Thursday, December 31, 2015

Why I Gave Up (For A While) In 2015

above: Meeting fans in France

Hi there, reader of this blog. I hope you had a good year. Me? Well, thanks for asking. I've been keeping it between the lines. Had some pretty high highs and some pretty low lows. I went to France for my first real book tour. I have a great publisher there and I got to travel all over the country meeting fans and having fun. The trip was, without question, the highlight of my life as a writer. I also published a book of essays, a book of short stories, and a new novel here at home. And, not for nothing, but I think those are the three best books I've ever written. If I die tonight in a tragic New Year's Eve mishap, I guess I'd want those three books to represent me. I also started teaching at Loyola University and the School of the Art Institute, a couple of great places to teach. I published numerous magazine articles. I got a big write up in the Arkansas Times (my hometown paper) that made me feel really nice.

So, shit, all in all, I had an amazing year.

But, if I'm going to be honest, after my triumph in France, nothing seemed to go as planned. Without going into details, back here in the States on the business side of writing, things were a real pain.

I'm hesitating to write this because I'm not really a share and share alike kind of guy. My impulse is toward evasion and polite silence.

I'll just say this: I'm no businessman. I inherited that from my father. He's great at building houses but bad at making money from building houses. He's never quite internalized the principle that you buy low and sell high. I think that, in some ways, it's always shocked him that other people have internalized that principle. And like I said, I am my father's son in this respect.

At this point, I've published several books with several publishers. Most of the people I've dealt have been pretty great. To the extent that a few business arrangements haven't worked out, I mostly have myself to blame for not being savvy enough. I really have no damn business reading contracts.

I've been unrepresented my whole writing career. Since that career's helped me pay the rent and took me all the way to France on a 7 city tour, I guess I've done okay. But I don't have an agent. Haven't had one because I couldn't get one and gave up. You're not supposed to say that out loud (or write it on the internet), but it's true. I gave up looking for an agent because I got demoralized by being rejected (at best) and ignored (at worst). 

An aside: I'm reading Patrick McGilligan's new bio YOUNG ORSON about you know who, and there's a great part where Welles is in New York trying to sell his first play and is getting doors slammed in his face, and he writes a friend that the literary agents were "the worst" because they give one "a sense of defeat, just by their manner." Some shit never changes.

Back to me for a moment, though, I'm not complaining about shabby treatment by literary agents. It's their job to find shit they love, and none of them ever loved my shit. It's really just as simple as that. The only thing a writer can do is keep looking for an agent who will love their shit.

And that's it, that's the great secret, as near as I can tell, of getting an agent.

But I gave up looking this year because a) I did okay without an agent, and b) I'm not good at doing things I hate, such as going back again and again to drink from the well of rejection and indifference.

But not having an agent has also bitten me in the ass this year. It's not a bad bite, understand. Thus far, it's hurt my pride more than my pocketbook--though to tell the truth, I value my pride more than my pocketbook (especially when it comes to my writing). And that's what got me down. It got me down quite low, in fact.

Generally speaking, I'm not a low kind of person. Despite the bleak nature of much my work, I also inherited my father's basic optimism. Or, as a roommate once told me about myself, I usually wake up in a better mood than I go to bed in.

And writing has always been a place of an especially precious isolation for me. I'm one of those people who needs to write. I'm not a hobby guy. I don't play or follow sports, I don't take classes to learn to do new things. I don't collect shit or make shit or go to conventions or hang out with people all the time. On my own, I mostly read and go to the movies, which are activities of consumption. My one real activity, the one thing that I really do, is write. I'm a writer.

An aside: It occurs to the me that the preceding paragraph neglects to mention that I'm very happily married to my best friend. That paragraph kinda makes me sound like a loner. But one reason I am very happily married is that I am married to a woman who is a supremely autonomous individual who is always content to be with me, and equally content to leave me to my books and movies and writing while she heads out for an evening to do her thing. I married far above my pay grade, people.

But the point I wanted to make about writing is that it's the one thing I actively do. It's my method of understanding the world, of empathizing with others and explaining myself.

And this year it kinda crapped out on me. Sure I published three books this year, but I didn't write much in the second half of the year. I slowed down to a trickle. Round about September, even the trickle dried up. For a few months there it was as dry as a creek bed.

I got low, man. I got down low. Indifferent agents and incompetent publishers took their toll.

I didn't have writer's block. I had nothing. Just...nothing. Just didn't even want to write. I just gave up. But if I give up, what's left of me? Like I said, I'm a writer. Without writing, I'm a blank sheet of paper.

That awesome wife I mentioned a few paragraphs back? She carried me through like a champ, despite having to see me in a state she'd never seen me in before. It's one thing to deal with your partner's everyday bullshit, but it's another to deal with a problem that is out of character for them. For me to get so low I can't write for weeks and then months was a weird kind of problem to deal with, but she dealt with it by more or less trusting me to be myself.

Which worked. I read, I watched movies. I taught my classes. I looked at art and listened to music.

Gradually I've started to write again the past few weeks. The thing about my whole process is that I've always got a lot of projects going. A couple of novels, a story, an essay, an article, whatever. So I've got a lot waiting on me to get back to it, and there's something reassuring about that.

I've had some promising business news, too, which could turn into something really cool. That's nice, but I don't think I'm being melodramatic in saying that if I ever had the capacity to be unreservedly excited about anything involving business I have long since lost it.

So, like I said, 2015 has been amazing year, both in the sense of being transcendentally happy and perplexingly bad. It was the best year of my writing career and the worst year of my writing life. The best of times and the worst of times as Chuck D once wrote.

I'm looking forward to 2016. As always, I'm optimistic. Movies to see. Books to read. Words to write.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Dark Christmas: Seven Holiday Noirs

above: Blast of Silence

Tired of the 24-hour THE CHRISTMAS STORY marathon? Don't have it in you to spend another Christmas with the Cranks, or Fred Claus, or Will Ferrell? Join the club. Maybe this year, try on some film noir for the holiday season. Over at Criminal Element I have an overview of some films that are either holiday themed noir or are holiday movies with a strong touch of the dark side. Either way, just about everyone on this list has been bad.

Check Dark Christmas: Seven Holiday Noirs.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Eric Beetner on NO TOMORROW

NO TOMORROW gets a nice review this week over at Crime Syndicate courtesy of Eric Beetner. Since I'm a big fan of Beetner's quick moving novels, its especially nice to have him praise the pace of my book. He also says it's the best thing I've done since HELL ON CHURCH STREET. I'm inclined to agree. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Leopold And Loeb

Tonight, I got to catch John Logan's play NEVER THE SINNER on its closing night at Victory Gardens Theater (aka The Biograph Theater). The show was enjoyable, with a talented cast and energetic staging by Gary Griffin, and it sent me once more down the rabbit hole that is the Leopold and Loeb case.

I thought I'd post a link to my Criminal Element piece on the case from back in 2012, Leopold and Loeb Still Fascinate After 90 Years. I feel like a viewing of Richard Fleischer's 1959noir COMPULSION is right around the corner for me...