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.)
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.)
It being the holiday season, I wanted to write a piece that captured the joyous spirit of giving that awakens in everyone this time of year. And I figured what better way to do that than to talk about my favorite serial killer.
Gage Adder – the terminally ill main character in my novel Sick to Death – is likely to be remembered for all the people he assaults and poisons in the book. And that’s a shame because when he’s not busy maiming or killing, he’s somewhat of a saint, carrying out the types of random acts of kindness and generosity this world could use much more of. Take away the vengeful cane beatings and the cyanide, and Gage is pretty much Santa Claus.
The point is, you can learn a lot about kindness from a murderer. Following are a few excerpts from Sick to Death that scream “Christmas Spirit!”
Then it dawned on him. There were ways to be thoughtful and giving without actually having to interact with others. Gage was fully prepared to give niceness a shot, but he wasn’t yet ready to let go of Sartre’s infamous notion that hell is other people. Thus, he spent the remainder of the day being anonymously altruistic.
He used his debit card to add time to six expired parking meters.
He sent an arrangement of roses, hyacinth and ranunculus to Charlene – the receptionist at his office whose husband had recently left her.
He sent two dozen donuts to the staff at FutureBright – a local charity dedicated to empowering at-risk youth – and he donated three hundred dollars to the organization via their website.
He picked up the tab for not one but two tables at the diner where he had lunch, asking the waitress to be discreet about his actions and leaving the establishment before the patrons – five in all – were informed their meals had been paid for. He left the waitress a fifty-percent tip on the total of his and the other two bills.
And for his closing act, he called the pediatric cancer unit at Carrington Medical Center, asked a nurse how many children were currently inpatients, and then ordered forty-three stuffed animals to be delivered to the unit the following day.
Two broken ribs for the guy kicking the homeless man in a back alley and bombarding him with racial epithets.
A thousand dollars in a blank envelope for the neighbors whose five-year old daughter’s body was found in a river two states over.
A cracked cranium for the coke-addled brat who plowed his Beemer into six people on a sidewalk but walked due to daddy’s legendary lawyer.
A boatload of books, games and DVDs for everyone in the Pediatric Burn Unit at Pearson Medical Center.
Brutes and creeps kept showing up bleeding and battered at hospitals and urgent care clinics. Needy individuals, families and organizations continued getting pleasant surprises from an anonymous stranger.
When Gage wasn’t knocking a white supremacist’s nose to the side of his face with a cane, he was handing azaleas to an elderly woman in the park. It was as if he had some strange new kind of bipolar disorder, one that caused him to rapid-cycle between breaking bones and bestowing gifts.
His most notable act occurred the morning of the tenth day, when he saw a woman sobbing as she walked out of a veterinary clinic holding a dog leash. The look on her face – like her entire family had just been sent to a gas chamber.
Holding the door open for the woman as she exited was an employee of the clinic, a teenage girl who looked almost as despondent as the woman herself.
“Don’t worry about the bill right now, Miss Morris,” said the girl. “Take all the time you need.”
Gage and the girl watched as the woman staggered down the sidewalk, clutching the leash. After the girl closed the door and returned to work, Gage approached the woman. He gently rested his hand on her shoulder.
“Please,” he said, “allow me to get you a taxi, Miss.”
She gave Gage a confused look. “I drove here,” she said, continuing to cry.
“It’s okay. You’re in no condition to drive. I’d like to pay for your taxi home, and I’ll also give you money to get a taxi back to your car later.”
“Who are you?” asked the woman.
“Nobody you know, just somebody who’d like to help,” said Gage. “Is it okay if I hail you a cab now?”
“I live a good fifteen minutes away,” said the woman. “A taxi will cost about twenty-five or thirty dollars. I can’t let you pay all that.”
“Please, it’s no problem,” said Gage, who fished his wallet out of the back pocket of his jeans and took out three tens and two twenties. “This should cover your ride home and back,” he said as he presented the cash to her.
“You’re very kind, but I couldn’t possibly—”
“Yes, you could. You can.”
The woman smiled through the sobbing and gave Gage a hug.
“Now let’s get you a taxi,” said Gage. He guided the woman toward the curb by her elbow and raised his free hand high. When a taxi pulled up and stopped in front of them about ten seconds later, Gage opened the rear passenger side door for the woman and helped her into the yellow sedan.
“Please make sure this woman gets home safely,” Gage said to the driver. “She’ll tell you the address.” Before Gage closed the door, the woman grabbed the sleeve of his jacket.
“Thank you,” she said as she wiped her eyes. “Thank you so much.”
“You take care of yourself, Miss,” said Gage. “I’m sorry about your dog.”
Gage shut the door and waved to the sobbing woman as the taxi drove off. He then turned around and walked into the veterinary clinic.
“Good morning,” said the girl behind the front desk. It was the same girl who’d held the door for the woman earlier. “How can I help you?”
“That woman who left here crying a few minutes ago, I’m assuming her dog didn’t make it?”
“I’m sorry,” said the girl, “but who are you? A relative or friend of hers?”
“No, no,” said Gage. “I just saw how sad she was and would like to help in some way.”
“Well, there’s not much you can do,” the girl replied. “Her Golden Retriever is being euthanized as we speak.”
“That’s what I figured,” said Gage. “I overheard you say something about her bill before. I would like to pay it.”
This holiday season (and beyond), let’s each try to be a little more like Gage – minus all the, you know, homicide and stuff.
You’ve written a brilliant novel. It’s original and moving and thoroughly entertaining.
And nobody really cares.
And the reason nobody really cares is nobody really knows about it.
“But I’ve tweeted about it and blogged about it and told all my friends about it on Facebook.”
Good for you. You’ve done exactly what the 30,000 other authors who launched a book the same week as you did with their book. And most of them have more followers and friends than you do. And their book isn’t selling either.
It’s no longer enough to write a standout novel to have your novel stand out. These days, it’s how you market a book that matters – and the more original (read: outlandish) your marketing tactics, the better. The book itself is secondary.
I agree. But do you want to sell books or bitch and moan? True, both activities are satisfying, but you have to pick one. And if you pick the former, I may be able to help.
Below are five totally outside-the-box marketing tactics I (cannot) guarantee will dramatically boost your exposure and book sales, and earn you the level of recognition I feel only I deserve. (NOTE: You’ll need to employ these tactics soon, before all the other authors turn them into totally inside-the-box ideas. That said, there’s no need to rush TOO much; few people actually read my blog.)
1) Be your book. Convert your book cover into a wearable sandwich board and wear it out in public. All the time. Even at your job. Don’t worry if your coworkers ridicule you and your boss writes you up repeatedly for dress-code violations. You’ll be quitting that job in no time due to the almost guaranteed success of this brilliant book marketing approach. (Please keep in mind that, for some jobs, such as underwater welder and funeral director, wearing a sandwich board may not be feasible or practical.)
2) Video-bomb breaking news with your book in hand. You know how there’s always some idiot in the background waving at the camera while a TV reporter is covering a big breaking news story? Be that idiot. Only smarter. Waving your hand at tens or hundreds of thousands of captivated viewers watching news breaking is moronic. Waving your book at them is genius, assuming the book’s not upside down and you’re not waving it so vigorously the people can’t read the title. Otherwise you’re back to just being an idiot. The challenge with this tactic is being in the right place at the right time. You’ll need to hang out at or around places where horrible things happen on a regular basis, like an active fault line, a public school or a Walmart. It’ll take some patience and resolve, but the payoff is worth it. The only way to get more free exposure for your book is to murder a celebrity during your launch, and I simply can’t with good conscience recommend that.
3) Use racist, misogynistic, homophobic, uber-nationalistic language in your marketing. If this tactic can earn a bombastic orange man the presidency, surely it can generate some buzz around your book. Granted, many of the folks your vitriolic hate-speech will attract are likely to be illiterate, but they’ll still buy your book – you merely need to express how, if they do not, it must mean they are a sissy-girl terrorist who hates freedom.
4) Post a photo of a page of your book revealing a coffee stain that looks like Jesus. Nearly a third of the world’s population is wild about Jesus and will buy anything that contains an image that even remotely resembles him. This explains why Willie Nelson’s albums have sold so well all these years. Even if your book is about an S & M dominatrix who worships the devil, if a likeness of J.C. has been reported to appear somewhere inside even just a single copy of it, all your literary sins will be forgiven and you will soon be able to buy a mansion next to that of Stephen King.
5) Murder a celebrity during your launch. I know, I know, above in #2 I said I couldn’t with good conscience recommend this tactic, but we’re talking about marketing here and thus good conscience is moot. Still and all, this tactic should be considered only as a last resort – unless you have easy access to any reality TV stars, in which case you should bump this up to #1 on this list.
DISCLAIMER: I’m off my meds and refuse to be held responsible for any sage advice I may have provided in this post.
Oh, and by the way, my bestselling dark comedy ‘The Exit Man’ is currently available for just 99 cents on Amazon (as well as on most other major ebook retailer sites) for a limited time. To purchase it at this obscenely low price, choose your link below. (Note: The Amazon link is for US customers, but the discounted price is good across all Amazon sites.)