Sunday, December 9, 2018

My Year in Writing: Invisible Strides

It's the season for annual lists and summaries. Looking at some other authors' "This Year in Writing" posts and threads has me thinking about my own.

The short version is this: If you were looking for Aaron Rath words in 2018, you would have found nothing, unless you want to count a few hundred Twitter posts. But behind the cloak of invisibility, a lot has been going on.

I started the year on the third month of a "quick and dirty" project that was supposed to take six weeks, a novelization of Twilight Heroes, a computer game I used to run. I'd spend another six months not making much progress there before starting to understand I needed to rethink the scope and tone of the book. It's on the shelf now behind some other projects, but I think I've slowly come around to understanding what I need to do to finish it. Late 2019 is likely.

This year I made my first real writer friend, someone to talk to about craft, good books, an accountability partner, and mind-expander. I can't overstate the value of having someone in a similar position and equally obsessed with the hobby to share things with.

Up until this year, everything I had done has been self-published. It seemed like an adventure, and also fewer hoops to jump through, and I'm frequently a do-it-yourself-er. But a combination of exposure to the writing world on Twitter, stories from my writing buddy, and tidbits gleaned from dozens of writing-related podcasts (Book Fight, Writing Excuses, The Drunken Odyssey, Ditch Diggers, I Should Be Writing, How Authors Work, and several more) all nudged me toward considering the traditional route as well.

The final push was a challenge from Barrelhouse, putting out a call for "that one unpublishable thing you really love." I figured, what harm could there be in sending something I knew was unpublishable and having it rejected. So I created a Submittable account, dredged up an unfinished Joycean homage from 1998, figured out how to actually finish the thing and sent it out. My first ever submission to a real publication, more than 30 years after I'd decided I wanted to "be a writer." It was fun and painless, so I sent more.

Naturally, I got my first rejection. Several of them. Because that's how it works. A low success rate is to be expected, and maybe it took me a few decades to come to terms with it--I'm still resistant to fetishizing the rejection process the way many seem to--but it felt normal. But I did write several new short stories.

I also got my first acceptance! A short story sent to a literary journal. I haven't talked about it yet because I'm not sure when I'm supposed to. It seems like mostly that happens on publication, and I'm still waiting for that part. I don't know what to expect there, either, but I'm being patient and hopeful, because it seems like patience is a huge part of the print world.

Most of the summer and fall went to a new project, a novella-length mashup adaptation of The Great American Novel, by William Carlos Williams. That book will be entering the public domain in January, part of the first batch of books in roughly 20 years, since they passed the last copyright extension. I've always wanted to do an adaptation of an old work, and this one grabbed me from the title. It nearly lost me again afterward because the book itself is difficult and experimental, but I found a way to tackle it. I'm deep in revisions now, and also waiting for 2019 when I'm free to make use of Williams's old words. It should be out by spring at the latest.

Finally I've been asked to ghost write the memoir of an old friend. We're about halfway through with that project. It's going well and is on pace for a mid-summer release.

In summary, one and a half books, a literary journal acceptance, a friend, and massive shifts in my world view. All of it invisible on the outside, of course, but it feels like one I'll be pointing back to for decades to come.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Fear and Loathing and NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo as seen through the eyes of Fear and Loathing in Las VegasSincerest apologies to Hunter S. Thompson. Originally written in 2002, so some of the references are a little dated:

We were somewhere around five thousand words on the edge of a real breakthrough when the triple latte began to take hold. I remember saying something like "I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe I should switch to decaf ..." And suddenly there was this terrible roar inside my skull and the screen in front of me was full of what looked like plot penguins, sliding and cawing and hopping around the page, which was scrolling about a hundred miles an hour towards some insane but obscurely satisfying goal. And a voice was murmuring: "My God! Am I already reduced to using these animals?"

Then it was quiet again. My brother had taken his fuzzy Kangol hat off for the tenth time and was wringing it in his hands, to facilitate the creative process. "What the hell are you going on about?" he muttered, staring unceasingly at his own screen with eyes bloodshot and framed by gold-rimmed glasses. "Never mind," I said. "It's your turn to make the next drink." I hit command-S and aimed a copy of the Great American Novel toward my backup zip drive. No point mentioning those penguins, I thought. The poor bastard will need them soon enough.

It was almost the twentieth, and we still had more than forty-five thousand words to go. They would be tough words. Very soon, I knew, we would both be completely twisted. But there was no going back, and no time to rest. We would have to ride it out. Wordcount verification for National Novel Writing Month 2003 was already underway, and we had to make it there by the thirtieth to claim our winner's graphic. A crazy website in California had taken care of the reservations, along with this clamshell-shaped orange iMac we'd just borrowed off a generous stranger in the Bay Area ... and I was, after all, an aspiring novelist; so I had an obligation to finish the project, for good or ill.

My brother and I had pooled $100 in cash, most of which was already spent on extremely dangerous chemicals. The table in front of us looked like the smart bar at a rave. We had two cartons of V8, seventy-five pellets of vitamin C, five bags of fun-sized candy bars, a canister half-full of presweetened Kool-Aid, a whole galaxy of multi-colored tea bags, coffee types, crackers, chips ... and also a bottle of tequila, a bottle of vodka, a case of Old Style, a bag of chocolate-covered espresso beans and two dozen pixie sticks.

All of this had been rounded up the night before, in a frenzy of high-speed shopping all over Fort Collins--from Safeway to Aggie Liquors, we picked up everything we could get our hands on. Not that we needed all that for the project, but once you get locked into a serious snack collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.

The only thing that really worried me were the espresso beans. There is nothing in the world more twitchy and incoherent and depraved than an author in the depths of an espresso bean binge. And I knew we'd get into that rotten stuff pretty soon. Probably at the next chapter break. We had sampled almost everything else, and now--yes, it was time for a large handful of beans. And then do the next thousand words in a horrible, jittery sort of spastic trance. The only way to keep productive on espresso beans is to balance it with a lot of alcohol--not all at once, but steadily, just enough to ease the muscular flow as your mind fires ninety miles an hour through half a dozen plot twists.

"Man, this is the way to write," said my brother. He leaned over to turn the volume up on the stereo, humming with the rhythm section and kind of moaning the words: "Yeah I'll search the world over for my angel in black. Yeah, I'll search the world over for a Eurotrash Girl."

"Angel in black? You poor fool! Just wait till you see those goddamn plot ninjas. I could barely hear my brother's music ... slumped over in my lounge chair, head phones strapped to my head turned all the way up on "Sunday, Bloody Sunday." That was the only MP3 my borrowed laptop had, so I played it constantly, over and over, as a kind of demented counterpoint to the stereo. And also to maintain my rhythm on the keyboard. A constant speed is good for the fingers--and for some reason that seemed important at the time. Indeed. On a project like this one must be careful about finger limberness. Avoid those quick bursts of typing that pull blood away from the brain.

My brother noticed the visitor long before I did. "Let's see what this guy wants," he said, and before I could mount any argument he was across the room and this poor neighbor kid was walking up to my computer with a big grin on his face, saying, "Wow, I never saw an orange computer before!"

"Is that right?" I said. "Well, I guess you're about due, eh?"

The kid nodded eagerly as I kept typing.

"We're on a mission," said my brother. "It's not like anything you've heard of before."

Oh crap, I thought, he's gonna go into the whole spiel again. "No more of that talk," I said sharply. "Or I'll put hot sauce in your coffee." He grinned, seeming to understand. Luckily, the noise in the room was so awful--between the dishwasher and the stereo and the headphones I'd removed--that the kid three steps away couldn't hear a word we were saying. Or could he?

How long can we maintain? I wondered. How long before one of us starts raving and jabbering at this boy. What will he think then? This same strenuous project was the last known endeavor of Nietzsche before he went mad. Will he make that grim connection when my brother starts screaming about penguins and black-clad ninjas converging on him? If so--well, we'll just have to force-feed him espresso beans. Because it goes without saying that we can't turn him loose unadulterated. We needed plausible deniability in case he tried to report us.

Goodness! Did I just say that? Or just type it? Was I talking, too? Did they hear me? I glanced over at my brother, but he seemed oblivious--making a mixed drink of tequila and coffee, talking to our neighbor at a thousand words a minute or so. There was no sound from the visitor.

Maybe I'd better have a chat with this boy, I thought. Perhaps if I explain things, he'll understand.

Of course. I leaned around in the seat and gave him a fine big smile ... admiring the skull logo on his Punisher shirt.

"By the way," I said. "There's one thing you should probably understand."

He stared at me, not blinking. Was he gritting his teeth?

"Can you hear me?" I yelled.

He nodded.

"That's good," I said. "Because I want you to know that we're participating in NaNoWriMo to complete an American Dream." I smiled. "That's why I borrowed this laptop. It was the only way to do it. Can you grasp that?"

He nodded again, but his eyes were nervous.

"I want you to have all the background," I said. "Because this is a very strenuous assignment--with overtones of extreme personal punishment ... hell, I forgot all about this coffee; you want some?"

He shook his head.

"How about some Old Style with V8 and echinacea drops?"


"Never mind. Let's get right to the heart of this thing. You see, about twenty days ago we were sitting in a coffee shop over in Oakland--in the couch section, of course--and we were just sitting there with an extra foamy latte when this tall skinny guy wearing a brown shirt that said NaNoWriMo came up to me and said, "You must have been waiting a long time for this kickoff party."

I laughed and ripped open a bag of espresso beans that skittered all over the table while I kept talking. "And you know? He was right! I'd been expecting that kickoff, but I didn't know what the mission would be. Do you follow me?"

The neighbor's face was a mask of pure angst and bewilderment.

I blundered on: "I want you to understand that this man in the kitchen is my brother! He's not just some dingbat I found on campus. Shit, look at him! He doesn't look like you or me, right? That's because he's from SoCal. I think he's probably a beach bum. But it doesn't matter, does it? Do you have a problem with that?"

"Hell no!" he blurted.