July 17, 2015 — Leave a comment
Western water tower, Frank Tellez.

Western water tower, Frank Tellez, 2007.

I wrote the Western into a dusty hole. Maybe it’ll get up and mosey on again, maybe not. I know you’re supposed to finish what you start, but sometimes that’s just a pep phrase, something you tweet with #amwriting for some virtual pats on the back.

I’ve been reading good stuff, which is half of what you need to do to write good stuff. Maybe I’ll just be in a deep reading phase for a while. I’ve found a virtual kinship with Jonathan Franzen in his collected essays. The fact that he irritates many people pleases me.

I’m keenly interested in what he has to say about our devices, our social media, and our neuroses:

The striking thing about all consumer products — and none more so than electronic devices and applications — is that they’re designed to be immensely likable. This is, in fact, the definition of a consumer product, in contrast to the product that is simply itself and whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it. (I’m thinking here of jet engines, laboratory equipment, serious art and literature.)

But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable.

If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick. You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or, if you’re Donald Trump, running for president (and then quitting).

He said this in 2011, not last week. This is a man whose book was made an Oprah Book Club selection, and his response was… nonplussed.

I learned that he was friends with David Foster Wallace, who taught creative writing at my alma mater’s sister college, Pomona, until taking his own life in 2008. So it’s like he’s this older brother in a parallel world. Or at least that’s the shelf I’m putting him on, for now, as I enter the early phase of reader-love.

What I find compelling about his thoughts, such as the quote above, is not that I’m above it all with him — but that this is something I need to work on. I get excited when someone likes my writing, whether tweet or novel, and worry when they don’t. I’m sick of both. I want my writing to be enjoyed, but I don’t want to attach that to my self-worth. Publishing is too much of a bitch-goddess for that.

the_displacement_trilogyMy last two books — Oyu’s Trident and The Woman in the ’61 Checker — I wrote for my daughter, Rose. We go on long walks and talk story, both her ideas and my own, so if she likes it, I’m good. I can’t write for the world. I can write so one person will enjoy it, and people who are like her can tag along.

Speaking of reading pleasure, I’ve got a Kindle Countdown thing going on with THE DISPLACEMENT TRILOGY, my three-volume scifi story (300 Miles to Galveston, Missionaries of Omo, and Oyu’s Trident). It’s $1.99 for 521 pages, and has a groovy new cover. Give it a look, and see if it’s a ride you want to join. You can preview the first 10%, or FIVE WHOLE FREAKING CHAPTERS, online, which is way more than anyone should read on a laptop browser. So if you enjoy the first chapter, just buy the damn thing. It’s the cost of a Big Gulp.

And if you don’t like it… that’s OK. I don’t like guacamole, but it’s still much appreciated. To me it looks and tastes like Play-Doh.

61checkerFree today! The Woman in the ’61 Checker is “mysterious and entertaining,” “well written and… not predictable.”

“The writing flows smoothly and at a good pace, with just the right amount of humor.”

“Cool story. Very mysterious and entertaining. Couldn’t stop reading.”

“This is an easy, engaging read that… assumes a level of intelligence on the part of the reader that I find liberating.”

Amazon Reviews


May 4, 2015 — Leave a comment

Can you write something good and honest, purely for profit?

It seems anathema to most literary-minded novelists. What you write is somehow connected to your soul. You can’t just write a novel the way you assemble a model rocket, without it coming out trite.

But is that true?

I suspect that no matter what you write, part of you is going to show up in it, and that in itself can become a spark of life. I also think that if you try to be entertaining, you probably will be.

Literary fiction, for the most part, runs counter to that. It’s a journey toward some form of artistic truth, and its entertainment value lies almost purely in sharing that journey. This is why it’s usually boring, and doesn’t sell well. (I suspect the consumers of most literary fiction magazines are, themselves, literary fiction writers.)

Sure, there are a few geniuses who are so good at capturing life in their hometowns that they’re inherently interesting. But they are exceptions. For every Eudora Welty, there are a thousand schmucks trying to capture suburban American life. When they can’t make that interesting, they make it post-apocalyptic. *Ahem.*

One of the few rules I’ve followed since beginning this self-publishing thing is “finish what you start.” So I will finish the western I’m piddling with. I’ll try to make it entertaining, and not just personal therapy. I’ll publish it. If it’s good, yay. If it’s bad, the world will keep spinning.

Then… maybe I’ll just look at the marketplace and try to meet the greatest hunger. I imagine that would be romance. Can I do that? Of course, in a literal sense, I can write anything. I’ve already written technical manuals, marketing campaigns, and sci-fi novels. I would need to read a few of the best ones, and learn something of their ways before diving in.

But the core question remains: Can I write a romance novel that’s good, if it’s not something I’m naturally attracted to? Can I create something a stranger will enjoy, not just a supportive friend?

It’s a perversely interesting challenge.

Can a good writer truly write anything? Or does there have to be a natural core drive to bring out his best work?

Tell me, muse

May 1, 2015 — 2 Comments
This is caption text.

Intracloud lightning by Jonathan Ball, Arkansas, 2011.

When I was a kid, DC Comics was a has-been. Marvel had been putting out more interesting stuff for a decade: Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Avengers. I still liked Batman, mostly due to the 1960s TV show, which I did not take as parody. But… Superman? Really?

Then, somewhere around 8th grade, I quit reading comics. Dad was dying of cancer. I got a part-time job at a motorcycle shop, and was more interested in Playboy and Hustler than anything the two major comics came up with.

I enjoyed Superman: The Movie. In band, I got to play the French horn lead to the score, which opens with a beautiful solo. Still, life seemed cheap and unpredictable, and the nobility of Superman evaporated in the sunlight outside the theater or concert hall. I even tried on the superhero outfit of my world — the football uniform — and blew my knee out. On crutches, the week after Dad died, I knew that life was cruel, God was indifferent, and Superman was for children who hadn’t been hurt yet.

Friends in college told me about the cool stuff Frank Miller was doing with Batman, but by then I was a young man getting an English degree, wrestling with Homer and Joyce. Bruce Wayne’s midlife crisis didn’t interest me.

Now I am middle-aged, and I find that DC speaks to me again, but not in the way I would have predicted.

Before I get to why, I have to confess that I’ve started watching their animated movies, and some of them are phenomenal:

  • The Dark Knight Returns: Frank Miller’s 1980s comic, with old, angry Batman, and Superman as Reagan’s personal WMD, produced as a two part film
  • Justice League: Doom. Members of the Justice League are taken out one by one… and cold, indifferent Batman’s to blame
  • The Flashpoint Paradox: In an alternate timeline sparked by the Flash’s nemesis, Batman has no issues with firearms… or whiskey

It’s fun to see the old heroes re-imagined by my peers. Superman is what we’d like to be: all powerful, generous, and above it all, retreating to a spacious crystalline fortress when the world’s problems overwhelm us. Batman is what we’d really be, given the chance: rich, misunderstood, and eventually broken, left cursing at a screen in a dimly-lit cave.

To my surprise, it’s another DC hero — the Flash — who speaks to me now. I too am just a guy, running around, trying to fix everything, and needing allies to get me out of scrapes. I’m not strong like Superman, or smart like Batman. I’m just trying to keep up with my kids, with my job, with my second wife, and all I know to do when the world overwhelms me is run faster.

Looking back over my life, even with all the good that’s in it, if I had Flash’s power, I too would be tempted to run so fast I broke the time barrier, saved Dad, made wiser decisions, and left this world behind. The memory of my life would exist as a dark comic book in this new world, a place where life is joyful, God is smiling, and Superman isn’t necessary.

The catch? In such a place, I’d have nothing to say, and Homer’s words would have never reached me:

Tell me, muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.

The Odyssey, Book I, Verses 1-5, translated by Richmond Lattimore.

Suffering doesn’t make you a hero. It just gives you the opportunity to become one.

Whether that hero is Odysseus, the ancient Greek answer to Batman who struggles for a decade, or Leopold Bloom, the modernist answer to Odysseus who struggles through a single day, is up to each of us.

(I chose the Flash.)

Letting go

April 12, 2015 — 6 Comments
Leonid Pasternak, The Passion of Creation, 19th century.

Leonid Pasternak, The Passion of Creation, 19th century.

Sometimes you need a little booze and a lot of months between you and your writing before you can see it clearly.

Last night at a cookout, some friends told me what they liked and didn’t like about my scifi trilogy. It matched what I’d seen in reviews, and from sales: They liked the first book, but not the other two. With a couple of beers and a year or two since writing them, I could see why.

When I wrote 300 MILES TO GALVESTON, I decided I was writing a trilogy, for no other reason than “I feel like writing a trilogy.” It had nothing to do with whether or not the story merited three books.

I had a clear vision for the first book. Well, maybe that’s revisionist history… I had a focused passion for the story, even if I didn’t know where it was going. I wrote it in six weeks, and had that good feeling I got when I’d crafted a decent short story in college. I’d missed that in my life. I needed to feel that, again.

My friend Evan designed an elegant, clever cover, and I felt even better about it. Then it made $300 in the first month on Amazon, and I felt like an author.

When I started the second book, MISSIONARIES OF OMO, I was really into my self doubts about religion, which usually reflects doubts about myself more than God. I’m not getting into a theist/atheist thing. I’m fine with whatever you believe, as my own beliefs are rather fluid. Anyway, I used fiction in that book, and OYU’S TRIDENT, to explore those ideas, and while it fascinated me, it only resonated with a tiny minority of readers. Of course, how else could it go? Imagine starting a conversation with a stranger on the finer points of religious studies, when they didn’t even sign up for the class or ask you to teach it. Bo-ring.

If anyone gets to this blog post and wonders what happened to books two and three, I pulled them from Amazon, and republished the first book as a stand-alone, because that’s what it truly is. If you’d still like to read books two and three, just reach out to me through my contact page or in a comment on this post, and I’ll send you an ebook copy you can import to your Kindle, for free. I’d he happy to hear what you think, good or bad, and at this point could laugh along with you if it just doesn’t catch your fancy.

Update 4/15:

I’ve learned that Amazon just doesn’t forget… so even though I’d like to pull the last two books, they’ll remain listed for all eternity (even if they’re unavailable). So, I surrender. :)
The ebooks have been re-activated on Amazon, and will be free April 16-17:

I’m not sure what I’m going to write next, if anything. My western has stalled. I may just need to take a break. I know the writer’s discipline is to plow on, even if it’s tossed pages, but I just tossed 400 of them, and feel more like drinking coffee and staring out the window than writing, for a while.