Category Archives: Literary Endeavors

Hang A Crooked Number, Now With Middleman Removed

Hi! Lately, I’ve been begging asking people to purchase my new novel, Hang A Crooked Number, at the ebook retailer of their choice. The reception thus far has been heartening and supportive, and the death threats have been kept to an acceptable minimum.

However, I’ve received some queries from folks who don’t own an e-reader of any kind yet would still like to read the book. And while there are no plans afoot to publish this book the traditional way (i.e., using dead trees), I did want to make some concessions to folks who are interested in Hang A Crooked Number but don’t have a Kindle or an iPad or what have you. It also occurred to me that there are many folks who’d rather not put dough in the pockets of Amazon and their ilk, an attitude for which I can hardly blame you.

If you fall into one or more of these categories, you’re in luck as of today. I’m now making Hang A Crooked Number available for purchase from Scratchbomb itself (via Gumroad) in both epub and PDF formats. This should satisfy the needs of both people who don’t have e-readers and people who hate Amazon for one reason or another. Plus, I get a bigger cut of the retail price when you buy it via Gumroad, if that does anything for ya. I know it does something for me. So, in summation, purchase away!

Buy the epub

Buy the PDF

Hang A Crooked Number: Available Now

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Cover art by Tony Morais

I wrote a novel called Hang A Crooked Number. It is about a world where baseball is an elaborate front for the operations of a domestic intelligence organization called The Moe Berg Society. It is narrated by a minor league recruit who is mired in a horrific slump on both sides of his work, unable to work his way to the big leagues as either a hitter or a spy, while being caught between rival factions fighting for control of the organization. It’s about some other things, too, but we’ll start there. And it has serious parts and funny parts (parts I intended to be serious and funny, anyway). I’m letting you know about this because I think some people might like it.

As this novel made its final steps to becoming a Real Live Book, my first impulse was to write a huge post detailing its journey from idea to reality, why I took so long to write it, commentary on those Other Things alluded to above, the evolution of my thoughts about fiction in particular and writing in general…

I wrote this very lengthy post, more to remind myself of the journey this novel took from the time when the idea first came to me. Then I crumpled up that post and tossed in the trash, because it would be of no interest to anyone outside of my head. Maybe you’d care about how long it took me to write this novel or what I went through in the intervening years if I was Some Important Author, but I ain’t. Last time I checked, I was known (if at all) as a semi-pro enthusiast of Edgardo Alfonzo, Action Park, and Steampipe Alley. You are well within your rights to not give a shit about my “process.”

Furthermore, I shouldn’t attempt to explain a piece of work whose primary function is to explain itself. I’m reminded of something Elvis Costello once said during a live show: “People are always asking me, ‘What does that song mean?’ If I could have said it in a way other than how I said it in the song, I would have written another song, wouldn’t I?”

So, though brevity is not my strong suit, I will keep this as short and sweet as I can:

Hang A Crooked Number is now out in the world, available to eyes that might enjoy a novel about baseball and spies and some other things. If you believe you own such a set of eyes, it can be purchased at Amazon, iTunes, or Smashwords for the ridiculously low price of $2.99. (Other retailers to follow.) I figure that’s plenty cheap for anyone to take a chance on a novel about spies and baseball written by Some Dude. If you are fortunate enough to own an ebook reading device yet consider $2.99 too much to spend on an ebook, all I can say is good luck to you, sir or madam.

If you do take a chance on this novel and find you like what you read, leave a nice review on Amazon and tell a friend. Leave something nice up on Goodreads, if that’s a thing you do. Tweet or Facebook about it. Every little whisper helps. I’m just one person without any sort of machine working for me, so this is how more eyes will get a chance to read it. That is all I want and all I can want.

Thank you.

Contested

I may have mentioned this before several thousand times, but I’ve written a novel. It’s called Hang A Crooked Number. Here is what I say about the novel to people who may wish to represent or publish it:

Backstop lives a double life, and both are crumbling. To the outside world, Backstop appears to be a minor league catcher of rapidly diminishing skills. In truth, he is an operative in training for The Moe Berg Society, a secret intelligence group that uses baseball as a front for its spy work. The mysterious disappearance of his fellow trainee, Mark, has plunged him into a career-threatening slump. Backstop gets one last chance at proving his worth when his handler asks him to investigate a connection between rumors of a mole and The Scouts, a faction of old-school spies hell-bent on seizing leadership of The Society. His mission is complicated by his new roommate, The Swing, an aging slugger working on a major league comeback, and by Brooke, a tenacious reporter who suspects Backstop holds the key to her investigation into Mark’s disappearance. With one eye on his plummeting batting average and the other on the mounting casualties of his mission, Backstop attempts to unravel a conspiracy that could change the game forever before he unravels himself.

This is the logline (industry terms!). Out of necessity, this omits a lot of what the book is. At the risk of explaining a thing that should serve to explain itself (like art is supposed to do), I can say that Hang a Crooked Number is about a lot of things that have almost nothing to do with spies, or baseball, or an imaginary world that has spies in baseball. A friend of mine who read it described it as “very New York,” which I took as a compliment. What I’m saying is, if you don’t dig baseball and/or spy novels in the slightest, I think you might still enjoy it.

The reason I’m going on about this is because I would like you to know Hang a Crooked Number is currently in the running for something called the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. The novel has made it to the quarterfinals, in fact, and is one of about 100 titles under consideration in the General Fiction category. I entered the novel in the general fiction category because despite the novel’s genre shell, I think it’s closer to literary fiction than anything else. (See: defensive overexplaining above.) I’m normally suspicious of any contest that would allow me to advance this far, but they haven’t asked me for any money or to crash on my couch yet, so I think I’m safe.

If you want a tiny glimpse of the novel, Amazon is offering free ebook excerpts of all the quarterfinalists; mine can be found here. If this were in print form, what you get would only be the first 10-15 pages or so. But hey, it’s free, innit? I don’t think people downloading and/or reviewing this excerpt on Amazon will have any bearing whatsoever on whether or not Hang a Crooked Number progresses to the next rung on the contest ladder. But I don’t think it will hurt its chances either, if you catch my drift.

This novel will see the light of day, one way or another. If it’s via this contest, great. If it’s via the more old school method of agent pitching to editor over a three-martini lunch, great. If I have to make and distribute an ebook myself, great. If I have to tattoo it on my back and walk down the beach, great. My primary interest is to see it available to as many people as possible. That probably eliminates the tattooing option, but never say never.

Alright, as you were.

The New Quadruple-A Landscape of Writing

One thing I love about writing is that it can demonstrate someone being remarkably perceptive and oblivious all at once. To witness this phenomenon, read Stephen Marche’s latest piece for Esquire, in which he attempts to argue that we live in a “golden age” of writing. I found myself agreeing with a few of its assertions, yet also felt this agreement was negated by how much the author got wrong, chose to ignore, or could not perceive about the modern writing landscape.

In his article, Marche argues that ye olden days had plenty of bad or just plain boring writing, and I agree. He also disdains the “woe is me” attitude so pervasive among writerly types, which I believe is important. Every writer, at some point or another, firmly believed his/her beautiful art and soul were being crushed by a cruel, unfeeling world. One’s ability to produce work worth writing is directly proportional one’s ability to move beyond this narcissistic mindset. Otherwise, you spend the time you should be writing looking in the mirror, admiring your own bruises.

However, Marche’s stated aim was to show our era as a golden age for writing, and in this he fails. This is because the support for his thesis stems from how spectacularly rich authors like J.K Rowling and Tom Wolfe have become. By the same logic, you could point to J.P Morgan and John D. Rockefeller and say the Gilded Age was one of vast prosperity. It all depends on one’s notion of a Golden Age. Does that mean mountains of wealth displayed by the Morgans and Rockefellers of the world, or does it mean everyone is able to pay their bills?

Continue reading The New Quadruple-A Landscape of Writing

Curate Yourself! Starring Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker after it was discovered he’d fabricated a series of “quotes” from Bob Dylan. Thinking you could get away with putting words in the mouth of the most obsessively studied songwriter of the last 100 years might mean Lehrer possessed a Rasputin-like notion of his own indestructibility. Or, it could say less about Lehrer specifically and more about a transformation in ideas of what we expect from media and entertainment.

I wrote about a similar issue earlier this year when I laced into a Verizon commercial that ripped off an SNL ad parody from the early 1990s. What struck me about that Verizon commercial was not only how blatant the concept robbery was, but how long it took me to notice it, which indicated either no one else had noticed it or the world at large was completely unconcerned with the theft.

The Verizon spot didn’t run for very long–suggesting perhaps they got cold feet about such wanton thievery–but it also didn’t garner much outrage outside of media types, ad-centric blogs, and weird trainspotters like myself. Google “Verizon SNL bad idea” and the aforementioned Scratchbomb post is fourth from the top, which is usually a good sign that nobody cares about a subject but me.

When thinking about Verizon’s ripoff and why no one seemed to care, it occurred to me that in our reference-oriented culture, there is no longer a shared concept of what constitutes stealing an idea.

So many folks out there in TV Land may interpret this Verizon ad as more of an homage to Bad Idea Jeans than a ripoff. And for all I know, the ad’s creators may honestly see it that way, too. They don’t think they’ve “gotten away” with something; they think they’re playing by the New Rules. What passes for a new idea in the 21st century is being the first guy to complete bite something we’ve seen before.

While the Jonah Lehrer incident is a bit of a different animal, I think they’re in the same wing of the zoo. Both reflect a shift in attitudes in what both the writer and the reader expect from content.

Continue reading Curate Yourself! Starring Jonah Lehrer

Yells For Ourselves Available at iTunes

Last week, The Classical published an excerpt from Yells For Ourselves, an alternate history of the 1999-2000 New York Mets. Once again, if you’re curious what “alternate history” means and why this subject warrants one, I direct you to the introduction posted at the book’s official website here.

When the excerpt was posted, I also put up a link that would allow you to download a preview of the book for the iPad containing animations, functionality, and other goodies that will be found in the full product. I really want to get this preview in lots of peoples hands–or devices, I guess–but as you can imagine, that’s difficult to do when I’m the only person distributing it.

That’s why I am now proud to announce that this preview has been accepted by the iTunes Store, which means you can totally, officially get it for your iPad. And it is totally free, so click here to download it, review it, and spread the word.

I can’t stress these last two items enough. iTunes’ arcane algorithms give a lot of weight to reviews, so the more reviews this thing gets, the more attention it will get. If you know anybody with an iPad, let ’em know about this. Grab people on the street if you have to. They’ll be cool about it, probably.

Any and all feedback welcomed on this preview (provided it’s more constructive than YOU SUCK). I hope to have a Kickstarter thingy set up for this project within a month or so and will keep everyone posted. Until then, download it, love it, review it, share it. Deal?

Ebook Seeks Readers for Touchscreen Fun

For the past few forevers, I’ve been working on an ebook called Yells For Ourselves, a multi-volume alternate history of the 1999-2000 Mets. For more info on exactly what that “alternate history” means, you can glean more details at this here link. The reason it’s taken so long is because I’m trying to make a spiffy, enhanced thing that’s somewhere between a book and an app, something that aims to be both a work of research and fun to interact with. It’s taken a lot of trial and error–mostly error–to figure what I could and could not do, what was feasible, and in what format it was most ideally presented.

My initial plan was to take a regular ebook, crack it open, and add spiffy enhancements to it–primarily, audio and video. That plan fell through when said A/V enhancements proved prohibitively costly to license, and I was forced to rethink exactly what I wanted to do with this thing.

So I started from scratch and created a more design-oriented book using Apple’s iBooks Author tool. I had the iPad primarily in mind for my original plan–it remains one of the few devices that can handle enhanced ebooks–so this was a natural step to take. Apart from allowing me to include all kinds of animations and other goodies, iBooks Author enabled me to create an ebook that actually looks good from a design standpoint, whereas design is not even a remote concern for most ebook interfaces. There are issues with this program, as there are with any Apple product (it definitely reflects their “it’s our way or the highway” approach), but it also necessitated the least amount of compromise between my ideal vision of this work and what was feasible. I do plan to produce a no-frills version of Yells For Ourselves for other devices, but I found the possibilities of producing an iPad-centric enhanced ebook too intriguing to pass up.

Now, I finally have a sample that I’m ready to show to the world. When I say “sample,” I mean that I have an introduction and one chapter that demonstrate what the complete book will look like and be able to do. I’m still not 100 percent decided if I will use Kickstarter initiative to fund this. The biggest costs involved with making this dream a reality are incorporation (so I can sell it), ISBN purchase (so I can sell it at all ebook retailers), and image licensing, which is the really big one. For the moment, most of the artwork in Yells For Ourselves is just that: artwork of my own creation. But I would like to include some for-real iconic imagery from these seasons, and that, friends, runs into money.

If I do Kickstart Yells For Ourselves, I need a tangible slice of it to show the world and say “This is what your money will help make.” If I don’t Kickstart it, I still need to entice potential purchasers. Whichever route I take, I still have to make sure that this thing works and reassure myself that people might actually want it–and will be accepted on the Apple Store. Since I can’t learn these things on my own, I’ve made this sample available for your perusal and beta-testing enjoyment. I am interested in any and all feedback, but I am primarily looking for notes on the interactivity in the ebook.

If you’d like to check out this sample for yourself, it is available via Gumroad at the button below. Before downloading, however, please keep two things in mind:

  1. This book is designed for the iPad, so if you don’t have an iPad, it ain’t gonna work for ya. It’s an iBook file, so there’s a slim chance it’ll work on an iPhone, but I can’t vouch for that and wouldn’t recommend it anyway.
  2. The Gumroad button below brings you to a separate web page where you can download the sample. It will ask you to “name a fair price.” This is FREE. Enter 0 and you’re good to go. Don’t send any money, I beg of you!

Yells For Ourselves: Sample

Again, any and all feedback is welcomed, and you can send that feedback to yellsforourselves at gmail dot com. If you do not have an iPad, that is your right as an American. But if you’d still like to see check out the book’s content, you have a couple of options. First off, over at the book’s blog, you can read its full introduction, which serves as a sort of manifesto/statement of purpose for the larger work. You can also check out an excerpt from the book that at The Classical. The excerpt is a condensed version of a pivotal chapter in the book, the same chapter that’s contained in the sample.

If you’re more the visual type, I’ve provided some screenshots from the ebook after the jump.

Continue reading Ebook Seeks Readers for Touchscreen Fun

Discarded Markers

You probably don’t know what this is. I didn’t know what it was when I first saw it. This comes from a coworker of mine, who was cleaning out her desk and decided she could finally part with this register mark dispenser.

In the days before digital publishing, books and magazines were laid out by hand, using lots of tape and glue and X-Acto knives. Blocks of text were meticulously constructed, calculating the character count with monastic dedication, so you would know if a photo that you couldn’t resize without an enormous hassle would fit on the page. When the layout was finalized, you had to place these register marks on the margins of each page. Each of the colors in four-color printing (CMYK) were printed in separate print runs, so these register marks ensured that all the colors would be properly aligned. This was essential, because even slightly misaligned colors produce an unsettling “vibration” effect.

I’ve worked in publishing of one type or another my entire adult life, going all the way back to college. And yet, I’d never seen an item like these stickers. By the time I entered the industry, publishing had already abandoned typesetting by hand. Quark XPress, Pagemaker, and their brethren had made that trade as dead as vaudeville disco. These new layout programs not only removed the tedious algebra of character counts and pica rulers, but they also placed those handy register marks right on the document for you.

At first glance, these register mark stickers struck me as quaint and archaic, in the same category as bygone office equipment such as the intercom and the Dictaphone. But in truth, these stickers were still in heavy rotation much more recently. Thirty years ago, most publishers still needed them by the boatload. A decade later, nearly none of them did. Ten years might seem like a long time in the Internet Age, but in the history of an industry as old as publishing, it’s the blink of an eye.

Continue reading Discarded Markers

Soundtracking

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but writing a novel is kind of hard. One the main reasons it is so hard is the time needed to complete it, time that can be spent in so many ways that don’t involve sitting at home by yourself in front of the computer screen. Not to mention that simply being at a computer screen offers so many distractions. I’m constantly worried that I’m “missing” something on Twitter; breaking news about the Mets, perhaps, which I am semi-professionally obligated to keep on top of, or perhaps a hilarious meme that cries out for my contributions.

One of the biggest enemies of novel writing is lack of focus, be it internet enabled or just the wandering of mind that tends to happen when you have to do one thing and one thing only. My biggest problem is I’m a multitasker by nature. I find it extremely difficult to work on one single thing when I have ideas for a dozen others, all of them vying for headspace. When it comes to shorter nonfiction stuff, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with working on more than one project simultaneously. But that method is deadly for fiction writing in general and novel writing in particular.

Colson Whitehead (whose novels The Intuitionist and John Henry Days are in my own person canon) wrote a great piece about this a few years back for the Times, “What To Write Next.” The intent was humorous, but even more so than the jokes, what struck me about the piece was its subtext: The writer’s fear that you’re toiling away on one thing when you can and should be working on something else, an impulse that can prevent you from doing anything at all.

An excellent way to combat this lack of focus is through music. I’m far from the first person to point this out, but I feel compelled to share my thoughts anyway, as I owe a debt to all the music I listened to while writing this book. I know I wouldn’t have been able to do it without clasping headphones to my dome and letting music push the outside world away for a while.

I found listening to albums (remember those?) helped the most. A complete album–a good one, anyway–immerses you in a universe, which helps you focus your energies and attention for the running time and hopefully beyond. The albums I listened to most often while writing Love and a Short Leash were:

  • Miles Ahead, Miles Davis
  • Double Nickels on the Dime, The Minutemen
  • Mikal Cronin S/T
  • David Comes to Life, Fucked Up
  • Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, Guided By Voices
  • Get Happy!, Elvis Costello
  • Singles 06-07, Jay Reatard
  • The Tyranny of Distance, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
  • Melted, Ty Segall
  • Murmur, R.E.M.

In addition to these records, I also got sucked into various boots of Petit Wazoo/Roxy and Elsewhere-era Mothers of Invention shows (1972-1974). I can’t quite explain why; I listened to a ton of Frank Zappa in high school and college, but only rarely since then. This was an addiction I thought I’d conquered. Whatever the reason, my desire to listen to this music again reemerged right when I was finishing up my final draft, and I’m glad it did. I found the funk-and-jazz charged jams of this era of Frank Zappa’s oeuvre to be helpful for this particular stage of my toil.

I found that commercial radio doesn’t help me all that much, with its incessant breaks and complete lack of imagination, but listening to WFMU definitely did. I did most of my work on the weekends, and the Saturday afternoon block of Michael Shelley, Fool’s Paradise with Rex, and especially Terre T’s Cherry Blossom Clinic powered me through many marathon writing sessions.

To honor this debt, I wanted to share a playlist of songs that were often drilled into my ears when writing the novel. Some have particular resonance for reasons related to novel’s plot/subject matter, some are mood setters, and some are just bitchin’ tunes. I’ve arranged them in an order that helps my own process: Get pumped up, settle in, shot of energy, scale back again, repeat. I’m not sure if this will be instructive to anyone or if it really shares anything except a glimpse into my weird headspace. But hey, you get some rad tunes, so shut your noise. Playlist available here, deets after the jump.

Continue reading Soundtracking

The Finish Line

This weekend, this happened.

Which is to say, Love and a Short Leash, the novel I wrote about here and have been mentioning obliquely and incessantly in various social media platforms is finally complete. Now it is ready to take flight in this big, terrible world and hopefully find a cozy nest somewhere. Metaphors!

I am not ruling out self-publishing. I’ve seen more and more people go this route, and not just odd cranks and fanfic enthusiasts, but for-real authors. The idea of having complete ownership over my creative output is very appealing to me, and I have the ebook chops to make my own digital novel with ease. However, what I don’t have is the reach, influence, and free time to hustle and get this book into as many hands as I’d like. And I do feel that, considering the insane amount of time and I spent writing this thing, I owe myself the effort of seeing if more conventional channels want to publish it. If that doesn’t pan out…well, I’ll just burn that bridge when I get to it.

This book began in its life as a short story I wrote when I was in the MFA program at Brooklyn College. The head of program then was Michael Cunningham, author of the The Hours (among other novels). In the first class I had with him, a sort of “freshman seminar” for brand new MFA candidates, he told the assembled hopeful writers, “The world doesn’t want your stories.”

What he meant was, nobody is out there begging for you to finish your work. If you set out to write something and you never finish it, nobody will be banging on your door to demand it. This applies to every creative endeavor, but especially so to writing. The world is a big place and it will get along just fine without you and your thoughts and your dreams, thank you very much.

I don’t believe Michael said this to be discouraging or to intimidate us, drill-sergeant-style. I took it as a simple reminder that writing is really, really, really hard (see?), and there is already so much of it, more than any human could read in 10 lifetimes, that one more story is a tiny drop in an infinitesimally large bucket, and you must know this before you pick up a pen or sit down at a keyboard.

When I began writing this novel, I operated under this assumption: Nobody wants this thing. Sometimes this attitude gives you a sense of defiant me vs. the world-ism, which can be useful in the solitary endeavor of writing. But it can also be a crushingly depressing outlook if you’re inclined to dark thoughts, which is me in spades. I blame my genes. My Irish side gets the big ideas, my German side makes me do the hard work, and then both sides gang up to whisper What’s the point, really? That negativity, plus not having long stretches of time to work on this novel, is what caused me to abandon this book at long stretches.

Last year, I resolved to push past this feeling and finally finish a draft of this novel that had lingered on my hard drive and in my mind since 2004. I still had the idea Nobody wants this thing at the back of my head. However, I also began to make regular updates on Twitter and Facebook about my progress. I tried to make the updates an even mix of clinical (how much I’d done and how much I had yet to do) and affirmation/self encouragement (e.g., “THIS IS GONNA MELT YOUR FACE, GUYS.”).

I did this for much the same reason I made similar updates regarding my efforts to get into shape: To create public accountability. (Idea admittedly stolen from Drew Magary’s Public Humiliation Diet.) If I talked online about how I was working out, it’s that much more embarrassing to walk around looking like a land monster, because then people will whisper Oh, he gave up… Likewise, if I kept posting novel updates, that obliged me to continue until I finished. Otherwise, when people asked me about it, I’d have to do the dance of, Yeah, I was working on that book for a while, but you know, I’ve been so busy…

In doing this, I found that many people–real-life friends, online friends, and virtual strangers alike–were both supportive and curious, sending encouragement while wanting to know more about the novel. Especially since I finally completed my first draft, I’ve gotten heartening pats on the back and atta boys from so many people, which is amazing motivation for an endeavor where the payoff comes much, much later, if at all. And as I reached the home stretch, with the end in sight, I got some genuine I can’t wait to read this thing notes from people I love and admire. This, more than anything else, enabled me to power my way to the end.

I still believe it’s best to approach the whole writing business–particularly the novel writing business–assuming that no, the world doesn’t want your stories. But I also found that when you share the journey, even in the most cursory way, the world might like to hear those stories anyway.

So, anybody wanna publish a novel?