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.

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Desks, part two

A long time ago, I wrote a post here about my various desks over the years. (It’s at Desks, a viewport into the mind) I was digging around in some scans, and found a few more pictures to babble about. Why? As I said in part one, why not. I have an obsession with the workspaces of other writers, so I’m always taking a snapshot of mine.

Anyway, exhibit one is my desk from 1991-1993, sort of:

This is actually a view of my infamous 414 Mitchell apartment, as it was being torn down on the 4th of July weekend, 1993. So, the computer is gone. It’s hard to see, but to the left is a green card table. That was my computer table from probably when I was a teenager, up until that summer. I used to build model airplanes on it before that, so it was covered in Testor’s paint, in various camo colors. I don’t know what eventually happened to this table; I think it was still at my mom’s house shortly before she sold it.

The whole summer when Summer Rain took place, I had a DOS PC in a generic mid-tower case sitting on that table. Here’s it’s full of books and dishes, although I also see a copy of the Danzig 3 box set with the weird plastic HR Giger cover on there. Also check the genuine IBM PC 83-key keyboard against the wall, which is worth more than a few bucks on eBay these days. (No idea what I did with that – I think it was broken.) And of course, the horrible wood paneling. This apartment was $177 a month in the early 90s, and it shows.

Same year, next exhibit. Here’s the next iteration in 1993:

I worked at Montgomery Ward in the summer of 1993, and wanted to get a “real” computer desk for my next apartment. We sold these Sauder L-shaped desks which I thought were cool as hell at the time. This was before everyone had a PC in their house, so the computer hutch was still a somewhat new phenomenon. And this was before particle-board furniture got value-engineered to hell, so this was a pretty sturdy setup. I think it cost $150, minus my ten-percent employee discount.

This was in my room in my mom’s basement, shortly before returning to college that fall. More nice wood paneling, sporting a Type O Negative poster I got from my zine days. Other things I notice are the twelve-inch paperwhite VGA monitor I had for a few years, my Kenwood stereo and Panasonic speakers that followed me through college, and I see a bottle of Obsession cologne, from back when I actually thought that shit mattered.

This was my first real desk when I started writing later that year. I either sold it or gave it away when I left Bloomington in 1995.

Next up, here’s what Seattle looked like, circa 1998 or so:

The entire time I was in Seattle, I worked on my old kitchen table, which was too small in area and too high off the ground. I’d upgraded to this ViewSonic color monitor, which was far too deep for such a narrow table. (Remember when monitors were more than an inch thick?) Other interesting (or not) things include a self-inking stamp for Air in the Paragraph Line Zine outgoing mail, and I spy a box of Travan backup tapes, when I used to back up my Linux machine to tape for some damn reason. You can also see my emacs setup on the monitor, with eyestrain-relief pink colors. I used the emacs text editor to write everything up until 2011 or so.

Fast-forward a minute (see the older post for other desks in between these) and here’s my work desk in 2001 right before I set it up for the first time:

This was at my office at Bleecker and Broadway. We moved in there in August 2001, and I left in February 2007. I spent a lot of time at this damn desk in the early/mid-00s. The friend who just passed away was two cubes in front of this, so this pic is a little bittersweet. It was also taken a month before 9/11. Ugh.

When I went back to the company in 2010 and visited in December, the desk was vacant, so I got to set up and work there, which was bizarre. That filing cabinet was still there, and was locked. I still had the key. When I opened it, all of my files and printouts from the early 00s were still in there.

And to close, here’s a shot from last year, which is about current:

This is an Anthro cart I bought in 2010 when I started working from home. It’s not bad, although I wish I bought the one twice as wide, and maybe the matching filing cabinet. The only difference between this and 2020 is the Vanatoo speakers I just got. And the bass is usually in a stand. It’s also never this clean. This is both my work and home desk, so I spend far too much time here. It could use a bigger monitor. Maybe I should look into that next.

 

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Works in progress, works not in progress

I don’t usually talk about this stuff, mostly because I don’t want to jinx anything, but also because I absolutely cannot fucking deal with people telling me what I should be writing. I have a lot of half-started projects. Some are underway. Some I never finished because they were ultimately bad ideas. I don’t know what to do with those. Sometimes I think I should just release them all as-is to confuse people. But I guess you have to be a famous dead person to do that.

Anyway, here’s the current inventory of every car up on blocks in my front yard:

  1. Untitled rough sequel to Atmospheres. Currently 91,000 words. Maybe 75-80% to first draft.
  2. Untitled rough sequel to Rumored to Exist. Currently 89,000 words. Maybe 50-60% to first draft.
  3. Untitled short story collection. Currently 52,000 words. Maybe 40% done, could maybe be split out and submitted in pieces.
  4. Flash fiction morgue. ~450 pieces, 287,000 words. Unknown completion percentage.
  5. Short story morgue. ~200 pieces, 100,000 words. Unknown completing percentage.
  6. A morgue file up to 2012, which includes everything cut from Sleep Has No Master and Thunderbird. 120,000 words. Unknown completion percentage.
  7. Three different attempts from 2006-2011 at writing an adventure novel about a cross-country trip after a zombie apocalypse. ~140,000 words. Dead.
  8. The Device – a time-travel adventure novel that spun out of Rumored to Exist in maybe 1998. ~30,000 words. Dead.
  9. A completely meta sequel about Rumored to Exist, where a character reads the book and tries to hunt down everyone in it to find answers or something. Complete outline with notes, but almost no writing, ~3,000 words. (I actually like this idea and might do it after I finish 2.)
  10. Book of short stories about Bloomington during when I was there 1989-1995. 116,000 words. I can’t even look at this shit anymore.
  11. Heavy Metal Hell, fiction novel based on the summer between HS and college in 1989. 65,000 words. Plotted out, 21 of 45 chapters written. See above.
  12. A Raymond Federman-style meta-perfiction book about writing the above book. 18,000 words. A NanoWriMo project that stalled out fast, maybe 20% done. I like the idea, though.
  13. A sequel to Summer Rain that takes place 30 years later. Lots of notes and a few vague outlines, but there are various political reasons I can’t do this.
  14. An essay book about dead malls. I have a few thousand words of notes on this, but I need to stop it with the dead mall shit.
  15. Untitled book about two guys who move to Florida and start a UFO cult that becomes a mainstream new-age movement and is completely corrupted by a corporation. ~70,000 words. Largely dead because too much of the plot is like the TV show People of Earth, which came out five years after I started this.
  16. A collection of Air in the Paragraph Line #1-7. ~45,000 words. I have no real motivation to release this, because it’s all been released and the writing is so dated.
  17. A book of essays expanded from posts here. There’s millions of words on this blog, and have been various attempts to do this. I’m looking at one from 2014 that’s about 85,000 words. I did this with my 1997-1999 blog posts and sold like three copies, so I have little motivation to do this.
  18. Daily automatic writing archive 2009-2014. 440,000 words. Some has been published here or recycled into stories, but maybe 75% of it is just sitting there.

I’m working on 1 and 2. In the first week of December, I’ll panic and do another short placeholder book like Ranch: The Musical. Stay tuned.

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bronchitis, editing, speakers, rumored

At the start of every year, I have the grand idea of writing every day for the next 365 (or in the case of this year 366) days. This year’s excuse is that I brought back acute bronchitis from Wisconsin, and I’ve been fighting that since Christmas. It’s the kind of thing where I can sit down for five seconds and be deep asleep, and even getting ten, twelve, fifteen hours a day doesn’t help. I went to the doc last week, got antibiotics and instead of my beloved Permeth, she gave me some garbage cough pills that didn’t work. I’m mostly okay now.

You probably can’t tell, but I’ve covertly been going back into old entries and cleaning things up, adding tags and fixing broken links and boneheaded spelling mistakes. I’m always surprised by the amount of writing on this site, and I always like when I stumble upon an old entry and read it and have totally forgotten about it or the events that transpired that caused me to write it. I never know what I should be writing here on a daily basis, and that critical thinking, obsession over what is my “brand” causes a horrible self-censorship that stops any writing. But I look back at various eras when I was writing every day about nothing, about killing time or various thoughts and obsessions, and that stuff is always gold to me.

(It opens the obvious questions about “why don’t you write books like that” or “why don’t you turn those posts into articles” or whatever the hell. I did an anthology of early posts from this site, and it sold close to zero copies. And what I do here is exercise, not writing. It’s like telling a person who jogs five miles a day that they should really look into being an NFL running back. No.)

I forgot to write about this, but when I was gone over Thanksgiving, the studio monitors on my desk died. They were an old M-Audio model that had a known issue with the amp, where it was a bit of a perishable item and the capacitors would eventually blow. I got six or seven years out of them, but I’d been looking to buy something else for a while. And that’s a huge wormhole, shopping for audio equipment. I get to the point where I can almost justify buying some expensive tube amp and bespoke speakers, then remember I have no room in this office. But I also don’t want to buy the $20 speakers you usually get for free when you fill out a credit card application at Best Buy.

Anyway, I bought a pair of Vanatoo Transparent Zero speakers. They’re actually slightly smaller than the old M-Audio ones, even though they have a bigger woofer (four versus three inches), and it’s made of aluminum. The case is wood instead of plastic, and has neat magnetic grilles that are easily removed to see the goods. There’s also this passive radiator which is supposed to add better bass response. It has its own DSP, so I can plug it straight into the computer via USB. It has a variety of neat options like a subwoofer output and various limiter and sleep and crossover options I will never figure out. It also has a bluetooth receiver in it, which I will probably never use. Same with the wireless remote. Nice to have them, though. The sound is very transparent and clear and nice at volume. They are near-field monitors, so not great for filling a room, but perfect for sitting at the computer. There’s no goofy “voicing” to them, just straight-up reproduction of what’s on the track. My only complaints are there’s no headphone pass-through jack (but I can just plug into the computer, I guess) and they could probably use a subwoofer. I actually have one sitting in the next room that’s not hooked up to anything, but I have no space in the office for it. Anyway, they are perfect for that price point, and a great solution between the cheapie $20 speakers and blowing a few grand on an audiophile set of bookshelf speakers and amp.

Not much else going on. I took some time off writing during the holidays, which I never do, and it took some effort to get back going. I have two big books that are on the vine and need some serious work to get going in the right direction. One of them is essentially a sequel to Rumored to Exist. It’s currently about 350 pages and totally directionless, with no real through line or “rails” to it. And based on the sales of December’s book, it’s hard to get enthused about packaging up a book that’s about four times as big and trying to get people to read it.

But it’s fun to dabble with it. The big secret is I enjoy the process of writing, the actual meditative action of getting lost for a few hours putting words on the page. I hate everything else, the sequencing, editing, packaging, marketing, production. I’ve been going back and trying to figure out how the original Rumored happened, what kept me going on it. It took almost seven years to write, and it was essentially completely rewritten seven times. I recently went back and skimmed the annotated version (which like only four people have read) and it has a lot about it was written. Always fun to look back at that, but my writing process is completely different now. And you can never reproduce how things like that happened.

Birthday in a week. It lands on a Monday, but we have the day off of work for MLK day. I’m doing another superfloat in the isolation tank. I’d go to Denny’s, but Denny’s is so horrible now. I vaguely thought about leaving town for a three-day, but prices are probably jacked up, and I just want a weekend without anything.

I’m still sitting on my reading list from last year. I rated everything, reviewed nothing, so I’m not sure if it’s worthwhile to share it, but maybe I will later this week.

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My new book Ranch: The Musical is out now

I have a new book out. It is called Ranch: The Musical.

The linkage:

This is a short collection, like Help Me Find My Car Keys And We Can Drive Out! from 2017. It’s more of a long zine in paperback format than a short book. About a hundred pages, a very lo-fi cover, and made to be as cheap as possible. It’s only 99 cents on the Kindle, and the print book is six bucks.

It isn’t about ranch, and it isn’t a musical. The main difference is that the pieces here are generally longer. Help had thirty pieces at the same length, but this has twenty. Also, a lot of Help was reprinted things from other zines and the blog and whatnot, whereas Ranch is all new material.

Anyway, check it out. Shares and Amazon reviews are always appreciated.

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Price reductions on some of my classic books on Kindle

Just a heads up that I’ve reduced the price of a few of my older books on Kindle. My books are already priced cheap — probably too cheap, but it’s a race to the bottom on Kindle pricing, and that’s another discussion.

Does anyone remember when record labels used to do “The Nice Price” on CDs and tapes? Like a CD would cost $15.99, but you’d find a Molly Hatchet “Nice Price” album for like $12.99. They were all reissues, and they almost always never had a proper CD booklet, just the cover art on a single panel of paper and maybe a list of songs on the back.

Anyway, these books are the same as they were, not reissues, no changes. Just a price drop because I feel bad about charging three bucks for a ten-year-old book, and they’ve sort of run their course, but at a buck, they might be a good read for you. (I’ve always thought about re-releasing these with new introductions and bonus stories and new covers and all that jazz. Maybe in ten more years, if self-publishing is still a thing.)

The following books are now only 99 cents on Kindle:

Also, these books have always been 99 cents:

And none of my books are above three bucks on kindle. I wish I could make the paperbacks cheaper, especially since Amazon has torpedoed their algorithm and I never, ever sell paperbacks anymore. I usually set my paperback pricing to the nearest dollar above the production cost, which is ludicrous from a sales perspective, but it makes them as cheap as possible for you.

Do me a favor and repost this if you can. I wouldn’t mind a few new people finding these books, now that they won’t find them on Facebook or Amazon unless I pay a billionaire five dollars to advertise a book I make 35 cents on.

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Book of Dreams – out now!

I have a new book out. It’s available here: https://amzn.to/2ozn9vY

It is called Book of Dreams. It’s a collection of about 125-some dreams, all weird and surreal, all vaguely related. It’s perfect if you have no attention span and you want to flip to some random page. It is pure hell if you’re the kind of person who needs act two to land on page 90 and not a page before or after.

I think this book is slightly less “Konrath” than my last few books. It’s not as manic or as fast-paced. NyQuil and Mariah Carey are not mentioned. It still has the same kind of humor; it just doesn’t lean on the persona as much, if that makes any sense.

And yes, I stole this idea from Jack Kerouac, sort of. Actually, Burroughs had a book called My Education: A Book of Dreams which I liked more. Kerouac’s book was much more free jazz and random, but had a lot of intersection with the characters in his books. WSB’s book had more about his daily life and his slow descent into death. (It came out two years before his passing.) My book isn’t either of those. I think some of these dreams are the backgrounds of stories that later came up in books like Atmospheres. I always end up in dead malls in dreams, so that’s a bit of a broken record here. The living-in-a-post-apocalypse thing is also a common trope, although I guess that’s not fiction anymore.

I really love the cover. It was designed by Casey Babb (www.breakingbabb.com) He also has an etsy store where he is always selling zines, prints, and other weird shit, which I would highly recommend visiting: https://www.etsy.com/shop/breakingbabb

The book is available in print and kindle on the amazon. You can also read the kindle version for free if you are a kindle unlimited member. And if you buy the print book, you get the kindle version for free.

The book is 168 pages, which I felt was a bit light, and I feel bad releasing a 45,000-word book, especially since I haven’t published any books over 50K since 2014. (Vol. 13 was 42K, but it was a collection, and nobody read it.) I wanted to put out a big book first, something 80 or 90 thousand words. But seeing as my most popular book as of late was just shy of 16K words, whatever. The next one will be bigger.

This is my 15th book. It is the 23rd release on Paragraph Line since we started ten years ago. The other big metric is this pushes me above the million-word mark in my published writing. My total published word count is now 1,019,640 words. So there’s that.

Anyway, check it at Amazon. I am also still largely boycotting Goodreads, but if you’re not, it has popped up over there. Tell all your friends. Buy two, they’re small. Etc.

Now, on to the next one.

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Food jail, backups, etc.

I miss being able to write here on a daily basis on everyday topics that have nothing to do with my writing, in a style not like my writing. It’s caused a problem in that people read stuff here and assume my books are like this writing, and either say I should write more like this in my books (no) or make this blog all absurd stuff like my books (no). I do like when I look back at a random entry from 1997 and see what existential crisis I was having over buying CDs or something.

I’ve been in food jail for the last few weeks. I should be at about 170-175, but I’ve been just north of 200 for most of the year, and need to get past that. So I’m on plan, and I’m hesitant to say which plan, because everyone is a fucking expert, and I don’t need yet another goddamn person telling me I need to intermittently fast. I know what I need to do and what I need to eat, but it’s a slow process. If I could lose a pound a week, there are only 20 weeks left in the year, so that’s almost my goal. But it’s been slow. When I did this ten years ago, I would eat about 1500 calories a day, keep at a good ratio of protein/fat/carbs, and eat clean(ish) and I’d always lose 1-2 pounds a week, without fail. Now, not so much. There’s certainly something metabolic there — higher cortisol from stress, lower testosterone from being ten years older. And when I get too much into reading this junk, diving into various pseudo-science blogs about insulin response and carbohydrate conversion and whatever else, my ultimate response is to say fuck it and start eating again. So I’m going to have to stick with what I’m doing, keep exercising, and slowly carve away at it.

Went to the GP last week, partly because it’s just time for my annual, partly because everyone is dead and dying and there’s some paranoia there. Everything’s fine. All the blood numbers are fine. Blood pressure is borderline, but between the day job and all the caffeine, that’s understandable. I need to lose weight, although this doctor doesn’t hassle me about it that much. I have mixed feelings about fat acceptance – if you’re into it, whatever, but I know I felt better and my numbers were better when I weighed less, so it definitely has health consequences for me, and it’s something I need to work on. Anyway, why am I telling the world all of this?

Spent yesterday burning too many cycles dealing with my backup solution. I have used CrashPlan for years, and they decided to get out of the home game, and told everyone to switch to their pro/small business plan, or go screw. I stuck with it, and then found out my machine hasn’t been backing itself up for weeks. I futzed with their program for a minute, and it said it had to re-upload everything, which would take a week or two. Or maybe it didn’t – their new UI is very opaque and tells you nothing. I spent all day poking around with alternatives. They gave me a “deal” to switch to Carbonite, but the “deal” was roughly twice as expensive. I looked at rolling my own solution, using a tool like Duplicacy to back up my stuff to an Amazon S3 bucket, and then using Wasabi, which is a cheap-o S3 substitute. I couldn’t really get that to work, so I gave up and switched to BackBlaze. I like the UI and the performance of BackBlaze, and the price is right. I am not entirely into the recovery method – instead of just being able to browse the archives remotely, you either request a monster ZIP of your entire archive, or pay to have them ship you a drive. I suppose that is okay for a full-machine failure, but doesn’t address when I need to go back and grab a single file from backup. I do also back up locally, on an external drive and to a NAS, so that’s okay for now I guess.

I have a book 99% done that I can’t seem to get out the door. It is completely written, has been through like three or four editing passes, and I’m at the point where I can’t even look at it anymore, let alone write a snappy description and tell the world it is the greatest thing ever. I have someone working on a cover for it right now. Maybe that will make me get off my ass and finish it.

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Bourdain

Usually, these things don’t get to me. But for some reason, this one has.

So Anthony Bourdain is dead. Suicide, hotel room, 61. I feel some need to extrapolate on this, front-loading this with a lede of what he accomplished or why this is so tragic, etc etc. I have no energy for that. You can go to Facebook and see that 50,000 times.

I’m trying to figure out why this bothers me so much, and I think it’s because of when I became connected with his work. I remember exactly when and where I first picked up a copy of Kitchen Confidential. There was a book store called Coliseum Books in Columbus Circle, and I’d go there every Friday after I went to my shrink. (She’s also dead, I found out recently – lymphoma, I think.) I think I read the New Yorker article, so I picked up his book. This was back when I spent hours and hours on the subway, and was single, lived alone, had no cable TV, so I would plow through books, reading a book a day most of the time. But while I read a lot of forgettable work back then, his stuff had a real resonation for me.

My kitchen career was low-level and short-lived. A summer on the Taco Bell drive-through; a couple of months washing dishes at an old-school Italian restaurant; part of a semester doing the same at a dorm, with the very brief and slight promotion of being the dude who stocked the milk and juice bar in the front-of-house. But when Bourdain described the camaraderie, the in-the-trenches slog of working the back half of a restaurant, I immediately related. I’d never aspired to cook or even stay in the business long enough to do anything other than collect a small paycheck, but I’d spent enough Friday nights at war with the dinner rush, completely slammed with a wall of dirty pans and plates, and no way out. I got it, and it pulled me in.

Bourdain had a persona, and I think it grew much more when he became a TV personality, picking fights with other chefs, with vegetarians, with food chains. His work as that persona was good, but it’s easy to forget he was a hell of a writer, and that’s what drilled into my brain. It wasn’t that he was a good brand; he was a guy I knew, someone telling stories and shooting the shit and talking war, a war I briefly fought. There’s something about any writing about a very involved job like that – it’s the reason I probably go back and re-read Bukowski’s Post Office every other year. Bourdain had chops, but he also had the ability to figure out what to write from such a career, and to do it in a different template than all the other stodgy food books up to that point.

I think he’s also a very intertwined part of the early 00s and New York for me. I was not a foodie, and spent far more time at McDonald’s than at any French restaurant. But if I had to make a list of the things that made up the background of my time in New York from 1999 to 2007, he’d be on that short list. I used to walk home down the back alleys of south Manhattan to avoid the tourists and bustle of Broadway, the Broome to Jersey to Mulberry to Prince to Bowery route, the interior of the blocks that were grand and exquisite on the exterior, but I’d be seeing the service entrances and freight elevators. And that’s where I’d see the chefs, always smoking, always preparing for a battle that was about to start when I was heading home from the cubicles. And that always made me think of Bourdain and other chefs, and the underbelly of the city, and those folks who took the long train from Jackson Heights or Hoboken to cut up fish or wash dishes for minimum wage in a city where bankers earned millions of bonuses in the W years.

It’s weird because I feel like I knew Bourdain, although I didn’t. When I stop and think about it, I think, wait, did I know him? Like did I meet him at a signing, or have a friend of a friend that worked with him, or run into him at some point? I didn’t, but it feels like it, because his writing got so in my head. I don’t have a connection to the TV host who jetted to France to eat oysters with someone famous in the food world. I mean, good for him that he got the money and the opportunity, and it’s fun to binge-watch on Netflix, but that’s not what did it for me. He somehow burned into the background of my brain, and that’s why his death bothers me.

There’s also the usual thing I do, where I look at him at 61, and me at 47, and I’ve wasted a lot of time on 401K calculator sites that all tell me I have to keep this optempo going for another twenty years, and I feel like I want to retire in 20 weeks, and who knows when I’ll even get started with this writing thing in earnest. He broke big because he wrote what he knew and he wrote as a person, and I’m so burned out and sick of writing what I write. So I keep thinking, well maybe next week I’ll reinvent myself, and do everything different. But the clock is ticking, and when someone goes, it puts that in perspective.

I’m not going to go into the why of how he did it, or if this is some epidemic, or if prescription drugs played a part, or what 800 number you should call, or any of that shit. You’ve probably seen it a million times already this morning. Just like how I couldn’t think of a snappy paragraph to open this, I don’t have one to close it. Just wanted to get down my thoughts now, because it seems like I never get to do that anymore.

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The Awl

So it looks like The Awl is no more. Another blog bites the dust.

The Awl started in 2009, originally some folks who left The Gawker and decided to do their own thing from their apartment in Brooklyn or whatever. It was a general culture blog, with emphasis on New York City, and a bit more about new media, comedy, and technology or online life, with a wry and sarcastic sense of humor, and less of an emphasis on the usual celebrity stuff that drags down a lifestyle blog.

I don’t remember how I got hooked on it — maybe some cross-posting from Boing-Boing or Wired or something. But I started following it religiously in 2010 or 2011, reading every day, commenting frequently, sometimes deep-drilling on research when I read a story that interested me. And I always kept it on my distant radar that I’d try to write something to publish there, some nonfiction or memoir piece, maybe a smarmy cultural analysis thing, I don’t know.

I think one thing that did come out of that was that in that 2011, 2012 timeframe, I blogged a lot more here, and was probably influenced by The Awl to write more article-like things. That always happens, through osmosis or kleptomania, maybe a mix of both. I was writing a lot in general then, trying to find a way to restart a mostly-dormant writing career that hadn’t released a real book since 2002. I didn’t want to be a journalist, didn’t want to fall into that “new media” category or anything, but it shows in a lot of my writing here that I was influenced heavily by that. (Go read an old post like The Death of Death and tell me I wasn’t reading The Awl when I wrote that.)

Another big takeaway for me as I think back over the last ten years of The Awl is how it fed some need to be a New York expatriate, in a weird way. I left Manhattan four or five years before that, which is six lifetimes in New York time, but I had some distant nostalgia for the city then. Magnify this even further by the fact that I started remotely working for a New York company in 2010, and would occasionally find myself in town again, but would also virtually be in the city every day. Reading stories about the hyper-gentrification and strange politics and book gossip and the struggles of living on The Big Smear partly satisfied that need for me, at least a little.

Like all online properties, The Awl got stupid at one point a few years ago, either flipped ownership or editors or something, and the ensuing reboot just wasn’t as interesting to me. I stuck with it when I could, but it no longer became a daily read. Some of this was just the way blogs changed over time: long reads became one-page reads; articles became listicles; opinion pieces became link-bait topics. Things slowly morphed as ads dominated page layout, comment sections vanished, and it went from being a bunch of cool kids exchanging smarmy jokes to a… well, whatever it became. Not really a blog anymore.

I’ve been in my head a lot lately about what’s going to happen when Facebook dies – that’s another article I’ve been meaning to write for a bit. And it makes me think a lot about the cycle of life of these web properties, like SomethingAwful or Fark or Digg or whatever. I know there are things that I used to use daily and then somehow abandoned, and I always wonder why they lost critical mass with me, and with everybody. When did everyone make a conscious decision to stop using MySpace? Was it because Facebook was so much better, or was it because everyone else stopped using it?

And it makes me think a lot about what the next thing will be. I am trying to make more of a conscious effort to blog here, because I will always have this blog, and can always keep going. But I’m shouting into the darkness here, and there’s no network around this, no way for me to follow others, draw in new readers, find like minds, or whatever. This is a single silo, connected to nothing. That’s fine by me, but it’s not the solution for others. Other people won’t blog. They aren’t idiots like me.

And I don’t know shit about how to make money on this, and I never run ads here or strategize some grand scheme, like picking focused topics and trending keywords and how to flip these posts into a book proposal that will get me a deal, blah blah blah. This also is not a way for me to sell books — my writing here is much different than the writing in my books, and I’m a horrible marketer, so who knows what works. So I can’t pull the “I made a million dollars blogging and you can too!” scheme to get the rest of you creative and interesting folks to entertain me by writing your own blogs.

But yeah — the death of a blog like The Awl makes me think the trend is going in the wrong direction, and that’s frustrating. I feel like I have the lifelong dream of opening an indoor shopping mall in the Midwest, then getting in the car and cruising around the dying remains of the malls of Indiana and Ohio and Pennsylvania. It’s depressing. It makes me wonder what is next.

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