#NovelWatch2019

Thirteen years ago, almost to the day, I was a younger person. And on that day, my high school Physics teacher shared that February 15th was the most depressing day of the year. He explained how many people don’t enjoy Valentine’s Day, and that by mid-February any goodwill from the holidays has largely worn off. At the time I remember thinking I didn’t feel that way because the 15th is two days shy of my birthday, and birthday cake is rad.

As an adult, I generally don’t look forward to my birthday. This isn’t due to anxiety over aging, but my birthday, and to a lesser extent new year’s, has often been an occasion to reflect on the many ways I came up short that year.

But as Paul Blart once said, “NOT TODAY, DEATH!!

I’m thrilled to announce that I just got off the phone with the publisher at Eckhartz Press, and they want to publish The Mechanic!!!!

I’m very, very stoked. Eckhartz Press is a hybrid publisher, which means they split publishing costs with their authors. Hybrid published authors generally sell fewer books, but they make more money per book.  Now, is it possible The Mechanic could be published by Penguin or Random House if I queried a thousand agents and really gave it the good old college try? Sure. It’s also possible Olivia Munn will fall in love with me and together we’ll live happily ever after on a farm with lots of rescue dogs and cats.

Would it be great to make some money from The Mechanic, or compete with Jonathan Franzen on the bestseller list? Of course, but that’s not why I woke up at 5:30 for six months to work on a book I thought might never get published. Writing the book is the reward–anything after that is just gravy.

When I was in college I remember challenging myself to publish a book before I turned thirty. Because I’m me, I arbitrarily decided that Birthday Suits didn’t count since it was self published. With The Mechanic finding a home and hopefully lots of new readers days before my thirtieth birthday, I’m calling this one a win. Another benefit of working with a smaller publisher is that they work fast, and we’re already discussing The Mechanic coming out in the next few months. More details to come!

Fun with Statistics

Hello friends, and welcome to the year of our lord 2019. I promised real updates last month, so please join me as I imitate Nate Silver to discuss the query process for The Mechanic.

Since submitting my first query letter on August 3rd, I have sent 36 in total. Of those, I have received 18 rejections, as broken down below:

Say what you will about literary agents, but they are unfailingly polite. Each rejection has assured me it is not a judgement of my writing ability, but that the “industry is incredibly subjective” and they hope I find an agent “who will be an enthusiastic champion” of my work. All of these rejections–including the two clearly not written from a template–are so similar the language and tone is clearly agreed upon at an industry-wide conference.

For the remaining half of my submitted queries, one agent was kind enough to inform me they were currently closed to submissions but would accept them at an unspecified time in the not-too-distant future. The others have provided no response whatsoever.

Of those queries that received a rejection, the average response time currently stands at 20 days. I sent my most recent query on November 20th, which was more than 50 days ago. I think it’s safe to assume that any queries sent last year with no response have either timed out or are lost forever to the great slush pile in the sky.

Additional Fun with Statistics:

  • 83% of the agents I queried are female
  • Despite being smaller in number, male agents were 1.4 times more likely to not respond
  • All male agents requested materials in addition to the query letter (e.g. synopsis, page/chapter selection), but 20% of female agents requested no additional materials
  • 38% of literary agencies that did not respond to queries began with the letters F or P

The size of my sample is too small for any of this to be really meaningful, but it’s interesting nevertheless.

What does is all mean? It could be that The Mechanic isn’t ready for publication, my query game is terrible, or some combination of both. The first queries I sent out were objectively awful and all of them are perhaps premature.

I took a break from querying over the holidays, largely because querying feels a lot like looking for a job while managing to be more depressing. Over the break I worked on a short story I’m excited about, but I also started going through The Mechanic chapter by chapter, trying to make the prose as tight as possible. Definitely should’ve done that before sending any query letters, but here we are. I’ve also put one of the more exciting/scary chapters first, since a lot of agents are only willing to read the first 10 pages. It’s embarrassing how long I held on to the idea that the whole story mattered more than immediately grabbing someone’s attention.

I’m really proud of The Mechanic, but I also understand it would be difficult to market: It’s sort of a novel, sort of a literary thriller, parts of it flirt with body horror, and it has enough chronological shifts to make Quentin Tarantino blush. Some agents request a one-sentence pitch when you query them, and mine was always “a superhero story for the #MeToo era.” It is not a feel-good story, but it is a good story.

I’ll probably send more queries when I’m finished with these edits. I’m also thinking about self-publishing again (I already designed a cover I like), and I’m toying with the idea of releasing it as a podcast audiobook.

Those are my updates. I hope you had fun with stats.

2018 in Review

These are a few of my favorite things.

Album of the Year – Master Volume by The Dirty Nil

I didn’t listen to a whole lot of music this year, mostly podcasts and audiobooks. But since Master Volume‘s release, not a week has passed without me playing it my car at high volumes. It’s punk meets classic rock meets totally freakin’ awesome. Click to hear the record on YouTube.

Best TV Show – The Good Place

More like The Best Place, amirite?

Annihilation (2018) - Official Trailer - Paramount Pictures

Best Movie – Annihilation

Surely you already know this.

Best Tweet

I seriously forgot pants like this existed.

Best Animatic – Big Debbie

Thank you to the McElroy brothers for such good, good content.

Best 90s Nostalgia Trip

“She thinks that happiness is a mat that sits on her doowaaaaeeeeyyyy”

Person of the Year – Gritty

He’s less a person and more of a monstrous muppet, but he brought much joy to the internet. That’s more than most people can say.

Have safe and happy holidays, everyone.

This is Badwatch!

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I’m writing this before the mid-term elections and scheduling it for the day after. If things went great you can celebrate with my new podcast! If things went not so great, you can embrace/stave off an existential crisis with my new podcast!

The show is called Badwatch, and it is co-hosted by myself and my brother-in-law, Andy. He’s fine by himself, but together we are hilarious. On each installment of Badwatch, Andy and I watch an episode of what I would consider an objectively bad television program and then make fun of it. It’s great!. So far we’ve covered the Hawaii 5-0 reboot, Quantico, and a miserable SyFy show called Dark Matter.

Andy and I had a blast making our first few episodes, and we’re excited to finally share them. You can subscribe to Badwatch here, or in the podcast provider of your choice. Our first episode is out now, and we’ll be releasing new episodes every other Wednesday.

October Sux pt. 2

On September 28, Pinegrove released their second album, Skylight. Pinegrove is a band I like, but one I used to love. Their first record felt tailored to be something I’d be completely obsessed with. Its earnest, emo lyrics and twangy guitars and vocals are extremely my shit. Maybe six weeks ago I realized they were due for another album. After some googling I found a Facebook post from Pinegrove’s lead singer, Evan Stephens Hall, saying he’d been accused of sexual coercion.

As far as #MeToo apologies go, Hall’s falls below Dan Harmon’s but still surpasses Louis C.K.’s “I never showed a woman my dick without asking first” non-apology. Hall’s message is vague and a little confusing, and after reading it I wasn’t sure Pinegrove was still a band.

Then a couple weeks ago, Jenn Pelly published “Reckoning With Pinegrove” on Pitchfork, which detailed the circumstances that led to Hall’s message and why he’d written it the way he did. In short, most of the language he used was borrowed directly from the alleged victim, stating “It was meant as a symbol of respect to have her dictate the language of the conversation.” I don’t think this is wrong, but it seems to place responsibility for the ambiguity on the alleged victim. Wouldn’t it have been equally effective to use the alleged victim’s language and explain what it meant?

Pinegrove is still a band, and Hall claims they never considered breaking up. Instead, they took a year off from touring, and are donating all of the proceeds from Skylight to the Voting Rights Project, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and Musicares. The band also agreed to the alleged victim’s request that Pinegrove take a year off from touring and that Hall enter therapy. I finished reading the Pitchfork article still confused, but a quote from Hall really stands out to me:

quote

Skylight is a great record, a major leap forward musically and lyrical from the band’s debut. But it’s harder to listen to knowing all of this. I’ve tried to imagine how I’ll react if Ryan Adams is accused of sexual assault. Would I throw out all of his records? Would I stop listening to him entirely? Perhaps more importantly, would I be able to separate his art, which I adore, from his behavior? I don’t know, and hopefully I won’t have to answer these questions.

I’m not the first person to write about the art vs. artist conundrum. Steven Hyden did so in his Grantland piece “Pied Pipers,” and although it exclusively deals with how we listen to music when its creators have behaved badly, it’s equally applicable to conversations about other media. I was listening to a podcast recently, and one of the hosts addressed this tangentially, saying “Chinatown does not stop being a great movie because Roman Polanski is a monster.” I’m inclined to agree, but the thought of buying a copy of Chinatown, thus supporting Polanski financially, feels very gross. I feel the same way when I think about all of Louis C.K.’s masturbation jokes–jokes that used to make me laugh–but are now so tied to the trauma he inflicted on women. It makes me sick that Louis C.K. continues to “drop in” to perform at New York’s Comedy Cellar, and that so many male comedians fail to understand how deeply wrong that is. In one of the many articles written about those performances, someone was quoted as saying how great C.K.’s set was. The perceived quality of his set is completely beside the point. Expertise or talent is never a reason to forgive someone, especially when that person has shown so little contrition.

april wolfe

For Louis C.K., it’s easy for me to say he should pursue another career out of the public eye. But for Pinegrove? I’d like to hear more music from them. Having said that, after listening to Skylight so heavily after its release I haven’t been able to go back to it. To what degree and how soon do we forgive in situations like this?

Again, I don’t have answers to any of this, but grappling with these questions is important, particularly when it’s difficult to turn on the news without hearing about sexual assault. I’d like to be perfectly clear, however, that the events surrounding Brett Kavanaugh do not fall into the same category of separating a person’s work from their behavior. If someone, anyone, is accused of sexual assault, their ability to be a judge in any courtroom needs to be seriously questioned. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony combined with Kavanaugh’s petulance and hysterics in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee speak to his profound lack of moral fiber, a trait necessary for any judicial position.

esposito

solnit

It’s Pronounced Bro-ga

For years, various people have encouraged me to try yoga; my mother, a personal trainer, and most gently, my therapist. All of them said something to the effect of “it will help you get out of your own head.”

I was always dismissive in response, saying “Why do I need to get out of my head? I know the territory.” The unspoken being that even though the stuff in my head might be weird, dark, and a little anxious, I was perfectly capable of handling it without yoga. This is essentially the thinking man’s version of “If I meditate I’ll lose my creative edge,” which is bullshit.

For over a year I meditated every day on the train home from work, and I’m familiar with all its benefits. It made me a much better, less anxious driver. Snafus at work bothered me less and less, and when others started to panic I stayed calm. On one of the initial dates with my now girlfriend, Leslie, I asked about her yoga practice. At that point I knew she went several times a week, and I definitely made a joke about “meditating hard.” Although athletic and fit, she was modest about her level of skill. “It helps me be connected to my body,” she said.

I replied, “Sometimes I wish I was less connected to my body.”

Thankfully, she laughed. Maybe a month or so later she asked if I wanted to join her in a yoga class.

I didn’t say yes because she’s great and I wanted to keep seeing her, although that was definitely part of the reason. After having so many smart people pushing yoga on me it seemed like a good idea to finally try it, mostly so I could ignore any and all future suggestions.

It was a few weeks before we could go to a class together, and we planned to go to an easier session appropriate for new yogis, something called Outdoor Flow. The morning of we were a little late in leaving and hit traffic on the way. “We’ll have to do the next one,” she explained. “My studio is strict about not letting people in after the class has started.”

“That’s fine,” I said, not realizing the drastic disparity between different types of classes. I was only looking to avoid hot yoga or one of the more intense classes Leslie preferred, sessions with names like Sculpt and Power Yoga. We arrived and signed up for a ninety-minute class called Vinyasa. Leslie left to park her car and the woman at the front desk gave me a mat and a towel. “The mats sometimes get slippery,” she explained, “so you can lay the towel on top for more traction.”

Right, as if I wouldn’t be able to master my own yoga mat.

Leslie returned and found me in the entry area where yogis take off their shoes. She walked up and kissed me. “Thank you for doing this. Vinyasa is a harder class than I would normally start you with.”

“It’s fine,” I said again. “And I’m definitely not nervous at all.”

Part of the reason I had agreed to Vinyasa was because Leslie had described Derek, the instructor, as somewhat “basic,” which I took to mean easier than most. We set up our mats at the back of the room, and after a few minutes the instructor came by to shake my hand, welcome me, and ask if I was okay with him using his hands to adjust my poses. “Sure,” I lied. My new goal was to avoid having him touch me at all. Derek was attractive in a stereotypical yoga bro sort of way. His brown hair hung to his shoulders, and he was muscular without looking like a beefy gym rat. He vaguely resembled Russell Brand, although I doubt he would’ve considered marrying Katy Perry.

I was not the only male in the class, but I was the only one wearing a Ryan Adams t-shirt, which made me feel perversely superior. I got this shirt for $20 at a rock concert, not Lululemon! I felt an immediate kinship with a woman wearing a shirt covered with cupcakes and unicorns. Before now, anytime someone asked if I practiced yoga I said I practiced bro-ga. “It’s when a bunch of people who probably should do yoga sit around and talk about how they don’t do yoga,” I would explain.

Things started easy enough, with all of us lying with our backs “to the earth,” focusing on our breathing. About ten minutes after that I was drenched in sweat and having a very hard time staying on my mat. My beloved Ryan Adams shirt proved ineffective in wiping my face since it was completely soaked. It was another fifteen minutes before I relented and put down my complimentary towel.

I’m by no means a yoga savant, but I also didn’t completely embarrass myself. I at least did better than the lady next to me, and she had her own mat. (I know it’s not a contest, but let me have this one.) This might not make sense to non-musicians, but I knew I was doing the movements properly when it felt like my body moved where it needed to go, exactly the same feeling of completing a V – I chord progression in a song. To put it another way, hum “Pop Goes the Weasel,” but stop before you get to the final note. When you stop the song on wea-, our ears are conditioned to expect the melody to resolve to the root note sung with -sel. Delaying that is how I’ve always imagined Tourette’s to feel, like there’s an itch you need to scratch. When you finally do resolve the melody there’s an inherent sense of rightness to the entire string of notes. For most of the class I tried to adjust my poses until I got to that sense of completeness or resolution within my body. It wasn’t until then I understood the attraction of yoga for so many, and the sense of connection Leslie had described. Yoga felt good, even though I was quickly learning it was a brutal workout.

I doubt I have ever sweated as much as I did in those ninety minutes. My hair did that annoying thing when it’s wet to form a big curlicue on my forehead. At various points Leslie reached over to squeeze my hand. I squeezed back and smiled, trying to indicate I wasn’t nearly as dead as I looked. I did take a breather about an hour into the class, laying down on my back to catch my breath. As I rejoined the class Derek came over to delicately correct my pigeon pose. Up until then he’d only come near me to suggest I try to get slightly lower during crow pose. As he pulled my leg a little farther back behind me I again felt the sense of completeness in the motion. I also realized how exhausted I was because even my toes were tired. The class ended with backbends which felt surprisingly good, although I didn’t bend all the way to the floor as Derek demonstrated. (The worst part was that he wasn’t even smug about it. Damn, yogi.)

When we stood up Leslie hugged and kissed me even though we were both impossibly sweaty, thanking me again for doing the class. “You were a rock star,” she said. “I was surprised you were able to do some of the poses.”

“I… liked it,” I managed, still trying to catch my breath. Leslie ran to get our things from her locker, and I wandered around the lobby to convince myself I wasn’t about to vomit everywhere. It was a close call for a few minutes, but by the time Leslie returned the nausea had passed.

As we were leaving Derek thanked us both for coming. Turning to me he asked, “Are you new to the practice?”

“Today was my first day.”

“Really? Very impressive! You did a lot better than some people in their first class. Seriously.” He seemed sincere although it’s possible he was merely being kind in the hopes I’d come back.

Walking back to the car I asked Leslie, “So Derek’s class was basic?”

She laughed. “Definitely.”

“Fuck.”

Turns out I’m the basic yoga bitch.

unnamed

Donezel Washington

The Mechanic is finished! Sasha is now Ana. The word count dropped from 84,000 to 80,0000. My mom is reading the latest draft and said “it’s tighter,” which is maybe all I’ve ever wanted to hear about my writing. I don’t plan on making any changes unless an agent or editor tells me to. I have started querying, but that’s a long, slow, demoralizing process. Updates to come.

To give you a sense of where my brain has been since I finished the book, I have a blister on my right index finger and I’m not at all sure how I got it. I also bought three mixing bowls at Target last weekend and two of them have completely vanished. I also went to Costco and thought, “ooh quinoa salad, that sounds good!” I was watching TV the other night and had an idea for my next novel. Right now it’s about cults, dementia, time travel, and bank heists. Should be dope.

Many thanks to all of you who read various sections and drafts of The Mechanic. I’d especially like to thank my friend Miriam, who had to listen to me try to explain what this book was about before I’d written much of anything. Her thoughtful questions were crucial in helping me think through so many parts of the story. In no particular order, I also need to thank Sara, Jean, Marissa, Kerry, Julianna, Andy, mom, and dad. The feedback from all of you was so so helpful. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I’m gonna go turn into a werewolf now.

P.S. I stole the Donezel Washington joke from Brooklyn 9-9 which is a great show that was and then wasn’t canceled and you should definitely watch it.

So you want to talk about race

Well, probably you don’t, but that’s why we should talk about it. I know I’ve mentioned it at some point, but for as long as The Mechanic has existed, the titular character was an African-American woman named Sasha. I recently decided to revise the book for Sasha to be a white woman with a new name.

I wanted Sasha to be an African American because it’s important that my fiction be representative of reality. Not all of us are cis-gender heterosexual white people, and neither is good literature. To me, Sasha has been black from the moment I first thought of her. Regrettably, it was only recently I stopped to ask myself why I’d imagined her this way.

Once I’d finished the first draft of The Mechanic I knew I would need people of color to read it and to pay attention to their feedback. I also knew that if I was lucky enough to ever be interviewed about this book, the conversation would include my decision to write a novel whose central character is black when I so clearly am not.

Before asking any person of color to read The Mechanic, I read So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo, which is great even if you’re not struggling to write characters of color. Oluo’s book gave me ideas for improving The Mechanic, and I felt confident about moving forward. Not long after that, I asked a person of color to read The Mechanic. I knew this person from school, was confident they would provide frank feedback, and I genuinely thought it was a story they’d enjoy. In my request, I included a synopsis and an offer to pay them a dollar per page for their time. They respectfully said no, expressing concern over “reading about rape and assault – especially violence against black bodies.” 

My initial reaction was, “Don’t you want to see how I’ve handled this as an artist!?” which is the wrong response and thankfully remained unsaid. It wasn’t until my friend declined to read The Mechanic that I was honest with myself about why I’d written Sasha as an African American; she’s an inherently angry character, and I didn’t think readers would believe that level of anger in a white character. This is racist and plays on the stereotype of an angry black woman, for which there is no excuse.

Using race to render characters more believable is dangerously lazy. Once I realized this I knew I had to remove Sasha in favor of a white character. This will ultimately serve the story far better, forcing me to write effective characters regardless of race. The book will certainly be different, but it will also be much better.

I am still passionate about writing compelling characters of all races, and it was difficult to realize I’m not yet a strong enough writer to do so. Good intentions don’t mean shit if it leads to bad, offensive writing.

Sorry to get so heavy after last month’s whimsy, but my only other idea for this newsletter was to send an inflammatory email full of “would” statements, and then send a follow-up correcting all of them to “wouldn’t” statements. I’m not sure that’s any less depressing, to be honest.

To end on a cheerful note, here’s a song I really enjoy by Wild Pink, whose new record came out today.

Cover of Ryan Adams’ “Dear Chicago”

I thought I lost this recording a couple apartments ago, but found it buried in my Dropbox. “Dear Chicago” was too difficult for me to learn on guitar, so I came up with this piano arrangement. It’s a bummer, but ultimately hopeful, and one of my favorite songs by any artist.