My Biggest Problem with Books Today

Alright, I’m going to go on a bit of an old man shaking his fist at the world rant, but I can’t help it.  So please bare with me for a minute here.

In the last few years since graduating college, I’ve been able to get back into really reading.  It’s been great.  One of the things that I’ve also got into, is picking books to read, and I have to say, I don’t like the process of that anymore.  Now, if I have an Amazon gift card or something, I’ll go buy some books that I already know I want, but ultimately, I enjoy picking up a book and looking at it before I decide to buy or not.

When I was younger, you’d take a book off of the shelf, and flip it so you were looking at the back cover, and there was the description.  That’s not the case anymore.  Now the back cover is reserved for quotes telling me why Stephen King or J.K. Rowling liked the book.  These quotes used to be reserved for the first couple pages, the idea was that if you liked the description and decided to flip it open, you’d see what authors of similar works thought about it and that might be the final push to buy.  Now, someone else’s opinion is supposed to be the most important factor (unless you judge a book by its cover).

If I like an author, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to enjoy their taste in books.  Honestly, these quotes don’t mean anything to me, and they amount to visual noise.

Now, if a book is a hardcover book, the dust jacket will have a description on the inside sleeve, but on paperbacks there is often nothing.  What have we become as a reading society when the story is secondary?  It’s so frustrating.  I genuinely lament every time I flip the book out of reflex and realize there is no description to be read.

Then, I think “what if I’m wrong?”  I’ve often found books to read by word of mouth, it’s just that those I listen to aren’t prominent authors but most often my aunt.  My aunt, Amy, is a middle-school English teacher, and she has always had good recommendations.  She was the reason I started reading Harry Potter, before the movies came out, when I was 16 and assumed they were too childish for me.  She’s the reason why I picked up Percy Jackson (I’m like 16 or 17 books deep on Rick Riordan, so thanks for that unending addiction Aunt Amy!) But the quotes on the back aren’t “Aunt Amy says ‘this is the magical romp we’ve been waiting for!'” Instead we get “‘An adventure quest with a hip edge.’ -School Library Journal.” (This is an actual quote from the back of Percy Jackson, although this particular book does have a description on the back, but it’s 13 years old.)

So, I guess this is the question I have for all of you: Am I wrong? Do you prefer to know who liked the book, instead of the description?  Is this marketing technique more effective?  Because I’m aware that my opinion is often very far from that of regular people, and so I’m asking for your help navigating this brave new literary world.  Please let me know in the comments below!

 

End of the Year “Reading Round Up”

About a year ago, I was doing videos reviewing books that I was reading for a while, and then I stopped.  I’m still reading, and I’ll definitely give you some recommendations, but I didn’t want to do anymore video reviews.  I keep track of what I read when, and things on Goodreads, which I think is a pretty good site to see what you’re friends are into reading, as well as get recommendations or updates when an author you like has published a new book.

Here are all the books I read in 2017:

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking:

Alright, this is a non-fiction book about science, and it covers a ton, and that alone can be kind of daunting.  What I think can be said about this book, is that arguably the smartest living person, Stephen Hawking, manages to make some of the things he knows accessible to people of average intelligence like myself.  Did I get all of it? No.  Did I learn a lot?  Yes.  And I found it pretty interesting.

The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway:

I had to read The Sun Also Rises in high school, and I remember being bored enough, that I didn’t finish it.  Then fast forward 10 or more years, and I had to read several short stories by Hemingway, which I found to all be very interesting.  So I figured out which book was his shortest, hoping perhaps that he was better in a shorter form.  I was rewarded by finding that this book which is considered a novella and not a full novel, is amazing.  I’ve heard people talk about it as boring, but honestly I think it was paced beautifully and kept me riveted until the very end.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck:

Unfortunately, I waited to long before I read this.  It was a good book, don’t get me wrong, but I had seen so many Of Mice and Men references, and parodies, that I understood largely what was going to happen, and there wasn’t much that was new to me.  Hint: read this book before watching Tropic Thunder (Simple Jack is a parody of this) and there is a Key and Peele sketch about rap battles which gives away the ending.

Side note: I don’t blame any film referencing this book, it’s almost 90 years old, and I hadn’t read it.  It was my fault.

Eloah’s Amulet: Beurie by L.M. Chilcott:

Full disclosure on this, I know the author.  I did a full review on the book’s Amazon page.  It’s Christian fantasy, and I would say that I didn’t relate to a lot of it, but I think that is largely because I wasn’t the target demographic.  I think this book is YA and probably aimed more at females.  Also, I really haven’t read a whole lot of pure fantasy, what I’ve read is considered “Urban Fantasy” which means Earth and real society is interwoven into the fantasy elements.  I could not finish The Hobbit, or Lord of The Rings, or The Chronicles of Narnia, but I was able to find this enjoyable.  So take my word with a grain of salt.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon:

Do you like superheroes? What about WWII history?  This book tells the story of two cousins during the rise of the super hero in comic books, and how it corresponds with WWII.  I don’t think you need to be a fan of either to enjoy it, but if you are, it’s a must read.  This was by far my favorite book I read this past year, and I would put it in my top 5 of all time.

Side note: I looked it up on Goodreads, and one of the reviews gave it one star and it might be the greatest dumb review of all time.  Basically the review is written as a conversation between the author and Ayelet Waldman in which they talk about how original it is to write about the Holocaust and Jewish boys in Brooklyn, and the invention of comic books.  Honestly, it’s the most bizarre review, and it may be some kind of sarcastic art piece of it’s own for all I know.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood:

I just finished this book yesterday, so this is fresh in my mind. The world she has created is very clear to her, and it is amazing when you realize it was published in 1985 how prescient it is, (she talks about a major terrorist attack by Muslim extremists being used as an excuse for the government to take away liberties, as well as people suspecting it was the government and not Muslim extremists in the first place.)

Now, I haven’t seen the Hulu show yet, but I think in many ways, it feels like a blueprint for a TV show, or a film, and not so much its own standalone entity.  What I mean in that is, that there seems to be more emphasis on world building than on story telling.  Which is fine, I feel that way often when I read classic dystopian literature.

 

I Shot Myself in the Foot

I want to tell you a story, about an idea I had about ten years ago.  I wanted to write a novel about myself as a time-traveler, going back in time in a one-way time machine to the 1980’s.  I wrote the first chapter, I think it was something like 20 pages, and quickly realized that I didn’t know where to go with it.  But I’ve had the idea on the back burner (it’s getting crowded on the back burner) for the last ten years.  Then, in October, I thought, “why not write the same story, but as a blog.”  So I started writing it as a blog.

Not only was it going to a really easy way to hold myself accountable, to try to post in some kind of regular interval, but also, I thought it would be fun, since WordPress allows me to backdate my blogs all the way back.  So I wrote a post from October of 2010, and then the next from January of 1980.  It’s a gimmick, but one that I really like, and one that has helped to motivate me to write.

Now it’s been about 2 months since I started writing, and I’m writing a ton, I have 26 posts with about 100 pages of content up, and more idea, and it’s been some of the most rewarding writing.  I’ve been exploring the history of my family, plaid with some of the tropes of time-travel, made my mother cry (not fun, but noteworthy), and like most writing, the more I do, the more I want to do.

The problem is this.  I have enough content, that I’m at the point where I want people to start reading it.  I have enough, that I’m confident it won’t be like “oh that was a cool 500 word post, too bad that’s it” and someone forgets about it.  My hope is to get readers on board, and hopefully make it slightly more interactive, while it’s kind of a novel being written as a blog, it is still most importantly a blog, and therefore I want it to be seen and read.

So, what’s the problem?

Well, in my fun gimmick, I have backdated all my posts, so that the newest (actually the oldest) post showing is seven years old.  It doesn’t show up in feeds, because every time I add a new post, it gets placed where all the WordPress posts from 1980 do (WordPress wasn’t created until 2005, so there is a reasonable likelihood that my blog looks like the oldest on the site.)

I could abandon the gimmick, but personally, I’m still really into it.  I’m just going to have to fight an uphill battle trying to get readers, but that’s really only the secondary purpose of writing it in the first place, and the first is the creative outlet, and this gimmick is part of that outlet.

As I’ve said a couple times before here, as I continue to write more for other sites, and have my writing appear in other places and publications, this blog is going to transition into more of a traditional blog, and so one of the functions of this is going to become the desire to talk about (and shamelessly plug) the other writing that I’m doing.  It won’t be all of it, but my hope is that you’ll stay interested.

Now, if you’re into time-travel, and you’re looking for a good long-read for your smartphone or tablet, check out my new(ish) time travel blog, Without A Tether, which may be able to boast the ‘earliest’ WordPress posts ever posted!

Self Expression Vs. Self Examination

Why do we write? Or create? Or sing? Or any other art or craft?

The most obvious answer is to express ourselves. And I don’t think it’s a wrong answer, I certainly express myself a lot through my writing, or when I was vlogging, or any other creative endeavor that I’ve undertaken.  I can’t deny it’s one reason.

I think for at least the last year, my writing has shifted.  You’ll see some of what I mean in my posts in the last year, but I also mean in my fictional writing.  I think when it comes to my fictional writing, I’m writing more from a place of self examination.

You need to understand something about me.  I know who I am, perhaps for the first time in my life, I know who I am.  But I also know who I want to be, and so in the last year or so, my writing has been a way of me exploring and trying to find a connection from who I am, and who I want to be.

If I’m being honest, I’ve always had a good portion of self-examination in my writing, but I think it’s been more intentional, and hopefully deeper in the last year.

In the book that I self published a lot of it is self-examination.  For most of the short stories, I picked a situation and asked myself “how would you react?” or “how would you like to react?” or “how would you hope you wouldn’t react?” and I picked the most interesting option to me and dove into it.  With stories about nude portrait projects for school, and bank robberies, and orgies.

I’ve written a lot of short stories since, including one about a man having to figure out how to break devastating news to his daughter, which feels perhaps less exciting, but was much deeper character work, and also was a dive into some of my own biggest fears in a much more real way.

Currently, I’m working on a novel, and it’s about a father and son on a road trip, and what it means to be a man, and a father, and a son.  It’s been a very strange process, because I had thought up the idea a few years ago, before becoming a father, and then started outlining while my wife was pregnant, started writing in those early months of fatherhood, continued through being laid off, and becoming a stay at home father, and moving away from my own parents.  There is still a lot to be written but so far throughout the process I’ve been given huge windows into different aspects of the questions I was hoping to raise.

I’ve also been working on a time-travel blog, which explores my own history, from around the time my parents met until the end of my childhood (I’ve been jokingly referring to it as a time-travel autobiography), but through that I’ve started to force myself into the perspective of an outsider looking in on my life.

I understand that the idea of self examination as an art form can be hugely self indulgent.  If I go back and watch my old vlogs, I can see it at its worse.  Thinking that just I was doing something deep, when really I was just aiming a camera at myself while I lived, and I burnt out on it in a few different ways.

So how do we determine what self examination has merit?

Honestly, it’s hard to decide, but what I have determined is self examination that is meaningful, that helps us to determine what is good about ourselves, what needs to be improved about ourselves, and helps us to progress forward.  The problem ‘self examination’ that I was doing by vlogging was that I was documenting my ‘life’ without any real questioning.  I was trying to show off how ‘cool’ my life is, and my life is incredible, but not necessarily ‘cool.’

There is this honesty missing when I was making those videos.  I wasn’t showing my own short-comings, I wasn’t really even acknowledging them, where as in my writing (my fiction writing anyway) I scrutinize myself intensely.  I fight in my writing to not make the character closest to myself be clearly right.  Even when I’m looking at the character and going ‘well, he’s right’ I have to force myself to realize why the others don’t, and that’s not something I ever had to do with the vlog, and so it wasn’t the right format for me.

Some of the best self examining artists, do exist in that format though, and they’re really interesting.  Sure, most vloggers seem unnaturally positive, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t honest in how they depict themselves and their own flaws.  Look at someone like Casey Neistat.  Casey used to vlog every day, and still vlogs regularly, Casey covers a wide-variety of topics and ideas on his YouTube channel.  Casey is at least 50% of the time the topic of his videos, and there is something much deeper in most of them than just aiming a camera at himself.  Casey tells us about how he risked his life climbing mountains, and how he feels about it in retrospect; he tells us about how his wife and him go to counciling; about his medical issues with his knee, and how he’s been hit by cars while on motorcycles.  Through all of these stories, Casey isn’t just repeating something for us that is by rote, and that doesn’t affect him, he archives all of his footage, and when he tells us these stories, he goes through and meticulously finds the footage of them, and pieces it together.  Now don’t get me wrong, there are some of his videos which are much more the typical ‘fluff’ piece with no real introspection going, but Casey is often diving into self examination and exploration.

One of my favorite comedians, someone I’ve talked about on this page a lot lately, is Bo Burnham, who also started out on YouTube.  Bo Burnham’s work is simultaneously inward looking, and looking at a system he sees himself as a symptom of.  Bo’s self examination can be a bit bleak, and perhaps even troubling to watch, but it’s because he self scrutinizes, and is open to a level that I personally don’t know that I ever could be.

As I’ve become more interested in the idea of self examination as a motivation to create, my tastes have started to shift.  I still love George Carlin, who I think was one of the ultimate “self express-ers,” but I’ve also started to value the opposite.  While Carlin himself was rarely personal in his comedy, the ideas and concepts that he often delved into can easily be applied to self examination.  Observational comedy, especially when it is about huge societal norms and taboos, is self examination on something of a macro level, and I think as I re-listen to his comedy, I’ve begun to see that as well.

One of Carlin’s routines, that has often made me think, about the idea of self-examination on a macro level, was in “Gay Lib” a track on his 1974 album, Toledo Window Box.  In the track, he says “Is it normal? Normal, what’s normal? Let’s see if you’re standing in a room, stripped and it’s dark, and you’re hugging a person and loving and rubbing them up and down and suddenly the light goes on, and it’s the same sex, you’ve been trained to go ‘AHHHHH!’  …But it felt ok!”  What I like about this type of analysis, is that essentially, Carlin is telling us something that (at the time) was probably true of a significant majority of people, and it’s something that was created by society as a group, but it extends to individuals.

When I’ve looked at myself, when I’ve tried to break down what I know about myself, and who I am, and who I want to be, it is typical that I find some of these society imposed behaviors and thinking in my own head, as everyone who’s being honest should.  I’ve written before about how I don’t believe there is anything wrong with the word ‘fuck’ but that doesn’t mean that the taboo of hearing a child, or an old person say it doesn’t give me an involuntary response that I don’t have when they use other words.  Hell, I’ve been saying ‘fuck’ for twenty years and yet I’m still shocked and amused a significant portion of the time when I hear someone saying it.  That’s ok, I’m not complaining, but I have to think about it, and reconcile that just because I have an immediate reaction, doesn’t mean that I have to act on it.

I think a lot of art, must come from examining the rift, that most of us seem to have, between who we really are, and who we want to be.  While we may admire people whom we think are confident and steadfast, certainly we must find it more interesting when someone is conflicted, and conflict within one’s self must come from this type of self examination.

Literature, is teeming with examples, and it’s perhaps because we’re able to understand how deep introspection can occur in written word vs in visual art.  Authors seem to constantly be diving into themselves, and while there may be some level of narcissism in that pursuit, it must also be the idea of trying to further understand.  The Old Man and the Sea was written by an aging Ernest Hemingway about an old man retired in Cuba, and one last adventure; Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi not only telling the story of her people throughout a regime change but also herself and her family (although literally in this example); even Slaughterhouse-Five with its aliens and time travel is about a man trying to cope with the atrocities that he saw, atrocities Vonnegut himself saw.  I think these examples probably wouldn’t be categorized as ‘navel gazing,’ which is what many of us think of when we look at introspective art, but perhaps that’s because it’s so good.

So my goal, is to embrace the introspection, but to attempt to be smart about it; to attempt to not let myself fall into the trap of simply self-satisfying, but to pull out of myself the best person and the best writing possible.

This Blog

You probably know if you’ve been reading this long enough, that my goal that I’m actively working towards is being a professional writer (I have been paid to do some ghostwriting and I’m glad to say that’s progress, but it hasn’t been consistent).  I try to update on here, talking about whatever topics I have opinions on.

Lately, I’ve been posting about once a week on here, which is a rate that I’m happy with, but it has definitely reduced in the past few months, and so I want to explain to you all what’s going on.

In July, I got a full-time (non-writing) job and that has taken a fair amount of my time and energy.  My writing output altogether has been reduced by this, but I’m still doing quite a bit.

I have been working on my novel for the last year, and if I’m being honest, I’m currently at a stand still with that, for a few reasons.  Part of the way I work when it comes to fiction, is to write as much as I can, and walk away for a while.

I did the same with a short story that I wrote about 9 months ago, and then after I got some rejections to publishing that, I sent it to a few friends whom I thought would be able to help me edit it.  The feedback was positive, and luckily there were some suggestions, but the suggestions tend to lead me to expanding it.  I have been working on that again for about a month or so, and I’m starting to think it may end up being novella length by the time I’m finished with it.

I’ve also been tinkering with a comic book that I think would work great, but it’s a new format for me to write, and so it’s taking me a long time.  That’s ok, I want it to be right, and not quick.

Lately, you may have noticed that I’ve been contributing some articles over at The World’s Best Blog with Paul Wright.  I’ve had two articles already post over there—the first about adapting source material, and the second about the future of the Star Wars franchise— with a third article posting in the next couple days.  This has been a great writing experience, and one that I think I’m going to continue doing for the foreseeable future.

Lastly, and this one is something that is going to affect this website, I’m starting a new fictional time-travel blog.  It’s going to be a blog telling the narrative of a time-traveler, and I’m really excited about it.  I’ve written the first post, and eventually once I have 5-10 posts, I will be linking to it on this site, and sharing it with those of you who are interested in fiction/time-travel.

I will definitely try to continue posting on here at least once a week, but I want to try to avoid letting myself go back into just writing filler or specifically about the political news of the day, because not only do I not want to alienate anyone, but it wasn’t the intention for this blog at all, and honestly it was exhausting.

If anyone wants to be update about any of these particular projects please let me know, and I can definitely contact you when I have more information.

A Writer’s Dilemma

When I write, I try to just write whatever story, or thought I’m having, and I let it go where it goes, and I try not to confine it based on genre, medium, or anything else.  Also, when I’m editing—at least with fiction— I tend to let it sit for a couple of weeks, or maybe even months, and then look at it with fresh eyes.  At that point, if something stands out as not being clear, I have a better idea of whether or not it’s working (if something is too recent, I may overlook a flaw in logic or sentence structure or whatever other issue I could be running into).

One of the elements in writing, that I try not to pay attention to in writing is length.  On my novel, that I’m working on, I’m certainly conscious of where I’m at length-wise in comparison to where a traditional novel would be, but I do try not to focus too strongly on that.  When I’m not working on my novel however, I’m pretty free with length.  I write until I’ve included everything I wanted to, and told the story that I wanted.

About six months ago, I wrote a short story, and revised it, and submitted it to a couple of magazines, and contests.  It didn’t get accepted into any of them.  This really didn’t bother me, but I didn’t want to abandon the story—I think it’s one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever done, so I can’t let it go too easy.  So, needing a little help, I sent it to a few friends with opinions that I care about, and the reception confirmed that it’s one of my personal bests, but obviously there were slight suggestions.  Every suggestion that I received, made perfect sense.

So what’s the issue?

The piece is nearly 7,000 words, which is already pretty long for publication in most magazines and contests, and the suggestions I received were all to add more.  Specifically, I was told to flesh out a character or two, and to further define one of the relationships.  It’s very good advice for the story, however I think the process of filling it out to my personal satisfaction would nearly double the length of the piece.

Doubling the length makes it virtually unpublishable as a short story, but if it’s under 20,000 words, it’s certainly not novel length, in fact it’s on the very short side of a novella.

So what do I do?

Typically, when I have written something that I’m not sure where to send it, or how to further market it, I put it on here.  But one of the benefits of being published outside of this site is to bring further notice to this site, as well as my writing, and to be honest—and perhaps a bit obnoxious— I want it read as widely as possible.  I love writing this blog, and I like publishing short stories on here, but my highest view count for any post is under 100, and it’s for a post in which I was kind of—unintentionally— shitty to someone I don’t even know, which isn’t the kind of notoriety I want.

There is also the tone of the story.  Honestly, it’s a bit darker, and dirtier than anything I’ve written on here, and so I’m not sure what to do with it.  I definitely think that I’m going to further flesh it out, I’m going to make it as close to perfect as I can, but at that point, I have no idea what to do with it.

If you have any suggestions, know of any places that take 10-20k word count stories, or know anyone who’ll publish a short novella, please let me know.  Is this the type of thing worth writing a query letter to an agent about?  Let me know in the comments.  Thank you.