Open to the Bad Signal

Bad Signal by Warren Ellis; cover by Jacen Burrows

I graduated high school in the mid-1980s, went to college and dropped out because girls and booze were way more interesting and I thought I was going to be a rock star.

The rock star thing didn’t work out but I had a helluva lotta fun making music and playing shows. I wish I’d never left college, though. Having a degree would have been helpful in a couple of situations in my day job/career. That said, I never stopped trying to improve my knowledge base. I never stopped learning.

I read a wide variety of science texts and followed politics and though I don’t have any aptitude for math, I learned how to be pretty good at the things I need to know to run a business.

You get that information so that when I tell you that I learn from everything I read, you understand that’s exactly what I mean. I read for enjoyment as much as for how a writer does what he or she does. Sentence structures and word choices are the obvious things. Any author that can increase my vocabulary is one that I will never forget and will likely read again. China Mieville is a current favorite; Elmore Leonard is another one who I’ve learned a great deal from; Edgar Rice Burroughs, Stephen King, and Neil Gaiman all top the list of writers I’ve learned from.

Mieville made it okay for me to use the word ‘and’ to connect ideas. (He also taught me to think about everything that can possibly be connected to what I’m writing about.)  Leonard taught me how to streamline my thoughts. Burroughs renewed my sense that it was okay to go for high adventure. King’s insights, in particular throughout his spectacular On Writing, taught me that it was just fine to reach for the heights and that it’s ultimately okay if you don’t reach them every time, but that shouldn’t stop one from trying again and this time going higher. Gaiman brought me back to fiction after spending a long time away from it and I was encouraged to take what I loved about comic books and start writing stories that encompassed all my interests.

But the the writer who’s taught me the most is Warren Ellis. He’s only got one novel out, Crooked Little Vein, but it wasn’t from his novel that I learned so much. It was from his Bad Signal emails (which he began sending out in 2001 but that I didn’t pick up until 2003). In those emails, he talked about everything that interested him and how he could apply it to his writing or if someone else liked the idea to go with it themselves.

I did just that. Ellis is halfway responsible for me starting up my serialized novel The Long Range. He mentioned in one email (forgive me I don’t have time to look up the date, but it was around 2004 I think) the idea of creating stories in the same way that bands create songs. (I’m probably remembering it wrong, but this is how I remember it. Sorry if it’s wrong.) I took that idea, rolled it around in my head and decided that what I wanted to do was write a series of seemingly disparate stories of at least 6000 words each that would interconnect to tell a larger work. Something that mashed up comics, music, TV and anything even vaguely episodic. There were thirteen stories there and I only missed my deadline once in the entire year I did it.

That project led me to try my hand at writing a novel and then trying to do it in 30 days. I’m talking, of course, about NaNoWriMo and from there I’ve written more and more and even been published since then. Ellis discontinued the Bad Signal in January 2010 but I’ve got every one of them I received. I can go back and read them at my leisure. Ellis has been a huge influence on me in terms of my writing (and even my love of whiskey), but is he my favorite writer? No. He’s just my favorite teacher.

Jason Arnett is a storyteller living in Kansas and writing in the plains of the fantastic. Some of his work can be found at www.jasonarnett.com

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