Archive | October, 2012

Junket life and five stories.

29 Oct

1.

My confidence was shaken after the Project Greenlight fiasco. I retreated from screenwriting and didn’t try again for years. The tremors of this reverberated through my writing for a while. I felt like a failure. It added to the doomed, romantic view I was cultivating. Success would destroy my writing life. I had to keep failing, for as long as I could. Only then could I incubate new ideas and keep growing stronger.[1] Success was for losers. All my heroes had been failures, at least for a while.

I kept going on the movie junkets. I met Kevin Costner[2], Ben Affleck, Kevin Spacey, Liv Tyler, and Viggo Mortenson among others. I wasn’t very good at the job, not at first. I wasn’t aggressive enough, and often got elbowed out of conversations.

Most of the press events were roundtables. The “reporters” would wait for the talent, usually laying recorders on the table and jockeying for the seat next to the actor. Then some asinine conversation would follow. For movie writers, they were a nearly illiterate movie-watching bunch. They normally spoke of trashy reality tv, despite the common ground we all supposedly shared. They complained when the rooms were too small; they complained when the rooms were too big; they complained with the stars were late; they complained when there wasn’t bottled water in the room. They were, on the whole, with a few obvious exceptions, spoiled brats with little to say. They tried to catch actors with insipid questions about such and such movie doing poorly in the domestic market. This was the height of their criticism. Here’s the rest: What are you doing next? What was it like to work with so and so? What attracted you to the character? It was as if the whole thing was by rote. I hated the roundtables, even though the actors, directors and writers were on the whole polite, interesting, and intelligent. It was the reporters who dropped the ball.

Keanu Reeves was taciturn and wry. Ewan McGregor was combative and funny. Tim Burton was dismissive and annoyed. Jack Nicholson likes PM Dawn. Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman were roommates in the early 1970s. Richard Zanuck was great, although he looks scary enough to eat a roomful of recalcitrant reporters. And John Cusack was exactly how you’d expect him to be, somewhere between Lloyd Dobler and Rob from High Fidelity.

The culture—the whole entertainment industry really—wasn’t and isn’t about the movies, about ideas, good writing or even good acting. It was about image and money and the latest thing. The sense that movies were part of a tradition, that they represented a corpus of immense artistic and social importance, that I loved them with a guileless heart—these things meant nothing to this group of cynical people. They were coddled and petty and small-minded and I grew to loathe them.

There were a few outsiders and film nerds who had stumbled into it, like me, and I got along with these people fine. But they were the exceptions.

But I didn’t really fit in, and after two or three junkets, I didn’t want to. I liked going to the movies and staying in fancy hotels; I liked free passage to New York, to L.A., to New Orleans[3].

I stayed in top flight hotels. I drank away my per diem, ordering room service with eight dollar Heinekens. My first hotel was $400 a night. They asked to see a credit card. I only had a debit card and was worried they would charge my account, which had less than fifty bucks in it. I was reluctant to hand it over. “You’re not going to . . . charge anything to that card, are you?” I asked. I looked like some rube, some Deep South hayseed.

I stayed aloof. I didn’t go out with the other writers. I only sometimes chatted with any of them. I was regarded with a slight disdain. I didn’t have expensive clothes and I looked young. I was, I’m sure, grouped in with the college kids who sometimes attended. I didn’t care. I grew to despise the irony, the bottom line nonsense of the other reporters.

I wandered the various cities alone, often in a slight drunken haze. I didn’t write much in hotels (I still don’t), and as much as I love reading on airplanes, I couldn’t read on a junket. Not fiction anyway. Hotel rooms, even nice ones, feel antiseptic and chilly. So I walked, or I watched movies on TV while sipping cans of gas station beer.

I made some headway, as a feature writer and as a reviewer, but my heart wasn’t in it. I could have worked my way up the food chain, but I eventually let it go.

There was no future in fiction or film for me, not that way. I would have to try a different path.

2.

During this time I also was traveling back to Montgomery to help with various editing jobs. I did a lot of copy-editing; one book, which shall remain unnamed, should have me listed as a co-author. I ghost-wrote a few things, too. And I had ongoing pieces in two papers. I was never a good proofreader, and I’m still not, but I was becoming a stronger editor. The writing life was hectic and crowded, but I was making a go of it. I had turned the Titanic around. Or so I thought.

I was still living with a shroud of darkness, but the despondent helpless angry frustrated sad enervated knotted up feelings were dissipating. My weight stabilized. And as I was learning how to live hand to mouth, I was getting adept at stretching my dollars. It was here, for instance, that I started going to the library every day. I stopped going out to eat. I stopped going out to bars, save for nights where pitchers of PBR were five dollars.

But. We moved into a bigger apartment and my finances were stretched once again. Now I had to pony up $500 in rent every month. It was a strain and a mistake and two months in I felt a gnawing uncertainty about my future prospects. The higher rent forced me to look for more little freelance jobs, which in turn distracted me from writing fiction, which was why I was unemployed to begin with. Coleridge’s advice to a young writer was never truer; I should have become a city clerk or taken on a menial job and saved my writing muscles for the night.

I kept writing anyway. I got three stories accepted for publication. The first was called “Infestation,” and was accepted by a new magazine based in Atlanta. An editor there loved it, but before the magazine put out a single issue it folded. The story is a riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only the whole thing seems to be playing out in the deranged (and chronically bored) mind of a suburban man. Here’s the first two lines:

“A black beetle with spindly legs balanced precariously on the lip of an empty wine glass. The curved antennae twitched as the dark bug made its way around the red-stained glass, only to start another revolution.”

It’s a good, but not great, story, and probably my last foray into straight science fiction. It’s (relative) success lies in the point of view. It’s written in the third person but all of the experiences are refracted through the main character, who is profoundly disturbed. Other writers figured this out before me, but I learned from this and took it on to other stories.

The other two stories were essentially flash fiction—I hate that moniker and despise most of the stories carrying this label, but there it is. Both were published in a literary magazine out of Montgomery, started and run by my friend Foster Dickson, called Honeydu. The first was called “Good Neighbor Policy.” It follows a possibly deranged man who has a run in with his neighbor. The second is called “Hypothetical,” a little story about a guy who finds himself in the exact situation a friend had posed to him as a hypothetical the week before. It’s . . . okay, an unsophisticated and bleak look at the human condition.

I made this same mistake with other stories. The plots are too straightforward and the characters too one-dimensional. During this period, all the characters are basically empty-hearted intellectuals capable of grand violence. I was floundering, really, writing just to be writing, but I learned from this, too. Complexity and sophistication have to incubate. I was feeling my way around in the darkness. I was exploring my own psyche and the boundaries of my own tastes. I was developing a style, too, I just didn’t know it yet. I was, in the end, leaving my adolescent writing life behind.

I wrote a short story in the vein of Cornell Woolrich and Robert Bloch, ripped out of the crime genre. I don’t know how it worked out. Here’s the first graf:

“There’s a hole in my mouth,” Jason Elzy said as the doctor looked at his clipboard. “I saw it last night in the mirror. A small, black dot. I tried for a few hours to scrub it off, but I think it may be a hole.”

I titled it “Black Dot Like Stone.” It isn’t terrible, but a major departure for me. Jason ends up embroiled in a crime/revenge caper involving the possible end of the world. Kiss Me Deadly, the film, was a huge influence. I knew the story was weaker and after a cursory rejection put it in the archive and forgot about it.

Meanwhile, my little life in Atlanta was breaking up. Keith went to Sudan on a humanitarian trip. Jonathan was moving on. The 941 Arts Consortium was disbanded. Looking back, it really is a sad thing.

There were silver linings, however. I got a job in Spain. And, best of all, I met my future wife.

During this time, I started two novels and failed to finish them both. They’re both interesting failures; one is comically terrible, the other intriguing but a labyrinthine mess. I’ll get into them next.


[1] I recognize, now, the absurd problems with my beliefs. Bear with me; I was still young.

[2] I have one of the great Kevin Costner stories. Ask me about it some time.

[3] There’s a good story here, too.

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The first scene from my wretched little screenplay: The Doctrine of Past Things.

26 Oct

1.

During my dog days in Atlanta, I got a job at a used bookstore. The store had devoted regulars and a cast of bizarre characters, including a coworker who had turrets and would curse at people when they asked him for help.

It was a great place, right at the corner of Virginia and North Highland, across from the Highland Tap and Catty Corner to and Joe’s. Two blocks one way you’re on Ponce. Four blocks the other and you’re in Decatur.

Most people into books eventually find their way into the literary underbelly, discovering people like Celine, Barry Hannah, Steve Erickson, Angela Carter and the like. The shimmery, unclassifiable weirdos; the misanthropes; the discursives; the synthesizers; the oddballs; the heretics; the non-conformists; the violent, vile, criminally minded artists who seem to write outside the entire tradition of western letters. Cormac McCarthy (before he was famous and halfway respectable) and Roberto Bolano and Paul Bowles and so on.

I also began reading the great crime writers. James Ellroy was a revelation; he’s one of the great prose stylists and a marvelous writer. Ditto for David Goodis, who was, at his best, a kind of Hemingway of crime. James M. Cain—who reportedly had a crush on one of my aunts—Jim Thomson, Kenneth Anderson, Horace McCoy, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I loved it. It’s this literate and fascinating parallel literary culture, running side by side its more respectable mainstream literature. (For people interested in taking a taste, I would recommend The Long Goodbye and Red Harvest and My Dark Places.)

It was a great time for reading. I read Ian McEwan and Angela Carter and Charles Portis—who I think I love more than any other writer—and Shirley Jackson and Michel Houellebecq and George McDonald Fraser and Harry Crews, among others. The bookstore was a paradise. I had to resist spending too much of my money on books. As I said in my last post, money was tight.

I made $235 a week. My expenses were $200 a week. I got paid in cash on Friday evenings. My first order of business was buying a case of beer, usually at the gas station catty corner to the store, for 12 bucks. This left me with 21 dollars to eat and entertain myself with each week. (The freelance work came and went unpredictably. With this money I would go to movies, or out to bars with friends.) I lived off of rice and potatoes and whatever my Dad bought me at Sam’s when he came to visit. (One visit he was incredulous when he looked inside my refrigerator. “We’re going to the store. You have to have cheese!”)

I kept up my own writing, using a dead man’s typewriter[1]. I discarded the manual for an electric. I used my computer, too, and also a bevy of notebooks of various shapes and sizes. I took up the odd habit—I don’t understand it myself—of writing from the right page to the left, and sort of jumping around within the notebook. I still do this. I wrote down words I didn’t know, books I wanted to read, story ideas. Lots and lots of story ideas.

And I continued with the movie reviews. I was getting better. I had a concise style, often cutting. I was always looking for something, some moral viewpoint.

I grew up on movies. My dad is a huge fan. We used to go every weekend and watch movies on the television at home. I took this base of movie knowledge and built on it as I got older. In Atlanta, I got to attend private screenings, often just for me and one or two other movie critics. These were usually at 10:30 in the morning, perfect as my bookstore job kicked off in the late afternoons. I saw some great films, including Talk to Her, The Barbarian Invasions, Chicago, and The Quiet American. Then I would drive home, bang out a draft, cut it in half, and send it along.

At some point, during one of these mid-morning screenings, I decided to write a screenplay. I knew movies; I had some talent with dialogue; I was, I thought, a natural fit for screenwriting.

It was a mistake.

2.

Like the writers a generation before me—like Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon and Colson Whitehead, to name a few—I was raised on horror movies, comic books and pulp paperbacks. I came to literature as an adult.

I’m a low brow/high brow incubator. I thought I could write a screenplay that was literate, compelling, and artful, but also scary as hell. I stole my starting point from Mark Danielewski’s brilliant novel House of Leaves—a family moves into a house and discovers that the house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

I set the screenplay in Atlanta. I had a handful of characters. The main character is named, ahem, Ben. He holes up in his apartment and refuses to leave. He becomes convinced that the apartment is getting bigger on the inside. He’s besieged with visions. He wanders around his ever-growing house, bumping into nightmarish things. His two friends keep checking in on him to help him. They argue. They philosophize. They fight. There’s a flashback that explains why Ben is refusing to leave. The whole thing is shrouded in a sad melancholy, with little bursts of horror. It has some bright spots, but it’s a bleak, pretentious undertaking and terribly flawed.

It began with a real-life encounter. In the bookstore a customer asked me for a book about Hitler. We didn’t have it. He then pressed me on my political beliefs. We began to argue. He was an acolyte of Ayn Rand. I wasn’t. He pressed me on her books. I said I wasn’t going to read them. It was tense and testy and the man’s demeanor was one of a thin veneer of sanity; he seemed one splinter, drop of rain, or one sip of tepid coffee away from a mental breakdown.  Our conversation, verbatim, became the first scene.

I titled the screenplay The Doctrine of Last Things, lifted from a book on Gnosticism I was reading. (I’ve recycled the title a number of times, but it seems to be always doomed.)

3.

I worked on the screenplay for a month, and when I finished, I submitted it to Project Greenlight. I had, as my goal, to break the top thousand screenplays. I thought I was being realistic.

The process went like this. Each screenwriter had to review at least five other screenplays. The more you reviewed, the more you were reviewed. You gave a score on dialogue, story, and character development.

I read eight screenplays and they were all terrible. I tried to rate them generously, and in my comments speak of the good things, ways the weaker aspects could be improved. My screenplay—and I admit it’s not great—was vastly superior to the ones I was reading. I thought, you’ll make it to the top thousand easily, old boy.

Then I received my screenplays responses. Holy God. I was trashed. Not a single reviewer scored mine as high as I scored the worst screenplay I had read. And people were pissed. One reviewer said the dialogue was great but that the story was terrible. One reviewer said the story was great but that the dialogue was terrible. One reviewer said I didn’t use the three-act structure. One reviewer said the characters were horrible. One reviewer actually said he felt I had wasted two hours of his time.

And so on. I was crushed. My taste of the brutality of Hollywood, even refracted through this silly online process and near the opposite coast, was bitter indeed. I didn’t crack the top one thousand. I probably didn’t even make it into the top five thousand.

I felt so downhearted about the utter waste of time I didn’t write another screenplay for years.

4.

I’m less proud of this screenplay than my early novels and stories, but I’ve included it in this series on my writing life anyway. I wanted to change things, re-reading this, but I didn’t.

Here’s a little bit of the first scene:

MAN #1

Do you have any books on Hitler that aren’t in his section?

BEN

Just what you see in the World War II area. The books in some places are three deep, though, so maybe—

MAN #1

I know.

BEN

Is there a specific book you’re looking for? Maybe I know if we have it.

MAN #1

It’s called Hitler’s Pope. I need it for a project I’m working on and used to have it but I loaned it away.

BEN

Sorry, we sold our last copy last week. I don’t know when we’ll get it in again.

(Man #1 nods, then lingers. Starts to turn, then comes back, this time a little closer. He is still eight or nine feet from the counter.)

MAN #1

Tell me. I heard you say earlier that you were a bit of a writer. People of your persuasion tend to lean towards the left. Tend to be more liberal.

BEN

On some things, I guess, but—

MAN #1

Have you ever read Ayn Rand?

BEN

No, but what I know of her, I don’t necessarily agree with.

MAN #1

Well, I think you’d have to read her to say that.

(Man #1 gazes at Ben, perhaps with challenge, or a lack of social skills. But it is unsettling.)

BEN

Well, I’m pretty familiar with her philosophy. My roommate was a big follower of hers, and always talked about her.

MAN #1

What do you know about her philosophy then? What is it?

(Man #1 walks a little closer. Ben can see odd lines in his face, a ruggedness he wouldn’t have suspected. An anger.)

BEN

That every act is a selfish one. And that selfishness is a virtue, basically. And —

MAN #1

You’re wrong.

(Man #1 stares at Ben. Ben looks down, then back.)

BEN

How so?

MAN #1

Ayn Rand basically said that compassion, love for others, etcetera, isn’t likely to result in a new medicine. It can’t create a new invention. Kindness won’t change the world.

BEN

I’m not sure I agree with that.

MAN #1

That’s of no consequence. She saw things as they are. The weaker virtues result in nothing but sweetness and self-indulgence. There is no true benevolence.


[1] Obviously there’s a story here but it’s complex and not very interesting.

First three lines of an (unpublished) short story. And a slight crackup.

25 Oct

At 25, I hit a patch of existential black ice. My quarter life crisis.

My problems began when I left Montgomery. I had lived there for some time, and although I wanted to move to a bigger city, I had friends, I had a job, I knew the backroads, I was ensconced.

I moved to Atlanta to live as a writer. The move shook me up. The rent was too expensive, so each month I had to scramble for freelance work. I wasn’t aggressive and I didn’t shake enough hands, so I was always a little behind. I did some editing, some ghost-writing, and I started reviewing films for a second paper. This was a big step up; they had publications all across the south. The paper began to send me on movie premieres and junkets. I met celebrities. I stayed in four-star hotels. I flew to New York and Los Angeles. I met a number of disagreeable movie writers. On the whole they were a pampered, spoiled, and silly group; half of them didn’t seem to even like movies anymore. (More on these experiences in another entry.)

In some sense these were halcyon days. I had time to write, read, think and watch movies. I was living with my best friend and cousin. I was meeting new people. I was beginning a new life.

But.

I had no health insurance. I broke my foot. It turned purple and swelled to twice the size. A long term relationship ended. I had no money and little purpose. I was in free fall. Anxiety and depression and immense darkness. I didn’t write much, at a time when I had almost endless free time. I lost weight. I drank too much. I had fits of undirected anger. I had trouble focusing. I didn’t sleep well.

I became convinced that strangers were going to attack me. Riding in an elevator with another person was pure terror. I tensed up, projected danger, menace. I peered through other people’s clothing, saw knives and hacksaws and axes and bludgeons and garrotes. (Strangely, no guns.) I imagined gangs of ruffians lying in wait for me in alleys, behind dumpsters. I felt like I was being followed. I was convinced my emails were being monitored. I was certain that I was being watched.

I was disturbed and getting worse. I saw a deep black sludgy ooze behind ordinary objects, like walls, floors, books and furniture. This ooze was the world. The veneer of benign things was a lie. Existence was composed of this malignant tar. Everything else was window dressing. There was no afterlife, no decency, no heroism, nothing but the viscous, vile sludge. My hands felt sticky with it.

There was always something wrong with the sky. Where others saw vermillion sunsets, I saw petrochemicals refracting the dying sun’s last rays. The cobalt sky of daylight, I learned, isn’t blue at all, but black. It’s an optical illusion.

I saw myself differently, too. Beneath the skin there was a smaller, harder man. I appeared friendly but I harbored vicious thoughts. I daydreamed about delivering eulogies to my loved ones’ funerals. I imagined car wrecks, natural disasters, entropy at work in the cosmos. I moved through the same thought patterns over and over, like a maze with no exit.

My cousin was in a similar situation. He responded to my sadness, and I responded to his. Our third roommate, Jonathan, lost his job soon, too, and began working at a restaurant as a waiter. To combat the blues, we formed the 941 Arts Consortium, and began performing plays in our house[1]. We all acted in them. We rotated the directing chores. We shared the writing, although I did most of the writing chores. And we served a themed meal beforehand. We were so into this we installed curtains inside our house, to delineate the stage.

941 Arts offered distraction, but little else.

I was at the end of my tether. I knew I needed help, but I had no money for therapy. And then I heard an advertisement on the radio. I called the number. I set up an appointment. And just like that, I enrolled in a drug study. I became a human lab rat.[2]

I drove to an office park outside the city. I parked, entered a strange office. Two beefy dudes in business attire asked me questions. I answered. They said I had generalized anxiety disorder. They said I was depressed. I said I know. They said I could be a candidate in their study. I said fine. They offered me two months of free therapy once the study was over. I said that I would do it, but that none of it would work.

I underwent a battery of tests. An electrocardiogram. They drew blood. I exited the office feeling worse than I had in my entire life. Ruined. Marred. Soul sickness eroding me from within.

I got onto the elevator and hit the button for the first floor. As I descended, I noticed that the walls were padded. Like in an asylum.

I felt a shudder through my body. I’ve trapped myself, I thought, in some silly story.

I decided to turn my fear into fiction. I wrote a science fiction short story on the experience. I called it “The Sound of Breaking Waves.” It’s about a depressed dude who enters a drug study only to see the nurse inject something into his arm when she’s supposed to be taking blood out. He investigates, while grappling with depression, various issues with his family and life. It’s a good story, it has some vibrant core. As he starts to feel better, he grows more and more suspicious of his new life. I’m proud of it, even though I would write it differently if I started over from scratch now.

Here’s the first three lines:

“Jonathan looked out the window and saw shadows forming grotesque angles under the old sun. Spots on the glass speckled the sky. The dots and smudges looked a little like satellites. He turned back toward the doctor.”


[1] I will return to this in another post.

[2] I’m working on a longer essay about this tentatively titled, “My Life in Six Nervous Breakdowns.” I plan to send it out, but if it’s rejected, or if I lose interest, you’ll see bits of it here.

First line of a failed short story: Sadness in Unending Time.

24 Oct

After Midas, I floundered.

People had responded to my little novella. The head of a book publisher read it and clearly was interested in a longer form. I was writing movie reviews for the free paper in town and meeting more and more writers. I met poets and novelists of some repute. I shook hands with agents and publishers and editors at conferences, galas and banquets. I felt like I was on my way.

But I struggled with finding a basic rhythm. I couldn’t settle in on a writing medium. I didn’t like writing by hand; I was easily distracted when writing on the computer; my typewriter was a manual. I tried all three. I wasn’t comfortable. I kept starting and stopping projects. Nothing grabbed hold. I was hitting my head on my lack of life experience. I was writing about writing—and books and writers and so on, the labyrinth of solipsism that so many writers fall into.

I also tried my hand at short stories. Writers who say short stories are more difficult than novels should be shot. They aren’t. (Maybe George Saunders or Steven Millhauser or alice Munro could make this argument.) But, they are a different form, and one I never quite got a handle on. My early stories were too simplistic, morality tales without any real moral. The best of these was my rewriting of Job.[1]

Because I was also trying to break into comics. It seems a bit silly now, but as I was writing novels and stories I was also trying to learn the craft of writing comics. Comics were my first love, really, and with the explosion of new adult-oriented comics—Sandman, The Invisibles, and so on—I felt the pull. I wrote half a dozen treatments; I met with different artists; I plotted, formatted, and slaved. I wrote query letters to Marvel. I even wrote about two issues’ worth of a comic biography of Dostoevsky. Nothing doing. Then my dad introduced me to an artist who was in his forties. We exchanged emails. He was a devout Christian, but militantly so. He said in one email he had no patience for “weak, mealy-mouthed Christianity.”  He was a very fine artist, though, so I tried my best.

So I rewrote Job, in a modern setting. Despite some problems, the story sort of works. As I envisioned it as a comic, I loosened up the prose a little. I borrowed from Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison and even Alan Moore in some of the devices.

I worked on this story for a long time. I sent the artist the prose version and he promptly cut off all communications with me. People are strange.

Here’s the first line of the story that I—embarrassingly, really, as it’s a bad, faux portentous title—titled Sadness in Unending Time:

“The radio wailed Jim Morrison’s deep voice asking to light his fire as Keith shook his head awake.”

As a side note, up to this point I was still using my friends and family for the characters’ names. Robert and Jeff and Chris and Keith, my closest childhood friends and my cousin—these were the main characters. People who had wounded me often had their names co-opted by the villains. Who says writers aren’t petty?


[1] I’ll get into some of the others in another post.

The first line of my third (and this time published) novel(la): King Midas in Reverse.

23 Oct

My third novella—it probably isn’t even long enough to qualify as such—was actually published. Sort of.

Back in Montgomery, I was in a writers’ group with Foster Dickson, a writer/editor and educator of no small reputation, and out of the group we published four or five chap books, all of them quite fine. Mine was titled King Midas in Reverse. It follows a dude who can animate, at least in his own thoughts, any inanimate objects. The problem is, the objects stay alive, develop personalities, and at some point, rebel. It’s an absurdist story handled with the utmost realism and sincerity. It’s pretty good. Here’s a link to the amazon page.

I wrote this in my Philip K. Dick phase. I discovered him late, and read through most of his oeuvre in my early twenties. This was no small feat; his body of work encompasses some 40 novels and over 200 short stories. He’s a skillful, funny, deeply humane writer who is intelligent, yet disturbed. He has a way of constructing his novels that isn’t readily apparent, but is very effective. (I’ll write a series of essays on him later.) He’s exactly the type of writer who will infect your work if you aren’t careful. He definitely invaded mine. I felt so close to him I began to read the various biographies and discovered that we shared a literary hero. He claimed that literature began for him with Babbitt. The same is true for me.

I was nineteen, taking a modern novels class. We read Conrad’s The Secret Agent, which is stunning, and William Dean Howells who is fine once you adapt to his Victorian cadences; and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw which is quite good; and some other turn of the century novels I’ve since forgotten. And Babbitt. I was fearful of a snore, but it caught fire right away. Babbitt is so neurotic and self-deceiving that, well, you end up rooting for him as he falls on his face time and time again. The result is a work of realism that reads like a thriller. Or a comedy. Or a tragedy. Or all three. It tore off the top of my skull and opened my eyes to the magic of everyday people. I loved it so much that I based the main character in Between Lives loosely on Babbitt.

Many of Dick’s books begin with one basic concept and then allow that idea to blossom into its logical, if absolutely demented, conclusion. I took the same approach here, and blasted this out in a few days. I refined, took it to the writers’ group, and Foster did some editing on it, too, but the core of the manuscript was completed fast and furious. (I took this same approach with my next novel, The Fifteen Deaths of Jeffrey Allen Butler.)

There are probably 90 copies out there, give or take 20. For some reason, this little book resonated with people who read it. Randall told me, wisely, to put it in a drawer and come back to it in a couple of years. Good advice, but I think for young writers it’s better to put stuff out and take the knocks. (I didn’t realize until years later how important it is for a writer to engage with the world.) I never wanted to be the type of writer who labors over two or three novels his entire life and then dies. I wanted to propel myself through fifteen or twenty novels, moving forward with the taste of blood in my mouth, like a shark.

Anyway, here’s the first line:

“The clock began talking to Robert thirty minutes before it was set to alarm.”

First line of second (unpublished) novel: Imperfect Machines.

22 Oct

I rebounded from Between Lives by writing three books in a very short amount of time. I was working as an editor for NewSouth Books in Montgomery, Alabama. My bosses at the time—Randall and Suzanne, who I count as close friends—developed a first line test for manuscripts. In publishing, you’re inundated with so many mediocre manuscripts that you have to have some way to cut through the morass. Our’s was the first line test. You can often tell if a book is going to be terrible or great from the first line. It’s the pretty good to very good novels that are difficult to apply this test to. But, our rule was simple: after one or two lines, do I want to keep reading? If yes, then read on. If no, then reject that sucker.

Around this time I also started reviewing movies for King Kudzu, a Montgomery free paper. It was paying freelance work, and I liked it. I would research all the movies coming out and then give little summaries of each one. I was good at it. I also did some book reviews. It was a great, low-key way to cut my teeth on the writing game.

At NewSouth, I wrote all the time. Jacket copy and catalog copy, letters, memos and so on. I also wrote a children’s biography of Muhammad Ali. Pretty good little book, too. I was progressing. I was evolving. I was growing. I had talent and ambition and drive. I also had overconfidence, impatience and a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes novels work. (It has more to do with life experience than technique, although the craft is obviously important. But without the emotional maturity, the lines often come across as fake and forced.)

I started my second novel in a hotel room in Orlando, Florida. I was reading Bukowski’s Run With the Hunted at the time—easily his best book, all the autobiographical pieces of his entire life’s work put in rough linear order, it’s excellent—and came across a poem near the end called “Bluebird.” The poem begins, “There’s a bluebird in my heart/that wants to get out/but I’m too tough for him.”

I was blown away. I imagined a character who was angry, difficult, distant, frustrated, unhappy. And he was unhappy because, unbeknownst to him, his parents had sold his soul when he was a little boy. I called it Imperfect Machines. Here’s the first line:

“There once was a man with a worm in his heart. The worm was a hole, a missing piece.”

I wrote it in a six-month flurry. Three whole people on the planet have read it. It follows a man whose parents sold his soul when he was a young child. As an adult, he sets out to get it back. It’s a road novel, in a sense, with dark fantasy and plenty of strangeness. (He discovers giant machines beneath Disneyworld that are powered by the disappointment of sad children.) It has some bright spots, but the main character is, again, sort of blank. It got promptly rejected by the one publisher I sent it to. I should have reworked it, but I was already moving past it. It has some bright spots, though, and the beginnings of a style.

Shortly after, I wrote a novella that had a tiny print run and received some minor accolades from, well, everyone who read it.

First line of first (unpublished) novel: Between Lives.

22 Oct

I’m recovering from some pneumonia-esque sickness after being strafed by freezing cold rain in a junior high soccer match. As I learned a long time ago, no good deed goes unpunished.

I decided to mix things up a little bit for ye old blog here, and post the first lines of some of my lesser (they’re almost all unpublished) novels. I couldn’t even find a digital copy of my first novel, begun when I was 19, titled Between Lives. It’s a doozy, with plenty of bad writing, following a wishy washy  main character traveling across the U.S. There’s a fantasy world that he sort of phases in and out of. The trick of it is that all the characters in the fantasy world are fictional characters cherry picked from other novels, and all the characters in the “real” world are writers that I fancied. It’s episodic and sort of crazy. The novel has dream sequences, battle scenes, a pumpkin queen, a mashup of Alice in Wonderland meets Babbitt.

I’ll never go back to it, never rework it, never let another person read it. But I’m proud of it anyway. It holds within it the ambitions and dreams of a decent, if naive, young writer.

I wrote it for six years, and felt certain, when I finished, that a career of novel writing awaited. I was wrong. The big thing I learned, and it took me two more novels to learn it, was that the characters have to act on their reality. They have to try and resist the plot. They have to drive the action. They can’t just be acted upon.

And yet. The hard realities of the world, the way we all sort of sway within a larger historical context that we can’t really see as it’s happening, this has to be in a novel, too. It’s a fine line, and one that I’ve struggled with every step of the way.

The first line goes something like, “After a night of bizarre dreaming, Jim Musselman awoke feeling like he was someone else.”

(I was into Kafka and Sinclair Lewis and Neil Gaiman and Jack Kerouac and Cormac McCarthy at the time. You can see each writer’s influence come to the fore and then recede, like I was trying on so many hats.)

Think of this as a semi-regular feature. I have two yards of manuscripts, letters, short stories and plays written over the course of the last 16 years. More to come as I comb through my own archives.