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On Reading An Unpublished Novel I Finished 15 Years Ago

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The novel has been sitting in a box, both a real box on my desk and a virtual box on my hard drive. I miss it. I finished it some fifteen years ago, having labored over it throughout the preceding five or six years. I have fond memories of its composition and of the way I felt about its success on the page, bolstered by lots of voices from the past of folks who had read it, had good things to say about it, and encouraged me to get it out into the world. And finally, I feel a kind of sadness about the loss into obscurity of its subject matter, a subject matter I haven’t written about since then, but nevertheless a subject matter of monumental importance to my inner life and personality.

Why has it been so long inside the box? Well, the agent search yielded over and over again the kind of response that most good writers are quite used to seeing: “This is good; you’re a fine writer; here’s a list of laudatory adjectives to describe what we thought of your work; but it is not the right thing for us at this time. Some other agency will feel differently. Good luck to you!”  That’s not a bad kind of note to get. But it went on and on.  Until I had agents who wanted to take it on–for a fee. Or until I had agents who wanted to take it on, but  couldn’t tell me a damn single specific thing about why they loved it and thought they could sell it. Or until, (and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back), an agent loved it and asked for a series of quite lengthy and difficult revisions before she felt she could take it on. I complied. I complied because I thought the feedback was sound and the revisions would make a better novel. And I complied because I believed (don’t ask me why), that an agent asking for a revision would not do so unless they meant to take on the work.  Well, I was wrong about that. Ultimately, this particular agent passed on the novel. By now, I was shell-shocked. By then, I had been working on a new book. I shelved my little book about an epidemic of spontaneous human combustion (not really its true subject matter) and started in earnest on a new idea. 10 years later, still smarting from the agent search for the first novel, I skipped that trauma altogether and decided to self publish through iUniverse. Thus, the second novel I ever wrote, Monster Talkbecame my first published book. Then, I was on to the next idea, the idea that I am just now wrapping up, while my first novel continues to sit in its literal and virtual boxes.

Over the last several days I have liberated this work from its box on the desk and reread my first novel. What a strange experience. It’s probably been at least 13 years since I last read it from “cover to cover.” Some of it I didn’t remember writing, and as I was reading I was not sure where the novel would take me in the pages to come. That was a pleasant surprise, but odd, like looking at photographs of yourself doing things or being places that have totally fallen out of memory. Initially, I was afraid I wouldn’t like it, that it would seem green to me and unaccomplished, structurally incoherent. After all, I was 35 or 36 years old when I finished it, just a baby, and fresh out of writer’s school. But as I read, ultimately and happily I thought to myself, hey, this is pretty good. And it occurred to me, too, that its strangeness was in part because of the fact that the writer of this work was a different guy. We’ve already established that he was younger, yes, but there were other things that struck me about him. He was brave and brash. He was writing about things honestly that this older version of him would have difficulty articulating. His book was kind of dirty–but in the best possible way. Erotic might be a better word than dirty, but that would depend on the reader. But he was funny, too, and his sex scenes were funny. He could really write a beautiful sentence. And he captured, far better than I could capture now, 1980’s and 1990’s suburban life. Reading now the fictional work of a man who was alive then and living through it, the details are convincing and immediate. The internet was brand new in the 90’s and slow, non-existent in the 80’s. Email was just becoming a thing in the mid to late 90’s. People were still renting films from video stores. There were very few cell phones. Teachers were writing on chalkboards. Young people, when they wanted to go some place, walked to their destination. In this way, the novel felt like a kind of time capsule to me, and this writer captured what it was like to be a teenager in the 80’s, part of the true subject matter of the book, something I might have difficulty writing about now given that I am surrounded nine months out of the year by 21st century teens, whose lives, I suspect, are very different from their counterparts of 30-some years ago, but, who knows, might be in more danger of spontaneous human combustion then their predecessors!

So happily, I find suddenly and again that I have another work that is perhaps worthy of publication and I am psyched to try once again to find a good home for it. And to other writers who have older works languishing in drawers, boxes, and hard drives, I say, get those suckers out and reread. At the very least you’ll be surprised and you’ll learn some stuff about your past selves. And if you like what you find there, that work may just have another life to live.  Set that baby free.

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Combustion Deconstruction: Some Musings on the Fate of a First Novel

I started writing my first novel when I was, perhaps, 28 years old, I finished it coming out of an MFA program when I was 32, revised it when I was 35, began a long, demoralizing, tedious, and ultimately unsuccessful agent search, and then, when I was 40, I put the novel in the proverbial drawer where it sits today. I’m 48 years old.

Even before my first novel went officially into that drawer, I had begun my second novel and chipped away at that, slowly, over about a decade. That novel finished, I felt like there was no way I would have the energy to do with it what I had tried to do with the first, so I made the decision to go the unconventional route (which has actually become pretty conventional) and I self-published my novel, Monster Talk, with iUniverse.

I keep peeking at that first novel where it rests inside the drawer. Actually, it’s not in a drawer. It’s in a box on my desk labeled Combustion. That was the title I gave the novel, named after the book’s central premise, that at the turn of the 21st century, the planet’s population finds itself living through an epidemic of spontaneous human combustion. That was the idea that started the ball rolling. It’s a comic novel and the germ that spawned this particular premise was indeed the great comic faux documentary called Spinal Tap. Before I knew what I was doing, the initial question was about extending the phenomena of SHC beyond the deaths of a few unfortunate heavy metal drummers to a world-wide epidemic—somewhat akin to the current Zombie apocalypse fad, perhaps. Spontaneous Human Combustion, while it literally happens over and over again throughout the plot of this thing, works as a sweet and quirky little metaphor representing a whole host of modern problems. But actually, at the heart, at the core—the novel is really about sex.

So, again, I keep peeking at this box with my first novel buried inside. I’m proud of the book. I think it deserves a life; it deserves to be read—but I’m conflicted. It’s hard to reread, not because I don’t like it, but because it’s almost twenty years old! And partly because, (this is sad) I have become in my middle aged years less of a dare-devil than I was at 35, even conservative in some ways (although not politically), and while a certain amount of mellowing is probably a good thing, in the world of writing fiction I think it’s potentially terrible. I want to be able to read those naughty bits in public. I want to be fearless like I was when I was 35—because, I think, while the Spontaneous Human Combustion element is clever, fun, effectively rendered, the sex, and the main character’s hang up and obsession with sex, is the most strikingly accomplished thing about this novel—if I’m allowed to use the word “accomplished” to describe my own writing.

Ultimately, I’m in a quandary about what to do with this baby. It’s difficult to let it go. It’s difficult to say, “This thing here that I poured my heart and soul into over the better part of a decade, this thing I’m seriously pleased with despite the fact that it was written by a different Michael Jarmer, I’m just going to let it sit in a box.” And it’s also maddening to think about picking up that whole agent search thing anew. I’ve thought of a few things, a few possibilities, and I’ll run through them here, for my own edification, sure, but also as a list of potential opportunities for other writers still in the same boat with first novels in boxes, and maybe too, to give readers of this blog an opportunity to weigh in. I could:

1. Look for a small press to publish the novel. This is an avenue I did not fully explore when I was trying to place the book with an agent. I think small presses are likely publishing the best writing out there and are perhaps less constrained by market influences, more interested in art.
2. Self-publish, again. Whether I chose to go with iUniverse for the second time or some other vender, bookbaby or lulu.com for example, my first experience was mostly a positive one, and, with a minimal investment, I can accomplish the most personally pressing goal—to make the work available for those who want to read; it would be no longer sitting in a drawer or a box.
3. Revise, drop the artifice of the SHC hook, use the sexy material to draft a completely new animal. This sounds painful but potentially interesting and rewarding. This might be fodder for another blog later—but what is this impulse to create a hook, no matter how clever, no matter how successfully executed, as a vehicle for the real material of the novel? This, I think, is a central impulse of mine as a fiction writer, one that perhaps might be worthy of scrutiny.
4. Go all post-modern and write a piece of non-fiction about writing a first novel, the text of which would include the complete first novel, with commentary along the way about the process, non-fiction narrative connecting real life to plot devices and characters, and self critique. There’s a genre buster for you. What kind of book would that be? A weird one: Combustion Deconstructed.

So, there you have it. I’ve fleshed out the dilemma around what to do about the first novel in a box. It’s one of those things about which I feel a decision must be made. Writers with similar experiences, please chime in. Readers of the fiction and the bloggery of this particular writer, chime in. I’m interested in hearing your stories, your opinions, your thoughts, and/or your questions.

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Monster Talk: Of a Race of Devils

Wherein Michael Jarmer reads an entire chapter from his novel in one take with only two negligible errors; wherein the author taxes the attention span and patience of his readers/watchers/listeners with a 12 minute video blog; wherein he learns never to do that again; wherein Michael Jarmer uses the natural lighting to freaky advantage; and wherein, finally, he gets his hair to look right.

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Monster Talk Prologue: Of the Children of Monsters

Wherein Michael Jarmer reads the two epigraphs and the prologue from his novel, Monster Talk; wherein he struggles with the natural lighting, producing an unintentional but potentially appropriate ghostliness; wherein he informs us once again where one could procure a copy of his wonderful new novel; after which, he wonders whether or not video readings are distracting, whether or not it would be more effective if performances like these were audio only, hopes that readers, listeners, and viewers of his blog might weigh in on the issue. 

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More Reasons Why You Will Love My Novel: Adventures in Self-Publishing and Self-Promotion Part Two

Let’s recap, why don’t we. I do not have a history of being a very capable or enthusiastic self-promoter. I have difficulty asking people, cajoling people, insisting that people come to see my band play a show, for example, or buy our records.  It’s not that I don’t think we’re worthy of their patronage, but that I feel somehow like I’m imposing on people. It’s awkward.  It’s immodest.  It’s uncomfortable telling people how great you are.  But now I am turning over a new leaf. I am so pleased to be publishing a novel and feel perhaps more confident in myself as a fiction writer than I do in myself as a musician, I hereby vow to shout my barbaric yawp across the rooftops of the world, to impose a little, to tell people how great I am in order to get people interested in my new book, Monster Talk.

In part one of this two-part blog entry, I established three initial reasons why you, dear reader, will love my novel.  I gushed about the cover, the art, the artist who created it, the lovely picture of myself on the back and the flap, the effective, succinct, and tantalizing synopsis on the other flap, and the engaging sample on the back cover of the hardback.  Reader, you are too smart to believe that a cover makes a book good, but you are also wise enough to know that good cover art and compelling cover text are both important aspects of the successful marketing of a novel, that, in fact, we judge books by their covers all the time.  Okay.  Monster Talk has a nice cover.

I also insisted that if you love Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, you will also love this novel, as its premise comes from that beautiful and so often misrepresented English classic.  And finally, I argued that whatever your predictions or preconceptions about a novel by me about a subject like this might be, you would probably be pleasantly mistaken.  In other words, I think, dear reader, that you will be surprised.

So for what other reasons will you love my novel?

#4. You like smart children and like them as main characters in stories.  You like novels that are respectful of the wisdom, intelligence, and perspective of young people.  And you like your child-main characters to be believable.  They don’t have to have magic powers; they don’t have to be wizards in training; they don’t have to be vampires–and they don’t have to be monsters.  

#5. You may not be a huge science-fiction fan or a lover of what we call fantasy fiction, but you love stories in which the super-real crosses over or connects with the fantastic.  You might enjoy magical realism as a genre.  And why is it, exactly, that this kind of thing turns you on whereas interplanetary travel,  space aliens, dwarves, elves and schools called Hogwarts leave you feeling unsatisfied? It might be, dear reader, that you read often for a higher purpose; you distrust literature that is purely escapist.  And while you know that ALL fiction to some extent allows us to momentarily escape the confines of our daily lives, you have an expectation that the fiction you read reflects or illuminates some aspect of reality, some issue that is relevant, something that you recognize and can identify with.  And you know that real life is often fantastic–the journey you’re taking in this life on this planet is often remarkable in the way that even a fire-breathing dragon can’t equal.  So you’re totally down with the metaphoric power of magical, unnatural, supernatural elements in an otherwise realistic piece of fiction .  Monster Talk is a realistic novel with a fantastic premise–and you’ll love that.

#6. You love serious fiction that makes you laugh.

#7. And finally, you love the fact that you are supporting an independent publishing venture.  You understand that small press and independent publishing is often where our literature is richest, and you value the democratizing effect that new technology has made possible in the world of the word. So, for all these reasons, you will love my novel.  Thank you, in advance, for your support.

And here are some quick links to on-line retail channels:

http://www.amazon.com/Monster-Talk-Michael-Jarmer/dp/1475915950/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1338234633&sr=1-1

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/monster-talk-michael-jarmer/1110919984?ean=9781475915969

http://bookstore.iuniverse.com/Products/SKU-000540199/Monster-Talk.aspx

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Why You Will Love My Novel: Adventures in Self-Publishing and Self-Promotion

I’m telling the truth.  Yes, I will indeed tell you why you’ll love my novel, Monster Talk, available to the on-line book buying public very shortly, a week or two, perhaps, after the publication of this blog entry, and available immediately, like right this minute, at the iUniverse bookstore. But I want to begin by talking about self-publication and the unavoidable weirdness that follows, that of self-promotion.

So, if you’ve been following the blog you already know this, but if you’re just popping in for the first time, I’ll give you a short recap.  I’m publishing my second novel first through iUniverse because I don’t have the time on the planet to exhaust like I did on my first novel–trying to find an agent who will then try to find a publisher who will then make me do what I have to do anyway as a self-publisher:  promote my own thing.  I just re-read that last sentence, the part about not having time on the planet.  I don’t want you to misunderstand: I’m not dying–any more or less than anyone else who is about my age and health.  It’s just that I found that publishing through the conventional means might take me the rest of my life.  I have dismissed the illegitimacy issue.  I have looked at my work and decided it is good.  It is worthy of readers. I have embraced the brave new world of do-it-yourself-with-the-help-of-a-company-that-provides-everything-your-book-could-possibly-need-plus-the-means-to-get-it-into-the-marketplace technology. I have decided that, in the end, there is nothing different about publishing your own novel than producing and selling your own music recording, which is what musicians have been doing from time immemorial. That was the process and those are the subsequent conclusions.  Now, having fulfilled my new year’s resolution in just 5 short months, as of today I have a book out that people can hold and read or use as a coaster, paper-weight, door-stop.  It’s so good, though, I’m pretty certain people who buy it will be reading it.  You, especially, will love it and will want to share it with others.  More on this later.

So now I have to promote.  Promoting your own work, promoting yourself, trying to make your thing desirable to others, creating a kind of personal brand, is a strange, awkward, uncomfortable business.  On the surface, it’s really no different from writing an entrance exam or an essay, written or spoken, for a job opening.  You are a product, a product that has a variety of positive characteristics that someone else will want to take advantage of in exchange for some monetary or material reward.  As strange as that sounds, it’s pretty normal.   In the case of a work of art or a piece of music or a novel, there are some distinct differences.  I am not my novel.  My novel is not me.  It is an  artifact  that came from me, a collection of many moments moving through me over time.  You would think that would make it easier!  But alas, not all of us are adept at separating the art from the artist, and our babies are kind of like babies.  If someone hates our baby, we feel hated by proxy.  And that’s scary.  But despite that, if we want anything like success for our creative endeavors, we’ve got to get out there and shout our barbaric yawps over the rooftops of the world, saying, in essence, this thing I made is awesome and you need it and will love it and please give me money for my thing.

This thing I made, a novel called Monster Talk, is awesome and you need it and will love it and please give me money for my thing.  There, that wasn’t so hard.  Let’s see if I can keep this up for a while.

Why You Will Love My Novel:  

#1.  Look at this cover.  Lovingly created by my friend Curtis Settino, it is a quirky, inventive, and fitting illustration.

The novel’s main character is not someone who has a heart-shaped head–but the heart-shaped head captures an element that might be something else, beyond the cover, that you’ll love about my book.  More on that later, perhaps.  I want to talk more about this cover.  There are other things about the cover that you’ll also love, I think.  There’s a handsome picture of me on there.  You’ll love that, I’m sure.  I’m no beauty queen, but I’m no slouch either.  You’ll also love the text on the cover.  There’s a short little author biography, which you’ll love; there’s an excerpt on the back cover from the second chapter which, while setting up nicely the premise for the novel, thereby creating interest for you, the reader, will probably also make you laugh;  and on the back of the softcover and on the inside flap of the hardback, there’s a lovely little synopsis that will pique your interest without giving anything away.  I think you’ll really love this cover, and while they say you should never judge a book by its cover, all of us do anyway, and if you judge my book initially by its cover, you’ll probably end up wanting to read the thing and in the end you will end up loving it.

#2.  You will love the fact that my novel was inspired by another novel you love.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is about the best, most underrated, most under appreciated, most misunderstood because of a history of cultural misrepresentation, most influential novel of 19th century English literature. And if you’re not down with the preceding, Monster Talk will help you get down with the preceding. You will love that.  If you are already down with the above, you’ll love it even more, because Monster Talk honors but doesn’t copy its predecessor. Except where it copies it.  A little bit.  You’ll love all of that.

#3.  There are so many things you’ll love about my novel, I could go on and on, but I’m going to try to stop at my usual 1000 word or so blog entry limit.  So let me just share one more thing you’ll love about my novel:  Whatever predictions you may have about a novel by Michael Jarmer inspired by the great gothic genius of Mary Shelley will likely be wrong.  And you’ll love that.  You are a beautiful and intelligent reader and you like surprises.  That’s all I have to say on the matter at this time.  Onward.  Yawp.  Please go to the following link:

http://bookstore.iuniverse.com/Products/SKU-000540201/Monster-Talk.aspx

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Second Things First: Publishing My Debut Novel

It’s happening.  I have set the wheels in motion.  I have submitted a final manuscript.  I have written the bio and the blurbs for the back cover and the inside flaps.  I have submitted an author photo.  I have enlisted an artist friend to design a cover.  I have let my baby go.  It’s happening.

It will be my first published novel but not the first novel I’ve written. I suppose, it could have happened in the exact same way, if I had gone the traditional route of agent and publishing house, that, querying two works simultaneously, the second novel might have found a home before the first; so I imagine that there’s really nothing strange about this at all.  But somehow it feels strange all the same, as if I’ve sent the one baby off to school and abandoned the other one on someone’s doorstep.  There’s a little bit of guilt about that.

Here’s the deal.  If you’re a person, like me, juggling a bunch of important things in the air, a marriage, a child, a teaching career, a vocation as a musician, and fiction writing, and you’re trying not to drop any of these important things on the ground, it’s going to take a half a million years to write a book.  It took me a half a million years to write my second novel, so, as it turns out, my first novel was conceived and composed a full million years ago–when I was a child!  That’s not true.  I was 30 when I started and maybe 37 when I finished.  Okay, I’ll tell the truth: that was really “only” a decade ago.  Thus, the decision to self-publish came also with this choice–do I publish my first novel, or do I publish my second novel first?

No brainer, you say? Publish the best one first, you ninny. Sure, that’s all easy enough to say.  But there are problems.

I wrote my first novel in the comforting embrace and loving arms of an MFA program for writers.  I had tons of readers, willing and otherwise.  I received scads of feedback.  I revised like a fiend while I was composing based on the response, facial expressions, and nervous ticks of my peers, thoughtful and wise criticism from faculty, the ubiquitous workshop experience, and the heady influence of master classes, lectures, and readings. That first novel may be a better novel, but it was written, I sometimes feel, by about a hundred people.  That’s not true.  I wrote the damn thing, but I wrote it, the whole thing, I think, seriously under the influence of others.

My second novel has been read in its entirety by two people, only one of which gave me a critical response, meaning feedback. And the novel has been read in part  by another three or four people who also provided some critical readings, but early on in the process. So I feel, right or wrong, better or worse, that this second novel is truly mine, in the way that maybe the first novel was not.

But I might, if I read them both again back to back at a stretch, come to the conclusion after all, regardless of the argument above, that indeed  the first novel is the stronger work.  Another problem rears its head.

The guy who wrote that better book–I’m not sure that guy is me.  I’m no longer him.  Twelve years is ancient history.  I had other concerns.  I had issues.  Different ones. I was not a father.  I was wild.  I was, philosophically speaking, immature, even in my 30’s I was unsettled and squirrelly, morally emerging, and ethically in training–and, I think, my first novel embodies all of that.  Do I want to share that other guy with the world?

The answer has to be yes. Yes, but not yet.  Not yet, mostly because the decision has already been made; it’s happening, remember. I’m publishing my second novel first because I like it, and it’s fresh, and it hasn’t been workshopped, and it represents me in the mostly Now, or, it represents several moments moving through me mostly in the Now. 

But I will publish that other novel, that book that is me but not me, because, ultimately, it was a true book then, as true as fiction can be, it still resembles me in many significant ways, and may, in the way that novels can do, perhaps speak to someone now (or whenever it arrives) who is more like how I was then, or who remembers how it was to be like that, unsettled, squirrelly, morally emerging, ethically in training.

The poet William Stafford said once that there were many things in his poems that he wouldn’t stand by in life.  I like that.  It gives the work permission to exist on its own terms–and if it was good then, it will still be good now or later, and it doesn’t have to represent the author accurately to be a viable work of art.  That baby has just as much right to see the world as that other baby does, this new kid.  So, yes, that first novel will one day see the light of day, but not yet.  For now, my debut novel is all about putting second things first.

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