. A good bottle of Blanton’s or Hibiki 17 or Oban is medicinal, take that from Dr. Noggy. Look, I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with being sober. I’ve heard stories about sober people being healthier and happier and such. I’ve also heard similar stories about Cryptids. Can’t believe everything you read.


So, yeah, whatever. Just remember this isn’t advice. This is opinion, written for promises of ice cream and beaver petting. It’s all about the priorities, man.


Detonation #14 – Such Times

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield


“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

I’ve always loved those lines, and they’ve never been more apt. Such times indeed, and so true. We all have to decide what to do with the time that is given us.

So, of course, we’re totally wasting it. And I’m not talking about the last couple of months, trapped in our homes and clinging to sanity with alcohol and Netflix. Nobody is going to begrudge a little demotivation and aimlessness right now. It’s an unusual and uncertain glitch in the matrix.

But it will end and there will be a new normal. What will you do then? Try to wiggle back into your old life? Because, really, who’d want to live in those boring old times, doing the same thing day after day, year after year, living on the dying carcass of global free market capitalism? 

Well, regular people, I guess. And there’s no shortage of them. In fact, in an informal poll where I browsed both Facebook and Twitter for a six and half hours every day for ten years, it was obvious that a majority of social media users, which is to say everyone on the entire planet, is so bored and boring and unenlightened they’ve outsourced their life to a drinking bird. Like clockwork, the bird dips and another meme blasts forth, another tweet is retweeted, and the noise cloud that is our reality gets slightly noisier.

Of course, at the moment, most of this is complaining or fist shaking. Life is shit. You’re making my life shit. Don’t you know you shouldn’t do this? That you can’t do that? And now, because people are nasty, we have snitch lines. Is this the fucking Spanish Inquisition? If you see a few people walking down the street, less than two meters apart, don’t fucking call the cops. Don’t write letters to the editor. Don’t complain about it on Facebook. Look, I get it, I do. Every time I wander out to the park for some fresh air, there are milling groups of people with t-shirts that say “Oh no, the Economy” or “Cull the Weak.” Every time I go to the grocery store I see people going the wrong direction down clearly marked aisles. Makes me wish I’d brought the woodchipper. But I smile and wave and maneuver far around them. I don’t call the cops. Or complain. At least about that, complaining about complainers currently consumes most of my free time.

Damn the irony.


Right. Interesting times, which doesn’t have to be a curse. I’d posit that if you pull your head out of the social media Khazad Dum, you’ll notice there’s a damn remarkable world both inside and out worth writing about.

And I’m not talking about poetry.

Please do not write personal plague poetry, or as Lola so elegantly puts it, “Poetic observations of a nature so shallow they appear to be fathomless.” I’m not saying it’s impossible to write decent poetry about living in your kitchen, baking bread, and calling the cops on some poor neighbor who happens to break the two-meter rule, but… yeah, it is. Same goes for plague prose. Give it time. Give it a year or two. If we need to flatten the curve on ANYTHING, it’s to make sure everyone doesn’t write about the exact same thing happening to everyone, regardless of how much nightmare fuel is being poured on the fire. You think the emergency wards are taxed now? Wait until everyone is forced to read about the horrors, or possibly pleasures, of social distancing, or about what happened to all the toilet paper.

No.

There are far better uses for that pent-up wellspring of emotion, both now and into the new normal. Whether your life is currently a smoking crater, or not, you’re experiencing something novel that hasn’t happened in a hundred years and probably won’t happen like this again. There’s a lot of passion out there, generated by wanting to see other people punished for doing things you don’t understand aren’t technically against the law. Capture that passion. Capture the fear. Capture the determination to make them pay by killing or torturing them in your next story.

Let that passion infuse your work.

When this does end, don’t flush that passion away and go back to your old life. You only have so much time, you know, and you’ve probably wasted enough of it writing poetry.


Detonation #12 – Subversion Recursion

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield


Readers expect if they pick up the twenty-second volume of their favourite thriller series it’ll be more of the same, a creaky wheezing corpse dragging itself forward with rotting fingerbones. These sorts of books are where the money is. The boilerplate of the industry. Month after month, year after year, these books are churned out assembly line style for the public to ingest, absorbing three sad calories of literary enjoyment, before shitting them into the trash or closest used bookstore. 

It’s an ugly cycle. At some point people started buying these books based on firehose marketing and celebrity endorsements and in response more books were written to cater to those buying tastes, ad infinitum. It’s not a secret, far from it, authors know there is a certain magic formula that if they are talented enough, or lucky enough, to master, they can join the ranks of the serializers.

Not just the serials either, the entire mass market oozes sameness. The books look the same, the titles sound the same, the plots are indistinguishable except for the anti-hero’s cup size and eye colour — blue steel or smoky aluminum. Writing by rote. Writing by formula. Everyone wants to be the next James Patterson or Steven King or J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin. Rich and famous, with terrible movie adaptions and mansions full of dirty money sex dungeons.

Hmm, that actually doesn’t sound so bad. Where the hell was I going with this again?

Oh right, total lack of imagination in the pursuit of sell out success.


The ability to conjure ideas from the billion facets of existence and assemble them into unique works of music, art, and writing is a superpower with unlimited potential, so it really grinds my gears when writers, who have the entire universe of possibilities to play with, take the same old tired elements and assemble them in bloody identical ways. Sure, they may brighten or darken the paint some, and give the work a clever name and twist the marketing, but it’s typically a clone of a seminal work, and a shittier one at that.

Stories in a particular genre and sub-genre are going to have similar and even required elements. A murder mystery, by definition is going to have some sort of murder and quite possibly a mystery. A thriller should thrill. Noggy loves heist stories. Lots of people love zombie or werewolf stories, half the world either loves or hates vampire stories, traditional or glittery. There are haunted house stories, cosmic horrors, cryptids, occult detectives, you name it. Some sub-genres are narrow, some are wide, but they instill a little order to chaos that is the literary landscape. As I mentioned, there is an expectation that if you pick up a book in that sub-genre it should actually, you know, not be false advertising.

That’s not what my little rant is about though. What I am talking about are overused tropes and by-the-number formulaic bullshit. 

Sure, it’s easy to write yet another school for bizarre weirdos novel, packed with bullies and not-so secret secrets and angry, clueless teachers — sorry teachers, you know how it is. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Does every supernatural detective story, mine included, need to pay homage to a certain hard drinking, chain smoking, trench coat and fedora wearing reprobate from the 30’s? Does every epic fantasy novel have to involve an orphan from a purged royal family who grows up to be an assassin with legendary abilities because their father was king of the horny gods? Does every single heist series have to start with a book that’s entirely about putting a misfit, yet oddly exceptionally uniquely talented crew together?

FUCK NO.

Subvert those tropes. Do it!

We already discussed in a previous episode that if you want to write, you need to read. Period. And it often helps to read the sort of stories you want to write. Subverting tropes requires intimate knowledge of them. You need to know where the boundaries are and what you can twist, and hollow out and fill with explosives, and, in the end, completely break.

Does your haunted house story require a gothic New England farmhouse complete with a vengeful revenant left over from the original occupant’s penchant for baby ear soup? Nope. There are a thousand elements ripe for subversion. And I’m not talking easy ones like making the house a brownstone apartment in Manhattan and the ghosts aliens. Who says the house needs to be a regular house? And who says the ghosts have to be regular ghosts? I’m not saying write a story about a construction site porta-potty possessed by ghost pepper hot wings, but I’m also not, not saying that.

Find an angle, run naked with it. You know you can. Don’t be afraid that you’ll never get published by the big five, or one of their imprints, and get that sex dungeon. Write weird, terrible shit, that has its own unique soul and flavour, and take that unoriginal WIP, wrap it in a tarp and stash it under the Aztek’s trunk liner next to the trencher and gasoline in anticipation of the next wolf moon and a satisfying internment.

It’s for the best, it really is.