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My Year in Art 2015 Jan. 24th, 2016 @ 03:47 pm
Each year I try to look back and figure out what I actually got done that year, since my default thinking is, "I didn't get shit done this year!" which is not always true. Plus it helps to set specific goals for the next year, so I don't just wallow. Anyway, here's 2015:

Shit I wanted to get done this year / Shit I actually got done this year

  1. Finish Draft of AQP – Done! Holy shit!

  2. Finish Draft of AVS – Done! Holy shit! Kind of cheated on this one by writing it with a partner, but still that’s pretty awesome.

  3. Revise SACRIFICES for editor – Done! Round 1, anyway.

  4. Prepare and play at least 1 solo show – Blew this to hell. Didn’t even try, because somehow I ended up with a band after I’d pretty much given up on that whole thing.

  5. Mix, master, and release D&J Labs, Vol. 1, AKA the H&S Salvage album – 66% done. Mixed and mastered, and did a bunch of the legwork for releasing, but that turned out to involve a lot more work than expected and also I pretty much slacked on it.

  6. Record 3 spoken word pieces with Dad – Failure. Instead recorded 3 of his songs and he realized he wants more involved arrangements, so the project, as always, has enjoyed both moving goalposts and massive scope creep. Wait, are those the same things?

  7. Record electronic album – Basically wrote it and started recording it. Need to wrap this shit up.

  8. Keep learning drums – Progress! Not as much practice as I would like, but I still made slow progress. Impressed my instructor when I nailed some fucked-up time signature stuff, so that was cool.

  9. Clean up guitar chops – Tons of progress here.

Surprise shit I got done this year

  1. Radically re-envisioned Novel H and worked up setting

  2. Worked revision of AQP

  3. Worked some on ear training

  4. Wrote two surprise short stories

  5. Put together a band with a great selection of songs and a great singer. Learned a bunch of very odd guitar parts

Shit I want to get done in 2016

  1. Revise AVS

  2. Write draft of Novel H.

  3. Release H&S Salvage album

  4. Learn set with the band, play 3 shows

  5. Record, mix, master, and release electronic album

  6. Send ye old new short stories out to 6 places each, unless they get published first

  7. Keep working guitar chops. Specifically, be able to play clean, picked 16th notes at 173 bpm, the speed of my fastest song, so I can lay some tracks down for it. Also improve improvisation in general.

  8. Ear training

  9. Drum practice. Specifically, be able to lay down a simple track that doesn't sound like ass.

Starred Review of SPLINTERED in Publisher's Weekly Aug. 6th, 2015 @ 11:12 am
This pretty much made my day:


"...develops an intriguing premise into an outstanding urban fantasy/horror series." I'm not sure I could have asked for anything better. Except for maybe the whole rest of the review, which is incredibly kind and, well, just plain awesome. 

Book Signing Jul. 17th, 2015 @ 07:37 am
If'n you're in the Dallas area and got nothing to do, I'll be signing books on Friday, July 24th, from 7-9 PM at the Barnes & Noble on 15th Street in Plano.

Barnes & Noble Creekwalk
801 W. 15th Street
Plano, TX 75075

Cultural Whatsis Jul. 12th, 2015 @ 08:00 am
Observed in an actual grocery store in France:

I goddamn near fell down in the supermarket laughing. My wife wanted to know just what the hell was wrong with me, as she found nothing funny or noteworthy about it at all. Guess you gotta be an American to get the joke.

I am still laughing about this thing, like a week later.

On Trusting the Author Jul. 12th, 2015 @ 07:57 am
So I've committed several gratuitous acts of short fiction lately, which is not a thing I normally do, but A) I've had inspiration, probably from reading a lot of the stuff lately, B) it's a welcome change from the novel-length stuff in that it gives me a chance to explore one idea that can be neatly encapsulated in a confined space, and C) it's nice sometimes to finish something in days or a week rather than months. Also, D) it allows me to be more exploratory than I likely would be otherwise.

In one of those pieces, a rather Kafkaesque story about a man who has little maggot-like worms spontaneously emerging from under his skin, there's a very specific, bizarre scene in which the guy is sitting in a meeting. He's had these worms coming out of his body for a few days, and he's desperately trying to hide them from everybody because they're disgusting and he's ashamed and he can't seem to get rid of them, so of course right in the middle of the meeting a worm crawls out of the corner of his eye and falls down his face like some kind of revolting tear. What happens next is SUPER IMPORTANT, yet I knew when writing it that it would be SUPER PROBLEMATIC for lots of readers. Essentially, his boss, instead of freaking out or asking if he needs help or calling a doctor or any normal reaction, looks at him with disgust and says something like, "Jesus Christ, man. Go home and get yourself cleaned up."

The reason this is both important yet problematic is simple: This doesn't map to any version of normal human behavior we typically see. There are two broad reactions to this:

1.) "What the fuck? This doesn't map to any version of normal human behavior I'm familiar with. This author is fucking incompetent." *is forcibly ejected from the story*

2.) "What the fuck? This doesn't map to any version of normal human behavior I'm familiar with. What is the author up to here? What is he trying to tell me?"

I decided to throw the story through a local writer's group I attend sometimes, to see what the reactions were. Coincidentally, somebody else submitted a story that also featured characters that didn't behave in any way that maps to a reality I'm familiar with, and while I was declaring that to be a major problem with their story, it occurred to me that although my story has the same issue, in my story (I believe) it works, and in his it was a disaster. The apparent double standard there bothered me until I pinned down exactly what was going on.

I think that it's largely a function of how much trust the author has built up with the reader. If I've written in a compelling way up to that break with reality, then the reader is likely to trust me and roll with it to see what happens. The break with reality may also function as a tip-off to them as to what's really going on (it should, anyway). However, if I have NOT written in a compelling way (or, worse, if there are obvious technical problems), the reader has no reason to trust me. She makes the assumption that the break with reality reflects incompetence, because I've given her no reason yet to believe I have my shit together, and this on its face looks like a major reason not to.

I remember thinking when I read Infinite Jest that it required an almost awesome amount of trust in the author, because it's gigantic, dense, very bizarre, and, due to the amount of shit in the endnotes and all the flipping back and forth, actually physically difficult to read, and if you're going to slog through all that shit, you have to believe the author knows what he's doing. If somebody had just handed me a manuscript of the thing and it hadn't been vetted by, oh, the entire fricking world, I would likely have jettisonned it, because of the investment and the lack of a reason to trust the author, who appears to be just fucking around with a series of stylistic experiments for huge chunks of the book.

Anyway, the point of all this is that "trust" is a dimension of literary work I hadn't specifically identified before, but it looks super important, particularly when you intend to be more risky with your work. I think it'll be good for me to keep that in mind, so that, when I decide to get all weird with stuff, I can ask myself whether or not I've given the reader enough reason to trust me yet, and write accordingly.

[As an aside, the story got pretty much the reaction from the writing group that I expected. The more metaphorically-minded readers loved it. One guy whose opinion I really value said it was "beautiful," which is not an adjective I ever would have used given that the story is goddamn revolting, but I got what he meant and I really appreciated it. The more literally-minded wanted to know what the fuck is my damage, since obviously I've never observed human beings in the real world yet I have somehow survived this long. I suspect from this that more literally-minded readers need stronger reasons to trust the author. Fortunately, I got some specific examples from those folks as to what would have helped them trust me, so it was super valuable.]
Other entries
» Book Day! (Almost)
SPLINTERED comes out tomorrow, which is super exciting! (I would, in fact, be posting this tomorrow, if not for the fact that I'm visiting the in-laws under circumstances of questionable internet access.)

One of the real pleasures of getting your work out into the world is the experience of finding a reader who gets *exactly* what you're going for with the work. Like this reviewer here:

» Book: A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
This book has won all the awards. Every last fucking one of them, it seems like, so I thought I'd give it a whirl. It purports to be a novel, but is really a collection of short stories featuring interlocking cast members and a constant theme. Pretty much all the stories revolve around ordinary-ish middle-to-upper class-ish Americans fucking up their lives in a variety of ways ranging from humdrum to spectacular. The book makes no bones about who the goon is, repeatedly saying "time is a goon," and most of the stories show the passage of time beating people down, grinding them to nubs, fucking up and extinguishing their dreams and eventually their lives. And yet, there are bits of hope that shine through, and those are some of the most rewarding parts of the book.

The whole book can probably best be summed up by a single line in it:

"'Sure, everything is ending,' Jules said, 'but not yet.'"

The Good: Most of the stories/chapters/whatever are pretty compelling. The first half of the book is pretty much nonstop despair, excellently rendered. Every one of the characters is a disaster, from the compulsive shoplifter to the trainwreck of a recording exec who dwells on every humiliating moment in his life, and because the viewpoint of every story is different, we get an ironic look at how much they think everybody else has their shit together. Toward the end of the book, there are a couple of stories that are really, genuinely fucking great. One of them is put together entirely in PowerPoint slides, and it's incredibly perfect. It's a story of familial dysfunction, delivered in slides written by the 12-year-old daughter in the story, and it is beautiful and awe-inspiring and I will never write anything that good. The last story in the book -- well, I don't want to spoil it, but it contains this amazing moment delivered by a total burnout character, and it is an amazingly effective antidote to the piles of despair the rest of the book loads you up with.

The Bad: It's probably too long, and there are a couple of weak stories that could have been left out. Two of them in the latter half, particularly the one about the general's P.R., venture into absurdist territory, and while they work well enough on their own, they feel like sour notes, tonally off from everything else in the book. I almost stopped reading through the doldrums in this section. Glad I didn't, because the two best stories were either the last two or close to it.

Overall, you read this book like I watched the first two seasons of Breaking Bad: hoping, praying, time after time, for the characters to do the right thing for once, don't fuck this up, goddammit. Because it's one of those literary novels that often renders everyday life as a lurch from one bit of crushing hopelessness to the next, it's pretty rough going. It's heartbreaking at times, bleakly hilarious at others, and in some spots surprisingly beautiful. I'm not sure I need to read it again, but I'm glad I did it the once.
» A Drink Before the War - Dennis Lehane
I recently saw the movie The Drop, which was freaking amazing. This slow, intense burn until it explodes at the end--just an amazing job of maintaining tension and atmosphere. Turns out it was based on a short story by Dennis Lehane, and I'd heard the name elsewhere, so I thought I'd snag one of his books and see what that was all about. I picked up A Drink Before the War, which I believe was his first novel. It's the story of a couple of Boston PIs who are hired to track down some documents on behalf of a state senator.

Here are some thoughts, in no particular order:

1.) This was not a good book to read after The Shotgun Rule. Huston is a hard act to follow under any circumstances, but the contrast here was fucking painful. In place of Huston's understated menace, well-developed characters, and tight, affecting prose, we get gobs of description, characters we've all seen before (with the exception of Angie, about whom more in a minute), and frankly awful prose. To be sure, this is not a fair comparison -- Huston had published several books before The Shotgun Rule, and the Joe Pitt detective novels (which I believe were his first) are pretty much the same quality as A Drink Before the War. Still, the contrast hurt.

2.) Most of the book's problems come from the narrative voice, which can be characterized as Ubiquitous Sarcastic Detective Voice, of which I have suffered total and complete fucking burnout. Patrick Kenzie, the Ubiquitous Sarcastic Detective in this book, is basically indistinguishable from all the world-weary, smartass detectives generated by generations of authors who took all the wrong lessons from Chandler. Every observation must be punctuated by some sarcastic piece of wit that is neither funny nor insightful, and the need to pepper the text with "clever" metaphors ends up causing the author to strain something. It's fucking embarrassing. Here are a few examples:

p 120: "The bourbon on his breath could have ignited a gas station."
p 126: "He has scars long enough to qualify as mile markers..."
p 135: "...some didn't look old enough to have had an erection yet."

In every case, the author/narrator is dying to throw something clever in there, and when nothing clever was available, he generated these disasters. In each case, you kind of get what he's driving at, but you have to work at it because the metaphor sucks so badly. Alcohol fumes don't start things on fire. Mile markers are not particularly noteworthy for being long. Having an erection is independent of age (I am told that our 20-week-old fetus is currently enjoying his first ones right now). So you get metaphors that don't illuminate anything or cast it into an interesting light, that make no sense on their face, and that require you to rely on a sort of context-y sense of what he's going for to extract any meaning from at all.

2a.) To get a clearer sense of what I mean by USDV, you can read almost any given passage pretending it was in a Dresden Files novel, and in most cases you wouldn't know the difference. Butcher could have taken Harry Dresden's personality and narrative voice wholesale from Patrick Kenzie, and it would make no meaningful difference. I don't mean to suggest that he did, mind you, just that the same essential character is omnipresent in detective fiction.

3.) Okay, there's really no way to discuss this book without mentioning the toxic relationship the main character has with his partner, Angela Gennaro. He hits on her daily, constantly, despite the fact that she's married and keeps telling him no, and not in anything that could even be remotely construed as an ambiguous manner. It's fucking gross. The author pulls a neat trick of making it seem more sympathetic than it is by having Angie married to an abusive psycho, making Patrick the good guy who just wants to look out for her -- but, no. It doesn't work. This alone was so bad, and the text shows so little awareness of it as bad, that it almost caused me to quit reading the book by about page 30.

Then, about halfway through the book, there's an awesome scene where Angie blows her stack. She has just had it with this shit, and she tells Patrick in no uncertain terms that subjecting her to this shit day in and day out puts him squarely in the same category as her abusive husband, even if the matter of degree is different. It's beautiful -- and twenty pages after that, it's entirely invalidated when she kisses Patrick, and the other scene is never mentioned again. The whole thing is bizarre.

4.) The book's entire remaining plot is telegraphed by about page 100 or so, and I don't mean in broad strokes. You already know who did what and why, how the hidden relationships relate, and you have a pretty good idea of how the end will work out. The rest is an exercise in checking the boxes.

5.) Lehane makes racial tension a major focus of the book, and to his credit he avoids any easy answers or resolutions there. He draws attention to the impact of poverty and white flight, and he even points back at his own book when he discusses how the black bad guy gets gunned down and his murderers never brought to trial, but the white bad guy will get a few years and probably end up running for office again, and how that's a problem with the system. He even points at the narrator's own latent racism at one point. Like I said, he offers no easy resolutions there -- because there aren't any -- but he drags a bunch of stuff out into the light and doesn't shy away from it. In an otherwise paint-by-numbers story that is clearly aimed at a mainstream audience, this took some balls.

6.) The above flaws aside, the book has a compulsive readability about it. I'm trying to understand that better, because I think there's a lesson in here somewhere. When I wasn't fuming about Angie or the terrible writing, I kept turning the pages, and this despite the fact that I already knew most of how it would come out and I couldn't stand the narrator. Part of this is because Angie Gennaro is a pretty cool character, but there's something else going on in here and I can't quite put my finger on it. I need to think about it more.

Even though I was pretty mean above, I will likely tackle another of Lehane's books soon. For one thing, many of the problems I saw in his work are problems with my own -- in particular, the tendency to state something three times to make sure it's absolutely clear when once would have been clear enough and have had more impact, as well as the tendency to treat boring sarcastic observations as clever, witty, or otherwise worthwhile. (This is probably partly why they bother me so much -- don't we supposedly get really aggravated by the same flaws in others that we dislike in ourselves?) I'd like to see if he grows out of them over time, and if there are lessons there for me. And, like I said, even Huston had a slow start, so it would be cool to follow along with Lehane and see how he changes and improves over time.
» The Shotgun Rule - Charlie Huston
This is a re-read, but it was lying on top of the stack and I remembered it being very good from when I read it six or seven years ago...

The basic story: A bunch of teenage kids steal a bag of meth and get in a whole shitload of trouble.

The good: This is just about perfect crime fiction. Tight, uncomplicated, and to the point, with incredible character development that would carry the story regardless of the plot. I wouldn't say violence is used sparingly, exactly, but its use is highly focused, and because Huston does such a great job with the characters, the impact is visceral. There's an overall theme of being unable to escape the sins/influence of your parents, even when you don't know what those sins might have been, and it's used to heartbreaking effect with the character of Andy. He's regarded as a weird, precocious, alien child by his dad, but as the story progresses, it reveals how he's got some inescapable elements of the old man in his character.

The language in the book is worth study. Not because individual sentences are particularly gorgeous or anything, but because the overall rhythm of the sentences really works, and because Huston is a master at knowing what to emphasize and what to leave out. A fairly trivial example:

He stays in the bathroom, and is standing with his toothbrush in one hand and a tube of toothpaste in the other when she makes the call and the police tell her they don't have her sons in custody.

It's simple, but a couple of things are going on there. From context, the reader knows that the fact the police don't have her sons in custody is a very, very bad thing. That point is made in an understated way, but it's impossible to miss, and it carries weight. It's also a great example of knowing when to condense and just how to do so. If I'd written this bit, I would likely not have been able to resist expanding the call to the police into half a scene and showing exactly how it affected her and so on -- and this part of the book would have been MUCH less effective for it. The whole book is masterful at this.

Last thing I want to mention is that the book evokes time and place incredibly well. The vibe of small-town seediness is perfect, from the old burnouts who buy kids beer, to the way in which everybody sort of knows everybody, to the casual drug use and pill-peddling -- it all could have come straight from the shitty little town I grew up in. And the cars, music, fashion, and language all evokes the time (1983 or thereabouts) almost flawlessly.

The bad: Nothing, really. If I had to nitpick, I'd say it threw me out of the story when somebody mentioned playing Tetris, since I'm pretty sure it hadn't been invented in 1983, and it certainly wasn't something you could play in American arcades at that time.

The verdict: Holy crap, this is a good book. Probably my second favorite of Huston's, right after The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death.
» Incarnate - Ramsey Campbell
Trying to get back in the habit of making a few notes on books I read. If it's worth finishing, it ought to be worth taking a few minutes to think about it when I'm done, or so I tell myself...

The latest is Incarnate, by Ramsey Campbell.

What's it about? A bunch of people that unintentionally alter reality with their dreams.

The Good: Campbell does an amazing job blending reality and the dreams, slipping from one into the other effortlessly. He really captures that sense you have in even the most fucked-up dreams, where you unquestioningly accept the dream as reality (or at least I do -- wish I didn't, actually). This alone was worth the read.

The Bad: There is something peculiarly... off about Campbell's characters. It's not that they are unlikable (though some are), it's that they are strangely wooden. Their interactions are stiff, motivations often inscrutable or just plain hard-to-swallow when they're clear, and they're just... off. I wish I had a better handle on it than that, because I think it's important and I could learn from it if I could figure out what, exactly, isn't working. I briefly thought that maybe it was intentional in this book, further blurring what was "real" or not, but then I remembered the only other Campbell book I've read, Ancient Images, which struck me the exact same way. (Aside: Peter Straub has the same effect on me, only more so. The one book of his I attempted, I bounced off so hard that it removed any desire to revisit the author whatsoever.)

I'm probably done with Campbell for the foreseeable future. He gets name-dropped as one of the greats, and he probably is, but his stuff doesn't click with me. C'est la vie.
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