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This Is Not My Copy of Wonder Boys

It’s a library copy. I’ve owned at least three others over the years, beginning with the Picador paperback from ‘96 with Vernon Hardapple’s Galaxie 500 on the cover. The copies I owned were either lost or lent (so: lost), and I’ve come to believe maybe I shouldn’t own a copy of this book. I’ve yet to lose the library’s edition.

Wonder Boys is my favorite book. There are surely better, more sophisticated books, but this is the one that chose me. This book is my big brother. I love it, admire it. I want to impress it. Sometimes I resent its presence in the world. It is a book that still gives me much of its original pleasure, yet against which I always feel I fall short. No matter: I will get up and try again. And if this continues to get me past a series of invisible finish lines during my time in this world, then I have yet another thing to love about it.

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Known Unknowns #13: The Four Questions

The Known Unknowns is a regular series of blog posts about writing, specifically the stuff we all find ourselves learning and re-learning.

How well do we know our characters? There have been, I’d estimate, 35 kajillion words written about this matter. There are whole books out there for learning your characters. And rightly so: In fiction, as in life, Character is everything.

I once had a writing program for my computer that asked all kinds of questions about the story you were writing. I’d say 70% or more were character-related, even the ones in non-character categories. Once, in a workshop, the teacher handed out a sheet with 20 questions on it about your character. These ranged from “What does she want?” to “What is her most painful memory” to “What does she eat for breakfast?”

These are good things to know. Even the breakfast question, silly as it sounds, can lead you into understanding habits, routines, and how your person takes care of herself. (Note: I have never answered the breakfast question for a character.) And again: Character is everything. This is a whole person you’re creating.

But you can do an awful lot of writing and a lot of answering of questions about your characters and their habits and still not know them in the way which is most important, which is: How Does Your Character Work In The Story You’re Telling?

I used to tell my students (and myself) that they had to be able to answer two main questions about their characters:

What does your character want most?

What’s the worst thing that can happen to them?

I still think those are good questions, and I not only meant them in an overall, big-picture sense, I meant for them to be asked for each character in each scene. This is important. You have to know what your character wants and expects in every situation, or else why is the scene there?

But in working with two students recently who are struggling through novels, I realized there need to be two versions of each question. One for the character, author, and reader to know, and one for only the author and reader to know. So here are the Four Questions:

What does she THINK she wants most?

What does she REALLY want most?

What’s the worst thing she THINKS could happen?

What’s REALLY the worst thing that could happen?

If you’ve never asked and answered these questions before, all of them, I urge you to go do so now. Throw down your laptop, find a notebook or a second, working computer, and do these questions. If you really want to have some fun, ask them of yourself. But bring Kleenex.

I have pages and pages of explanation as to who this or that character is and what they want and how they feel about their father, etc. But these four questions boil it down to the simplest elements, which make them some of the hardest to answer. Case in point: If you’ve answered them in paragraphs, you’re losing sight of the arena in which you are working. These questions are designed to get at the basic, sometimes primal things that motivate your character. Because those, not the ream of social-worker-like case files we all have on our characters, are ultimately what make for good drama.

Here’s an example I like from my student Sharon, who is working on an epic novel about Ruben, a Mexican immigrant in the early 20th century:

1.  What does he think he wants most?
-To succeed, to be an American
2.  What does he REALLY want most?
-To belong, love, recognition, accolades
3.  What’s the worst thing he thinks could happen?
-To fail, to be labeled a Mexican, defeat
4.  What’s REALLY the worst thing that could happen?
-It’s never enough; not being loved, never belonging, rejection

These are great answers. You’ll notice the answers the character might give (#1 and #3) are fairly surface-level wants and fears, whereas #2 and #4 are much deeper, more primal stuff. Sharon knows this character, and as long as she keeps her eye on these answers and keeps them lined up with the story she’s telling, like the lenses in a telescope, she really cannot go wrong. In fact, knowing her story (so far) as we do, the workshop picked out that phrase “It’s never enough” as the mantra for this book, its guiding principle: No matter what happens to Ruben, it’s never enough for him. Because he is fundamentally broken, as all good main characters are.

That’s what I like about the Four Questions, by the way: there’s what the character knows or thinks of themselves, and there’s the reality, which is known (for at least most of the story) only to the author and reader. I’m suspicious of a character who can answer the second and fourth questions for themselves, at least in the first half of a story. If you think a self-aware, actualized character makes for good drama, I would point you to Don Quixote, Macbeth, Mrs. Dalloway, or Oedipus Rex, or any great work of fiction: these characters are all dead certain about what they want, and none has a clue as to what’s really driving them.

If you know — truly know — the answers to these four questions, then you will have a good handle on your character and your story. You will also be doing the thing which is maybe most important in writing, which is creating a communion with the reader. We talk a lot about the “contract” between writer and reader, but a contract implies a thing that’s established at the outset, only to be fulfilled or broken by the end. That sounds fun.

A communion, though, is an ongoing partnership, a shared experience carried through from beginning of story to end. If your reader knows your character Daniel is ultimately motivated by a need for approval, then when he falls in with the charismatic drug lord RJ, it’s doubly tragic: once because no good can come from such a thing; and twice because we know why Daniel’s letting himself do this dumb thing, and we know RJ will ultimately manipulate this need in Daniel, certainly with tragic results for someone*.

That second tragedy, isn’t just a plot point, it’s one that comes directly from Character, and that’s what engages a reader. We not only want a character who’s fascinating and engaging, we want one who we understand better than they understand themselves.

*I made these guys up for this example. Feel free to borrow the timeless characters of Daniel the ambitious patsy and RJ the charismatic drug lord.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zappowbang/with/2328170056/

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Inspirado #2: Stephen Tobolowsky’s “True Arena”

A wise teacher once told me: “When you read, always ask: What would I steal from this?” Welcome to Inspirado, a new regular series looking at the things I’m stealing from, and why.

In the Known Unknowns #13 (posting later today), I talk about the Four Questions you need to ask and answer in order to really understand your characters. There’s another question that’s crucial to ask, and you need to ask it of yourself:

How Does Your Character Work In The Story You’re Telling?

If you think that’s an obvious or even unnecessary question, I would beg you to look at it again. Maybe you have a great, engaging, complex character. Maybe you also have a terrific story with amazing highs and lows and surprises. But does your character really WORK in that story? Does that story really serve your character? Are they working together to create a magical piece of literature? And do you have any idea how much coffee it took to make me write that last phrase?

I’ve mentioned Stephen Tobolowsky, the actor and writer whose amazing podcast The Tobolowsky Files is a constant source of inspiration for me, in my writing and in my life. In his most recent installment, "The True Arena," Tobolowsky talks about the importance of understanding the boundaries of where you are right now, not where you imagined or hoped you would be. I’ll let you listen to the title story for yourself, as it’s both difficult to summarize here and beautifully written on its own, but there’s a great story in there about a stage actor Tobolowsky sees in a series of small productions. The actor has taken on the idea of pounding on a table at the same point in every performance.

The first time she does it, it’s spontaneous and felt right. It also gets a great reaction, so she begins doing it every night, regardless of whether it’s actually (in Tobolowsky’s opinion) appropriate to that moment’s performance. Later, the amateur stage crew has set the table slightly off its marks, and when the actor goes to do her big table-pound, she misses the table entirely. She’s not  paying attention to the arena she’s in right then, at that moment, only the one she thought she was in the first time she did it.

This happens in writing. You can have wonderful characters and a killer situation, but if they don’t actually work together in the same arena, you are in some serious fucking trouble, hombre. This is particularly common when one is working on a longer piece of writing. You start out with the world’s most amazing story, the one that’s magically gone untold until now. Your characters feel real, and they’re just perfect for the situation. And then comes The Drift.

The Drift is when your characters and story begin slooowly moving apart. I see a lot of student writing, and there almost always comes a point where the student, with head in hands, says, “I don’t know anymore. I’ve lost the thread.” But not exactly. They haven’t lost the plot, not usually. And they still have characters. What they’ve lost is the perspective. And this comes mainly from not being 100% aware of who your characters are and what that has to do with the story that’s being told. It’s great to know what your character wore to school in the eighth grade, but if you don’t know the almost embarrassingly basic, primal things that drive them (and hinder them), you will not really know your character. And if you don’t know your character, you will not know the True Arena of their story.

To put it another way: If you did a Venn diagram with the details of your story in one circle and the Four Questions about your character in the other, what’s in the middle? That’s your True Arena.

That’s mainly what I’m stealing from Tobolowsky here: understanding the True Arena of your story. But there’s another thing, too, and I’m puzzled to report that it involves Jack Black, who happens to be the coiner of the term “Inspirado,” at least the way it’s used on this blog. Here’s what he told the AV Club this week during a discussion about looking for what’s right right now versus doing a thing you think will make you famous:
Sometimes I’ll run into people living in L.A. There’s a lot where it’s like, “I came here to L.A. because I just really wanted to make it, and my dream hasn’t worked yet, but someday my dream will come true.” And I’m like, “What do you mean? Your dream to write?” “Yeah.” I’m like, “Well, have you done any theater?” “No, only screenplays.” So I get the feeling quickly that your dream is not to write. Your dream is to be a famous writer. Your dream is coming true if you just take it down a few scales. Do something that does get produced. Do some theater. Then wouldn’t you finally be happy? They’re only finally happy if they’re huge and famous. The problem with that endeavor is that it’s based on something that’s like a mirage.
See that? He’s talking about the True Arena. In your work, in your writing, where are you now? And are you doing everything you can to make that great? Or are you constantly looking past it, like a disinterested person at a party?
If it’s the latter, what are you even doing at that party? And why would anyone want to invite you to the next one?
Image of Stephen Tobolowsky courtesy of TobolowskyFiles.com
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Known Unknowns #12: “Voice”? God, No.

FYI, I WILL be referring to “voice” that way — in disdain-quotes — throughout this piece. What are disdain quotes? They’re like regular quotes, except they should be seen as a set of fingers gingerly holding a dirty diaper.

When we’re developing as writers — developing in the craft way, not the boobies way — one of the things we hear most from mentors is this word “voice.” As in: “This piece has an interesting ‘voice’.” Or: “Hm. For me, this lacks ‘voice’.” And: “How about you and your ‘voice’ come to my office and give me a back rub?” “Voice,” we’re told, is what distinguishes “beginner fiction” from the good stuff. And I think that’s largely true, except that, as I realized recently while teaching a workshop, “voice” is the world’s worst word for this.

For one thing, the word itself has been devalued. We tell our kids that they all have a “voice” and that they matter, which is simply not true. There’s a TV show called The Voice. The grownup high-schoolers on Glee are constantly reminding each other that they have a “voice,” meaning they have opinions and concerns and beliefs and what better way to share those things than to try and cram them like wet bunting into the cracks of a Shania Twain song?

For another thing, the concept of “voice” is often lacking. Here’s what is meant by “voice” in prose, via most of the discussions I’ve seen:

  • The unique characteristics of a writer’s word choices, dialogue, etc., as flavored by a particular sensibility.

By this definition, lots of Men’s Health and New York Post articles have a strong “voice.” The Post thinks everyone is either a pervert or hero, and Men’s Health doesn’t see why there has to be a difference. But let’s stick to someone who knows he’s writing fiction. George Saunders is a great, easy-to-grasp example of “voice.” His characters have a certain way of speaking, and Saunders-as-narrator writes in a sharp, clever way that deliberately and hilariously undercuts his characters’ naivete and delusion. A George Saunders story is instantly recognizable to anyone who’s read even a few lines of his work. Easy enough to see this as Saunders’ “voice,” right?

But there’s why I don’t like “voice”: It’s a surface word. It involves one sense. Meanwhile, there’s so much else that, to most readers, might also comprise the idea of voice:

  • A writer’s thematic concerns
  • Overarching point of view regarding his/her themes and characters
  • His/her structural choices (i.e., the way the story is presented)

George Saunders’ stories are filled with palpable concern for the world and for humankind’s abilities to rise above its own worst instincts, a concern usually refracted through a near-sci-fi version of our society. And also, they’re funny in multiple ways. All of that would combine to form Saunders’ actual “voice,” if we were using that shitty word. (By the way, not familiar with the work of George Saunders? Go read “Sea Oak.” NOW.)

So “voice” might be a passable way to describe George Saunders. Except every work of fiction, like every human, has a “voice.” Even boring work has a “voice.” In those cases, we’ll say “this doesn’t really have a distinctive ‘voice’” — but that’s not the same as no “voice.” It’s just not a very good “voice.” It’s a boring “voice.”

However, what about something that not everyone has? By which I mean: Personality. You notice how Personality has no disdain-quotes around it? This should tell you I like this word. Further proof is that I’ve capitalized it. I’m really brown-nosing Personality, aren’t I? Yes, and you should, too.

Because Personality is rare and can’t be faked and should be aspired-to. In writing, and in life.

Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins were the two most important English novelists of the Victorian era, right? Er, no. They were contemporaries and colleagues of a sort, but Collins’ work, while crucial in its own way, and while certainly dark and interesting, does not have much Personality. Dickens? Slathered in Personality. Slobbered in it. Too much, sometimes. But it’s why people still read Dickens, and not just when they’re in school and have to.

Personality is an almost tactile thing. Think of the person who walks into a party and the barometric pressure of the room changes. Think of how you feel when someone with real Personality (not just charisma) is talking to you. You feel special, lucky. It’s why people love reading Stephen King, good books and bad. Because even the bad Stephen King books still have Personality. (Except Cujo.) King has, in his career, become a master of the close third person, but he’s always been a master of Narrative Personality. It’s that feeling of “Come on in, friend, let me drive you around and tell you a story.” And you get in, every time, because he’s that goddamn persuasive.

During the eighties, there were thousands of King knock-offs publishing horror paperbacks. I read plenty of them, and some even had the hallmarks of King’s books — horror presented as realism (vs. Gothic), working-class people, swearing and sex, terrible things happening to children, cliffhanger chapters — but none had the Personality of Stephen King. And I don’t think any of those writers amounted to much. They certainly didn’t become the kinds of writers a reader had to read, each and every time. That’s the genius of Stephen King. Not his facility with character and incident (though those are nothing to sneeze at), but that he gets Personality on the page.

Why do people read Lolita? Why would you read about a kidnapper and pedophile? Why would you read it more than once? Because of Nabokov. Because he makes himself known instantly, not through the words of Humbert Humbert, but from between them. The whole narrative is challenging you to read not only what’s on the page, but what’s behind what’s on the page. The book has enormous amounts of things to say about sexuality and adulthood and childhood and maleness and femaleness, and almost none of it is contained in the words printed on the paper. It becomes a communion between you, the reader, and Nabokov, who, incidentally, is long dead. You’re communing with a dead man. And it’s great. That’s because (and I’m sure he would hate this appraisal, but he’s dead and can’t stop me) Nabokov was good enough to be able to fill the book with his Personality alongside (and beneath and in shadow behind) Humbert Humbert’s. And this is why you can read the book and not be disgusted. It’s never salacious, because you feel Nabokov’s hand on your shoulder, telling you: “I know. He’s awful. But trust me.”

Reader Pete (a former student, actually) posted a comment not long ago asking why I like Grace Paley so much. And it’s true: Her stories are hit-and-miss, from a technical standpoint. And I prefer the earlier, fully-formed stories to the later, fragmented, self-referential stuff. Yet I love everything Grace Paley ever wrote. Why? Because I love her Personality. And that is in every one of her stories. Amy Bloom, too. I will read everything Amy Bloom writes because I love the way her mind works, and because I can see that mind working on the page. Hell, I can practically see her eyebrows arching and curling with every choice her characters make. Jane Austen’s novels have Personality.

Here’s another reason for massive rewrites, by the way: I get a lot of student work that’s clearly first draft stuff, and it almost never has much Personality on the page. It may have lots of what someone would call “voice,” but it’s not a whole being yet, and it is most certainly not ready to mingle at the party.

This is one of the tricky byproducts of an ongoing workshop, where you’re forever bringing in first or early drafts. You have to understand what you’re writing about — not what story is from A to B to C, but to know what it’s really ABOUT, the story within the story — in order to give it that almost sentient state that shall, at least in a just world, be hereafter known as Personality, and never that other thing.

Or Zazz. We can call it Zazz if you want. I’m flexible.

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Fun at Housing Works NYC!

(Photo courtesy of Mindy Tucker, http://www.withreservation.com)

Hi! The other night I delivered a “lecture” for Adult Education (“America’s favorite useless lecture series”) at the always wonderful Housing Works Bookstore and Cafe in SoHo. The photos are here. They are by Mindy Tucker of With Reservation. As you can see from her site, she does fantastic work and has shot ALL of comedy. Every bit of it.

The whole night was terrific. Miranda K. Pennington dissected the role of the “3rd questioner,” aka that person during every Q&A session who uses the opportunity to sate their own need for attention. (Common 3rd Questioner opening: “As an Anglophile myself, I…”) Then I talked about recovering from recovery, recounting the time I was 18 and was convinced I was an alcoholic. (Spoiler alert: I was not.) Jason Torchinsky revealed the 19th century cars that came before the “first car,” and made a lively, convincing case for telling Mercedes-Benz to go fuck itself. (As if we needed a new reason.) Finally, Ritch Duncan and Bob Powers, authors of The Werewolf’s Guide To Life: A Manual for the Newly Bitten, taught us how to handle our first experience as lycanthropes. It was a fun night during which I accidentally learned some things. Oh no! Also: Charles Star created and hosts the monthly Adult Ed series. Check him out on Twitter! He was funny and generous, and did a great job of keeping the momentum going through four very different lectures.

By the way, this was my second reading/event in TWO MONTHS. I always forget how much I love doing live readings! And then I do one and I’m all, “Holy cow, where can I do this again? Like, now!” And then it’s two years later. But not this time, bub. I’m going to do more live things in 2012, or DIE TRYING! That is my pledge.

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HOW DARE THEY

There’s a recent New York Times piece some friends and I were discussing on Twitter this morning. It’s about teenagers self-publishing their work, usually financed by their parents. Now, there are a lot of newspapers in the world, but the Times stands alone in its ability to draw me in and then enrage me. And man, did it ever with this article. But not how I think it wanted to.

Read it here. Right from the start, I know how the article wants me to feel about this. “Young Writers Dazzle Publisher (Mom and Dad)”. This article wants me to hate these entitled fucks before I’ve even met them! How do I know the article wants me to feel this way? Because you can still see the original (or at least alternate) headline in the URL:

Clearly, “Young Writers Dazzle Publisher” works better. After all, it’s a phrase you’ve seen in the Times on countless occasions — in this context, of course, it’s meant to provoke rage on purpose. Even if they hadn’t added “(Mom and Dad),” you’d have gotten to paragraph three and wanted to murder the precocious boy-human known as Ben Heckmann, and his parents, who are probably wiping their assess with hundred-dollar bills.

How is this different from the New York Post, by the way, which passes judgment on its subjects with the regularity of time itself?  It’s all in the headline. If this story had appeared in the Post, the headline would’ve been something like

HIGH A-CHEEVERS OR SPOILED BRATS?

But that’s not how the Times plays it, baby. The Times plays it arch, all the way. Give it a headline that could read as completely innocuous, but was 99% likely sneered through a rolled-up copy of N+1.

So we get the headline, we get examples of some kids who are writing novels and having them published by their parents. We’re already supposed to be irritated with all this. And then we’re given the Expert Testimony.

Expert #1: Tom Robbins, who is described as a “novelist” (I’m just kidding; I read him, too, when I was 20), says,

“What’s next? Kiddie architects, juvenile dentists, 11-year-old rocket scientists? Any parent who thinks that the crafting of engrossing, meaningful, publishable fiction requires less talent and experience than designing a house, extracting a wisdom tooth, or supervising a lunar probe is, frankly, delusional.” […] “There are no prodigies in literature,” Mr. Robbins said. “Literature requires experience, in a way that mathematics and music do not.”

That’s a real statement, or rather, an actual set of words that have the appearance of forming a coherent statement. Because I have no idea what he’s talking about. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Expert #2: Garth Stein, author of the bestseller The Art of Racing in the Rain,

said he saw how publishing could be great fun for children, but cautioned that “part of writing is living and exploring the world and interacting with the world.”

Good point. The kids in the Times piece range from 12-16. Everyone knows you don’t begin experiencing or living or interacting with the world until you’re, what? 18? 20? Before then, you’re just a potato in Keds. (Yeah, heads up, youths: Grownups all think you’re still wearing Keds.)

Expert #3: “Alan Rinzler, a publishing industry veteran who now works with writers as an editorial consultant.” I’ll just paraphrase what he says:

You should spend even more and hire me!

So that’s the article. And I’m sure plenty of people are outraged at these precocious jerks and their overindulgent parents. And I’m sure those same people will agree with the implication that having your parents publish you will dissuade you from doing the Hard Work of being a writer. (That’s the assertion in the Gawker headline.) But consider, if you will, the toxic levels of batshittery in Tom Robbins’ comments. And why are they batshit? Because they presume that a person is literally incapable of writing a good story until they’ve lived a certain number of years. How many years? Tom Robbins doesn’t say. But I’m willing to bet it’s as many years as Tom Robbins was when he wrote Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. And even though Robbins’ criteria would fail a 9th grade logical syllogism test, it’s the same criteria Gawker and others are using to judge this “story.”

By the way, is this an epidemic? Are there as many kids writing and self-publishing novels as there are having unprotected sex? Because that would be something. In reality, it seems like this is a handful of super-driven kids with supportive parents. Which is terrible, I guess? I know Gawker sure thought so.

I guess I’m crazy, because I actually loved the thought of a 14- or 16-year-old kid creating a book and putting it out there for other people to read. That’s something I never would’ve thought to do at that age. And if I had thought of it, I surely wouldn’t have had the balls to do it. But we should be damning such behavior, shouldn’t we? Let’s not encourage young writers. Let’s make sure they know the most important thing about a work of fiction isn’t how it’s written or how it makes the reader feel, it’s how it came to be published. Let’s make sure they know there’s only ONE way to do things in this world. Let’s make sure they know they’re not to put their work out in the world when they feel ready to do so, only when WE feel ready. Whoever “we” is, and whenever “when” means.

By the way, I realize I’d have popped a blood vessel if the article had instead been about a trend in traditional publishers signing teen and tween authors. But I now realize I’d have been wrong to do so. And for THAT, I thank Tom Robbins, the New York Times, and Gawker.

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Inspirado #1: Mad Men and the “Zou Bisou Bisou” Scene

Welcome to a new regular feature here on Debenblog. As a writer and a human living in the early 21st century (my GOD, that still sounds wrong), I consume a massive amount of media. Not just literature, but movies, music, television, journalism, advertising, news, fake news, blog posts, etc*. I try to filter all of it for further consideration — e.g., When I enjoy advertisement, is it possible I’ve just enjoyed a piece of entertainment, or have I truly played right into someone’s hands? — but if we’re being accurate I’m sure I’m really only considering maybe 60% of what I consume. And I’m looking at maybe half of that 60% in terms of what it might mean to my work as a writer. (Versus my life as a human.) As Liam Rector, the dear, departed creator of the Bennington Writing Seminars, used to say to every incoming class, “I never met a great writer who wasn’t also a great reader.” I think that’s completely true, though Liam also loved movies, so I would add visual storytelling to the mix. But what does that make someone, if no longer strictly a reader? A “consumer”? That’s a lousy word, and it’s already long been co-opted to mean, uh, everyone. I’d love to find a single word that describes what I am when I’m reading or watching or experiencing things. There has to be a word. What is it?

As Phil Donahue used to say, we’re not gonna solve that here. Not right now, anyway. But I do know the word for the stuff I take from all these various components and mash into a fine green paste inside the mortar of my brain, and that word is inspirado. Not the masculine past participle of the Spanish verb meaning “to inspire,” but the made-up Tenacious D noun form meaning “stuff that makes me want to make stuff of my own.” It’s all very clinical, and you can learn about it here. (Although I’d be remiss if I didn’t praise that Spanish verb, as it not only means “to inspire” but “to inhale.” Yes!) Of all the stuff I’m considering from all the stuff I’m consuming, inspirado is the stuff I tuck away in a special drawer for some use later. To put it another way: A wise writing teacher once told me, “When you read, always ask: What would I steal from this?” Inspirado is that: what I’d steal.

My choice for Inspirado #1 is the most recent thing that’s stuck with me. It’s a scene from this past Sunday’s Mad Men, or rather it’s The Scene. Don Draper’s new wife, Megan, throws him a surprise party for a birthday he’d rather not have, and fills it with a crazy mix of people from his work life and people from her (much younger) own life. It’s a great scene, a true set-piece, and it culminates in Megan getting up with the band she’s hired and singing a full-on version of “Zou Bisou Bisou,” which is a kicky French number whose title means “A Little Kiss.” (Which is also the name of the episode, so we’re left to unpack the meaning of this “kiss,” as well as its adjective.) Here’s the performance:

A lot’s already been written about this scene, but I want to take it from a slightly different angle, which is this: The show, until this moment, was not really working for me. I love Mad Men and consider it one of the finest dramas ever made. But the energy in the first 45 minutes of this episode was weird, the dialogue less sharp than what I’d expected, the pacing off. And then this scene came in and gathered up all the floppy balloons and somehow made them fly.

I don’t think this is because of heightened expectations on my part. In fact, it’s a common issue with serialized dramas that Mad Men has been able to avoid until now. With the beginning of a new season in any serialized drama, there are competing agendas: you have to remind your returning viewers of certain things; you have to draw new viewers in; and you have to get your characters in place for the challenges and issues of the episodes to come. Subsequent episodes really only have to concern themselves with that third thing, which is progressing the story. The season premiere is always, therefore, the least natural of any episode in a season. The dialogue’s always going to seem that much flatter and expositional; the situations will feel that much more contrived. (Think I’m being overly picky? Watch the opening scene to Sunday’s show again. “And they call us savages!” is a line that belongs in a shitty network morality episode about race, not this show.) It’s nearly unavoidable, I think — even The Sopranos and The Shield, two of the best serialized dramas of the last ten years, regularly had painful season premieres — and it certainly won’t affect my love of Mad Men.

But it did affect my love of the episode — until the party scene. Then I was 100% in, and the rest of the episode seemed to rise to a whole new level from that point on. It was as if “Zou Bisou Bisou” had grabbed the focus of the show’s producers the way it did everyone at that party. So what’s the Inspirado component here? For me, it’s the way a single, well-constructed scene — and a sharp, empathetic approach to character — can do so much. Another show might have made Megan’s performance awful and embarrassing, a new wife reaching beyond her grasp to impress her older husband and his cynical friends. But the performance was good, so now things get more complicated. Don’s mortified, as you can see from his stricken smile. But everyone else seems to be thinking: Who the hell is this person? And this is what the viewer thinks, too. Last season, all any of us, characters and viewers alike, knew of her was that she was a pretty but somewhat dull secretary in their advertising firm. Now she’s not only married the firm’s leading light, she’s begun working on copy herself, she’s thrown this crazily elaborate party (in a new apartment that was clearly not decorated by Don), and she’s singing and dancing like someone from a movie. It’s the craziest thing she could possibly have done. Again: Who the hell is this person?

(Part of the charm of the “Zou Bisou Bisou” scene is that it feels like a real performance by a real person. There’s a distinct unsteadiness to Megan’s voice that keeps it from feeling “canned,” and so it actually feels to the viewer like someone at a party singing and dancing like someone from a movie. It never takes you out of the scene. Again, other shows would have unquestionably used a polished audio track.)

And so the scene does what the best scenes do, which is that it not only shows characters having complicated effects on each other — look at Don’s face at :09, and Peggy’s faces at :17 and then at 1:55 — but it also forces you to reconsider the character(s) you thought you knew. At the end of the last season, Megan seemed like a bad choice for Don, or at least a safe choice. She seemed, again, none-too-bright and a little shallow — especially when contrasted with the far more capable and interesting Dr. Faye. (And I was, I imagine, among the minority of viewers who thought Megan was the better choice, for Don was clearly choosing her because she was kind and positive and genuinely great with his kids.) But here she’s surprising. And so the scene is surprising, and it jars the whole damn episode into a new focus from there on out, like someone finally bumping the blurry projector.

And that’s the takeaway for me as a writer: When you think you know a character, when you think your reader will know them, force yourself to go deeper and go weirder. People in real life will always surprise you and confound you if you stick around long enough. But in fiction, we don’t have that long. We’re working on borrowed time, the painfully short span of a novel, a story, a play, a movie. Dare your characters to surprise you. What are they hiding? What are their secret talents or unknown perversions? What’s the craziest thing they could possibly do? What’s the worst thing they could possibly do at a particular moment? And — just as important! — how do these things, when unleashed, affect the people around them?

Next: Inspirado #2: Miles Kurosky, Beulah, and their bipolar symphonies to God

* I’m using literature here to mean fiction, poetry, memoir, essay, comics. Tough shit.
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The Obligatory White Male Author’s Fiction Manifesto: Stories (Part 2)

Note: In Part One, I talk about the short story, and what I see wrong with the way it’s often practiced. Here we get into the really bossy stuff, the guidelines.

Do I believe everything has to follow the same set of rules, that all short stories should be the same? Of course not. But I believe a lot of people are producing a lot of shitty short fiction, and this is what has turned a lot of readers away from stories. So here’s what I look for in short fiction. This is what I wish for when I read it, and what I demand of myself when I’m writing it:

  • Real characters. Not types, and not a collection of lonely yearnings wandering the grey suburban landscape. Jesus Fucking Christ am I tired of reading about how spiritually empty the suburbs are. I’m just as sick of people fetishizing rural America or the inner city as the Only Real Places. It’s 2012, and you’re grown-up enough to know all kinds of people live in all kinds of places for all kinds of reasons. I think the suburbs-are-evil thing is done partly out of laziness, with writers not realizing the writers they’re aping were writing about the suburbs in a time when suburbs were a new thing. But it also seems to be done in lieu of writing real characters. Real characters are complicated and often (mostly) wrong-headed and funny and weird and maybe even a little annoying. I don’t have to love the character, but I’d better feel like the writer is at least fascinated with the person. Otherwise, what the hell’s the point? Why should I be fascinated if you can’t bother to show some interest? (Please don’t mistake this as a wish for “likable characters.” I don’t even know what that means.) Just write people. Not a set of circumstances, not a nest of quirks. People.
  • Active characters. Related to the above. I had a student in workshop the other night ask of a fellow student’s character, “Why does she need to go rushing over to this guy’s hotel to confront him about the work problem? Couldn’t she wait until morning?” It’s a great question, but it also is its own answer: No one wants to read about the person who would wait until the next morning. It’s like I was saying in Part One: Don’t tell me about the time things happened the way they usually do, tell me about The Time Something Different Happened. Similarly, don’t tell me about any person, tell me about The One Person Who…. Active characters make the mistakes, the leaps and lapses in judgment, the transgressions that lead to things like situations and unforeseen results. In fact, when I teach about scene, I teach a (reductive) principle called the Three Es: Encounter/Event/Effect. In every scene, a character must have an Encounter with something or someone that then leads to an Event of some sort, which then has an Effect. (The effect doesn’t always have to be obvious to the character(s); it can happen to the reader.) This is similar to the idea that a scene cannot begin and end without some change having occurred. This is the very stuff of fiction, yet we forget it as soon as we put fingertips to keypad, and then we have characters sitting around waiting for things to happen to them. No. The characters create the story. They make choices and things happen as a result. Even the best passive characters are thoroughly active in their passivity. Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys and Jeff Lebowski in The Big Lebowski are allegedly the laziest people in their stories, but they’re actually the busiest: Things have shifted and they’re desperately trying to drag everything back to square one. Or think of Hoarders: It takes a lot of work to appear that sedentary.
  • Make something happen. To me, this doesn’t have to mean spectacle. Believe it or not, I don’t need it to be all gunfights and anal sex. (Although….) One of my favorite story writers is William Trevor, who specializes in creeping dread, thus his stories seem to contain very little action. However, in the weird silences and loaded interactions, Trevor’s stories contain all the plot and forward motion you could ask for in a piece of fiction. (The genius of William Trevor, by the way, is that his characters almost never experience revelation or epiphany. These things happens to the Trevor reader, and it’s often stunning.) When I read a short story, I’m still looking for the elements of plot — accumulated incidents, some kind of forward motion, increasing tension, climax, etc. — that I’d expect from a longer work. Otherwise, I’d be reading poetry or essays. But this is fiction, and I believe it still ought to have, you know, Fiction Stuff.
  • Surprise me. Here I don’t mean plot. Here I mean, show me something — in a character, in an observation — that I haven’t seen before. Tell me something new about an old thing. In his collection Knuckleheads, Jeff Kass writes about athletes — and men — in a way I haven’t seen elsewhere. Please do write about a married couple not getting along, but surprise me with your take on it, your insights into the situation, your characters.
  • Interaction. A lot of stories baffle me, frankly, by not letting their characters interact, either with each other or with an animal or object. I love the narrator of Grace Paley’s “Wants,” but so much of what makes her great becomes apparent when her ex-husband shows up while she’s waiting on the library steps. Story arises from character, thus character needs something to bump up against. Please don’t give me a guy driving for three days, thinking about stuff. Put someone else in the car with him, or let him hit an antelope, or have the car itself be the foil. But something.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of your characters. Going back to yesterday’s Hemingway bit, I want to know that you know where the rest of your iceberg is. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read in journals and anthologies and thought: “This writer knows only what’s going on at the surface of this scene, and that’s it.” And it reads like one of those embarrassing playlets they used to do on Star Search during the drama competition, only with far less dialogue and more wounded glances. You know that writer has no clue what his characters do on their off-days. But he uses lots of tricks of voice and narrative perspective so we don’t notice he has no fucking clue what his story’s really about. You need to connect to your characters with every bit as much intensity and understanding as a novelist does, or what’s the point of my reading it?
  • Display some narrative authority. Related to the above. If you can’t tell your story with authority, if I can’t glimpse just the slightest shadow of an author here and there, then I won’t know who’s driving this train and I will ultimately question the value of the journey itself. I think conveying Narrative authority is one of the last things a writer learns to do well, not unlike achieving OT-VIII in Scientology. Narrative authority, by the way, should not be confused with showiness. I once heard Amy Bloom say that if she read a line of hers that delighted her, she cut it. Why? Because anytime you can hear the author chuckling at his own genius, you’re not in the story. But I am looking for evidence of a smart, interesting author. We experience narrative authority via things like evocative word choices, living characters, strong thematic concerns, and clear storytelling decisions. On that last one: When a writer clearly knows where to end a scene, or shows me the ONE thing that tells me everything I need to know about character X’s house, versus listing a catalog of a dozen details, then I feel like I’m in sure hands.
  • Use humor. Is it too much to ask for flashes of humor and lightness in a story? You know, like there are in LIFE? Christ, even in the concentration camps there was humor – in fact, it was vital for survival. Maybe, then, you can see your way to putting some in that estranged-middle-class-spouses story? I honestly can’t think of one dark story where the presence of humor has marred it; on the other hand, I can think of hundreds of dark stories where humor would’ve made a huge difference. Good rule of thumb: If you’re over thirty, there’s no excuse for mistaking darkness for depth.
  • Be entertaining. There is no excuse for forgetting this. It’s bare minimum requirement #1 for literature. If you are putting your work out for others, you are hoping for them to enjoy it. Pure and simple. If your whole raison d’être is to provoke, then you are being a child. People who consider themselves mainly to be “provocateurs” are not merely pretentious, they’re selfish, miserable blights on the world. They are adding nothing; rather, they are only taking. So: I’m not telling you to dumb it down, I’m not telling you to make your characters “likable,” I’m not telling you to put your characters in wacky situations, I’m not telling you to avoid serious or disturbing ideas. I am telling you to remember that you write to be read and that you should at the least be entertaining. The best writers know how to be artful and enjoyable at the same time. Exhibit A: Lolita.
  • Risk Sentimentality. The word “risk” here is crucial, for sentimentality alone is not good. Look: We live in an age of irony, or so my Hang In There, Kitty! calendar tells me. And while sentimentality is cheap, irony and detachment are not only cheaper these days, they’re actually detrimental. They cost something of us by mocking our ability to feel things, by shaming our humanity. I love the excited, flawed writer who is Rick Moody of The Ice Storm and Purple America and The Black Veil, but I loathe the clever, self-important Rick Moody of a lot of his short stories, the one who couches seemingly everything in overwrought wording and formal stylistic exercises. I believe it’s far more noble — again, crucial — to take a risk on being perceived as sentimental and mawkish, as long as you’re being true and honest and specific. This last thing is key. If you go for universality — “everyone will get this!” — you will fail every time. The more specific you go, the more universal it will actually become. ”Parenting is hard, but you gotta laugh!” is not only non-specific, it’s just plain stupid. Which is why it’s the premise of a thousand shitty sitcoms and Chicken Soup For The… stories, all of which trade on cheap sentimentality in place of actual emotional connection. But let’s say this: You have a story about a mother who’s having a hard day with her toddler and — just when she’s on the brink of losing it — the little boy slips in his own urine and falls on his ass, and the mother inadvertently laughs. The child looks up at her, confused by what’s just happened. He’s just hurt himself, yet his number-one protector in the world  thinks it’s funny? He begins crying. And now so does she. It’s a specific moment we’re talking about here (versus “Aw, Tyler drew on the wall!”) yet it’s one every parent knows: You love your kids, but to be able to laugh right in their little faces at the worst possible moments is priceless and necessary.

There you have it: my requirements for short fiction. I hope you’ll notice they contained nothing regarding content or style, that I never said anything like, “Always describe a character fully, using at least three pages to do so!” To be prescriptive about those would be weird, especially from a guy who likes 19th century literature and comic books. By the way, these requirements are — shocker — also what I want from long-form fiction! I don’t know why you’d expect less from one versus the other, but it seems people do, or at least they’ve come to.

I’d love to change that. Short stories are some of the first sophisticated literature you read in school as a kid (I’m happy to report this is still the case) but somewhere between childhood and adulthood, the stories you read seem to change at their core, which is exactly where they shouldn’t. The situations and characters should become more sophisticated, but the basic elements shouldn’t change or disappear. And yet.

There are good writers out there working hard to make good stories for you. The hours are terrible, the audience is (rightly) skeptical, the pay is almost nonexistent, and the effort to be heard through the crap is exhausting. But they’re doing it anyway, because it’s a great form of literature. I hope you’ll read a short story today. (Maybe this one, for instance. Or these.) But I also hope that if that story doesn’t live up to the basic standards I’ve outlined above — doesn’t entertain you, doesn’t move you in some way, doesn’t bother to treat its characters as real people — you will throw that story down and cry, “I denounce you, bullshit story! I denounce you to the depths of Hell!” You have every right to do so.

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The Obligatory White Male Author’s Fiction Manifesto: Stories (Part 1)

photo credit: Alexandre Dulaunoy (http://www.flickr.com/photos/adulau/)

Because I am an author and am also white and a man, it’s inevitable that I would write some kind of manifesto of fiction. I’ve tried to avoid it — I even hacked my own hands off to keep it from being written — but such a thing is as inevitable as the Cylon ascendency, so here it all is, in two chunks.

Students always want to know: What is a short story? Versus a novel or novella, they mean. And it may seem like an obvious distinction – stories are short, other things are long – until you start getting into the stories of, say, Alice Munro or Richard Ford or Nell Freudenberger, writers whose stories may regularly go well past 40 pages. I usually start with the old Poe definition of a short story being that which can be read, in its entirety, in one sitting. While it may not be easy or desirable to read a 50-page story in one sitting, you have to remember that Edgar Allan Poe was a bit of a drinker, so sitting in one place for a super-long time was probably not hard for him. But I think when people ask what a short story is, they’re really asking: How do I know when something works as a story?

I also tell students a hodgepodge of notions I’ve heard over the years: Where novels answer questions, stories ask them; a story is about a crucial moment vs. a whole sequence of crucial moments, etc. Then there’s my own definition: A story is a short piece of fiction about The Time Something Different Happened.

I like this one because it reminds students (and me) that something has to have shifted in a character’s life in order to make a story work. And this is universal across all genres and categories of literature. Let me ask you this: What are the most important words in a children’s story? You might be tempted to say “Once upon a time.” Or perhaps “Happily ever after.” But these are wrong, and if you said either of them, you are not valid as a person. No, the most important words in a children’s story are: “But then one day.” Why? Because when you see that phrase, that’s when you know something different is going to happen. If there’s no “but then one day…” there’s no story. Otherwise, Jack and his mom stay poor (though also free from the future guilt of gianticide) and Red Riding Hood yet again safely delivers muffins or whatever couldn’t possibly have waited until she found a friend to go with her through the dark woods.

Fictional character Jeff Lebowski goes to the supermarket every day to buy cream for his White Russians. And you can write about that — but it’s not a story yet, it’s a character detail. Now: If Jeff Lebowski goes to the supermarket to buy half-and-half for his White Russians, but then one day (night) comes home to be viciously attacked by thugs who then urinate on his rug – that’s the start of a story.

[NOTE: I’ve created this example by combining elements from two distinguished American stories, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Fantastic Lebowski” (1922) and Tillie Olsen’s “It Really Pulled The Room Together” (1960).]

But Something Different Happened to Lebowski. Things have been set in motion, and now he’ll try and return things to status quo. (Spoiler: this never works out the way the character wants.)

When people find out I write short stories, a lot of them tell me, right to my goddamn face, that they don’t like short stories. “Nothing ever happens in them!” is a frequent complaint. “I feel like they end poorly,” is another big one. “They’re too sexy!” is of course the one I hear most. And I usually make recommendations. Nothing happens? Try Jim Shepard or Dan Chaon or Jhumpa Lahiri. (Just not that rolling-blackouts story of hers. Ugh, that fucking story.) They end poorly? Read Lorrie Moore or William Trevor. (Or challenge your ideas of why a story ends where it does with Grace Paley or Amy Hempel.) They’re too sexy? I’m SORRY.

But I usually also say, “You know what? I have those complaints a lot, too.” And it’s true. I was on a short story panel last year at the Empire State Book Festival, and on this panel I made a regrettable decision. After I was introduced and handed the microphone, the first thing out of my mouth was, “I don’t like a lot of short stories.” Now: I said this to a room full of people who were there BECAUSE THEY LIKED SHORT STORIES. And amid a group of fellow panelists who were all short story writers. With a moderator who is an internationally known short story writer. So this was maybe not the best place to trot out my gripes about the form. (It really was a great festival, too. Please: Go to a local book festival sometime. It’ll do your heart good to see so many enthusiastic readers in one place.) In any case, while I said, “I don’t like a lot of short stories,” and while I sure as hell wasn’t talking about any of my fellow panelists, what I’m certain everyone heard was “YOU DUMMIES, I HATE SHORT STORIES. WHEN’S LUNCH?” I’d like now to correct the record and talk about this in a more nuanced fashion. So:

I don’t like a lot of short stories.

Matt! you say. What is wrong with you? That’s not a correction at all! What I’ll tell you is this: I’ve thought about that panel a lot over the last year, and while I probably should’ve chosen my words more carefully, my feelings remain the same. And I can say this because a) I write short stories; b) I read a shitload* of them both for my own enjoyment and betterment, and to find something to give to my workshops that will demonstrate the principles of good fiction; and c) I also read thousands of pages of them in grad school and certainly many more thousands in the years before and since. So trust me on this: I’ve given it some thought. I’m not generalizing about stories the way, say, your grandma might about The Cambodians.

My issues with a lot of short stories mirror the complaints I hear: Nothing really happens, and too many writers have no idea how or where to end a piece. In terms of the former, a lot of otherwise talented writers seem to forget niggling little details like plot and character when they’re doing short stories. The form seems to invite passive characters to come shuffle in and sit down and let stuff happen to them. Or you know, just talk. These people are usually married to each other, or are friends, or maybe it’s just one guy thinking to himself. Sometimes there’s a metaphorical fly buzzing around the room. You know.

The genius and trap of the short story form is that much of the plot needs to be left “offstage,” as it were. I know you have ten pounds of shit, my friend, but you only have a two-pound bag. In Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” we’re privy to only the crisis point toward the end (or middle?) of what is clearly a much bigger story between these two characters. Which illustrates Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” — that the bulk of a story, like the bulk of an iceberg, is hidden from view. Quoth Papa: “You could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” I’ve bolded the most-overlooked part of this dictum. “Hills Like White Elephants” is famous for its sharp, cryptic dialogue, all of which hints at an agonizing decision for the couple in the story. (If you haven’t read it, the woman in the story is clearly deciding whether or not to get a boob job.)

However, Hemingway was Hemingway. Most writers, due either to circumstances or genetics, are not. So you have a lot of stories where, again, nothing much seems to happen. And then when you go looking under the surface, there ain’t much there, either. This is also where you get a lot of writers who just end at a point that seems chosen at random but was, even more sadly, chosen in order to give the impression of cleverness. I know because I’ve done it myself. I’m convinced that 90% of well-written, bad stories exist because of writers who are trying to impress other writers, or perhaps their teachers of writing. Because nothing impresses, however fleetingly, like confusion.

There’s a reason “The Emperor’s New Clothes” has endured as an instructive tale all these years. It’s still a perfect illustration of how social groups work: If I don’t understand what your story’s about or why it ends the way it does, the problem is mine, isn’t it? Because in that moment, I’m terrified of it being discovered that I’m stupid. And since others in the class or discussion group seem to get it, I must be stupid – never mind that they may be feeling exactly the same concerns as me – and therefore I will say the thing works and that it is good, in order to save face. And if a thing has been published, it has legitimacy, doesn’t it? Someone – gosh, a whole chain of someones! – thought this thing was worth putting on paper and preserving for future generations. Surely this is not a chain of emperors and courtiers we’re seeing here. Surely it’s because the work spoke to them.

Didn’t it?

Tomorrow: What I want from short stories.

* this is an old Biblical measurement of volume
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What’s Happened, What’s Next: SOME ANNOUNCEMENTS

What’s Happened

Great news! THE ADVOCATE was rejected by the New Yorker this week! I’d sent it to them six months ago. Anyway, this is what a rejection note from the foremost short story outlet in the United States looks like:

Fancy, right? I’m assuming “evident merit” refers to the fact that I’d successfully attached my story as a document? Or that the sentences all ended in punctuation marks versus just trailing off?

I received my first rejection from the New Yorker in 1995, when I was 25. I’ve now been writing on purpose for 17 years. First of all, wow, that’s a depressing amount of time, especially considering that the work has been passable-to-good for maybe six of those years. (Um, the most recent six, of course.) But second of all, this one 17 years later, it’s the same rejection! I’m pretty sure my work has improved between the first thing I ever sent them and now, when I’ve been published in numerous other magazines and had an award-winning book, but according to the New Yorker rejection-bot I remain the same exact level of rejectability. Literary robot, you cut me to the quick, sir!

Look, I didn’t really expect to get into the New Yorker. It would’ve been nice, but I’m not a stupid. So why did I submit in the first place to a magazine I knew would reject me? Because it’s The Way It’s Done.

The Way It’s Done, if you’re a short story writer, is this:

  • You write a story;
  • You send it out to a bunch of literary magazines;
  • You wait for months. You may wait for a year*;
  • Eventually, you hear back: Maybe some don’t want your story, maybe one does;
  • The ones who don’t send you something called a “rejection note”;
  • The closest most of the general population will get to receiving such a communication is by not paying a bill;
  • In the creative arts, people seek this out as much as possible, because that is The Way It’s Done.
*Which reminds me: fuck you, Zoetrope All-Story. Why are not-for-profit magazines with all-volunteer staffs quicker than you? Aren’t there like a thousand Coppolas you can put on the job?

This short story business seems crazy, right? And also not like much of a business? As for the New Yorker, I’m a little stumped as to why they even bother taking unsolicited or unagented submissions. It’s kind of like American Idol. I know they show stadiums full of people at the auditions for AI, but how many of those people get to go in and meet Randy Jackson and J.Lo? I’m pretty sure the people you see going into the room on TV are ALL the people who ever go in.

In summation: Submitting your short fiction to the New Yorker and elsewhere, if you’re me and you write the kind of stuff I do, is dumb. I write a kind of story that is very specific and not necessarily what lit mags are looking for. And yet, I have a perverse desire to have my work read by people. So there HAS to be a different way other than The Way It’s Done. Which brings me to…

What’s Next

Beginning in late March, I will be publishing short prose in the Kindle format, just like I did THE ADVOCATE. I will do this ONCE A MONTH. Most of the Kindle pieces will be new short stories. Occasionally, I’ll put up an occasional piece from The Book of Right and Wrong, so that readers may sample that work. Month to month, I may throw in the occasional essay or a chapter from the novel-in-progress. Some publications will be 99 cents (free for Amazon Prime members), some will be free to everyone. ALL will continue to be sharable.

“Who are you trying to be,” you say, “some kind of, uh, Charles Dickens-type guy?”

Yes. Yes, I am. Because not only did Dickens publish his work for the enjoyment of readers on a regular basis – sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly – who do you suppose published Charles Dickens’ serialized work? Why, Charles Dickens did. Certainly, publishing has changed a lot since then, but need it have?

We live in desperate times for fiction, and downright dire ones for the short story, a format I happen to love. With the publication of THE ADVOCATE, I was stunned by how many people were willing to read a short story in 2012. This tells me there’s a future for this kind of fiction. So who’s up for more future? Will you come with me on this wild journey? Will you start a Kickstarter to get my fiction taught in every middle school in America and its territories?

You are my reader pal and you are the best. And in return, I promise to deliver a stunning series of literary offerings at competitive prices. Watch this space. You’re gonna get boners about short fiction in 2012.

Love,

Matt Debenham

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