Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Editing For Authors

So today, we're finally ready to make this announcement: that Editing for Authors, an editorial services company for self-published authors created by me and my crit partner, Erica Orloff, is open for business.

I've been working for self-published authors pretty much from the beginning of my career. In fact, for seven years, I ghostwrote books for a guy who started his own company just to self-publish his own books. We were extremely successful (for the world of publishing). Let me put it this way: he owned his own jet based on his book sales. Not bad, right?

Later on, I signed on as a contractor for the largest POD companies in the industry, where I provide editing services for self-published authors who select that option as part of their packages. I've worked with hundreds of authors on their books, which range in quality from needing loads of help to quite good. Especially lately, I've noticed that the quality of books crossing my desk seems to be rapidly increasing.

I think this is an exciting time to be in publishing ... it's not often you get to witness the mass democratization of a whole medium. But it hasn't been exactly easy to wrap my mind around what's happening. For one thing, having actually read enough self-published titles to have an opinion, it's true that many, many self-published books just aren't that good. The stigma against self-publishing was earned; it's not the product of snooty New York editors looking down their noses at rambunctious competition. It's because the majority of the books aren't very good.

And yet, that doesn't mean self-publishing itself has no place in the industry. In fact, it's growing more and more important as the stigma fades and people like JA Konrath and Amanda Hocking show that you can make good money and have a good career without a publisher. Like Erica said on her blog today, they're proving something that nonfiction writers have known for a long time: there is no single path to success in publishing, or even one single definition of success.

So looping back to Editing for Authors ... here's how I view the editing process: when an author hands over a book to an editor (or a critique partner), they are handing over something very precious, something they might have invested years of their life in and sacrificed time away from other pursuits to produce. It's not my job to tell anyone their book is good or isn't good ... it isn't my job to "fix" anybody's book (unless we're talking about grammar and spelling, in which case it's very much my job). It's my job to do whatever I can to help that particular book become the best book it can be.

Friday, October 8, 2010

I Knew This Was Out There Somewhere ...

So remember how I said I wrote my last book without an outline or a plot? 'Tis true. And it was essential for figuring out the characters and letting them breath and get some space. But guess what I'm doing on the rewrite?

If you said "extremely complicated plot spreadsheet" you'd be correct. I'm going to probably cut half or more of the existing text, shuffle plot elements all over the place, trim at least 10,000 words, and reduce the number of chapters from 55 to 26 (about). I'm tracking three main subplots throughout.

I guess I didn't shake my old habits as much as I thought :)

As I've worked on my own plots, I've always wondered how Rowling did it. I've read her interviews, and I even watched Oprah to see if I could get any glimpse into Rowling's actual process. For one thing, I'm weird like that. I'm endlessly fascinated by how writers work. For another, whatever else you can say about her books, they are complexly plotted. One might even say brilliantly.

So today on Twitter, guess what pops up? A page from the "spreadsheet" Rowling developed while she was writing Order of Phoenix (at least I'm guessing). And check it out! This is how you plot a 4,000-page book with dozens of characters and too many subplots to mention ...

Thursday, October 7, 2010

It Finally Happened ...

This is crazy ...

For the past 15 years, I've used one particular word to hold my place in the documents I'm editing or writing. I remember picking this word and thinking, "It'll be safe because I'll never actually find it in a document or use it myself." So for the last forever, every time I start working on a project, I open the file, do a Find, type in my code word, and zoom right back to where I left off.

The word is "byzantine." I always thought it was kind of appropriate.

Well, today it happened. I opened up my current editing project, searched for byzantine and actually found that the author had used it in his manuscript. I'm still a little in shock. Years and years have gone by ... hundreds of books have passed over my desk in one form of another ... and this is the first one to use the word byzantine.

What's going to happen next? Palin for president? A call from Oprah? I feel nervous, rattled.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Number Eight

I just typed "THE END." Are there any better words in the English language?

I've disappeared from view lately because I made myself a vow: write every day until my current book is finished. I'm sorry to say that didn't exactly happen, but you know what they say about aiming high ... you can miss the mark and still do pretty well. So in the last 60 days or so, I probably missed 5 days of writing and turned out a 72,000-word novel.

I'm such a tool that I didn't even give myself one full celebratory beer before the "to do" list started piling up. My half-empty beer is sitting next to me right now, in fact. The problem is there's an enormous gap right now between what this book COULD be and what this book IS. I think it COULD be a wonderful, funny, fast-paced, original, and thematically interesting book. It IS a steaming pile of problems at the moment.

Let's not even get into it.

But it's also book #8. It's kind of hard to believe ... I've finished eight full-length novels. That's eight. A tiny bookshelf. I've published exactly zero of them, but I'm not getting into that either.

Anyway, in honor of #8, I thought I'd look back on the ones that came before.

Book #1: Totally autobiographical. Full of self-regard and purple prose. Is there a plot in here somewhere?
Book #2: A doorstop—120,000 words written in seven weeks. Maybe three redeemable scenes and one scene that caused my crit group to question my masculinity.
Book #3: A dirty secret. We don't talk about book #3.
Book #4: A medium-sized leap forward. Sure, it took three years to write, and it suffered from one character who was so toxic that one agent remarked, "I had to set it down when she showed up." Also, this book was the seed for book #7. It contains the idea that has become my own great white whale.
Book #5. A giant leap forward. Plot? Yes. Hook? Yes. Characters? Okay, not so much. But still ... I love you, book #5. You almost made an honest man out of me. We almost went all the way, baby, and I want you to know that despite the crushing rejection we suffered at the end, I still believe deeply in you.
Book #6: Boy, did I love this idea. And boy, did I love writing this one. And book six, I think I did wrong by you. I know you attracted attention from a major publisher, but I think the editor didn't understand you. I'm sorry now that I tried to change you to fit her vision. It was a bad fit, and my heart wasn't in it. Murph, my little buddy, go rebel all you want.
Book #7: A misfire. I went back to the idea from book #4 and tried to write it again—same mythology, same backstory. And while the setting was my best yet, the book itself did not work. A giant step back. I didn't even bother to query this one.

Which brings me all the way back up to this afternoon and book #8 with its pile of rewrite notes. And now I hope you'll forgive me for signing off—I'm finally feeling like there's some celebratory drinking I should be doing.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Podcast to Start Soon

I had an awful realization this morning: my life is full of anachronisms. I'm teetering dangerously on the brink of forty, so maybe I'm extra sensitive to these things, but I started to worry that if I didn't do something, I'd end up like someone's grandfather. You know, the kind of old man who calls grilled cheese sandwiches "toasted cheese" until the day he dies and doesn't understand how that tiny little cable can carry so many big pictures.

So I've decided to make a list of all the anachronisms I need to get rid of. If I want to enter this next decade of my life as a sleek, sophisticated modern man, I have some work to do.

First, our landline must go. What kind of dodo still has a landline into their house? Sheesh. We might as well use smoke signals.

Next, our ethernet network. Yes, I installed it myself. And yes, I learned how to crimp cable and run ethernet through the whole house so we could we be wired. But the future is wireless, so goodbye homemade ethernet network (which until this moment, I was rather proud of).

CDs. What kind of dork still keeps CDs? Upload them all. Same goes for photo albums and all important documents. Scan, scan, scan.

Body hair. That's probably self-explanatory.

Cable TV. Hello? Ever heard of Hulu? Duh.

Newspapers and magazines. You know what? We'll just discontinue the mail in general as a precautionary measure.

Pencils. Seriously? Can anybody give me a good reason why these things still exist? Do they still even bubble anything in?

Cotton garments. Just because it seems like a good idea to get ahead of the curve on this one.

Friends. By which I mean actual people friends. If you're in my network, you still count.

I'll admit the food thing confuses me. I'm not sure if I get rid of all prepared foods in favor of locally grown, organic, CSA-delivered raw veggies. Or if I should get rid of all home-prepared food in favor of ready-to-warm bags of chicken chunks, flash-frozen veggies and some kind of salt-delivery system. I don't think the future is clear here.

And last but not least, all paper books. Wait. Sorry. I mean "dead tree books." Wait, wait: DTB. Good-bye DTB. I would say I'll miss you, but I also plan on ditching sentimentality in favor of my own weekly Internet podcast where I compare my political enemies to Adolf Hitler at least once a week while simultaneously declaring that only I know God's intentions.

Brave Man's Death

Besides the commenter who said "This song whips a mule's behind with a belt," am I the only person in the world who likes this song?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Zero for Three

I don't know what's going on, but the last three—that's THREE—books I've started I haven't had the heart to finish. It finally got to the point that I had to wonder, "Is it me?" Then I thought long and hard about WHY I set each of them down, and here it is ... my list of what kills a book for me:

1. Snooze. The voice is boring, confusing, or full of insider lingo. Or all three. This is probably what kills more books for me than anything else. These are the books I set down in two pages ... if it's just blah, or pretentious, or if it's one of those books where the writer is stringing together all these ridiculous sentences that don't actually say anything. Writing doesn't have to be "lyrical" for me to like it, but jeez, give me something to go on.

2. What?! I set a book down last week after I finally got fed up with asking, "Are you freaking KIDDING ME?!" Listen, I'm willing to go along with a lot of things for the sake a good ride. You want me to believe that Jesus had kids and some crazy secret society has been burying clues throughout history? I'm in. But if you try to present a book as "literary" fiction, grounded in the real world, and then ask me to go along with all these ludicrous plot points that NO ONE else in the whole book thinks are weird, I'll get pissed. Every time.

3. Boring. Here's the thing: my life is fairly boring. I work. I raise kids with various degree of effectiveness. I water plants. I brown meats. I hang out with my wife a lot and friends less often. I watch movies. And every so often, I engage in the utterly impractical, but hopefully healthy, practice of moving weights around. And that's pretty much it. We vacation with family members. I don't have wings; my decisions neither grant life nor death; my profile isn't so shockingly handsome that people must avert their eyes at first glance; I've never killed a living animal with my teeth, a knife, or a bone pick; I've never caught a raging venereal disease from a rising starlet. So here's what I'm saying ... if I'm more interesting than the characters in the book I'm reading, I Am Out.

I did start a book this week I have high hopes for. So far, it has an interesting character, a cool voice, and the plot is managing to hang together. I hope—almost against all hope—that my drought is over.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Guest Post: Zoe Winters on Editors

If you spend any time around the publishing interwebs, my guest poster today probably won't be a stranger. Zoe Winters can be seen popping up everywhere, advancing the cause of self-publishing, writing the world's longest comments, and promoting her Blood Lust series of novellas (she just released an omnibus version with all three novellas combined into one e-book ... and she's having a promotion this week so go buy it). I asked Zoe if she'd be kind enough to stop by and post her thoughts about where and how editors fit into the self-publishing process and how she personally handles the issue. Then I made her promise not to say anything bad about editors because I have thin skin. Just kidding. So without further ado:

Jon asked me to come by and talk about my views with regards to editing as an indie author. Oh, yeah, hi, I'm Zoe Winters, and I'm an indie author. I don't think there is a support group or anything for that, but there probably should be.

One of the biggest stigmas against self-publishing has to do with the general quality level of the work being put out. No book is perfect. Even NY published books have editing problems. In my reading, I've caught more NY pubbed book errors than I used to. I'm not sure if this is a lessening of the general quality, rush jobs at the publisher, or the fact that I'm so much more tuned in to the issues of editing now.

I suspect it's the latter. It's sort of how when you get a blue car, suddenly every car on the road seems to be blue.

Because of the stigma, if you decide to self-publish, or "go indie" as we super-cool-awesome people like to call it, the most important thing you have to worry about is not living up to the stereotype. Your book needs to have a professional or professional-level cover, and most importantly, good editing.

That cover thing can make or break you, but if readers get past the cover and see problems in the first few pages, all you did was put lipstick on a pig.

Indie authors generally are on shoestring budgets, and most can't afford to hire super-expensive editors. That doesn't mean you can't have a well-edited book. For myself, my editing process for a book is as follows:

After the rough draft, I do as much as I reasonably can do on my own. I use techniques from books such as "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers". I pull out my little "Elements of Style" and "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves" (which is seriously the funniest book on punctuation ever). I use an editing software called "Editor" that is produced by Serenity Software and catches all kinds of things beyond your basic grammar and spell-checker in Word.

I have critique partners who help during the developmental stages. Susan Bischoff and Kait Nolan. They're both indies (I think I corrupted them), and very talented writers whose work I admire. Kait also does professional editing at her job. Susan and Kait help me work out any story issue that's not about "how I say it" but "what happens". (I do that before the nitty gritty stuff with the editing software).

Once everything is as clean as I can make it, I bring in crit partners and beta readers. Then when I've gotten back and applied all reasonable feedback (there is always that one wacky request from someone that I just can't follow, that is more about how "they" would tell the story, than an actual empirical problem), then I send it back to Kait for a line edit. I pay her for this service.

And that's the process. The result is not a perfect manuscript, but a professional one that can, in my opinion, stand next to books published by other publishers.

The biggest challenge with editing (and actually cover art, too), is that you have to have an eye/feel for what's right and what isn't. You can hire a "professional" editor or cover artist and they just not be any good if you can't tell quality editing or cover art from crap. Plenty of people charge for their services in both of these areas, who quite frankly, should not be charging.

When I work with a critique partner, or beta reader, or editor, I have to be able to surround myself with people who can actually write and/or edit, who are literate, who understand grammar and punctuation and sentence and story structure. It's not just "quantity" as in... many eyeballs looking at it, but the quality of those eyeballs. There are people like my CP's/editor who I fundamentally trust. I take about 95% of their suggestions. And what I don't take isn't grammar or punctuation related.

Sometimes I'm wrong about advice I don't take. And I have to take responsibility for that. In Mated, the third novella in Blood Lust, there was one line in the first chapter that turned out to be a pretty local colloquialism. I thought it was a normal thing to say, but Kait caught it and said something about it. That was in my 5% of ignore. And I was wrong. Because I got feedback from a few early readers. If more than two people say something it definitely gets edited no matter how much I like it. One confusing colloquial line is not the hill I want to die on. I edited it after that, and thankfully we hadn't gone to print yet, so it wasn't a costly error.

For other betas sometimes I take less than 95% of the feedback. It just really depends. Usually when I don't take a lot of advice it's because the beta is trying to "rewrite my voice." It's not issues with something being wrong, or unclear, or in the case of story: illogical or poorly paced, but... just not how they personally would write it. And it's a problem you can run into with people who haven't done a lot of beta work before, or people who have but haven't had anyone pull them aside to mention the issue.

When in doubt, I run the advice by my primary CPs. This is important because you can end up with an overall weaker book than when you started if you don't choose your council wisely.

Anyway, for what it's worth, those are my thoughts on editing. I think it's very important for indie authors, and no matter what your budget is... barter, trade, sell your soul... get your editing taken care of. The last thing you want to do is reinforce the stereotype of what it means to be self-published.

To me, being self-published is honorable and a point of pride. That's because I work very hard to produce the best possible book, and I don't take shortcuts. There is no shortcut to awesome.

Also, this week I'm running a promotion for my latest release, Blood Lust, and I'm giving away a free Kindle (maybe two).

Monday, August 30, 2010

Goodbye, Mattie

We had to put our dog down this weekend. It was a surprise—she had never been exactly healthy, but over the last week or so, she'd been gasping for breath and looking disoriented and uncomfortable. So we took her to the vet, expecting to hear that she needed antibiotics for a chronic illness she's had since puppyhood. But then the vet called and told us she probably had cancer and we needed to make a decision right then. If we wanted to, we could bring her home for the afternoon to spend a few more hours with her. But that would be it.

So that's what we did.

Mattie was a really important part of our family, and the news was like a bomb going off in our midst. We were shocked and sad and everything you would expect. I was guilty for all the times I was a less-than-perfect dog owner (and there were lots of those). I missed her already, even before we had to take her in for her final appointment. But it was the cruelty that really struck me.

Mattie was technically my son's dog—we got her when we he was four years old, and we felt that he needed a playmate. He needed someone to mess up his world a little bit, to introduce a little delightful chaos in to his life. So she was his dog ... she slept in his room, she thought of him like her brother.

But she was also my dog because, in the pack, she clearly viewed me as the alpha dog. I was the one who could control her when no one else could, and I was the one she came to when something was wrong or hid from when she peed on the floor or got into the garbage. So when the vet called with this awful news, my wife and I made a decision that wasn't really a decision, and then we started the wheels turning toward her 2 p.m. appointment.

I'd never felt like such a heartless bastard. I knew she was dying no matter what we did, but once we decided to put her down, it was up to me to usher her toward that moment. She had trusted me her whole life because that's what dogs do. So when I clipped the leash on that final time, she trusted that wherever I was taking her was OK. When I walked her outside and helped her into the car, she looked scared, but she was watching me to make sure it was OK. When I walked her onto the grass and hugged her so she could see the sunlight and grass one more time, she must have thought that things would still be OK, because I was there.

Then I walked her into the vet's office and into the little room where the vet had spread out a blanket. My wife and I both wanted to be present for the event ... we felt strongly that we owed her that much. She deserved to die with the people who loved her. The vet had warned us it could be traumatic because of her illness, that it might be "hard to watch," so we had spent all day preparing ourselves anyway.

In the end, it was peaceful and fast. I had my arms wrapped around her body and my wife was holding her neck and head. I knew I was holding her in place so the vet could find a vein, but she wasn't scared because it was me, because it was us, holding her. She crumpled after the shot was given, and I felt her heart stop beating with the side of my face, and everyone in the room was sobbing. She died with her head in my lap, looking at my wife with her eyes open.

God, I miss that dog. It's only been a day, and I still think I can hear her nails on the terrazzo floors or hear her breathing on the rug behind me. A writer's life can be lonely, and lots of times, she was the only one around for the hours I spend staring at this screen.

I haven't stopped feeling like a bastard. My brain knows the truth, but my heart hasn't totally absorbed it. She trusted me with her life, so when we led her to her death, she went without question. She trusted us with her life, so I hope she knew that we made the best decision we could, that by leading her into that room, we were trying to stop her pain and free her from the disease that had riddled the inside of her body so quickly.

This has been a horrible weekend, and we're still all in shock. I didn't know if I was going to write about this—I was afraid to open myself to it again because there is this sense that life must go on. We still have school and work, and nothing else has changed. Except now there is a hole in our house, and there is silence where there wasn't any before, and there really isn't a bright side or a silver lining to it.

I'm just sad. Goodbye, Mattie. We loved you.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Five Years Later

I was thinking this morning about how much I've changed as a writer over the last five years and what it all means.

Five years ago, I was a mad outliner. I did these crazy outlines that might run 20 or 30 single-space pages where I mapped out everything that happened. Ultimately, I was after control. I like complicated books with lots of moving pieces; I like books with five or six plot lines that converge in the end to really pop. So I approached writing a bit like a chess player approaches the board—I wanted all my pieces in play, and I wanted to make it all fit together like a clock.

Five years later, I still like the same kind of books, but the way I'm trying to get there is dramatically different. For the book I'm working on now, I've done one page of notes for an outline. I did a few first-person character sketches so I could get the characters' voices right. And that's pretty much it.

The interesting thing about this book, as opposed to others I've worked on, is the element of surprise. I'm continually surprised by what's happening on the page. I go into scenes knowing what just happened, and sort of suspecting who will be involved, but then I'm frequently surprised by what comes next.

I think the real difference is that I've surrendered control over the book to the characters in the book. Over and over again, I've reached points when I thought, "Well, so-and-so would naturally do this, but I don't really want that to happen that way because I don't know what to do next." But then I go ahead and jump and write it anyway the way that's natural to the moment. So far, the amazing thing to me is that it's always managed to work out somehow.

The idea of surrendering to a story is new to me, and it couldn't be more different from where I started years ago. In a way, even though I know how this story ends, I'm just as curious as anyone to see how I'll get there.

Monday, August 23, 2010


I once wrote a newspaper profile about a guy who claimed to have personally imported about 80 percent of the species of tropical bamboo available in the United States. He was a hard fellow to reach, and once I finally got him to agree to an interview, I had to find his bamboo grove hidden in the subtropical scrub in South Florida. When I pulled up, the place looked deserted, but I figured I was in the right place because I was surrounded by towering stands of bamboo.

I honked a few times, and finally the man himself emerged from his octagonal house on stilts (no kidding). He reeked of weed and wore unlaced construction boots and a filthy white T-shirt. He talked about how his competitors had stolen all his best techniques for bamboo propagation, how he traveled through China and Asia, collecting rare tropical bamboo. He showed me where he had built his own USDA quarantine facility for newly introduced bamboo.

As we talked, he drove me around his property—and I was blown away. I fancy myself a little bit of a snob when it comes to tropical plants, but I'd never seen anything like this place. He had plants that weren't even named yet, in some cases, plants that were literally the only specimen of their kind in the Western Hemisphere. Giant green timber bamboos with stalks as thick as my leg. Glossy black bamboo with green pin striping. Blue bamboos. SIlvery green bamboos. Buddha bellies. Gold. Yellow.

One moment stood out. He had stopped his golf cart in front of a clump of rare black bamboos and was regarding the plants thoughtfully.

"I probably know as much about tropical bamboo as anyone in the United States," he said without a trace of arrogance. I got the feeling this wasn't something he bragged about. Rather, it was a piece of knowledge that he carried like a sack full of rocks. He was wistful and isolated all at once, because really, how could I have possibly understood?

Such is the nature of monomania, and I'm powerfully attracted to it.

There are two kind of monomania in books. Books about monomanical people, and books by monomaniacal people.

The first category is pretty much owned by Malcolm Gladwell nowadays, but Mary Roach makes some impressive forays into the land of the monomaniac, and Jon Krakauer has been circling that particular orb in pretty much every book. In his day, Herman Melville wrote perhaps the word's best novel about a monomaniac—in the process, penning my favorite book.

But I think the best books about monomania are the ones actually authored by the crazed lunatic who has devoted his or her life to an obscure mania. These books are like candy and I crave them. I have a book on artisan breadmaking that is so infused with the love of fresh, hand-made artisan loaves that flour virtually puffs from its pages. I have another on fern allies that could only have been written by a person who must be single and unfit for polite society. And I once spent months searching out a particular book on Szechuan cuisine because the book itself is a taste sensation to read, even if the dishes are beyond the reach of any Western cook.

It's no secret why I find myself so attracted to books about monomania—I envy people who have fully given themselves to their passions. I think it must be freeing to give yourself over completely to one corner of this wide world. It must be like a form of security.

One last story: when I was in seventh grade, I entered my butterfly collection in my school's science fair. Typical of seventh grade, I wasn't the only butterfly collection in the fair. But I'm not bragging to say there was no collection like mine. I had butterflies from thirty states. I had case upon case of carefully mounted and labeled butterflies. I'd pretty much lived with my net in hand every summer since fourth grade. I had devoured countless books and field guides on butterfly taxonomy and habitats. This was no throw-it-together on the weekend project—this was the organizing and stabilizing influence of my life at a time when things seemed unstable and disorganized.

Of course I won. Within a year, I'd hung up my net for good and moved onto other enthusiasms—each of which is reflected in my book collection to this day. In a very real sense, if you know my books, you know me.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Book Review: Numb: A Novel (Harper Perennial, 2010)

As far as opening gambits for novels go, here's a good one: a man with no memory and the inability to feel pain shows up in a small Texas town and goes to work for a two-bit carnival that barely puts twenty paying butts in the seat every night. The man, who has no idea how he showed up in Texas bloody and wearing a suit, starts an act where he shoots nails through his hands every night to the delighted, squeamish satisfaction of the growing crowds. He doesn't know his name, so they call him Numb.

Meet Numb: A Novel (written by Sean Ferrell, Harper Perennial, 2010).

As Numb quickly rises up in the circus to the main act, the other circus freaks have mixed opinions. One, a strongman known as The It, thinks that Numb is just spectacle. He's not a performer. He's a human pincushion who shoots himself full of nails.

It doesn't take long before Numb attracts a more sinister kind of opportunity to exploit his unique condition. A wealthy Texas oilman offers a large sum of money to see him wrestle a lion. Numb agrees, but he's not exactly sure why he's doing this.

Throughout his early adventures, Numb remains surprisingly rooted in the real world and feels very human ... despite the almost garish and painful subject matter. In the first half of the book, Numb loses so much blood, it’s like a horror flick. This poor guy at one point is nailed down, hands and feet, to a stinking bar while strangers pay $100 each for the privilege of driving another nail through his flesh.

Of course Numb is a metaphor—or at least it works like one. In Numb the man, people find a perfectly exploitable human being. Since he cannot feel, and since he is so very different, he is the ideal canvas on which others can paint their ambitions, cruelties and sick fascinations. It's true that the metaphor is carried a bit far; after relocating to New York City, Numb is recruiting by an agent who makes him famous. Yet aside from his freakish nature, it's hard to understand exactly what qualities or talents propel Numb to fame. A great deal of thematic energy is spent on the idea of Numb as an artist, but the exact nature of his art is harder to understand.

But still, I really liked this book—rather, I should say this book really stuck with me. Numb is so perfectly passive, so immune to the world, that when he does awaken, it’s especially sweet and heartfelt. The writing is clean and has moments of pure ambition and insight. And the central conceit—a man who is victimized by his own indifference and unique nature, then slowly awakens to the realization that he is the central actor in his life—is instantly recognizable.

Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Cue Boredom

I think I was 18 when this happened. I'd just started college as a freshman, and I was taking a Sociology 101 class. During one of the first classes, the professor said something that I thought was pure bunk. This professor had made it clear he liked debate, so I raised my head and told him I thought it was bunk. He asked me where I was from. Then he completely demolished me in front of a lecture hall of people. The cool thing was, I didn't feel stupid or anything. It was a mind-expanding experience that I still remember clearly. This professor was armed with facts and data and perspective I'd literally never been exposed to in my small, somewhat insular hometown. For him, it must have been like an alpha lion batting around a cub for a while to show it who was boss. It's not an exaggeration to say he changed my mind forever that day.

On the scale of "You're an argumentative douche bag," I probably range between a 6 and a 9, with 10 being insufferable.

The thing is, I've gotten a lot less argumentative as I get older. I used to like debating people over just about anything. It was fun, and sometimes I'd switch sides just for the sport of the thing. Now it mostly feels boring and pointless. I want to say, "I pretty much know what you're gonna say, and you pretty much know what I'm gonna say, so why don't we just skip the whole thing and eat ribs?"

Which brings me to my point. I'm ex-haus-ted with the whole "end of traditional publishing stupid New York e-books will take over" debate. It's become a caricature of itself, and I don't even understand what people are arguing about. It seems to me that a very few people are doing very well with traditional print deals, and a very few people are doing very well with self-published Kindle books, and a very few people are doing very well with self-published POD print titles ... and the rest of us are just trying to write the best books we can.

I think it's useless to compare your own journey and goals to anybody else's. It's useless to criticize someone else's choices about how they want to write (really?). They won't change. You won't change. And the only thing that will come out of it is another pointless, long-winded argument about these huge issues over which none of us has any control.

Unless you're Markus Doyle or Jeff Bezos. In which case, call me.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Capricious Diety

I've been lousy about posting this week, but I have a pretty good reason—I've been completely, utterly involved in a project. And since I haven't really blogged about it before, I'm going to blog about it now. A little. But not too much.

Some history. I wrote a book earlier this year about dragons. After I finished it, I got a few crit opinions, and they pointed out some fairly major structural problems. I could have rewritten it. I will someday, I'm sure. But that happened to have been the second time I'd written this same story, and it was ugly to realize that I'd gotten it wrong yet again. I began to wonder if I wasn't a good enough writer to handle the story.

So I shelved it, which sucks. If you've ever shelved a book, you know what I mean. I shelved the book before I even thought about drafting a query.

'Cause in the background I had another project kicking around. It felt like a very commercial, very hooky idea, and I just loved the main character. It was the easiest idea pitch I'd ever worked on. The book is a walking elevator pitch.

I had about 5,000 words done on this thing, and I figured to heck with the complicated dragon mythology, I'm switching projects. Which brings me to this August.

About two weeks ago, I promised myself I'd write every day until the book was done. When you make a stupid promise like that, you've got two choices: either give it up in shame or keep it. So far, I've kept it, and the book has been rolling out. It's amazing how fast a book can happen when you sit down every freaking day and pound out 1,000 or 1,500 words. I'm coming up on 40,000 words today, and I expect I'll be done before Sept. 1.

I was telling my wife last night that I probably should be jaded by now. I'm doing at least a novel a year nowadays, which must make me one of the most prolific unpublished writers on the planet. (I believe there's another word for that and it rhymes with snidiot.) But I'm not jaded. Actually, I'm insanely excited about this book. It's been so easy so far, and even though I know there are major things I have fix (like oh by the way, I cut a main character in the middle of a chapter last week—just poof!), the whole architecture feels solid.

And all of this is leading up to a Revelation. See, I'm working like a dog lately. I mean, I still have a full-time job and kids, one of whom just had oral surgery, and an old dog who's been throwing up in her mouth for the last month or so despite the vet's best efforts to figure out what's wrong ... and then I decided to add another hour or two of daily writing on yet another book that, based on my recent past, is statistically doomed. I should quit, right?

But that was my revelation. I don't want to quit because I like this. I guess I'm writing now for the same reason I wrote when I was 12 and 15 and 22 and 31—because I just like to tell stories. It's what I do. There's a certain freedom in knowing that. There's a weightlessness in the knowledge.

I'm not saying I don't want to sell. I do. And I'm not saying I'm done improving. I'm not.

I don't know how people are chosen for their lots in life. I don't know what capricious god decided that I should only want to write my little stories, then make me spend decades first admitting it, then a few years realizing I sucked at it, then more years painstakingly learning to get better at it. Maybe these questions are beyond me anyway—when all that really matters is I'm two weeks away from finishing another draft, and I think that's pretty cool.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Free Steven Slater

Steven Slater is my new hero.

This man should have been a train robber in the olden days. He should have been a cocaine cowboy in the 1980s. A pit trader in the 1990s.

You know what sealed it for me? The beer.

Free Steven Slater.

Friday, August 6, 2010

My Special Bottle

I think I have a problem. I think I'm addicted to Tabasco sauce. I've tried all the others, but it's always Tabasco that calls me back.

I was poking around in my refrigerator last night and realized I have THREE bottles of Tabasco. And two of them are the jumbo kind. First, I have my day-to-day bottle. Then I have a back-up bottle. And then I have the Special Bottle.

When I go to people's houses, I often find a reason to poke around their spice cabinet. "Do you have, um, any, ah, Mrs. Dash?" I might ask. "I love that stuff." (I hate it.) What I'm really looking for, of course, is their old bottle of Tabasco. The forgotten one, the one they bought when they first got a place of their own and figured they'd need a bottle of Tabasco, but personally they can't stand the stuff. So they opened it once, used it, then stuffed it in the back of a cabinet and forgot about it.

Tabasco is a deceptively simple little liquid. It's made from a mash of the Tabasco hot peppers, which used to be grown on Avery Island in Louisiana and are now mostly grown in South America. The mash is combined with vinegar and salt, then aged for 12 months in a white oak barrel. The juice that's strained out of this concoction is Tabasco.

And as good as this is, it's only the beginning of the heights Tabasco can really achieve. See, like many wines, Tabasco improves with age. It improves in the bottle for years. Prize bottles of Tabasco have turned a suspicious, vinergary-red and have gunk caked around the bottle opening. By this time, the Tabasco has acquired layers of flavor, depths of heat and complexity, that simply can't be faked.

If I find this bottle in your cabinet, I will ask you for it. If you say no, I will steal it. If I like you, I'll buy you a new bottle.

So this is my Special Bottle ... the one I bought a year ago, opened, and have let sit unmolested while other bottles rotate through my life, sprinkling their lives out over pizza, spaghetti, eggs, stews, Chinese food, pretty much everything.

I don't know when I'll finally use the Special Bottle (an anniversary? after finding out I have a terminal illness? during a night of weakness?). But when I do, I expect it will taste like victory, like spicy delayed gratification. In a way, that bottle is a measure of my adulthood—my younger self would have broken down by now.

And I hope there's a plate of lasagna involved.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Goodbye, Barnes & Noble

I'm a habitual news junkie—it's sort of an occupational liability. Last night before I went to bed, I read a story that Barnes & Noble was considering putting itself up for sale. "Just considering," I thought. "The board is floating the idea. Nothing to it."

But this morning, I woke up to find out that, indeed, it's true. And one other detail hopped out at me: Barnes & Noble's total market capitalization is less than $1 billion. Woah. That might still seem like a lot of money, but in the world of corporate America, for a company with such a recognizable brand and national reach, it's actually peanuts. I've worked for people who could write a check and buy Barnes & Noble. That's amazing.

Enter mixed feelings.

I know writers and readers wax poetic about bookstores, with good reason, but Barnes & Noble is sort of the Wal-Mart of the book industry, no? Isn't this the bookstore chain that was considered the rapacious villain not too long ago? I remember when local communities would PROTEST a Barnes & Noble going in. In my college town, we had a beloved independent bookstore that was driven out of business shortly after Barnes & Noble came to town. And didn't Barnes & Noble sort of perfect the art of extracting money from publishers for front table placement? And isn't Barnes & Noble the company that uses returns as a way to enhance cash flow at publisher's expense? Isn't there a sort of direct correlation between the trouble publishers are in and Barnes & Noble "wallpaper" strategy of stocking thousands and thousands of books it can't sell in giant stores, then returning them at full cost?

But B&N isn't exactly riding high these days. I looked it up this morning and saw that B&N's profitability has steadily declined over the past three years. I think profits last year were about one third what they were three years ago. Sure, a recession is just ending, but the latest round of corporate earnings reports was actually pretty stellar.

So I was a little conflicted, actually. When I grew up, going to bookstore either meant a Waldenbooks in the mall or a little independent store not too far from my house. I could walk there, and must have spent hundreds of hours in those four shelves of books. When B&N and Borders came along, I had no problem with it. I knew it was wiping out the independents, but hey, I figured, that's capitalism. Markets consolidate. Size achieves efficiency and clout. That's how the game works. And now, when B&N seems like it might get plowed under by market forces and technological innovation, it seems kind of hypocritical to work myself up into a lather.

Either way, this is a pretty amazing moment in publishing and the media world. I'm still getting notices from the bankruptcy court handling the Tribune's recent bankruptcy (they owed me money, so I got stuck in their arbitration pool). My biggest clients right now are either online or POD companies, and print is in third place. And while the money is still in print books, if the B&N tells me anything, it's that this won't be true for long. It feels like pretty soon Amazon will complete its transformation into Random House, HarperCollins, Barnes & Noble, and Borders all wrapped up in one package.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Standing on Shoulders

This story made me ... angry.

But not as angry as this one.

I can't believe we live in by far the richest country in the history of the world and there is any question at all about providing health care for people who need it. The idea that basic dental care is out of reach in America is just mind-boggling.

In case you didn't follow the first link, it was a story about a massive weekend-long free dental clinic that serves the people of Appalachia. Dentists from all over the region donate their time, set up a tent, and start pulling rotten teeth. In one weekend, they'll pull more than 2,000 teeth from people who can't afford any sort of dentistry. I think it's a great thing those dentists are doing, but one little detail jumped out at me. A couple is quoted in the story saying they grew up with excellent dental care ... their fathers were union miners, and the mining company provided full benefits. Those days are long gone.

The second story takes place in a Democratic representative's town hall meeting. He was challenged by an angry constituent who demanded to know if he thought that health care was a right. He made the mistake of saying yes. She lambasted him, the crowd cheered, and now the video has gone viral throughout the conservative Internet. The woman who denounced any sort of public health care has become a hero.

I don't get this on any level. I know I'm ranting, and I know this has nothing to do with writing, but sometimes I just can't believe what's going on. I strongly believe that you can tell what kind of society you're dealing with by how it treats the least among them. The rich aren't a measure of a country. Rather, it's how the rich treat the poor. The same is true of families, by the way. You can tell almost immediately what kind of person you're dealing with by how they treat their children.

In my book, this means the United States is measured by how we treat our criminals, our poor people and sick people, and kids. And I think we do a piss-poor job of it. Of course health care is a right. Whether you want to call it "providing for the general welfare" or the "pursuit of life," I think there's little question that an advanced, rich society should first see to its own health. It should make sure its people were able to meet a basic level of health. It shouldn't allow an epidemic of prison rape. It shouldn't allow mentally disabled people to live on the streets.

I get the conservative argument. I grew up a Young Reagan Republican, and I still read more right-wing media than I do left-wing media. When I argue with conservatives, I'm not really bragging to say that I often know their own arguments better than they do. But ultimately it comes down to a question of social justice for me, and I think anyone would be hard put to prove a link between providing social justice and the vibrancy of American business and innovation. In fact, the stronger the safety net has become, the greater our country has been. Being a good corporate citizen is not a competitive disadvantage. But being a bad one is ... just ask any Enron shareholders.

When I look at conservative thought, I'll be honest: I see mostly fear. I see a mindset that is consumed with the fear of loss. Loss of middle-class status; loss of economic well-being; loss of prestige; loss of national position; loss of security. This overwhelming fear threads through every argument—any measure is valid as long as it protects from this dreaded, panicky, ill-defined loss.

I get it. I'm worried too. I'll never have the kind of job my dad had. I might never have that kind of financial security or lifestyle, and I certainly won't enjoy those kinds of benefits. I don't know what kind of job market my kids will face. For that matter, I don't know what kind of job market I'll face in six months or a year. I don't know if China will grow beyond us (ironic, for a Communist country). I don't know if someone will figure out how to pack a nuclear bomb into a suitcase. But I never want to be crippled by this fear of not knowing. I can only hope that this fear will never eclipse my humanity so one day I'll find myself justifying why it's OK to sacrifice people who are less fortunate than me as long as I can stand on their shoulders.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bookstore Blues

I went to a bookstore this weekend, for the first time in a long time. And I realized I love bookstores, but they're also a little depressing.

Am I the only person who stands in a bookstore, looking at piles and piles of books and thinks, "Jeez. There're just too many books! How could I ever get any traction in a place like this, with the little books I'm working on?" Sometimes, I'll go through a shelf and read the first few pages of every single book, just to get a feel for what's out there. But every time I put the book back on the shelf, I imagine a chill running up some author's spine somewhere.

And holy first person! I write MG, so I must have looked at 60 MG books, and I literally found ONE new book that was written in third person. It was weird. What's the deal with all these first person books?

As always, I looked for all my published friends' books in their respective sections. Sadly, I didn't find any. Which was a bummer. I make it a habit to face out books written by people I know and hide their competitors. No such luck yesterday.

Finally, I found a book called the Billionaire's Curse in the middle grade section. Get this ... in the book, a kid inherits a billion dollars from his eccentric grandfather and is sent on a quest to find a diamond to save his family's reputation. This is EXACTLY the same plot of the book I shopped in 2008, except mine had the added wrinkle of time travel. I know it sounds like I'm obsessing, but I swear I rarely think about that whole episode anymore. Still, every so often, something happens and the whole thing comes whooshing back and smacks me in the face. This was one of those things.

I ended up not buying the book I went there to get. I don't know. I had it my hands, and just changed my mind. I was feeling a little rattled at this point. So instead I picked up a paperback and left, feeling altogether less wonderful than I usually feel when I leave a bookstore ...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Hungry Patriot?

I grew up in southeastern Michigan; left the state at 22; and haven't really been back in a while. So this is the first time in years I've spent a significant amount of time in Michigan, and we ended up driving all over the state, from Detroit to Lake Michigan (and even to Indiana). At one point, driving down one of those two-lane, country highways, I had this funny image that we were traveling along a buffet table ...

Frankly, I'd forgotten how much FOOD you're surrounded by in the Midwest in July. It's everywhere. Fields of corn, row after row after row. Soybeans. Strawberry and blueberry farms. Asparagus. Farmers stands with tables groaning under the weight of fresh-picked tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini and summer squash. Almost every house we visited had a little vegetable patch out back.

Then there's the lakes. We did a little salmon fishing last week and, in two hours, caught two 14 lb. salmon. Back at the dock, we cleaned 'em, filleted 'em, and then I treated myself to the best sashimi I've ever had—salmon so fresh it was still cold from the lake water. The next day, we went to throw the fish guts away in the woods and stumbled on a freaking wild turkey in the woods, just hanging out, waiting to get basted.

The deer in Michigan want to get eaten so badly they regularly jump at cars.

It's just amazing. The lakes and fields and woods are literally teeming with things people can eat. I know this just sounds like I haven't had breakfast yet (and I haven't), but the sheer abundance really did strike me. It made me wonder how anybody in this country can be allowed to go hungry when there's so MUCH. And I'm not exactly sure this will make sense, but it made me really grateful to be an American. I know we're working on a few things nationally at the moment, and nowhere is this more obvious than Michigan. The state is really hurting—a real estate market that has lost 10 or 15 years of value; among the highest unemployment in the country; a major city that is literally emptying out and decaying before everybody's eyes; auto companies that are pulling back and ripping the heart from the state's economy. But even with all this, underneath all this, it's hard not to marvel at this country. You get the feeling—or at least I did—that we're all going to be OK in the long run.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Sexy Beast

So we've been traveling in July, and you know what that means: sleeping in a different place every night, including a top bunk belonging to an 8-year-old little girl who was away for the weekend. It raised a lot of issues.

First, there was the issue that I hadn't slept in a top bunk in about 15 years. I'm laying there thinking, "I better not fall off this damn thing. I'll kill myself." I fell off a top bunk once in college, and I woke up on the way to the ground. Believe me, of all the horrible ways to wake up, waking up in midair a split second before you land on a hard tile floor has got to rank somewhere near the top. I barely had time to squawk.

After the fear subsided, I started to worry what this poor little girl would think if she knew that some giant, gross dad had slept in her bed. I just imagined her squealing and running away from sheets that were totally infected with some cootie-type parasite. But, I figured, her mom was the one who put me here, so maybe the cootie problem was well in hand.

Third came my wife, who was sleeping on the bottom bunk and who didn't really appreciate my thrashing around awkwardly on the top bunk. Apparently, I was shaking the whole set-up. So I tried to stop moving.

After I settled in, I started to pay attention and found myself smack in the childhood of an interesting little girl. It's funny what you can tell about people, even kids, from their spaces. Of course, Hannah Montana was looking down at me, microphone in hand, hip-cocked and smiling. Hi, Hannah, wait till you see what happens after you become Miley.

The bed's owner had also taped a piece of notebook paper on the wall where she could see it. On it, she had carefully written a long title and drawn two columns. The title was "The DIFFERENCE between insects and bugs." In the bugs column, she had written, "They have a triangle on their back." In the insects column, she had written, "All insects are bugs, but not all bugs are insects."

In a weird sort of way, I think I understood exactly what she meant.

And then I got sucked into the Strawberry Shortcake poster, and that was where I got seriously unhinged. I remembered Strawberry Shortcake as a cute little thing with freckles and pigtails. But, my oh my, Strawberry has certainly changed since I was a kid. Now she's a full-on Japanimation wonder, with huge blue eyes, a tiny nose and rosebud mouth, and lustrous hair. In the poster, Strawberry was braiding her pony's hair, and no little girl could ask for more than this pony. It pranced on three hooves, with its head cocked coquettishly, its back delightfully rounded. The pony's mane had been transformed into a cascade of golden locks and its giant, melting eyes were half-closed, its tiny pink mouth half open.

The pony was pitched perfectly at eye level, so you could lay in the top bunk and stare and stare, imagining your fingers intertwined in the pony's luxuriant hair, caring for and pampering the sexy little beast.

I had one of those moments. I could actually feel the longing of a little girl studying her poster, wishing for all the chocolate kisses in the world that she could just crawl into that land where houses are made from cupcakes and love that little pony with all of my heart. Later, I'm sure Strawberry Shortcake will come down and Justin Bieber (or whoever will play his part in the future) will go up, but the effect will be exactly the same: it will be one of those empty canvases upon which little girls draw imaginary sketches of love, of barely understood lust and longing, and a future where they aren't little girls anymore but lovers and brides and wives and mothers.

After I got through thinking all this (and by now was truly getting tired), I wondered if, later on, there would still be room in her life for worrying about the difference between bugs and insects. I hoped so.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Writerly Fantasies

I've always had a lot of writerly fantasies, but they're probably not the kind you're thinking of.

Or that kind either.

I'm not talking about the kind where I see my name atop the New York Times bestseller list or take a podium before an adoring crowd to accept the Newberry. Or even the kind where normal folks line up fifteen deep, waiting for me to autograph books and body parts. I mean weird fantasies about the actual act of writing itself.

These often involve me with a pen and notebook (for some reason, my writerly fantasies are always low-tech) in some ridiculously windswept setting, scribbling furiously. I stop every few minutes to look out onto the wonder of the world. I sob. I laugh. I pace angrily and tear at my hair, then run back to the notebook and write some more. The words are always there, and before long, crinkled pages are filled with paragraph after paragraph of prose. You can always tell just from looking at the pages how much it cost to write them, how dramatic the view was. Words are crossed out angrily. Things like "MORE! MORE! YES!" and "WHY WON'T YOU DIE, YOU BASTARD!" are written in the margins.

It's a masterpiece.

The most intense of my writerly fantasies always seem connected to travel. Me and the notebook on a train rolling across the Midwest. In a jet cabin with lightning on the horizon. On a bridge in Spain (seriously, wtf, Spain?). Naturally, this means that every time I travel, I dutifully pack my spiral notebook and pen and look forward to those moments on Lake Michigan.

Reality sets in later. I've never written a single word in a notebook while I'm traveling, except once and it was complete crap. Mostly, I just carry the notebook around and feel guilty every time I have to shuffle past it to get fresh socks. But the truth is, I'd feel a little naked without that notebook, without at least the glimmer of a possibility that a bout of shaggy brilliance might break out at any time.

Later today, we're leaving for a weeklong vacation, and you can rest assured that my notebook will be in my bag. But I'm pretty sure this time will be different.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Dad, What Are You Hiding?

Growing up, I spent a lot of time huddled behind garages, hanging out of open windows in the middle of the night, and learning how to open doors without making a single sound. If you have to ask "Why would you do any that stuff?" then you were probably a good kid and your parents would likely have banned you from hanging out with me.

Fast forward twenty years or so, and one of life's great ironies hit me last night when I was tagged in a Facebook photo by someone who knew me back then: I think I have more to hide from my 15-year-old son than he does from me. I opened the email, checked out the tag and then reflexively looked over my shoulder to see if anyone was behind me (in fact, I just did it again—some old habits die hard).

This was not the case with parents in my dad's generation. My dad grew up just after World War II and was in the service during the Korean War (safely stationed in Canada and New Orleans). Then he went to work and spent the next 47 years or whatever working for the same corporation.

I grew up in Reagan's America, and I was in college in the early 1990s—right around the time of Woodstock Redux and grunge music. So yeah, I've been in a few student riots; I've seen cars flipped and lit on fire; I've had friends make pilgrimages to Amsterdam; and I know a few guys who have things tattooed on their bodies that qualify for protection under the Fifth Amendment.

It seems like everybody's always bitching about kids today, and their computer time and rainbow parties and sexting and prescription drugs, but from where I'm sitting, I just don't see it. To me, it seems like kids today are, well, pretty good kids. They're tech-savvy, they are creative and funny, and they're focused in a way that makes my generation look like a bunch of slackers.

Sure, it's possible my oldest son is hiding all kinds of stuff from me. Maybe he does have a mini-hydroponics grow operation in his closet (like some people I have known). But I kind of doubt it. That's another kids today do: they live almost entirely in public.

But then in the midst of all this, I had another, somewhat unsettling thought. I was talking to my dad not too long ago about smoking—a habit he never started and one I gave up years ago. And he kind of grinned and said, "If it could burn, I probably tried smoking it when I was younger." To say I was shocked would be a HUGE understatement. Then I remembered another thing he said ... something about living just a few doors down from Pat O'Brien's in the French Quarter.

Huh. Now I'm beginning to wonder ... maybe the world is actually the REVERSE of what I thought growing up. Maybe the only reason kids have to go to extraordinary lengths to hide their bad behavior is because, when you're an adult, you own the garage your kid might be hiding behind. You don't have to bother with any spy craft or sneakery.

You can just lock the door.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I Write LIke ...

J.K. Rowling.

In case you haven't seen this website yet, check it out. Paste in a little text and it analyzes it based on a whole bunch of criteria, then says who you write like.

Click on I Write Like for the link.

And no, I wasn't bummed with my results.

Resetting Yourself

I just got back an hour or so ago from my weekly guest appearance on a local morning show. We were shooting outside today, and just my luck, it started pouring about 15 seconds before we went live. Fortunately, the spot was shot under a covered walkway at the base of a building—and we were talking about growing things in wet spots—so it was kind of fitting. Anyway, the unexpected makes for good TV.

Those two-and-a-half minutes on air are easily the fastest two and a half minutes of my week. Afterward, I'm usually on a little high that lasts for about an hour or so ... that's how I know I like these things. It takes me a day to get psyched up to do it, then it's two intense minutes of live TV, and then another hour to come down off the rush.

Not all of my segments go perfectly. I did one a little while back that still gives me shivers. I was going along fine, but then for some reason, my mind just went utterly blank. When I watched the playback, I could see the exact moment the contents of my brain emptied out onto the floor. I kept talking for a while after that, sort of babbling, but I knew I was in deep shit. Then I just ran out of stuff to say and I kind petered to a halt, mumbling something about how sorry I was. Ouch.

The host—thank God—had lots of experience with guests who choke, so she recognized it, reset the conversation, and gave me a few seconds to find my center. Then we finished the segment and they "cut to the couch" (the on-set hosts) and finally to commercial. The whole thing took about 30 seconds, but man, those were looong seconds. I felt every one of them.

I haven't choked since. It's like I had to get that out of my system. Now, when I feel myself start to drift or freeze up, I know it and I can reset myself before it gets out of hand. Now, you wouldn't even know that I just experienced a split second of sheer panic and had to quickly refocus before I went gibbering off the deep end.

I think writing is the same way, but much slower. It happens in geological time. Your highs stretch out over weeks, maybe months. But you choke too, when the words just vanish, and those are pretty awful days and sometimes weeks. So you tell me ... how do you reset when you can feel it all spinning out of control?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


I don't want to get into name-calling, but I'm thinking of a certain movie director I'm fascinated by. This director is a "type" of artist you'll probably recognize. He's not that good, but he thinks he is. And he's not ashamed of telling people how good he is. It seems half his career is self-promotion.

I find this kind of self-confidence magnetic, intoxicating and compelling beyond belief. Reality TV is full of people like this, and I think explains why I like some reality TV. I have this endless fascination with people who put it out there aggressively, who are loud in support in themselves, and who attract other people by sheer force of their own will power, whether or not they're actually any good at what they do.

If you ask me, Sarah Palin is the quintessence of this personality type. She exudes confidence in herself; she can command an entire audience—and yet when you break down what she says on a sentence-by-sentence basis, it's often actual gibberish. And when it's not gibberish, it's usually content free. She just did a campaign style commercial asking conservative women to rise up and ... what? She said they're mama grizzlies who ... what again? But see, that's the thing. With Palin, the "what" is never important. It's always the "who." It's always about her and her bottomless well of moxie.

I think moxie is a great thing, especially as a spectator sport. I think most writers, including me, could use a little more moxie.

Except for those who could use a little less.

I would say you know who you are, except you don't ... and I kind of respect that.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Down the (Not-So-Evil) Rat Hole

You know what's annoying? When questions lead to questions ...

Example. I'm working on a book on monsters right now—it's MG, a kid's book, and the main character is part-human, part-monster; his dad is a monsterologist. The last few books I've written, there has been this tipping point right about 15,000 words. I kind of monkey around and go slow, then I hit that point and I get into a groove and the book goes quick from there. Same thing here—it's been rolling out pretty well lately.

I was brainstorming recently, thinking about Sam's dad, the monsterologist. This time around, I've been writing all the characters in first person to get a sense of their voice and who they are, and I ran into an awkward question in my brainstorming.


What to do about Evil? When it comes to monsters, I think you can make a pretty good case that, say, zombies aren't really Evil. They're just zombies, doing what zombies do. When you reanimate a piece of dead flesh and give it a hunger for brains, it might not be pretty and it might even be life-threatening, but it's not necessarily Evil. I think the same thing applies to most "monsters." Dragons, werewolves, trolls, ogres, even most ghosts. Big Foot. The Lochness monster. These things aren't really capital-E evil as much as they are dangerous by nature.

It might be just me, but I think true Evil has to have a purpose. It has to have Evil agency. True Evil isn't a hungry animal or a weather pattern. True Evil is a deliberate choice made in the face of alternatives. Calling zombies Evil would be like saying the AIDS virus is Evil, or mosquitoes or Evil, or in a way, Glenn Beck is Evil (I'm kidding about that last one—he really is Evil).

But then in the world of monsters there are clearly some pretty Evil bastards out there. You can make a case for vampires, of course (although, again, they're parasites so it's back to mosquitoes once more). Demons are clearly evil. And unfortunately, people are frequently Evil.

So I'm sitting there with my notebook, pen poised over the page, and thinking, "Oh shit. Now what?" I have no interest in getting all wrapped up in a philosophical tar pit about the nature of evil and how it affects my little story. I just want to crack a few jokes. But then, the story is looking me in the face and nagging me: "Please, you HAVE to know this, or I'll lack any sort of authentic emotional depth. You've got to figure this out."

Grrr. When was the last time a purely philosophical question hung up your book? What'd you do?

Friday, July 2, 2010

BBQ Milkshakes

I've never been particularly good at remembering the past. I'm sure it drives everyone I know crazy, but I can never remember when things happened, who I was with when they happened, or sometimes really what happened. A lot of times, it sort of feels life is this giant, not-so-connected jumble of anecdotes, floating around the mist of memory. I know some people who have these razor-sharp memories of everything that ever happened to them, and I kind of envy it. It's kind of helpful for writers to actually remember stuff.

I'm also ... ha ha ... not particularly good at living in the here and now. I would make a lousy Buddhist. I rarely know where I am when driving, unless I've been on that road a billion times.

I am, however, VERY good at living in the future. This is my chosen time-space. I love anticipating what's next. I can literally spend all week excited about a dinner on Saturday or a certain day when fireworks will be lit. Sometimes, when we have an open day, I like anticipating the day almost as much as living it. "I know! We can go to the park! No wait, to the movies! Forget that, let's drive to Miami and get Cuban food! The beach! Let's rent a boat! Parasailing anyone! Better yet, let's go fishing! Or maybe I should learn how to play taiko drums!"

I see life as a rolling crescendo ... always progress, each thing building upon the last, always heading toward something, some distant shining goal or city on the hill. I'm almost 40 years old now, and I STILL wonder what I'll be doing when I grow up, even though I'm pretty much already doing what I'll be doing when I grow up because I'm pretty much already grown up.

If aging freaks me out at all, this is why. I can't really imagine a time when the focus shifts from what will happen, from the delicious possibilities of tomorrow, to what has already happened. I can't imagine a time when the future loses its potency because it has already been lived. I don't know how I'll cope with such a thing—and as much as anything about aging, this really scares me. I hate the idea that I'll have to look back to find something to look forward to.

My secret hope is that when that time comes, I'll rescale my anticipation to fit into whatever assisted-living facility my children have stuck us (me and wife) in, or whatever room I find myself lodged in as a codger. Jell-O later? Or wait ... chocolate pudding! Forget that ... I want graham crackers soaked in milk! Wait, wait, wait ... doesn't McDonald's have BBQ-flavored milkshakes now? Let's have somebody get those!

I don't think enthusiasm is much to ask for out of life.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Book Review: The Passage, by Justin Cronin

The Passage, by Justin Cronin, is one of those books that is less a book and more of an event. I first heard of it a year ago, when news of his sale broke. Cronin, an accomplished literary author, sold the rights to The Passage for $3.75 million, with a film deal to Ridley Scott for another $1.75 million, based on just the first 120 pages or so. So I've been waiting all this time, ever since, to see what kind of book is worth all that money.

The Passage is the story of a government experiment gone terribly wrong. In its quest to create a super-soldier, using a vampire virus, the U.S. government unwittingly unleashes the apocalypse. But this virus is different from other literary viruses: it's victims become vampires. They are fast, they are strong, and they are bloodthirsty. They don't just nibble at necks, and they don't moon around over teenage girls. These vampires tear people apart literally. At one point, a solider "experiences the sensation, utterly new to him, of being torn in half." As the virus spreads, a plague of bloodsuckers draining the continent of people, the world's hopes reside in a young girl named Amy, who is introduced in the first sentence as the Girl from Nowhere, the Girl who Lived a Thousand Years. Amy doesn't talk much, but she shares a bond with the vampires that confuses and confounds the few remaining survivors.

The first act of The Passage is nearly perfect. Cronin is a hell of a writer. He takes time with his characters; he builds them and we know them. The tension is palpable as we wait for the hammer to fall, because we know it must. His observations are razor sharp, and the book possesses a specificity of detail that is staggering. It's complete, thorough world-building—you literally go down the rabbit hole as the vampires take over.

After the virus, or AV, the survivors hole up in a walled compound known as the Colony where they light the night with powerful banks of lights to keep away the virals (or smokes or dracs). At this point, the narrative leaps forward almost a century, and every character we met in the first act is gone. Now the book's debt to its predecessors becomes more plain. We are treated to snippets of the familiar: the paranoid, fearful waiting of I Am Legend, the savagery of 28 Days Later, the mysticism of The Stand and hopelessness of The Road. Unfortunately, Cronin never establishes the same visceral connection with his new batch of survivors—except perhaps Alicia Donadio, who he obviously has great affection for. Nevertheless, the strength and ambition of the original idea propels the book relentlessly for hundreds of pages, so even if the characters themselves sometimes melt into their own narratives, the fact that the virals are out there in the night is never far away.

Read it.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Whew. That was Rough

Guess what I just did? I just synced up a Twitter feed with Facebook via Tweetdeck. Ha ha! Just this morning, that sentence would have been incomprehensible to me, but it's done now.

Along the same lines, I'm keeping this blog and blog title, but I'm retired LurkerMonkey as my name. Why? Oh jeesh. The thing is, I'm feeling the urge to consolidate all the various chunks of my personality. You know how it feels to stare into a cluttered closet and it just looks like a pile of crap? That's a little how I'm feeling about the whole Internet thing right now, like I've got little pieces of myself scattered all over the place, but it doesn't hang together. Like a continuity editor would look at it and their head would explode.

So there you go ... and from now on, when I comment or post, I'll be doing it under my own name.

Goodbye, LurkerMonkey.

Checking My Twitter Feed

Yeah, that's right. It's just what it says ... I got sucked into Twitter this afternoon, so I'm setting up an RSS feed from this blog to my Twitter account. And this is just to see if all these magical things actually happen!

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Man in the Mirror

Kim was a beautiful girl, in a small-town sort of way. She was blonde and, well, built, and she had been crowned the queen of whatever fruit or vegetable her town was known for. Cherry queen? Onion princess? Something like that. She was also her high school's homecoming princess and, when I met her in college, dead set on marrying her middle school sweetheart, who she was still dating from a distance. I always thought it was kind of a shame that Kim was still so attached to this guy hundreds of miles away, because she was completely off the market. Aggressively off the market. Adamantly off the market. To the point that she wore both a commitment ring and his class ring on a chain around her neck.

Kim attracted a fair amount of attention in her small town—she said it used to creep her out when her dad's friends hit on her. But nothing compared to this story.

Kim's house was a single-story ranch house in a wide open neighborhood with wooded lots between the homes. Her bed was pushed up against the wall, facing a large vanity across the room. She slept with her head toward the wall, just under a large window that let in the moonlight and summer breezes when she kept it open.

Her senior year, Kim started to get funny vibes. She couldn't explain it exactly, but she started to feel like she was being watched, that sometimes a car would pass her house a few extra times, or that someone—she couldn't say who—was watching her when she got out of school. Then the phone calls started. It was mostly heavy breathing, but sometimes he would groan into the phone.

Now she was scared. Her dad got involved. The police got involved. Even her boyfriend got involved—I believe he threatened to kill whoever was stalking his girlfriend.

One spring night, Kim awoke in the middle of the night. She said she didn't know why, or what woke her up. But she had the strong feeling something was wrong. She opened her eyes and looked down her bed, to the vanity mirror across the room. She saw the reflection of a man in the mirror, just outside her window. He was less than two feet from her head, separated from her only by a pane of glass. Watching her sleep.

Kim screamed, and he ran.

Later, the police found a footpath to her window, leading out from the trees on her property. It was well-worn.

The next day, her dad installed a motion-detector outside her window that triggered security lights and an alarm. But still, she couldn't sleep with her back to the window anymore. She had to move her bed. Nights, in fact, were terrifying for months afterward, as she watched the darkness outside her window for the flare of light that would mean he was back and had tripped the security lights.

Going to college was a relief for Kim, because it was over. They never found out who it was, and once she moved away, it all stopped. No more phone calls, no more weird feelings, no more stalking.

Erica Orloff recently asked what episode from real life we've used in a story. I used this one in a middle-grade horror-lite story. And you know what? Every kid who read the manuscript made a point to mention that this scene in particular was terrifying.

As for Kim? She didn't end up marrying that guy after all, but by the time she was on the market, I was off it.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Through the Ice

I remember the morning I showed up in English class and found our teacher crying. Ms. Tyman was my favorite teacher by far—I took an independent study writing class with her and we did nothing that semester but huddle around a table in the library and talk fiction. She showed me her poems, and she read my awful high-school writing as if it deserved serious consideration. She was unsparing in her criticism, but also in her praise. So finding her sitting at her desk sobbing sent the class into a stunned silence.

"Rob Kornwise died," she said. "In a car accident."

It took me a minute to understand what she was even saying. Rob sat next to me, and Rob and I weren't really friends, but we shared one thing in common: we both wrote. I'd read his stuff, and I was impressed. In another life, Rob and I might have been friends. We should have been friends.

As best I can remember, the accident happened during a concert. Rob was in a car full of kids, waiting in a line. Another car tried to cut into the line and rear-ended Rob's car. He was tall, so his head stuck up above the seat-rest. His neck broke and he died instantly.

When a high school student dies like that, the whole school stops. Life seems to stop and mortality makes an unwelcome appearance in the grim halls. For a while at least, all the normal activities are suspended and there is a palpable, dull sheen over everything. I remember seeing girls crying in the hallway.

I didn't go to the funeral. I felt like I hadn't really earned it, because Rob and I weren't very close after all. I was afraid I had no right to show up. But I wrote his parents a letter. "You don't know me," I wrote. "You've probably never heard my name, and I'm just one of the kids who drifted in and out of Rob's life. But I wanted to say that Rob meant something to me. He was a writer. I'm a writer. He was so good, and I'm so sorry for your loss. I would have loved to see what Rob could have written."

Of course, I knew from class what Rob was writing. He was working on a fantasy novel. It was patterned after his favorite author, Piers Anthony, and Rob was serious about publication. When he died, his book was halfway done. In one of those remarkable stories, his friends sent the manuscript to Anthony with a short note about what happened and how Rob loved Anthony's books. Piers Anthony read it. And liked it. And finished it based on Rob's notes. You can order the book on Amazon. It's called Through the Ice, and Rob Kornwise is given co-author credit with Anthony.

I've thought about Rob a lot over the years, with a mixture of sadness, inspiration and regret. I never mailed the letter I wrote to his parents. No one ever knew how much Rob's death shook me—because I didn't tell anybody, and because I didn't really understand it myself. I spent most of those years skipping school and flunking tests, frequently face down, obsessed with my girlfriend, and dreaming of running away. But Rob wasn't running away—he was running toward. Rob had already identified what he wanted in a way that I hadn't and couldn't at that age. He had already engaged in a process that I didn't even know existed.

Ms. Tyman pulled me aside after Rob's death. She was perhaps the only other person who knew that Rob and I had formed this tenuous, classroom connection as writers. She had seen it, and she had nurtured it. She made us writing partners and encouraged us to share our work. I think now that Ms. Tyman hoped Rob had something to teach me—and I can only hope that she also thought I had something to teach Rob. Ms. Tyman had almost made a career out of trying to reach me.

"Are you OK?" she said.

I nodded because there was no way I could tell the truth.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

In Which I Rebel Against Social Norms

I was wondering the other day if I had to write myself as a character, how would I do it? Which details would I choose to get across the essence of my character, so readers could instantly understand the "type" of character they are dealing with?

Then I thought some more, and realized that I might be a deeply weird person. To wit:

I don't own a cell phone. I have no desire to own a cell phone. It's true that I work from my house, so my need for a cell phone is somewhat obviated, but still. Not including my five-year-old, I'm literally the only person I know who doesn't own a cell phone.

I don't own a watch. I think the last watch I owned was a black plastic digital watch in fourth grade. I hated the way it made the skin on my wrist smell. LIke a belly button, but worse.

I wear no jewelry at all, except a wedding ring. And I didn't start wearing my wedding ring until 3 months ago, after almost ten years of marriage. I don't wear necklaces, bracelets, sunglasses, or earrings either.

I can't stand elastic in almost any article of clothing, and I won't wear clothes that have printed words or images on them.

Given the choice, I'll cut my hair twice a year—so it goes through stages. Very short, almost buzzed, then longish, then truly long. Then I cut it.

I'm terrified of cameras—and yet I've recently discovered that I actually really like doing TV. Somehow, that's not intimidating or scary, but exhilarating. I make weekly TV appearances on a local morning show, BUT I have trouble watching myself back on screen, so I often don't.

Even I think I have bad taste in music, but what can I say? I have the musical taste of a 15-year-old English raver. I like loud beats.

I like extremely spicy food, motion in all its varieties (spinning, roller coasters, even "the spins"), swimming in cold water, and being outside in rainstorms.

People often think I'm distant, which is true, but not for the reason most people think. I'm not unfriendly, shy, introverted, arrogant, or anti-social. The truth is, I'm usually distracted by what else is going on—and by what else, I mean what's going on in the immediate environment. I'm less interested in people than is perhaps socially acceptable.

And it goes on. If I was writing myself as a character, I'd look at this list and think they're mostly quirks. But there's a common theme that runs through all this. My wife would say I have sensory issues; I would say that I'm focused on experience rather than relationship, and I'm overaware of sensory input. This is why I can't wear most jewelry, or carry around things like phones and beepers, why I like strongly flavored foods, and why I have trouble focusing on conversations right in front of my face. It's all too distracting. I can't concentrate when I'm constantly playing with a ring or watch. On the other hand, strong sensations tend to focus me on the moment, and it's nice.

Isn't it like this with characters in books also? What looks like a collection of quirks and oddities is in fact united by a common thread ... a fundamental personality type that has both positives and negatives. It's true that I sound slightly autistic, but I'm also hyper-observant. I rarely miss anything going on around me, even at the expense of the conversation I'm currently sort of having.

So that's what I'm looking for as i write: a uniting thread with my characters that pulls together all the little quirks.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Million Jilted Girlfriends

I've been edging around this self-publishing question for a while now, and it finally struck me what I find so off-putting about the whole thing.

But before I go there, I'll say this: I have no doubt, zero, that the old business model for publishing is on its last legs. It will morph into something new, in the very near future. The traditional role of agent/editor/publisher will change, and at least for now, individual authors have unprecedented access to mass distribution. A window of opportunity has opened for people who are well-positioned to take advantage of it, and it's exciting to see authors empowered and a new urgency around the book industry. I love it, and I'm even working on a few of my own projects for this brave new world of publishing.

And yet ... I've had this niggling unpleasant sensation about the e-revolution and self-publishing wave. It's like a toothache, but less specific. For the longest time, I couldn't figure out what was bugging me. I'm an entrepreneur by nature, right? I love it when writers get paid for their work. I love the idea of writers finding their own audience and the ability of technology to democratize publishing. And yet ...

I read JA Konrath's post yesterday about an article Publisher's Weekly ran about his deal with AmazonEncore. He called the article an "epic fail" and went on to detail some significant factual errors in the article. Worse yet, in a way, Konrath himself wasn't quoted in the article, and the reporter took some significant liberties with her editorializing. I'm a reporter myself, so I know a lousy article when I see it, and that was a lousy article. And yet ...

Then I read the comment thread and I had this very strong image. I pictured a whole football stadium of jilted girlfriends, all yelling at once about how their ex-boyfriends all got crabs and ha ha, sucks to be them. It's a toxic mixture of triumphalism, thin-skinned pique, gloating, and I-told-you-so. I was almost moved to comment, but then I figured there was no point in setting off an argument on someone else's blog. I wondered how many of those angry commenters have been unable to place books with traditional publishers. Then I realized it was probably all of them.

Like I said, I think this technological revolution is amazing and awesome, and there's no pretty way to create a new future. You have to break some crockery. But I have a feeling ... just a little tickle ... that all of this triumphalism is premature. There is a window of opportunity right now, as e-readers proliferate and people rush to stock up their new gadgets. But let's be honest ... this isn't how markets really work for long. After a while, they organize. After the initial rush passes, they consolidate. Before long, someone will figure out how to control and monetize the distribution channel.

And even if I'm wrong about all that, even if "they" are right that we stand on the threshold of a new era and New York publishing is truly a sinking ship that will soon be vaporized by a million $1.99 e-books, I still think it's a dangerous thing to drink too much wine made from bitter grapes.