On Working Toward Mastery

I’m working on a new manuscript. The working title is WORDS OF CHRIST IN RED. I found that phrase on the spine of my childhood Bible, handed to me by my mother when I visited last year.

Ideas come from everywhere, and that phrase seized me. I wrote it down, and send the note to a friend, another person who would know the phrase. Our conversation sparked further ideas, and a brief note soon became an exciting idea for a story.

That was last year, and now I write it. The idea continues to grow as I write it. It’s unlike anything I’ve written professionally. It’s outside my comfort zone, and it’s challenging me, making me slow down, and consider my words, consider context, consider perspective.

A lot of times, when I start to slow down on a project, I get frustrated. I want to write a thing, moving through it like a bullet through flesh, exploding out the back, and moving onto the next thing. But not this project.

I am not frustrated. Every day challenges me, but I have found pleasure in the challenge. I am teetering on the edge of my ability, and with this project, I must build new bridges every day, to step out further from solid ground.

I have yet to fall.

Partially, I think the lack of frustration is because I have successfully solved every challenge faced me with the project. I have found the voices of the characters, I have found the tone, the darkness I’m willing to plumb. And I think to myself: Is this what it feels to be good at something? To approach mastery?

I rankle at the idea that an author should be modest. Maybe it’s my experience selling books at conventions and the like, but I don’t think any of my books are bad. I think they’re good, they’re great, and I think you should read them all.

But this–this might be the best thing I’ve ever written, if I can get what’s on the page to match what’s in my mind. It’s challenging, it’s transgressive, and it’s unrelentingly brutal. Not necessarily in violence, although there is a fair share of it. More thematically brutal. Perhaps the grimmest thing I’ve ever written.

It also might get me death threats.

All of this is just to ask: do artists know when they’re on the verge of a masterpiece? On the piece that might define them? Because everything I’ve written excites me to a certain point, but I’ve never felt this way before.

I work on it, and it grows, and morphs, as I uncover more of it, something I also typically don’t do on my projects. Every part of me is telling me this is special.

Perhaps that is also why I write this. I feel that burden.

I must make it special.

The world is burning, but at least a babyface is champion.

I’ve never been more invested in a babyface chasing a title more than Hangman Adam Page’s two year long trek to being the world champion in AEW. The anxious millennial cowboy represented so much of my own insecurities and struggles as he faced imposter syndrome, as he lost friends, but then gained and trusted new ones. And after two years of ups and downs, of trials and tribulations, Hangman finally unseated Kenny Omega and became the world champion.

But there’s been been some dissent already in his first few months as champion, among certain fans.

They think that Hangman was better chasing the title.

That his reign is kind of boring.

That his feuds haven’t had enough heat.

That Bryan Danielson should be champ. Or CM Punk. Or Adam Cole.

They say, sure, all of his defenses have been good so far. Even great. But the MJF/Punk feud is overshadowing it. Hangman hasn’t had the hottest match on any card he’s been on. The champion should be carrying the company, both with their matches and their story.

I disagree.

First, I don’t think the title and title feuds need to always be the hottest drawing angle. It is and should be a pivot point for any wrestling company, but it will always be a part of a greater whole.

Second, I think Hangman is going to have a long title reign, and it is really only beginning. He’s put on great matches every time, each one challenging him in different ways in the ring. And I suspect Hangman is going to go through some rough times as champion soon enough.

Those are rational reasons he should remain champion (rational as defending any artistic choices can be).

But honestly, when I hear someone say it’s time for Hangman to lose his title, my gut reaction isn’t any of those reasons.

My reaction is that I need Hangman to be the World Champion.

Every day, we are all bombarded with bad news. War. Climate change catastrophe. Political horror. Every day the news spigot pours out poison and we all get a taste.

It’s nearly impossible to stay connected and not feel downtrodden and beat up.

And as much as I love Kenny Omega, and loved his championship run, he was a heel. A maniacal heel, a belt collector, power obsessed and willing to do anything to keep his titles.

Hangman dethroning him, and becoming the champion, a babyface fighting champion, who so concisely represents me and my beliefs, feels so right.

It gives me hope.

It makes me believe that good can win.

That if someone does their best, and improves themselves, and becomes a better person, that they can achieve their goals.

That somehow, someway, a good guy can lariat his way to a better world.

And I know, rationally, that whoever the champion of a wrestling company is at any given time doesn’t really matter, and doesn’t really affect the greater world. It won’t reverse climate change, and it won’t end war.

But that’s the beauty of pro wrestling. It’s about the power of illusion. And as long as a babyface is champion, maybe we can find a way to a better world.

Moving On

35,000 words.

A significant chunk.

That doesn’t count development time. Outlining, character development.

I’ve been working on a story for about a month, give or take. The idea was built on a snake handling church in rural Mississippi, with a reporter/podcaster coming into town to investigate a disappearance of the church’s pastor. He’d get embroiled in the culture, fall in with the church, and there’d be a lot of blood and holy terror along the way.

Well, I’m 35,000 words in, and everything is falling apart.

Writing a novel is like driving a car. You don’t need the whole road to keep going. You don’t even need a single lane. There can be gaps in the pavement, and potholes, and problems with the road, and you can still arrive at your destination. You can finish your trip. You can finish the rough draft, and then come back, and patch in the holes in revisions, and when someone sees the finished product, they don’t even see the patches.

But I came to the point in this novel where I saw the road ahead, and there are mammoth gaps ahead, that no car could cross.

Now, I could fill in the gaps now, and finish the novel, but even then, I’m not sure those gaps would be invisible to the reader. I think they would see them. Which is more rewriting, more time. Time I don’t have as an indie writer.

So, my choices:

A – finish it anyway, and worry about it next year, when I revise it before publishing

B – put it in the drawer unfinished, and move onto a new idea, that will be easier to finish before the holidays

I thought about it, and I went with B. It’s a harder decision still, because that means I almost certainly won’t get two more manuscripts written this year. Not unless I turn on the afterburners and finish one of them in like a week (which I cannot count on).

But ultimately, I’m trusting my instincts. I’m not some young pup. I’ve been doing this for years now. And my gut tells me this is the right move.

It’s not the first time I’ve had to do this, but it’s been a while, and I had forgotten the pain of having to abandon a project. But killing your darlings is not just advice for the page.


Trying to clear my head here. There are hornets inside, and I can’t focus on writing today. It’s still early, though, and I have a lot of time today still. I’ll get a chapter done, and soon it will be all downhill.

I have a lot to get done over the next few days, and that is probably the source of my inattention. Podcasts to record, and Christmas to prepare for. But all those things will be done with time, and this needs to be done first. It’s the only way I can work.

Every manuscript is a perilous thing. Until it is done, there is always the threat that it won’t be done. That it will fizzle out, that your idea will turn out to be bad, or incomplete, or not enough.

There’s a certain threshold I cross with every novel, where I can start to relax, and realize that this story is long enough, that it has enough to meat to be a novel. Even after story beats and outlining, I’m never sure there’s enough until it’s written. Because that’s where the novel is, in the writing, not the planning. The planning is important, but the novel doesn’t exist until the writing is there, and eggs and baskets and all that. If the writing doesn’t exist, the novel doesn’t exist.

I’ve crossed that threshold here, but my brain is on fire at the end of a week, and I desperately want to sit down and play Cyberpunk and disappear into a different world.

But I have a lot of work that needs to get done.

I’m really just rambling at this point. That maybe is the point. The rambling. I’ll unleash my fingers onto the chapter I’m working on, and let them ramble there.

The Well

I’m writing this in mid-November. In ten days, I will be self-publishing my sixth novel, Splatterfest. I published Conquest, my first novel, in March of 2019. That’s six novels in two years.

Ten days ago, I had my oldest cat put to sleep after a sudden cancer diagnosis.

Nine days ago, the US held the presidential election. Three days afterward, all major news networks called the election for Joe Biden. Our current President hasn’t conceded yet, most likely won’t, and is currently threatening our democracy.

In two years, I’ve written ten novels. Most of them will be released at some point. Some need extensive work. One or two will never be published.

I’m working on another manuscript. Rising Tide is the working title. I expect it to change. I’ve outlined it, and it’s ready to be written. I’ve written two chapters so far, in two days. This is the third day, and I’m having trouble.

Why am I having trouble? What are the possible reasons?

Anxiety about the state of my country? Certainly possible, but it has eased over the past couple days.

Grief over the loss of my cat? Also possible. I miss her dearly.

Normal, plain-jane self doubt? Quite possible. This is a constant companion. The question if this endeavor I’ve embarked on is worth it at all. That no matter how many novels I publish, no matter how hard I work, how much I plan, it won’t matter. That the path to even modest success is too difficult.

Has the constant onslaught of fear and anxiety in 2020 overwhelmed me? I know it’s had some effect. Writing horror can be difficult mentally, and being exposed to it in real life has certainly lessened my appetite for writing it.

Or has the well run dry? Is the place where all my words come from empty?

I have written more in the last two years than I have in my entire life put together. And that doesn’t even count all the editing, proofreading, and just regular thinking I’ve done on top of putting words on paper.

Let me say this. I don’t believe in magic, and I don’t believe in writer’s block, at least not in the classic sense. There are periods where I find writing difficult, or even impossible, but the block is not some mystical force. There is typically a concrete reason why I’m struggling, and it is never reliably the same reason. Any of the answers above could be the right one for today.

The real answer, for today, is a little of everything. If I drill down, this chapter is introducing the antagonist, a thoroughly unlikable man who wields power over a small town, and is going to torment my protagonist just for the fun of it. He’s loud, he’s brash, and he’s a member of a death cult, and today, I don’t think I want to be in that headspace. Want may not even enter into the equation. I simply can’t be in that headspace today.

But I don’t write in a vacuum. No one does anything in a vacuum. And I need to keep that in mind.

But the well hasn’t run dry. It never will.

Tomorrow I will write the chapter, and I’ll finish the damn manuscript this month.

Writing Log 5/18/20

Working on Death Rattle today. Vampire story with vampires as conquering capitalists. Protagonist is a crotchety old cuss, who doesn’t want to sell out to the bloodsuckers.

I’ve been mulling the story over for a while now, and in my mind, the protagonist has always been a Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino type guy to me. An old nasty bastard that won’t cede ground when he knows he’s right. And I had penciled in somewhere that maybe he’s still grieving over his dead wife. The story will focus a lot on death…the town he lives in is itself dying, and obviously vampires are immortal, and want to keep the town alive, etc.

But I don’t like going to the dead wife well too often, even if she died of old age. So my mind ran through the options.

“He’s never been married. He’s just too much of a bastard for anyone to grow attached to.”

“Maybe he’s divorced for that very reason.”

But finally, I had the idea of him being gay, and closeted. And he’s still mourning the loss of his best friend and lover, who had been married through most of his life to a woman, with a son.

His sexuality won’t be an important part of the story, which is mostly about vampires. Which, to me, is an even bigger reason to make him gay. I always try to write more diverse characters when possible, and frankly, him being gay is just more interesting. Clint Eastwood already exists. Gay Clint Eastwood is much more rare. A gay tough bastard is just cooler.

But the internal dialogue I had is why I’m writing all this down. Because the writer part of me went, “yes, do that, that’s a good idea.” But the business man in me told me “But will it help you sell books?” and the critic in me told me “Using the dead gay lover trope is just as hackneyed as the dead wife”.

The business man in me is a loud voice, and he gets louder every day. He tells me to write stories that are easily marketable. He tells me to make characters that are easily recognizable. Readers may say that they want things that are new and different, but they don’t. They want things they can recognize, and regular, hetero, mourning his dead wife Clint Eastwood is recognizable.

But I firmly believe that writing a duller version of a story will bleed through to the quality of the final work, and in the end, quality is king. I want to write something I’d want to read. And if you put the two versions next to each other, I’m picking grizzled gay Clint Eastwood as my protagonist, one hundred percent of the time.

The other voice is harder to dispel. Because I’m fully conscious of the trope of the unhappy ending for queer characters. Of the “tragic” nature of so many stories featuring gay characters. And I don’t want to perpetuate that, at least not without good reason. And this is a horror story. People will bleed, and suffer, and die.

So what do I do? Do I include the character because I think it’s more interesting, and will make a better story? And in the process of trying to be more diverse, perpetuate other tropes about queer characters, even if I do my best to make them rich, and nuanced, and awesome?

It’s muddy water, and it’s hard to navigate.

When I’m in doubt, I go back to the first question: What makes the best story?

I know which one I’d rather read. Which one would you?

What is this?

In brief, this is a place for me to write things so I don’t make podcasts about them. I co-host, produce, and edit two podcasts already, three episodes a week in total. I do not have the time to handle another one, but yet I have feelings and thoughts about things. They will be put here.