Fresh FIction Box Not To Miss

Stephen Romano | The Best Writing Advice I Ever Got ~ Win RESURRECTION EXPRESS

September 19, 2012

Stephen RomanoRESURRECTION EXPRESSMy “first novel” was called INVASION OF THE MUTANOIDS.

Yeah, you read that right.

I started scribbling it out in an unlined art book in the winter of 1988.  I had just turned nineteen.  I eventually “published” the book myself in the winter of 1998, after being turned down by every imprint I submitted the damn thing to.  In the ten year gap, in addition to being a writer, my job description included: dishwasher, prep cook, adult book store manager, cameraman for a religious talk show, film director, musician, producer of audiobooks . . . oh, and for an entire year, I paid the rent by selling my body to science.  (This was, incidentally, how Robert Rodriguez footed the bill for his first feature film El Mariachi—and when I say that, I mean that this was exactly the way he did it.  See, the medical research lab I volunteered at was the very same place Robert did his time in my hometown of Austin, Texas;  Inspiring, no?)

During this ten years, I banged away on the novel, never quite sure if it was done, moving forward in fit and starts, like many young writers do when they are first getting their sea legs.   Once the thing was done, it played sort of like Natural Born Killers meets THE Hitchhikers Guide To the Galaxy, with a healthy dose of Gravity’s Rainbow tossed in the soup and liberal dashes of Kurt Vonnegut, Phillip K. Dick and even some William Gibson.

Oh yeah, and the Splatterpunks, too.

I was a big fan of guys like David J. Schow when I was a kid.  Still am, really.  Joe Lansdale was another of my heroes.  John Skipp and Craig Spector, too.  You know, those really nasty guys who got pretty famous and sold a lot of books in the mid to late eighties, mostly paperback originals, featuring all manner of exotic torture and mutilation, done up with a heavy metal backbeat that made them kind of like literary rock stars.  Most of the “boys” went on to become screenwriters in Hollywood with varying levels of success.  A lot of them are still publishing.  (Lansdale never considered himself part of the movement and still hates the label to this day, which may be one of the reasons why he still makes good bread in the biz.)   Invasion of the Mutanoids was kind of my love letter to those whacky Splatterpunks, on top of all the other nutty inspirations.  And I probably had no idea at the time that the bizarre combination of elements I had thrown together, spearheaded by this totally insane stylistic overdrive I’d developed, was something that wouldn’t get me arrested ten years later.   It was sad, but by the time Mutanoids was more or less ready for the world, the ‘punks had come and gone, the fad had died out, some of the more unlucky ones were even broke and starving . . . and, well . . . my book wasn’t really that amazing to begin with.

It was, after all, my “first novel.”

I had gleaned the basics of the craft from devouring a lot of books, but I was still kind of standing on the outside, looking in at guys who were far more skilled in the art of grabbing and holding a reader with visceral storytelling tools.  Also,  I was still really young.  Coming from a fractured and extended family of artists, hippies, sex addicts, dopers, musicians, filmmakers, streetwalkers and Just Plan Crazy People, I had developed a scary worldview, and a weird sense of humor, but tying all that together in a way that would truly involve an audience beyond dazzling (or maybe just bludgeoning) them with a very strange and unpredictable story (not to mention a lot of off-color jokes), was still something I needed to work on.

Still, at the time, MUTANOIDS was my one and only baby, and I hung in there, for better or for worse.  It’s what young writers do.

As an only child coming from the street, I’ve always been a DIY kinda guy.  It never even occurred to me that I might need an agent to champion my work back then.  So I just went out and did it myself.  This was an especially difficult and even cumbersome process at a time when there was virtually no internet, no email, no cell phones, and book submissions had to be done the Very Goddamned Old Fashioned Way:  with phone calls, inquiry letters and giant manuscripts packaged up and sent through the mail.  Mutanoids was a whopper, too: almost eight hundred pages, properly formatted.  This was also an expensive process, and I was very much a starving artist at the time.

As I said before, the book was rejected by everyone I submitted it to.

That happens a lot to young writers also.


Which brings me to the best writing advice I ever got in the biz.

The last editor I approached was Eric Raab, who ran Tor Publishing for many years.  (To this day, some editors will take anybody’s call—go figure.)  Eric seemed like a sharp young go-getter with his thumb on the pulse of the cutting edge, which was basically the post end-days period of splatterpunk, when a lot of edgy horror stuff was still coming out, but getting less and less so all the time.  When I described my book to Eric as NATURAL BORN KILLERS meets THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, he perked right up and said: “Golly, man, that sounds like exactly what we’re looking for right now.”  Needless to say, I was hyped by this, and mailed off the big-ass manuscript in a happy fog, hoping to conquer the world with Eric as my champion.

It wasn’t in the cards, obviously.

And I am calling out Eric by name here, but not because I am bitter so many years later that he rejected my book.  He had every right to.  The book was terrible.  However, he read every page, dutifully . . . even painfully, I’m sure . . . and I want to thank him openly for that.  But mostly I want to thank him for what he wrote in the letter that accompanied the returned 800-page package.  The exact words (and I don’t have to go digging up the letter, either; I have it memorized) were this:

“While I appreciated the (overall) offbeat tone of the work, I’m afraid that, in the end, I just didn’t become involved with the story viscerally, as a reader.”

Twenty eight words, people.

The best writing lesson I ever received from anyone, anywhere, EVER.

When I decided a year later to self-publish a limited vanity run of INVASION OF THE MUTANOIDS (that’ll show the bastards!), Eric’s words were foremost on my mind during the revising and editing process.  When I continued writing new projects, this time creating the short stories that would win my first critical acclaim, Eric’s words were foremost on my mind.   I struggled hard through life experiences such as death, heartbreak, loneliness, drug and alcohol addiction, and all of those things became the worldview that shaped my art and spurred me on as a maker of words-on-paper . . . but the visceral imperative, that final, almost imperceptible push that my skill set as a writer required, was always foremost on my mind.

I needed to involve people.  I needed to put them in the soup.

I began reading people like Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk.  I went back to Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson.  I began to see what Eric was talking about.  I even revisited my Splatterpunk chums, particularly Dave Schow, who were masters of visceral involvement, especially when it came to action sequences.

During this time, I also discovered a writer who would become one of my personal gods, for many reasons.  Andrew Vacchs.

Andrew seemed like a strange bird to me at first: a NYC lawyer who had been frustrated by the reception his textbook on child abuse had gotten, and so had turned his energies to disguising his crusade as bracing, stylized crime fiction.  The irony is that those books have, of course, made him one of the most respected noir writers in the world.  He also happens to be one of the best no-bullshit prose stylists I’ve ever read.  He wrote this in the introduction to his incredible short story collection, Born Bad:

“Writing short stories is like boxing in a very small ring.  You have to get busy quickly, and it costs a lot more if you make mistakes.”

He wasn’t kidding around.  Andrew’s short stories were like revelations.  They were fast, stabbing, sometimes just a single page long, fired by deep beliefs and harrowing truths, all centered around the urban nightmare of violence and child abuse.  Moreover, they were also chillingly real—as in actually real, cribbed directly from a lifetime of terrifying experiences with disenfranchised youths.  But more than all that, the style was simple and visceral in a way I’d never seen before.  Then I read Andrew’s novel SHELLA—which was, essentially, one of his stories made a little bit longer—and it blew my mind. It remains my favorite piece of hard-boiled noir fiction to this day and one of my Top Ten Books of All Time.

And so . . . during this period, my whole perception of the form changed.  But it didn’t happen overnight.  I had to work years for it.  This was like attending graduate school, and what ultimately made me into a real professional writer.

INVASION OF THE MUTANOIDS, was finally “released” in an negligible vanity run of just over three hundred copies.  My reasoning at the time was that it would be a great “calling card” to give away to other writers and to publishers.  I was sort of half right about that.  My hero Joe Lansdale did read it, and said he liked it a lot, which made me feel pretty good—that’s why they call it a vanity pressing, after all.  We became friends, too, and even collaborated on film projects later in my career.

Publishing your own book, by the way, was a difficult and expensive undertaking back in in the fall of 1997, in the days before Print On Demand.  I worked for two years in a video store to pay for it all.  I had to hire a designer, I used a local printer.  I even contracted an illustrator to do the cover and some beautiful interior work.   I still actually still think the best part of that book are the pretty pictures.  Jim Keating, who eventually did all that great work for free, presented me with the original 27X40 oil painting of the cover illustration, which still hangs on my wall in the living room.  It’s at once a chilling reminder of where I began, and where I was going.  Not to mention a really great conversation starter.  It kind of looks like what would happen if H.R. Gieger and Doctor Seuss had a baby which vomited Clive Barker’s HELLRAISER.

Bottom line:  INVASION OF THE MUTANOIDS was schoolwork, people.  You have to learn how to fall before you fly.  That’s why I never even purchased an ISBN number for the book.  I wanted it off the radar, in my own private training camp.

What came next was my real career.

And my real first novel, written just over ten years later.

That novel is RESURRECTION EXPRESS, and it comes out this week from Gallery Books at Simon and Schuster.  It’s been a hell of a ride.

I hope you’ll come with me for the rest of it.

Stephen Romano

Visit website

To comment on Stephen Romano’s blog please click here.

No Comments

Comments are closed.