Category Archives: essay

The Best Author Interview – Todd Keisling

Maybe I’ve been wrong all these years and my talent is not in writing, but in interviews. Nevertheless, author Todd Keisling responds to my inquiries about his writing process, and his new book, A Life Transparent, which I fucking loved.

The characters in ALT seem familiar to me. Even the Yawnings. It was eerily familiar as I read it. Why do you think that is?

I wanted the characters to be as real as possible. They’re people to whom the reader can relate in some way. I think we’ve all been in Donovan’s shoes at some point, stuck in a dead end job, wondering if that’s all there is to life. We’ve encountered people like Donovan’s co-workers. We know someone like Donovan’s brother, Michael, or Donovan’s wife, Donna. They’re the people who are living the lives they want to live, or yearn for something more but feel they’re being held back by a significant other. I tried to identify certain archetype figures and incorporate them into the story via these characters.

To me, the story’s pseudo-villain, Aleister Dullington, represents that nagging voice in the back of our minds, reminding us of our action’s consequences, pushing us in one direction even if we’re resistant to it. Even his minions, the Yawning, are manifestations of the way in which our boredom and mediocrity can consume us, thereby defining our lives for us.

I’d like to think those connections came through in the text in a subtle manner, and that what people find so unsettling or eerie about the story is their subconscious connection these things.

I realize that’s probably a convoluted, pretentious answer, but for now I’ll stick to it.

I’ll take it. You had a rough time with your first self-publishing printer. Did you take an opportunity to take another look at the writing in your novel before you republished it anew, with a professional editor?

I’ll preface this by saying my experiences with certain self-publishing outlets were my own. Your mileage may vary.

That said, yes, I did have a rough time. The book was initially published through Lulu back in 2007. Though getting set up in their system and securing distribution wasn’t expensive, procuring copies of the book was overpriced. Toward the end of my time with Lulu, I found it cheaper to buy the book from Amazon and pay my own royalty than to order directly from Lulu with the author discount.

That is completely fucked up. I wish more people knew about that kind of experience, and that there are alternatives. Go on.

In late 2009, while working on the follow-up novel, I decided to look at CreateSpace as an alternate solution. Around May of 2010, I finally started that transition process, and it turned into a huge mistake. There were a number of quality issues that led me to sever that relationship and pull the plug.

Kickstarter afforded me an opportunity to hire an editor and revise the book. I wanted to make a definitive edition, something that would be as high quality as I could make it. My editor made her first pass over the manuscript, after which I took her comments and rewrote the novel during a period of about two months. The end result was a slightly shorter, tighter work. It went from approximately 60k words to about 53k words. The story remained the same, but new scenes were added to flesh out the characters, and minor details were altered to better suit a lead-up to the sequel.

Looking back, I’m glad my editor and I spent that extra time with the book. It needed it (the manuscript was over 4 years old), and the end result is far superior to the original.

Kickstarter is a huge part of your renewed publishing effort. How did you set your budget for what your objectives were, and did you have a backup plan in case the funding didn’t come through?

The Kickstarter project saved the book. When things fell through with CreateSpace, I really didn’t know what else to do. My only other options were vanity companies like Author House and Xlibris (which seem like a total rip-off), and going to an offset printer (which is very expensive, and wouldn’t provide the distribution I needed).

So, you could say Kickstarter was the backup plan. If my project proposal hadn’t been approved, or if the project hadn’t earned out, ALT probably wouldn’t be available today.

I calculated the project budget by obtaining a fee schedule from Lightning Source. Then it was just a matter of doing some rough math. First I figured out how much the approximate product cost for each book would be (paperback vs. hardcover). Then I used that info to pick appropriate pledge tiers ($5, $15, $25, etc.) and the rewards associated with each. I settled on a total goal of $2000. That would be enough to pay the setup fees, editing rate, ISBN blocks, digital layout, and shipping & handling. I’m fortunate to be married to a graphic designer who knows her way around Photoshop and InDesign, so that wasn’t figured into the cost.

In hindsight, I probably should have gone for $3k. Midway through the project, I decided to go a step further and set up my own publishing house. The business fees ate into the funds. My shipping estimates for international rewards were also low. In the end, I had to go out of pocket
by a few hundred dollars. I will say that, had I not had to pay the setup costs associated with the
business side of things, everything would’ve come down to the penny from the Kickstarter funds.

What an experience! So many of us just skip the funding part, and then realize that we get out of it what we put into it.

What are you working on next?

The next book is a direct sequel to ALT. It’s called THE LIMINAL MAN, and it takes place about a year after the events of the first book. Currently, the manuscript is with my editor as she makes her first pass. We hope to go to print early next year.

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I Killed My Book

I killed my book D-E-D.

I killed the website. I deleted the e-book from Amazon. While the print is still available, I’m hoping that HR doesn’t get their hands on it. Although, I could pull that, too, but I’m keeping that on a respirator for some stupid reason. Sentimentality, I guess.

I erased my electronic tracks — I killed the blog I began under my real name that hasn’t been updated since I went underground in April 2010. I killed the other blog which was the serialized version of the book. I deleted my original personas on the various blogs I post on, though admittedly there still may be a couple still out there. If they didn’t come up on the first four pages of Google, I didn’t focus on them.

I have tried to erase anything in my online identity that may lead an HR department to feel offended. I am awaiting a job offer and learned they launched the background check last week. In a panic, I went on this deletion spree hoping to fend off any of the employer panic. (Why can’t those “official” work-related articles I published in trade rags come up in search engine results ahead of my book stuff, dammit?)

You probably thought I did this all last April when that new job threatened to fire me if I didn’t unpublish the book and quit blogging and tweeting. But the online presence of that book has taken on a life of its own, selling nearly 5000 copies and free downloading another few thousand. So to erase those tracks are undoubtedly harder to accomplish.

I will know for sure that if I don’t get the offer for this job that my book killed it, whether they use that excuse or not.

I’m not sure if it’s better or worse to know that this drama is all my own fault. I like to blame others for general tumult in the world, but this one is all on me. WHY THE FUCK DID I PUBLISH THAT THING UNDER MY OWN NAME? Really, what a stupid ass thing to do. Did I think I could write the terms of my own destiny? Who do I think I am? I can write an irreverent, offensive and heavily opinionated book, publish and market it and think that I will have no consequences other than some bad reviews and a few extra bucks in my pocket?

Stupid, stupid girl.

Oh sure, in a perfect world (the pretend one where I do write the terms of my own destiny) I could spew all that crap, call it my own, and be proud of it. But I haven’t allowed myself the freedom. This job feeds my kids and puts a house over my family. I have no safety net. I don’t need to spend a moment’s thought on what is more important, my stupid integrity or my kids’ education and shelter?

I can’t believe this is all coming up again, and it’s interesting to watch this series of events just as volatile and impactful as they were a year ago (see the reason why, here).

It’s not the end of the world. I will continue writing and being an irreverent dick sometimes, pissing people off and offending others. But I just won’t do it under my name ever, ever, ever again.

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Silly Old Fool

I played hookey today from work claiming ailments from a non-existent stomach flu. I went to the movies, got a massage, went to the gym, and drove around mostly. I went for a long walk on the desolate Asbury Park boardwalk. With all the dressed-up new boutiques and restaurants there I thought I’d be uncomfortable with hip company. But under the month-old piles of snow, the grey sky, and the shuttered buildings, it was still the eerily sad Asbury. And I was happy about that.

I went to the mall to buy my kids some used DVDs of the Batman movies (the good ones–with Christian Bale). I passed Hot Topic and a Captain America t-shirt caught my eye. So I went in and asked the kid for it and for a half a second I contemplated telling him it was for my nephew. Or something. I did say it. Because I’m a suburban mom, pushing 40. It’s winter so my sleeved-arms aren’t showing and I don’t feel the need to parade around without a jacket to show some 16 year old clerk that I’m still cool.

Or do I?

As I left the store, with the Captain America t-shirt for me, I saw a kid eyeing the vinyl over in the corner and shockingly there was a copy of a 7-Seconds 12-inch. I told him he should buy it because it’s an awesome record. He looked at me like I had 10 heads.

I have no credibility any longer. Regardless of the fact that I requested the masseuse this morning put on the Tron Legacy soundtrack from my iPhone instead of that awful muzak crap they play in spas. That’s meaningless because I am old. I am an old, suburban mom, and my weird habits of wearing Captain America t-shirts and listening to the Tron soundtrack at a mindnumbing volume just appear to be weird. Not even dorky. Just weird. Odd.

Why can’t I grow old? Get a football helmet-like haircut, wear comfortable shoes and expensive handbags, and drive a minivan like the rest of the suburban moms? Why do I feel like they are all old and I am not? I remember on walks with my grandmother years ago she would see someone with a short skirt or too much makeup and say, “Silly old fool.”

I think I am approaching the new millenium version of a silly old fool.

I really have no problem with that and it’s not a complaint by any means. However, my older kid is 4 1/2 and at some point my habits may cross the line of being totally uncool. What if he grows up to be a Republican, and wears Oxford shirts and plays golf and when he’s not playing golf he’s still wearing those fucking pants with ducks and shit on them? And that will be all my fault, because he thinks I’m a silly old fool.

* * *

I think it may have to do with integrity.

I am going to the borough hall tonight for a town meeting at which I am going to be grilling the fascist little mayor and his town council cronies for some half-wit plan to consolidate the police department with a town a few miles away. It’s a bad plan. And it’s not that I particularly love cops. But I’m leaving our dinner table tonight to make sure my voice is heard and that there is some counter to the small town cronyism that’s known somehow as governance.

That’s the lesson I hope my kid learns from me. Not that it’s necessarily ok to ditch work in the middle of the day and go to the movies. Not that it’s necessarily ok to get a tattoo of REVOLUTION in two-inch block letters across your back. Not that it’s necessarily ok to call people douchebags when they are acting douchey. Not that it’s necessarily ok to blow out your speakers listening to “subversive” music. Not that it’s necessarily ok to name our cat Puppy Dog.

But to speak up when you know deep down inside it must be heard, and not just to hear yourself talk — that’s the lesson I hope I can teach my kid through my actions.

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The Time Is Now

Independent writers have the opportunity of a lifetime. We are on the cusp of a revolution in breaking open the audience for our work this holiday season. The day after tomorrow will be Independent Publishing 2.0. Millions of e-readers will be opened under the tree, and all of us writers are standing on the sidelines watching and hoping and wringing our hands that our work will be chosen to be downloaded.

And we need our shit to be good. Really fucking good. Like so good, that grandma may actually break her 40-year streak in reading crime novels and read your anthology of shorts. We have this opportunity to kill the conventional publishing machine (no, it’s not dead yet, don’t get so comfortable). It belongs to us. This revolution was made for us. Now. What are you doing about it?

We  can take convention and turn it on its ass. But only if we know entirely what we’re doing.

I’m all for breaking down the walls. But until we are experts in our writing abilities, we should not experiment too broadly.

(*I’m not making an empirical judgment though: there are a few writers who are so brilliant from the start that they can make and break the conventions all they want.)

(** And I am also not talking about the mode of publishing their work, either. This essay strictly addresses the style of experimental writing rather than the approach to marketing and publishing the work.)

If a writer is not flexible or creative enough to be able to learn the craft expertly before he begins to experiment, he may likely run into trouble. I did that a few times. I thought I was so stylie and I go back and read that stuff from back when, and it was not good. I was all into doing things differently, but I had no anchor. And I am not as intrinsically talented as some other writers who can do the most innovative things a compelling piece of art.

I don’t think that the independent writing community can afford to fall into line with conventional, mainstream publishing, however. There is a cultural need for innovation and creativity and we need to feed that. But we need to feed it with quality work, not off-the-cuff weird shit that just doesn’t have any compelling reason to exist because it just isn’t good.

Then this begs the question of what experimental work is good…and I’m not looking for a debate down that road. When I say something isn’t good, it generally isn’t original, or it isn’t compelling. But worst, an experimental work that isn’t good is generally contrived.

  • Writing with funky fonts and calling yourself a non-linear writer is just incongruent.
  • Writing a Twitter novel has been done, and so it is no longer necessarily unconventional.
  • Jumping on a bandwagon genre trend is not experimental.

There are so many brilliant and interesting ways of breaking the rules and creating compelling work. But I contend that unconventional work is compelling in its integrity. And excellent writers have the breadth of experience to approach experimentation seamlessly–rookies should stick to learning the craft of writing first.

We cannot afford to have independent authorship appear to be too disjointed, with inconsistent quality. I welcome work that comes from out of left field–but the body of work we produce is now out of the shadows and under much more public scrutiny. If all those folks who receive e-readers from the xmas stork encounter download after download of shitty work or dubious quality, we are all–as a community–wasting an opportunity to introduce independent publishing to millions of new readers.

The time is NOW. Let’s get our shit together. Let’s be more careful about what we put out there. I count myself in that group as well–I’ve been guilty of putting shit quality short stories out there and I am going to stop doing that. I only want the absolute best of the best of freaky, bizarre, or even conventional storytelling with my name on it floating around the interwebz.

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Annus Horribilis: What I Learned in 2010

Most of you already know what a shitty year it’s been for me. For many. For others, it’s been a beautiful year: they’ve had babies, new jobs, good news, lost weight, and had plenty of visits from bunnies and unicorns. Instead of rounding out the year with a post summarizing all the shit that’s gone on to make me miserable, I thought I’d turn it around and contemplate what I’ve learned. (You didn’t think I’d get all mushy on you and give some optimistic shit about turning lemons into lemonade, did you?)

1. ON THE BIGGEST THING I DID THIS YEAR: Writing a totally excellent novel and publishing it myself was cool, but apparently not important enough to register on anyone else’s radar. Meh.

2. ON HYGIENE: Certain very expensive skin care products do actually work. And straight hair IS better.

3. ON SPORTS: Eli Manning is not a good quarterback.

4. ON HOT IRISH ACTORS: They are short.

5. ON LATE NIGHT COMEDY: While Conan O’Brien may have fought the establishment and come out alive, he is still not funny. (But neither are any of the other network late-nighters if that is any consolation.)

5. ON INDIE PUBLISHING: Despite all the advances of the past 2-3 years, we are likely still in Independent Publishing 1.0. My guess is that after the xmas 2010 delivery of e-reading devices by the xmas stork to millions of readers, we may see an actual market demand for a more reliable search methodology (or technology) so that the unqualified work is filtered out.

6. ON UNQUALIFIED WORK: Unfortunately for the experimental writers out there, we may not have much of a chance in 2011 to make much of a splash (though we are grateful now and forever for the e-medium to showcase our work). We didn’t create a strong enough force in 2010 to become an influence and in that time, the major publishers, the transmedia people, the private-equity backed tech startups, and Apple, among others, have all caught up so in Independent Publishing 2.0 we will likely be outweighed by the majors’ great power. The good news is that it generally takes a year for shitty writers to realize they aren’t getting any traction, so they’ll leave the platform to more qualified works. Or they’ll find another hobby. (Oh what a mean thing to say. I don’t exclude myself from that category, necessarily.)

7. ON CELLPHONES: AT&T 3G is awful and my iPhone works much better using the older Edge network.

8. ON TUITION: Spending one-third of my income on tuition for independent schooling for my kids is worth it. I have learned though, that there isn’t much point in making this investment now if I can’t afford to send them to Ivy League colleges, which I most definitely can’t afford in 12 years. Now I don’t know what to do.

9. ON RELIGION: I’ve become even more adamantly against the dogma of organized religion as much as I am adamantly in favor of free thinking. So I’m alright with my decision to stiff-arm the priest at a family baby’s christening to save my 4 year old from potentially having his worldview influenced by my godfearing mother-in-law.

I fucking hate top ten lists, so I’ll stop at 9. That is all I can come up with while it is past my bedtime. The thing I’ve learned that terrifies me most is that my parents are getting old; and I fear even just the potential that they may face what my grandmother succumbed to: the soul-eating mindlessness of elderhood. The most important thing I’ve learned is that my kids are the most beautiful, independent, confident little boys in the world and they make me and everyone around them happiest.

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Clogged

I’ve been thinking long and hard why I haven’t been able to write creatively (or editorially) for the past several months. I refuse to use the term “writer’s block;” it is just not a term. For the time that I’m not writing, I can’t call myself a writer, so “writer’s block” doesn’t apply.

I keep saying that when I get another job, one that doesn’t suck the life out of me, that I’ll be in a better position to free up that part of my brain that enables me to write creatively. But I don’t know if that is true, so I can’t set my expectations there or else I’m headed for disappointment. And I need that like I need an addiction to crack.

At least for the time being, it’s hard to concentrate on a fictional narrative, given this all-encompassing “holiday spirit” we are all supposed to be engaged in this time of year. Why is it that in a time of giving we are so obsessed with what we don’t have?

What I do have is what will enable me to clear my head and write, because that is what gives me the fulfillment I crave as a writer. I don’t know that the old adage of poor, hungry, alcoholic, tormented artists empirically applies. Good narrative writing requires a lot of things and discontentment isn’t necessarily one of them (or else every depressed person would have an equal shot at being the next great author).

What a good writer does need is confidence and gratification in her writing. We can’t write with the objective of getting external validation, in which all too often we get wrapped up. Independent publishing is more than just doing it on your own — it’s about making all of the details of a writing career your own, answering to no one, and making the right judgments in how to go forward. Or not.

My inspiration for writing fiction comes from having the bandwidth to notice small details and insights in the course of my days–a ladybug crawling up the curtains, the dust on a ceiling fan, a veiled comment. It’s when I don’t have that bandwidth devoted to noticing and cataloging those details that I can’t seem to write. I’m not Agatha Christie so my stories don’t involve complex twists in plots. The stories I am most successful writing involve complex characters with specific traits, involved in compelling yet often mundane situations.

So I need to free up my bandwidth to enable those insights. I am clogged up with resentment (for my boss who lied about my compensation package), commuting details (like leaving at a specific time to allow delays in the downtown 4 Express subway), kid details (oh shit I have to bake cookies for my kid’s school xmas party on Thursday), grownup details (Chase bank is a lying, cheating, manipulative bank that holds my first and second mortgage and if I don’t call them out with a letter to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency they won’t issue a new escrow statement with a cancelled gap flood insurance policy). And more shit like that.

I have to somehow find a better way of dealing with all of those shit details, compartmentalize them, in such a way that I can still write. I’m letting them clog up my life. It’s like what practicing Kundalini Yoga is like, when the instructors teach you to unblock all the blockages, whatever the hell that means.

Somehow I have to do that. Somehow.

 

Thanks for reading. It’s good to be back.

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The Unintentional Experiment

My experiment is over. The world does go on without me. I wasn’t sure, but now I am. The world most certainly does go on, seamlessly, without my active participation and youthful exuberance.

This was not me being coy or savvy. Just out of tune, slightly depressed, bogged down with day job, and yes, that anticlimactic “I-released-a-book-and-am-feeling-like-it’s-no-big-deal-but-it-really-is” feeling.

But today I’m getting back into it.  I must. Maggie & May must be written; Harvey Keitel must receive a copy of Back(stabbed) at his Goatsingers production studio; and a new job for yours truly must be sought.

Finally the summer heat and drought is over so I have no more excuses to be depressed over the weather. My kid #2 is nearly diaperless. I bought new headphones, so I no longer have to fight the anatomical fight of poorly fitted earplugs with shitty sound. It’s a new day, goddammit, and I’m going to shit all over it on my own terms rather than feel shit on myself.

I have Gupter! mags to distribute. I have stories on Year Zero to comment on. I have book signings, reviews, and promo copies to guerilla drop of Back(stabbed). I have a cake I must bake and apple sauce to make.

There are past months issues of The Atlantic and Harper’s to read. There are McSweeney’s posts to catch up on. There are tons of commentary to make on the ridiculous, silly know-it-all blogs of publishing industry folks to bug. There is more postulating on the end of the publishing industry to make.

There are leaves to rake. There are stupid fucking halloween costumes to deal with (I hate halloween). There are pumpkins to carve and later on, to hose off the stoop since they will undoubtedly rot in the ugliest way.

The unintentional experiment is over and my ass must get moving.

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