Eric Stringer is a miserably failed newspaper reporter whose father was obsessed with one soft spot after another and whose mother didn’t love him enough to care that she didn’t love him enough. She swapped him to a camel jocky she met along the border in southern California for a hit off his crack pipe and a swing on his banana hammock.
Eric was born in poverty and clawed his way up to debauchery and tearing the wings off young maidens. Once he got out of prison for failing to vote multiple times in an election (he lived in Chicago at the time, and the law’s the law) he began to write stories about all the strange and unusual things he saw. Some of them were actually there. See more of Eric’s work at HarveyStanbrough.com. (Note: Eric Stringer is the borderline psychotic persona of Harvey Stanbrough.)
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Finding Time to Write
The easiest thing in the world is getting ready to write. I mean, getting a cup of coffee or feeding the cat or positioning the laptop just right. Easy stuff. I really hate that stuff because none of that is actual writing, but it is really easy to do. One of the reasons getting ready to write is so easy is because it makes finding time to write so hard. Getting ready to write happens during that twilight time when you’ve found time to write but haven’t actually nailed it down yet. I’ve heard that some writers can actually skip through the getting ready to write stage and go directly to writing, but I’ve never known any who have actually done it. I’ve never known anyone who Just Writes until they suddenly do. And don’t get me wrong. I love to write. I think pretty much nothing is as enjoyable as watching the words appear on the screen, one letter at a time. But it isn’t easy.
The secret is to force the end of the getting ready to write time and actually write. So you do all that other stuff and then you shut it all out and you just write. Put words on the page. Rule One is You must write.
The secret is to find an idea. Dean said ideas are everywhere. He was right. But stories and novels don’t come in whole cloth. They peek around the edges of trees and creak across your window at night and gurgle over the rocks placed just so in that stream along the path into town. I saw an ant carrying an idea across a fairly busy two-lane state highway in Arizona one day. He and several of his fellows were traipsing along safely in the bottom of a flat-bottomed crack that ran all the way across the highway. I mean there was a zig here and a zag there, but they seemed to expect them. They weren’t surprised and they got across the highway in good order. But those ideas, they aren’t always being toted along. Sometimes they hint with a whisper or an itch at the base of your neck or a pin prick on your side or back or leg or someplace else where you know you weren’t pricked by a pen. Dean was right about that too. Ideas aren’t a blast from a 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun. They’re just the trigger. Probably the front one. But they aren’t hard to find. They’re right there, like Dean said.
The secret is to pick one and sit down with your legal pad in your lap and lean back and cross your ankles on your desk like King and write the story that comes from the idea. Or sit down at your desk at your computer and put your fingers on the keyboard and tell your story, or as Dean says, make stuff up. And you don’t even have to use all the right fingers in the right places, or even all the fingers at all. Dean said that too. Oh, and it doesn’t all rush out at once. It doesn’t.
The secret is to write one sentence at a time. Of course, if you do just that much, you’ve got Rule One by the tail. No problem. But you’ll get stuck after awhile. If you’re going to write, Dean said, you’re going to get stuck. That’s not a rule but it’s real and it’s okay.
The secret is to get stuck. If you aren’t getting stuck, you aren’t writing. You aren’t trying. And if you aren’t even trying, well, you probably should be out selling Earth shoes or something alongside all the other fake gods like in that movie that time. If you never get stuck because you aren’t writing, you definitely don’t have the sticktoitiveness and the crossarmedness it takes to build worlds and create characters and mouth dialogue and dialect and come up with all those rules in the fictional world where you would actually be the god if you did all that, see? So then you get that sentence, you know, that one George Burns’ character hands down, of having to go sell Earth shoes alongside all the other fake gods, the ones who throw money at things like writers’ conferences so they can go home after three days of (they hope) debauchery and tell everyone they know they just attended a writers’ conference so, you know, they must be writers. But they aren’t. And that isn’t a rule, or at least not one that’s spoken aloud, but it probably should be. And it most definitely isn’t a secret.
The secret is to know that when you get stuck, all you have to do is write the next sentence. And write the next sentence. And write the next sentence. And then you know what you do? That’s right. You write the next sentence and, according to Dean, eventually you’ll know where the story’s going. He calls it “writing into the dark” (isn’t that just massively cool?), who learned it, after a fashion, from Robert A. Heinlein. If you don’t write the next sentence, you won’t finish the story, and Rule 2 is You must finish what you write. I’m pretty sure that’s one of the secrets too. Yes. It must be.
The secret is to finish what you write. And at first I thought Duh! because that makes a lot of linear sense because if you weren’t going to finish what you write, then there wouldn’t be any reason to write the next sentence. You’d just follow Rule One so folks whose opinions matter to you would see you writing or you could show them you’d started something and then you’d go along there and get stuck and then you might go on ahead and write the next sentence a few times, you know, just to show you’re really trying, and then you’d stop because that would just be enough to have earned you a place making a presentation at your local writers’ group or something. Maybe a presentation on writing the next sentence or the much more mysterious sounding “write into the dark.” Now that does belong to Dean so far as I know and he seems like a really good guy so he probably wouldn’t care if you did a presentation titled that, but then again I wouldn’t just up and tell him. But then again, I can’t imagine if you didn’t tell him how he might come to find out. Anyway, no matter what you do, what you don’t want to do is get those folks who attend your presentation to do any kind of rewriting, and that’s another one of Heinlein’s rules. That’s… let’s see, that’s Rule Three: You must not rewrite except to editorial direction, and Dean says Harlan Ellison says there ought to be a corollary on that one, to wit, You must not rewrite to editorial direction, and not even then unless you agree. I’ll go along with that one myself. But that one’s almost certainly a big, huge secret too, that thing about not rewriting. And in this day and age, frankly, I’m not going to keep writing “except to editorial direction” because those of us who self-publish don’t get or need editorial direction, especially in light of the first half of that rule.
And the whole secret is to put what you write “out there” so folks can find it and buy it and read it. I’m not entirely sure that’s a bona-fide secret because it seems way too much like common sense to me—then again, what’s common to some is a luxury to most—but it is definitely a rule. It’s Rule Four, in fact. You must publish your work so readers can buy it.
And then, the whole secret is to keep what you write out there so folks can continue to buy it. That’s Rule 5, and the way Heinlein put it was You must keep your work published so readers can continue to buy it. Okay, he didn’t actually write it that way. Rules Four and Five are paraphrased a bit to bring them online with modern self-epublishing. But that’s what he would’ve written if he’d written these a couple years ago instead of back in 1947. And that’s another one that seemed a little bit Duh-y to me until Dean explained that a lot of people for whatever reason—I suspect lack of a hobby—after they publish a work, mess with it. They find a typo on page 96 (okay, there are no pages in ebooks, but you know what I mean) and they take the book down, revise it, and put it back up, thereby interrupting sales. Or it hasn’t been selling although it’s been out there for a whole month, so they take it down and Rewrite It (see Rule Three). Or they decide to change the price. Or they’re just bored and playing with that poor little story that’s just out there working hard trying to get sales is a ton easier than what ought to be Rule Six: Write the next story. ‘Cause really, that’s the whole secret to the whole thing—write the next story—‘cause you can’t do that if you haven’t already done all the others. So you really could boil all of Heinlein’s rules down to one rule, and it isn’t even one he gave us, at least not directly in so many words: Write the next story.
And that’s all it was, you know. Nothing more than that. I was just hangin’ out down there on the beach watching the surf. It’s calming, you know? And I just kept thinking of all these rules, how really deceptively simple they are and how easy it seems like it would be to just do them. And I’ve always been a writer, you know. I mean, I’ve written a few short stories, but I’ve also written two novels and part of another one, only, you know, I haven’t actually put them on paper yet. But there’s no rush. I mean, they’re right there just waiting for me to carve out the time to type them out, you know. And Dean says if you just write.. I don’t know, like 500 words a day or something you can write a novel in just a little while, so I figured man, you know, I finally got this writing thing by the tail. And then, you know, I looked up and there he was, the man himself, Dean Wesley Smith. He had on a straw version of that kind of Poker Boy hat, but he was wearing shorts and flip-flops and a halfway unbuttoned kind of a safari shirt or something. And I thought, Man, he’s a friendly dude, you know, and I’ll bet I could walk right up and shake his hand. And I really wanted to, you know, not intrude or anything, but just say hi and shake his hand and tell him he pretty much single handedly led me out of writing darkness, you know, with his advice to write into the dark. And I was just thinking everything he said was so right on, you know, and it makes so much sense and it’s… well, you know… it was what I had needed to hear for so long. I mean, if I’d heard all this stuff all those years ago, who knows? Maybe ol’ Dean and I would be friends, you know. I mean it was exactly what I needed to hear. I mean exactly. And I just wanted to say thanks.
And then as I was walking up to him one thing kept coming back to me, you know, something like “What? A professional writer would lie to you?” and the guy’s also a professional poker player, right? And then I remembered the smile slewed just a bit into a smirk and he said something like, “C’mon, man, that can’t be a surprise!” like he just won a hand despite a pretty transparent bluff. And then the last couple steps, in my head he leaned forward a little bit and the smile got just a little too much like it was all a joke at your expense and he said with some emphasis, “Hey, we make stuff up for a living! It’s what we do!” And then he laughed. In my head, I mean, you know. And that little bit of a smirk was framed under that Dean Wesley Smith friendly, honest-I-promise eyes and that friendly best-buddy smile and that’s when it hit me.
That confidence is what almost got him. Man, so close! He must’ve seen that I wanted to shake hands and I was still smiling because the thoughts hadn’t made it to my face yet I guess and he reached his hand out and he was looking at my face, not my hand. I don’t think he ever saw the knife.
And then somebody else yelled something—I know it wasn’t him and it wasn’t me—and that’s when one of you guys slammed into my back just as he jerked his hand away. I couldn’t tell if he jumped back some or it was you guys shoving me to the ground but I got a glimpse that his smile was gone.
Anyway… hey, he’s okay, isn’t he? ‘Cause you know, I wouldn’t have hurt him. I really don’t think I would’ve hurt him. But I have to tell you, god man, I hope he wasn’t lying to me about, you know, writing the next sentence. I mean, I’ll have some time now.
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