To James Joyce: A Bloomsday Apology


It’s Bloomsday. Sigh. Before I get into my annual apology to James Joyce for having yet to complete reading his modernist masterwork, Ulysses, consider this term I learned from a recent New York Times Magazine article on (missing?) Joyce scholar John Kidd: horror vacui — the “fear of the void.”

The article’s author Jack Hitt, uses it in reference to the “compulsion to fill an existential emptiness” as has been recognized in the crowded canvasses of some folk art. Hitt also extends the term to the completist nature of some Joyceans to know and understand every allusion and nuance of a work Joyce himself said is crammed with “…so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.” Perhaps this was Joyce’s “fuck you” to academia or an attempt at a kind of critical immortality. Or perhaps the work is symptomatic of the author’s own horror vacui — a neurotic exercise in worldbuilding akin to losing whole rooms of one’s home to the bacteria of a model train set. Why this need to rebuild the world? Is it that old saw about getting right in art that which we can’t in life? Is everything that wrong?

Yes. Yes, it is.

Horror vacui is what compels fans of Star Wars and the Marvel to know every iota about Jedis and Infinity Stones and the same anxiety accounts for those with an encyclopedic knowledge of biblical babble and base runs. I similarly had the bug one meaningless adolescent summer when I took a deep-dive into the comparatively shallow waters of The Beats. And like users who become pushers to feed their own habits, I now find myself packing my own work with enigmas and puzzles and inside jokes, not just to fill an apparent existential void but the more harrowing one of the blank screen. (Yesterday, while we were editing our film Pill Head, I changed the graphic of a phone number to suggest the title of a long-lost play I co-wrote. What’s wrong with me?)

So, this is what thou hath wrought, James Joyce. Anyway, as promised:

J.J. –

It being Bloomsday and all, I just wanted to apologize for not having finished reading Ulysses. Again. I know, I know, this is totally ridiculous, not least of which because my own mother named me for one of your major characters (you will be happy to know that I have read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, so part of my pseudo-Greco ass is covered).

Back in 2004, during the Bloomsday centenary, I bought a copy of Ulysses and hunkered down in fake Irish pub called Finn McCool’s somewhere in Santa Monica. This was sad. What was sadder was my intention to drink Guinness until I finished the damn book. Unfortunately, my page to pint ratio turned out to be about one to one. You’re as dense a writer as I’m a slow reader who also happens to be a quick drinker. This is what I remember: “Stately plump mulligan,” a tower, a shaving bowl and having to return the next day for my credit card.

That particular copy of Ulysses ended up on its own Bloomsday adventure, touring the concrete jungle of greater Los Angeles from the back of the cab where I left it. Fortunately, I’ve since acquired two additional unread copies of Ulysses, so I promise to you, Jimmy, I’ll read at least one. Someday. I will. Yes, yes I said yes I will Yes.

And, yes, yes, I skipped to the last page…


Fictional Universe as Personal Niche

I distinctly remember the bright day in front of the Fig, ten years ago, when an editor lamented my fate as a ?generalist.? That is to say, I was a writer without a particular niche. I had breadth in many subjects but depth in none, just when the granularity of the web was just beginning to evince itself in the ever-shifting sands of search-engine-optimization and such things suddenly mattered.

Naturally, I set to finding a niche ASAP, found one (some sort of ?fish out of Hollywood, drowning in wine country? crap), won some awards, published a book and weathered fame, fortune and other fantasies (like the ones with the fame and fortune).

I even wrote an ebook about finding one?s niche, the theme of which can be tidily summed as ?find a small pond and be the big fish.? Hence, my clever title, The Tea Cup Whale, that I thought would cause even Malcolm Gladwell to tip. My first choice, Big Fish, was already taken by author Daniel Wallace, who, incidentally, commissioned a ?soundtrack? from my rock star kid brother for a subsequent, illustrated effort because, you know, pictures are worth a thousand words but a pop song is worth a thousand pictures and I suppose there are worse ways to bulk up a word count.

In spite/because of getting nichey (or is that Nietzsche?), I finally tired of the schtick and my mastery of the miscellany of hangovers and gags that might as well read ?You know you?re in wine country when?? So did my readers. But without a specialization to differentiate me and my work from the talented hordes (whom I consider colleagues but marketing blogs tell me are competitors), I was at a loss. That is until I realized that, having professed a pseudo-expertise in one kind of experience, I could just as easily be an expert in a pseudo-experience. Basically, I could either become a professional liar or write fiction.

I chose the latter and set upon building a fictional universe, or to quote Wikipedia, ?a self-consistent fictional setting with elements that differ from the real world.? Think J.R.R. Tolkien, via the creative construct of Middle Earth, who created not just a niche for himself but a market segment that thousands of fantasy writers have since benefitted. Middle Earth is essentially a platform that for which others created “apps” rife with dragons and thrones. Not my cuppa. I?m more keen to align myself with Chandler and Vonnegut, in that liminal space between detective fiction, urban fantasy and the comic vicissitudes of the newspaper business, niche or not.

Interestingly, Amazon?s Kindle Worlds project attempts to open other author’s universes for legit pursuits in fan fiction,Vonnegut’s included. But as much as I’d love to write a Vonnegut novel (frankly, the notion seems like a heresy) I’m more content building my own niche in, ahem, Lumaville ? the redux of a certain Sonoma County town (cheap name, I know ? I experimented with ?Nomaville? over the years until I discovered ?noma? is a flesh-eating disease of the face, so no noma).

Lumaville is a sort of psychic space laid over the topography of the places that inspire me. It operates as a kind of imagined parallel universe inhabited by protagonist who is a parallel version of its author but with worse luck.

Depending on your brand of physics, creating a fictional alternate universe isn?t an act of fiction so much as jotting the history of a heretofore unrealized reality. As listographer Mike Floorwalker reminds in his piece ?10 Mind-Bending Implications of the Many Worlds Theory,? ?It could very well be that?since physical laws may be very different in other world-lines?these are not stories at all, but actual people and events transcribed from other realities.?

Whilst transcribing this from the voices in my head, I found it amusing that autocorrect is adamant that I use the term ?alternate? (right) instead of ?alternative? (wrong) in front of ?universe? lest I conjure up a parallel plain that exists entirely in a 90s CD sales bin, rife with ?alternative rock,? whatever that was.

So, for now, Lumaville is my universe, my niche, the teacup in which I?m beached. Worse case scenario, I can always retire there, in my mind, and be biggest generalist in an ever shrinking pond.

3 Brilliant Reasons to Serialize Your Novel

The revolution will be serialized. As it?s always been. Much of episodic entertainment, from our favorite shows on Netflix or premium cable to the summertime superhero blockbusters, are issued in discrete elements that comprise a whole story. Comic books have long functioned in this manner, ditto popular literature, which was once serialized in newspapers and magazines. Now, serialization is back, representing to some, a vanguard in publishing. It can also be an integral part of your creative process.

This is what I?ve found creating Quantum Deadline, a sci-fi crime romp that comically explores the death of newspapers through the foggy lens of a reporter tripping through the multiverse. Like many authors, my project found its first iteration as a National Novel Writing Month novel ? last November, I arranged 50,000+ English words in a manner that produced the general effect of a novel. Despite the fact that the result was an unholy (if occasionally inspired) mess, I remained committed to seeing it through the bitter end of a Kindle download.

1. Accountability

I put it in the proverbial drawer through the winter to cool and found when I exhumed it the following spring, I was ready to rewrite it. That said, there is no ?National Rewriting Your Novel Month? and I loathed the notion of working alone sans the esprit de corps I?d experienced with NaNoWriMo.

I tried. I failed. I had no sense of accountability or ?ticking clock? to compel me back to the work. Not that I was enthralled with the prospects I perceived in the book, it?s just that, as a career-long newspaper columnist, I?d grown accustomed to a weekly deadline. And someone to enforce it. With a speculative, self-generated project like Quantum Deadline, there was neither a deadline nor an irate editor to make me deliver. That?s when I began to think, “You should serialize your novel.” I?needed to feel accountable and I needed a schedule ? two aspects of serialization that I here-to-fore hadn?t realized were possibilities.

2. Create a Minimum Viable Product

Moreover, I suspected serialization would allow me to “course correct” if I found that my readers were losing interest or recognize possibilities in the work that I hadn’t. I think of it as akin to The Lean Startup concept of creating a “minimum viable product” that allows for pivots between plot points.

?The fundamental activity of a startup is to turn ideas into products, measure how customers respond, and then learn whether to pivot or persevere,? writes Eric Reis, The Lean Startup?s main advocate and author of a popular business tome of the same name.

If we replace the term ?startup? with the word ?writing? the path to serialization becomes self-evident. Instead of hunkering down, alone in the back of a Starbucks, the premise of releasing iterations of your work while refining it allows you the opportunity to grow and create community around it in the meantime.

The trick is to be responsive to the concerns of your readership rather than defensive. You?re creating a feedback loop, not a combat zone. You don?t need to completely alter the vision of your paranormal YA romance when your readership is flagging, nagging or otherwise bagging on your work. However, you do have the opportunity to make adjustments in the next installment (and retroactively as well ? serial readers are very forgiving, I find, so long as you point to relevant changes that improve their enjoyment of the work).

3. Build Community for Your Work

Likewise, authors are advised to read Austin Kleon?s excellent book Show Your Work!, which extols the virtues of sharing your creative process as a means of cultivating an audience. Much in the same way film studios invite entertainment reporters on set to drum up interest in a film prior to its release, Kleon suggests sharing your process and inspirations as you create. This notion also dovetails nicely with ?rewriting in public? through serialization.

Writing a serial not only creates both context and momentum for one?s creative output, it cultivates community with your work as its rallying point. Chapter by chapter, week by week, you steer us deeper into your creative world ? a world we may not have seen were it not for the revolutionary resurgence of the serial. As Gil Scott-Heron said, ?The revolution will put you in the driver seat.?

Originally published at TuesdaySerial.

Lamott on Haters

“A reviewer may hate your style, or newspapers may neglect you, or 500 people may tell you that you are bitter, delusional and boring. Let me ask you this: in the big juicy Zorba scheme of things, who fucking cares?”– Anne Lamott

New Web Serial, The Quantum Times, Hits Newstands

When you say ?web serial? out loud, it sounds like Spiderman?s breakfast. It?s a shame the term is so dopey because what stands for is a quiet revolution in publishing that proves the adage ?everything old is new again.?

Web Serial: The Quantum TimesIt worked for Dickens. Readers awaiting the final installment of his serialized ?The Old Curiosity Shoppe? riot. I fully expect you to do the same with Quantum Deadline (formerly The Quantum Times), sci-fi crime meditation on the multiverse rife with shady academics, sociopathic tech gurus, cheap booze, cheaper sex and the death of newspapers. I goes something like:

A decade after the suicide of his intern, disgraced journalist (ahem) finds himself having to help a troubled boy who claims to be from a parallel universe. The newspaperman (now low-rent blogger) thinks the kid could either be the redemption story he?s been seeking or another dark chapter of hardboiled sci-fi hooliganism and urban fantasy. It could be a helluva story… If the journo lives to write it. And, of course, someone doesn’t want him to make his deadline? Bwahah.

This novel is part of a larger transmedia project I’ve been creating, which is, in part, my attempt to map a surreal fictional universe over my hometown and even my own biography (which could actually use less surreality but least I?ll have my fingers on the dial). So, yeah, basically, I’m trying to be a one-man performance art piece like Shia Labeouf but with less arrests and tears. Or ? to get literary ? consider this is my attempt to do for Petaluma what James Joyce did for Dublin. But with more drinking and less ? just less. So much less.

Why a Web serial?

After a couple of triumphs participating in National Novel Writing Month (wherein one writes a 50,000 word novel over the course of a single November) I decided to conduct my rewriting process with an “open studio” concept. Most writers work in relative isolation, often huddled in the dank corners of cafes with little more than their angst and reek to keep them company.

Writing is a lonely business the demands one?s attention to the exclusion of all other activities apart from perhaps drinking. When you drink alone you always have to pick up the tab and I?m too social ?tolerate long bouts of hacking into the void of Google Docs without some kind of feedback from the universe. Inspired by Austin Kleon’s excellent book Show Your Work!?that basically suggests that it?s okay for one? audience to see the man behind the curtain, so to speak, even if he?s in his boxers and shaving, which is precisely what my creative process looks like.

Likewise, I’ve been reading on Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup which advocates shipping a ?minimum viable product? to test one?s assumptions regarding a market. It occurred to me that a novel, when serialized, could function as a such a product and would allow for pivots based on audience feedback along the way. For example, you might suggest the man behind the curtain put on some pants.

Why Wattpad?

As comfortable as I am running my own blog, I decided not to reinvent the wheel when it came to serializing a novel online (i.e., figuring out how to swim upstream against its user interface design to make sequential chapters appear in reverse chronology) and instead borrow a page from Margaret Atwood‘s book(s), and publish on the social-reading site Wattpad. It?s been a hit for her and its free mobile reading apps?for phones and tablets offer an excellent reading experience.

Throughout this exercise, I invite you to be part of the creative process. I’ll annotate chapters with video sto explain what I’m going for and how it ties into the larger body of work. If you’re inclined, please tell me where I’m going right and wrong and be sure to share. Or start a web serial yourself. I?d imagine after Spidey?s breakfast, there?s nothing stopping you from eating my lunch.

New chapters of The Quantum Times are published Tuesdays on Wattpad.