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.
I have friends who are social workers. Friends who are teachers. Friends who are nurses. Friends who work at non-profit organizations dedicated to helping the disadvantaged and the oppressed and the environment.
All these wonderful individuals, deep down they f*cking hate me.
And with good reason. While they’re each working their respective ass off to educate and empower and ease real suffering, I’m sitting at home in my underwear simply making up stories.
At least I have the decency to feel a little guilty about it.
I’m not saying writing fiction isn’t important. It’s very important – to those who write it. Whenever we authors finish a book, we feel we have shaken up the world, created something everybody must experience. But if we were to take a step back and view things objectively (and soberly), we would see that nobody really needs our novel – not the way a child needs a teacher or a refugee needs asylum or a rainforest needs a hippie.
The Lord of the Rings can’t get an underprivileged kid into college. Gone Girldoesn’t provide food and shelter. The Great Gatsby has never saved anyone from anaphylactic shock. To Kill a Mockingbird can’t protect the whales – or even the mockingbirds, for that matter. (Granted, a copy of War and Peace reportedly once helped keep a plane from crashing by adding some much needed tail weight, but nowadays people only read the e-book version.)
Don’t get me wrong; novels are beautiful things. Delightful distractions. Even the mediocre ones can help readers temporarily escape the doldrums. The demons. Daylight. But when it comes right down to it, a novel is a pack of lies. A vividly detailed fabrication that may parallel the truth but can never be the truth.
And that’s okay. There’s more than enough truth lying around outside of novels. It’s all over the place. The truth is thick in the air outside, sometimes choking us. So I’ll go on writing fiction, fabricating, embellishing. Because I know there are a lot of people who, while they may not need my stories, deserve a decent lie now and again.
If you haven’t already done so, be sure to check out ‘The Exit Man’ – my best lie yet.
As a kid in school, writing caused me great discomfort. Now, as an adult, NOT writing does.
Sure, I can usually make it two or three days without working on a novel or a blog post or a suicide note, but after that I absolutely MUST write. Or pop some OxyContin. Preferably both.
I totally get what Franz Kafka meant when he famously said, “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” (Granted, he was being a little dramatic, but what do you expect from a man whose most famous story is about a guy who turns into a giant insect during an existential crisis?) Even when I’m on vacation in paradise with my beautiful wife, I need to scratch out a page here and there to keep the crazy away. Too much sun and surf and relaxation terrifies me.
So why is that? What exactly is it that compels me and many others to write… and novels, no less? I’d like to think it’s because I’m a passionate artist. But according to George Orwell, it’s because I’m a masochistic psychopath:
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon which one can neither resist nor understand.“
So, if Kafka’s correct, I’ll go crazy if I don’t write. But if Orwell’s correct, I’m crazy if I DO write.
But the REALLY crazy thing is, they’re both right.
So the next time an author tells you they write for the pure joy of it, call bullsh*t.
Tell them you know about the monsters and the demons.
Tell them you know about the Kafka/Orwell paradox.
Tell them you know the pain of writing a book is exceeded only by the agony of leaving the pages blank.
If you’re a writer – particularly if you’re a fiction writer, or a poet (you poor thing) – you know how it feels to work your creativity to the bone for little reward.
You can change all that. All you need is a little self-deception.
The trouble with many of us writers is we set challenging and often unrealistic goals, expectations and standards with regard to our work and our financial gains related to it. We all aim to create books of Cormac McCarthy-type quality and rake in J.K. Rowling-type sales figures. And when we inevitably end up falling ridiculously short, we brood, question our talent, and seriously consider pawning our laptop and thesaurus.
There’s no need for us writers to be so hard on ourselves. Leave that to literary agents and publishers, and to readers who comment on our Amazon page after we self-publish. What we need are a few easy wins, a couple of small accomplishments, to help inspire us to keep fighting the good fight and writing the good (or at least mediocre) write.
What we need is to lower the bar a bit.
With that in mind, following are some slightly less lofty goals, expectations and standards to shoot for going forward:
Write 100 words a day. Stop being so ridiculously ambitious with your 1,000 or 2,000 words-a-day goal. All that does is leave you burnt out and disappointed. Now, a hundred words a day… that’s something you could do in your sleep, leaving you with a lot more time during the day to get drunk in celebration of your achievement.
Receive personalized rejection notices. Enough with your pipe dream of having a literary agent tell you she/he is interested in your novel. Just be happy when you get a rejection notice that actually includes your full name and the title of your book that will never get representation. Most agents these days either completely ignore queries or reject them with a form letter, so yeah, you’d better be proud when you get personally spurned. It means you’ve almost come close to making it.
No more than one typo… per page. With all the distractions of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Tinder, nobody can expect a writer to write totally clean copy, or even to catch their grammatical and spelling errors during the editing process. If you can keep your typos down to just one per manuscript page, you deserve a pat on the back and have earned the right to continue wasting valuable time on social media and dating apps.
Sell more than one copy the first week. All your friends and relatives and people you corner at gatherings and the grocery store will express tremendous interest in your novel, but only .001 percent of them will actually buy it. Knowing this going in will save you lots of disappointment and self-harm. Now, certainly your own mother or father (though probably not both) will buy your book immediately after it becomes available, so selling one copy the first week is nothing to cheer about. However, if another human being (and no, you don’t count) purchases your book the first week, you’re allowed to pretend to be proud. If five or more people buy your book the first week, you’re allowed to actually be proud.
Get two legitimate reviews on Amazon. Too many authors – especially newbies – eagerly check their Amazon page for rave reviews every few hours after releasing a book. First off, it’s difficult to garner a ton of reviews when only three people have read your book. Secondly, most people hate to take the time to write anything, aside from Facebook posts about their kid or how upset they are about the season finale of their favorite TV show. So waiting for a bunch of reviews to pour in is an exercise in futility. Set the bar at two reviews on Amazon (over the life of your book), and there’s a fair chance you’ll achieve your goal. Just don’t expect either of the reviews to be more than three stars. Remember, you’ve got to aim low to guarantee the illusion of success.
Win an award…of your own making. Forget about the PEN/Faulkner Award or the Man Booker Prize – those are for masters like Philip Roth and Don DeLillo or writers you’ve never heard of but who got their MFA at Brown. It’s easy to feel like a failure if you shoot only for the elite book awards. Still, winning at least some type of book award is essential to tricking yourself into thinking you’re a successful writer. That’s why I recommend vying for awards that have a minimal number of entrants, such as awards you yourself create. You’re a fiction writer, so there’s nothing wrong with winning a fictional award. Before I was lucky enough to win an Independent Publishers Award (“IPPY”) in 2015 for my novel The Exit Man, I was the proud recipient of such awards as “Best Dark Comedy About a Party Supply Store Owner Who Lives a Double Life as a Euthanasia Specialist” and “The Greg Levin Lifetime Achievement Award For Literary Brilliance.” Not to brag.
Feel free to leave a comment below. My goal used to be to get ten comments per blog post; now I’m following my own advice and shooting for one.
It’s no secret I love dark humor. I read it. I watch it. I write it. I live it. Well, we ALL live it. I mean, what’s darker and funnier than being the only animals totally conscious of the fact they are definitely going to die one day? Hilarious.
And since we’re all definitely going to die one day, I won’t waste any more of your time on a long intro. Following are my favorite lines from my favorite authors who take their comedy black with no cream or sugar:
“At the time, my life just seemed too complete, and maybe we have to break everything to make something better out of ourselves.” (Fight Club)
“On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” (Fight Club)
“Today is the sort of day where the sun only comes up to humiliate you.” (Fight Club)
“I don't want to die without any scars.” (Fight Club)
“It's only in drugs or death we'll see anything new, and death is just too controlling.” (Survivor)
“People used what they called a telephone because they hated being close together and they were too scared of being alone.” (Survivor)
“All God does is watch us and kill us when we get boring. We must never, ever be boring.” (Invisible Monsters)
“In a world where billions believe their deity conceived a mortal child with a virgin human, it's stunning how little imagination most people display.” (Rant)
“What if reality is nothing but some disease?” (Rant)
“And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.” (Slaughterhouse-Five)
“How nice -- to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive.” (Slaughterhouse-Five)
“Seems like the only kind of job an American can get these days is committing suicide in some way.” (Breakfast of Champions)
“Earthlings went on being friendly, when they should have been thinking instead.”
(Breakfast of Champions)
"Maturity is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter can be said to remedy anything." (Cat's Cradle)
"All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental." (Timequake)
Bret Easton Ellis
“I'm into, oh murders and executions mostly. It depends.” (American Psycho)
“Disintegration – I'm taking it in stride.” (American Psycho)
“There’s no use in denying it: this has been a bad week. I’ve started drinking my own urine.” (American Psycho)
“I don't want to care. If I care about things, it'll just be worse, it'll just be another thing to worry about.” (Less Than Zero)
“And as the elevator descends, passing the second floor, and the first floor, going even farther down, I realize that the money doesn't matter. That all that does is that I want to see the worst.” (Less Than Zero)
“I only had sex with her because I'm in love with you.” (The Rules of Attraction)
“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” (Lolita)
“He broke my heart. You merely broke my life.” (Lolita)
“Human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece” (Lolita)
“All the seven deadly sins are peccadilloes but without three of them, Pride, Lust, and Sloth, poetry might never have been born.” (Pale Fire)
“I cannot disobey something which I do not know and the reality of which I have the right to deny.” (Pale Fire)
“Some people – and I am one of them – hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically.” (Pnin)
“Be glad you're even alive. Be furious you're going to die.” (Catch-22)
“The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.” (Catch-22)
“He was going to live forever, or die in the attempt.” (Catch-22)
“The enemy is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he is on.” (Catch-22)
“I frequently feel I'm being taken advantage of merely because I'm asked to do the work I'm paid to do.” (Something Happened)
“I know at last what I want to be when I grow up. When I grow up I want to be a little boy.” (Something Happened)
And sorry folks, I just couldn’t resist the opportunity for a little self-promotion…
"Suicide should come with a warning label: 'Do not try this alone.'" (The Exit Man)
“One week I’m helping to end a life, the next I’m stepping in to save one. Seemingly dichotomous acts, but actually one in the same.” (The Exit Man)
“She had become an integral part of my life – just not the part with all the death.” (The Exit Man)
“It’s best to discuss mass murder behind closed doors, and Jenna lived the closest.” (Sick to Death – available soon!)
“Learning he might not be dying really threw a wrench into Gage’s plans. He didn’t see how he could go on killing if there was a chance he’d go on living.” (Sick to Death)
“He never praised me whenever I’d hit a home run in little league, but I kill a few people and all of the sudden I’m his idol.” (Sick to Death)
Feel free to join in on the fun and post one or two of YOUR favorite lines from a book of dark and/or comedic fiction. Or hell, ANY kind of book. (Super-extra bonus points if it’s from one of MY books.)
As a writer, nothing scares me more than being unoriginal. Death comes in a close second. So you can imagine how frightened I am of dying an unoriginal death.
I try not to think too much about death – unless I’m awake. When I do, I like to fantasize about the most honorable and worthwhile ways for a writer to go out. I’m dying to share them with you:
Getting trampled by obsessed fans at a book signing. Painful and possibly bloody, yes, but what a way to finish – knowing you were violently adored by your readers. Ideally, the writer would be in their eighties or nineties when the trampling occurs. That way there would be less suffering not only for the writer (due to their already diminished physical condition), but also for the fans, who could take solace in the fact they didn’t cut short a brilliant and burgeoning career. For example, it would be sort of cool if Tom Wolfe (85 years old next week) got trampled by fans during a book signing, but rather lamentable if Gillian Flynn (45 years old) did.
Suffering a heart attack from the excitement of having just written the final line of a great (or even just a good) novel. Can you say “guaranteed best seller?” That’s what a writer who perished in this manner would have on their cold, dead hands. Sure, as the recently deceased writer, it would suck to not be able to experience the hype and hoopla surrounding the book, but then there wouldn’t be said hype and hoopla without the aforementioned dying. In order to achieve the level of fame we’re talking about here, a perfectly timed death is just something the writer would have to live with.
Spontaneously combusting during a bout of excessive creativity. There’s nothing like being in the “writing zone,” where all your synapses are firing and every sentence pouring onto the page is a diamond. The trouble is it’s impossible to remain in the zone for more than a few hours, and the fall from such dizzying artistic heights is painful. What writer wouldn’t love to suddenly burst into a ball of flames before such a plummet could occur? To literally blow up from the blistering heat of their own words and imagination. I’m not saying I’ve ever approached 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s cremation hot) while writing, but I have purchased a fire-retardant laptop just in case. I mean, what a shame it would be to lose whatever I was working on at the time of combustion.
Dying of shock after receiving an acceptance notice from a literary agent. It’s getting harder and harder to land a lit agent these days, so getting an acceptance notice from one is a huge deal worthy of celebration and cardiac arrest. For most writers, everything that comes after finding an agent is anticlimactic – a lackluster publishing deal, disappointing sales, a forgotten book – so they shouldn’t feel bad at all if they die right after finding out they’ve found representation. It’s going out on a high note.
Getting murdered by a fan furious over the fact you killed off one of their favorite characters. This may not seem like the most original one on the list due to Stephen King’s Misery, but Misery was just fiction (not to mention the writer in the story was able to avoid being killed). In real life, if your writing is so infectious it compels a reader to go all Kathy Bates on you, it means you have achieved the status of master storyteller, and your death will be the envy of all authors. (Or it may just mean your books attract complete whackjobs, which is still pretty cool.)
Getting murdered by a famous author jealous of your sudden emergence. As a writer, the only thing better than getting killed by a fan is getting killed by one of your favorite authors. It means you’ve made it. Famous writers like to act supportive of newbies, but if they see a talented up-and-comer blast onto the scene and threaten their stronghold on the bestseller list, there will be blood. Or at least there should be. Cold-blooded competition and murder would make the literary world a lot more interesting to the general public. It would also be a great way for emerging writers to meet famous authors. Right now Chuck Palahniuk won’t even respond to my Facebook messages, but I bet once my Amazon ranking starts to creep up on his, he’ll be challenging me to a death match in an underground fight club somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. And that’s just the kind of demise I need to REALLY kick my career into high gear.
What do YOU think is a great way for a writer to die? Or if that makes you uncomfortable, what do you think is an AWFUL way for a writer to die? Remember, there is no wrong answer.