Adam Reger | Freelance Writer

Pittsburgh-based freelance writer

Tag: fiction writing

What creative writers can learn from professional writers

Since I embarked on a career as a freelance writer and a teacher of writing about four years ago, I’ve learned lots of things about the art, craft, and business of writing. One of the most useful and surprising has involved the breakdown of supposedly impermeable barriers between different types of writing.

I want to share how these observations have informed my writing process as both a professional writer and as a writer of fiction.

(Note: This turned into a massive (2,300+ words) post so I am charitably hiding the bulk of the post below the fold. You’re welcome!)

Read the rest of this entry »

New fiction at Euphony

I am very pleased and proud to have a short story, “Cruelty,” in the Spring 2016 issue of Euphony, out of the University of Chicago. You can read the story online here.

A little background on this piece. This is all that remains of a novel I wrote during graduate school, then drastically rewrote several times after graduation. That novel (working title: “Isolation Drills”), after lots of reworking, featured a narrator who was making an academic study of pornographic films and who met and began to date a woman. It was a classic first attempt at a novel, with lots of stuff pulled from my life (NOT the porn thing!), not much plot, and some not-very-well-drawn scenes and characters. The whole drafting process was an invaluable study in what’s required for a novel and how to write one (plan! Revise!), but I’m grateful I don’t have to look at or think about those pages anymore.

Even so, the central conflict of the novel and the relationship between the two main characters stuck with me, and at some point last summer I had two related thoughts: “Is there any way I can salvage anything from those multiple drafts and hundreds of pages?” and “What if the perspective shifted from his to hers?”

And so “Cruelty” came to be.

Fiction’s power to explain the world, using Frank Herbert’s Dune as an example

Not a new or penetrating insight here, but I recently came across a striking and somewhat unexpected example of the power that good fiction has to show us something of the world we live in.

I recently read Frank Herbert’s Dune. I couldn’t tell you why. I’m not a huge science fiction fan. I just saw it in a bookstore while traveling last month, and thought, “Yes. I am going to read that right now.”

I knew the basics of the story from having seen David Lynch’s film version, and more recently from having seen the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which I’d recommend far more than the Lynch film. I knew about sandworms, the spice melange, and a villain so disgustingly fat he had to use little rocket-powered suspensors to keep from smothering in his own girth.

The novel surprised me in a couple ways. First was a massive amount of heavy ecological stuff, featuring a lot of well-developed explanations of the desert landscape and how certain groups were working to cultivate it with the long-term goal of creating a lush, liveable planet, plus lots of great details about the lengths people go to to conserve water (including, most fascinatingly/disgustingly, suits that capture sweat, urine, and feces and wring all the moisture out of them and essentially dumping that moisture into a kind of Camelbak reservoir that allows the wearer to drink it). Second was the heavy, heavy attention to intrapersonal and non-verbal communications in the book.

Item #2 really surprised me because I figured most of the book’s 800 or so pages would be filled with descriptions of sandworm battles, palace intrigues, and so on. That stuff is there, but on nearly every page there is an incisive description of a character using a certain kind of special training—I’ll just call it witchcraft, which is how it’s sometimes referred to in the novel, though it’s (often) less magical than that and more a situation of recognizing intonations of voice, body language, and so on, to read people deeply and accurately—to see through hidden motivations and anticipate another character’s next move.

Here’s a case in point, and the example I wanted so share. It’s a scene where Baron Harkonnen, the fat villain mentioned above, speaks with the Count, an extremely devious court hanger-on, and the Baron’s nephew, Feyd-Rautha, whom the Baron is grooming to eventually take over the desert planet, Dune. The Count has just said something insincere and kind of belittling to the Baron. Feyd-Rautha is standing by, watching and learning. (Note: the weird “mm-m-m” seen below is a quirk of Herbert’s, a verbal filler that a number of characters use for reasons that don’t seem worth the weird typographical experience of reading this stuff.)

“You are too kind,” the Baron said. He bowed, but Feyd-Rautha noted that his uncle’s eyes did not agree with the courtesy.

“When you’re mm-m-m ironic, that ah-h-h suggests you’re hm-mm-m thinking deep thoughts,” the Count said.

There he goes again, Feyd-Rautha thought. It sounds like he’s being insulting, but there’s nothing you can call out for satisfaction.

You can see all this non-verbal communication: Feyd-Rautha reading his uncle’s eyes, and the Count also reading the discrepancy between the Baron’s words and expression, and then responding by saying something kind of catty and ironic about the Baron “thinking deep thoughts.”

But what I really want to point out here is that what Feyd-Rautha notes is basically the very definition of “micro-aggression.” I was immediately struck by a sense of recognition upon first reading this passage. (From looking around for a quick definition, I see that “micro-aggression” is often linked to race and to white privilege, but I’m using it here more broadly, the way Feyd-Rautha defines it: This guy is being passive aggressive, going right up to the line but holding back enough so that if I said something, I’d be the crazy one, and he’d be able to back up and say, “Whoa, buddy, you’re putting words in my mouth.”)

The idea of micro-aggression, so far as I can tell, is relatively recent. Here, Herbert is using Feyd-Rautha to call out something that simply didn’t have a name back in 1965, when Dune was first published. In some ways it’s an incredible insight, and it suggests a remarkable depth of character that Herbert accomplishes in Dune.

I love finding stuff like this, recognizing the real world in fiction and, in doing so, seeing the world a bit more clearly. That’s a trite observation, I know, but it’s such a difficult thing to achieve in fiction that I find these instances worth recording and sharing.

“Wool” by Hugh Howey

I just finished Wool, by Hugh Howey. I heard about it, and got interested enough to take a chance on it, after reading this Wall Street Journal piece about the book, Howey, and especially the financial and marketing details of the book’s success and of Howey’s deal with Simon & Schuster.

(If the article is paywalled for you, here are the first few paragraphs:

“Hugh Howey’s postapocalyptic thriller ‘Wool’ has sold more than half a million copies and generated more than 5,260 Amazon reviews. Mr. Howey has raked in more than a million dollars in royalties and sold the film rights to ‘Alien’ producer Ridley Scott.

“And Simon & Schuster hasn’t even released the book yet.

“In a highly unusual deal, Simon & Schuster acquired print publication rights to ‘Wool’ while allowing Mr. Howey to keep the e-book rights himself. Mr. Howey self-published ‘Wool’ as a serial novel in 2011, and took a rare stand by refusing to sell the digital rights. Last year, he turned down multiple seven-figure offers from publishers before reaching a mid-six-figure, print-only deal with Simon & Schuster.”)

Now that I’ve finished, I have to say the book’s financial numbers and basic plot—people in a post-apocalyptic future living in a 144-story concrete silo—are the best, most interesting things about it. It’s not a bad novel, but it lacks the polish of traditionally published novels, which for better or worse go through lots of sanitizing and fine-tuning before they’re presented to the public. There’s a flabbiness to the writing that I found distracting, and that diminished my confidence: at a certain point I started skimming scenes with lots of dialogue, knowing by then that the descriptions of the characters moving around the room, gesturing, and so forth, was filler; even the dialogue itself was often redundant, or was too close to the banality of real life to be interesting—it failed the test I’ve learned to apply to most dialogue, which is to ask “How does this push things forward?”

Similarly, the characters are kind of thin, and there are a number of plotlines that Howey periodically forgets about, remembers, and pays brief lip service to before forgetting them again. (As an example, the novel’s central character, Juliette, had a secret, forbidden love interest when she was younger, and until late in the novel he is not given a name, few details are included, and there’s virtually zero reflection on how memories of him or of what happened to him have informed Juliette’s life.)

Some of this is a function of Howey’s writing the book in five parts and publishing each one as it was finished—I don’t doubt that some of Dickens’s serialized novels, much less the pulpier stuff that has been serialized in various publications over the years, have similar problems. And some of my criticisms probably show how little I know about science fiction: I haven’t read anything in that genre in a number of years, but from what I remember from all that I read in middle school and high school, the characterization and the quality of prose in these books are not top-tier concerns for most writers.

Wool is strong on concept, which I do remember being a top-tier concern for sci-fi writers. Howey’s concept is great: history’s been wiped clean, and a few thousand living humans reside in a massive underground silo, where they literally reside on very different social strata: the rulers live “up top,” while the grunts who run Mechanical are in the “down deep.”

Moreover, Howey does something with the silo idea: it’s not just a setting, and he fleshes out the world of the silo to make it rich and specific. I can understand why he’s gained so many favorable reviews on Amazon, and why sales have been so good. (It must be said, too, that the pricing is perfect: after reading the WSJ piece, $6 felt like a fair risk to check this thing out.)

The most favorable thing I can say about Wool is that it ought to make a great movie some day: the concept is great, and the characters Howey’s chosen should form a good foundation for a talented screenwriter to take the story the rest of the way: to give the characters that extra dimension, perhaps even to modify the plot so that things are clearer, the action more compelling. (There are what feel like a few aimless sections, errands that make sense to me as a writer—“He’s moving Juliette here so that she can return to this room in order to find _______”—but that feel unsatisfying as a reader.) It should also be a pretty cheap movie to film, considering that it would be hard to film the entire silo at once; as a film producer, you’d be left with nothing but sets, the most expensive of which would seemingly be a tall staircase. (There are no elevators in this grim vision of the future. In fact, one of the cooler elements was the “porters” who ran messages and goods up the stairs, presumably developing massive, mutant quadriceps muscles, though Howey doesn’t tell us that.)

While I found Wool a little disappointing as a piece of fiction, having known some of the backstory added an element of interest that really enriched the experience. I kept wondering what marked the book as having been self-published; many times, I compared some of Howey’s writing to what I’ve seen in undergraduate and graduate fiction workshops, and imagined what my peers would have said if I’d submitted something with this sentence, or failed to describe this character’s face, clothes, or backstory. I ended up feeling that Wool was not an especially great book, but that it was transcendent as a self-published book: for having not had to pass any filters, but to have risen by reputation and quality, is an achievement, and while I may have found fault with the novel, I can see why Wool has earned this achievement.

Update: Interesting and insightful blog post by Allen Watson that suggests (while making some larger points about self-publishing) that my disdain toward self-publishing tainted this review. I have to say I don’t see it—if anything, I think there is more disdain toward science fiction in this post—but maybe a critic can’t see his own biases.

A bold reimagining of ghostwriting

Two of the more fun freelance writing projects I’ve done have been ghostwriting gigs. One was a novel and one was a children’s book, and in both cases I really enjoyed talking to the author, figuring out what he/she wanted, and then sitting down and delivering the product.

Periodically, I’ll seek out more ghostwriting work by looking around Craig’s List, sometimes advertising my services there, or doing a search for “ghostwriter” on Indeed.com, a job-listing aggregator that has saved me time before. The stuff you find in these places is, however, not often worth finding. At least on Indeed, a lot of it comes by way of elance and oDesk, marketplaces where writers (and others offering services) bid on the jobs posted. Finding an appealing job listed there is always an exercise in deflation, because the person offering the job, either from an understanding of how the marketplace works or from simple cheapness, doesn’t offer much money; the situation is worsened by the bidders, who undercut one another and drive the price down. I suppose it’s classic economics, but it’s always a tough thing to see. Invariably I end up thinking about how many books I could read in the time it would take me to write someone’s non-fiction book and be paid $300 for my trouble.

This is all background to introduce an ad I stumbled upon today, one that truly stood out from the crowd. While the job-poster gets points for forthrightness, surveying what I know about ghostwriting I must say that this is a new one on me:

“I want to buy your completed manuscript/novel” reads the headline; “You will sign over the publishing rights and will not be credited in the book. Essentially, you will become a ghostwriter for it. Once a relationship is established this could lead to more work with much higher pay.”

Yikes. I guess that constitutes a ghostwriting relationship. Except for the part where I wrote this novel for myself, to hopefully publish under my own name. You know, as part of my hopes and dreams. But I guess I could sell it to you and have you publish it under your or someone else’s name . . . I mean, that would at least spare me the hassle of wrangling with publishers and agents, right? Really, what’s the harm—and I’m sure it’s a decent wage, right? . . . The average bid is how much? $1,527? (as of publication time)

To be honest, I was intrigued by this proposal because I thought of the first two novels I wrote. Neither one has seen the light of day; neither friend nor literary agent has seen these bad boys. I’m not proud enough to send them out into the world under my own name. Why not unload them on this guy?

Because he/she wants the first three chapters for consideration, but “. . . be prepared to send over the entire MS on short notice if you make it to the next round.” Also, he ends the post with “Good luck!” So now it’s a contest? Where the prize is peanuts to take my novel and publish it under your own name?

The crazy thing is, I’m still not at all sure I won’t be doing this. If you opt to do it, fellow writers, good luck!