The Suffering Artist

This is a blog post a long time coming, but that's par for the course; you should see how many posts I have sitting in my account, waiting to be written.  It's kind of sad, actually.  Poor, sad little titles, with no words to fill their hollow bodies.  It's literary child abandonment.

(Honestly, the folders full of partially written stories puts my blog to shame.)

Anyway, a while back (over a year ago!) a bunch of creative types that I know and/or follow online shared this here article:

I'm guessing many of you have already read it, but, if not, go give it the once over now.  Even if you have read it, you've probably forgotten it by now.

The more I saw this article passed around, the more I thought about it, the more I found that I actually disagreed with it.  And I suppose I'm okay with the sentiment, I just think it's a bit too general, a bit too knee jerk.  But I'll get to that in a second.

I would be remiss if I didn't first mention this particular gem:

To his way of thinking, comfort and success are poison, the Stones never did anything good after they'd got money, Van Gogh prospered because of mental distress, obscurity and ear mutilation and, actually …

The central conceit there is that the Stones were no longer suffering artists after they made a bunch of money.  In other words, money is the cure to suffering.  That boggles my mind.  It's such a stupid idea that it actually colored the way I read the rest of the article.

And now I'm going to argue that all artists are, in fact, suffering, and I know how that sounds.  I have a hard enough time describing myself as a writer, let alone an artist.  But for the sake of this debate, I suppose the two terms will have to be interchangeable.

People create because they want something to exist that doesn't already exist, and they feel like this thing has to exist, that the world needs this thing to exist.  Take that away from an artist and there's nothing left.  Take away their desire to create and they're no longer artists.  Imagine wanting to create something and not being able to -- that would be my definition of suffering.

In other words, it's not that all artists are suffering, it's that they create to avoid suffering, or at least to minimize it.  It's not unlike removing an arrow from your leg so the hole can be stitched up; it hurts like hell
and you would never choose to do it, but the arrow is there and it has to come out.

We have to firmly believe that what we're creating needs to exist for some, often times undefinable, reason.  If you create for yourself, then you're making something you need in your life, and if you don't have it, then your life will be all the poorer.  Sure, we're not talking about insanity or cutting off your ear and that degree of suffering, but it's suffering nonetheless.  The need to create stems from wanting to fill a void.

To a certain extent, we're talking about meaning.  Everyone wants their actions to have some kind of meaning.  If we truly believed that the things we did served no purpose, would we really keep doing them?  There's no way.  The fight for meaning is where depression comes from.  The fight for meaning is what keeps so many of us from accomplishing our goals; it's what keeps us from being great.

The belief that what you do has meaning isn't an end in and of itself, it's a way of keeping those negative thoughts at bay.  Believing what you do has a purpose is the door between you and meaninglessness.  It's the last defense against the void, and it's a hard defense to maintain.  It's often more difficult than creation itself.

Then there's the simple fact that the overwhelming majority of artists in this world have to fit their art in whenever they can.  Their art is marginalized because they need to do things like making money and have a family.  Which, of course, is something that the article in question misses...because the author is getting paid to write.

Those of us who lead double lives as productive members of society and artists of some type know the kind of sacrifices we have to make.  It's not easy.  There are much, much worse things, yes, but it's still not easy.  Not a day goes by when I don't wonder about how much happier I'd be if I didn't have the need to create, if I could be content with the 9 to 5 and a house in the suburbs.  I look out my office window and I see my neighbors outside talking to each other, watching their kids play, and I wish to god I could have that kind of clarity.

But I don't.

We don't cut off our ears anymore (not most of us, at least), but we still suffer, and we very much suffer for our art.  We just do it in less flashy ways these days.

The Business of Writing

Well, it's that time of the year again.  It's time for me to do more with my writing than simply getting drunk in front of my computer.

To be fair, it's not an annual thing, this whole trying to do something with the work I've created.  It's an ongoing process, particularly with regards to my short stories.  But I'm not just dealing with short stories right now, I'm dealing with my YA book, "Master of the House."

I've talked about MotH a decent amount on this blog.  I wrote the original draft a little over 3 years ago.  About six months ago I sent a query letter out to a few agents and got a few nibbles, but nothing worked out.  I realized that was in part because the book wasn't ready.  Specifically, the first few chapters weren't ready (actually, the first few chapters weren't the first few chapters, as the real first few chapters hadn't been written yet).

I spent a lot of time adding chapters, cleaning up the book, even getting professional editing done.  I think MotH is ready.

I even updated my query letter based upon yet another professional critique.  And I finished the painful process of writing a one page synopsis.

I spent most of the last two days researching agents.  I remember back in the day when I would make a list of agents that consisted of anyone who was still accepting unsolicited query letters.  Over the years I've learned that it makes more sense to target specific agents for specific reasons.  I mean, I'm sending a query letter to an agent who says in her bio that she's looking for YA books about haunted mansions.  That's pretty money right there (please see the description for "Master of the House" for why).

The whole process is ultimately a crap shoot.  I would imagine the average agent receives dozens of query letters every day, and the whole point of a query letter is to make it easier to disregard a writer and his or her work.  It's not meant to be mean, of course, just realistic.  I can't imagine what it must be like to be buried under piles of aspiring writers.

The process has become simpler as more agents and literary journals take advantage of the internet.  But even then, I find myself asking ridiculous questions, like "which day of the week is the best day to send this?"  People are generally grumpy on Mondays, right?  So is a Tuesday better?  Are Thursday and Friday too late
in the week, meaning my query/short story will sit in their inbox, getting buried by e-mails until the following Friday?  It never ends.

I just have to hope that my single page of information gets through to one of them.

It's actually worse for short stories.  There's no buffer for literary journals.  The person reading your short story is the same person who will decide to publish it.  With agents, at least, there's a step in between.  Even if an agent decides to take on your project, he or she will then need to sell it to a publisher.  An agent is probably less quick to dismiss your work.

But here I go, once more unto the breach.  Here I go, putting my fragile ego out there for destruction.  It's a tedious process that usually ends in heart break, but those few successes make it worth it.

Fortunately, I'm buoyed by the fact that I've done this before.  I bypassed the agent and went directly to a publisher for "I Pray Hardest When I'm Being Shot At."  My short story, "Young Zombies in Love" made the short list for Best New Writing's Eric Hoffer Award.

I have momentum.

Time Killing Time

A writer's greatest ally is also his/her worst enemy: time.

About six weeks ago, I "finished" drafts of 3 different short stories.  I was on that high that only comes with such a moment.  I was eager to give these stories to my in-house editor, Nicole.  I was positive that she'd love them and praise me as the greatest writer in the history of the world, or at least one who's good enough to keep giving away his time to this insane endeavor.

But Nicole is busy.  She works long hours.  And I had more essential things I needed her to read, like the query letter and synopsis for "Master of the House."  Sometimes the "business" end of writing is the priority.

And thank god.

Over the last few days, I've gone back and read those 3 stories and they are not in a good way.  They're not bad -- far from it.  But they are definitely not ready for human consumption.  The problems were glaring, as were the solutions.  I am thrilled that I never gave them to Nicole because I want her to see the best possible versions.  By next week (hopefully), she will.

Had you told me any of that six weeks ago, I would have gotten defensive.  It's a cliche, but the "hurry up and wait" aspect of writing is infuriating.  We put so much time and effort into our creations that we want some kind of pay off.  I want to be able to sit down at my computer and think to myself "a month from now this story will be done," but that's not possible.

Like it or not, we are slaves to the story, and it will do with us what it wants.  It drives me absolutely insane.

But the other side of that coin is the fact that, when given space and time, our stories take on new forms.

The frustrating part for me is that I want to send my stories out into the world.  I've made the mistake of sending them out before they were ready and it's disheartening.  I sent out my YA book before it was ready and I really regret doing that, particularly given how much better the new version is.

Waiting takes on an entirely different set of problems with regards to short stories.  I've talked about it before, but short stories lend themselves to infinite revision.  It's entirely possible for me to keep reworking the same short story for months, but it's not unlike trying to revive someone who's died: if it doesn't happen within a certain amount of time, it's probably not going to happen at all.

Funny enough, this is the kind of thing that used to drive me nuts when I was in a band.  I felt like revisiting songs was pointless when we could just write new ones.  But writing songs was always much easier for me than writing stories, mostly because the songs I wrote were always pretty simple.  My stories are, by default, much more complicated, so they usually require more time, and in turn become that much more personal.

Anyway, I've got 3 short stories in the editing phase now and I feel pretty good about all of them being "done" in the next few weeks.  We'll see how I feel about them a few months from now.

Reliquary aka My First Novel

I recently had a short story accepted for publication in a really cool literary journal.  I'll give more information on that closer to when it will be released.

Anyway, the editor who selected my short story told me that she also works for a publishing house who are looking for novels, and that if I had one I should send it their way.  The publisher she works for generally publishes literary fiction, with a smattering of what I would call intellectual non-fiction.  To the point, I could rule out "Master of the House," as it's a YA book.

I do have a literary fiction book, though.  It's called "Reliquary."  I wrote the first draft ten years ago.

"Reliquary" has gotten polishes from me here and there throughout the years.  In fact, the last set of edits I did to it I never bothered to actually make, they just remained as marks on the pages, never making it to the computer.  At one point I changed the title, until I mentioned it to someone and they proclaimed my original title to be wonderfully unique, so I changed it back (truth be told, I never really wanted to change it, but felt that I had to for whatever reason).

When I found out that the aforementioned publishing house was looking for novels, I pulled out "Reliquary."  I knew that, aside from making those edits that had gone unchanged, I would need to read through the whole thing again, because it had been a few years since I'd read through it.  A few weeks ago, I started in on the 284 page manuscript...

...it was awful.  Well, the first sixty pages or so were awful.  It's gotten progressively less awful (I'm only 150 pages in as of this writing), but that doesn't say much.

It's melodramatic.  It's self-important.  On a line level, the writing is often very bad.  It absolutely destroyed me to read it.

"Reliquary" was written in the first person and it's very much a reflection of who I was ten years ago.  It's far more fiction than non, but there are strong elements of real life at play.  The problem is that I'm not that person anymore.  I'm not sad and angry.  I'm actually pretty damn happy.

But the story in "Reliquary" is solid.  I've often struggled with plots and this book has one that is in great shape.  Nothing at all about the point A to point B business needs to be changed.  I stand by the events in the book and the order in which they happen.

The bones are good.  The meat and muscle need a lot of work.

I resigned myself to more or less rewriting it using the current version as a framework.  Last night I took it a step further.  Last night I decided that the entire thing should be written in the 3rd person.

At first, I thought switching from 1st person to 3rd would be relatively easy.  I was already planning on rewriting most of the book, so switching POV wasn't a big deal.  But, of course, as I started writing it I realized that the new narrative required changes in structure.  You can deliver an awful lot of exposition in subtle ways when you're writing in the 1st person because it doesn't come across as exposition, at least not if you're careful.  You can give details of your life in a single paragraph in the 1st person, but if you try the same thing in the 3rd person, it comes off as tedious exposition.

The appeal of switching POVs is that 1st person lends itself to melodrama.  I figured telling the same story from a subjective 3rd person would allow me to keep the story and lose the melodrama, leaving me with exactly what I wanted.  But the main character spends an awful lot of time by himself, and those scenes are going to become really, really tedious if he's not narrating them.

But damn if melodrama isn't my biggest concern.  I feel like first person accounts of love and relationships, blah blah blah, etc. are the kiss of death.  I feel like they're almost immediately disposable.  Hey, this guy wants to be Holden Caufield and this writer wants to be JD Salinger!

At it's core, though, "Reliquary" is a love story.  And maybe it's the whiskey talking, but I think I have my answer.  I know it's possible to write in the 1st person and not be melodramatic.  I'd like to think I've done that in a few short stories recently.  They're certainly much less melodramatic than this book.

"Reliquary" is uniquely me at a specific point in my life and I think there's value in that.

First person it is.

Blog Writing

There's a weird level of confession in blogs.

I don't think I've ever written a blog entry that didn't include some kind of comment about my life.  I like to think that a certain part of the appeal of reading this thing comes from my voice, and I realize as I'm typing that just how egotistical that sounds.  But I write about a wide variety of things, and the only thing they have in common is that I'm the one who wrote them.

It's the same way with my non-blog writing.

There's a part of me that's always wanted to be one of those brutally honest writers, although they seem to only really exist in fiction.  The idea of writing whatever I want without worrying about how it would affect others is appealing.  More importantly, the idea of writing whatever I want without worrying about how it would affect me is appealing.

I also don't like the idea that I pull my punches when I write.

But the fact remains that I do, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.  I've found that attempts at being brutally honest when you write involve placing emphasis on the former and not the latter.  Once you decide that you have a free pass to say what you want, you suddenly start framing things in the most shocking and inappropriate manner.  Looking through some of the older things I've written, this was definitely the case.

With fiction, however, you can try to hide a lot of that.  I think people who really know you will be able to see through any disguise, but at least the option is there.

Blogs, in general, are different.

They're weird creatures.  I would say 90% of them are confessional, virtual diaries that are censored for public consumption.  They're not fiction, but they're not truthful non-fiction, either.  They're half-truths and snippets of ideas.  It's well polished, written vomit.  Mull that one over.

That actually leads perfectly to the bigger issue: blogs are immediate, which means they're also hastily written.  I just said that blogs are well polished, written vomit, and if I had more time to think about it, I don't know that that's a phrase I'd stick with.  But I don't have more time.  This blog is going to be published tomorrow.  Even blogs I published a few weeks in advance don't get rewrites so much as polishes, and those are generally of the typo variety (and as many of you have probably noticed, I even miss those).

How much honesty is there in a blog?  I would argue that it's 100% honest, but that there are things I won't talk about, even if I want to.

So blog writing is confessional, but not to the extent of a diary, and it's created for public consumption, but not deliberated over to make sure that it's, well, any good.  This then begs the question as to whether or not writing a blog is actually a good way to get people interested in your writing.

I have no idea.  I like to think that the bits and pieces I put on this blog are enticing in some way, but I've yet to hear from anyone who has bought a copy of anything I've written because of reading this thing.  Then again, the free stories that I've posted on this blog have gotten a steady stream of downloads.  People generally take anything if it's free, though.

And if there is a greater example than this entry of how blogging can, more often than not, end up a rambling mess, I would be shocked.

Beyond This Blog (Lie Great Things!)

According to the fine folks at Google Analytics, this blog has seen a steady increase in traffic over the last couple of months.  This is no doubt due to the fact that I've start adhering to the number one rule of blogging: always update.

These days, I have a new blog up three times a week.  On Monday, you get my lovely "Abusing Nostalgia" series, which is often more embarrassing for me than anything else.  On Tuesday, I try to post general interest and writing content.  I am, after all a writer.  And I save up my nerdy posts for Thursday, so expect to see things about comic books, television, and baseball.

At this point, I've got roughly a three week cushion on content, so that's nice.

Anyway, the increased traffic hasn't really translated into increased sales, but to be honest that's not as important to me as you might think.  But I'm going to to just a tiny bit of pimping.

First, though, here's a link to a blog entry from about a month ago that gives a nice break down of all the free stories by me that you can find online.

Joss Whedon, the Complete Companion
Honestly, this is probably the book that gets the most attention.  I have an essay in this collection of works about Joss Whedon and his various productions.  My essay is called "Failure of the Every Man," and it's about Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  I don't know that anyone actually discovers me or my writing because of this book, but I would hazard a guess that more people have read my essay than anything else I've ever written.  It's available from Titan Books.  The picture above will take you to Amazon.

I Pray Hardest When I'm Being Shot At
While the Whedon book has probably gotten the most views, "Pray" is the book I'm perhaps best known for, if I 'm actually known for anything.  It's my first published book, available from Hellgate Press, which is, surprisingly enough, not a made up publisher, but a real one that was kind enough to put out my book.  You can find out more about "Pray" on its page over there on the right.  The picture above will take you to Amazon so you can read some reviews and maybe buy a copy.

Falling Into Place
This is a strange little compilation from the people at Scars Publications.  It features a short story by me and work by a bunch of other fine folk, most of whom are unknowns like myself.  Yet again, you can click the link to go to the Amazon page for the book.

So there you go -- work by me that doesn't live on this blog!  If you like this blog, please consider purchasing one of these fine publications.  I think you can get them digitally, too.

Thanks for reading!

Begin Again

As torturous as writing short stories can be for me, there is one aspect that surpasses all other forms of the written word: beginnings.  Writing an opening to a short story is always the easiest thing for me.

Sadly, this skill does not translate to longer works.

The first time I ran into this problem was with "Pray," but it was, thankfully, brought to my attention at a writers' conference.  I think I did a pretty good job with the beginning of that book.  I know it's much better than it was originally.

With short stories, you can leave some mystery.  You're not asking the reader to invest a big chunk of their time, so it's okay if you don't tell them everything up front.  Each sentence carries more weight than in a book, so exposition in any form becomes problematic.  It's okay if your readers don't know what the story is about right away.

Books are different.  Books require some kind of set-up.  You are asking someone to invest days of their life to your written word, so you need to give them some reason to part with their precious free time.  You have to put the majority of your cards out on the table.

The tricky part is finding the balance between an interesting opening that hooks the reader while still establishing what the book is going to be about.

I have found that the beginnings of books never reveal themselves until I've written a few drafts...and have been rejected by a few agents.

In the case of my first YA book, "Master of the House," I had an agent request the first 25 pages.  She passed on the book based upon what she read.  I know the book itself is good, just as I know it has a great hook.  The problem, then, had to be with those first 25 pages.

My wife had always maintained that the book started too quickly and didn't give enough set-up, but my short story writing-self had a hard time wrapping my brain around that, even if I had run into the same problem with "Pray."

Stories don't start from the beginning.  There's always back story, and much of that back story is important to the story at hand.  The problem, then, is in figuring out how much set up to, well, set up.  So I did what any smart writer would do: I looked at similar books for ideas.

I ended up adding two new chapters to the beginning of the book, then giving the first 25 pages to my wife to look over.  She liked my new chapters, but she had lots of issues with them, issues that were more or less solved with one move: I switched them around.

I now had what was probably the 4th or 5th different beginning to "Master of the House."  But I think this new one works.

My initial impulse will always be to open a story with a moment, not necessarily a chapter.  But I think I'm becoming better at finding the happy medium between the two.

Now I just have to worry about my endings.

The Return of Californication

If I had to guess, I would say that 90% of all the male writers in America wish that they could be more like Hank Moody -- or at least have lives like him.

Before I get ahead of myself, I should address the fact that Californication is a television show, albeit one that airs on a premium cable network.

There's a general belief out there that television and writing are mortal enemies.  Stephen King says as much in his book "On Writing."  He straight up tells you to stop watching television, as it's no good for you or for your work.

It's not an unreasonable stance.  I don't think anyone can deny that the rise of television led to the decline of reading, and the decline of reading has a pretty serious impact on those of us who write.  Hell, if television didn't exist, it would probably be much easier to get a book deal.  Television put a cap on the demand for books.

And let's face facts: television is a time suck.  The average network television series is 22 episodes a year.  For an hour long show, minus commercials, that 880 minutes, or 14.666 hours.  If you watch two, hour long shows, you're ultimately giving up over a day of your life.  Imagine how much writing you could get done in a day.

But all the negative beliefs about television overlook a very clear positive: stories are stories.  Sure, you can debate the quality of the storytelling on the average network television show, but in a world of ebooks self-publishing, I don't know that we can claim the average written work is that much better anymore.

As with anything, the key to television is moderation.  It is very, very easy to get pulled into television and waste hours and hours of your life in other people's stories.  But such a trap is easily avoidable in this time of DVRs and on-demand video.  I could theoretically watch 3 episodes of hour long shows and 3 episodes of half shows in 3 hours on a Sunday afternoon.  That's 3 hours spent digesting a variety of storytelling techniques, 3 hours enjoying a different medium than the one I work in.  It's 3 hours relaxing on a Sunday afternoon and if there's something wrong with that, then I don't want to be right.

And so we come back to "Californication," a show I can, in fact, watch whenever I want because it's available on-demand.  It's a half an hour long and it features a writer, so it kind of does double duty.

"Californication" is male fantasy.  Hank Moody is a drunken, partying writer who has success without trying and has lots of sex in much the same way.  And, as the male fantasy holds, the one true love of Hank's life remains relatively chaste as he sleeps his way through a certain demographic of Los Angeles.

Hank is brutally honest in a way that almost none of us could ever be.  His only notable family is his father, who he indirectly wrote horrible things about, and who dies a few seasons in.  He has a daughter that you can't actually imagine him ever taking care of when she was a little girl, but we come in when she's on the verge of being a teenager.  His daughter's mother, the aforementioned one true love of his life, always manages to be nearby, but just out of reach, mostly through Hank's own doing.

So true.
Which, of course, is why the show is so appealing -- Hank continually fucks up, yet his savior, the most important thing in the entire world to him, is always near.  He can be that kind of Salinger influenced Easton Ellis/Palahniuk/McKinerney type of writer who just takes that hard line, crotchety stance on any given thing, surrounds it with shock value, and throws in this feint glimmer of hope, as if the shitstorm he's created won't actually drown everyone and everything.  It is how he writes and how he lives.

And what red blooded, heterosexual, American male writer doesn't, at some point, wish they could have that life?  Who could deny the appeal of partying like a rock star and yet still being able to come home to the loving and beautiful muse and the amazing fruit of that union in physical form?

It's a character that I don't think really exists anymore or, rather, a character that we don't really care about anymore, at least when he's real.  We enjoy Hank Moody, but I doubt we'd tolerate him were he real, and I can't imagine the publishing world would have any time for him.  He's written one novel that was turned into a shitty movie and another novel that was stolen by the underage girl he slept with.  He's not a guy that publishing companies are lining up to give a book deal.

Yes, that's his fictional book.
Maybe we can blame that on the 80's beating that dead horse to a pulp, or maybe we can blame it on the new reality of book publishing that says companies are looking for reliable revenue generators and you can't generate revenue from the floor of some bar or in the back seat of a car, covered in your own vomit, having unprotected sex with a woman who was about to go home with the guy standing next to you until he had to run to the bathroom real quick.

"Californication" is the fantasy.  It's the romanticism of writing.  It's hilarious and occasionally heartbreaking and it's often inspirational.  As the writer who is more highly regarded than Hank says to him, you have to sit in that chair until your ass bleeds.  You have to put the work in until putting the work in seems like punishment for some crime you've yet to commit.

And perhaps that's what writing really is.  Perhaps we're all just doing penance for the sins down the line. And perhaps that's why "Californication" is so appealing, because Hank Moody is getting away with the sin...for now.

Grad School Part II: Pretending

My second year of grad school was glorious.

Most of the graduate students in the English department were TAs, which stands for Teaching Assistant.  But at OU, that was something of a misnomer.  We didn't assist professors, we actually taught classes.  For the most part, that was English 101: Freshman Composition, although in our second years we were able to branch out a bit more into things like Intro to Short Stories or Intro to Poetry.

After my first year, I was able to convince my teaching adviser that I wanted to do a study of the difference between teaching composition in a traditional classroom and teaching composition in a computer classroom (Ohio University had installed computers in a few, select classrooms n the English building).  I suggested that I could even write a paper about the differences.  That did not happen.  Basically, I just wanted the extra money that came with teaching a second class so that I could quit my job at the gas station (to be described in detail in another blog post, I'm sure).

I worked at one of these.
I was no longer in a band during my second year of grad school.  The Local Arm (as we were known) had broken up at the end of the previous year with the graduation of our drummer.  And as much as I missed being in a band, all the ridiculous amounts of time that I'd spent on that was suddenly appropriated actual grad school related things.  I spent more time with my fellow grad students.  I worked on the literary journal.  I went to the big writers conference.  I acclimated.

And I wrote.

I won't say that it was particularly good writing, but it was necessary writing.  It was the next step in my evolution of a writer, an evolution that ultimately never ends.  But all those vaguely profound, emotional things that I'd been (poorly) singing about the year before were now coming through on the page.  I think I'm a decent songwriter.  I'm a much better writer.

I had plenty of fodder.  The on again, off again relationship of the previous year ended for good, although it was not without its after shocks.  I found myself embracing sadness over anger, because anger doesn't translate well to the written page.  I had plenty of sadness, and in many ways sadness gave me perspective.

My name is inside this.
I partied.  I partied with a flagrant disregard for my own well being.  I partied with the reckless abandon of someone who wanted to experience new things, who started each night genuinely excited about where it might take him.  There was sex and there were drugs and there was rock n' roll and it was all material.

When I finally committed to grad school and submerged myself in the culture, I realized just how insane it was, particularly for those engaged in "creative" majors.  At no other point in your life are you given such a perfect balance of structure and freedom.  We had to produce to pass our classes, but we also had nothing else to do but produce.  We had 20 hours out of a 24 hour day to write and that writing would then fulfill the only real responsibilities we had.

That second year of grad school was surreal in all the right ways.

I'll admit to some regrets.  I regret that I wasn't more focused, which has been a problem for pretty much entire life.  I may have been writing to fulfill my school obligations, but I had no vision beyond that.  It never occurred to me that I should be preparing these short stories for submission to literary magazines, or that I should be read said literary magazines to get an idea about what was out there.  For all my submersion in the English department, I was still operating in a bubble.

I suppose that's to be expected.  It was a bubble.  It was about writing without consequence, writing without pretense of something more.  It was writing for the sake of writing, writing because that's what we were there for, no more and no less.  There was no greater goal beyond producing stories that we felt were important, even if perhaps they weren't.

I hadn't realized it until just this moment, but I wish I could get back to that place.  I don't wish I was back in grad school (not really), but I do wish I could go back to the frame of mind, when nothing mattered about the words on the page other than the fact that they were there.

It makes me appreciate exactly why so many writers stay in academia; it's a safe place.  Teaching is your bread and butter in academia.  Writing is gravy.  Writing out here among the regular folk is harder.  You don't have the luxury to write for writing's sake.

Or maybe you do.  Maybe I just need to figure that out.

Grad School Part I: Resistance

Glorious Ellis Hall (home of the English Dept. @Ohio U)
At some point during my senior year of college, I realized that I had no idea what I was going to do with my life.

I knew what I wanted to do with my life -- I wanted to be in a band.  I can remember being at a party and talking two these two guys I knew who were two years younger than me and in a band of their own about how we'd all be happy working at gas stations as long as we could be in a band.  At that point, I'd already been accepted into the graduate program at Ohio University, so I told them I'd have to be the manager of the gas station, what with my Master's degree in Creative Writing and all.

I applied to graduate school because I didn't know what else to do.  I would imagine a lot of people do that.  I only applied to a hand full of schools.  I was willing to go to grad school for pretty much anything in the realm of English, which meant I applied to literature programs which, if you know me, is insane.

Part of my problem was that I had no where to go.  I've more or less just gone wherever the wind blows me, but there was no wind to speak of.  I couldn't stay in Athens, Ohio, because there was no real reason to.  I didn't want to go back to my home town of Kent, Ohio, because that felt not unlike failure.  I wanted to strike out on my own, but I had no idea how.

I was going to OU when they adopted the "Attack Cat"
I will admit that there was a part of me that was sad that my college career was coming to an end, and I mean that from an educational standpoint, believe it or not.  I felt that I'd finally hit my the sweet spot of learning.  I felt like I was a part of the English department community, which is something I couldn't have said in the years previous.  I knew all the professors.  I was friends with other English majors.  I spent time at Ellis hall recreationally.  I had become part of something and it was ending just as it was beginning.

I don't know why Ohio University decided to accepted me into the graduate program.  I know that they generally frown upon accepting students from their own undergrad program.  I know that the only reason I was given a teaching position, stipend, and tuition waiver was because someone on the list ahead of me had turned them down.  I'm sure the recommendation letter from Dan Chaon didn't hurt, either (my one claim to fame).

While much of my desire to become a successful writer is selfish, there is a percentage that wants to do well by Ohio University.  I feel like they invested in me and I've yet to pay off.

My first year of graduate school was everything it shouldn't have been.  While I enjoyed being in The Local Arm (the band I was in at the time), it distracted me from all things graduate school.  The fact that I lived in a house with five undergrads didn't help, either.  That had nothing to do with them, it's just that I literally didn't have to leave the house to be social.  We had parties nearly every weekend, and some of those parties involved bands playing in our basement.  I only wrote sparingly, I was taking required classes, and I never went to any department functions.  The few times I tried to get involved, I bailed.

For a guy who was so desperate to get into grad school, I held on to my undergraduate life as if I would die without it.

Ellis Hall without snow, which was how I liked it.
An extension of that was a rather ridiculous long distance relationship with the girl I'd been with since my sophomore year.  We spent more than a year unable to completely move on mostly because we were afraid to.  We had completely separate lives on nearly every conceivable level, yet we kept going back and forth, even when we would officially break up.

I remember, at the end of my first quarter of grad school (we were on quarters back then), I actually decided to be social with the rest of my class.  We all met up at a bar and realized that all of us had begun the year with long distance significant others, and were now broken up with all of them.  I do believe I was the only one who refused to cut the cord completely.

That first year of grad school wasn't a good one, at least not for the right reasons.  I can't even claim that I got the full, graduate school experience that year.  I was just so far removed from it.

At the end of the first quarter, I was on academic probation.  My tuition waiver demanded a B average and I'd gotten a B and a B- in the two classes I had taken.  They were required classes that had little to do with creative writing and, as usual, I was obstinate; I was there to write, not take classes about literature.  But that's what I got for getting an MA and not an MFA, not that I knew the difference back then.

While I don't regret being in The Local Arm, I regret pretty much everything else about my first year of grad school.

Thankfully, there was a second year and a second chance to do it right.

The Sequel

I'm sporadically working on a sequel to "I Pray Hardest When I'm Being Shot At."

For those of you who don't know (and, if you don't, why the hell not?  It's the only book I've ever had published by an actual publishing company, so throw me a bone and buy it, won't you?), "Pray" was the story of my grandfather, a three war veteran and retired Major, although much of the book was about his wife, my grandmother, and even more of the book was about the relationship between my then-girlfriend-now-wife Nicole and I as I wrote the thing.

Given how "Pray" ended, there was really only one thread available for me to follow-up -- that of our new marriage.  And, honestly, if that's all I had, I doubt that I would really try writing it. After all, people get married all the time, and a large number of those people are writers, and I'd be willing to bet a decent number of them are better writers than me.

Four months before "Pray" was released, Nicole's father died.  Her mother had died two and a half years earlier.

Nicole's dad knew about "Pray."  He knew about it when I was writing it, when I finished it, and when Hellgate Press decided to publish it.  I had shared an awful lot about my family history with him while I was writing the book.

According to two different people (one being the woman who cleaned his house every other week or so, the other being one of his cousins), Nicole's dad had taken my book to heart, so much so that he was in the process of collecting information about his family for the purpose of asking me to write a book about them.

That's a pretty big deal.  Nicole's dad was all about family and the fact that he wanted me to write a book about them said a lot.

I don't know how far I would have taken this idea if it had stopped there.  I am nothing if not bursting with book ideas, so getting me to write about something that wasn't my idea would be difficult.

But at this very moment I am sitting in my home office in the house that Nicole grew up in, the house that we inherited from her parents.  We bought out Nicole's brother, meaning that this house cost us half price.  It's in a great neighborhood in a great school district and it is going to be great for the children we will have one day.  Its' a big house with a pool and our cats have a lot of space to run around.

It's a life changing gift.

To say that I feel like I owe Nicole's dad a lot would be an understatement.  Inheritance aside, he was responsible for bringing Nicole into this world, for which he already had my eternal gratitude.

And, again, I could write an entire book about this, but that doesn't make any of it particularly unique.

The bound, transcribed copy of "An Authentic Wagon Train Journal of 1853" sitting on my desk changed that.

Nicole's great great grandfather led an expedition from Indiana to California in 1853.  He kept a journal about it.  Nicole's great aunt transcribed it and made copies for the family.  It's about a man from the Midwest taking a roundabout journey across country to his eventual home in California.  And when he got here, he ended up starting a family that would grow and grow and would remember him 150 years later.

This story got a whole lot more interesting.

The journal is, as you'd imagine, pretty amazing.  Historical documentation from a personal perspective usually is.  There's a great deal of material in the journal, not to mention a great deal of research that will be necessary in fully explaining it.  But I like that part of it; I like doing research for all the things I write, be they non-fiction or not.

I had a title for "I Pray Hardest When I'm Being Shot At" before I ever wrote a single word of it.  It's a direct quote from my grandfather that was just too perfect not to use.  Strangely enough, Nicole's great great grandfather, William Richard Brown, did much the same thing.  There are very few instances in his journal where he emphasizes one statement above any others.  But on May 4, 1853, he underlined three words: whiskey nearly out.

It's like he knew I'd end up reading his journal.

I've been writing "Whiskey Nearly Out" in fits and starts.  Writing non-fiction is generally easier for me than writing fiction simply because it requires less thought with regards to plot.  My big problem with writing non-fiction, and I would have to guess that this is the same for most non-fiction writers, is that you have to answer one very big question: what's the point?

I have found myself with several threads that will, I'm fairly certain, at some point work together.  But right now I'm still feeling it out.  I'm still trying to cover all the things that have happened to Nicole and I since we were married.  I'm still trying to make sense of this house, such an amazing gift, yet so loaded with expectations.  And I'm trying to retrace the steps that William Richard Brown took from Indiana to California.

It's going to be interesting to see where it ends up.  I have a sneaky suspicion that it will end up involving children.

I'd rather be fishing.

Not really.

I am well aware of the fact that the bitching and moaning that I sometimes do in this blog is kind of silly, given that I'm currently sitting in my home office of the house my wife and I just bought on a cul-de-sac in the suburbs.  I have a belly full of food, the heat is on, and I'm drinking whiskey.  Tonight, as every night, I will lie in bed next to my best friend in the entire world, and will also most likely be visited at various points through the evening my two wonderfully affectionate, adorable cats.

It's not like I'm digging ditches.

I have found lately that my desire to always be doing something other than what I'm doing is troublesome.  As I have put it in the past, I always want to be doing something other than what I'm doing, even if what I'm doing is something I want to do.  And part of that is just me being crazy.

Lately at work I've been given more and more responsibility, which is fine.  At the very least, the day goes by faster when I have more to do.  But I've always been reluctant to throw myself fully into any job that I have.  Ultimately, it's because I don't want to put more energy into than I have to, because the focus of my energy has to be/needs to be my writing.

I don't have any discernible career to speak of.  I've been "promoted" three times at my current job.  The last long term job I had was the same way.  But my movement up the corporate ladder is usually a result of my "jack of trades, master of none" skills.  I'm never going to be the VP of anything because there's no one thing that I'm good enough or interested in to be the VP of.  But neither one of those things has to be true.

I'm a quick learner (thus a jack of all trades) and I'm sure I could become pretty adept at a particular thing if I really put my back into it.  But I just don't have that motivation and I really wish I did.

My life would be infinitely easier if I could find some kind of fulfillment in a job.  Don't get me wrong, I like the job I have now and I feel like I'm doing well at it, but it's not where my passions lie -- heck, it's not even where my likes lie.

I will admit that part of my reluctance comes from fear.  Honest to god, nothing scares me more than the idea that one day I might really put some effort into my "career" and find that it ends up taking over my life.  My biggest fear is becoming satisfied with my job.  I'm no good at being satisfied.  I rather like the fact that I'm not, although I'd certainly be willing to give that up for a book and movie deal.

I think people would like me to be, though.  I think people expect me to be like the average person and have some kind of work related goals.  My New Year's resolution for last year was to stay employed; I set the bar low.

It's not all that hard to get me to be enthusiastic about something, it's just that there's always going to be a ceiling on that, at least for most things.

If you're Nicole, our cats, or my writing, sky's the limit.  Now I just need to find a job that involves any of those things.

Query? (or, Update on Kyle's YA Book)

I always want to be doing something other than what I'm doing, even if what I'm doing is something I want to do.

At work today, I wanted nothing more than to come home and write.  More specifically, I was looking forward to coming home and taking a crack at the first query letter for my YA book.

Those of you keeping track have probably realized that, while the fine folks judging the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award thought my YA manuscript was one of the best 250 they received (out of 5000), it was not one of the best 50.  And while they destroyed one of the more prominent fantasies in my head these days, it was still nice to make it as far as I did.

I also got some wonderful feedback, and since I am horribly self-absorbed and in constant need of validation, I will share some of it with you:


This book has excellent pacing, and the story will sell itself to those who like suspense books. I thought the high school scenes were well written, and also think the author does a good job of describing without being overwhelming in the description.

 I thought this was a compelling read. I enjoyed the pacing and the aura of uncertainty that surrounded the events of the visit to the house. I would definitely read more, and would also recommend this to my 13 and 16 year old sons.

This was a very good excerpt with all the elements being well done. The work reads well, polished and professional.

 I got a longer review from someone at Publisher's Weekly, who had a few minor complaints, but in general enjoyed the book, although apparently not enough to push it along to the next round.  In my defense, "Master of the House" isn't remotely dystopian, and that seems to be the flavor du jour in YA books these days.

The upside to being eliminated from the competition is that I can now start sending my book out to agents and publishers.  The downside is that I don't know that I really made it far enough to brag about it in a query letter.

This is unfortunate, because query letters are evil.

I suppose, in some sense, query letters are the literary equivalent of a resume and a cover letter in one.  You have a single page to say what you are selling, why it's worth buying, and who the hell you are.

Saying what I'm selling is probably the hardest part, because you basically need to lead with a hook, and more often than not an agent or publisher will decided whether or not they will keep reading based entirely upon your opening.  And given the number of aspiring writers in the world, it's hard to come up with something that would be considered unique.

Talking about why "Master of the House" is worth selling doesn't pose nearly the challenge to me as it would have in the past.  If you'll allow me to put on my pretentious hat for a second (the correct response to that is "wait, you mean there are times when you take that hat off?"), having a book published -- by someone other than me, no less -- has taught me a lot about what sells and what doesn't.  And, let's face facts, agents and publishers want to know if what you're selling them, they can sell to others.

As for who the hell I am, well, thanks to the aforementioned published book, at least I can claim that someone out there with the finances to run a publishing company thought enough of my work to send it out to the masses.  I wish I had a few more published short stories to my name, but I should be thankful for what I've gotten so far.

 It's an awful lot of pressure to put on one piece of paper/e-mail, and awfully hard to write.

So here I am, doing exactly what I wanted to be doing just a few hours ago, but instead writing in this blog.

*sigh* 

Go Fictionalize Yourself

I prefer writing fiction to writing non-fiction.  I realize that's a strange statement coming from a guy whose only published book is non-fiction and who has a blog that consists almost entirely of true stories.

My difficulty with writing non-fiction is that I get bored easily.  Most of the negative reviews I've gotten for "Pray" focused on the fact that the book is the story of the story, and that I've got three separate timelines going at once.  That's how I keep myself entertained.

I take a lot of material out of my life, but invariably twist the hell out of it to serve my purposes.  This has gotten me in trouble a few times because people sometimes assume that if one thing in my story is true, then all of it must be true, which is never the case for any writer ever in the history of the world, unless all they write is non-fiction -- and even then, it might not be true.

Last Friday (assuming it worked), I posted a short story called "Unrequited."  I've gotten nearly as much feedback on that story as I have on "Pray," and substantially fewer people have read "Unrequited."  All of that feedback has been positive; even people who dislike the ending still enjoyed the story.

I wrote another short story not too long ago that is connected to "Unrequited."  I'll withhold information on how, exactly, it's connected, because I don't want to ruin it for you.  But it turned out really well, and it made me realize that there's a certain amount of juice to "Unrequited," and that everything that stems from it seems to inherit some of its energy.

So I decided to put together a collection of short stories that are all somehow connected to "Unrequited."

One of these stories has a familiar theme: the story of the story.  I'm going back and writing a fictionalized version of how I wrote "Unrequited" nearly ten years ago.  This, of course, affords me the luxury of mixing and matching which parts of my life I pull from, and how much I change them to suit my purposes.

It's a strange thing, to write about yourself as a fictional character.  I actually do it an awful lot.  I would imagine a reasonable argument could be made that all of my characters are pieces of me in some way.

I've said in the past that I use a pen name because my life as a writer is different than my life as a regular person.  Basically, there's the stupid part of me and the responsible part of me.  The former would stay up late writing every night if the latter didn't tell him we have to go to work the next day.

But working on this new short story, I've started thinking that perhaps there's a third Kyle -- the fictional one.  Or, I suppose, the many fictional ones.

I have found that when I write about a fictional version of myself, I tend to take parts of my personality to the extreme, because in a story that's tolerable, while in real life I would have no friends.  I enjoy whiskey, but fictional me drinks pretty much all the time.  I over think everything, but fictional Kyle thinks to the point of debilitation.  I'm a reformed hopeless romantic (because, in the end, it turned out to not be hopeless), but that guy I write about who is a lot like me spends way too much time thinking about girls.

It will be interesting to see how this new short story turns out, and how people who know me respond to it.  Fortunately, most of them will probably read this blog post first.

Degrees of Storytelling

My wife works at Pixar.  It's basically as cool as you might think.

The company I work for has an office fairly close to Pixar, so every Wednesday I drive over to have lunch with the Mrs.  And it's great (and not just because of where she works -- getting to have lunch with your wife at least once a week is a pretty nice perk).  It's also a little torturous, because it's a campus full of creative people making stories.

As you can probably imagine, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to work there or in the writers' room on a television show or with an artist on a comic book.  I like the idea, but I also know that it's a completely different type of writing than I'm used to.

It's not so much the collaborative aspect that's foreign to me.  What's weird for me is the ability to access that creativity every day on a regular basis.

Which I guess isn't as hard as I think it is.  There's a new girl in our department at work.  And the other day one of my co-workers told her that I'm funny, and that I make up crazy stories.  While I don't really think of myself as a funny guy, I do make up ridiculous stories pretty much every day at work.  It's just the way my brain works.  Sometimes those stories are a bit too weird to have really been said out loud, but on average they're more or less acceptable for a general audience.

It's always been difficult for me to write.  Part of that is very real, but part of that is rationalization.  I've never really taken to the whole drunk writer mythology, but I'll admit that sometimes I've fallen into it.  For some reason, I have it in my brain that it's often easier for me to write if I have some liquid courage.

I think this stems from the fact that a lot of what I write is extremely personal, even if it's fiction.  And for as much as I might babble on and on about myself, I have always had a hard time of actually getting past the surface.  There are a lot of things that aren't easy for me to get to, which is, honestly, another issue entirely.

So in an effort to get myself to open up, I sometimes get a prescription from what Warren Ellis refers to as Doctor Whiskey.  And it works.  It's worked pretty well for years (although I suppose an argument could be made against that, given how I'm still struggling to get published).  It's pretty damn cool to read something you wrote and see that it's actually really good, which is surprising, both because it's good and because you don't particularly remember writing it.

Like I said, a lot of this is rationalization.  There's no real reason to believe I couldn't get to these places without any chemical assistance.  I've actually written an entire book without any kind of mind altering substances.  It takes longer, sure, but those hidden places are still accessible.  It's also just much harder to get there on my own.  Heck, it's hard regardless.

The thought occurred to me, then, that there are, perhaps, degrees to storytelling.  And if that's the case, then I seem to be writing on only one setting most of the time.  I think that's probably a bad thing.

Then again, I should also mention that the few nights of the week when I have the time to really sit down and write, it's a lot like a vacation.  Instead of a beach and sunshine, I have my office and a single lamp at night.  Instead of Mai Tai's, I have whiskey.  And instead of heading home at the end of the trip, with a lot less money and probably a few extra pounds, I slowly but surely tell stories. 

That seems pretty good to me.

I should stop writing and start doing heroin.

I imagine the people who read this blog are either a) friends of mine, b) have "met" me online, c) have read something of mine, d) and/or are writers of some sort.  I realize not everything I write in this blog appeals to all of you, but I like to think there's at least few gems here and there.

Anyway, I mention all that because those of you who write can probably relate to this entry, but I'm hoping the rest of you will enjoy it, too.

So I got cut from the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest.  And as with most of the times I get rejected, it's made me wonder why I'm in the position to be rejected at all.

This isn't a "woe is me, no one appreciates my writing" deal.  This is a "sweet fancy Moses, I'd be so much happier if I didn't write" deal -- because I feel like that a lot.

Every aspect of my life gets divided attention.  I feel a bit weird about the fact that the people at work know I'm a writer, because they also must know that's my ultimate goal -- to write, to only write.  I've said it before and I'll say it again: any job I have is second fiddle, no matter how good it is.  I sometimes wonder if I'd be better at my job, or at least more proactive about it, if my heart was in it, or at least not somewhere else.

There are plenty of times I think about the fact that I don't really make as much money as I should, particularly given how much I've learned over the last few months at my job.  If I really put myself to it, I could probably find a job that paid me more.  But this theoretical job probably won't have the short commute my current job has.  It probably won't have the understanding and entertaining people that I work with now.  It would probably require more of me than I'm currently willing (able?) to give.

A few weeks ago, a cousin-in-law of mine asked me when I found the time to write.  That's a fair question, given that I have a full time job and I now live in a house that requires a certain level of upkeep even when we're not doing things like fixing up the master bedroom.  I told him I write whenever I can, and try to make those writing sessions as long as possible to make up for the days when I don't have the time.

But I do have time, which is something I doubt I'll be able to say when we have kids.  I have no idea what I'll do then.

It's not unreasonable to ask why I continue to do this.  Let's face facts, I haven't really managed to do a whole lot.  Yes, I've got a few things out there in the world, but, again, I still have to have a day job.  And I realize that I'm addressing this as an all or nothing situation, but that's also just the way I am.  Whether correct or not, I define success as being able to write for a living.

At what point do I read the writing on the wall and call it quits?  My life would be much easier if I did.  I sometimes think it's possible I would be happier.  Yet I can't stop.  For some reason, I have to do it, and I wish that wasn't the case, I really do.  I wish I could just be happy with the life I have -- god knows I have plenty of reasons to be happy.

That's the bottom line -- why can't I just be happy with what I have?  I feel like most people can do that.  Why can't I?

Writing is a strange addiction.  I wonder what rehab would be like.  I also wonder if, when I finally have kids, if that's when I'll give it up.  What will it take to get me to stop?  Because constant rejection doesn't seem to be doing it.

I wrote an essay about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and it's in a book


I've mentioned it before, I know, but just in case you've forgotten, I have an essay in this book:


Book book of Whedon essays
I received my comp copy of it in the mail today (and, believe me, the thrill of getting a comp in the mail from Random House was pretty great) and it's a killer book.  It's packed to the gills with essays on pretty much everything Whedon has ever done.

I hadn't read my essay since it was originally published on Popmatters a year ago.  I was a little worried.  I probably wrote it over three days, which doesn't seem like enough time for something that's in a book that everyone can read, particularly a book filled with essays by actual scholars.

So, being the self-absorbed person that I am, I read my essay first.  And, surprise surprise, it was actually pretty damn good.

I had some problems with it here and there, but overall I was kind of shocked at how well I spoke "critical essay."  I suddenly realized that all those years of college had actually paid off...in the form of one essay in a 500+ page book, for which sole payment is the copy sitting on my coffee table.

Still, I'm looking forward to reading the other essays.  And I'm thankful Popmatters and Titan Books had the smarts to go with my essay on Xander and not my essay on sex, which I wrote in less than two days while on a cruise ship.

It was a fun project to be a part of -- I think I'd like to do something like that again someday.

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest

As frequent readers of this blog probably already know, my first YA book is currently in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest.  What I may have neglected to mention is that you can actually read my excerpt and pitch on Amazon, and even rate and review it.

You can find the entry for Master of the House here.

Amazon had this to say about the first 20 pages that make up the excerpt:

"There was nothing amiss here. The author had good characterization, plotting and setting. The selection has a good hook to keep the reader's interest."

 Sounds good to me!

If you have a Kindle, Kindle app, or even just a laptop, please feel free to check it out.  As much as I enjoy dystopian young adult fiction, I rather like the fact that my book takes place in the present, and is more in line with books like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson.  In other words, it's meant to be a fun read, with twists and turns, not to mention a good amount of teen angst (and teen romance!).

MotH has made it to the round of 250 (down from 5000!).  The next cuts are announced on April 24th, when there will only be 50 entries left.  Fingers crossed!

The Post About YA Books

About a year and a half ago, I sat down to write a YA book ("Young Adult," for those who might not know).  It took me three months to write the first draft.  It's been revised a few times since then, and is currently in the hands of my fantastic, live-in editor, Nicole.

This wasn't the YA book I thought I was going to write; I had another idea that got pushed aside by this one, but that I hope to come back to down the line.  Unfortunately, I have two other ideas that seem to have more potential, so I've moved on to those.

But I've never had a problem with ideas; it's the execution that gets me.

I decided to write a YA book because, aside from perhaps comics, YA books take up the bulk of my reading list.  I've also basically been writing YA books in my head for most of my life, I just never realized it.  In some ways, my education in creative writing was something of a hindrance, as I was under the belief that I needed to be writing serious literary fiction, and that all of my crazy ideas about superheroes and dragons had no real value.

That's not to say that I don't enjoy serious literary fiction.  But it's a fickle mistress that doles out far more pain than pleasure, although I suppose that's why the pleasure is so great.

...wow, that was a bit of a un-YA diatribe there...

As I said, I read a lot of YA books, and I've come to realize that there are, more or less, two distinct genres in the YA category: angst and fantasy.

Angst would be something like Twilight, of course.  The focus is on interpersonal relationships that are intensely emotional and overly dramatic, but in some way relatable to the audience.  I would imagine that books in this category generally skew a bit older, perhaps to high school kids.

Fantasy would be something like the Percy Jackson series.  Plot is foremost, and that plot demands a certain level of detail, complexity, and creativity.  Sure, the interpersonal stuff is in there, but it's not the central focus of the story.  It's there to add depth.  I would imagine these are the books that skew both younger and older, the books that middle school kids and their parents read, because neither group is too concerned with angsty teenagers.

The two genres can mix, of course.  Harry Potter is a great example of this.  That series began as mostly fantasy, but by the end it was equal parts fantasy and angst.  The genius of Harry Potter is how it evolved from book to book, taking the readers along with it.  For all the credit JK Rowling gets for her creativity, it's her vision of the big picture that I found most impressive.

Lately it seems as if the "angst" group has been mostly made up of post-apocalyptic and vampire stories.  This make sense, of course, because both areas lend themselves fairly easily to angst.  Sadly, it's resulting in a flood of books that are mostly about being melodramatic.  It feels like this group has reached its saturation point, but I'm not sure how it becomes any better.

On the flip side, "fantasy" books have yet to find a pattern.  Sure, most feature protagonists who are roughly the same age as the target audience, but beyond then there's been no set criteria for success.  It would have been very easy to see a ton of books featuring wizards after Harry Potter changed the book world, but that isn't the case.  There's a such a great variety of subjects in the "fantasy" group that it's ultimately the more interesting of the two categories.

Then again, I say that as an adult reading young adult books.  In fact, maybe the "angst" group is the better of the two, the one that will last the longest.  It certainly seems to have the most rabid fans.

Let's just hope the market for YA doesn't dry up any time soon: I've got 5 different series in my head, and it would be nice if someone paid me for them!

Writing (Is) For Dummies

The other night, my wife called me a freak.  Okay, I think she actually said I was "freakish," which I suppose is preferable.

Her comment was prefaced by something a co-worker who had read this very blog said.  She complimented my writing and asked me if it was hard.  It was difficult for me to answer, if only because I didn't want to seem like I was boasting, because these blogs are obviously not hard to write.  In fact, when she made these comments, I had written another blog in my head on the way to work (coming soon).

This happens to me a lot.  The things I've written make up perhaps 1% of the things I've thought about writing.  That's why my wife called me freakish: I'm never at a loss for something to write about.  I never have writers' block.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that really isn't the case, and that I'm not really all that different from most writers.  When people think of "writers' block," they think it means that a writer is unable to think of something to write about.  But that's not really what it is.  To put it frankly, writers' block involves thinking that everything you write sucks.



I recently read "The New Dead," a collection of short stories about -- as I'm sure you can guess -- zombies.  The collection was a mixed bag, as most short story collections are.  Aside from the range in quality, there was a range in setting.  While many of the stories (and generally the better ones) were stories about a world where zombies existed, some of them took it further, changing their worlds beyond just the undead, adding any number of other supernatural elements.

I found the stories loaded with supernatural aspects interesting from a process standpoint.  While I realize that genre books involving the supernatural can do well, I don't know that the demand for supernatural short stories is really that great.  And, even if books in the dark fantasy realm do okay, there's obviously a ceiling for them.  That's an audience that's at least fairly limited.  And that's just looking at something like sales figures; niche books don't get a whole lot of critical acclaim, either (of course there are exceptions to all of this, but I'm speaking in general terms here).

I found myself wondering how these writers maintained their motivation, because it's entirely possible that they could have been writing stories that would never see the light of day -- and they were consciously choosing to write material that was going to be a hard sell.

Now, that's not to say that writing something for the sheer enjoyment of writing it is wrong.  But then it really just becomes a hobby, doesn't it?  At the same time, there's a certain level of self-indulgence that you have to be wary of.  The best lesson I ever learned was how to identify something as being egocentric to the point where I might think it's horribly interesting, but everyone else just finds baffling.

Ultimately, writers' block isn't so much not having ideas as it wondering what the point is.

This might sound crazy, but I kind of envy people who write fan fic (stories involving pre-existing fictional characters -- usually from TV -- that are posted online) if for no other reason than they are content with what they do.  They never question the validity of what they're doing.

Life imitating art imitating life: I'm actually wondering about the validity of this blog entry right now.  So I'm going to move on.

The other day I read a comment on someone's web site from a person who had either an MA or an MFA in the writing field.  This person pointed out something that was so incredibly obvious to me, but that I had never realized: graduate programs in writing don't teach anything about how to get published.

This is a pretty startling revelation.  The business side of writing  is essential for success, particularly these days.  The majority of writers who make a living cranking out words do so under the radar with very little fanfare, and the majority of those writers have to spend much of their timing writing for others -- writing things that may not hold any interest to them.  Even then, a full time writer is going to spend nearly as much time submitting and tracking their work as they will writing it.

It is truly baffling that I never took a course called something like "The Practical Writer."  Now, I can appreciate the idea that perhaps academia didn't want to stomp on anyone's dreams, but the fact is that no matter how much I might day dream it be otherwise, I will ultimately not make it to the New York Times Best Seller list.  More than likely I will publish my little books in obscurity while either working a tedious day job or taking care of theoretical children while my wife brings home the bacon.

In some ways, it makes me wonder if perhaps there's something more nefarious afoot, that perhaps academic institutions are aware that the art of writing isn't the be all and end all anymore, and that maybe, just maybe, some of their students might choose to audit a few workshops while pursuing their MBA.

I'll admit it: there are times that I wonder where I would be if I'd had any idea how to write in the real world after I graduated.  I don't know that I would have been better off, but it couldn't have hurt.