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.
I never judge a book by its cover. I judge it by its first line, or lines. If I’m not blown away or at least utterly intrigued by the end of the opening paragraph, I’m gone.
Call it impatience. Call it ADD. I’m sorry, but life’s too short and my reading list too long for me to spend more than half a minute on a tale that doesn’t grab me by the goodies from the get-go.
I know, I know, there’s such a thing as foreplay. Just not in fiction. Not for me. Not when it comes to Chapter One, anyway.
I get that I’m probably missing out on some worthwhile reads due to my demands for immediate literary gratification. That’s fine by me. I have to draw the line somewhere to ensure I have time to write, time for friends and family, and time to binge-watch Breaking Bad over and over.
So what does it take for me to move past page one of a book? I’ll show you. Following are what I consider to be 25 of the best opening lines in literature, in no particular order:
1) “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” –1984 by George Orwell
2) “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.” –The Stranger by Albert Camus
3) “It was a pleasure to burn.” –Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
4) “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” –Murphy by Samuel Beckett
5) “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” –One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez,
6) “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” –Neuromancer by William Gibson
7) “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” –The Crow Road by Iain M. Banks
8) “Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.” –The Luck of the Bodkins by PG Wodehouse
9) “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” –The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
10) “Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler's pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.” –Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
11) “I am living at the Villa Gorghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.” –Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
12) “A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves.” –Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty
13) “I was looking for a quiet place to die. Someone recommended Brooklyn…” –The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster
14) “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith
15) “I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped. I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me.” –The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
16) “I am a sick man… I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts.” –Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
17) “He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it – was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.” –Orlando by Virginia Woolf
18) “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” –Beloved by Toni Morrison
19) “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” –Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
20) “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” –Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
21) “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” –Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
22) “Like most people, I didn’t meet and talk to Rant Casey until after he was dead.” –Rant by Chuck Palahniuk
23) “On a very cold and lonely Friday last November, my father disappeared from the Dictionary.” –The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon
24) “None of the merry-go-rounds seem to work anymore.” –True Confessions by John Gregory Dunne
25) “Once upon a time, in a far off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.” –An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
26 – Bonus!) “Everyone in the subway car gasped when the man with the shaved head slid off his seat and crumpled to the floor. Everyone except Gage.” –Sick to Death by… ME! (Okay, so maybe it isn’t one of the best opening lines in literature, but it’s most definitely one of the best opening lines in literature I’VE written. The book just launched earlier this month – I hope you’ll have a look!)
What are some of YOUR favorite opening lines in literature? Please share them in the comments section below.
A while back, I posted “My 25 Favorite Quotes About Writing.” In retrospect, I probably should have titled that piece “25 Really Good Quotes About Writing.” I continuously stumble across magnificent writing quotes, and calling any one set of them “my favorite” feels limiting. It’s like choosing a favorite snowflake or ‘Rocky’ film – more just keep coming and dazzling me.
Below are another 25 great quotes from famous authors, poets and playwrights – because who doesn’t love pithy quips from crazy people? And more importantly, who has time to create a whole blog post using their own words every two weeks?
1) “Anyone who says he wants to be a writer and isn’t writing, doesn’t.” –Ernest Hemingway
2) “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.” –Saul Bellow
3) “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” –Anne Frank
4) “If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster.” –Isaac Asimov
5) “I've found, in my own writing, that a little hatred, keenly directed, is a useful thing.” –Alice Walker
6) “If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.” –Juan Ramon Jimenez
7) “I write because I want more than one life; I insist on a wider selection. It’s greed, plain and simple.” –Anne Tyler
8) “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” –Samuel Beckett
9) “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” –Toni Morrison
10) “The first thing that distinguishes a writer is that he is most alive when alone.” –Martin Amis
11) “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.” –Gloria Steinem
12) “I don’t know why I started writing. I don’t know why anybody does it. Maybe they’re bored, or failures at something else.” –Cormac McCarthy
13) “Great writers are the saints for the godless.” –Anita Brookner
14) “One must be ruthless with one’s own writing or someone else will be.” –John Berryman
15) “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” –Anton Chekhov
16) "I was writing stories when I was five. I don’t know what I did before that. Just loafed, I suppose." –P. G. Wodehouse
17) “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” –Flannery O’Connor
18) “What I want to do is make people laugh so they’ll see things seriously.” –William Zinsser
19) “I’m not sure a bad person can write a good book. If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for?” –Alice Walker
20) “Write something that’s worth fighting over. Because that’s how you change things. That’s how you create art.” –Jeff Goins
21) “Any writer worth his salt writes to please himself…It’s a self-exploratory operation that is endless. An exorcism of not necessarily his demon, but of his divine discontent.” –Harper Lee
22) “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us get up and go to work.” –Stephen King
23) “Anyone who says writing is easy isn't doing it right.” –Amy Joy
24) “A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom.” –Roald Dahl
25) “The pain of writing a novel is exceeded only by the agony of leaving the pages blank.” –Greg Levin (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
If you haven’t gotten your fill, you can read more great quotes on writing here. Also, feel free to share your favorite writing quote(s) in the comments section below. C’mon, all the cool kids are doing it.
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.