humor

Dumb things people say to horror writers at SF conventions

by Gary A. Braunbeck

I’ve been to a lot of science fiction conventions, and while there are always perfectly intelligent, pleasant, courteous, well-read people at such gatherings, you inevitably run into those skiffy fans who are missing a lot in the way of clue.

Here’s a list of things these folks have actually said to me at conventions, plus the responses I sometimes wished I’d given:

  1. Q: “You’re a horror writer?” *smirks* “So tell me a scary story.”
    A: There once was a writer who killed several innocent people in a hotel lobby because one person too many asked him to tell them something scary and he just snapped….
  2. Q: “What’s your name again? Hmm … never heard of you.”
    A: And what do you do for a living? … Really? You actually made a conscious decision to make that your life’s work? For the love of God, man, WHY?
  3. Q: “So you, like, write that Friday the 13th stuff, huh?”
    A: So you, like, have a reasonable dental deductible, right?
  4. Q: “Do you know Stephen King? What’s he really like?”
    A: So you, like, have a reasonable dental deductible, right?
  5. Q: “You write horror? Ew!”
    A: Phuck-u barada nikto.
  6. Q: “I can’t write, but I’ve got a great idea for a book; you can write it and we’ll split the money, okay?”
    A: Oh, MAY I? How long have I dreamed of this moment, when a selfless soul such as yourself would deem me worthy to WRITE SOMETHING FOR THEM while they sit on their ass and do nothing? How long have I prayed for yet ANOTHER person who isn’t me to make money off my efforts while I work 3 jobs, turn insomnia into an art form, and eat macaroni & cheese four times a week? BLESS YOU, SELFLESS ONE! BLESS YOU!
  7. Q: “Why are you openly weeping?”
    (Usually asked after forty-seven minutes of sitting at an autograph table where the only person to approach you is an overweight drunk from the NASCAR convention sharing the hotel that weekend asking for directions to the “sh*thouse”.)
    A: I want my mommy; my mommy reads all my books.
  8. Q: “Oh, I don’t read books.”
    A: Then WHAT are you doing here? Oh, you’re a hooker? Here’s a fifty — there’s a guy over at the autograph table who’s openly weeping; go cheer him up, would you?

On Book Advances

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Many dim moons ago, when Reagan had just taken possession of the White House and I’d taken possession of my 20s, I decided on fiction writing as a career, unaware at the time that my decision was due to undiagnosed brain damage, the extent of which is still being determined. I was cranking out bad short stories and even worse novels on a magnificent (and if used as a weapon, potentially deadly) Olympus manual typewriter. Its loud, metallic clickitty-clack-clack became the underscore of my Grand Opera of the Imagination, a march, a rally cry, a battle hymn, always singing out You can do it! You can do it!

Yes, we all recognize the above as being Inspirational Bullshit Designed to Make You Urp on Your Shoes. The truth is, that sound used to drive me crazy, because eventually it began to sound like the Failure Police were mocking me as they danced and sang before my eyes in a Kick-Line of Coming Calamity: You’re going nowhere/You’re doing nothing/No one will read you/You’ll die unread. Boogie-oogie-oogie. Sisyphus had nothing on me.

One of the things that used to keep me going was the thought that, if I kept at it and listened to the advice of pro writers whenever I could corner them, I would start to publish, then be paid, then be able to support myself on writing alone. Well, I did keep at it, I did listen to advice from the pros (especially a marvelously encouraging letter from Harlan Ellison to the 19-year-old moi), and I began to publish. My first short story appeared in a small press magazine when I was 22, and now–almost exactly 25 years later–I have somewhere around 200 published stories to my credit, as well as 10 novels, 10 short story collections, 1 non-fiction book, and 2 anthologies that I have co-edited. And there are nights when that chorus line from the Ninth Circle of Hell still puts on its little show, with a Sunday matinee thrown in for good measure. And I wonder why I’m on anti-depressants.

One thing that often appears to beginning writers much as the vision of the Holy Grail appeared to King Arthur is the concept of the Advance. Ah, so elusive she seems, waiting somewhere Out There in your future, wagging her finger seductively, lips moistened and eyes gleaming with yummy promise: I’m here for you, you’ll see. Some day, we’ll be together.

Cue soft focus, Writer embraces Seductress, Fade Out as echoing voices sing: You finally got here/Don’t need to punch the clock/But you remember/There’s still Writer’s Block!

Ahem. Yes, the last and deadliest phase of going from part-time to full-time writer, from would-be pro to flat-out slave of the muse: the advance.

As I write this, I have a stack of book contracts within easy reach. All have been signed by the proper parties, and all have been accompanied by advance checks. There’s just one little glitch in this portrait of the Writer’s dream Come True.

I haven’t written any of these books yet.

(Not entirely true; work has begun on all and is nearly finished on two; the point is, I’ve got until October to deliver all five. Boogie-oogie-oogie, cue the kick-line in the wings.)

That’s the part of the Pro Writer Fantasy sequence that never enters the picture when the young You imagines that provocative seductress beckoning to you from your future. Yes, it’s great to have someone hand you a stack of cash for something you haven’t written yet (it’s still one hell of a confidence booster), and when you’re younger it’s easy to think you’ll never, ever, under any circumstances, have trouble producing that book you’ve already taken money for, but somewhere in the theatrical wings of your subconscious Jung and Freud are rolling on the floor, howling with laughter as the Failure Police don their black fishnet stockings ala Dr. Frankenfurter and wait for their cue.

I once promised myself that I would never, ever accept money up front for something I haven’t written. As far as my books go, I’ve broken that promise every time, and so far I haven’t locked up, freaked out, melted down, climbed a tower with a rifle in my hands, or taken to reading John Grisham.

But ….

But there’s always the waiting chorus line in my head, kept in place by a stage manager who every so often calls: “Places for the Dance of Doom and Despair! Places, please, he’s gonna crack this time, I just know it!”

Taking advances up front for something not yet written is a sure-fire way to keep you on edge, and adds (as I’ve found so far) a certain, feverish, almost desperate quality to the work itself, which gives definite intensity to the telling of the tale. I’ve had many people say one of the things they like best about my work is its strong emotional content. I appreciate that, because I do like to engage readers’ emotions as deeply as possible (there just isn’t story without feeling), but to be completely honest, sometimes that intensity comes not just from my imagination, but from the realization that Dear God, I’ve already taken money for this thing and I Have to finish it, I Have To, Dear God I HAVE TO! What if I can’t? What if I go blank, become blocked, flip out, have to take a one-way ride in the Twinkie Mobile to the House of Good Pudding? What Then? What? WHAT THE #@!* WAS I THINKING?

And one lithium later I remember the why I got into this in the first place.

To meet women.

As long as they’re not part of certain chorus….

The Horror of the Used Bookstore

by Gary A. Braunbeck

There’s a dark side writing that few people have dared address. I’m talking about the single most dangerous foe to the writer’s resolve; the thing that can stop even the most dedicated wordsmith dead in his or her tracks; an element of the publishing business that renders all of us absolutely powerless when faced with it.

No, it isn’t the dreaded book signing that finds you sitting at a table for 90 minutes, during which time the only person to approach you and the unsold stacks of your new book is someone asking for directions to the bathroom; it isn’t having someone discover you’re a horror writer and asking (almost as if compelled to do so by a Congressional Decree): “So, do you know Stephen King?”; and, no, it isn’t that utterly radiant, mettle-testing moment when you open that first royalty statement to discover that your book has, in the course of one year, sold only one-third of its print run so obtaining that more pricey loaf of bread is going to have to be put on the back burner once again. Yes, all of these can test you, no doubt; they can chip away at your confidence if you let them; and they can make you a real buzz-kill who doesn’t get invited to many parties, but I’m not here to discuss my dreadful personality problems.

No; the single biggest foe to the writer’s resolve, confidence, and determination is (insert ominous chord here): the Horror of the Used Book Store.

We all shop at them. We’re writers, for pity’s sake, our major source of income is our writing (see Laura Anne Gilman’s previous post to learn more of that particular daily terror), none of us can afford to shell out 30 bucks for each new hardcover or 8 bucks for each new paperback on a consistent basis. We go there to find a bargain, or perhaps to locate a book that’s been hard to find or out of print for several years. While we’re doing this, we remind ourselves that the First Sale Doctrine, codified in Section 109 of The U.S. Copyright Act, allows the original owner of any book to transfer ownership of the phyisical copy in any way they choose, so, technically, there’s nothing legally or morally wrong with our purchasing any books here.

Besides (we tell ourselves), stores like this make books affordable to folks who otherwise wouldn’t have the money to buy them. So it’s all good … until we find ourselves face to face with copies of our own books.

Don’t shake your head at me; if you’ve ever published with a mass market house, odds are you’ve found yourself in this situation. And what is the writer’s first reaction? But, my work is eternal, it speaks to the deepest pain of the human condition, my books are things to be treasured , to be passed down from generation to generation, not end up here!

The first time I discovered copies of my novel In Silent Graves on the shelf at a used book store, I felt a slight twinge of disappointment — who wouldn’t? We all hope that our books will be things that readers will want to keep around to read again someday, but here we are, faced with the bald hard truth that not everyone who buys and reads our books is going to want to keep them. I at least had the pleasure of knowing that the 3 copies I found on the shelf had been well-read, as evidenced by the wear on, and cracks in, the spines.

Two weeks ago, I’m in another used book store with a friend of mine who also happens to be a writer, and he points out to me that another copy of Graves is on the shelf. I’m really into this now, I’ve adopted a helathy attitude, I want to see how well-read the copy was, enjoy the sight of those cracks in the spine, hold it in my hands knowing that whoever had owned it before read the living shit out of it before selling it here.

Well, guess what? (Here’s the moment that really tests the mettle.)

It hadn’t been read. It hadn’t even been opened, as far as I could tell. It still had the Walpurgis-Mart sticker covering the bar code on the back.

“What is it?” asked my writer friend.

“This hasn’t even been read,” I whispered.

“You don’t know that,” he replied. “maybe the person who sold this is like you, they take care not to damage the spine when they read a paperback. Maybe they’re just very careful with their books.”

“And maybe they just didn’t read it.” (Outwardly, I’m doing the Healthy Attitude Shuffle, I’m very calm and cool and collected; inwardly, I’m jumping up and down and throwing a fit and threatening to hold my breath until my face turns blue.)

“Okay,” my writer friend said, “then you gotta tell yourself that there was some earth-shaking emergency that forced them to sell this book. They lost a job. They lost a limb. Their Workman’s Comp ran out. They had to do it to put food on the table for their family, man! You know they had to do it to put food on the table! Dear God, why else would they part with one of your books? IT WAS A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH!”

“So what you’re telling me in your own subtle way is that I’m over-reacting?”

“God, no! You’re a hero, Gary, a lifesaver!” He threw his arm around my shoulder and began talking very loudly. “Because of you and your book, somewhere in this city tonight, a man’s family is not going to bed hungry. They can afford Grandma’s medication for another month. Little Eunice can get that knee surgery so that her dreams of the Joffrey Ballet needn’t be forever buried, thus turning her into a bitter, empty shell of a human being before she turns 13! And it’s all because of this book on this shelf. I’m sorry, I’m … I’m getting emotional, tearing up. So moving, it is. I so rarely get to witness acts of decency and heroism. It reaffirms my faith in humanity. We must all hold hands,” he cried out to the terror-stricken customers. “Indeed, we must all hold hands and sing out our joy at being here to mark this resplendent moment in human history. Come, sing with me, all of you: ‘WHEN YOU WALK THROUGH A STORM, KEEP YOU HEAD HELD HIGH, AND DON’T BE AFRAID OF —‘”

“So I’m over-reacting, is this what you’re telling me?”

“Nah. They probably got through the first 20 pages and decided it was too much of a downer. You gotta admit, this thing ain’t gonna make anybody’s list of My Top Ten Favorite Chuckle-fests.”

“I feel so much better now, thanks.”

“Hey, take your pick: They did it to put food on the table, or they did it because they thought your book sucked the dimples off a golf ball through 40 feet of clogged garden hose.”

We’re writers, we exist because of fantasy and delusion and our ability to convey them on the page. And when you have to rely on your writing as your major source of income, any delusion helps, especially if you know it’s a delusion.

So I helped a stranger put food on the table for his family. I feel good about myself.

Hey, I’m a writer. Delusion is my business.