Audio Entertainment

A number of options for those of you who have a burning desire to hear my voice (which, as an aside, one thing I've learned over the past four years that babies really like my voice for reasons I can't explain, they just stop what they're doing and snap to attention, so maybe if you have young children, you can set up a playlist of me talking about things and your baby will be soothed and calm and everyone will be happy*). 

1. I was on the Otherppl podcast with Brad Listi. We talked about sports fandom, death, and mourning. 

2. I was on the #CNF podcast with Brendan O'Meara. We talked about podcasting, editing Barrelhouse, shifting between fiction and nonfiction, and finding urgency in your writing. 

3. I was on The Drunken Odyssey with John King. We talked about my memoir "Bury Me in My Jersey," the problem of being a football fan, structuring books, writing about love, and a bunch of other stuff. 

4. The Young Widower's Handbook is available as an audiobook through Audible. A sample below:

 

5. On Monday, 2/6, I will be on WHYY's Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane from 11-12. 

EDIT: If you missed the Radio Times episode live, the audio is up now.

6. If you still need to hear more of my voice, you can always listen to the latest episode of Book Fight!

*happiness not guaranteed

Quick updates

1. Last week, the literary journal JMWW published my short essay, "See You in a While." It's about drinking beer on my deck with my dog and trying to appreciate good things. It'll take you less than 5 minutes to read. 

2. Today, the lit website The Millions published a piece I wrote about how podcasts can build communities and change the way we discuss books. As I say in the essay, "Literary podcasts are like being part of a book club without the social pressure or the bad wine." I say more stuff besides that too. Read it here.

3. Booklist reviewed my book and said, "McAllister’s debut novel is at turns funny and touching, particularly in the vignettes sandwiched between the narrative, which delve into Hunter’s thoughts and feelings about his marriage and his wife. Expect comparisons to Jonathan Tropper and Nick Hornby." So that's a good thing.

4. I've been adding lots of events over the past week. Starting 1/21, I'll be making the rounds, with a bunch of stuff in Philly and South Jersey, but also events in VT, GA, Boston, DC, and hopefully some more places soon. See the full listing here, and check back for future updates.

Indisputable Evidence and the Existential Ref

This is a repost of something I wrote for the 2015 Eagles Almanac, in which I explored the increasing over-complication of NFL  rules. A few lines are already dated (see that last paragraph, for example), but with each passing week, I’m more confused than ever. Most games, most weeks, seem to be decided by the inconsistent application of incoherent rules, and it only seems to be getting worse. 

The images are from my short-lived Existential Ref blog on Tumblr.

*          *          *

Do you know what a catch is?

This is a sincere question. Can you define, in clear terms, what constitutes a catch in the NFL? Can you be sure this definition will still be precise and true by the middle of next season?

The NFL’s simultaneously overzealous and underprepared officials have caused me to doubt the most basic of sporting actions. I think I know what a fumble is. I can correctly identify intentional grounding about sixty percent of the time. I’ve read the explanation of the tuck rule enough times that I could repeat it to you, but I don’t understand it. Roughing the passer and pass interference penalties are called with all the predictability and logic of tornadoes—there are circumstances more likely to produce them, but you never really know when or where they’ll strike.

On Sunday afternoon, a world-class athlete makes a superhuman catch in mid-air between two defenders and rather than cheering, we collectively sink deeper into our chairs and wait a few days until an unseen board of reviewers adjudicates the catch-worthiness of that play. Maybe sometime Wednesday afternoon, we quietly pump our fists in memory of that catch we think we saw.

Did the player catch that ball? It looks like he did. It’s in his hands. It was in his hands when he fell to the ground. It was in his hands when he stood up. But maybe it wasn’t a catch because the player failed to defy the basic laws of physics by preventing the ball from shifting after it touched his hands. Maybe he blinked too many times while falling to the turf. Maybe he failed to fill out the proper paperwork before the game announcing his intention to enact a football catch.

Incomplete pass.

Or not. Maybe it was complete. Maybe it looks like it was complete and there’s not quite enough indisputable evidence for the on-field CSI unit to determine exactly what happened. Who among us, after all, can see into the soul of the ball? If the ball itself does not consider itself to have been caught, can it be said to have been caught at all? And anyway, why should we take it for granted that the object we’re seeing is even a ball? It is an article of faith that the ball is actually a ball, but short of an on-camera dissection by a disinterested third party, we can’t know its exact nature. Furthermore, without the benefit of some kind of cosmic instant replay system, there’s very little indisputable evidence that proves we even exist.

And also: what the fuck happens if the guy catches it but then he fumbles?

When confusion mounts, the rules are clarified through the addition of a few more clauses. Mid-week, the league issues a press release telling everyone either, Don’t worry, we checked and we got it right, or, worse, Actually we screwed that up. We offer no apology and no recompense.

 

I’ve watched thousands of hours of football in my life, and I spent a depressing amount of time in my unpopular childhood studying the NFL rulebook. If anyone should be equipped to answer NFL rules questions, it is me. But every week there is at least one play on which the ruling is utterly inexplicable. Later in the same game, there may even be an identical play which elicits the opposite ruling from the same officials.

Determining whether someone caught a ball should be one of the simplest decisions in the world, but it’s examined with such intensity and complexity, it’s like the officials are theologians tasked with determining God’s gender. The NFL and its media partners will say things about football moves. They will offer third-rate physics lessons and they’ll keep speaking until you’re drowning in the jargon. But you know and I know: it’s a simple question. A child could answer it.

I’m not talking only about catches, although that seems like the ruling that causes the most confusion for the most fans. The catch issue is just a symptom of the larger problem, which is that NFL rules are so needlessly complex and seemingly arbitrarily applied that one longs for the simplicity of the tax code.

I thought Dez Bryant caught that ball against the Packers last season. I’ve read the legal arguments against it, but that doesn’t mean I accept them. As an Eagles fan, seeing the Cowboys lose in such an unjust way was a pure delight. But as someone who desires something resembling logical consistency in the way the league is run, it was the most egregious example of the thing I hate most about the NFL: it doesn’t matter what extraordinary athletic feats the players perform unless those plays can survive the scrutiny of an inscrutable legal process. Instant replay calls into doubt our most fundamental understanding of sports. It teaches us to pause before celebrating, stripping some joy out of the game and then filling that void with Miller Lite commercials.

The NFL benefits from the Byzantine rules structures because, from commissioner down to the officials, they’ve established a precedent that they can apply nearly any penalty they want in any situation and find a way to defend it, and at least some fans will back their decisions. People complain, but nobody stops watching. The blowback from sports radio callers and ESPN debaters does no actual damage to the league and it ensures they’re the top sports story for days. In the meantime they’ve tried to make their terrible rules a feature in games via endless replays and parsing of rulebook language by shouting men in ill-fitting suits. The very worst things that have ever aired on my TV are the interminable replay reviews during which Phil Simms or Jon Gruden try to remember the rules and spew nonsense guesses to fill air time until some result is announced and then we either cheer or boo according to the whims of the official. Under the soundtrack of inane announcer blather, people in sports bars nationwide play along, leaning in like they’re in the crime lab studying blood samples under the microscope. We become participants in the farce.

These breaks frequently end with announcers saying things like, “Wow, I really don’t see how they made that decision.” Then they call in a retired official who offers a wishy-washy, garbled explanation of the rule, often concluding, “hey, it could’ve gone either way.” Although the replay system is presented as an objective measure of rightness, limited camera angles and ambiguous rules often lead to games being decided by the subjective judgment of one part-time employee staring into a tiny video screen. This does not happen because football is so difficult to understand. It happens because the rules don’t make any sense, and they don’t make any sense on purpose.

The NFL makes frequent reference to its commitment to transparency, but the league is as committed to transparency as a brick wall. Sometimes they part the curtains just a bit, and they release a stream of legalese that pretends to clarify but is intended to obfuscate. They receiver your questions and then in response they bury you in words. They pummel you into fatigue.

The Roger Goodell era has been defined by a long string of seemingly arbitrary punishments handed out to players, coaches, and organizations without precedent or a clear rationale. Goodell has spent a decade fumbling through the public discussion of complex issues as he scrambles desperately to appease the next loudest voice. Nobody, especially the man in charge, seems capable of explaining the rules governing the decisions the league makes.

In 2015, the NFL opened a period of free agency called “the legal tampering period,” a phrase so obtuse it dealt a subconcussive blow to the language itself. A few days into this period, they “launched an investigation” into tampering activities that occurred during the period that the league itself had created to foster these activities. An offense occurs and then investigations are launched and committees are formed. Committees are tasked with solving the problem, but they will not solve it because this is not what committees do. They complicate problems and reframe problems, but they are the enemy of simplicity.

The best, most recent, example of this approach is the absurdly long Wells Report, which took 243 pages to come to the conclusion that it was “more probable than not” that some wrongdoing may have occurred and that Tom Brady was aware of it and this probable wrongdoing had some effect on some games. This report was a battering ram of transparency. It was designed to maintain the appearance of having said something while saying nothing at all.

While the report was being compiled, Roger Goodell said, “Whether a competitive advantage was gained is secondary, in my mind, to whether that rule was violated.” There has never been a better definition of the NFL’s legalistic bureaucracy. Bureaucracy, above all else, has an interest in sustaining itself. It is incapable of questioning itself or understanding its flaws. It exists because it exists and it continues to exist because it must necessarily continue.

With every added layer of complexity, the NFL is able to present a relatively simple sport as if it’s advanced calculus. It reaffirms the notions of genius coaches and athletic savants. It tells you that the head coach’s 20-hour work days were totally necessary, rather than a weird affectation of sociopathic hard-workiness that equates sleep deprivation with productivity. It presents a façade of extreme, sciency precision that distracts from the fact that most years the champion is decided largely by luck.

A scene from the future: on 3rd & 10, Darren Sproles makes a catch in the backfield and evades two Cowboys defenders on his way to skittering for nine yards, but it looks like he drops the ball at the end of the play. As this is happening, a sixty-year-old man scrambles to keep up and from five yards away, he flings a little blue bean bag at the spot where Sproles may have dropped the ball. In the ensuing pile, men commit war crimes against one another and eventually Sean Lee runs away with the ball. Whistles blow. Hats are thrown. The officials stand in a circle and talk a while before signaling that it was not a fumble. Sproles celebrates like a man who has just been acquitted of a felony on a technicality. Jason Garrett tosses a red flag onto the field. There is more talking. In the booth, the announcers make wild guesses. They say it’s a great challenge by Garrett, because even if he’s wrong, “you have to take that chance,” implicitly noting that the outcome of the review is arbitrary. The replay runs on a loop until you’ve seen it enough times that you remember it more clearly than your mother’s face. It looks like he probably lost the ball just before his knee hit the ground, but it’s hard to tell even after two dozen replays. Because the officials initially said it wasn’t a fumble, they are therefore barred from now calling it a fumble unless King Solomon himself rises from his grave and announces that the ball has been fumbled. The officials determine that it probably was a fumble but because their first guess was wrong and the camera angles don’t show a panoramic view of the entire world and the DNA evidence won’t be back from the lab until next week, then it can’t be ruled a fumble. Garrett is now criticized for having wasted a timeout. Chip Kelly pumps his fist in celebration of impenetrable legalese. Now, two elderly men on the sideline holding a pair of sticks attached by a chain are called onto the field to determine whether Sproles picked up a first down before his non-fumble. They stretch the chains out and the official bends down with a magnifying glass and tries to determine how many angels can dance on the link of a chain. He stands and presents the evidence. Holding his hands apart like an amateur carpenter measuring boards by eye, he indicates: it’s, like, this much. About. Kelly holds his own hands slightly closer together, almost in prayer, indicating: nah. More like this much. Fans sitting a thousand feet away boo angrily because they’re sure the ball was actually slightly closer to the stick on the end of the chain.

As an entertainment product, this is terrible. As an exercise in logic, it is infuriating. As a way to determine the fates of the careers of elite athletes, it is insane. But it is all buttressed by a bloated rulebook that requires more interpretive work than the Bill of Rights.

Any number of variables well outside the control of the people on the field could change everything about that play. Random luck and guessing is the difference between the Cowboys forcing a game-changing turnover and the Eagles either punting or going for it on fourth and short. Everyone knows luck is a factor in football—if Byron Maxwell pulls his hamstring at the wrong time, he can get beat for a deep touchdown that costs the team a game and maybe more—but if fans come to believe that luck is the primary factor in determining the outcome of games, then it all becomes as pointless as feeding your life savings into a slot machine. The NFL, more than any other American sports league, is invested in presenting the ideal of the most righteous and hardest working winning in battle. They need merit and virtue to be tied to the win. But so often, games, seasons, and careers are dictated by an untimely defensive penalty, a disputed catch, a cold front freezing up a great offense, a batted ball falling into the hands of an out-of-position lineman, a heedless desire for indisputable evidence

The 2015 Eagles are led by one of the league’s Anointed Genius Coaches. Many Eagles fans have embraced the notion that they have The Smartest Guy In The Room leading their favorite team. He is unconventional and brash and unafraid of taking chances. He has great conviction in his own intelligence, and the charisma to earn the fealty of many fans. This is a time of great faith in the leader. The Eagles will be able to overcome their personnel weaknesses because he will outsmart the other coaches and he will put those players in the right position and his scheme will be the true star and if something goes wrong he will have the wisdom to correct it, Amen. He may indeed be smarter than the average coach, but the unpleasant truth is that the biggest factor in determining the fate of the Eagles may be the whim of an impenetrable, inexplicable set of rules whose primary function is to enforce randomness while pretending that it does not exist.

In Case of Emergency

Do not break glass. 

Ask the glass politely to break itself. 

If it doesn't break, then you weren't doing it right. The mistake you were making was in putting your needs ahead of the needs of the glass. Think of the inconvenience for the people who'd prefer the glass remain unbroken. Reconsider your right to even have glass to break. Ignore the alarms. 

IN CASE OF FIRE:

Stop, drop, and try to empathize with the fire. Do not use a fire extinguisher or douse it with water; this is impolite to the fire. It doesn't take into account the needs of the fire. If you can just explain to the fire the ways in which it has made you personally uncomfortable, if you can get it to understand that your skin is blistering and accept responsibility for the damage it is causing, then perhaps you can have a healthy dialogue. Form a committee to foster an honest conversation about the ways in which you may be misunderstanding the fire's intent. 

IN CASE OF A BEAR ATTACK:

Try to understand the bear. Reason with the bear. Tell the bear it looks beautiful in the moonlight and though you don't like the look of its claws, you understand that it had no choice in being born with such claws, and you would like to help it become a better, less vicious bear. Not that you think its current state is necessarily bad. It's just a difference of opinion, whether the bear should maul you or not. But if it could not maul you this one time, then you will owe the bear.

IN CASE OF A FLESH-EATING VIRUS:

Try to compromise. Give a little. Let the virus eat your face, but not your hands. It's okay to be angry about losing your face, but don't be so mean about it. Give the virus a little credit now and then. It wasn't born with much; the scientific community won't even acknowledge it as a living thing. The virus is disenfranchised. So let a virus eat your flesh now and then. 

IN CASE OF ALIEN INVASION: 

Some say aliens are invading. Others disagree. Both sides abduct people and experiment on their bodies while holding them in a semi-conscious state such that they can feel every poke and prod but never do anything to stop it. Both sides have long, green, weird fingers and eyes like black almonds. Don't be an elitist.  

IN CASE OF FULFILLMENT OF ESCHATOLOGICAL PROPHECY AND  USHERING IN OF ANY NUMBER OF DOOMSDAY SCENARIOS, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO NUCLEAR HOLOCAUST: 

Relax. Stop whining. Is the apocalypse a bad thing? Critics disagree. There are many ways to react. Reach out. Build a bridge. When the Four Horsemen ride up to you, don't run away. Tell them how noble and shiny their horses look. Thank them for liberating you from this terrible planet. 

IN CASE OF SOME ASSHOLE PUNCHING YOU IN THE FACE AND JUST WAILING ON YOU WITHOUT END: 

Put yourself in his shoes. Just for a minute. Think about how hard this is for him. 

News from 2014

This barely qualifies as an update, but in October 2014, I wrote an essay called "Halloween Glossary, D-H" for Waccamaw, and I've always been pretty happy with how it turned out. In my ongoing quest to make this essay an October staple on par with the Great Pumpkin and Bobby "Boris" Pickett's entire oeuvre, I thought I'd share it again today. 

It includes one of my favorite dumb jokes I've ever made, and it starts like this:

 

DEATH
Halloween is a celebration of death, of dead things and things that kill—vampires and werewolves and zombies—but also a time of literal death, first the leaves and the grass and the millions of mosquitoes and the creatures that feed on the mosquitoes, then the end of the hopes one always pins to summer, the plans to get organized, to spend a romantic weekend in Cape Cod, to finally finish that novel manuscript, to get that scuba diving certification, to go on a safari and watch a lioness as she stalks an antelope. Also the time of year when my dog died, when I took two elderly Welsh Corgis to the local groomer in preparation for a pumpkin carving party and then returned from the groomer with two elderly Welsh Corgis, but Otis, the tri-color, the one with the little patches of brown fur like eyebrows, which invited us to attribute all sorts of human characteristics—empathy and understanding and high-level cognitive skills—was quietly suffering from a ruptured spleen. I didn’t know the spleen was ruptured then, and I ignored his abnormal behavior when he wobbled across the room wheezing and flumped in front of me with the force of a sandbag dropped from the ceiling; I patted him on the head and then left to drink beer with my friends in the city. While I was out, my wife returned home from work and called to tell me Otis wasn’t standing and could barely breathe. My wife—a nurse, normally calm and rational and never panicked (see alsoPANIC ROOM PROCEDURES)—was sobbing and I knew that the dog was dying, had been dying in front of me, that his flumping was a cry for help, that the other dog was at home watching him die and was incapable of understanding why she would never see Otis again, and so, four beers deep, I drove to meet them at the animal hospital, speeding at ninety, ninety-five, checking my phone at the same time for directions, and knowing I was endangering others’ lives, hoping only to arrive in time to see the dog one last time and to be with my wife who had grown up with this dog and who had made many unbreakable associations between the dog and her own long-deceased mother, and I remember thinking: I hope if I get pulled over, the cop is a dog-lover. I remember thinking: I hope he understands.

 

What are you even doing? On literary journals and respect

Update 9/12, 9:44: I've made a variety of minor edits since originally posting, mostly to fix some typos, add a few links, and clarify some word choices. 

Earlier today, I tweeted this short string about literary journal submissions:

I want to take a few minutes to expand on these, because I think there are some important considerations for literary journals here, and also because I think writers, especially novice writers, need to make some important choices in deciding who to work with. 

The submission fee debate has more or less been resolved; despite the resistance of some writers and journals, submission fees are becoming the norm. The justifications for submission fees typically fall into five categories: 

  1. It costs money to send submissions through snail mail anyway, so $3 is no different 
  2. The journal needs some way to cover its costs, and nobody donates or buys literary journals anymore
  3. The nominal fee deters "carpet-bomb" submissions 
  4. The journal pays writers, so fees subsidize the published writers
  5. It's a volunteer staff and editing can be grueling and thankless

Setting aside my objections to most of these points (well, except point #2, which I would suggest is indicative of a much larger problem, i.e., if you're completely unable to keep the press afloat without submission fees, then perhaps that means your press has no particular reason to exist), let's just acknowledge here that lots of smart people have debated the topic endlessly, usually respectfully, and writers have to individually determine where they draw their own line in paying fees.

Some, like friend and fellow Barrelhouse editor Dave Housley, refuse to pay fees under any circumstances.

Anecdotally, it seems Dave is in the minority. As more journals move toward paid submissions, writers are left with an increasingly limited pool of venues to submit their work, so more people are begrudgingly agreeing to pay fees.

I'm mostly in this camp. I decided a few years ago that I would never submit to a journal that charged fees but didn't pay writers. I still don't love it, and I especially don't love the idea that the relatively small roster of widely-published writers has their work subsidized by the paid fees of rejected writers, but at least the money is flowing outward toward writers. Any arrangement in which the money goes to a vague "administrative fee" or is used as the primary revenue stream for a magazine seems, at best, like a poorly considered system, and, at worst, like a scam.

But, okay, I wasn't going to get into that debate again. The point is: every writer makes his or her own choices. Some people aren't bothered at all, everyone has had their say, and here we are. I'm not a fan of submission fees, but I understand they're here to stay. I like when journals open brief fee-free periods for people who just cannot afford to spend six hundred dollars a year on submissions. I like anything a journal does that prioritizes showing basic decency and respect to writers. 

What made me particularly angry this morning, as I searched through about a hundred calls for submissions, was seeing how many journals fit all four criteria I mentioned in my first tweet: 

  1. Submission fee (usually $3, but sometimes $5, and in a few instances, $10 or more)
  2. No pay for writers
  3. Online only
  4. No promise of even a response

On their own, each of the first three traits is justifiable, depending on context. It's hard for literary journals to pay. After eight years of being almost entirely self-funded (aside from a few generous donations), Barrelhouse was finally able to pay $50 per author, but that's still criminally low, and we keep trying new approaches to generate more revenue that we can pay out to authors. Every poet, essayist, and fiction writer hates that part of the system, but also understands that if the money isn't there, the money just isn't there. "Exposure" can only keep you satisfied for so long, but again, every writer is free to make that choice. 

Online only is, in fact, not a problem at all. A lot of writers I know, including me, have begun prioritizing online publication because more people read it, the turnaround is faster, and many online venues are really well-designed and run by great editors. It's only a problem in this context, because if a journal is charging fees and not paying writers, then they are either explicitly or implicitly saying they need that money to cover costs. But if the only thing you do is pay for web hosting, a Submittable account, and maybe a Squarespace account, then your annual fees are no higher than $550-600. That cost is covered by the first 200 submissions (which will come in about 3 weeks), and then what? What, exactly, am I paying for?  The time of the editor, who, of his own volition, decided to start a website and call it Sick Hermit Crab Quarterly or whatever?

If you run an online journal and you don't pay writers, and you still cannot figure out a way to pay the very low cost of entry, then you need to reconsider whether your journal should exist. 

Despite the self-evident badness of point #4 above, it's become increasingly common. Often, it's phrased like this: "We cannot guarantee you a response. If you haven't heard back in four months, assume we've moved on." Every editor I've ever met has been a writer first. How could you be an editor and have so little respect for the time, and work, of a writer that you can't deign to make the time to send out a form email? I could reject 100 Barrelhouse submissions right now in less than the time it took me to write this paragraph. Form emails aren't great, but they're the least you could do if you're trying to operate a journal in some way that approximates respect for writers. I assume one reason journals adopt this policy is because they're overwhelmed and often forget to reply-- it happens to Barrelhouse with embarrassing frequency-- but that doesn't mean you should never respond to anyone. When you mess up, you send an apologetic email, explaining yourself. Maybe another justification is conflict-avoidance. When you reject people, they get sad, and sometimes they get mad, and sometimes they threaten you. 

And it sucks. It sucks to let writers down, to think about the daunting numbers game of submissions in the first place. It sucks to have to tell somebody No. But if you're not even willing to do that, what are you doing?

Accepting submissions is a pretty passive system already. You open a link and say, "Give me some stories" and hundreds of people flood your submission queue without you having to do anything. Then you can pick a handful of things and post them on your website and call it a journal. These things can turn out to be quite good. But often, the editor has had very little to do with the process beyond unlocking the door and telling people to show up. So when a journal shirks the basic responsibility of even responding to people, then what are they doing besides running a blog with exclusive access and a cover charge? 

The other Barrelhouse editors and I have been pretty adamant on all of these points (and have even been accused of "hostile hubris" for being so vocal about them), but I can't think of a more fundamentally important thing in the literary world than respecting the writers who are producing the work. The combination of practices that set me off amounts  to overt disrespect of the writers, and even open hostility toward them. 

I'm fortunate that I have the privilege of not needing to submit constantly. I have a good job. I have some good publications. I'm working on a few projects. I'm someone who can be selective and who can also afford the occasional submission fee with no problem at all. But if I were twenty-three and trying to figure out publishing, and I was met with nothing but journals that wanted to charge me money so they could pay their web fees, and also they couldn't even be bothered to respond to me, I don't know what I would do. I would submit anyway, I guess, and feel like shit about it. 

 

 

New Story Published

My story, "Eight Scenes from the Life of a Professional Raven" is up at Hobart today. It's the third in a series of stories I've been writing about sports mascots who are actually oversized sentient animals, rather than guys in suits. The first two are about a pig and a gorilla, respectively. Today's story starts like this:

The sky every morning tells its own story, and today when I wake before sunrise, I look up and see it is going to be a bad day. It’s hard to explain, but there’s a sense you get. You live long enough and you can read the clouds, and you can hear distant flocks migrating, and you can see the weather before anyone else.
There’s going to be a storm, and it is going to rip through this city like god’s own scythe during harvest.

Read the rest.

UPDATE: 

The story was named Longform's fiction pick of the week. This is the second time a story of mine was has been singled out by Longform.

107 Ironclad Rules for Writers Who Want to Be Better at Writing

ed. note: I posted this on my old blog a few years ago, and it was, by far, the most popular thing I've ever written online. It was lost when I overhauled the site, so I'm re-posting it belowAll advice is 100% serious and legally binding. 

1. Write every day. Except on days when you don’t feel like writing that much and you don’t have anything interesting to say.

2. Never write when you’re too hot. Beads of sweat are ideas leaking from your brain.

3. Nobody really eats turnips. They are a ridiculous food. Characters cannot eat turnips.

4. Hypnosis is the writer’s greatest tool.

5. Skinny people are often the cause of conflict. Fat people are often the solution. NO MEDIUM SIZED PEOPLE.

6. If you must write about the travails of being a writer, at least give yourself a glass eye or a cyborg hand or something.

7. After your second draft, read backwards, from last page to first. If it doesn’t make sense both forward and backward, you’ve done something wrong.

8. Always describe the smell of your protagonist’s hands.

9. Fathers and sons do not speak to each other unless one of them has lost a limb and needs help finding that limb.

10. There is no evidence that people have gills, but there is no evidence that people cannot have gills.

11. For photosynthetic purposes, it is essential that you spend time writing in the outdoors.

12. 3rd person narration, like gladiator duels, is a barbaric invention of the ancient Greeks and should never be used under any circumstances.

13. Using multiple questions marks or a question/exclamation combo makes you look an actual crazy person.

14. Wear non-restrictive clothing that will allow the ideas to flow freely around you. Tunics are good, and cheap.

15. Chronological order is the only structure the human mind has evolved to understand.

16. If at all possible, get your characters to a place without gravity.

17. Cicadas are the most symbolic and underutilized creatures in literature.

18. A sex scene only works if it’s written in precise, clinical detail.

19. More fucking profanity.

20. Always know what size shoes your characters wear. The soul is in the shoes.

21. Most people don’t understand math anyway.

22. At least one character must have a funny accent.

23. Everyone moves clockwise. Counterclockwise is for anarchists

24. No lefthanded characters. Too weird.

25. For every adverb you use, do five pushups.

26. Y is an indecisive letter; using it implies indecision.

27. Children are interesting from ages 0-2 and the not again until they’re 14.

28. Just assume everyone has a weird fetish they’d like to keep secret.

29. A nursery rhyme: short chapters make everyone happier.

30. Start with the acknowledgments page, so that you always know who you’re disappointing on your bad writing days.

31. Include at least one scene in which someone meets an estranged sibling.

32. Characters use microwaves, not ovens. Ovens take too long

33. Highlight all the verbs and replace them with other better verbs

34. Writer’s block is best cured by swallowing a penny.

35. The hard C sound conveys authority. Do not soften yourself.

36. In dialogue, include all the ‘um’s but cut the ‘uh’s

37. Conjunctions, conjunction, conjunctions!

38. Remember, every surface your characters touch is just covered with deadly microbes.

39. Mercury poisoning is great for providing plot twists.

40. Do not have more than two redheaded characters, or people will think you’re up to something.

41. Make sure the plot isn’t lifted from a Nancy Drew book.

42. If an editor gives you advice, do the opposite.

43. Buy a lot of index cards.

44. Every day, pick an unusual adjective from the dictionary and be sure to use it.

45. Your literary heroes were probably terrible people. Be more like them.

46. No boats. Boats are over.

47. No airplanes either. Nothing interesting happens on airplanes anymore.

48. The only reliable way to begin a scene is with an alarm clock going off.

49. If you’re stuck, introduce a blimp. Blimps expedite plot.

50. No lightning. It’s cliche.

51. There is always a ghost in the attic.

52. Twins are interesting.

53. At the zoo, it’s easy for people to fall over fences.

54. Present tense is for junkies and teenagers.

55. It’s easy to distinguish characters if each has a unique hat.

56. Italics makes words sound fancy.

57. Shoot for a minimum of two metaphors per page.

58. If you haven’t introduced the gun by page 50, introduce it on page 51.

59. Diners and bars are the setting for about 80% of all human conversations

60. What does a gerund do? It does nothing.

61. In dialogue, everyone should always be lying.

62. Elevators are the crucible of our social lives.

63. Readers want to know where your character bought his car, what his monthly payment is, what kind of rate he got.

64. Your character may not be a caterer. There are more caterers in movies and novels than there have been throughout the history of the world.

65. See what you can do with SONAR.

66. Time your writing schedule to coincide with the different phases of the moon.

67. Spend two decades traveling before you write a single word.

68. If, in the history of language, anyone has written a sentence like the one you’ve just written, delete that sentence and start over.

69. Most metaphors don’t have to make sense; they just need to be memorable.

70. Rain is always meaningful.

71. Linoleum floors are much less interesting than quicksand.

72. The stars can be beautiful without forcing themselves upon you. The same should apply to your writing.

73. Shakespeare did it first. You can do it second.

74. You haven’t truly made it until you’ve received a threatening email from a stranger.

75. Write as if you’ve been possessed by a demon, but, like, a nice demon.

76. Record a video of yourself sleeping at night, so you know what it looks like when you’re at your most vulnerable.

77. Most people want you to fail. Never forget this.

78. At least 25% of any book should be flashbacks.

79. Never kill a dog in your book. The dogs will know.

80. The best food to eat to stimulate your writing process is a charcuterie tray. D.H. Lawrence ate nothing but cured meats.

81. Writing is 30% perspiration, 40% inspiration, 40% good luck, 50% magic, and 1% mathematics.

82.Every sex act must result in a pregnancy.

83. Repetition is the sign of an unfit mind. If possible, never employ repetition of words or phrases, lest you seem to have an unfit mind.

84. The internet is not going away; your characters should frequently interact via email and hacking. Lots of hacking.

85. Only employ vampires if they are a metaphor for municipal government.

86. Dialect should be heavy and consistent. It is important to know whether someone is from the South, or Eurasia.

87. Leave a few blank pages at the end of your final chapter and encourage the reader to conclude it the way he or she would like.

88. One of the most important choices you will face is deciding which font to use.

89. Spill every secret you know; you can’t save them for the afterlife.

90. Write a minimum of twelve drafts. Then put the manuscript in a safe deposit box for one full year before reading it again.

91. Think about all the cool things you can do with UFOs.

92. Set the scene. A minimum of seven sentences of setting description before even mentioning a character.

93. Readers like mystery. Try to reveal as little as possible during the first two chapters.

94. Characters in neckties are boring. Characters who poach rhinos for a living are not.

95.   Every line of dialogue should be performing a minimum of five functions.

96. In your final draft, cut the last line of every paragraph, no matter what.

97. When something is REALLY IMPORTANT, put it in CAPS. It’s the only way for some readers to know.

98. A well-placed illustration can save you the trouble of writing a thousand words.

99. Writing a book is fundamentally a political act. This means at least one character must be given the opportunity to make a political speech of no fewer than 6 pages.

100. Magical realism is a term invented by occultists.

101. Write to displease whatever god you believe in.

102.Believe in monsters.

103. Contractions are a crutch for writers too lazy to type the whole word, but also crutches can be really useful, like if you have a broken leg, for example.

104. Write about the thing you love the most, and destroy it.

105. DO NOT READ other novels while writing. You don’t want to taint your vision.

106. Cut all human ties until you have finished your book. Friends are leeches, family are anchors.

107. The human body has 206 bones and 642 muscles. These are naturally perfect numbers: 206 words per page, 642 syllables per page. Every page.