Thursday, August 17, 2017

'Quirkz Handbook' Excerpt: Day 6 - Prune

Today’s goal is to declutter, or simplify, which is another way of saying, “Get rid of some junk.” I think the title of today’s exercise, “prune,” is an apt one. (More so if you have old fruit to throw away.) Pruning is about improving what is left behind by selectively getting rid of things that shouldn’t be there.

Most of us have too much junk. Stuff piles up pretty easily, often unintentionally, although we do live in a society that puts a lot of value on collecting material things, so in many cases the pile of excess is all too intentional. But I’m not here to take you on a guilt trip, nor is my goal to analyze society at large (there aren’t enough days in the year for that job). The point is to simplify your life, just a little, by shedding things no longer wanted or needed.

A lot of declutter programs get pretty serious. I’ve heard of one that requires disposing of so many pounds of stuff before the challenge is over, and another that demands trashing something every day for a month. Really strict anti-clutter activists may make a policy of finding something to get rid of before they’re allowed to bring something new into the house. Don’t worry, I’m not going there. It’s easy enough if you’re replacing a shirt or coffee mug, but if I had to dump something every time I bought a new book, I’d have a pile of books and nothing else.

Today’s challenge is to spend about half an hour grabbing some immediately apparent stuff for an easy win. Come to think of it, “Go for the easy win” would make an awesome tee shirt.

Some things to consider:

  • Old electronics. It’s easy for this stuff pile up, especially if your state has a mandatory electronics recycling program. Maybe now is the time?
  • Old clothes. (Confession: I realized I have six highly impractical tiers of tee shirts: 1) shirts I really like and wear any time they’re clean, 2) shirts I go to when the good ones are used up, 3) special shirts I wear on rare occasions (a sports jersey, say, or the slightly racy band memento I can’t wear in polite company), 4) junk shirts suitable for when I’m doing dirty projects like painting, 5) other shirts that I don’t really like or don’t want to wear but I keep in case the washing machine breaks, I can’t make it to a laundromat, and I’m stuck like that for three weeks, and 6) a whole stack of shirts, mostly gifts, that I wish I could wear but they’re the wrong size, so I don’t want to throw them away even though they’re worthless. Obviously, number 5 and 6 are good candidates for disposal.)
  •  Kitchen gadgets, appliances, and utensils. Look especially hard at cracked items, sets with missing pieces, and gifts that you never use.
  • Furniture. Maybe there’s a broken piece you haven’t thrown away because You’re Going to Fix It One of These Days, Really (TM). Maybe it’s unnecessary or in the way, like the rocking chair we keep in the guest room, even though nobody ever sits in it, which we have to move every time we get into the closet.
  •  Expired goods. Medicines; food; dried-up pens, markers, or paints; ancient bathroom or cleaning supplies; dietary supplements from your last self-improvement program in 2003; and so on.
  • Unwanted decorative items. Old posters or pictures, random kitsch that doesn’t represent you any longer, gifts that you don’t really want. (Right now I’m looking at a plant that died 6 months ago, but I haven’t fully admitted it because it still looks green-ish.)
  •  Books or periodicals that you’re not going to read. Be honest with yourself: if you’ll never get around to reading them, or if you read them once and won’t ever read them again, why keep them?
  •  Leftovers from hobbies you’ve discontinued, or half-completed projects you’re unlikely to get around to finishing. (Alternately, this could be a good reminder to get serious about finishing the project. Because of this I found something I was working on for one of the kids that has been languishing for more than a year. Okay, two years.)
  • If you have a “junk drawer” (or junk closet, or—God forbid—a whole junk room), go through that and get rid of anything that isn’t useful, and put the useful stuff where it belongs.
  •  Kids’ stuff. I don’t mean their belongings (decluttering someone else’s items is cheating, plus it should be up to them to choose what they don’t need anymore), but if you have old accessories or equipment (a high chair, old car seats, toddler-sized camping gear, ten thousand sippy cups in the pantry) those are the things that can go. Or maybe it’s time to sort through the pile of mementos and drawings, filing away the good stuff and letting the lesser items go.

That’s just a starter list, but it should be enough for a first pass. Try to get at least 10 items (use grocery store express lane item count—a box of a dozen light bulbs for the lamp that broke three years ago is 1 item, not 12, whereas 3 pairs of pants is 3 things, and you’ll need advanced calculus to decide how to count the 4 pens and a broken pencil you pulled out of the junk drawer), but if you haven’t done a declutter before, I’d bet you can double or triple that pretty easily. If you like the results, nothing’s stopping you from going further now, making a regular habit of decluttering (like a monthly pass-over, say), or turning it into your next project when this is done (more about this on Day 24). Still, if you hit half an hour or 10 items and want to call it quits, I’d say that’s mission accomplished.

Don’t assume you have to throw away your stuff. In approximate order of personal utility you might be able to:

  1. Sell it (Craigslist, eBay, yard sale).
  2. Give it directly to someone else who really wants it.
  3. Donate it to someplace that will put it in the hands of someone who wants it.
  4. Recycle it.
  5. Trash it.
  6.  Shoot it into the sun with a doomsday cannon.

Just make sure that your plans to get rid of an item productively (like selling it) work out quickly, so you don’t end up holding onto it forever.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

'Quirkz Handbook' Excerpt: Introduction

Hello, and welcome to the Quirkz Handbook for a Whole Bunch of Words and Stuff. Since you’re
here and reading this now, I’m going to make two educated guesses:

One, you found the title funny, and now you’re looking inside to see if the contents are anything like that. You can rest assured that this book has both many more long sentences, and also probably some jokes somewhere. So, if you’re amused thus far, please continue. (If you’re not amused, that’s okay, the program works just fine even for people with no sense of humor. [Or one that’s different than mine.])

And two, you’re pretty okay. You’re not perfect, but you’ve got things together, more or less. Sure, some things could be better. Maybe most things, at least part of the time. But you’re not in a bad place, really. You could even slack off a bit and still be pretty okay, or at least simply okay. But maybe life doesn’t quite have the sparkle that you’re looking for, or things have gone a little flat, and you want to shake things up, keep them interesting, maybe find another level. You don’t know what it is, but you’re certain, somewhere deep down, that there could be … well, more.

My friend, this book is for you. It assumes you’re like me, and like a lot of other people I know, or have heard about, in magazines or on the internet, maybe. You have a good baseline, but you’d like to step it up. A little. If it’s fun, and not too hard. You know, more like a small nudge in the right direction (or directions) so that you can look back after some arbitrary number of days (Thirty. It’s always thirty.) and say to yourself, “I did all that? Look how far I’ve come. I spent less than half an hour a day, and took a couple of days off for bowling league or date nights or family emergencies or whatever, and I’ve still had some awesome adventures and now I have this nifty story to tell.” (Have I mentioned the Day-Off Coupons? This is the only 30-day program in the world that builds in five vacation days. That’s one of many indicators of our innovation, brilliance, and reasonability, all designed to help you succeed.

Finally, there’s the fact that spending 30 consecutive days on something (almost anything, really, but especially intentional improvement) is a bona fide accomplishment. It is practically guaranteed to feel fantastic at the end. And who wouldn’t want to feel fantastic and accomplished? 

Let me reassure you, this is no joke. If you spend a month (more or less) pursuing every activity in the book, by the end you will indeed have several worthwhile stories to tell. You will have discovered new things about yourself, pulled off things you didn’t expect you could (probably, unless you have exceptionally high expectations or something, in which case maybe you should be reading the Quirkz Handbook for Total Badasses Who Don’t Need to Improve at All), and you will have become something different: not just so-so, not just okay, but maybe (just maybe) pretty good.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

'Stranger and Better' - The Origin Story

Stranger and Better is actually the first novel I wrote, but it's the third that I will publish. How does that happen? Well, I'll tell you.

It began with a story a friend wrote. He was someone who I knew from Oberlin, a good friend there who needed some time off and moved back home to Chicago. When I graduated I also ended up in Chicago, and we continued our friendship there. One day he showed me a story that he had written. It was raw, emotional, triumphant, subversive, insane, brilliant, and funny, in equal parts. It dealt with someone trying to find his way after college, but a good chunk of the action occurred as a flashback in college, a college which wasn't Oberlin, but could have been. 

Among the things that stood out were an acid trip that goes very weird, a foil of sorts with an unpronounceable name (Athmudx), and a few memorable phrases, including: "you're a wingnut", "blah, blah, blah, and like, whatever, blah, blah, blah", "a stomach full of vinegar and beach sand", and "pizzly little drizzle." It was great, and I enjoyed it tremendously. As an aspiring writer with no demonstrable results to show for my aspirations, I thought I could do worse than to start by trying to match that caliber of story.

About that time, my friend returned to Oberlin to finish his degree. I drove out there with him, and during the trip we talked about writing. We shared a love of Vonnegut, and in talking I mentioned one of my own conversational quirks, a tendency to trail off in the middle of a sentence with an "and-" or a "but-", realizing that I'd already said all that needed to be said. "Vonnegut ought to work that in to one of his stories, a running gag or catch phrase," I said.

"Nah, Vonnegut doesn't need to do it," he said. "You should write that book."

"Maybe I will," I said. And I decided then I'd write my own story, and it would be a graduation present for my friend. I placed the story in Oberlin, our shared connection, and I would have a foil with an X in his name (Ixthyaki), and I would use all the catch-phrases. 

It was December 1998, and I figured four months would be plenty of time.

Roughly 200,000 words later, toward the tail end of 2001, I finished the first draft of what was then called Major Dilemmas. It had everything I intended (except the phrase about the drizzle, which somehow I never worked into a novel, despite it being set in Oberlin) and a whole bunch of stuff I didn't know I needed to say until I'd said it.

After that I spent months floating it around to friends and family, trying to gather feedback, sort out what needed to be done. I liked it, but I knew it needed work, and I also didn't know what kind of work. So I let it sit while life went in a dozen different directions. A few years later I dusted it off and cleaned it up a bit. An old family friend was kind enough to look it over and provide some feedback, which included maybe polishing up the strongest chapter and shopping that around. Over five years I twiddled with that chapter, again realizing I didn't know what to do.

So I set it aside, wrote first drafts for another three or four other novels, invented a computer game and spent five years managing that, only ever now and then wondering about Major Dilemmas. Finally I wrote a first draft of a book that seemed good enough to publish, so I did. I tried a second novel, more niche but more successful. I meant to do a sequel to the second, but on a road trip I woke up one morning, got in the shower, and by the time I was clean I had plans to completely rewrite Major Dilemmas: this time more fragmented like Vonnegut, with a library mystery as backdrop, and layers of editorial commentary to make it weird. 

Three rewrites later--and eighteen years from when I started--and it's finally something I'm content with. As I say in the book's dedication, some of these words are old enough to be an Oberlin College student now. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Announcing Book #3: "Stranger and Better"

My third novel, Stranger and Better, is due out later this spring. In the style of Chicagoland, it's a humorous coming-of-age story, set at my alma mater, Oberlin College. It's a quirky search for sex, drugs, and the meaning of life. 

The book is now available for pre-order in Kindle format. The release date is April 21, at which point both print and electronic versions will be available. 

Monday, July 6, 2015

My First Literary Reivew!

"The Eight-Bit Bard" just received its first literary review, from The Midwest Book Review. Right now I'm flip-flopping between being excited just to have a review at all, and being excited because it's universally positive and concludes "Highly recommended!"

Monday, June 29, 2015

Eight-Bit Bard: Now in Print!

I just got my copies of the print edition of the book, and I'm very happy with the results. It's a real book, in every way that matters. As of today the print versions are available on Amazon for $12.50. It's a little more than I'd like to sell them for, but the costs of print-on-demand require it. 

If anyone is interested in a signed copy, I can do that, too. However, it would probably cost closer to $20, not because my signature's all that valuable, but because I'd have to get copies shipped here, then pay to re-ship them to you. Still, feel free to contact me if you're interested and I'll figure it out. International copies may turn out to be a bit more--depends entirely on shipping.

The process of creating the physical book was easy enough I've also started work on a print version of Chicagoland. It's got more pages and will probably end up a little closer to $15. I'm supposed to get the proofs for that book any minute now (I literally just jumped up and ran outside because I thought I heard the delivery truck, but it was only the neighbor). If all looks good it could be available in just a few days or maybe a week at worst. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Print Versions on the Way

I'm looking into print versions of "The Eight-Bit Bard." I originally had the impression it would be more difficult and extremely expensive (like $20) but it looks like I can hit something closer to $12.50. That's still a bit more than $5 for the eBook, but it may be worth it for some. It's probably going to be a few weeks before I can get my hands on a copy to confirm quality, but let me know if you want to be notified when they're out.