From Technical Writing

My Radio Interview on “Murders, Mysteries and Mayhem”

Today my interview on the Murders, Mysteries and Mayhem program (part of the Authors on the Air Global Radio Network) aired, and it was a terrific success.

The show is hosted by the friendly, knowledgeable and engaging Stephen Campbell, and as I mentioned a few days ago, I was taken aback by how well-prepared he was (he had read all of my work), and the penetrating questions he asked.

Using the SoundCloud player (below), you can play the interview right here on this webpage, or you can download a copy of the interview and play it on your computer offline.

I hope you enjoy it, and if you do, please leave me your comments! I’d love to hear from you.

Have a great holiday and an even better 2014.

—Chris

 

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Everything That’s Wrong With Ebooks

815KyITHLdL._SL1500_So I was browsing Kindle books on Amazon earlier today and came upon one that thoroughly pissed me off.

Truly, this book represents everything that’s wrong with ebooks.

In the content, advertising and book cover, the author details how a writer can write a book a week, and how turning out such a quantity of “writing” is the key to making a lot of money on Kindle.

Let’s talk about this, shall we?

Yes, you can get rich writing a book a week—when most of your “books” are 50 or fewer Kindle pages, and when you’re writing books about how to make money writing books for Kindle.

Not so easy is writing a real book a week—say a novel. I’d like to see Foster live up to his advertised maxim that the quantity and the quality have to be there, if he were trying to write a novel a week.

I’ve read a number of these ebooks about “getting rich writing books for Kindle,” and as a lifelong writer who has earned a living as a journalist, technical writer, scriptwriter and speechwriter (in addition to novelist), I find their common assertion that there’s nothing to this, that anyone can do it, not only insulting but also dishonest.

Writing is like any other specialized skill: It takes years and thousands of hours of study and practice to do it well. Just as I wouldn’t expect that I could go into a dentist’s office tomorrow and begin filling teeth, no one should expect that they can sit down and dash off an ebook in a week that will make them a lot of money.

The main problem I have with Foster’s “book,” as well as all of the others that advocate writing a quantity of work for Kindle, is that they promote a writing-as-lottery mentality. They promote the idea that a person can just churn out a “book,” and that the possibility exists that they’ll make tens of thousands, or millions, of dollars from the book with little effort.

This writing-as-lottery mentality is bad for Kindle and indie-published books in general because it lowers the overall quality of the work out there, and it reinforces the idea among readers and literary opinion-makers that ebooks (especially indie titles) are junk. Well, we writers who have worked long and hard at our craft, and who strive to give readers excellent quality work for their money, resent this.

We resent ebooks like Foster’s, as well as those that advertise that it’s easy to amp-up sales of your current books with a few simple changes to your book listings on Amazon. I have read probably a dozen of these titles, each time convincing myself that this one is different, that this one contains the keys to the kingdom. Guess what? NONE of them do. These authors are simply getting rich on our desire to sell more of our work, and any of the “fixes” that they suggest, if they help sales at all, are merely temporary.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “You don’t write because you want to say something; you write because you have something to say.” Don’t allow your work to become part of the glut of mediocre ebooks on Amazon; have something to say, a story to tell, and put your absolute best work out there—every time. You might not rake in the money as Foster and his ilk do, but you can take pride in the idea that you are only publishing good work, and that if you’re suddenly taken from this earth tomorrow, you at least will have left something of substance, of yourself, behind.

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Chris Orcutt's Barbaric Yawp

“I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Photo by Jen Cray

THE OTHER DAY, I wrote that I was going to “take it easy” when it came to self-promotion, but you know what? Screw that.

I don’t want to take it easy. I don’t want to be modest, humble, or self-deprecating. I’ve done that all my life, and I’m sick of it. I was raised by honest and hardworking Mainers—parents and grandparents—who imbued in me the sense that a person shouldn’t brag or go on about himself. Promoting yourself, they suggested, was unseemly.

But as a 20-year professional writer of journalism, video scripts, magazine articles, technical manuals, speeches and a ton of unpublished (and some published) fiction, I’ve learned a few things, and one of the things I’ve learned is that there are a lot of lesser writers out there doing very well for themselves, and do you know why?

A recent newspaper article by Kate Goldsmith of the N. Dutchess News about me and "A Real Piece of Work."

That’s right—because they promoted themselves. Because they talked about their work at every turn and made no apologies. Because they didn’t wait around for outside approval of their work or of their status as writers. Because they declared themselves writers and forced the world to consider them as such.

As a kid, I moved too many times; an average of once a year until I was 18. Consequently, wherever I was living, I didn’t want to make waves. I just wanted to get along. Even in the town where I graduated from high school, although I threw some legendary parties there, I was hardly known as Mr. Popular or Mr. Self-Promoter.

The sad fact of it is, I’ve spent the last 20 years playing down myself and my accomplishments, and I don’t want to do it anymore.

Recently the pain of continuous rejection of my work by mainstream publications brought me precipitously close to taking my own life. Beyond that, I found myself consistently thinking that I wouldn’t mind if I were hit by a bus or struck by a falling tree limb. Ultimately I wanted to die, but I didn’t want to take responsibility for the act.

Since then, I’ve gotten on some new medications that are working wonders. Say what you will about the pharmaceutical industry, but as a guy with a potentially paralyzing mental illness, I can declare with authority that some of what they produce actually works and is doing some good in the world.

In my case, they’ve cleared up my thinking, made me 5x more productive, and inspired me to speak up for myself and my work—with confidence—for the first time in my life.

So allow me, if you will, to “sound my barbaric yawp[s] over the roofs of the world,” to “celebrate myself,” as Walt Whitman also put it—to share some of my accomplishments and to declare myself to the universe as a unique creation, never before seen or to be seen again when I shuffle off this mortal coil:

I am a very good writer, and I believe I have the capacity to become a great one. My idols, the writers to whose level I aspire, are the best of the best: Chekhov, Tolstoy, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, White, Cain, Chandler, Cheever, Carver, Nabokov, Keillor and Boyle.

I have written millions of words. Millions. First as a philosophy student, then as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer. Later as a technical writer and speechwriter. Recently as a playwright. And forever as a storyteller. In published and unpublished novels and stories, not to mention 20 years of journal writing, I conservatively estimate I’ve written 5 million words.

In the past 18 months, I have written 25 stories and at least a dozen humorous sketches, all of which have been rejected (so far) by mainstream publications. Of these works, by my excruciatingly high standards I would say a dozen are very good and 6–8 are great pieces of work. I’m not giving up on any of them, but especially not the great ones. I’m confident that some editor out there is going to “get” them and want to publish the work. I’m confident that before I die I will write one solid collection of short stories, and I’m also confident that if I continue to write my very best, I might, just might, pen one perfect short story—one “The Lady with the Dog.”

You have to admit, you admire my brazenness and consistency.

I have written 2 exceptional mystery/PI novels—A Real Piece of Work and The Rich Are Different—that I believe have the potential to become modern classics in the genre. They are as well-written and well-told stories as any being published by mainstream publishers today. And I have drafts and outlines of 4 more. One book, you got dick; three, four, five books, you got yourself a series.

I am not a writer who can be pigeonholed, even if, for years, I kept trying to do it to myself. I can do it all—and well—and I refuse to make apologies for it anymore.

I am proud that I have learned to write almost entirely on my own—by writing daily and reading deeply about the subject.

I write every day, and have written every day—at least a page—for 20 years. It’s how I process the world. The world doesn’t make sense to me until I write it down. Writing gives me clarity, and I try to give back to the world some of the clarity it gives me.

 

Screw taking it easy.

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

 

 

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Burning Your Ships

A while back, I got in an online argument with another writer.

He was proffering financial advice to writers, in effect saying this: “I made $164,000 last year as a writer, but I’m the exception, so whatever you’re doing now to earn a living, don’t quit your day job.”

The originality of his message blew me away. I’d never heard such a thing before! “Don’t quit your day job.” So simple, so pithy, so elegant! I repeated it to myself over and over so I wouldn’t forget it. Whenever I encountered fellow writers, whether they were bestselling authors, bloggers or Starbucks poets, I said to them, “Don’t quit your day job.” They all frowned and shoved me away (I’m talking to you, Stephen King).

A mere sample of $164K Guy's writing income
A mere sample of $164K Guy’s writing income

Seriously, I did none of those things. Instead, because $164,000 Guy’s draconian pronouncement was so antithetical to my approach to Life and my writing, in the interest of fostering lively debate on this issue, I posted a respectful critique of his position, thinking he’d appreciate one of his readers taking the time to do this.

BIG MISTAKE. Turns out, $164,000 Guy was more interested in being RIGHT than he was in finding the truth (a shocker, I know), and immediately countered with a half-assed response, which I won’t dignify here. Bottom line: I decided that instead of wasting my time on a pointless debate, I was just going to keep writing. It’s like Hemingway said in an interview late in his writing career:

 

When I was a young writer, the debate was this: ‘altogether’ or ‘all together’—should it be one word or two? How’d that turn out anyway?

 

Interesting thing about the writing world: it’s full of clowns like $164,000 Guy—people who suggest that they’re the only ones who were born to write, that they somehow are the only ones graced by Providence with the requisite confidence, talent, patience and persistence to make a living as a writer.

Burning your ships: A classic motivator
Burning your ships: A classic motivator

Back in college, one of the best courses I took was “Explorers of the World,” taught by a historian who had been to the South Pole and the top of K2. And when she talked about the Spanish conquerer/ explorer Cortez, the woman lit up. Her favorite anecdote, and mine, was how, upon arriving in the New World, to motivate his men, Cortez burned his ships. You’ve probably heard this story, so I won’t belabor it here. But in case you don’t know it, here’s an excellent blog entry about it written by a 3-time world wrestling champion.

I came to love this principle of “burning your ships,” and I’ve applied it liberally in all of my endeavors, including writing. For 15 years after college I held day jobs as a high school history teacher, technology manager in financial services, web content editor and adjunct English professor. Eventually, however, I noticed that my day jobs stole too much of my time and sapped too much of my energy. I had to make a choice. I chose to be a full-time writer. I make between $75 and $100 per hour as a scriptwriter and speechwriter for corporations, but I would never have been able to make that kind of money if I’d stayed on the “safe” amateur track.

Going pro has also improved my own writing—my fiction. This isn’t to say that it’s always easy. On the contrary, there are many months when I just squeak by financially. But I gotta tell you, knowing that there are no ships waiting in the harbor to take me back, knowing that there’s no “fallback position,” has motivated me like you wouldn’t believe. There’s no going back. There’s only FORWARD. Forward or die. Now, I’m not saying that “burning your ships” should necessarily manifest itself as quitting your day job. Ultimately it’s about making a choice: a choice towards writing or something else. It’s a question of commitment.

My favorite part: "...the moment one commits oneself, then Providence moves too."
My favorite part: “…the moment one commits oneself, then Providence moves too.”

For years, I’ve kept only one quote above my desk. While the words have been alternately attributed to German writer/philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Scottish explorer W.H. Murray, exactly who said them isn’t very important. What is important is their message, and their message is clear and simple: COMMIT.

 

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

 

The other thing that rankled me about $164,000 Guy’s message of “don’t quit your day job” is the double standard with which it’s applied. People with “safe” day jobs (by the way, do these exist today?) are told not to quit them to be writers or artists, yet this same advice is never given to people who show promise as writers and artists and express an interest in, say, computer programming.

Implicit in this assumption is the idea that only creative endeavors carry the risk of failure. Not so. Talk to Mark Twain. Ask him how that opportunity with the Paige Compositor worked out for him.

You know what? Not so much for him with the business stuff.

Here’s a great line from John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist on this subject:

 

But anyone embarking on a career, or pursuing a calling, risks setback and failure. There are failed policemen, politicians, generals, interior decorators, engineers, bus drivers, editors, literary agents, businessmen, basket weavers.

 

To live—really live—means risking failure. Consider all that might not have been had some of our greatest creators stuck to the “safe” road:

  • What if Bill Gates hadn’t dropped out of Harvard to found Microsoft?
  • What if Einstein had remained a patent clerk?
  • What if Jane Austen hadn’t written her marvelous novels?
  • What if Sting had remained a schoolteacher?
  • What if Robert Frost had said to hell with poetry and instead spent all his time farming, like his forebears?

The other fallacy embedded in $164,000 Guy’s argument is the idea that, unlike every other profession, writing is one in which you can become great without total commitment. This is just ridiculous. There’s an old joke among writers. Maybe you’ve heard it. It goes like this:

 

A published novelist goes to a heart surgeon for some tests. During the exam, the doctor says, “Hey, could you give me the name of your publisher?”

“Sure, why?” replies the novelist.

“Well, I have a six-month sabbatical coming up, and I’d like to write a novel and see it published.”

The novelist thinks about this for a moment before replying.

“Sure, sure,” the novelist says, “I can do that. But do me a favor, will you?”

“Name it,” the doctor says.

“Well, I have six months free myself, and I’ve always wanted to perform open-heart surgery. Could you talk to your hospital and set something up for me?”

 

The moral is clear: Being a writer requires the same, if not more, commitment, self-discipline, education and training as any other profession, and to think that you can become a master writer without a complete commitment is self-deception of the highest order.

Here’s what one of my writing heroes, the brilliant David Mamet, had to say about the subject. The following quote is from one of his many excellent books of essays—True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor :

 

Those with “something to fall back on” invariably fall back on it. They intended to all along. That is why they provided themselves with it. But those with no alternative see the world differently. The old story has the mother say to the sea captain, “Take special care of my son, he cannot swim,” to which the captain responds, “Well, then, he’d better stay in the boat.”

 

Whether or not you burn your ships, and exactly what that means, is up to you. All I can say is, if you believe you’re holding yourself back with fallback positions, contingency plans or plain old ships, you gotta burn ’em. Light ’em up.

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