Wednesday, June 30, 2004

 

Portrait of the (Unemployed and Isolated) "Artist"

I'm guessing that, except for the royalty checks and the feeling that you're reaching a bigger audience than you could by spray-painting graffiti on a bridge somewhere, being a full-time employed writer is pretty much the same as being a full-time unemployed one. The work is still more or less the same--it's just that one writer gets paid for it.

Guess which one I am?

That's not entirely true, of course. I make a few bucks writing articles for the Wizards of the Coast website (www.wizards.com, put "Michael Ryan" or "Michael G. Ryan" in the search engine, and you'll find me a healthy number of times). I still see some royalty checks for some short stories I wrote for anthologies six years ago. I was still making a couple of pennies of royalty every time they sang "Happy Birthday" to some hapless patron at Red Robin until the rat bastards starting singing their "own" birthday song.

But for the most part, I'm writing into a void over here. And sitting in a solitary confinement all day--whether imposed by the state or of your own volition--can make you a little more nuts than you were when you went into the "hole."

My first book was called Isolation. It's about a self-loathing shut-in who finds his private comfort zone horribly tested when a fugitive, on the run from the cops after snatching his daughter away from an abusive scenario, busts in and takes the shut-in hostage. I think you can tell on page one that it's not going to end pretty--the shut-in is definitely a few logs short of a cabin by the time the tale ends.

People ask me, "So, is it autobiographical?" and then they laugh.

Well, of course, not the hostage thing. But going bonkers from spending too much time alone? Why do you think they chuck you into solitary confinement in prison--as a reward?

So, if the phone rings at 11:14 A.M., and I'm stuck in a scene, there's a solid chance I'll answer it.

"We'd like to tell you about the upcoming Replay Double Point Days at Suncoast Video," the telemarketer chirps, no doubt certain that's about as much as she'll get out before I hang up.

"Do tell!" I answer.

"Well..." she begins.

"What's your favorite movie?" I ask.

A pause, then, "Um, Forrest Gump, I guess." She finds her rhythm again, back to false chirpiness. "Suncoast has Forrest Gump and many other great DVDs on sale during the upcoming Replay--"

"Did you see all the extra stuff on the Forrest Gump DVD?" I ask.

"Well," she says, "not yet."

"I've heard that review that says Hanks in The Terminal is doing his best work since Forrest Gump. Do you think that's true? Did you see The Terminal? I have a two-year-old son, so we don't get to the movies much anymore. I figure I can wait for the DVD. I didn't see Road to Perdition until it came out, so I guess I can wait for--"

She's gone in the next 11 seconds or so, and that's all I got to say about that.

Back to the scene I'm stuck in. I'm writing about a man who sells everything he owns to raise the money to go after his true love overseas in China, but I'm a packrat. What do I know about selling stuff? To make it easier, I've given him a couple of collectibles that I own, and so now he's trying to get a friend who's a Stephen King fan to buy an autographed book. (I have one, Insomnia, from when King did his motorcycle tour back in the mid-90s.) Still, inspired by the phone conversation, I at least feel comfortable changing the main character's name to Forrest.

But what's the book worth?

Great justification to pause, hit the Betts Bookstore webpage (they sell King memorabilia), do a little research. Seeing all the stuff they have makes me want to re-read something by King, but something short. I'm still trying to write today, thank you world for distracting me.

So, something short. A short story. I have a bulging shelf of King books, including some pretty rare stuff (the original issue of "My Pretty Pony," the autographed book, some old issues of his newsletter, Castle Rock), so I scan through it for the short story collections. I end up re-reading "Survivor Type." It's a story about a doctor who, while smuggling heroin into the U.S., ends up on a deserted rockpile in the middle of the ocean, with just himself, his heroin, a knife, and a notebook. What's he going to eat? Well, when he busts his ankle in the jagged rocks trying to catch a seagull, he recognizes that the foot's gotta come off or risk infection... and why let a good foot go to waste?

The uber-question then: how much of himself can he eat to stay alive?

I finish the story, delightfully grossed out, and then look at the scene I'm writing again. King is an amazing writer. What a story. This scene I'm writing is a bitch. It's slow, isn't it? What's the hook here? What's the reader's motivation to keep going?

Well,I could make changes. Forrest could still want to sell his friend the autographed book, but maybe it's while they're on a deserted island with nothing to eat. No, of course not. But I could try to work the idea of the deserted island into something symbolic, how Forrest is alone while in the middle of Western society, his heart pulling him to the East where his love awaits him in China. What does he have to "eat"? Himself. He sells it all to get to China, to stay alive.

In essence, until he can get to China, he's living in isolation.

I elect to blame the Suncoast operator for bringing me back to the same theme again and again. It's always good to have an anonymous scapegoat, so I'll blame a lousy day of writing and a harkening back to the same ol' concept of being alone in the world on the woman who just wanted me to get triple Replay points next weekend.

Discouraged, I stop writing for the day and, thinking about Tom Hanks, pop Cast Away in the DVD player.

Figures, doesn't it?

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

 

Why Blogging Will Make You Go Blind

One of the key mental stumbling blocks I have--and I have scores of them, covering a broad spectrum of topics, believe me--in thinking about starting a blog was a sense that it was wasted time. What if nobody reads it? Oddly worse, what if lots of people read it, and now I've committed myself to a project that is really, for want of a better term, mental masturbation?

Well, while we all titter over the word "masturbation" (and I giggle over the word "titter"), let’s look at those four--no, five, dammit!--novels I've written in the last couple of years. The jury's still out on their long-term saleability, but this isn’t about the money. Not yet, anyway.

Consider the last one I finished, Mama, She Done Told Me. It's 80,000 words or thereabouts. Sort of an Elmore Leonardish story about a dying elderly woman's last wish: that her sons zip cross-country to kill her ex-husband, their father, for all the wrong he did their little family years ago. Except maybe he didn't. And maybe they don't. And maybe she's not really that sick after all. My own mother was both offended and pleased to think that Mama might be based on her.

At a brisk pace of 2,000 words a day, that's forty days of writing. Toss in some plotting days, some "throw-yesterday's-shit-out-and-start-over" days, and some self-congratulatory "vacation" days (where I just reread what I've already written), and you're looking at roughly a solid two-month commitment to get a scrawny 80,000 words on the screen. Now add in the revision period where I take the comments from my first readers--remember them? Those would-be draft-dodgers who I managed to corral and thrust into my dirty little war of words?--and I'm up to ten weeks.

Ten weeks, and Mama, She Done Told Me is done. (The book before, As Fate Would Have It, took a couple weeks longer, then took twice as long still when I had to overhaul it and change the name to Mad Season.) Ten weeks of full-time work to produce a short novel.

Have I sold it? No.

Has anyone who doesn't actually know me personally read it? No.

Um... then... wasn't writing Mama, She Done Told Me ten weeks of that mental masturbation I've been thinking blogging might be?

This is exactly how people convince themselves that lottery tickets are an investment, that they shouldn't vote because their single voice doesn't matter (let's remember Florida in 2000, and that idea goes straight to hell in handbasket), or that watching Cops reruns while having a couple of cans of Pepsi for dinner is not doing them any harm. I bet that last jab made my mother prick up her ears.

The defense rests.

And now you're all tittering over the word "prick," aren't you?

Monday, June 28, 2004

 

Egotist: Someone More Interested in Himself than in Me

Here we go, then.

I have mercilessly called those who blog "people who are writing diaries for themselves but want a larger audience to be impressed by their disjointed narcissism."

I mean, come on, really: do you give a shit what I think of FARENHEIT 9/11, Bill Clinton's book, or Britney Spears's latest engagement? (For the record, though: Properly biased, a little slow, and a waste of press coverage. You can mix-and-match these topics and opinions any way that suits your personal take on the world. I like matching "a little slow" with Britney.)

But Bill Gates makes a valid point when he suggests that blogs might serve as a great networking tool. Still, not quite enough to get me jump-started. I can network just fine without climbing onto yet another bandwagon. You know how many bobbleheads I own? Hell, I still have Pokemon cards and a Tamagotchi virtual pet in a drawer somewhere. I have a Robert Downey Jr. addiction to pop culture trends.

But then a friend said to me, "You know, this whole blogging thing. It's all about ego, don't you think?"

"Damn straight," I said, glad in that moment to be friends with him.

"A bunch of people who haven't really got a prayer to publish, trying to get somebody to notice their feeble attempts at writing," he said.

"Yeah," I said. More hesitant now. There was an obvious bear trap in this conversation, and I sensed I was about to be forced to chew my leg off.

"People with a lot of time on their hands to bang away at their keyboards," he added. "I mean, a LOT of time. Like, unemployed or something."

I was done agreeing. I sat in proud but academic silence.

He said, "So,why don't you have a blog yet?"

Sigh.

So, now I'm chewing my leg off. And given how 2004 has gone so far--you don't want to hear this Shakespearean tragedy yet, trust me--I will probably chew off the leg and still be caught in the trap.

In all, I've written four novels--one of them a complete rewrite, which should make it five novels, but that would be like saying you've had a threesome because you screwed one person twice in the same night. In totum, I think I've written close to or a little over 500,000 words in the last two years. This doesn't count articles or letters or the neurotic list I keep of "things to do" that I rewrite every couple of days. ("Start a blog" never made the list officially, though I still have "read MIDDLESEX" on there, a book I bought before last Christmas.)

I have a friend, Bob, who once made it a goal to write "a million words of shit." He was pretty open-minded about what he'd write--it didn't have to all connect. Christ, it didn't have to even make sense. It just had to be a million words when he was finished. The added "of shit" was to excuse its lack of cohesion or anything resembling quality, I suspect. And he was pretty devoted to the idea of just slapping words on the page to see what would stick. What's troubling about this story? He didn't make it. He bowed out at something like 750,000 words.

So, if a committed writer can't reach a million words of random words strung together like an unalphabetized dictonary, what does that say about trying to hang 500,000 words together in an even remotely publishable way?

And you know who's read those novels I wrote? Sure you do. My mother. My sister. My wife. A bunch of friends who were pressed into reading my stuff instead of THE DA VINCI CODE, all of whom smiled while I handed over the manuscripts like people just figuring out they were boarding the bus headed for Army boot camp. They were all good sports about it, and maybe someday I'll thank them with a published copy of one of my books, preferably without "VANITY PRESS, LTD." on the spine.

In the meantime... is there any reason I can't blog? Besides my ego that I was once told was so big it probably pops up on Soviet radar?

Christ, I should just chew off the other leg, shouldn't I?

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