Welcome to SCRAWL SPACE, Greg’s blog. Here he waxes eloquent on all things relating to writing and the writing life. In other words, it’s where he loves to waste his time and that of his readers. He’s very happy you’ve stopped by. You, too, Dad.
Whenever submitting one of my novels for an award or to a potential publicist or promotion service, invariably I am asked to check a box indicating what genre the book falls under. It’s harder than it sounds.
Thriller? Not exactly.
Suspense? Close, but nuh uh.
Romance? No, my darling.
Fantasy? Dream on.
Sci-Fi? Does not compute.
Young Adult? Whatever.
After scanning and rejecting all the major genre categories, I end up doing the same thing my wife – who is half-Indonesian and half-Australian – does whenever answering the ethnicity question on a form or application. …
I check “Other.”
I’m proud to be an Other. I find it more interesting than being another. Another mystery writer. Another romance writer. Another fantasy writer. Not that I’ve got anything against those who write in the most popular genres. It’s just, what’s the fun in creating books that sell easily?
Being an Other does come with its set of challenges. Namely, a smaller reading market. If I had a dime for every person who has asked me why I don’t write more like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin – or at least more like writers who try to write like those writers write – I’d have enough money to hire a hitman to take out the next person who asks me that.
Now that would make for a good novel. One that wouldn’t fit easily into any major genre category.
I get that most readers are partial to a specific genre. But it seems many readers are completely unwilling to read outside of that genre. Or will start reading something they think falls within that genre only to stop the second a sacred rule is broken or bent, the minute a familiar formula begins to morph. I’m not saying these readers don’t want to be shocked and surprised. They do, as long as it's in a way they expect.
Call me a freak, but when I’m reading or writing a novel, I simply don’t think in terms of genre. I think in terms of STORY. If I’m totally engrossed in a book (or a movie or a TV show), not once do I stop and think, “Wait, is this a thriller or a mystery?” or “Is this dystopian fantasy or sci-fi?” I just keep reading (or watching) and allowing myself to be immersed in the captivating reality the writer (and/or director) has created. At least until my wife wakes me up on the couch, puts my empty cocktail glass in the sink, and escorts me to bed.
Some of my favorite novels cannot be cleanly categorized: Fight Club (and just about every other novel by Chuck Palahniuk); Slaughterhouse-Five (and just about every other novel by Kurt Vonnegut); Geek Love; Trainspotting; We Have Always Lived in the Castle; The Contortionist’s Handbook. These peculiar books thrill and delight me, and naturally they and others (un)like them have had a significant influence on my own writing. What can I say? I brake for broken rules. I heart inventive. I get off on oddly original.
I’m pretty sure you do, too. So, if you’ve never tried it before, grab the wheel and veer recklessly outside your genre lane. Get off at the wrong exit. Drive down an unpaved road. Then just continue on and see how far you can go, keeping the pedal to the floor until you arrive somewhere so mesmerizing and new, it doesn’t even have a name.
Okay, I waited three spaces. I feel that’s sufficient before going ahead and pushing my own peculiar books, The Exit Manand Sick to Death(Note: Sick to Death is currently just 99 cents for Amazon US & UK customers! Deal ends April 25.)
Most people assume it takes a ton of talent to succeed as a novelist. But you need only read a few bestsellers to know that isn’t true.
If you want to be a novelist, there’s something much more important than talent. Something much easier than mastering the craft of writing.
Being utterly indestructible.
Every year, thousands of fiction writers are hospitalized or die – or worse – because they are unprepared for the tremendous physical and emotional strain of finishing, submitting and begging friends to buy their novel. That’s why I’m in the process of establishing the world’s first survival camp for aspiring novelists. I feel the best way to stop the suffering of rookie fiction writers is to put them through training that will make them wish they were dead.
Following are a few of the key components I plan to incorporate:
Core and gluteus training. All camp participants will be required to do an hour of planks, squats, crunches and lunges everyday. This will help dramatically reduce their risk of injury and horrific posture once they start working on their novel and are forced to sit on their ass for days on end. (Few people know this, but Stephen King’s tremendous productivity has less to do with his writing prowess and more to do with his CrossFit obsession.)
Bladder strengthening. Nothing ruins the flow of writing like the flow of urine. That’s why each camp participant will be given only one bathroom break a day. It will be painful and seem inhumane to begin with, but after a few days, happy campers will be able to “hold it in” with ease for chapters at a time. Those who cannot will be welcome to follow in the tradition of Charles Bukowski, who took great pride in soiling himself every other paragraph.
Sun-staring sessions. For eons, mothers have been telling their children, “Never stare directly at the sun.” That’s because mothers never expect their children to become novelists. (Or want them to.) The truth is, looking straight into the center of our glorious fiery star without the aid of sunglasses (in moderation, of course) is an excellent way to build the corneal strength authors need. Without such strength, a novelist cannot be expected to tolerate gazing endlessly at a blank computer screen during periods of massive writer's block. Camp participants who absolutely refuse to take part in the daily sun-gazing sessions will be given slightly less intense alternatives, such as staring directly at a shirtless Norwegian, or staring directly at George Hamilton’s teeth.
“The Rejection Room.” To better prepare camp participants for the crippling sense of failure and self-doubt they’ll experience as novelists, each will sit in a special “Rejection Room” where, for five straight hours, they will be forced to listen repeatedly to a recording that says, "Thank you for your submission, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to pass." The next day they will be placed back in the room for another five hours of even harsher rejection – total silence.
Simulated squalor. Just as important as preparing aspiring novelists for constant rejection is getting them accustomed to living in constant squalor. My survival camp will take care of that by providing participants with just one small plate of plain boiled pasta per day, an old dirty mattress to sleep on, and all the bottom-shelf liquor they can drink. The bountiful supply of cheap, horrible liquor is intended to serve a dual purpose: It will teach campers how to use alcohol to cope with constant squalor and rejection; and it will loosen their inhibitions, thus freeing them to write more boldly and daringly when not vomiting.
I’m currently seeking investors to help get my proposed survival camp for aspiring novelists off the ground. Only serious individuals with ample financial resources to contribute need contact me. In other words, I don’t want to hear from any writers.
An expert on author platforms recently told me readers love it when writers provide answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs). I’m not usually one to challenge authority, unless I’m conscious, but I’m afraid this expert doesn’t know his ass from a hole in a plot.
Things that are frequently asked are rarely interesting. “Is it hot enough for you?” “How’s the chicken?” “Are you off your meds, Greg?” It’s almost impossible to provide an intriguing response to such common questions. Unless, of course, I’m off my meds.
So, rather than following the aforementioned “expert’s” advice and doing an FAQ post, I’ve decided instead to do an FAQ post. No, I’m not off my meds – the “F” in the latter acronym stands for “Favorite,” not “Frequently.”
Below are some of the best questions interviewers have posed to me during my six years as a published novelist begging to be interviewed.
You write about issues that others would normally tiptoe around. Where does this dark humor come from?
First off, I don't see the point of always tiptoeing around touchy topics. Tiptoeing can cause painful cramping. Sometimes it’s better to dance on top of such topics – just as you would atop the grave of an evil nemesis or a gun lobbyist.
As for where my dark humor comes from, I guess you could say it’s a survival tactic. I don't use dark humor to offend – I use it to defend. Humor is a magnificent weapon, one that, instead of destroying, keeps us from being destroyed. Nietzsche said, "We have art in order to not die of the truth." I feel humor serves the same purpose. In fact, humor – when deftly wielded – is art.
How has your upbringing influenced your writing?
I had a pretty happy childhood, which normally dooms a writing career. But I managed to overcome all the unconditional love and support and still become a tortured writer of twisted tales. That’s not to say my upbringing didn’t help me at all. I was a very talkative kid (surprise!), and when all my family and friends finally got sick and tired of listening to me, I turned to the written word. Nobody can shut you up when you're alone in a room typing... except for my cat, Dingo, who loves to sit on my laptop keyboard right when the prose is flowing.
Is there an underlying message you wish to relay about basic human nature through your characters?
No, I don’t really try to relay any underlying message or universal truth about basic human nature. I don’t pretend to even understand basic human nature – especially after the last election.
With my latest novel, Sick to Death, my intent was solely to spin a captivating and entertaining yarn. To explore what could happen if some terminally ill folks with an otherwise solid moral compass decided dying gave them a license to kill.
I just hope, in writing such a book, the underlying message isn’t that I should be committed to a mental institution.
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
Dr. Seuss infected me at a very young age. I blame him. For everything. Especially whenever I receive a royalty check and can’t decide whether to laugh or to cry. Aggravated people often mutter, “Thanks, Obama.” I often mutter, “Thanks, Seuss.”
What do you consider the most challenging part of writing a novel?
The biggest challenge for me is remembering to feed my cats. Also, remembering to kiss my wife and hug my daughter every now and again. What I’m saying is I really get into the writing process. So much so, I often forget about the living process.
Besides writing, what secret skills do you have?
I can’t say I have any secret skills; if I’m good at something, I make sure to tell everyone all about it. I will share one of my more surprising skills, though: Freestyle rapping. You probably wish I were kidding, but I’m not. I suffer from chronic hip-hopilepsy. I contracted it when I was about fourteen. At least I’ve learned to apply it to my writing career. For example, here’s a rap about being an author:
My hopes are set high, my prose I let fly
Don't wanna be a writer who just mostly gets by
I wanna be a writer getting checks that let my
chauffeur and my butler go and get my neckties
I’ll give it my best try, I've authored this rap storm
You might be like, "What's an author doing a rap for?"
I'm hoping it will elevate my authoring platform
I have a couple readers but I need to attract more
Your previous book, The Exit Man, was quite successful. Did you ever fear that Sick to Death would suffer from second novel syndrome?
Not at all, mainly because Sick to Death is my third novel. The reason you didn’t know that is because my first novel was very much a first novel. I did things smart – started with a mediocre book so that all my subsequent ones would seem decent.
In all seriousness, as an author there’s no point in worrying if your latest book will live up to those that preceded it. If you’re writing scared, you’re not “bringing it.” And readers today demand you bring it.
Tell us a bit about your writing habits. (Granted, this isn’t a very intriguing question; however, my response is astonishing.)
I’m kind of like Rain Man with my writing. Every day from 8:30 a.m. till 3:00 p.m., yeah. 8:30 till 3:00, gotta write, yeah.
I’m EXTREMELY fortunate to have a wife who not only allows me to write full-time, she insists on it. When I speak of getting a real job, she beats me. I used to have a real job (a writing job, actually, but not a particularly exciting one), and my wife beat me until I quit and focused entirely on fiction. I’m the luckiest victim of domestic abuse alive. (There’s that dark sense of humor again. #SorryNotSorry.)
If you could choose one character from your latest book to spend a day with, who would it be? And where would you take him/her?
Funny you should ask. Not too long ago I tweeted, “I spend all day with my protagonists, but I wouldn't want to be seen with any of them.” Hmmm, I guess if I had to actually hang out with one of the characters from Sick to Death, I’d choose Gage, the main character – even though this might piss of Jenna, the second most important character in the book and someone you really don’t want to piss off.
I’d probably take Gage out for a couple of drinks, then to a Trump speech and just see what happens. Pretty sure after that, the whole world would know about Gage and my book. Call it a PR stunt. Thank me later.
What would you say is your greatest strength as a writer?
I’d say it’s my ability to bring humor to controversial and dark topics while simultaneously revealing the heart and humanity of my protagonists. I love getting readers to root for a sociopath or a serial killer or just a plain loser, and getting them to laugh and cry while doing it.
What are you working on right now?
A bourbon, neat. Oh, and my fourth novel. It centers around a guy who serves on an elite team that goes undercover across the globe to rescue victims of child sex trafficking.
The story was inspired by a humanitarian trip my wife took to Cambodia in 2015. And while the book is technically a dark comedy, I assure you there is no making light of what the girls who are rescued go through. Instead, the humor comes from how the undercover “pedophiles” cope (and struggle to cope) with the extremely challenging and critical missions they carry out, and the odd role they must play during those missions.
As part of my research, I interviewed a lead member of an actual undercover rescue team. When he found out what kind of writer I was, he said, “I’m glad to hear it. There’s no way one can survive what we do without a dark sense of humor.” I aim for the book to do right by him and all the other people who dedicate their lives to liberating victims of child sex slavery. Without depressing the hell out of everyone who reads it.
If you have a question for me about anything even remotely related to writing life (and death), by all means post it in the comment section below. If I can’t come up with a good response, I’ll have my ghostwriter do so.
Not too long ago, I wrote a piece about my all-time favorite authors of dark comedic fiction. In twelve days, I’ll meet the man who’s number one on that list.
For those unfamiliar with Palahniuk, he wrote Fight Club (yes, it was an amazing novel before it was an amazing movie) as well as Survivor, Choke, Invisible Monsters and numerous other brilliant best-selling books. He’s not only my favorite author of dark humor; he’s my favorite author period. (Well, living author, anyway – it’s hard to compete with dead Russians.)
So, when I read that Chuck was going to be leading a ten-session writing workshop (something authors of his magnitude almost NEVER do), and that only a handful of applicants would be selected to participate, I did what any serious writer and Palahniuk fan would do: I screeched like a schoolgirl. Then I knocked over my wife and daughter en route to my writing nook to get started on my application.
A week later I received an email from the writing institute that’s sponsoring the workshop, letting me know I’d been accepted. The message even included a personal note of praise from Chuck himself about the writing sample I submitted. After reading the email and note six times, I did what any serious writer and Palahniuk fan would do: I soiled myself.
On Monday, February 27, I’ll be flying out to Portland (from my home in Austin) to join fifteen other extremely fortunate writers for the initial session of the Writing Wrong Workshop, where the master of modern trangressive fiction will encourage us to challenge conventional writing rules and, I think, fight each other in underground brawls.
As honored and as thrilled as I am, I do have some concerns. My biggest concern – aside from delayed or cancelled flights causing me to miss any of the workshop sessions – is meeting Chuck… and doing something that causes him to want to fight me in an underground brawl. Few things can ruin a writer’s confidence or career more than getting punched in the face by an author they idolize. Now, some of you may be thinking that blogging about how giddy I am about the workshop would be reason enough for Chuck to want to punch me, but that’s ludicrous. Chuck is never going to read my blog.
To help ensure I don’t do anything to annoy or irk my idol during the workshop, I’ve come up with eight Fight Club-style rules for me to follow:
1) The first rule of Write Club is you do not talk about Write Club. (Except when blogging, or chatting with family and friends, or standing next to a total stranger in the grocery store checkout line, or sitting next to one on a flight to Write Club.)
2) The second rule of Write Club is you do not try to make clever references or allusions to Fight Club (or any other of Chuck’s books) during Write Club. (I did, however, reference the workshop on Twitter two days ago and included in the tweet, “I am Jack’s unbridled anticipation.” Risky, I know, but Chuck himself re-tweeted it, so I think I’m good.)
3) The third rule of Write Club is you do not bring all your copies of Chuck’s books to Write Club for him to sign. (At least not until you see another Write Club participant try it without getting punched.)
4) The fourth rule of Write Club is you do not wear to Write Club any apparel featuring anything related to Chuck or his books. (Nobody likes a teacher’s pet, least of all the teacher – especially when the teacher’s Chuck. So, I’ve agreed to hand over both my Fight Club T-shirt (see image) and my Survivor hoodie to my wife before I head to the airport each week. It’s the only way.)
5) The fifth rule of Write Club is you must correctly pronounce Chuck’s surname every time you say it. (It’s PAULA-nick. NOT pa-LA-nick, which is how 99.9% of people outside of Chuck’s immediate family pronounce it – including me up until I heard him interviewed on NPR a little over a year ago. It was shocking; almost like finding out you’re adopted.)
6) The sixth rule of Write Club is, when Chuck enters the room for the first time, you don’t soil yourself. (I will do my absolute best to respect this rule, but will be wearing an adult diaper to the first session just in case.)
7) The seventh rule of Write Club is, when Chuck rips your writing to shreds, you do not openly sob. (I will do my absolute best to respect this rule, but will bring an extra adult diaper for my tears just in case.)
8) The eighth and final rule of Write Club is do not forget you belong in Write Club. You earned this. You've GOT this. (Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go change my underwear. Again.)
The legendary author, poet and alcoholic Charles Bukowski once said, “Without literature, life is hell.” Sure, he was likely drunk and didn’t remember saying it, but that doesn’t make the quote any less profound.
Great works of fiction entertain, inspire, educate and heal. They have the power to transform not only the individual reader but also entire societies – or at least they did back when entire societies used to read.
I have personally experienced the transformative power of books. To Kill a Mockingbird taught me not to be so quick to judge others. Animal Farm showed me how power corrupts. And Fight Club made me realize just how important it is I stay on my meds.
Call me an idealist, but I think fiction can pave the way to human salvation. I think it can alleviate if not eliminate most of the psychosocial and emotional issues holding us back and making us miserable. Now you may be asking, “Why not encourage people to read non-fiction to fix what ails us? Why not urge everyone to pick up a self-help book to bring about global enlightenment?” I’ll tell you why not: Because I don’t write books like that. And also because nobody wants to be seen reading something with a title like, So, You’re a Bigot or The Idiot’s Guide to Being Better.
Below I’ve made a list of all the things that are probably wrong with you as a human, each followed by several novels that can set you right. Read the books you feel most apply to you (just read all of them, to be safe), and report back to me in a year or so to discuss how much better a person you’ve become as a result.
If you are DEPRESSED, read:
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
If you are ANXIOUS, read:
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss
If you are RACIST, read:
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
If you are HOMOPHOBIC, read:
A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White
Far from You by Tess Sharpe
Luna by Julie Anne Peters
Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
If you are ISLAMOPHOBIC, read:
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf by Mohja Kahf
Native Believer by Ali Eteraz
If you are MISOGYNISTIC, read:
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
If you are COMPLACENT/APATHETIC, read:
1984 by George Orwell
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Orxy and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Neuromancer by William Gibson
If you are just plain MEAN, read:
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
If you HAVEN'T READ MY NOVELS (this is a global problem), read:
Now, I realize some of you may disagree with – or be puzzled by – a few of my book choices. If so, you’re welcome to express your thoughts/opinions in the comment section below. Just be aware I’m welcome to delete said thoughts/opinions if they are totally valid and make me question my competence and self-proclaimed literary expertise.
What books would you like to add? What CATEGORIES? What makes me think anybody stuck around long enough to even read these questions?