This isn’t a new story – it was actually in Atmospheres, which you should get – but it’s new on Medium, and it’s an experiment to see if anyone reads there. So read it, share it, heart it, however that shit works:
I’m always searching for music to listen to while I’m writing, because I can’t think and fall into the right kind of trance to dump my subconscious onto pages when extreme death metal is screaming away in the foreground. Classical music puts me to sleep, and jazz is jazz, so it’s hard to precisely nail it. I do like ambient music, as long as it isn’t too passive, and doesn’t veer off into the Yanni-esque new age shlock. All points south of classic Eno can be good, but that specific sound doesn’t imprint my brand of writing exactly the way I need it, so I’ve been looking for more.
Dark ambient, for better or worse, is closer to what I like. It contains a texture that provides a good underlying current for my work, and blocks out everything around me, yet doesn’t invade my mind in a way that would turn it in the wrong direction. Dark ambient removes from the equation the type of music a hippy-dippy acupuncturist would play in his office, which is good. The main problem with dark ambient is that it’s impossible to find a straight answer as to what it is. Ask ten people what ten bands constitute death metal, and you will get twelve highly contested answers. Dark ambient is the same. It shares distant borders with Krautrock and experimental music, and I don’t know enough about it to give you a defined answer as to who the main players are. (Maybe you should tell me.) I can tell you about a specific band I like, though.
Sleep Research Facility, the working name of Glasgow musician Kevin Doherty, has released five albums of essentially beatless dark ambient music, along different themes. The one thing in common is a dark, textured soundscape, usually without musical elements, or maybe with long, sustained chords. The name of the band relates to the work’s lack of any elements that would disturb sleep. That’s a slight peeve of mine, because it’s difficult for me to listen to dark ambient that contains extreme screeching, loud noise, and distorted shrieking voices. It’s hard to get in a trance state to work when interrupted with those elements. I’m not saying they don’t have artistic merit within a composition, and I can enjoy listening to them for the sake of listening to them, but when looking for functional music, it’s an issue.
Another challenge with creating any ambient music is having a central theme or “gimmick” or some set of tracks for the train to roll down. SRF seems to do this well, in the choice of conceptual framework. The prime example, and a good starting point, is the album Nostromo. This is a nearly 70-minute album that was inspired by the ship from the movie Alien. The album details a walkthrough of the ship from Ridley Scott’s scifi/horror movie, starting in the A-Deck, while the crew is in suspended animation, hurtling through space back to Earth. Scott meticulously detailed the ship, not as a sterile, futuristic vessel, but as a beaten, worn, working man’s craft, like a battle-damaged oil platform in the middle of the ocean. But when the crew is in stasis, prior to the computer waking them, there’s a certain calm, or anticipation in the vessel.
Nostromo starts in the A-Deck of the ship, presenting a deep-bass flow of sound, with slight electrical static and drifting sounds of machinery. It’s not like the harsh industrial sounds of the cyberpunk-influenced electronic genres of the mid-90s (I’m thinking the mechanical sounds of, say, the interstitial tracks of early Fear Factory, or even the earlier sounds of something like Front 242. (and sorry for the horrible reference points. This is very far outside my wheelhouse of musical knowledge, trying to learn here.)) Anyway, the dozen-minute tracks drift deeper into the ship, as the sounds and textures become more refined. The entire album is very dream-like and drifts seamlessly through the ship. The 2007 release contains a bonus track named “Narcissus,” which was the lifeboat escape pod of the Nostromo, which contains similar elements, although it is texturally different. You could imagine Ripley putting herself in stasis and drifting back to earth during the final track.
I listened to Nostromo constantly when I was writing He. I’d sit down to write every day, start the album on repeat, and keep it as a constant soundscape. I do this a lot when writing; for Atmospheres, I listened to the Sleep album Dopesmoker every day for at least a year. It’s not exactly ambient, but it’s an easy album to fall into.
So what album do I use for the next book? More importantly, what is the next book? Still working on that.
Anyway, check out more about SRF at their home page: http://www.resonance-net.com
I recently found myself back at The Big Fun Glossary, which was a point of obsession a dozen years ago. It is the story of a college-aged punk rock slacker and his band of friends living in an old farmhouse in rural Virginia in the mid-90s, told in a wikipedia-type A to Z glossary. As a person who left college in 1995 and knocked around a farm state for my formative years, I took great interest in this, and ended up ripping off the entire idea, using the rough hosted wiki software on his site to start brain-dumping my own entries into a bunch of topics. This became The NecroKonicon.
I worked on The NecroKonicon on and off for about four years, although it was really more like a sudden burst of new writing, a few years of tweaks, and then a push to freeze the topics and push it into a paper book. The book itself didn’t sell at all (or, you could say it sold as well as any of my other books.) But I got a lot of comments and mails about it. And the people who started the Bloomington wiki at Bloomingpedia.org claim my site was one of their inspirations to get their own site going.
At some point, I moved all the topics to this site and made it a bunch of static HTML pages. After the book came out, I eventually pulled the site, partly because I didn’t want to potentially undercut book sales (dumb), but there were other reasons.
Now, I sometimes wonder what I should do with the site. I sometimes think about doing more work on it: updating pages, getting better pictures, adding new topics. Or maybe the “underside” of the site needs to be changed, like moved to some wiki software, or maybe like a blog platform.
There are a few things that make me waver on doing anything with this:
- A project like this is open-ended. Any time the glossary went off my radar, I’d get a (usually angry) email from someone, demanding correction of a topic. People love to do this. Certain people really love to do this, to a fault. It finally got to the point where I said the thing was frozen, and I would still get angered corrections. How did these people ever deal with print books? Did they write angry letters to Webster saying “NO IT’S COLOUR NOT COLOR YOU PIECE OF SHIT.”
- I think the culture of the internet and privacy and googling one’s own name has changed a lot between 2002 and today. Many times, when I added a person’s first and last name to the glossary, I would be the only search result on the internet for their name. Most of the time, these people never noticed. But now, everyone googles for their ex-girlfriend or high school friend, and everyone is on Facebook (or was). And some people get really offended when they find out they’re online. I hated receiving takedown requests from people, partly because I felt bad about hurting or offending them, but also because it usually meant I was “friends” with them in my head, or still remembered them, and they were not friends with me, or wanted no part in the project, or felt violated, or whatever. Also, having a person involved in multiple entries, then having to backtrack and edit them out or change their name to L________ diminished the work somehow.
- The idea of doing a “straight” project like this takes away from the amount of effort I can focus on my “main” writing, and there are only so many hours in the day.
- I feel like I can rehash the past only so much, and need to move on. I can’t be a person thinking “hey, remember 1992?” constantly. I know people who are like this, and it disturbs me on some level. I can’t fully explain it, but being stuck in the past bothers me. I need to be creating, not dredging.
But… it still calls to me. I often think about some way of turning these old entries into some sort of fiction book, or using the framework for making a hypertext book, or something.
The other possibility is something I started doing a long time ago, I think in the first year or two of this blog (then called a “journal,” because the term blog did not exist.) At that time, I’d hard-coded in a glossary of terms, maybe because I had Infinite Jest stuck in my head, or wanted to use hypertext more. I wanted to have the ability to mention “414 Mitchell” and then go to a popup or page that contained a definition and stories about the place I lived in Bloomington for two years. But I coded this by hand, and it was a huge pain in the ass.
I’ve thought about this more, and like the idea of using WordPress shortcodes, like so a term surrounded in brackets becomes a link to a section of the web site with a bunch of pages of terms — or something. I need to think about this more. And it’s obviously something that’s a time-sink, so maybe I shouldn’t.
I have a new book trailer. Please watch it, share it, and love it:
- I hate end-of-year lists. I didn’t even know it was 2014 for half of the year, and I can’t remember what I wrote, read, bought, or otherwise did. I published two books, and worked on two others, but you probably already know that.
- I fell down a brief Jack Kevorkian k-hole the other day, probably because I spent too much time at the airport. I really want a copy of his jazz album. It always fascinates me when someone famous for one thing has a side-passion in something completely different.
- This isn’t a good example, but I always found it interesting how prior to his career in blowing shit up, Ted Kazczynski was a math prodigy, and published several academic papers, mostly about boundary functions.
- Both Kevorkian and Kazczynski went to University of Michigan. (Not at the same time.)
- I went to the same school as Jim Jones, Meg Cabot, and Joe Buck. (Jones was obviously before my time. Cabot lived in my dorm, I think, but I never knew her. I refuse to discuss Joe Buck.)
- I went to Wisconsin for the holiday. I got sick. It did not snow. I’m still sick.
- I guess a new year’s resolution, even though I hate them, is to not get sick anymore. This would probably involve jogging or something, and maybe not eating at Taco Bell four times a week.
- A k-hole I plan to fall down, when I get off the DayQuil/NyQuil roller coaster, is Oulipo, and Raymond Queneau’s movement on constrained writing. He did this thing called A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, which is like a paper version of those random headline generators, but from 1961. I don’t know any French, and I have no idea what I’m talking about, but it’s a good rabbit hole to fall down, maybe.
- I have some fascination with constrained writing only because I wrote a ton of stuff just like Atmospheres, and then after the audio book and having to re-read it a dozen times, got really sick of that kind of writing, and thought I needed to write another book where the prose was much more simple. I don’t know what rules I would follow, other than to make it less manic, and maybe stop drinking Red Bull.
- I was futzing with this app called Hemingway, which calculates the grade level of your writing and points out passive voice and stuff that’s hard to read. Most of the stuff I wrote in Atmospheres is way above the 12th grade level. I think I should just write books of lists at the 3rd grade level.
- Not to be confused with The Hemingwrite, which is a hipster digital typewriter for about $400, and a kickstarter, which means you probably won’t get it until 2027.
- I am about 4 for 17 on kickstarters, and just got in the mail this stupid pet camera I must have ordered in like 2011. It showed up right after we got back from vacation, so it’s sort of useless.
- In 13 minutes, I get to take another dose of DayQuil. I’m pretty happy about that.
- Other vague resolutions that aren’t are the usual: write more, ignore the news, lose weight, hail satan, etc. You?
I’ve been thinking a lot about interactive fiction, trying to find good examples online and learn how to turn existing books into games, or write new hybrid game/books, and it’s made me consider the definition of the two.
I’d previously looked at another tool called Inform, which produces a compiled output that can run on a z-machine. Back in the Infocom days of Zork and other programs, they used the z-machine format for text-based games. Now, you can get a z-machine interpreter for just about any platform (including phones) and can play old games like Zork, or a multitude of other games that have since been authored. (Although playing a game that involves a lot of typing is not that great on a touchscreen phone.) For me, Inform was a bit of a dead end, because hosting a z-machine game on the web isn’t that intuitive (there are applets and whatnot, but it’s a huge pain and a slightly clunky end-user experience) and learning how to develop something in Inform has a massive learning curve.
As I thought about this, there were a bunch of different types of games or fictions possible with these tools. And in trying to differentiate them, I started thinking about them along three (or four) different axes.
First, there’s the content-per-page axis. Think of a conventional book: it’s got chapters, which vary in size, but are usually a few or a few dozen pages long. In a paper book, where you’re deeply immersed, that’s an okay chunking of the content. Contrast that with a game like Zork, and you’ve got maybe a sentence of content at once. You aren’t thrown long passages of paragraph after paragraph; you are presented with maybe a sentence or two between commands. (If you don’t remember, here’s a video.) On a web-based piece of Interactive Fiction, there’s going to be a sweet spot between those two. You want the person to be immersed into what you’re doing, but you don’t want to present them with ten thousand words of scrolling.
Second, there’s the linearity axis. A conventional paper novel is completely linear: chapter 1, chapter 2, and so on. A choose-your-own-adventure book is a typically a tree structure – here is a great example of one. There’s no real outer bound on this axis, except that you can get more and more insane with the number of nodes, choices, choices per node, and endings. And you can loop. Go dig up an old C343 computer science book and read up on depth and breadth for more info. But there’s going to be a sweet spot there, too. The old Bantam Books CyoA books were bound by their published length, about 120-140 some pages. On the web, there’s no such limitation, aside from the reader’s patience.
(Also a note on linearity: just because a book isn’t having you make choices, doesn’t mean it’s not further down the linearity axis. Even the most rudimentary plotted books are sometimes jumping between the main story and a B story. Fiction can start at the end and work backwards, or jump around, even within a linear book. And things like footnotes and endnotes give you the ability to “jump” to the side for a moment to give you some side info. And you’ve got stuff like Nabokov’s Pale Fire or Cortzar’s Hopscotch, which make Zork look almost linear.)
There’s also potentially a fourth axis, which is the presentation level. Books are text, maybe some images. You could add in more styling, graphics, sound, video, and so on. If you want to go whole-hog, consider a printed book versus the presentation in a Grand Theft Auto game.
All of this has me pondering what to do for a book like this. The simplest thing would be to take one of my linear novels, like Summer Rain, and make it web-based; a web page per print page, and maybe add in some pretty pictures. That’s pretty boring, and useless – you could just go download the Kindle version. The next level would be taking something like Rumored and arranging it in a tree-like structure, with wiki links between the nodes. That could be interesting. It also makes me think about going in the opposite direction, writing a book that’s interconnected in a web-based structure, and then flattening it into a linear print book. I kinda-sorta did that with The Necrokonicon, which went from wiki to print. All of the hotlinked words were bolded in print, indicating you could manually page over to that topic.
A project I started messing with was the idea of a game based on a book, something with game logic built into it. I started writing a Twine mashup of Summer Rain and the Necrokonicon. You wake up in a boarding house room in Bloomington in 1992, and then you wander around the sandbox of campus, almost GTA-like, getting dressed and walking to Lindley hall to log into a VAX computer, find people to hang out with, spend your few dollars getting something to eat on Kirkwood. This was a fun project to start, but exhausting. I needed a solid set of stories to tree up within this large matrix of the campus topics, like people you would need to meet or tasks you would need to accomplish, and I ran out of steam on that. I also wasn’t finding the right balance on axis 1, unsure of how much text to put on each page. It was a fun distraction, but within a few days, I barely had my house and the few blocks around it mapped out; I could easily burn a thousand hours trying to world-build the thing, and that wouldn’t even get into the story.
I’ve got to get back to other writing, but I do want to do something with this at some point.
I wrote this new book, The Memory Hunter. It’s an absurdist cyberpunk book, a retro thing, and to make it absurd, I borrowed heavily from every imaginable trope in the cyberpunk genre. (You should go buy it.)
But to be honest, I haven’t read much cyberpunk. I mean, I love Snow Crash, and I’ve read a fair amount of Philip K. Dick’s work, which is sort of “granddaddy-of-cyberpunk” and predated the big 80s/90s movement headed by Gibson and others. What really moved me during the writing of this book was film. I grew up in the 80s and 90s, which was a time rich with high-concept science fiction blockbusters, the pre-CGI era of big-budget films about our inevitable near-future, which of course never happened. But I loved that stuff, the action stars of the day, in a sound stage in Burbank done up to look like the surface of Mars. I’d rent those movies from Blockbuster, and watch the VHS over and over in late-night marathons with my college buddies.
And I dreamed of a cyberpunk future, because I lived in what I thought was the start of it. I used the Internet before there was a web, telnetting into BBSes and FTPing text zines like Phrack, reading all of the tales of hacking and connecting to faraway mainframes. I lusted after X Terminal workstations, and saw the GUI unix computers as the next step. Soon, these graphical displays would become 3D, turn into headsets, and we’d all jack into this total immersion virtual reality. The game Doom came out, and I knew it would happen soon. And then it didn’t. The Web came out, and became commercial and dumb, and here we are, looking at stupid articles about 5 Ways To Lose Weight For The Holidays By Eating Blue Foods.
That’s why I wrote this book, so the dream would not be dead; it would be in an alternate reality. And that reality is based on my memories of these old VHS classics. Here’s my list. I’ll try to keep it as spoiler-free as possible, so when you go buy my book the plot won’t be spoiled.
- Blade Runner – The gold standard of noir-inspired cyberpunk. I honestly didn’t get into this PKD-based classic until much later. When I bought my first not-family-shared VCR right after college, this was one of the first VHS videos I purchased. I’ve read endless books on the making of it (Future Noir is the best one) and you can get wrapped up in the “Deckard is a replicant” thing.In this book, I borrowed a lot of the imagery of this movie, the futuristic yet beaten-up city, the constant rain, the neon lights and Japanese-inspired architecture.
One of the tropes that Blade Runner used that I remember from the 80s was this idea that the Japanese were taking over the world, that they were flooding us with technology and buying up all of our real estate and would eventually run the planet. It’s something prevalent in many 80s movies like Gung Ho, and almost every 80s comedy had a geeky Japanese guy who could barely speak English for humorous effect. (Caddyshack, Revenge of the Nerds, etc.)There’s also a lot of plot borrowed from this movie, but in an indirect way. Most noir movies follow a very similar Chandler-esque three-act plot, and use tropes like the fallen protagonist with a troubled past, the female love interest, the big switcharoo, and so on.Oh, and spinnercars. You’ve gotta love a good hovercar.
- Total Recall – “GET YOUR ASS TO MARS!” Man, I loved this movie when it came out. I didn’t see it in theaters, but a friend had a copy recorded off of HBO, and after watching it once, I rented it and watched it constantly. I popped in the DVD recently and wrote about it, and it didn’t hold up at all. The technology was all wrong, the miniature models looked really bad, and the acting was super-corny. But, I love all of that. I remember every little line that Ahnold said, the way the secondary characters acted. And you’ve got the PKD mojo again, with the script being (loosely) based on a story of his.I borrowed heavily from this movie. The concept of memory implants is there, along with the idea of mining colonies on other planets worked by indentured servants who end up getting screwed up by their mega-corporate overlords. I also stole the common PKD trope of robot-controlled cabs, and the evil Big Boss. I also wanted to use some of the outdated technology in this movie, like video phones, CRT monitors, and dot matrix printers.
- Johnny Mnemonic– This movie is so bad it’s good, even though it flopped so badly, it was the beginning of the end of the cyberpunk genre. There were some capable actors that did poorly, some stunt-casting that didn’t work out (Henry Rollins, Ice T) and a bleak look at 2021 that’s now incredibly dated.The big trope I swiped from this movie was the visual look of The Net, the idea of putting on a headset and swiping your arms in the air to move around blocks of “data” or whatever, or travel down an Information Superhighway of vector graphics and neon grids. I also borrowed the concept of memory couriering, carrying around data in an implant for later retrieval. And my book has IDES, a degenerative disease that slowly rots away implants, something similar to nerve attenuation syndrome in this movie.
- Sneakers – I lovethis movie. It’s probably one of my favorite films of all time, and I remember seeing it at least a half-dozen times in the theater. It’s not a cyberpunk movie, but it’s a good thriller with enough high-tech stuff in it that it really hit hard when I saw it back in 1992.I borrowed a lot of plot-based tropes from this. There’s once again the fallen hero scraping by in a bad job. (“It’s a living” / “Not much of one”) There’s the weirdo expert in the field. The “calling the CIA and tracing the trace” bit, or at least the pacing and tension of that scene, is something I use in act three (and don’t want to spoil – go read the book.) I also used a big switcheroo like they did. And the concept of “who is the enemy, really?” is one I loved to use.
- Honorable mentions – here are a few that either don’t have to do with cyberpunk or that weren’t something I watched back in the day, but that also inspired my plot:
- The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep – I’m not a noir guy. But after reading about Blade Runner, I knew I had to get back to the source, so I read and watched The Big Sleep, and then to figure out what Chandler ripped off, I read and watched The Maltese Falcon. My plot outline is so similar to Sleep, I probably shouldn’t publicly admit it. But almost any noir is. I borrowed a lot of tropes here: detective in a crappy office, fallen from his old job; wise-ass secretary (but in my case, it’s an intelligent AI program); the case that’s too good to be true; the employer that turns on you; the damsel in distress; getting captured and beat up at the end of Act 2; it’s all there. I prefer Chandler’s work because it’s a little more fuzzy around the edges and has some complexity. (And don’t worry, this is the last genre book like this I’m writing, unless someone shows up with a huge check for the sequel.)
- UHF – this Weird Al vehicle is a parody itself, but the evil boss is something I cribbed a bit.
- RoboCop – A lot of people are going to see this one, and it’s a minor influence in the Prometheus story plot, which is totally different from what I’m doing. Its near future is also a little more near than mine. But the overarching OCP and a lot of the little sayings and slogans (“I’d buy that for a dollar!”) got their stink all over my novel.
Anyway, that’s a good starting list. Hope you get a chance to check out the book – I need to go fall down a rabbit hole of old movies.
I am in the midst of production work for my next book, and this is the time I always learn new things about Scrivener. Here are some random bits of info. If this makes no sense to you, don’t worry; I’m mostly documenting this so that a year from now, I’ll google it again and find it here. BTW all of this is in the latest version on the Mac.
Using a Code character style in Kindle output
Need to have a monospace font code style that shows up in your final Kindle output?
- Surround your text with the HTML
<code>tag. Like this
- Select the text, and select Format > Formatting > Preserve Formatting. Your text gets surrounded by a little blue dotted outline.
- When you compile your book, under Compilation Options, select HTML Settings, and under HTML, select Treat “Preserve Formatting” blocks as raw HTML.
Making first paragraphs in a chapter or section not indented
- When compiling, under Compilation Options, select Formatting.
- This gets a little squirrely, because it depends on how you break up your documents/scrivs/folders. For this project, I had a scriv per chapter, and within them, I had blank lines for sections (where you’d normally have * * * or something in a print book.) In that situation, select the Section Type of Level 1+ with just one document (the bottom item).
- Click Options.
- Select Remove first paragraph indents and the relevant option. I used After empty lines and centered text, but yours might be something else.
- You might have to do this for different Section Type levels, depending on your structure.
My About the Author chapter is showing up as Chapter 32 in the Kindle TOC
- Make sure your scriv for the chapter has a properly-cased and human-readable title, like “About the Author” and not “WTF FFUUUCKCK FIX ME”.
- Under Compilation Options, go to Title Adjustments.
- There is a thing labeled Do not add title prefix or suffix to documents:. It has a little gear next to it. It’s not very OSX-ish and super easy to miss. Click the gear.
- Select the documents you want to not name “Chapter x”
- Click outside of this pop-up to close it, like on the dialog underneath it. (It has no close button. I told you it was a junky piece of UI.)
I imported a Scrivener-generated Word doc into Pages and when I try to have different head/foot/page numbers in a section, it freaks the fuck out and I think my computer is possessed by Satan
Scrivener probably put a page break instead of a section break between a couple of chapters, and now the Pages “use previous section” heading/footing setting behaves wrong. Change the page breaks to section breaks.
Also, if you don’t use section breaks between chapters and your chapters start on even pages of your book, stop doing that.
The spell check isn’t catching things
That’s because it sucks. You might want to check your spelling and grammar in another program.
Hope these help someone, or at least help me in six months when I do this again.
I’m writing from the Maui airport, getting ready to board the big silver tube that shoots me across the Pacific and back to the land of wearing full-length pants and bitching about smog and seasonal depression. (And excuse the typos and formatting fuckups here – I’m typing on the extremely buggy WordPress for iOS program, and actually writing this on an iPhone with an external keyboard, while old people in aloha shirts scream at flight attendants about not being able to bring 17 bags as their carry-on luggage.) It’s been a good vacation, albeit with little writing, and I missed a very big anniversary while I was gone.
I consider October 30, 1993 as the day I became a writer. I mean, I learned to put together words into sentences and paragraphs decades earlier, and I wrote short stories and term papers for classes before that, plus I did five issues of a zine of heavy metal record reviews. But that’s the day my life took a major turn and I decided to put pen to paper and start the long crawl of learning the craft and piecing together my first book.
The story is stupid, and I’ve told it before. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy falls into an endless depression about said girl. But after a long run of failed relationships, I turned to brain-dumping my thoughts into spiral notebooks. I lived a few miles from campus and did not have a car, so I’d walk to work, walk to class, and had this patchwork schedule that involved enough time stuck on campus with nothing to do to go completely mad with boredom, but not enough time to hike home and then back. I guess I spent a lot of that time logged into VAXes in the public computer labs, but I found it cathartic to find a remote corner of the student union, sit down with my little notebook, and pour out words. I did not even know what I was writing about, I just felt a compulsion to write.
I started reading then, too. Vonnegut, Orwell, then I fell into a Henry Miller obsession, which led to Bukowski. I didn’t have tons of money, but I always found myself at the used book stores, digging around for paperbacks. I didn’t even have a real book collection at that time – maybe a single three-shelf bookcase with mostly computer books. But I started hoarding novels, and getting lost in the pages late at night, wondering how I’d pull together a novel like Kerouac, if I needed to split from Indiana and hit The Road.
My career in computer science fell apart around the same time. I was a horrible student, and could not deal with the math. A semester later, I dropped out of the program, and went over to general studies, so I could finish my degree by taking as many English classes as I could get into in my last year. I still worked with computers, helping people print their papers or whatever, but it was just a paycheck, another way to pay my rent and blow the rest on books.
It took me a couple of years to really get into the swing of things and apply myself, start my first book, and apply myself to write for hours a day. It didn’t start to fully click until I got to Seattle in 95 and had nothing to do every night except sit at the computer and type. And I guess the first book didn’t cross the transom until 2000. But I still consider 1993 as my start point, when I decided to do this.
I look back and it’s hard to imagine a time when I wasn’t a writer. In the worst of my writer’s block, when the frustration is so high that I seriously contemplate quitting all of this, I try to think back to what I did with my time before I was a writer, and I can’t even remember. I burned a lot of cycles with depression and relationships, and I guess I obsessed over music and computer programming, but there wasn’t any defining force like writing in my life.
I’ve now self-published nine books, and published a bunch of stories, some in anthologies or published elsewhere. I’ve met some great writers, and in the course of doing this, ended up reading hundreds of books, many of which have changed my life. I always feel a certain disappointment in my writing, that the last book wasn’t good enough, that I’m not progressing as fast as my other peers, and that sales are bleak. None of this thought is good, and I wish I could just stop it, but I can’t. I think a certain amount of it is helpful, in that it motivates me to keep writing. Regardless, I think I have found my momentum in the last few years, and I’ve been pretty productive and able to put out a lot of books. They don’t sell, and even worse, everyone assumes I’m making bank because some other guy with an almost exact same name as me is making millions writing detective stories, but that’s something I’m learning to ignore.
I’ve got a book almost done, and I’m just about done outlining the next big thing, which I am hoping I won’t self-publish myself, but will get someone else to do. I have a lot going on, and I’m always tired of looking back and falling into a huge nostalgia trap. But nice even numbers make you stop and think, and so I am.
Almost ready to get on the plane and lock into five hours of internet-free writing. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing. Thanks to everyone who has supported my work so far, and I hope to be doing this until the next big even number and beyond. Mahalo!
So the next book, which is titled Thunderbird, is done and moving through the steps in publishing. The cover is ironed out, the interior is done, and the kindle version is being tested and tweaked. It’s entering the phases of waiting on robots and meatgrinders to finish churning on what I gave them so I can approve the output and push it live, or make changes and wait another 12-296 hours for things to get stuck in a queue. But, all of that’s good, and aside from all of the publicity stuff on the horizon I don’t want to deal with, this lets me shift my mind back to writing, and to the next book.
The next book – that’s always a tough one. Each time I finish the current book, I do a post-mortem and try to figure out what went right and what went wrong, so I can figure out what should be next. I don’t write genre fiction, so it’s not a matter of saying “what crazy adventure or sinister villain is Dirk Johnson, Vampire Gunslinger going to get into next time?” And I’ve given up on the modernist semi-autobiography stuff, so I’m not looking at a specific era of my life to strip-mine for ideas. It’s usually a matter of thinking about form, and what container will be used to pour my ideas into to shape them into the linear thing we call a book. And that’s always hard.
I don’t like traditional story structure. I know you’re supposed to use it, and every self-publishing site talks about how it’s *required* for you to follow some plot arc of rising and falling action and blah blah blah. If I was trying to write the next Wool, I would pay attention to that stuff. But I’m not. And you shouldn’t. If you want to make white bread because being in Kroger is important to you, then by all means, make white bread. But that’s not why I write.
I recently finished reading the JG Ballard Conversations book by the fine folks over at Re/Search, and there was an answer JGB gave during a Q/A for a book tour that really grabbed me. It’s this:
“I’ve always assumed that for the imaginative writer, the exercise of the imagination is a sort of necessary part of the way the central nervous system functions. This separates the imaginative writer from the realistic, naturalistic writer in a very important sense. […] It seems as if the imaginative writer’s nervous system needs to run a continuous series of updates on the perception of reality. And just sort of living isn’t enough — one feels one needs to remake reality in order for it to be meaningful.
This. This. This. This.
I started writing in 1993. I mean, I always wrote, but that’s the point where I got a notebook and a pen and decided I was going to stop trying to play bass guitar and stop trying to write video games and stop trying to… whatever the hell I was trying to do twenty years ago, and really try to dedicate myself to getting the thoughts out of my fucked up head and onto paper. I was chronically depressed, didn’t know who I was or what I was doing, but had this idea that I needed to process what was going on in my mind, and going to group therapy or trying to date the right person or take the right meds was not going to do it. I didn’t know if I was going to write science fiction or romance or journalism or kid’s books; I didn’t think about money or career or the publishing game or becoming famous or rich or any of that. I just knew I needed to write.
And what happened is that I became addicted to writing. I did it every day, at first forcing myself, but then turning to it as a way to process my feelings, and exercise my imagination. I didn’t do it as a form of work or craft, but as a method of therapy, and expression. I did write some of that modernist creative nonfiction stuff about my life, with mixed success, but it wasn’t until I started exploring the fringes of experimentalism, when I started reading guys like Mark Leyner and Raymond Federman, that I found ways to transfer my subconscious onto a page in a way that worked. And when I successfully do that, I think it not only produces a product that’s different than other stuff out there, but it makes me feel more complete as a human being, probably in the same way that building a boat out of raw lumber helps someone find themselves. It’s very much a “journey not the destination” thing, but completing these projects and moving on to the next one helps me benchmark my progress.
On the days I can belt out a solid thousand or two words that works, I feel great. On days when stupid appointments and unplanned emergencies eat up my time and prevent me from getting to the computer, I feel like total shit. I’ve tried taking time off between books, time to go wander the town or just play bass and fuck off with video games, and I can’t do it. I know it’s supposed to be helpful with writer’s block, and I do get crippling writer’s block, especially right after projects, but taking time away like that is like when you are forced to wake up every hour or so, and you never enter REM sleep and give your brain that time to heal or regenerate or process or whatever the hell REM sleep is supposed to do. I feel like something in my subconscious is lethally gone, and I can’t sit still. Even if I have no idea what I am going to write, I have to write. Even if nothing is going on in life except 8 hours of work, 8 hours of sleep, a couple hours of dumb TV, and a few hours of showering, shitting, shaving, and cleaning up cat puke or whatever, I still need to find something to write about.
I don’t write to sell books. I don’t write to further my literary career or hob-nob to a bigger publisher or better bragging rights or a more prestigious magazine to pick up my stories. I hope some of you do check out my writing and maybe it entertains you. But if this was a Twilight Zone episode where I was asleep in a bank vault during a nuclear war and the only one alive, the first thing I’d do (after breaking into a LensCrafters and making 20 backup pairs of glasses) would be to find a pen and a notebook and keep writing. I don’t write to sell. I don’t write to feed a publishing machine. I write because I write.