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On Reading An Unpublished Novel I Finished 15 Years Ago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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Too Many Choices: The Decision to Self Publish, Part Two

Okay, I’ve been ill, and that’s part of it, sleeping for 12 or 16 hours on one day when I’m used to about 7, then, because of the illness, abstaining from any kind of chemical-amusement-aid-liquid-refreshment so ubiquitous (for me anyway) during the holiday season, that’s the other part of it, but the main reason I couldn’t sleep last night is because I was obsessing about the impending consequences of my last blog post, you know, the one in which I gave myself a merry Christmas present of self-publishing a novel. Don’t get me wrong.  I appreciate the gift and I have no intention of returning it.  Here’s the rub.  Having made the decision, even after doing lots of preliminary research on the question, the thing that I realize now, as I am trying to choose my particular path toward self-publication, is that there are too many damn choices.

I thought this blog post might be about the process of weeding through these choices.  It might be helpful for you, if you’re in the same boat or know someone who is in the same boat, but it might also help me come to a conclusion, which, in the end, might be the very best thing about blogging: the writer thinks his or her thoughts in front of an audience, tries to do a good job, and maybe, just maybe, he or she learns something.

This is the first question that must be answered in the search for the right self-publication service: What do I want?  What do I want? In part, I’ve already answered this question.  I simply want a book I can share with other humans.  But it becomes slightly more complicated than that. I want a book that is available electronically in the usual, most popular outlets. And I want a printed artifact that I can hold and smell and read and sell to people.  Oh, if it were only that simple.  Then, the investment would be minimal, affordable for almost anyone with either a few bucks in the bank, a nice spare bicycle in the garage to sell, or a decent credit rating. I have all of those things. And it’s easy to find a reputable company that will do the electronic thing and the old-fashioned analog thing in pretty short order.

The devil is in the details.  I start reading the menu items, the veritable smorgasbord of add-ons and services that the one company has that the other company doesn’t, that the other company has that the one company doesn’t, the ones that neither of these companies has that this one company over here offers, and I start thinking to myself, yeah, that would be good, but this would be nice, and these guys do this, but these folks do that, and I like the way their website works, or the add copy is friendly or funny, and then I start to go a little bit crazy. If I were not still recovering from my illness I’d be drinking.

Here’s a big list of important questions, as self publishers, we need to answer:

Do we want an ebook?  Do we want a printed book? Do we want paperback or hardback or both? How many copies do we want on hand? Do we need to have copies of the book at the same time our ebook is available? Do we want a nice cover? Do we want a nicer cover? How many times is a particular company going to allow us to say, we don’t like that cover, let us see another one, before they ask us for more money? Are we okay designing our own cover using templates for dummies? Will the print version of our book have distribution on Amazon or Barnes and Noble or at some other on-line retailer?  Do we want an ISBN number? (The answer to that should be yes). Do we want editorial feedback? Are we willing to accept editorial feedback? Do we need someone to edit our work? (I found this accidental malapropism in the novel I am considering for this project: “She had already passed mustard with Officer Babbit.” I laughed so hard I was in tears but then I was crying too at the thought that I might miss such an error after having already published the novel). How would we feel if we paid for editorial services and they missed an error like that one? Would we like our book to be considered for a prize or an honor of distinction? Would we like help with promotion?  How much?  And finally, what kind of bank are we willing to spend? My research tells me that we can publish our babies for free!  Or  we can spend as much as 6 or 7 grand.  I bet we could spend more than that, too, if we wanted, or, if we had some money burning holes in our pockets.  That’s not true of very many of my writer friends.  Or my teacher friends.  None of my friends have that kind of money.  Do you begin to get the picture? We need new professions or richer friends.  No, what we need, what I need, perhaps, are fewer choices.

This is the part in the blog where I draw some conclusion.  I have no idea what I’m going to say next. Let’s start with the last sentence of the previous paragraph.  Do I want fewer choices, really? No, but I would like to be able to distinguish those choices that are most crucial to my work and the goals I have for my work.  I don’t want to be seduced (and I think I’m very much in danger of that) into thinking that the more I spend the more successful my book will be.  I think that’s bullshit; it leads to nothing but wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth and spending of money.  The fact is, I believe, that people want to read good writing.  And if our writing is good–and it doesn’t have to be perfect–but if it is as good as we can make it, and we do what we can to share it, as Adam Dickson very thoughtfully commented on the last entry, with faith in our work, approaching our options with integrity, we will be successful.  Thank you, Adam, for that.

I’d like my next blog entry to be titled, Keep It Simple, Stupid: Don’t Spend A Bunch of Money.  We’ll see.

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Merry Christmas To Me: The Decision To Self Publish

I gave myself an early Christmas present. After years of agonizing over the issue, I have decided to do what I have always dreamed about doing, to become a published writer, to make books, to be read, to hold the thing in my hand, a language event between two covers, a physical manifestation in the world of my brain, suitable for sharing (of course, because not everything in my brain is suitable for sharing), and to do all of these things on my own terms, to self publish.

How did I arrive at this decision?  I emerged from an MFA Creative Writing program at the age of 32, way more than a decade ago, with a book in my pocket.  I had finished my first novel–a huge accomplishment, I felt, and it was a work for which I was immensely proud. And I was confident, I thought, that through my experience in this widely respected program, I had developed enough critical acumen not to delude myself about my novel’s worth or my skills as a fiction writer.  I was on fire.

Agent after agent after agent after agent after agent (you get the picture) read my novel in full and had really glowing, often specific things to say about how great my novel was–but at this time, they would say, for this and that and the other reason, we don’t feel that we would be the right agency for this book.  Somebody else, they would inevitably say, will feel differently.  And then agent after agent after agent after agent would say almost the exact same stuff.  With that novel, I had lots of positive feedback but no takers–and I even had what I would identify as two incredibly close calls–agents who would go so far as to request revisions and even talk to me on the phone–but even these close calls, even though they felt so much different and more hopeful than my other exchanges, resulted in the same outcome. I’m a busy guy.  I had work to do.  A limited amount of time to dedicate myself to further researching agents and writing letters and sending emails and making copies and running to the flipping post-office and waiting and waiting and waiting.  I figured at this rate I might get a book published by the time I was 60.  I gave up.

I wrote another novel.  It took me almost ten years, off and on, to finish it, but it felt good to be chipping away at a new thing, to be doing the thing I really wanted to do, that is, write, instead of floundering around in the cesspool of the agent search for a novel that was already a decade old.  And then, again, I found myself in the same situation.  Time to find an agent.  I tried a few of the agents who were most positive about my previous novel.  And again, I received specific, positive, sometimes glowing comments about my book with a big BUT at the end.  I decided to stop torturing myself.

You know, I just (mostly) want to share my writing with humans.  If I could make a living, or supplement my living as a teacher, with my writing, that would be fan-flipping-tastic.  But ultimately, it’s not about a big advance or book tours or a spot on Oprah’s list.  I just want to be able to say to a friend who might be interested in my creative work, yeah, here’s a thing I made and I’d be honored if you would read it.  Or, when speaking to strangers or new acquaintances who ask me what I do, I can say, of course, I’m a teacher, and a musician, and a father, but I can also say, hey, I’m a writer, and I’ve got a book or two and you can buy these things and take them home or put them on your kindle or your iPad.  There you go.

There has been, until recently I think, a kind of hairy eyeball directed at self-publishing by the literary community.  Somehow, putting yourself out there is vain, and your stuff, because it hasn’t been vetted by the literary machine in some way, is probably not very good.  But technology, the internet, has transformed that belief, I think, and given the conventional path to publishing quality work a run for its money. And technology notwithstanding, there’s an impressive historical tradition of great writers self-publishing: Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman off the top of my head.  So I’d be in pretty good company.  And, duh, haven’t musicians been doing this all along, since forever ago?  Haven’t I, as a musician, been doing this all along, since forever ago? Yes and yes.

So my Christmas present to myself is the permission to fulfill this dream, agents and publishing houses be damned, and my new year’s resolution is to publish a novel.  I’m tired of the agony part of being a writer.  After the pleasure but sometimes excruciatingly hard work of writing two novels over a 20 year period, I think its time to share a little bit of that with the world.

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