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Why I Haven’t Watched the New “Twin Peaks”

It’s 1989 all over again.

I can only assume you all spend about 104% of your time watching entertainments, because otherwise I have no idea how you’ve all already watched everything. I mean, seriously: These TV shows require hours and hours of your time. Are people really bingeing through 10 hours of a show and then shuffling to work at the Emergency Room, where they sew a few sponges into my abdomen and nod off during lunch?

When I was a kid, I was a huge Twin Peaks fan. Yuuuugggggee. I can still remember the moment Dale Cooper had his first dream vision, and I was god-damned mesmerized. I can also remember watching the Season Two finale with some friends in a rented house at college; there was a storm raging outside and I was white knuckled terrified during that ending sequence. Twin Peaks was ridiculous and overwrought and deeply silly, but damn it was good stuff.

I haven’t watched the new version on Showtime. Because life is short.

Down to My Final Trillion Seconds

As far as I know, I’m going to die someday. And based on my functional alcoholism, that time is likely much closer than I might like to think. Which means I have to use my time wisely, which means, put simply, that I no longer make time to watch things live. I DVR them, I order them on-demand, I download them from the Internet. And I only do that if the reviews and think-pieces make it seem worthwhile.

So, maybe the new Twin Peaks is great. Maybe it’s terrible. Time will tell, and I’ll be waiting until it does, because I only have so much time to spend on fictions and entertainments. And considering that we have this power—to vet our entertainment before we spend/waste time on it—why don’t we? Just seems foolish to commit 2 hours to Twin Peaks Mark 2 before I even know if it’s any good.

I could be spending that time drinking, is what I’m saying.

It’s Not Impostor Syndrome if You’re Actually Faking It

Jeff, I think you know why we’ve called this meeting: You absolutely must start wearing pants to the office.

AS AN author, I hear about Impostor Syndrome a lot. This syndrome, if you have somehow lived this long without encountering it, is when perfectly capable, competent people believe their own success (or lack of failure) is the result of sheer luck and circumstance—that they are, in fact, frauds.

Writers are easy marks for this kind of corrosive self-doubt; no matter how successful you are as a writer, of course, there will be a group of people who consider your work to be terrible, and most writers wind up in that Twilight Zone of mid-level success: A few publishing credits to your name, but no significant sales breakthrough, meaning you make a few pennies and get some recognition, but you’re still working a day job and still hustling every minute of the day instead of lounging by the pool of chocolate pudding in your tropical estate. Or something; your fantasy of being rich and wildly successful may vary.

So when you sell a story or a novel, it’s easy to think you just got lucky, and many of us do just that. I often have that urge to mutter joke’s on you, suckers! as I sign a book contract, so I’m no stranger to Impostor Syndrome. The thing is, while I’m not an impostor as a writer, I certainly have been an impostor throughout much of my adult life, because I am a firm disciple of the Fake It Til You Make It religion of sleeping in and not doing the research.

The Miracle 18

Up until a few years ago, I had a Day Job. In a sense, I still do; I’m not a full-time novelist, I’m a full time writer, which means a lot of what I write I do in order to earn a living. But writing as a Day Job is a perfect fit for me, because I’m good with the words. What I did for 18 years of my life in a professional capacity was not a good fit, because it required three things I do not possess: Attention to detail, organization, and the ability to wake up in the morning.

So, if I was terrible at my job, how did I keep it for nearly two decades? Here’s a timeline of events that hold some clues:

  1. When I got my first job in the industry, I was a chubby, tow-headed kid of 23 who wore enormous glasses and whose clothes were always 2 sizes too large (that is not a joke) and so I firmly believe my bosses during the first 3 years or so simply took pity on me.
  2. Over the first 5 years or so, the company I worked at went through several mergers and re-organizations, and I had about 6 bosses over that time, so no one ever had the chance to appreciate my incompetence and apathy.
  3. At some point my bosses realized I was the only person in the office who could write a Visual Basic script, and I had a shadow career creating toolbars and widgets . At one point, despite this having nothing to do with my actual job description, I probably spent 75% of my time doing this.
  4. By the time I was forced to actually focus on the core work my job demanded, I’d had a decade to more or less memorize the basic shortcuts, which meant that as long as the other people I worked with were competent, I could fake it.

Eventually, of course, the whole house of cards collapsed. Looking back, I’m impressed that I was able to fake it for as long as I did, and I have to say that making a living doing something I’m actually good at is an incredible feeling. Some people have been feeling this their whole lives! That seems incredible, but it’s true.

What’s the moral of this story? Sometimes that creeping feeling that you’re not very good at something isn’t Impostor Syndrome, it’s reality knocking on your door. Of course, I was lucky that my incompetence applies to something I didn’t want to do in the first place, and that sheer luck or the power of my charm (which is potent) kept me employed.

Or possibly the moral of the story is that if you work hard enough you can in fact earn a living without wearing pants.

Breakin’ the Law (in D&D)

FRIENDS, I have never claimed to be cool. I was a portly kid with thick glasses, and so I was doomed to be the mascot of every class (spiced with occasional good old-fashioned bullying) until I hit college, when somehow my combination of sarcasm, bad hair, and even thicker glasses alchemically made me, if not cool, at least not uncool. Still, despite my chronic uncoolness at every stop along my journey through life I’ve managed to do two things: Have a lot of fun and toss all the rulebooks out the window.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that I’m some sort of brilliant iconoclast or rebel. Far from it; I’m the sort of guy who gets mildly upset if I don’t get my coffee at the same exact time every day, because what this world needs is MORE ORDER; in other words, I love following rules in general. But I am that classic jackass who looks at a book of rules and thinks, jeez, that’s a lot to read and so I don’t read them and I just sort of wing it and make shit up as I go. This is why all my Ikea furniture looks like torture devices from Isengard, and why I spent six years lost in Canada, refusing to read a map. Yes, I’m that jackass.

A Level 35 Demigod

12-year Old Jeff Said HOLY CRAP ITS GOT A DRAGON ON IT, DUNNIT!

Back in my grammar school days I played a bit of Dungeons & Dragons, although I’ll admit I only glanced at the rules. I probably read the Basic Module, or mostly read it, but as we got deeper and deeper in I could never be bothered to read the more advanced rules. D&D had a pretty neat system there, starting off simple and then adding in layers of complexity, but this seemed an awful lot like work, so my friends and I just sort of absorbed the basic concept and then set about just making up whatever we wanted.

Since we were nearing full-on puberty, there were a number of pornographic adventures involving lots of lusty barmaids, witches, and female monsters. Things got … weird. After things got weird, we went full-on acquisitive; the rules for D&D were painfully slow. You started off with nothing, a Level One Thief or Elf or what have you, and you were supposed to slowly make your way through adventures where you would slowly gain experience and level up and slowly discover magic items that would augment your abilities and slowly, slowly, slowly.

One advantage to not reading any rules was the ease with which you could simply decide fuck that, let’s become demigods. So we did.

Acting as Dungeon Masters, we created adventures specifically designed to level up our characters as quickly as possible. We awarded experience points like candy, we littered the adventure with spectacular items gleamed from the Dungeon Master’s Handbook from the Advanced version of the game, and by the end of it we had characters who could basically do anything.

Look on My Works, Ye Mighty

Of course, the game was ruined. Once you have a demigod for a character all you can do is pit them against each other, rolling the dice to see whose obscure and ultra-powerful spell would shatter whose ancient magical shield. That didn’t matter, for me it was a teachable moment, because I realized something very important about myself: I love stats.

Statistics were why I got interested in D&D in the first place (that and the aforementioned pornographic possibilities of role-playing games), just like stats lured me into baseball fandom. The neat rows of numbers, all meaning something, all representing abilities and achievements—I loved them like children. I could calculate an ERA in my head and I instinctively knew the odds of my fireball spell working, and more than anything else I loved the back of a baseball card where a player’s stats were listed and I loved my D&D character sheets where their stats were all laid out.

The same kids who I played D&D with also played in a computer baseball league with me on our Commodore 64s. Microleague Baseball was a marvel; it ran on stats. It came with pre-compiled teams, but you could enter your own and then manage the team in real time. We played entire seasons, made trades, had playoffs and championships. And it was half numbers, half strategy, and not so different from D&D in some ways, although we didn’t cheat much in Microleague. We cheated a little, of course, but not much.

To this day, I don’t read the manual or work too hard to understand the rules. This is why many video games enrage me and also why the washing machine turns on when I play the radio—who has time to pay attention to electrical codes or wiring diagrams?

“Black House” is Live

Chapter One of Black House, a novel featuring my character Philip K. Marks, has gone live over at theblackhousesite.wordpress.com, and you should go read it! I’ll be posting new chapters every day this month until the whole novel is up. Then it will stay up until June 15th, and then I’m deleting the site. Why? I’m not entirely sure. Let’s see what happens.

The novel is an experiment for me; I was inspired by an old puzzle book that was a house in the form of a maze, so I wrote a novel that is really a maze. It’s kind of trippy and strange, but I really like it, and hope you do too.

The book release schedule is basically 1-2 chapters every day, so you can check the website every day and find at least one new chapter, often two. I’d encourage you to let me know what you think as the story progresses—it’s be interesting to hear what y’all think in the midst of reading it.

And don’t forget—June 15th, I’m, deleting it. If you want to save the chapters for future reading, do it before then.

Enjoy!

Writin’ Ain’t Easy

I’m sitting here on a Saturday evening with a glass of Michter’s American whiskey, a cat, and my keyboard. It’s hot and humid, and I’m sweating like a pig, but it’s okay, because it’s been cold for so long I’m kind of into sweating right now.

It’s been a decent writing day, but of course it wasn’t all personal work and fiction. I spent a bit of time looking for new freelance work and touching various freelance projects I’ve got spinning. Not a lot, I’m not saying my life is hard in any way, but one thing they sure don’t tell you when you tear off your shirt in a restaurant and shout YOU PEOPLE HAVE HELD ME BACK LONG ENOUGH, I’M GOING TO BECOME A FULL-TIME WRITER is that the phrase “full time” means fucking full time.

As In 24/7

Writing for a living can be exhausting. The fiction is fun. The fiction is me taking my ideas and putting them into coherent form and seeing a world emerge where there was only blank paper or white pixels. The freelance, which pays a big part of the bills, is a different story.

You pretty much have to be an idea machine when you write freelance. While a few of my editors do send me assignments, if I relied on assignments being sent to me passively I’d make about $100 a month. Which, as I discovered in my first, extremely painful year of freelancing, isn’t enough to live on. So you have to constantly send out new ideas, and then you have to badger people to get to you with a yea or nay on those ideas. And then when you get 3 acceptances out of six ideas, you have to start thinking of six more ideas to send.

And you write more or less every day. I’ve tried making weekends into My Time, I’ve tried designated Wednesdays as Jeff Writes Fiction Day, Yahoo and both have worked for short periods of time, but freelance writing creeps in. Someone can only be interviewed on a certain day, or you got day drunk on Friday and so forgot to look for new work, so you have to carve out some time on Saturday to do it. Or, simply put, your earnings on the month are on the soft side, and you need to find a few hundred bucks’ worth of work before the week is out.

So, you find yourself working at odd hours and when you should be napping. It’s offset by the aforementioned day drinking, the occasional afternoon movie, the ability to go hang out with friends and then work at 2AM to make up for it, and, sometimes, the ability to trade a few hundred dollars in exchange for doing absolutely nothing, because no boss can loom over your desk and ask why you’re playing video games.

But damn, it’s exhausting sometimes.

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.