Writing Process

Don't follow me

This time last year I was traveling in Cambodia with my girlfriend. Our train had just run over a cow. I would see eleven more countries before returning to America.

In 2018 in had two short stories and an essay published and they made me exactly $0. I got lots more rejections from journal editors and agents. Some rich novelists get 12 or 14 rejections before the big yes and they’re celebrated for their perseverance. I’ll be venerated. They’ll make me a damned saint.

But I’m living the life. Counting pennies so I can stretch this out, make this dream reality.

Five years ago I was making low six figures as a management consultant. Traveling for work, stacking points and custom-made shirts. Married to a woman I’d met 17 years prior. There were whispers of starting a family so we were looking at a house. We had a dying pet that consumed a lot of time and energy because we loved him so. Before 2014 was over I had that house and was living in it alone. On Christmas Day I sat in bed and finished the first draft of my first novel.

No, that was two novels ago.

No kids, of course. Would’ve been irresponsible to do this. I’d have had to keep the steady soul-sucking corporate gig. Where the winds of fortune shift, and you go from managers who are brilliant and caring to a micromanager who can’t explain what they want (think about how much that would suck), or one who is looking out for themselves alone.

But that’s the responsible play. Stay on the ladder. Associate Director now, but hide your opinions and kiss the right asses and in two years you might be up for Director. Keep climbing and fake smiling and after four more years you might make Senior Director. Or you could take a big career risk and jump to a smaller company, where you have a clearer path to vice president—assuming the company doesn’t go under and you don’t make the wrong enemy first. But hey, high risk high reward.

I did neither of those. “Playing the game” never fit my style (ask anyone who’s worked with me). Throw in my writing during meetings and the on-again off-again office romance that we worked not very hard to hide and you can see why I needed to reevaluate. A little sad I’m not putting that MBA to better use—I worked hard for it and I’m pretty good at business. It’s just the culture that rankles me.

So no wife, no kids, no house, no BMW. No relationship but good friends. Minimize distractions so I can work for this. So I can pound away at my keyboard and brain, make the words travel from my head to my hands—it’s a longer distance than you can imagine until you’ve sat here, hour after hour, fueled only by belief.

Could you handle that? The uncertainty? The instability? Sacrificing the sure things, the adult things? The house, the new car, the appliances, the shoes? Lawncare and HOAs? The fully funded 401(k)? Could you be 41 years old and further from having a family than you were at 31? All on the bet that, of the thousands of great and very good books, books that are genre-perfect and the cross of two hot comp titles all sitting in slush piles, that yours will break through? How many rejections could you take? Getting your hopes up and getting them dashed until they don’t get up anymore but you still have to. All anyone can tell you is “keep trying”. Send another query letter? Write another story?

This is literally my life. When my ex-wife was my girlfriend she would “joke” that she worried one day I’d come home having spent my checking account on a handful of magic beans. In a way, she was right.

But I do have this.

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Think it’s almost time to pack again.

On the industry of writing

As I query my latest novel and outline the next I think of one of the best bands I saw as a kid: Grand Tour. Man, they were tight. Covers, some originals I think. I thought they were the equal of anything on the radio.

Never heard of them? I’m not surprised. Because they never * made * it. Which is a tragedy, because so many shit acts do—and that can mean popular rotation in radio as it was in the days of Grand Tour or now where it’s soundcloud, or any number of streaming services (I use deezer), or YouTube or having your own satellite radio station / branded bars / merch, or however you define success.

But bands like Grand Tour don’t get a sniff. I think they were in the running for a spicy mustard commercial jingle. I remember lyrics, “first it’s hot, then it’s not. Whatchu got, you got cooool hot.”

Dig it, right?

So what do they, or Mink, or Catfish, or Fleming and John, or Stephen’s Law, or Darwin’s Waiting Room, or Black Market Hero, or Mother Love Bone, or the many other shoulda-been-mores I have loved have to do with the writing industry? Because I read stories, and the stories of people who get their stories published. Some of them have incredible out of the box success, like it came to me in a dream, and it was the first thing I really wrote, and I got 15 whole rejections before I had an agent and a contract and multiple best-sellers that turn into a movie series. Or I wrote fanfic of the same story and changed the names and got multiple best-sellers that turn into a movie series.

But a lot of us don’t. Ever read American War? I read it last year and adored it. Sweeping, well-structured with fully formed and sympathetic characters, and a brilliant allegory playing underneath. I don’t know how many copies sold. It got some great praise from literary circles which maybe translates into enough sales to support a career or at least a follow-up but I doubt Omar is pulling down streaming series money yet. Almost certainly not theme park-level bank.

Meanwhile, self-indulgent overly long unrealistic waste of my time characters I only hoped would all die painful deaths including the narrator, who was so excessively unreliable I said at every paragraph “yeah whatever” become cult hits and movies. But fair play to you, Bret, because either you were in the right place at the right time or you figured out something about the industry that I haven’t yet. Either way I say,

if I were writing historical fiction, anyway

if I were writing historical fiction, anyway

It is at this point that some self-published writer is reading this and puffing up, ready to strike like a Crossfitter or Herbalife pusher. I know, I’ve seen you on the twitter and message boards. Because yes, it does suck to spend time querying that you could be spending writing, and yes, having absolute creative control to write a 150,000 word middle grade gothic horror tome sounds freeing, and toiling for years without landing a deal, facing rejection upon rejection before putting your most precious work through major surgery or killing your darling in the drawer is an unfortunate struggle for many of us agent-seekers. But while I see some making a mint by being down with the KDP, I see many more e-published folk who are great writers make literally dozens of dollars a year doing it. Or they’re on Wattpad, valuing communities and eyeballs and hoping it’ll lead to dollars like the dot-com bubble. I’ve seen others sacrifice their pride hustling to fill their email marketing list at conferences, or bombing my inbox and timeline the moment I refollow them on twitter.

Life is trade-offs. Or, as my ex-wife used to say, “life is choices, Cupcake.” Maybe she still does.

I have mad respect for the self-publishers though. Cover design, marketing, sales, PR they’re responsible for it all. They live and die by amazon ranking, amazon pricing, and please god don’t let amazon change their policies or algorithms yet again. Don’t underestimate their dedication and hustle—and certainly don’t doubt their writing skills.

Going the agent/trad 5 route is painful. It’s a tough place to go against the grain. You may have an amazing book, but if it’s in an unpopular category, or it’s vampires and vampires are out of style now, or your protagonist is too stock, or too strange, or too anything or not enough something then you’re going to face rejections in the dozens or hundreds depending on how tenacious/lucky you are. And yes that sucks sucks sucks but I don’t blame agents. Just like writers, they love books and amazing storylines and brilliant writing for writing’s sake, because if they didn’t they wouldn’t have read three grade levels ahead in elementary through high school and majored in comparative literature at 7 Sisters and chosen to work in publishing (probably not the most thankful of industries). But they’re also on straight commission. And when they have a stack of stories in the slush that are equally well written and structured as yours plus hit the age group or target market segment or trend of the moment? That’s a simple business decision. New York apartments aren’t cheap.

So what to do? The only consistent advice I’ve gotten, from twitter to rejection letters to those professionals who have kindly given of their time and insight, is that this business is subjective. And if you want to succeed, you’ve got to work at it for years, and keep trying. And the acceptances I have received confirm that the time and effort invested is worth it. Maybe not on an hourly wage basis yet, but…

Every moment should be enjoyed. Each new milestone comes with new pleasures, but you lose other pleasures forever, pleasures that came when life was simpler or merely different. Jimmy Buffett was seven years and seven albums in before he became an overnight success with Margaritaville. His life dramatically changed, and in ways I’m sure he’d say were great, but there must be things he misses about the old life in old Palm Beach.**

And it helps to remember why I’m doing this in the first place: love of telling stories. And hope that my words can impact, or entertain, or matter to someone. To contribute my verse.

So enjoy the ride. I’ve read that being on sub is more frustrating than querying.

**According to Ryan White’s very good Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way

Giving up to go forward

Tonight I gave up.

The first short story I wrote when I re-undertook writing 4.5ish years ago was called Two Graduations. I was proud of it, and was sure it would be my first published work (soon to be followed by my first novel). Seventeen rejections and a lot of punishment to my ego later I was making new edits. I grew frustrated, and scrawled at the top: WHAT MATTERS?

So I stripped down the story to what did. The essential conflict. I rewrote it, renamed it Thanks for the Sour Persimmons, and resumed submitting. That was in 2016. And the rejections kept coming. Sometimes they came with good feedback, like the contest I entered where I paid extra for said feedback.

Hey, time is money.

I wrote other things, so Persimmons took a back seat, but I would dust it off from time to time, make new edits, find new lit mags to flog. Rejected by them all, 28 in total.

There’s a writer’s group that I sparsely attend, and tonight I decided to bring it in. Over the previous two weeks I made fresh edits, remembering all the comments I’d read and bought. They were right, it was overwritten, so I simplified the language. Clarified scenes that, with distance I saw were ill formed. All in the hopes that it would pass my fellow writers’ inspection and so be worthy of more submissions, and hopefully publication at last.

It didn’t go that way. They were complimentary, of course: that it was well-written, that I had vivid description, good dialogue, humor, surprise.

But…

there was near-unanimous agreement that a scene should be struck, though they were split on which one. And while the description was indeed vivid, it was perhaps inappropriate for the story. Which is what I was going for—juxtaposition, like a song with bouncy music and tragic lyrics.

But I’m not here to fight their feedback but to absorb it. And I accept that this story, while precious to me, maybe isn’t publishable as-is. Though I’ve continued making revisions, it has at its core a story I wrote 4.5ish years ago. It carries artifacts of defects I’ve since corrected in my prose.

And though my skin has toughened, each rejection still dings my ego and good humor. So tonight has led me to the decision to return Thanks for the Sour Persimmons to the metaphorical drawer, filed beside my first two novels and a few other shorts. Maybe not forever: maybe it’ll be included in a compilation of “other stories” released after I die, or to fill the gap between best sellers made when I get famous and go full Chappelle.*

I want to be interviewed by James Lipton. I have all my answers to his ten questions.

So what to do in the meantime? I’ll write, just the same as I’ve done before and hopefully better. I’ll keep trying to write what matters. And in a strange way, I feel good about putting Persimmons aside. A little sad, perhaps, but free:

Didn’t know Black Box was so deep, did you?

*Dear agents and publishers: I promise I won’t do that—at least not while I’m under contract

Tattoos and Rocky

My first tattoo was no small flash in a fleshy part of the body or a tribal band around a low-nerve region: it was thick, dark, and required the needle gun to run up my collarbone. The vibration scraped down to my sternum. All of this was manageable as I’d zoned out like the body and mind mandates when undergoing sustained pain. Then when my artist pulled the gun away and turned her back I relaxed and smiled, pleased we were done. Not too bad.

Of course, I was wrong. She was just reloading. The next minutes were excruciating as I worked to get back to that happy place but my mind wouldn’t make the leap. Like it was saying “boy, this wasn’t the deal. You bamboozled me and now we both have to hurt for it.” But I didn’t know: one, this was all new to me, and two, I couldn’t see to verify (try looking at all your clavicle without a mirror). But after all the pain, it was worth it—my next dozen tats serve as confirmation.

If you want to see the rest you’ll have to buy me dinner. I’m cheap, not free.

If you want to see the rest you’ll have to buy me dinner. I’m cheap, not free.

The life of a writer (or my life as a writer, anyway) is full of rejection. Sharp needles jabbing into your ego, over and over again. Like that first tattoo, I don’t know when the pain will end. Worse, I can’t be certain it will turn out like I want—or that I’ll even end up with a visible result. As though there’s no ink in the gun, and I’ve endured it all for nothing.

It stings. Especially when you go through the proper process: you read the blogs and articles that preach proper etiquette, you do your research and find agents who rep books that are similar but not too similar (and, of course of course, when you’re not writing you’re reading lots of books in your genre to know those matches), you meet them at conferences or query them on the basis of their MSWL or their recent interview or their tweets or agency profile that shows you two should be like peas and carrots and you tell them all this while sounding totally professional, not at all obsequious or stalkerish. You do all of this and it works, s/he requests the first 10 or 50 pages or even the whole damned book and you think, finally it is in a professional’s hands—I’ve made it through the hoops and now the writing will speak for itself.

And they say they like it, just not enough. But keep going, they say, because certainly another agent will see it differently.

Rejection hurts, especially after you believed.


Rocky’s down on the canvas and it’s not the first time this fight. His nose was broken rounds ago. His eyes are swelling shut. He’s so battered that his own trainer tells him to stay down. Everyone has lost faith in him. But he gets back up. He wants it so badly that he has his cutman cut open his eyelid so that he can see for one more round (they don’t usually do that, you know—it’s like a firefighter setting a fire).

Rocky goes the distance. The scorecards are irrelevant because all he wanted was to go the distance. To know that he was good enough.

I find meaning in that. Rocky had one advantage over me though: he knew what the distance was. 15 rounds, they announced it up front, it was the standard length for championship fights at the time, even Lady Liberty carried around glittery numbered cards to remind you what round was coming (helpful as Rock was probably sustaining a large percentage of his overall brain damage).

submittable  is great because it lets you see lots of your failures on one page. Not one screen, mind you—this goes on for 72 entries. On the bright side: two of these stories have since been published.

submittable is great because it lets you see lots of your failures on one page. Not one screen, mind you—this goes on for 72 entries. On the bright side: two of these stories have since been published.

I don’t know what round I’m in. And these shots I’ve taken of late are a lot harder than the jabs from lit mags passing on my short fiction, or the glancing blows struck when agents respond to my slush pile query with a form letter or no response at all because I was all in on this. I was feeling like a contender, a somebody. Getting representation for my novel isn’t the title belt, but it’s a lot more than fighting Spider Rico. Is it going the distance? Because that won’t be enough. Of course, Rocky changed his mind on there not being a rematch and… okay, the analogy becomes a little tortured since success is a succession of fights, some lost, some won, all instructional.

It’s hard to not write a cheesy inspirational close about getting up off the canvas when you’ve been knocked onto it, just like Rocky. And I sure as hell won’t link to that awful 1990’s song that said something similar to that in the hook. Instead I’ll go to a different sport:

The acceptance is a hard-won joy

Very proud and honored to be published in the latest edition of Foliate Oak, and with a story that is dear to my heart. The idea for it had been rattling around in my brain for who knows how long, but I started writing it down in a Saigon coffee shop while watching the insane traffic.

That was in May of last year. It went through at least six iterations and 11 rejections before it found its proper home. And this, by my standards, was a pretty fast accept--I have other stories that have yet to find the right fit after dozens of drafts and declines.

I say this not to complain, but instead to quantifiably demonstrate that this takes time and hard work. It takes thick skin and relentlessness. Now maybe that isn't true for every writer--and the fact that Stephanie Meyer thinks a dozen rejections is a lot and complains that a couple of those were mean, well, I have to laugh. Otherwise I would want to throttle her. 

Then again she made a mint off a story I couldn't get halfway through from all my eye-rolling, so maybe I shouldn't be so smug. 

hark-hateth-thou-not-the-player-nay-hateth-thou-the-game.jpg

Point being, success in this writing game seems to be a function of talent, tenacity, strategy, and luck. One probably needs all four, but the percentage of each will vary for each writer. I feel lucky for the success I've had thus far, and appreciative to all those who have contributed to it. And I'll need more, because I'm not even close to being done yet.   

In Malaysia, thinking of death

Death. A lot has been said on the topic and I don't know that I have anything new to add but I hope you'll indulge me nonetheless.

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It's something I've thought about since... well, since ever, at least for a long time. I remember as I little kid taking a paper and pencil to graveyards and sketching images of the headstones, fascinating with the history. I also remember fixating on death--I would awfulize, worry that my father would die driving to visit me on the weekends, worry that when my mother was a few minutes late coming home she was in a ditch somewhere. I tried to hasten my own, from clueless suicide attempts early on (maybe you can od on rescue inhaler but I didn't find a way) to a much more effective attempt at 18 that won me a stay in the ICU. 

Death was the main topic of my earliest short stories, written when I should've been paying attention in middle school music class. Maybe that's a common thread for writers--we have to think about a story as beginning middle and end, and what clearer end is there than death?

Because the truth is, we all die. 

That song has been a motivator in the One Way Ticket.

Look alive. See these bones.

What you are now, we were once.

Just like we are, you'll be dust.

And just like we are, permanent.

So what do I want to do before then? What do I want to leave behind besides dust and stone? 

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These were my thoughts as I walked past gravesites here in Malaysia. Ancient ones like the Dutch Graveyard in Melaka where so many were buried younger than I am now, or the newer and comparatively anonymous ones like in Ipoh.

And they are two separate thoughts. My travels, my experiences, are largely selfish. They bring me joy, insight, whatever--all good things, no apologies for that. And I will carry memories of them to my deathbed but not beyond.

Will I make anything that stays after me, though? Most people get a form of immortality through their children**--passing on chromosomes and collected wisdom from forefathers and mothers. And maybe I'll do that some day. I had plans once, but...

But that's one hope for the writing. Something that those who might never know me can read and gain something from. That someone who is feeling pain or facing challenge can, for a few hours, get lost in the stories I've spun and can smile or learn or just know they aren't alone in all this. And maybe even 50 years after I'm gone, someone might pick up one of my titles and appreciate it, that my words could stand the test of time. 

We all die. But the truth is, most of us want to game it a little bit.

 

**Which brings to my mind the horror of last week in Parkland, Florida. There are parents my age who must bury their children for no good fucking reason. The bitter cruelty of that exceeds any words I could possibly write.

Writer. Traveler. Happy. Really?

 
it must be true--I mean, it's there on  linkedin  and everything

it must be true--I mean, it's there on linkedin and everything

There's a tension between these three claims. As a writer, especially when banging out longer forms narratives, I thrive on routine and a borderline boring environment. I don't need much--a comfortable workspace, relative quiet, easy access to food delivery when possible.

These are hit and mostly miss when traveling. Maybe because I'm on an unemployed aspiring writer's budget, but my hotel rooms tend to be "cozy", food is far more interesting in stalls and hidden holes in their walls, and, on nights like tonight, the sounds of tuners and rice rockets buzz up alley funnels and right into my ears. 

I heard you coming, asshole

I heard you coming, asshole

Plus the whole point of traveling is to get out of my hotel room and see the world--otherwise I could've stayed in that corporate life, where I had status and spent time in the best windowless conference rooms.

all that remains of my platinum--a broken bag tag. fitting?

all that remains of my platinum--a broken bag tag. fitting?

A fellow consultant once said to me "Know what's better than having status? Not having status."

Each day I see it's true, whether getting rained on in Laos, getting tested in Cambodia, or getting no sleep tonight in Kuala Lumpur. No matter how bad it has been, it's better than having my soul slowly sucked away. 

So yes, I am happy. Loving life (which, historically, is also not a common claim writers make). But that doesn't resolve the tension between writing and traveling, the push vs. pull of often diametrically opposed desires. With the novel nearing queryable status, it now demands my attention.

But so does Malaysia. 

I'm still not sure how to harmonize these competing demands. Maybe I could think of a solution if I could get some sleep...  

(Sky)train of thought and memory

With my time in Bangkok speeding to a close, yesterday I daytripped with friends to Samut Prakan. 

Afterwards, riding the BTS from the Bearing terminus with a little birdy at my shoulder, I was struck by out of sequence nostalgia.

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At On Nut station, I remember my second week here. I was excited. Amazing though Songkran was, I looked forward to seeing the city without the parties and tourists--the real Krung Thep. I bounced to an airbnb apartment near On Nut and definitely experienced some Thai culture, though not like I imagined. I'll spare the details, but the lessor's laid-back attitude on providing me access to the room, proper working equipment in the room, and my having to sneak in and out of the building itself (since he failed to mention the management doesn't allow subletters) tested my mai bpen rai. Mak. But it taught me that the things I get so easily twisted up over don't matter much in the end--and my anger and frustration only hurts me so best that I just get over it.

Plus I got this, so not a bad week at all.

no pain

no pain

Three stations later we reach Thong Lo, and this is where it all began: where I stayed my first week, when I did Songkran, and Wat Po, and the Golden Mountain. Where I saw the glitter and gleam that is Bangkok. Where I felt the crippling anxiety of being alone and pushed through. Where I clogged my toilet by putting toilet paper in it because, isn't that what you do?

Not here.

But you learn.

Sà taă nee dtòr bpai, Asok. This connects to the MRT, and the hotel I spent three-plus weeks on two separate occasions. Great street food, comfortable for the price--it was the next-best home away from home I found here. It's where I sat on the floor, angry and frustrated and determined following another rejection of my most personal short story, and wrote this blog post. And where I revised and revised that short story that will some day be published, I'm certain of it. It's also where I started my YA novel in earnest, which absolutely will some day be published.

now the nominees for least exciting screen shot of the year...

now the nominees for least exciting screen shot of the year...

This is what writing is made of. Dogged, stupid refusal to quit.

On we roll to Phaya Thai, where the Airport Rail Link connects. I remember riding into here on that first arrival, and a month later after my first border run to the incredible ass-kicking Vietnam. Phaya Thai is also the stop for the language school that added a little Thai to my vocab and extended my visa a few months without needing so many pesky border runs.  

Then to Anu Sao-wa ree Chai sa Mhor ra Phoom.

a.k.a Victory Monument, which has a fascinating history all its own I hope to go into later. Image credit: Bangkok.com

a.k.a Victory Monument, which has a fascinating history all its own I hope to go into later. Image credit: Bangkok.com

This is my stop, because it's a short walk to my apartment and home for the last six months. It's where I've felt truly settled. It's where I finished the first draft of that third novel I'd been working on. And the second draft. And third and fourth and fifth. It's where I started querying agents, then stopped because I realized it was almost ready but not quite. And it's where I made a deposit payment to my developmental editor, because I'm so damn serious about getting it published. So fuck you, Stewie. 

And thank you, Stewie. Thank you for being the motivating voice in my head, encapsulating my fears and driving me to more.

I don't know where I'll be when my editor sends those edits (I have a guess on the country). I don't know where I'll be when I start querying agents again (I have a guess on the month). And I don't know where I'll be when my agent says yes, when my publisher does the same, when I'll hit the shelves or the best-seller list. But I know where it truly took shape. I know the genesis of the story, and how its roots run from Tennessee through North Carolina and across continents to here.

And I know Krung Thep will always hold a special place in my heart, for what I've done, what I've seen, what I've felt, who I've met. They call it the City of Angels. And I... I will spare you any cheesy quips I could come up with off of that. 

But I am truly blessed and fortunate. 

For the writers: beta reader questionnaire

One challenge I've faced in the writing process is getting good feedback from beta readers. Do I simply ask them what they think? Do I ask different questions of each based upon their likely strengths and interests? Do I pepper each with dozens of questions until they hate me more than Herbalife?

But now I've come up with this one weird trick: I developed a simple questionnaire and appended it to the end (call the Department of Redundancy Department) of the manuscript. It worked well. I got multiple answers to my baseline concerns, and it gave me a starting point for follow-up conversations. I think it also helped my readers, since they didn't have to guess at my needs.

And here it is: feel free to use it as-is, modify it, or simply use it as a starting point for your own. Hope you find it helpful! 

FEEDBACK FORM

 

Thank you for reading my manuscript, _______________. Youve given me your most valuable asset--your time--and for that Im truly grateful. May I also ask for a little more time, and your opinion, in answering the below questions? Of course you dont have to answer any of them, but the more feedback you can provide to me, the better I can make the story.

  1. Did you enjoy the story? If youd paid money for it, would you feel satisfied with the decision?
  2. In one (or more) word(s), how would you describe your thoughts/feelings about the story?
  3. What did you find surprising or unexpected? Was that a good thing or a bad thing?
  4. Did you find the characters relatable? Likeable? Any in particular you did or did not like? Why?
  5. Did how you feel about any of the characters diminish your enjoyment of the story?
  6. Did you find the plot believable? Any holes or moments where you had to suspend disbelief? Did any of that bother you?
  7. How did you feel about the ending/resolution?
  8. Did any parts of the story drag? Anything you would cut?
  9. Were any aspects confusing?
  10. What do you believe is the correct age group for this story?
  11. Is there anything you would recommend be changed?
  12. Any other comments or feedback?

Book report: John Green is mean

On deciding that my latest story was best told as YA fiction, I began reading the category's recent classics since writers read. In these posts I'll talk about those stories and what they've meant to me. CAUTION: SPOILERS FOLLOW.

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THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

John Green

First impressions matter, and the first sentence of Fault jumps off the page. It also cheats, since it contains seven clauses. In writing, cheating works if done well, and Green does it very, very well.

Speaking of adverbs, he uses three -ly words in that first sentence. I'm sure this is a horror show to writers like Stephen King, but again, it works.

and they ensure we drive quickly, smoothly, and quietly

and they ensure we drive quickly, smoothly, and quietly

Another key takeaway for me was the narrator Hazel's voice. She speaks full and smart and pleasantly sarcastic, which is impressive for someone with terminal cancer. I liked her instantly. And while writing characters with strong voice has never been a problem for me, writing characters likeable to anyone but me has been. But I gained some insights on how to do it from here.

Which brings us to the co-protag, Augustus. He's charming a.f. I couldn't help but root for him. But I also remember watching Game of Thrones and instantly liking Ned Stark. That was an error. 

So I knew better this time. Don't care about characters--especially the likeable ones--because bad things happen.

And as I disclose in the title of this post, John Green is mean.

Because he made Augustus so damned compelling it still upset me when shit went sideways. Which taught another lesson: go for it. Don't be afraid to push every appropriate emotional button.

While I did love Fault, I didn't love everything about it--the cables suspending my disbelief weren't strong enough to withstand a couple of plot turns. But I checked in with several reader friends and they weren't bothered, so it taught me another lesson--don't be afraid to push the rational bounds if it makes for a better story. Sometimes you need to blur reality's edges a bit to reach the greater truth. And while I rooted every event and scene in my new novel based in reality and fact, I was more willing to walk along that edge.

It's clear why Green is among the overlords of the genre: Fault is a smart, powerful read, full of joy and angst. He takes readers on a ride and is happy to thrash them about on the journey.

All in all, I saw in Fault what a cruel person John Green is, and I rather enjoyed it.

A brief post on writing

I recently returned from a trip to Korea (South and, briefly, North) and Japan and have thoughts from that I hope to share--just not today.

But here's a picture--North Korean soldier facing me from the background, South Korean closer and facing away. And I'm standing in North Korean territory: don't tell the dotard.

But here's a picture--North Korean soldier facing me from the background, South Korean closer and facing away. And I'm standing in North Korean territory: don't tell the dotard.

I can't because I'm still deep in the montage, now on the fourth draft of my first YA novel.

Michelangelo said "The sculpture is already complete within the marble block... I just have to chisel away the superfluous material." I think of writing as the same but in reverse--the words are already there, scattered like gravel at my feet. It's my job to drill those rocks with wire and pull them together. And through revision I pull them in tighter and tighter. Discard rocks that don't fit. Over time they mesh together and become cohesive.

And the story is getting there. With each draft it feels tighter. With each draft I become a better writer. It's exciting. It's challenging. It's rewarding.

This is what it is to enjoy the journey and the process. To have a sense of intrinsic satisfaction, derived only from myself.

That said, when it does get published, I hope you all buy and enjoy it, because this writing thing is communication, too. And I'd like to eat. 

Unclaimed baggage

 
"Hi, I'm wondering if you have any  Pushcart Prizes  laying around somewhere?"

"Hi, I'm wondering if you have any Pushcart Prizes laying around somewhere?"

Prime Number Magazine is a quality outlet, and Kevin, their publisher and eic, is a great guy who has given me sage advice each time I've spoken with him. He's a credit to the industry. That said, I'm a bitter bitch toward them because I've submitted several stories to their monthly contest and haven't won once.

I mean, seriously, don't they know who I am?

The twist of their contest is that stories must be 53 words, neither less nor more. And since there's not a big market for stories of that size, I've written my submissions as one-offs--possibly germs for future stories, but largely unsubmittable elsewhere.

So what to do? Guess Imma go like Beyoncé and make lemonade (minus the holy book pages in my menses). Below are a few of my favorites/ones I could find final versions of in my mess of folders.

July 2017

Prompt: Write a 53-word story about something hot

TITLE: Meditations on Khao San Rd

32° C, eternal summer on Khao San. Songkran waterguns swept the street, backpacker trash remains. But they drop baht. I’m worse, waving palm-down at trinket men.

“Parasol?”

“Bracelet?”

“Tattoo?”   

Mai. Where’s the real Krung Thep?

“You want friend?” She asks over my shoulder.

My Singha sweats. “Chi.” I say, then find the cost.


February 2016
Prompt: Write a 53-word story about something sweet

TITLE: Drop Biscuits

“Give Memaw sugar.”

I don’t wanna but I’m a big boy now so scoot toward wide arms. Dry lips abrade my cheek. Camphor makes me swoon.

Her drop biscuits soaking cocoa gravy help forget. Every Sunday.

Then every other. Then The Sugar takes her eyes, legs. Then Memaw.

But drop biscuits help remind.


This one I wrote on spec, and is unsubmitted as there hasn't been a prompt to support it. But I wanted to post it anyway.

untitled

Fragile bonsai in my window, I struggle to nurture you. Water, but not too much. Sun, but not direct. Is your container big enough? You defy books and internet advice. You can’t tell me—I am supposed to know. I prune your rust needles, you spike me in thanks.

I’m failing parenting practice.

The montage

The Rocky Trope.

I love Rocky and enjoy most of the sequels. The original can even bring me to tears.

After everything Rocky's been through, after all he's fought against just to get here, and he's so battered that even his coach is telling him to stay down... sorry, but if that doesn't stir the emotion in you then there's something wrong with you.

Anyway, this isn't about that scene. The Rocky Trope can be described as:

1. Rocky's living his normal life

2. A problem or opportunity disrupts his life

3. He must decide on a solution to that disruption--and one solution presented to him, invariably, is to fight.

4. People and situations in his life support or complicate his decision

5. He decides to fight.

6. He trains for the fight.

7. He fights, and his life becomes a new normal until the sequel.

 

But what about #6? If the films were true to life, this would be by far the longest, and most boring, section. Day after day of the same thing--sweating in the gym, punching a heavy bag, jumping rope. In a year, a high-level boxer logs ~1000 hours of gym time, plus road running, watching fight video, etc. By comparison, in the last year, the World #1 pound for pound Canelo Alvarez has spent 62 minutes and 24 seconds actually boxing.

So, to keep viewers from falling asleep, Sly Stallone and company gave us The Montage:

The Montage turns Rocky into a movie rather than training film, because nobody (except for other boxers, maybe) wants to watch training film. But boxers will tell you it's all that stuff that gets montaged out that leads to hoisting that belt. 

So what's that have to do with me and you?

Because the last couple of weeks it's been pretty silent here on The Next Episode, and that's because my life has been mostly outwardly boring stuff. To ensure some stability in my life and make more time for writing I've secured an apartment--no more hopping from hotel to hostel. 

everything I need, nothing I don't

everything I need, nothing I don't

And while I've also made plans for a couple of upcoming trips, most of what I've been doing of late is reading, and writing the fiction I came here to write (and if you think watching boxers train is boring, imagine the excitement of watching what I do--there's a reason that there's no reality show called "Who Wants to Be the Next Great Novelist"). That isn't a slight against the blog, because it is writing--it just can't be the writing I prioritize for now.

So you'll likely see fewer posts here for the next months, though when the message fits this medium I'll be sure to share--I do have more things I want to say and show. In the meantime, just imagine me drinking raw eggs, chasing chickens, and running through the snow to elude KGB agents on the way to the top of the steps.

That's how the best writers are made.  

The rejection is a painful gift

Six months ago I finished my best short story ever. This was a story I started a year or so before, then tore it apart and built it back up twice. In the following months I submitted it to two outstanding literary journals, either of which I felt would be a good fit.

Heard back from one of them this week.

This is actually a good rejection--if my story was shit I would've gotten a form letter (trust me, I know well what a form letter rejection looks like). And "try us again in the near future" is a great thing to see. It means I'm getting close(r). So I took the rejection in stride. And I still have the story under consideration with another journal, these things are subjective, blah blah.

Today I looked again at my best short story ever in context of the rejection letter. And the deeper I go, the more right he was...

To call this painful is an understatement: it's gut-wrenching. It makes me want to smash my head against a wall. It makes me hate every successful writer and everyone who says "I bet I could write a book."

It makes me hate E.L. James with the fury of a thousand burning suns. Fucking hack.

true. she's still a hack.

true. she's still a hack.

But all this hate is really about me. It's a reminder that I'm not done, that I still have much to learn, that I still have rejections between me and where I need to be. Where I will be.

Because Terence Fletcher is pure evil, and perhaps factually incorrect. But I get what he's saying.

Story notion: the not so distant future

April 2019 and your hero is enjoying another Sonkran, happy to be back in Thailand. Truth be told, Cambodia was a little more than he'd bargained for, so being back on familiar soil is close enough to home.

Then comes word from too close to home: President-General Trump has ordered Border Wall 2: The Real Great Wall and We're Gonna Sue China For Ripping Us Off.

The work of Making America Great Again has got to be done by all the Americans. So 90 days from now All Americans will be recalled home to The World’s Greatest Country in the World. By Executive Order all United States passports are revoked. Not forever, but a little while. Then after America is Great Again you’ll get so much freedom. You’ll say, Mr. President, we don’t need all that freedom. We love it here.