Personal Update & Various Reviews #2

To be candid, the past couple of months have been… somewhat of an emotionally-trying whirlwind. For various reasons. Some I care to disclose, some I do not. At any rate, I was not at all in a place where I felt like writing, which is why this blog went sadly neglected.

But, yes, I am back now. I know I had you deathly worried. I’ve no doubt you wept and wept until — having reached a perilous state of dehydration — only a sort of moist-ish dust seeped out of your tear ducts. Which is, I suppose, touching. And also upsettingly gross. Still, all that’s behind us now. So call off your search parties. Take my photo off the side of milk cartons. (Weirdly, that practice has long been cemented in my mind as a tiny, morbid facet of Americana. But was that ever actually a thing? Or did movies just make it up? I truly do not know.) Stop forcing bloodhounds to sniff my watch strap to learn my scent. Rescind that eight-figure reward for any information leading to my safe return.

I even have some thoughts on what to do with those freed-up funds. I say divvy them up to create a bunch of interpretive dance and flower arranging scholarships in my name. After all, when I do finally leave this mortal plane for good, I want to know that I’ve left an imposing legacy in my wake. Because charitable donations are all well and good, in theory, but we all know beyond a shadow of a doubt that 99.99997% of that money gets wasted on ‘overhead’ or embezzled to buy gold-plated bidets and diamond-encrusted pet tigers and whatnot. That’s just cold, hard fact. Whereas all those artful bouquets and profound shimmies at my funeral will be indisputable proof of both a good deed and money well spent. My gravestone will read: ‘Ryan J. Finch, 1993-2149 (ed note — conservative estimate; I come from hardy Irish peasant stock, i.e. inexplicable Methuselah-genes), BELOVED PATRON OF THE FINE ARTS’. From time to time, well-wishers will visit it and leave one of those tacky electronic dancing-flower toys as a kind of wry two-in-one acknowledgement of the fields which owe their continued vitality to me. And thus all will be as it should be.

Ah, I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s all to come in the distant future. In the meantime though, let’s talk about my more recent doings.

What it’s like trying to find a Literary Agent (a.k.a. feeling honest, may delete later)

So, I wrote a novel. (If you’d care to read about that whole process, you can find the transcript of S02E08 of the unfilmed, untelevised one-man TV show I’ve been, uh, living for a long time now, called ‘Making Art to Prove I Exist’, by clicking here.) And then a little while ago it came time to put up or shut up. That is, try to find a way to publish it.

I went into this stage not really knowing what it would specifically entail. (I had sought to insulate myself from that intimidating/preoccupying knowledge whilst I was writing the book.) After some initial research, I learned that the place to start is submitting your work to literary agencies and praying they’ll agree to represent you. Then they try to sell your work to the publishing houses themselves, who are reportedly much more likely to lend serious consideration to agent-backed authors.

And so, I went and did thusly. I wrote a covering letter and a plot synopsis, whose shared brevity did not preclude me from obsessively finessing them over and over before I was pried away and had to feign satisfaction with their final state, which are what accompany the actual manuscript sample when it comes to your submission. Now, neither were easy to write. That’s for sure. But the plot synopsis was the real motherfucker. Trying to figure out how to summarise, using about a single page, the full sequence of events in a 185k word novel is… well, not a challenge I’m aching to repeat anytime soon. To say that you have to employ some pretty fucking broad strokes is an understatement. What it requires is, quite simply, ripping all the flesh off your story and articulating its bare skeleton for display. Some people may not find this process of creative excarnation all that unpleasant. But I sure as hell did. Moreover, I’d venture to say that basically any story — no matter how grand or exquisite or well-revered — is bound to seem lame when you boil it down to its core framework. Because that heap of bleached bones (i.e. list of plot points) is always going to be underwhelming when presented alone. How could it be otherwise?

Nevertheless, I sucked it up and got it done. And then came the main event. I have a lot to say about that, about the actual experience of finding and submitting to agents.

Let’s begin with the mechanics of it though. Zeroing in on agents who are looking for the exact kind of book you’re hoping to sell is your first goal. Thankfully, this is pretty straightforward. It’s just that it’s also a tedious, time-consuming grind. I used several online services — Duotrope being the best by far — which let you tick a bunch of criteria boxes and then spit out a list of agents who fit the bill. (They were all paid services. And, to my mind, well worth the money. But if you’re often an exceedingly broke-ass writer such as moi, you too will undoubtedly know how to make the most out of the ubiquitous 7/14/30 day free trials when the necessity arises.) Availing myself of these services certainly made my life a lot easier. The search just becomes so much more streamlined when your long-list of potential-agents has already been whittled down by top-level applicability.

Yet it still ends up being a substantial time-sink. Because even when I narrowed it down as aforementioned, I was presented with a list of hundreds of agents on each service I used. Then you have to manually go down one-by-one, clicking through to their agency website. This is where the bulk of your time gets spent. Many agencies strenuously emphasize that you must choose only one of their agents to submit to. So you have to read through all of the respective agent profiles on there, maybe do some external research on them too, and then decide who is the best fit for your book. Oftentimes this is indeed the pre-selected agent whose name you clicked on to get to that agency website in the first place. But once in a while you find someone else on their particular roster (perhaps a new agent not yet listed by the online services) who turns out to be a much, much better bet because of some tantalizingly hyper-specific ‘currently looking-for’ comment on their personal description. Thus you always have to double-check. Which means putting in the hours. And given that the task before you is so mind-numbingly repetitive, those hours do not exactly fly by.

As a sidenote, the fact that there evidently isn’t an agreed upon industry-wide standard for what is asked for and how it’s submitted is just comical. And very much baffling to me. For example, one agency may ask for just a covering letter and the first five manuscript pages to be pasted together into the email itself (which inevitably fucks up the formatting). Another may want an emailed covering letter — and they’ll specify some unique mixture of what it must state — as well as a synopsis and the first three chapters attached as Microsoft Word files. Then another may want you to submit not through email but through their own janky online form, which of course asks for its own weird combination of things. And so on and so forth. This is another reason the whole submission process ends up taking so much goddamn time. For almost every agency, you have to cater to these strange and asinine à la carte demands. It’s a bit obnoxious, frankly. And, given its time-wasting effect, it’s also one of several ways in which some literary agencies show how startlingly detached they are from the reality of being an aspiring author.

Others instantly spring to mind too. It’s rare but sometimes agencies insist that if you’re going to submit to them, it must be on an exclusive basis. As hopefully goes without saying, that is both absurd and absurdly arrogant. Another thing which really bugged me — and this was much more common — was agents peevishly stating that you must thoroughly, elaborately explain why you chose them in particular. And that doesn’t mean simply referencing and engaging with their description of what type of books they’re hunting for. That’s fine. That’s already par for the course. It really means going the extra mile to convey some placating measure of obeisance. Such as poring over their client list to find big-name authors they represent who you can pat them on the back for, or certain credentials/acclaim of theirs you can fawn over. Basically, it very much seems like you’re being asked to blow smoke up their ass and flatter them and make them feel special. As if you’ve become helplessly besotted by one agent and one agent alone.

When, of course, is not the plain reality that most first-time authors are — as the practical wisdom of hedging one’s bets dictates — going to be submitting their work to every suitable agent under the sun? That’s definitely my guess anyway. Because what they care about is getting published. And if that requires Charles-fucking-Manson being released from prison and becoming their literary agent, so be it. So the idea that you have to make some big show of pretending that this particular agent is so wondrously, overwhelmingly impressive that you’re blinded by their radiance and have forgotten about all the lowly other agents soliciting books just like yours is beyond silly. It really gives you a sense of what it must be like to have your ego inflated to zeppelin-like proportions. Which I’m sure is difficult to avoid when you spend decades having talented writers kiss your feet in the hopes that you’ll help their book finally see the light of day.

To make an obvious disclaimer: I’m talking about the way that a small percentage of agents express themselves. Whereas most of them seem like, and no doubt are, nice, normal people. In fact, that’s what makes those outliers just stick out even more. I mean, seriously, you should read some of the things they write. The myriad ways in which they’re clearly trying to put the author in their place. It’s pretty wild. From just straight up shitting on certain types of stories — e.g. “if you’re writing about some white dude embarking on a quest in a far-away land, take that nonsense elsewhere!” — to reminding you how infinitely lucky you’d be to even have them deign to glance at your work — e.g. “I’m one of the most high-profile and sought-after agents in [BLANK] and I only work with the very top echelon of writing talent, so why don’t you just take another long hard look at your submission before you send it and consider whether it’s that good” — and so on. Then there’s the fact that they often have this belittling, hostile tone where it’s like they’re preemptively mad at you for not following their encyclopedia of persnickety instructions (the very mildest examples of that are along the lines of: “Don’t waste my time! Your submission WILL be deleted unread unless you…” or “Here’s a fabulous way to get me to just ignore your email…”) All in all, it’s exactly the sort of superciliousness you’d expect from someone deep in the wilds of a power-trip. And if one was ever confused about the bad rap that literary agents have in some circles, reading the type of agent-profiles I’m talking about, and reflecting upon the awful taste they leave in your mouth, will unravel that mystery in short order.

Anyway, where were we? Oh yeah, having to insert agent-specific comments and customise the submission package itself — for lack of a better term — to the outlined preferences of each agency. Man oh man did that ever trigger my OCD something fierce! Knowing that, as the old cliché croakily intones, ‘you only get one chance to make a first impression’, my anxiety over catching any tiny new mistakes or typos each and every time was intense. You can’t help but envision a scenario where your email has made its way to the absolute perfect agent for you and your book but then they notice a misspelling in the first sentence or the wrong amount of the manuscript has been included and they, somewhat understandably, dismiss you out of hand. A totally avoidable self-defeat. And one I was indeed willing to re-read various things until my eyes bled to avoid.

Alright, next I wanna talk in-depth about the emotional aspect of the process. As you’re sitting there, spending whole days at a time just looking up agents and shooting off submission emails, you’re feeling a strange, sometimes overwhelming mix of things.

The most surface-level thing is just… plain ol’ excitement. ‘Cause getting to this stage in the authorial process is a big deal. The sense of imminence, of liminality, is deeply palpable and affecting. You are finally on the doorstep of everything you’ve ever wanted; your breath catches in your throat as you reach out to press the doorbell. This is, believe me, an incredibly heady and surreal place to linger long. You can’t help but let fragmentary flashes of daydreams about what it would be like to see your book sitting in the ‘New Releases’ section of a bookstore swim around in the back of your mind.

Then, when you delve a little bit deeper, there’s the fear. The fear of spectacular, resounding, wholesale, unequivocal, incontestable failure. And being afraid has a predictable effect. It riles you up, makes you petulant and indignant. And the agents themselves, those potential inflicters of failure, are the only target you have for that negative emotion. You childishly resent them because they seem to have all the power, whilst you have none at all. They are the middlemen you have to win over before you can really even get access to the gatekeepers (i.e. the publishers), who — oh yeah — you then also have to win over. And so it’s hard not to be annoyed that you must impress these strangers who are deluged with so many other novels that at a certain point checking their inboxes must feel like speed-swiping through a dating-app to them. (Which I have to imagine would quickly make anyone jaded.)

Of course, at the exact same time, you’re just plainly desperate to earn their approval. You want them to fall in love with your book. Because they can help you realise your dreams. And… on a much more primitive level… shit, you just want someone to tell you that what you made is awesome. I mean, writers are — I’ll go out on a limb which is nine-tenths already sawn through to say it — inherently needy creatures. To wildly varying degrees, to be sure. But the core truth of the matter is that going to the trouble of transubstantiating thoughts into the written word generally expresses a desire for acknowledgement (and subsequently, one hopes, some form of connection). And, I don’t mind stating it plainly, the opinions of some strangers count for way more than others. Some just carry more weight, more authority. Whether you like it or not. So that you can’t help but find yourself badly wanting the legitimising validation of someone who has long made a living out of deciding whether books have merit (whether merely in a commercial sense or otherwise) saying to you, “holy smokes, this novel of yours really bowled me right the fuck over! I’m speechless! Dazed! In awe! Mid-urination quite involuntarily! Like, holy mother of God, can I pay you to represent it?!”

Last of all, we move on to the foundational emotion which heavily permeates the entire thing through and through. The experience is just stressful, man. It’s extremely daunting. And draining. And dispiriting. And, just to complete the tetralogy of unpleasant Ds (a.k.a. opening four unsolicited images sent to you as a woman on the internet), there’s the sense of dread which produces that awful, awful gnawing feeling in the pit of your stomach. You’re envisioning the wave of rejection which you’re courting and you realise that you don’t really even know just how badly it’s going to feel. You know it’s going to suck, yes. But you cannot quite predict all the fun little squiggly nuances of the sadness and exasperation you are wading into. And it’s that uncertainty which makes your insides hurt. It causes a pretty severe anxiety and apprehension to bubble up inside you, like a bootlegger’s soon-to-be moonshine brought to a furious boil in their dingy shack. The difference being that when I imbibe my noxious brew, it doesn’t get me high, it gets me low.

The thing which really eats at you as you’re sending off your submission emails is: you’re inviting a massive deluge of rejection EITHER WAY. As in, even the success condition (i.e. an agency wanting to take you on) still involves 99% rejection. That’s intense, my dude. I mean… yeah, intense. It’s an inescapable rite of passage, I know. And naturally I’ve faced my fair share of rejection before, for my writing and otherwise, but I’ve never been in a position where what’s at stake is so incredibly important to me and the rejection I’m facing is so numerous and concentrated.

Well, that covers all the beforehand stuff. I am now living in the come-what-may period afterwards though. So let me share a little bit about what it’s like here.

First off, I can’t even tell you how much fun it is to wake up most days to a rejection email already sitting in my inbox. I mean, it’s not exactly double-sugar blowjobs fun. But it’s definitely up there. Near the top of the list somewhere. And it’s really, truly, authentically a stellar way to start your day. What could put you in a better mindset for tackling the challenges which await you when you get out of bed than being force-fed a nice disheartening spoonful of failure right off the bat? Possibly only a healthy grapefruit breakfast. If it was juiced. And served via enema. By scary mutant doctor-waiters.

Y’know, as the politely worded sorry-but-no’s are first trickling in, you begin to feel a small, low-simmering panic lurking somewhere deep inside you. The lifeboats which can take me off the sinking ship of this prologue-life and into the rescue of my ambitions are all leaving… And, I’m not too proud to admit, there’s a sort of desperation that emerges. Yep. Desperation. I am not evolved, I am not enlightened; I still feel such things strongly.

You see another email has popped up and you feel silly as your pulse starts to race a little bit once again. But of course it does. This is important. Very, very, excruciatingly very, very important. It’s like being handed a scratchcard where the prize is a million dollars. Only your chances of winning the prize are at least partially determined by how much you deserve to win it. And though you have already struck out many times before, this could finally be the one. The one which obliterates the gnarled, thorny vines twisting around your heart tighter and tighter like a slow garroting. The one which makes your longed-for future real in a single marvellous instant. And, oh yes, it’s embarrassing to have these nebulous thoughts running through your mind in the few seconds as your finger descends and taps the screen to open the email. But you have to let yourself want. You can’t smother that. You can’t kill that part of yourself in some mad attempt to prevent it from even the possibility of pain when disappointment comes. Indeed, more and more I truly believe that. You have to let yourself lie down in the icy waters of the want. And let yourself feel everything that entails, deeply and unreservedly. And try to make peace with that. Even as you’re hurting. Especially when you’re hurting.

As the rejection emails come in faster and faster, it starts to really pummel you. Each new one that appears feels like the next impact of a basketball that’s being dribbled on your head. Except that the basketball is made of reinforced concrete. And the ends of its steel rebar are sticking out. (I don’t know which sporting-goods company it is who are putting these fucked-up versions of basketballs on the market but I am appalled they are still in business. All I can say is that you should not trust your family’s health with their irresponsible products. And the authorities should clearly step in and do their job here. Write your congressperson at once.)

Maintaining that all-important conviction that what you made is good, in the face of so many people in the actual book-selling business rejecting it, is… difficult. And that’s scary. Because if you allow even that last shred of self-esteem to be stripped away from you, I mean, truly, what the hell do you really have left to enable you to weather the storm?

What also keeps you up at night is the wondering how many layers deep did this or that agent engage with your submission? Did they just look at the basic facts of it (genre, audience, length, etc) and decide it didn’t fit into their client list because they already had one just like it? Or did they proceed onto your blurblike two or three paragraph teaser-description of what the book’s about and turn their nose up at that? Or did they go even further to the one page synopsis which outlines the entire plot start-to-finish and conclude it was an ill-woven yarn? Or did all the aforementioned seem intriguing enough but then they got to your writing sample — which, depending on their stipulation, could be anywhere from the first few pages to the first three chapters — and conclude that they didn’t jibe with your writing style or your intro was crappy? And even if that was indeed the case, did they decide it after five minutes of reading or an hour? These unanswered and unanswerable questions only deepen your frustration and unhappiness. I ask you, what’s worse: the agent was so closed-off that your book’s specific sub-genre nixed you right from the get-go (denying your actual writing a chance to win them over) or that you did tick enough preliminary boxes for them to actually read some of your manuscript, but then they didn’t feel any spark whatsoever and gave up? Both are, I believe, galling and/or dispiriting in their own unique ways…

There’s also the fact that I’m literally not even going to hear back from some agencies I submitted to. Some of them have brusque disclaimers on their websites which say something like ‘because we are so busy and receive such an incredibly large number of submissions (ed note — oh boy do they like underscoring that point ad nauseam: remember that you are but a mote in a dust storm, would-be author), we may not be able to respond to those submissions we’re not pursuing, so if you haven’t heard back from us in ninety days, please be aware it’s a pass.’ There are two things which spring to mind in response to this. The first is that, gee, thanks for the tip. Because normally when I send an email to someone asking if they’d be interested in doing something and then three long months go by, I’m of course still on the edge of my seat and biting my fingernails down to the quick, endlessly puzzling over whether or not they might be down to clown with a fella who frowns. (I don’t know where in the ever-loving fuck that last phrase came from. Plucked from the murky soup of my tired mind, I suppose. Still, it made me laugh, and so it stays!)

The second thing is more like a sort of inchoate flicker of indignation. You have to remember that, when talking about a literary agent, we’re talking about someone whose professional existence is made possible by people freely sending them the product of their creative labours — something held very precious, which may well have entailed thousands of hours of work and an unquantifiable enormity of emotional toil — for them to consider whether they’d care to earn a portion of whatever money it might make. At this point, you may be saying, ‘uhh, so what?’ And, sure enough, I would never claim that you are owed anything after simply sending a manuscript to someone. However, let’s just say that my mama raised me to respect the value of good manners. And accordingly, it is, I feel quite sure, breathtakingly fucking rude to refuse to spend the… what?… fourteen seconds?… copying and pasting a generic rejection letter into an email reply and hitting send. I mean, come on. That’s all you have to do to ensure that the person on the other end isn’t just pointlessly sitting around waiting (oblivious to their failed submission), because they now know the answer and can move on. It’s a small courtesy. Besides literally just smoke-signalling the word ‘NO’ towards the horizon and hoping for the best, it’s really the least you can do. Yet it translates to an outsize usefulness for the recipient. And, shit, when it comes down to it, it’s just nice to be nice, right?

Bleh. How to end this part? Well, I suppose it’s pretty simple. Like I said, I’ve received a bunch of rejection emails already. And I stand to receive quite a lot more responses in the coming weeks and months. They may also be rejections or they may be… something else. I don’t know. I try not to be superstitious, but it does seem almost dangerous to state that other possibility out loud…

Buying Toys

So, I bought some fancy spinning tops. Which, naturally, requires a declaration and some ensuing rambling because…. #reasons. Yeah, that’s right. Totally valid and persuasive reasons, which just simply haven’t been formalized and rubber-stamped quite yet. Because of the well-known bureaucracy gumming up the works at the reasons-mill. Paperwork the likes of which you’ve never seen, I tell you! They don’t just need your typical beancounters and middle-management types toiling away in their realm of kafkaesque beadledom for it either. No, no, too easy that. They’ve gotta have a buncha fucking salaried analytic philosophers and logicians on staff too, to double-check everything passes muster in an abstract sense.

And, of course, notoriously there have been union-busting attempts over the centuries to try and disband the gridlock caused by the live-in reason-goblins banding together and using their collective bargaining power to demand shorter shifts, safer working conditions, and even cute little goblin uniforms. Personally, I say fuck ’em. Their dirty canvas loincloths were fine. And their eighty-hour shifts weren’t that long. Either way, at least a fellow could get reasons on demand back then. Right when he needed them, not a few weeks later. Eurgh, sometimes I don’t know what’s even happening to this country anymore…

Jesus. Re-reading all that, even I have to take a step back and wonder what the fuck I’m babbling about. I suppose that, from time to time, I just get tired of the careful, purposeful trickle — also known as ‘coherent prose’ — and I get tempted to just run the faucet full-blast and see what happens. One can only withstand the splashback for so long though.

Let’s get back to the point at hand, why don’t we? Specifically, I ended up getting both the mirrored and brushed versions of the Stainless Steel top from ForeverSpin. (I actually only intended to get the latter, but they first mistakenly sent the former and then were good enough to let me keep it along with the replacement. Hey, can’t say fairer than that.) As well as the aluminium/polished brass MK1 top from Vorso.

(By the way, if you click on ForeverSpin’s website, prepare for their advertising cookies — or whatever godforsaken soul-harvesting black magick they’ve got going on behind the scenes — to follow you to the ends of the earth and beyond. Maybe I’m just more apt to notice them, but I’ve never seen a company’s targeted ads manage to be quite so aggressively persistent. They just won’t let go of you. It’s like superglue mixed with the herpes virus. For real, it sometimes seems like they pop up on every other site I go on. Which is pretty crazy. The only thing I see more frequently whilst online is ‘.com’. So someone in their marketing department is earning their damn paycheck, that’s for certain. I’m pretty sure they’re gonna figure out how to rent billboard space in my fucking dreams soon enough.)

In the likely, and very understandable, event that you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about when I name specific tops, here’s a photo and some video of them in action.

(Please forgive the appallingly low-light video. I obviously had too much faith in how well the phone’s camera would be able to compensate for it… Alternatively, consider the graininess and artifacting to be a clever homage to the video technology of yore, befitting the archaicness of the spinning tops themselves. Yeah, sure, why not. )

I’ve actually low-key been hankering after the elegant lines and simplicity of the ForeverSpin tops ever since I saw their Kickstarter campaign several years ago. (And, alright, you got me, I can’t pretend that their resemblance to the iconic ‘Inception’ one doesn’t play a part in that. I love that movie and I especially love that part of it.) On occasion, I really do get that weird sort of item-lust where an object is just so intensely fucking aesthetically pleasing, I feel I have to have it. I need to have it right there close by me to stare at and admire. A platonic form of eyefucking something.

At the time, although I was sorely tempted, I just couldn’t bring myself to spend that much money on what is essentially just a couple neat desktop toys. I’m also always really put off by that whole Kickstarter thing of ‘throw down a bunch of cash now and then get what you ordered in eight months… or at least, maybe’. I know that crowdfunding is supposed to be more about the sense of community and watching as a project comes together, and that’s cool and all. I’m not even trying to be sarcastic there. It might not really be for me, but I see the appeal, I get it. It’s just that, as someone cursed with a wicked sense of impatience, I’m a man of immediacy. If I can’t hit BUY and then have a package magically appear at my apartment within a day or two, it’s invariably gonna be a hard sell for me.

That’s why it was much easier to pull the trigger when I recently saw there are finally now EU & UK resellers of the ForeverSpin tops (which are Canadian-made). The Vorso top just happened to catch my eye — it’s definitely pleasingly sleek in its own way too — at the same time. And… yeah, I decided I’d bite the bullet and treat myself for once. Click, click, enter card details, click. And now I’ve got some fun little toys to play around with. (Golly, lot of gun-related metaphors chucked into this paragraph. Maybe the NRA’s propaganda is successfully worming its way into my subconscious…)

I find there’s something super satisfying about pulling off a good spin. Really flicking the wrist and getting some serious torque going, and then just watching this pretty little thing whirl around, blithely defying gravity, for a few minutes at a time. Longer even, depending on the top and the surface you use. (The Vorso, though not as beautiful, is a much, much better spinner. And it just so happens that a small circular magnifying mirror is a superb low-friction spinning base.) There are times where the top, being so perfectly balanced, will simply spin in place, looking stationary almost: still but very much not still. You can genuinely get lost in staring at it. It’s a bit like gazing into the dancing, crackling flames of a logfire. There’s a meditative, relaxing quality to it. It helps me quiet my mind, get back to that sharp zero-state equilibrium.

When I’m writing at my computer and I reach one of those moments where I’m craving some sort of procrastination break, I tend to open a new tab and start wasting time on random sites. I tell myself it’ll just be a ‘five-minute’ diversion. But this is a dangerous rabbithole to go down, is it not? All of a sudden you realize that an hour and a half has passed and you’ve just been looking at bullshit. In reaction to this, I’ve realized that a much better place to channel those procrastinate-y instincts into is messing around with something in my hands or on my desk. Like, oh I don’t know, a spinning top… (I’ve also always been fond of keeping a pen or a drumstick close by, to spin through my fingers when I get bored. I’m not too worried about ‘the devil making work for idle hands’. He and I are on… reasonable terms, I think. Exempting a fractious real estate deal or two, perhaps. It’s more just that I find messing around with them to be a pleasant way to keep your hands busy without actually getting distracted. It’s just muscle memory playing out on a continuous loop.)

The useful thing about going that route instead is that then I haven’t really pulled myself out of the writing mindstate. My in-progress work is still right there on the screen, my (concentration playlist) music is still playing in my ears. The spinning top doesn’t really occupy my mind. Just my hands. And so I’m still thinking about what I’m working on. As opposed to thinking about the lengthy Wikipedia page for some obscure seventeenth-century pirate I’ve randomly stumbled upon and inadvertently spent thirty minutes absorbing.

And I know that some people may think that paying forty or fifty pounds for a spinning top seems absurd. I can appreciate that. (Though you should know that that’s very much on the low-end for high-quality, over-engineered, artisanal tops.) I just think that, as with anything else, it depends on what you stand to get out of it. I’ve discovered that, for me, there’s a small, quiet sort of joy to be had in beholding and playing around with beautiful, supremely well-crafted objects. Tactile pleasures abound from just touching them. They are essentially miniature, functional pieces of art. Besides which, as long as you don’t abuse them (i.e. exercise even a modicum of care) these spinning tops could literally last a lifetime. That’s good value for money, if you ask me.

God, there’s just something so deliciously opulent about such a simple object being so painstakingly, conspicuously, needlessly well-made. It’s like having a paper airplane re-engineered to be fashioned out of expensive, high-performance aerospace materials. And people will inevitably say “but… why?!…”. The answer’s simple. Why the fuck not? It’s cool as shit, yo. And when I look at a spinning top which screams that someone has gone to considerable effort and expense to figure out how to precision-mill it out of a single block of metal and ensure it’s balanced exactly right, that’s how I feel about it too.

Anyway… I know it’s ferociously dorky to talk about having a spinning top (mini) collection, but I’m not hugely concerned about that, to be honest. I mean, it’s not quite that I… well… embrace being a dork. It’s just that I gave up any aspirations of attaining the status of convincing non-dorkiness a long time ago. Perhaps out of necessity. Because I’m such a gigantic fucking dork. 

What I’ve been playing

I was playing ‘Days Gone’ for a while. And… gosh, I don’t really have much I feel compelled to say about it. It’s just decent but very unremarkable: a fairly fun, fairly pretty, fairly polished, fairly competent game. It does just enough to be worth playing at length. A textbook example of a 6.5/10, in my mind. Not really ‘good’, not really ‘bad’, more so simply ‘alright for what it is’. And so if you can take it for what it is, it might still be worth your time. But that mindset is key. (Word to EGM’s Shane Bettenhausen for his oft-repeated “reclaiming the 6.5 for good” mantra back in the day. It was tongue-in-cheek but it also… wasn’t, y’know? This was back when the big boys in the games coverage space had a strict, stultifying 7-10 range they worked within and would practically break out in hives at the thought of exploring the full review scale venturing into the frightening badlands south of that for anything short of a broken game that had to get a low score to scathingly emphasize its brokenness. Beyond that one exception clause, you had to just work within the set boundaries and stick to the script: seven is acceptable, eight is good, nine is excellent, and ten was reserved as the proper deferential salute to the sheer neutron-bombs of hype like a new Halo or Grand Theft Auto. So the prospect of branding a game you might still actually want to check out with anything sub-7 — I remember a Penny Arcade comic labelling that range the “forbidden numbers” making me laugh pretty hard back then — just seemed nonsensical to a lot of game reviewers…)

I think all the major knocks on it are basically just inevitable outgrowths from its own comfortable mediocrity. The gameplay loop, while enjoyable, could use with some diversification. You’re doing the same two or three types of missions over and over, and so if you don’t play the game in moderate bursts, it can get a bit repetitive. I also wish the survival/resource gathering mechanics actually had some complexity to them. Plus, the story is kinda just… there. It’s bland and standard: blandard, if you will. The characters themselves have okay voice-acting, I guess, but I just couldn’t make myself care about any of them.

So yeah, it was fine for about 15-ish hours but then I gradually lost interest. Before long, I just stopped playing it, and finally sent it back. I use a game rental service. One of the many benefits of which is that I don’t have to make myself finish games I’ve gotten tired of. I remember being a kid and only getting gifted new games once in a great while, and so you’d just end up wringing every last drop out of each one because, well, it was all you had until… who knows when. Nowadays I take great pleasure in having the luxury of being able to show a game that’s outstayed its welcome the door and easily switching it out for a new one to try. Ah, the little joys of being an adult, I suppose.

Although the game’s fundamental second-rate-ness is no doubt to blame for me abandoning it before the end, I also wonder how much my indifference to its genre played a part. I just cannot muster a single solitary fuck to give when it comes to conventional zombie games. Like anyone with a functioning consciousness, I was sick to death with zombie stuff like… damn… a decade or more ago. (And I was never much of a fan of it to begin with.) It’s funny, people complain about, say, starship sci-fi or swords-and-sorcery fantasy being a tired, samey genre — and that point definitely has some merit — but I would argue that nothing in the entire world of nerdy fiction is anywhere as boringly formulaic and unchanged as zombie shit has been for a long time now. The degree of brazen carbon-copy-ness that’s rampant is just stunning. People’s appetite for the same thing over and over just does not seem to be subsiding. Go figure. Personally, I think there should be a five year moratorium on making any new zombie-infested fictional universe. So that creators could have some time to actually mull it over and fresh takes on the genre could become more than ultra-rare. If nothing else, it’d be a defibrillator shock that might finally jolt some vitality back into a genre that’s been shambling along, aimless and half-rotten, with only the passing semblance of actual life.

I’ve also been playing ‘Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled’. (One wonders why there isn’t a colon in there. Possibly there’s one of those dreaded punctuation-droughts in the developers’ city and they’re just being conscientious citizens?…)

My girlfriend has been fervently asking me to get us a kart-racer game to play together for approximately… umm…. sixty or seventy years at this point. Alas, given that I do not own any Nintendo consoles — I’ve never been a Nintendo guy, I have to say — the no-brainer recourse to the genre’s kingpin, ‘Mario Kart’, was not an option. So I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that CTR was getting a modern remake.

(I can’t say for certain, but I think I may have played the original back on the PS1. Or perhaps it was one of the sequels released on the Xbox. Eh, my memories of it are pretty hazy. I just know I played one of them. Either way, I have, and had back then, somewhat of a soft spot for the Crash Bandicoot franchise. I never got to play any of the Mario games, so the Crash platformers were the next best thing for me. I remember really enjoying the vibe and gameplay of them. Though platformers have never really been my jam, so I don’t know that I’m exactly champing at the bit to replay the remastered version they’ve also recently received.)

I’ve been playing quite a lot of ‘Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled’, both alone and with my girlfriend. (Her favourite track is Coco Park and you’d better believe she’s the undisputed queen of it. She’s whupped my ass on it a bunch of times now.) And, frankly, the game is great. A kart-racer is always going to be a relatively short-term novelty for me — I mean, it’s never going to become a mainstay in my rotation, something I’ll sink a 100+ hours into — but this game literally nails everything I could want from one. It’s just really fucking fun. The racing mechanics are tight and super satisfying. I know the difficulty curve may deter some people but I like that there’s layers of depth there: it rewards you for really paying attention to what you’re doing. When you learn all the game’s little tricks, nailing the drifts and chaining all the boost techniques and darting down shortcuts, you really shoot around the track at breakneck speed like a banshee riding an erratic cruise missile. And that feels rad to pull off, let me tell you.

I also admire that the graphics are actually kind of gorgeous in their own way. The vivid, colorful art style combined with the surprisingly crisp high-res-ness just makes it all really pop. It’s total eye-candy. You don’t expect a game like this to impress you visually, but there you go.

Lastly, my god this game has a formidable fuckton of tracks. Maybe I’m just getting too cynical, but I would never have expected you’d get this much content on the disc. Especially in a game published by big daddy Activision. Usually you’d get just a measly portion of it, and then the rest would be dribbled out in instalments as paid DLC in the first year after release. So this is a nice change of pace.

I have heard there’s some controversy over the belated addition of micro-transactions though. Namely, the fact that you can spend money to fast-track your way to unlocking new characters, karts, etc. I haven’t looked into this at all so maybe I’m just missing something obvious but as far as I could tell during my playtime all this stuff is really just cosmetic. And ultimately, assuming it’s not anything remotely pay-to-win, it simply doesn’t bother me if another player can pay to get access to various dress-up options quicker.

In the past few decades, games have rapidly gotten more and more expensive to make and support post-release, and the price you pay at the register hasn’t gone up with it. So I think it’s fair that publishers can take reasonable steps to implement additional revenue streams to recoup some of that. As long as it doesn’t affect the actual gameplay, I say let the people who want to buy a million different outfits for their character do so. Someone dropping coin to peacock in an online kart-racer just isn’t that perturbing really. Is it a little sad? Yes. Is it a little bizarre? Yes. But it doesn’t upset me at all. That’s why this whole hullabaloo seems way overblown.

What I’ve been reading

I recently read Stephen King’s much vaunted ‘On Writing’. (There is, one must concede, something darkly funny about me happening to read a book with that title whilst I’m being pelted with rejection emails for my first novel. I have to say, occasionally I wonder whether I’m somehow subconsciously inclined to play into these laughs which Fate likes to have at your expense because, well, I suppose maybe part of me just wants to be a good sport? Given that there’s such an inconceivably complex and fine-tuned universe at least partly set up to wring twisted humour from your travails, one doesn’t exactly want to be the squeaky wheel which disrupts the symphony of tiny, subtle sadism as it unfolds…)

Now, I’ve never had any interest whatsoever in reading books which purport to teach you how to write. And that hasn’t changed. I decided to read ‘On Writing’ because firstly, in a series of strange coincidences, I kept hearing people mentioning it with praiseful tones. Secondly, and much more importantly, I knew it was actually half-memoir, half-instructional. And even from the little I’ve heard about King’s life just here-and-there, it seemed like he would have some fascinating anecdotes to tell.

And there are indeed a couple doozies. For example, the fact that he was so out of his mind on drugs and booze that he genuinely cannot remember writing one of his novels is both absolutely unimaginable and absolutely amazing. It’s one of those things where you kinda can’t help but just sit there and think about it and try to envision what having lost something like that must be like. Albeit, with little success. And only ever multiplying curiosity.

Then there’s the part where he recounts getting hit by a car and the subsequent recovery. It’s undoubtedly a very moving tale. And you can tell as you read it that it’s still all quite raw for him, making it emotionally arduous to write about. Despite that, he manages to get across what it was like with a good measure of lucidity.

Most of the other biographical stuff, which is extremely scattershot and disjointed, was not all that captivating to me though. It’s not exactly dull. It’s just kinda meh but… readable, if you know what I mean. You get through it and it simply doesn’t leave any impression on you.

I also think that the messy inclusion of those personal stories constitutes one of the main failings of the book: it plainly doesn’t really know what it wants to be. It’s essentially a multifarious essay on King’s approach to crafting prose fiction, but it’s book-ended by long sections of varyingly-relevant autobiography. And the parts just don’t mesh together very well. Granted, I went into it knowing what to expect. But people who just go by the title and buy this book thinking it’s wholly, or even primarily, a how-to guide will be, I expect, very much surprised and disappointed.

Moving swiftly on. My problem with King’s writing advice is simple. Predictably, everything he is saying just equates to ‘how to write like me’. So, if you would love to adopt his particular likes and dislikes and seek to emulate his particular writing style — though, ironically, King himself actually cautions against becoming a pale imitation of a famous writer — this is the book for you. Or, at least, sort of. Because even if that’s the case, you may be somewhat frustrated by the scarcity of actual concrete advice. It’s no exaggeration to say that it could neatly be condensed into about seven or eight bullet-points, without losing too much substance at all.

And there’s something else you should know. It’s intentionally basic, basic shit. Like, wow. It really ought to have been marketed that way too. I promise I’m not trying to be condescending at all when I say that if you’re going to hand this book (or one like it) to someone in the hope that it’ll have some weighty practical worth to them, you’d better be gift-wrapping that paperback with your teenage niece or nephew — who are still finding their footing with their writing in a very fundamental sense — as the recipient you have in mind. That’s not to say that it’s never worthwhile to revisit the basics; no-one is above shoring up the foundation of their skills now and again. It’s just that the pointers in this book are soooo broad and elementary that they’re only really suited for beginners I think.

There is also a more intrinsic reason that I did not enjoy this book very much. It’s impossible to say this and not seem insulting, but there’s also really no way around it: I found King’s prose to be quite, quite bland. I mean, he does at least have a fairly likeable voice as a writer. In that he seems the type of guy, to crib from political pollsters’ parlance, you’d ‘like to get a beer with’. And he sometimes even shows flashes of wittiness. Yet the writing itself is just so inescapably plain-Jane boring. (At one point, he even states “not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony, or musical language (they call it prose for a reason, y’know)” and you find yourself thinking: uh, yeah dude, you didn’t really have to tell me that’s how you feel. I’m sorta digging into a pudding overflowing with proof here. Also, I dare say there are a few things worse than a little bit of errant poetry infecting the sterility of one’s prose…) I guess in a sense that approach makes it more readable, more digestible for a mass market audience — you could zip through this book in a sitting or two, no problem — but, oh man, at what cost?

I suspect every writer is, to some degree, beholden to an affectation, even if only in the sense that they’ve some ideal they’re hoping to fulfil. King’s appears to be a sort of unadorned, ‘everyman’ style of language. Just like with anything else, this can be done well and it can be done poorly. And when it’s done poorly, it’s as flavourless and unstimulating as a meal of unbuttered brown bread and water.

As goes without saying, the classic exemplar of this style (which all of its subsequent devotees point to in reverence, for self-justification) was Ernest Hemingway. And I do largely enjoy Hemingway’s prose. However, he was able to mould his very stripped-down language in such a way that a sort of subtle poetics emerged from the restraint and the simplicity. I think that’s a rare achievement. Too often, those who seek to mirror this style — not accusing King himself of anything here, just speaking in generalities — merely end up reminding you that it’s not as easy as it looks. There’s a slippery element of complex artistry lurking in the crevices which doesn’t just flow forth because you pass close by it. Lord knows that would be nice, but unfortunately we must abide with the flipside. Aye, it has to be coaxed out with the daisy-chained repetitions of guile and deftness which accompany the serious application of talent and concentration. That’s obvious to even an onlooker like myself. And if, perchance, you’d care for a counterpoint to that idea — which may help better illuminate the difference in opinion itself — it’s… at least conceivable… you may find one in King’s exhortation to always “use the first word that comes to your mind”. I trust you can judge for yourself what I mean.

Time for a few little sidenotes before I wrap up. It’s interesting to me that King is frequently, even if it must be brought up apropos of nothing, so defensive and aggrieved about the belittling guff he gets for being a commercial juggernaut. Because he also has a very bad habit of reflexively namedropping other authors and issuing either backhanded compliments or just straight-up insults. It’s jarring, and unbecoming, to say the least. You’d think that someone who resents the harsh treatment he receives from literary critics would refrain from such unfriendly kneejerk jabs. But… alas, no.

Something I do very much respect about King is his discipline. I tremendously envy and admire writers, like him, who are able to make themselves get down a few thousand words each and every day without fail. Which over time equates to such a… just… prodigious output. One can quibble with the quality of the end result, if one so chooses, but it’s inarguable that it requires an impressive will and passion to sustain that level of productivity long-term. I will say that when he mentions once penning a novel in the span of a week, it does get, y’know, a bit much. But in general when he’s talking about his writing routine and his commitment to finishing his books in a timely fashion, one can’t help but be in awe of his indefatigable stamina. Not to mention, the apparently bottomless well of his imagination. He seems to have story ideas coming out of his fucking eyeballs.

From King’s many, many spirited defences of his creative choices against the naysayers, I feel I really must present one in particular to you because it really sums up his attitude when it comes to both that defiance and the devising of fiction itself. (He surely wouldn’t mind me doing this. He quotes liberally from other authors to point out their flaws.) Talking about his novel ‘The Green Mile’, he discloses that because the “main character was an innocent man likely to be executed… I decided to give him the initials J.C., after the most famous innocent man of all time.” As a fan of ‘Deus Ex’, whose messianic protagonist is also rather lazily anointed with those two evocative initials, I am forced to hold my tongue here. I will simply reproduce King’s own footnoted response. “A few critics accused me of being symbolically simplistic in the matter of [his] initials. And I’m like, ‘What is this, rocket science?'” I think that says a lot, don’t you?… Not rocket science indeed.

All things considered, I’ll put it like this. I haven’t read any of King’s fiction (though I’ve enjoyed some of the adaptations based on his work.) And, to be frank, I have no desire to do so after reading his thoughts on how it ought to be crafted. I suppose in that sense the book was quite helpful.


I always, always activate ‘dark mode’ (or nearest equivalent) on every program and/or website which provides it. I much prefer it. I find it’s way better for my eyesight, especially over the course of the day, and therefore my sanity. That’s why it’s so goddamn frustrating that it’s still nowhere near ubiquitous yet.

But then I stumbled across the Chrome extension — though it’s available for other browsers too — Dark Reader a while back. And, yeah, I don’t know, I guess I just want to spread the word as an unpaid evangelist. It’s so simple but it’s just so awesome. Being able to make every single website you go on white-text-on-dark-background has been an absolute game-changer for me. I don’t know how I’ve lived without it for this long.

I’m increasingly of the opinion that ‘dark mode’ should be a fucking human right. (I’m in the preliminary stages of petitioning the ECHR to add a new article enshrining it. Wish me luck.) And this gets us one step closer to that glorious utopia devoid of eye-strain. I recommend you avail yourself of this glimpse of that far-flung bliss, my friends.

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