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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:

Manic month of May

 

Before we wake up and the number on the calendar is 1**

I wanted to look at some (rounded) numbers that describe my month. This is the closest I'll get to math without breaking out a spreadsheet:

  • Travel distance, air: 11,150 miles
  • Travel distance, rail and wheels: 720 miles
  • Travel distance, walking: 149 miles 
you should see my shoes at this point

you should see my shoes at this point

  • Countries stayed at least one night in: 8 (Thailand, Egypt, Ethiopia, UAE, Greece, Poland, Hungary, Czechia?)
  • Calories consumed: too many
Gościniec restaurant, Warsaw: nine pierogis was the minimum order

Gościniec restaurant, Warsaw: nine pierogis was the minimum order

  • Stories published: 1 (Voluntouring)
  • Words written: did you see all the miles I walked?
  • Pictures taken: 1500+. Some were better than this:
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And putting aside the numbers, even in a once in a lifetime journey this month has stood out: I've seen The Pyramids at Giza, Lucy, the Acropolis, Auschwitz, and so much old Europe. I left my second home and got closer to my first. I got food shoved in my mouth and found the meaning of life.

What will next month bring? We'll start to see when next we wake up. 


**Hat tip to my b-school buddy Naequan, who references Bone on the facebook every new month. This is also where I post the pic of my autograph from Wish Bone, whom I met on a plane to Brazil in 2015.

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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. 

Blessed and fortunate: I'm a man!

My first blog post was a short one, and included this: 

my 40th birthday will not be spent in the same way any other (of mine) has been. It won’t even be spent in the same hemisphere.

One way ticket. New priorities.

Boy it looks profound in those big italics, doesn't it? [no]

Back then I was looking at 40. Now I'm seeing it inside parallax just before it hits me in the nose.

my occupational hazard being my occupation's just not around

And I say "back then" because even though I posted that just 10 months ago, my life has gone down a completely new path--yet again. I traded the stability of golden handcuffs to bet on myself, I waved goodbye to a relationship that breathed like oxygen but ultimately sustained like cyanide, and I learned how much I love and miss my family and a handful of dear friends.

I also set out on a truly once in my lifetime experience, to see parts of the world I'd only dreamed of. In the 5 months since I left, I've seen stunning natural beauty in Cambodia and Chiang Mai and Vang Vieng; breathtaking works of manmade art in Bangkok and Chiang Rai and Vientiane. I've also seen man's inhumanity to man in Kanchanaburi and Saigon.

I got soaked with strangers during Songkran, knew joy with old friends and family over coffee and beer, and made new friends and relationships I'll forever treasure.

And I have written, because that's what, above all, I came here to do. 

 

On my 25th birthday I was working in the coolest job ever with the coolest people ever. I thought I'd found my path. But I also wanted love, and I'd reconnected with the woman I was supposed to be with. Three months later I would move to Washington, D.C., and we would forge a new path together.

On my 30th birthday I was in a job I hated, but using it as a stepping stone on the new path for more. The woman and I had been through a lot together (and at times apart), but we had made it through. We were on the same path. And I was starting to taste a bit of the good life she promised--we were even making plans for my first trip outside the U.S.

On my 35th birthday I was a freshly minted MBA, stressed out in a lucrative job with a massive learning curve, but excited for the challenge. I was newly hitched to that woman: we'd been through so much, and now all the hard work and stress and struggling was paying off. We'd had a lovely wedding and honeymoon in the Dominican Republic, sparing no expense. Living the dream that we had built. We'd built me into something more than I ever could've imagined. I even thought I was happy.

On my 39th birthday, that path was gone. The job had become even more lucrative, but it led down a path I wasn't willing to walk much longer. I'd survived a divorce, and was in a beautiful, intense entanglement with a Girl who happened to have a boyfriend. I'd given The Ultimatum, trying to convert myself from ho to housewife (so to speak).

I didn't act right

And it was around that 39th birthday that I realized this new path I'd imagined, walking hand in happy hand with this new Girl while figuring out the next stop in my six-figure professional tour was destined to be like those before--not a dead end, per se, but one from which I would have to turn in order to continue my journey.

I don't regret any of these twists or detours or dead ends, just as I don't regret my childhood plans for being a pro baseball player or POTUS not panning out, nor when at age 14 the first girl I really fell for LYLAB'ed me, or when at age 18 my first real girlfriend cheated on me with my then-best friend and his girlfriend ("Dear Penthouse Forum, you'll never believe how I got cuckolded").

Far from regret, I am thankful for all of them. Because without the love, the loss, the opportunities, the rejections, the false promises, and my own personal failings and "mistakes", I wouldn't be right here, right now--exactly where I am supposed to be. Doing exactly what I am supposed to be: writing and traveling.

Now I know what happy is. Because I Am Happy.

 

Rudyard Kipling wrote a lot about what it takes to be a man. His words, along with a few others, helped sustain me during my divorce. In leaving everything behind on this Next Episode of my journey, I drew on those words and inspiration from sources diverse as fuckable friends and Stewie Griffin and the Rocky movies.

 

And now, as the days between me and four decades on earth reduce to single digits, this path that I have walked has led me, not only to deep gratitude and appreciation for all I have become, but to a sincere understanding of what the great philosopher-king Gundy the First said:

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.  

Sam I ain't

 

I do not like the hostel dorms

I do not like them in any form

 

I do not like sleeping in a bunk

And smelling other people’s funk

 

 

 

 

I do not like the late night noise

I do not like sleeping next to boys

IMG_6229(1).JPG

 

I do not like the lack of space

And all these children in my face

 

I do not like them calling home

On the speaker--where are their headphones?

 

 

 

I do not like rules that, I assume,

Are made to drive me from my room

IMG_6225(1).JPG

 

I do not like communal bum guns

I do not find them the least bit fun

 

IMG_6221(1).JPG
IMG_6220(1).JPG

 

 

I do not like mosquitoes in my shower

Dengue fever makes me sour

 

 

I must admit I liked the price

And the staff was awfully nice

IMG_6227(1).jpg

Still… I hope I’m done with hostel living

Guess I’ve grown too posh and unforgiving

Visa run 1: what have we learned?

Hard to believe I'm leaving BKK tomorrow, harder still that I've been here 25 days. So it's right that I take stock and review learnings.

1: I have time to spare, but not time to waste. Soon after I arrived to U.S. Army boot camp a fellow recruit--one who'd been there a week or two longer and so was a subject matter expert in my eyes--said "the days are long but the weeks are short." I didn't understand what that meant but it sounded really wise. Mornings later during muster I looked up, saw the stars, and realized I couldn't recall when last I'd noticed the sky. [Side note: thanks to my asthma I was discharged eight weeks after arrival, and didn't see a day in basic training. Related: the U.S. Army remains the world's best.]

Two decades later one of my finest bosses ever said "this is a marathon, not a sprint." It sounded really wise. And it was--I stayed there twice as long as at any other company. [Side note: she's now starting a farm. I love and miss her.]

What do these two events that predated the One Way Ticket have anything to do with what I've learned here and now? This: I can and should take time to visit the wats. To wander and discover. To be wowed by the beauty that surrounds me. To breathe. I need it, and I have it.

But I'm here to write. And I'm a little lazy by nature and tend to dawdle. I can't afford to do that here. I need to remember the voice that haunts:

2: Comfort is hard to come by, so there's no shame in taking it. Also in the marathon not sprint category, this really is hard sometimes, and it never is easy. I'm living out of a backpack week to week. I spend a big chunk of time looking for cheap yet cockroach-free rooms, weighing the pros and cons of bus vs plane, and foraging for cheap food that I won't regret at 3 a.m. I don't speak the language and don't expect I'll ever be conversant.

So I've probably eaten too much ice cream. That's okay. Eat the ice cream, then walk it off later. The shorts still fit so you're fine. 

3: When drawing conclusions, time matters as much as place. Soon after arriving I noticed, damn, people wear a lot of black here.

Was there some aspect of Thai culture that encourages humble dress? Maybe they like the formal look here? Will I stick out if I'm wearing bright colors?

No. But it is a testament to how beloved King Bhumibol, the Ninth Chakri King of Thailand, was by this country. A year of mourning is prescribed, and wearing black or white is a way to signify this: but dressing as such isn't required by law, for citizens or tourists. This time next year things will look quite different. Had I not known that, however, I might return home with stories of "everybody in Thailand wears black" which simply wouldn't be true any longer.

4. Check the pressure on that bum gun first.

Ayutthaya in words (and a few pictures)

Yesterday I rendered Ayutthaya mostly in pics because the words wouldn't have been so lovely. Truth told I wasn't feeling the town.

It started on arrival. I tumbled out of the minivan, big bag that'd been riding on my lap now following behind me, and was approached seconds after, still foggy a.f.

 "Where you going?" The man asks through a multi-missing-tooth gap.

"Uhh... Tamarind Guesthouse."

"You need tuktuk?"

I'm fumbling through mind and phone for bearings. "How much?"

"Hundred baht."

bandit

bandit

Brain clicks and grinds, a hard drive paging. "We can do that." Dammit, I should've negotiated!

But I'm rolling in the back of an Ayutthaya tuktuk with the funky front end I read about in Lonely Planet. There's a sweet little girl, 5 or 6 maybe, sitting across. I smile. She smiles.

The too short drive takes me to the Good Morning Tamarind. I flail out. I tell him I only have 1000 baht and need change.

Stride to the reception desk and stand, behind which a boy is video gaming. I wait and watch, cranky. Soon the driver comes.

"Money," he says.

"I'm working on it."

Driver yells up the balcony at woman cleaning. He looks at the booking on my phone. I glean from context there is no guest who booked on agoda staying there today--check the other Tamarind. Guess this is the Doubletree and I'm at the Hilton or something. 

Clamber back in the tuktuk. The sweet girl helps with my bag, says "we'll take you." Her, I like.

Now at the original Tamarind Guesthouse. "Mo-ney." He says and now I'm getting annoyed. Is this all our relationship is? Besides, he's charged me at least double what the trip is worth so he can deal with farang bullshit. Consider it a service charge.

"I have to get you change," I say, holding up a thousand baht bill (30ish bucks, recall). "Unless you can break a thousand?" I then realize my idioms won't make sense but it doesn't matter anyway because no taxi or tuktuk driver in Bangkok has been able to change a thousand so I know this guy can't.

Then he pulls out a wad of bills to make Freeway Ricky Ross proud. Counts out a 500 and twenty twenties.

Fine. Fair enough. And the Tamarind room and staff are lovely. The ruins are breathtaking. The heat defies adjectives. 

But every time I walk the streets I get harassed.

"You want tuktuk?"

"Where you going?"

"Want tour?"

C'mon guys, I don't want to knock the hustle, but if I need a ride I'll ask for it. I know how to walk and enjoy it. Although, one three separate occasions I do nearly take a header, my steps stopped by uneven sidewalk unmaintained since the capital fell it seems. Now I see why the guide book recommends renting a bike.

And some of the restaurants where I want to dine and privately owned sites (sorry to my friends and fam--I'd hoped to get pics from the Million Toy Museum) are closed on Mondays, I realize too late. My fault--days and times are in the LP but damn if I don't overlook some info in all the abbrvs.

A hot, semi-restless night (the AC sure tries but it's fighting a losing battle) gives way to morning. My legs are heavy as I venture into the warming day and my eyes overlook the broken balustrade walkway.

guess you saw this coming...

guess you saw this coming...

...wish I had

...wish I had

Now cranky and bleeding but wide awake I walk back. I'm pretty much done here. Take off my flip flops and turn my big toe up so I am respectful of the house's rules while not bleeding on it's floor I get back upstairs, shower, and pack. I'll hide there until it's departure time.

Soon, pack on my back, sweating soon as I hit the door, I plug earphones (Offspring's Americana, because I have Feelings), and make the 1.2 km walk in my own world.

Mostly.

A hopeful tuktuk driver, not understanding or caring to heed international body language yells "Where you going?"

"I've got it," I say and pound my chest. Temper tantrum, act of defiance, general rudeness in a country where I'm a guest, or just crazy from the heat I don't know. 

I arrive at the minibus terminal (a bank parking lot). I see the sharks circling. Uncertain as always, I cross the street a few times.

"Where you going?"

"Bangkok."

He points. "It's over there. 20 minutes." 

"Thanks."

I stand in the sun and pace. In another kind act, a woman in a pink and purple screen printed cat shirt offers me a spot to cop on a concrete planter.

"Kawp kuhn khrap."

I sit and wipe prodigious sweat from my brow.

Then a driver leers out from behind cat shirt lady. 

"Where you going?"

Sigh. "Bangkok."

"Where you staying?"

"Silom."

"You need taxi?"

"No. Taking the minivan. Minibus. Whatever."

"You should take taxi. Is cheaper."

Bullshit. "I already paid."

Then another tuktuker. "Where you going?"

"Bangkok."

"Bus here 25 minutes. You see Ayutthaya? Want tour?"

Then I recognize the missing teeth. You got enough from me already.

"I did. I'm good. I'm leaving."

Prada Wat

 

This is Wat Phra Kaew--or at least, a sliver of it at a distance. It's considered Thailand's most sacred wat, and like the Taj Mahal and Chichen Itza, no photos I've seen--much less those taken on my iPhone--do it justice. That said...

Indeed, the most sacred part of this most sacred wat cannot be photographed, at least not by visitors with iPhones and the like: the Emerald (jade) Buddha. But I did see it, along with thousands of other visitors that morning alone.

taking a stand for peace at Thailand's most sacred Buddhist shrine

taking a stand for peace at Thailand's most sacred Buddhist shrine

The constant tourist selfies and "wonder how many likes I'll get" snaps harshed my zen, but I reminded myself Buddha doesn't need my righteous indignation on his behalf, he's doing just fine thank you.

Though, crowded as Wat Phra Kaew is, it can't approach Bangkok's most popular temples, dedicated to the world's most popular -ism: Consumerism.

commerce is merit

commerce is merit

This is Prada Wat. The temple keepers claim it "captures the contrasts, the quirks, the qualities that make the city so distinctively Thai: a love of expressive fashion, amazing food, emerging art, enrapturing music, the sanuk (fun) and the sabai (comfort)."

And what is more distinctly Thai than Audemars Piguet? Bottega Veneta? Givency? Hermes? Hublot? Gucci? Omega? Ralph Lauren? Rolex? Tom Ford? Versace? Chanel? Chopard? Christian Louboutin?

This and more on just one of eight floors, mind you.

ministers to meet your every need

ministers to meet your every need

I arrived believing Thais were more centered and balanced than Americans--that they prioritized fun over work and spirituality over money. And I believe there remains truth in that.

But a truism of travel, I've found, is that we're more alike than different. People like stuff, and sometime feed the needs of this world ahead of the next. This is nothing new.

And that doesn't make them bad. But when surrounded by conspicuous Consumerism, one (this one, at least) has to question the motivations.

mantra

mantra

are these the leading men in your life?

are these the leading men in your life?

And so let's question, and start with the man in the mirror. High-minded Citizen of Rome that I am, raging against the corporate machine. Throwing it all off to live out of a backpack makes for a good story.

But open that backpack and what do you see?

complicity? hypocrisy?

complicity? hypocrisy?

Makes it easier to live simply when you still have nicer things--and the leftover money from that pursuit up the corporate ladder. Am I really carving out a new life, or simply shopping at a different store? Trading clothes for plane tickets?

Buhbuhbuhbuh wait: it gets worse.

Leaving Prada Wat in search of a photomat for my Vietnam Visa, I further marinated on the bullshit I might be serving myself. Might this pursuit of deeper truth and understanding via travel and writing be itself a lie--cover for the fact that I just couldn't hack it? That I wore the clothes and drove the car and got the degrees and even learned to doubletalk like a good corporate drone, but in the end I just couldn't make it more than halfway up that ladder? That, in a world where money equals worth I just wouldn't add up?

yes, but you're just saying that to sell things

yes, but you're just saying that to sell things

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.

Top 5

"Top five, top five, top five!"

I don't know if Andre Allen said that or not, but everything sounds better in Chris Rock cadence so I'll imagine.

Top 5 is hard for me because my writing is influenced as much by music as books, and hiphop as much as rock or country--one of my favorite characters clearly draws inspiration* from Andre 3000. So I have to cheat a bit according to some and consider groups as one entry. The first of my Top 5 (not in order) proves why.

*I'm a writer not a biter 

A group with two albums--and the first was just okay--in my Top 5? Damn right. Because that second album, The Score, was better than most careers. Slick, vibrant, with rhymes not possible before Wyclef's Haitian Creole. Lauryn Hill had soul, flow, rapier wordplay, and wasn't acting batshit yet. References to Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Charmin toilet paper commercials, mafia, Roots, blacksploitation, armageddon, Rasta, race politics, and the Bible--in one damn song. The Score is dark, funny, complex, and withstands time.   

And the skits are brilliant. My personal fav comes at the end of the title track: Michelle Leslie Brown. From 225th street. That plays ball in the park.

You can only imagine how great their third fourth and fifth albums could've been.

But I do have to address the Pras issue. Pras is why you have to consider groups--The Fugees are Top 5 but I sure as hell won't burn a pick on him. He was to their greatness as Trent Dilfer was to his Super Bowl ring. Still, Pras had a great verse on The Mask:

Well did you shoot him? Naw kid I didn’t have the balls
That’s when I realized I’m pumpin’ too much Biggie Smalls

That's brilliant and deep. Problem is the song before, where he dropped these insights:

Like utensil, false idental
I autograph my lyrics with a number 2 pencil

I won't say more.