You’re the Worst Gets Authorin’

What is this thing your people call "shame"?

What is this thing your people call “shame”?

There’s a pretty-good-to-great comedy on FX right now called You’re the Worst. The premise is simple: It’s an anti-romcom, a story about two more or less immature, selfish assholes who get into a relationship and have to deal with the fact that they’re basically assholes, as are their friends to a large extent. It can be intermittently hilarious, as the show so far has walked a fine line between depicting its characters as believably monstrous without turning them into monsters. In short, I can often see the seeds of real human behavior that isn’t often depicted on your normally feel-good, stupor-inducing television in here.

But who cares about that, because clever TV shows are the norm these days (seriously, I am still recovering from the emotional black hole that was the Rick and Morty season two finale). I am not here to lather faint praise on You’re the Worst because it occasionally makes me giggle. I am here to lather faint praise upon You’re the Worst because it may be the first TV show in history to realistically portray what it’s like to be a published author who isn’t a bestseller. It’s so good it hurts.



How Do You Deal with Your Encroaching Death?

UNDOUBTEDLY how the universe sees my demise.

UNDOUBTEDLY how the universe sees my demise.

I get antsy whenever I don’t write much. I don’t deal with word count much, as word count is a stat porn for people who like stat porn (i.e., people who somehow think that a steaming pile of words is somehow an accomplishment in and of itself, or people who enjoy measuring the coffee spoons and afternoons of their life as if any of it aside from the finished product means anything at all) but I like to close out every day feeling like I’ve accomplished a lot of work. This is all I have, after all; no one is going to be talking about the way Jeff Somers revolutionized chess or how he re-invented the modern cocktail or that one classic guitar riff he wrote.

Chances are they also won’t be discussing my writing, sure, but it’s the only chance I have.

So, I get really freaked out any day that I don’t make progress in whatever projects I’m working on. It all has to do with my absolute terror of death, of course. As a man with no faith, no spirituality, and a liver the size of Maine, mortality is more or less all I think about. It’s all that drives me.

It makes sense; in school and when I had a day job I was that guy who left everything to the last minute, then did like 5 weeks worth of homework and project work in one evening, wild-eyed and desperate. And somehow pulled through with a decent grade or performance review, because I am a genius at skimming by. A fucking genius. Deadlines work for me, so why shouldn’t the Ultimate Deadline work more or less to motivate me to write in a constant panic? And also to drink heroic amounts of booze, yes. No doubt when death finally appears in my office, it’ll go like this:

DEATH: Jeff Somers, your time has come!

JEFF: Dude, I’ve been waiting. Have a toast with me!

DEATH: <examining the Jaba-like form of Jeff Somers> Hmmmn….I hadn’t counted on your liver being quite so … large. And glowing. And … hot? Is it hot? How does that happen?

JEFF: I got a deal on some Russian whiskey made in the general Chernobyl area.

DEATH: Hold on. I’ll need to call in some help. Do you know anyone who owns a truck and might be near death? A smoker, maybe?

If they ever invent immortality — and jebus, let’s hope they do — then I don’t know what I’ll do. Aside from procrastinate, probably by watching all 37 seasons of Rick and Morty over and over again and, yes, drinking. And I don’t understand people who don’t spend all their free time tapping at keyboards (or playing instruments, or shorting stock markets, or murdering people, or whatever it is that brings you joy) and just sort of hesitate. Like, I know a writer who has been working on one book more or less his whole life. It’s never ready, never done, and yet he hardly works on it. HUge swaths of time go by and he doesn’t touch it. It’s horrifying.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to spend the next few hours working on three manuscripts and making my way through a bottle of Russian whiskey that has an odd blue glow to it. Vashe zrodovye!


What Do You Do for Money, Honey?

Jeff doing freelance writing research.

Jeff doing freelance writing research.

So, I decided to become a freelance writer, which is a story I’ve told before. Writing is my only marketable skill, after all. Despite our modern ways I have yet to find someone to pay me to drink copiously and utter drunken bon mots, and the idea of a Kickstarter or Patreon just doesn’t sit well with me. Nothing wrong with it, of course, but I don’t like the sense of obligation. I much prefer to write what I want when I want and then randomly publish it and beg for money in return. I don’t like promising a monthly delivery or something like that. It’s a road to trouble, for me. I’d wind up just passive aggressively hating all my supporters, writing stories about their gruesome deaths and creating temporary email accounts in order to send them drunken threats. So the whole crowdfunding thing is out.

But, sadly, writing novels hasn’t turned into the golden highway of money I was promised, so I need to hustle a bit, and so: Freelance writing. Today I’m having a pretty good time with it, writing about books at Barnes and Noble and About.com, writing about my hometown at Life in Hoboken, and doing a few other projects here and there. But in the early days of my freelance career things got dark, fast.



Single-Serving Culture

Somery has nothing to do with Somers.

Somery has nothing to do with Somers.

It’s a funny old life, ain’t it? There was a time when I bought albums — old-school, long-form recordings with a bunch of songs. I often bought albums by bands I loved without having heard a single song from them. I’d buy older albums from before I discovered some band, and if they came out with a new one I’d buy it immediately.

I used to love the weird candy-like smell of a new cassette.

I bought new albums by AC/DC and NOFX the moment I could, excited to hear what they had for me.

Sure, sometimes I’d be a little disappointed. I’d discover half an album was just complete bullshit. Or I’d realize I’d paid $5.99 or whatever for an album that was thirty minutes and eight songs long, four of which I didn’t care for. But usually if I bought an album blind there was a reason for it. And sometimes I’d be blown away by the unknown. I bought Exile in Guyville based solely on what I’d heard about it, and was instantly — and more or less permanently — glad I did.

Those were the days. This week I purchased The Most Lamentable Tragedy by Titus Andronicus and realized it was the first album I’d bought in a long, long time. Usually, I just buy single songs as I hear them, because I had that epiphany: Most of the albums I’ve bought over my lifetime were at least 20% filler, some as much as 80% filler. And when I converted my old analog collection to digital years ago, I shed a lot of albums, keeping just the songs I liked and actually listened to. My decision to buy the new TA album had everything to do with the first two songs they released from it: Dimed Out and Fatal Flaw are perfect songs, and it gave me a giddy moment of optimism. For that moment, I was fifteen again and my faith in the long-form was restored.

It’s a rare moment. Albums just seem unnecessary to me these days: If I like a three-minute song, why in the world would I buy nine more I’ve never heard? And if I end up liking all ten songs and overpaying for the album, it evens out on all the other songs I don’t waste money on, I figure.

Some will argue that albums are discrete works of art, and need to be listened to and experienced as intended: As a set, a collection, a sequence. Some albums are this, yes, and even then your mileage will vary. For every Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (and there are still two songs on that one I skip every single time) there will be a Kilroy Was Here, an album I almost bought when I was seventeen because I was going through a strange Styx fascination. In other words, just because some musician thinks I ought to listen to their songs in a certain sequence doesn’t mean I give a shit.

So, it’s mainly single-serving songs for me. And it’s weird to realize that my listening and buying habits have changed so drastically over the years. Some of this is simply the freedom that new technology affords me: MP3s and digital platforms have made it possible to sample entire albums and decide ahead of time if you want to actually own every single track on the album. This is a superpower for someone my age; back in The Day the only way you got to sample an entire album was a) if a friend of yours already owned it or b) if a local record store had a listening station, or maybe c) if your library stocked albums to borrow. In other words, it wasn’t easy, and frankly if a friend owned the album and was willing to lend it I probably just dubbed it onto cassette anyway.

The Pale: An Avery Cates Story

The Pale: An Avery Cates Story

I am thinking about this, actually, because I’ve been writing these Avery Cates Digital Shorts. These short stories are all about 10- 15,000 words long, and will combine into a standalone novel eventually. But they’re also single-serving. In other words, while they tell an ongoing story about everyone’s favorite beat-up, aging future assassin, they’re also standalone. You can read them out of order and while you might miss some details or callbacks to the others, you’ll also get a distinct standalone arc in each one. So, like today’s music, you can wait to buy the whole complete book or just sample the stories that sound interesting.

Will it work? Define “work.” It’s a slightly different way of writing a book for me, but the end result will be an Avery Cates book. If some folks buy the first one, The Shattered Gears, and decide not to proceed, that’s too bad for me, but it’s great for the reader, because they got to spend one dollar and realize this is not their cup of tea, as opposed to eight dollars. And if they wind up buying each story as they come out, in the end they’ll spend as much as if they bought the book whole, so it’ll be a wash financially.

And in the meantime, I’m having fun writing like this, with a tighter focus on each individual section of the overall story. It’s a single-serving universe these days, after all. Why fight it?


Need to Explain “Show Don’t Tell”? Watch True Detective Season 2

We also get the TV show we deserve.

We also get the TV show we deserve.

So, True Detective season 2 has ended, and bow howdy it wasn’t very good. There are of course plenty of bad TV shows every year and few of them rate the amount of attention that TD2: The Failuring has gotten; this is largely a result of the outsize praise season 1 received, of course. After “Time is a flat circle” briefly made up 90% of all Internet traffic, the second season was doomed to disappoint. It’s just the scale of the disappointment that’s surprising.

Because True Detective season 2 is complicated. It was terrible, don’t get me wrong, but also prestige television. It was pretty poorly written, but also delivered at least a handful of well-written lines. The acting was all over the place, and the direction was lackluster, and the plot overly complex with a weak payoff, but there were still tantalizing moments when it seemed poised to transcend these issues and become, if not great, at least watchable.

Ultimately the problem was a simple one, a fundamental one, a problem all writers struggle with: How do you handle showing and telling? And how do you ensure you earn your characters’ fates? That’s where TD2: Electric Mustache Review went wrong. It told. It told everything in an effort to be cagey, and it told it badly.

Vince in the Basement

Vince Vaughn’s character Frank Semyon is the perfect ur-example here. In an early episode, Frank had a soliloquy about his father locking him in the basement as punishment and then getting drunk and arrested, leaving little Frank to fend off rats in the dark for several days, starving. Vaughn delivers the speech with a blank-faced lack of affect that might have been poor acting or might have been batshit direction, but either way the speech lands flat because it’s all Tell and no Show. People think Telling is when you write something like

FRANK: I am a broken man because my father was a drunk who abused me.

But the fact is, Telling isn’t so much about declarative statements that are better left for the reader/viewer to figure out on their own. It’s about subtlety. It’s about understanding how real human beings act and speak. Who in the world lies in bed with their partner in the morning, staring up at water stains in the ceiling, and tells a five minute story about being locked in a basement by their father for no other reason than to let the invisible audience know these crucial details about themselves?

It’s also Telling (and bad writing) because it’s meant to stand alone. We learn very, very little about Frank (or the other characters) over the course of the show, but specific events in their past are supposed to stand in for actual knowledge. Frank and his basement story. Ani and her rage and her knives and her promiscuity. Ray and his wife’s rape and the murder of her supposed rapist. Paul and his closeted homosexuality and his time with the military contractors. We never really get much else about these people: These single events define them absolutely (and are often only vaguely outlined — we know Paul is troubled by his experiences “in the desert,” but we have no idea why or what he did). Frank’s basement story is Telling because it is supposed to be everything we need to know about Frank: He was locked in a basement and fought off rats in the dark, and therefore he is Frank Semyon.

Yeah, it makes no sense. Telling is like that.

And then Frank’s death is like a cluster bomb of Telling. As he staggers through the desert, bleeding from a belly wound after a final betrayal, a few million in diamonds in his pockets and vultures literally following his trail of blood, it’s almost a great scene. Frank came alive a little in the final 2 episodes, and his reversion into a scrappy gangster who takes down his enemies and negotiates his way — almost — to freedom was kind of fun. And watching him refuse to give up, watching him force himself to stagger onward despite the clear odds, could have been affecting if his character had a little more development and backstory before this moment.

Instead, as if the show was fucking with us, it chooses instead to Tell us again, using the worst mechanics of any freshman-level writing workshop: The mysterious hallucinations with no context. We get his father, who has never been personified before in the show, abusing him in a generic way, his speech the sort of thing you’ll find in any  piece of crap about an abusive, one-note father. We get a group of black kids taunting him for being tall and white and gawky. We get a man Frank presumably killed over a debt, begging for his life. This all sketches out a potentially interesting story of how Frank Semyon went from terrified kid to small-time gangster, but it does so in the final five fucking minutes of the character’s story, in a rushed, awkward sequence that treated Frank like a hero, when he isn’t one. Instead of last-minute hallucinations, we could have gotten Frank’s backstory over the course of the season, instead of the endless stilted conversations about a land deal no one gave a shit about.What really hurts is that in the final moments of the scene, when Frank is dead and yet having a sort of Owl Creek Bridge moment, Vaughn stops limping and grimacing and for thirty seconds he turns on a Charm Ray so powerful you almost forgive him. Those thirty seconds as Frank realizes he’s dead are great, and it demonstrates the possibilities.

It demonstrates what they could have Showed us.


My Day at #WDC15

Jeff's Il Duce Pose

Jeff’s Il Duce Pose

This year I was once again invited to give a seminar on plotting a novel at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference held in New York City at the rockin’ Roosevelt Hotel. Sure, I’m a cheap date because I live in New Jersey and thus can be booked for this conference for the cost of two drink tickets, but that’s actually kind of true no matter where your event is being held. Am I saying that you can have Jeff Somers giving a speech in your living room for the price of two free cocktails? Yes, I am saying that. But it better be top shelf. We will not tolerate any of that Early Times bullshit.

Anyway, I digress. I gave the same seminar I gave last year: Take Off Your Pants and Write: Pantsing Vs. Plotting a Novel. It’s all about plotting your story and the two main techniques most people naturally gravitate towards, and how you can get out of blocked situations by using a hybrid approach. It’s rather brilliant. I’m hilarious. I even wore pants!

Unlike last year, this year we will refer to the WDAC as The Year of Competence, because with the help and guidance of The Duchess I was pretty much an adult the entire time, which, as we all know, is unusual.

I Need a Stinkin' Badge

I Need a Stinkin’ Badge


6AM: I am actually awake, despite consuming a lot of whiskey and some wine over dinner the evening before. Yes, my way of prepping for a big day of public speaking is to drink heavily. What of it?

8AM: I am actually on a bus, showered, sober, and dressed like either a published author or a middle-aged schoolteacher, I’m not sure which. I actually had all of my props and a backup of the presentation on a thumb drive. I make a mental note to drink more, as it obviously helps me wake up early, clearheaded and organized.

8:45AM: I am actually at the hotel and have my badge and know where my seminar is being held. This is unprecedented. The year before, I was racing around this hotel like a maniac, wide-eyed and sweating freely.

8:55AM: The Duchess, concerned that I do not know how to make my Power Point Presentation appear on the screen, stomps to the laptop and starts touching things. The screen goes black. The Duchess turns away and resumes her seat and refuses to discuss what we should do next.

9AM: A nice technical person comes and fixes what The Duchess has wrought. She looks around and whistles nonchalantly.

9:01AM: I am actually giving my presentation, and it goes well. Last year I finished up with my prepared material 20 minutes into a 50-minute session, and had to soft-shoe, sing, and take questions for half an hour. This year almost none of that is necessary. Well, the soft-shoe isn’t strictly-speaking necessary, but I do it anyway, to thunderous applause.

10AM: After some gladhanding and chatting with attendees, we stalk my agent by following the scent of brimstone. I am hopeful that she will buy me alcoholic refreshments despite the time of day, but she is too clever for me: She leads us to the bar area, sits down and makes cryptic remarks about the state of my career, shouts HEY LOOK OVER THERE and when I turn back there is only a haze of purple smoke.

11AM: The Duchess and I go to lunch. I’m not sure whether managing to eat a burger and drink several beers without incident can be listed under my accomplishments for the day, as most people manage to feed themselves without trouble. But, as The Duchess is fond of saying, I am not most people.

NOON – 3PM: Lost time. I have no memory. I am still checking the news for mentions of a drunk white man taking off his pants somewhere.

3:00PM: We’re back at the hotel, and hit the bar, where I drink several whiskies while engaged in a war with a cloud of gnats who all intend to commit suicide in my drinks. After three of the little buggers die in my tumbler, I start drinking like I’m in prison, hunched over my glass and muttering and twitching. Or, you know, like usual. Yes, I drank it anyway. This is whiskey we’re talking about.

Jeff Merely Pawn in Game of Life

Jeff Merely Pawn in Game of Life

5:30PM: I am at my assigned spot in the ballroom for the cocktail reception-slash-book signing. Jacqueline Woodson is seated at the table next to me. Her line goes out the door. I have no line. I am sad.

But, because of this newfound competence, I stick it out and eventually my people find me. My people, I think, had their priorities straight: Getting to the bar first with their drink tickets so they could double-fist the booze as quickly as possible. I meet a few folks, sign some books, and have those curiously awkward conversations where you have to shout so much you’re hoarse. A few folks buy copies of We Are Not Good People and I fall asleep, and The Duchess carries me home.

So, here’s to a job: Done. Hopefully they invite me back next year so I can try the opposite approach: Total batshit incompetence. This would be for scientific purposes, of course, to see which approach works better.


We Are not Good People & WDAC

This year at the 2015 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference, I’ll not only be offering up my presentation on plotting a novel (which was really well-received last year and which will be 150% more awesome this year because I plan to be sober this time) I’ll also be attending the cocktail reception and signing copies of We Are Not Good People (the plotting of which I discussed last year in a WDAC-related post). It’s my understanding that the conference is sold out, so this isn’t really me drumming up attendance (and yes, I fully expect to be sitting there alone, nursing a drink and weeping when absolutely no one buys my book to get signed).

If you’ve read WANGP, then you know the ending sort of folds back on the story, and the ending has been a divisive aspect of the story for some. It was very deliberate, though; Despite the fact that the whole book was more or less pantsed (that is, made up as I went, as opposed to being planned out) I did have the ending in mind as I wrote. As the story progressed, it became clearer and clearer to me that this was the only way the story could end.

One of the hardest things to come to terms with as a writer isn’t the people who think your works sucks and that you’re a terrible writer–every author will have those folks, and what can you do? No, it’s the people who love your work but hate one thing vehemently. When people tell me they loved We Are Not Good People but hate the ending, it’s difficult, because you feel like you disappointed Your People. These aren’t haters, they’re fans, and so their feelings about your work matter a lot more than the people who think you’re a Pantsless Wonder.

While writing this book, though, it slowly dawned on me that the whole point was really the friendship between the main character, Lem, and his nonsexual life partner Pitr Mags. This was a bromance, really, and Lem has nothing without his friend. As that friendship loomed larger and larger I realized, in the end, that Lem would do anything to save that friend–and thus that friendship. At a certain point, there was really only one way it could end. Sometimes plotting is like that: There’s only one possible ending, whether other people get it or not.

I’ll be talking about WANGP a bit during my Writer’s Digest presentation, and I’ll be ready to sign copies. Or sit there getting soused and muttering obscenities at people, whichever.


Hanzai Japan

Hanzai Japan

Hanzai Japan

One of the great joys of writing, for me, is selling a short story. I can’t explain it: You can’t live on the money you make, you often get very little notice for it, and yet I’m privately incredibly excited whenever I manage to convince someone that some chunk of words is worth paying me for.

My short story “Three Cups of Tea” will be included in the forthcoming Hanzai Japan from Haikasoru, which naturally makes it your priority. “Tea” is a Philip K. Marks story; this is the fourth story I’ve sold starring Mr. Marks, who’s a sort of run-down paranormal detective with huge chunks of his life missing from his memory (but not from some unpublished stories). For some reason when I think of Marks I tend to get some really awesome ideas.

I have some stiff competition in this anthology, though. Here’s the complete TOC:

Genevieve Valentine “(.dis)”

Yusuke Miyauchi “Sky Spider”

Libby Cudmore “Rough Night in Little Toke”

Ray Banks “Outside the Circle”

Yumeaki Hirayama “Monologue of a Universal Transverse Mercator Map”

Brian Evenson “Best Interest”

Jyouji Hayashi “Vampiric Crime Investigative Unit: Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department”

Naomi Hirahara “Jigoku”

Carrie Vaughn “The Girl Who Loved Shonen Knife”

Kaori Fujino “Run!”

S. J. Rozan “Hanami”

Violet LeVoit “The Electric Palace”

Setsuko Shinoda “The Long-Rumored Food Crisis”

Jeff Somers “Three Cups of Tea”

Chet Williamson “Out of Balance”

Hiroshi Sakurazaka “The Saitama Chain Saw Massacre”

Get excited and pre-order this one today! And while you’re at it, buy Haikasoru’s other anthologies: The Future is Japanese and Phantasm Japan.


Process and Plot

Walled_coverAs I mentioned last week, I’ll be returning to the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in August, once again giving a presentation called TAKE YOUR PANTS OFF AND WRITE! THE BENEFITS AND PITFALLS OF PANTSING VS. PLOTTING A NOVEL.As you might guess, the subject of the presentation will be plotting out novels, and the different approaches you can take to the problem. After all, it’s easy to come up with a clever premise. It’s much harder to create a story that doesn’t simply make sense, but keeps your reader guessing in a good way, surprising and challenging them but hanging together in the end.

I’m not a particularly experimental writer. For a while, in my youth, I thought I might be, and I played around with POV and narrative technique a little. Even today I’ll work in some little bits of experimentation from time to time, just to give myself a jolt of energy. For example,when I found myself missing Avery Cates and suddenly filled with ideas about a new set of stories set around that character, I could have just wrote a fucking novel or three and been done with it, as I usually do. Instead, I decided to try something new: I pieced it out.

Avery Cates: The Shattered Gears

Avery Cates: The Shattered Gears

I already had a stray short story on my hard drive starring Avery Cates: The Shattered Gears. It was the germ of my new ideas for the character, so I simply dusted it off, ran it through editing, and published it myself as a digital-only short. Threw it up on the online stores, and then set to work–writing more short stories. What I mean is, I took about three novels’ worth of story and carved it up into short segments, and began working on them individually. When I finished the second one, The Walled City, once again I ran it through the editing machine and published it, then began working on the next segment, which will be titled The Pale and will be out in a few months.

It might seem like a minor change in process, but it’s really kind of a big change, at least for me. I don’t usually outline my novels much before writing, but this time I plotted the whole sequence out first, one long story. Then I divided that story into three, and then I divided each book of the resulting trilogy into 4-6 sections. Instead of writing the whole story, I’m working on quick sections of it, getting it ship-shape, and then publishing it. The danger is, I can’t go back and change anything if I have an inspiration or realize I’ve plotted myself into a corner.

But the fun is, it’s a fast, dirty way of working that’s kind of exciting. If this was how I always wrote it would just be my process. But since it’s different, it’s exciting–and often that’s the key. You just have to shake things up, sometimes, to get the rusty plot gears turning. The big question, of course, is whether or not I’ll be able to finish all these connected stories and put out the complete novel versions. Gosh, that would be embarrassing.


Speaking @ The 2015 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference

Me Smart.

Me Smart, circa 2014.

As some of you may recall, I conducted a seminar on plotting a novel at last year’s Writer’s Digest Annual Conference, which was a smashing success. Or at least I was not chased from the building, pantsless and weeping, as so often happens when I am invited to things.

Welp, surprisingly, they invited me back to offer my insta-classic seminar Take Your Pants Off and Write! The Benefits and Pitfalls of Pantsing vs. Plotting a Novel once again.


What will you learn at this amazing seminar? Many things! I’ve written nearly 20 novels and published 9 of them for money, so I can obviously string fictional events together into a story. If you’re struggling with that aspect of your writing, I’ll be exploring the two main plotting processes writers use (pantsing vs. plotting), the advantages of each, and how they can be combined into something I have dubbed plantsing.

You will also learn how sweaty a grown man can become in public, how often his wife interrupts him so she can “tell the story right,” and how many times he can mention the fact that he’s published nine novels. Also, I’ll be lingering around the rest of the day, lurking on the edges of the events until the cocktail reception, at which time the pants come off and my inner John Belushi comes out.

Pass this on to anyone looking to improve their writing! Or anyone who wants to insult me in person.