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.
Twenty nine years ago this day some friends and I packed into my battered, four-cylinder 1983 Toyota Camry and drove three hours to attend the first Lollapalooza Festival.
The lineup was eclectic. The Rollins Band. Butthole Surfers. Ice-T and Body Count. Nine Inch Nails. Living Color. Siouxie and the Banshees, and headliners Jane’s Addiction. It was the beginning of a new decade, and our generation, Generation X, was at the forefront.
We didn’t realize at the time but the world – our world – was about to change. Because later that month an unknown band named Pearl Jam released their first album, “Ten”. A little over a month later another band from the same rain-soaked corner of the Pacifi Northwest, Nirvana, released their major label debut. Neither album was expected to do much business.
Of course, they did and then some.
You couldn’t give tickets to Lollapalooza 1991 away back then. But come 1992 you couldn’t find them anywhere because Alternative Rock had become mainstream. The weirdos became the force to be reckoned with. That carried over into film; 1992 saw Reservoir Dogs and El Mariachi and Gas, Food, Lodging. The lunatics had taken over the asylum.
I’ve been writing about music and the 90s and the alternative era pretty much since this website began back in 2009. I created a comic book series about those years; one currently on hiatus that I really hope to jump back on soon. I had planned on kick-starting the next phase of Mixtape this year but COVID-19 had other plans.
When researching what was to become Mixtape, I spent a lot of time watching old concerts and old music videos on YouTube, rereading old books. Some were videos of concerts I myself attended. I saw lots of kids my age back then; the kids with day-glow pink and orange and white hair. The kids with dreadlocks. The guys with long hair, sideburns, and goatees. The girls with shaved heads and nose rings. I would watch these videos and wonder what became of those kids? What became of them as they moved from their teens and twenties into their thirties and now forties.
What are they doing now?
Well GEN X? What the fuck are you doing these days, and why?
I’m looking at you, Karen, you old riot grrl, calling the police on a black or Latino man just trying to get into his apartment. I’m looking at you, Ken, who attended every Ministry show they could, throwing a Trumper-tantrum because the Starbucks barista making minimum wage asked you to please wear a mask when entering the shop to pick up your triple vente with extra whipped cream.
Come ON guys and girls! You used to slam-dance and skateboard, you lined up for Pixies and Depeche Mode tickets. You made mixtapes to profess your love, you plastered a Reservoir Dogs poster to your dorm wall and blasted NWA while doing it. You moshed in the pit, you head-bopped to Hip-Hop. You were the end result of a childhood of roaming around and exploring your neighborhood un-tethered. You made your own fun. You hung out at the arcade, you worked at McDonalds. You bought Batman on VHS, you saw all the Indiana Jones moves in the theater. You had MTV, Much Music, Friday Night Videos, and Top of the Pops. You had Star Wars and G.I. Joe, Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony.
Now look at you. Yelling at kids to get off your lawn. Asking to see the manager, yelling and cursing people out on Twitter and sharing racist memes and fake news on Facebook.
You are disappointing the shit out of me.
What happened to you between then and now, between Nevermind and “never mind that, I’d like to speak to your manager” ? What changed? You used to Rock The Vote and boast you were Born to Choose. Now, you’re aligning yourself with the people and ideologies you would have turned your nose up at. The asshole establishment types. These guys:
Don’t tell me you’ve “matured”, that you’re not some “snot-nosed teenager who doesn’t know how the world works.” You’re complaining that U2, a band that has never shied away from politics is now “too political”. Newsflash: they didn’t change – you did.
You call it “growing up”, but still you act like a bunch of spoiled toddlers throwing tantrums.
You’re suffering from Paul Ryan Syndrome; where you claim Rage Against The Machine is your favorite band, while voting to defund social security. You’ve become The Machine, Paul, and your favorite band thinks you suck because of it.
Look, I get it; people change. I mean, look at Morrissey. I can barely listen to The Queen is Dead or Strangeways Here We Come and not reflect on what a bitter, racist prick he’s become (as opposed to the earnest vegan prick he was back in the 80s). Change is the natural way of things. Change is good. But the change you claim to embrace stops when it comes to creating a more equitable society. Your freedom ends when you would deny that same freedom to someone else.
Face it; you’re not the heroic nerds anymore. You aren’t the cool misfits either. You’ve become the villains in those teen movies you used to watch and adore. You’ve become the slime-ball preppy golf and country club assholes you used to rail against and cheer when they got their comeuppance.
Hey, maybe I’m wrong; maybe deep down you always were an asshole. A latch key generation sandwiched between BAD BABY BOOMERS and FECKLESS GEN Y. Maybe you did what you had to to survive a harsh world. Maybe the world broke you down. Maybe we did it to ourselves. We were always told we’d never earn as much, live as long, have as much success as our parents generation, and maybe we embraced that too much. Maybe we believed it so much it became self-fulfilling. We set our sights low because we knew we’d at least hit that mark. We got mortgages and credit card debt, we watched our dreams slowly die and, as punk-rock sage Henry Rollins (who I first saw at that Lollapalooza and to this date 29 years later remains THE artist I’ve seen in concert and in his spoken-word shows more than anyone else) sang/bellowed in “Low Self Opinion”;
You sleep alone at night
You never wonder why
All this bitterness wells up inside you
You always victimize
So you can criticize yourself
And all those around you
Thing is, GenX, I see a lot of the latter; not so much of the former. No self-reflection, no introspection, no “wait a second, I’m in a Starbucks raging about wearing a fucking mask; maybe I’m the asshole” thoughts. No, you’re blundering through life so convinced you’re right and the world is wrong, that you’re becoming what Raylan Givens from Justified also wisely said;
“You run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. You run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.”
Let’s circle back to something Henry also said/sang/yelled in the same song;
If you could see the you that I see
When I see you seeing me
You’d see yourself so differently
Well GenX – I see you. I see men and woman looking at their shitty world, their miserable failed lives, and see disappointment. Not that life dealt you a hard hand, but because it did and you accepted it rather than smack it away. You became the person who complains to the manager, who calls the cops on a neighbor’s barbecue, who literally yells at people to get off your lawn because you work in a bank or sell cars or perform office drone work when you once dreamt of being a musician, a filmmaker, a sports star.
Your dreams crumbled and died, and rather than find the grace that comes with a life of kindness, and fairness, and neighborly cares for the people around you, you sit at home, watching TV, not talking to your wife or husband, not paying any meaningful attention to your children.
I’m disappointed. That a generation raised on Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood could grow to become adults possessing no kindness, no want for making the world a better place just by being an active part of it. The generation raised on John Hughes and Steven Spielberg movies. Every generation wants to change the world, and every one does, but not always for the better.
People ask me; “Brad, as a writer, what is the most important tool in your toolbox? The one thing you feel every writer, every artist needs?” And I reply; “Empathy. Empathy is the most important thing an artist can have. You can be outraged by the behavior of a character, but if you can’t see that sad, scared child that awful teenager or adult once was, you’re losing a little piece of yourself. You’re not being honest. You’re not looking inward.”
But GenX, I’m telling you it’s not too late. You can still change your bitter, disappointing life.
How to start?
Well, you could always try listening to music again. Trust me; all the “classic rock” stations out there are playing the music you listened to in high school and college. The music you grew up with. The music of today that’s influenced by that era where music meant everything. So I implore you, stop listening to talk radio, stop watching Fucks News; in fact, stop tuning in to AM radio entirely. You can also ditch that Facebook account of yours – a technology meant to “bring the world together” but has only driven people apart. A place that thrives on your anger, and your outrage. Remember there’s a reason you lost touch with those high school and college assholes, and that because that relative of yours posts racist shit on their feed, their Thanksgiving invitation must be rescinded until they see the error of their ways and smarten the fuck up, and be that person you used to look up to again.
If you frequent news websites, get a good comment blocker for your web browser (I recommend “Shut Up”) and use it. Don’t waste your time going down the rabbit hole of uneducated shitheads with too much time on their hands and too many opinions to spew. You miss absolutely nothing by refusing to engage with these 21st century baubles designed to waste time that is becoming more and more precious with each minute, each day, each year we have left, just so some tech billionaire can make even more money. Remember; every problem we face in the world today can be directly attributed to rich assholes who decided they need to make even more money than they already have.
Want a good substitute for all the doom scrolling? Here’s one: it’s called picking up a book. Preferably one on paper, but digital will do ya just fine. Did you know roughly a quarter of Americans claim to have not opened let alone read a book within the past year? Of course you do! Look who’s president if you don’t believe me. Do you want to be associated with those people? If you’re still that cool, hip Gen X-er you think you are then you know the answer. Read. More. Books.
My main recommendation in moving forward is to try and channel that person you were, ripped jeans and nose rings and all. The person who’d look at the adult you’ve become and ask “what the hell happened”? Become the person that 20 year-old version of you aspired to become. Be your best self.
And maybe, just maybe, you’ll change the world for the better.
Play us off, Henry …
Calling out around the world
Are you ready for a brand new beat?
Summer’s here and the time is right
For maintaining safe distancing
Well, as my state slowly reopens and everyone rushes back out to get infected by (and spread) COVID this guy is going to spend much of the summer hanging by the local pond with his nose buried in a good book. I don’t need to go to a bar (because I don’t drink), a restaurant (because I know how to cook), brick-and-mortar retail (because online shopping exists), movies (because I have Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and hundreds of DVD and Blu-Rays) or attend any large social gatherings (because I hate crowds). Until there’s an effective – and proven – treatment or vaccine I’m staying put.
Also, because if you can’t trust people to look out for their best interests you sure as hell can bet they won’t look out for yours either. So I plan to do both, for myself and my family, and for the local idiots clustering in groups, sans masks, figuring “hey we beat the virus, time to party, because we’re a generation and a culture that prattles on about ‘sacrifice’ yet is ill-equipped by choice or by upbringing to do either.”
[For the record, I would love to go out and about unencumbered. I’d love to go to the beach, the local pool (closed for the season), the museums and art galleries and aquariums and zoos. And, depending on how the next month goes, I may actually do those things regardless. I mean, Christoper Nolan and Wes Anderson both have movies coming out this year I would LOVE to see on the big screen. But not at the risk of my health or my family’s health. I WILL visit my local comic book store in another week or so as he’s got some holds for me to pick up. But I won’t stay long. “Browsing” will remain a thing of the past for now.]
Call me a coward, call me “panicky”, whatever you want. I have nothing to prove. If COVID-19 as taught me anything over these past three months, it’s that I do not require social contact with other people to live a happy life. In fact, I think I’ve been much happier not having people around other than the barest, briefest transactions of grocery shopping. I’m in this for the long haul, because like COVID, this all isn’t going away anytime soon.
Plus, I have a book to write.
Have a good summer. See you in September. Maybe.