Saturday, January 31, 2009

Youse Fancypantses, alla yas!

Oh boy, another contest. Been a while, fellas. I hope everyone's limbered up, because I got a new pair a track shoes I'm just dyin' to break in!

I'll be competing in the all-prose 5K race. I briefly contemplated using this contest to knock out some still-due Radio Scripts, but the page rate wouldn't convert like a comics page would, and anyway, we've still got a retreat to plan.

So, I'm going to work on a novel-length project that I've been fooling with for a while, now. Let's keep the title a secret for now. I'll post updates and snippets as we go, too, so feel free to comment. See you on the other side of February!

The Official Rules

For those interested in reading the official rules of this shindig, and for seeing how the contest will be scored and judged, Fabletown stalwart Chris Opperman has stepped up to the task. See his scoring and judging criteria at the Clockwork Forum (as opposed to this, the Clockwork Blog), which you can reach by going to:

Okay, now this has gotten interesting.

Bill Williams is onboard, so where are the final two Tick Tock Men? I'm looking at you, Finn. I'm looking at you, Roberson. What are your writing plans for February?
     Don't have enough comics work in the docket to match the 2500 and 5 plan? That's fine. In my daily work plan, which I'll post below, I've basically worked out that one page of comic book script will take me about as long as 500 prose words (one hour for each). So, if you complete a total of 5k prose words a day, we'll count that the same as our 2500 and 5. If that seems a harsh trade for those of you following at home, you should note that Chris is more than capable of a sustained 5k per day writing output. He's a horrifyingly speedy scribe. Any less of a daily goal and Chris would be able to smoke all of us easily.
     And what about Finn? He's complained to me more than once recently that he needs to hunker down at the word processor. This is the time, Finn! The moment to step up is now!

Here's my planned daily schedule:

7 AM: Wake up.

7 - 8 AM: Morning wake up constitutional, outdoors (weather permitting), or on a treadmill at the local Community Center.

8 - 9 AM: Shower and breakfast, check email and attend to all of the other preliminary nonsense of the day.

9 AM - 2 PM: Prose writing at a rate of 500 words per hour.

2 - 3 PM: Lunch.

3 - 8 PM: Comics writing at a rate of one full script page per hour.

8 PM: Dinner, followed by any catch-up work for previous days' missed goals, or prep work for the next day's goal. If no extra work needs doing, then it's official goof-off time; reading; TV; or maybe a quick door mission in City of Heroes.

11 PM: Bedtime for Billy.

I'm shoving my way in--

I was thinking I should get in on this whole duel thing and cut down on my time spent playing EVE Online. Or watching The Equalizer Season One on DVD. Or drinking or passing out (usually in that order).

And I felt like I would be intruding. But after a note to Bill, he stated that I could join the circular firing squad and compete in this MAN vs. MAN contest.

So, I am throwing down the third gauntlet.

Its too soon to know if I sold the new comics project, but I can work on other stuff. I'll be working on a novel and some short stories and some random comics projects. 2500 words a day and 5 comics pages a day works just fine for me.

Bill (the other one)
(loading his dueling pistols)

Fine, I'll go with 2500 and 5 too.

Since Matt has posted daily writing production goals close enough to mine to still get the job done (if I keep to them), I am going to adjust my numbers to his more rounded figures, so as to keep this greatest of all gladiatorial death-matches fair and even. And then, when I exceed those daily numbers, my glory will be all the greater.

Handicapping the Big Writing Duel

Why would we even do a handicapping report on a contest in which we've already stated that actual cash betting is neither encouraged nor allowed? Well it certainly isn't because Bill is deep in debt to a lone shark named Broken Nose Rocco Malone, who plies his trade out of a well-known downtown Las Vegas casino renowned for being the world headquarters of poker, and that Rocco's leg-breaker will come by and ply his trade if Bill doesn't deliver the inside poop on this greatest of all writing contests in the history of civilization. No, that can't be the reason. That's just crazy talk.
     So then, let's just assume we're doing this for fun and proceed to the facts, conditions, situations, mitigating and extenuating circumstances, as we can discern them:

First of all, as has already been noted below, Matt has a family at home that needs a minimum of care and attention, while Bill does not, therefore all of the smart money (that no one's betting) should go on Bill.

Then again Matt has a family at home, whereas Bill does not, so Matt is always more immediately and emotionally aware of the dire consequences of what might happen if he doesn't get his work done and keep the checks rolling in. Bill, lazy fellow that he is, has never been able to suss out that connection between not getting his work done and the money train drying up. So clearly the smart money should go on Matt.

However, since Bill does live alone he doesn't even need to shower or dress before getting to work every morning, where Matt, needing to adhere to the most basic of all social contracts where more than one person is sharing a domicile, had better shower and dress every day or there will be problems. That's an extra twenty minutes of work time each day that Bill (who's done some of his best work while not wearing pants) has that Matt doesn't, which adds up over the space of an entire month. So we'd better put the smart dough-ray-me back on Bill.

But not so fast. The first day of this silly duel starts on a Sunday, which happens to be Super Bowl Sunday at that. Matt, scholarly fellow that he is, has never been a football fan and has no strong incentive to watch the game, whereas Bill is. If Bill does take the time out on the very first day of the contest to watch the Super Bowl (and all of the hours of televised hoopla leading up to it) Matt could potentially jump ahead to a full-day's head start -- the metaphorical equivalent of stealing a march on him. So let's go with Mighty Matt!

Wait just a cotton-picking minute! Let's not jump the gun here. Bill isn't actually so much a football fan, in the broader sense, as he is a Seahawks fan (as a punishment for many past sins no doubt), and hasn't been too happy with the Super Bowl since his noble and righteous Hawks were screwed out of their Super Bowl win a couple of years ago by some of the worst, most blatantly biased refereeing in professional sports history. He boycotted the Super Bowl last year for just that reason. Will he skip it again this year too? Better go with Bill after all.

Then again, Matt is still new enough to the comics industry to still have that, "I better keep all my promises and meet all of my deadlines," work ethic in place, where Bill has been kicked out of comics for not getting his work done twice. In this light, Matt seems the safer bet, right?

However, Bill has just hired in a film crew today to make a montage video -- you know, just like how Rocky does at least one big montage in every movie (always set to inspirational music) to show how he's working out and preparing for the big fight? Rocky always wins because he always does the montage while his opponents never do. In his montage Bill can be seen practicing his quick typing, lifting weights (which are stacks of very heavy volumes of his Oxford English Dictionary set), drinking raw eggs, running to the top of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and all of the things one has to do in a good montage. Bill is obviously training hard for this duel, while Matt... no montage, no training. Nothing, nix, nada. Best put your coinage down on Bill.

Then again, Bill drinks... a lot. He even invested heavily in his own wine bar just to have a place they couldn't easily toss him out of when he really ties one on.

However, Matt has this tendency to, "Go out for a pack of cigarettes," and then disappear for days on end, never to provide an explanation for his absences when he finally returns. Mommy tells the kids that, "Daddy's a secret agent for the government and has to go on daring missions from time to time," but that hardly seems likely.

Then again, it's been rumored that Bill doesn't actually do his own writing, that he is in fact incapable of stringing two coherent words together, and has fashioned his career on a shaky nest of lies and scams. Rumor has it that Bill buys all of his scripts on the black market, only to pass them off as his own work. If this is true, and with the sorry plunge our economy has taken, will the prices of black market writing spiral up so high that Bill couldn't possibly afford to purchase an entire month's worth of it, just to win this ridiculous duel?

However, it's been recently demonstrated (see the acclaimed peer-reviewed paper in last month's issue of Scientific American) that Matt doesn't actually exist, but is an imaginary construct of one Mrs. Adeline Merrybelle Stevens, of Rochester, New York, who's been in a coma for thirty seven years, following a terrible traffic accident on the expressway. The greedy Stevens grandchildren have just won court permission to withdraw all life-support from their rich coma granny and plan to pull the plug on Wednesday next, which means Matt's likely to wink out of his pseudo existence along with her.

Then again...

Friday, January 30, 2009


As Bill suggests below, I can't QUITE match his schedule every day because I have family responsibilities and some prior commitments and stuff like that. BUT, I have determined that I can get everything done that needs doing if I do 2,500 words a day of prose and 5 comic book script pages a day. Theoretically, this should be eminently doable. We start Monday, with the last five pages of House of Mystery #12, and the first 2,500 words of a short story that's been waiting to be written for a while. The story should be done by mid-week, and then I can launch into The Office of Shadow, which is the Midwinter sequel. I've been plotting and thinking and doodling long enough for this novel -- it's time to start typing at it.

So, Bill. A fair match? I think so. My first progress report will go live Monday afternoon. Greatness awaits!

The 2680 and 7 Plan

2680 is the number of words I need to complete in the prose half of my daily February output. 7 is the number of comic book script pages I need to produce in the comics half of my day. If I can do this every day for the 28 days of the month, then I meet my goals. More importantly, if I keep to this production, Sturges doesn't stand a chance.

Down in the Writing Hole.

Our oft languishing conversation about the process of writing will be interrupted for a while, as two members of Clockwork, in order to deal with deadlines of mighty girth and complexity, are each going into a self imposed writing hole for the entirety of the month of February.
        What is the writing hole? It's the place we need to go to from time to time, in order to get away from all distractions and get a concentrated amount of work done. Sometimes it involves actually going away somewhere to some distant retreat. However it can also mean just a determination to buckle down and get things done, without an actual physical relocation. That's the variety of Writing Hole both Matt and I are endeavoring to disappear into this coming month. One solid month of nothing but writing. No goofing off. No dinners out with the friends. No computer use that isn't directly related to getting the work done. No distractions. Few phone calls. Nothing but a month of work, work, work.
     Here's what I need to get done in the month of February: 1) Finish a novel which is barely begun, but fully researched and vastly (in the Chris Roberson method) outlined. 2) Finish writing at least three issues of Fables. 3) Along with Matt, finish writing two issues of Jack, two issues of The Literals, and two issues of the JSA. 4) If all of that is done, then finish three short stories that are slated for various prose anthologies in the coming year.
     Matt will be posting his goals for the month sometime today.
     And now here's where you come in. In order to keep ourselves on schedule, in order to add some accountability into this process, Matt and I are going to post daily progress reports here on the Clockwork Blog. That way the shame of not getting things done will be multiplied by the number of those reading this as we go. Shame (rather the desire to avoid shame) is a great motivator, which every freelancer knows all too well. Take that as one of our lessons in writing professionally, for those of you who plan to be writers: Put your shame to work for you.
     And of course, the glory of beating Matt in my daily output (versus his) figures into this too. Yes, it's possible Matt will out-perform me, day by day -- not likely, but possible. He is a gifted and dedicated wordsmith (and someday I'll tell you the funny story of why I wince at every use of the word 'wordsmith'). But Matt has a lovely family that needs a minimum daily dose of care and attention. I think that's enough of a difference to handicap this silly stunt in my favor.
     At this point we should add an important disclaimer: We here at Clockwork Storybook are not suggesting, or in any way implying, that you at home should be betting on the outcome of this writing duel. But if we were, the smart money would be on me. That's all I'll say about that.
     So there we are. Daily reports throughout the month of February, charting our writing progress. Enjoy the show.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Pimpin' Pigeons

I wouldn't normally do this, but the trade paperback collection of Dark Horse's Pigeons From Hell adaptation just hit my doorstep. The work was done by Joe Lansdale, who wrote a sequel to the original story, and it's a fine thing, indeed. I mention it because I wrote an essay in the back of the book discussing Robert E. Howard and Joe Lansdale and how they are peas in a pod. I'm particularly pleased with it. If you like the scary, and like Joe Lansdale's work, give this a look. And then, for grins, check out the essay in the back.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Get Complicated (and then Re-Simply)

Brian Eno, he of the Oblique Strategies, has been sharing new strategies on Twitter for the last little while. Here's one he posted over the weekend that completely sums up my current approach to writing in general, and building worlds and characters in particular.
Start simple, get complicated, then re-simplify
That, right there, is the essence of making an interesting character or setting or world, I think. Start with a simple idea, then explore all the possible ramifications and permutations and iterations, then throw out everything that isn't essential. I do all of this at the planning stages, long before writing, when I'm figuring out who the characters are, or where their story takes place. Often the end result looks nothing at all like the input, and the readers never sees the complications in the middle, but I've found that this process is often key in taking something that's just a notion, a bare idea, and turning it into something that works.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking

To answer Bill’s question about what we owe the audience, I think the song and dance (or in Mark’s case a dancing monkey) arugment makes sense.

My thinking on the matter has changed a bit over the years because the medium of delivery has changed. When I started reading, I worked through the Tarzan paperback books and the Doc Savage books. Currently, I go through a load of mysteries including some of the series fiction like the Parker novels and even those mediocre Monk tie-in novels. Books were always something to be valued in my house when I was a kid growing up and I have a reverence for printed things. There are some things true now that were not true when I started putting words together on paper.

Back in the day, I approached my work to create works of a superb and enduring quality. I was hoping to write things that would be enjoyed today, tomorrow and as long as print exists. That’s a large goal. With the dawning of the age of digital distribution, I have come to realize that you don't have to be any damn good to stick around forever. Any blog post arguing about women in comics will endure.

Now, I am more concerned with originality in my approach to any new project. With Bill’s Fables and Matt’s House of Mystery series, you guys have taken some universal concepts and made something unique and a product of individual talent. I’m looking at my current work with a more critical eye and wondering if it swerves close to the land of fanfic. So, with my comic work, I am trying to be more experimental with the subject matter.

I have a project in the works that I described as the illustrated adventures of ‘Lenny’ from Of Mice and Men. Thom Zahler is putting together the graphics and he will be illustrating the complete 4 page story I wrote just before Christmas. I wrote a short graphic novel about a cat. I think we owe the audience exciting material and the best way to aid that is to excite ourselves about what we are writing. That enthusiasm shows.

And we have to stick the ending.


Saturday, January 10, 2009

A Cymbal-Banging Monkey

I hate to post the equivalent of "what he said," but Chris is right on the money. I am a natural entertainer, and I like entertaining with words the best of all. My goal when I write is to write the most entertaining, clever, and readable story that I can write.

As for what I owe the readers, well, that's a slightly different answer. I owe them a good story. That's it. There may be more implicit things going on, but in the end, what I owe them is a good story. Hopefully, what makes it good is a compelling set of characters, plotted just so, written with aplomb, and with a few twists and surprises thrown in. That's the alchemy, but it's not a science. Case in Point:

The much-discussed and much-maligned ending of the Sopranos. Chase is on record as saying that he can't believe that so many people liked Tony Soprano because he was a sociopath. I'm reminded of Hitchcock's observation about American audiences. Paraphrasing, they will put up with any scoundrel provided he's good at his job. And that, to me, was the biggest theme that ran through the Sopranos--the tension betweeen who you are at work and who you are at home.

Anyway, Chase, as a creator, and knowing what he did about the audience for the Sopranos, had a few obvious and several not-so-obvious choices. Tony could go to jail. Tony could get killed by the New York Mob. Tony could be arrested. Tony could have his family stripped from him again, and wind up alone, again. The ducks could come back. I'm sure you can think of a dozen other plausible endings in a similar vein.

But to have that ending--which is to say, NOT an ending--to have the narrative just stop dead, like someone lifting a needle on a record (pushing pause on your iPod for you under thirtysomethings out there), that was an unforgivable sin on Chase's part. As an audience, we would have been completely content if Tony got busted in the end. We were half expecting it. And it would have been the ending that Chase wanted to write, because he was a sociopath and should be punished. If Tony got whacked, we would have accepted it. Oh, there would have been some chat room and message board outrage, but really it would have been more about the show being over than Tony getting some kind of just desserts.

Chase owed his audience an ending, the most basic part of a good story, just as important as "beginning" and "middle" no matter how you look at it. In some ways, the more important part, if not the most. And he blew it. He didn't stick the dismount. Hell, he fell off the balance beam and acted like that was his plan, all along.

In the end, I think that's what we owe the readers. Even if it's a story they've heard before, as long as it's good, they won't complain.

A Song and Dance Man

Bill, he asks, "As a professional story teller, what is our contract with the readers? What do we owe them with every story we write, whether published for profit or given away? What do we absolutely not owe them?"

My answer is pretty simple. I consider myself an entertainer, first and foremost, the typing equivalent of a song-and-dance-man (not an "artist"... art might be something I sometimes might aspire to produce, but I don't kid myself it's my stock and trade). That defines what it is I'm providing to the reader--entertainment. I might try to slip some enlightenment or education in there occasionally, but if I don't give the reader something that's going to entertain them every time, at least on some level, I've failed miserably.

What do I not owe them? Mmm. Perhaps I don't necessarily owe them the ending they expect? Or owe them a story that goes in exactly the directions that they would want it to go?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Well, this site's been dead for a while...

Oh dear, I've been gone so long and I have no good excuse. I don't even have a bad one. Typically now I'm behind on everything. I need to post the rest of that story I started, before so much time has passed that it's topical again. I will. I will.
     In the meantime I have something on which I want to opine, but I want to get my colleagues to go on record first. As a professional story teller, what is our contract with the readers? What do we owe them with every story we write, whether published for profit or given away? What do we absolutely not owe them?
     Bill, Chris, Matt and Mark, fess up. Give me your best answers. Then I will post mine and maybe by then I can remember why I wanted to know.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

An Excerpt from Blood & Thunder

Author's Note: It's been a while since this book came out, and while it continues to sell well, I realize that not everyone reading this is as "steeped in the juices" of the Robert E. Howard fan community, which is where most of the excerpts and sneak previews were originally run. So, if it pleases the audience, I'd like to run my opening to the biography here.

The book is divided into four sections, each separated by a fictionalized piece that I wrote to help inform the chapters that followed. I did this for a couple of reasons. One, we know so very little about Howard that can be confirmed; most of what we do know comes from his tightly controlled telling, with exaggerated or downplayed details as the occasion warranted. Therefore, much of Howard's life is open to interpretation at best, speculation at worst. I decided on these little vignettes to let me give vent to those urges, and keep me focused on providing accurate information in the body of the text.

The other reason I did this was to visually and emotionally set the scene for people who were unaware of boomtown Texas in the 1900's and help the modern reader connect with Howard in more or less the same way that I always have.

This is the vignette from Part One.

The fifteen-year-old boy stood on the broad sidewalk outside the drugstore and watched the spectacle on the streets. Farming trucks, loaded with men and machinery, trundled by, grinding and coughing, as the men laughed and jeered. Horse-drawn wagons followed, carrying pipes and large, interlocking drill bits. The farmers on the streets spoke with rueful envy of so-and-so’s good luck. He’s set for life, they assured one another.

Strangers walked up and down the sidewalks, hurrying to and from the bank, the diner, the feed store. They wore suits, despite the ungodly heat, and small-crowned hats that did not originate in John B. Stetson’s workshop. One of the strangers brushed by the fifteen-year-old boy, absently knocking him on the shoulder. “Excuse me,” said the boy, quietly. The stranger didn’t reply and his stride quickly carried him out of sight.

Harder, rougher men walked beside these captains of industry. These hard men wore more traditional frontier outfits, denim jeans and high boots, work shirts stained tobacco brown, and crushed straw hats. They didn’t tip their hats as the women of the town walked by, but instead let their gaze linger in the women’s wake.

The roughnecks on the trucks called out to the farmers, who waved automatically in reply. Large wagons of men traveling in the other direction pulled up at the hitching post outside of Higginbotham’s, and the men piled out, reeking of crude oil and mud. They bellowed and stamped, pushing each other out of the way in their haste to spend their pay. The men fanned out through the town, running towards their boarding houses, the public showers, the ice house, the drug store, or the barbershop.

Somewhere, a woman shrieked at the appearance of a roughneck. Other raised voices floated across the street, an argument about money. Glass shattered in one of the stores. Two men staggered out of the diner, swinging furious fists as a crowd of cheering onlookers poured out of the door to watch them. One of the crowd shouted, “He’s got a knife!” before the crowd encircled the combatants completely, their frenzied shouts drowning out the sounds of combat.

The fifteen-year-old boy walked past the lean-tos, where men in suits sat on wooden pallets, cooking food over a small fire, and women and children huddled around them. Further down the alley, a larger fire burned in an empty oil drum. A small clutch of men passed a bottle around, swilling generously.

More cars zigzagged around the wagons and trucks going out to the oilfield and parking recklessly along the same hitching posts that held horses last week. The packed dirt road was awash in thick mud from the summer rains and constant traffic. More women appeared on the sidewalks, gazing openly at the men, their eyes cutting under heavy lashes. A gunshot broke through the general din. The sun had just started to dip behind the low buildings. The night was young.

The fifteen-year old boy watched it all, his furrowed brow darkening his blue eyes as he burned the images into his brain. The magazine he’d bought, the latest issue of Adventure, was folded in half and tucked carefully into his back pocket. Tonight, he would read it in the dim glow of an electric bulb, out on the sleeping porch, and dream himself to the other side of the world; far away from the roughnecks, the oil field bullies, and the women of low character.

His name was Robert E. Howard. His life was half over.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

re: Tools of the Trade (a slight Polemic)

(Sorry for the delay in answering this. I've been mourning the loss of Donald Westlake)

This is an always interesting topic, and while I do not wish to pooh-pooh anyone else's process or setup, I must take exception to Wikipedia as a credible source. I don't trust it; never have. Maybe I make the mistake of looking for controversial material in places that I shouldn't, but I find the ease with which people monkey about with the various entries distressing and disheartening. Wiki has become a battleground for Poindexters whose only claim to legitimacy is the fact that they've become part of the "in crowd" of people who police (some would say censor, others would say vandalize) the entries put forth by people who actually know what they are talking about. Despite Google's love affair with Wiki, I never look at the entry, preferring instead to zoom straight down to the bibliography and sources section at the bottom. At least those guys aren't total heathens.

But I digress.

For me, I tend to gather research as the project warrants. What I gather depends greatly on what I'm doing. For example, I have a small portable filing cabinet dedicated to Xeroxes and print outs from Blood & Thunder that I utilized in some capacity. I went with copies and Xeroxes because (a) some of the reference I found was not purchasable (like stuff found in the Harry Ransom Center's special collections), and (b) what WAS purchasable would have bankrupted me. It was easier to point and shoot what I wanted or needed, even though I would have preferred to just buy the book outright (especially now that I have a library to house such things).

Mostly, I'll buy a book, even if it's for one project, if I think I'll dip back into it several times. Some books, like the oversized reference books that DK publishes, are wonderful for such endeavors. I just bought Weapons, and it's all about the development of swords, guns, and so forth. The written info is standard encyclopedia-style stuff, really readable, but it's the huge full color pictures on nearly every page that point out the features and explain the inner workings that are invaluable to me as a writer.