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Infinging on copyright... all the cool kids are doing it

And if I can do it to Brad, why not Dean?

From the "Letter to the Reader" section of "Strange Highways", a short story collection by Dean Koontz. I'm posting this to my creative writing class' website, and since it took me a good hour to type up, I figured I'd get my mileage worth out of it:

When I was eight years old, I wrote short stories on tablet paper, drew colorful covers, stapled the left margin of each story, put electrician's tape over the staples for the sake of neatness, and tried to peddle these "books" to relatives and neighbors. Each of my productions sold for a nickel, which was extremely competitive pricing -- or would have been if any other obsessive-compulsive writers of grade-school age had been busily exercising their imaginations in my neighborhood. Other children, however, were engaged in such traditional, character-building, healthful activities as baseball, football, basketball, tearing the wings off flies, terrorizing and beating smaller kids, and experimenting with ways to make explosives out of ordinary household products such as laundry detergent, rubbing alcohol, and Spam. I sold my stories with such relentless enthusiasm that I must have been a colossal pest -- like a pint-size Hare Krishna panhandler in a caffeine frenzy.

I had no special use for the pittance that I earned from this activity, no dreams of unlimited wealth. After all, I had taken in no more than two dollars before savvy relatives and neighbors conducted a secret and highly illegal meeting to agree that they wouldn't any longer permit trafficking in hand-printed fiction by eight-year-olds. This, of course, was at least restraint of trade, if not a serious abridgement of my First Amendment rights. If anyone in the United States Department of Justice is interested, I think some of these co-conspirators are still around and available for prison.

Although I had no intention of either investing the nickels in a playground loan-sharking operation or squandering them in Twinkie binges, I knew instinctively that I must charge SOMETHING for my stories if I wanted people to take them seriously. (If Henry Ford had launched the automobile industry by GIVING cars away, people would have filled them with dirt and used them for planters. Today there would STILL be no federal highway system, no drive-in burger joints, a gajillion fewer car chase movies than Hollywood has thus far churned out, and none of those aesthetically pleasing wobbly-headed dog statues with which so many of us accessorize the ledge between the backseat and the rear window.) Nevertheless, when the local fiction-consumer cartel tried to close me down at the age of eight, I continued to produce stories and give them away without charge.

Later, as an adult (or as close as I have gotten to being one), I began to write stories that were published by real publishers in New York City who didn't bind them with staples and electrician's tape and who actually produced more than a single copy of each tale. They paid me more than nickels, too -- although, at first not a lot more. In fact, for years, I wasn't convinced that it was possible to make a living as a writer without a second source of income. Aware that second occupations for writers need to be colorful in order to make good biographical copy, I considered bomb disposal and hijacking airliners for ransom. Fortunately, my wonderful wife's earning capacity, frugality, and awesome common sense prevented me from becoming either a resident of a federal penitentiary or a pile of unidentifiable remains.

Eventually, as my books became best-sellers, the nickels piled up, and one day I was offered a substantial four-book deal that was as lucrative as any airliner hijacking in history. Though writing those four books was hard work, at least I didn't have to wear Kevlar body armor, carry heavy bandoliers of spare ammunition, or work with associates named Mad Dog.

When word of my good fortune got around, some people - including a number of writers - said to me, "Wow, when you finish this contract, you'll never have to write again!" I expected to deliver all four novels before I turned forty-two. What was I then supposed to do? Start frequenting bars that feature dwarf-tossing contests? That is EXACTLY the kind of aberrant and socially unacceptable activity that guys like me are liable to slide into if we don't keep busy.

More to the point, I had written most of my life, undeterred when the pay was poor, unfazed when writing didn't even pay nickels, so I was unlikely to stop when, at least, I found an audience that liked my work. It isn't the money that motivates: It's the love of the process itself, the storytelling, the creation of characters who live and breathe, the joy of struggling to take words and make a kind of music with them as best I can.

Writing fiction can be grueling when I'm on, say, the twenty-sixth draft of a page (some go through fewer than twenty-six, some more, depending on the daily fluctuation in my insanity quotient). After endlessly fussing with syntax and word choice, after having been at the computer ten hours, there are times when I'd much rather be working as a stock clerk in a supermarket warehouse or washing dishes in a steam-filled institutional kitchen -- jobs that I've held, though as briefly as possible. In my worst moments, I'd even rather be gutting halibut in the reeking hold of an Alaskan fishing trawler or, God help me, assisting space aliens with those proctological examinations that they seem intent on giving to hapless, abducted Americans from every walk of life.

But understand: Writing fiction is also intellectually and emotionally satisfying -- and great FUN. If a writer ISN'T having fun when he's working, the stories that he producers are never going to be a pleasure to read. No one will buy them, and his public career, at least, will soon end.

For me, that is the secret to a successful, prolific career as a writer: Have fun, entertain yourself with your work, make yourself laugh and cry with your own stories, make yourself shiver in suspense along with your characters. If you can do that, then you will most likely find a large audience; but even if a large audience is never found, you'll have a happy life. I don't measure success by the number of copies sold but by the delight that I get from the process and the finished work.

Oh yes, from time to time, a rare disturbed individual with a public forum DOES measure my success by what I earn -- and gets really STEAMED about it. The fact that people take pleasure in my work becomes an intolerable personal affront to this odd duck, and he (or she) periodically producers long paragraphs of execrable syntax in support of the proposition that the world is going to hell simply because I am in it and doing all right for myself. (I'm not talking here of genuine critics; critics are a different group, and ninety percent of them like what I do; the other ten percent manage to dislike it without implying either that I have deadly body odor or that I'm an undiscovered serial killer.) Although the work of brilliant medical researchers is routinely reported on page twenty-three, if at all, and although millions of acts of courage and gratuitous kindness go unreported every day, one of these crusaders nevertheless fills astounding amounts of newspaper space with claims, ipse dixit, that I am the literary Antichrist.

I'm not the only target of such stuff, of course; EVERY successful writer is stalked by such weird fauna on occasion. In our house, being a charitable bunch, we kindly refer to these folks as "spiteful malcontents" or "humorless scum." (In more enlightened centuries than ours, they were correctly seen as being possessed by demons and were dealt with accordingly.)

My point -- have faith; one exists -- is that writing for the sheer LOVE of it is even a defense against unprovoked assaults by the spawn of Satan. What these occasional ink-stained stalkers never understand is that even if they were to get their wish, even if no publisher on earth would issue my work, I'd be compelled to write, to make my little books with staples and electrician's tape, if necessary -- and GIVE them copies to annoy them. There is no escape from me. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

*

Most literary agents advise young writers to avoid writing short stories. Spending time on short fiction is widely considered dumb, unproductive, self-destructive, the sure sign of a hopeless amateur, and a reliable indicator that the writer is the progeny of a marriage between first cousins.

This prejudice arises from the hard fact that there are very few markets for short stories. Most magazines do not use them, and annually only a handful of anthologies are published with all-new material. If Edgar Allan Poe were alive today, his agent would be constantly slapping him upside the head with tightly rolled copies of his brilliant short stories and novelettes, yelling, "Full-length novels, you moron! Pay attention! What's the matter with you -- are you shooting heroin or something? Write for the market! No more of this midlength 'Fall of the House of Usher' crap!"

Furthermore, existing markets for short fiction don't pay well. Generally, a short story will earn only a few hundred dollars. If the writer manages to place the piece with Playboy, he might actually make a few THOUSAND bucks for it -- and for the extra compensation, he will happily delude himself into believing that at least one of the magazine's millions of oglers will, in fact, read it. Nevertheless, a short story can take two or three weeks -- or months! -- to write, so even with an occasional Playboy sale, any author concentrating on short fiction will eat a lot of rice and beans -- and even, from time to time, less costly food like hay. After mercilessly pummeling poor troubled Poe with the manuscript of "The Tell-Tale Heart," his agent would no doubt shriek at him, "Novels! Novels, novels, you moron! Writing novels is where the money is, Eddie! Listen, take that weird 'Masque of the Red Death' thing, shorten the title to something punchier like 'Red Death', pump it up to three hundred thousand words, make a doorstop out of it, and then you'll HAVE something! We might even get a film sale! And will you write in a role for Jim Carrey, for God's sake? Couldn't this Red Death character be a little less SOLEMN, Eddie? Couldn't he be a little GOOFY?"

In spite of the risk of being pummeled by our agents and being seen as fools-dreamers-amateurs-geeks by other writers smart enough not to waste their time on short fiction, some of us still manage to squeeze in a short story or a novelette from time to time. That's because ideas come to us that simply will not fly at a hundred and fifty thousand words or more but that haunt us, won't let go of us, DEMAND to be written. So we get out our tablets, our staplers, our rolls of electrician's tape...

This book contains fourteen pieces of fiction shorter than my usual novels. Many of you would probably prefer to have another novel, and one is coming along later in the year (remember, there is no escape from me), but in the meantime, I think you'll enjoy this collection. Actually, a lot of you have been asking for it. Anyway, I had as much fun writing the stories herein as I have writing a novel, so if my aforementioned theory is correct, you'll have fun reading them. I sure hope so. You are the reason that I have a career, and when you lay your money down, you have the right to expect some fun in return. Besides, I don't want any of you to feel that you have to smack me upside the head with this volume; it must weigh a couple of pounds, and if I'm smacked with it too often, I'm going to end up writing even stranger stories than I already do.
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