‘Nuff said, and all that shall be said.
I was a weird kid.
I mean, all kids are weird because they’re just trying to figure things out. But I was weird with a capital W because while other kids wanted to be astronauts and football players and – in one case – a NHL superstar, I wanted to grow up to be someone who was dead by the time I was old enough to say “when I grow up I want to be …”
Growing up I wanted to be Rod Serling, and I’m glad that never happened.
Rod was the classic case of the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. He will forever be known as the creator of the Twilight Zone, which to this day remains my all-time favorite TV series. He was the face of the show. He wrote the majority of the episodes. The influence that show had can’t be measured, but you could argue that the fantastical movies and TV we have now are a direct line back to TZ (and that’s not including the latest reboot). Deeper Serling cuts would include his Playhouse 90 work; live-to-air plays like Requiem for a Heavyweight and Patterns. Of course there’s also Night Gallery and the original Planet of the Apes, but even Rod would admit his connections to both was tangential compared to the finished project (though the infamous Statue of Liberty ending of Apes was Serling’s idea).
My favorite episode of The Twilight Zone is called “Walking Distance”. It tells the story of Martin Sloan, a 36-year-old ad man tired of his life, who finds himself transported to the hometown of his boyhood. There he not only basks in the remembered pleasures of carousel rides and chocolate sodas with three scoops, but also encounters himself as a child (played notably by Ron Howard) and his long-dead parents, who understandably question his sanity. Martin thinks he can live out his life again in that safe, confined, cloistered world, but as this is The Twilight Zone, it’s not going to be that easy. I won’t spoil Walking Distance if you haven’t seen it, but the truth revealed to Martin and to us, is that the past can’t be revisited, that the dead are truly gone, and the only way through life is by going forward, into the uncertain future, and hope that the lessons of the past have given you enough strength to weather what lies ahead.
The fact Serling wrote Walking Distance at the height of his career speaks a great deal to how he felt about his fame and success. It was truly double-edged. It gave him everything he ever wanted, except happiness.
As a young writer in my 20s, Serling was my benchmark. I wanted to write great works and create lasting TV. I lived, breathed, and ate writing. I lived in a succession of shitty apartments, scratching out a living 9-5 then packing in an additional 3-4 hours of writing every day. And despite the considerable odds against everyone who takes up the pen and tries to make a living with it, I actually did it. I became a working writer.
But somewhere along the way I got lost. The words, while flowing fairly regularly, didn’t instill the same joy they used to. Looking back at the preceding decade of work I see a couple things I’m still proud of (both begin with the letter “M” by the way) and a whole lot more that, frankly, I am not. Not so coincidentally the “not-so-proud” are the things you watch rather than read. Those are things that were produced, that I was paid for, that I receive royalties for. I’m proud of the work I did on those things, I put my everything into them, and they were well-received for the most part. But looking at them I don’t see anything of myself in them. I was a hired gun, I did my job, I collected my pay, I moved on. That’s probably why I still don’t own any copies of my film and TV work. Not one DVD or Blu-Ray or digital copy.
My dream of being the next Rod Serling was becoming increasingly remote.
Now it’s pretty much gone.
And I’m okay with that.
Here’s a fact about Rod Serling you may not know; he died at age 50.
All those years of never-ending work, of struggle, of stress (not to mention a four-packs-a-day cigarette habit) burned Rod out by the mid-1960s. After TZ ended, he couldn’t find work beyond hired-gun jobs like Seven Days in May and Planet of the Apes.
Rod Serling’s Night Gallery may have bore his name and his face, but what it didn’t carry was his writing. He became a TV personality and an ad pitch-man simply to pay the bills. He kept smoking, right up to his first heart attack. Then his second. He had his third and final while in the middle of open heart surgery. Doctors tried to remove a vein from his leg for a bypass. The vein crumbled. They were the veins of an 80 year-old.
Rod was 40 when TZ ended. By 50 he was gone.
One really wonders how different the landscape would be if Rod had lived another twenty years. The Twilight Zone experienced a resurgence of popularity in the 1980s, as storytellers and filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg professed their love of the dusty old series. It’s quite possible we could have seen a Serling renaissance, produced by Spielberg or Lucas How many more stories would he have been able to tell?
I think that having the life you dreamt of having when your younger would be a depressing experience. Because what would it feel like to stand atop the summit of Everest and say “so this is it?” I often wonder of the life I might have had if I made different decisions. If I’d taken that series gig in LA when it was in the offering back in the early 2000s. Would I have been more successful?
Well, if by “success” you mean “money” then most definitely; I would have made bank. But would I have been happy? Doubtful. We go through our lives saying “if only” and “wouldn’t it be great if …” and cry disappointment that the Thing that would have Fixed Everything didn’t happen. But I think those things, those promises of “this could be you if …” just set you up for failure and disappointment because they never would be that salve you wanted them to be. You’d sit there, award in one hand, big bag of money in the other and say “so this is it?”
You certainly can mourn the life you thought you’d have. But you can’t let what never was haunt what is. I think that’s the reason there’s so many unhappy people out in the world; they’re emotionally punishing themselves for not having the life they dreamt of. They’re blaming themselves for not reaching that goal. I was one of them, for the longest time. I dreamt of being a film director. I ended up a stay-at-home dad, a writer of novels and comics some movies and TV. There remains a competition in me, and I do think that’s healthy; that drive to create. But I no longer let work be the center of my life. I certainly work and work hard, but I don’t let that define me. I let myself be defined by the people I love, and who love me in return.
This is not the life I envisioned but it’s still a good life. I love my wife, I love my son, and they love me. I wouldn’t give any of that up for “success”. We’re constantly changing, we’re constantly evolving; our bodies, our thoughts, our ideas. We’re not the same people we were ten years ago, or ten years prior to that. I’m certainly not the man I was when I began this career. And that’s a good thing too; I would hate to be That Guy. That Guy was not happy even when he was successful.
If there’s a mantra I’ve repeated to myself and expressed to others a great deal over the past few years it’s that “the things you think will make you happy will not if you aren’t already happy yourself“. It’s like wanting that one Christmas gift more than anything else, and when you unwrap it under the tree you rejoice; but a month, a year later? Not the same thing.
People still remember Rod Serling, 45 years after his death. It’s doubtful anyone outside of my immediate and extended family will remember me 5 years, let alone 45, after I’m gone. And I’m okay with that. I’m closer to 50 now than I was when I started this profession. Work is more sporadic, more tiring. I still write, I still create, and having decided to focus more on comics and novels, I’m much happier a person. The things I write now are 100% mine.
But more than writing, I’m a father. And being a father and a husband has the joy my life as a writer had been lacking. All those years of being the young, hungry scribe were, in hindsight, my unhappiest years. It took the discovery of what it felt like to actually enjoy your life, to realize how miserable you used to be. I’m not one to toot my own horn, but I do believe I’m a better writer now than I ever was. I’m certainly a happier one.
I may still die at 50, like Rod Serling. But I hope not. Because sometimes getting everything you want is the worst thing that can happen to you. It took my failing to reach that dream of being the next Rod Serling to give me the life I always wanted.
To say that 2020 has turned out vastly different from what we were all envisioning is the understatement of this same year. When 2020 began my wife and I were planning a trip to the UK for April, I was wrapping up work on one project and about to begin scripting work on a TV series, we were looking forward to the entry of our child into kindergarten and (for me especially) the reclamation of the hours between 8am and 3pm Mondays-Fridays.
Then Corona happened, and it all went to shit.
No UK this year. The TV series (and my paycheck from it) is on indefinite hold, and our child is currently in a mixed in-person and remote learning program. Everyone is in the same holding pattern they were in March, which feels like YEARS ago. We’re in mourning for the year we’d hoped we’d have but never did. We mourn visits to museums and the public pool, the loss of Halloween and Thanksgiving, and just going to the movies.
So, we’re adjusting, but as it is, some things remain the same. take the school thing. Dropping your child off/picking them up means chatting with the other parents. Questions fly about, and inevitably you get asked what you “do” for a living. And when I mention I’m a writer, the questions really start flying. They want to know what you’ve done, obviously, but a lot more want to know more detailed information because they have always wanted to write a novel, or a short story, or a play, or a screenplay or … you get the point.
But the ones who’ve really done some serious thinking about writing dig even deeper;
“How do I get an agent?”
“How do I find a publisher?”
To the above two, my answer is “beats me”. There’s no bulletproof way of acquiring either, other than writing good work and getting it out to people. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. And for a person whose career as a writer began in 1999 I didn’t get my first official Literary (i.e. “Book” agent) until 2014, and my first novel wasn’t published until 2017.
Then the even more specific questions follow.
“I was thinking of attending this writer’s workshop. What is your opinion?”
“What about NaNoWriMo? Should I take part? What do you think?”
So far (fingers crossed) I haven’t been asked the questions writers dread hearing, like “I’ve written a novel; could you read it for me and give me some pointers?” and “I have a great idea for a novel. If you write it, we can split the money! Sound good?”
I won’t dignify the latter two with a response, but with the former, I do have opinions, actually, on the whole “Writer’s Workshop” and “NaNoWriMo” things.
What do I think …? Well, they’re fine? I guess?
I mean, they’re clearly popular enough to be something I get asked about. And they clearly do serve some purpose to the struggling writer. It’s hard, doing what we do. You may scoff, you may say “what, making stuff up and writing it down? Anybody can do that.” And that’s true, but can “anybody” do that every day? Can “anyone” devote months of work, day-to-day work, on a project with no guarantee of result that tells you “this is worthwhile”?
[For the uninitiated: “NaNoWriMo” is “National Novel Writing Month” where you’re supposed to dedicate the entirety of November to writing a first draft of a novel, ending up somewhere in the 50,000 word range. You register, you post your progress, and at the end of that month, assuming you’re successful, you have a novel with your name on it.]
Short version: If a workshop or retreat helps, if a NaNoWriMo puts your butt in your chair and makes you do the work, that helps. But I feel in the long term – I’m talking long term career as a writer – I believe they may do you more harm than good.
Writing is a solitary profession. It has to be. I share a philosophy with Stephen King that basically states; “First Draft; door is closed. Second Draft; Door is open”.
Your first draft is for you and you alone. It’s you telling yourself the story. It’s the kitchen sink draft. Everything goes in. Then when done it goes goes in the drawer and you hopefully forget about it for a bit.
The second draft is where the real work begins. You’re reading it to yourself for yourself, and you’re deciding what works and what doesn’t, what you need more of, what you need less of. After that second draft you may be ready to show it to some people for feedback.
[I’m more of a two drafts and a polish before showing guy. I like a cool-down period after finishing the draft to do some touch ups, but really I walk away for two weeks then give it a read-through. That’s if I think it’s ready for a read. Some books are more difficult than others and may require another draft, or to be shelved permanently. Yeah, that’s a thing that happens too. Not often but sometimes a project just doesn’t come together. It might in time, you might discover that missing piece and find where it belongs. But generally, two drafts and a polish is my litmus. By that point I know whether or not I’ve got something worth showing.
Now, with a writers workshop or retreat, you’re basically in a First Draft situation of writing, but forced to bump that to a Second Draft conclusion where you’re getting critique and feedback on something you just wrote. In that regard, I do believe that receiving feedback on a First Draft is counter-productive and has killed more writing careers than it’s helped.
Because you need that time away, to let the story rest, to let it breathe. It’s like cutting into a freshly grilled steak right after it comes off the barbecue; all those juices just spill out on the plate; you lose the flavor, the tenderness of the cut. You need to let that meat rest for the full effect. Writing is the same way. You need it to rest a little, and get some distance from it so you can attack it in the next draft with a more critical eye. The danger of the immediate critique is that you’re still close to that material; so much so that any criticism is going to worry at you. And how can it not? You only just finished it.
Now, if you’re interested in going to a writer’s retreat because of the social aspect; the dinners, the movie and Karaoke nights, the camaraderie of reconnecting with old friends (and making new ones), or just building and maintaining your network then they’re really good for that and by all means GO. You’ll have the time of your life, you’ll forge friendships that will remain with you as long as you live.
As for NaNoWriMo and writing the novel, it kind of does the opposite of its intent; it forces you to sprint, basically, to craft and finish that 50,000 word manuscript in 30 days. It puts you in competition with other writers when the only person you should be in competition with is yourself. Everyone reads at a different pace; they write at a different pace. It’s the equivalent of handing everyone a thick doorstop of a book on November first and expecting everyone to read it to completion by the 30th. Not everyone reads at the same pace. Not everybody can. And even if you do; how much of the book are you actually absorbing?
Again, using the meal metaphor; do you want to hurriedly wolf your food down like a dog, or do you want to take your time to savor it? Think of those flavors, the spices, the seasonings, how the various ingredients of something as simple as a garden salad compliment each other. Now think of it all shoved into a blender and pureed and slammed down the gullet. It’s technically the same meal, except for all the parts that are different.
Writing should not be a race or sprint to completion. It should be pleasant. You should derive joy from the creative process. You shouldn’t be eying a clock. Because nobody who reads and enjoys a book is ever going to care how quickly it was written.
I do, however, believe that there are some benefits to writing retreats/workshops and NaNoWriMo.
A good writing courses can teach you one very valuable thing; grammar, and how to use it. But there isn’t a course/workshop/retreat in existence that can’t teach you what you can’t already teach yourself. Read a lot. Write a lot. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
NaNoWriMo will condition you to put your butt in that chair and bang those words out, day after day (which is really the essence of being a writer; the ability to set a schedule and stick to it, rather than ‘when the mood takes you’. I speak as a writer who wrote the last third of Magicians Impossible while suffering crippling back pain that was so bad at times I was having spasms and could only sit for thirty minutes at a time before I needed an hour to rest.
Look, there’s no silver bullet or magic spell to any of this. Any writing workshop or retreat that promises a pathway to a book deal or an agent should be avoided. Knocking out a draft in a month is also not going to get you anywhere anytime soon.
I say all of this because I know there are aspiring writers out there without the means to attend a workshop or a retreat. Without the time to NaNoWriMo themselves in November. The parents with kids, the adults with minimum wage jobs. In these very uncertain times, hunkering down with your nose to the grindstone isn’t just work; it’s survival. And I’d hate to see someone struggling to make ends meet figure if they can’t afford the money for a conference or retreat (or the time to bang out a novel in a month) that they then discouraged from taking up their pen and writing. Think of the volumes of stories dreamt and never written because life was too much, too demanding, too discouraging.
So to those parents, to those people who say they always wanted to write a novel, the best advice I can give is to find what way works best for you, and do that. But do it consistently. Writing is discipline, and how disciplined you are in pursuing it will determine, more than anything, whether or not you have what it takes to go the distance.
Over the past few months I’ve been doing a lot of writing, a lot of reading, a lot of thinking. About life, about the state of the world, but mostly, about how we communicate with each other. Specifically, how I, a writer and an author, communicates with his audience.
When your book is accepted for publication, the marketing people forward you a questionnaire to fill out, to tell them a little bit about yourself. These are details like where you were born, where you went to university, where you presently reside. They like to know if you have a website, and if so, how much traffic it gets. They want to know your social media presence; which platforms you use, and crucially, how many followers you have.
Basically they want a sense of you; more specifically, what assets are at their disposal to promote your work. If you frequent your local bookshop enough that the owners know who you are, then that’s a potential in-store event. if you’ve been a longtime resident of your town, that’s a piece in the local paper. Heck, even in the town you were born in (in my case, a place I haven’t lived in for over forty years, and haven’t visited in a dozen) you’re a “native”, and as such the local media may be interested in running a piece on you and your book.
But what they really want to know is about the social media. Because that’s going to be the primary way they get word on your book out. That’s The Game; you want to win, you have to play. And I HATE social media. Hate. it.
I’ve gone off before on my dislike of social media before; here and here. Short version for those too lazy to click either; I think social media and its insidious reach into our daily lives is one of the worst things to happen us as a species. I believe in years to come we’ll look at social media as a thing designed to make us feel good but is as unhealthy as cigarettes are looked upon right now. If I had my way we’d bury social media face-down in the ground with a stake of holly through its heart and its mouth stuffed with garlic.
I’m not the only one who feels this way either.
“Anytime you are provided with a service, like Facebook, for free, you are in fact the product being sold. In exchange for likes and retweets and public photos of your kids, you are basically signing up to be a data serf for companies that can make money only by addicting and then manipulating you. That because of all this, and for the good of society, you should do everything in your power to quit.”
That, from Tech guru Jaron Lanier, pioneer of VR, who I first read about in Rolling Stone Magazine of all places, back in the early 1990s. He has an interview at GQ I’ve linked to here, and also on my Facebook author page (more on THAT in a sec). I’m going to share this update on that FB page, but I’m going to predict the FB algorithm will throttle this particular post‘s reach because it’s so critical of everything they do. It’s given me serious consideration as to whether or not to keep my FB page active.
Facebook gives you nothing without giving them something first. For a page like mine that means one thing: paying them to boost your posts to people already following your page.
For the record, I don’t have a personal page on Facebook. Lord knows I get asked for one all the time. People want to connect with you and feel a connection. Mostly they just want to stalk you, look at your photos, insert themselves into your lives by asking you to join their Multi-level Marketing scheme or to just boost their follower numbers to communicate to the world how wonderful and liked and popular they are.
[And don’t get me started on the parents who post every minute detail of their children’s lives on social media. But congratulations on feeding your kids into an algorithm that by now knows when they were born, where they attend school and what their interests are. You just handed that information over to the algorithm. Slow. Clap.]
When you tell people you’re not on Facebook the first response is confusion, then doubt, then followed more often than not by a confession that not being on FB is probably smart, that they spend far too much time on it, and they really only use it to keep in touch with friends and family.
Seriously though; does anybody really like Facebook? I mean, besides “social media experts” who stake their living on that platform?
Now, for an author or other creative type, social media is a double-edged sword, and a very sharp one especially if you don’t like social media. Because in the 21st century it’s not enough to write a book people will want to read. It’s not enough to get the book into their hands; something that traditional media and publicity efforts still do a much better job of than social media does. Trust me, I know; I married a publicist and I see her at her job every day.
To be an author in 2020 means you have to be connected to your readers, to your fans. it’s not enough to be you, a working writer; you have to be a friend, a confidant, you have to be engaged with your audience. Basically, you HAVE to be on social media.
Well, call me old fashioned (“Brad, you’re old-fashioned”), but I’ll always prefer the meaningful communications and contact over the superficial social media-curated ones. Whenever I receive a comment on this website, whenever I receive an email, it does a major improvement to my mood. It’s not a “Like” or a “Retweet” or a “Share”; it’s someone reaching out to me directly to say “hey, I really enjoyed your book or your TV show, or your movie, or your comic book.”
In my experience, I’ve found social media to be a dead end for promoting your work. because social media is a closed ecosystem. You share something on Facebook, it stays on Facebook, and the “transaction” for what it is is usually a like. Rarely a click, hardly ever a share. That’s in part because unless you, the page manager, are unwilling to fork over money to Facebook to promote your work, it doesn’t reach its intended audience.
Engagement drives the algorithm. The more people who like the page, and like, and comment on the content, the more people see it. For me to get even a fraction of the reach this website does, I’d need to wrangle at least 2,000 FB fans. Before leaving Twitter for good back in 2019 I had about 1700 followers. If I were to jump back into that cesspool (sorry Twitter fans; you know it’s true) I could increase that number. I could Tweet and Re-tweet and share and comment and hash-tag and signal boost; I could make Twitter outreach The Job that supports my writing. I could go back to playing That Game.
But I’m not willing to play that game, because I value those fans too much. I value you too much. You’re not numbers; you’re people, like me, like the person next to you. You have your hopes and dreams, your wants and worries and fears. Being reduced to a digital thumbprint on a Silicon Valley hard-drive somewhere south of San Jose is dehumanizing, and as per the GQ article I’ve linked to, much more troubling, much more insidious than a lot of us realize.
I’m not sure what’s going to become of my Facebook page, or my social media presence. Truth be told I think I’m kind of done with both outside of “official” business. My next book is at least a couple years away so there’s no immediate need to return to the social media trenches. But it’s a challenge, I won’t lie. Because my publisher will look at my non-existent social media usage and go “hmm, is this really the author we want to support? The one who’s making it exceedingly difficult to reach his audience?” I will of course need to find another way to interact with my audience, which is why I this website is going to become the conduit for people who want to each me, and reach out to me.
I’m going to work on a redesign, with a more fan-friendly way of commenting and conversing than at present. I’ve always enjoyed long-form blogging and writing over little updates and posts and tweets anyway.
I’m also planning to launch a newsletter, which you will be able to subscribe to. This will contain non-website based content. Some peeks behind the curtain at some previously unseen Magicians Impossible and Mixtape materials from the archives. Sneak peeks at my next book. Fun stuff that won’t be too annoying; maybe every other month. We’ll see.
Of course, feel free to let me know what you think of all of this. I suspect I’ll need to maintain some sort of social media presence; you still do need to go to where your audience, your customers are. but maybe, just maybe, there’ll come a day when we don’t need to.