One Hundred Awful Pages

A few years ago, I was invited to be the visiting writer in the University of Redlands Visiting Writer Series.  As part of the activities, I participated a writing class.  It was taught by the novelist Patricia Geary.  It was one of the coolest classes I’ve ever been in.

Students were required to write one hundred pages of a novel over the course of the semester.  I visited late in the semester, when they were all deep into their respective stories.  Everyone in the class knew what everyone was writing.  They were into it.  They talked about one another’s characters as if the characters were part of their lives, people they saw down at the student union or at parties the past weekend.  The students were flush with the excitement of creation.

Smith CoronaIn retrospect, probably only a handful of those students actually finished the novels after the class.  Maybe fewer than a handful.  I doubt the finished novels were published.  More than anything, I’m willing to bet most of the students are now embarrassed by what they wrote then.  But that’s okay.  In doing that, they learned one of the most important lessons of writing: you have to write a lot of shit before you can write something good.

Before I go on, I have to admit that I didn’t know any of those students or their writing.  They may have all been brilliant.  Everything I wrote in that last paragraph is pure projection.  I’m not thinking about them as much as I’m thinking about me and how important it was for me to write a hundred awful pages before writing my first novel.

In 1994, I lived in Atlanta and worked as a waiter in a downtown restaurant.  I lived in a studio apartment.  Every morning before going to work, I wrote.  My whole goal in moving to Atlanta and working that job was to write a novel in the mornings.

In February of that year, I started working on a novel.  I wrote four or five pages a day on it.  I wrote on an old Smith Corona word processor with a screen that only showed four lines of text.  You could save up to twenty-five pages on a disc.  I filled up about a disc a week.  I was so excited.  Words just flowed out of me.  I felt like I was tapping into my masterpiece, like Kerouac when he powered through the original scroll of On the Road in three weeks.  I wrote like crazy and didn’t reread what I wrote.  When I was done writing, though, I knew that I was brilliant and every word was a little nugget of gold.

Sometime in early March, about five or six discs in, I thought about printing everything up and taking stock of my progress.  This was a big decision.  It took a few minutes to print a single page on those old word processors.  Printing the whole file would take me  a couple of days.  I decided to read off the little screen, instead.

A creeping sense of panic seeped into my bones like a cold, rainy morning.  I tried to fix things on  a sentence level on that first disc or two.  By the third disc, I stopped even that.  By the last disc, I calculated the cost of word processor discs and the value of this novel I’d been working on.  I decided that the discs were worth more.  It would be okay to write something else and save those files right on top of the novel I once thought was my On the Road.

I remember what was wrong with that novel.  I remember a lot about it.  A painful amount.  I’m not telling you what was wrong with it because it was so wrong, so embarrassing.  And because I don’t have to.

In the nearly twenty years that have elapsed since then, I’ve never regretted abandoning that work and writing over the original files.  I’m proud of that young man in 1994 who recognized a lousy book when he read one.  Even if he was the one who wrote the book, he was okay with putting it down and picking up something else.  After I abandoned that first novel, I started writing Drinks for the Little Guy.  I actually started it the next morning.

I know Drinks is far from a perfect novel.  I’m not even sure it’s a good one.  I’m the one who took it out of print, in fact.  But I’m still glad I wrote it.  I’m not too embarrassed if you read it.  It has its charms.

Train Wreck Girl Interview

In preparation for the publication of Train Wreck Girl, Manic D Press emailed some questions over my way.  It was a mock interview, of sorts, that press outlets could use for various quotes or to supplement the press release.  I found it on my computer while doing a search for another file recently, and I thought, hey, this is blog-worthy.

Without further ado, here are my answers to the publisher’s questions about my book.  They are all accurate as of February, 2008.


While this is fiction, the scenes in Cocoa Beach, FL and Flagstaff, AZ reveal an uncanny familiarity. Did you live in these towns at some point?

I lived in both of them.  I was born in Cocoa Beach.  Most of the novel takes place in my old neighborhood in downtown Cocoa Beach.  I lived there for a few years.  I loved it.  It had its shady elements, but rent was cheap and you could walk to the beach and the bars.  It was also right by the library, which was great.  Cocoa Beach has an amazing public library, especially when you consider it’s a small town in Florida.

I lived in Flagstaff for a couple of years, also.  Though I changed the names of a lot of the places, people who live in either of these towns will probably be able to pinpoint where I’m talking about and pick up on some inside jokes.

The characters in Train Wreck Girl are very three-dimensional. Are they entirely fictitious, or based on people you’ve known?

Well, people who are close to me will probably read about the Bart character and think, oh, he drives the short bus during the day and picks up dead bodies at night, so he must be based on Sean’s friend so-and-so.  Or they’ll read about Sophie yo-yoing in and out of rehab and being the nicest, sweetest woman when she’s sober and think she’s based on an ex-girlfriend.  And if they want to believe that, they can.  The more you want to believe about the book, the better, as far as I’m concerned.

A lot of the characters do have a great deal of back story written about them as well.  They’ve popped up in other stories and books of mine.  If I can use a main character from one story as a minor character in another, I try to do that.  This way, if you read all of my books, you can get a richer experience than if you just read an individual book.  It’s kind of like what Faulkner did with Yoknapatawpha County.  Only Faulkner wrote all these amazing novels worthy of his Nobel Prize, and I write a bunch of stories with characters who get drunk and say dude a lot.

There are so many coming-of-age novels, what makes this one different?

When I was getting into my early thirties, I noticed that a few of my friends were going through a little crisis that basically amounted to: I always thought I had no future and now I’m living in the future.  I lived fast and didn’t die young; what do I do now?  And I had noticed this about my friends because I was going through that same crisis.  So that’s why I wrote Train Wreck Girl.  It’s my way of trying to answer those questions I didn’t really have an answer to.

Most coming of age stories deal with the realization that the world is a lot crueler than we all thought, and that realization generally comes at the end of the adolescent years.  This novel is about the realizations we hit a little later in life, at the end of the dude years.

When did you start writing fiction?

When I was in second grade, I was getting into a lot of trouble because I had a teacher who taught to the dumbest kid in the class, and I wasn’t him.  I was bored all the time, looking to start something.  So my mom gave me a little notebook and told me to write a story in it whenever I was bored.  Ever since then, writing has kept me out of trouble.  More or less.

Has being a publisher at Gorsky Press changed you as a writer?

Yes.  Being a publisher has taught me that the world doesn’t owe me anything just because I wrote a novel.

Does Train Wreck Girl have a message that it’s trying to impart to its readers, or is it strictly entertainment?

First off, I hope it’s entertaining.  That’s the most important thing.  That’s what all the fart jokes are about.  But there are definitely some serious themes that I explore and I hope the reader leaves the book thinking about things they haven’t thought about before.

You’re teaching college these days but you’ve had many varied work experiences. What were some of your favorites and why?

I worked in a school board warehouse for a while and I only had to do about three hours of actual work in an eight hour shift.  The rest of the time, I’d find a remote corner of the warehouse and read the obsolete library books.  It was great.

I also worked in a rock and roll bar for a while, and just about everything we did was illegal.  I don’t think we had a liquor license or even a business license.  Everything was cash, right down to the kickbacks we gave the police department bi-weekly and the five-dollar bills we gave to the crackheads to mop the cement floor after the shows.  All of my favorite local bands played while I was working there, and even a few of my favorite out-of-town bands.

I liked being a carpenter, too.  It was very fulfilling to walk onto an empty slab on a Monday morning and see the frame of a house on that slab by Friday afternoon.

Do you surf?

Yes.  I started surfing about twenty-five years ago, when I weighed ninety pounds and the tiny Florida waves could push me around.  Some of my best memories of Florida are attached to the names of storms.  Like, I remember the day after Hurricane Floyd swept through Cocoa Beach, I kept checking the waves every couple of hours until the water was calm enough to actually paddle out into.  And just about everyone in town had evacuated before the storm hit, so when I did get out to where the waves were breaking, there were just two other surfers and me and all the overhead waves we could surf.

Now I live between a few world class breaks in southern California, so I don’t have to wait for a tropical storm for the waves to be good.  I still surf a couple times a week, if I can.  I surf more in the winter when the waves are better.

Other Possible Titles, Part 2

I always like to learn about novel titles that were rejected.  One of the possible titles for Thomas Pynchon’s V. was Of a Fond Ghoul.  It’s absolutely the wrong title for that book, but a great title nonetheless.  With regard to Train Wreck Girl, I had a ton of titles.  The final one came very late.  At no point in the composition process did I have that title in mind.

As a way of adding a blooper sections to the novel, here’s a list of prospective titles with some commentary attached:

Crazy Broads and Dead People
In 2000, I wrote the draft of a novel with the same characters and same basic plot as Train Wreck Girl.  I called that novel Crazy Broads and Dead People.  For a number of reasons, the novel was as bad as its working title.  I finally gave up on the novel in 2003.  A couple of years later, I decided that the characters were good and I liked the basic plot, so I used them to write a new novel.  I started from a blank Word document and completely rewrote the book.  I didn’t reread the original manuscript.  I didn’t even dig it out of the box in the garage where it may have been (provided I hadn’t thrown it out in the intervening years).

Red Bus Right
There’s a story in Barney’s Crew called “Sid and the Dragon.”  The characters in the story surf at a spot they refer to as the “red bus right” because there’s a red bus on shore and the waves break to the right.  After the book came out, Jack Lopez said to me, “You should’ve called that book Red Bus Right.”  I agreed.  I wish Jack had said that to me before the book came out.  I would’ve changed the title.

This became the working title for Train Wreck Girl.

Toward the end of the novel, Danny dreams of surfing the red bus right.  I stuck it in there just so I could use the title.  It was a little too forced.  When Jennifer at Manic D asked me to scrap it, I was ready to.

The red bus right is actually a real place in Costa Rica, by the way.  My buddy Jimmy Koch and I surfed there several times on a trip we made in the late nineties.  Here’s a picture of it.Red Bus Right

The End of Dude
I’ve already talked about this.  Women tend to hate this title.  I didn’t want to alienate women.

A Special Kind of Stupid
At one point in the novel, the main character’s brother refers to him as a special kind of stupid.  I got this from my father, who would sometimes refer to me as such when I was a kid.  He didn’t say this to be mean.  His point was that I was an intelligent kid, but I tended to stupid things.  And not just stupid things in general, but a very specific kind of stupid thing.  It was his way of trying to teach me to consider my mortality before engaging in extremely dangerous activities.

Danny in Train Wreck Girl is a different kind of stupid, but his stupidity is likewise specific.  All of his mistakes are a result of the exact same flaw in his ideology.  The title seemed to sum up what he was wrestling with.

I knew I couldn’t go with this title because it’s a way of giving book reviewers a weapon.  There’s no way to title a book A Special Kind of Stupid without a book reviewer somewhere using the title as a club to bludgeon the book.

Twilight of the Idles
It’s a pun off Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols.  I was briefly and moderately amused by it.  In the end, though, I never really considered using a pun as a book title.

Darkness and Sweet
I pulled this phrase from a Jim Thompson short story.  When I was writing Train Wreck Girl, the mood of Jim Thompson’s and Chester Himes’s novels was always in the back of my mind.  I wanted to do something as an homage to them.  I don’t remember why this title fell.  It just wasn’t catchy enough, I guess.

Beyond these, there was a long list of titles that I bandied about but never genuinely considered.  There are many puns, many variations using words like barnacle and knucklehead, and many embarrassing ideas.  I’ve listed them below.  I’ll blush and feel a little ashamed every time you read them.

All the rest:

The Break Up of the Monkey Duo

The Way of the Knucklehead

The Wayward Barnacle

The Ingenious Gentleman of Cocoa Beach

Love and Death and the American Knucklehead

The Evils of Betty Boop

Make a Monkey out of Me

Too Late to Die Young

The Knucklehead Chronicles

Love and Death and the American Asshole

The Way of the Barnacle

Shit City

Surf in the Hurricane

Seeing Scars

The Barnacle Chronicles

Surfing the Hurricane

Superheroes and Sidekicks

A Crazy Swamp in the Atlantic

Galaxie Repair

Love and Death in a Surf Ghetto

Bird Trouble

It’s More Fun If You’re Scared

This Only Gets Better

Waste It All on Me

The Face that Launched a Dozen Greyhounds

Alive for a While

Monkey Screams and Rifle Fire

A Rookie Mistake

Love and Death and the American Numbskull

The Droids You’re Looking For

Wild Women and Dead People

Pink Speedo Lambada

Run Away

While the Getting’s Good

The Drunken Barnacle

A Drunken Barnacle and the Exquisite Corpse

The Knucklehead and the Exquisite Corpse

Hurricane Surfers and Dead People

Where the Waves Break

The Four-Hundred-Dollar Tie Rack

Other Possible Titles, Part 1

Titles of novels are always difficult propositions.  Books are often selected on their titles alone.  The dream, for me at least, is to come up with a title that is so compelling it becomes a part of the lexicon: something like Catch-22.  The reality for me is that I sometimes publish books with lame titles like Barney’s Crew.  Somewhere in between those two is Train Wreck Girl.

The first thing Jennifer Joseph at Manic D Press told me when she accepted the novel for publication was, “You have to change the title.”

The title, at the time, was Red Bus Right.

I was out surfing when I cbrad beshaw TWG illustrationame up with the title.  I’d been listening to Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros’ last album and the song “Coma Girl” was stuck in my head.  As I bobbed in the ocean between sets, I thought to myself, “Coma Girl” would be a great title for a book.  I didn’t have any girls in the book who lapsed into a coma.  I did have a girl who got hit by a train.  Hence the title Train Wreck Girl.

I was hesitant to use that title because I hate when people call ordinary, everyday spectacles “train wrecks.”  In particular, when the book came out, mainstream media frequently referred to pop stars or reality stars or movie stars with addictions as “train wrecks.”  It bugged me because train wrecks are genuine spectacles.  They almost never happen.  I’ve never seen one and I don’t know of anyone who has.  If I ever come across a train wreck, I’m going to gawk at that like no one’s business.

Well, first I’ll try to help people, then I’ll gawk.

The point being, train wrecks are very rare.  Moderately famous people who flash their privates at paparazzi or get a DUI are very common.  Gawking at them is more of a car wreck.  That shit happens all the time and it’s not very interesting.

So I was hesitant to use a title that people might associate with Britney Spears or Lindsey Lohan.  My wife loved the title, though, and insisted I send it to my publisher.  I wrote a long list of titles and stuck Train Wreck Girl in the middle of the list.  Jennifer said, “That’s the one.”

The title I was pushing for—I put it at the top of the list and even suggested it again when Jennifer selected Train Wreck Girl—was The End of Dude.

My wife said, “I wouldn’t read a book called that.”

Jennifer said the same thing.  As did every woman I told the title to.

 Sometimes, writers have to know when to compromise.  In the end, I’m sure it was the right decision.