Tag Archives: editing

What I Learned From Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk looks like a man from 1960s middle America.  He’s tall, lanky, and clean cut.  His thick glasses make him look like a nerd that plugs away at a boring job for his nice wife, cute kids and white picket fence.

You would never know by looking at him that this is the sick fuck* who wrote Choke, Snuff, Invisible Monsters, and of course Fight Club.

Back in 2012, when he was promoting the redux of Invisible Monsters, he handed out stuffed tigers to anyone who could answer trivia questions about his books, or make a baby out of a balloon.  If he had to swap lives with one of his characters, it would never be Tyler Durden.  He would rather be Denny.  He has infinitely more compassion for sweet, simple people who live normal lives.  There were a few wild stories involving Ambien and sandwich meat, and the Cacophony Society — where a bunch of guys would get together for four hours on a Saturday and the normal rules of interaction wouldn’t apply (known as a liminoid event).

The majority of his talk was not about the strange, the grotesque, or the chaotic.  It was about structure, form, and how to vet ideas for books.

He’s been meeting every Monday with the same group of writers since 1990.  When one of the members was diagnosed with terminal cancer, they even went to the hospice and held workshop there.  I don’t think it’s a cosmic accident that our sister group in Seattle is called “Write Club.”  His ideas resonate and reflect our experience.

His most striking suggestion was to take your idea to a party and see if it resonates with people.  Most people have experienced hazing.  Most people have experienced a horrible boss.  That’s why Fight Club was so successful as an idea.  We all want to escape the normal day-job life.  We’ve all had that roommate who does off-the-wall stuff that makes our lives hellish.

When you’re thinking of an idea for a story.  Tell it to someone else.  If they respond with, “Oh my god, me too!  This one time (blah blah blah)” then you’re definitely on to something.


“Next time you see a narrative, ask, “where’s the clock?”  Our clock is fifty stuffed tigers.  [Or] Peetie the cat can’t die until he eats all this cat food.  When the cat food runs out, you know Peetie is dead.”  – Chuck Palahniuk, 7/16/12 Castro Theater

Comedy is denying the drama of horrific things.”  – Chuck Palahniuk, “Choke” Commentary

If one aspect is good, take that aspect to a party and see if it resonates with people.  Not so people shut down and go “oo!”, but the one that makes everyone tell their own version.  Don’t just work from your own experience.  Exploit everyone around you.” 
– Chuck Palahniuk, 7/16/12 Castro Theater


*so to speak


First World Problems When Writing Horror

Of all the short stories I need to rewrite, there’s only one I never seem to get anywhere with. You guessed it, it’s a horror story.

The reason progress has been so slow on this one is because re-reading it frightens me.

My desk faces the window, with a lovely view of thick vines, flowers, honeybees, and the occasional hummingbird. The price I pay for having that view is that I have my back to the door (which was an anxiety I sought to break myself of, since despite all my training, the likelihood of being assaulted is so slim). There’s also a fold-out couch behind me. Every single time I get to work on this story, I feel someone there… sitting on the couch with one knee over the other; or crouched in the doorway. Watching. Waiting… and I can’t stand it.

I don’t have a great deal of exposure to the genre because I get nightmares so easily. My senses prickle to things in the dark — listening for silences that could be body-shaped.

I’ve tried writing in other parts of the house, or in coffee shops, or with my partner sitting next to me; but in those places of safety I can’t summon the emotional reality that the story requires. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. I’m not talking about revulsion, or gore, or torture porn; that’s nothing. I’m talking about the kind of horror that steals your sleep and eats your safety.

What does it take to be a good horror writer? What safeguards do they put in place? Or, are the greatest working from a place of pure catharsis, without a need to come down afterward? Perhaps the only way is to develop a relationship with fear — to actively seek the nightmares — and to fall in love with one’s own death.

Which invites a whole other set of demons to the door.

Maybe next time I take on that story, I’ll set up a lovely tea service and a kitten in a the next room. That way, I can come out, settle in, and pretend it isn’t a trap.

I learn by going where I have to go.”
— Theodore Roethke

Impostor Syndrome, Afterschool Specials, & Voltaire

Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. (The perfect is the enemy of the good)  

– Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet)

There are dozens of ways to interpret the above quote, but the one I’d like to wave around is: don’t let your efforts to achieve near-impossible perfection prevent you from getting your work done in the first place.

Recently I was asked to provide an expert opinion for a fantastic blog on Science in Science Fiction, and Fact in Fantasy. I thought, yeah, of course I could write about that. I have acquired knowledge through sweat-experience and collegiate study. I can totally do that. Then I read the rest of the blog to see where the bar had been set, panicked, and passed up the chance.

This happens to everyone. Impostor syndrome is when you find yourself in the position of a pro, an expert, or any other perceived high level, and you lose your nerve. You don’t believe you belong there, and walk out — transforming that belief into reality.

Could I have provided an article on par with what had been previously posted? Most likely, yes, but we’ll never know, because I didn’t do it.

I’m almost done re-cutting UDI271, which was the show we did last year. Now that I’ve listened to the audio four hundred million times, I have to say — this is not my best work. It is exactly the kind of B-movie meets Afterschool Special you’d expect for cranking out a play at 1am the night of a deadline. When I think about the other stories and books I’ve written, this doesn’t even really feel like it’s mine. The tone is odd. The voice is odd. The bad guys aren’t that scary, and the resolution is so neat and happy a middle-grade audience would be on board. I could Alan Smithee this thing, but I won’t. It’s not perfect, it’s not great; but it’s good.

Why is it Good?
1. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
2. It has interesting characters with complex histories.
3. It dances from complex philosophy and terrible puns with remarkable agility.
4. My lead actors were phenomenal.
5. It taught me how to be a director: to build a schedule, to have a master plan, to accept input and then filter it as appropriate.
6. I learned about audio software like GoldWave and Audacity.
7. I learned how much time and energy goes into producing a radio play, from concept, to script, to rehearsals, to re-casting, to making mistakes in public, to post-production.
8. I was asked to produce work, outside my medium, on a deadline, and we all saw it through to the end, on schedule.

Why did it miss Perfection?
1. There are a lot of skills I don’t have yet.
2. Technical difficulties.

For all of its flaws, I still plan to post it. I have some control over #1, and little control over #2. This work has helped me established a baseline for my own ability so I know to read more, or outsource, next time. If I had waited for it to be perfect, it would never have gotten done.

If I hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t have learned anything.

There will be times when you think it’s not perfect, but good; and the work actually sucks. You will fall on your face. That happens too. Try, fail, fail better. That was Kurt Vonnegut, wasn’t it? No — no, that was Samuel Beckett.

Was Beckett good, or perfect?

I, for one, will never say.

Worldcon in Spokane is happening.  My schedule might be finalized. See you there!

How To Recycle Bottom-Drawer Stories

Thanksgiving was pretty amazing. It’s difficult to gather three generations in one house; but we managed it. The bourbon flowed freely, there was much wrestling, discussion of childhoods and future burials, and the revising of wills.

I had been editing a story on the flight there, and it was on my mind while I cleared out half of my belongings that my parents saved for me. Among these was a massive collection of trophies, medals and plaques. Of the three five-foot karate state championship trophies I tossed, I only regret the loss of one. It marked one moment of three big achievements for me: my first black belt competition, my first adult competition, and my first 1st place out of eleven, rather than four others. For weapons forms, no less… my true love.

Those items were a record of my achievements in music, in martial arts, and even (I had forgotten about this) science.

I once knew a brilliant sci-fi author who told me that if he doesn’t like his work, or fails to sell it, he deletes it.

Entire manuscripts — gone!

I couldn’t do that. I’m sure you can relate. Lots of writers have stories gathering dust in the depths of their desks and hard-drives. These are a mix of things we never finished, or failed to sell, or were too precious and fragile for anyone else’s eyes. I can give up trophies. The achievement matters more than the marble; but a story…?

Those physical and digital archives remind me of the stuff that piles up in warehouses and garages. You could chuck it to make room, certainly, but by eschewing materialism there’s also a great loss of one’s own history and context. The important thing is how we relate to that history and context, and how it informs who we become.

I had this story on my mind, remember. The reason it wasn’t working was because it was a literary meditation. Genre fiction hinges on stakes, conflict, and dynamic adventures. When I showed the draft to some other writers I know, I got lots of great thoughts on how to revise. Thing is, they’d all change the direction and crux of the story. It would lose its history and context. In essence, I’d be throwing it away. Or deleting it.

The other option is to pursue all options.

If you don’t want to throw anything away, then use the pieces at hand to build something new.

Think about an old story you have that isn’t working. Then see if you can find the notes and suggestions you got from others. Write all of those stories. Change the names. Change the climate. Before you throw something away, give it a good hard look. Don’t waste a chance to recycle.


“Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.”
— Jack London


“Look on every exit being an entrance somewhere else.”
— Tom Stoppard



The orange one.


In Writing, There Is No Max Score

A creative endeavor is a never-ending journey.  It can be frustrating.  You write and write and work and work but to what end?  You will never finish.  Ever.  Never ever.

How’d that feel to read?

A.  The never-ending journey is a daunting, exhausting sisyphean task.  The boulder will never just sit flat on top of that friggin’ mountain.
Or, B.  The pursuit of mastery is a quest for growth, new understanding of the craft, and more advanced application of that craft.  It gets better and better.

B seems the healthier perspective.  Inherent in any qualitative pursuit is the goal of mastery.

Keeping positive about a never ending task can be difficult.  One method is to use healthy competition.  Everyone reacts to competition in a different way.  For some, it’s an opportunity to measure one’s skill and maybe show off something they’re proud of.  For others –those incapable of discerning defeat from death — it turns them into snarling rage-beasts.  Competition should never be about the opposition, but rather about yourself.  Competition is a tool to gauge where you are now, and how far away your goal is.  Competition lets you mark, surpass, and then set new goals.

Ultimately there may be cash prizes and publication involved, but start smaller.  Small competitions — competitions with yourself or with your fellow writers — can give you just the push you need to improve.  Make a bet with a friend to finish a poem by next Friday.  See how you do.  Writing has no finish line.  There is no maximum score.  Constant growth, new understanding, and application of craftsmanship is your prize, and the prize is the journey.

Bakers, theoretical astrophysicists, and writers all have the same goal in mind: mastery.  Let your victories and losses mark the path of your eternal journey.  Then keep going.

“Writing is a profession you can practice while upside down and experiencing total blackout in a cave. You just use the mental recorder instead of pen and paper … or portable … and hope you find a use for the experience.”
— C. J. Cherryh
“It has to be learned, but it can’t be taught. This bunkum and stinkum of college creative writing courses! The academics don’t know that the only thing you can do for someone who wants to write is to buy him a typewriter.”
— James M. Cain

How Editing is Like Hosting a Thanksgiving Dinner

I’m in the midst of preparing menus for two parties. First, an orphan thanksgiving for local friends, and then traveling to a family dinner.

Have you noticed that despite the fact you you celebrate Thanksgiving every year, it’s never the same as last time? Sometimes there’s a little change, like adding a new side dish to the turkey feast; but sometimes there are massive changes.  Maybe you can’t stand turkey anymore and went for Chinese.  The core ideas were the same — family, feasting, gratitude — but you went about it a totally different way.  It’s a lot like re-writing and revising. 

You know the basics of what’s going to happen.  Thanksgiving has traditions and a theme, and your story has traditions and a theme.  The more experience you have planning the party [or re-working the manuscript], the more your skills and confidence will improve.  Change is necessary, and it’s up to you to say what stays and what goes.

Start small.  Tweaking your dialogue is like tweaking a recipe.  Adding a scene is like inviting a new group of people over.  Then move on to the big stuff.  If your manuscript is too long, think of it like cutting your guest list.  You love your writing, like you love your friends and family—but if your friends and family don’t mesh, one of them can’t come to the party.  Don’t be afraid to hurt feelings, or cut things you’re really proud of.  They can always get their own party later.

You owe it to your guests [readers] to make it the most fun, the most touching, and the most memorable party [story] you can.  Now buckle down and do it.

The most difficult thing is the decision to act; the rest is merely tenacity…
— Amelia Earhart


Discovering Your Voice In Other People


Cast Interview: 10/14.

Mark your calendar and bookmark

After writing short stories and novels for years and years, I’ve made the transition into audio. I’ve had the great fortune to have one of my shows produced by Sherri’s Playhouse and I have to say it’s been an amazing experience. When you finish a piece of writing, you send it off to readers for feedback, and the process can take months. With a play, you’ve got an army of people reading and working with the words immediately. You’ll know within moments whether or not the writing works, and you’ve got all these other people who know your story and know your characters who will help show you why or why not.

That is awesome.

Tonight at 7pm Pacific Standard Time, the cast of Unfortunate Demonic Incident No. 271 will join me to talk about the play, the process, and inner demons. I’m really excited to be able to chitchat about this kind of collaboration, and I’d like to give some background and context for tonight’s show.

Unfortunate Demonic Incident No. 271 burst forth in the middle of the night from a number of unrelated elements, the most of which was an argument over whether or not a necklace would be considered work-appropriate or not. This got me thinking about a number of larger issues surrounding dress code, not the least of which was Chimamanda Adichie’s assertion that hair is political. African braids wouldn’t be considered work-appropriate; nor would Native American braids or long hair on men. Who decided these rules? Are they fair? How can you be yourself, and work toward goals you’re truly passionate about, when our industrial-worker system is designed to stamp that out of you?

With all these petty injustices in mind, consider also: what would it be like if your inner voice was real and beyond your control… a separate entity, vying for power over your mind and your limbs ?

Enter Marron, the demon.

My star, Kara is locked in a constant battle with Marron over control of her life. As the writer and director my job is similar; but I have to say it has also been much more gratifying.

In TV, it’s all about the writer. In movies, it’s all about the director; but in theater (and radio plays definitely count as theater) it’s collaborative. This is an effort put forth by everyone. I’m in the unique position of being able to see all the pieces moving at once:

  • each actor’s individual concerns
  • how they interact with each other
  • the point/message/goal of each scene
  • working out the technical aspects

It has all been fun. It has all been challenging. I find myself constantly looking for ways to make the show better, to make the words clearer, and once everything’s in place, how to make it even cooler.

I guide and facilitate, and then get the hell out of the way.

Be sure to join me tonight for the live cast interview — we’ll be taking questions from the audience.  Tweet #UDI271 to @KatanaPen and spread the word!

Cast Interview: 10/14.

Mark your calendar and bookmark

Until then…