Seriously, it’s not a good idea.
Seriously, it’s not a good idea.
They made me what I am.
I mean that in the most literal way. They built my skeleton and printed a body around it. They selected every gene in my DNA. They put a chip inside my brain and programmed it with the information that they thought I needed to know.
They made me female, and dark-skinned, and small, because they thought that would make me weak and vulnerable. They put a navy-blue uniform on me and told me to obey orders because they thought that would make me compliant and dependent. They fed me lie after lie about our mission and our fate because they thought that would make me one of them.
They were wrong.
Now I’m doing the things they never wanted me to do–thinking for myself, and asking questions. What are we really doing aboard this starship? Where are we really going? Was that last message from Earth really just meaningless gibberish?
I am going to find out the answers. Not just because I’m curious, and not just because I literally have nothing else to do for the next fifty years and am dying of boredom. I want to know who I am. Am I a naval officer on a colonization mission to a distant planet? Or am I a prisoner paying for a crime I never committed?
I don’t know what the answers are. Yet. But I know one thing: they’re not going to push Karen Boyd around anymore.
* This is an entry in a Chuck Wendig fiction contest thingy.
One of my best-loved books is Some Can Whistle, by Larry McMurtry. The book’s protagonist is plagued by migraines. McMurtry likens the migraines to as Apache Indian, lurking on the vast Texas prairie, waiting for a weak moment to strike and bury his tomahawk in the soft brain-meat of the headache sufferer.
I don’t have migraines. I work for an under-funded non-profit in Trenton by-God New Jersey, providing legal services to poor people with disabilities who don’t have other options. I have six-year-old twin daughters. I have a punch list of things to do on my house that is taller than I am. I don’t need migraine headaches. What I have are Apaches.
These are—for want of a better term—story Apaches. They lurk around every corner, and they show up unexpectedly and brandish their long spears and weapons and demand attention. The only way to make them go away forever is to imprison them in my battered Dell laptop as pixels in Microsoft Word.
Sometimes this is an easy process. One Saturday afternoon when my kids were little and my wife had taken them to her mom’s house in South Jersey, and I had nothing to do, and a story Apache jumped me while I was making a sandwich. I had a half-assed idea of doing a parody of the New York Times travel section for McSweeney’s, and the story Apache jumped in my head and said one word—“Tralfamadore”—and it was on like Donkey Kong.
Sometimes this is a difficult process. I have a long-term idea about an alcoholic reclusive detective living in a seedy row house in Trenton who has the paranormal power to find lost things. (I came up with the idea after reading about St. Anthony of Padua, to whom Catholics pray to find things that are lost.) I decided that the story wouldn’t work because of the obvious reason that there aren’t many stories you can tell when the main character is functionally omniscient. But the story Apache is still there, and shows up occasionally, because I haven’t bothered to kill him.
That is the simplest reason why I write. I have odd ideas stuck in my head, and they show up at odd times and torment me, and the only way I can dispatch them is to write them down. It’s not an act of creation; it’s an act of exorcism.
I don’t think that why I write is anywhere near as interesting a topic as why I publish. Anyone can write, and does. Why do we want to get the things we write into the market?
Probably the one thing that I’ve written in my life that the most people have read was my McSweeney’s piece where I wrote about fictional drugs that enhance literary performance. (Like Orwellbutrin, which was a known dystopian agent, ha ha ha.) It was basically a list of jokes making fun of authors, and it got shared to the NPR Facebook site, and you can’t ask for more exposure than that.
In the first draft of the piece, I made a joke about Oprah Winfrey, and so I decided to follow that up with a joke about Jonathan Franzen, because why not. And when I submitted it, the Franzen joke got cut. This was, my McSweeney’s editor explained, because Dave Eggers is friends with Franzen and didn’t want to explain to him why some dumb guy writing for McSweeney’s was cracking jokes about him. This may be the highlight of my literary career, and if that’s true I don’t like to think about it much.
I have had very, very little success in my career as a writer. I’ve written two novels and one short story collection, and they have done very well for a self-published author, which is like being the prettiest cow in the slaughterhouse. I’m not sure, from day to day, whether I am going to keep trying or not. But I know why I want to try, which is pure unadulterated egomania. I want good reviews. I want the respect of my literary colleagues. I want just enough public acclaim to make me feel good about myself but not enough where I’m not able to wander around the local Shop-Rite in Crocs and jean-shorts and a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt without getting accosted. I want my kids to be proud that their Daddy is a writer. I would like enough money to continue living my comfortable suburban existence without the annoyance of my daily commute into a crumbling post-industrial wasteland but not enough money to where I have to hire security guards to keep the Beagle Boys from robbing my McDuckian money pit.
I think that’s what a lot of people want. The thing about writing is that, if you’re good enough, and enough people read your stuff and give you money, you can achieve that. I can’t get that kind of money and fame from athletics or acting or dancing or singing or politics or business or soft-core pornography, because I don’t have interests or talent in any of these areas. I do have at least a modest writing talent (he said, after just confessing to being an egomaniac) and a definite compulsion to write down stories, and there now exists the independent-publishing structure to get my books into the market (or at least the Amazon part of the market) so that I at least have the chance of getting the kind of success I would like to have.
And if the first two books haven’t gotten me the success I would like (and they haven’t) that’s okay. The story Apaches are still out there. They can deliver me another great idea for a new book, and maybe this one will be better and I’ll have a little better luck with it. (I am comforted by the idea that the next one can’t do worse, it’s not possible.) At any rate, that’s what I’m hoping for, and that’s why I write.
— Curtis Edmonds is the author of RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY, WREATHED, and LIES I HAVE TOLD, all available exclusively on Amazon. This article is written in response to a story prompt on the Chuck Wendig blog.
My new short story collection, LIES I HAVE TOLD, is already our most profitable book at Scary Hippopotamus Books. It has sold three copies and earned a dollar. I did not spend any money on editors (didn’t really need to). I did all the proofreading and did my own cover design and smacked it into shape for your Kindle. I haven’t spent any money on publicity or promotions, and probably won’t. Of course, all of this took a great deal of my time, but it has not taken a great deal of money, because my time isn’t worth all that much.
But that got me thinking: just how profitable has all of this been, really? Here’s the breakdown per book.
|2012||Calligraphy for Book Dedication||$25|
|2013||Formatting for e-book and print book||$164.38|
|2013||Print copies for promotion||$179.18|
|2013||Postage (for print promotions)||$87.95|
|2013||Formatting for EPUB||$21.69|
|2014||Print copies for promotion||$119.11|
Just a few notes here. This doesn’t include some start-up costs for Scary Hippopotamus Books (logo design and ISBN numbers). It also doesn’t include the writers’ conference I went to in 2012 to pitch the book. And, yes, a lot of these choices were ill-advised–I am sort of embarrassed that I spent money on BookRooster, and I wouldn’t pay to have any future books formatted.
|TOTAL LOSS FOR RoYWD||$1738.26|
And, yet, it gets worse. Oh, does it get worse.
|2014||Print Copies for Promotions||$165.60|
So that’s not too terrible, was it? I didn’t spend money anywhere near as stupidly as I did before, unless you count NetGalley, which did get me some reviews, but a LOT fewer than I thought I would get–certainly not a good deal if you count dollar-per-review. “Live and learn,” as my father says, “die and forget it all.”
|TOTAL LOSS FOR RoYWD||$3598.13|
And yet–and yet–that is not our LEAST profitable book. DESIGN FOR HAPPINESS cost almost $450 for the cover art, and I’ve made $3.50 off selling ten copies. (It was never designed to be profitable, and I like the cover art a great deal, but I shouldn’t have spent the money on it.)
I look at the sales figures for WREATHED and I want to throw up. I know, intellectually, why it is not doing so well–it is kind of an odd duck in a romance market where readers aren’t necessarily looking for odd ducks. I know a lot of it has to do with the whole indie-publishing model going into decline, which has nothing specifically to do with me. And I know that I’m only one BookBub promotion away from some real sales. It’s just that, now, it’s very painful to me that I’m not doing better. I want to do better. I know it’s early days yet, and there is a lot of hard work ahead of me–I haven’t done everything I could have been doing to promote the book these last few months. But, honestly, I thought I’d be making a profit by now, and I’m not, and it doesn’t feel good.
Thanks. It’s an honor to be here.
Your new book, LIES I HAVE TOLD, comes out on April 1.
Yes. I’m very excited about it. It’s not every day that you get to have a book published, you know. It’s a life changing experience.
Seriously, though, dude. April 1.
I mean, you’re not publishing a book on April Fool’s Day. No one is going to believe it’s really a book. It might say “fart” on every page. Or something else stupid like that.
Oh, no. I wouldn’t do that. I actually went through and made sure that there weren’t any fart jokes. I do use some curse words, but that’s because I did a Gordon Ramsay spoof and you can’t very well do a Gordon Ramsay spoof if you can’t use curse words, can you. Can. You.
I don’t believe you.
I don’t care what you believe. This is my book. It’s a short-story collection of funny pieces. You can totally buy it on Amazon. It’s a real book, and it’s only 99 cents. Well, I mean, it’s an e-book. If you don’t think e-books are “real” then it isn’t “real”. But it’s as real as an e-book gets.
You just want us to think that.
No! Seriously! This is a funny book, and people do funny jokes on April Fool’s Day, so, you know, synergy! I would never try and fool anyone by putting out a fake book. That would be stupid.
That is EXACTLY what someone would say if they were putting out a fake book. You’re not fooling anyone, Mr. April Fooler, you.
Okay, look. This is what happened. For reasons that are, um, well, both really, really stupid and also too boring to explain here, I had to transmogrify my personal website into something less interesting, which means that the flash-fiction stuff I had up there had to be deleted, and rather than delete perfectly good content, I decided to aggregate it all together into Kindle format. I even designed the cover. So anyone can buy the book, and I get thirty-four cents every time someone does that. It’s a win-win!
You are a tricky tricker who is just tricking us. There is no book. There never was a book. You are just playing an idiotic practical joke.
I am not! I am just a struggling writer with a day job trying to sell a short story collection! I’m not trying to fool anyone, really! All you have to do is buy the book and you’ll see that it’s real!
A likely story.
I just… I’m sorry. I thought it was a good idea to put out a book that day. I can see why people might think it’s a joke, or a ruse, or something like that. But it isn’t. I just… want people to read my stuff, okay? Is that so wrong? Does that make me a bad person?
It kind of does.
No, it doesn’t.
Yes, it does.
No, it doesn’t.
Yes, it does.
It was seven o’clock on a Tuesday evening, and I was stuck at the office. I had been working ten hours a day since my last vacation, four months ago. This was just as pathetic as it sounds. I could have been having a nice dinner with friends, or using my long-neglected gym membership, or even sitting on my couch in my pajamas watching real estate shows. But I wasn’t. I was at my desk, staring at a computer screen, engaged in the necessary but mind-draining and butt-numbing chore of proofreading legal documents. Just another fun-filled day in the life of Wendy Jarrett, Attorney at Law.
The advantage of working this late was that it minimized distractions. But after three straight hours reading page after page of legal boilerplate, I found myself glancing at my phone, hoping that it might generate a distraction or two. Maybe an old friend from college was in town for the evening and wanted to hang out. Maybe a cute guy had seen me walking across the courthouse square this afternoon and was about to text me and to take me out for drinks and conversation and maybe a little romance. Maybe the anonymous creeper I had been dominating in Words With Friends over the last month was secretly a gorgeous billionaire who was waiting downstairs to whisk me away to a life of luxury and ease. None of these potential distractions were, shall we say, realistic, but at that particular moment anything had to be better than sitting all by myself in an empty law office in Morristown, New Jersey, and comparing two separate sixty-page wills for typos and inconsistencies.
I did get a distraction in the form of a phone call from my mother. That could only mean that something horrible had happened.
I do my best to keep in touch with my mother, but that means that I’m the one who has to call her nearly every single time. This is partly because she has a misplaced sense of old-money frugality about long-distance phone calls, but mostly it is her passive-aggressive way of getting me to communicate with her more frequently. So I call her on alternate Sunday afternoons, unless I’m on vacation, or unless I’m snowed under with work, or unless I drank so much chardonnay the night before that I lose the ability to claw my way out of bed. We have a nice little conversation, which occasionally touches on topics of parental concern such as why I drink so much chardonnay. Then I hang up, and she hangs up, and that’s it for parent-child communication for another fortnight.
The only reason my mother ever breaks this pattern and calls me is if something horrible has happened. I couldn’t imagine another reason why she would call me at work at seven in the evening on a random weekday. It meant that someone was in the hospital, or someone was dead, or aliens from Alpha Centauri had landed in central New Jersey looking for Orson Welles. And the only way to find out the nature of this particular disaster was to pick up the phone.
I looked at the phone. I looked at my computer screen. Whatever it was that had gone so badly off the rails that it had prompted Mother to call me couldn’t be that much worse than having to read another line of boring legalese. I picked up the phone.
“Hi, Mom,” I said, not without some trepidation.
“Hi yourself,” she said. “Are you at work? I tried calling you at home, but the call went to voicemail.”
“Yes, I’m still at work. I have clients coming in tomorrow for an estate-planning meeting and I’m just proofreading the new version of their wills to make sure everything matches up.”
“So you haven’t eaten,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
“I have a hot date with a frozen dinner.”
“I know you’re busy, dear daughter, but could I impose on you to take me out to dinner? Nothing on today’s menu is looking good to me.”
My mother lived in an exclusive senior community in central New Jersey, about twenty miles south of Morristown. “Senior community,” for most people, means a place where you warehouse old people and make them play shuffleboard and serve them gray institutional meals. This place was more upscale, with organized bus tours and nature walks and what I guess you could call a political action committee. And the food, at least to hear my mother talk about it, was impressive. They served healthy, nutritionally balanced meals that were accompanied by gooey cheesecakes and crispy apple strudels and large, soft mounds of ice cream. I had never, not once, heard my mother issue even the smallest complaint about the food, which was so unlike her that I suspected that the kitchen staff had developed an amazing magical cooking prowess unknown to the rest of humanity. I wished I knew their secret—not so much because I wanted to learn how to cook, but because I wanted to know how to insulate myself from maternal criticism.
“Are you feeling all right?” I asked.
“Of course, dear. Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s just that this seems kind of an unusual time for you to call me, that’s all. I thought something might be wrong.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” she said. “I just can’t bear the sight of my fellow residents here for another minute, and I don’t feel like imposing on your sister right at the moment.” When Mother retired, she’d moved to the same town where my older sister, Pacey, and her husband and twin sons lived. Pacey has many fine qualities, but she’s not much of a cook, and I could understand why Mother would rather have me take her out to a restaurant instead.
“As much as I would like to join you for dinner, I’m right in the middle of something,” I said. “If I stop now, I am going to obsess over it all night and then have to start all over in the morning from the beginning.”
“Wendy, please listen to your mother for once. Whatever these people are paying you, they are not paying you enough to sit around and proofread paperwork at seven in the evening.”
I thought about explaining, once again, the economics of law firm billing, but I kept my mouth shut. One of my mother’s less endearing qualities is the ability to filter out explanations for things that she does not want explained to her. That encompasses any excuses I might have for not going out to dinner with her when she wanted to go out to dinner with me.
“All right,” I said. “You caught me at a weak moment. Let me close up everything here and I’ll be there in half an hour or so. Think about where you want to go eat.”
“That would be lovely.”
This all sounds too easy, I thought. Something else must be going on, or there is some ulterior motive she’s not telling me about. I had no idea what it could be but at least I wouldn’t have to eat that rubbery microwave lasagna that had been hanging in the back of my freezer for months.
“OK,” I said. “See you in a few.”
Five minutes later, I pulled my Audi out of the parking garage, made my way through Morristown, and headed south on the highway. Traffic was sparse, so I shifted gears and merged into the fast lane, passing the slow-moving trucks like so many barges in the wake of a speedboat. Not that I had a speedboat. I had a ten-year-old German convertible and a studio apartment and a giant heaving mound of debt from law school.
The Audi was not my first choice. My first choice had been a MetroCard, and a small apartment in a good neighborhood in Manhattan. After graduation, I’d spent four months looking for a job with a Wall Street law firm. My plan was to work my way up to the kind of job and the kind of office that Michael Douglas had in Wall Street. I’d been in two great summer associates’ programs in 2007 and 2008, and I imagined I was well on my way up the glittering path to a rewarding career, easy money, and a cute boyfriend who looked like a young Charlie Sheen but who didn’t do drugs or sell out small regional airlines in insider trading scams. But the economy cratered during my last year in law school, and all of the smart, engaging, helpful people I’d met in Manhattan during my summer programs were too busy trying to keep themselves afloat to help me get a job. Then I made the stupid mistake of taking the New York and New Jersey bar exams at the same time—and when I passed New Jersey but failed New York, I ended up stuck looking for work on the wrong side of the Hudson.
The best job I could find was with a boutique firm in Morristown, doing wills and estate planning. I was lucky to get the job in the first place, and I was lucky to still have it five years later. I gave up on Manhattan and the small apartment in the good neighborhood and the MetroCard. I found an apartment five minutes from my office, and a used convertible with a hairline crack in the windshield and a big chip of paint missing on the trunk lid.
I didn’t need the car and I didn’t need the additional debt that went along with it. But if I couldn’t live in Manhattan, I at least wanted to be able to cruise down Seventh Avenue or the Jersey Shore or a narrow country road in the Poconos. I wanted the freedom to drive away as far and as fast as I could go anytime the mood struck. For the first couple of years, it worked out all right. But lately, I spent more and more of my weekends stretched out on my couch, catching up on sleep or work or whatever else was more important than getting in my car and driving somewhere and having fun. Worse, even if I did find the energy to drive somewhere and have fun, I didn’t have anyone to have fun with.
I kept the Audi in high gear until it was time to decide whether to exit off the highway and keep driving somewhere else. I wanted to keep dodging traffic until I had outrun all my problems. But I knew it wouldn’t work, and anyway, I was hungry. I pulled off the highway and made my way south.