In the Limbo of Writing a Book

I’m in no position to give anyone writing advice, so I don’t. I relate issues I come up with as I struggle along, and hope writers or anyone else can glean something of use from my fumblings.

After writing fourteen thousand words of a new book, which I knew was going to work out, I stumbled. I kept writing. The new book crashed and burned.

A few days after leaving the smoldering ashes, I can see that the main reason it flopped was because it had no center — I didn’t know what I was writing about. I was just moving the characters around.

The book was based on the opening of a different novel. This book was going to act as an introduction to that one, a stand-alone book but also a warm-up.

Those ideas are crippling when you haven’t figured out where you’re going.

I was more interested in finishing something than in thestory itself. I didn’t know where I was heading.

As someone who for years never planned out stories, I resist outlining, but it isn’t such a big deal, just a few signs on the road you want your characters to travel is enough of an outline for me.
I didn’t have that, so the book died.

I don’t know what I’ll do, exactly, but just to keep writing I am working on a new story about a character I like. It’s of a different genre and I’m having fun with it while I figure out what my “real” next novel is going to be. The characters are alive, doing their thing, and I’m just sort of sitting back and watching and taking it all down. I’m writing thousands of words a day as opposed to struggling along, forcing characters to keep moving.

(A sign the writing is poor: Characters do a lot of looking at each other, and I describe them walking. Deadly.)

Books written out of a sense of marketing duty and those written for enjoyment feel different while you’re writing them.

It’s not as simple as “You write for the market or you write for personal enjoyment.” I don’t believe I can write for The Market in that I can build something just because “The Readers” (whoever they are) will buy it. 50 Shades of Gray, fantasy novels, action novels — they’re junk to me. I should be able to knock a few off, make some money. Doesn’t work that way. The writers of those books love those kinds of books.

The balancing act is between your own enjoyment and communicating that on the page so others can partake of your pleasure in the story.

It really isn’t that complicated. It’s just impossible for 99% of the folks who try to write.

If you write what you enjoy, at least one person liked it. But that’s not enough if you want to be read.




Hippie Dystopia: GLEN AND RANDA


GLEN AND RANDA is one of those cult movies that doesn’t have a cult behind it, one of those oddities that gets recommended in Movies You’ve Never Seen articles but never really breaks through. Directed by Jim McBride (known for David Holzman’s Diary but whose mainstream success was The Big Easy), it’s about a young couple from a tribe living in the junk of our world after the apocalypse. They leave the tribe to look for a mythical imaginary city. The film being made in the seventies, you can figure out whether or not they find it, but that’s not really the point.

The point is illustrating a world of ruin done without much of a budget. The movie was actually rated X for all the nekkidity. I thought of Glen and Randa today because it shares a similar outlook as the Samuel R. Delany’s novel Dhalgren; it could be taking place in the same world, far from the city of Bellona. This is a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by folks who’ve left behind all the chains of consumer culture, though not by choice.

Glen and Randa is not a great movie, but it tries something different. Along with A Boy and His Dog and Idaho Transfer it shows the attraction of post-apocalyptic cinema for makers of low-budget movies. Most of the movie is shot in woods. You don’t see special effects or big sets. After awhile, the search for a city we in the audience know doesn’t exist gets tedious.

The only reason to watch Glen and Randa is to see how such material is handled as an independent film production in the 1970’s. As with A Boy and His Dog and Idaho Transfer, it’s startlingly bleak, without even the heroics of The Road Warrior to raise the spirits. It’s a bummer.

I can’t recommend the movie unless you, like me, like finding post-apocalyptic movies that are done with some care and originality. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from a seventies indie movie about the world being over, but it stays in the mind, if only for its bleakness. Yay.




Not a Political Post

If you want to read my babbling about politics you can find it on Medium, but you probably shouldn’t. Mixing pulp or genre writing with politics has never worked for me. There are several writers whose politics I find so completely sickening I can’t bear to read their fiction anymore.

What does a writer’s politics mean for a reader, anyway? If you like his political views, all it means is you’ve found a writer who agrees with you. Where’s the fun in that? If he disagrees with you and you hold it against him, what have you gained? You’ve lost a source of enjoyable fiction.

I’ve backed away from people from the left and the right due to their politics because I expected them to be decent people (as if we can know what anyone is doing in their private life from their statements of political belief) and their on-line positions on issues repelled me. I didn’t change their views, so the only person to suffer was the undersigned.

I’ve known people who have all the right positions and were terrible human beings. One of the best people I’ve ever met was a criminal; one of the worst worked for a charity. I probably shouldn’t have slept with her for so long, but I was young and foolish. Okay, middle aged and horny, I shouldn’t try to buffer it.

When I was young my parents had people of all sorts as friends, right and left, different ethnic types, different religions. I could hear them disagreeing about politics the way you and I might about movies.

Politics has hurt my life more than it has helped, but I won’t force it out of my work to please some imaginary moderate. I am who I am, and though I won’t please everyone, all are welcome to read and enjoy my work.

That’s all.

Laid Back by Gregg Allman

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Gregg Allman’s death put me in one of those spots we’re all put in: I own several of his albums, so I got to say “I loved his work,” but he was a satellite, not a planet, in my personal solar system. I haven’t thought of him in forever. Several of his songs are on my Current Favorites MP3 player list. I own about a dozen Gregg Allman, Duane Allman and Allman Brothers records on vinyl, a few on CD.

Laid Back is my favorite of his albums, a somewhat atypical collection because it is, indeed, more laid back than the Allman Brothers albums he is most famous for. This is a product of its time, the 70’s singer/songwriter era when sullen dudes cut albums of slow-paced songs about being midnight riders and lonesome single guys. It’s great.


Session 9

My pick for Horror Movie That Needs A Re-Evaluation.  Released way back in 2001, this chiller about an asbestos-removal team in an abandoned asylum was a big bomb on release. Taking place in one of the great horror movie locations, Session 9 has its moments of blood but they are used when they have real impact. The bulk of the movie is a sustained bad time spent with the five-man crew as they get dirty, sweaty and claustrophobic working in the decaying asylum being bitchy with each other. One of the crew finds the recordings of the hypnosis sessions a doctor spent with a young woman with multiple personalities. As the week of work continues, one of the group sneaks off to listen to the tapes, getting closer to the final tape…


Session 9 is in the tradition of Val Lewton and Jaques Tourneur, working on the viewer’s mind and fears rather than displaying something monstrous on the screen. I haven’t gotten into the characters at all because Session 9 is very much a character horror movie, with the horror slowly taking hold of the characters without they or the viewer really knowing what’s going on.

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Which is why it’s so effective. I’ve seen the movie several times, and I can’t really tell you what is happening, exactly. If the mystery is solved–if you really understand what’s happening–the fear dissipates. An earlier cut of the movie included scenes that point to a real-world solution, whereas the final cut leaves the viewer caught up in a mix of supernatural and psychological sources of horror.

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Session 9 is one of the few horror movies that could be considered a supernatural horror movie by someone, and a psychological horror by the viewer next to him. That’s hard as hell to do.

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Books I Read in High School: DHALGREN by Samuel Delany



I hated high school. I was not abused or made fun of or any of the bad stuff folks talk about, but I hated high school. It was joyless, and I was a terrible student, and there were no teachers at all interested in the creepy kid who read paperback books when he wasn’t paying attention to the lesson.

Dhalgren was my On the Road or Ginsberg or Susan Collins or Hunger Games or John Green or Harry Potter. Kids who find escape in books seem to fall into two categories: kids who read comfort books aimed at kids, and kids who read ‘difficult’ books that deal with things kids aren’t supposed to be reading about–sex, politics, sex, social issues, questioning religion and authority.

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Dhalgren has been called ‘unreadable,’ which is a challenge to a kid who liked to read. The story is about a man who has lost his memory. He stumbles into a city, Bellona, that has suffered some kind of existential trauma: the sun sometimes appears hugely enlarged, an extra moon appears, fires burn but never consume the buildings. It is a science fiction take on the urban blight of the sixties.  Bellona has been abandoned by most of the residents, leaving a small population trying to piece together a society.  The place is now populated by whites, blacks, Native Americans, women and gay people. This is routine now, but it was startling at the time. The most important thing about this diversity for me was that all of this was done smoothly and naturally–people were just there.

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In the first sections of the book, the hero–who never remembers his name, but is generally called Kid–has sex with a woman and then later with a man; later things get wilder, and frankly perverse. There are violent scenes–Kid ends up running with a gang, the members using holographic projectors to create their individual gang identities–and then more sex. Kid hooks up with a young woman, but theirs is a model of casual relationships: They screw, they eat together, they hang out, and they go their own way for long stretches without checking in (which is impossible in this place–electricity service is spotty, and of course, no social media).

“Is this book about people screwing, eating and getting into fights in a burning city in a desolate, possibly post-apocalyptic world?” No.

Dhalgren is very much a book of its time. The original paperback I own is a white-bordered brick that begins in mid-sentence and ends with the first part of a sentence that is cut off, a sure label of American post-modern novel writin’.  The book has been labelled pretentious, of course, because in these post-Star Wars times, any science fiction novel that isn’t a P.C.-shackled ‘fun’ adventure is pretentious.

“Pretentious” is a label the frightened use for ambition. Science fiction fans get downright hostile about Dhalgren–or, they did. The gay and bisexual elements may mean criticism of the book is no longer acceptable. Delany has written a great deal about homosexuality, in his memoir, in his literary analysis, and in his fiction. These elements are here in Dhalgren, but there is no lecturing, no labeling, as in, “This guy doesn’t like gay people, so he’s bad,” or, “This guy is gay, he’s cool.” The characters in this book are a lot more down-to-earth and believable than those in most science fiction up to that time. One reason is because this isn’t really a science fiction book but a post-modern fantasy of what a communal settlement might be if the urban decay and race riots of the sixties continued and expanded to the point where the U.S. became ungovernable.

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Dhalgren is not a book that can be summarized quickly. Obviously. It is also a book that opened up my mind. That’s not the same thing as being programmed or agreeing with Delany’s politics. That’s one of the biggest lessons I got from the book: I could enjoy a book without agreeing with it.

I don’t know if I would recommend this to a teenager today. There are elements that would probably get a teacher fired for recommending it to a teenager, though they didn’t turn me into a rapist, racist, pederast or astronaut.


Jim Steranko

Steranko was just slightly before my time, but his influence on seventies comic book art was so pervasive that finding his art was almost comforting.



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The Shadow and Batman Steranko







I haven’t read comics in about forty years, but I sorta-kinda keep certain artists on the radar: Berni Wrightson, Will Eisner, Wally Wood, Neal Adams, a few others. Most of these were big before I was reading.

Neal Adams and Steranko had their biggest impact in the sixties and early seventies. Their styles brought a ‘pop art’ energy to comic book art, as did Steve Ditko.

Steranko’s art captures the dimensions of movies, or what we’d like sci-fi and action movies to look like. His women were hotter, the men stronger, the gadgets cooler. His work for Raiders of the Lost Ark includes an Indiana Jones who could eat Harrison Ford, spit out the bones and look for something nourishing.

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