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1.    The ole saw, “Show Don’t Tell.”

Every writer—new and seasoned, young and old—has heard this one. It’s industry shorthand for: Use action scenes versus explanation or summary. In other words: Show characters acting, doing things, being in conflict, pushing against self and other, engaging in internal and external tension, arguing, disagreeing, fighting, clashing, etc. In general, this is a good rule. *(My novel The Crew, is probably 85% action scenes.)

However, the truth is it depends on what kind of writing you’re engaged in. If you’re writing action-packed suspense or thriller in the vein of, say, John Grisham or James Patterson or Stephen King, then yes, it’s all about plot and action, scenes and riveting dialogue.

But if you’re writing—dare I say it and sound overtly pretentious and ostentatious—“serious literary fiction” (aka “literature”) then you’re in more complex literary terrain. Read a book such as, say, Paul Auster’s 2023 novel, Baumgartner, or Tom Robbins’ Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, or Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom or The Corrections or Zadie Smith’s Swing Time or Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room or more or less anything by Ottessa Moshfegh, and you’ll see immediately that plot is always trumped, big-time, by character, style, voice, and depth.

If literature can be defined broadly as the search for meaning underneath all phenomena—or the uncovering of what it means to be human—then most solid literary fiction generally focuses more on character and style and meaning than on “plot” per say.

(And of course voice. Nailing your literary voice is perhaps 65% of the battle right there.) Of course this isn’t always the case, and many classic novels have both strong plot and depth/voice/style etc. Consider Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. (Major plot-work mixed with long philosophical asides which last for twenty pages.) So, what I mean to say here is: Editors, writing teachers (a contradiction in terms, in my opinion), MFA programs, and some seasoned authors will say “show don’t tell.” Sure. Often true. But not always. Remember: The best way to become a good writer is by reading often and widely and by writing. Pay attention to what successful novels have already done. Pay more attention to that than to what others may say.

2.    “Kill Your Darlings.”

Yes and no. As a developmental book editor, I admit I’ve said this very thing to many a past client. And it’s often true. But not 100% of the time. “Darlings,” here refer to “purple prose,” aka flowery, glittery, gaudy diction and syntax that makes it sound like you’re trying too hard to sound like a writer, versus just simply writing; doing the damn thing. Darlings are your precious prose you think are genius and which 75% of the time are delete-worthy.

However. Sometimes you get a Michael Chabon, or a Tom Robbins or a Norman Mailer. These are all excellent literary examples of writers who, theoretically, write words and sentences and paragraphs and pages that are filled—ostensibly—with “purple prose,” aka riddled with those grotesque, pesky “darlings.” (Way too many adjectives and adverbs, $100 words galore, etc.)

And yet: We love these authors (at least many of us do). These authors have won Pulitzer Prizes and have changed writing for the better in myriad ways. Yes, most of us will NOT be anything like these genius-giants, and yet, some will have if not the same level of talent, something in the ballfield. Ergo: Yes, as much as I generally love the stripped-down, Hemingway and Carver-obsessed clipped writing, there’s clearly also room for more “darling” writing…if you can make it work. Remember: Writing is filled with rules; first you need to learn those rules and then, if you’re any good, you need to start breaking those rules left and right. Some of our best, most experimental writers did this: Kerouac, Burroughs, Bukowski, etc.

For the full article CLICK HERE

Social Scientist and cultural anthropologist James F. Richardson (PhD) and I sat down and had an interesting conversation about the merits or lack thereof of individualism in contemporary America. We first connected when we swapped books: He read my punk-literary YA novel, The Crew (SoCal punk rock late 1990s, think Dead Poet’s Society meets The Basketball Diaries meets The Breakfast Club) and I read his just-coming-out nonfiction book, Our Worst Strength: American Individualism and its Hidden Discontents. After reading my novel—a tale of extreme individualism—Richardson realized my book could have been a long chapter in his book. So we decided to hash things out. Click HERE for James’s Substack, Homo Imaginari.

The talk lasts an hour. We discuss many things, among them: Our books and lives and how they seem connected; Alcoholism and addiction; American culture compared to other cultures; social group dynamics; individuality; the dissolution of The American Family; the loss of Elders; immigration and assimilation; permissive parenting versus traditional parenting; kids and boundaries; social balance and dialectics; social overcorrections; freedom; college and beyond as young adults; hitting an emotional bottom to affect positive change; therapy: Pros and cons; and more.

My Book:

James’s Book:

Bio, James F. Richardson (from his Substack): “I am a Ph.D. cultural anthropologist who has studied American society for twenty years as a market research consultant. I’ve interviewed Americans in 40 different states and has lived all over the country, including New England, the Chicago-to-Madison corridor, Seattle, and Tucson, Arizona. For nearly three years in the late 1990s, I also lived in South India, studying a very different society than our own. Today, I live with my wife, children, and dogs in sunny Tucson, Arizona, where I write nonfiction and consult with a national client base in the consumer packaged goods industry.”

I started what would become my first novel in 2008, at the ripe age of 25. (The novel was sort of Catcher in the Rye meets The Basketball Diaries meets the Sex Pistols and Ramones; punk kids who get into trouble but love literature and philosophy.) Back then the “novel” was 98% autobiography, more or less a thinly veiled memoir. I was simply laying down my story as I recalled it. Real people. Real names. Real locations.

At the time I was still drinking—something I explore in the novel—and was living in Ocean Beach, the foggy, mellow, druggy neighborhood near the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco.

This was my first stab at writing something book-length. Since 2005—age 22—I’d started journaling, writing bad amateur poetry, and attempting my earliest sketches of what would later become my published short stories and eventually drafts of novels (14 I’ve written so far).

I finished about half of the novel by the time I hit a spiritual bottom and got sober, in the fall of 2010 at the age of 27. Within a month of getting sober I made an impulse choice and moved to Portland, Oregon, where my one sober friend lived. (She’d gotten sober in 2008.) Almost immediately—surging with the adrenaline of creativity—I spent several months feverishly writing all day and all night, in a sort of Hunter S. Thompson trance, until I completed the first [very rough] draft of what was then called The Cannonball Complex in early 2011.

By June, 2011 I was living back in North Oakland. (I lasted a meagre eight months in Portland.) I edited and revised my nascent manuscript, making the classic rookie mistake of sending it out to dozens of literary agents far too prematurely. I didn’t know what I was doing. I hadn’t read any literary agent submission guides. I didn’t grasp how to approach people professionally online. My writing was decent by then but I hadn’t found my literary voice. I didn’t get how to properly plot a book. I didn’t understand character and story ARC. And I didn’t understand, fundamentally, how to transition from a memoir to a novel.

Between 2011 and 2024 (when the book was finally published)—thirteen years—many things happened. I got older and gained more life experience. I interned for a literary agent for nine months who I’d met at the San Francisco Writers’ Conference. I went back to college and got my bachelor’s in creative writing. I began attending writing conferences around the country. Voraciously, I devoured writing how-to books such as Stephen King’s brilliant 2000 memoir On Writing, and Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, as well as Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. My short stories started getting published in little magazines and journals for the first time. I even got paid for my writing. I started making money as a developmental book editor.

In 2016, after many revisions on and off for many years, I finally, for the first time, started getting literary agent interest in my book, whose title had changed from The Cannonball Complex to The Crew. The book had morphed from autobiographical  pseudo-memoir to genuine novel, with much of it made up whole cloth, and some of it only loosely “based” on real people. Over time the book had developed a literary life of its own.

Dozens of agents requested to read part of and even the full manuscript. One agent specifically loved the book and read it not once, not twice but fully three times, sending me long, epic, glowing emails about the book. (Including its powerful voice.) Yet that agent dropped off a digital cliff after that, never to be heard from again. I’d even hired a former Random House acquisitions [freelance] book editor who loved my book and helped me prep it. Said editor declared the book ready after we worked together for six grueling months and she even said if it had landed on her desk while she was at RH she’d have accepted it.

But then that one big agent who read it three times dropped off a cliff, never to be heard from again. This was a big blow. It hurt. I set the book aside for a few years. I tried once more during Covid to send the manuscript out to agents, but got no responses. At last, in 2024 I realized the obvious solution: Self-publishing. Why not? Slowly over time I’d realized that there were fewer and fewer financial and artistic incentives provided by the legacy publishers. Almost always debut authors made very little money, and sometimes nowadays advances were either miniscule or even non-existent.

Generally speaking, as the author, even with a major publishing house, you had to do most if not all of the legwork when it came to book tours, promotion, reviews, etc. Not only that but artistically-speaking you possessed little to no control over your book cover and how the book was promoted if it was at all by said publisher.

I’d already crossed the writing threshold of non-traditional publishing when I started writing on Substack in August, 2022. Why not go the extra distance and self-publish my first novel?

The Crew had gone from 98% autobiographical to about 50%, perhaps less. It had become, over the course of sixteen years—2008 to 2024—a serious novel, with all the elements I’d wanted in it.  Countless professionals in the book industry, from literary agents to publicists to editors and famous authors, had pronounced the book solid. Many of them had even connected me to important people. And yet: Ultimately to no avail. What I learned along the way was that writing a book is not simple, nor easy, nor always fun. It’s staggeringly slow, hard, challenging work. And it ultimately falls on YOU to do the work. No publisher can make or break you, or very rarely at least, especially in 2024.

There was also the matter of political bias and ideology which had permeated the traditional book world. My book was about male white upper-middleclass (oh my!) punk rock kids in the year 2000 who talked like kids of that era talked. Some agents over the years had tried to get me to change the year to more contemporary times, to give the kids cell phones, to add in more feminism, a non-white character, etc. But I was never interested in any of that. My goal was translating raw life experience into Art. I did not believe then and I do not believe now that true Art should ever suffer from dictated ideological goals, whether from the Right or the Left.

This is why I write on Substack. This is why I chose self-publishing. Control falls to me, the author, not to agents or publishers with agendas outside the realm of Art. Reviews are coming in. People seem to really like the book. Teachers are reaching out to me to potentially teach the book at the high school level. The protagonist is 16.


Michael Mohr

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