Sunday, January 1, 2017

Looking Back to Look Ahead: 2017

Never you mind all the unfinished projects in your life going into 2017. If you don't have a few things left to do, what's the point in getting out of bed?

Happy New Year, or maybe scary new year, depending upon your perspective. I tend to take the long-view of life, see events on a long arc of history, but this doesn't always happen, and often, nagging thoughts about my to-do list get the best of me. My to-do list never ends, and this makes me feel unproductive. But moving into a new year, let's take stock.

Overall, 2016 was a poor writing year for me. Personally, I wrote zero fiction. Zero fiction is not a new genre, like emo manga (which by the way, may or may not be a genre; it just sounds like it should be). Zero fiction, if I were to invent it, would be fiction without punctuation marks. Probably already exists and is labeled something else.

"Licking Flames" Diana Kirk
No, what I mean is that I didn't write anything last year that could be classified as fiction. This sounds as if I were a lazy bum in 2016, but in fact, I was busier than ever. I went back to school, foolishly, to study IT. Guess what? I'm a better writer than a computer programmer. PHP made me crazy. Bleech.

Fortunately, I kept my little micro-press engines boiling by editing and publishing a really great collection of essays by Diana Kirk, who lives in my adopted second home, Portland, Ore. Her project, of the many in my 2016 planner, took a great deal of focus because we essentially started from scratch. She didn't have a manuscript, per se. She had a loose collection. Her book came out Dec. 1. All of you, go buy it. She's outrageous. Strong. Ballsy. Hilarious. She's a go-getter who pushed Black Bomb Books (BBB) to a new level. Her book is "Licking Flames: Tales of a Half-Assed Hussy" and definitely A+ material.

"Diamonds and Moths"
Next, I worked with another writer, my friend Steve Wechselblatt, on a book of short stories, which will be published by BBB this March. He'd been running several short stories through a critique group that we'd formed, and I thought they deserved an airing. His book "Diamonds and Moths" will be the fifth title for BBB.

I've also been reading manuscripts because I'd like to publish a memoir. Two submissions on are on my list to read this month. I read one in October by a woman who was a dominatrix for most of her adult life. And, she had already written about the subject successfully for her own small press and is considered an authority on the pleasure of pain in sex. Wow. It was a pretty interesting subject, but in the end, I decided against it. It was written well, but I look at new work and ask myself, 'Do I want to spend a year on this?' And sometimes my gut answer is no. Selecting material is all subjective and gives me a new perspective on why agents and publishing houses don't say yes very often.

Frances Figart "Seasons of Letting Go"
I spent a considerable part of the summer working for a few magazines, specifically The Laurel of Asheville and Carolina Home + Garden, both wonderful regional publications. The Laurel work led me to help the new editor, Frances Figart, publish a book about her perspectives on grief. She helped her mother during the final months of her life. I worked as a publishing consultant to funnel her book, "Seasons of Letting Go: Most of what I know about truly living I learned by helping someone die," into channels for publication. It's available now and is selling well.

I also finally started the motions to layout a non-fiction book that has been put away in a folder for some time, one of my own, a compilation of magazine articles about artists in the Northwest from my reporting for a trade journal about leather goods. While living in Portland, I met many people who make a living with their hands creating boots and saddle and tack, beautiful stuff, and now that book will come out in 2017. I had a draft of it finished two years ago. But, good intentions often fall to the wayside.

"The Gulf of Folly" Doug Storm
I would be remiss not to mention the poetry collection BBB put out last February, a fine volume of work by Doug Storm in Bloomington, Indiana. As a set, like Steve's essays, Doug's poems work some sort of magic when grouped together. Maybe my long-view of life also informs my editorial self. On a side note, Doug resisted titling his book "The Gulf of Folly," a reference to a Melville passage, but I finally convinced him it was the strongest one of a long, long list. Those damn lists, again.

All this happened in 2016 while I moved back into the professional sector. I am honored to be working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as a writer/editor for a division called the National Centers for Environmental Information. And this work, by far, may be the most important of my life. I'm lending my skills to improve understanding of the science behind climate and weather, and oh, the many new things I've learned tell me the world is in a tentative place.

I will be returning to writing fiction again this year. I'm clearing space to finish my last Musketeer book. It's taken me a while to create the time, but this will happen in 2017. And then, there's that novella on my list...

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Urge to NaNo

NaNoing in the writing world has nothing to do with the study of very small things. NaNoing has an entirely different meaning and, ironically, entails the production of a large set of words within a short time period. If you participate in National Novel Writing Month, you are NaNoing.

Last year, I NaNoed (is the slang annoying you yet?) and attempted to write my last Musketeer novel in the month of November by hammering out 1600+ words a day until I reached the 50K-word mark. I fell 15K words short. (This very day, I'm about 13K short. I know, I know...) Thanksgiving arrived, and that put a meat fork in my productivity.

The exercise challenged me to not belabour any details and keep moving. My crit group read sections as I moved along, and the story almost moved along too quickly. It seemed to keep the same pace as the month, fast and sloppy. It's an attractive exercise in no regrets, no layers. You just go for it. I've heard lots of names for this type of writing: stream of consciousness, downloading, free writing (which can be more personal), or the ever popular, puking on the page.

Now that fall has come back around and the days are closing in on Nov. 1, I'm thinking again about whether to give it another try. My story could use an ending and NaNo focuses the mind on the task: writing the draft. This is such an important, crucial step in a book. You have no book if you don't have a draft. That idea gurgling around in your head? All you have is an idea, mildy formed, amusingly mythical, until you put words on the paper. Then you have something. It might be trash, but it's trash in actual black and white that can be edited, revised, manipulated. In my case, layered. I need to add layers and details and give the story a little heft.

Maybe the turn of the season or the way light is starting to diminish more each day causes NaNo to pull at me a little. C'mon, Do It. The challenge and the companionship (because there are thousands participating and a networking website) change the lone-writer reality into a competition and a virtual party. That said, I don't think I'll ever write a book in a month. My habits (bad, maybe) and thought processes don't support a high daily word count. I like thinking about my sentences/plots, and finding the best way to tell the story and its nuances. I'll sit for 10 minutes on one sentence. It's not painful. It's particular. I want to tell the story the way I feel the story.

But, boy, NaNoWriMo makes you write. And right now, I could sure use a little virtual party and an ending to my book.   

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Your Digital Footprint Or Finding Brad Land

Writers of fiction generally try to build a platform somewhere online. Be it Goodreads, a blog, an active Facebook page, a smart-ass Twitter account. But then there are the ones who don't. If I could ask Brad Land why he's not online, I would, but he's not online to send him an email or a snappy tweet. He has no digital footprint. Or he doesn't have one that I can find. He might be lurking under a psuedonym, like my kids do on Tumblr, but again, no one can find him that way.

Granted, a few interesting articles are available online about this enigmatic writer, but much of it is old, from when he became well-known in the literary world. He wrote a best-selling memoir in 2005, Goat, published by Random House about young adulthood and violence and two incidents that shaped his life. First, he was abducted and beaten by strangers from a party he attended; then he was hazed at Clemson University while pledging his brother's fraternity, Kappa Sigma. I read the slim, brooding book last month, and his writing threw me back to my own angst-ridden college experiences of trying to fit in (I rushed one fall but didn't pledge. It was a stomach-churning mistake, and sorority life wasn't for me.)

Land wrote his memoir while nearing the end of a graduate program at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. It became a national bestseller and next month, a movie will be released based on the book. I didn't know any of this while I was reading the book, but as I was reading, I wanted to know more about Brad Land and his more recent work. So I started to do what anyone in 2016 would do to find a person: google him.

Mostly, old press from Goat populated the search but nothing about him recently. None of my searches on Facebook or Twitter turned up anything, so I tried emailing the publisher. The only email I could find for Random House Trade Publications was to request review copies of books. I sent an email with a subject line, "Interview with author Brad Land," but I got a disheartening generic robo-reply that said, basically, tough cookies.

In a lucky twist, a writer friend of mine said she had interviewed Land once after a reading he gave in Asheville. A review she wrote about his second book, which is still posted online, gave me the best leads. It sent me to an old website of his,, which must have been Land's attempt at the time of Goat's release to hurry up and put up a web presence. The site has some helpful links, but it's also a convoluted, writer-be-damned, who-gives-a-shit site that really doesn't mention Land by name. One of the links goes to an obvious Q&A about the book. I tried the email address on the site. My mail bounced back, undeliverable.

The last place he was known to have lived, according to my online search, was Carborro, NC, where another writer friend of mine also lives. My friend says that he remembers meeting Land once briefly around the time of the memoir's release. But has heard nothing more.

Why did I go through this rigmarole? Because he was from South Carolina, went to grad school for an MFA in creative writing in NC, and wrote a damn good memoir. (His second book, Pilgrims Upon the Earth, was not commercially well-reviewed.) I thought, why not find him and find out what he's working on and see if he can spare some insight on this writing life?

But he's off the grid. Which made me also wonder why so many of us want to be ON the damn grid. Who wants to be an open public record? Who wants to have to continually market or sacrifice privacy for the sake of the constant need for sales or to create searchable content or to feed the public's hunger for the dish? Not that Land is a celebrity, but he certainly made a splash and the subject matter of his book is intriguingly harsh, and the way he wrote the narrative is worth studying.

I had to stop when I felt the urge to google his obit. He's out there, just not interested in the rest of us.