Friday, December 5, 2014

The Year of Living Self-Promotionally


Despite a happy childhood, reading for me has often served as a means of escape.  As an adolescent, when things got rough, I would frequently walk down to the local bookseller (a stationary store, actually), crossing the Shunga-Nunga creek via stepping-stones en route.  I’d pick up a paperback-- Choose Your Own Adventure, or Madeleine L’Engle, or Edgar Rice Burroughs, or some trashy video game adaptation, it really didn’t matter what.  And then I would sit on the bank of the creek, crack open the book, and the world would go away for a while.

My objective in taking up writing was, in part, to pay forward the debt I owe to those authors who made the world go away for me.  I had in mind that I might be the source of the material by which some other adolescent by some other creek might find a means of temporary escape.  That’s dream #1.

There is, of course, another dream to which writers aspire, and that’s the one in which you’re discovered by the industry, a diamond in the rough, and you arise Cinderella-like to international acclaim and vast prosperity, and you tour before adoring crowds and step out of a limo at the premiere of the movie based on your book and then you go live in a castle like JK Rowling.  That’s the dream you get glimpses of when you knock off a chapter that’s really, really good.  That’s dream #2.

I wrote my novel last year and entered into this, my year of living self-promotionally, with the mindset that dream #2 was the means by which you achieved dream #1.  With this in mind, I did the research as to how one “breaks into the industry,” and followed the instructions of the best minds.  I worked on developing a platform in the social media from which I could promote my work, including an author site (you’re reading it).  I started building my brand.  And I went through the process of seeking a literary agent to represent my work.  And I began to learn about how the modern mass-market publishing industry works, and about what it means to be a modern novelist.


I’ll start with a definition, which is going to be kind of important going forward.  When I refer to “the publishing industry”, I am talking specifically about five New York-based mass-market publishers who produce by far the majority of new stuff that you find in stores.  As of twenty-four months ago there were six of them.  As of ten years ago there were considerably more.  That tells you something about the publishing industry and the market pressures in which it operates.

It is borderline impossible to make a living as a full-time professional writer of fiction unless you are regularly producing content for these five companies.  These are the people with the marketing budgets.  These are the companies who are willing to arrange consignment sales with major retailers and who have the means to agree to buy back books that go unsold.  There are an AWFUL LOT of people—hundreds of thousands--who would like to write full-time, and who therefore want to get their feet in the door of one of these companies.  This writer-y horde cranks out hundreds of thousands of what might reasonably pass for novels every year.  Divide hundreds of thousands by five, and you will gain some insight into the amount of work with which editors are swamped.

Or…WOULD BE swamped, in a previous era in which editors took submissions directly from writers.  As a matter of basic survival, the editors have largely outsourced the job of combing through the glaciers of bad writing to literary agents, a strange subspecies of homo publishus whose job is to sort through the slushpiles while authors scream publish us you homo!

There are a LOT of literary agents.  Here are the qualifications necessary to identify yourself publicly as a literary agent:

That’s the full list.  I was going to include “You have to have a pulse,” but I do have direct experience submitting my work to an agent who turned out to be dead (hopefully not as a direct result of reading my work).  And so, of the 20 million people living in the New York metropolitan area, approximately all of them are agents.   There are a lot of very intelligent people with long track records of guiding great writing to the market who call themselves literary agents, and a fair few people who haven’t been able to get their work to market any other way but who are looking for a new angle to approach the industry who ALSO call themselves literary agents, and there are some baboons in suits calling themselves literary agents and there are some outright overt con artists calling themselves literary agents.  Online communities of writers exist which do a reasonable job of sorting the wheat from the horsesh*t.  But you never know for sure, so it’s wisest to submit your novel to ALL of them.

The idea is that the agents serves both as the gatekeeper for the industry and the advocate for the author.  The agents is the dude (more often the lady, actually) with the connections to get your stuff looked at by somebody who’ll pay you for it; she’ll also be the one who intercedes when the publisher tries to put clip art on your book cover or when the editor advises you that you ought to rewrite your draft to make it “more like the Hunger Games, but with vampires.”  All this in exchange for fifteen percent of your take.

That’s the idea.  The reality, of course, is that the publishers have all the money and hold all the cards, and with FIVE of them around at this point, woe betide the agent who burns her bridges with a publisher in pursuit of an author’s interests.  That’s not an indictment of the profession by any stretch; that’s just a reality that has to be faced, and borne in mind when reading an endless series of articles on the internet about all of the heroic efforts which your agent will be making for you, the valued client.  There are a million more potential clients just like you out there.  There are five (5) big-money publishers.


Here is an experience which demonstrates the point.  I was a recent participant in a Twitter pitch event, the idea of which is that authors crank out a 140-character summary of their work under the appropriate hashtag, and interested parties (generally agents or small publishing houses) favorite your tweet if they’d like you to submit a full query proposal.  I spent the first several hours of the event reviewing the pitches of my fellow writers.  It’s an experience which gives you a real sense of what agents have to go through on a daily basis.  There were some very interesting and original ideas, yes; there was also a lot of really, really, REALLY derivative stuff; and maybe a third of what was presented was just plain incoherent.  Now, I’ve written some bad, bad pitches in my time, and I know how frustrating it is to go through one of these all-day events without a single “favorite” to show for it.  So I published a message of general support and sympathy for my fellow authors under the event hashtag:  “So many fresh and original ideas!  So many publishers who only want micro-variations on the same novel.”

Okay, yeah, I know.  Dumb move.  You don’t talk smack, even obliquely, on the people who you want to be the ultimate buyers of your work.  The vehemence and immediacy of the backlash from the agents themselves, however, surprised me.  “REMEMBER THAT TWEETS ARE PUBLIC!”  “Won’t EVER solicit a manuscript from an author who doesn’t respect the business.”  “Your twitter feed is a professional resource…BE PROFESSIONAL.”  And so on.  The upside, I suppose, is that skilled agents were taking notice of my writing, though it wasn't the sort of notice I'd hoped for.

Again:  I understand.  Completely unwise on my part.  I fully comprehend why literary agents would wish to protect their meal ticket.  And with full recognition of my error, and recognizing that I won’t be making the same mistake again, here is my question:  was what I said true or false?

Was it, in fact, even ARGUABLY false?

The publishing industry seeks to make money, the same way the rest of the entertainment industry does.  And when somebody in the entertainment industry finds a winning formula, that formula gets cloned.  Was last year’s surprise TV hit a crime procedural?  The next season will feature a dozen new crime procedurals.  Did a comic book movie make money?  The next summer will feature eight more.  Are kids reading Harry Potter?  The shelves will fill up with swords and sorcery.  Hunger Games?  Here come six thousand dystopian thrillers.

I get it.  I understand.  I am recognizing, not condemning.  But I was also speaking a very obvious truth, and freaking out when unpleasant realities are mentioned won’t make them go away.  These are, demonstrably, rough times for the publishing industry.  And when I review the general state of the public communications of major publishers and those who depend upon them—literary agents VERY MUCH included—the impression I get is that the whole industry has gone into a protective crouch.  People make oblique references to “challenges”, the exact nature of which nobody wants to discuss.  The public and professional channels overflow with tirades about the evils of Amazon’s alleged attempt to leverage individual publishers; the actual discussion of improved practices within the industry is barely a whisper by comparison.

The true challenge to the mass-market publishing model is the rise, via online marketing and distribution, of micropublishing and self-publishing enterprises.  And the implications that these options have for the mass distribution model are something you DO NOT MENTION in the presence of people who make money through the big five.

Except that sometimes you do.  And when you do, some really weird arguments come out.  For instance:  Publishers base their decision to buy on how your previous books have sold; if you self-publish or go small-scale, you’ll crash your sales average and make yourself unappealing to big publishers.  I mean, that might be true, I guess, but…really?  The people making the decisions are so sclerotic that they will reject clearly salable work if unrelated work by the same author, sold in a different venue, didn’t make the NYT list?  I can’t believe that they’re that dumb, but if they were, why would I even want my work in their hands?  And there are some of them who choose to treat it as a simple issue of us-vs-them:  if you have ever self-published or micro-published a book, I will not consider your work for representation, ever.

These are the people whose entire livelihood depends on the public perception that the gate they’re keeping is the only route to publishing success.  That constant stream of query letters, that sifting through crap in search of a diamond to sell, is the way they make their living.  If the writing public were ever to collectively give up on dream number two, the river of queries would dry up, and the bulk of agents would become redundant—and shortly thereafter, they would need to become something else.

Let me be very clear.  There are a lot of very talented literary agents with whom I’d love to work.  And there are a lot of hardworking literary agents who can clearly make a difference in a new author’s career.  And there are certainly a lot of very smart and capable people in mass-market publishing, a few of whom were even once students in my classroom.  But the general attitude of the mass-market publishing industry towards itself, its audience, and its potential authors does not inspire confidence.   There is a whiff of panic about the whole thing.  Conflation of criticism of the industry’s practices, or even skepticism about the industry’s practices, with “unprofessionalism,” is not the mark of a healthy enterprise.  I see wide smiles on their faces and terror in their eyes.

I think they may fear the same thing about themselves that I fear about myself.  I think they fear their skill set may not make them necessary.

I am sure that literary agents experience the same joy I do in discovering talent and helping it develop.  But they are attempting to evaluate a large number of writers on a very limited sample of their work.  And the rise of online publishing is starting to expose, for the first time ever, just how often they flat-out miss talent.  Just how often they get it absolutely and incontrovertibly wrong.
JK Rowling’s story is instructive.  She shopped Philosopher’s Stone to every big house in London and was turned away from every door.  She went to the agents and got repeatedly slammed.  Opinion was unanimous even among those who bothered to read it:  too long.  Kids don’t have the patience.

Rowling was tireless, and she eventually got her break.  Here is how it allegedly happened:  one of the agents to whom she submitted a paper copy left it lying around the house.  And the guy’s eight-year-old happened by, and spotted a drawing of Harry and Ron and Hermione on the page to which the copy happened to be open.  And she made daddy read it to her, and asked him to read her more.
Daddy had evidently been in the process of writing Rowling a rejection notice at the time.  If JK Rowling were a slightly worse sketch artist, or if she had submitted her query electronically as is now standard practice, the world would probably never have known about Harry Potter.

How many other Harry Potters did we never meet?  How many A Confederation of Dunces went unpublished because the deceased author didn’t have a monomaniacal mom to push the thing via tactics that verged on active stalking?  How many Madeleine L’Engles bailed on how many A Wrinkle In Times after the fortieth rejection notice?  How many Louis L’Amours gave up after rejection number one hundred?

The people whose job it is to know the market know it, at best, imperfectly.  And online publishing is exposing that.  We’re starting to see more and more work like Fifty Shades of Grey, which started online and was broadly scorned by the industry until it was finally picked up, because it had become apparent that whoever put it in print was going to be collecting free money.  But it’s never been more apparent that talent is slipping through the cracks.  And it’s starting to look more like a flood than a trickle.


So.  That's the world in which I have spent the last year.  Where do I stand?

I’ve learned a great deal in the last year.  I knew at the start that I was no undiscovered genius, and I know more about my flaws as a writer than I did before.  In truth, I haven’t grown all THAT much as a writer, because the bulk of my time has been spent trying to market myself as a writer.  But I’ve learned about the importance of self-marketing to a writer, particularly one who is vying for mass-market acceptance.  And I've learned what I'm good at, and what I'm not.

First:  the status of the novel.

My preliminary research produced a list of 74 agents who appeared both competent and good matches for the book.  I carefully crafted a query letter to the individual preferences expressed by each agent, starting at the top with the single best agent for the book.  This was a serious mistake; my initial queries were full of what I now know were rookie mistakes and I probably cost myself a longer look by some very good agents.  But the queries got better as I worked my way down the list.

Thirty-eight agents or agencies didn’t respond in any way, which is industry code for “thanks but no thanks”.  One additional agent turned out to be dead.  I received thirty form rejections or minor variations on form rejections to the initial query.  Two agents, both highly respected, crafted what were clearly individualized rejections based on the writing sample, and both went out of their way to identify specific aspects of the writing that intrigued them and specific things that kept them from asking for more.  When these two said, “It’s good, it’s just not for me,” I believe they actually meant it.  I can’t imagine how much time it must take to do that for 100+ submissions a day.  These two will be high on my list if I go mass-market again.  Three agents asked to see the full manuscript; one rejected it shortly thereafter for reasons that strongly suggest that she didn’t actually read it.  The other twoagain, both highly respectedstill have the book in front of them.

I probably don’t need to tell you that a sub five percent manuscript request rate is poor by any standard.  But I’ve come to believe that the problem is the marketing rather than the book itself.  First, as mentioned, it took me a while to develop the right skills to write even an adequate query letter.  Second, although I wasn’t aware of it, the very concept of a novel pitched in the afterlife is an immediate reject for most sci-fi agents; the vast majority of work produced under this banner winds up as thinly veiled Christian fiction.  And thirdly, the requests have one specific thing in common:  their query standards all ask for substantially more sample pages than is standard in the industry.  In other words, the more professionals read of the book, the more they tend to like it.

I am not the great writer I’d hoped I might be.  Not yet, anyway.  But the evidence suggests that I am a good one, with occasional flashes of greatness.  Tough peer reviewers with a history of saying things I don’t want to hear have all ranked the book as good to great, with reviews of the revised drafts skewing to the high side.  But that appears not to matter where dream #2  is concerned, because there is a much bigger problem.  I am not a good marketer.  Not at all.  I do not market myself well, and more importantly, I do not craft work that is easily marketable.  People who read my book like it, but people do not seek to read it based on the pitch.  And that is absolutely fatal in a marketplace where the majority of books are bought based on the dust jacket blurb, cover art, and word of mouth.  Agents know what sells big, and they see my book and turn away.

It's frustrating to realize that, where the larger market is concerned, my book may have been doomed at its conception.  I did not take up writing with the idea that I would only write unchallenging books on topics that were guaranteed to sell.  We already have James Patterson for that.  But in a world where people (understandably) print books for the purpose of selling them, my problem is not a fixable one.

But agents and big publishers are not the only game in town anymore.  And there’s a couple of parties to whom the book was pitched whom I have yet to mention.

The online pitch events in which I have participated are not exclusively the haunts of literary agents.  Because, you see, there ARE people who want to publish books who aren’t part of the Big Five.  They’re a motley band, these small presses, and there are some sketchy characters among them.  But there are also some people who are interested in doing business the old fashioned wayin finding good work, in working directly with the author to make it the best it can be, and in selling as much of it as they can manage.  That’s how THEY make their living.  And beyond them lie the operations which will get your book into print and onto the key online retailers and reader review sites, and let you take responsibility for making sales.  A short step up from the vanity presses of the past?  Maybe. But less so for some than for others.  And as mentioned, this is where the Fifty Shades of Greys of the world emerge from.  How much do you believe in your work?

In addition to the agents who’ve taken an interest, I’ve had more than a few solicitations from small presses.  With the majority, a quick google search was enough to reveal them as best avoided.  With others, a quick website visit was enough to demonstrate that I’d found an unreliable partner.  And with others, which passed muster, there was the manuscript submission and the eventual rejectionbut not without what was clearly a thorough read, and accompanied by a series of constructive suggestions that will help going forward.

And then there was that other one.  The one with the consistently positive feedback at Publisher’s Marketplace and others from a list of previous writers.  The one which does actual by-God press runs of new books and puts them in actual brick-and-mortar stores.  The one which hypes its authors’ signing parties and appearances, small-scale as they may be, because every book that’s sold is money in their pocket and they’re after more of it.  The one which said, “Great concept, good skills; here’s what you’re doing wrong; fix it and resubmit to us when you think it’s ready.”  Yeah.  That one.
The one that’ll never get me rich.  The one that’ll expect me to work hard to promote my own stuff.  The one that’ll kill dream #2 dead in its tracks. 

Also the one with a visible sense of humor about itself.  The one that won’t ever ask me to behave like a cultist before the altar of mass-market publishing, and keep my treasonous opinions to myself.  The ones that can live with an author website and twitter feed that keeps veering from self-promotion into sports fandom and weird social commentary.  The one that’ll work with me to get my work a little bit closer to the greatness I seek.  The one that gives every appearance of taking its young readers seriously.   The one that, by God, seems to believe in dream #1 as seriously as I do.

There might be worse fates in the world than being a small-time novelist.

There might be a place for Will, Emily and Jason.  And also for Connor and Amit.  And for the Duchess and her menagerie.  A place for all those weirdos banging away at the inside of my skull, demanding to be let out.   Hell, who knows?  There might even be room for a toned-down Thump at the party.

There might, someday soon, be a happy kid sitting alongside a creek somewhere.  Escaping.  Making the world go away for a while.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Abolish football.

Sorry, but it's time.

We've "found out" a lot about the NFL this year.  I put the phrase in quotes because we are mostly discovering things that we've suspected for quite a while--that violence perpetrated by players is epidemic, that the concussive and subconcussive impacts incurred as an inevitable result of playing the game produce inevitable lifelong trauma, the only question of which is how severe each individual case will be.  And we also know that the NFL management absolutely could not give two hot sh*ts about any of the above except to the extent that it impacts upon the financial bottom line.  This year in the NFL has been an absolute carnival of transparent greed and utter shamelessness, as management lurches uncontrollably from one crisis to another, imposing consequence after consequence that its own rules in no way justify, all while ignoring the real problems and attempting to buy its way out of the consequences of its lies about the health risks to players on the most laughable and despicable terms imaginable.

And let's be clear:  the NFL, which I just described, is the part of football that ought to be PRESERVED.  Because whatever else may be said of it, everyone who entered into that environment was a full adult, compensated for his efforts, and with some knowledge that he was trading lifelong comfort for momentary glory.  It's a modern day gladiatorial game, no doubt of it, but the libertarian in me tells me that people should be allowed to be gladiators if they really want; there is a case to be made for a short and merry life over a long and dull one, and the athletic spectacle that results is indeed glorious (ISWYDT, Odell Beckham), and God save me, but I do enjoy watching it.

I no longer believe that there is a persuasive case to be made for football at any other level.  Much has been made of the meatgrinder that services, for instance, professional soccer; the tens of thousands of teenagers in virtually every country who are pulled from schools in favor of soccer development academies run by professional franchises, who receive a laughable joke of an education as they become in effect full time laborers.  The system spits out a precious few world-class players on the other end along with thousands upon thousands of young adults with no meaningful skills and no prospects.  That's soccer.  AMERICAN football is different, of course, because we don't make the franchises themselves turn the handle of the meatgrinder; we have publicly subsidized universities do the job for them.  The cases of public universities subverting their educational mission in pursuit of gridiron glory are too many to list here.  A few of them, the very top niche, do make a profit in the process, the bulk of which is plowed back into the program itself.  Which is to say:  the best argument IN FAVOR OF college football is that as many thousands of young men, largely from impoverished backgrounds, are brought in to provide uncompensated labor, and then spit out the other end with college "degrees" of questionable credibility (or in many cases no degree at all) and also with injuries that will cripple their earnings potential and their quality of life, there are A FEW universities that make a profit off of this labor, meaning that the underclass has served its purpose of entertaining the middle and upper classes and subsidizing their educations.  That's the case IN FAVOR, and a sad and shabby case it is.  The case AGAINST is to be found in less glorious locales, such as the Columbus, Ohio dumpster in which an Ohio State Buckeyes player was found dead this week, having shot himself to bring an end to the concussive trauma and self-perception of failure from which he was suffering.  Or in the utterly sick priorities of the millions who cheered lustily this week at the courage of the (uncompensated) quarterback for Clemson, who was permitted by his (compensated) team trainer and his (very well compensated indeed) head coach to play the entire game against archrival Clemson on a torn ACL.

Then there is high school football, the new passion at my own institution of learning, involving young men from all walks of life, subjecting themselves to the same concussive and subconcussive impacts daily, with the permission and indeed the urging of their school community, in pursuit of collective glory and maybe, just maybe, the chance to do it for free for four years more.  No question, those young men enjoy it.  As do we, watching them.  There are many things that young men enjoy doing which maybe we ought not to encourage them to do, particularly if we are, for instance, professional educators.  No doubt the young men in question learn many lessons about teamwork and commitment and leadership from the experience.  One wonders if there might not be an activity in which they might not learn many of those same lessons, and even catch some whiff of glory besides, that does not involve repeated head trauma.  What needs to be screamed to the heavens about this phenomenon is that THESE. ARE. KIDS.  These are not even eighteen year old men, legally permitted to make the dumb, dumb, stupid, stupid, dumb, stupid, dumb decisions that young men make.  THESE ARE KIDS, in our care, and we are encouraging them to slam their heads into one another repeatedly because it's fun for them and us.  Every generation has moral blind spots; slavery was once thought inevitable, for instance, as was Jim Crow later on, and our own grandparents by and large thought the wartime incarceration of Asian-American civilians was just.  Blind spots are by definition unidentifiable to those of us who are experiencing them.  Even so, I feel comfortable assuming that future generations will look back at us, at our collective and almost universal celebration of high school football, and ask, "What the HELL were they thinking???"

My school loves its football team, and they're very good at what they do, and they bring in resources that we wouldn't have otherwise, and I love seeing them succeed, and I hate myself and all the rest of us for how proud we all are of what we're all doing.

It all needs to end, at my school and everywhere else.  Not because the coaches and the participants are bad people, but because they are good people, by and large; intelligent and capable men, young and old.  Moral, vigorously competitive men, with valuable lessons to teach and to learn, and there has to be some better use to which our society can put them than to make them all grist for the NFL's mill, feedstock for a machine that grinds them up in order to churn out, at the other end, Ray Rice, Aaron Hernandez, and Roger Goodell's new yacht.

My own favorite non-NFL football team is that of the University of Kansas.  It's a hot mess of a program that has won, I think, three conference games in the last six years, and has fired three different coaches in that time, one for among other things calling his players "gang-bangers" and the other two of whom are still drawing salary from the school because they had to be canned at the front end of long-term contracts.  KU doesn't pretend to make money off of football and the student body by and large doesn't pretend to care about it; nobody is choosing to attend KU because they wanna watch football and anybody who'd leave because they're bad at it left a long time ago.  Anyway, they just fired another coach this year en route to a 3-9 season, and there has been a whole lot of speculation in the press as to who they might hire to replace him, and here is who I think KU should hire as its new football coach: no one. They should take this opportunity to shut the program down. They should then use the money saved to endow 85 full ride scholarships for minority men, the initial recipients of which would be the former athletes. In doing so, they would demonstrate that the institution thinks young black men are worthwhile as something other than as entertainment for the rest of us.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Trumping the Dump

While covering the McGovern presidential campaign in 1972, Hunter S. Thompson discussed a fake news item (at least I hope it was fake) in which a Florida voter was arrested for throwing bowling balls off of a pier “because he thought they were nigger eggs”.  It was a different time.  It was also Hunter Thompson; attempting to rein in Hunter Thompson’s writing in order to avoid giving offense would have defeated the purpose of there being a Hunter Thompson.

Working for my college newspaper as a senior, a friend and I designed a feature graphic which we called “The Burning Crossword”, the concept of which was that it was an item stolen from the jumbles page of the KKK newsletter.  I will not attempt to duplicate the joke here; I will merely note that it was 1. Funny as hell and 2. Absolutely unpublishable.

Racism is funny.  The consequences of racism are not funny.  Racism as experienced by its victims is not funny.  But the actual phenomenon of racism—the belief that the content of a person’s brain is determined by the color of their skin—is damned funny, because human folly and failure is one of the primary sources of humor.  The irrational is funny, and the contradictions and confusion sparked by a racist outlook create wonderful absurdities—witness Eddie Murphy’s White Like Me or Dave Chappelle’s famous sketch involving a KKK leader, blind from birth, who’s unaware that he’s black.  There are, however, several problems that arise from the use of racism as a source of humor.  For one thing, there is a very fuzzy line between laughing at the foolishness of racist stereotyping and laughing at the stereotypes themselves.  There are times when humor about racism becomes racist humor.  And there are a whole lot of people who derive enjoyment from humor about racism for entirely the wrong reasons.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will be abundantly aware that my current project is a short story entitled “Thump Dumps A Chump”.  At its most basic level, the story is a concept parody of the black exploitation movies of the 1970s such as Shaft and Superfly, a sort of literary equivalent of the Damon Wayans movie I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.  I don’t know how well those movies have aged.  They’ve always sort of served simultaneous roles as black empowerment fantasies and as opportunities for white people to lack at exaggerated black stereotypes.  The best that can be said of them is that they caused non-African American audiences to envision black people in the role of the hero; the worst that can be said is that they reified the sorts of assumptions about black people that made heroism necessary.  Probably on the whole the world is a more interesting place for them having been made, but whether it’s a better place is a debatable question.

It is probably also fair to say that 1970s black exploitation cinema is not a large enough part of the current cultural zeitgeist that a parody of it is really necessary at this point.  It may not have really been necessary in 1988, either, when Damon Wayans did it.  So why write the story?  Well, for the same reason I write everything else I write.  Because it was clawing at the inside of my skull wanting to get out.  And because, once I started dumping it out onto the page, I saw it as having the potential to be great.

Here’s what I think:  At this stage, “Thump Dumps A Chump” is probably closer to being great than anything else I’ve ever written.  Axis of Eternity is a good first novel with sporadic moments of greatness that seems, from the professional response, to be hovering at the cusp of publishability.  I’m proud of it.  But “Thump” is in a whole different category.  When I gave it to an acquaintance, a very skilled writer, for review, he reported that he’d had to walk away from it for half an hour because he was laughing so hard he couldn’t breathe.  It’s a story the humor of which is lost in description; you kind of have to read it.  But the people who’ve read it now generally greet me by yelling lines from it at me.  That’s a damned good sign.

In addition to being very funny, it is also pretty racist.  I do not say that out of white guilt or self-abasement or as an apology for the work, but as an accurate description of its style and content.  It is written in a semi-articulate patois that doesn’t accurately represent black English, and which is mined for humor via the insertion of obscenities and of uncharacteristic vocabulary.  The title character and titular hero is almost completely nonverbal and is celebrated exclusively for his capacity for violence.  One of the supporting characters is a Johnny Cochrane-style attorney whose courtroom demeanor is more or less the modern equivalent of a minstrel show.  There’s never any explicit identification of the characters as belonging to any particular racial group, but nor is it in any way ambiguous that the heroes are black, the villains are white, and everybody’s behavior is an amplification of various racial stereotypes.

At the end of the day, the difference between this story and Thompson’s (and also the Burning Crossword, and Murphy’s work, and Chappelle’s) is pretty straightforward.  Those stories were laughing at the expense of racists.  This story is laughing at the expense of the victims of racism.  I do not acknowledge, at all, that that makes this story unfunny.  Funny is funny.  But I do acknowledge that it makes this story not OK.

And this puts me in a weird position.  Because I’m not at all ashamed of having written the story, or of what having written it says about the contents of my mind.  I’m dealing with the same baggage as everybody else, and I don’t recognize that pouring it out onto a piece of paper is a less healthy way of dealing with it than repressing it and attempting to police my own (and everyone else’s) language and behavior for fear of waking the sleeping beast.  Hell, I’m proud, DAMNED proud, to have created the thing.  Good writing impacts readers at a fundamental level; good writing is quotable; good writing is not easily forgotten; this story qualifies on all counts.

But I can’t attempt to publish it.  Not now and probably not ever.  And not just because I would be immediately fired (and I absolutely would) if it ever made it into print under my name.  But also because it will give too much comfort to too many people for too many of the wrong reasons.  It is, at the end of the day, the sort of entertainment which Damon Wayans or Dave Chappelle could probably acceptably produce, but which a middle-aged white guy really just can’t.  To tell myself otherwise is to lie.  Where we’re at right now, as a society, funny is good, but racism is trumps.

So this one will be going into the drawer, and will be distributed only upon request and only to those who know what they’re getting.  Every writer wants to be celebrated for his creativity, but sometimes, the price of public acclaim is just too high.  Helluva thing.

EDIT, 4/2015:
It took an awful lot of editing, and an awful lot of reflection, to get this story to its final stage.  At the end of the day, I'm STILL not 100% comfortable with it.  There's some cultural appropriation in play here, which is unsurprising given the material I'm working from.  But I do think that, post-revision, the piece makes clear with whom my sympathies lie, and that the joke winds up being on the chumps, not on their victims.  Post-revision, I think the self-criticisms above are no longer accurate, and the laughs are, on the whole, earned for the right reasons.  Although the piece does, in the words of Thump's friend, "ride mighty close to the line" at times.

Following the process of revision, I ended up marketing the story to a variety of small literary journals.  Well, and the New Yorker.  The New Yorker didn't say yes, but others did.  So this weird little belch of a story will wind up being the first writing for which I am paid.

Readers will make their own judgments as to whether what I wrote here was acceptable.  I won't shy away from that debate, should it occur.  I'm leaving this post up as an acknowledgement of where this story came from and of what factors ultimately led me to put it before the public.

We all have conversations with ourselves about race.  "Thump Dumps A Chump" is part of mine.  Perhaps, after reading it, you'll hear echoes of your own conversation as well.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Fighting about Feminism

They’re at it again.  The latest inspiration to my friends in the social media is a series of online photos in which women hold up signs bearing the logo “I am not a feminist because:” followed by lists of reasons.  Somehow, these placards have proven more controversial than the ones criticizing Boko Haram.

I am a long-term veteran of the Feminism Wars.  I entered into the fight as an adolescent, and went on active duty as the token conservative at an overwhelmingly progressive liberal arts college.  I bear the scars of my service.  My expression of my views has led to me being called every name imaginable, by members of both genders.  I’ve caught fire from both sides; I’ve never been clear as to which side of the war I’m fighting for.

The feminist movement has a lot more in common with political Libertarianism than devotees of either group would like to admit.  For one thing, they’re the only two movements I know of that conduct their recruiting drives and their ideological purges simultaneously.  To wit:

LIBERTARIAN:  Hey!  Would you like to be a Libertarian?

ME:  I dunno.  What’s a Libertarian?

LIBERTARIAN:  A Libertarian is anyone who believes that the government ought to occupy a smaller portion of our lives in both the economic and social spheres!

ME:  Oh.  I guess I’m a Libertarian, then.

LIBERTARIAN:  Hooray!  You’re a Libertarian!  And as a Libertarian, you must certainly agree with me that airline passengers should be allowed to openly carry firearms, and that blackmail should be legal!

ME:  Uh…no, I don’t believe that.

LIBERTARIAN:  BOO!  You’re no Libertarian!

ME:  Okay, I’m not a Libertarian.

LIBERTARIAN:  How can you say that?  Don’t you believe that the government should have a smaller role in both our economic and social lives?

It’s a bait-and-switch, and it’s not exactly subtle.  Oddly, though, I don’t think that the people pulling this stunt are really fully aware of what they’re doing, or of how they’re perceived.  They genuinely want people to be part of their movement; then, when they get what they want, they suddenly realize that having other people as part of your movement means that they get a voice in what the movement means, and they get paranoid about losing control over the movement’s direction.

The feminism debate, at least in its crude, online version, seems to occur along similar lines.  It opens with the broad premise that anyone who believes women are or ought to be equal to men is a feminist.  The statement is designed to lure in fair-minded individuals of all stripes.  The problem occurs once everyone’s inside, and the likes of Margaret Daly learns that she’s sharing the tent with the likes of Phyllis Schafly.  Or, alternatively, one of my former students can find she’s sharing the tent with me, and can respond to my participation in a discussion about antifeminist thought with “I don’t need a white man to tell me about feminism” (suddenly, not just gender but ethnicity becomes a qualifying condition for participation in the movement).  Very ugly, very personal fights ensue almost immediately,  and many people who have been lured in feel that they’ve been cheated, and begin defining themselves as anti-feminists, and holding up posterboards in Facebook pictures.

Feminism, however, has been afloat as a distinct ideology for longer than libertarianism has, and has been more thoroughly analyzed as a subject of scholarship.  This means that it is far more fractured ideologically than libertarianism is.  “Radical” feminists vs. “liberal” feminists is only the tip of the iceberg; there are schools of feminist thought which occupy almost every point on the political spectrum.  Probably there are as many different kinds of feminism as there are feminists.

And this, in turn, leads to really unproductive arguments about the label “feminism.”  Because virtually anyone who makes an argument about feminism is going to be correct about certain specific feminists and wrong about others. 

Take, for instance, this particularly incendiary claim, expressed in one of those placards to which I referred earlier:  “I’m not a feminist because I don’t hate men.”  As you might well expect, a whole lot of self-described feminists of my acquaintance found that to be a bothersome statement; responses ranged from “Feminism isn’t about hating men” to “feminism isn’t about men at all.”  Here’s the problem, though:  I have another former student, also a feminist and one of the most loving people I’ve ever met, who recently used her Twitter feed to advocate the proposition that the human race would be better off if the male half of it simply didn’t exist.  I think I might be forgiven for finding that to be an anti-male statement.

The bearer of that anti-feminist placard wasn’t making a statement that accurately describes all feminists.  Rather, she was making a statement that describes her specific experiences associated with feminism.  To become infuriated with her expression will only reinforce those associations.  Moreover, objection to her generalization about feminists is both 1. justified and 2. irrelevant with regard to her specific experiences.   I find it ironic that many of the same people who are driven to the heights of apocalyptic rage by statements beginning with the words “not all men” find themselves immediately eager to use similar constructions when inaccurate generalizations are made about groups of which they are a part. 

There are, in any case, many feminists who love men; many who love some men, some of the time; many who could give a damn about men either way; some who hate all men some of the time; and a few who hate all men all of the time.  And many people within each of those subgroups would argue that their specific views on men are definitive of feminism generally, and that those who disagree are not true feminists.  This, in turn, makes it pretty pointless to make any form of declarative statement about feminism vis-à-vis its views of men generally.  Nobody is qualified to make such a statement.  Anyone who tries, no matter how emphatic they may be, is defining their own views, not those of feminism generally.

Which is why, where fights over feminism are concerned, this soldier is retiring from the field.  It is a battle over a term that has become so broad (ahem) as to be utterly meaningless.  If you tell me that I can’t be a feminist because I’m a manwell, you’re correct, for your personal definition of feminism.  But given that you’re speaking for yourself and not for anyone else, what’s the point in my arguing back?  I’m not interested in “taking back” the term, because your claim to the term in no way impacts upon the legitimacy of my claim, or anyone else’s.  I have a limited amount of energy, and I won’t expend it arguing over a word that doesn’t have a fixed meaning.

I think that sex impacts upon people’s physical capabilities and their intellectual profiles in a variety of ways, some of them environmentally determined and some of them genetic.  I think there’s enough overlap in the physical and psychological bell curves between men and women to provide credence to some generalizations but to make definitive statements unproductive.  I think women suffer from a variety of unjust disadvantages, some of which should be remedied through law, some of which should be addressed through individual or collective action, and some of which we will probably just have to live with.  I also believe it is possible to overcompensate for these disadvantages and that we should avoid doing so.  I don’t hate or love women generally, but I do hate or love some women specifically, and there’s a fair (and unfair) few women whom I both hate AND love, either at different times of the day, or even simultaneously.

All of this both makes me and doesn’t make me a feminist.  You will apply or withhold the label as suits your interest, but I will no longer engage you when you do. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

"So, what's the book about?"

The drive towards publication continues apace.  After hundreds of hours spent pimping Axis of Eternity to anyone who’ll listen, and to plenty of people who won’t, it has become apparent that I am a better writer than marketer.

For the uninitiated:  the process of bringing a novel to market is a laborious multi-step endeavor.  Very few publishers, and virtually NONE of the big boys, are willing to consider direct submissions from writers, and certainly not from non-established writers; it is expected that one will work through a literary agent.  Agents serve as de facto gatekeepers, screening out the dreck and serving as advocates for work that they think is both enjoyable and marketable.

This system has its merits.  There is an enormous amount of really bad writing out thereanyone who’s edited for a newspaper, or reviewed public mail, or even read an internet message board, will have an idea of how muchand somebody’s got to sort through the sewage for diamonds.  The downside, of course, is that time is limited and the sifting is imperfect.  The industry standard expectation is that authors will “pitch” their work in a query letter of 250-350 words.  Occasionally an agent will be generous enough to allow authors to include a short writing samplethe first ten pages or soor a one-page plot synopsis.  But this, needless to say, is not a perfect way of evaluating a book.

Is it a sensible system?  Somewhat.  Young readers, after all, will often make decisions about what to read based on the paragraph on the book jacket, or even based on the cover art.  Agents sell to publishers who are almost exclusively interested in salable pitches; this is why every other novel on the market is a carbon copy of what sold last year (strong female protagonist!  Dystopian nightmare in which oppressive government provokes its population in unintelligent ways for evil reasons!  Unrealistically attractive boys fight for strong female protagonist's approval!)  So:  yes, agents have to make their decisions based on what they believe will sell.  But needless to say, there’s a LOT of work which would probably sell but which isn’t suited to a 300-word summary.  J.K. Rowling, for instance, was famously rejected by virtually every publisher and agent in England, and made it through the door only because an agent’s eight-year-old daughter saw her work on daddy’s table and liked the pictures.  John Kennedy Toole killed himself, partially due to his inability to get anyone to read A Confederacy of Dunces, and we only ended up with the book because his mother subsequently (and thankfully) transformed herself into a relentless harridan who wouldn't take no for an answer.

About 1 in 200 finished novels make it into print, which still leaves something like 17,000 new novels per year.  The question that we might want to ask, though, is whether we're selecting the best 1 in 200, or merely the most interesting-sounding 1 in 200.  Nobody in the industry doubts that there's great work slipping through the cracks; the question is, how much?

I’m beginning to get the impression that my work fits into the "good book, but bad pitch" category.  Axis of Eternity, or a preliminary draft thereof, has been seen in its entirety by about ten sets of eyes.  Every one of the people was selected because they’re well-read, intelligent, and willing to offer frank opinions.  Every review has offered criticism, yet every reviewer’s overall impression has been somewhere between favorable and extremely favorable, and every one has checked off the “16-year-old me would pay money to read this” box.  It’s a good book that has gotten progressively better as it’s evolved; it’s capable of winning converts and garnering excellent word-of-mouth.  But it’s also fairly complicated both in terms of plot and theme; it respects the intelligence of young readers and refuses to patronize them.  It’s not easily summarized, and this means its not well-suited to being pitched.  I’ve queried close to fifty agents to date; nineteen have rejected the preliminary query outright and a number of others have effectively turned it down through non-response.  Zero have asked to read the whole thing.  The most promising responses have been direct solicitations from publishers received following a Twitter pitch event; at present the full manuscript is being considered by two small but high-quality publishing houses.

Long story short:  when the subject of my novel comes up, people ask me, what’s it about?, and I have yet to be able to answer that question in a concise and interesting manner.    Which is bad news.  So let me offer to answer that question as thoroughly as I can.

In the loosest sense, the book is about the adventures of a 16-year-old boy lost in an afterlife he doesn’t understand.  Virtually every theory or myth about life after death operates on the assumption that new arrivals will have the entire design revealed to them as soon as they show up at the pearly gates, or the river Styx, or wherever.  I’ve seen little evidence that such a system prevails on this side of the grave, and I wanted to explore the idea that it might not prevail on the other side, either.  What happens in an afterlife in which the rules aren’t revealed?  What happens when every culture in human history is thrown into one single melting pot, with no higher power in charge?

More broadly, the book is about the question of why a benevolent God permits evil to exist on Earth.  Religions have offered many complicatedand, I feel, highly unsatisfactoryanswers to this question.  My novel offers a take on the question that’s won’t comfort readers, but which will make them think.

The book is about the conflict between individual liberty and obligation to one’s community.  It’s certainly a conflict that has a lot of direct relevance to modern American readers.  My own life has been marked by a sharp divide by my own political ideologygenerally libertarianand my professional and self-imposed ethical obligations, which are highly communitarian in nature.  The typical take on libertarianism and communitarianism, as voiced by public advocates of each, is that they are polar political opposites.  I don’t believe that this is necessarily true, and Axis of Eternity explores both the ways in which these world views conflict and some of the surprising ways in which they coincide.  More fundamentally, though, the book explores the way in which people are driven to make bad decisionseven what some might call evil decisionsby each of these ideologies.  The thing I like best about Axis it is that it doesn’t take the typical YA approach of dividing the world along Manichean lines of pure good and absolute evil.  You will find no Lord Voldemort or President Snow herein.  Every character, protagonist or antagonist, has a specific way of viewing the world; every character acts benevolently according to his or her own personal code; every character believes himself or herself to be both the main character and the hero.  Every conflict, major and minor, is driven by the collision of defensible world views advocated by thinking individuals who are doing the best they can, and readers will disagree, often and vehemently, about who’s right and who’s wrong.

The book is about autonomy, and about the various ways in which we may be less independent and less in control of our own behaviors than we’d like to think.  The book is also about the question of whether the autonomy of living organisms matters morally in terms of the way we treat them.  People tend to have a very dismissive attitude towards those they don’t consider to be fully “conscious” or sovereign, such as nonhuman animals or even some specific types of human beings.   Axis takes a perspective that may cause readers to reexamine their own views and behavior, and consider when and under what conditions we may use those who are “less” than ourselves as a means towards our own gratification.

And the book is about memory.  It’s about the extent to which memory defines usthe question of whether we’re mostly the product of our experiences, or whether there’s some part of our personality that makes us ourselves independently from what we’ve done and where we’ve been.  It’s about the question of whether Santayana was right when he claimed that those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it, or whether the opposite is truewhether our attachment to our memories locks us into the same behavioral patterns that made us miserable before.

Axis of Eternity is about 82,000 words, or about 270 pages.  Which makes it about a lot of different things.  I look forward to all of you deciding for yourselves what it’s about.

TL;DR:  Dead teenagers fight alien angels and space monsters.  Also there is a cute boy with tousled hair and six-pack abs.  Buy now!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

How to be a young "gentleman" without killing lots and lots and lots of people

I am not going to mention the name of the walking, talking turd who killed seven people in Santa Barbara this weekend.  Other motives aside, I’ve always felt that there’s a certain amount of fame-whoring involved in the decision to become a mass-murderer, and I am happier to mention the event while letting the name of the perpetrator slide into obscurity.

I mention the event because the perpetrator’s motive is disturbingly familiar to me.  Not in the sense that I have ever in my life seriously contemplated killing people, but in the sense that one of the specific frustrations that drove this nutbar over the brink is a frustration I once shared.

I refer specifically to the Turd In Question’s YouTube manifesto statement, in which the TIQ speaks thusly:

“It’s not fair. You girls have never been attracted to me. I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it.  It’s an injustice, a crime, because I don’t know what you don’t see in me. I’m the perfect guy, and yet you throw yourselves at all these obnoxious men instead of me — the supreme gentleman.”

Ah.  The GENTLEMAN thing.  Been there.  Done that.

The writer Christopher Moore has described in some detail the psychology of a subspecies of man he calls the “Beta Male”, a critter defined primarily by its rejection of the traditional alpha male traits.  For the entirety of my own adolescence and most of my adult life, I have seen myself as a Beta Male.  This has been in part a function of necessity, as I lack certain physical characteristics advantageous to the Alpha Male, such as facial symmetry, pectoral muscles, abdominal muscles, all of the other muscles, balls, and a spine*.  

I spent the greater portion of my teenage years convincing myself that my rejection of Alpha Male behaviors made me superior to the standard brand of man.  I, too, called myself a “gentleman” and bemoaned the fact that my hesitance, neuroses, and general jellyfishery didn’t make me irresistible to women.  Clearly, there was something wrong with them.

I have always been very good at telling myself what I’ve wanted to hear.  In retrospect, I think I was choosing to define myself in such a way as to justify my own laziness and cowardice.  While I endorsed (and still endorse) the general principle of being a gentleman, the real issue was that I was obsessively afraid of embarrassing myself, and indeed that I was almost as afraid of romantic success as I was of romantic failure.  As a result, I adopted a personal philosophy that turned my reluctance to take chances into a virtue.  I spent my adolescence and young adulthood developing intense, elaborate crushes on attractive women (and for all my complaints about superficiality, the targets of my crushes were always conventionally attractive), doing nothing about it, and bemoaning the fates when my crush ended up with someone else.  What I needed, in retrospect, was for somebody to slap me.  Several good friends tried.  I was just too good at persuading myself for their advice to take hold.

Had I been a “gentleman” in the truest sense of the word, I would have upheld the standards of gentlemanly behavior even when they ceased to be advantageous to me, i.e. when I held the upper hand.  This is not my way.  Then and now, I seek to dominate every situation in which my skills are reasonably comparable with those of my partners.  I am not a gentleman; I am merely an Alpha Male who can’t hack it under the alpha code.  My own failure to meaningfully live up to the ethic of gentlemanly behavior, however, doesn’t eliminate the Turd In Question’s argument from our consideration.  It IS true, in many instances, that young men who genuinely adhere to the code of gentlemanly behavior find that their romantic prospects suffer as a result.  My younger brother, as a teenager, was a TRUE gentleman―in the Victorian sense, with the big black cape and everything**―and he got walked on by prospective partners a few times too often for my taste.  Many young women find confidence attractive; failing to find it, a substantial proportion of those women will settle for bravado.

A substantial part of my professional responsibility is helping boys learn to become men.  As a writer, I suspect that the greater part of my audience will be 1. Young, 2. Male, and 3. Emphatically, sometimes terrifyingly, Beta.  So I feel that it's my obligation, as we reflect on the actions of the Turd In Question, to lay down a few ground rules for “gentlemanly” behavior by young Beta Males.  Some of these will seem obvious, but apparently need to be reiterated.


1.       The number of women towards whom a gentleman may acceptably murder while continuing to call himself a “gentleman” is zero.

2.       If you are being a “gentleman” because you think it will get you laid (see the manifesto of the TIQ), you’re doing it wrong.  You choose to be a gentleman because it’s right, not because it’s advantageous.

3.      To be a gentleman, in the broader sense of the word, is, as Oscar Wilde put it, to choose never to inflict pain (unintentionally).  To be a gentleman with respect to young adult relationships is to recognize that specific genetic and societal factors enable you to exercise physical advantages over, and behavioral opportunities unavailable to, women; a gentleman recognizes this reality and chooses not to exploit it.  You may despise the phrase “check your privilege” as much as I do (and oh my God how I do despise it), but if you’re a gentleman you’re choosing to put that phrase into practice in certain ways.

4.  Your decision not to exploit women in these ways entitles you to nothing from them.  See #2.  Many women will be appreciative of your decision.  Some will not be.  Should a woman be unappreciative of your behavior, the correct response is not to stop being a gentleman, it is to withdraw the pleasure of your company.

5.     Extending on #4 above, you lose nothing when a young woman chooses not to seek your company because you are a gentleman.  Some young women, in some circumstances, seek the company of the Alpha Male rather than the Beta Male.  A woman who does so is making a choice.  If she wants what the Alpha provides, she would be doing herself a disservice by spending her time with you instead.  She would also be doing YOU a disservice, in that she would want you to be someone you’re not.  Learn to accept that other people’s interests aren’t always identical to your own.

6.     Jealously or ill-will towards Alpha Males simply because they are romantically successful is out of bounds.  You want women to be happy, right?  Are they making women happy?  Okay, then.

7.      Being a gentleman does not eliminate the obligation to put yourself out there and risk rejection.  If you think it does, you’re doing it wrong.  Life is hard.  Get a helmet.

8.      If you adhere to the code, and are willing to risk repeated rejection, failure, and embarrassment, you will eventually attract the attention of a woman who appreciates a gentleman.  Things will not become easy or perfect at this point.  If you think they will, you’re doing it wrong.  However, you will at least have the privilege of interaction with a person who respects you--and maybe even loves you--for who you are, rather than for your skill at impersonation or at mind games.

If these are principles which you can accept, you may have it in you to become a young gentleman.  Go to it, and good luck.  Don’t kill people.

*The last items on this list are things that I lack metaphorically, not physically.  As far as you know.

**Not a metaphor.  Literally true.  He walked into an inner-city public school, on multiple occasions, wearing a big black freaking cape.  The fact that he did this without getting beaten up even once gives you some sense of how he treated people.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Axis of Eternity: Chapter 1

The first thing I remember is rising.  Shooting skywards like a balloon cut from its tether, utterly uncontrolled, disoriented and frantic.  Plummeting upwards.

I remember wisps of cloud, spinning green ground receding below, blue above as I rocketed upwards, a roaring in my ears.  I remember thinking, Why am I not cold? Why isn’t there wind?

All around me, dimming my view of my surroundings, was a thick, translucent haze, which emitted continual arcs of energy in bright colors―crimson red, emerald green, powder blue.  As I rose, I was continually barraged and battered by these discharges.  I didn’t feel pain―Am I even capable of feeling pain?, I thought—as much as a continual, inescapable, overwhelming discomfort…a spider crawling up my leg, an itch I couldn’t scratch, all over my entire body, throughout my entire being, as if I were allergic to my own skin.  The light display might otherwise have been beautiful, but the sensation was maddening, overwhelming me with an intense desire to escape upwards, to rise higher.

I remember desperately grappling for my bearings, for understanding, for a single thought I could hold onto.  What is this?  What’s happening to me?  Who am I?

And, as if in answer: Will.  My name is Will.  I am sixteen years old.

I remember reaching inside my mind for more information, and coming up empty.  And then, looking deeper.  And then scrambling around inside the dark, vacant room of my own head…and finding nothing else.  Not a clue as to my identity.  Not a single memory.


The haze around me was thinning as I rocketed upwards, the colored bolts growing less intense and more infrequent, the full-body itch mercifully beginning to loosen its grip.  Above, the sky was darkening from blue to black, though the sun still blazed directly overhead.  I must be near the edge of the stratosphere.  Then how can I breathe?  Wait…AM I breathing?  And how do I know what ‘stratosphere’ means?  Who taught me the word?  Where? When?

As the haze diminished, my sight grew clearer.  Something in the corner of my eye captured my attention.   Above me and off to my left was a luminous speck of light, rising like a spark from a campfire.  As I focused my attention on the light, my position changed; I felt myself angling to my left and increasing my velocity upwards, catching up to the glowing spark.  What?  How did I… Startled at having regained control of my own movement, I lost focus on my target; I found myself sliding straight up again, out of control, like a cork through clear water.

Fighting for a grip, I refocused on the light.  Slowly, I felt my path begin to change, to angle upwards and left towards the glow.  With no point of reference there was no way to judge distance or size; was I about to catch a firefly, or was I in futile pursuit of a star?  I reached out towards the speck of light―

―and for the first time, I got a look at my own hand.  It was perfectly transparent and translucent, as was the arm attached.  There was barely more substance to my hand, to my arm, to me, than there was to the ever-diminishing haze.  Holding my palm up in front of me, I could look straight through it and clearly see the spark above.

I looked down at my body for the first time, and was nearly blinded by an intense, luminous glow in the center of my torso.  Squinting to reduce the glare, I found the rest of me―my chest, my stomach, my legs―to be equally transparent.  Aside from the light beaming from my heart, I was barely there at all.   I should have been awestruck by this fact, by the panorama below me―the curve of the earth now plainly visible on the horizon, most of a continent stretching out below in a pastiche of faded browns and greens and blues.  But I wasn’t.  Instead, I found myself wondering:  why am I squinting?  If my eyelids are transparent, how can tightening them reduce the glare?

I looked up again at the glowing spark, and then off at the horizon.  Was it an after-image, or was that another tiny glowing light off in the distance below me? 

I shut my eyes―Why does that work?―then opened them again.  Fighting against my panic, I sought focus, that same feeling which had drawn me towards the spark above.  My mind fumbled with distractions, then grappled at the edges of…something, some inner sense I’d never used nor known I had.  Gradually, my grip on myself grew surer, more confident.  I willed myself to slowly rotate as I rose; my body obeyed.
There was no mistaking it this time.  The light I’d been chasing was real.  As I spun slowly in midair, my ascent now slowing dramatically, the mist gradually dispersing,  I could see other glowing lights off in the distance.  I counted them as I rotated.  One…two…three…four?  Five…  Shooting stars in reverse, rising against the darkening sky.

I looked down again at myself.  My body was an afterthought, almost invisible.   And yet the heart of me blazed on, luminous in the gathering black.  I could not name the color of it; I had never seen it before, yet it was somehow familiar.  And those other lights were, unmistakably, in color and by nature, a match for the light in me.

People, I thought. Each of those lights is a person.

The last wisps of electric haze dwindled in the distance beneath me.  The roaring in my ears had faded to nothing.  I was free of the full-body itch, free of the atmosphere.  Below me was the whole Earth; above me blazed the sun and stars, simultaneously, in the black void.  I was merely another glowing light among many.  The silence around me was absolute.  There was no air, yet I felt no cold, no heat, no pain, no sense of suffocation.

I’m dead.

The realization didn’t provoke any particular terror or awe.  I felt no pain.  I felt no regret.  Shouldn’t I be missing someone?  My family?  My friends?  Yet, stumbling around in my mind, I could not find any of them.  The word “mother” had a definition, but I couldn’t tie a picture to it.  I could remember people, as a concept; I could not recall a single specific human person.

In truth, I could barely remember myself.  My name is Will.  I am sixteen years old.  What did I look like?  An image came to mind, a bit unclear, as through a foggy mirror.  Brown hair, yes…a big, thick, unruly mop of it…darkish complexion…a face a bit too broad to be handsome, with narrow eyes beneath heavy brows…medium height and build.

Am I smart?  Dumb?  Strong?  Weak?  Awkward?  Popular?  Who are my friends?  What are my hobbies?  Nothing.  A total blank.

What do I do next?

Of all the questions I was struggling with, that was the one that really had me on edge.

Isn’t there supposed to be someone or something here to tell me what comes next?  Dead relatives waiting?  A set of huge pearly gates guarded by a winged man with a checklist?  Nasty horned men brandishing pitchforks and beckoning with sinister expressions?  SOMETHING?   I didn’t remember holding any particular religious beliefs, but surely no major faith believed that, after death, God dropped you off in low earth orbit, gave you amnesia, slapped you on the back, shouted “good luck!” and then wandered off about His business? 

In the absence of an instruction manual, I was presumably going to have to find my own answers.  And I wasn’t going to find out anything by just drifting aimlessly in space.  Once again, I checked my surroundings.  The―person?  Soul?—that had been above me on my way up was now just off to my left, floating motionless.  I brought up my arms and legs, pushed them forwards in a powerful butterfly stroke, and achieved utterly nothing.  No, that’s not right.  It isn’t about your body.  Not here.  It’s about the mind...  I willed to move towards the glow; and, in willing it, I found it was happening.  Slowly, like a dandelion seed on a summer breeze, I drifted forwards.

Approaching, I gave a cheerful wave, only to remember that both my neighbor and I were virtually invisible to one another.  I grew closer.  In the combined glow of the lights in each of us, I could just barely see the outline of a humanoid form.  The ghostly shape has its arm outstretched, as if to touch something, and it was looking in…

I paused in my approach.  What direction is that?  My neighbor was reaching out in a direction for which I had no name.

Something in my mind twisted.  Somewhere in my consciousness, a switch was flipped.  Something behind my eyes opened.  And I could suddenly see the direction in which my neighbor was looking.  It was an angle incomprehensible to the mortal mind; I was looking at a right angle to the entire reality I had known.  I was looking outwards.

And in the far distance outwards was The Light.  The Light!

Have I said that we, my neighbor and I, were luminous?  Relative to The Light, we were tiny flickers.  If we were rising sparks, The Light was the bonfire itself.  How could I not have seen it before, when its intensity would have dimmed a hundred suns?  It’s no accident that living human beings can’t see The Light, I thought.  The flesh isn’t equipped for it.  It would fry your brain like an egg inside your skull.
I didn’t have to be told what I was looking at.  It seemed to me that I had always known it, that it had always been a part of me, and of every person ever born.  The Light is unity and love.  The Light is destiny, the purpose of all human existence.  Had I sought instructions for my afterlife?  The Light was, in itself, all the instruction needed.  This is what we were made for.  To join with The Light.

Pulling my eyes away from The Light, I could see that the other human souls which had arisen alongside of my neighbor and me were rushing outwards, with all the speed they could muster.  Rushing towards fusion with the light, heeding its call, seeking to disappear into it entirely.

And suddenly, I had something new to be confused about.

Because I could look into the light, and recognize what it signified.  I knew, at a purely instinctive level, that The Light had to be the destiny of every human being.  That there could be no purpose outside of it or apart from it.  That every single fiber of me should crave union with it.

And yet, somehow, I didn’t.

I didn’t want to merge with The Light.

I didn’t want it at all.