Writing 101 -- Flavors Of Damnation

I think it's fairly safe to say that e-books are here to say.  Seven years ago, when I was debating whether or not to let a somewhat uncertain-looking outfit named Chippewa Press be the literary brow through which Zeus-like I would take the world by storm with a book called Salvation, this was by no means a certain thing.  At that time, e-books were a fringe and rather shaky proposition.  I eventually decided not to go with them, and my prescience was rewarded in the form of them going out of business about a year later.  Had I signed on to get into the publishing world with them, I would still probably be tied up in one form of court or another trying to get my rights back, not an inconsiderable concern when you've written five more books in the series.

Now, entering 2014, the Kindle device in all its various incarnations is a huge seller.  I wager you know at least three people will some version of an e-reader.  The lower cost associated with e-books, along with the ease of acquiring them and the relative anonymity of the titles contained (nobody knows if you're reading 50 Shades Of Grey or War And Peace, after all) makes the e-reader format highly attractive.  Add in the vast amount of mostly free apps available for the various tablets and smartphones, and it would seem like the e-market would be going great guns and that publishers would be much more willing to give people a shot.

This has not been the case at all.

To be sure, there have been a great many sales on the electronic side of the book business and from that method, it has been a good success.  In a world where the new console game system, 3-D blockbuster movies and the latest cable series sensation are all clamoring for your entertainment dollar, the e-book has carved a great niche out for itself.  What separates the e-book from these other entertainment platforms is the relatively low cost associated with its production.  When the various pre-production costs are all added together (cover artist, copy editor, chief editor and formatter who creates a readable book out of a Microsoft Word document), the cost is actually quite low.

Much lower, it should be hastily pointed out, than the traditional print book.  In that business model, there were all these costs, and then you could go ahead and add in the cost of printing anywhere from 1,000 to 100,000 copies of the book in traditional book format, the cost associated with shipping them to various booksellers across the United States (and around the world), and then whatever the costs were in getting the local brick-and-mortar stores to stock them on the shelves.  Of course, there was also then the added wariness of not selling enough copies of a book, having large amounts returned to the publisher...

...why, the e-book was the perfect test monkey to be shot into space!  With such low costs associated with production in the first place, if an e-book failed to sell more than a few hundred copies then it was no great loss.  Unsold books?  No such thing.  There was only sales, or limbo.  The costs of shipping were now dependent on bandwidth costs for download, which meant a great many more test balloons could be sent up for the same price as a few traditional print book.  By this very Vulcan logic, this should mean that getting an e-book published would be much easier than a traditional print book.  Much less risk = more risks could be taken.  Plus, the profit margin for sales is much, much higher.

However, there is no industry that is more backward and hidebound than that of publishing, and this has not bee the case. It is just as difficult now to get a print book accepted as it is an e-book, in complete defiance of the financial model I have laid out.  The reason why is quite simple; the same gatekeepers who have served in the industry for so long are also making their presence and habits felt in the e-publishing world to boot.  They have not changed their perceptions one iota in the face of changing technology.  The fact that the electronic market has been flooded with awful self-published books via Amazon has also not really helped the cause as well.

What does this all mean?  Don't lower your standards, people, because they're damn sure not lowering theirs.
Call Me Sir

That's A Wrap

For the past few months, I have been dealing with a rather serious back injury.  It's called a wedge deformity, and it takes place when some sort of a stressor is placed upon your spine and causes the normally roughly cube-shaped vertebrae to deform into a vaguely wedge-shaped piece of bone and nerves.  It's quite painful, and over the course of last season, finally got me off skates for the last two games of the season plus our big year-end two-day tournament.

It also knocked me out of the driving business for a while, because when you're eating anywhere from two to five Vicodin a day, you cannot legally drive.  Therefore I have been on office desk duty since the beginning of September, and while I don't miss the awfulness of my bus passengers, I do miss the 11:30 - 7:30 PM daily schedule, rather than being under a fluorescent sky at 8:00 AM sharp.
In the last month, I've experienced real progress on rehabbing from the injury, to the point where I might be able to resume my driving duties in a few weeks.  This would also coincide with the resumption of my refereeing duties, and considering that our club is now a nationally ranked power, the opportunities are beginning to line up.

However, the last two and a half months or so have been pretty dark.  Having near-constant pain every day that you have to take powerful pain medication for on a regular basis really wears you down.  I've never been placed on injured reserve for the remainder of a sports season for something I was involved with, and I didn't deal with it very well.  I felt horrible for my wife having to watch her husband be sucked down into a black hole.  And of course, there was the looming specter of the failure of Gilded Dragonfly Books to follow through on their request for the manuscript of Salvation with an offer for publication.  Having all those things pressed together in such a short period of time really cast me down, folks.

But I think things are turning around.  I don't have to take pain medication while at the office any more, as opposed to when I first started the assignment and was either in pain or a half-stoned zombie all the time.  I'm cleared to skate again.  I have a much better attitude and am now much closer to being the man my wife fell in love with.  And I've reached out to another publisher and submitted Salvation, putting Gilded Dragonfly Books in the rear-view mirror permanently... unless I get to be a big success, in which case I will slam them in interviews every chance I get.

Oh, and I'll be 40 on December 30th.

2014 will be a good year.  After all, the bar has been set pretty low.  :)
Eccleston Eye-Roll

Writing 101 -- Nothing To See Here, Move Along

First update in a while.

So back in April, I got an email from a literary agency that I had previously submitted to.  The sender said that they had left the agency where I had originally submitted Salvation to, and if I was still looking for a publishing house, they were now engaged in a new endeavor.  As it was put to me, "I want to be in the business of publishing good books instead of having to turn them down for one reason or another."  Was I interested in perhaps submitting to this new company?

Now, as you may or may not know, this sort of thing happens all the time.  Turning down decent books for bad reasons, I mean.  In order to get somebody to stand behind your book, you have to get their attention by the lapels.  This is not nearly as cut-and-dried as you might think that it is.  Think about all the times that somebody has given you a book and cheerily chirped, "I just know that you're going to love this!" and it just turned out to be a big ball of okay.  Or it was bad.  Or it was good, but not nearly as great as it was sold to you as.  Now, multiply this experience by about 150 times a week.  This is what it's like to be a ground-level book agent.

The thing is, even if you find something you really like, you still have to sell other people on this book.  Your boss.  The boss of your boss.  Other people at the agency.  Eventually, it's got to be sold to a publishing house, which is essentially like starting the counter for this gruesome body count by zero all over again.Also, they may be turning down the book for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the work, which is something that people outside the industry will probably never understand.  In the minds of most people, if something is good enough and has merit, it's going to get published.  If it's not good enough, it won't.  It's a pretty simple little equation.  Your book has been unpublished, despite numerous attempts to do so over the last ten years, and therefore it must suck like an Electrolux on steroids.  Elementary, right?

Not necessarily.  Agents have to pass on books they like all the time because they've already taken on two other clients in the last three months who do the same kind of thing, or because the boss didn't go for it, or because while they liked it, they just didn't feel they could make a sale.  This former agent, by going into business for themselves, was short-circuiting the process.  Now they are free to take on whatever clients they choose.

And they were asking for me!

I was late to roller derby practice that night because I sped home after work and sent off the submission package immediately.  I felt good; no, scratch that.  I felt great.  This of course heralded the beginning of The Waiting Game, but we're all fairly familiar with that little odious exercise.  However, it did not faze me in the slightest this time.  This was sort of like being a wide receiver in the NFL and sure,  you were cut by the New England Patriots in the preseason, but one of their studs ducks just came up lame, and they call your people asking if you can come in for a tryouts.  They are already familiar with your work.  They know what you have.  They are asking for you.  It's a slam-dunk, right?

Of course it wasn't.  In August, feeling a bit peeved that I had not heard anything from this neonate publisher yet concerning whether or not that Salvation was a go or not, I dropped a line and asked what going on.  The answer I got was health woes had gummed up the process, and while I understand that these can much up just about anything, it seemed that four months was more than enough time to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.  Especially since you can usually tell pretty quickly whether or not you like something.  But hey, we'll play it cool and give some more time.

Well, now it's December.  It's eight months later.  Today I decided that these were not the people I wanted being the co-pilots of my career.  If you can't even start the crawl toward publication after 2/3 of a year, or at least give a solid NO by then... then you're not playing ball. You're not in the game.  And how many stories do you know of that ended with, "And they were all published happily ever after!" when the author in question had to write back to the people who asked for them not once, but twice?

It doesn't exist.  So I reached out to another publisher today.

I wish I could feel good about this.  I wish I could say that I've learned a great lesson in all this, but the one to be gleaned here is just the same old one; money talks, bullshit walks.  I wasted eight months waiting to hear back from this publisher, and that's inexcusable.  If you're going to say no, then just fucking say no.  Don't let hope just wither on the vine.
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The Ugly Truth

There's no graceful way to say it, so I won't even try.  In the fifth grade, I was a bully.

Before you start warming up the torches and sharpening the pitchforks, I would like to hastily add a couple more things.  First off, this was the only time in my life when I have done such a thing, and it's something that even now, almost thirty years later, I am still deeply ashamed of.  Whenever a storyline rears its ugly head on one of my favorite shows or between the pages of a beloved book on the subject of the school bully, I always cringe a little.  Sometimes, I cringe a lot.  A person can try to explain it away as much as they want; entire books have been written on the subject, and I know all those points are very well-meaning.  In the end, it doesn't really matter because the scoreboard is the only thing that counts.  I was an ten-year-old jackass, and there's no use trying to put a nice coat of lipstick on a very ugly pig.

Due to the awesome power of Google, I'm not going to use the real names of the people involved because I don't want any of this nearly three-decade-old muck to be splattered around again.  One of the people involved in this story (obviously not me) is a very well-respected city politician.  One of them (again and thankfully, not me) has served some time in jail.  The victim is currently in parts unknown, which leaves me, the third guilty party, to tell the tale.  However, it's impossible to get all the details of the story out without telling you that the victim in this case had the last name of Munch, so we will go with that one detail and leave the rest of the particulars to the past.  Okay?

Moving on.

Why did we pick David (not his real first name) Munch?  There were reasons.  They were terrible reasons, of course--they always are in cases like these--but we had reasons.  First of all, he was gawky-looking, and that's always an unintentional invitation to get teased by jerky kids.  I always hate using real-life examples in situations like this because I don't like to embarrass people unnecessarily (even if I'll never meet them), but this time, it's needed.  Go and Google up the actor DJ Qualls.  Yeah.  That's what David Munch looked like, only his ears stuck out more.  This second factoid about him would have been bad enough and definitely sufficient to carry the day, but there was a third thing that was added in to this reeking stew that truly made it a dish to remember...

...anybody out there recall a toy called The Monchhichis?  No?  Well, I do and I know damn well that David Munch does.  This was a stuffed Japanese monkey-looking doll that was considered to be thoroughly lame by every boy in our school, and absolutely adorable by every girl.  There was an animated show that went along with this atrocity, and the commercials (which seemed to run endlessly) featured a catchy little song that only needed a listen and a half to be able to replicate.  Oh, and did I mention that the Monchhichis had ears that stuck out in a manner that would have embarrassed Dumbo?  No?  Well, I'm sure you already guessed that.  And I am positive you've already guessed that within seventy-two hours of that first commercial jingle hitting the airwaves, the kids at our elementary school associated Monchhichi with Munch, and therefore David Munch got that song delivered to him at every turn.  You've also probably already guessed that he was driven nearly crazy with rage and shame by this song, which just made people want to sing it more, particularly myself and my two co-conspirators, in between episodes of shoulder-checks, trips in the hallway and purposefully squashed school lunches.  As Kurt Vonnegut said, so it goes.

At this point, I'm going to try to put the brakes on this out-of-control mine cart and attempt to play the "I was just a stupid kid" card, which works up to a point.  We went way past that point, but a certain amount of cruel behavior is par for the course when it comes to dealing with children, particularly little boys.  If you don't believe me, I invite you to recall that classic childhood standby of burning ants with a magnifying glass.  Or making barking noises at a fence when you know there's a big, mean dog standing behind it, yapping its brains out.  Or racking out the kid over and over who shat themselves in kindergarten class by five years later continuing to refer to them as "Patty Poop Pants" until they cry.  Or any number of other terrible examples that I'm sure you can recall from your own childhood days as victim, perpetrator or spectator that have never quite left your memories.

Bottom line: kids are cruel.  We were no exceptions, and worse than most.

Many adults, when confronted with examples of such awful childhood behavior, will retreat to the well-worn cliché of "But he/she is just a child!  They don't know any better!"  While I can't speak for all kids in the world, I will state for the record that yes, I knew what I was doing was wrong.  I knew that if my parents and/or school authorities found out that I was one of the three principal tormentors of David Munch, my goose would be effectively cooked.  Therefore, it was necessary (so we reasoned) that we convince him that squealing on us to the adult world was not a spectacularly smart idea.

You'll be pleased to know that the method we chose ended up being the instrument of our demise.  Unlike most bullies who corner their victims in the bathroom and threaten them with a never-ending series of nauseating "swirlies" if they talk, we decided to fold up a carefully-crafted note in his desk that got our point across.  Demonstrating the kind of clear critical thinking that had made him a perpetual target--because if he'd ignored us from the beginning, we probably would have given it a week and then moved on to something else, like killing each other in dodgeball--he took out the note, unfolded it, read it and then marched straight to the front of the room to hand it over to our teacher, in full view of the rest of the class.

A muted gasp rose from the assembled students, with a couple barely-audible mutters of "oh, shit" from the other two conspirators.  Myself, I was too frozen with horror and shock over what had just taken place to muster anything more than biting the inside of my own cheek until I tasted blood.  David Munch had just violated a major rule of engagement in the battlefield of being a kid; under no circumstances were you ever supposed to let the adult world what was going on.  You fought your battles, you stood up for yourself (or slipped away to skulk along another day), and if your mom asked you about the split lip you were currently sporting, you chalked it up to that schoolyard battle for supremacy known as dodgeball.  Maybe that mornings' ritual serenade of The Monchhichi theme song, making it about two months in a row, had finally proved to be the straw that snapped his spine in two.  Whatever it was, things were about to come to a truly nasty head.

All of us ended up in a dreaded after-school conference, and when I say "all of us," I mean the parents of the principal players were there as well.  Oh, and so was the actual principal.  And the superintendent of the school district.  Yikes.

Oh, right.  The contents of the letter.  It had been written by all three of us (the politician, the jailbird and Yours Truly) with each person taking a paragraph or so to colorfully express themselves, and had been signed with the inspired moniker "The Midnight Rapists."  Yes, you read that correctly.  In our defense--which really is looking more and more like a hill of beans by the moment--I'd like to state for the record that none of us knew what a rapist actually was.  We knew they were bad guys because we'd heard the word used on the nightly news, but as to what sort of a crime they committed, none of us had any clue.  Our nebulous understanding was that it was worse than burglary, but not quite as serious as murder.  Since we'd voted and by a tally of 2-1 decided not to go with "The Midnight Killers," (the jailbird thought it was a great idea, whereas the politician and I thought it sounded dumb) the next logical step down the totem pole was "The Midnight Rapists."  Still tough-sounding, but not cartoonish.  At least, that was the muddled theory we were operating under.

All adults in the case were dismayed at the contents of the signature, particularly my mother.  The superintendent, before leaving the meeting early as befitting a man of his important position, impressed upon us the need that something like must never happen again, and then presumably went off to play golf.  This left us alone with our own pissed-off parents, the extremely pissed-off parents of David Munch, one elementary school principal who was surely wondering how this scenario had never been covered at Teacher Academy, and David Much himself, who by then looked as though he wanted nothing more than the earth to open and swallow us all.

"Well," the principal said after a very pregnant silence, "I think the proper thing to do in this situation is for the boys to apologize, and to promise to never do something like this ever again or there will definitely be suspensions.  That should take care of--"

--and to those of you out there screaming in impotent rage at your LCD screens for the perceived lackluster nature of the punishment we were being given versus what we had done, I will hastily agree, but also point something out; this was 1983, not 2012.  It was a completely different world back then.  MTV was barely two years old, the National Hockey League had only started requiring helmets to be worn during the last year of the Carter administration, and nobody had ever heard of such phrases as words can hurt, inner child or Columbine.  This was simply the way things operated back then.  In 2012, major amounts of counseling, suspension and possibly being transferred to another school would have surely followed.  In 1983, once they were caught the boys were expected to say that they were sorry, and we would dust off our hands on our pants and move on.

So we did.  Sort of.  Each of us took our turn at mouthing our meaningless platitudes ("...so sorry... didn't mean for things to go so far... feel terrible about what happened... this isn't the kind of person that I am...") to David and his furiously-pissed parents, adopting the proper hang-dog expression and allowing a small quaver to creep into our apologetic tones.  Well, at least, that's what happened when it came to each of us in turn to be on the Soapbox Of Regret.

When it wasn't our time to shine, the other two took turns staring--did I say staring?  I meant glaring--holes in David Munch, occasionally mouthing vile words and grisly threats while the third recited the litany of confession.  The fact that we did this while all the adults were still in the room, including the principal, just goes to show what clever master criminals we really were... but it also raises a very interesting question.  How did none of the adults not intervene, once they saw what was going on?  At the very least, you'd think David Munch's parents would throw out something like:

"Hey, you know, it's all very well and good that your kid feels awful about the living hell he and his two sadistic asshole friends put our son through, but there's one little detail that we can't quite to seem to get past.  At the very least, this apology might ring a little truer if everybody didn't take their turns saying 'We're gonna get you, motherfucker' when they weren't pretending that they were the Grinch Who Stole Christmas having a moment of clarity.  So, you know, maybe you'd like to have a nice, long physical chat with your malignant offspring out behind the garage when you all get home tonight, because I don't think your kid has really gotten the message."

I can't speak for the parents of the politician or the jailbird, but my own parents never believed in corporal punishment, so at least I didn't get to find out how Dave Krieg felt after Derrick Thomas set the single-game NFL sack record on him.  However, I spent the next month or so writing sentences every evening until my hand felt like it was going to fall off, and lost every other privilege that they have a name for.  Even my showers were timed.  I was also told in no uncertain terms that if my parents ever heard anything ever again involving so much as a stray pencil accidentally knocked off of David Munch's desk, I could count on being enrolled in military school before the day was over.  Considering how much my mother hated the armed forces, this was no idle threat and I quickly resolved that no matter what the jailbird and the politician said, I was through with The Monchhichi theme song.  I was out.

The thing was, so was David Munch.  The next day, he was not at school, which I found to be a colossal bummer as I had spent most of the previous evening composing a lengthy letter of apology to him (at my mother's steel-eyed direction) and now was going to probably have to add a few more chapters in the meantime.  The day after that also saw no return, and neither did the next day.  That Saturday my parents left the house to go hit some yard sales and I took my bike over to the Munch household to do some reconnaissance.

They were gone.  By that point in my life I had been a part of five Grand Olde Moving Days in our household, so I knew what the aftermath looked like.  Blinds askew on the windows, grass was long overdue for a mowing, a few busted boxes that hadn't passed muster with scraps of tape still stuck to them in the driveway... the Munch clan had decided to head to greener pastures, which I realized years later to be the reason why the parents hadn't demanded an additional pound of flesh at the Waterloo-themed meeting everyone had been a part of.  Or why they'd brushed aside the fact that we had mad-dog-stared at their child during said meeting.  The family brain trust had already decided that they were out; why engage in any more unpleasantness along the way?

Two times in the next three years, I got to experience the other side of the equation.  The next year, I got my clock cleaned righteously in a neighboring town after an abortive trip into the heart of the Southwestern desert (and the less said about that fiasco, the better).  After returning to the scene of the original crime, I then was knuckled under again by the local bully, although this time I made a moderate success things by successfully standing up for myself after about two and a half months of daily torment.  Even at that young age, I knew enough about the ways of the universe to figure that these events were my karmic payback for what I had so thoughtlessly done myself.  I took my lumps, survived and moved on.

However, over the years I have carried around enough guilt about what happened with David Munch to outfit several Catholic schools.  The main thing that I still shake my head about--and suspect that on some level I will never entirely get over--was just how damned easy it was to slide down that greased chute of villainy.    All that was needed was for somebody to look different, and it was game on.  The rest was really just extra ingredients and window-dressing.

What also makes me slightly queasy when I spend too much time thinking about this dark relic from the past is that while the politician, the jailbird and myself were certainly the primary instigators, there were no heroes in this pageant; David Munch doesn't qualify either, as he was squarely cast as the victim.  Look around this awful tale as much as you want, and you won't see a white knight or plucky princess who bravely stood against us.  It's not like anybody ever shoved us away from him with a shrill cry of, "Leave him alone!"  Nobody ever took us aside at any point during the daily recess sessions and said in a low voice, "Come on, don't you yahoos think he's had enough?"  Nobody even ever walked away, sadly shaking their head, when our off-key but heartfelt rendition of The Monchhichi theme song made its daily appearance.  What did they do when we were sharpening our verbal razors?

Simple.  They laughed.  Everybody was guilty.

No heroes in this building. Here are some other tales.


The Only Review On "American Psycho" You'll Ever Need To Read

I am old enough to remember the furor that surrounded the publication of Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho back in 1991.  I hadn't seen a shitstorm like that since the release of Salman Rushdies' The Satanic Verses (and when the leader of Iran calls for your head, you know you've ruffled some feathers), but this one seemed even more bewildering than Rushdies' Waterloo.  After all, this was America.  Free speech and all that, right?  Right?

I made plans to read the book on the sly; given my mother's sociological leanings, bringing something like American Psycho into the house was running the risk of getting to find out what it was like to sleep under a bridge for the next month or so.  The book was already radioactive as refined plutonium, and it hadn't even been published yet.  Ellis' original publisher, bowing to a growing chorus of protest from women's groups and their own female employees, scrapped plans to print the book and ate Ellis' $300K advance.  He then turned around and sold it to Vintage, thereby getting paid twice for writing the same book.  Nice work if you can get it, but at what a cost.

The violent content of the novel quickly became its calling card.  If a person was so inclined, they could call in to the National Organization for Women's hotline, press a button and hear women reading the more gruesome passages of Ellis' novel, although why a person would want to do such a thing was never adequately explained to me.  The author was crucified as a misogynist.  Death threats, some very inventive and accompanied by hand-crafted drawings, were included.  Ellis was banned from Disneyland.  A hue and cry went up calling for the book's banning.  So it goes.

Myself, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy of this book.  I subscribe faithfully to the adage that if society gets its panties in a collective bunch over a book, movie, album or piece of artwork, I make it an action item to view said item myself as soon as possible.  If something lands on the banhammer list, it more than likely contains information that people don't want you to know, and I don't know of anybody who ever advanced in life by keeping their head stuck in the sand.  I also knew that if I was caught with this book my left-leaning mother would have a horrible conniption (I had already been treated to no less than three rants about "that sick, twisted piece of shit Ellis"), so I made arrangements to get to a local bookstore early in the morning when it was published.  I found a quiet corner of the bookstore, settled down with a big bottle of Dr. Pepper, and dug in.

Several hours later I left the bookstore, feeling vastly confused.  On the one hand, American Psycho had promised horribly explicit content and on that count, it certainly did not disappoint.  Contrary to most people at that time, I was not intimidated by the book's extreme graphic violence; I was a veteran of Clive Barker and James Herbert, and those two Englishmen left no stone unturned horror-wise, all rendered in their cool, impeccable British prose.  Far from shying away from this book, I saw the implied grotesqueness in American Psycho as a macabre selling point.  It took a while to get to "the gross parts," but when that train started rolling, every stop was a nightmarishly memorable one.  More of the specifics of those anon.

On the other hand... as I mentioned, there was a bit of a build-up to the first horrific scene, and by my count, it took 130 pages to get there.  130 pages.  130 mind-numbing pages of some of the most boring... did I say some of the most boring?  I mean THE MOST FUCKING BORING GOD-AWFUL HORSESHIT I HAVE EVER SAT THROUGH.  I am a fairly fast reader so I was able to get through the book in one several-hour session, but when I walked out of the store in the evening, my head felt like it had been used as the pigskin in the AFC Championship Game.  Awesomely boring, bad writing tends to have that effect on me.

There was one positive thing I got out of the book; after slogging through the 400 pages of American Psycho, I no longer had the desire to view literary carnage.  Quite simply, Ellis raised the bar so high with his book that after I was done, folks, I was fucking done.  When asked of my opinion of the book, I said: "It was the most disgusting stuff I have ever read and also the most boring stuff I have ever read, so it was horribly brutal and mind-numbingly trance-inducing at the same time, which is not an easy trick to pull off.  Oh, and this guy is earning every single piece of bad ink he is getting, because that book fucking sucks on dry ice.  The end."

This was in 1991, and when American Psycho hit the stands, it landed on the New York Times bestseller list.  It also was universally perforated with a nailgun for exactly the same reasons I laid out above, except the critics took Ellis much more to task for his penchant concerning cartoonish violence than I did.  Ellis went into seclusion, the media moved on to the next story, and American Psycho became a vivid landmark in our cultural rear-view mirror.

Fast-forward twenty years.  On a bored whim one day I Googled up "American Psycho book reviews," and was very surprised to find that there was a whole slew of essays and screeds published in the last year or so.  I had thought that perhaps there might be a bit of interest in the novel since it was the two-decade anniversary of its original publication, but I wasn't prepared for the dozens of people who had weighed in on the most disgusting, boring thing I had ever read.

If you go online and search for reviews on the book, you will find scads of them, and they break down into the two following categories:

Reviews printed in 1991, when it first came out.  These reviews are universally negative, and when I say universally, I mean universally.  To this date, I haven't found a single positive review from this time period, and pretty much the same things are cited over and over again.  The characterizations are flat/horrible/non-existent, the dialogue is plodding, the recitation of lists of details are mind-numbing in the extreme, there is no plot to speak of, the main character (when not being a raving homicidal torture artist) is a complete blank slate, scenes go on for pages and pages without anything happening, and when the Violence Fairy waves her magic wand, you go straight to Vomit Town.  The end.

Reviews printed in 2011-2012, to coincide with the twenty-year anniversary of its publication.  Almost universally positive, and when I say positive, I mean half these reviewers would probably cheerfully blow Ellis through their cable modem connection if they could, and the other half would settle for buying him a drink.  Phrases like "post-modern masterpiece," "uncompromising anti-hero" and "an existential deconstruction of the absurdity of life" make frequent appearances.  The end.

Okay, I thought, I'll give it a second shot.  I'm older now; I was 17 when I read the book, and now I'm 38, so I'm a lot more seasoned in terms of life experiences.  Maybe it just went over my head when I was a kid and let's face it, I was at least partially reading it for all the wrong reasons.  It's like watching The Passion of The Christ solely for the purpose of watching Jim Cavaziel getting the shit beaten out of him before being nailed to two pieces of wood.  Let's get a copy from the local library and see what we can see.  Ready... break!

So, who had it right?  First, let's discuss the book itself.

THE MAIN CHARACTER:  Patrick Bateman.  Bateman is a Wall Street shark; lean, mean and hungry.  We never really find out what it is that he does, but we know that at age 26 he is extremely financially successful, on the fast track to even greater success and devilishly handsome (Christian Bale played him in the movie, if you need a real-world reference point).  He is a borderline obsessive-compulsive and has hypervigilance, which results in him being able to recite, like a machine, every detail about the people surrounding him at any given moment, from what they are wearing down to what sort of mustard they order with their overpriced sandwiches.  He wears only the best clothes, drinks only the best drinks, eats only the best food and works out compulsively to achieve the perfect physique.  He is also a fucking psychopath.

THE SETTING:  New York City, the mid-1980's.  The height of crass consumerism, the pinnacle of cocaine abuse, the Reagan years that not everybody remembers so fondly.  It's an environment of not only keeping up with the Jones, but blowing them out of the water with your Lamborghini Countach.  Your watch is Rolex, your vacation is in the Hamptons, and your sex life is just like your work life; hard-charging and unprotected.

THE PLOT:  There is no plot.  Hope you enjoy vignettes, because that's all you're going to get.

HOW THE BOOK OPERATES, SINCE THERE'S NO PLOT:  Bateman goes to lunch and dinner reservations with a revolving cast of co-workers, all of which are completely interchangeable and sound virtually alike.  When he is not having long, drawn-out conversations with these nattering drones, he is working out, watching movies featuring some sort of torture and/or sexual bondage, and trying to figure out what tie combined with what shirt and what suit puts forth the best impression to a world he doesn't honestly give a shit about, because he has all the emotional depth of a mud puddle and will be the first to admit this.  Eventually he becomes so bored with how things are going that he starts killing animals and people (130 pages in, mind you), and then the book vacillates between scenes of Bateman and his cohorts having what seems to be the same lunch over and over again, and graphic scenes of shocking violence that would make Eli Roth, the writer/director of the torture porn classic Hostel, pee in his pants.  The police never get involved, Bateman is never caught, and 400 pages after starting this path of literary self-destruction, the novel ends with the words THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.

I sat down with American Psycho and started from the opening line, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here..."  Fifteen pages later, I looked up and said to the empty room, "I was fucking right the first time."

I don't think words can adequately convey just how goddamn boring this book is, but I will give it a try.  Think about the last time you had a talk with somebody and they proceeded to tell you about every single detail of their day up until that point, and all you could think was, "Please, please, please shut the fuck up in the name of all that is holy, or I swear to God, I will stab you in the throat with whatever sharp object I can get my hands on and failing that, I'll use my teeth and if I am recording this conversation and play it at my trial, no jury in the world would dare convict me.  Shut up, you blithering asshole, shut up!"  That's what Patrick Bateman is like as a narrator.  Quite by accident, Bret Easton Ellis has created the ultimate weapon in the war on terror.  If you translated this book into whatever language was spoken by your suspects and played it for them at full volume for three days, even the most devout suicide bomber would crack.

Reading the scenes that are not about grotesque murder is like having the Neiman Marcus catalog recited to you each and every time a new person enters the room.  Correction; having it read to you by somebody stoned to the gills on Xanax.  There is no attempt to cleverly introduce items or people; they simply appear, have their wardrobes described in painstaking detail, spout banal dialogue (which if you are particularly unlucky goes on for upwards of a dozen pages), and then the scene ends with nothing of note having taken place or having set anything up for the next scene.  Because there's no plot, remember?  Can't set anything up for the future if there's no future to look forward to.

The defenders of Ellis will say, "This is exactly the author's point!  He's making the case that rampant consumerism makes zombies of us all, that we become totally interchangeable and are only differentiated by the business card designs we carry!  It's all so banal and flat and shallow because that's what the whole point of this book is!  It's brilliant post-modernistic writing, done to show what nihilism and crass greed will bring us all to!  Don't you get it?"

Yes, I do.  Furthermore, and I cannot state this point enough, IT MAKES FOR HORRIBLE READING.  It's the literary equivalent of somebody saying, "Let me show you how horrible being an asshole is," and then proceeding to fuck up your entire weekend with bad, boorish behavior that makes you want to cave in their skull with a brick.  Like I said before, I don't think I can overstate enough how boring American Psycho is when Bateman isn't carving somebody up.  It's 384 pages of horrible lunches, painstaking roll calls of the designers these thoroughly unlikeable people wear, sex and drugs that nobody seems to enjoy, and ruminations on such artists as Whitney Houston and Huey Lewis and The News (I'll admit, as a big Huey fan I perked up for that one and he seemed to get it right, so Bateman could possibly have a good career as a music critic if he ever stopped carving folks up).

Oh, and of course things wouldn't be complete without a review of the violence.  I said that the book is 384 pages of crashing, unmitigated boredom, which leaves 16 pages of the kind of stuff that permanently killed my Hellraiser fixation, no small task.  When American Psycho was published the various women's group went bonkers, railing against the book as an example of the kind of misogynistic carnage our culture regularly churns out.  Despite the fact that most of the victims in this book are indeed women, I would actually submit that there is no misogyny in the book; in order to have hatred for a group, you have to have strong feelings about them, and Bateman doesn't care about anything other than his wardrobe and business cards.  The reason why most of the victims are women is a pretty simple one.  Bateman is young, good-looking and rich, so it makes it really easy to lure women back to his apartment, where he proceeds to make Saw look like a children's story.  In all honesty, Bateman is an equal-opportunity killer.

Bateman's OCD about noting details does not take a break when he starts busting out the nailgun and power drill, though, and this is where American Psycho really makes its hay.  No perversion is spared, as though Ellis went through the Serial Killer Checklist and made sure that every horror was included.  Skinning alive?  Check.  Rape?  Check.  Necrophilia?  Check.  Cannibalism?  Check.  Wearing parts of the bodies?  Check.  Until Jeffrey Dahmer came along, the only item left off the list was creating an altar out of the skull of a victim, but hey, you can't hit every fastball down the center of the plate, right?  I will say for the record that there are things in my head from reading this book that I will never, ever be rid of, and I am very unhappy over this fact.  Bateman is a highly inventive torturer, and what he does with a hungry rat, a Habitrail tube and an unfortunate victim is probably if not the literary asshole of Western civilization, at the very least within farting distance.  These are the sorts of lurid scenes that NOW made available on their hotline if you called in circa 1991, and I feel very badly for whomever it was that had to spout that swill into a dictaphone.

There is a final element to the whole stinking stew that turns it from being simply a bad book into a hallmark horrendous one.  As the book goes on (and on and on and on), it becomes clear that Bateman is losing some of his grip on reality.  Weirdly, the police never seem to catch on to what he is doing, and his neighbors never complain about weird smells or power tools at 2 AM.  Near the end of the book, he reveals to his cronies that he has in fact murdered one of their co-workers, to which one of them laughs and says, "I just had lunch with him ten days ago."  Is this because the people are so interchangeable that Bateman can't tell who it is that he split open with an axe?  Or... is it because none of it ever really happened at all, and all the horror only took place in Bateman's mind?

When I read this part, I wanted to punch Bret Easton Ellis.  When I was in college creative writing class, my professor told me, "If you ever end any story with 'and they got hit by and truck and died--the end,' or with 'and he woke up and it was all a dream--the end,' I will fail you without mercy and without recourse.  That is horrible, sloppy writing and it is a cheat to the reader."  Ellis' defenders say this is a brilliant move, because it makes the unreliable narrator even more unreliable and also means that the horrible violence we have been a witness to never really happened, nobody got hurt and so everything is good.  Brilliance and all that, right?

If you honestly believe this is a great move, you are a fucking donkey and should never be allowed to review anything ever again.  Period.

I think it should also be mentioned that this is Ellis' third novel in a row that deals with shallow, self-absorbed people who do a lot of drugs and sex, don't enjoy any of it, and drone on for pages and pages about the nothing of everything.  Ellis wrote Less Than Zero in 1985, when he was 20.  The Rules of Attraction was published in 1987, and American Psycho landed in 1991.  You can make the case that this is a young writer still finding his way, and maybe that will swing some weight, except I believe that if you keep writing books that feature the same kind of horrible characters time after time, it may in fact be because you are incapable of writing good ones.  To date, Ellis has published six novels and one collection of short stories, and has shown as much literary growth as your average Saguaro cactus does in a calendar year.  Pair that with the fact that in 27 years to date that Ellis has only published six novels and one collection of short stories (and three of those books were done in six years, making the second half of his back catalog achieved at a glacial pace), and as a writer myself, it is honestly beyond me how anybody could stand up for him.

American Psycho serves as sort of a literary bellwether for would-be reviewers; if you give this novel a positive nod, you should immediately be fired from being paid to pass judgment on things, or at the very least, you should be ruthlessly mocked.  It is a horrible, boring, repulsive novel, and everybody involved with its creation should be ashamed of themselves.  As I said before, it's virtually impossible to convey how stunningly boring the vast majority of this book is, so I won't try to do so again.

Maybe the critics have been wrong for the last quarter of a century; maybe Bret Easton Ellis is just a shitty writer.  And yes, this is an exit.
My Caesar

Game Review: RAGE

For nearly 20 years, id Software has been one of the leaders in gaming.  Having popularized and then revolutionized the first-person shooter genre with Wolfenstein 3-D, Doom and Quake, id's game engines have often served as a gold standard for the industry.  Having been the first to offer now-standard features in their graphics such as true 3-D polygonal graphics, dynamic lighting, curved surfaces and real-time shadows, each successive generation of engines (referred to as the id Tech series) has built upon the features of the last.

In 2011, id released their first new game franchise since 1996's Quake with their offering RAGE, built on the new id Tech 5 graphics engine.  How did it go?

Not as well as it should have.  And therein lies the problem.

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RELEASE DAY: Spells And Swashbucklers

The print edition comes out at the end of the month, but as I type this you can order the Kindle edition of Spells And Swashbucklers, the pirates-and-magic-themed collection of short stories from Dragon Moon Press and edited by Valerie Griswold-Ford, aka vg_ford here on LJ, from Amazon!

How do you get it, you ask?  Go here.

Happy reading!
Eccleston Eye-Roll

Writing 101 -- What's It Worth?

During this long journey I have been on toward publication, a question has popped up over and over again, and I no longer have the ability to be polite in how it is answered.  I have been asked many times if I have ever thought of self-publishing something.  The answer, quite simply, is no.  And based on a story I read recently, it has become a resounding HELL NO.

This story originally appeared in the New York Times and a follow-up article was written, and if you don't want to click the link, I will briefly summarize it for you.  There is a growing trend now of children becoming published authors, and when I say "children becoming published authors," what I really mean is "their parents coughed up a chunk of change to have their literary efforts published by a vanity press."  The kids are, very understandably, quite excited by the whole process.  After all, how cool is it to be able to say you've had two novels published by age fourteen?  Who else can claim to do that?


That's the part that is willfully glossed over time and time again in the original story and the various follow-ups that I have tracked down.  It's not my intent to shit all over these kids, who have an excellent goal (be a writer) and probably honestly think that this is the right way to go about doing things.  The parents are the ones whose feet I would like to hold to the fire, so have a seat over there and watch as I sharpen my knives.

The train of thought that cropped up over and over again in the stories was the bright-eyed kids talking about how proud they were, and about how awesome it was to hold a copy of their book in their hands.  Nobody else seemed to have the heart to say anything to these kids about what they had done, so I will be the giant meanie and pop their balloon with the arrow of truth.  Ready?  Here it goes:

You didn't really accomplish anything.  You completed a business transaction.  And if the anecdotes in these stories is anything approaching the usual way this process works, you didn't even plunk down the money that you earned yourself to make this happen.  Your parents paid for it, and your glow of accomplishment and pride is completely out of whack with what has truly taken place.

Now, before you start up the bonfires and begin sharpening the pitchforks, allow me to explain a little more in-depth why I feel this way.  First of all, I am not saying for a moment that what these kids have done is bad.  I think the idea of more writers in this world is a great one, even if it does mean more competition for me in later years.  Everybody has to start somewhere, and the younger you get started, the more likely you are to be successful later on.

However, and I cannot stress this point enough, the beginning point is never the finish line.  To be a writer, it takes a lot of time and effort, not to mention more than a little frustration along the way.  You're supposed to get knocked down.  Your manuscripts are supposed to be torn apart by merciless red pens.  You're supposed to--

Oh, wait.  I forgot.  This is all stuff you're supposed to do if you want to be a good writer.  If you don't really give a shit about the quality of the stuff you produce and just want to be able to say you've written a novel, by all means, go ahead and charge forward.  But as for the title of being a published author and the kind of justifiable pride that comes with having hacked your way through the jungle to emerge on the other side with that manuscript in your hands, don't even think about trying to ride this train with that ticket.

Put another way: if my dad can sit down at the computer, type the word FUCK ninety thousand times and then enclose the resulting file with a check for a thousand dollars and receive published copies of his magnum opus, it really only adds up to a heaping case of jack squat.  If anybody you know can, with the appropriate amount of money, get in to see a show, the club loses a great deal of its exclusivity.  And if you don't think this can happen, you've never heard of Atlanta Nights.

In 2004, a group of science fiction and fantasy authors decided to put one of the biggest vanity houses, Publish America, to the test.  In the past, this publishing house had claimed they received up to seventy submissions a day and rejected the majority of them, claiming righteously that they were not a literary whore who would open up the legs of publication for anybody who had the cash to spend.  In addition, on the Publish America web site, there were numerous shots taken at authors in the field of science fiction and fantasy, essentially calling them the lowest of the low and advising that if you managed to engage one of these despicable bastards in conversation, your best bet was to run the other way as fast as you could.

I am not making this up.  I couldn't make this up, because nobody would believe that it happened, but it did.  Here's the description of the literary fuck-fest they came up with, from the appropriate Wikipedia page:

"The distinctive flaws of Atlanta Nights include nonidentical chapters written by two different authors from the same segment of outline (13 and 15), a missing chapter (21), two chapters that are word-for-word identical to each other (4 and 17), two different chapters with the same chapter number (12 and 12), and a chapter "written" by a computer program that generated random text based on patterns found in the previous chapters (34). Characters change gender and race; they die and reappear without explanation. Spelling and grammar are nonstandard and the formatting is inconsistent. The initials of characters who were named in the book spelled out the phrase "PublishAmerica is a vanity press." Under Macdonald's direction, the finale revealed that all the previous events of the plot had been a dream, although the book continues for several more chapters."

Now that, my friends, is the mother of all troll-jobs.  On December 7th, 2004 (a date which will live in literary infamy), Atlanta Nights was accepted for publication by Publish America.  In January of 2005, the authors revealed their trick and the next day, after "further review," Publish America decided that Atlanta Nights failed to meet their standards and revoked the contract.

I think you get the idea.

Groucho Marx famously said, "I'd never belong to any club that would have me for a member."  The bottom line is that at its roots self-publication is a pure vanity move, and the few examples that can be cited of successful efforts in this field are vastly outweighed by hordes of cringe-worthy suckfests that regularly plague bookstores (on the rare occasions that a reputable bookseller can actually be convinced to stock the titles; generally, the easiest way to get a bookseller to stop talking to you is to bring up your self-published book and how much you'd like to see it on their shelves).

So there you go, my screed on self-publishing.

Oh, and Samantha... thanks for not judging me.  You're one in a million.