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The Unconventional Novelist

SO, I’ve written a book, and the contracts have been signed, and barring extinction-level event between now and 2018, The Unconventional Novelist will be published by Writer’s Digest next year. Huzzah!

My pitch was, in a nutshell, hey I do everything wrong and generally approach my writing career like a drunk guy approaches riding a bicycle down a mountainside, and yet here I am, nine novels in and making a living writing. And the editors took one look at my disheveled appearance and then one look at my surprisingly robust list of writing and publishing credits and decided that they could make some hay with this.

The book will be chock full of the wisdom I’ve accumulated during my lengthy and unusual writing career, most of which goes against received wisdom and, you know, the usual way of doing things. There’s this illusion that there’s a “right” way to get published and make money from your writing, and I am living proof that this is bunk. Also, there are more hilarious footnotes in this thing than is probably wise.

I’ll keep y’all updated. I’ve set up a blog over at https://unconventionalwriting.wordpress.com where I’ll be posting nuggets of drunken literary wisdom and other things, so if you want a sense of what the book will be like, there you go.

Another Novel Experiment

Anyone who pays attention to my wee blog here knows that now and again I try a little literary experiment. I’ve Tweeted short stories, I self-published six novellas that tied together as a new Avery Cates novel, I post free short stories here all the time.

Another experiment: A novel published as a transient blog. Here’s the details:

The Novel: Black House, featuring my character Philip K. Marks, who has appeared in short stories published at Buzzy Magazine (A Meek and Thankful Heart), Black Denim Lit (Howling on for More), and the anthologies Hanzai Japan (Three Cups of Tea) and Crimes by Moonlight (sift, almost invisible, through).

Here’s the synopsis:

All his life, Philip K. Marks has been a magnet for the strange, the surreal, the slightly impossible. His investigations into each macabre mystery that he’s stumbled into have always taken something from him, something essential. Old before his time, Marks is a shadow of what he used to be—but the strange and unusual still finds him. And he still can’t resist seeking answers.

At a rare upward swing in his fortunes, he finds himself able to imagine a more normal, stable existence for the first time in years. If he can just keep his head down. If he can just stay sober. If he can just resist the urge to help the little girl whose father went to look at an apartment and never came back. If he can stay out of the Black House.

The Blog: theblackhousesite.wordpress.com

The Deal: I’ll begin posting chapters of the novel on 5/1/17. I’ll post at least one chapter a day throughout May until the final chapter hits on 5/31/17. The novel will remain up until 6/15/17, and then I’m taking the whole site down.

Why? I dunno. To see what happens. To how it feels. To let anyone interested read what I think is a pretty cool story.

The Dulcet Tones of My Voice

Y’all might remember that last year Great Jones Street, the new short story app aiming to be the “Netflix of Fiction” reprinted my story Ringing the Changes, which appeared in “Best American Mystery Stories 2006.” If that didn’t prompt you to go download the app, go on an do so. I’ll wait.

Well, as an added incentive (?) the good folks at GSJ have added a “live reading” feature where authors upload audio of themselves reading their stories. You can read the story with your eyes like a sucker, or hear me read it to you! Plus, because I have dangerously little to do and a lot of spare time, I went ham on adding sound effects and such to my reading.

You can hear a 1 minute sample of my reading here:

The full reading is about 20 minutes long and is, of course, brilliant. You should totally download the app to hear it.

Lazy Writing 101: The Young Lover

You youngsters and your damned energy.

My wife, The Duchess, excels at many things, but her main skill is increasingly getting me to watch terrible, terrible television shows. She does this with a combination of stick and carrot; on the one hand if I mock and refuse to watch a show, she can become surly. On the other, if I mock and complain enough, she will often magnanimously swap a slightly less-awful show in for a more-awful show.

This is how I wound up squirming out from under the rock of Dancing with the Stars and found myself watching The Great Indoors.

The Evergreen Sitcom Plot

Look, I like Joel McHale. I loved him on Community, and he’s a pretty funny guy and a charismatic actor. I’m glad he’s getting a paycheck. The Great Indoors is a mediocre sitcom, and the bar is pretty low for a CBS sitcom to begin with, so mediocrity is nothing to celebrate. It has its moments, yes, but in general it’s a pretty lazy show. Point in fact, one of the first season episodes was a classic Lazy Plot. Specifically, it was the “aging lothario is exhausted by younger lover” (ALEBYL) plot.

The ALEBYL plot is simple: The main character’s virility is challenged (or their vanity is stroked) and they choose to date a much, much younger person. The younger person then puts them through a gauntlet of activities they barely tolerate and can’t possibly keep up with, until they’re miserable. But! They refuse to admit this, for a variety of reasons. Hilarity ensues.

This old chestnut wasn’t new in 1989, when Cheers did it in the episode “Don’t Paint Your Chickens,” wherein Sam Malone dates a younger woman who is very athletic, and pretends to be up to her standards of constant, exhausting activity. It wasn’t new when 30 Rock did it in the 2007 episode “Cougars.” It wasn’t new when it was initially conceived, more or less around the year 1. It is, in fact, a prime example of Lazy Writing.

The Getaway

Part of the reason writers get away with this laziness, of course, is our short cultural memories. The earliest example I can come up with off the top of my head is from 1989—nearly thirty years ago, sure, but still pretty recent. The simple fact is the doom of men is that they forget, and a new generation of idiots thinks the episode of The Great Indoors referenced above is the first time this old plot was ever done.

The three examples I’ve offered here are all slightly different. Cheers isn’t so much concerned with the age difference as it is with the younger person’s higher athletic ability and energy. 30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon is practically an asexual character, and the relationship serves to underscore her (often hilarious) combination of intelligence and dire insecurity. The Great Indoors leans in to the currently hot topic of how ridiculous and silly millennials are when compared to older generations. All of them, however, rely on a fundamental concept of sitcom comedy writing: Old people feeling their age are hilarious.

Maybe I’m just bitter, being an old person. But then I didn’t want to stay out all night when I was 20. Once when I was about 25 a friend invited me to have dinner with her and some of her friends, and I was delighted … until she told me she’d see me at 10PM. For pre-dinner drinks. TEN FUCKING PM. I’ve been an old man longer than you’ve been alive.

Look, older generations are always going to be convinced that the kids are vacuous morons. Any story that gently pokes Olds in the ribs about their age while simultaneously mocking Youngs for their idiocy and ignorance will be a hit, and the ALEBYL plot fires on all those thrusters. You can expect to see it at least four more times on different shows before you die, and there are probably two dozen examples I’m not aware of.

The Point

So what’s the point? The point is, you can discover valuable lessons about tired old tropes and lazy writing anywhere … even terrible CBS sitcoms. Eyes open, kids.

Gout, Dementia, and Inspiration

I Got Me the Gout

Long-time readers of this blog (and possibly my old zine The Inner Swine) might recall that a decade ago I was diagnosed with old-timey disease Gout. Gout is a pretty awful affliction, but it’s manageable, and there are much worse diseases out there—specifically, diseases that will kill you. Gout is painful, but with a good prescription and some discipline it can be dealt with. Although it does make you feel Old, with a capital “O”.

What really makes me feel old is the word “rheumatologist.” My grandmother had a rheumatologist. Young, vibrant people not on the verge of dementia and death do not, as a rule, have rheumatologists who greet them by name, so simply by making an appointment to see my doctor I feel instantly 1,000 years old. Unfortunately, it’s not just the gout and the rheumatologist making me feel old: It’s also my tired, malfunctioning brain.

The Somers Curse

My brain has always failed me. My memory is terrible, and I forget things about five minutes after learning them. And I often think I understand stuff, and get irritated and impatient when people insist on explaining stuff that I clearly understand, only to realize hours later that I totally did not understand. You might think that that at my advanced age—and age so advanced I can be diagnoses with gout, for the sake of Pete—I’d be aware of my limitations, but no such luck.

For example, last week I was heading into Manhattan to see my rheumatologist so they could evaluate the broken glass-and-bubble gum that comprises most of my gout-ridden joints. I know that my wife, The Duchess, is partial to baked goods, so I offered to pick something up for her while I was in the City. A good husband, after all, knows just how to suck up and curry favor.

She said she wanted a slice of cake from Magnolia Bakery, and proceeded to explain to me where the most convenient location was in Penn Station. I waved her off. “I have a smartphone and a brain,” I declared. “I’ll find it.”

Yes, you see where this is going.

Cut to two hours later, and I’m sweating and panicked on 33rd Street. My smartphone is telling me I am more or less inside Magnolia Bakery, despite being clearly on the street. I can’t call The Duchess and admit I’m confused, so I spend the next forty minutes desperately exploring Penn Station, trying to find the god-damned Magnolia Bakery, because I cannot—can not—return home without cake. To do so would be admitting I hadn’t paid any attention when my wife explained the details of my mission.

I suppose I take some comfort in the fact that my brain has always been this way: I think I understand things when I really don’t, and my confusion usually turns to rage at the people who have failed me, then, quickly, shame. If this was a new development, this combined with the gout would be a good excuse to put me away in a nice, comfortable home until I died and my organs could be harvested (except my liver, which has been used badly). But since I’ve always been this idiotic, the fact that it took me an hour to locate a bakery and buy a slice of cake is cause for mockery, not worry.

So, the upside? My confusion and difficulty with simple tasks isn’t likely to be the first sign of an age-related decline. The downside? This is who I am: A sweaty man who spends 45 minutes circling the same spot in Penn Station, completely confused as to the location of a bakery. And yes, dammit, I eventually found it. No thanks to you.

The Dubious Connection

This stuff always makes me think about writing, because I don’t know about you, but my inspirations—my ability to think of new ideas and shape them into stories—is a bit mysterious to me, and so I live in daily terror that one day I’ll wake up and it’s gone.

The worst part is, I might not even know it. There are plenty of artists working who continue to put out new material, but it’s lost that spark, that certain something that made their prior work interesting. And I wonder; are they aware that they’ve lost it? Are they haunted by it? Or do they think they’re still killing it? So moments when my brain isn’t working too well make me worry that I might have already entered into that period of decline where my writing is no longer all interesting, and I’m not aware of it.

That’s the worst part of being creative, sometimes: Your lack of control over your own ability. It’s like a random light shined on you, and it might go out at any time, without your permission—or even your awareness.

On that cheerful note, I’ll conclude by letting you know there’s no need to worry: The Duchess got her piece of cake, and I was not physically punished for failure. Not this time, at least.

St. Paddy’s Day

This was originally written in 1998, and appeared in The Inner Swine Volume 4, Issue 2. This might be funnier if you know who Carolyn and Mandy really are. Or not.

The only massacred was my pride.

BIG-HATTED WOMAN, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE?

A Day in the Life of Your Editor: The Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in Hoboken, New Jersey

Back in March I was invited to the home town of two of my lovely assistants, known here as Mandy Cuervo and Carolyn Millivanilli in order to protect their reputations, to watch a lame parade and then drink all day. What follows is a report on our activities. It is my hope that this will help others who are victims of the “Big Hats” at these parades; my therapy is ongoing.

TIME-LINE OF THE BIG HATS

11:30am: I arrive. Mandy, is frying bacon naked in the kitchen. Carolyn had already consumed an entire bottle of champagne and is passed out on the floor. I step over her gently.

12:00 noon: The sound of the Clancy Brothers on the stereo awakens Carolyn, who immediately begins a painful, off?key wailing I quickly identify as singing. Mandy has put on overalls. I sneak into Carolyn’s room to phone Ken West desperately, promising him 50 dollars if he will join us.

12:30 pm: After consuming six pounds of bacon and two Mimosas each, I am experiencing heart palpitations, Carolyn is once again unconscious and Mandy threatens to disrobe again to attend the parade “alfresco.” I bundle the women out the door and we march up to Washington Street, which shows absolutely no signs of a parade occurring there this day.

1:00pm: We meet friends and friends-of-friends at Sullivan’s bar for a drink. The friends-of-friends are snooty, and Mandy tearfully threatens everyone in the bar with serial nudity unless they are nice to her. Carolyn quickly attracts a crowd of men, and dances for them.

1:05pm: Having been politely asked to leave by the Bar’s management, we strike boldly out to find a good viewing place for the parade.

1:06pm: distracted by a bar called Mile Square, we enter to bolster our resolve with a pint and the women don attractive, humongous, bright green hats which are just slightly larger than the women themselves. Carolyn gathers a crowd of drunken men around her and allows them to place things in her hat. Mandy pretends she has “lost” her socks, a foreboding warning of things to come.

1:30pm: while the women hoot and flash the bagpipers marching by, I notice police forming a line around us and closing in, so I begin backing away slowly. Ken West arrives and attacks us with Silly String. Mandy is delighted and claims his silly string has “ruined” her T?shirt, and happily removes it. We decide to move on and have to extricate Carolyn from a large crowd of police, who are clapping their hands and hollering as she dances for them.

2:00pm: We arrive at a bar called Hennesey’s, where Carolyn immediately finds a group of men to surround herself with. Ken, Mandy and I have drinks at the bar. Mandy’s hat keeps overbalancing her, and she eventually finishes our visit there sitting on the floor, drinking anything handed to her. When we leave to get pizza, she has mysteriously lost her brassiere.

3:00pm: At a bar called Willie McBrides, a large crowd of men are waiting for us, applauding Carolyn and holding banners that read “CAROLYN MILLIVANILLI WE LOVE YOU”. We enter the bar with great difficulty due to dangerous crowding. Carolyn holds court by the bar in the back while Mandy and I are nauseated by a “dirty” dancing couple next to us. Ken arrives in the nick of time to demand we leave immediately. We must resort to force to remove Carolyn from her admirers, and in the scuffle, Mandy loses her overalls.

5:00pm: We are at The Quiet Woman after several other bars, aware of the disturbances the women have been causing, refuse to admit us. At The Quiet Woman Carolyn quickly assembles a small group of men to entertain her. Ken and I talk baseball in a quiet corner. Mandy is now wearing her large hat around herself, as clothing. She keeps bugging Ken and I to dance with her, but we refuse, knowing that this is just a ruse so she can “lose” her underwear as well.

5:10pm: Mandy has “lost” her underwear anyway, and Ken boogies with her, defeated.

10:00pm: I find myself walking along Park Avenue towards Moran’s; I have no idea where the past five hours have gone. Mandy is nude except for the huge hat she is wearing on her head. Ken has the grim look of a concentration?camp survivor. I smell like Minestrone and vaguely remember the women dancing on the bar to the tune of “Mexican Radio.” A large mob of men follows us at a safe distance, watching to see where Carolyn goes next.

10:15pm: At Moran’s Tavern, Carolyn’s arrival causes a riot. We drink Baileys and Ken and I get separated from the women as a huge wave of men enters to surround Carolyn. I claim to be Mandy’s brother.

2:00am: We leave Moran’s to have pizza and leftovers at the girls’ house. Mandy reveals that she has been hiding her clothing in her hat. Ken wisely leaves, but I am too weak and am wrestled to the ground and robbed by the women, who taunt me, calling me “little man.” I am cast out into the street and my pants are removed.

The Out of Ideas Fallacy

Yup.

I go out drinking with my brother, Yan*, all the time. During these boozy afternoons we often repeat arguments, circling around the same old disagreements like brothers do. Also, lifelong enemies. One of the arguments we have stems from my brother’s conviction that nothing in the arts has been worth watching since 1995, and even the period between 1985 and 1995 is kind of sketchy. Yan believes that with rare exceptions, the best movies, TV shows, and music was created before that era, and he turns a yellow and suspicious eye on anything that bears a copyright later than that.

He also, it goes without saying, dismisses any sort of reboot or update, believing firmly that Hollywood is out of ideas and should get back to making new stories, instead of raiding the past for easy dollars.

I haven’t had the chance to ask him yet, but I am confident my brother would despise whatever comes of the Matrix Trilogy reboot being planned.

To be fair, he likely isn’t a fan of the original, either. My brother is quite the curmudgeon.

Still, the general wails of dismay concerning the reboot of the Matrix kind of perplexed me. Because I think anything can be rebooted. And maybe should be.

Shakespeare

It’s funny the things we decide cannot possibly be remade or rebooted; they tend to be things we experienced directly in our own lifetimes, as if we have some sort of ownership of them. Some movie made long before our time, which we’ve maybe never seen? Sure, go ahead and remake it. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Hilarious! Go for it. The Matrix? Are you mad? That was just 18 years ago.

Look, I complained too when they decided that Batman needed to be rebooted just eight fucking years after the disastrous and terrible Batman and Robin. But I’ve changed my mind: Why not reboot things? Reboot them often, reboot them hard. Because all that matters–or all that should matter–is whether that reboot is good. They reboot Shakespeare on a regular basis, and no one in their right mind complains.

Of course, Shakespeare is theater–transient and of the moment. No one is going to complain that they did it better in 1601, after all, since no record of that performance exists, and even modern performances fade away like tears in the rain, memorialized only in our memories. Songs, too, get remade all the time, re-interpreted, slaughtered on reality-TV shows, remixed, sampled–you name it. No one cares.

But movies and TV shows? The outrage whenever we decide to reboot, remix, or simply remake a movie–unless it’s old and not part of our living experience–is always met with cries about how Hollywood is “out of ideas” and must pillage our cherished memories for more tickets sales. This of course ignores a few points:

  1. The movies we’re complaining about being remade are often themselves remixes, reboots, or a tasty melange of borrowed tropes, as all art builds on what has come before, and
  2. For a younger generation, the newer version will likely be theirs in the same way the older or original version is yours. Let them have it.

I just can’t get upset about a reboot any more. Look, The Matrix films were great–or, the first one was, and the two sequels, while containing some great sequences, were a slog–but our worst case scenario is that the new version will be a pale imitation of the original, which we’ve already seen and survived with The Force Awakens, so what’s the big deal?

 

*Not his real name. My brother is very important and cannot risk being embarrassed by connection with me.

Tipping and Incompetence

Sorry, I’d tip but I only carry $100,000 bills, because I’m a writer.

Friends, we may be moving into a post-cash society. I say this with a degree of confidence because I am normally at least two decades behind in any trend; I’m that guy who walks into a room and says something like “Wow, that Kanye West fellow sure can rap!” in 2017 and then wonders why everyone is smirking at him. So the fact that I never carry any cash on me means that a cashless society can only be moments away, if I’m already on board.

I was once worried about going cashless, because I didn’t want the Illuminati to be able to track all of my movements and purchases. But I don’t worry about that any more, because 1) smartphones take care of that for them and 2) I’m old and tired and dealing with cash is just too much fucking work, so if the Illuminati want to know all about my liquor and cheese purchases (and, as a direct result of the first two, my Beano purchases), I say let them have all the big data they want.

Going cashless is wonderful. I no longer worry about having money in my wallet, I no longer have pounds of coins weighing me down at the end of the day. I have a record of every purchase which does wonders for budgeting. The only problem? Tipping.

To Insure Proper Service

I like to tip. This is because I am a drinker, and drinkers live in bars and the bar ecosystem is predicated on tips. I also have a certain amount of empathy for every fellow human I meet, and when I meet fellow humans doing a hard job I like to reward them and make their day a little brighter. It also makes me feel like Jeff Somers, Millionaire About Town, I won’t lie.

But, now that I never have any cash on me, I am frequently in the position of being Jeff Somers, Entitled Asshat Who Never Tips.

For example, I was at a fairly swanky event recently. Open bar, finger foods, coat check, all that nice stuff. And all night I felt like an asshat because I couldn’t tip the bartenders, the coat check girl, or anyone. Do you know that time dilates and it takes about 6 hours to get a drink from a bartender when you know you don’t have a dollar bill to put in their little bowl? It’s science. I have performed the experiment to confirm the phenomenon.

Yes, I could—and should!—plan ahead and just get some cash to keep on my person at all times just for tipping. This would require competence, which I do not possess. Believe me, it’s on my list of things to do.

I suppose someday there will be easy digital tipping options, which would be a little ominous as it’s easy to imagine someone setting up a card skimmer to accept tips and the next day you’re cleaned out just because the bartender had a heavy hand pouring your shots of Wild Turkey. But I’d probably take the chance, because I love to tip, and the chances that I’ll remember to bring cash ever are disturbingly low. Just like my chances of wearing pants, which is another reason I never have cash; no pockets. Don’t ask where I keep the credit card. Don’t. Ask.

Some Giveaway Winners

We have three winners who will be receiving a signed print copy of the new Avery Cates story, The Kendish Hit, and this is the story of how they won.

First of all, if you weren’t aware that I was giving away copies of the story, that’s probably because despite my incessant pleas and reminders, you haven’t signed up for my newsletter. Which is, frankly, inexplicable. Four times a year I’ll be sending out an email with news, secrets, embarrassing photos, and giveaways and other exclusive stuff. You can sign up over at the top right of this page, or go here. I suggest you do it right now, before you forget.

In the March 2017 newsletter I asked people to finish a line from the story itself:

“The Big Guy had an accent, something drastic that made every word sound like _________.”

In the actual story, the line ends “… it had been carved out of rocks.” I took all the entries and anonymized into a document, which I submitted to the Jeff Somers Rocks You Like an Email Hurricane Judging Committee, which is staffed by my wife The Duchess.

The Duchess takes everything she does very seriously, and so after a costume change and a snack she settled in to read through the entries, sifting through until she had found three she deemed acceptable for a variety of reasons. Here are the winners:

“… it had been carved out of rocks!” — A.L. Coan

The Duchess says: “I chose this one because they mimicked the Master.”

“… cliff faces falling into the ocean, taking that hospital of paraplegic nuns with them. His voice was what the stratification of the Burgess Shale, the Morrison Formation, and the Laramide Revolution would sound like if you recorded every sound during their deposition, scrunched that into a five-minute soundclip, and turned it into a black metal single. Every intake of breath was the collective screams of pterosaurs and anomalocarids still trapped somewhere below his larynx, begging for just one tracheotomy to let them see daylight again.” — Paul Riddell

The Duchess says: “This one was chosen for the simple, sheer amount of time it took to come up with something like that.

“… he’d been drinking Black Saddle bourbon for 3 days straight” — John Patterson

The Duchess says: “This one wins because it shows he actually read the newsletter.”

So there you have it, folks: The winners of the March 2017 Newsletter Giveaway. Who will be next? You’d best sign up to be in the running. You never know when I’ll be giving away my credit card # or something; I do drink a lot.