Thursday, June 20, 2013

So Why Pulp? Life’s Little Wake Up Calls

This has been a tough spring for me. Actually the things that are interfering with my writing life started late in the winter. After somewhat financially over-extending ourselves to put in two furnaces and then buying an old four wheel drive dump truck with a plow that was supposed to keep the driveway clear, we had a 30” snow and then a series of equipment failures that wound up costing more than expected. My Pulp Ark funds got dipped into, and though the idea was to replace them, we could never quite catch up again. Then I got sick with something no one could quite identify, but sure was making me miserable. The copays on the extensive medical testing just about wiped out whatever spare cash we were able to cobble together. I was feeling pretty punky anyway, and hearing so many big and scary possibilities like cancer, heart attack, pulmonary embolism, and stroke, I decided traveling wasn’t a very good idea. So I reluctantly canceled the trip.

 I have been poked and prodded, tested and scanned, with no definitive results. When all was said and done, whatever it was cleared up on its own. The verdict was, some sort of a low level and lingering virus, likely more of a problem due to stress from not getting enough sleep and hunching over a keyboard most of the day. Not much showed up in the tests, but there were some physical symptoms like swollen glands and shortness of breath that could be observed while they lasted. There was one minor anomaly in the blood work, and the worst thing that showed up in the CT scan was my arthritic spine. The prescription was double the fish oil daily and get away from the blasted computer for a few hours to get up and get moving.

Easier said than done on the second part, when you consider how much writing and editing I have been doing the last three years. I’ve had to rearrange my entire day to allow for those hours away from the keyboard, and that meant cutting out a lot of the online time I was using for self promotion. Still, it sure beats feeling wobbly and tired most of the day after laying awake in discomfort half the night.

Those were my first two wake up calls of the season. The next one came on so subtly, I almost missed the warning signs. My mother turned 79 this year, and for someone her age, her health has been fairly good, with just a couple medications to correct blood pressure and cholesterol. She is a tiny little thing, spry and active, generally in good spirits, and looking forward to seeing a new great grandson late this summer. However, her memory is starting to deteriorate to the point where she can’t easily recall her own birth date, and will tell you the same thing she just said ten minutes before. She sometimes either forgets to eat, or forgot that she did eat, and consequently has trouble keeping her weight above 105 lbs. In a quiet room, without any conversation, she will stare blankly ahead, and it sometimes takes several calls or a tap on the shoulder to get her attention. On the phone or in a lively conversation, she is often vague and doesn’t follow what’s being said. It seems to come and go, but both family and medical providers have noted it. So we’re starting those dreaded talks about ongoing care, medical intervention vs. letting Nature take its course, and who gets to make critical decisions when she won’t be able to.

My mother doesn’t think she has a memory problem, but I know her well enough to understand that she does. Right now, she lives with my boys in the house they grew up in and the one where she came to restart her life after my dad’s sudden death almost 30 years ago. I have her here with me one to four times a week for a good chunk of the day. I call it mommy-sitting, and that sounds flippant, but that’s what it is. We don’t leave her unsupervised anymore because we’re afraid she will do something she shouldn’t and get hurt, and she has fears about being alone too long. While she is with me, I make sure she eats well, has someone to talk to, and something interesting to do or watch in my house and yard. My boys and daughter-in-law get a much-needed break from watching over her. It’s win-win for everyone.

Now what has all this got to do with writing? Well with everything going on, writing and editing has gotten harder for me. Even when I am alone and I sit down with the intention of getting some work done, I find it hard to concentrate. Most things I can put out of my mind long enough to get some work done, but this situation with my mother is eating at me. I treasure every moment we have left, and dread the inevitable downhill slide ahead. I can’t just let it go, and the agitation makes me irritable and antsy.

These days I spend a lot of time outdoors, in the yard and garden, doing physical labor that leaves me dog tired and able to sleep. Otherwise I’d be pacing the floor half the night, wondering how I’m going to make things work for everyone and wind up worn to a frazzle the next day. I’m also spending more time with family, because we make an impromptu celebration out of anything. I squeeze in writing whenever I can; on inclement days, or when it’s ridiculously hot out. It takes a lot of effort right now just to sit down at the PC and tune out the little voices in my head that whisper of grief and my own mortality, at least long enough to focus on what I’m supposed to be doing. So I work in small increments compared to the long hours I had been putting in.

I’ve been through rough periods like this before and I’ve learned how to cope with them. As much as I urge everyone to write no matter what’s going on, I’m realistic enough to know that there are times you just can’t force the words out. If you make writing burdensome, it becomes an exercise in frustration that leaves you dreading the next session. Consequently I’ve scaled back my writing obligations wherever I can, though I have made some commitments I don’t want to back out of and I do have to just buckle down and get to them.

Along the way, I’ve given myself some slack—and it’s paying off. While I might not be getting much actual writing done, the odd ideas are still coming regularly, and I’ve been eagerly jotting them down. In the past, whenever life threw me a few too many curve balls, I learned to use whatever time I could spare to do some actual writing. Often the stories didn’t get much past a few paragraphs or novel ideas exceed several pages. That at least keeps the mindset going that writing is an important and necessary part of my day. I still manage to do some writing just about every day, even if it’s just a couple scribbled sentences in a note to myself.

Then there is the incentive thing, or what I call ‘the carrot that drives the horse’. I want to be able to support myself on my writing. Right now, that just isn’t happening. If it was, I’d likely be far more enthusiastic and dedicated to getting my behind in the chair and fingers on the keyboard. I have books and stories out there to promote, and I should be doing more of that, but I am just plain burned out with beating the drum for myself. I know I need to reach a wider audience than I have been in our insular little New Pulp community, because I’ve about saturated the existing market, and I’m not seeing an uptick in sales. Clearly something has to be done differently to find those eager new readers, because I can see that the kind of books I write are popular. The dark side of my mind wonders if it’s just because I’m not as good as those big name authors who have their complex novels turned into HBO series. The practical side of my nature insists that I’m laboring down here in obscurity, where even the polished diamonds don’t shine as brightly.

That’s been the most niggling concern on my mind lately when it comes to promoting what I do: Just how do I reach new audiences? I am never going to be content writing simply for the joy of it. Damn it; I want what I work so hard at to be read! It’s become clear to me that if I’m going to take all this time away from other things I should or could be doing and write, then I want to see some measurable results. That would go a long way toward breaking through that grim and murky feeling that I should chuck it all and spend the time with my family, cooking, or getting my house cleaned. Writing is a passion, but how much of it I do compared to how much time I devote to my mother before her memory is completely gone, or making sure I get out there and take care of the things I’ve planted, is a dynamic balance that I haven’t quite mastered in this brand new phase of life. As much as I love what I create at the keyboard, I can’t ignore the other important parts of my day. It will remain to be seen how things work themselves out.

In the meantime, I will write when I can, and whenever the spirit moves me. Never fear, I am nowhere near ready to give up, and neither should you. It may not be possible for most of us to support ourselves on our writing, but you still need to maintain a presence out there, and some sort of disciplined schedule for getting things done. I can’t stay up late at night like I used to. I can’t write when my mother is here and needs face time with me to keep her mind active. I can’t ignore family and give up other things that bring me peace, joy, and good health. To do all that would be crossing the line between enthusiasm and obsession. I need my writing time back, but tempered with wisdom, now that life has sent me a few little wake up calls.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Captain Midnight #0 Free Preview


Piloting a World War II dive-bomber, Captain Midnight—fighter pilot extraordinaire and expert inventor—hurtles out of a freak storm in the Bermuda Triangle and into the twenty-first century, where he’s in for more than one surprise as he enters the modern era! Collects the three stories from Dark Horse Presents #18–#20.
Joshua Williamson (Masks and MobstersVoodoo,Uncharted), Victor Ibáñez (Rat CatcherThe Spirit) and Pere Pérez (AquamanDetective Comics)!
Cover by Raymond Swanland!
Grab your decoder rings!

Dark Horse reimagines radio, television, and comics’
legendary hero in an all-new ongoing series!
“Dark Horse and writer Joshua Williamson are reaching a bit further back, pulling the titular Golden Age hero from his roots in World War II and post-war America into contemporary culture.”—Comic Book Resources

SO Why Pulp? Just Who Are We Writing For?

Saw a query online the other day from a writer wondering if an explicit sex scene should be included in a New Pulp tale. My gut reaction was; Sure, why not?—as long as it wasn’t gratuitous, didn’t detract from the plot, and gave the characters involved some sort of extra depth. Sex in a story is like any other human element you add; it either fits in seamlessly or it jumps up and down waving a NOTICE ME banner. I figured that was a no-brainer response, but I guess it’s not as simple as that, judging from some of the responses that came before and after mine.

I also read an email newsletter where one member asked if we’d ever written a scene so graphically violent and scary it was a bit disturbing. Yeah, I’ve done a few… So had a lot of others. All part of the game.

Talking about stuff like this is good because shared ideas and experiences help a writing community to grow close and sort of define itself. Now and then we all need some reassurance that what we’re doing is OK. At the time I got involved, it didn’t even dawn on me these topics might become as much of an in-depth exploration of styles as they did.

It became obvious as the discussion threads about the sex scene (there were two of them I know of) went on that there are two main camps of thought when it comes to what is OK to add to stories and what might be controversial: the overall readership pleasers and the mavericks who write from the gut. Not surprisingly, New Pulp seems to have more of the latter. I’m not going to take sides in this one, because I think both points of view are valid, depending on circumstances, and how things are handled. My own experiences tell me there’s no hard and fast rule for how far you can take an idea before it becomes uncomfortable to most people. Pulp has traditionally always been a pioneer in the edgier areas of fiction. It’s strictly a YMMV (Your Mileage Will Vary) in how violent, lurid, or kinky you can get and still sell well—let’s say about 50 shades of gray area worth.

That got me thinking though, where do I draw the lines?

In the past, I never gave too much thought to who I was writing for when I sat down to compose a tale, because I always wrote the kind of things I love to read. Most of what I enjoy reading or writing doesn’t have a lot of explicit anything, because I prefer a subtle approach, but I’ve been known to throw a shocker in now and then. My criteria in crafting a tale have always been to evoke an emotional response from the reader, because that keeps people turning pages. For me there’s a fine line between scenes that keep me reading because they are just so overwhelmingly riveting, and those that make me shut the cover and turn away in disgust. I have been told I have a dark side, based on some of the things I’ve written, and yet others might find my stuff too bland and long for something more radically avant-garde. Experience has taught me there’s an audience for everyone; it’s just a matter of finding those folks and then doing what you do best.

There are several deciding factors in what goes on every page I type. Am I happy with what I have here? Does it work for the story or do I need to push myself into more uncomfortable topic areas to make it better? What has the past response been? Where I used to just write to please myself, I now want to reach an audience, so my focus has changed. I have an eye on just who my readers will be as I am writing, because there is a certain level of appropriateness for every niche in the market. You don’t put certain scenes in a book being marketed for ‘all ages’ that can take place in one that is ‘adult only’ in content. I try and have a variety of offerings these days, so this is something I am consciously aware of as I write. Some publishers also prefer to keep their books on the PG 13 side, which means explicit language, sex, and gore have to be toned down. Don’t think that it makes for less of a story if you do decide to keep it mild rather than wild, because good writing will shine even when there’s nothing you wouldn’t share with your grandmother or read to your eight year old.

I hear arguments all the time that the readers shouldn’t dictate what we write. That’s something I can’t totally agree with, unless you’re just writing simply for the art of it. Readers are the people buying and recommending or panning what we write, and they’re a vital resource for that reason, if you ever plan to support yourself at least partially on your writing. Writing to a market was something the classic pulps did without remorse, churning out magazines filled with entertaining fare that was geared toward pleasing readers so that they’d come back for more. Ignoring what readers respond to because you need to do your own thing is going to cut down your sales over time.

While you will find like-minded individuals who will eat up every word you type, the majority of readers who become fans are going to balk if you suddenly change your style from, say, witty to gritty. I think this is where a lot of book ‘fails’ come from, because the writer has been inspired to do something totally different and the established fans are left wondering what the heck happened. Nobody likes to be stuck in a formulaic rut for decades, and we all want to stretch our wings and expand our offerings, but you do have to give a nod to the folks who built your readership. So yeah, go do something totally different, and then either sell it that way, or use a pen name. I make it plain when I put out something, who I believe the intended audience will be, so at least my publishers know from the get-go. I also ask who the target market is. There’s nothing wrong with writing to a projected readership; in fact it’s good business. I’m not a one-trick pony, and neither should you be, but I am sensitive to the fact that some people find hardcore violence and explicit sex in a book disagreeable and so I’m not going to ram that down their throats every chance I get. So do consider who will be reading something before you add or delete anything.

Where it gets hinky for me is in the very extreme frontiers of controversial topics. That’s where my inner censor goes to work overtime trying to sort out what I can comfortably write as opposed to what makes my skin crawl. Those of you who know me and have read some of my stuff would be shocked to see how much farther I can push it with splattering gore and the absolutely kinkiest pornographic scenes. Yeah, I’ve written porn on occasion, mainly to see how far I can stretch myself. It’s just not something I want to be known for, so for now it sits in files unread and unpublished—one of which I password protected so my kids wouldn’t find it by accident, and now some 20 years later I can’t recall what the password is! The one taboo I do have is writing anything that glorifies senseless violence and/or brutal sex as weapons used by the leading characters to dominate and subjugate others. That I am adamant about, because as pulp writer, I create heroes to be looked up to, even when they have feet of clay. The world we live in is full of hatred and intolerance taken to extremes by overly zealous people who have lost their humanity to some cause or other. When that occurs in one of my books, it happens for a reason, and I hold my heroic folks to a higher standard. They don’t rape women and burn babies just because the enemy did. That’s just me, but it’s how I write and I don’t feel the least bit constrained by it. Hate the bad dudes if you must, but aspire to be a better person than they ever will be.

So if you ask me, what you should or should not include in a story depends on how well you handle it and who will read it. Our pulp forebears had market censors to deal with that we don’t have to consider in this ‘anything goes’ age, but they got around them as much as possible. So don’t overly limit yourself, but do keep in mind, readers are a diverse group. Level with them from the get-go and you’ll never have to ask if this scene fits or if that one was uncomfortable. The folks who are best suited to enjoy your story will find it, and those who might not like a particular scene or three will at least be forewarned.