Tag Archives: writing

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Consider Doing More Than Nothing

I’ve pulled my book from Amazon.

Doing this will cause me no hardship whatsoever, either now or in the foreseeable future. My novel Hang A Crooked Number has sold as many copies as it will ever sell, having gone over like the proverbial lead balloon. I have no writing career that a break from Amazon could damage. I’m no threat to acquire such a career any time soon; I once thought writing would be my vocation, but I’ve accepted that it will be nothing more than a hobby.

In other words, this move involves almost no sacrifice on my part. The stakes could not be lower for me. I’m pulling my book anyway.

I was ambivalent at best about putting my book on Amazon to begin with. Did I really want to associate myself with a company that had destroyed Main Street as thoroughly and ruthlessly as Wal-Mart, if not more so?* One that’s laid to waste thousands of stores across the country, and apparently has its eye on taking out shipping companies, too?

I weighed Amazon’s force of evil against my desire to see lots of people to read my book and eventually decided to side with the latter. Since my novel was only going to be available in ebook format, I wanted it to be available in the format most people use to read ebooks. I saw a caravan full of demons barreling down the road and stuck my thumb out to hitch a ride, figuring As long as they’re going my way…

I believe the word for this kind of reasoning is “chicken-shit.”

We all do this in some form or another, making explicit or implicit compromises with distasteful organizations because they might make our lives easier for a moment. It’s not that we don’t care. We just don’t want to care all the time. Life is hard. We treasure those brief moments where one minute hassle has been removed from our days.

Many people who use Amazon are fully aware of, and have issues with, the company’s lowballing and bullying tendencies, its rapacious hunger to devour all competition, and its pitiful record of charitable donations compared to other giant corporations. We hit pause on these concerns because we really want to be able to pick up a deck chair and a pair of shoes and a DVD set without driving to three different stores.

Just a few weeks ago, I ordered a few items from Amazon, reasoning that it was hard to find them at local stores because there weren’t many local stores where I could find those items. It wasn’t until my package arrived that it occurred to me Amazon was the reason those local stores had disappeared.

By all accounts, this was Jeff Bezos’s intention from Day One: Become so large and eliminate so much competition that concerns about how you play the game become immaterial, because you are the only game in town. If you could bring to life a Gilded Age robber baron’s wet dream, this would be it.

Amazon’s current tiff with Hachette is just the latest example of what happens when you let some evil slide for a while for the sake of convenience. In a fit of caprice befitting an inbred Renaissance monarch, Amazon has stopped selling certain books because one publisher dared say no to them. The company actually has the balls to tell customers to seek these books out elsewhere, knowing full well that there are few elsewheres to seek out (especially when it comes to books), and that they’ve trained their customer base to look upon any offline shopping experience as an insufferable ordeal.

I don’t know if I’ll ever write another book, or if I’ll write much of anything in the future. I do know that I would like someone to keep writing books, and I would like those books to be available in as many channels as possible. I do know that I don’t want publishing to devolve into the same state as other culture industries, to become a Brazil ruled by a small coterie of the super-elite perched atop a sea of dog-eat-dog favelas stretching out in every direction.

And so I’d rather not be a part of something that is actively working toward that end, however infinitesimally small my part might be. On the off chance anyone still wants to read my novel, it can now be purchased here. I’ll trade the loss of hypothetical reach offered by Amazon for the knowledge that whatever future pennies are spent on my book won’t line Amazon’s pockets.

Pulling my book from Amazon is barely doing anything, but it’s not doing nothing. Consider doing more than nothing.

Bedtime

“Why can’t you go to the movies tomorrow?” she asks.

“Because I have to work,” I say. “Your school has the day off, but my office doesn’t.”

“You have to go and write books?”

“No, that’s not my job.”

She fixes me with a quizzical look. When I lock myself away to write at home, I often tell her I have to work. I now realize this has led her to think writing is what I do for my job-job. For a moment I believe I’ve disappointed her, but really I’ve only disappointed myself.

“I don’t get paid to write,” I explain. “I do it in my free time.”

“You write for fun?”

“It’s not really fun, but…”

“You should make a book of your stories. Like, from your life. They’re funny!”

“What would you put in that book?”

The Salty Dog story, and, um…I don’t know, but they’re funny. You should tell more people your stories and get paid for that and that would be your job instead.”

“That’s not going to happen.”

“Why not?”

A million things spring to mind, a million things that stab and bubble inside my brain all day when I’m away from her, at my “real” job, but I can say none of them. Not to her.

“Well…It’s very hard to make a living as a writer, and people don’t seem too interested in the things I want to…”

“Battery roll!”

“What?”

Battery roll, that’s another good story you have.”

“Yeah, I like that one, too. I don’t think anybody wants a book about this stuff.”

“Then make something else with it.”

“Like what?”

*shrug*

“Alright, under the covers now. I love you.”

“Say ‘don’t let the bed bugs bite’,” she commands.

“Don’t let the bed bugs bite,” I say.

Click.

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?

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Embracing the Audience of One

Years ago, I worked on a biography of Jean Shepherd, performing research and doing interviews with people who worked with him. As I’ve written on this site many times, Shepherd is one of my artistic heroes, someone whose craft I admire as something uniquely his own which has no real parallel before or since. But the more I delved into his life, the more it seemed he was a damaged, strange man.

It was difficult to find people who knew Shepherd in his heyday and were also willing and able to talk. Many of his contemporaries and friends had died; others, like Jules Feiffer and Paul Krassner, proved difficult to contact. The same went for people I knew or suspected were influenced by him. I was aware Terry Gilliam had been a Shep fan in his youth, and I even had some contact info for the man, since the company I worked for had done a few books about his films. Alas, he did not return my faxes. (Yes, this was a long time ago.) Garrison Keillor wrote me a brief but polite letter in which he stated he grew up in Minnesota and therefore Shepherd–whose primary radio work was done in New York–didn’t really have any influence on him.

One of the few people who’d worked with him whom I was both able to get in touch with and wanted to talk to me was Fred Barzyk, who had produced most of Shepherd’s television work for PBS. At Barzyk’s invite, I was able to go to the WGBH archives in Boston and view some of these shows, most of which have not been seen on TV in decades. This included an odd show where Shep stood on a dock in Boston Harbor and delivered a version of his radio show there directly to the camera, monologuing for half an hour and then abruptly stopping.

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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.

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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?

Working

I recently acquired new dresser drawers, something I do maybe once a decade. This necessitated relocating the top drawer of my old dresser, which was basically my Treasured Memories Trove. I never looked at any of this stuff, mind you. If I thought I wanted to keep something for posterity, I just shoved it in the drawer, figuring one day I would be able to find it again. A fool-proof plan!

Unfortunately, in the middle of trying to transfer my Treasured Memories to their new home, I stumbled and completely unended the old drawer, spilling tons of stuff I forgot I had all over my bedroom floor. It felt like dropkicking my entire life.

Though I was alone in my bedroom, this filled me with a deep, red-face shame, and I tried to shovel all my Treasured Memories back into the old drawer in the most inelegant way possible. I didn’t dare glance at most of them, save for the most valuable items that caught my eye. A silver bracelet my grandfather wore throughout World War II. My dad’s last passport. The only foul ball I ever “caught” at a major league baseball game (quotes = long story).

I had to retrieve one errant piece that floated across the room, away from the other stuff, a rectangular swatch of pale posterboard that caught a drift and slipped away. I had no idea what it might be until I picked it up.

It was a postcard I received a long time ago. On one side, tour dates for a band. On the other, a note from one of my heroes, someone I was lucky enough to correspond with for a while.

I don’t mean to be vague or to tease, but for the purposes of this tale, it doesn’t matter who this person is to anyone but me. Suffice to say, this came from someone I admired immensely, and still do. This is what they wrote (in part):

Loved yr last letter. If yr book is 1/2 as good, it will change everything.

My heart swelled. I had completely forgotten all about receiving this postcard, and I felt like I was reading it for the first time, getting this praise for the first time.

And then, I turned over the card and looked at the postmark: 2000. Almost 12 years ago. And as much as my heart had swelled, it sank twice as far, because I felt the crushing weight of how much time had passed since then, and how far back the book it referred to had receded in my memory.

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