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Save the Cat

I don’t think I’ve talked about Save the Cat here yet, and how I used it to structure a book. This isn’t a “learn to write so you can make millions like me” blog, so I don’t know how important or useful it is for me to document this. And spoiler alert, the book I wrote using this method did not sell a million copies. But as I’m thinking about book ideas now, I keep coming back to this. So here goes.

Save the Cat! is book by screenwriter Blake Snyder, which describes his method of structuring and outlining a screenplay for maximum impact. It’s essentially a refinement or maybe simplification of the Syd Field “paradigm” or three-act structure, mixed with a healthy dose of the Joseph Campbell hero’s journey/monomyth thing, which has been beaten to death by any number of screenwriting gurus/hacks such as Christopher Vogler, George Lucas, and anyone who has ever made any money for Pixar.

There’s a lot covered in Snyder’s book, but if you’re writing a screenplay using his method, you basically follow these steps:

1) You create a logline. This is an elevator pitch, or a one-sentence explanation of exactly what happens in the movie. What’s important is that you start by writing the logline. You don’t write it after you’ve written the book. If you can’t explain the movie in a sentence, you can’t sell it, and you might not even be able to write it. It’s also important that the logline says what the movie is and not what it’s about, or where it’s set, or how it feels, or anything else. But most importantly, you need to get a logline that works before you do anything else. If it doesn’t work, you need to keep at it until it does.

A good exercise is to sit down and write the loglines for a bunch of existing movies. Three groomsmen go to Las Vegas and lose their about-to-be-married buddy in a blackout drunken bender, and have to retrace their steps to find him. An off-duty NYPD cop goes to LA to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists, which he must stop. A captain is sent up the river in Vietnam to assassinate a colonel who has gone crazy, or is the war what’s really crazy? A rich guy meets a prostitute with a heart of gold and falls in love. Whatever. 

2) After you get the logline, you come up with a title. Maybe the title changes later, but you do this first. It’s part of the refinement process, making a logline that summaries everything and making a title that explains it. So if, for example, if you pick a stupid title like The Journal of the Whills, and everyone you pitch it to thinks it’s stupid, you might want to keep hacking at it until you come up with something better, like Star Wars.

3) Snyder says there are ten different plots, and everything falls into one of those ten buckets. Anyone can argue it’s really 20 or 12 or 2, but he has ten. He has a sequel to the first book that goes through a ton of Hollywood movies and says which of the ten it falls into. Like the logline exercise, a good practice item is to learn the list of ten, and then go through existing movies and determine which plot they use. (There’s an entire message board where people argue about this.)

I’m not going to explain all of plots, but the ten include stuff like Monster in the House, Dude with a Problem, and Superhero. The categorization isn’t always obvious, and it’s not strictly by genre. The movie Jaws is a Monster in the House even thought it isn’t in a “house” per se. Alien is also a Monster in the House, but the house is a spaceship. You have a monster, you put it in the house, you put people in the house, you somehow piss off the monster with a Sin — something monetary or greed-based is always good — and then the people have to either get the hell out of there or somehow stop the monster.

4) One of the core tenets (and points of criticism, but I’ll get to that later) is that Snyder has a really specific 15-step outline that every screenplay should use. And each step takes up a specific number of pages. The fifteen steps form a three-act structure with the first act taking up 25% of the script, the second act 50%, and the third act 25%. I’m not going to dump his fifteen steps here; if you’re curious, google “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet” and you’ll find them. If you follow the book, your plot should not only hit each of the marks in the list, but it should spend the specific amount of time on each step. If it doesn’t, it means (according to him) that something’s wrong with your plot, and you need to brainstorm it a bit more. 

A quick example is how he beats out Act One for a script. The first beats in his outline are Opening Image, Theme Stated, Setup, Catalyst, Debate, and Break into Two. Basically, you’ve got some guy in an office/kid in a space desert/private dick hired for a job. You open with some first-impression image of their dull office park/a monstrous castle in the distance/a dreary factory/a beat-up frathouse. You spend about ten pages describing the “before” and their everyday drag. Somewhere in there you state the theme, like in Office Space, the theme of “every day is worse than the last.” And then on page 12, some catalyst appears, like the droid your uncle bought shows a hologram of a princess asking for help. Or Captain Willard is given a mission. (Every military movie has someone being given a mission on page 12.) But you don’t take the mission right away; you burn the next dozen pages in conflict, because your uncle wants you to work on the dirt farm and you’ve got shit to do. Or you’re not sure you’re supposed to use your superpowers for good, because you’re just a kid in high school. At the Break into Two moment, the protagonist basically choses that he’s got to get off his ass and launch into Act Two. Luke’s Aunt and Uncle get turned into charcoal and he tells Obi-Wan they need to sell the landspeeder, find a dodgy pilot, and find this princess. Peter doesn’t go into work on Saturday and do his TPS reports. John Connor has to bust his mom out of the loony bin and stop the bad Terminator. The monster enters the lair. The protagonist’s life suddenly turns upside down.

One important thing about this formula is you have to hit each of those five parts, in that order, with those page lengths. If you cold open the movie with Luke and Han racing toward Alderaan, you miss all the foreplay of building Luke into this boy-turned-hero. If you don’t have the period after the Catalyst where Luke isn’t sure what to do, it’s not as exciting when he does decide to do it. There’s similar structure defined for all fifteen points in his outline.

5) You divide a board into four strips, one for each quarter of the movie (act 1, act 2 part 1, act 2 part 2, act 3) and you get 40 index cards, one per scene. You outline each scene on the cards. There’s some junk about putting the emotional change and the conflict of each scene on each card. The basic goal though is that each card has a purpose, contribututes to the rise, has its own conflict. None of the cards are “spend five minutes showing cool stuff for no reason/” When you lay out the cards, you pace yourself and avoid overloaded acts and black holes. A lot of writers have an Act 3 problem, where a ton of stuff happens in Act 2, and then Act 3 has a giant “and stuff happens” black hole between the turning point and the resolution. So you’re supposed to use this board with index cards to identify the cards clumping together and the empty spaces with no cards and adjust accordingly.

6) Once you have the 40 cards and the number of pages from the 15-step outline, you start typing. I used Scapple to make my virtual cards, then imported them into Scrivener, and was able to use that to create all the blank documents I then filled in with actual writing.

The book also has a bunch of sloganized rules on writing that might be helpful, but read the book if you want to get into that. One example is the title of the book: Save the Cat. You want your protagonist to do something in the beginning to make everyone want them to win. Another one is Double Mumbo Jumbo, which is the argument that you can get the audience to believe one bit of magic, but it’s hard to get them to believe two. You can have zombies, and you can have hobbits, but if you put both together, people won’t buy it. But he states this example, and then gives several counter-examples that have made billions of dollars. Like Spider-Man has the kid getting bit by an atomic spider and turning into a wall crawler. But at the same time, it has the Green Goblin dicking around with chemicals that spill and turn him into a monster. By his rules, this is too much suspension of disbelief. But every superhero movie is going to have Double Mumbo Jumbo, so… whatever. 

There are a lot more rules, many having to do with developing your good guy or your bad guy. One that I found useful was Six Things That Need Fixing. You give your hero a laundry list of problems, which sets them up so there’s payoff when the things happen. He’s stuck in a small town, his parents are assholes, he can’t get laid, his friends are losers, his job is stupid, he wants to go to college and can’t afford it. Then when the catalyst comes, you have these various goals adding to the conflict, and when the journey starts, he can start ticking off boxes from this list. Lots of other little tricks like that exist, some that work, some that don’t. The important thing though is the logline, the genre, and the 15 steps. 

* * *

OK, so why did this interest me? I don’t write formulaic fiction, and I definitely don’t write movies. I write a lot of nonlinear fiction, plotless fiction, gonzo fiction. Unlike every book reviewer on Goodreads, I don’t think there is a problem with plotless fiction. I believe anything experimental is important, and I think a lot of the tools mainstream writers use daily evolved out of people pushing the form in experimental writing. Telling writers they have to adhere to plot is like telling painters they have to paint pictures that look like they popped out of a Polaroid camera. The fact that there isn’t more plotless fiction is honestly a travesty, but that’s probably another post.

It bugs the shit out of me that people dismiss my writing because I often don’t use plot or follow formula. After Atmospheres came out in early 2014, I fell into a deep depression because it was my favorite book I’d ever written, and it didn’t sell, and the only real feedback I got were from people who weren’t the target audience for the book immediately dismissing it with the word “plotless” and that was it. And that made me really want to write something that was so insanely plotted, there was no way somebody could say that it wasn’t. I wanted to write a book with a bulletproof plot, just out of spite. So I studied plot, and I read dozens of books, and I ended up getting hung up on the Snyder book.

Save the Cat isn’t really meant for fiction. Books aren’t film, and there’s a lot more room for more complex narrative, things that couldn’t be shot, things that can develop in a reader’s head. That said, very formulaic fiction is totally like film, so StC can easily be used for writing this.

As I was studying StC and thinking about a possible idea for this next book, I watched a bunch of movies and carefully outlined and summarized them as I wrote them, trying to find the StC plot points. I also logged the times in the movie when these events happened. This completely validated Snyder’s formulas. I did this with three movies: The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and Blade Runner. All of them hit the exact points in Snyder’s 15-step beat sheet within a few minutes of accuracy. (All three of these were what Snyder calls a “whydunit,” which is basically a whodunit except you already know who, and you want to know why. Every crime noir is a whydunit. Every whydunit has a protagonist get knocked unconscious by a hitman at exactly the 90 minute mark, denoting the start of Act Three. It’s uncanny.)

I then went back and read Falcon and some other Dashiell Hammett hard-boiled fiction, and it more or less followed the same outline. The only issue with fiction is you have to fiddle with the page numbering. A script is 110 pages; a detective novel is about 200. So your first act is going to end at about page 50; you reach your All is Lost moment at page 150, and so on. And obviously writing fiction is more verbose than screenwriting; you’re going to end up with more words on the page in prose form, rather than the fancy indenting and whitespace you get out of Final Draft.

(I actually just looked this up again, and in 2018, a YA author wrote an official franchised book on using StC for novels. I haven’t read it, and this was released years after I did this. From the Amazon reviews, it sounds like it’s a rehash of the first StC book, but for novelists. So, I guess some people are doing this.)

* * *

There are many criticisms of Snyder’s book. One is that Snyder is a hack, in the “those who cannot do, teach” way, because he only wrote two released movies that were not exactly masterpieces, and a few loose episodes of a kids’ show. (He also died at age 51, so maybe with more time, he would have had his Citizen Kane. Or maybe he would have just churned out a StC sequel book every year.) 

The main criticism of the method is his strict adherence to specific page numbers for each transition in the movie. Your script must be 110 pages. The catalyst must happen on page 12. The finale must start on page 85. Because of this, the adherence to the ten genres, and the same basic tools for problem-solving means that, according to some critics, all StC scripts are basically the same. I agree with this assumption, and it’s a problem.

There are a lot of devout followers to Snyder’s rules, and this is pretty obvious in Hollywood. I know I will get a lot of shit about this, but I personally feel like every Marvel or Pixar movie follows this strict structure religiously, and that’s turned every summer blockbuster into a Mad Libs-like script where the only things that change are what’s filled in the blanks. Yes, every one of the 167 Spider-Man reboots drastically changes something about his powers or his origin story or how hot his aunt is, but go back to what I said about loglines a while ago — you’re changing the how or the where. You can change Bruce Wayne to be more edgy or more campy or more cartoony or more 21st-century or a metaphor for why we shouldn’t be in Iraq, but you’re still following the same outline. His parents will always get killed on page 25. And if you wrote a script for Marvel that didn’t have ten pages of origin story right after the theme was stated, comic book fans from around the country would flock to your house and beat you to death with collectible figurines and drag your corpse through the streets like you were the deposed leader of a third-world country. It Absolutely Must Happen according to template.

There’s a vicious cycle with this, because when producers and yes-men are trained to recognize this structure, and see this form making money, they will only green-light movies that match the formula exactly, and then we only see movies with this outline, which means in the future, the only movies that get financed… well, you get the drift. If you’re tasked to write this year’s Batman reboot and you turn in a 450-page script that burns 87 pages pondering Bruce’s childhood before even talking about his parents getting killed, you’re going to get a ton of red pen on your pages, and see very little movement in your bank account. Stick to the formula. And if you want to write some Richard Linklater Slacker movie that doesn’t follow the curve in exactly 110 pages, you can fuck off to indie-land, deliver pizzas to make the nut on your film stock, and release direct to video somewhere. 

This is an unpopular opinion, but I have the same feeling about best-selling kindle books. Writers structure page-turners in a very specific format, and readers are placated when they hit the same plot points at the same marks, and are pissed off when the Act 3 collapses too quickly or whatever. Books that meet this exactly are reviewed higher, which pumps the Amazon algorithm and spurn higher rankings. And then the sequels have the same structure to promote more sales. This is a race to the bottom, and it’s not art. It’s how people sell vitamins and energy drinks. I know, sour grapes, my writing sucks, and I’m a shithead for saying Marvel movies are formulaic. But something is getting lost by people feeling they need to match this formula. Every book is quickly becoming the same.

* * *

Despite the arguments against it, I tried the StC method, and I wrote a book using it. (This was six years ago. I won’t even mention which book, but you can figure it out.) There were some good things to the process. One is that I often don’t title my books until the end, and my book descriptions are almost an afterthought. Starting with those made me much more confident about the direction I was going. And the 40-card process made me figure out a few dead ends before I started writing. I have a bad habit of coming up with a great idea, writing a ton, and then the whole thing falls apart when I get into Act 2. With this, I knew exactly what would happen before I even started writing. That made the writing happen much faster, and I was much more confident about what was hapening. It was easier to keep on track, and figure out exactly what I had to do on each page.

One misconception with any of these Lego-like writing systems is that they don’t do all of the work for you. There’s a lot involved in figuring out exactly what the logline should be, who the characters are, and how it should all go together. You can’t take an idea like “guys selling drugs” and plug it into a mad lib template and have Pulp Fiction pop out of it. Mining and working ideas is hard; this system only really defines the pacing of how they work out.

I went into the process with a basic setting, an idea of a main character, and an idea. The beat sheet gave me a transformation or an application of that idea, how the protagonist struggled with the idea, and it forced me to use a certain number of characters to move the protagonist through the outline. It helped me develop my protagonist, and differentiate the other characters, not only to make them more interesting, but to make them more integral to the movement of the plot.

Another big thing this helped me with is the dynamics of the plot, the movement. Snyder has this saying, “Turn Turn Turn,” which is that a plot doesn’t just have to move, it has to intensify at each step. And this helped me a lot in my Act 2 to Act 3, which is what I always screw up in a book. I was able to raise the stakes through the plot in exactly the right proportions, but it also made it so my chases were more than just moving from point A to B really fast; it gave meaning to the chase, which brought the reader through the outline.

* * *

I really enjoyed writing the book, and I liked the structure of it. It developed well, and the experiment was a success in that way. But short story long, it did not sell. My faithful readers thought it was way too off-brand. “Serious” science fiction readers didn’t get it, and nitpicked the plot. (There are some other factors involved, and maybe I’ll write about that someday.) I proved to myself I could do it, but that I didn’t need to. I went back to writing weird non-linear stuff that doesn’t sell, and I guess that’s my lot in life. I sometimes think if I had the perfect idea, I’d do this again, but I think a lot of dumb things.

Anyway, this is the most I’ve ever written about plot, so I better get back to writing without it, before someone takes me seriously.

Categories
general

birthday, containers, books, cynic, etc

Birthday was okay last week. The superfloat went fine, but I couldn’t 100% lock into it for four hours. I think I’m about done with the whole sensory deprivation thing. I think the meditative part of it is good, and the isolation. But the process, especially with the salt water, is such a pain in the ass. Having to take a shower before and after, and then still having epsom salt stuck in your ears and elsewhere for the rest of the day is a hassle. And too many times, I end up in the tank and have an itch on my eyebrow or face, and I can’t scratch it, or I’ll instantly get salt-soaked water in my eye. I like the ritual I’ve done with it the last three birthdays, but as a general practice, I think it would be easier to just meditate in a dark room for a few hours. Also cheaper.

***

Still working on the stack of Christmas books, which now got hit with another round of birthday additions. I’ve been reading The Box by Marc Levinson, which is a history of the shipping container. Sounds like it would be boring, but it’s actually pretty fascinating, for some reason. Maybe part of the fascination is that I live within walking distance of the Port of Oakland, and always see the giant piles of metal boxes being loaded and unloaded with giant AT-AT-looking cranes. There’s also this timely connection between what’s talked about now with automation and the complete reinvention of the work economy, which is something that also happened in the fifties and sixties as Sea-Land and Matson completely disrupted the shipping industry.

I should be reading fiction, but I haven’t been. The only fiction I’ve read this year was Ben Lerner’s new one, and I was pretty meh on it. Most of the stack is nonfiction, but I imagine I’ll get back to it when I get back to it.

***

I did the usual free book giveaway on the day of my birthday, and gave away Help Me Find My Car Keys… for twenty-four hours. I think something’s gone on with KDP and Amazon is really throttling down these in their algorithm or something. I generally don’t agree with the way the giveaways work, and they’ve never really helped my rankings or sales or whatever. And the whole idea of gaming the algorithm and chasing numbers is part of the big race to the bottom that is destroying publishing. But I noticed a really large drop-off this time over last year, even though more people shared the giveaway. Yeah, my books suck and I’m horrible and I write unmarketable garbage, etc. But there’s something really up with it, and my conspiracy theory is that the numbers are being gamed because of Amazon’s paid placement ads, which I refuse to participate in. If they haven’t already, they are probably getting to the point where they will make more money on ads than on their cut of self-published books. Why mine for gold when you can get rich selling the shovels, right?

Another Kindle thing I did not know about, because I do not pay attention to this stuff at all: you used to be able to do a match thing where people who bought your paperback book got a free or discounted copy of the Kindle version. Looks like they took that away. I thought that was a great feature and I enabled it on all of my books, because I think charging people twice is sort of bullshit. But, no more. Sorry about that. Talk to Jeff.

Despite all of this, I quietly made the decision to stop publishing my books over on Smashwords. The ebook war is over and Amazon won. Having the books on Smashwords was a huge pain in the ass, produced a vastly inferior product, and almost nobody bought them there. I had a brief blip of Nook sales there a few years back, but not much else. If Amazon’s self-publishing completely implodes and they start charging a hundred bucks a book to publish to Kindle, I’ll ditch them and move to Smashwords, or whoever else. Or I’ll print out copies on my inkjet and staple them myself. Whatever.

***

Everyone’s talking about Kobe’s death today, but I’m still thinking about Sean Reinert, the drummer of Cynic, who died unexpectedly Friday. My memories of the band Cynic are how they were first a demo band in the late 80s and start of 90s, putting out these demo tapes that were absolutely brutal and technical and exact and powerful, probably better than most studio albums coming out, even at this apex area of the first wave of death metal and grindcore. They were signed by Roadrunner and recorded their fourth demo with them, and everyone was wildly awaiting their debut album.

There was a lot of delay after that, though. Reinert and guitarist Paul Masvidal played on the Death album Human, and were on tour with them when they ran into various financial/managerial/legal issues and ended up having their gear confiscated by a UK promoter for six months. The next year, the day they planned to go into the studio to record their debut, Hurricane Andrew hit Florida and destroyed their studio and equipment. They eventually recorded their first album Focus and released it in 1993, disbanding after that, with everyone going off to record 863 different solo/session projects after that.

The thing I remember most about Focus and Reinert’s work is that he really wasn’t a metal drummer. He obviously was the drummer in many metal bands, but his playing was very jazz/fusion-influenced, more prog-rock than the straightforward blast beat/double-bass stuff on almost every band that came out after Morbid Angel. I listened to that first Cynic album constantly in 1993, right on the tail end of my involvement in death metal, around the time I eventually decided to stop publishing my zine and go on to other stuff. But I always remember being mesmerized by that album, even as I was getting bored with mainstream metal.

Anyway, this is another one of those things where a guy who is actually younger than me dropped dead, with no cancers or medical problems, no drug use, no helicopter crash, and nothing else that would make one launch into the usual “better place” speech. Ugh.

***

Not much else going on. I still feel sick from the break, and can’t believe it hasn’t 100% gone away. It’s starting to almost get nice enough to walk outside now, so I’ll hopefully stop mall-walking soon. Writing’s writing. More on that later, maybe.

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general

People think that pipes grow in their homes. But they sure as hell don’t! Look at my knees! Look at my knees!

If you haven’t bought the new David Lynch book Room to Dream, get off your ass, man. It’s good stuff. The way it works is that one chapter is straight biography by journalist Kristine McKenna, and then the next chapter is autobiography by Lynch, recalling various memories about the period covered in the previous chapter. So you have a good authoritative biography, but you also get the conversational style of DL going off on crazy tangents. 500-some pages, lots of photos, lots of text. I’m not done yet, but it has been great so far.

(I’m going to ignore all the political back-and-forth that came out of an interview he did recently. If you’re into that sort of thing, look it up. I’m not.)

The book makes me think about what films of his I’ve seen in theaters, where I was when they came out, when I discovered them on tape, etc. I’m too young to have seen Eraserhead in the theater, at least in the first run. I was looking back through old journals recently and found the one I wrote when I first saw it on tape – I got so excited about it, I wanted to go buy a film camera and make my own movie. I also remember when Lost Highway came out on video tape, I rented it and watched it over and over. I didn’t get it during most of the first viewing, and then at the very end, it clicked and was a “holy shit!” moment, and I immediately had to rewind and watch it over, and that went on all weekend. Never saw Mulholland Dr. in the theater – it came out right after 9/11, a confusing time when I don’t know what I did. Anyway.

Weird trivia – I am exactly 25 years younger than Lynch, to the day.

I should probably try to re-watch Dune this weekend, while I’m delirious from the heat.

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general

The Amazon Store

We’ve had unreasonably nice weather all weekend, sunny and in the seventies, perfect for walking. I went to Walnut Creek yesterday to get in the daily miles, and eat at Veggie Grill, this overly bright and cheery vegan place, which I thought was only in LA, and I used to eat all the time at the one in El Segundo. The weather, and the fact that the ten-year anniversary of the move from Denver to Playa Del Rey is coming up has given me a strong sense-memory nostalgia for my brief time in Los Angeles, and I always try to find different places to walk that remind me of Southern California.

Walnut Creek is a point of scorn for a lot of people in the Bay Area, because it’s not “real” and most of the housing is either those same three-story townhouse apartments they build everywhere, or is multi-million dollar stuff hidden in the hills. There’s no ghetto or dead people in the street or graffiti, and that’s a little too Disney for people. I don’t know if this would have bothered me when I was younger, but it’s fine by me now, whatever.

There’s also a weirdness to Walnut Creek in that a lot of neighborhoods can be defined by the businesses they have that would not survive in any other neighborhood. Like if your neighborhood has multiple computer repair shops, it sets the demographic. In my neighborhood, if your computer is broken, you throw it in a pile of garbage on the street, and break into someone else’s house and steal a new one. West Oakland also doesn’t have multiple piano stores. When you mention that a neighborhood has a Steinway showroom, you don’t need to say much else to describe it.

After lunch, I wandered through Broadway Plaza, which is an outdoor mall anchored by Nordstrom, Macy’s, and Neiman Marcus. It’s very upscale, very clean. There’s a Tesla store. You could probably perform surgery on the ground, it is so clean. Everyone looks like a yoga model. It’s a very strange place. And as I was walking, I passed by… an Amazon store.

An Amazon store?

Yep. An Amazon Books brick-and-mortar store.

I’d heard a bit about this experiment. In a strange twist of fate, the University Village shopping center in Seattle got one of these, the first one, right after the Barnes and Noble there closed. I haven’t been back to Seattle in almost twenty years now, but back when I was single, broke, and had no TV, I went to this B&N pretty much every week. It was a massive two-story thing, with a big cafe, a full record store, lots of fiction, open late, the whole nine yards. That outdoor mall was doing well, but B&N had lease troubles in 2011, so it went. (Oddly enough, Veggie Grill took over part of their space. Or maybe it’s the next building – the area has been so overdeveloped, I can’t recognize it anymore.)

I had to go inside. And… it was weird. It is a real book store – paperbacks, hardcovers, a magazine stand. There’s a Peet’s coffee bar, and a ton of space dedicated to the Amazon electronics ecosystem: Kindles and Fires and Alexas and whatnot. There was an Amazon Basics section, in case you needed a cheap HDMI cable or battery. And… books. Actual books. Like, the smell of brand new books, something I barely see anymore, especially since most of Barnes and Noble these days is filled with calendars and Lego and dusty Nook displays.

Not only was this a time machine to a different place when book stores were a big thing, but it was a specific time machine, because this place looked like a bizarro Borders. There are differences – Amazon has polished concrete floors, and a slightly darker look, while Borders had the light gray carpet and more light wooden shelving. But I’d imagine if Borders was alive now, their stores would have moved from the early 00s look to this new style.

What really threw me is that the signage is really similar. Maybe it’s mandala effect, but Borders had these black signs hung from the ceiling, with their distinctive sans font laying out the book sections, music, etc. Amazon has similar dark signs with white letters, in their familiar serif font. It’s strange, because the font and design is burned into my head from using the Amazon site for years, but it’s on the signs in a physical store. It’s like waking up in an alternate dimension where the Nazis had won the war, walking into a McDonald’s and seeing the familiar menu in all German.

The store isn’t big – maybe 5,000 square feet of retail space. It didn’t have tons of couches and chairs like a late-90s lifestyle book store. But something about the layout, the look of so many books on shelves, and just the smell of fresh paper, made it seem inviting. The staff was overly helpful and nice, and they had some discount system for Prime members, although I’m not sure how it worked. Granted, this is like a flagship store in a very upscale mall; by the time it filtered down to where they had an Amazon store in Kalamazoo or something, it may be a whole other experience. But it was interesting.

It is a can of worms, though. On one side, there’s the strong fear that Amazon is Walmart-izing the current landscape, dropping in stores to kill off the last of the brick-and-mortar. (Side note: it is Walmart now, officially; they finally killed off the hyphenated spelling of the parent company. Copy-editors rejoice.) On the other hand, it seems like Amazon has grasped onto the fact that book buying has a tactile or community experience that people miss. I don’t go to Walnut Creek often enough to shop at the store regularly, and I wouldn’t have minded if it was twice as big with a bit more elbow room. But I could definitely see popping into one to pick up a charging cable on the cheap, and maybe a top ten book.

The Borders thing really gets me, though. I was just thinking about this because Anita Dalton’s book TL;DR closes with a long thing about the death of Borders. (Buyer beware: it also contains a review of Sleep Has No Master.) Like her, I have many specific memories of Borders. I had a friend who worked at one in New York, and we used to go and get steep discounts on armfuls of books. They had a good location in the WTC, which of course is now gone. Another friend who was a manager at a location in Indiana got my first book into their store, probably one of the few times you could buy my stuff in a brick-and-mortar. And I spent a lot of 2007 going to the one in Stapleton in Denver, looking at computer books, baseball books. The last book I bought at Borders, at the one here in Emeryville, is the Philip K. Dick collection of five novels from the 60s and 70s, which is a mindfuck on its own.

But yeah, it is strange for me to think of Borders being gone. And then more strange to walk into this alternate reality Borders, run by the company that is at least partly responsible for their downfall (among many other things, of course…) and see actual books for sale again. Just bizarre.

 

Categories
general reviews

Latest reading

I’ve given up on Goodreads, and I haven’t been tracking my reading as of late, and maybe I should be doing that. Here’s a few things I’ve finished recently, in no particular order.

Tim O’Brien – July, July

Probably twenty years ago, I had to read The Things They Carried for an undergrad writing class, and it made me dig into the rest of his catalog. For some reason, I dropped the thread on his writing, and then he popped up in the Ken Burns Vietnam thing on PBS, so I looked him up again. This one is about a 30-year college reunion of a 1969 class of a small university outside of Chicago, and it’s an interesting but slightly problematic character study. It follows a slightly too large cast of characters, showing where their adult lives started and how they got to where they were in 2000. That part can be one-dimensional, and it’s hard to keep track of the various marriages, divorces, lost loves, cancers, heart conditions, careers, and failed careers. There are glances of things that have a lot of depth, like a Vietnam vet who was injured in the war, or another guy who ran from the draft in Winnipeg. It was a fun read and an interesting concept, a good way of just writing about the then-and-now of people. But a lot of reviewers didn’t agree, and it’s not like his other work, so there’s that.

Denis Johnson – Tree of Smoke

Also related to the Ken Burns thing. I read this when it first came out ten years ago, and ever since Johnson passed earlier this year, I’ve been meaning to get back to it. I think the book held up, and was possibly better the second time. It essentially follows the story of Skip Sands, a CIA operative whose uncle Francis is a retired Colonel and who also works for the agency. I think the first time I read it, I’d recently read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and my brain was still stuck in that version of Vietnam; this time, my mind was within the footage from the Burns documentary, which worked better. It’s amazing to me how the guy who delivered such compact and highly-efficient writing in the 150-some pages of Jesus’ Son was able to belt out 600+ pages with the same line-by-line potency, but of heavily historical and accurate information. It’s like a flyweight boxer who clocks in at 112 pounds gaining a hundred pounds of pure muscle to qualify as a heavyweight, but still fights with the same game as he did half a body ago, but he’s doing that times four. Amazing stuff.

Nick Bonner – Made in North Korea: Graphics From Everyday Life in the DPRK

A full-size flexicover book with color reproductions of the graphic design from within North Korea, as collected by a Beijing travel expert who visits regularly. It’s a strange collection, with all the “store brand” products put out by the government, designed by pen-and-ink pre-digital artists, often cribbing old Soviet designs, and of course working in various patriotic angles and images of Dear Leader. Some of the anti-American comics are a hoot. Plenty of small essays describing Bonner’s travels are nice, but the artwork is the real treat here.

Skylab Reference, Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) Press Kit and Flight Plan

This is the kind of crap I read when I’m sick or otherwise can’t pay attention. I fell down a space station k-hole right around the time I came down with a cold, so I got lost in this for a few nights. (The reason for the k-hole: astronaut Paul Weitz from Skylab 2 passed away a few weeks ago.) It’s a three-ring binder with copies of the press kit for the original launch of the Skylab station, with a bonus press kit from the Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous mission. Lots of dry government tech writer copy on space toilets and food stowage and time schedules and communication frequencies. Plenty of old pre-computer illustrations of what storage lockers and tools are mounted to what bulkheads, although some of the drawings didn’t reproduce that well. Still, fun stuff.

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general

Jesus’ Son

Denis Johnson died on Wednesday. The other night, I picked up a copy of Jesus’ Son and plowed through it before bed. I imagine a lot of other writers did the same this week. Some vague thoughts:

  • I have a tiny pocket-sized version of the book I bought at City Lights a year or two ago. It’s like a little Gideon bible, which works well for this book. I have this one oddball shelf next to my bed that’s too short for anything but pocket books, and so it’s always sitting in there and I’ll always pick it up and read a page or two when I’m bored of everything else.
  • I have another paperback of the book I bought in 2006. I’d never read it before, and John Sheppard urged me to, so I bought a copy and took it with me on a hot summer trip to Milwaukee, the first trip I took back there with my wife. Now, the eleven stories are twisted in my head with early memories of going to Wisconsin.
  • The eleven stories are about a guy only referred to by his nickname, Fuckhead. He is the main character of the book, but he seems like the guy that would be dumb sidekick in a group of friends, the one who is always made fun of and exploited by the group, but who still tags along and takes the abuse for whatever reason. And you’d normally never see his inner story in a piece of fiction about the others in the group, the ones who would call him Fuckhead, but in this book, you do see how he’s battling his inner demons and how he’s abused himself as the world abuses him. And that’s always been a strong reverberation for me, not only because Johnson writes about the forgotten character like this, but because I am always the Fuckhead of any group.
  • Johnson was a poet before he tackled prose, and it shows. This book is an almost perfect example of minimalism, in the efficiency of his writing. The 160-some pages of the volume seem short, but so much is packed within, so much emotion and depth.
  • The one criticism I have of the book is that it’s so commonly aped by a school of writing, and nobody can get to this level of craftsmanship. It looks like it would be deceptively easy to brain-dump stories of addiction, abortion, vagrancy, and failure in a similar fashion. But Johnson’s work isn’t about any of that, as much as it is about humanity that happens to have those things happening.
  • There are so many short bits in here that are stuck in my head, that pop up randomly. The guy in the bar who said he was Polish but he was really from Cleveland. The one-eyed guy who came to the ER with a knife stuck in the other eye. Stripping wiring from a vacant house, and the crowbar pried loose the drywall “with a noise like old men coughing.”
  • There are bits that also remind me of things in my past, and the two get twisted together. I remember driving home late at night from a party in South Bend, and being the first to arrive at a car crash on highway 33. A guy had been asleep in the back seat, no shirt on, the middle of winter, and woke up on the side of the road. I gave him my leather jacket until the ambulance showed up to cut out the driver, listened to him ramble about how he didn’t know what happened. When I read the first story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” it reminds me of that strange episode, where the feelings from one and the facts to the other meld together.
  • There’s also a run in the second half of the book that takes place in Seattle, in the dive bars of 1st Ave. He talks about crashing at the library, the long street going from  Pill Hill and the hospitals, down the hill to the old joints in Pioneer Square. This is where I used to live, in First Hill, and all of his landmarks line up with my old memories.
  • The connections between the eleven stories is random, dreamlike. No time is wasted interconnecting the prose in a linear fashion. The reader is left to reassemble the scenes into a narrative, and it gives it a fluidity most story collections would not have.
  • I can sit down and read the 160 pages of Jesus’ Son in an evening before bed, but it will continue to haunt me for a week or two. I think that’s what makes it so perfect.

Lots of stuff about Denis Johnson on the web this weekend. Probably my favorite quote I ran across is how he would never read his reviews. He said, “A bad review is like one of those worms in the Amazon that swims up your penis. If you read it, you can’t get it out, somehow.” I need to keep that in mind.

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general

Death of The NecroKonicon

I made the decision to retire the print and ebook versions of my book The NecroKonicon, also known to many as “the glossary.” It was a bittersweet decision, but it’s not something I want available anymore. I unpublished the online version of the glossary about ten years ago, which was a tough decision back then. The book seems a bit redundant at this point.

I had a lot of fun creating the glossary when I started it about fifteen years ago. I became obsessed with it when I started it, constantly thinking of new articles to add, new links to make. I dug through old photos, researched old names and places, and every time I got a topic just about done, I’d think of five others to write. Once it went online, I started getting a lot of feedback, too. People searching on old names or places would stumble across my articles. This was right as Wikipedia was starting, and way before Facebook, so sometimes my pages were the first or only hit on google.

The problem with the glossary was that I wanted to write about my memories, and I got a lot of input that my entries were “wrong” and people would endlessly mansplain what really should have been there. I remember getting in a huge, stupid argument in the comments section with some #BlueLivesMatter-type idiot about my entry about the IU Police Department, and no matter how many corrections or additions I made, he demanded that I rewrite it or take it down.

And some of it was legitimate – I took a lot of swipes in some of the inside jokes, and there were entries about ex-girlfriends and people I was no longer in touch with, and those could be seen as violations or whatever. I think the attitude towards this has changed in the last decade; I think if Henry Miller or Charles Bukowski were writing in 2017, they would be spending most of their time in a courtroom, getting sued by the people in their books.

But, part of the fun of the thing was the personal side of it. I think if I only wrote about old restaurants and stores and food items, it would not have had the same intrigue. Or it would have just been Wikipedia. I keep thinking of putting a “scrubbed” version of it online, installing some wiki software and porting over the old entries, maybe writing a bunch of new ones, but not about people, just about the nostalgia, the places and things. But, that’s a lot of time. And I’d constantly be correcting things, adding more, dealing with complaints, etc.

A lot of me doesn’t want to deal with nostalgia anymore. I waste a lot of time trying to think about things from 1990 or whatever, and I’d rather be creating new stuff, not rehashing old stuff. So that’s a big reason for discontinuing this. And the book didn’t sell anyway.

That said, I wish I could create something that had the same collaborative and dynamic aspect that The NecroKonicon did. It was a glorious waste of time, and brought a lot of people in. I got a lot of emails and comments, and it was a lot of fun working on it (until it wasn’t.) I wish I could find some other project like this, like a podcast or comic or an online site of some sort, and maybe at some point I will.

Until then, I’m supposed to be writing the next book, so I need to figure out what that means exactly.

 

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general

New (Old) Kindle

I bought a new Kindle, but an old Kindle. It’s actually a Kindle DX, the large-screen variety, which is long discontinued, but for some reason, Amazon occasionally has them in stock, through “Amazon Warehouse,” whatever that is.

I am not really a fan of ebooks. I gave it an honest go back in 2010 or so, bought a lot of my favorite published authors at crazy markup prices, like buying Vonnegut classics at ten bucks a pop. But I found reading fiction to be difficult on a Kindle. Because everything is the same font, and the device always has the same feel, the same heft in your hand, it removes the experience of reading the book, and I typically retain nothing I read on a Kindle. I went back to paper, and I’m fine with that, mostly. There are more titles available, it’s often cheaper in the long run, and there’s something about going to a physical book store that I miss when I’m simply e-hoarding books online.

But, there’s a big problem with space, and allergies. I’m finding that old books, ones infested with dust and mites, make me incredibly sick. I simply cannot buy a fifty-year-old paperback from a used book store, because the moment I open the browning pages, I have a horrible allergy attack. Yes, I take the medicine and I get the shots, but I’ve pretty much exhausted the medical possibilities. I just can’t read old books. And now, I’m finding my “new” books are all old. I pulled a Kerouac book of letters the other day, just for a quick skim, and it made me sick. And I “just” bought that book, but when I checked the receipt stashed inside, and it’s twenty years old. So I don’t know what to do about that.

It’s nice to not have the clutter involved with collections. I was religious about collecting CDs and DVDs, and they took up a good amount of my apartment when I was single. After I got married, and after the technology of MP3s and streaming video took off, I ripped everything, and junked or stored away all optical media. I don’t really miss it, and I’m glad I have the space. But books are more difficult for me.

I have issues with current e-readers, too. I love e-ink displays. The first few iterations of Kindle had less refined screens, a lower PPI count, the weird black-flashing issue with a slow refresh speed, and some slight ghosting of old images. There are new ones with higher PPI, better resolution, and backlighting. But they’re all the smaller screens. As my eyes go, I really want a big screen. Ideally, I would want an 8.5×11 screen. This also helps with PDFs, which you really want to not get downscaled or zoomed weird.

But, the big-screen e-ink readers just don’t exist. Sony has one in Japan, that’s insanely expensive, like $800 or something. And there are one or two cheapie made-in-China ones that are half-broke, hard to buy, and still pretty pricy. Every year, there are CES rumors of a big-screen reader, but these are always vaporware, and — huge pet peeve of mine — put out the idea that there are big-screen readers. But what you see at CES is never what you get, and they simply aren’t out there.

I don’t think the masses want a paperwhite e-ink display. They want a tablet, something like an iPad that can play games, show a video, and do things best left to a color screen that eats batteries. I have an iPad, and they’re great, but I can’t read on it. It causes too much eyestrain, and I’m also convinced that heavy use of a screen right before bed causes bad sleep hygiene. Almost all of my reading takes place in the hour or two before sleep, so I can’t deal with an iPad. That’s where paper has been great, and where a big e-ink display could be helpful.

So I hunted down the Kindle DX, and I found this one on Amazon. It was only $140, which was a steal, compared to the original $400-ish list price five years ago. This is the Kindle DX Graphite, which has the 3G connection, no WiFi, and the second-gen DX display, which is “50% improved.” It has roughly the same lineage as the third-gen Kindle Keyboard, but less RAM inside. No backlighting, no apps, no touchscreen.

Although the Amazon page made it sound like this was a used model or maybe a refurb, this was a new-in-sealed-box model, with plastic on it and everything. The only snags I found was that it did not come with an AC adaptor, just the USB cable. (Not a problem, I have 784 110V-to-USB adapters around here.) But it also would not register to the Whispernet network, and the wireless appeared dead. I gave them a call, they asked me for the serial number and a few other things (IMEI, something else) and then after a reboot, it connected wirelessly and all my stuff was ready to go.

My main use for this, at least initially, is to read PDFs. I have a giant archive of UFO docs and conspiracy theory stuff, FOIA requests and declassified government reports, and it will be nice to plop all those onto this thing. The screen is 5.5×8, so almost the size of a paperback book. It’s much easier to read than the original one I have. So I will give it another go.

It’s oddly nostalgic for me to look back at the documents that were waiting for me on the Kindle. I got my original Kindle in 2009, and toward the end of my Samsung tenure, spent a lot of my lunch time reading science fiction books on it. Also, when I started my allergy shot regimen in 2010, I would bring the Kindle and get a lot of reading done there. I had horrible writer’s block then, didn’t know what would be next for my writing, so I was reading a lot of Philip K. Dick books for inspiration, and also a lot of schlocky how-to-write books, which were useless. The Kindle font, and the general layout of the thing, the dark grey letters and the LCD-like background color, remind me so much of reading those books. But I can’t really remember much about them. So, we’ll see how this works out.

 

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general

Blast from the past: Morgenstern’s

Here is a receipt I found recently:

Morgenstern’s was an interesting book store in Bloomington that came and went in the 90s, but was pretty central to my experience at IU.  I don’t remember exactly when they opened, but it must have been around 1991 or so.  There were no big box book stores then, aside from the Walden’s in the mall.  The town had no shortage of used book stores filled with old books dumped by students in need of ramen or beer money, and I spent many hours digging through them for anything interesting, but Morgenstern’s was where I went to score the latest new stuff.

I never read or collected that many books prior to becoming a writer, but I still went to Morgenstern’s to look at computer books.  They were the only place in town other than the IU bookstore with a solid collection of all of the latest O’Reilly stuff, so that’s where I went to ogle all of the C++ and Perl books.  They also had a full newsstand with a lot of obscure zines, so when the zine bubble was happening in the early 90s, that was the place to grab Factsheet 5 and all of the other rarities.

Once I did start writing, all of my obsessions came out of this place.  Between 1993 and 1995, I bought pretty much every Orwell book; every major Henry Miller title; almost all of the Vonnegut books in one quick swoop; and I bought my first Bukowski there.  I got going on Douglas Coupland and Henry Rollins, too.  They had a punch card system, where you got I think a punch for every ten bucks, and if you got ten or twelve punches, you got a free book, so any time I had spare cash, I’d walk out there and try to do as much damage as possible to those little pink cards and earn some freebies.

Morgenstern’s was in this strip mall just east of the main College Mall, a place that also held a laundromat, a Service Merchandise, and a couple of other stores.  There was a cheap Chinese place there (Grasshoppers, maybe?) and many times, I’d buy a couple of magazines, and then get some fake Sweet and Sour chicken and sit down to read.  They also had a Long John Silver’s, which served a similar purpose.  Morgenstern’s had its own big comfy leather chairs and coffee bar, so you could also crash out there and page through books, which was somewhat of a novelty at the time.

I vaguely remember this 1995 trip to the store, although I vividly remember the weekend.  My friend Larry Falli had graduated, skipped town, and left me his apartment for the rest of the month, as a place to write or crash or whatever.  I bought those two books on Friday night, and stayed up all night reading Shampoo Planet by Douglas Coupland, and liked it enough that I wanted to go get a copy of Generation X.  I went to bed right before daylight, woke up at lunch, and jumped in my car to go back to the mall and grab a copy, but a few blocks away, my car inexplicably died.  I had to get it towed to this auto place out by the mall, and it turns out the timing belt had snapped, and they had to keep it a day or so to put a new one on.  So I walked over to Morgenstern’s, got a copy of Generation X, then went to Larry’s unfurnished and vacant apartment, and sat on the floor of the living room with a bag of takeout from somewhere, reading the Coupland book and writing in a notebook.  I then walked the three miles back to my place and got started on the Orwell I’d bought the night before.

A month and change later, I flew out to Seattle, got a job, then flew back, packed up a U-Haul, and left Bloomington.  Not long after that, Borders put in a store right next to Morgenstern’s, and Barnes and Noble built a megastore just across the street.  And not long after that, Morgenstern’s was having their big everything must go sale.  And now the Borders is gone, and I’m sure the B&N does slow business selling lap desks, bookmarks, and the occasional 50 shades book.

I still find these receipts tucked into books, though.  And I’ve got a few titles on the shelves that still have their dot matrix-printed UPC stickers on the back corners.  I even have a punch card with two punches on it, which will never get filled.  It’s a bittersweet end to this old place.

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general

Generation whatever

On Saturday, I went to the big Barnes and Noble at the Third Street promenade in Santa Monica, which I guess is just a Barnes and Noble like the one by my house, but it’s got the weird art deco letters on the outside, and I always go there when I’m at the promenade, which is about as stupid as making a special trip to a specific McDonald’s as part of an OCD ritual, when there are a million other locations putting out the same shit.  I also had a $25 gift card to use.  Anyway, I ended up leaving with a couple of books, one of which was Douglas Coupland’s Generation A, which I proceeded to read over the rest of the short trip this weekend.

The book wasn’t bad, a quick read.  I think every review said it mirrors Generation X, but I found it to be a much different type of book.  Maybe it’s because I haven’t read the former book in forever, but I seem to remember it as more of a series of transgressive vignettes that mostly bitch about how the hyper-accelerated culture of the post-boomer generation is… whatever.  This book seemed to have more of a story behind it, a thriller about five people who get stung by bees after bees are extinct, and how everyone is addicted to this new psych med.  The plot got a little stupid by the end, but it really made me miss Coupland’s writing style.  He’s an observationalist, and can really nail these little asides about life, in the way a comedian can in their material.  I don’t have any huge examples of this, but that’s the point; he dials in these little beats about the things his characters observe, and I always like how he can do that.

I think I got into Coupland’s stuff right around the time I left Bloomington, at the apex of the whole Generation X marketing movement.  It was a weird time, when grunge was alive (or was it dead by then?) and heavy metal was dead and everyone who was into heavy metal told the same stupid joke-slash-observation about how “alternative” wasn’t an “alternative” if it was mainstream.  I used to read Details magazine, I think because I bought a copy with an article by Henry Rollins, and I used to scan their various marketing manifestos of what items you were required to buy or consume if you were Generation X.  I used to think a lot of it was stupid, like that I’d spend $700 on a watch that did the same thing as a $19 casio from the drug store, but they also had some author interviews and book reviews that led me to stuff like David Foster Wallace.

I got into writing in part because of Rollins and his spoken word, but that led me to Henry Miller, and then Bukowski and Kerouac, and all of that made me feel like I needed to find some lifestyle or youth movement or culture, and I knew it wasn’t listening to John Mellencamp and getting blackout drunk on cheap domestics, so I knew it involved leaving Indiana.  So I fell into reading Coupland’s stuff, and I think I read all of his books within a week.  I remember the exact week, because it was right after Larry left Bloomington for Texas.  He left behind an apartment with a month of rent on it, and told me to use it for writing or whatever the hell, and I was trying to pick at my first book, along with filling up the spiral notebooks with whatever came to my head.  And right after that, I was driving over to his place on a Saturday morning, and my car died – it threw the timing belt, and I had to tow it to this repair place out by College Mall.  I walked to Morgenstern’s books, bought all three of his books, then walked to Larry’s place and sat on the floor to read.

For a good chunk of my college experience, I walked everywhere.  But then I got this car in 1994, and spent all year driving everywhere, or sometimes driving nowhere, doing lazy loops around the campus while listening to whatever death metal album I was into that week.  Not having the car made me feel like I was regressing, because I had to pound the pavement with the Reeboks, except now I was out of shape, and didn’t have a nice walkman anymore, and hoofed it in silence.  Plus I now lived way the hell west of campus, which meant a long day of walking.  I really absorbed those books, and they made me want to leave Indiana more than ever.  I didn’t know that a month later, I’d be in Seattle, interviewing for a job that I would get, that would relocate me 2400 miles away and into this world not far removed from the fictional places in his novels.

I should probably re-read Generation X now.  I am guessing it has not aged well, but to be fair, neither have I.