What to do when you’re past your prime

Everybody’s got a prime, that peak period when you’re at your best, you do your best, everything just turns up roses all the time, and hey, isn’t that great? The only problem is that primes come and go, and not only don’t they tell you when they’re coming, they don’t tell you when they’re going neither. For some people it’s pretty clear, like athletes. Chances are their primes are gonna be around their mid to late twenties. If they’re professionals they know to cash in then, sign the multi-year deals before it’s too late. But for the rest of us mere mortals, how do you know? And then, even worse, what do you do when it’s over? Everybody knows somebody who peaked in high school. You don’t feel sorry for that stupid fat slob because they had it good when you had it worst, but your time is gonna come and go too, bud, so don’t be gloating too hard. I guess there are people who have multiple primes, like a prime in one area, then a prime in another. Lucky bastards. Most of us only go around once in life and we gotta grab for all the gusto we can get, or was that a beer or cigarette tv commercial from the sixties and didn’t I just date myself? tv cigarette commercials had their prime too, I suppose, though beer just keeps on going and going. I’ve been thinking about this lately because it seems to me I passed my writing prime a couple of years back, and now what? Nothing I’ve written since measures up to what I was writing before, during that six or seven year period when I scribbled down a bunch of stuff I still kind of like. Maybe the secret is forgetfulness. Maybe the secret is time. Maybe if I forget the stuff I wrote and enough time goes by then I can start all over again and think I’m hot shit once again. That’s something no professional athlete can do. If your prime mainly exists inside your own mind (like it does for a true writer of fiction) you can regenerate that prime feeling any old time you want. Just wash the old crap right out of your head. When the going gets tough, go the other way.

Flash Fiction: Summary Style

Once upon a time there was a writer who had an idea for a story, but it was too similar to other stories he had already written, and he tied to avoid repeating himself. Anyway, the germ of the idea was this: imagine a religion where the high priests randomly change the beliefs and rituals and don’t bother telling anyone. People come in to church and, for example, line up for wafers, and the priests look a them, astonished, and ask, “why aren’t you kickboxing? That’s what the Lord requires!” The former queuers now spread out and make feeble attempts at the exercise until the priest finally instructs his minions to show them all the proper form of worship. But don’t get too comfortable, people! This is the Church of Permanent Revolution. You’ll never know when or how it will all go changing again. This Lord not only works in mysterious ways, he’s one random crazy-ass mother.

Forum at your own risk, apparently

My previous post here was double intended to be a reply to a thread on the Amazon KDP author forum about how “free e-books are ruining the e-book market” but I was unable to post it there due to technical difficulties on the forum. I went back yesterday and today and tried again with the same result. Customer support told me they were aware of the issue and working on it, but in the meantime that forum was the site of a slash’n’burn foray where two of the regulars were involved in a really vicious and mean correspondence and one of them went and somehow deleted everybody’s posts for the previous five or six days, including the one I’d intended to post on. Wow. Online forums can be hazardous it seems. I think I knew that but had forgotten, since I haven’t paid any attention to any forums in a couple of years now. I had only randomly clicked on that button to see what goes on, and what goes on there is mostly flame wars, whining about poor sales, and begging for reviews. I think it’s best to stay off entirely, otherwise it seems there are gangs roaming Amazon and Goodreads posting scathing one-star reviews against people for reasons of vendetta or no reason at all. It’s a jungle out there when you’re trying to make a buck. You have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet, only with these people it seems the eggs end up mainly on their faces.

 

wrote/recorded a little song based on some random kindle author posts:

Once again on free ebooks ruining the market

This came up in an Amazon author thread, and I felt like adding my two cents one more time (at this point, it’s added up to a dollar or more I’m sure!)

 

The “e-book market” more or less began as free books, with Project Gutenberg. It took a long time for the internet to grow up, but much of what the internet has become began with the concept of free and still includes much that is free of charge to use, including but not limited to Firefox, Chrome, Linux, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, SoundCloud, Tumblr, Instagram and so on, You hear plenty of complaints about how Instagram is “ruining” the professional photography market, how Napster ruined the music industry, and how ebooks are ruining publishing. You would think there is no more music being made anymore, no more books being published, but it’s quite clear that industries adapt and change. Do artists get screwed in the process? I think it was Mick Jagger who recently said that most professional musicians in history never made much money except for a decade or two beginning in the 1970’s.

In the current state of things, “free” is generally used as a promotional device, a loss leader, a mechanism, a publicity tool. “Free” is part of the DNA of the internet and it isn’t going away. As for quality, it’s been my experience from many years as a bookseller that much of what gets traditionally published is nothing special, that most of what gets bought is typically more of the same old thing. Sure, there’s even worse quality in most amateur ebooks, but the bar was pretty low to begin with. Literature has always been a rare and minor sliver of the book trade, nearly as tangential and profitless as its kissing-cousin, poetry. So-called literary novels are as trophy wives to corporate publishers, primarily paraded for glamor and show, but never sell much at all. The real money is in the tried and true formulaic genre books, which is why there’s so much of it in ebooks as well. If that’s the business you want to be in, you have to play that game and write that kind of stuff and out-hustle and out-compete all the others who think there’s gold in them thar hills.

Part of me believes the ebook market has been held back by the corporate publishers by charging ridiculous prices for what are essentially text files, and delivering poorly edited versions of their manuscripts on top of that. I find as many typos in Harper Collins ebooks as in most of those I get from amateurs on Smashwords.

Speaking of amateurs, I’ve always been happy to be one of those myself. I recently came across an interview with one of my literary idols (Clarice Lispector) who said the same thing. To follow your own beat, do what you want, when you want, not be controlled by markets or money or expectations or public demands, to truly be free creatively. There are people who give their time and their effort to open-source software and at this point in time you hear fewer and fewer complaints that those amateur programmers are ruining the software industry. For me, contributing stories to the general pool follows the same logic, and that is why I give all mine away. There’s room enough, I believe, for professionals and amateurs alike, I could never write the kind of books that sell like hotcakes, nor would I want to. But by the same token, no one can write the books I write (nor would they want to either!) and I think that’s okay.

Finally, I think there will always be people telling stories and always be people making money. I’m not too worried about anything ruining that.

Recommended: Wren, on Wattpad

Wren” is an ongoing serialized novel by Ericka Clay (free on Wattpad) about a character from another novel  (“White Smoke”). Wren is a dirt-poor hard-scrabble small-town high-school girl in some Arkansas backwater, up to her eyeballs in multiple disasters and surrounded by a wooly collection of losers. As they said in the Occupy days, “shit is all fucked up”. She uses, she deals, she gets in fights, her mom’s aborting her baby sister, her dad is dead, her boyfriend’s a cheating scumbag, and high school sucks. In the midst of all that, this girl crackles with life. Ericka writes a vivid character, so alive you can almost even hear the kid’s thoughts out loud. The story is well in line with a long tradition of “poor kid” novels, from Oliver Twist on down, and films like Boy and many others, and it has the contemporary touch of a Breaking Bad as well, so it’s familiar territory. Readers will know their way around, and the tricky parts are 1) avoiding the easy cliches and 2) giving the character her own distinctive perspective and voice. So far (three chapters in), Ericka’s “gittin’ ‘er done”. You might get hooked on Wren. I’d say give it a whirl.

It’s a Continuum

“It’s a continuum” – it’s a family tradition (joke?) to try and see everything in that light – politics, emotions, sexuality, gender identity, intelligence, talent- whatever the topic, we can always sum it up with that saying.

Continuum is also a television show, a sci-fi time-travel series that got me quite hooked recently thanks to Netflix. Despite its weaknesses, the show is compelling to me for a few reasons, the main one being that it deals even-handedly with all of the complexity and ambiguity that comes from the recent technological developments and issues around big data, total surveillance, control of information, police militarization and corporate greed. Good guys and bad guys are not so easily distinguished – one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, the road to hell is paved and so on. The show’s problems do tend to overwhelm it at times. For example, the women tend to cry a lot. Even though they’re as violent and kickass and fearless as the men, still they cry, in nearly every episode. Someone thought this was appropriate, but it’s tiresome. Another problem is that so much is happening, there are so many stories, that most of them go inoperative for long stretches, as if the terrorists go on vacation, or the interlopers from the guture (the “freelancers”) move in and out of utter incompetence whenever it suits the plot. Also, there is a shitload of gunfire and the bad guys miss nearly 99 percent of the time. Come to think if it, nearly everyone misses most of the time. Tiresome. There are the usual endless karate fight scenes where everyone’s arms and legs get broken but they bounce right up again. Bah.

Still, I’m a sucker for time travel even though I understand quite fully that it is the most completely absurd idea in the history of science fiction, because there is no such thing as “time” as a thing-in-itself. The world is not a recording. There is no playback, no rewind, no fast forward. Time is simply our perception of the infinitely complex occurrences of changes happening to everything constantly. There are no discrete moments, and there are no slices. There can be no such thing as “time travel”, but it’s a fun story, full of what-ifs and mind games. Like some of the best science fiction notions, it is at once a vehicle for imaginative work and a revelation of our collective incapacity to truly imagine our own actual reality. With all of our science and brainpower we have as little possibility of perceiving the universe as it really is as any other creature that ever existed, because the very tools we have are defined by their limitations – the brain and its sensory apparatus serve limited purposes and no others. The human brain enjoys thinking of itself as the greatest thing that ever happened, but I’d bet anything that a butterfly brain has the same idea.

The Next in Line: a flash fiction

(For the Etherbooks Flash Fiction competition day seven: topic: ENDINGS)

He didn’t even knock. The intruder burst in through the cellar door of the old Gothic mansion of the world famous author, Ridley Springs, and searched for some time with flashlight in one hand and shotgun in the other until he found the writer way up on the third floor nursing a scotch and soda and watching the late night news. Springs didn’t even blink when the gunman leveled the rifle at his temple and declared it was time to talk.

“Talk away,” the author yawned, and gave his scotch a little swirl.

‘You know why I’m here,” said the gaunt young man.

“I’m sure you disapprove of something or other,” said Springs, still keeping an eye on the television screen, where fire trucks were racing to a scene and announcers sounded highly impressed.

“Shattered Dreams,” the young man said, cocking the gun.

“Aren’t they all?” mused the writer.

“I hated the ending,” the intruder shouted. “So now you’re going to change it.”

“Seriously?” Ridley Springs glanced up at his guest and properly observed him for the first time. Trenchcoat? Check. Attempted facial hair? Check. Young, white, male, check check check. Hadn’t he signed a million books for just such ones? Probably even this one, possibly even more than once.

“Well then,” Springs said, rising to his feet and ambling to his desk, where his world famous old fashioned typewriter resided, the one from which endless tidbits of authorly advice were offered to the masses, advice such as “keep your hair short and your sentences shorter”, and“don’t fall in love with your characters. They aren’t actually real”.

“How would you like it to end?” he asked, taking a seat on the throne, and cracking his knuckles in preparation. At this the young man lowered his rifle and realized the full awe of the moment. He was there, in that hallowed room, at the moment he’d dreamed a million dreams about.

“Kimberley has to live,” he said.

“But then Jason would suffer,” Springs countered.

“I don’t care about Jason,” the young man said. “He deserves to suffer.”

“Okay, Kimberley lives then,” said Ridley Springs, popping a sheet of paper into the machine and beginning to pound away on the keys.

“And another thing,” the youth advised. “I hated how you ended it in the middle of a sentence. You ought to finish that sentence. It was rude.”

“Yes, you’re right,” Springs confessed. “It was very inconsiderate. I do apologize. I will fix that too while I’m at it.” Springs had of course by this time used his foot to press the button concealed on the floor beneath his desk, the button which sounded an alarm at the local police department. He couldn’t be sure precisely how stupid this latest intruder might be, but he had a hunch.

“Is there anything else?” he asked. The visitor shook his head.

“Just fix it,” he said. “And then I’ll – “

Adopt-a-Nut: a flash fiction

(For the Etherbooks Flash Fiction competition day six: topic: SPACE)

Joan was a decent sort, the kind of nutjob you don’t regret buying at the government’s Auction. Other villages had their hands full with the wackos they’d picked out, but we at North West Fang Two were satisfied with ours. Every block had to have one since they turned the public health into what they called a “distributed system”. She kept mostly to herself, wasn’t the financial burden like some. She wasn’t a saint, and there were the baseline maintenance costs. It helped that Joan’s parents had been rich enough that some money came down from Central to the Local Council. Of course we didn’t know that when we picked her out. Mostly we got her because the other choices were clearly worse; a large young male schizophrenic, an insufferably incompetent Elvis impersonator, and a perpetually pregnant paranoiac. Joan seemed glorious by contrast.

She was a short, thin anorexic with bright red hair, a constant jogger and accomplished collector. There was nothing she wouldn’t hoard. You’d see her all the time dragging rubbish of all sorts down the streets and into her tiny cottage. Sally and I took to peeking in the windows to see if we could figure out where all that junk finally got to. It seemed there couldn’t be nearly enough room in there. Our own little bungalow was about the same size and we could barely squeeze ourselves into it, let alone the piles of phone books, broken chairs, random metal bars, discarded dolls, bags of used clothing and assorted other whatnots we’d see little old Joanie carrying about. Always cheerful, with a smile and a happy greeting such as “Capitalism is Evil!” and “Mind your pants!”, Joan became quite a fixture around here. She was among the loudest singers at Church on Sundays and would never refuse to pet a friendly dog.

One day Joan caught Sal and me trying to peep through her side yard window. Sally was on my shoulders with her face pressed up against the glass.

“What do you see?” I whispered.

“There’s nothing in there,” she whispered back.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “We just saw her pushing a broken motorbike in the front door yesterday!”

“Hullo Jimmy!” It was Joan, come around the back yard and standing there staring at us. Sally crawled down and tried to hide behind my back.

“Oh, hullo Joan,” I answered politely.

“Bet you’re wondering,” she smiled. “Where did it all go?”

“It did occur to me,” I mumbled.

“I’ll let you in on a secret,” she took a few steps toward me, and stretched out her arm with her hand open, palm up. Sitting there on it was a little yellow ball, like a golf ball from mini-golf.

“It’s all in here,” she said. “In my compactor. Do you want to see?”

“Um, no, that’s okay,” I said, backing away. I believed her. Why not? This whole thing was my own delusion anyway. I’m the guy they bought at North West Fang Fourteen.

Dinner and a Movie: a flash fiction

Dinner and a Movie (Etherbooks Flash Fiction competition day four: topic: MOVIES)

Richmond Shelbourne and his wife Patricia were getting ready for a night out. He was carefully pulling on his paisley sweater vest while she examined her eyeliner in the bathroom mirror.

“I don’t know why we have to go to dinner and a movie,” Richmond said.

“It’s the Hamblins’ idea, dear” his wife replied. “It’s just their way.”

“I know, honey, I know,” he grumbled. “And it’s always the same. We’ll suggest Chinese and Sharon will say okay but then remember some place she saw in the Sunday paper, and pull out her clippings folder.”

“I know It’s right here somewhere,” Patricia imitated their friend, and they both chuckled.

“In the end, after sorting through the whole mess, it’ll be Chinese after all.”

“Chen Le,” Patricia nodded. “As always.”

“And then Harvey has already picked out a movie whether anybody else wants to see it or not.”

“One of those god-awful spectacles he likes so much,” Patricia added, starting to apply some more blush.

“Later, Sharon will have to talk about their little one’s latest attempts at humor.”

“Doesn’t he come up with the worst jokes?” Patricia asked.

“If you could even call them jokes,” Richmond said “Here’s one from last time. What do you call a dinosaur with no eyes?”

“What?”

“Shut up.”

“What?”

“No, that’s the punch line. Shut up. I kid you not. Then there was this one. What do you call a red zebra?”

“What?”

“There’s no such thing as a red zebra.”

“Real funny, that one,” she said. “And Harvey, he’ll go on and on with his theories about the movie we just endured. Last time it was that Planet of the Apes movie and he was relentless in his theme that the Apes were just like Indians in a cheesy Western.”

“How?” Richmond asked.

“He meant in the way that …”

“No,” Richmond interrupted. “I meant ‘How’ like the way the Indians in those movies are always saying ‘How’. Why do they say that? What does it mean?”

“Hell if I know,” Patricia shrugged.

“Why we put ourselves through it,” Richmond began, and this time it was his wife who butted in.

“For the wife-swapping, of course, you silly man,” she said. “You still like screwing Sharon, don’t you?”

“Sure,” he smiled, “and I know you like getting it on with Harvey.”

“Yes I do,” she replied, puckering her lips to apply the last of the lipstick touch ups. “Well then, shall we?”

“I suppose so,” Richmond said.

“Don’t be glum, dear,” she told him. “It’s only dinner and a movie.”