The confidence of knowing your fictional universe

For about a year now, I’ve been struggling to revise a novella of mine. It has an interested publisher, and that publisher sent me some fantastic notes for kinks to work out in the story, but as I began tugging on burls in the knots I’d tangled, I realized how much more story there was to tell. And because I’m not smart, I’ve also written myself into the mess of trying to connect all my fiction to all my other fiction — to try, at least with my realistic fiction, to let every character live in the same literary universe, to connect all my work through references to places or events — and this particular story is smack in the middle of a vast complex of fiction, all set in the Texas Hill Country I grew up in, with dozens of overlapping characters and events. Which meant that anything I revised or added to this book (and it is quickly becoming a small novel more than a novella) would have to jibe with everything else I’ve written about this place and these people, much of it published. So I needed some way to sort and arrange all the stories, all the people and places and events, in a way that I could see and manipulate everything at once.

I’ve written before about plotting my novels and working in timelines, but in the past, I’ve taped pages to long hallways or mounted notecards to magnetic boards or drew in crayon on butcher paper. Each method helped me sort the events and characters, but no one technique ever seemed to work in quite the ways I wanted. Or, rather, I always felt like I wanted to do all of it at once: The notecards never held enough information, so I wanted to arrange the passages and pages I’d already written in among the notecards; but the pages were never as moveable as the notecards, which made rearranging difficult. And I kept wanting to draw lines of connections — character relationships, event echoes, location references, overlapping timelines — but crayon can’t travel between pages and the few times I tried tacking colored yarn to all my notes, I wound up with an indecipherable mess that I could never rearrange. (How do all those detectives investigating serial killers do it on the tv shows?)

dustin-wall
Molly Solverson is clearly much smarter than I am. (Seriously. I hope future seasons of Fargo revisit her, because she rocks.)

And then last November I completed NaNoWriMo and, among the prizes and discounts I “won” for finishing a bad draft of a novel, I discovered Aeon Timeline.

oBMmwE
No, not this Aeon . . .
5900441_larger
. . . THIS Aeon.

While the software is actually quite a bit more complex than the way I’m about to explain it, it basically allows you to create and manipulate timelines on an infinite “bulletin board,” stretching as far or as deep as you need it to. And that alone makes it worthwhile for what I’m trying to do now: not only organize the timeline of the book I’m currently working on but also fitting it into the universal timeline I’m trying to adhere to.

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 3.00.27 AM

In the image above, you’re seeing the beginning of the timeline for my novel(la), with events and dates aligned under the master event of the book’s narrative arc. On the righthand side, a window for the highlighted event, showing details like the narrative arc it belongs to and which characters are involved. In other tabs, I can add notes regarding the event and the times and dates during which it occurs, down to the minute.

And for me, this is where Aeon Timeline becomes so useful. As I’m using it right now, I can actually craft multiple timelines in a single file, attaching events to various “story arcs” (or, as I’m using them, whole stories) and then seeing how the events from one story line up with events from another.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 9.52.04 PM
It doesn’t look like much when collapsed, but here are some of the plotted events in fifteen of my stories (more stories, events, and details are forthcoming), plus some general events not tied to any particular story.

This helps me know, for example, that around the same time that my book begins, a character named Ford Randall Kempe (from “Curl Up and Burn“) has just been arrested and convicted of statutory rape, an event my book’s characters would certainly have been aware of and so they comment on it. I’m also aware that their classmates include Mark and Keaton (from “Barefoot in the Guadalupe“), and Keaton also gets a reference. My protagonist, Kid, lives on the same street as a woman named Cecily (from “The Penitent Go to Texas“), though when she lived there, Kid was just a toddler; however, my new book does contain a reference to Jeremy, the street preacher from “Penitent.” And I’ve also discovered in this new revision of my book that one of the nameless background characters here is also the narrator in another story (“All That Is Given Will Return“), which helped me understand much better what that guy was doing in this book.

And so on.

Also, in a separate timeline of researched material, I can keep track of real-life events, like weather anomalies (a freak heatwave in February 1996, a windstorm and heavy rains in May 1997), the weekend of a local German-heritage celebration called Berges Fest, the beginning and end of the school year and the dates of holidays. I can also add notes and import images to event records, and if I tag events, I can filter according to those tags.

The program also allows me to fill out character profiles, complete with birthdays (so the software can automatically track their ages), and it can assign characters to events on the timeline. In this way, I can arrange my various notes not only according to the linear, multilayered timelines but also according to character or story arc, tracking where different characters or stories overlap in my larger universe.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 9.54.57 PM
The overlap of one character making appearances in multiple stories

Aeon isn’t a quick fix — it’s fairly easy to learn but it takes a long time to set up all the details (and I’m still discovering features I haven’t used yet), and at first I thought that, by itself, it wouldn’t accomplish all the things I want it to do. For example, I still want access to all those pages I’ve written — I want to see how the timelines align with the stuff I’ve already committed to the page. And I’d like to be able to arrange these events into some kind of narrative outline, helping me see not only the chronology but also the achronological plot structure. But this is where I discovered the feature that made me go ahead and invest in the program: it synchs with Scrivener!

Granted, I like to tell people that I’m not much for outlines, and I still struggle with feeling too constrained by them. But for longer projects, I find them necessary, and being able to tie my timelines to my outlines — to see both, side by side — proved crucial to this current book project, helping me see my book’s newly revised structure and sort out where — or rather, when — everything was happening.

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 11.07.22 PM
And here’s that same outline, synched from Scrivener, open in Aeon.

This way, I get my complicated timeline, my notecards on a bulletin board, my pages of fiction — all of it, in two easily synched programs. And in Aeon, I can attach items from the timeline to the outline, or vice versa, and rearrange the outline as needed.

The main downside to Aeon isn’t even about Aeon — it’s about me and my own weakness for tinkering in the details. A friend’s son once coined the term (or, at least, we’re giving the kid credit for it) “procrasturbation,” and that’s a perfect word for my habit of falling down self-indulgent rabbit-holes of research and plot structure and geography. Aeon makes it far too easy for me to indulge in those habits, especially because it allows me to pretend I’m still writing. As my writer friend Ryan Werner told me the other day on Facebook, “That sounds like a lot of work! Might I suggest just winging it?” He’s right, and I do often “wing it,” especially in my flash fiction but also in scenes as I build these longer narratives.

But sometimes the only way I can wing it is to feel grounded in the reality I’m writing about. It’s like moving to a new town: you can’t just pop out to the store for a case of beer, because you don’t know where the store is or how you can get back. You need to spend some time driving around or sorting out the bus system, becoming familiar with your surroundings, and you should absolutely plan to get yourself lost, to wander down unknown roads and then find your way home again. That’s the best part of being in unfamiliar territory, in fiction as in life. But if what you need right now is a case of beer, and you don’t really have time for getting lost, and you have a smartphone, you use your nav app.

Aeon is the nav app for my fictional world.

I know that no one will ever care enough to work all these details out while they’re reading these stories or books. I am laboring purely for my own amusement. And I remember well — and take seriously — the advice I once heard from Louisiana writer Tim Gautreaux: explaining that he tries to avoid working gimmicks and clever references into his stories and novels, he said (and this is a paraphrase but it’s close enough to quote), “If you’re playing games in your fiction, you aren’t telling stories — you’re just playing games.”

But the truth is, I like the games. Doing this sort of work gives me the same mental pleasure that murder mysteries and detective stories give some people. And I feel reassured, looking at these timelines I work in, this universe I’m creating, that everything fits, everything works. Rather than distract me from the work of my writing, these “games” actually give me the confidence to carry on with my writing, assured that the story is sound and the people are where they are supposed to be, doing the things they’re supposed to be doing.

It’s a confidence we can’t always feel in the real world. So I like building it into my fictional world.

Celebrating Edgar Allan Poe

16178441_634993520037173_7764932278748072198_oThis coming Sunday evening, I’ll be at the Clinton Street Theater in Portland, OR, to close out the second annual Poe Show PDX* by reading Poe’s “The Raven.”

It’s a tremendous honor, closing out the show this way, and I’m humbled by it not only because it’s the finale but also because I love Poe so much.

When the organizers asked me to submit a bio ahead of this weekend’s show, I decided that instead of the standard intro (I write books; I’ve been published here, there, and elsewhere; I live with my wife and cats), I should give a little background about my relationship with Poe’s work. What follows is cribbed a bit from that other, briefer exploration:

Back in middle school, when all of my adolescent friends were whispering cultishly in the library stacks over the latest Stephen King novel (I think at the time it was The Eyes of the Dragon and then The Dark Half; I was reading my dad’s copy of Misery, by which he’d been too disturbed to finish), I was reveling in the saturated lexicon and macabre lives of Poe stories. I remember being especially taken with “The Tell-Tale Heart”; that grotesque eye, glistening in the wedge of light cutting from the narrator’s lantern to his sleeping housemate’s face, was a constant fascination for me, and I loved to read the ending with my hand on my own chest, feeling the thud of my heart in beat with the final sentences of the story.

I probably wasn’t the only high school English student who read “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Cask of Amontillado” twice, but I probably was the only one to hit the library in my downtime and research the Spanish Inquisition and “amontillado” just to understand those stories’ contexts. I loved the richness of Poe’s descriptions, but I loved, too, his reliance on history and culture to flesh out his stories. Call me a research nerd (I do write historical novels, and I am married to a librarian), but filling in the background by learning what Poe had learned to write these stories — that was never a distraction for me. It was an invitation to a larger world, and it grounded Poe’s fantastical narratives in a real history, made the horrors feel more accessible and therefore more terrifying. I loved it.

I also spent a great deal of time in Poe’s biography. I don’t know how many of my fellow students knew much about Poe beyond his salacious death in a ditch. How many of my classmates had read about his troubled youth, his fraught stint in military school, his awkward relationships and his marriage to his cousin? How many had studied his literary theory and his reviews of Hawthorne (another early love of mine)? How many understood that Poe’s drunkenness and drug abuse were likely rumors derived from medical conditions and the newspaper rantings of vindictive rivals? How many were curious about the mysterious visitor to Poe’s grave in Baltimore each year? I suspect that even within my small-town Texas community, I wasn’t Poe’s biggest fan. But I was certainly a devoted student of his work and his life.

20150824_144152
It’s a Poe-tree! Get it? (insert pun-groan here)

In college, my chapter of the English honors society Sigma Tau Delta put Poe on our chapter t-shirts. While writing my masters thesis on Tom Franklin’s first story collection, Poachers, I was thrilled to learn his titular novella had won an Edgar Award. (Later, his novel Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter would be nominated for an Edgar too.) In marriage, I claimed my wife’s little Edgar Allan Poe coffee mug as my own. Working at Jersey Devil Press, I put a dismembered Poe on the cover of the February 2013 issue, and if someone brought me the right artwork, I’d love to put Poe on the cover again!

feb13 cover

In grad school, working on my PhD, one of my proudest moments occurred at an impromptu house party where I drunkenly — but successfully — argued for the merits of “Annabelle Lee” as a serious poem. Later, I discovered Poe’s bizarre but brilliant book-length prose-poem, Eureka, and felt like my whole life of adoration had been justified.

In my adulthood, Poe had begun to feel like some literary fad, a passion everyone of a certain age went through and eventually grew out of. Like JD Salinger, Ayn Rand, Hunter S. Thompson, Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski. It took me a long time to realize that you never truly grow out of your literary influences. You just learn what to do with them, how they influenced you, what was youthful or amateurish fascination and what was deeper, more profound, lasting.

Poe lasted for me. You can find his influence on my work in the grotesques and the horror elements of my novel, Hagridden. You can see my continuing love of and practice in the short story form — my ongoing pursuit of Poe’s “Unity of Effect” — in my short-fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is RuinAnd many people have often pointed to my general fascination with language and rhythm in my prose.

So I owe a debt to master of the macabre, and I am looking forward to celebrating his life and work this coming weekend. If you’re in the Portland area, I hope you’ll head to the Clinton Street Theater and join us! And if not, then live vicariously by breaking out your own volume of Poe, lighting a few candles and pouring a cognac, and settling in for a story or poem.


* The annual Poe Show is usually scheduled to coincide with Poe’s birthday January 19, but this year’s intense winter weather in Portland forced the show to reschedule. Hence this March date.

Bibliomania 2017

I’ve been meaning to share all the books I’ve been buying/reading since the year began, but every time I think I’m ready to put together this post, I wind up buying more books to add to it.

I think I’ve hit my limit, though, or at least I’m ready to pause long enough to give these books the shoutout they deserve!

I’ll begin with graphic novels and comics: I recently reread Watchmen (a timely book), which put me in the mood for more comics, so I decided to finally try Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s renowned series Saga. I borrowed all the currently available trade volumes (1-6) from my local library, and I fell so immediately in love with the series that, when my local comic book store participated in Image Comics Week, I picked up the whole series at a discount.

20170201_21211120170216_101412

At the same sale, I also grabbed the first trade volume of Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta’s East of West. I’d picked up the debut issue a few years back and liked it, but I never wound up following it in the monthly issues. So when I spotted the first trade on the sale table, I decided to give it another try. It, too, wound up being so compelling that I grabbed the next five volumes, too, and I’m glad I did, because this series is amazing.

I’ve also been on a bit of a chapbook kick lately. It begin with a couple of Red Bird chapbooks, which I picked up along with new copies of my own Red Bird chapbook, Where There Is Ruin. But both of these new chaps are books I’ve been eager for, because one is a debut poetry collection by my grad school friend Bethany Lee (With Our Lungs in Our Hands); and the other is by author Kelly Magee (A Guide to Strange Places), whose fiction I’ve long admired.

20170123_120354

Then there’s the chapbook I picked up at the Women’s March in Olympia, WA. There, one of the featured speakers was Washington poet (and “Her Majesty”) Lenée Reid, who gave a powerful and impassioned delivery of her poetry. After the march, I found a protest sign containing the text of Reid’s poem “One” (which ends “I am my temple our temple is we / Let us be at home as one”), and then I noticed that Reid herself was standing nearby, preparing to recite yet more poetry. I thanked her for her words and after she hugged me, she offered me a copy of Revolutionary Woo, which I happily accepted!

You can see a video of her official address to the rally here:

20170215_112605_001I also recently received my copy of the first-ever Unchaste Anthology, a collection of works by the women and gender-nonconforming writers and poets who have read in Portland’s famed Unchaste Readers series. I had contributed to the anthology’s Kickstarter campaign, because I love that reading series and I believe in the work it promotes, the voices it amplifies, and I was eager to help bring that work out into the world. And now I have this beautiful little collection!

Speaking of amazing, badass women: I also just grabbed a copy of Roxane Gay‘s new collection, Difficult Women. I’ve been a fan of Gay’s for ages, starting back when she was at [PANK] and my friend Ryan W. Bradley was publishing Gay’s debut book, Ayiti. I’ve geeked out over meeting her at AWP, I’ve devoured her commentary in newspapers and magazines, and I’ve been collecting the monthly issues of her run as a comic book writer with Marvel’s Black Panther: World of Wakanda. But about six weeks ago, I caught Gay on NPR discussing her new book, and I knew I had to pick up a copy. So when I spotted it at my local bookstore, King’s Books, I went ahead and bought it.

20170213_204912

As I wrote the other day, I was at King’s Books for a talk and reading by local author DL Fowler, and while I already own his book Lincoln Raw, that night I picked up his earlier novel, Lincoln’s Diary. So add that to my deepening to-read stack, too.

But wait — there are MORE books by friends of mine!

Late last year, my mother-in-law was looking for ideas for Christmas gifts for me around the same time that my friend Matthew Burnside was announcing his forthcoming book-length fiction collection Postludes. I’ve been a HUGE fan of Matthew’s work for about four and a half years now, ever since his fable-cycle “For Kylie” appeared in an issue of Jersey Devil Press. Since then, I’ve read most of his online work, and I own three of his chapbooks — Book of If & Ever and Escapologies, both from Red Bird Chapbooks, and Infinity’s Jukebox, from Passenger Side Books. Still, I’ve been awaiting a book-length work from quite a while, so when my mother-in-law asked for suggestions, I tossed Postludes on the list even though it wouldn’t be out til after Christmas. Of course, I offered other options, too, and my wonderful mother-in-law obliged me in every case (I now have quite a stack of Texas historical research material to get through, too!), so I figured I’d pick up Matthew’s book later. But then Postludes turn up in my mailbox — my mother-in-law had gotten it for me, too! (Thanks again, Phyllis!)

Around the same time as Matthew’s book arrived in my mailbox, I was having coffee with Pacific Northwest author Kristin Noreen, who brought me a copy of her memoir On Silver Wings. It’s a harrowing tale — “She went for a bike ride, but woke up a week later on life support, her life forever altered” — but I’m here to tell you that it has a happy ending, because we enjoyed a lovely conversation over coffee last month.

And that’s my stack so far! Lots to get through soon, though of course I also have all the research books I have to get through, and the backlog of books from Wordstock last year I’m still getting around to, or all the books I already want to buy next (Jenny Forrester‘s Narrow River, Wide Sky is near the top of my list!).

What are you reading so far? No, wait, don’t tell me — I’m likely to buy those books, too, and I’m not sure I can afford any more! 😉

DL Fowler and Abraham Lincoln

My late paternal grandfather was a deeply religious and compassionate man, had a tremendous and constant sense of humor, and stood six foot four and a quarter — the same faith, disposition, and height as Abraham Lincoln. Which is the reason I always felt an affinity for Lincoln: he reminded me of my Grandpa.

Lincoln was my gateway to studying the US Civil War, which eventually led me to write my first published novel, Hagridden. But in the meantime, I remained fascinated by the figure of Lincoln. His politics, his faith, his humor, his prose. To this day, I use the five acknowledged drafts of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to teach audience analysis,  workshopping, and revision skills to my college students.

But I am just a casual dabbler in the mythology of Lincoln compared with author DL Fowler, who has written two novels about Lincoln — Lincoln’s Diary and Lincoln Raw — and is currently working on a third.

20170213_200933Last night, Fowler gave a talk and reading at Tacoma, Washington’s famed King’s Books, and the anecdotes he can rattle off from memory are astounding. For example, I knew that Lincoln had as a child been kicked in the head by a horse, but I never realized (or had forgotten) that this resulted in a drifting eye, making his love of reading (and that fact that he taught himself) all the more impressive. I also knew that Lincoln had had a long-standing adversarial relationship with Stephen Douglas, but I never knew until last night that Lincoln had once broken off his engagement with Mary Todd, after which the future First Lady began dating . . . Stephen Douglas! According to Fowler, this annoyed Lincoln enough that he renewed his relationship with Mary Todd, stealing her back from his political rival!

These are the kinds of stories that Fowler revels in. As he said last night, while a lot of Lincoln scholars tend to focus on Lincoln the President, or Lincoln the politician, or Lincoln the lawyer, or any other noun-label one could apply to Lincoln, Fowler has always been most interested in Lincoln the human being — the man rather than the American myth. (Fowler’s latest interest: Lincoln the poet. And he makes a compelling argument for the lost verse of America’s greatest president!

Fowler’s talk last night was fascinating, though of course, I expected such brilliance from Fowler — after hearing him read at a few of Tacoma’s Creative Colloquy readings and hearing his engaging interview on the Literally Tacoma podcast, I knew the man knows his Lincoln and knows how to write a story. Still, the thing about Fowler is that no matter how many times you hear him speak about Lincoln, you always wind up learning something new. Which is why I’m eagerly awaiting Fowler’s third Lincoln-related novel — as big a Lincoln fan as I am, I still have a lot to learn.

And Fowler’s the guy to teach me.

 

Terroir Creative Writing Festival, 2017

Over the past few years, I was involved with the amazing group of people who put together the annual Terroir Creative Writing Festival, hosted on the Yamhill campus of Chemeketa Community College. I’ve moved away from the area now and so haven’t been involved in this year’s planning, which means this year, I get to experience today’s announcement of their 2017 speaker list the way everyone else does: with excitement and joy!

tropical

They’ve put together a heck of a lineup, including novelists, memoirists, and poets as well as playwrights, journalists, literary agents — and, to my delight, a few of my friends:


Looks like an exciting festival this year, folks! If you’re anywhere near McMinnville, OR, keep an eye out for the registration forms, sign up, and enjoy all the genius and creativity and community!

Writers gathering at the corner of Forest Avenue and Main Street

I’ve been a fan of Forest Avenue Press practically from the beginning (they received an Oregon Literary Fellowship in publishing the year after I received mine for fiction), and one of the things I’ve always loved about the press, publisher Laura Stanfill, and their authors is how mutually supportive they all are of the larger literary community.

main-street-coverNow they’re turning that general principle into a conscious movement, beginning with a pledge to join in the efforts. The official rollout of the movement is at this year’s Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Washington, DC, so if you’re at AWP right now, visit Forest Avenue Press at booth #272 (and tell the folks there I said hi! Seriously — a lot of their staff and authors are friends or literary acquaintances).

But if you’re not at AWP, you can still get involved by signing this pledge. And it’s an easy pledge to sign — you pledge to engage in seven literary-community actions, but I think every conscientious literary citizen is already doing all seven anyway (I certainly am). Here’s what you’re committing to:

  • To encourage my neighbor writers in the creation of art.
  • To attend local literary events, because gathering to discuss ideas and encourage creativity is an essential and radical act in these times.
  • To support my independent bookstore or, if I don’t have one, order direct from the publisher.
  • To foster a healthy small press and literary magazine climate by reading new work and submitting my own.
  • To introduce new friends to my core community, allowing us to grow louder and stronger together.
  • To credit writers and presses publicly for their ideas, photos, and efforts, and to be genuine with praise.
  • To celebrate every success in my community as a shared success. This is Main Street. Parades welcome.

You’re already doing all those things anyway, right?

But the pledge is just a beginning. The real purpose here is to start building and supporting our literary community in a whole range of ways:

In addition to the AWP launch, we’re circulating the pledge online, spotlighting writers who make a difference, sharing insights from small publishers and industry thought leaders, and offering Main Street Writers Movement classes in select cities. As we grow, we’ll roll out a website and toolkits for small presses to share with their authors. We also plan to establish a list of small presses and agents that support the movement, so writers submitting their work know they should mention their Main Street involvement in their query letters.

So sign up, tune in, and here’s hoping that, someday soon, I run into you at a literary reading (like the Creative Colloquy reading series in my own Tacoma, WA) or a local indie bookstore (like King’s Books in Tacoma)!

New publication

A handful of years ago, I was so taken with Hosho McCreesh’s poetry collection, For All These Wretched, Beautiful, & Insignificant Things So Uselessly & Carelessly Destroyed…, that I decided to write a story about one line from each of the poems. I eventually conceived a story cycle, each poem-inspired story set in the same ecological apocalypse, and I worked on that project during my writing retreat in 2013. I’m still working on it, still reworking stories to better fit the larger narrative.

20170206_120153But today, I’m proud to announce that the first finished story from that project has been published in the Timberline Review. My story, “Ashfall,” was inspired by the line “Lonely as a weeping trumpet,” from the first poem in McCreesh’s book.

I’m very grateful to the Timberline Review, especially editors Peter Field and Pam Wells, for this publication. The issue is beautiful (my story is immediately preceded by a powerful poem, “Halab (Aleppo),” by Tala Abu Rahmeh) and I’m honored to be counted among such fine writers.

20170206_120235

“Standing Together” with Connotation Press

A handful of days ago, author Meg Tuite put out a call on social media for writers and artists to participate in a video about how we should not just survive the coming year(s) but also fight back against political and artistic oppression under a new regime. The result is “Standing Together,” a video I am proud to have participated in.

I’m embedding it here, but please, click through to the Jan. 15th issue of Connotation Press and send them some traffic. If you’re able, donate to them to help support work like this.

Many thanks to Meg Tuite for organizing this video, to Ken Robidoux for editing it, and to Connotation Press for publishing it. Thanks, too, to all the beautiful, creative people who participated, many of them I’m proud to call friends:

  • Bethany W. Pope
  • Jordan Blum
  • Jack Cooper
  • Joanne Adams
  • Indigo Moor
  • Lidia Yuknavitch
  • Malacki Rodriguez
  • Meg Tuite
  • J. Bradley
  • Ravyn Stanfield
  • David Snow
  • Kari Nguyen
  • Ramon Lovato
  • Teisha Dawn Twomey
  • Len Kuntz
  • Robert Vaughan
  • Cynthia Lee Ameli
  • Paul Beckman
  • Laura Stride
  • Anne Elizabeth
  • Leif Miller
  • Sheldon Lee Compton
  • Kevin Ridgeway
  • April Bradley
  • Josephine Adams
  • Joani Reese
  • Vivian Faith Prescott
  • Matt Tuite
  • Cass McMain

Here are just a few of my favorite lines from the video:

If you know that you’re an artist and you know you have a chance to influence people, now is the time.

~ Indigo Moor

We need to love each other fiercely into the otherness.

~ Lidia Yuknavitch

Reach out, take a holy risk, and find your voice.

~ Gerri Ravyn Stanfield

This is the year of the rebels.

~ Teisha Dawn Twomey

No action is too small. We have to move on, fight on, and, now more than ever, kick complacency to the curb.

~ Cynthia Lee Ameli

Words are my fists and my knives.

~ Vivian Faith Prescott

How much is your book worth?

170109_books_scratch-book-jpg-crop-promovar-medium2

Earlier today, my writer and publisher friend Michael Seidlinger shared a Slate article on Facebook: “You Can Write a Best-Seller and Still Go Broke.”

The piece is part opinion on the state of publishing today and part review of a new anthology, Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living.* The Slate piece opens with quotes from Cheryl Strayed, an Oregon author whom I met once at a party and who is close friends with some of my Oregon literary pals. It also includes quotes from Roxane Gay, over whom I totally fanboyed at an AWP a few years ago.

In other words, it includes people I don’t really know in real life but through whose lives I’ve passed just long enough to know that they are human beings, which is one of the things this anthology is trying to comment on: that writers are not glamorous, wealthy movie stars, we’re people with bills who fret over our bank accounts and, much as we all would like to sit around in coffee shops scribbling art into expensive notebooks, actually have to be mindful of our expenses and our incomes and treat our writing like the job that it is, even when it doesn’t pay us anything.

In his public Facebook post, Seidlinger (who is an author, the publisher-in-chief at Civil Coping Mechanismdirector of publicity for Dzanc Books, and reviews editor at Electric Literature), shares his own accounting (pun intended) of his writing life, ending with the observation that “at the end of the day/month/year, my hope is to have enough after all costs and bills to be able to sit down, not be anxious about money, and read the words on the actual page of the book I’m reading rather than tuning into the doubts continuously swirling in my head.”

So, I’m following in some tremendous footsteps here, but yeah, as Seidlinger says, let’s all be candid here:

Last year, my wife and I received a modest return from our income taxes because I actually spent more as a writer than I made. Book tours, promotions, conferences — I got a little help on the latter from my academic institution, but not enough to cover the costs, so even when my writerly work overlapped with my academic work, the cost was mostly out of my own pocket. The money I did make last year — and, as an adjunct, it still wasn’t much — I earned entirely in the classroom.

Right now, I’m staying home and writing full-time, at least through the end of this academic year. Most folks think that’s great, and it is, but I get the feeling that they assume I’m living off the sales of my books. In reality, because both my chapbook publishers are tiny enterprises barely breaking even themselves, both publishers paid me partly in copies (my current chapbook also pays me royalties, which is rare for chapbooks), and I have the option to buy more copies at cost. I always wind up giving away my free copies to family, but I do make a few dollars off every chapbook I sell myself, meaning I buy the copies at cost (and pay for the shipping) and then sell my copies at readings. I’ve sold about ten chapbooks in the last six months; I’ve made a little less than $50 in profit on my chapbooks, total, in that half-year.

(By all means, though, don’t wait to run into me before you buy your copy of Where There Is Ruin — go ahead and buy a copy directly from Red Bird Chapbooks, because while I do get royalties from those sales, too, buying straight from Red Bird helps make their next chapbooks possible. I love that model, so please, pay it forward!)

Hagridden cover badge
Not gonna lie: I’d be chuffed if you decided to buy my novel. People seem to like it, and every sale helps!

And while my novel, Hagridden, is still selling a book or two a month (and thank you, dear readers, for picking up a copy!), and I’ve sold a few of my own copies at recent readings, overall sales have been slow enough that I’ve actually gone three quarters now without a royalty check.

So what’s financing my writing this year? A part-time gig tutoring online (which I love) that nets me maybe a hundred a month, and my amazing faculty-librarian wife.

All of which is to say, we writers aren’t movie stars. We aren’t Wall Street wizards. Most of us make little or nothing off our work, even when we’re doing well. “That books still make money at all is something of a miracle,” this article concludes. And it’s true that “the vast majority of books don’t make money; publishing, like baseball, is a game predicated on failure.” But here we all are, failing anyway — failing better, as Samuel Beckett told us all to do. Because, as this article concludes, there is a difference between the value of our work and the price of our books.

c0uk0zquoaaogea
Every sale of this book helps support Planned Parenthood. Buy copies for yourself and all your friends!

Take my friend Dena Rash Guzman, for example. She’s just published her second book of poetry, Joseph. I love Guzman’s poetry and I’ve long been eager for this book, so its value for me was already well beyond its cover price. But Guzman — who has her own bills to pay — announced at her book release party that every penny of her royalties will be donated to Planned Parenthood to help support women’s health. “Every cent,” she emphasized on her public Facebook post today. And whatever the price of her book, that gesture makes the value of Guzman’s work immense.

So consider the last book you bought. What did it cost? And what was its value? And how much of that, either value or price, do you think ought to go to the bookstore that shelved the book for you, to the publishers who risked their money printing it, and ultimately — most importantly — to the author who likely risked their next meal or their rent check just to write that book?

Something to think about as you shop for books this coming year.


* Full disclosure: this book is published by Simon & Schuster, the company that has paid a $250,000 advance to hate-monger Milo Yiannopoulos. This puts me in a tricky position, because I love and admire the writers in this anthology and I know they had no say in their publisher’s acquisition of a hate-monger’s work. And I’m still on the fence myself about whether to support the publisher who supports Yiannopoulos. Nevertheless, I have chosen not to link to this anthology or the Simon & Schuster site. I do not support Yiannopoulos or the publication of his hate-mongering, but I do support Manjula Martin’s important anthology and the writers included in it; I leave you to decide whether to buy this anthology or to boycott all of Simon & Schuster’s titles, as you see fit.

Booklist 2016 and my reading goals for 2017

It’s been another slow year in reading. I could make excuses — I spent the early part of the year mourning my grandfather’s death, and then we moved in the middle of the year, and I’ve been writing full-time since fall, and the election knocked the wind out of me — but they’re just excuses. Still, as last year, it’s been quality over quantity, and I’m happy with my list this year even if I am eager to start making a bigger dent in my to-read stack in 2017.

So here’s the list of books I read this past year:

  • 30 Americans: Rubell Family Collection
  • Reader’s Digest Complete Do-it-Yourself Manual
  • Adrianne Harun, The King of Limbo
  • Alec Clayton, Tupelo
  • Alexis M. Smith, Marrow Island
  • Andrew Malan Milward, I Was a Revolutionary
  • Barbara Drake, What We Say to Strangers
  • Bill Watterson, The Essential Calvin and Hobbes
  • Bill Yarrow, Pointed Sentences
  • Bobby McDonald, Out of the Darkness: The Black Face of Hopkins County Volume III
  • Christian Kiefer, The Infinite Tides
  • David Mason, Ludlow
  • Doug TenNapel, Cardboard
  • Emily O’Neill, You Can’t Pick Your Genre
  • Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
  • Jac Jemc, A Different Bed Every Time
  • Jonterri Gadson, Blues Triumphant
  • Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan, Rift
  • Len Kuntz, I’m Not Supposed To Be Here and Neither Are You
  • Lydia Maria Child, The American Frugal Housewife
  • Margaret Malone, People Like You
  • Michael Hemmingson, Pictures of Houses with Water Damage
  • Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings
  • Mo Daviau, Every Anxious Wave
  • Monica Drake, The Folly of Loving Life
  • Raina Telgemeier, Sisters
  • Rolfe Cobleigh, Old-Time Farm and Garden Devices and How to Make Them
  • Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
  • Tim Winton, Dirt
  • Tony Earley, Tall
  • Tsunetomo Yamamoto, trans. by Alexander Bennett, Hagakure: The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai

 

And also, here’s a list of comics I’ve read, both in trade volumes and in single-issues I’m collecting:

  • Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang, Paper Girls (issues 4-10)
  • Chelsea Cain and Kate Niemczyk/Joelle Jones, Mockingbird (issues 1-8)
  • Jason Aaron and Olivier Coipel, The Unworthy Thor (issues 1 & 2)
  • Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman/Steve Epting, The Mighty Thor (issues 1-13)
  • Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez, Spider-Gwen (issues 6-12)
  • Mark Russell and Steve Pugh, The Flintstones (issues 1-6)
  • Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard, with Cliff Rathburn/ Stefano Gaudiano, The Walking Dead (trade Vol. 20-25)
  • Roxane Gay/Ta’Nehesi Coates/Yona Harvey and Alitha Martinez/Afua Richardson, World of Wakanda (issue 1)
  • Ta’Nehesi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze/Chris Sprouse, Black Panther (issues 1-8)

I like to do breakdowns of my reading, just to see what I’m getting into and what I should read more of. This year, for some reason, story collections outweighed novels 9-7, which surprised me — pleasantly! I love story collections and they deserve more support.

I also only read 4 poetry collections, which feels like FAR too few, and only 4 nonfiction books and 3 religion/philosophy texts, which also feels light. (I also contributed chapters to a nonfiction text — a new student writing handbook for the community college I worked at. And writing nonfiction takes a hell of lot more time and effort than reading it!) Then again, my whole list this year is light, so I suppose it’s not as surprising as it feels.

The past few years, I’ve tried to be more conscious of the diversity in my reading habits, but habits being what they are — and the publishing industry operating the way it does — I often fail my own expectations. That was the case this year: of that list, only a bit more than a third are by or included women writers, and only eight titles are by or include writers of color. That’s not good enough.

To be fair, that’s partly because some of these are older nonfiction works from an era and in genres that favored men even more a few — or several — decades ago than they do now. And some of these are in a field that today still far too heavily favors male creators: comics. The comics I read this year involved nine people of color and six women as writers or artists (I don’t know the personal lives of all these creators, so I don’t know how many comics I’m reading involve LGBTQ writers or artists), but Black Panther and World of Wakanda alone account for six people of color and four women. These are two stunning, groundbreaking comics, but I still have plenty of work to do diversifying my reading habits, in comics and in general, so it’s something I’ll be looking at as the new year begins.

So that’s my mission for the coming year: read more books from the list my friends helped me create a few weeks back. Expand, learn, embrace, support.

And read, read, read.

May those efforts make for a happier 2017 for all of us, gang!

%d bloggers like this: