Let x = x

Finishing my first novel (borderline novella) Vague Pains was one of the best feelings of my life. Being an avid reader made me painfully aware of my shortcomings as a writer, but after about a decade of muddling I was proud of the 120ish pages in the book.

The writing is coming easier now. The self-criticism when I’m reading my work has evolved from the paralyzing this sucks to the useful this sucks because…

I’ve mentioned it before but many of my favorite books are long ones. Melville, Eliot, Dostoevsky, and many others wrote monster novels you could get lost inside. This is even true in the nonfiction realm, like Stephen Kotkin‘s forest-decimating Stalin biographies (each of the first two fascinating volumes were about a thousand pages, with more on the way). As a reader you have to swim out so deep that your feet can’t touch the bottom of your familiar life.

As much as I would love to do it, I don’t know if I have it in me to write a thousand page beast of a book, much less make it worth reading. Although, as a side note I will take a moment to appreciate even those gargantuan books so mind numbing as to make them nearly unreadable, the book version of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. After all, you are talking to one of those rare weirdos who made it through all 976 pages of The Exegesis of Philip K Dick.

All of this to say I’m trying to write a long book, a book, as Laurie Anderson put it, “thick enough to stun an ox.”

I am still on the rough draft of my new project, with many of the chapters still in a sketched out form, and at this point it’s about 60,000 words. Initially I was fixated on the idea of the story cracking 1,000 pages, but of course that’s a stupid goal- more in the interest of my ego than telling a good story. I really love what is taking shape, so I’ll let the story be whatever length it wants to be.

Besides, even at this length I bet a hardcover edition could stun an ox.

“Mandy”Review: 3 out of 5 Hallucinogenic Wasps

7A53E88F-D1F6-4417-A092-6C444BF5EE69“You have got to see this,” my wife said, handing me her phone with the trailer to Mandy cued up. So I did…and here we go. Fair warning: spoilers ahead.

What I liked

First I love the concept behind Legion M, and thought Colossal was pretty cool.

Also, the visuals in this movie were incredible. That alone made it worth watching for me. Whole scenes were illuminated in pulsing reds and blues which really worked well. After reaching the climax under blinking red radio tower it makes you reconsider the earlier scenes in red. Is it foreshadowing? Is the director saying it was fate for the story to unfold as it did? Is it a statement about the nature of time itself? I dunno, but it’s cool. Given the themes of high emotion, dreams, imagination and various hallucinogens, the trippy visuals work- like the alien sky, and the slowing of time when the cult leader sees Mandy for first time.

I also really enjoyed the nods to classic 80’s moviemaking. This extended from little touches like the shot of the psycho biker clearly “riding” stationary in front of a green screen, apparently down to the camera and shooting format itself. It’s a great idea for a movie set in the 80’s and works well. Even the style of gore feels imported out of the 80’s- think melting heads from Raiders of the Lost Ark and voluminous movie blood. Compared to the forced nostalgia of Summer of ‘84 this really nailed the feel of the decade.

What I didn’t like

There’s this great part in Big Trouble in Little China where the bad guys (with a damsel in distress in the trunk) attempt to run over Kurt Russell and his sidekick. They dive out of the way just in time. Russell rises and with an icy stare says, “Son of a b*tch must pay.” It’s simultaneously hilarious and and exciting at the same time. It works because it is true to the character in the story: a macho dude who is a little ridiculous.


In Mandy there are some lines like this that feel natural and earned, like, when Cage is warned that he is almost certainly going to die taking on the bikers and replies, “Don’t be negative.” Others feel so forced and out of place because they just don’t fit the character. When Rad (a.k.a. Nicolas Cage) calls one of the demon bikers a snowflake before tripping him into an abyss it just comes off weird (wait, did they have Twitter in the 80’s?). It feels too self aware, bordering on Sharknado territory. Believe me, I hate it when people nitpick movies, especially when it’s assumed that there will be major suspension of disbelief in a movie this nuts. Still, it might be a quotable line, but when Nicolas Cage gets slashed across the chest and he shouts that they just ruined his favorite shirt, it undermines the stakes that they set up. Wasn’t that the point of the extended scene of him crying when Mandy was burned?

Consider the backstory of the crazy bikers, which works great. They’re killer psychos because of bad batch of LSD. For the rest of the movie they are comprehensible by this logic. If one gets shot by a crossbow, he may just stand there like he doesn’t care. On the other hand, early on Red is presented as a pretty unremarkable guy. He just lays there when the bikers break into the cabin and gets knocked out. He has no super strength to get him out of his barbed wire when he sees Mandy killed. Then a few scenes later he’s forging a weapon, a crossbow sniper and skilled at chainsaw fencing. Buy the time he catches up with the cult there is ZERO tension because apparently he’s got no human limitations.

Final Thoughts

I’ll leave aside a discussion of “fridging” of Mandy. I’m not sure if this is an intentional nod to another 80’s trope or lazy writing. The movie was certainly more tasteful when it came to leering at the female victims. I’m including the non-complicit cult member along with Mandy here. Considering how every other aspect is so over-the-top, this feels intentional, and contrasts with entire scene with Jeremiah’s junk in full view.

Overall the movie is packed with fascinating visuals, and overflowing with ideas. It is certainly flawed, but worth checking out if you have a strong stomach.

The sins of the fathers

“Who can avoid the sins of the fathers? but you go ahead kid, it’s your turn to walk on water” Daniel Amos

I think if I were to ever get a tattoo, it would be this image (drawn by Robin Clarijs):


I recently read Moby Dick for the second time.  It is such a profound work, with some of the best lines I have ever read.  The most memorable passage is in Chapter 60, which talks about the way the whaling line is wrapped around the rowers in the small boats that chase the whales during a hunt; in time people get used to being surrounded by the life-threatening danger these ropes can pose.  You can read the entire chapter here.

There are some understandable beefs you can have with Moby Dick.   The lengthy section proposing a new way of organizing all the whale species is admittedly pretty boring.  More significant would be the horrific racism, which would appear to be a valid tattoo veto.

If you’ve read the book, your know what I’m talking about.  If not, here’s a 12th grade book report that will give you an idea.  Basically any racial stereotype you can imagine is presented at some point in the book.  I mean, in chapter 34 he uses the phrase “noble savage” verbatim.  Prior to my beloved passage in chapter 60, there is an appalling line about how the golden-colored rope is better than the dark colored line…you know…just like people…

Stamped From The Beginning by Ibram X Kendi (which I am currently reading) describes the insidious way racism has shaped crept into every aspect of American culture, and Moby Dick certainly was a influenced by its time.

If you are feeling charitable towards Melville though (admittedly easier for a white dude to do), you can find some extenuating circumstances too.  All of the characters are heightened, and he seems to describe all cultures in broad strokes, such as the mention of “the all-grasping western world” in chapter 87.  When these caricatures of cultures collide, Melville often sides with the non-western one, such as in the end of chapter 65 and the early chapters where Queequeg is introduced.  Of course, these same chapters also include plenty of cringe-worthy stereotypes.  My goal here is not to absolve Melville, but to add a little nuance.  Also, there is some reason to believe that Ishmael is an unreliable narrator.  For example the supposed statement of the Spanish Don Pedro from chapter 54, “‘Nay, Senor; hereabouts in this dull, warm, mostly lazy, and hereditary land, we know but little of your vigorous North.'” As a reader far removed from the 1851 writing of the novel it’s hard to say for certain, but to me it seems too over-the-top to be read as serious dialogue.

For all of its profundity (and the explanations/excuses one can make), it is just plain disturbing to read lines such as, “the white man[‘s] ideal mastership over every dusky tribe” in chapter 42.  The vast majority of this 800+ page book is beautifully written, but the ugliness is there, and it matters.  I frankly don’t know what to do with this.

Perhaps that’s why the illustration above appeals to me.  It shows a scene from Moby Dick, but with paper boats instead of actual ones.  It seems to be saying that you can take what is valuable from the story but are free to cast off the rest.  I guess that is a decision for each reader to make for themselves.

Time’s Tell

It is every artists’ hope that their work stands the test of time.  And yet, every creation is a product of its time, and it is hard to anticipate what future-audiences will perceive as “dated.”

I recently read The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror for the first time.  Both are good spooky stories.  Still, they both clearly feel like a product of the 1970’s.  For example, both involve lengthy passages where clergy debate if the freaky goings on could be the result of ESP or telekinesis- concepts  much more in the culture of the time it was written.  Is this a bad thing?  Not necessarily.  As they often point out in The Next Picture Show (one of my favorite podcasts)- the idea of a work being “dated” isn’t really a fair criticism.  How can a work not be a product of its time?  Still, for authors, who are notoriously protective of their work, this is just one more disturbing thing outside of your control.

A good story is a good story.  As a modern reader, reaching these passages just caused a momentary, Huh. That’s weird, then back into the flow.  In setting my book in 2009, I have the luxury of a slight remove to frame the story from a bit of a safe distance.  And yet, it is interesting to wonder which aspects of the writing, invisible to me now,  might give a future-reader pause.


Shaded Pain

The nearly forgotten song “Shaded Pain” on the 1987 LSU (a.k.a. Lifesavers Underground) album of the same name includes the lines, “We throw off all the shackles, then we wear the chains, shaded pain. We find out who we are, then we lose our names, shaded pain.”

When I was a teenager listening to this song on cassette, I was moved to tears many times.  It’s strange hearing it now.  I can’t separate from the nostalgia to hear it with objective ears, and suspect that it probably wasn’t the work of genius that it seemed to be as I stared out of a backseat window all those years ago.  It isn’t available on streaming services, just obsolete formats like CD and vinyl.  The sentiment, that people (particularly Christians) are shamed into hiding their pain, is still carries a lot of weight.  And yet, since the song came out in the 80’s the opposite trend– oversharing– seems to be growing, too.

There was a tragedy today.  I, like many people feel a need to talk about it on social media.  I feel like I need to commemorate it, to stain the otherwise banal stream of pleasantness in my feed to match the outside world.  I’m not sure what it accomplishes or if I even have the right to do it.

I was off work today and listened to the audiobook forms of James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work and Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation.  The first of these was a more dedicated listen, with a physical copy on hand to underline and dog ear especially well-written passages.  Both were disconcerting, but at a remove- one from the past and the other from some uncertain future.  After finishing the second of these I checked the news out of habit and learned of the latest tragedy.  The chaos so carefully sequestered into my books had leaked into the present after all.

The Wikipedia entries for The Devil Finds Work is a fraction of the length of the one for Annihilation (links above).  There is no question that James Baldwin’s work is exponentially more important, but it, like Shaded Pain, suffers from belonging to a pre-internet era.  There really is no history in the Internet, just a continuous present that gets preserved.  Voluminous Wikipedia entries about Shakespeare’s plays only attest to the present focus on their worth, not what they actually meant at the time of their writing.

I don’t know the meaning of this, other than the desire to write what I know.  A tragedy has happened today.  One in a series, soon to be displaced by the next.  I feels wrong to say nothing, but also wrong to talk about what I don’t know.  So I’ll write about what I know and hope it is enough.  On Amazon used copies of Shaded Pain are selling for $2 on CD and $200 on vinyl, so maybe somehow it’s worth a lot and not that much at the same time.

shaded pain


Inception, a Korean action movie and Philip K Dick

Inception is a pretty great movie.  So when I saw an article in The Verge comparing the South Korean movie Fabricated City to it I had to check it out.  One problem: it’s not on any of the streaming services… I had to cough of the cash to get the Blu Ray.  I guess my eccentric streak was strong enough to compel me to go for it- the same way it led me by by the DVD of the surreal Iranian film The Cow, but that’s another story.

Fabricated City was decent.  I’d give it a solid A- for overall entertainment value. A little overlong, and with some laughable special effects, but an interesting story and good action.  I didn’t really get the Inception connection though.  It seemed to have more in common with paranoid thrillers like Enemy of the State.  By some random fluke though I did come across a story recently that seemed to share a lot of the themes from Inception: Ubik by Philip K. Dick.

I know of Philip K. Dick as the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the book that inspired Blade Runner, though I haven’t read/watched either of them yet.  I have however read the 900 page door stopper of a book The Exegesis of Philip K Dick, a bewildering tour of the seemingly endless pages of stream-of-consciousness metaphysical writings he left behind.  It seems to be the product of a creative, disturbed and paranoid mind.  It is sometimes fascinating, other times boring, and occasionally L Ron Hubbard-ish.  Anyway, I finally got around to reading Ubik, and without spoiling the plot, I can safely recommend it as a better fit than Fabricated City for fans of Inception.   It has it all- layers of reality, people who are not what they seem, and a head-scratching ending Christopher Nolan could be proud of.  It’s a pretty quick read, and fast paced.  Highly recommended, especially if you are looking for a way to kill time until your Blu Ray of Fabricated City arrives in the mail.

Why making an audiobook makes no financial sense…and why I did it anyway Part 2

In part one I explained all the reasons why turning Vague Pains into an Audiobook made no sense money-wise.   Here’s the other side of the story.

  1. A new perspective on the book.  After years of getting to know my characters, I thought I knew them all pretty well, but a good narrator can make them surprise you.  That This was clear even from the first lines in Vague Pains, which is a passage from Henry’s journal.  In my head I had imagined Henry reading the lines back in an apathetic, numb state of mind.  Instead, in the audiobook version, the performance conveys a sense of fear.  It was just as true to the character as my version, and really opened my eyes.  It was thrilling to hear different nuances in the performance I hadn’t expected.  As an author it was a unique and special experience.
  2. A broader audience.  I rarely read ebooks.  I love underlining and dog earing.  The digital equivalents just aren’t the same.  My book-consumption habits are probably about 50% physical and 50% audio.  Everyone has their own preferences, so having Vague Pains in as many formats as possible helps open it up to more people.
  3. Ok…I admit it. I listen to Audiobooks so often that I just wanted one of my own.  Maybe it is a bit of a vanity project in that sense.  I have no idea if or when I will write another novel.  I want to make the most of it!

Why making an audiobook makes no financial sense…and why I did it anyway Part 1


I am an AVID audiobook listener (as you can see from my Audible stats), so I always envisioned there being an audio version Vague Pains.  When it came time to crunch the numbers it became clear that it made no financial sense.  Using ACX.com (a pretty cool service) it is free to post the completed file on Audible, iTunes, etc.  Side note: being an Amazon company, ACX will take a smaller cut of the sales if you agree to just post it on Audible.

The real cost is in making a good recording.  Sure, home recording set ups are relatively inexpensive, but most authors aren’t so great at being narrators.  I remember listening to a clip of Joseph Heller reading a passage for Catch 22- included as a bonus feature at the end of the professionally-narrated Audiobook.  Guess what?  Pretty underwhelming by comparison, even though the work was his vision!

I gave narration a try.  It wasn’t pretty.  Hiring a talented narration can easily cost into the hundreds of dollars per hour of finished audio.  It takes some pretty optimistic math to imagine enough sales to make it a money-maker.  That being said, I still went for it.  I’ll explain why in the next post!