“The Nudist Writer”

underwood_nude_1910sIt should come as no surprise by now that I choose to live my life sans clothing. Naked is my default state. I long for the day when I can be free from the branding of Polo and Ralph Lauren. I only feel myself when I am wearing nothing.

But far more important to me is writing. I eat, drink and breathe storytelling. On many occasions I have gotten out of bed with a plot in my head. From the time I was six, I have been coming up with adventures, and that was thirty-seven years ago. Story matters. As Ursula K LeGuin put it, “We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel … is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.”

While Mark Twain famously advised to “write what you know,” LeGuin said, in response, that she writes about dragons because what she knows is dragons. Fantasy storytellers draw from personal experience while adding from the fruits of their imagination. Herman Melville tapped into his experiences on a whaling ship to create Moby Dick. In the same way, I know what it’s like to leave my clothes behind to explore the woods, to search rocky shorelines without a stitch to my name, to socialize without body taboos. I have also experienced the sense of shame imposed upon me by those who would judge my lifestyle as perverse or just plain weird, as have my naked heroes, Xandr and Thelana.


Nudism informs my writing, even when my characters don’t think the way I do. Shame is a universal trait, and I would be a poor writer to neglect it. But what we wear, or don’t, is a big part of who we are. It is entrenched in our history and religion, and reflects strongly upon our values. A society’s attitude toward the human body speaks volumes about that society. Do they consider themselves a part of the animal hierarchy or apart from it? Do they shun the physical world, and the senses associated with it, or seek a more spiritual reality? Answering these questions provides a fictional world of greater richness and realism.

Having a unique perspective, we are told, is a good thing. But unlike atheism, LGBTQ+ or even, if Fifty Shades is any indication, bondage porn, I increasingly get the sense that nudism is just too different. Time and again, agents have rejected Ages of Aenya on the grounds that the concept isn’t “trending.” When I attempted to advertise my novel via social media, both Facebook and Twitter called the book, with its innocent cover of Thelana, “sex services.” Even Barnes & Nobles shied away from my offer to host a signing event, despite the many racier covers adorning their shelves. It would seem nudity is OK, but only in a sexual context.


Sex services. Obviously.

It isn’t as though our sense of touch is entirely alien. Who doesn’t enjoy sunshine on their bare skin? A hot shower? Cool bedsheets after a session of lovemaking? Advertisers, all the while, continually use words like “nude” and “naked” to suggest their products are honest and all-natural. Clearly, nakedness is a good thing, and on some deep level we all know this.


The nude archetype persists in our subconscious. We all wish for the same confidence, strength and beauty embodied by the heroic nude. It is an expression that has been with us since the Ancient Greeks, and continues to this day in the form of the superhero, who is all but nude but for the coloring of the skin, and in ESPN’s celebration of athletes.


The heroic nude in modern times

We are simultaneously repulsed and attracted by the human form. This dichotomy, I believe, stems from an overemphasis on demographics. Fiction must be placed either in the Children, Adult, or YA sections, and nudity can never fall into any category but porn, because in our modern world nudity = porn. And it should be noted here, that DC’s recent adult comic, Batman: Damned, showcasing Bruce’s penis for the first time, is far from a nudist portrayal, as his genitals are made the emphasis of the panel, existing for no other purpose but to shock.


Enlightened heroines are expected to wear full plate armor, without so much as hinting at the female shape beneath. This is considered progress, an improvement over the hyper sexualized covers of the 60s and 70s, and likely the reason Thelana isn’t trending. But it is progress leading to a more sterilized world, where neither sex is recognized. Equality could just as well have been achieved by giving the female hero agency, and stripping the male of equal parts clothing. Gone are the gods and heroes of church ceilings and museum walls, the renderings of mankind so proudly and masterfully born of the hands of Leonardo and Michelangelo, and this to me is a tragedy, because in censoring how we portray others, we turn every person into a potential object, a thing to satisfy our most basic urges.


The modern heroine

This isn’t to say women in chainmail bikinis are preferable. On the contrary, Brienne of Tarth, and Netflix’ She-Ra, is a welcome change. What I am saying, rather, is that a woman need not be objectified, regardless of what she is or isn’t wearing, and that we need not choose between our sexuality and our humanity. In our current MeToo generation, we pretend to have matured beyond smut, while creating secret identities to wallow in the worst of PornHub. Instead of learning to express our desires in meaningful, honest and healthy ways, or reaching out to better understand the opposite sex, we have chosen to don the facade of robots devoid of passion. This societal schism, this partitioning of people into categories, cannot lead to a better world. More than anything, we need the heroic nude, our David and Heracles, our Mowgli and Tarzan and John Carter and, dare I say, our Xandr. We must embrace role models that embody the full gamut of what it means to be human, sexuality and all.


Fantasy covers of the 70s

I am a nudist and a writer, and my fear is that I will be pigeonholed, that my work will be confined to an esoteric niche group. After all, we don’t typically call people gay writers, or Catholic writers, or Japanese writers—or by any other aspects of their identity—unless that identity becomes a focal point of their work, “feminist writer,” for example. Still, nudism is far from a fetish. It addresses a much broader spectrum that includes feminism and environmentalism, and it speaks to our most revered cultural values. While you may not see Sam Harris or Jordan Peterson debating the merits of nudism any time soon, it should be noted that they both conform closely to societal norms, of not simply wearing clothes, but wearing very specific types of clothing. Whether it’s President Trump or Barack Obama, Ken Ham or Neil deGrasse Tyson, ties and jackets are mandatory if one is to take your arguments seriously. This only goes to show how entrenched body taboos have become in our world. But while my upcoming second and third novels will have no naked heroes in it, to shy away from calling myself a nudist would betray everything I am, and rob the literary landscape from a rarely heard voice. Like Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman and Robert Heinlein, all of whom shared nudist proclivities, I stand outside of convention, and challenge the status-quo. I am Xandr standing at the gates of Hedonia, calling out against hypocrisy, searching for the lost innocence of Ilmarinen.

Aenya Newsletter 5/31/2017

Greetings Aenya fans! First, let me apologize for my long absence. For the past few months, I have been working diligently at completing the final, final (hopefully) edit of Ages of Aenya, with the help of my brilliant and insightful editor, Ava Coibion. Honestly, I won’t be changing another word unless a publisher insists upon it.

Overall, Ava’s enthusiasm has greatly stirred my long dormant feelings for the story and its characters, to see the adventures of Xandr and Thelana with fresh, new eyes. More importantly, she has helped me realize that the book is really up to par, that it deserves its place on every bookstore shelf.

After going through all 170,000 words, Ava forwarded Ages of Aenya to a well-known fantasy author (as in, his books frequent Barnes & Nobles top shelves). While I cannot yet divulge his name, here is what she wrote,


The novel is titled “Ages of Aenya” and includes elements of time travel, utopian societies vs. warring ones, mythical creatures and history, good against greed, civilizations gone awry, prophecy … Two of the main characters come from a now-extinct woodland society where they lived harmoniously and innocently and now the couple has to face all kinds of peril. They grow together as a couple though their relationship gets challenged in some unique ways. Nature and science figure in to the text really nicely … the book, overall, is really well balanced. Much like your Alice series, this book has the emotional range that a lot of fantasy/sci-fi does not. I edit a lot of stuff, and this book really had me hooked.


Ava and I are hoping for his help, because in the publishing world, the name of the game is knowing the right people. At the very least, he can shoot me a blurb to slap on the back cover.

Either way, I am more confident than ever that the Aenya series can find an audience, and that’s what the book business is all about. It’s not about satisfying every reader, but a sizable number who will find what I do enjoyable. I am sure many will think it garbage, but just visit Amazon’s comment section and you’ll find people who think Harry Potter is utter trash, and Song of Ice and Fire is boring, or that The Lord of the Rings is poorly written. It’s not the haters that matter, but the lovers that make sales, and the job of the successful writer is to find those lovers.

Should Ava’s author friend choose not to endorse me, you (dear reader) will still be seeing Ages of Aenya in your hands, hopefully before the end of this year, as I will be continuing my original plan to self-publish. I am only holding off on it at Ava’s request, who feels the book is sure to win over agents. But if I do end up going the original route, I feel far better about it, as the online world has changed significantly since 2004. Thanks to the web, entertainment media is becoming more and more independent. YouTube stars make as much, if not more money than people on TV, with production quality that is often superior. Kickstarter offers a flood of new, independent board games, which are more fun to play than anything at Toys-R-Us or at hobby stores (Cards Against Humanity, anyone)? And the three biggest console giants, Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony, have all embraced independent gaming. It all points to the death of the old age stigma, that if something doesn’t come from a big name company, it must be worthless.

On the fictional front, going over the novel has helped me realize the potential for an Ages of Aenya sequel. This is something I have been sitting on since 2006, because I could not be certain anyone would ever get their hands on the first in the series. I was also reluctant, because of the excessive nudity in the book. I wasn’t sure the world was ready for all-nude heroes, and in retrospect, I feel that Xandr and Thelana, in 2004, may have been too ahead of their time. The world looks quite different now. Today we have shows like Naked & Afraid and Naked Dating; and HBO’s Westworld features so much casual nudity, an Ages of Aenya mini-series seems well within the realm of possibility. Even celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Kim Kardashian and Orlando Bloom can post full-frontal selfies on social media without scandal.

Perhaps more importantly, naturism is slowly growing synonymous with feminism. Emma Watson vehemently defended her feminist cred after posing for a magazine where part of her boob is showing, stating, “What do my boobs have to do with feminism?” and Patty Jenkins, director of Wonder Woman, argued in favor of the first cinematic female superhero’s choice of thigh-revealing attire.


OK, maybe I dwell too much on what my heroes are wearing. Either way, Ava didn’t find Thelana offensive at all, and that’s encouraging, as the Ilmar, in true naturist fashion, choose to forgo clothing for the entirety of the novel. The working title is, The Naked Gods, and will feature heavily revised scenes from both The Skyclad Warriors and The City of the Drowned.

Thelana 2016 by Lipatov

Thelana: Your Time Has Come

Finally, I have not forgotten my other big project, The Children of Aenya, or Lilliea’s and Rose’ Adventures through the Hub of All Worlds. It’s going to be a fun adventure story for a wider age group, something both my kids and long time readers can enjoy. Of course, I cannot devote the next two years to writing without exploring the themes I feel most passionate about. In this case, I will be exploring the sense of wonder that comes with childhood, how that shapes and motivates our lives. I will also be dwelling on belief, imagination and fact, and the interplay between them. Or in other words, between magic and science, and how they differ with regards to our perceptions. I think this may be of particular significance given our current political climate, as the very idea of truth seems to be under attack. Sounds like heady stuff, I know, but there’ll be no shortage of crazy monsters, jaw-dropping locales, and of course, characters you will want to call your friends.


Aenya News Update 3/26/2016


Radia by Selene Regener

It’s finally finished! After two and a half years of writing, I am proud to say I have a completed draft of the latest in the Aenya series, The Princess of Aenya. Call me melodramatic, but it’s nice knowing I have two “good” books under my belt, so if I die suddenly, I will have left something on this planet to be discovered. Pending a final edit, the word count stands at (c) 125,000 (roughly the length of Tolkien’s The Return of the King), which is quite a bit shorter than my previous book, Ages of Aenya, at around 170+k. Unlike AoA, Princess is a simpler story, but that’s not to say it’s inferior. I like to think of it like Peter S. Beagle’s, The Last Unicorn, from which I have drawn a great deal of inspiration. I wanted to write a fantasy novel that not only captivates the imagination, but has something meaningful to say about life. The very best fiction, IMO, does this. And I aspire to do the same.

Of course, I couldn’t have done it without the help and encouragement of my three beta readers, my wife, Hynde, my good friend, David Pasco, and, strangely enough, someone who contacted me out of the blue, Tobias Tholken, who lives in Germany. When I asked Tobias why he chose to take this journey with me, he said simply that he was a lover of good fantasy, not the cookie cutter, mass-produced kind littering so many bookshelves today. I was honored to know he regarded my work in the same vein as some of the German classics we both adore, like Michael Ende’s The Never Ending Story (another inspiration, incidentally). Truly, amid the glut of sprawling, sword and sorcery world-building epics, there must be a scarcity of meaningful fantasy for him to have reached out to me. At any rate, I cannot thank Hynde, David and Tobias enough. They have definitely earned their place on the book’s Acknowledgment Page!


Amalthea the unicorn, courtesy of my daughter

So what’s next? Well, naturally, I feel that a book like this deserves its spot in every bookstore in America, perhaps the world. The hard part is convincing an agent or an editor to read it. There is this misconception that there’s a guy someplace, reading every submission from cover to cover, tossing manuscripts into either the rejection pile or the approval pile. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. But even if I could get someone to read it, they might decide there aren’t enough vampires, zombies, or moody teenagers to warrant publication. Bookselling is all about making money, and the only formula publishers seem to understand is “if it worked before, it will work again.” Why do you suppose Superman is looking so much like Batman, after The Dark Knight became the third highest grossing film of all time? Such formulaic thinking is, sadly, anathema to art. If you’re writing bondage erotica for the express purpose of capitalizing on the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, sorry, you’re not an artist. This is not to say, however, that artistic endeavors cannot be lucrative. In fact, it is usually the most inspired books that become global sensations. Few thought Harry Potter, which was deemed too long for a kid’s book, would ever succeed. Now, because of Rowling, we have an entire ‘YNA’ section at Barnes & Nobles, right next to the ‘bondage’ category. The problem for publishers/producers is that they simply cannot predict what the next big new thing will be, precisely because it is *new*. As a lover and promoter of great fiction, however, I maintain the belief that a good story will find its way into the hands of readers. Gone are the days of Emily Dickinson and John Kennedy Toole, whose beautiful works were only discovered upon their deaths.


Zaibos courtesy of David Pasco

As my dutiful wife goes about sending out queries (because I do not have the heart or the stomach for it) I will be turning my attention to new fiction. There are a number of short stories I have been meaning to write, for the heck of it mostly, though winning a contest would be nice. I also have a stack of books to read. Long ago, I was taught to be wary of reading fiction while writing it, because the style of the author tends to creep into your own. So for the past year, I’ve been devouring a lot of non-fiction, like Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, Islam and the Future of Tolerance, and Waking Up. I also read Bill Nye’s Unstoppable, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Heretic, Bob Ripley’s Life Beyond Belief, and I am finishing up (trying to understand, at any rate) Lawrence M. Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing. Sounds like heady stuff, but it’s actually easier, for me, than reading George R.R. Martin and having to wonder, “do I measure up?” Either way, good writers have to be voracious readers! Even non-fiction helps, for how can I write sufficiently about a subject I know nothing about, lest I limit myself to, God forbid—restaurant management?


Nessus courtesy of David Pasco

But what does the future hold for Aenya? Glad you asked! Eventually, I am going to start on The Children of Aenya (are you detecting a theme here?). Like PoA, it is going to be another spin-off, because, like Harry Potter and The Hobbit and Star Wars, which were each wrapped up neatly, I do not want to invest time on a sequel to a book nobody has read. I would also like to write a novel that my kids can enjoy, who are now 11 and 5. Don’t worry, it won’t be too kiddie, but more along the lines of the fourth Harry Potter and subsequent installments. I’ll simply be omitting the sex, nudity, torture, and the extreme violence (all the good stuff, basically). The main characters will be children, after all, with an older supporting cast. And it will play on multiple levels. In Princess of Aenya, I explored the dichotomies between good and evil, compassion and cruelty, and an idealistic worldview from a more cynical one. With Children of Aenya, I would like to explore the wonder of childhood, and how that wonder connects to the biggest questions we can ask about life and our place in the universe.



Demacharon courtesy of David Pasco

To give you an idea, the main character, Lilliea, is a 12 year old ‘apprentice astronomer.’ I picture her stargazing on the roof of her house, with a picnic blanket, a plate of biscuits and a small telescope, and a mind full of questions. The best part is, I will be employing my actual 12 yo daughter, who will be contributing concept sketches soon to be seen here!


Olympia Publishers and the Art of the Soft Scam (Updated 2018)

Nobody has time for yours.

This post was going to be something else entirely, a celebration. My wife and I received a positive response from a publisher, and the other night, we made a special toast at P.F. Chang’s, “To passing the second gate!” See, there are three main obstacles to getting your book in stores. First, your query letter has to catch the eye of an agent or publisher. This is the first gate. If they are interested, they will ask you for a synopsis and three sample chapters, and if the powers-that-be are impressed, they’ll request the complete manuscript, and this is what had us thrilled. “It looks legit!” my wife said, after looking over the company website and checking out their book covers, many of which are quite professional looking. That company is Olympia Publishers, based in the U.K.

At one point, I thought, “Hey, all the best writers are from the U.K.!” Which, for me at least, is true. I went through my shelf, picking out my favorites, originally published in the U.K., like Harry Potter and Cloud Atlas and Never Let Me Go. Yessir, I thought, the British know good literature when they see it! 

A cursory examination into their company revealed a small press, which rang a few alarm bells, but I rationalized, “Hey, they’re taking a chance on an unknown, so why not give them a chance? Maybe I can help put them on the map!” After all, smaller companies are more willing to take risks, whereas the mega-publishers, like Tor and Bantam, are often too homogenized, afraid to try new and different things. Ages of Aenya isn’t your typical rogue/elf/dragon story, and I needed a company with the balls to sell it. Then, when I sat down with my wife to print a hardcopy to send to them, I decided to do a little more research.      

The thing about scams these days is that they don’t look like what you see on TV. Nobody is going to sell you a box of rocks and run off laughing with your money. Just like consumers, scammers have wizened up. They know how easy it is to Google them before you give out your credit card, and so now we have the soft scam, and the best (or worst) part is, it’s not illegal, because what you hope to be getting is never explicitly stated, only implied. I experienced this in 2000, after exhaustively researching self-publishing, and a company called Xlibris. Now, it’s not as if Xlibris gave me nothing in return for my money. In fact, the print quality of their books is superb, and in many cases superior to those sold in stores. But the headliner on their website reads, “Write your success story!” They imply fame and fortune, but what they don’t tell you is that none of their authors have ever managed it. Could it happen? I don’t doubt it, but the chances are so unlikely, it might as well be a scam. 

Olympia Publishers isn’t doing anything illegal, but I put them into a category below Xlibris. At least self-publishing houses have the good graces to admit what they are offering. Small presses like Olympia pretend to allow for success, to do what publishers are supposed to do: promote your writing and profit from readers, but they work in reverse. They ask you to send in a query and a synopsis, and after a few tense weeks, ask for the manuscript. If it passes the scrutiny of their editors, you become a published author! If not, there is a second option, a pay to play option. After a little Googling, I found dozens of heartbroken writers tricked by this scheme, who were told they would be published, only to be asked to cover costs of up to 3500 pounds (nearly $5000)! 

With the advent of free Internet media, free e-books, and the sheer glut of crap novels making the rounds these days, it must be difficult for any publisher to survive. I wouldn’t doubt whether many small presses started out in earnest, only to realize they couldn’t cut it the traditional way. Inundated with desperate would-be authors and totally indifferent readers, it was only a matter of time before someone got smart and reversed the flow, profiting off of writers instead. After all, making money is all about supply meeting demand, and the demand writers have for recognition is palpable!  

Still, it sickens me to know that people profit off desperation, earn money from the remnants of crushed hopes and dreams. My wife was so visibly shaken by the experience, I ended up feeling worse for her than for myself. 

But, what if we hadn’t found any bad press about Olympia? What if we had been the first to be duped? Well, there’s an easy trick to finding out who’s legit, and who isn’t. Just visit Amazon, under the Book department, and search by Publisher. Olympia has many books listed, so at least they’re not a total scam, but not one of their titles ranks above one millionth in sales! If you want to be ranked a millionth, by all means proceed, but that isn’t any publisher I want representing my fifteen years of passion! Heck, one book was ranked in the 5 millionths, worse than my own The Dark Age of Enya, which is listed in the 4 millionths! It is an unusual situation when a POD book is outselling a “legitimately” published book.    

There is more heartache and disappointment in this field than in any other. Not only do you spend thousands upon thousands of hours working at something without getting paid for it, but the people in your life don’t even consider it a job. Add to that the total lack of moral support from friends and family, and mix in, as a special bonus, all of the scammers trying to take advantage of you, and well . . . that’s the industry. The only reason I haven’t quit, can’t quit, is because it’s a part of me, my writers’ disease. And, god dammit, Ages of Aenya is a good book. 


2018 UPDATE!

It looks like this article finally made an impact on Olympia Publishers! After helping steer hundreds of people from getting scammed (or soft-scammed), Olympia sent me a number of e-mails trying to win me over, and asking me to remove this post … If you would like to read our exchange in its entirety, head on over to Exposing the Scammers 2: URLinkPublishing.com, where I also expose yet another disreputable company.


and while you’re at it …



A great alternative to Olympia is CreateSpace. They make no promises regarding fame and fortune, but provide aspiring authors the basic tools to achieve success. They helped me design the layout of my book, using artwork I provided them. All that you pay is for printing and delivery. And if you’re an aspiring writer hoping to break into the business, I can’t tell you how important it is to support other writers. The more independent creators earn respect, the more opportunities open up for everyone. So if you have not done so already, please visit the first in the Aenya series, Ages of Aenya at www.nickalimonos.com.




The Hurdle of Reading and Dealing with Hubris as an Undiscovered Writer

Is it???

So, the other day, a fan of mine (I do have them) suggested I act more enthusiastically about my book. I need to sell it like it’s the greatest thing since movable type. This was in response to my disappointing Kickstarter campaign. As of today, I have only managed to raise about $900 of the $10,000 needed for editing and marketing. But the thing is, I am not a salesman. I couldn’t sell Gatorade to a man dying of thirst. Nor can I bring myself, in good conscience, to brag. Judging my writing is like judging how attractive you are. It just looks bad. Unfortunately, I am in the unenviable position of prostituting my mind, and as I have been learning lately, a big part of the publishing industry is shoveling BS. I cannot express my level of disgust for covers declaring such and such author is brilliant, or promises of, You won’t be able to put it down! It’s true about 10% of the time, which is why my favorite jacket is of Catcher in the Rye. Front and back are identical, just a horse on a merry-go-round. No praise whatsoever. Nada. Zilch. And the ironic thing is, Salinger is a true, literary genius. But just like me, he abhorred anything that was BS, or as he put it, phony. Nowadays, saturated by video games and YouTube and Twitter feeds, the influx of phoniness would probably make his head explode. But it’s worse for us, I think, because all this click-bait crap (You won’t believe what happens next!) is turning us into zombies.

This remarkable illustration by Steve Cutts

We hunger for memes like the walking dead feasting on brains, but have no appetite for genuine storytelling, for anything meaningful or nuanced. But story is what I live for. It isn’t just something that matters a lot to me, it’s the only thing that matters. Call me crazy, but story is what we are. Our religions are stories. Our lives are stories. And when I am dead and buried in the ground, all that my children and grandchildren will have of me are memories, my story. Even when the human race goes extinct, the thing that will remain is our story. To trivialize story is to trivialize existence itself. 

Given a chance, a good book can outcompete any form of entertainment. But it takes patience, something we don’t seem to have much of these days, and publishers have taken note. My favorite novels are classics, like The Iliad, A Tale of Two Cities, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Grapes of Wrath, but the industry urges us to avoid such books, lest we fall into the trap of writing that way, because substance takes too much effort, and the payoff, however life changing, takes too long. Modern style (if you can call it style) is reflected in books like the The Martian, so instead of, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …” readers are treated to, “I’m pretty much fucked.” Hey, obscenity is fine, simplicity not so much.

As an aspiring author, I am getting to a point where I cannot enjoy reading. While there are some truly great new books out there, The Road and Never Let Me Go come to mind, these are far and in-between, and you really have to dig through the dreck to find them. And there seems to be no pattern, no way to be guaranteed of a good read. Not every classic is great, for instance. After Frankenstein, I found Bram Stoker’s Dracula to be dry and dull, a glorified slasher from the 1800’s. Both A Princess of Mars and Tarzan are equally inane, but then I have to remember the context in which they were written, and the target audience, pubescent boys living in the 1900’s. More and more, I am coming up with excuses for bad storytelling. “Well, this was written at a different time,” or “This was popular then,” or “The publisher rushed him,” or “She’s a well established author and this is the fifth in the series, so the demand for quality isn’t there …” Now you may be wondering, why am I even bothering with excuses? Because I don’t have the status to knock a famous piece of fiction. I am a fucking restaurant employee asking people what they want on their pizza, so what the hell do I know? 

And this, this, is the dichotomy splitting my brain in two, the thing that’ll have me foaming at the keyboard in an insane asylum someday. Prudence dictates I never compare, never admit, “Shit, my book is better than this, a lot better, in fact …” But I cannot help these feelings, and the frustration that follows. It’s like being in love, and you want to share it with the world, but she’s a married woman. Too often, when I start reading a new book, I find myself reworking the story a dozen different ways, to improve it, and I just have to the put the damn thing down in frustration, especially if said author is a millionaire. On the other hand, if a writer truly intimidates me, I am overjoyed. I am overjoyed by Kazuo Ishiguro and Cormac McCarthy, by Robert Holdstock and David Mitchell, and dozens of others. I want to have them over for tea and get deep into words.

This is the kind of person I am: people come to the restaurant where I work and say, “You’re pizza is the best in the world!” I hear it all the time, and every time I feel embarrassed, and worse, like I am somehow deceiving the public. Best in the world? According to who? Some customer? Nah. I’m sure some fancy chef in Italy or New York can make much better pizza. How good of a book is Ages of Aenya? Is it great … good … decent even? This I know to be true, it’s a lot better than half the books on my shelf. The trouble is saying it. Who would believe me?

The hardest part about being a writer isn’t the writing, it’s getting people to notice you, to discover what you’ve spent half your life bringing to the world, in the hopes that, just possibly, it might stir something deep inside of them. The writer/reader relationship is a lot like romantic love, when one pines for the other, but the love is unrequited. Having to remain humble in this instance is like being Gatsby, throwing the biggest party from afar, in the hopes the one you cherish stumbles through your door. 

The Quest for Literary Greatness

The greatness of literature cannot be determined solely by literary standards
— T.S. Eliot 

Was it crazy to believe in this? Many said it was.

In her post, Top 10 Ways to get rejected by your dream agent, Barbara Rogan talks about fellow agent Pam van Hylckama Vlieg, who was attacked on her way to her car by a writer whom she had rejected. Naturally, Barbara used this as an opportunity to plug her book, which happens to have the same plot (an agent stalked by a writer), which makes me wonder whether this story was a ploy to boost sales (OK, maybe not), but what really incensed me was the followup section, in which Barbara jokingly lists the things writers can do to get rejected. Under the heading, Be crazy, Barbara writes, “If you have a solution to the world’s problems, let the agent know.” Really? If that scares her off, what a sad and jaded outlook she must have! Look, I realize agents receive a gajillion queries a day, most from megalomaniacs, so I cannot entirely blame them for their cynicism. On the other hand, people like Mrs. Rogan need consider the words of Gandhi, who said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Every serious writer has, at one time or another, considered the impact of their work on society. I am not crazy enough to believe that my book will result in world peace, but I do know that throughout history, men and women have been inspired by art, many of whom went on to do remarkable things. To achieve something historic, someone must first imagine doing it. If Jules Verne had not imagined man traveling to the moon, we might never have landed Apollo 11 on its surface. Outside of the Bible, the Koran and the Communist Manifesto, no single piece of writing has resulted in global change, but the collective output of an enlightened and artistic community usually does. Writers, like myself, exist as a tiny thread in the tapestry of human events.

If agents see fiction as little more than a means to a living, that view is symptomatic of their profession, not mine. Finding “solutions to the worlds’ problems” has always been part and parcel of the writer’s resume. Only recently, perhaps due to our current age of information and a flood of poorly written manuscripts, writers have been discouraged from this traditional role. All the while, scientists like Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins urge children toward scientific literacy for the express purpose of solving the world’s problems, using rhetoric reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. But the power of fiction and its impact can take many different forms.

For the past few years, the heading to my blog stated,

Fiction is a lens through which we see the truth behind reality. It touches our core values and defines who we are. It takes a life of random events and gives it meaning.

I am proud of this statement and stand by it still. Fiction encompasses a wide range of mediums, whether book, play, film, TV or video game. Even religion falls under the category of fiction, and yet is no less crucial to society. From the beginnings of history, mankind has searched for meaning, through cave art and in stories related through word of mouth. Fiction gave the men and women of antiquity the strength and inspiration to fight for survival, overcome tragedy, and cope with death. Even in our modern lives of convenience, where the wolf is no longer a threat and starvation is a rarity, we deal with challenges of purpose. We still wonder about our existence, asking the same questions as philosophers and theologians, is this all there is? We are born, we live, we die. Is it even worth suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, as Shakespeare so eloquently put it in Hamlet’s soliloquy? Without art, life is nothing more. To inspire even a single life is to change the world. 

Editors and agents act as the gatekeepers of fiction. They owe their lofty position to large populations and the necessity to weed out the “wheat” from the “chaff”. During the early days of the Internet, circa 1996-1997, when fan-fiction was practically unheard of, I was a kind of agent myself. My site, The Grayskull Library, welcomed He-Man fiction from all over the Internet. Since our community of enthusiasts was small, most anyone willing to put in the effort got their fiction posted, and the site garnered hundreds of thousands of views. A similar situation existed during prehistory. In a village of a few hundred, those born with the writer’s disease had no problem sharing their stories about the campfire. But as knowledge of our community grew, so did the number of submissions to my site. It quickly became unmanageable and I was forced to reject people. So, in many ways, I understand the difficult job of the agent, but also feel the need to be better understood and appreciated. If agents do not believe in the power of literature, they will never recognize greatness when it comes to pass through their gate. 

As a writer, my ambition has never been merely to entertain or make money (though important enterprises in and of themselves) but to inspire readers, the way other writers inspired me, to achieve what I can only describe as literary greatness. And while this may sound like the words of a megalomaniac, the difference comes from my rational belief in hard work and perseverance, without which greatness cannot be achieved, and that, while I may not be great I can reach for greatness, and if Barbara Rogan thinks me crazy for reaching so high, so be it. Henceforth, the new subheading for this blog will be:


The Tao of Writing

For two decades, my family and friends have struggled to understand my need to tell stories, and to have those stories be recognized. They sometimes see it as just a need for approval, or praise, or fame. While praise does motivate me, what really drives me to write is much simpler: we who suffer from the writer’s disease are eternally lonely. We are trapped in our own minds, on islands of our own imagination, and the only way we know to truly connect to the outside world is through story. Through the written word, we share our view of life, in the hopes of someday making a mark, the proverbial hand print on the wall that screams, “I was here! Once, I existed!” If anything, blogging purges my brain of ideas. At best, it is my way of reaching out to my fellow human beings. And yet all of this, I am aware, must come across as egotistical.

There are so many things I would love to share about my writing experiences, from techniques I’ve learned to things writers should do to avoid heartache. But since I have yet to prove myself to a publisher, the idea seems a bit vain. Now that I am seeking professional representation, I have to be extra careful about the things I post. I have often been criticized for egotism, and have since done my best to achieve a kind of Buddhist like selflessness. But a selfless writer is a paradox. How can a writer not be even a little self-centered when he must come to believe, at some point, that his voice should be heard over the din of the masses? That his experiences are worth being known, and must be recorded for future generations? This contradiction, between the need for humility and the need for confidence, has plagued me for the past six years, since failing in my self-publishing ventures. Just like the famous koan that asks, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” there are many paradoxical enigmas in the writing profession. It is part of what I like to call the Tao of Writing. And, just like the Tao, nobody can teach you what it is to be a good writer, or offer up the secret to a great story; you simply have to find that on your own.

Publishers, editors and professors like to offer formulas for literary success, as if such a formula could be found after ten thousand years of trying, but the advice they give is often contradictory, if not inane. I fondly remember a story I wrote in my college days, Anna, now lost to a computer virus, which featured a nun who was dragged to Hell by a demon. My second year professor, the one with the PhD on his wall, kept insisting what Anna should do. He didn’t like that she ended up a victim of random chance, that the demon could steal her away despite her innocence. He recommended, of all things, that Anna be guilty of masturbation—which would have turned the story into a medieval morality play (not surprisingly, his PhD was not in English, but religious studies). Everyone in my class thoroughly enjoyed Anna, however; they understood that the story had nothing to do with morality, and everything to do with the futility of fear. I changed the story for a better grade, but my professor didn’t like it any better and neither did I.

To this day, if anyone uses the word should on me, I’ll likely punch him in the face. A story shouldn’t do anything but entertain a reader. Literature isn’t a science and 1 + 1 does not equal 2. Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3, once not-so-famously said, and I paraphrase, “In this business, nobody knows anything,” and I couldn’t agree more. Give me a story that does something well, and I’ll show you a well beloved yarn that doesn’t do it. Do all good stories need engaging, interesting characters? Not if you ask H.P. Lovecraft. Do all good stories need a well defined conflict? Not if you ask Joseph Heller, or Albert Camus or J.D. Salinger. If I’ve learned anything during these past three decades toiling at my keyboard, it’s that the only thing a writer need do is write. Writing is no different than any other art form. Nobody picks up a violin and starts playing beautifully from the onset, no matter how many rules and guidelines they may have studied beforehand. Becoming a good writer comes from a lot of hard work, from the 10,000 hour rule Malcolm Gladwell puts forth in Outliers. Being a writer someone will pay to read also comes from living. Herman Melville could not have written Moby Dick without having worked on a ship. Mastering the literary arts is a lot like meditating on the meaning of the Tao. It takes time, dedication, and endless practice.

Lastly, how does one persevere, or as I like to phrase it, ridiculously persevere, without throwing in the towel? Writers often give so much of themselves for zero reward. What insane person spends thousands of hours working on a job, without ever knowing whether they’ll get paid for it, or whether they’ll even be recognized? I think this explains why so many of us suffer from depression, from Edgar Allen Poe to John Kennedy Toole to, yes, J.K. Rowling. Some people have suggested that I simply “write for myself,” but again, this is a paradox. The act of writing is a form of communication, to transfer thoughts, feelings and ideas into the mind of another human being. I am forever conscious of the reader when hammering out a sentence, which is why, to attempt to tell a story without having a listener in mind simply doesn’t work. And yet, we all must strive toward the goal of being heard, even though we can never know, with any certainty, whether anyone will ever hear us. The only way I can see past this dilemma, is to write to communicate without ever expecting anyone to listen, which is, again, a paradox. 

Buddhists have been known to spend days creating beautiful murals, called mandalas, out of colored sand. Once the mandalas are complete, they wipe the sand clear, instantly destroying days or weeks of work. It seems like a crazy thing to do, but that is part of Buddhist meditation, the learning to let go of desire and permanence, to achieve without wanting. This is now what I must teach myself. To simply write, in the present tense, without past or future in mind. This is the Tao of Writing.