Poking the Eyes Out (At Least One) of the Green-Eyed Writing Monster

'Jealousy' photo (c) 2011, William Shannon - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

 Yes, I know—it’s his face that’s green.  But go with it.

I occasionally guest-post over at Writer Unboxed, the fine writer’s site that has daily posts on all aspects of writing craft, the publishing world, and the business of fiction. Its regular roster includes many traditionally and self-published authors, premier agents and book doctors, and writers who haven’t experienced a lot of commercial success, but who are working religiously on their skills.

I was slotted for another post in early 2014, and my topic was going to be writing jealousy. Specifically, jealousy at the success of other writers. More specifically, MY jealousy of other writers’ successes. If you’ve read a sampling of my posts, you might have noticed that I can be a wise guy on my topics, throwing in a joke here and jibe there. I intended that for the green-eyed writing monster post (and will be guilty of it here), but since I can speak for pretty much every one of the 143,345,981 writers in the world, trust me—it can be a problem.

But some other treacherous writer at Unboxed just wrote a post on jealousy, that underhanded fiend, so I’ll roll with the topic here.

It All Started in Catholic School

For me, I think the problem started in Catholic school. (When in doubt, blame the nuns.) You see, they had us learning the 10 Commandments in first or second grade, glazed-eyed reciting by gathered tykes on an almost daily basis. Consider: If you were a seven-year-old, and you were told not to covet your neighbor’s wife, what would you think? I hadn’t even known if I had any talent at this coveting thing, and now I was being told not to do it. I immediately went back home and checked out the local wives to see if they were up to some covert coveting. But I wasn’t so busy with that that I couldn’t covet my neighbor’s house as well. Covet, covet, covet.

I am only an amateur psychologist (though I will accept money for my analyses), but I got the sense that my Catholic brethren were priming the pump for us on the sin thing. You know, telling us what not to do, so its fascination impelled us into that forbidden, coveted quest. But back then, I had the mercy of confession to hose off my juvenile sins. However, since I am a lapsed Catholic, I suppose this blog post is my confession.

Pathetic Wastes of Time and Other Jolly Pursuits

This I know: being jealous of your fellow writers’ triumphs is a mighty pathetic waste of time. As Carrie Fisher said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. ” Too often I’ve squirmed and twitched when I’ve read about the incredible contracts given to contemporary authors, soaring sales figures, critical acclaim, while I’m still grubbing about trying to get an agent to spend 15 minutes with my manuscript. As I commented on the Writer Unboxed post, “It’s not that I want successful writers to die; perhaps just have gangrene. Still working on it.”

So I am working on it. It’s my pre-New Year’s resolution. It might sound like pabulum, but I am going to remind myself to congratulate those who do well, and to try and work all the harder on my own writing. So somebody can be jealous of me. No, I don’t mean that. Well, not all that much.

Is it OK if I still covet my neighbor’s iPad mini, though?

Copyblogger Essay Contest Deadline

I guess the first thing I’ll do that other writers will be jealous of is win Copyblogger’s essay contest. Who cares if a zillion other socially climbing copywriters have entered? Anyway, Copyblogger is one of the best sites on the Interwebz for useful advice on copywriting and content marketing. These guys and gals are so damn smart it smarts. (That doesn’t have any trace of jealousy, does it?) Those smarty-pantsers have an essay contest happening now, with great prizes, and the deadline is December 4 at 5pm PST. Click below to get the details. Take your shot!

Copyblogger Essay Contest Participant

Enter the contest or get more content marketing tips from Copyblogger.

Honey, Somebody Shrunk the Summer


Yeah, it’s a sunrise and it’s the Bahamas, but I needed something soulful, so…

Did you feel summer slip away, like a door quietly closing? I had an unnerving, visceral sensation yesterday, walking in my driveway when the sun was going down. An arrow of information—summer’s gone!—shot into my head, all because, without consciously thinking of it, I noticed how the angle of light from the waning sun was different, softer, recessive. And it wasn’t as though I actually thought about it—the bent beam just went into the processing center, where time’s sequences are catalogued, and it came out stamped “End of Summer Light.” Only then did the painters from Emotional Central rush out with their brushes dripping with blue.

Blue because seasonal passages are always colored with melancholy for me, even if I’m anticipating good things to come. I too often make the error of measuring by “things I didn’t get done” rather than sifting through the Greats, Goods, Pretty Goods, Neutrals and Wretched Circumstances That Tasted of Bile and Longing. Why some personalities (one being mine) might gravitate to bile and longing has long puzzled me, but that’s one for the psychoanalysts I can’t afford.

Dang, I Can’t Even Get an NSA Agent Interested

My biggest goal that I’d hoped to achieve by summer’s end was to get an agent for my novel. Not for want of trying, but so far, all my fiddling with my query, avid agent seeking, fussing with my opening chapter and sacrificing infants on a candlelit altar has been in vain. I’m going to continue to look into traditional publishing, but after six months of querying, it’s looking more likely that I’ll have to go the self-pub route with this, as I did with my first novel. That’s OK, but I’d hoped to get a pass on all that entails with this one (though part of what that entails—a lot of platform building and marketing outreach—isn’t sidestepped with traditional publishing today anyway).

Longing and bile aside (I keep a bucket handy, filled with both, plus a mixer), I am making some progress on a new short story and a novel, so there’s that. Plus, some fun articles of mine coming out soon on various subjects in magazines and papers.

The light slants, fall beckons, still many sentences to shape.

Writers, does the sliding of the seasons affect your work, goals, or cocktail preparations?

Shakespeare Didn’t Use Scrivener—Why Should I?

A short story, zygote phase

Well, let’s dispatch with the title question first: I’m not Shakespeare. No, no, don’t try to soothe my oozing writer’s wounds, I can take it. Aside from that ounce of obviousness, there’s this: no coders had the sense to put together Scrivener in Shakespeare’s day—in fact, his choices of apps (basically a quill pen and maybe some foolscap) were pretty bare bones. He didn’t do too badly with them, though.

But I think if good Will had access to the program, he would have found lots to like in its flexibility in shifting and sorting blocks of text, storing character descriptions and synopses, organizing scenes into relationships, and having a repository of reference materials like links and images. Willie would probably like being able to export to ebook formats too: King Lear would make a Kindle’s screen crack with its stormy scenes.

I’ve only been using the program a couple of days (and no, I’m not pimping any affiliate marketing here), so I won’t go deeply into its considerable feature package. But just in playing with it a bit, let’s look at it from a benefits standpoint: When you are composing long or complex documents, many are the times you want to bring up a specific section of  text for comparison and verification with another—say to ensure that you had a character’s age set in an early phase of an novel, and wanted to confirm that correct age in a later instance. It’s a cinch to bring up disparate parts of a long document side-by-side in Scrivener.

Speaking of characters, if you’re the kind of writer who builds a detailed profile of a character in a background document, the database structure of Scrivener means you can bring up a character study in a moment to review it against how you’ve rendered a character’s behavior in a scene. You can change the character’s profile, or change the scene or both. The Reference areas of the application lend themselves to the storage of URLs, images and data snippets relevant to the project. And if you were midway through a project started in another word processor or text editor, importing is easy, as is exporting back out, including some nifty formatting tools.

Why Now, Oh Scrivener?

I’ve written a couple of novels and a book of short stories without bothering to use a tool like Scrivener—why now? A couple of reasons: first, I’d heard great word-of-mouth report from writers who delighted in the program. But are those the ravings of people who just want to geek out with slick software, and not pointed to the ultimate outcome, the writing itself? I’ll find out.

I moved to the software because the new novel I’m going to work on will be an interconnected series of short stories, all intended to have a thematic coherency. A program like Scrivener, which lets you jump back and forth through long skeins of text, move and merge elements around in a jiffy, and organize and edit lots of contributive character and scene data is perfect for the work I envision. If only it would do the writing for me.

But the seed of the story that’s caught in the image above isn’t part of that novel. It’s a short story that I’ve thought about writing for a while, and I finally figured out the point-of-view and voice of the piece, and decided that I want to jump back and forth from past to present through the story. Those jumps and scene snatchings will be a perfect test for a longer Scrivener project.

So, any Scrivener users among you wordsmiths out there? Thoughts? And as for that Shakespeare guy: Mac or PC?

First-Chapter Fiddling: Yea or Nay?



It’s time for some red-pen savagery! Below is the first chapter of a novel I “finished” a few months back. I have sent it out to some agents, but there was undoubtedly some kind of solar flare that kept the instant medley of “Yes, I want it!” replies from arriving back to me. Rather than darken more inboxes with my shrieks, I thought I’d revisit the first chapter, to see if its joints are properly oiled.

First chapters, of course, should have the needed amount of firecrackers or sure-footed feints or character conniptions to move a reader from “I’m not sure” to “I will lick every page of this book.” My biggest blanket question: does this first chapter draw you in and make you want to continue? It introduces the three central characters: the bit-of-a-blowhard narrator, his constrained boss, and a homeless guy who’s about to get all shook up—and not just from the earthquake.

My specific question is: does the introduction of some backstory material—five paragraphs of such, starting at paragraph eight—deter reading interest, in that it steps away from the immediacy of the earthquake accounting? To me, that bit of expository material serves to get a necessary serving of the narrator’s perspective, with the quaking quickly taken up again. Or is it just distraction?

Thanks for any thoughts on the questions and the chapter in general.


Chapter 1

I was thinking about my Studebaker when the quake hit. Though it’s not exactly a showstopper, it’s a ’63 Lark, and pretty sweet. The Studey was on my mind because a moment before the building went bonkers I’d been looking at Della’s legs. She was wearing one of those napkin-sized skirts she sometimes wears and her legs are all the way up to there anyway. I always tried not to stare—I think I’ve perfected this method of looking off in a fake distracted way and then flicking my eyes back. I can get away with zeroing in on her stems without getting caught, I think. It was almost quitting time, and I wasn’t paying much actual attention to anything.

So there I was standing in my cubicle holding some papers and Della was standing at the copy machine in that skirt and I was thinking that maybe if those Nazi mechanics of mine would fix that problem on the Studey, this time I could finally ask Della out without worrying that my car would stall at a light and maybe leave us in the Tenderloin without wheels and me looking like Doofus Number One. And then the quake hit.

Now it’s not like I’m a quake virgin or anything. I’m a California boy all the way, and have been through more than a couple shakers in my thirty-plus, including one in the 70s when I was staying in Santa Barbara where I watched a nearby hillside seem to turn to liquid—but that was just my eyes jiggling. And since I’d moved to the City I’d felt the earth skip a beat more than a couple of times. I’ve always sort of liked it—the land stretching its legs a bit and all. And now it was almost the 90s, and there hadn’t been a real big bumper for a while. But this was different.

Different because Consolidated Leasing (yeah, that’s where I work—could a business name be any more lame?) is on the eighth floor of a new building on the edge of downtown, and it’s built to flex in a quake—and man was it flexing. But different yet because even with the flex, even with me having rocked and rolled through my share of quakes, this shaker seemed special right from the get-go.

I felt it in my stomach first, a kind of squeezy uncomfortable feeling, like riding on one of those old centrifugal-force carnival rides where you lean against a wall on a spinning, circular platform, and then the floor drops away while you spin faster, pinning you to the wall in an awful, verge-of-nausea way. I always hated those rides, but I would always ride ’em when I could. You can’t be smart all the time, I guess.

So my stomach did a couple of pirouettes before I really even knew what was going on and then the floor started moving in a real greasy way, a kind of sliding, humping, fucked-up kind of way, and I was finally clued in that it was an earthquake—and that it was a big one. There seemed to be a second wave that had more kick than the first and then the building really stepped onto the dance floor. It swayed big-time, and I mean swayed like you’ve downed ten tequila shooters and slapped yourself in the temple with an unabridged dictionary.

The jolt punched me into the edge of my cubicle, and I hit the corner about armpit height, hard, and then I stumbled to one knee. Though I pretty much forgot about scoping Della, she was still right in front of me and I saw that she was clutching the sides of the copying machine with both arms, a love-death grip. From my angle it looked like the machine was actually lifting into the air a little, but maybe that’s because I wasn’t exactly the Rock of Gibraltar myself. Also from my angle I saw that her little skirt had hiked up even further so that I could see where the thighs of those fine legs moved right up into that round rump, which was covered by red panties. I filed that away in one of those micro-seconds because it’s really no time for my standard lech act, considering that the office was in a state of total pandemonium, and I’m not completely convinced that the entire building wasn’t going to go kablooey right down onto Market Street.

It might help to know that our office is not going to win any design awards for innovation or architectural flair or for that matter, the quality of its business concerns. Sure, it’s an OK building at the corner of Market and Main, just off the Embarcadero. We lease big equipment to big companies. Big deal. If your company needs a fleet of trucks to shoot widgets from Daly City to Jersey City, we’re in the book. If your five thousand employees need five hundred copiers, and you don’t want to pay up front, we’ll meet you around the back. And if you’re a big wheel and you want to flash it, we’ll even arrange for you to lease a corporate jet on the cheap—if you call thirty thousand a month cheap. Of course, we don’t own any of this crap we lease anyway—we’re just middlemen, picking up as much change as spills out of the pockets of corporate America on its way from here to there.

The office is modern enough, which is to say that that oatmeal-puke fur that lines the cubicle walls isn’t torn and the Sparkletts water bottles get changed on a regular basis. There are about thirty people that work in the office (and about twenty lawyers that work outside), and it’s mostly a young bunch, though the sales guys have some mileage on their faces and plenty of air in their spare tires. But I don’t deal with those guys anyway. I really only deal with the people in the so-called Editorial department, issuing decrees from my exalted throne as Proofreading Coordinator.

We do documents at Consolidated. Oh boy, do we do documents. Paper industry big-wigs must rely on leasing contracts for their year-end bonuses. If your company wants to lease office furniture for a three-story building, the leasing contract might be a story tall all by itself. But that’s not to say it’s an interesting story. Contracts are about 98 percent fat, and that’s all the boilerplate mumbo-jumbo that goes into all the contracts, whether the items being leased are tanks or tortilla chips.

We’ve got that phalanx of lawyers twiddling the same documents in twenty different ways depending on the piddling new info in the contracts, and since lawyers couldn’t be bothered to spend any extra time exercising their eyeballs on the precious billable words they’ve inserted into the contracts, we need a whole crew—well, two, plus me to bless their sweaty efforts—to make sure that every T is not only crossed, but in the correct typeface, line length and proper page placement.

That takes an editor’s eyes (though we call ’em proofers so they don’t ask for raises too often), and those eyes must be overseen by yours truly, the executive editor, a title I no doubt deserve, but this being Consolidated, they act as though they’d conferred the Order of the Knights of Malta on me with my paltry present title. The fact that I have a Bachelor’s in Philosophy (and even a year in grad school) doesn’t seem to carry any pay-scale weight either. I try to be philosophical about it.

I wasn’t feeling particularly philosophical when the cubicles started playing bumper cars with each other. Since our building was getting so loosey-goosey, and we were on the top floor (the eighth), office stuff was really starting to scoot around with each pendulum swing of the building. Two of the tallest filing cabinets toppled with a huge crash, but I could barely hear that because of the shouts and screams that were ricocheting around the office. After I’d righted myself a little using my cubicle wall, the next round of building flexing took my monitor tumbling off my desk, and it exploded on impact. When I whirled around to look at its scattered remains, another tremor hit that seemed to run sideways from the direction of the first. I was plunked right down in the aisle between the cubicle rows so that I sort of fell on my back and my butt, with my legs a little in the air. That gave me a splendid view of some of the plasterboard roof panels of the acoustic ceiling above, which were now deserting the roof in droves and diving to the floor.

I sprang up, but was staggered a bit by a rolling motion of the building. I noticed that the most egregious example of wretched corporate art that the office possessed (on a lease, of all things) had jumped to its deserved death off the wall. It had been pierced by the weird sharp-edged desk lamp that one of the graphic artists had brought in to try and prove that she wasn’t a corporate drone. I had a fleeting thought that I hadn’t appreciated her creativity before. At this point, at least six people were crowded into the office’s open double-doorway, seeking wall-joint strength like good Californians should. Unfortunately for them, that was also the primary office exit, leading to the elevators and staircases and what seemed now to be an impossibly long flight away from a building that was rumbling like it was moving to a good belly laugh.

The bulk of the office populace was now pouring toward those open double doors, where that half-dozen of the first mad scramblers had fled. The doorway people were half-crouching, some with arms entangled, all leaning on the person next to them, all wide-eyed and open-mouthed as the floors and walls did a little tango. They didn’t intend to abandon their protected place in the doorway, but those intentions had to negotiate with those of the half-crazed stream of souls coming toward them who had no intention of remaining in the building. I glanced back at the cubicles, seeing two people from Payroll standing wall-eyed in the aisle, while a rivulet of a toppled Sparkletts bottle trickled between them toward me. When I turned back to head for the door, my boss Megan was standing in front of me.

In front of me doesn’t quite explain it though. When I turned back toward Megan, I was wearing her, rather like an apron, since I had turned holding both my arms out from my waist and she had moved with her arms up and forward toward me. Since she’s about a foot shorter than me, just in turning around I ended up involuntarily clasping her to my chest, which surprised us both.

I grabbed her by the shoulders and said “Megan!” which was all I could manage. My ante was too high for her, however—she couldn’t even speak. We’ve all heard that phrase “white as a ghost.” Just another phrase that’s lost its elastic—but Megan brought a rich new meaning to a poor phrase.

She was drained of color, paste-white, a fully credible white that would never pretend to be the pallor of a living being. But I did detect a little pinkness in the center of her face: her tongue, usually as discreet as all of Megan’s doings, now blatant because she was unable to engage it to make conversation. It rested limp on the bottom of her widely open mouth. Behind the heavy black horn-rims of her Elvis Costello glasses, Megan’s bright blue eyes shrieked the words her tongue couldn’t manage.

I did a little pas de deux with her in the aisle, spinning her by the shoulders toward the exit. In thinking of it afterward, I longed for a video: my formidable boss, always cordial but always reserved, impenetrable and boss-like, spun like an addled child and pointed toward the door. “I think we should get out,” I said in as manly of a voice I could muster.

We were near the tail end of the crowd moving toward and through the doorways. The first human wall of resistance clinging to the entryway had been breached—and like bowling pins, most had scattered, choosing the staircase path preferred by the bulk of those in flight. Probably two minutes, three at most had passed since the initial shock hit, and the building still seemed to be reverberating, though I couldn’t judge time or the trembling with any accuracy. I shepherded Megan past the lone doorway holdout, Sheldon Shenk from Accounting, who we all called Squink behind his ample back. He was gripping the doorsill with both hands, his eyes wet and dreamy as we went by.

“Squink, you’d better head down. The worst of it’s over,” I said as we passed him. I thought I was getting the hang of this whole leadership-in-a-crisis thing, what with Megan acceding to every tiny pressure of my arm, and me feeling like most everything’s in control. It was only when my knees buckled at the first staircase step that I realized that my whole body was slightly quivering, and that I had lost that fine motor control needed for precise movement.

I grabbed the handrail and steadied myself, though Megan, in full zombie mode, didn’t notice my little stumble. At that moment, she might not have noticed if I had a long scaly tail and flippers. We merged into a mass of semi-orderly building deserters, moving haltingly down the staircases mostly three abreast. I saw Della ahead of us, looking back with an alarmed look and then lurching forward. My crew, Silvie and Crenshaw, was ahead of her—I could see Silvie throw her arms up while she talked to Crenshaw as they descended. She had a characteristic way of flinging her arms about; I thought it was because she always wore about twenty bangles and wrist bracelets on each arm that clicked and clattered when she jostled them. I was glad to see they were both all right.

The only person I could see that had an injury was Mr. McManus, the portly Vice President, who had a pretty good gash on his forehead, against which he held a slightly bloody handkerchief. There was a lot of tangible tension going down the stairs, which was a process less than brisk. “What if there’s another quake? We’re likely to get crunched on these stairs,” someone said. “God, I wonder what my house looks like? I just put all this decorative glass on shelves in my living room,” somebody else answered. “Goddamn. I thought the whole goddamn building was going down! The whole damn thing!” said one of the lawyers, who’d just come into the office before it hit.
We came to the landing for the seventh floor, where we met a surge of employees from the big insurance firm that worked there. I could see a couple of women who were crying, and several people who looked disheveled and shaken up, but no major injuries. An older man in a suit was standing on the side of the stairwell saying over and over, “Just move slowly and watch out for your neighbor. It’s OK, just move slowly down and watch out for your neighbor.”

Just a few steps ahead someone I didn’t know had a portable radio pinned to his ear. “Seven-point five. They’re saying seven-point five, and major damage in the City. Big fires in the Marina. Not certain where it actually hit yet.” We were slowing way down on the stairs as we came in contact with people emptying out of the sixth-floor offices. People were starting to get more anxious, pushing a little, and I could see a big guy ahead of us trying to force his way through. But when I looked at Megan, she looked weirdly calm. Some color had started to come back into her face.

“Megan, are you feeling better? You OK?”

She turned to me and nodded and softly said, “Yes.” Her eyes still looked as if their owner was off vacationing, but at least she resembled the upright—if not uptight—boss that I reported to that morning. I turned into a bit of a robot myself after that, just moving kind of numbly with the crowd, listening to people speculate on what had happened, the fear squeezing their voices. I wondered how my house was. Sure, it was a rental, so it’s not my house, but it had been hard enough finding the place after I left Santa Cruz in such a hurry a year before. It’s a big Victorian, with a huge bay window in the Lower Haight. I hoped Drew, my housemate, hadn’t been standing in front of that window debating his next decorating move. We hadn’t lost any windows in our office, but I was plenty worried that big old house wouldn’t have flexed quite like our spiffy new building.

It might have been thirty, forty minutes to get down to the lobby—it seemed like hours. Then, suddenly, we were out on Market Street. It was pandemonium. The noise was the first shock. The combined sounds—shouts, crashes, horns, machine noises, police sirens—hit with a physical impact, so that I ducked a little when I stepped out onto the street. The street and sidewalks were teeming with people, some milling about, some standing alone, many walking in waves up and down Market.

Traffic was completely stopped, with some cars left at odd angles in the middle of the street. I saw an empty Muni bus almost sideways, straddling both lanes with its door open. There was smashed glass all over the place, much of it from sidewalk-level storefront windows. Police cars were parked or in movement in all directions. I saw water gushing over a low rooftop wall and down the front of a nearby five- or six-story building onto the sidewalk below. Then I watched an ambulance pull up on the sidewalk of the building right next to ours and spill out its attendants, who rushed inside. I could hear sirens near and far. I checked out the big office building right across the street, and it had thick white smoke pushing out of broken windows on the third floor. It was madness.

People from our office had gathered in a loose circle on the sidewalk edge and in the street, trying to decide what to do. One of the sales guys was trying to get people to go to the Gnome’s Hat, a dive bar around the corner, but nobody was listening. I thought I should try to call the house, but the only phone in sight had six or seven people crowded around it. I spun around in a small circle, looking up and down the street, and at my fellow workers, who didn’t seem to be able to put a plan of action together. Silvie and Crenshaw stood off to the side, Silvie waving her arms and Crenshaw sucking on a cigarette with fierce concentration.

Then I noticed Megan staring at me. Though her complexion was returning to normal, she still looked stricken. She looked at me steadily for a moment and then said, slowly, in a tight-throated way that made her words croak a bit, “Hayden, I would greatly appreciate if you would walk me to my apartment. I’m feeling quite ill.” She fluttered her arm toward my shoulder, and briefly rested it there and then she looked away. I thought I could see her trembling a little.

“Well, that’d probably be OK, Megan. I’ll just try and call my place from your house—I’m a little worried because it’s an old building.” I tried not to smile too broadly when I said, “I’m glad to see you’re getting some blood back—your face was the color of printer paper up there.”

She touched one of her earlobes, covering one of her tiny pearl earrings. “Well, that’s probably true. This is my first earthquake, and I’d like the number to stop there.” She looked out at the crazed street scene and shuddered a little. “At the moment, I think I’d take the peril of Boston drivers over San Francisco earthquakes hands down.”

Megan had come to Consolidated from Boston only two years before. She’d been an editor there, but also (because it was a small company) the Traffic Manager or some such ungodly title at a small boutique publisher in Boston, routing manuscripts, messages, contracts and communications through that office and across that quadrant of the East Coast’s literary world. She did have all kinds of exchanges with agents and name authors, but that didn’t count much at Consolidated. But damn, that contract work did: Now she insured that leases had signatures, executives had quarterly reports and that meetings had 100% attendance. Consolidated leaned on her small frame with a vengeance, but she never seemed to be caught with a contract—or a sandy-blond hair—out of place.

Not that I’m complaining. In my storied history of bosses, I’ve had ogres, oafs and other assorted hind ends. Megan was the picture of reason, calm and cordiality. I’d spent a few idle moments in the past wondering how Consolidated could have lured Megan out of her Boston environs. She seemed so quintessentially Right Coast and proper, a person who could probably get away with wearing white gloves to work without it seeming wholly absurd, someone who might not visibly stiffen if you spoke to her with food in your mouth, but whose delicate glance away would prompt that mouth’s closing. Even though she was just a year or two older than me, her manner seemed ten. But maybe I’m not telling it right: It’s not like she was a stiff—she was just someone you couldn’t see getting loose. She wasn’t stuffy in some dried-up way; she was simply precise. Her opinions—and her English—were never sloppy.

Maybe the source of that tidy English was the fact that she was English: she grew up in suburban London, an only child of well-to-do parents who left when she was nine, after her father accepted a position at a Boston law firm, while teaching law part-time at Boston University. Her mom had been born in Boston, but had met her dad in London. Suffice it to say that Megan was the only one I knew who had had a nanny. At the moment, both of us (and maybe even the City itself) could have probably used a nanny, but we would have to soldier on without.

First things first—get off of Market Street. I knew Megan lived somewhere on Taylor in Russian Hill, so I figured we’d walk up to California and maybe move north on Stockton, skirting Chinatown. I knew that would first take us through some of the big-boy buildings in the financial district, but I didn’t want to flank the Embarcadero—I’d remembered that big waves can follow an earthquake, and though that seemed pretty unlikely in the Bay, I’d always had a weird fear of drowning. Megan still seemed only semi-coherent, so I just gestured the way and we moved through the chaos.

We started walking up to where California hits Market and I saw Leg Man, in his usual spot, not far from Consolidated. I saw him almost every morning, since he set up shop near the coffee stand where I regularly fueled up. Leg Man was a homeless guy, or at least he looked like a homeless guy, and like many of the homeless on Market, he had a regular spot where he plied his trade. The ways the homeless folks hit you up for dough on Market Street varied: some would try a story on every passerby, walking with you a bit to fast-talk a dollar. Some had crude or artistic signs with jokes on them—“Homeless man needs money for college and beer” or sad descriptions of their plight. Others would just sit slumped on the sidewalk, not looking at the masses moving by, maybe with a plastic cup to take any donations.

Leg Man was different. Leg Man had an artificial leg that he set up on the sidewalk, and at the top of the leg (a little above the knee), where there was a little platform/connecting bracket, he’d position a small metal can for people to drop money in. He usually stood stock-still back off the sidewalk from his leg—he didn’t seem to need the leg to stand—looking at everyone passing by, a small scowl on his face. He was late forties, maybe fifty, black, a big, stocky guy with wild graying hair. Today, amidst the madness, his leg was next to him against the storefront wall he normally leaned against. He undoubtedly knew that pickings would be slim on a day when all of the City was topsy-turvy.

I gave him a nod, and his eyes tightened a bit, but otherwise, he gave me no acknowledgment. But he gave Megan a long, sharp look and then gazed down the crowded street. He’d seen me many times, but I never knew if he recognized me or not, though I’d pushed a buck his way a few times. I wondered for a second if he knew Megan, but then we turned up toward California.

California was only marginally better than Market. The same twisted street scene of stopped cars, blocked drivers, bewildered pedestrians and buildings with some bites taken out of them. We headed into the living traffic, surrounded by confusion and crazy conversation. A story moved from behind us and forward through us, as though it were an electric shock: “The Bay Bridge collapsed! Whole thing’s down in the water. Rush hour—can you imagine it?” It was truly surreal—not merely the thought that that huge structure over the Bay had fallen, but how there was a tangible feeling that the story was like a swarm of bees or wasps that moved electrically through the crowd, stinging people with news as they passed.

I didn’t really believe the thing about the bridge, and was going to tell Megan as much, but when I looked at her, she just glanced at me with a look of such sick grimness that I didn’t say anything. We hurried on as best we could, Megan clacking in her heels through the crowd. She was wearing one of those pinstriped, pantsuit kind of things she often wore, when she wasn’t wearing a dress. I wonder if she even owned a pair of jeans.
On the corner of California and Kearny was a scene I won’t forget: a middle-aged man was just turning around in a small circle, weeping loudly, and just a few feet away, a heavily tattooed woman who looked like a bike messenger was gesturing to the sky and laughing maniacally. It was hard to tell which one was in worse shape. We moved on.

We headed up Stockton and started to climb the hill. On the edge of Chinatown I saw a strange sight: there were a bunch of those pressed, flattened ducks that they sell in plastic bags spilled all over the sidewalk, along with a bunch of root- and twig-like things, some kind of loose tea or herbs. All of the display racks of the ducks and some of the shelves had flipped over and spilled everything, and a guy that looked like he might have been the proprietor was just staring at the stuff on the ground.

We got over to Taylor and started heading north and up and if you know Taylor, you know I mean up. Taylor was quieter than the streets we’d passed, though there was full evidence that something had given the street a big shake. It was pretty close to dark now, and darker yet, because there was no power. It was quite eerie to ascend the street and come to corners where you could see toward downtown and the Bay. San Francisco with no lights was something strange, the tall buildings dark and brooding, with sirens still going off in every direction.

I was surprised at how well Megan moved in those heels up that hill. It’s not like she’s out of shape or anything; in fact, as I walked close behind her I found myself admiring the pull of her hips as she tackled that hill, with the street’s angle and her motion tugging her loose pants so that they outlined her small, tight frame. I shook my head a little bit—I can’t think of Megan that way, no. My mind quickly moved on to those red panties of Della’s I’d caught a glimpse of that morning. I was so deep into a warm thought about Della that when Megan turned back to me and spoke I almost jumped.

“This is it—I’m on the top floor.”

I glanced up at a five- or six-story apartment complex, the Belvedere, with its street address written out in script letters with a flourish. Russian Hill might only be five or six miles from my place in the Haight, but it was a world away as well. There was no obvious damage to the stately old building, though it looked like someone had stacked a bunch of cardboard boxes out front filled with broken stuff.

“OK. I probably should get over to my place and see if it’s still standing. Take care, Megan.”

I turned back down the hill and started off. Megan’s voice behind me was too sharp for the short distance between us.

“Hayden! Hayden, maybe you could come up for a moment and help me determine if everything’s all right. I, I think that I wouldn’t be able to right my bigger bookcases if they’ve fallen.”

She looked at me quickly and looked away down the street, her hand scratching a bit at her face.

“Well, yeah, sure. I mean, maybe just for a minute. I really should get home.” Man, at the beginning of this day, could I ever have predicted I’d be asked into the boss’s apartment that night?

All it took was a huge earthquake.

To Thine Own Self (Publishing) Be True

Leaded type

I finished a novel in late 2012. Titled Aftershock, it’s based in San Francisco, and the 1989 earthquake plays a central part in throwing—almost literally—some disparate lives together. Nobody’s particularly comfortable in the book, but that’s the prerogative of the author—we get to torture our characters, so that we can be better people ourselves. Or not.

But I don’t want to talk about my psychological problems. (Unless you swing by with a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s bourbon—I have ice on ice waiting for you.) I do want to briefly talk about publishing. Briefly, because talking about the changes in publishing is an industry in itself these days, and my adding to the din won’t land me any Oprah-time.

Bleary Queries

To this point, I’ve sent queries about my novel to 22 agents. Despite the publishing heavens being torn by demons, agents remain the middle defenders for those writers hungering for the traditional publishing route, with its still-credible distribution structure, now-flagging marketing support, and tarnished-yet-dimly-shiny “Look mom, some NY bigwigs bought my book” cachet.

Depending on the agent guidelines, those queries have included a couple of full manuscripts, a lot of 10-50 page excerpts, or just a synopsis and a prayer. So far, I’ve received 12 rejections; some of the queries are a few months’ old without response, so I’ll probably follow up on the best of those.

But the winds of change have blown their clichéd gusts through publishing’s doors, and floors. Self-publishing no longer has the “I wrote seven poems about grandma’s feet, and had them printed with a velvet cover” taint. I self-published my first novel, had a book of short stories published by a small press after that, and should no agent show real interest in my newest work in the next few months, I’ll go the self-abuse route once more. (I did always love the punchline for the you’ll-go-blind masturbation joke, “Hey, can I just do it long enough so I only have to wear glasses?”)

Resources: Self-pub Grub

I’ve been reading a good deal about the publishing industry and its earthquakes in the last year or so. Here are a few good books that have solid info on the publishing world, self-publishing and how to market your work:

APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur

The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published

Create Your Writer Platform

Sites with Insights

And here are some sites I read regularly that provide great resources and insights into the roiling new world of publishing.

Jane Friedman
The Creative Penn
Digital Book World

And if I do self-publish, this time I’ll have my book edited by some professional other than myself. Woe befalls the writer, even if they are professional editors, who edit their own work. That self-abuse could take the sight from any writer’s eyes, and I already wear glasses, so I know better now.

Anatomy of a Failed Book Promotion

Top 100 Free Merged

Stand Aside, Literary Poseurs!

I suppose I can forgive Hugo and Dickens for being ahead of me, because they are dead, after all. But man, did I stick it to that Bronte gal! (And her sisters aren’t even here to defend her.) I’m referring to that bit of pictorial whimsy above, where I got to sit at the reading table (even if I had to use a high chair) with a pantheon of literary greats. The whimsy is that this is one of those deceptive snapshots in time, where if the photo is taken at just the right moment, a sedentary couch surfer might be seen to be leaping onto a moving stallion. In the case of my recent Amazon book promotion, my stallion never really left the stall.

The reason my novel, All Roads Are Circles, is seen rubbing shoulders with these writing elect is because of my recent promotion through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing’s (KDP) Select program. I won’t go into deep details about how the Select program works, but here is a pointed post from Jane Friedman (excellent comments too) about the premise behind the program. One of the questions that’s examined is that because of the proliferation of free books, is KDP of much use to authors today?

One of the basics of the program for your enrolled ebook is that you give Amazon exclusive rights to sell your book for 90 days, and in that time you can designate 5 days of free downloads for the book. One of the alleged spurs behind this largesse is that it circulates an author’s work to a wider audience, some percentage of which might be induced to write a positive review, and thus boost actual sales.

Promotion a Go-Go Goes No-Go

I took my first novel, published a couple of years ago, off of Smashwords and B&N to put it in Select. My hope in using the program wasn’t to later sell copies of that novel, but indeed to induce some positive reviews, in the hopes that might promote the sale of my newer, small-press published short story collection. People who have used the program successfully have noted that it’s often helpful in the selling of other works; you will see many authors sell a novel for .99 as a loss leader, while their other works are priced much higher.

I was quite successful in my recent promotion in NOT selling copies of the promoted novel (I’m apparently quite good at that), but not very successful in getting reviews, and not successful in getting new sales of the short story book. Broken down, my recent 5 days of free KDP promotion—which ended on April 24—garnered 3,288 downloads. I had registered it for free on a number of free ebook downloads sites, and on some Goodreads and Amazon free promo forums. You will see in current online discussions of KDP Select that Amazon is no longer giving these sites that advertise free downloads as much latitude and support as they had in the past.

That Stallion Really Was Lame

It’s been almost a month since the promo ended. In that time, there were 0 post-Select sales of the novel. There was probably one sale of the short story book, maybe two. I did get one review of the free novel: it’s titled “Lame,” and its one-star designation says nothing happens in the book except some x-rated language. Wow, I’m going to have to go back and read my own book. I’m almost sure something happens, but I didn’t realize there was so much shitty language.

Granted, literary fiction isn’t a big seller (particularly short-story books), and Oprah and I never dated, so I don’t have that cachet, but them results is slim pickin’s. Other writers report much different results. Author Joe Konrath, who writes extensively about traditional publishing and all the variants of self-publishing, spells out his own profitable experiences with KDP Select; he has an extensive publishing history, which served him well in his promotion.

However, if anyone does need advice on how not to sell books, I am apparently an expert. I’m not sure how well that Dickens guy did on his actual sales after his promo, but as you know, he has a lot of ghosts working for him on his behalf. I’m thinking of engaging the Ghost of Christmas Future to work on my next book promo …

Writing Small, Thinking Big

Tiny pencil

Tiny but mighty: stand back—this is a sharpened word sword!

I had a tiny piece about the Las Vegas Hangover Heaven bus published in Draft magazine the other day. Draft is highest-circulating craft-beer magazine, with a frothy lineup of stories about breweries, industry personalities and innovations in the brewing world. My little article is just a whisper of words, but I’m still happy to have it published, for a number of writing reasons.

Many magazines today, from Smithsonian to Seventeen, have lots of small articles and light pieces in their brightly designed front (and sometimes back) pages. It speaks to the reading tastes of the Internet age: colorful and chunky. For writers, and especially ones trying to break in to a magazine, these areas (called “front of book” or FOB) can be a quick keyboarding to good money and wider opportunities.

Many magazine editors don’t have the time or patience to try out an unknown writer on a feature piece, but query them on a 200- or 300-word filler article, and they will more often acquiesce. And those appetizer articles are often a way to set the table for a full-meal article later.

In the case of Draft, I’d written a long feature piece on moonshining for them a while back, so I know the editor. I pitched the Hangover Heaven piece as a feature, but was still happy when the editor came back with the offer to make it a short FOB article. Happy because those articles often pay .50 to $1 a word (the case here), and more so because it kept me fresh in the mind of the editor. I’m about to query her with another feature pitch this week because I’m fresh in the magazine and fresh in her mind.

Short Articles Can Pay the Long Green

Short is also sweet in terms of demonstrating that you can consistently carry a certain kind of article to completion. I just wrote my fourth FOB piece for The American Scholar, for a section called Works in Progress. These articles have all been 250-word pieces, which again pay well. Better, after having written a few of these, the editor now inquires if I have any ideas for the next quarterly issue. I’m in good stead with that editor for stories to come—possibly longer stories to come—and potentially with editors of other good magazines, because the Scholar is a national magazine of high caliber, focusing on public affairs, literature, culture and more.

One other consideration on short pieces: you can often use the research done for a longer piece as the basis for another short article. I just wrote an article for Airstream Life magazine on Edward Tufte, the professor who is famous for his work in rendering complex information into a comprehensible whole. He also is a designer of very fanciful sculptures, among them one that uses an Airstream in a most improbable way. After I wrote the Airstream Life piece, I realized that some unused info and quotes from the interview could be shaped into a short piece for The American Scholar. Bingo, a twofer! (And I’m grateful that the editor of Airstream Life now brings potential stories to my attention as well, since I’ve written for him for years.)

So, don’t think writing small pieces for magazines diminishes their stature. If they are big enough for a byline, they are big enough to stand on their own. And they can lead to bigger things down the road.

Chocolate Kills (But What a Way to Go)


I love to write travel pieces, from tales based on exotic sojourns to tiny islands far, far away, to “wow, look what’s right in my backyard” articles. One of the travel article forms is the service piece, which is distinguished from the storytelling article by having a “news you can use” angle, often specifying a destination’s particular sights to be seen, restaurants, lodging prices and hours and locales for all.

Such a piece is my “Five Places for Getting to the Soul of Whiskey” article, published in the San Francisco Chronicle. (One does like good service when it comes to whiskey.) I’m mentioning the Chronicle article in this lineup because the Chronicle travel section presents another angle of article-writing math: they only accept pieces on spec. That means that they don’t assign articles as a result of your crafted query: they take a look at completed pieces, and then say yea or nay.

Which is my long-winded way of saying that I recently wrote another travel piece on spec for the Chronicle: “Five Bay Area Places to Get Killer Chocolate.” Even though I’d seen they’d done a chocolate roundup early last year, I thought mine was distinctive enough to re-whet the editor’s chocolate appetite. My mistake: writing on spec is always chancy (way more time involved than writing a query), and chancier still in this venue, because the Chronicle’s “Five Places” structure doesn’t easily lend itself to rewrite for another publication’s slant. So when the Chron editor said, “thanks but no thanks,” I pondered this article’s fate.

It’s often worth it to pursue rewriting or re-purposing articles—I’ve had articles reprinted in whole, or their rewritten variants published a number of times—but I decided to let this one go. But I had to give it some kind of a home, so let’s allow its velvety chocolate soul to rest here.

Five Bay Area Places to Get Killer Chocolate

Chocolate has morphed from a bitter beverage in Mayan shamanic circles to a sweeter infusion that delighted Europe’s elite to a connoisseur’s candy laced with chipotle and cognac. And it recently broke through the anti-fat, anti-sugar, anti-pleasure nutritional naysayers to now be thought of as a stroke suppressant, cholesterol cutter, diabetes deterrent and all-around good soul. Not a bad resume for a humble bean.
Whatever form the confection takes, there’s a simple reason that enthusiasts can’t seem to get enough: the stuff’s good—really good. Whether you like to slurp, gobble or even flip your chocolate with a spatula, the Bay Area has some choice offerings for the chocoholic.

Big Sur Bakery, Big Sur
The chocolate cake here is deep as a mystery, a buttery, luscious darkness that will have you tonguing the plate and longing for more. Pair it with the bracing espresso and swoon. (And it’s not always available—scarcity sharpens desire.)
47540 Highway 1, (831) 667-0520

Richard Donnelly Chocolates, Santa Cruz
When I lived on a tiny Micronesian island, I cried in pain because the Chinese and Japanese chocolate there was so bad. When a friend sent Richard Donnelly’s Brownie Mix, I wept for joy. These brownies are the chewy, dense, essential core of chocolate. Music for the mouth, with a lingering finish.
1509 Mission Street, (888) 685-1871

Vosges Chocolate, Bay Area Locations
I know, I know—bacon is the new black. We see it in cocktails, mayonnaise, even toothpaste. But Bacon Chocolate Chip Pancake Mix—delicious! Buttermilk pancake mix studded with hickory-smoked bacon enshrouded in sea-salted milk chocolate. You’ll flip the cakes and flip your lid.
Andronico’s, various Bay Area locations

Bittersweet Cafe, Oakland
A place that calls itself “The Chocolate Cafe” better deliver the goods. They have over 150 bars from all over the world and great coffee too, but what really sets them apart are their “drinking chocolates,” which come in three deadly and deep flavors. Whether you go for them hot or cold, these slurpables will coat your mouth in chocolate heaven.
5427 College Avenue, (510) 654-7159

CocoaBella, San Francisco
They dub themselves a “chocolate lifestyle shop,” and indeed the digs are nice. But they could be vending out of a broom closet and still have a steady customer stream, because they have the best chocolates selection around. All the good stuff from Belgium, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Canada and the United States. What’s really fun is to build your own custom box online. What’s more fun is when the box arrives.
2102 Union Street, (415) 931-6213

All the News That’s Fit to Squint At

I have an ongoing battle with myself (damn, every time I get on top, I’m on the bottom too) about reading and listening to the daily news. It can be such a litany of woe and strife: so many deaths, so many injustices that I become inured to the actual screaming pain of it and instead numbly click on to the next article. The drive to drink more news swill is partially due to me wanting to be a journalist for so many years, and for thinking that if I stay current with global currents, I’ll know what’s happening.

But often, what’s happening is just as real under the radar, on the other side of the insistent NOW. Life works its odd ways in the road-not-taken nooks and crannies of not-news and not-hot-news. So, while I continue to battle with whether I’ll lap up the blood-soaked headlines of today, I also subscribe to a number of email newsletters, some of them writing-related, some not, that take a different perspective on what’s interesting and important. (Note: do not point out that reading yet more digests of information doesn’t really address the prescription that it might be time to wean oneself off the news entirely. Bah! Resolutions are for New Year’s.)

So, some offbeat compendiums of not-quite-news:

Next Draft
A daily digest of the provocative, the crazed and the head-scratching (and sometimes it does include top-of-the-news stories, though often from a different angle). The guy behind this, Dave Pell, usually has some wry or deadpan take on the articles he lists, before you click through to the madness.

Brain Pickings
Often centering around writers and literature, this is a weekly digest of the old, the new and the odd. Let them explain: “Brain Pickings is a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness, culling and curating cross-disciplinary curiosity-quenchers, and separating the signal from the noise to bring you things you didn’t know you were interested in until you are.”

Work in Progress
A weekly (though not always) newsletter from the Farrar, Strauss Giroux publishing company, it will often have oddments from the byways of literature and literary types, sometimes with snippets from interviews of famed authors long dead, or snipings from unruly authors quite alive. Some promo of their own publications here, but not obnoxious.

Shelf Awareness
And if you want to find out which of your favorite bookstores are closing this week, this newsletter’s for you. Well, that’s not all they do—from their About: Shelf Awareness publishes two newsletters, one for general readers and one for people in the book business.
Shelf Awareness: Enlightenment for Readers, our new newsletter, appears Tuesdays and Fridays and helps readers discover the 25 best books of the week, as chosen by our industry experts. We also have news about books and authors, author interviews and more.
Shelf Awareness: Daily Enlightenment for the Book Trade, which we’ve been publishing since June 2005, provides booksellers and librarians the information they need to sell and lend books. It appears every business day and is read by people throughout the book industry.

Writing on the Ether
And if you need to read about which publishing industry maven is trashing Amazon today (but it’s funny, really), you can do no better than to go to Jane Friedman’s fine blog and read the Thursday edition of Writing on the Ether. There’s more than just Amazon trashing going on, with all the publishing industry in a constant froth about pretty much everything. Porter Anderson surveys and curates sharp commentary from every whichaway.

Extry, Extry, Man and Dog Both Bite Reporter

And a bit of my own news: Men With Pens put up a post of mine about “Why I Write.” Go there and tell me why you write as well. Or why not.

And I was a finalist in the Gotham Writer’s Workshop 50-word monologue contest, which solicited 50-word monologues on growing up in the suburban 60s. Guilty. I won two tickets to a Broadway revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” which I would dearly love to attend, but it being on the Right Coast, I can’t. I’ll be finding some backbiting, caustic, alcoholic NY friends of mine to give them to instead.

Dictionaries: for Whom the (Electronic) Bell Tolls

And you can also use it to bash rodents

For the past 30 years or so, I’ve kept a hardcover dictionary, usually a Merriam-Webster’s, near my bed. Reading in bed at night has long been one of my delicious pleasures, and because words themselves are the savory nuggets of that deliciousness, I’ve never found it tedious to pause in the narrative to look up an unfamiliar or unusually wrought word. Quite the opposite. True, sometimes throwing a rock under the wheels of your reading journey can be disruptive, but I’ve more often found that considering why an author might use a particular word helps me parse the narrative all the better, and thus roll more smoothly through it.

However, once you pick up a dictionary to sniff out one savory nugget, your word-stimulated appetite might hunt out all the more, so your reading attentions turn from the original story to that herd of words corralled by the alphabet. So, grabbing the weighty word-cage from the bedside table is less an annoyance than a pleasure. But I do wonder how much longer such a big box of words will come in that container: a couple of weeks ago, I read that MacMillan, one of the larger reference book publishers, would be printing its final physical edition this year, becoming instead an online reference source for language arts.

Death (or at least gone to the hot tub) of a salesperson

That’s not any kind of shock: the stalwart Merriam-Webster Collegiate at my bedside is published through Encyclopedia Britannica, which ceased the print edition—after 244 years of publication—of its 32-volume set in 2010, to concentrate on its digital assets. And the most venerable of the dictionary publishers, Oxford University Press, also dropped the curtain on the 126-year print publication of “the definitive record of the English language” in 2010. The third edition of the Oxford, which will be available exclusively online, won’t be release until around 2037, which tells you that cooking with words takes a sweet, slow simmer.

I’m sure if there are any surviving door-to-door salespeople who used to trundle the Britannica around, they would issue a world-weary, “It’s about time.” That’s probably just as well: According to a 2006 report by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Britannica’s own market research showed that the typical encyclopedia owner opened the books just once or twice a year. They undoubtedly provided more of a touch of intellectual window dressing for many families.

Not to bury Webster, but to praise him (Er, it. Or them.)

However, this is no lamentation for the death of the physical tome. For me, I’m often as not starting the engine of that big Webster’s tank because of a wiggly word I spotted in my Kindle reading. I love the page-by-page presence of books, always will, but I have no quarrel with the e-readers of the world; I am one of them, I have one of them—there’s much to recommend them. As Seth Godin says, in many ways, the physical book is a “souvenir”—with information being instant, the physical book is more of a trophy of sorts, though one I hope isn’t designated as wallpaper like those old Britannicas.

Here’s to the book, long live the book (but I’ll be peeking at the Kindle I’m hiding behind the book cover as well).

You ought to see my flask collection too

As a postscript to this bookish bender, you may be amused by the video that graces my About page, which shows me wrestling with a portion of my collection of reference works. Books, can’t live without them, can’t get good gas mileage if you fill your trunk with ’em.