The Write Room Cafe

The Write Room Cafe
Kevin Lynn Helmick

Sunday, August 26, 2012

GET IT DONE On Writing and Publishing


I got this, thing about advice or opinion columns, because…well, they’re mostly bullshit. So as you might be wondering. ‘What are you doing then, ain’t this one of those?’ No it isn’t, not really. It’s more about getting on, getting it done, they way I see it anyway. Doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong or the only way.

Writing advice columns usually come from some blowhard you’ve never even heard of, like me. I mean, ya rarely read advice from best selling writers, hardly ever, and when you do its like, ten simple rules or something like that and they’re outta there, back to doing what they do, part of which of course involves ignoring most of those rules.

I could have, maybe should have, titled this piece, “What I Don’t Know.” But I was worried that might turn into some sort of all consuming black hole to which there would be no escape and just run on and on forever. Or, “What I think.” But that would imply that somebody gave a shit about what I think or that it mattered and I don’t wanna give that impression. So I’m just writing a little article on what I’ve learned along the way in this little writer’s career project, and what I believe so far.

So you think you can write a book? That’s cool. You wanna live forever, literally speaking, be rich and famous and adored by millions for the brilliant mother fucker you are? Great. Hey, let’s be honest, those are all worthy and honorable goals. Not realistic but still a good jumping off point, and who gives a shit about realistic. No realist has ever done anything really all that cool anyway so don’t worry about that. It’s the dreamers, when put into action, who change the world Maybe this article will help you with some of those delusions of grandeur though. Maybe not.

But maybe you don’t have a degree in Creative Writing, English Lit, or not even that all valuable MFA, right. Nothing? That’s alright, neither do I and probably all for the better because the writer in you hasn’t been built by somebody else. You’re not bogged down with formulas, methods, styles, usages and all the other shit they tell you you must or must not do. Hey, who knows, you might even have talent that you’re not aware of, and everybody knows talent blows that other stuff all to hell anyway, every time, sorry, it just does.

You are free. Free and enjoy it while you can, all that shit can get in your way later.

I’d been writing for most all of my adult life, some of it good, some of it bad. You’re gonna have that too. I stopped for about a decade or a little more and when I took it up again, I did so with sole intention of publishing a collection of selected stories and poems I call, The Lost Creek Journal. Well I did that but discovery took hold. I wanted to write a novel then, a book. I wanted to write a goddamn “Great American Novel.” Pretty lofty, huh? Well you have to shoot for something.

 So I started in and had no idea what it was about, what was going to happen, how it was going to end, nothing. Just started writing and let the power that be, be. That was Clovis Point, and it quickly became apparent that it felt as natural as breathing. It also became apparent that I seriously needed to brush up on my basic English, punctuation, spelling and usages. Either way it went along fine and is a good book in my opinion, not bad for a first effort. I polished the hell out of it for editors and submissions, or at least thought I did. You have to remember, my first book, and relying heavily on, ‘that’s the editor’s job, I’m a writer, an artist, I don’t need to do that.’ Ok, that’s very stupid. Don’t do that. Got it? You need to double space that bitch, triple if need be and go over and over and over it, word by word, line by line until your brain is ready to explode and you’re ready to puke at the sight of semi colon, and you’re still gonna miss a bunch a stuff. You are.

I’m gonna jump ahead here; rejections. You’re gonna get em, it’s gonna happen. And if you doing your job submitting, you’re gonna get a lot of em but no reasons to freak or stop writing. Deal with it, part of the deal. It’s not the end of the world and it doesn’t mean you suck. Well, it might, but probably not.

 So there I was sinking in rejections and beginning my second book, Sebastian Cross, because along with that discovery I was speaking of came the fact that I had more I wanted to say. And that’s what writers do when they finish a book, they write another. Also a kinda lunk headed determination that they weren’t getting rid of me that easy had set in. I was not going away. Cross is a damn good book and one I’m proud of. A big undertaking for me too, almost a 150.000 words and it came fast and furious and my creative cylinders were all firing, engine redlined and I was really in the story, like walking around in there and knowing the characters, settings and everything, like reporting or taking dictation. It was a very cool experience that I really haven’t felt before or since. But that’s ok, I don’t think you really need to be that intimate with the story every time.

And in hind sight, as a writer I had not developed enough for book like this, a complex, conceptual epic on art, culture and all the shit that’s wrong with the world. But man it felt right and I wonder sometimes if I’d written it ten or twenty years from now, what it could have been. But I didn’t, so moving on. I got rejections on Sebastian Cross. I got interest too, wow, nice, some compliments and yeah, even a couple offers for full manuscripts. Things are getting exciting. Yeah?

No, no, slow down, keep in check, in the end, just teasers and more rejections. Fuck rejection. It’s obvious when they come so fast that they’re not even reading it and that’s mostly my fault for not polishing it up enough, not targeting the right publishers, and a variety of other reasons of professionalism. They want stuff perfect. Get that through your head. Perfect. Never mind their lack of spelling and grammar in their rejections, your submission had better be ready for print. That’s all my fault. The part that’s not is, I don’t know any publishers, editors, nobody’s ever heard of me and I have no degrees, qualifications, no…resume, for lack of a better word. I have nothing to market, or bring to the table. So who the hell would want to invest their time and money in me? Well you know the answer to that.

I should talk real quick on literary agents. I don’t spend a lot time submitting to agents, because most of the really good agents are not taking submissions. A lot writers starting out will disagree with me on this. They say things like, “they’re the gate keepers, only they can get you a great book deal,” and these things are true, somewhat. But like I said, the good ones are busy with marketable writers, proven writers. A very small percent of debut books get through that gate. It does happen but lightning strikes wherever it pleases.

I hear things like, “I finally have an agent and he or she loves my book, my voice, my writing. They get it.” And hey, that’s great, wonderful, but first and for most, for me anyway is, can they sell the fucker? Do they have the muscle, the connections? Are they “closers” or clowns, just lovers of the written word? We’ve all seen shitty movies, read awful books off the bestseller list. Why? Because some bad ass agent knew their job, somebody that could sell tobacco stock to the American Cancer Society and sleep like a baby at night, that’s why. That’s the agent for me. That’s the one I want. Not the one who “loves my voice.” Although that would be plus too, if nothing else but for my own ego.

I’m one who believes you get what you play for. You have to earn an agent, unless you have an uncle, or a guy who knows a guy or something like that.

 I don’t need an agent, yet. But I do submit to about ten of the biggies.

Okay, that wasn’t real quick, but that’s how I feel about new writers seeking agents. Writing’s like any other business, you have to build it from the ground up and a shitty agent could do you more harm than good. Stephen King never had an agent until he amassed well over a million in sales, mostly for the publisher, but hey we all gotta learn our lessons, even Stevie boy. Elmore Leonard says, just write, build a body of solid work and sooner or later and agent will come knocking. He’s been around the block a time or two. So as you’ve probably guessed, I don’t worry about agents too much.

Enough about that.

Where was I? Oh yeah, well I self published Clovis Point and Sebastian Cross. I did reject a couple of shit offers on Cross, but anyway we’re off and running, people are buying the books, very few, but they’re also sharing and talking and I’m building a readership I guess. People I don’t know, from around the globe are digging the word, the stuff. I’m doing some interviews, guest blogs, shit like that. The readers love it , they don’t care who publishes it… Ah…wait, but the industry does. You know, the NY Times, those so called professional book reviewers, book stores, and they’re getting a lot better about it. But other writers, some anyway, still act as if you have a disease because you self published. Even though some of the best are doing it and have for centuries. Some think It surely must be shit if nobody will publish it, and that can be true but it can also be just plain bullshit. It’s a little like throwing out the baby with bath water. And fuck them anyway, I’m a writer, I write. It’s what I do. I don’t care what they think. I’m gonna get this book to whoever wants to read it, bottom line.


 I begin and finish my third novel, Heartland Gothic with the full intention of writing something as mainstream and friendly as I possibly can. I’m gonna play the game. The masses need spoon fed? Fine. But wait, something happens. That realism shit I was talking about, in form of self realism sinks into the story. It’s not main stream. It’s not friendly. In fact it’s harsh and gritty and spiteful and I realize I was trying to be something I’m not and my “muse” or whatever you call it didn’t like that and it showed. I went with it anyway, the story, it took my hand and said, ‘this is the way we’re going.’ And as any writer knows, the story is always right.

Heartland Gothic.

I think my character and dialogue development had advanced a lot in three or four years since the first book. I could see and feel it, and although I still didn’t feel it was my best work, and here comes some of that, what I don’t know shit. I got several offers, more than ever. That’s not a lot, but still, makes a guy feel good, like he’s on to something. I didn’t know that these characters and their struggles in Heartland Gothic were representing attributes that were so relatable, identifiable to so many people. I chose and took one of those offers and regretted it from the get go, didn’t do enough homework on the publisher and things started going left instead of right. Editing was a mess, release dates came and went, promised marketing was nonexistent. I cut and bailed, took my book with me and published it myself, again. Some would even called that a “causality,” but it wasn’t, not at all, and I’m glad I did. So far it’s out sold all my other books and pushed the sales of those previous titles up a bit, which is good. Right? Yeah, it is. I’ve gotten some just amazing heartfelt comments from readers of all walks of life, and if I haven’t thanked those people I’m doing it now. Thanks, really, happy to oblige and thrilled that you found something there that spoke to your heart, soul or inner child or whatever. Man, that’s what my favorite books do for me and that’s great. That’s the whole fucking point right there. Thanks. Thank you.

Fast forward, not that fast, not that far, late winter, early spring, 2012, just a few months after Heartland Gothic’s release. It occurred to me that some of my favorite books were less than a hundred pages; heavy little gems that said a lot in short, simple, easy to read prose where the real story marinated in the mind and soul as a massive life changing epic in a hundred or less pages. I wanted that. I wanted one of those.

Driving Alone, the concept, title, anyway came to me from something said on a TV show describing a certain kind of instrumental rock music. But having driven alone, many miles, many years, I instantly got what they were describing and I took it and ran. I mean what better title for a “think book” than that? Of course the stories never end up with what you first envisioned, and that’s fine. And I got grimaces and winces from other writers too when I was finish and told them, yeah, only 27000 words, three characters in the whole thing.

“27, oh man, that’ll be tough sell,” they said.“Only three charcters?”

“Yep, two more than intended, but yeah, 3, two really because ones just clerk in a short scene.”

“Right. Good luck with that.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

Driving Alone is a modernist southern gothic tale of 29 year old fuck up who has pushed his luck a little to far and is forced to get outta dodge. He soon realizes that the world out there is very lonely place for hometown anti heroes and men that are the use to crutches of attention and familiar surroundings. He also unknowingly has a debt pay, one that he can’t run away from and beautiful mysterious hitchhiker appears to remind, judge and collect. The devil must always have his due.

I finished it in about three months and figured it would not be of the word count attractive to a publisher, but I submitted it around anyway, I liked it, and so did some publishers, press’s, and I got me some offers, yes, I did. Some I wasn’t thrilled about, some I was, so I corresponded and took note of whose books were doing what and who was getting back to me and who was blowing me off for days and weeks. I had been keeping an eye on Blank Slate Press for a few months after I submitted to them. I had heard good things about them and their books were getting attention which means, for a small press, they we’re good at what they do, and professional. They weren’t just fucking around collecting change from ebooks and signing every author that came their way. They were building a reputation on quality, and I liked that.

The night they brought home the Bill Fisher Award for best first novel, Fred Venturini’s The Samaritan, was the same night they emailed me from NYC saying that they wanted Driving Alone.

I didn’t have to think about it very long, but I pretended too for a couple days anyway.

I signed the contract a couple a months ago; it’s in the final stages of editing and formatting, reviewed a couple of cover designs last night. And although I’m kinda used to disappointment, I’m feeling pretty good about it all, but keeping expectations low. It has been a little tough getting used to turning some control over. I’ll admit that. I’ve gotten so use to calling the shots on my own work that it’s hard for me to trust or keep from voicing what I think is important about the book, the characters, the readers and so on. Nobody knows the book better than I do at this stage is how I feel. That may or may not be true. Time will tell on that. Later down the road, like my previous books and projects, I probably won’t even recognize it as mine. And some point you just can’t own it all to yourself. It’ll be a living breathing thing of its own. It’ll belong to all of you in one way or another, as it should.

I’ve gotta a couple short stories coming out soon and I’m working on new book, The Rain King. Another fitting title I think.

So we’ll chat again soon, have a good one, and if you’re a writer expecting advice, sorry, don’t go that. I have none, other than keep writing the way you want to, and write often and for god sakes just get it out there in the best shape you can, because all that matters in the end is the story, and the reader. None of that other who’s who bullshit matters at all. Follow your heart. Listen to that little voice, the nagging one, that’s what you should do, so go do it. Get it done. Unless that little voice is telling you to kill your family, neighbor, or boss. Probably shouldn’t do that.
My long term goal is creating a bestseller (I can hear you, don't laugh) and film adaptaion of one or more of my stories.
But until then

Look for Driving Alone, coming out around November 2012 from Blank Slate Press.