Indexical Signs 03/08/21

I was reading Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think over the past week in preparation for a podcast episode of No Country. The book has a lot to say about how the Runa people of Ecuador interact with their environment, the animals in it, and fellow people.

It gets really dense at a certain point, and Kohn gets deep in the weeds with some semiotics, nobody’s favorite methodology. But it got me thinking about writing (of course), and how different signs work on the page.

There are three different types of signs: symbolic, iconic, and indexical. Symbolic signs are the words on this page, symbols that represent ideas, objects, etc. Sigils would fit into this as well. Iconic signs represent the signified directly. It’s like the little man walking at a crosswalk. Indexical signs relate to the signified, how do I describe this…the best way I heard it described is seeing smoke means you know there is fire. Another way are the skull and crossbones label on poison. Drinking poison is the signified, but the indexical sign is what happens down the road.

In a book, we are using symbols to relate ideas. If there are pictures, we are using icons. But I think a lot of great writing uses indexical signs as well.

By the way, if I mess any of this up, remember that I’m a dumbass.

Some of my favorite passages in books relate indexically to the thing that they’re trying to express. These are clues or hints within a text that allow us to form a picture in our minds without the words to explain them. It’s kind of how jokes work, as well. You’re doing that final leap to click the picture together, rather than having it told to you expositionally.

I’m sure there’s a better word for that.

Thanks for reading the blog! I’ve gotten a bunch of new readers in the past few days. I do this every day, so feel free to subscribe. Sometimes neat things come out of these daily sit-downs. It’s an emergent thing. I go into it with no clear path, and just dump thoughts down. It’s cool!

My new book is out, and I’ve bundled the first three over on Gumroad. If you get this one, I’ll either send you the file (if there’s a way to do that) or you can download the next two for free.

Tomahawk Gumroad Release 03/07/21

Waiting on the paperback cover to go live, but I’ve put up the new novella on Gumroad for “pay what you want.” The bundle includes the first two novellas in the series. If you get this one, feel free to download the next two releases when they come out for free.

GET EM HERE

It’s always exciting to put out a new book, and I hope that people like it. I spent the morning combing my old hard drive for the PDF of the original book to no avail. I put the “Uncorrected ARC” in the bundle, which I have to imagine is relatively close to the final product. Very little editing on these things.

Anyhow, it’s a Sunday. I woke up at 6 am today and got to work putting the bundle together. I have an interior to design freelance, an edit to continue working on, and a podcast to finish preparing for. It is a busy day indeed. And Rios mentioned that she wanted to get Korean food…busy busy busy.

On that note…see ya tomorrow.

Twitter Rules 03/06/21

After talking to Jordan Harper on the phone yesterday, where he listened to me struggle with my low numbers for my last book, I’ve come to a couple conclusions.

The first of which is that the low numbers make sense. Who’s gonna read a short sequel to a short book, with no 3rd or 4th or 5th part in 3 years? The goal now is to get 4 and 5 out quickly to complete the cycle, and perhaps even bundle all five together in one collection.

I conceptualized the story as five individual short books for a very specific handful of reasons: I wanted to tell it episodically, wanted each part to be easily digestible, and to experiment with hyper-short-form novelettes. Still a great idea, I think. The problem is the gaps in time between installments. They are too spare to allow too much time to pass between them. Black Gum in 2015 and then A Minor Storm in 2018 and then Tomahawk in 2021 would be fine if they were full-length novels. Not so much ~100 page minis. So Wolf Like Me will follow in a few months, followed by Stick Talk soon after that. Then I’ll leave Shane and Charlie alone for a while, until it’s time to come back for another cycle.

I’m thinking I’ll wrap up Dying World some time in May, and then I’ll set about to putting that one out. The goal is to print off short runs of it through BookMobile, in order to experiment with alternatives to Amazon. Although, as I’ll discuss below, experiments outside of the monoculture are fraught in 2021, especially if you don’t have a large built-in audience. Nevertheless!

The second conclusion is that I have to get back on Twitter in some limited capacity. This gave me pause, the same way an addict might feel if someone waved a tasty beer under his nose. Twitter and I don’t interact well. Whatever the spells they’re casting over there, they work on me!

But the monoculture is too strong at this point in time. There are about three places that people go when they log on these days, and those are social media websites. It is what it is.

So, a strategy needs to be in place. The way mine looks is as such:

  1. No Scrolling: this is pretty obvious. I am absolutely, under no circumstances, allowed to swipe my thumb to observe the TL. As soon as you scroll, you begin to see takes, and once you see takes, you have a reaction to those takes, and before you know it, you’re back in it, giving a shit about Dr. Seuss for some reason.
  2. Schedule all tweets through HootSuite. I have today’s tweets all scheduled. They are cool pics I’ve found online, a thought on a movie, and a thought on Sekiro. The main purpose of this rule is to keep me from spontaneously tweeting, which is (almost) always a bad idea, or at the very least a waste of time. Social media skews reactionary, and I am trying to approach everything I do on the computer intentionally. So it’s just a matter of scheduling tweets, letting them sit, double checking them, then letting them out into the world.
  3. Very little personal stuff. I will post about sobriety, maybe a little about my family when the time comes, and little things like movies I watch, books I read, and games I play. But no cutesy observations about things. That’s stuff that can go into books, if they’re good enough. Complete waste to toss them into the stream and watch them get carried away.
  4. Never, ever log on when I’m pissed off. Ever. Everrrrrr. Intentionality matters, and I refuse to contribute to the circular firing squads or general spread of negativity on the internet. As Aesop Rock said: “Wanna win? Don’t play.” Intentionality is huge (see point #1), and the same way I wouldn’t enter into a discussion with a friend if I was looking to pick a fight, I won’t enter the public space of Twitter if something is bothering me. It is what it is. I’ve been rereading Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think in preparation for a new episode of No Country, and the Runa Puma people’s view of the world through a lense of predator/prey is helpful in this context. They say: when you go to sleep, deep in the Amazonian rain forest, do not sleep on your back, because a jaguar will see you as prey. If you sleep face-up, the jaguar will recognize you as a human, and go elsewhere. You have to apply some perspectivism to Twitter as Jaguar. If you enter the space showing your ass, it will recognize you as prey, and you will be eaten. If you come in as an inoffensive player in the spread of content, maybe it won’t. I guess it all depends on how hungry the jaguar is at the time.

Anyhow, hopefully this all works out. I have no real illusions about Twitter’s ability to “spread my work” around, but I have seen the other side of things, and people completely forget you exist if you aren’t in the mix in some capacity. For someone who wants to write for a living, you can’t turn your back on it, unfortunately. As much as I crave a quiet life away from the noise, these are simply not the times we live in. Especially if you are doing this independently.

Onward!

Promotional Woes 03/05/21

My new novella, Tomahawk, will be out next week. I will post a link to it whenever it launches.

I sent it to my half-dozen friends and readers, people who I knew would give me their honest opinions on it. I made all the changes suggested, gave it another once-over for typos, and sent it on its way.

This process always feels a little scary. I started writing this version in earnest about a month ago. Now it’s going to be out in the world. That seems like too quick of a turnaround time, right?

Well, not really.

The way the publishing industry works is unnecessarily slow. First you have to send the book out to an agent, who then attempts to sell it. That takes about a year at least. From there, it goes to the publisher, who sets their editors on it. Not editors that you get a say in, by the way, but people who have their own tastes, who are largely editing the book to their own tastes. Then there’s another year or so of waiting. Then the book comes out, and it sells or it doesn’t.

Barring the fact that almost no major publisher is going to release a 106-page book, let alone the third in a series of ~100 page books, and it no longer makes any sense to sit on it. It’s good, the focus group likes it, so it might as well exist.

Taking into account the fact that no publisher is going to release a 106-page book, let alone the third in a series of ~100-page books, and it no longer makes any sense to sit on it. The focus group liked it, it’s clean, might as well put it out into circulation.

This kind of freedom does have its drawbacks. I’m no longer on Facebook or Twitter. I post Stories on Instagram, but that’s about it. I have no outlet for the new book, no real way to make people hear about it besides this book, my podcast, and my newsletter. All three of which I’ll utilize to get the word out.

The amount of people who’ve ended up reading my books is pretty small. My first novel sold about 4,000 copies (over the course of ten years), my second sold about 1,500 (not counting the numbers it did in France, which…I don’t think it really sold much), and Black Gum moved 1,273 (plus the 400 or so who downloaded it for free when I released it). I know that number exactly because it’s the first book I completely self-released. A Minor Storm sold a staggeringly low 123 copies so far. Damn. I didn’t realize it was that low. Can that be right? Hm. Kind of a bummer, I suppose.

I can make myself feel better with the knowledge that the books are at least being pirated. Last I checked, BG had about 500 downloads on the one site that actually reports numbers, so all told it’s probably been “acquired” one way or the other between 2,500 and 3,000 times. No idea about Minor Storm, though. Did I put that one out for free for a time? I can’t remember.

Well anyway, I guess that doesn’t bode well for Tomahawk’s numbers, but that’s okay. I’ll get back on the horse eventually. The key is to keep writing, and gradually build my way back up. 2010 was a different time. People were excited about the scene, they talked about books, yadda yadda yadda.

Somewhere along the line though, I realized that I’d never made a good-faith effort to make writing a full-time gig. Not in the place of other full-time gigs, but in addition to them. That’s what I’ll continue to do. Dying World is at ~10k words right now, and it’s just getting started. So that’ll be closer to a proper novel when it’s all said and done.

I don’t know, I’m still a little bummed about those AMS numbers. I’m finding this out in real-time as I’m writing this. If anyone has any good ideas for how to get the word out, outside of social media, I’m listening! Maybe I’ll put out a package of all three books that folks can download for free. Then do the same with the next two books. That might be good. Maybe it’s one of those things where people have to see that it’s an actual series before they commit. I mean, one novella, then a three-year break doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

Good thing I’m writing again. Thanks, blog.

The goal, as I see it, is to reach the “1000 True Fans” model. At that point, I can make a decent supplemental income with the books. The publishing strategies I have are rock solid. It’s the promotion bits that I’m struggling with.

It is time to brainstorm…

Syncs 03/04/21

Syncs start up pretty heavy once you get into the creative zone.

It started last Saturday, when I was playing Sekiro. I was in the middle of one of the last fights, in which Wolf (your character), has to fight his father, who is consumed with a lust for immortality.

When he kills you (and he does, many, many times), he says “The parent’s will is absolute, and must be obeyed.”

And would you believe that my dad showed up at my door in the middle of the game?

The syncs continued from there. The most interesting one came courtesy of my friend Vanessa Irena. If you follow this blog, you’ll know that over the last week I’ve been writing about the concept of “beginner’s mind.” I’m also a Sagittarius.

Well…

So those are neat. I enjoy these kinds of things, and find that they really do start once you’re on the “correct” path in life. Or at least the one the universe finds the most amusing.

Evil Truths 03/03/21

My buddy Rob came over yesterday to help me start up my garden. He got a friend of his, Joe, to lend his truck and tools. The bed was filled with dirt, and I scooped it into a wheelbarrow. Joe took the wheelbarrow and poured it on a six by six square of cardboard, which Rob then raked to an even six inches depth.

I put my bluetooth speaker out and we listened to Rage Against the Machine while we worked. It was lovely to have people over, for a few hours, even if most of that time was spent working on the plot.

It’s something so simple, but that now has a lot of strange dynamics to it: someone goes in for a hug…is that hug safe? We take our masks off because we’re outside. Is that a good idea? All these ideas flit through your mind, and I realize that I’m someone who largely thinks these ideas are fine, and even I’m thinking about them.

I’m truly worried for the state of social relations in this world. I am moving on to a new chapter of my life, and won’t have much time for socializing, so it matters less to me. But I can’t help but think of five years from now, going to meet up with some pals and having them skittish, unsure of how to interact, afraid.

There are people who are not going to be okay until the v*rus is eliminated from the world. Which is never going to happen. It’s dark, puts me in a bad place.

I wonder how this whole thing became so divided based on political affiliations. I find it hard to find left-leaning people who are not completely pilled on the virus, and conversely, I find it hard to find right-leaning people who take it seriously at all.

The middle completely disappeared. I discovered this the hard way. When I posted about my misgivings over c*vid data on social media, the response from my (almost entirely) left-leaning social circle was swift and harsh.

But what does it mean when half of people think on one extreme, and the other half on the other? It probably, almost always, means there’s a spot in the middle where reasonable people can hang out. Where you don’t have to be terrified to go outside or interact with people, but hey, maybe you also put a mask on if you’re feeling sick. Better yet, maybe you stay home!

The binary nature of every idea in the world right now makes my head hurt. Yarvin brings up a great point in one of his latest blogs: people have confused the good and the true. There are evil truths, and there are noble lies. But no: if we believe something to be good, that necessarily means it is true. Facts get confused for morality, essentially. And you can’t think a bad thought, because there’s no way a bad thought can be true.

It’s exhausting.

I’ve beaten this drum over and over again, but your neighbors (by and large) are not the enemy. It’s very clear who the enemy is, and it’s a shame to see people on both sides collaborating with the enemy when it suits them, to really own the libs or stick it to the MAGA chuds. Your neighbors might have some evil ideas that turn out to be true. You might have some virtuous ideas that turn out to be false. And if you think you’d rather be good than correct, you’re robbing yourself of a holistic picture of the world that can be put to work actually helping your immediate family and community.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but the only way to really be good in this world is to coldly analyze your scenario, assess your risk, and move on with your life. Help your friends. Forgive them their trespasses. Otherwise you’re carrying water for a powerful superstructure that only wants control, domination, power.

I would like it if more people actually thought about stuff.

Gym Time 03/02/21

I’d been doing calisthenics at home to limit gym time. There are many practices that the p*ndemic have forced on me that I think are actually valuable to life in general. Wearing a mask when you are sick, for example. Or perhaps staying out of bars/concerts/gyms during the months of Jan and Feb, ie the worst months for transmissable illnesses.

But I had to go back! I missed the weights, to be honest. I got a nice 45 minute workout in, drove home, and am now getting ready for a friend to come over and help me install my garden in my backyard.

I’ve always been a bit of a germophobe. Though I have OCD, it isn’t directly related to contamination fears. Those are secondary, their own thing. But I’ve always washed my hands a few more times than necessary, always stayed cognizant of the surfaces that I touch, all of that good stuff. But I never thought about the aerosolized nature of most of the particularly nasty bugs.

If that’s even how these things get around, that is.

There is a possibility, from what I’ve read and researched, that v*ruses are in fact tiny lipid e-mails, sending your body updates to react to new toxins in the environment. If you think about where most of these diseases originate, it’s in particularly gross places. Swine flu originated from a lake of pig shit that can be seen from space. Wuhan is one of the most polluted cities on earth. Isn’t it possible that a rise in respiratory illness has to do with a full-on network “update” of the lungs? With some people’s immune response unfortunately not up to the task of “updating”?

It’s possible. I don’t know! Neither do you.

Then it brings up questions as to why this “update” didn’t really seem to affect places like India. Or Japan. Or Korea. Whatever solution you’re thinking of in your mind right now, it’s probably wrong.

The whole thing is very mysterious!

Most of the certainty comes from a place of fear, from people not willing to make risk assessments for themselves, or from a deep-seated hatred of “the other side.” It’s all pretty tiresome.

Anyway, be safe out there, and keep thinking about stuff! It won’t hurt, I promise.

Beginner’s Mind (Part 4) 03/01/21

So what exactly does having a beginner’s mind look like when it comes to writing? Practically, on the page?

Well, maybe we can start off by showing what it is not. I’ve gone back and forth as to what books to use as negative examples, namely because I don’t like the idea of putting anyone on blast who isn’t rich and successful. On the other hand, if they are rich and successful, that means that they’re at least doing something right (in most cases), and could therefore negate my argument that the excerpt in question is, in fact, bad.

The only way out, I’d wager, is by using a negative example by an author I really like. By including this, I am in no way saying that the writing here is bad. In fact, I’m saying that the writing is too good.

“In the molten fire where he lay he could watch the slow machinations of eternity, the cosmic miracle of each second being born, eggshaped, silverplated, phallic, time thrusting itself gleaming through the worn and worthless husk of the microsecond previous, halting, beginning to show the slow and infinitesimal accretions of decay in the clocking away of life in a mechanism encoded at the moment of conception, withering, shunted aside by time’s next orgasmic thrust, and all to the beating of some galactic heart, to voices, a madman’s mutterings from a snare in the web of the world.”

-William Gay, The Long Home

Now, I love this passage a lot. I have the book here on my shelf, but I ripped this one off of Goodreads, so I can wager that a lot of people also think that this is really good.

What this passage exemplifies, however, is the opposite of a beginner’s mind. Gay is flexing his chops here, he is showing you what he can do with language, and in doing so is creating some really hot paragraphing. Your eyes float over the text, each new word bringing in a new sensation, then flipping that sensation on its head and spinning it around.

Here’s the thing, though. Imagine if a whole book was written this way. In Gay’s case, they largely are.

Man, is it ever fraught to use someone’s commercial success as any kind of litmus test for whether or not they’re a good writer. What I’m arguing, instead, is that this kind of poetry can be completely exhausting when you’re hammered with it over and over, page after page. At a certain point, it becomes difficult to distinguish the signal from noise. The dynamism of the text can become flatlined.

What I am suggesting is that sometimes it’s a good idea to punctuate beauty like this with something that is dumb as fuck.

An atonal mistake, a sudden shift in volume, a break from the flowing river. Imagine if someone who’d never written a book was tasked with following that passage with one of their own. What would a beginner do in this situation? I’m not sure I know.

My gut tells me, however, that they too would try to write something beautiful and powerful, and though it would come out less skillfully than Gay’s passage, there’d be a certain kind of beauty in the trying, a kind of humanity that would shine through via the contrast.

In some books, there are sections that feel rushed, because the writer is working on a deadline. There are some sections where the ball gets completely dropped, because the writer doesn’t know what to do, or maybe they took a wrong turn fifty pages ago and are now completely lost. But it’s in that sense of being lost that real power can shine through.

Stuff like Gay juxtaposed with something very simple, human, maybe even goofy. That’s what keeps people on their toes.

I am convinced that writing is 90% voice, and that people read to hang out with their “friends,” the parasocial relationship they’ve developed with an artist. In drunken conversations, every once in a while someone will say something accidentally profound or beautiful…but imagine if someone talked like Gay writes? You’d be able to take it for about ten minutes. I know, I’ve met these people.

For now, that will do for me talking about beginner’s mind. Shoshin and wabi-sabi. Amateurish and unfinished as aesthetic. There’s something to this. I’d invite you to think about it for a bit. It’s been on my mind for a while, and I think there’s value in sitting with it.

Be human about it.

Beginner’s Mind (Part 3

Georges Simenon was one of France’s most prolific writers. He is famous for penning the Maigret series, of which I have read zero. It is estimated that he wrote nearly 500 novels in his lifetime. He had an intense routine: when it was time to start his new book, he’d lock himself in his room for about a week, smoking cigarettes and typing away. Then, once it was done, he’d give it a once-over, then send it out.

This is discipline, sure, but it makes me think more of a beginner’s mind. This goes against every idea of what it takes to write a novel. You’re supposed to slave away for a year or more, eking out a sentence here or there, then you send it to an agent, then maybe, years later, it sees print. And no one buys it.

What a scam!

The beginner simply writes a book, and then is finished. Remember when you were a kid and you’d make your own little books to show your mom? If you’re reading this, and you’re a writer, you almost certainly did this.

How long did that take you?

Not very long, because you had an idea in your head that excited you, and you didn’t waste any time second-guessing yourself. First idea, best idea. You knew it was cool, and you had to show anyone who would pay attention.

There’s a story I carry around, maybe it’s apocryphal, but it goes like this: Simenon sent out his first manuscript to the agent who would end up representing him throughout his entire career. She sent him back the novel with a note to cut out every line of “poetry” from the text. Make it simple, direct. He did so, and went on to become one of the biggest writers of his day.

Our goal is much more humble: we want to be good at what we do, and we want plenty of people to read our stuff. I’d put forth the idea that the best way to do that is to streamline our prose and approach everything with a kind of beginner’s mind. That’s where the readability comes in.

Open a book that people actually like to read. What’s inside? A lot of clunky prose. But there’s a charm to it, a feeling that a real person wrote the book.

The point that I’m getting at, and what I’ll pick up on tomorrow, is that there’s something offputting about a book that is too clean, too streamlined, too “perfect.” My contention is that it will appeal to other artisans, the way an obtuse and artfully-constructed chair might appeal to avant-garde carpenters, but not to anyone who might want to sit in it.

More tomorrow.

Beginner’s Mind (Part 2)

When SUNN O))) went on tour in 2008, they sent out this press release to music journalists all over the country. It is dutifully repeated verbatim on many music websites, which I don’t blame them for at all. Considering the pittance I used to get paid to hack out seven or ten posts a day, copypasting a PR missive is good money.

According to a press release, “SUNN O)) will be playing material from ‘GrimmRobe’ exclusively. It will be a return to their primal origins, and approach respecting a concept of shoshin, the beginner’s mind, the yet undyed pure wool, the clarity in initiation upon the untraveled. The attitude of embodying the basics precisely, point by point, line by line, with an immovable faith in the teaching, experience and of beyond the possibility. Of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when approaching, even with much experience, just as a beginner would upon the initial impetus and thirst to seek the path. And so, with this mindset, they will be approaching these live concerts.

SUNN 0))) has one clear goal with their music: to make loud, droning guitar tones that stretch on for a very, very long time. It’s great music for creating, or for zoning out. It does what it’s supposed to, and then gets out.

But let’s look at this “shoshin” concept. Shunryu Suzuki, the most famous purveyor of shoshin, said:

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. ”

What does shoshin look like practically, from a writing standpoint?

It looks like a writer who approaches the page with endless possibilities. Every scene is an opportunity to explore, to see where the mood takes you. You forget everything you know about style and craft, and focus on telling a story, relating a specific mood or feeling to the reader as it comes to you.

You forget everything, but of course those craft lessons never go away. So when you need a clever turn of phrase, when you need to pace the scene in different ways, when you need to get to the specifics of a character, you can do that, in the moment.

I’m thinking of the analogy of a pro basketball player walking along the court with a friend. He’s talking about something that happened to him on the freeway, on the way to work. He’s relating the story, when a ball rolls in his path. Without breaking stride, without losing his place in the story, he scoops the ball up and, with perfect technique, swishes the ball into the hoop. Then he continues talking, as though he hasn’t just done something incredible.

But back to beginner’s mind: though you’re approaching every project with an ingrained sense of skill that you’ve honed over the years, you have to look at the project in the spirit of play. You have to remember your core beliefs, why you got into this thing in the first place.

More tomorrow.