Tag Archives: self publishing

On Reading An Unpublished Novel I Finished 15 Years Ago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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Forced Creativity Experiences (Only the Bad and the Ugly)

In my last blog entry, I waxed lovingly about the benefits and the necessary prerequisites to submitting oneself to a Forced Creativity Experience such as the National Novel or Poetry Writing Months in November and April, respectively, and my experience in a songwriting circle that does a similar thing in the musical realm.  I subtitled that entry “the good, the bad, and the ugly” because I thought I could cover them all–but in 1000 words I could only say the positive things.  And that’s just fine–because mostly my experience with these activities has been utterly positive.  But are there pitfalls?  Might there be problems in paradise? How could there be anything negative about the experience of participating in a public or social networking activity that encourages one to be productive and creative, to be doing something that one longs to do?

Well, I experienced a few aspects, that if not downright pitfalls, were at least setbacks significant enough to give me pause.  These are feelings I had along the way that, while perhaps not absolutely “bad” or “ugly,” were essentially negative–and whether these feelings emerged from some inner self-doubt, some personal insecurity, or whether they are truly problems inherent in the experience, it’s difficult for me to say, and I’m sure the verdict has much to do with individual idiosyncrasies than anything else.  Nevertheless, let’s start.

This certainly would be a non-issue if I were participating in NaPoWriMo in total private, writing in my little composition notebook, a poem for each day that may never be seen by anyone.  But I chose to participate officially, which meant that I registered as a participant, created or used an existing website, blogsite, or social network forum to publicly share the results of my labor–not because anyone’s keeping score–but so as to join a community of persons sharing the same writing goals, people who may visit, like, and follow my progress.   So, the public nature of the thing creates some strangeness.

First off, when you are forcing yourself to create under the gun, so to speak, essentially you are publishing for the world your rough draft material–and as any writer knows, rough drafts can be shitty. And because of the forced nature of your output, perhaps, while you may produce a whole heck of a lot more writing than you normally would over the same period of time, your shittiest work might be shittier than usual, as some pieces are squeezed out of you like blood from a stone in order to come in under deadline. Again, not that anyone is keeping score, or that somehow you’ll be penalized, demoted, lose face or any of that if you don’t get a poem done each day–it’s just that some people (yours truly) take the parameters of a poem a day pretty seriously–in the same way that, despite the chagrin of my wife and songwriting partner, I take the six songs in a single day of our songwriting circle very seriously. The results can sometimes be disastrous, and that disaster is published for all comers.  I can think of some benefits of this, too, one being that if you can put your best at the moment out there(which might be your worst), you’ve moved beyond some serious writer insecurities, and that’s got to be a good practice–but I’m supposed to be talking about the bad and the ugly.

Here’s a thing:  I’ve read some pretty stellar poetry from some of my fellow NaPoWriMo participants, but I’ve noticed that none of the published poets I know and consider serious about their art, at least to my knowledge, were partaking of the festivities.  Maybe I’m wrong about that, but if I’m not, what’s that about?  Maybe the pros just don’t need the kickstart.  They’re already cooking on all burners.  Somehow I doubt that. Maybe there is something they find unsavory about publishing work which has not been satisfactorily “finished” or vetted by the usual arbiters of quality.

So, there’s the “I’m-publishing-my-shitty-rough-draft” problem, but there’s another difficulty I thought about, again only as the result of a decision to participate publicly. I experienced a kind of Stat Blip Addiction. It was not enough to get the poem written and published on my blog site; I found myself, more often than I am usually wont to do, checking my stats with a kind of annoying and obsessive regularity.  And I was egged on by more “likes” and new followers than I’ve ever received, even though I’ve had other entries (not poems) that were more widely read.  I became a little embarrassed with myself for being so needy and excited about the approval of my “readership.”

And then, perhaps what’s worse, I found myself at times looking into who some of these people were–which I think is what bloggers are supposed to do anyway–and trying to gauge, through comparison perhaps, why it was that these people, mostly strangers, liked my stuff.  Here’s the most disconcerting part:  when I found people who were following me apparently despite some serious and significant aesthetic or philosophical differences, I found myself second guessing my material or subject matter or creative choices–so as to write poetry that would not “turn off” any of my readers.  This strikes me as a potentially dangerous problem.  I think, for the most part, I avoided the pitfall, that I didn’t find myself writing to please these readers–but perhaps I subconsciously avoided certain material or stylistic choices, maybe I avoided taking some risks that could have made more lively or challenging art.  I guess I mean to say that I recognize that the nature of publishing immediately may have certain bizarre and unfortunate consequences on one’s creative mind.

Hey, despite these concerns of mine, none of which undermined the experience for me, I’m glad I did it and I will likely do it again–maybe with or without the official structure of Novel Writing Month or National Poetry Month.  Maybe poem #31 will show up here some day soon, or maybe, not in November when I am in the throws of a new school year, but perhaps in July, a draft of a novel might be written–although I doubt that I’ll do that publicly.  Meanwhile, my wife and I will keep writing six songs on a single day of every month and “publish” those songs to our circle of musician friends. Despite my hesitations after the fact, Forced Creativity Experiences will ensue–and there will continue to be much rejoicing.

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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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Of Resolutions

The only new year’s resolution I’ve ever made and then kept was the one I made last year to publish my novel Monster Talk in 2012. But I think I was cheating because the decision to do the thing was made before the close of 2011 by a couple of days–so the ball was in motion and there was very little I could do to stop it, even if I wanted to. I mean, I could have dropped the ball at any point in the process, but I didn’t, and there was lots of work to do around revision and editing and proofreading and arranging art that kept me busy all the way into spring of 2012.  That was an impressive resolution to make, though, the results of which were public and out there in the open for all to see, unlike most resolutions people make to drink less or eat less or lose weight or be nice–things that are very difficult for anyone other than the person making the resolution to see or keep track of.

So, I’m having some difficulty this year thinking of a suitable resolution.  Maybe I will resolve this year to make no resolutions.  Isn’t it true that people, on the whole, do things they really want to do, achieve the things they really want to achieve, and those things they don’t want to do or achieve, even if they’re really good for them, don’t get done–whether a resolution is made or not?  Maybe deep down I don’t want to drink less, eat less, lose weight, or be nice.  And most of the things I might resolve to do in 2013 (write more, finish the draft of the new novel, read more, record more, stress less, meditate)–these things just might happen anyway. But perhaps, even when a resolution is not kept, in part or in full, there is still some value in resolving to do something in the new year.  Just saying the words–especially in earshot of someone who might notice or care–might be worth doing.

It’d be nice, though, wouldn’t it, if resolutions could be more transformational and radical.  If resolutions could really shake things up, present real significant challenges, create profound  and lasting changes.  I imagine that some people accomplish these things with their resolutions, but I bet it’s more likely that these people are transforming their lives or the lives of others through a daily process of working toward some goal, some dream or another–it’s a part of their daily living and their way of being in the world and likely has nothing to do with a promise they made on New Year’s Eve.  This is just leading me down a kind of sad path as I realize how little agency I sometimes feel to make radical changes in my life–whether it is about some significant change professionally, creatively, personally, in my relationship to people and things, in how my values reflect or don’t reflect the way I actually live or work.  It’s an interesting, profound, and difficult question–if there were no limitations on things you could decide to do or try in the new year, what would you do? What would you try? What’s holding you back?  Would it help to make a resolution?

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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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The Inaugural Video Blog

Wherein Michael Jarmer introduces himself, his novel, and the purpose of this particular blog medium; wherein Michael Jarmer learns about video recording himself, where to look, for example, where to place the microphone, how everything on the screen is the opposite of where it is in the room; and finally, wherein Michael Jarmer demonstrates rudimentary proficiency in video blogging.  Please let him know if you are interested in video performance/readings from Monster Talk.

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