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Giving Thanks: Writing Edition

It's been a very rough year for me, writing-wise.

In this year I've experienced more rejection and disappointment with my writing career than ever before. 

But it being Thanksgiving, I would like to dwell on some of the stuff I'm most thankful for, in terms of my writing life.

Here goes:

Tessa MastersonWill Go To Prom.

I'm tremendously proud of this book. I think it's the best one Emily and I have written together, and I'm glad it got published this year.  I had a lot of fun working on it, and as I said, I'm really proud to have my name on it. And I'm glad it's in so many libraries; I hope a lot of kids who might benefit from it will find it.

A Really Awesome Mess.

Trish finally saved us from title search hell by pulling this phrase out of our collaboration that we called Escape from Assland (and that will probably always have that title in my mind).  I just re-read this for the first pass on the typeset pages, and it is just fantastic, if I do say so myself.  It's coming out next year from Egmont.

Emily Franklin and Trish Cook. 

I've been very lucky to collaborate with both of these talented writers.  Writing can be a lonely business, and bouncing ideas off someone else and sending chapters back and forth has been fun and social and has made me a better writer.

Doug Stewart.

In spite of a number of professional setbacks, my agent  Doug remains an unwavering supporter of me and my writing.  He is awesome.

A New Life for Old Books:

It felt good to bring back both It Takes a Worried Man and Forever Changes from out-of-print purgatory.  I'm certainly not making huge money on the ebook sales, but both of these books mean a lot to me, and it makes me feel good knowing they're available for readers to continue finding and enjoying.

My Monthly Mutants & Masterminds (and/or Marvel Heroic Roleplaying) Group:

I've written about this before, but reconnecting with the collaboarative storytelling of tabletop RPGs has been incredibly energizing to me creatively.  I get to play with a bunch of really creative and funny people every month. The games are fun and hilarious and always make me want to write things that give as much joy as this game does to me. 

Living in the Future:

The terror that is paralyzing the publishing industry right now and that has led, directly or indirectly, to some of my career setbacks, has an upside.  There are now more ways than ever to reach readers, and it's invogorating to consider all the things I can do to get my work in front of people.  Crowdfunding? Podcasting ? Who the hell knows?  All I know is that it's fun to think about trying new projects.


I have met and interacted with a lot of really cool people through my writing.  I have a small but really cool core of fans who interact wtih me on a regular basis and who seem to enjoy my work. I notice that a lot of popular authors have these fans who post five-star reviews for everything they've ever written and post worshipful comments on every blog entry.  I would be fundamentally uncomfortable with that kind of attention, and I really appreciate having real interactions with people.  When someone who's friended me on goodreads posts a 3-star review of one of my books (for those of you unfamiliar with goodreads culture, 3 stars is the equivalent of a pan for most people, though not for me), I really appreciate it.  Because I can't think of any author who's written books that are all 5 stars for me, and your willingness to post a 3-star review with some criticisms attached knowing I'm going to see it just feels incredibly respectful to me.  And it makes me take your 5-star review way more seriously.  I also enjoy it when people comment on a blog post to disagree with me.  These feel like genuine interactions with real people rather than some kind of weird adulation, and I really value all of them. Because people who praise you when you've done something good and nudge you when you've done something not so good aren't fans; they're friends.  I know the idea of friendship across digital social platforms is weird--it's not like I've had any of you folks I've met only through my writing over for dinner--but I guess what I mean is that it feels closer to friendship than fandom to me, and I'm grateful for that.


Ebook Publishing Secrets

I'm here to share everything I've learned about self-publishing through the Kindle, Nook, and Kobo stores. Ready?



Well, that was it. I've gained a lot more sympathy for traditional publishers through my forays into self-publishing because it is completely impossible to figure out what works and what doesn't. Here's my take on some of the received wisdom:

You need a professional cover:  Maybe. But Forever Changes continues to sell desipte the fact that it doesn't have a professionally-designed cover. Terror at the Shore and It Takes a Worried Man have sold very littleafter the initial surge with their Halpin-designed covers.  So who knows.

Use social media:  The jury is still out on this. Certainly social media helped me reach people who already like my work and are likely buyers, and it's definitely important to reach those people. But I don't think social media has grown my audience much, if at all.  I paid ten bucks to promote an ebook giveaway.  I got thousands of people to view it, and nearly a hundred more likes than I'd ever gotten on a Facebook page before.  The only problem is that almost all the new traffic came not from friends or friends of friends as I'd hoped, but from random people in Indonesia, and almost none of them clicked the link. My conclusion in this is that promoting page posts on Facebook is not worth it at all, even if you're only spending 10 bucks.

Price one book really low in order to drive traffic for the second one. I think maybe this only works with sequels. The continuing ebook popularity of The Mall of Cthulhu does not seem to have driven any traffic to Terror at the Shore, though again this might be different if I'd written a sequel.

Reviews Sell Books: Well, Forever Changes has 5 Amazon reviews and It Takes a Worried Man has 36. And the former book continues to move.  Go figure.

You have to give stuff away. I don't think so.  Free access to It Takes a Worried Man and the first part of Terror at the Shore has not led to steady sales.  I uploaded a Forever Changes excerpt to Goodreads, and it has been downloaded 0 times.  My big Hurricane Sandy giveaway did not lead to an increase in traffic to my site or sales of my books.  (Not that I regret it---I did it for fun and it was fun, so mission accomplished.)

So I suppose the only reliable advice I can give anybody on this stuff is to be hugely skeptical of anyone claiming to be an expert on these matters.


Souls of White Folk

White people!  I'm talking to you!

I'm worried about you. I see you on the internets losing your shit.  Now, not all of you, certainly, but a large number of you who voted for Romney appear to have really lost your minds.

I get it. It's disappointing when your candidate loses. 

And, furthermore, it does appear that the country is changing.  Time was, white people ran everything, and then there were "minorities" that most white folks didn't really have to think about very much.  Many of you moved to the suburbs so you wouldn't have to see or even think about Those People pretty much ever.

I grew up thinking that I was just a person.  I didn't really think of myself as a white person because I didn't have to.  I was just a person, and then other types of people who were not white had to pay attention to what kind of person they were. 

Those days are long over, but this election I suppose brings this into pretty sharp focus. 

So I get that it may be a little scary to contemplate that certain things you grew up thinking were unchangeable truths may be changing. 

But pull it together.

It's time especially to ditch this myth that so many of you are parroting all over the internet these days: those lazy brown people who just want handouts brought about this election result and are ruining America's hardworking culture.

My objection to you believing this horseshit is twofold. One is that it's ignorant and racist and factually incorrect. The second is that it's destroying you.

Most of the people I see spewing this crap all over the internet are people who have plenty.  Now, admittedly, there are very very few people who have everything they can possibly imagine having, but most of you have plenty.  You're doing well. You've got houses. You've got jobs. You take vacations. You have lovely families.  So why are you consumed with rage and resentment?

Even Romney himself, a guy who has never once in his entire life had the thought, "how the hell am I gonna pay for this?" is touting this as the reason he lost.

I named this post Souls of White Folk not only to reference DuBois, but because I really feel like this is what's at stake here. Because if you have enough but you can't enjoy it because of a pathological fear that someone, somewhere is getting something for nothing, you're going to wind up miserable and twisted and bitter.

I could talk at length about why a social safety net is important and how we all benefit when everyone has an opportunity, but what I'd really like you to think about is whether you want to live a life defined by hatred and resentment.

You've been showing a really ugly face to the world over the last couple of weeks, and I know that most of you are not really ugly people. 

So please, search your heart and see if you can figure out what you're so mad about.  You know life at the bottom of the ladder is no picnic because you're not choosing it for yourselves.  You could quit your job and give away your posesssions and go try to be poor for a while, but you won't do that because I suspect you know in your heart it's not the joyride you seem to suggest that it is. Even the few things that are free come with a high pricetag of humiliation and tedium.

What do you really need that you don't have?  And is the miniscule amount of your tax burden that goes to the social safety net really what's holding you back from having it?

I'm not so concerned about the effect your resentment will have on the rest of the country; you're fundamentally comfortable, and such people rarely radicalize. I'm worried about the effect it's having on you.  It's turning you into something far worse, far more petty and mean-spirited than the best version of yourselves.  I've seen the best version of many of you.  And I'd like to see it again. 

So please.  Pull your shit together. I'm not saying you have to agree with me on every issue. I'm just asking you not to let hatred define you.


Best. Covers. Ever.

A propos of nothing, I started thinking of the best covers ever. I always enjoy a good cover.  Or, more specifically, covers that are better than the original.  Thus the Who's, or Blue Cheer's "Summertime Blues," while unquestionably awesome, don't qualify because they are not better than the original and did not cause me to see the original in a new light.  So here are some covers I think are awesome and better than the originals.  I do hope you'll add your own, either on facebook or in the comments here.  Because I love a good cover.


Girlschool--Race With The Devil.  The original is by a one-hit-wonder UK band called Gun, and though it's pretty good, this, to me, is the definitive version--a bit faster and more energetic than the original, and completely kickass.


TV on the Radio--Mr. Grieves.I have never gotten TV on the Radio.  I find most of their music pretty inaccssible, but Jesus, they absolutely kill this Pixies song. To the point where it's like they discovered a much better song inside a second- or possibly third-tier Pixies song. 


RUN-DMC-- Walk This Way. Sure, this, even more than "Rock Box," is the song we have to blame for rap rock, but it's hard to overstate what a revelation this was in 1986. What I like about the song and the video is that it suggested that music could, in fact, be the thing that made us all just get along.  And yes, this is better than the original.


The Kingsmen--"Louie Louie".  I mean, look. The original is okay.  But this is pretty much the definition of a great cover, in that it completely transforms the original.  A proto-reggae hit becomes the garage rock national anthem.


Thin Lizzy--"Whiskey in the Jar"

A fantastic Irish folk song becomes a fantastic Irish rock song. The great feat here is that it doesn't scream "cover of a traditional song."  I think you probably wouldn't have any idea if you heard this for the first time that it wasn't written as a rock and roll song.


 7 Seconds--"99 Red Balloons".  Hardcore band finds an awesome pop punk song inside a German anti-nuke pop song.  I think the song works a lot better with a little more energy behind it, and more guitars and less keyboards.


Ramones--California Sun. I could have picked just about any Ramones cover. They were, in my opinion, the best cover band of all time.  This is a great example of them taking a genius 60's pop song and reinventing it as a genius punk song. 



My Endorsements

I know the world has been eagerly awaiting my endorsements, so before election day, here they are.

For President: Barack Obama.

I envy Republicans. They vote for hooting loon theocrats and get hooting loon theocrats.  Progressives vote for progressives and get corporate centrists.  Obama is certainly a corporate centrist, but I am endorsing him for two reasons:

1.) The differences between him and Romney may not be as big as I'd like, but they still matter.  On the economy: Romney and Ryan want to cut taxes for the rich, cut services for everybody else, and help business operate without the restraint of regulation.  Folks, we tried that.  It doesn't work. It never has.

2.Republican efforts to deny women reproductive rights and humiliate and shame those who seek to exercise their rights, going so far as to mandate vaginal penetration by an ultrasound wand.  The Republican party represents the last dying gasps of the 1950's idea of how women were supposed to behave. (These laws are not just anti-sex, though they are that, but they're fundamentally anti-women. Because women who control their fertility control their lives, and a lot of men don't want them to have that control.)

3. Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts, and he's running between 20 and 30 points behind Obama here.  Why? Because as soon as he became governor, he started running around the country badmouthing Massachusetts.  We've gotten to know Mitt Romney here, and he's a hollow shell of a man who lacks empathy for his fellow humans and whose only value is ambition.

Obama's done a lot of good stuff as well, but it must be said that my primary reason for pulling the lever on his behalf is a profound distrust for Romney and a need to stand up against the regressive values he represents.


For Sentator:  Elizabeth Warren.

Scott Brown's vaguely racist campaign signs pretty much say it all:  "He's for us."  This implies that Elizabeth Warren is for "them," and we all know who "them" is.  (Translation for my readers who are not white:  When a white person says "them," he means black and hispanic people.  Asian people get a pass because white people consider them honorary white people.  This is true.)  Beyond that, though, Warren is a thoughtful, accomplished progressive. Well, she's campaigned as a progressive, which is to say someone who believes in women's rights, full citizenship for gays and lesbians, and helping government work more for people and less for corporations. Scott Brown is a guy with a truck.  He's done absolutely nothing of note in the Senate thus far, and he's aligned with the aformentioned regressive party. In his ads here, he's running as far away from Romney and the Republican Party as he possibly can, going so far as to tout his confirmation votes for Obama appointees and parading his wife and daughters in front of us to forestall the accusation that he's anti-woman. Which, by virtue of being a Republican, he is. If he really wanted to repudiate the troglodytic views of his party, he'd run as an independent.

On Question 1: Yes. This has pretty much already been decided, but the measure is to allow regular repair shops access to some car computer data so that you can get your car fixed without having to go get hosed at a dealership.

On Question 2: Yes. The question would allow physicians to prescribe lethal doses of drugs for terminally ill patients to self-administer.  Having watched both people and pets die, I can say that it's ridulous that we offer pets the mercy of a quick and dignified death while we force humans to suffer and draw every single raspy, pain-racked breath until their bodies give up. The objections I've heard don't make much sense: "sometimes terminal patients are suffering from depression, which is treatable." Well, the depression might be treatable, but what about the terminal illness?  "Patients administering their own fatal dose without a doctor's supervision is dangerous."  Um. Did you get the part about how they're dying?  In view of that, what's the danger?  That they might die?  Humans deserve to be treated at least as well as pets are.

On Question 3: Yes. The question would legalize marijuana for medical use in Massachusetts.  Our national hypocrisy on marijuana is crazy and costs us tons of money in unnecessary prosecutions and imprisonments.  It's never been my drug of choice--more of a beer and coffee man, myself--but it's time we stopped treating this like heroin.  Yeah, people will get bogus prescriptions so they can get legal weed.  Who cares?


In Which I Break My Own Rule

A wise man once advised writers not to respond to bad reviews.

It's excellent advice that I'm now going to disregard in one particular.

It's in regard to my first published book, my memoir It Takes a Worried Man.  When people don't like the book, they typically think I'm an asshole (fair enough), I swear too much (fuckin'-a right I do), I'm self-absorbed (did you get the part about me being a writer?) and I'm a misogynist (not true, but the truth about male sexuality often appears misogynist to those of a dogmatic bent).

None of which bothers me. Anymore.

Here's what bothers me, though, that keeps coming up. It's people's response to this particular passage:

I decide to go for the big question.  “So if this is metastatic,” I say, “is that a death sentence?  Because that’s what we’re hearing.”




I have prepared meals in less time than she takes to answer this.  “Well,” she starts out, “there are some very special patients–I mean, we are talking about the Louis Armstrong of cancer patients–” This analogy annoys me somehow.  I don’t know why.  Couldn’t she say Michael Jordan of cancer patients?  Maybe the Eddie Van Halen of cancer patients?  The, um, Pedro Martinez?  I don’t know.  I am not very familiar with Satchmo’s oeuvre, so I find this annoying. “–who respond very well to treatment and can live relatively normal lives for years.”

People keep insisting that I misunderstood this, and that the doctor had to have been talking about disgraced drug-addled cheat Lance Armstrong when she mentioned Satchmo.

This, frankly, bugs the shit out of me.

I am not mistaken about this. I did not misunderstand. Here's how I know:

1.)I was on the fucking phone with the woman and had the conversation.  I was in my living room on the second floor of a three-decker house on Paul Gore Street in Jamaica Plain when this happened.  Where the fuck were you?  Oh, you don't know? Goddamn right you don't.  Because you weren't fucking there.

2.)If the doctor actually meant Lance Armstrong, then her sentence makes no fucking sense at all.  You wouldn't say "The Lance Armstrong of cancer patients" because Lance Armstrong was a fucking cancer patient!  That's like saying, "It's the champagne of wines!" "It's the Harvard of the East Coast!" "It's the Cadillac of cars!" The way this little turn of phrase works in colloquial English is that you take something from one category and place it in another in order to make a point.  You don't say, "They're the Beatles of the 60's." That doesn't make sense. The Beatles are the Beatles of the 60's. You say, "They're the Beatles of the New Millenium" or "They're the Beatles of Hip Hop" or something.

Have we cleared this shit up now? I know what I heard.  Tell me I'm an asshole, tell me I swear too much, tell me I don't adhere to the proper way to talk about women or marriage or cancer or whatever the fuck you think I did wrong, but the doctor fucking said Louis Armstrong.  Okay?

Christ, people bug the shit out of me.