It’s been about a month since I finished writing my first novel, Most of Our Jugs Are Empty. Get this, since then I wrote a second book. Yeah, on November second I thought to myself, why the hell not, let’s do National Novel Writing Month. I already had an awesome idea (man comes home to an inflatable cow in his living room and it slowly destroys his life over the course of about fifty thousand words).

So I did that and just yesterday (a week early, mind you) I wrapped up the rough draft at a total of about 50,300 words. For whatever reason, three weeks seems to be the exact gestation period for a Peter John McLean rough draft. I have no idea why.

I noticed a lot of cool things while writing my new book, Cow, that I’m sure are because of my experiences writing MOOJAE. First, I noticed that I’m a lot better at writing in every aspect. I felt like my characters came together better and faster and it was easier to create complex emotion without much thought. I knew more fundamentals about writing and, as a result, the characters grew organically out of this. Granted, part of the reason it was easy is that Cow is basically a sequel to MOOJAE, with many of the same characters center stage.

I also noticed my ability to plot a story as I went has improved. I don’t believe in outlines. Mostly because I think they lead to stale and formulaic stories. I get it, some people actually want to follow formulas, and I have nothing against them (except Sue Grafton, of course). With my first book I wrote and wrote and eventually felt like I had a team of characters I sort of believed in (there were a few weak links), but I still wasn’t sure where the story was going. There was a point, about thirty thousand words in, where I no longer knew what to do and the plot took a major swerve. Through the process of rewriting I was able to fix it and—get this—draw more on personal experience instead of fiction in order to make the story work better (it’s usually the other way around).

With Cow, I had less trouble with this. I let the characters do their thing, which is my preferred way of exploring a new draft, and after a slow start for one of them they eventually found their goals and went along their two separate but interesting paths. This means of course that when I go back to revise and rewrite there will be a handful of early scenes that should just be taken out back and shot; I’ll probably replace them with more interesting scenes that develop the characters and push the story forward, or I’ll just remove them. While writing in this fashion means that the story may start slow, there is no reason that stuff can’t be removed down the line and once you figure out where the characters should be going, it all works out. This is how it worked for Cow. One of the two protagonists (the protagonist from MOOJAE) sat around moping and getting high for the first five or six thousand words until an opportunity fell into his lap. While these first few thousand words of monotony need to be removed, I can expand on the opportunity, I can foreshadow in the next draft, and I can tie everything together wonderfully.

This brings me back to writing MOOJAE, which is where I learned how to do this. When writing from an outline I imagine there is far less need or desire to rewrite because you already engineered your book and so you know where the story is going before it gets there. You lose some of the excitement of an exploratory process but in exchange you get a strong sense of organization and won’t have to go back and wonder how the hell you’re going to fix a plot point that makes no sense whatsoever.

However, the advantage to the organic exploratory write-until-it-makes-sense style is that when you go back you can add in more organization, more foreshadowing, and so on. You can develop the characters better; make it clearer to the audience what the character’s motives are and why he or she is headed in whatever direction h/she is headed in. While I learned all of this from writing Most of Our Jugs Are Empty, I truly got to implement it while writing the rough draft of Cow.

One final thing that I learned while writing MOOJAE that specifically helped me in writing Cow was thinking about how all characters have motivation. All characters are people trying to achieve things, trying to get places, or in many cases (at least in my dystopian Donald Goines esque wasteland desert) just trying to survive. The more you understand that every character has a unique and specific motive, the more likely all of your plot points will resonate with normal humans reading the book. If a plot point happens because an author needs it to happen but none of the characters involved would ever let things go that way, you have problems (and I think that this dilemma is way more common in outlined books, where the author has unilateral control without any checks and balances from the cast).

I have had issues with this motivation thing myself, even though I don’t outline books at all. I still had directions I wanted to take the book and so I took it that way, not even considering how some key characters would likely object to it.

The first draft of Most of Our Jugs Are Empty was the roughest, most confused, most claustrophobic, most depressing and screwed up and disorganized draft of a book possible. I could have submitted it in a competition for truly hopeless drafts and it would have fared well. Through revision and rewriting it steadily got better until I called it finished (I’ll put it up on Amazon soon enough).

Cow is a much better first draft. I like to think that means it will end up being an even better book when I’m done with it.

About a week ago I finished writing my book, Most of Our Jugs Are Empty. I formatted it for mobi, loaded it onto my Kindle, sat down for about five hours, and read it beginning to end.

I liked it.

It was a weird feeling. Two years ago, well, in the summer of 2014, I sat down with a rough idea of a story I wanted to tell. Like basically all of the ideas that I have for stories, it was really weird. It had to do with a girl and a boy, but the boy was in a rat suit and the girl wasn’t always a hundred percent honest. And then there was this semi-paranormal element. And all these gangs and drugs too.

I was basing it heavily on my own life, drawing from personal experience for most of the skeletal structure, and then adding in other ideas as they came to me. Over time the characters started to develop their own motives, their own voices, personalities etc. By this point I feel like most of the primary and secondary characters are strong enough I could write spinoff books about their own lives. Which I think is pretty cool; I like developing characters to the point that I no longer feel they can accurately be described as rip-offs from people that I’ve known, but are instead truly original.

But that took a lot of time.

I’ve finally reached the point where I’m going to ship it off to an editor and then publish it on Amazon so other people can read it. Two years after I started playing with the idea for it.

In general, not just writing, I think that the best way to improve at a task is by tackling projects that are a little bit too hard. Tasks that at first seem impossible, once broken down to their component parts seem difficult but doable, and after a lot of work begin to seem like real possibilities. This is true for all elements of life, whether you’re trying to climb the chess rating ladder or learn Python.

One of the most meaningful discoveries for me during this process was learning to balance right and left brain activities. Figuring out how much of my book should be creatively driven and how much should be engineered. There are certainly those out there who would make the argument a book should be entirely creative, and of course there are monstrous hacks like Sue Grafton who write every book using the same color-by-numbers formula ad nauseum.

However, as I wrote MOOJAE and then rewrote it, I had to figure out the balance. How much did I care about having a page-turner plot versus how 'fully realized' did I want my characters to be? Did I want realism at any cost, including the reader’s attention span? Or did I want to minimize some elements to keep the tension in the situation?

It was this obsession that got me reading my book over and over again. I would change scenes, adjust some of the dialogue, add or cut descriptions, and then I would sit down (for about five hours) and read my book beginning to end. This, to me, is one of the hardest things about writing a full-length novel. Writing a blog post or a short story is much easier simply because you can quickly read through the entire thing to see how cohesive it is; however, with a book, figuring out the pacing requires either an innate sense of it or the willingness to continually test it out through rereading.

I’m sure that as I write a second book, this will become easier. Like all things, the more practice you get at it, the easier it gets. I already feel like most elements of my writing have improved through this practice. My dialogue is generally more realistic, my narration and action are finding a better balance with less meandering but also fewer instances of things taking place without a shred of introspection.

All of these things take time and practice.

Perhaps the greatest takeaway, however, is that writing this book has made me an exponentially better reader. Before writing a full-length novel, I read books for entertainment primarily, with an interest in the writing style, sentence structure, and general mood of a novel as a secondary interest. Now, however, I read a book like it is a recipe for creation. I try to see and understand how the different mechanisms in the book interact. I pay close attention to the plot structure of books; frequently reread them once I know the storyline to see when different ideas are introduced, to see how long an author will string a reader along before revealing key pieces of information.

Revealing information at the right opportunity is truly part of the magic of good writing. We Need to Talk About Kevin is an extremely good example of this. American Pastoral is as well. Kurt Vonnegut’s entire oeuvre is a master class in revealing all of the information in a way that seems entirely too early, then carefully weaving a surprising tale out of that information, using strange narrative structures and a heavy handed narrator to weave it all together. I’ve reread Timequake many times trying to understand how Kurt Vonnegut could open a book saying basically, “Okay, so this manuscript was shit. It’s just about the universe getting smaller and then getting bigger and so people are moving back in time and stuff and also the narrative doesn’t make a lick of sense because sometimes I’m Vonnegut and sometimes I’m not and sometimes we’re in one year and other times we’re in a totally different year and I never both to clarify.” And yet, it’s by far my favorite book of his, because the real revealing qualities of the novel are in the characters’ interactions with one another, with their own natures being revealed, and with the many anecdotes that Vonnegut sprinkles throughout the book.

Now that I have finished writing Most of Our Jugs Are Empty I feel a mixture of relief and confusion. The relief stems from having completed a project that I’ve been working on for over two years. The confusion is the “shit, did I forget something important?” variety. I suppose you can’t rewrite a book again and again, edit it thoroughly, read it a hundred times, and expect to call it finished without at least a mild sense of jitters.

So it goes.

I expect that this blog post will be the beginning of a series on the subject of writing Most of Our Jugs Are Empty. There are so many things that I learned in the process of writing the book that I haven’t even realized all of them yet. Whether or not other people find the book interesting, it certainly helped me improve as a writer. Even if you’re just going to let the manuscript collect dust on a bottom shelf of a bookcase, the process of writing it definitely changes you as an author.

 

 

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A lot of people need a real reason to play chess. It isn't enough to simply enjoy the satisfaction of the game; the late nights staring at your laptop blasting Chief Keef mix tapes and crushing noobs, the long drives to tournaments where you sit under fluorescent lights in total quiet, the afternoons at chess clubs with half a dozen people critiquing (usually criticizing) your position, and the general smug self satisfaction of being in the top ten percent at a shitty board game. I don’t count myself among these people who need real productive reasons to play the game, I play it just to play it, but still. They exist. And it’s a reasonable question. Does chess improve your memory? Will it make you a smarter person?

There are actually a lot of mental benefits to chess, but more importantly, there are psychological benefits. See, when you really think about it psychological benefits are better than mental benefits anyway. Would you rather be smarter or more content being a retard? If you give it a fair amount of thought its pretty obvious that having the mental fortitude to accept yourself for being dumber than the average Nickelback fan is actually better than reaching Stephen Hawking levels of brains and hating yourself. Let me get ahold of myself before I digress.

The point is that what chess does is more valuable than simply improving your memory or learning to calculate more intensively. Sure, chess probably does both. I have always had shit memory and trouble concentrating and after four years of playing chess I’m definitely more capable of thinking in abstract terms and remembering complex spacial relationships. But the real value of chess is the psychological value, which includes mental stamina, mental fortitude, pragmatism, risk management, time management, and coping with loss. Chess teaches all these important life skills and all you have to do is move little plastic chess pieces around a board for a few years. It’s great.

A lot of these concepts sort of overlap. I kind of felt like a hack even listing them because time management, risk management etc, they all sound like sort of the same thing. But they really aren’t.

One of the first things a serious chess player realizes is that the game takes a long time to learn. Learning how the pieces move takes maybe a half hour or so. Then you start trying to get the pieces to work together. A few months later you’re feeling pretty confident that you know how to work them together, but every time you play people who actually seriously play the game you find you’re dropping all of your pieces. You can't even concentrate on your own strategy because all over the board your opponent is creating more threats and all your material is hanging or tripping into tactics.

It’s tough. It takes years of deliberate practice to get to even a decent level of competence. And even after years of practice, after several difficult tournaments, after working through tactics books, studying openings, learning the meticulous moves necessary to complete two bishop checkmates or knight and bishop checkmates, you’l play a Fide Master who only has time to play you one blitz game because he’s “trying to focus on more serious games”. That's chess.

And the individual games are just as emotionally taxing. You’ll play hard games against good opponents, have a winning position, you’ll start to feel confident, ready to collect the scalp from the great player who’s suffering under your crushing middle game play…and then you’ll blow it. You’ll hang your queen in the most retarded way possible, your friends will laugh, the old codger in the corner will point out you actually had a mate in one ten moves back, and you’ll slither off to commit sudoku out of shame.

It’s seriously tough. If you are even half decent at chess you put in hard work. You probably spent a lot of long nights playing and working at the game. You studied master games. You did computer drills. You put in all that work and you play a game with a zero-sum outcome. You suffer the emotional toll of losing to someone who was better than you.

It’s good for you. It’s good for your soul.

People like to know if chess will make them smarter. They like to think about how problem solving and breaking down puzzles will turn them into physicists or whatever. In reality, your intelligence is mostly genetic and more importantly, it isn’t very importance to your success in life or happiness. However, the qualities that chess does cultivate are integral to your success and happiness. Skills like risk management and time management, both of which are core to good chess play, are skills that are driving factors in human success.

Chess makes you tougher. It makes you more resilient. You learn to handle losses, you learn to handle change, and you learn how to enjoy internal rewards. You work very hard and are rewarded for the efforts with slow, incremental progress.

So yeah, chess improves your mental stamina. But it really makes you a better human being.

If you trawl the Internet for remarks about Laszlo Polgar’s Chess: 5334 Problems, Combinations, and Games you’ll find lots of comments about how long the book is. With a thousand pages and five thousand chess problems, I’d say those comments aren’t wrong. If you read more comments you’ll find the usual complaints about the book being repetitive, unnecessary, and—of course—that it uses compositions.

Compositions, in chess parlance, mean that the position isn’t taken from a real game but was instead composed by someone as an exercise in chess piece activity. For reasons I cannot hope to ever understand, this tarnishes a puzzle’s value in the eyes of a shitload of otherwise cool and interesting chess players. If the position didn’t come from a game then it isn’t practical, they say, it’s just pure fantasy that you won’t ever come across in a real chess game.

In a lot of these cases, they’re absolutely right. Some of the puzzles, especially in the massive section of Mate in Two puzzles, are utterly ridiculous with three bishops or five knights, all carefully placed around a lone black king who, in many cases, doesn’t even have any current flight squares. In order to solve the puzzle the reader must figure out how to provide the king with just one flight square (to assure a stalemate isn’t reached) and then checkmate with the follow up move. For me at least, many of these puzzles are incredibly challenging, some taking me as much as twenty minutes to solve.

So why do I waste hours of my evenings solving puzzles that I won’t ever see in my games? To understand that, you need to understand something an amateur painter and ex-con told me in a dingy bookstore at two in the morning in Pueblo, Colorado, circa 2009…

“The entire world is just teardrops and eggshells,” he said. He was wearing nothing but a wife-beater and ripped jeans, a canvass of homemade tattoos displayed on his arms and chest and his clothes were smeared with a reddish dust colored paint he was using to try and render the mustache of an eighty one year old chain-smoking war vet. He might have slurred his words, as he was drunk on cheap wine and was trying to paint a picture of the WWII veteran Don Campbell, who owned the bookstore and let us stay up all night drinking and painting and smoking in his bookstore.

I never figured out how to paint and honestly I never cared. I preferred writing and playing chess but the concept he was relaying stayed with me anyway. His point was that a complex image can be reduced to just teardrops and eggshells. Once you fully understand that, it becomes easier to paint because you're just breaking the image down into teardrops and eggshells and then building on these simple brushstrokes. If you can paint these two very simple shapes, you can paint anything.

Now back to chess, Polgar, and the debate about compositions.

Compositions are the eggshells and teardrops of chess. Many of the puzzles Polgar presents in his book don’t resemble real chess positions. Not even close. But they force you to consider the flight squares a king might travel, the way the pieces can interact to protect each other while roping off the king, and they force you to think about all of the legal moves a piece can make, instead of the traditional ones you’ve been making in one game after another.

It’s easy to play an opening like the King’s Gambit or the French Defense and just put your knight on f3, your bishop on c4 and try to castle as early as possible, looking for the same tactics you look for every time. You play practically the same game every time, winning or losing based on a couple of tactical missteps.

Polgar’s book helps you to start seeing more possibilities. Sure you won’t revolutionize the opening, disproving 1.e4 and proposing the fundamentally ridiculous 1.h4 (my friends and I call this the McLeanovich), but you’ll consider knight and bishop moves that previously seemed nonexistent. You’ll have a better understanding of how to force a king where you want him with a quiet move, instead of checking him wildly and pushing him into complete safety (something I did constantly before studying Polgar).

I’m still working through the Mate in Two puzzles of Polgar’s book. I spend so much time solving them, and struggle with so many (even getting quite a number of them wrong) that as soon as I finish the puzzles I will return to do all of them over again. I might even set them all up on a real board for my second time through, so that I’m seeing what they would look like in an OTB (over the board) game.

I’m by no means a good player. I’m about 1500 across the board at chess.com, about 1600 on ICC, and have a pitiful 1100 provisional rating with the USCF. There is a lot about chess that I don’t know, but what I do know is that when I dedicate a lot of time to Polgar’s book, my ratings steadily rise. When I stop using his book and just play, my ratings drop or stagnate.

One final note. The only other criticism I see consistently lodged at Polgar is that it’s a book of mating puzzles, which teaches players to attack constantly and isn’t relevant except in complex endgames. Again, this argument is really no different than the argument about compositions. Even though the puzzles are all forcing moves leading to an immediate checkmate, the purpose is to find strong forcing moves that surpass the value of all other moves on the board. The only real difference between this and the many other middle game tactics books available is that if you run positions from the other books through an engine, a fair amount of the time you’ll discover there is an even better move. With Polgar’s book this has never happened to me and likely never will, because the moves are so forcing they lead to mate in either one, two, or three moves.

Just finished Live Bait by Cameron Pierce (Lazy Fascist). Well, a couple days ago.

Live Bait is a short book with a sharp twist in it. A little too sharp, maybe. The first half of the book follows a sort-of drug dealer (Gordon West) and a washed up semi-mental transient who is in love with his Land Rover (Bob). It’s creative. It’s funny. And, following in the tradition of Cameron Pierce novels, it’s a little ridiculous.

The story centers on the two above characters, who are both dedicated fishers, working the Esplanade in Portland. Shit gets tough when they run into a twenty-foot long Lovecraftian monster fish and decide it’s their destiny to catch the fucker.

This, alone, would have made a great story. But it evolves from the monster-hunting escapade that it is to become a story about Bob and the cult he miraculously composes out of a lifetime of friendships. Gordon West is the newest of Bob’s hopelessly infatuated pals.

Did I mention that the world is ending as a result of the Lovecraftian monster fish that are taking over Portland? Shit gets real and the National Guard shows up and then says, “Fuck it,” and rolls out, leaving the city to fend for itself.

Live Bait is pretty fucking crazy. Is it Ass Goblins of Auschwitz crazy? Nah. But that’s one of my favorite things about this book. Cameron’s insanity is a little tempered. The unbelievable elements of the story are still there, but not at bizarro levels.

Early in the story Gordon and Bob spend time together. Drink beer. Gather fishing supplies and crash in Gordon’s apartment. Bob, who is in love with a Land Rover, imparts some wisdom on relationships early on, especially on the value of limiting it to automobiles. And this theme, the complexity of loving things that cannot love you back, is effectively reinforced later in the story when Gordon is struggling with being a mere tool for the Cult of Bob (and his fucking Land Rover, Melinda).

When it comes to fishing, Cameron Pierce knows his shit. When it comes to Lovecraftian horror, Cameron Pierce knows his shit too. Live Bait is a fun hybrid of these two things, with enough realism to the fishing efforts of Gordon and Bob to effectively place a willing reader in the madness of the situation. Highly recommended.

 

If you're reading this, you've probably been to a reading--as either participant or audience member. You might have enjoyed the reading. You might not have. But one thing is certain, you have witnessed many behaviors not suitable for public interaction. And if you haven't noticed, you're part of the problem. Which means you suck just as much as a sucky reading. Things need to change for both sides. Because if what you do to express yourself, like if that thing sucks to you and other people, that really sucks you know? I mean, fuck.

If you're a reader, be proud to read your shit. Even if not feeling any pride is what you write about, even if being a depressed shithead is your thing, just fucking read. You can be yourself. It's ok. Why act like anyone else? If doing a reading is your way to network or exercise petty self-satisfaction, you suck. Don't get up and read. You suck.

Oh but like, if 'yourself' is a person who suddenly reads with a 'mystic poet' inflection, then don't be yourself. That sucks too. It makes you look like you know more about your shit than anybody else, like a priest or magician. And for that, you suck. You're not a priest or a magician, you're an entertainer. Is that how you read to yourself when you're alone? Do you read other peoples' emails and text messages that way? Because if you do, you suck. Don't do that either.

Don't tell any stories before you read. That sucks and nobody cares and you're not good at just telling a story, that's why you write them down. Assume nobody cares about your life at all outside of what you're about to read. Because they don't. They probably won't even give you a free beer from their shitty 30 pack.*

Don't be nervous. What is there to be nervous about? Look into the audience of maybe 50 people. Who gives a shit. For once, you have a group of people paying attention to you for whatever you want to say, rather than billions of people constantly watching you do whatever you're doing. Also, if you're nervous, don't talk about it in a precious bogus way, just let it flow. Otherwise people will think you might suck.

You don't have to do your 'thing' when not reading. Like when just asskissing and talking to other writers, you don't have to keep doing the fake personality thing. It really doesn't matter how you act. So don't act. That sucks for people to have to witness.

If you're in the audience, don't treat the reader like some precious icon, you can yell shit about how you feel. Or even just like 'yeah!' or 'hm!' That shit is good. Try yelling, 'I like that' at a reading. It's really something, I tell ya. It's just people trying to enjoy themselves or feel something.

Don't get offended by anything. You're at a 'creative writing' reading. If there is anything that can't be said at such a thing then what the fuck. If you decide not to like someone based on their writing, that's cool; don't give him or her your money. There are probably 10,000 other reasons you would hate them too. It's cool, but you don't have to make it about an individual on a petty personal level. It makes you look weak and irrelevant and you probably are. Which sucks for everybody involved.

*If you brought a 30 case of shitty 12 dollar beer, then you have to know that shit is gone in a half hour tops. It's not yours anymore man. Don't be a dick. And don't make a reader pay for a can of your pretentiously shitty beer, it makes you look bad. Just give them out while quickly getting in your 4-8. Be generous. Same thing with weed, chips, etc.

Don't introduce yourself to anyone, regardless of whether you're reading or not. Part of you dies each time an introduction happens. DO NOT be taken with. Stay true, warrior.

If you're the person introducing the readers, maybe like, try. Don't just accept it for egocentric reasons and then talk about how much you suck at introducing shit, like before during and after. Jesus. That sucks.

Develop a higher sense of decency with the bathroom. Even if you're in line, why not scan the line and see if anyone looks like they need the bathroom more, eh? We're all in this together you sucky shitheads.

If you're at a reading I'm doing, just give me ten dollars for no reason.

If you're reading at a bar, or at a reading at a bar, tip the bartender a lot.

If you read, and have books to sell, don't refer to each book by the title as what you have available, but instead, say that you have books to sell, if that. Nobody obsesses over your books like you do, so don't name all of them in some way like you're an amazon customer recommendation algorithm. That sucks. Just assume that if you read and no one talks to you afterward, they don't want any books.

If you buy books, pay nicely. Acknowledge that this person has brought you something in the way of entertainment and they probably don't get paid much. Quit talking shit about how money goes around when you can give to someone you appreciate. Same thing with the fucking beers you fucking hypocritical junior socialist political know it all! UGGHHHH.

It's obvious when you're reading something you don't like because you look bored and upset to be there. And that sucks. Why make people gather into an audience form then stand in front of them without enjoying yourself or helping them enjoy you. Fuck, that sucks.

Don't ask more than once if people can hear you before you start reading. It's a fucking hundred person capacity bar or book store. We can fucking hear you.

You don't have to make eye contact with the audience if you don't want. Seems obvious but you'd be surprised.

If you're the person who, after it's all done, makes the suggestion everyone goes somewhere but then no one knows where, just go to the closest bar or apartment. That way less time is lost for networking and general bullshit.

Don't ever ask anyone how they thought you did.

If you thought someone did well, tell them.

If the audience claps for you at all, it's your duty to yell, 'stop!' and get them to stop. No matter what.

If you have like, an assistant or publisher or whoever who basically parents you around the reading, then fuck you.

If you attend a reading at someone's house/apt. then bring a small dish like dip or soup or whatever.

Don't try to film everything, just try to be there.

Don't be on your phone at any point as reader or audience member. It's weird you think you have to be standing there, you can just go anywhere you want. You can walk somewhere peaceful, and without a person trying to get your attention on stage, and look at your phone for hours.

If you're 'awkward' or whatever, just let that be shown, it sucks when someone is over-selling that. Really boils my onions when people do that. Sucks.

Bring dip, think I already said that.

At the end of any reading, EVERYONE HELP WITH CHAIRS AND SHIT! DON'T WALK AWAY! HELP PICK UP THE FUCKING PLACE!

Read Sam's blog and buy all of his books.

 

 

(Steps to writing a book part one)

This is not a true part two—I'm not writing it as a sequel to my first blog post about this—I just had more thoughts about the elements that I've struggled with in my own book writing odyssey.

I've written a few books now, some ghostwritten for clients with big ideas, some poorly organized novels through my formative years, and then a slightly more serious novel that I'm still working on, called Most of Our Jugs Are Empty. I'm definitely still learning how to put a book together, especially a novel, which has a lot of challenges to it that nonfiction books simply don't have.

However, there are a lot of commonalities between writing fiction and nonfiction that I find interesting, as well.

Have a Clear Concept

I think that having a clear concept for a book seems like an obvious thing, but the more I talk to people who are writing books or have ideas for books, the more I realize that a lot of people haven't put thought into this. It's easy to overcomplicate a book by spending time developing ideas. What is hard is drilling down to the core essence of a book until you have one succinct concept.

If you can't sum up your book in about thirty seconds of rambling you aren't clear on the concept and if you aren't clear on the concept it will show in the process of writing the book. You may think that in the process of writing the book it will end up making sense, but even the most complex books break down to simple concepts. The entire seven book Harry Potter series could be summed up as: a boy discovers he's a wizard and goes to wizarding school where he fights evil and comes to terms with the death of his parents. Voldemort, a particularly shitty wizard, tries to promote evil right wing supremacy ideas and is eventually destroyed by the forces of globalism #muggleswelcome.

Even though JK Rowling wrote pretty sophisticated plots with tons of characters intersecting and subplots weaving in and out of the books, the actual core concept was extremely clear. And when the concept is clear there isn't any chance that the book will suddenly wander in a new direction. For example, if there had been no clear Harry versus evil concept in Rowling's mind, she might have decided to have the books arbitrarily start focusing on Hermione's social justice efforts or just the challenges of maintaining strong academics in the wizarding world. Since the concept is clear, things like wizard classes are never more than an entertaining part of the background, as they aren't actually important to the story.

In my book, Most of Our Jugs Are Empty, which isn't finished, I still have a clear concept: an insecure rat meets a girl while living in a declining neighborhood in a declining part of town, he struggles trying to establish himself in his new violent surroundings and impress the girl and eventually pushes her away.

Sure, you might not be interested in a rat meets girl love story with drug use and TEC 9 references, but at least the concept of the book is clear. I'm not trying to write a book about a rat whose deep love of Søren Kierkegaard is probably going to become relevant eventually and wants to date a pretty girl who likes him but is insecure that he isn't violent enough and so he's just going around in circles and then some magical realism comes in probably later and that really complicates things and I really want to incorporate some of Philip Roth's narrative style. Okay enough, I don't even know what I'm saying anymore.

Write a Complete Draft

You may wish to outline before you write a draft. I'm not going to say it's a bad idea, but for some people (myself included) it doesn't really work. I prefer to figure out my whole story by sitting down and writing it and since I know I will rewrite it again and again afterward I don't mind the inherent sloppiness of just trudging along without much structure.

Some people will want every chapter broken down into bullet points. There is nothing wrong with that and for some people it's probably really useful, my only warning is that it gets easier—both with novel writing and nonfiction—to lose the dramatic tension and excitement from the narrative if you just pace everything the same and slip from one element to the next. The benefit of writing a draft without an outline is you'll naturally gloss over the less important stuff and focus on the details and concepts that are most important, which your readers will appreciate.

I'm all for the organic method.

Reflect

When I'm done writing a draft I move on to something different for at least a month, usually writing about donating plasma or how Harry Potter invented Hogwarts. The goal is simply to let go of my main project for a while.

This is a pretty common practice and the more writers I talk to the more I hear others reinforcing this concept. As soon as you've finished a book you're too close to the subject matter and won't be able to read it objectively. Truth be told, you'll never be able to read it objectively, but with a little time you will start to see the glaringly obvious omissions from your draft and major issues that you need to fix.

When you have taken a nice healthy break from your book and are ready to jump back in its time for the best part.

Rewrite

This is one of the most important steps to writing a book. Basically every decent writer everywhere (and all the great ones and horrible ones too) agree that the process of writing really boils to down to the act of rewriting the same thing until it sounds right. This demands patience, but since when did writing a book not demand patience? If your idea of writing a book is simply to write your ideas down and publish them, you aren't really writing, you're simply thinking and then selling those unedited thoughts in word form.

When you read something that flows excellently it is likely because the author took time to find the right words, often reading it out loud and considering how it sounds.

Revision is for slackers, rewriting is for the glorious champions of the written word.

 

 

 

Not too long ago Kevin Maloney wrote a book. It’s called Cult of Loretta and published by Lazy Fascist. It’s a short book and moves quickly. I read it in one very awesome sitting.

Cult of Loretta is a rapid-fire series of fragments surrounding Nelson, the protagonist, and Loretta, the girl with the scalded breast who everyone is in love with. One of the first things apparent to me as I started reading it was Maloney’s adeptness with telling a story in a non-chronological order. Lots of writers jump around sporadically, filling in anecdotes and vignettes in no particular order, but Kevin Maloney is way past that shit. The story starts with Nelson on the ground hoping that his good friend Hoyt, who has just learned Nelson is banging Loretta, doesn’t shoot him in the face. If the gun were loaded it would have been a really short book though.

That first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book, with the constant threat of death looming over everyone, with questions of what comes after and what life (and possible rebirth) really mean, and a healthy number of references to Nietzsche.

Loretta is the happy-go-lucky pregnant drug addict who slips from one of the boys to the next in such a quick succession that they’re, in at least one case, actually tripping over each other for their turn. i.e.

When he knocked on the front door, Grams opened it and said, “Loretta? Take a number.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“The other boy’s in there,” she said.

"Nelson?”

“Oh God,” she said, “How many of you are there?”

The story follows Loretta, her relationship with Nelson, and the true cult following she develops out of these late teenage drug addicts. Even the muscle-bound Pop Warner football player that tried to hospitalize Nelson when they were kids slept with her, and—brilliant work by Kevin Maloney here—sheds light on Loretta’s life that forces even the most icy-veined reader to appreciate Loretta and the gravity of her life situation.

Amid candid depictions of drugged out life in Oregon and Montana, there is a lot of dark and at times pitch black humor.

The teacher told me that I couldn’t be here. She said that visitors had to go to the principal’s office and sign in and get a badge. She said this like I’d already molested two of her students and was catching my breath while I worked up the courage to molest a third.

I still can’t read that without laughing to myself. And it’s representative of one of my favorite things about this book. Kevin Maloney highlights the truly laugh-worthy moments in the shittiest interactions, even adding a sharp one-liner to a suicide that had me cracking up. This is a funny book, no doubt, but more than that, it pokes fun at the things all nineteen year olds take seriously and the serious, life destroying decisions that kids make.

There are many ways to die

The book is ostensibly about this girl, Loretta, who is as addictive as screw, the fictitious (I hope) drug that has Nelson stealing high dollar medical equipment and selling it for cash. And the narrative is loosely structured around Loretta’s whimsical dating habits and Nelson’s at times cringe worthy willingness to follower her into hell (or at least a Montana goat farm where her new apocalypse-ready boyfriend resides). But the book is about much more than that.

Many characters in the book have brushes with death. Interesting brushes. Life changing brushes. Billy exposes the scars on his arms from where he tried to kill himself when Loretta left.

Tyson snorts Comet, is hospitalized, and eventually returns renewed, as Blackbird, who is one quarter Cherokee and quite proud of it.

The very first thing in the book is Nelson being shot in the face with an unloaded gun.

High on screw, Nelson discovers Loretta is dead and tries to use a stolen defibrillator to resuscitate her.

Discovering Loretta dead pushes Nelson to do the unthinkable, he prays to a Virgin Mary statue, promises to change and give polo shirts to the homeless, and returns home to discover that either Nietzsche was wrong and God is alive and well, or he had been hallucinating when he tried to resuscitate her.

What really matters

When you peel back the screw overdoses, the stolen medical equipment, the sex, the rave, the Montana Y2K hysteria, and vindictive teenage garage bands, the story is about finding meaning in life and chasing cheap happiness because no one has really experienced the real thing.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Kevin Maloney sought to write a book about drugs that send the user back into the womb, with side effects that range from ripping out your own teeth to trying to cut your own dick off with a razorblade. But the book ends with Nelson realizing that there is more to fulfillment in life than possessing the love of a drug addicted stripper who has slept with all of his friends.

As it all comes to a close Nelson finds himself consoling Blackbird, the last of them to date Loretta, realizing that Blackbird feels about Loretta the way Nelson, many years back, had felt about her. It puts the whole story in perspective, as thirty seven year old Nelson consoles his friend about a girl he had once done everything in his power to possess.

“The whole time we dated,” he said, “she had that braid, only yesterday she didn’t.”

“You don’t want her,” I said.

He thought about this and told me, “It’s not that simple,” which is how men say, “Look at my broken heart. Look at my broken heart, brother, and tell me I don’t want her.”

It’s a riveting book.

A few days ago I picked up South of the Border, West of the Sun. It was one of the only Murakami novels that I hadn't read yet and I felt it was time to crack it open. I sat down at around seven at night to read it and six hours later collapsed into bed, having stayed up hours later than I planned to read the entire book in a sitting.

It's a short book, only about two hundred and ten pages, so it is truly readable in a sitting (even easier for people who aren't very slow readers like I am). It also is the kind of book that offers great value to anyone willing to sit down and read it front to back. It's just that kind of book; it has a tighter story line than most Murakami books and really centers on a boy and a girl who lose each other during adolescence and find each other again, years later, as adults.

This isn't the first time Murakami has written this concept. His short story, On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning is essentially the same concept. So is 1Q84. It's clearly an idea that Murakami enjoys playing with, especially as he seems so talented at applying his already dreamlike writing to distant lovers.

However, South of the Border, West of the Sun differs significantly from the two other times he's written like this; this time the story is about the conflict that the protagonist, Hajime, faces dealing with his love for Shimamoto (his childhood best friend and a girl he still loves deeply) while being married with two young daughters.

He has built a successful life with two jazz bars, a family, a condo, and a couple of European cars to drive around. He has all the things a person needs to feel complete…in theory.

The book is about Hajime's relationship with Shimamoto, how she spontaneously shows up at his bars on rainy nights to smoke cigarettes, drink cocktails, and talk to him. She won't tell him anything about her life, whether she is married, where her money comes from, or anything else. Hajime, resigned to this, simply talks to her, shares from his own life, and even lies to his wife to go visit a river with Shimamoto.

In typical Murakami fashion there is an almost surgically selected collection of music that defines moods, phases, and the temperament of the characters. This includes the vinyl records Shimamoto and Hajime play when they are kids in her house to the music that the jazz piano trio play while Hajime is at the bar.

Music has always been an integral part of Murakami's novels and "South of the Border" (a song by Nat King Cole) makes this book yet another Murakami titled after music (like Norwegian Wood and Dance Dance Dance).

I love this book. It's easily one of my favorite Murakami novels (though I say that a lot) and it is quieter and more concise than most of his works. Unlike books like Dance Dance Dance, Kafka on the Shore, Norwegian Wood, 1Q84, and many others, this book is very to the point. Every conversation, every scene, every sentence feels completely necessary. The usually wandering style of Murakami—which many of us fanboys and fangirls love—is actually not present this time. Instead the book tracks Hajime's life and every event in it seems to be necessary to appreciating his burdens.

There is a subplot about Yukiko, a girl who Hajime dated when he was in high school, and how he destroyed her by sleeping with her cousin. This simple story about Yukiko and Hajime defines the essence of the whole book, as it shows how Hajime, simply by following his emotional and sexual desires, is capable of destroying other people. He mentions it openly, stating,

I should have learned many things from that experience, but when I look back on it, all I gained was one single, undeniable fact. That ultimately I am a person who can do evil. I never consciously tried to hurt anyone, yet good intentions notwithstanding, when necessity demanded, I could become completely self-centered, even cruel. I was the kind of person who could, using some plausible excuse, inflict on a person I cared for a wound that would never heal

Even earlier, still regarding Yukiko, he warms the reader up to this crucial theme,

But I didn't understand then. That I could hurt someone so badly she would never recover. That a person can, just by living, damage another human being beyond repair.

There are many other recurring themes within the work, including the routine use of the phrase "castles in the air" as a way of exploring how his life is filled with things he decides he want, which then manifest. This is firmly planted in the reality of his life i.e. designing his bar, but obviously reminds the reader of how he's chasing his love for Shimamoto even though he's married.

Even when Shimamoto ghosts him for a number of weeks he copes by focusing on his other "castle in the air", the bar, saying,

Even castles in the sky can do with a fresh coat of paint.

The relatively obvious implication here is that, while he's remodeling his bar, he's really reevaluating his entire life and all of the choices he's made.

There are more examples of imagery in his writing used to explore the concepts that pervade the text. He talks about how there are many things in life that cannot be undone or redone and therefore all other aspects of life follow as a result of them.

The permanence of one's actions deepens the consequences of Hajime and Shimamoto's relationship, as everything Hajime does with her is at the expense of a family and a life he has already created.

The book is great and I highly recommend it to Murakami fans and also probably to people who have never read a Murakami book before. And for readers new to Murakami, I think it's a reasonable starting place, though some of the quieter themes may go unnoticed to someone who isn't familiar with how Murakami uses dreams, dialogue, and other mechanisms to deepen his writing.

 

 

In case you don't know, Edward Bunker is a badass. Well, he was. He's dead now.

I recently bought Dog Eat Dog, which is a story following three ex-cons who are working on getting started robbing drug dealers. The rationale is that drug dealers won't snitch to the cops, so they can handle the whole operation without fear of federal reprisal. As all three of the main characters are career felons with awesomely long rap sheets, it's a smart plan.

One of the most pervasive themes in this book is the three strikes laws in California and the bullshit around that; it's pretty obvious that Edward Bunker, the author of the book, had plenty on his mind about these laws because he seldom skips an opportunity to ramble about how asinine it is to put someone in prison for life for petty crimes, just because they've committed a few priors. He also makes (and later illustrates) the awesome point that if you have two strikes and are about to get arrested for shoplifting, you might as well die bloody in a shoot out with the cops.

Which, incidentally, is pretty much where the story goes.

While Dog Eat Dog ostensibly tracks three guys who are all working together on their new heist gig, the real story generally follows Troy, who is just getting released from prison. Thanks to a decade in San Quentin, he's read a lot of books, matured significantly, and also realized that there is no life for him outside of crime. The book doesn't deliberate much about the impossibility of getting straight after prison for a felon, but it deals in parts with Troy meeting up with his old friends, immediately resolving to skip on his parole and take a new identity etc.

Troy has two strikes and knows he doesn't stand a chance trying to make his way in the non criminal world, so he gets a new identity, connects with some old friends, and starts to set up his drug dealer heist setup with Mad Dog (who stabs his girlfriend to death in the first chapter) and Diesel.

The book follows the three as they work to set up their new gig and balances horrific violence and dark comedy brilliant. I don't normally like books that have a lot of action, I'm generally more of a cerebral fiction type, but if it is going to have action, it should be like Dog Eat Dog, with visceral shoot out scenes, cops getting punched in the face, bird shot slowly whittling away at an armed convict in yet another shoot out with the cops, and some random lovers stabbed to death in the living room.

A lot happens in Dog Eat Dog. It's all very gripping.

My only complaint with the book is the use of the omniscient narrative. I have complained about this before. I won't stop. It's a lazy way to write a book. Hell, even George R.R. Martin knows better and switches third person limited perspective between chapters, which works. But Edward Bunker just describes the thoughts and feelings of whoever he wants, whenever he wants, often switching between two people in the same room whenever it is convenient.

It's a lazy form of narrative and removes a lot of excellent tension. Not to mention, it leaves the reader often feeling like he only has a shallow grasp of all the characters, because there isn't any consistency. If I consistently read a book from the perspective of one character, I can relate to him when he doesn't understand the behavior of other characters. However, if the narrative enters that other characters mind, I as the reader know everything, and am alienated from the characters in a subtle but important way.

The book would have been better if the entire story had been form the perspective of Troy. Yes, the first person account of a coked out Mad Dog McCain stabbing his girlfriend and her daughter to death would have been missed. But Troy still could have heard Diesel recount how he found their bodies in the freezer.

Third person limited is the way to go.

But even still, Dog Eat Dog is an incredible book and everyone should read it.