This issue is certified kidney-free

Hello again! Welcome to Issue Four of this newsletter, where you will read not one single word about the ridiculous (but oddly compelling) kidney story that swept Twitter last week. I promise.

It’s been a busy, busy month for me, in pretty much all aspects of my life. That includes prepping for an impending wedding (my own, yes, this Saturday), going to see an actual band perform live in a public venue (my first show since December 2019!), as well as being knocked down with the flu for about eleven days. Other than that, though, here’s some of what I’ve been up to since we last spoke:

  • I wrote a piece for monkeybicycle’s “If My Book” series, in which I speculate on what How I’m Spending My Afterlife would be if it weren’t a book. Yes, it sounds weird, but you should check it out anyway.

  • I was a guest on the Downtown Writer’s Jam podcast, which you can get in either audio or video form here.

  • I spoke to my friend Hurley Winkler for her Lonely Victories newsletter (which you should subscribe to), in which I discussed my experiences self-publishing and working with a small independent publisher.

And since I don’t want you to think I’m slacking, here are a couple of upcoming events that I sadly don’t have links for yet:

  • I’ll be on Textual Healing with Mallory Smart (man, I am just killing it with these podcast appearances). Mallory’s thing is, she talks to writers about music, and there’s definitely some of that in my episode, among plenty of other random stuff that I hope will be as fun to listen to as it was to record. I’ll update my website once I have a drop date for this one.

  • I’ll be doing a virtual event (over Zoom, natch) for How I’m Spending My Afterlife on Tuesday, November 2nd! No link yet, but that will also be on my website as soon as I get it. I’ll probably also be promoting it on Twitter and Instagram, so check there as well.

Also, if everything goes like it’s supposed to, I’ll be going on a honeymoon next week. Not writing-related, I know, but still pretty important. Fingers crossed!

Let’s talk about the supply chain, because that sounds fun and interesting

The supply chain is a fickle, fickle beast. When the capitalism machine is churning away as it was designed to and the beast is fed the way it expects to be, all is well for people like me who are trying to sell things like books. But when that machine isn’t oiled properly, or the gears start to slide out of alignment, or someone dumps some sugar into its fuel tank, the beast gets surly and uncooperative.

This is the state of things in the world of books right now. Is it frustrating to have a newly-published book available for people to read, but be unable to put that book in their hands in the timely fashion to which they have become accustomed? Yes it is. It’s also temporary, and not really a huge deal for me personally. This is, however, my way of saying that if you order How I’m Spending My Afterlife, you may have a longer-than-usual wait. Please be patient, and please do not take it out on me when you go to write that Amazon review. Thanks kindly in advance.

Writing without a map

I started writing How I'm Spending My Afterlife in May of 2014, but I'd had the plot and characters in my head for at least seven or eight years before that. Maybe even longer.

There were a few reasons for that overlong gestation period, but one of them was particularly pointless: I didn't know in advance how the story was going to end. And because I had never made any serious attempts at writing a novel before and had no idea of what I was getting into, I was leery of investing time and toil into a project I might not be able to finish.

While there's a whole cottage industry of advising neophyte authors on how best to tame the beast that is the writing process, there is, naturally, no consensus on what that best way actually is. Which makes sense, I guess: otherwise, there'd be no need for all those books and seminars. Do you work from an outline, or not? (I refuse to participate in the “planner or pantser” debate that’s popular on Literary Twitter, because pantsing just doesn’t mean what the writing community thinks it does.) Should you write character backstory that no one but you will ever read, or is that a waste of time? Write each chapter in order, or skip around and fill in the blanks later?

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Most of the advice I was reading at the time urged the use of an outline. That made sense to me. I was self-aware enough to understand how my mind works, and I knew from experience how easily I could get distracted and find myself writing down tangents and blind alleys until I'd forgotten the story I was trying to tell.

It also made sense to me to write with a specific destination in mind: in other words, to know the ending I was working to reach, the narrative resolution I was trying to achieve. So I refused to even start until I knew where I wanted to end up.

This was a mistake that cost me years.

I remember having phone conversations with my best friend during these years, trying to hash out with him what the end of this story should look like. He tried his best, but ultimately was no help at all because we have different ideas of what a satisfying resolution should look like: he kept suggesting Law & Order-style, ripped-from-the-headlines twist endings, and I kept shooting them down, frustrated by the fact that I couldn't think of anything better.

It was maddening. I had a solid setup. I had strong characters. I had a story arc. I just didn't have an ending.

But then I eventually realized that if I had strong characters, I had all I needed right there. Not because having that means you don't need an ending, but because strong characters would lead me to the right ending. All I had to do was start writing. When the time came to wrap things up, they'd let me know.

And it actually worked. I was two-thirds of the way through the first draft before I figured out how the book would end, how it had to end; after I circulated a draft among some trusted friends of mine, I used their feedback to make the ending better.

I just let the characters live their lives and tell their story. I trusted them and never tried to make them do things they wouldn't do. That's all there was to it.

Of course, if you don't have solid characters with strong personalities and specific desires and goals, this won't work. The up-front effort goes into building those characters instead of a detailed outline. And let's be clear, that does take a lot of up-front effort. But strong characters always make for the best fiction anyway, so it's worth it.

I guess the point of this tale is that if you want to write, don't worry about conforming to someone else's idea of process. I listened to the wrong people back in the day, and it cost me a metric shit-ton of time. I should have just trusted my instincts more (this is actually the piece of advice I would give to most people, in most contexts). I'd be a lot farther along in my fiction-writing career if I had.

What I’ve been reading

Exhalation by Ted Chiang, and I’m Waiting For You and other stories by Kim Bo-Young

I don’t write science fiction and I’m pretty selective in reading it. Nevertheless, Ted Chiang is probably my favorite short story writer; certainly my favorite active short story writer. His work is imaginative, accessible, and elegantly written. I picked this one up about six weeks ago on a trip, and I’ve thought about these stories almost every day since. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a reader of science fiction, you should check him out if you haven’t already.

Conversely, I wasn’t familiar with Kim Bo-Young at all until I saw her book on the shelf at a local store, but a quick flip through the pages told me I’d probably dig it. This one consists of two connected pairs of stories (they’re pretty long, though). In one pair, two young lovers are trying to return to Earth via near-light speed travel in time for their wedding day but keep missing each other; thanks to the way relativity works, Earth time passes far more quickly than ship time, and it doesn’t take long for the couple to become unstuck from each other, in both time and space.

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Under the Big Black Sun: A personal history of L.A. punk by John Doe, Tom DeSavina and others

Growing up, I wasn’t punk. I was metal. Punk seemed like a lot more effort: you had to have the right haircut and get the right clothes, and I didn’t have the time, money, or patience for all that. Instead, I just stopped getting my hair cut and eventually acquired a full week’s worth of black concert t-shirts. And boom, I was set. But after reading this book, I’m pretty sure I underestimated the effort required to be part of the punk scene. The whole lifestyle sounds exhausting. But my god, it also sounds like it would have been worth it, as long as I could eventually crawl out with my life. This collection (assembled by John Doe, singer and bassist for my favorite punk band, X) immersed me in the energy, grubbiness, desperation and violence of the late ‘70s / early ‘80s punk scene in Los Angeles, with each story told by someone who was right there in the thick of it. I think the most surprising thing I learned from reading this was that the Go-Go’s were once considered punk. Huh. Who knew?

Since I’m already talking about music, I figure it’s a great opportunity to segue into a feature I’ll be revisiting with some regularity: These Are My Records, in which I write trenchant observations about my record collection. (I like writing about music, but there’s no percentage in trying to be an actual music journalist these days, so I’ll just have to do it here, for free and with no expectations beyond amusing myself and—I hope—entertaining you all.)

These are my records

Juliana Hatfield: Only Everything (1995) and Sleater-Kinney: All Hands On the Bad One (2000)

It’s easy to forget now, but the 1990s were supposed to be the End of History. The threat of sudden nuclear obliteration arriving and raining down on us faster than Domino’s could bring us a pizza—one that we Generation Xers had lived with our entire lives—was suddenly just gone, and in the ten-year interregnum between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Twin Towers, we never quite managed to figure out what we were supposed to do with ourselves.

Juliana Hatfield wasn’t singing about the end of history on her 1995 album Only Everything, but I’ve always thought it neatly captures the overall feel of the moment: Mostly confident but still tentative in places, looking inward instead of out at the broader world, trying to shed the cynicism that by then had come to define her (and my) generation. Her deceptively fragile-sounding voice gives her lyrics a sense of innocence from the first track, but at the same time she is neither too scandalized by your behavior nor too jaded to call you out on your crap in front of everyone. Which she does on the very first track, "What a Life:" Wasted, ruined, tragic 'cause it doesn't have to be like this, she sings, and you can almost see her glaring at Courtney Love and Scott Weiland, crouched together in the back of the room, as if a good public shaming would have made any difference.

There’s not much of a sense of innocence on Sleater-Kinney’s All Hands on the Bad One, recorded just as the '90s were wrapping up and released the following year. By that point, we’d endured boy bands and spice girls and the spectacle of spurious impeachment and three—yes, THREE—World Series wins for the New York @*#%!ing Yankees, so it's little wonder we'd gone right back to being jaded again. It is, however, still an inward-looking album, the difference being that here the focus is on the we instead of the me, one that circles back a few times to the subject of women's roles in the music industry specifically and American society more broadly. It doesn't say much for us as a society that the album's feminist politics still sound very contemporary more than 20 years later.

AHOTBO delivers fourteen tracks pulsing with energy (it helps to have a drummer as good as Janet Weiss) and sonic creativity in just 37 minutes. The band uses a palette that’s markedly different from Hatfield’s to give each track its own distinct identity: where Hatfield relies almost exclusively on her fuzzed-out guitar tone and her fantastic chops, Sleater-Kinney stir things up more, mixing aggro rockers like “Youth Decay” with the dreamlike swirl of “The Swimmer” and the funkier groove and canny harmonies of “Milkshake and Honey.” But even with the diversity of styles on offer, all the songs seamlessly fit within the framework of the album itself and the late '90s ideal of indie-punk rock, and there's not a weakling in the bunch.

Above: Janet Weiss, badass.

Only Everything also clocks in at fourteen songs but drags them out across 51 minutes, which is about four songs and fifteen minutes too long. The ‘90s were the age of the CD, and the pressures to fill as much of the 74 available minutes as possible were very real. But less is more, and this album would have been so much stronger if she’d just dropped the plodders. Dolores O’Riordan and the Cranberries proved with “Zombie” that a droning, downtempo song can still retain enough tension to push it forward. But tracks like “Congratulations” and “Bottles and Flowers” just feel like interminable filler material, and “You Blues” slogs on for five minutes and leaves us wanting less, which is never a good way to end an album. If Hatfield had just kept it to ten or eleven tracks instead, she'd have given the gems more room to shine. And the good songs on Only Everything are really, really good: “Universal Heartbeat” is still a close-to-perfect indie pop romp; “What a Life” and “OK OK” are loud, fast and in-your-face, and “Hang Down from Heaven,” with its delicate, haunting acoustic guitar and whispery layered vocals all giving way to the canonical distorted, head-bobbing chorus, would have made for an ideal closer.

Both of these albums are very much products of their time: a decade that, while not quite idyllic, did feel a lot more hopeful (well, it did to me, anyway) than the one that came before it, or those that have followed. They're also both great indie-punk albums by women trying to shove their way into that boys' club of a music scene at a time when so many of the old rules about how the real world worked suddenly seemed outmoded, even downright dowdy. And since it was supposed to be the End of History, there was no reason why these women (and others like them) couldn't or shouldn't start writing a new one.