My Bonfire of Vanity Publishing

Now that my self-published book has been out for nearly a month, I might as well explain the process to my literally dozens of readers.

First of all, I didn’t spend a whole lot of money to publish the book. I’m not that vain. I did the editing and formatting myself with input from people who read the book in advance. I bought a custom ISBN for $10 and commissioned a digital painting for the cover for $500. Besides those upfront costs, the process was free. I bought a physical proof copy to verify the layout, and if I want to buy copies for myself, I can purchase them at a discount. The copies that other people buy are printed on demand at no cost to me.

Between my extremely meticulous (some might say nitpicky) formatting and the professional cover, I think the book looks legitimate. If you saw it in a store, you wouldn’t know it was self-published unless you knew what to look for. The e-book was free to publish as well, but the format is a little bit different. The two versions are connected on amazon.com, which makes it easier to consolidate reviews and offer combo deals, etc.

I’ve criticized self-published authors in the past and those criticisms aren’t without merit. If you want your book to be taken seriously, you have to be confident and professional, no matter what. For authors who intend to self-publish, I’d offer this advice: get an editor. Nothing makes you look less professional than poorly-edited, poorly-formatted text. It always looks bad. I’m a professional copy editor who once earned no less than $25 a day to do that job. As for my book, there is one minor typo on the first page and there are a least a couple of others throughout the book. I obviously left those in to keep myself humble.

The distribution process for my book is still ongoing, but I’m hoping to get it stocked in local bookstores. The KU Audio-Reader program is going to broadcast an audio recording of my book to visually-impaired listeners in the Midwest. I’m trying to establish a presence online and at some upcoming science-fiction conventions. I’m trying to meet and connect with people, and I hope that the more I get connected, the more copies of my book I’ll sell.

In the meantime, I’m going back to work writing future projects. I’m currently working on an illustrated children’s book, a few short stories for competitions, and another novel called The Remnants. I’ll keep posting updates and links as I work on things.

Shackles

(This is a 440-word short story I wrote as an exercise. It had to be about a woman who rents a house and finds something in the closet.)

Mark was unpacking bedsheets when Debbie emerged from the bedroom closet with a puzzled look on her face.

“You’ll never guess what I found in there,” she said.

“You’re right, I won’t,” he said. “What did you find?”

“Come see for yourself.”

He stood up and followed her into the closet. She pointed to a steel plate that had been bolted into the drywall behind a clothes rack. There were two solid steel chains hanging from the plate. At the end of each chain was a steel wrist shackle.

“Did you notice these when we toured the house?” she said.

“No. You really can’t see them from outside the closet. I guess we didn’t spend much time looking around in here.”

He examined the shackles up close. They were sturdy and well-maintained. The entire construction was solid and all the metal had been polished to a mirror shine. The whole thing could easily have held 500 pounds without budging.

“Do you think someone actually used these things?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said, casually tugging on one of the chains. “This is a lot of work to put into something you aren’t going to use.”

“So it must have been a kink, right? Like, a sex thing?”

“I doubt it. These shackles are solid steel. They would be extremely uncomfortable, and besides, you wouldn’t need something this strong just for kinky sex.” He shook his head. “No, I think someone was locked up in here.”

She stared at him. “You think someone was stuck in this closet against their will?”

He shrugged. “I can’t imagine any other reason to have shackles like these.”

“Wow.” She looked back at the shackles. “You know, we don’t know anything about the guy who lived here before us. Who knows how long he could have had someone trapped in here?”

“It might not even have been him. There are plenty of sick people out there, and dozens of residents lived here before he did. These shackles could have been here for years. Maybe everyone just ignored them.”

“It’s possible,” she said. “Anyway, I’m going to go call the landlord. I’m not comfortable living in this place, and there’s no telling what else we might find around here. After that, we should call the police. This might help them with an ongoing investigation.”

Before Debbie could leave the closet, Mark grabbed her in a stranglehold and lifted her off the ground. She struggled for a few seconds, then fell unconscious. He dragged her back inside and sat her against the wall.

“This is awesome,” he muttered to himself. “Now I don’t have to buy any shackles.”

The Witness

(I wrote this short story and presented it to a critique group in Lawrence. This is a revised version based on the feedback I got.)

Jeremy arrived at the hospital at 6:15. When he told the woman at the front desk he was going to see his wife, she insisted that he sign the visitor’s log.

“It won’t take very long,” he said, and walked in anyway. “I’ll be right back, I promise.”

After the door swung shut behind him, the ward stayed completely silent. The patients never made much noise, but the on-call nurse was gone. He looked in a couple of rooms, and all he heard was the sound of the life-support machines.

Abby’s room was the farthest from the desk. Now that she had spent 3 weeks in the coma ward, Jeremy had settled into a routine of making short visits in the morning. Abby would never have wanted him to spend days on end watching her sleep, and the longer he watched, the more it hurt. It was much easier to look at her surroundings instead.

When he entered the room, he noticed all of the familiar faces: the IV drip, the uncomfortable chair, the heart monitor, and the miscolored floor tile that ruined the pattern. He looked at Abby’s face last.

She looked young, and not just because she had lost so much weight. Her mouth was holding back a smile like she was trying to keep a secret. When her eyes weren’t taped shut, she seemed paralyzed with naive wonder. Right now, her secret was whether or not she would ever wake up.

Instead of starting his usual cleaning routine, he stared at her. He wanted to refill the already-full jug of water, open the blinds, and throw away the wilted flowers. For some reason, he just continued to stare.

“This isn’t right,” he said to himself.

He thought about the time they had visited her mother in a similar hospital room. She had always been a quiet woman, but her brain tumor made her talk constantly. She mostly talked about her dreams. When she was asleep, she got to be a normal person in a bizarre world, instead of being an insane person in a perfectly ordinary world. As soon as she started rambling, Abby would get flustered and start to cry. Jeremy really listened. Whenever he wanted to know how the story ended, Abby’s mother would inevitably get confused and stop.

So he had to end the stories himself. It was never quite as satisfying.

The best dream was about her marriage to Satan. She spent most of the time explaining the black roses, the blood-red cake, and the snake-shaped wedding ring. She wondered why the father of the groom had even shown up, because he clearly didn’t fit in with Satan’s other guests. Eventually, she talked about her vows, which she had written herself. They mostly involved forgiveness and understanding, but she could not think of a single reason to say “I do.”

Abby interrupted. “Are you saying Dad is like Satan? You are so happy together. You love each other!” She ran from the room, and her distracted mother started talking about the difference between drupes and berries. Abby’s father went after her. Jeremy was lost in his own thoughts.

He finally realized what had happened when he heard them arguing from the hallway.

“Daddy, I don’t want to see this anymore. Why can’t it just be over?”

“I never wanted to put you through this, Abigail. Your mother is already gone. The woman in there is all that’s left. Even though she looks and sounds the same, there’s nobody home. ”

She sighed. “It just gets harder and harder. I want to keep the good memories without adding all of these terrible ones.”

Before Jeremy could hear anything else, his mother-in-law shouted what she thought was his name. “Jeffrey! Come here!” He walked to the side of bed. She leaned over to him, and with a puzzled look, she said, “which one of them caught the bouquet?”

Before they left, he told Abby that he thought her mother might have stayed married to Satan. She refused to speak to him for the rest of the day. Her version must have ended differently.

His mother-in-law died the next day. Abby and her father were very relieved, but Jeremy thought that interacting with a crazy person hurt less than losing one. On the other hand, Abby finally started talking to him again.

Now she might be silent forever. Visiting Abby was more difficult than visiting her mother, and the silence was so much worse. Abby had always known how much he loved to talk with her. Whenever she was angry, she would sit silently as his pressured speech got more and more desperate for a response. Eventually, he would storm out of the room. He could always hear her sigh when he finally walked away.

She was much more beautiful when she spoke. She could be silly or sexy, angry or comforting, passionate or perfectly reasonable. She only had one kind of silence.

He took out a vial from his jacket pocket. He couldn’t remember where it had come from. He looked at the label, which read “potassium chloride for injection.” He got the syringe from his other pocket and watched as he started to draw the poison from the vial. “This shouldn’t be happening,” he said.

He walked toward the side of the bed and traced the IV line from the pole to her wrist. “I would never do this,” he told himself. His hand seemed to move on its own as he slid the needle into the hose and pushed the plunger.

After he watched the poison go in, he tried to think of a way to save her, but he remained immobile as the cardiac monitor slowed and ultimately flatlined. She didn’t move once.

He wanted to cry, but he couldn’t. He wanted to touch her, but all he could do was watch. His body mechanically turned away to go get help.

In the doorway, he saw the stoic face of his father-in-law.

“Just look what you did to my Abigail,” he said. He calmly walked toward her body. “You killed her.” He sighed.

“No.” Jeremy mumbled. “I didn’t do this. You were the one who poisoned her. I saw you do it.”

As he tried to move toward the bed, his heart began to race. He thought about holding his wife, and started seeing bursts of light. Just before he could finally move, he was overwhelmed with light, and in a flash, the world vanished around him.

Jeremy was left standing in an empty white room, completely paralyzed. His father-in-law was pacing nearby. “I was afraid of this,” he said. “You’re still attached to the idea that I killed my own daughter.”

“Because it’s the truth.”

“No. It’s a memory. Whether or not it’s true is beside the point. Now you have a new memory. It’s perfectly reasonable, and eventually, you’ll see for yourself that it’s better for everyone.”

“How did you get me to do this?”

“I’m running an important investigation. It’s my job to make sure we get extremely accurate testimony from murderers like you. Every time you relive this memory, we can extract more and more detail.”

“I know this isn’t what really happened. I’m absolutely sure of it.”

“Are you? Well, next time you’ll be a little less sure. After you kill her a few hundred times more, you’ll doubt the veracity of that one little old memory. Maybe you’ll even start to feel some guilt.”

“Why did they let you do this to me?”

“I insisted! No one knows this technology as well as I do, and I owe it to Abigail to determine the truth. When I found her, I was devastated. Naturally there was some confusion about which of us arrived first. However, my version of events was much more realistic. Once you see that, you’ll be able to corroborate my story in court.”

“I’ll never do that. I loved her. Don’t you understand? She would have gotten better eventually. She was improving!”

“She was breathing. Now she isn’t.”

Before Jeremy could respond, his body finally unfroze. His muscles relaxed and he fell to the ground. Before he slipped unconscious, he saw a faint smile on his father-in-law’s face.

Jeremy arrived at the hospital at 6:16. When he told the woman at the front desk he was going to see his wife, she insisted that he sign the visitor’s log.

“It won’t take very long,” he said, and walked in anyway. “I’ll be right back, I promise.”

Last Gasp

(This is a 750-word short story I wrote as an exercise. The first sentence had to be: “I could only hold my breath for 2 minutes.”)

I could only hold my breath for 2 minutes, so my timing would have to be perfect. First I’d collapse on the floor loud enough for the guard to hear, then I’d hold perfectly still. When the prison doctor showed up, I needed to seem completely lifeless, so for the last six months, I’d practiced slowing my heart rate down to less than 40 beats per minute.

The doctor was notoriously squeamish about dead bodies, so he only did the bare minimum to verify a prisoner’s death. He’d just lightly touch their wrist to check their pulse and hold a compact mirror near their face to see if it fogged up. After a minute or so, he’d scurry off to fill out the paperwork. I heard he even threw up once.

Once the doctor signed my death certificate, the guard would toss my body on a gurney and move me to the morgue. After that, my buddy in the morgue had it all planned out. As soon as I got carted in, he’d arrange for a hearse to come and pick me up.

“I laughed at my cousin when he bought a used hearse,” he said. “Now we’re both laughing all the way to the bank.”

My wife paid him off with the last six thousand bucks in our savings account. He and his cousin insisted on getting the entire payment in advance.

“Escaped prisoners aren’t exactly trustworthy,” he said.

The plan was ambitious and a bit dangerous, but it would be worth it in the end. A death certificate meant a blank slate, and after all, what was the penalty if I got caught? Another consecutive life sentence? A bit less stew in the chow line? There was no harm in trying.

I woke up early on a Monday morning and took a dump. I pulled up my pants when I finished, but instead of flushing, I just turned on the sink and dropped to the floor, making as much noise as possible. The guard walked over, banged on the bars and shouted my name, but I kept my eyes closed and stayed silent. After a few seconds, he called for the doctor.

During a medical crisis, the guards weren’t allowed to open the cell or touch the inmate until the doctor showed up. While the guard watched, I took shallow breaths and focused on lowering my heart rate. After another couple of minutes, the doctor arrived.

“Mornin’, Doc,” the guard said as he unlocked the cell door.

“Good morning,” the doctor said. He sounded tired and a bit nervous. “Was the inmate like this when you arrived?”

“Yeah, he hasn’t budged.” They crowded into my cell. “Looks like he just took a shit.”

“I imagine he did. You’d be surprised how easily the heart can give out.”

I took one last shallow breath before the guard kicked me face up. The doctor knelt down by my side, took out his mirror and held it in front of my face. He touched my wrist but didn’t press down. I could feel him staring even though my eyes were closed.

I tried to count the seconds but kept getting distracted by the guard’s whistling. I figured about a minute had gone by when the doctor removed his hand. He was still holding the mirror in place, so I kept my heart rate down, just to be safe.

After another 45 seconds, my lungs were burning, but the doctor wouldn’t move the damned mirror. I couldn’t tell why he was taking so long until I realized he was panting for breath himself.

“Doc, are you okay?” the guard said. “You look a little pale.”

“Yes, yes. I’m sorry, I just, um, thought of something I need to take care of in the office.”

I was starting to see spots when the doctor finally took away the mirror, stood up, and said, “He’s as dead as a doornail.” He sounded queasy, but didn’t retch.

“Alright, Doc, I’ll call the morgue crew to come get him.”

The doctor left. I was relieved, but for some reason, I couldn’t start breathing again. My lungs were frozen, my chest felt tight, and my heart began to flutter. Panic set in. I needed to let the doctor know I was still alive, but I couldn’t even move.

The second before I blacked out, the doctor walked back in and whispered to the guard, “Make sure you break his neck, just in case.”

“I always do, Doc.”

Crushing Disappointment

I found out yesterday that I won’t be presenting at the Life, the Universe, and Everything convention next month. Right now, I’m still deciding (discovering?) how I feel about the whole thing. (I suspect the appropriate response is “FFFFFFUUUUUU–“) Besides that disappointment, I’m also feeling a bit of relief. I have to concede that the trip was an ambitious undertaking, and while I would have enjoyed teaching about cryptography, it isn’t exactly what I want to do.

A great bit of writing advice from the man himself, Mark Twain, goes like this: “The author shall … use the right word, not its second cousin.” His advice has a wider application than just word choice. When you have a goal, one of the best ways to placate yourself is by doing something sort of similar, especially if it’s less work. You can be a roadie instead of a musician, or an editor instead of a writer. There’s nothing wrong with working your way up in the field, but you can’t trick yourself into thinking that you’re actually reaching your goal. After working for 20 years as a roadie, you might be excellent at setting up stages, but you won’t be any better at performing on them.

What do I really want to do? I want to write. It’s not the same editing, teaching, public speaking, or pitching a book. I’m exceptionally bad at that last one, in fact. The truth is, I’ve always sucked at writing assignments. I could never quite meet the requirements, because I was always a little too interested in writing what I wanted to write. I don’t know if it came from being a stubborn, contrary person (probably) or if I just couldn’t force myself to do something I didn’t want to do.

When I was told to write about a person I admired, I chose Proto Man from the Mega Man video game series. There’s a slight chance the essay kept me from being a presidential scholar, but in 2006, the president was George W. Bush, so I regret nothing. When I was told to define art, I refused to. When I was told to name a time when I was completely satisfied, I suggested that complete satisfaction is impossible. I once wrote an “environmental” essay asserting that whales didn’t deserve human efforts to save them because whales did so little to save themselves.

It’s easy to lock yourself into one view. “This is how I will succeed. If I don’t do this, I will fail.” My views are still very traditional: “find representation, then a publisher, then market the book, and after a while, start writing another one.” The strategy might be a bit archaic. If nothing else, traditional publishing will take a great deal of time, and I’m fairly sure I can spend that time in better ways. And yes, self-publishing is one of my options.

Last week, I heavily criticized writers who self-publish. Does that make me a hypocrite? Yes, sort of. My biggest concern with self-published authors is that they take an unpolished first draft, slap a generic cover on the manuscript, and throw it on amazon.com. I can self-publish and still hold myself to higher standards. This book will be well-edited, and I will hire a professional illustrator to do the cover. Am I settling? Maybe. Then again, I need to create my own definition of success, even if that does involve rationalizing away a few of my concerns.

When it comes to publishing, my current goals are to 1. expose myself and 2. make money doing it. If self-publishing will allow me to focus on writing while I do those things, it might be the best option. After all, instead of queries, I would rather write more books, stories, and poems. I may only be a so-so essayist and pitcher, but I’m far better at writing other things. If I’m being completely honest, this novel might not be cut out for mainstream success. It’s light, fun, and short. I believe it will make people laugh and (hopefully) think. Even if it could be a mainstream success, I don’t want to spend 2 years trying to publish this one book before anyone reads it.

So I’ll probably publish Favor as an e-book. Naturally, I’ll let everyone know when I do. After that, I’ll attend a few other conventions and try to meet people. Like Boxer, the ill-fated draft horse, I will work harder. I don’t need a break when I’ve had so many. I don’t need any luck when I’ve had so much. I just need to keep writing as much possible.

And no matter how I publish it, I’ll make it good.

(“–UUUUUUCK”)

Ideas, Impatience, and Agnostic Prayers

Some people think that the hardest part about writing is getting ideas. I disagree, primarily because I’ve always had ideas (even a few good ones). Furthermore, I know the best way to get ideas: thinking. Bill Watterson said it best: “Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery – it recharges by running.”

Think about anything you want, and the more you think, the more ideas will show up. If you’re a little lucky, they might turn out to be good. If you don’t get any good ideas, stick a few mediocre ideas together in the meantime. If you don’t get any ideas at all, go do something else, but don’t stop thinking. If you only get a stupid idea, it’s better than nothing.

Then you write. Writing will produce more ideas, which will help you write, which will produce more ideas, and so on. Writing, like all art, is a combination of ideas and effort. You can’t just wait for ideas to show up, and you can’t just wait for a novel to write itself.

So I wrote a novel. Like most novelists, I only had a vague idea of what to do next. First, you have to find a literary agent. Then, the agent finds a publisher. Then, something. The process is crystal clear. I wrote a query letter, which is essentially how authors pitch their books to agents. You pitch the book to a multitude of agents, and if one of them finds it interesting, they’ll contact you and offer to represent you. (By the way, if any literary agents are reading this, they should feel free to contact me.)

In the past couple of months, I’ve sent out about 45 emails and 6 letters. I’ve gotten a couple dozen rejections, which I expected. I don’t mind the rejection, because I know how to deal with rejection. It’s the same way I deal with acceptance: action. Action is my greatest ally, largely because inaction has been my greatest adversary for more than a decade.

I hate the waiting. Most agents take at least 6 weeks to respond to a query, for better or worse. I keep thinking of a line from FLCL, my second favorite anime: “Each day we spend here is like an entire lifetime of dying slowly.” It’s a bit melodramatic, but I like it. I can’t shut off my brain while I wait I wait for responses, so ideas keep coming. Some of the ideas are good, of course. I write them down.

But some of my ideas are actually horrifying questions that sneaked up on me. What if the book is terrible? Am I pitching it correctly? Is there an audience for it? What if the ideas aren’t compelling enough? Has it been done before? Will it stand out from the thousands of books that don’t get published?

Then the worst question of all: What if it doesn’t matter? What if there’s nothing I can do to succeed?

I want to act! If the novel sucks, I’ll write a better one! I have the ideas! I’ll make the effort! I don’t know what to do!

I need this.

Of course, there’s always self-publishing. I could self-publish my novel without too much trouble. Then another question sneaks up: If the novel doesn’t interest agents, will it interest readers at large? The evidence suggests otherwise. Setting aside the notable successes of self-publishing (all four of them), I can see that amazon.com is flooded with unfinished and uninteresting novels by tens of thousands of aspiring authors. They weren’t ready for primetime, so they settled for public access.

I’m not ready to settle yet, so during my waiting period, I took action. Next month, I will be lecturing about cryptography and steganography at a science fiction convention in Provo, Utah. It’s called Life, the Universe, and Everything (www.ltue.net). I’m not sure what specifically I’ll be doing, because I’m still waiting for an email response. Sigh.

Anyway, sharing ideas is the central reason I became a writer, and sharing mathematical ideas still counts. I’m looking forward to teaching this material, and hopefully I’ll encounter a lot of people who share my interests. I’ll probably meet some agents and other writers face-to-face, which will be a valuable experience.

As I wait, I’m worrying about the winter weather, the car trip, the expenses, and a million other concerns. If it all falls through, I can at least play 52 Pickup (actually, 100 Pickup) with the business cards I ordered. In the meantime, I’ve been checking my email far too often. Any response is better than nothing, right?

I also wanted to share a coping mechanism with the other agnostic waiters of the world. It doesn’t matter if anyone hears them; the value comes from saying them.

Steven’s Three Agnostic Prayers:

1. I don’t understand.
2. I can’t control everything.
3. I’m not sure what I should do.

A Veterinary Discourse or: Shoving Your Hand Up the Horse’s Ass

When I was but a lad of about 6, I had a meager dream: I was going to be a veterinarian. I came to the decision after very little thought. Basically, I liked animals, so why not be around them constantly? I guess I imagined that I would be swarmed by puppies and kittens with cute ailments that I could immediately fix. Either that or they would look sad and sweet in neck cones, doggy splints, or little casts with pawprint signatures for a few days. It would be awesome!

I shared this dream with my friends and family. (My auxiliary dream was to be a music teacher, because the one we had was a babe. Ah, Heather…) Oddly enough, my friends were quite enthusiastic. In fact, a great number of them shared my dream. As it turned out, other kids liked animals, and they also wanted to be around them constantly. My elementary school was going to produce a cadre of veterinarians in just a few short years.

My family was more realistic. My mother sort of smiled shook her head, refusing to take it seriously without being too discouraging. Dad took a more blunt position. “Veterinarians have a gross job. They have to do surgery on horses and deliver baby cows, things like that. That’s why a lot of them just have dog and cat clinics. You know, for house pets.”

I had two responses to this. First, I was going to have to have a dog and cat clinic, and second, I would never do anything horse-related. In fact, I’ve always hated horses, and I refuse to work with them to this day. They would only hold me back.

Anyway, my veterinary dream persisted. I would think about it on and off when I wasn’t reading books. When I was 8, we finally got a dog. Mazie was awesome most of the time, even if she had some rather annoying (and intelligent) behaviors. For instance, she knew how to steal the TV remote so we could only change the channel if we chased her to get it back. Whenever we played fetch, she would bring the ball back once, and when I threw it again, she’d give me a look that said, “hey, I got it last time.”

Besides intelligence, her other significant trait was sickliness. She had allergies, joint problems, hepatitis, and a thyroid condition. It got to be pretty gross and complicated. I was also the family member charged with scooping her poop, so I got to appreciate that aspect. Our current dog Jetta has several health problems, though not as many as Mazie did. Yet. Fortunately, I don’t have to scoop her poop.

In a roundabout way, I’m saying that animals are actually kind of gross. Dealing with grossness is a veterinarian’s bread and butter. At some point, you might have to reach deep within a horse’s ass and pull out a tumor or blockage or something. It’s all part of the job.

Looking back, I could have been a veterinarian. I would have needed a lot more biology and chemistry (so I could get all those awesome veterinary drugs), some animal anatomy (animanatomy?) and a practical experience or internship before I could open that dog and cat clinic I mentioned. But I’m not going to do that. No, no, no, I have claimed many times that I am going to be a writer. So what does veterinary science have to do with anything?

Well, being a writer is a common desire. In some ways, it’s the college student’s version of the veterinarian dream: easy to picture, simple in concept, far more difficult in reality. College students spend a ton of time writing, after all. They write essays, term papers, exams, and the occasional break-up text. It’s second nature to assume that they could do the exact same thing and make money doing it. And once you graduate, you can write whatever you want, instead those group presentations and apology emails.

A college graduate’s usual approach is THE NOVEL. There are a number of genres and a wild variety of ways to approach them. If you write one that’s really good (and why wouldn’t you?), then you just have to send it off somewhere and get MAD MONEY for it. Be the next Harry Potter! Or Twilight! Or Fifty Shades of Grey! Or Orange Is the New Black! If you aren’t able to write a novel, you can work your way up to it with short stories or novellas, send them off somewhere, and get slightly less MAD MONEY for them.

In fact, writing a successful novel is such a common aspiration that hundreds of thousands of people spend the month of November trying to do it. National Novel Writing Month is an incredibly popular affair in which a vast number of people try to finish a novel of at least 50,000 words. After all, that volume of text is easy for most people to produce if they just type a whole bunch. If you don’t have any original ideas, just jump on the current bandwagon. No problem.

And when you’re finished … your book isn’t very good. Hm. Well, that’s okay. At least you showed yourself that you could do it, right? I mean, you just typed out 50,000 words, and that counts for something. Worrying about the quality or editing as you went would have slowed you way down, and you’d never have finished by December. Hell, you might never have finished. It’s better that you just crossed your fingers and went for it.

Except you didn’t go for it at all. You typed up a ton of sucky words that you’re going to toss in a drawer and never examine. How is that better than crawling through something, thinking and improving it as you go? It isn’t. It’s just a fantasy, like playing with puppies and pretending you’re healing them.

The reality of writing is more akin to pulling the tumor out of that horse’s ass. It’s going to take some time and effort, and you’re going to get dirty. You might even get kicked. If you like, you can just marvel at the horse’s ass and contemplate its innards. Perhaps you poke a finger in to examine, but the tumor is much farther up there. You’re going to have to ask yourself, “Do I really want to do it? And just how much?” If you still want to get it, you’re going to have to have to grit your teeth and shove your arm in right up to the shoulder. You have to grab that tumor and yank as hard as you can.

Now that I’ve overextended that metaphor, I’ll start talking about myself again. I realized that I have to focus my attention and redirect it into a single project. Trying to do a multitude of exciting things at once is a bad idea. In short, I have decided that my first project (ahead of the graphic novel and the animated series and the animated short and the dozens of other ideas in my head) is going to be a novel. A novel? There are millions of them. And here I just talked about how everyone tries to be a novelist! My hypocrisy knows no bounds.

On the other hand, I don’t want to do it because it’s popular or seems like a neat idea. I have my own reasons, and chief among them is getting noticed. I am going to have something I can point to and say “Hey, I wrote this book. Help me draw the next one.” At least, that’s the plan. I am going to reach within the horse’s ass of my mind and pull out the shiniest damned tumor I can find, even if I have to really root around for it. Then I’m going to polish it to a mirror shine, and the glint of that tumor will attract agents and publishers from all around.

Put more literally, I’m not going to give up. I’m not going to stop until the novel is good, and it will be good. I’m going to keep typing and more importantly, I’m going to keep thinking. But I have to acknowledge the difficulty. No matter how much I hate horses, I have to do what’s necessary.

So I’ll wear some gloves.

The Hardest Words to Write

Embarking on a creative career is risky for several reasons. The barriers to success are many and the advantages are few. For instance, you get to set your own schedule, but there is no guarantee that you aren’t wasting your time. Even if you do create something good, you have to draw attention to it. If it gets attention, you still have to turn that into further opportunities and (hopefully) money. Just attempting to be a creative writer requires a great deal of creativity. Ostensibly, being a writer is simple; you become one as soon as you write. What makes a good writer different from every other literate person with a keyboard?

Success as a writer is completely based on one thing: People have to read your work. It’s entirely possible that the most talented writers in the world have never had their work read by another soul. If that’s true, they certainly aren’t successful, and not just because they aren’t making money at it. A good writer has to involve other people, because improvement requires feedback. Every reader and every bit of honest feedback is helpful. In other words, the proof of the writing is in the reading.

So what are the hardest words to write? They always start the same way: “Will you read … ?”

I can almost hear you groaning from here. After all, I just asked you to do something potentially boring and you might have to admit it. I get roughly the same response from everyone: “Yes, but not right now.” It’s nice and diplomatic, but deceptively negative. Much like getting “Ask Again Later” on a Magic 8-Ball, it doesn’t help very much.

Am I imposing? Absolutely. I know you’re busy, and when I ask you to read something, I’m requesting your undivided attention. Ew. Reading is a homework assignment! It’s horrible! You’ll procrastinate, I’ll pester you, and we’ll both have to figure out how to share it online. How can a friendship survive a sudden, obnoxious jolt into a teacher/student relationship?

Then, after you read it (or just skim it), I’ll want feedback. Chances are good my work was unpolished or stupid. I may have completely wasted your time. But time is ticking, and you have to say something! A positive response is the safest approach. It’s a compliment, right? After all, what could be worse than negative feedback? Easy. Dishonest feedback, or worse, no feedback at all.

And that’s the problem. What I’m really asking is for you to be my friend by being a total asshole. You aren’t criticizing ME, you aren’t dismissing ME. You are reacting to my writing, and as long as you’re doing that, I’ll be just fine. Only hold back if your suggestion is that I stop writing altogether and cut off my hands for the good of humanity. At that point, it stops being constructive.

Once you’re done, I will put your feedback in my brain for thoughtful consideration. Most of the time, I will change something. Sometimes I won’t, and sometimes I will consider what you suggested and deliberately not do it. Who’s the asshole now, right? However, my reaction to criticism is never “Screw you! I like it!” or “You just didn’t get it!” I know better. When someone criticizes your beliefs, it doesn’t usually change them, but it almost always reminds you why you have them. Sometimes it will reinforce them. Other times, it will nudge you ever so slightly toward a new viewpoint.

Now that I’ve said all that, I will say this: It really is okay if you don’t want to read my writing. There are plenty of reasons to say no. I won’t hold it against you, but be honest about it. Don’t try to shut me up by saying you’ll read it eventually, because I’m persistent enough to ask again and again.

I have been on both ends of this exchange, so this is as much an admission as an admonishment. I have this dilemma any time I’m asked to proofread something. If you want me to read your work, I will. I’m a copy editor; I don’t pull punches and I don’t guarantee niceness. On the other hand, I know there are two kinds of writers: the ones who want honest feedback, and the ones who only want to hear nice things. It’s the difference between improvement and encouragement, but why encourage someone who doesn’t want to improve? Art is risk. I can’t tell you what will happen if you share your work with the world, but I can tell you what will happen if you don’t: absolutely nothing.

When someone asks you to read something, take a second and think about all of the things you read today, at home, at work, on your phone, on the internet, on TV. You probably spent a lot of time reading. Was any of it important? Did you always know what to expect? Did you enjoy it? If not, you might as well try reading something completely new.

And what else did you read today? You read this, and that was nice of you. If you have nice things to say, I’ll appreciate them. I’ll appreciate the mean things just as much.

Jumping Off of the Face of the Earth

I did a strange thing this week. I dropped out of graduate school before I even stepped in. I washed out before I even got dirty.

Ever since 2006, when I began attending the University of Nebraska, I have been studying math in some fashion or another. In 2011, I finally completed a bachelor’s degree. Since then, I have been taking online classes from Coursera. In 2013, I applied and got into a Ph.D. program in computer science and mathematics. The progression was perfectly natural.

Here’s the problem: I never knew what I wanted to do. I had a lot of talent, and I put a significant amount of work into my degree, but I never had more than a few passing interests. Some were particularly compelling, like steganography, but I didn’t want to do all the extra work in other areas before I could work on what really interested me. Basically, I was going to spend the next two years doing a lot of nothing on the off chance I would get to do something later.

There was a lot involved here, and I was perfectly willing to do what I needed to. I was going to commute from Lawrence to Kansas City, paying for gasoline, tolls, parking, and (naturally) tuition. I would spend 4 nights a week in class, and a significant amount of time doing homework during the day.

Now I’m not going to do any of it, and I’m tremendously relieved. Instead, I am going to abandon the world of academia to pursue a career as a writer. I know that sounds like the life plan of someone who really wants to fail.

The truly wise say you can never become a writer if you don’t write anything, so my goal from here on out is to continue writing. I will also continue tutoring math to pay the bills and such.

I have a bunch of ideas to work on, but I am going to be bold and work on the ones I care most about, even though they might be difficult to carry through. I am confident, and somewhat optimistic. If I can get other people interested, I can make things work. Unfortunately, things won’t work unless I make them work. That’s the cynical part.

Anyway, I will continue to post random updates, but now they’ll be less about graduate school and more about figuring stuff out. And maybe I’ll be a little more excited about it.