Because Writing About Writing is What Writers Do

Somehow, it’s reached a point these days where you aren’t really considered a writer unless you’re writing about writing. I can’t really say whether that’s good or bad. Perhaps because I don’t know, but more likely because I avoid reading most of them. One might deem this tutorial littering of the internet a consequence of self-publication, in that everyone who wants to see their book in print (or on a Kindle or whatnot), can then take to their respective blog (or blob, if you’re my mother, bless her heart) and detail all the ways in which you can achieve whatever level of success they deem they have attained.

Again, good or bad, I don’t know. This is just a truth we all have to accept. Maybe there’s useful information out there that can help you. Maybe there isn’t. No idea. I mean, I can’t tell you what the Onion is writing about today because I haven’t read it. I know it’s funny though. I can guarantee that. And it’s there. There is far better than not.  Just like writing a book. It will always be better to you if it is there than if it is not.

There you go. Hallelujah, praise Timmy Christ, and may the force be with you. My writing lesson of the day. If you don’t write a book, you don’t have a book you have written. Genius. I have now joined the ranks of pseudo-professional writers who have blogged about writing. I am nearly complete as a human being. I’m one drunken tour of Scotland’s Pub of the Day Club away from ascension.

So, what do you do? How do you decide whether the advice you’re getting is advice you should be taking? Look, the truth is–the thing you need to know before taking this whole writing thing to the next level–there’s no such thing as a simplification of writing that any one person can offer. As with life, the process of learning about writing is an extensive and exhaustive process. One blog, one book, cannot cover what you need to know. Yet here you are, all engrossed in my words, or perhaps just hiking your way across the internet one click at a time, so allow me to illustrate my point in as simplified a way as I can so you only have to read one blog about it. Then you’ll know everything you need to know about writing. Ready?

Writing is hard.

Boom. You’re welcome.

Ok, so maybe that was too concise. But the truth remains. Are there varying levels of talent in which writing becomes less hard? Absolutely. Tom Robbins forged a career out of his brilliance, tapping one mind after another with a skilled hand that is not so much stratospheric as it is alien. Yet, he wrote every manuscript by hand, working on each individual sentence until it was exactly what it needed it to be. He didn’t use word counts. He just let the work tell him when he was done. Which is not “as easy as that.” That’s fucking hard. That insane-level genius. Sure, it comes easier to him than it does to most everyone else, but his easy isn’t easy for him. It’s grueling.

Writing will kick you to hell and back, then wait for you to stand so it can kick you around some more. It’s a giant sponge sucking all your time and energy, then squeezing it down the drain while letting you know it’ll be right back k thanks. It’s something that requires you to spend more time in a world that doesn’t exist than the one you’re supposed to be living in. It offers you an array of friends you can’t live without then scoffs at your genie-in-a-bottle wish that they were real. It tempts you with hope, then insists you proceed with squashing all level of hope anywhere and everywhere for everyone you create, and, shamed though you are to admit it, love. It coaxes you with the allure of wealth, readership by the millions, adoration and praise, then leaves you with a waste basket of rejection and the realization that you have yet to leave the workforce, and probably won’t anytime soon. Writing is your mistress, and it won’t be satisfied with an occasional text. It wants all of you, but it doesn’t want you to stay over, and it sure as hell doesn’t want to be anything else. It wants you to succeed, it needs you to succeed, but it doesn’t stop badgering you just because you don’t.

And you know what? You love it. You revel in it. You slosh around in your misery like a pig in filth. You devour the entire helping of writing for the pure gluttony of it, then dive into the fridge with an appetite for more. Writing is that friend you can’t live without, and it both is and isn’t there with you at every waking moment. It is the single greatest love-hate, abusive relationship you will ever know, and it will inspire you to journey into the greatest, most wonderful, corners of your mind, where mystery and fantasy burn like wildfire, where romance and seduction beat like a heart, and where the entire universe is willing to bow to the supreme truth of 42.

This is what you want. This is why you believe you exist. This is why most of your earth-based friends and family have difficulty understanding you. This is why you creep people out in crowded spaces as you stare off into alternate realities, completely unaware of your surrounding, or of the uneasiness you leave those in your path. This … this insanely hard, difficult, maddening, bitch of an art, is why everything matters, and why every struggle is survived, every fear faced, every trace of indignity of self ignored.

If not, you can stop looking for advice on writing. You can stop worrying about improving. Just write. Do your blog thing, keep a journal, write whatever your kids or family seem to want to hear, but leave the advice on the shelf, leave the expectations be.

Because writing is hard.

And quitting it is impossible.

Charles in Charge and Writing Do Not Mix

Sometimes I’ll do anything I can to avoid writing. I’ll run from the computer like it’s a Charles in Charge reunion special. Reading, destroying brain cells on Facebook, over-managing my fantasy baseball teams, catching up on baseball news I already knew, Words With Friends, walks, shopping, driving, sitting on the patio like a grown man in time-out, harassing the cat … name it. It runs contrary to the idea writing is my passion, my life, I know, but I do it regardless. Not because I’m afraid to write. Rather, because I’m afraid to write badly.

On the surface it’s an absurd statement. It reeks of a failure in confidence. If you’re afraid to write, avoiding it for any reason, then perhaps writing isn’t for you, right? However, I don’t lack confidence in my writing. Though I’m no savant and have a great deal yet to learn, I’ve worked hard on my craft. Besides, Publisher’s Weekly thought well of me. Shouldn’t I? My issue, though, isn’t with my talent, or my ability to weave a compelling tale, or whether or not what I’m about to type will be pure crap. The ‘delete’ key takes care of that. If not, editing exists for a reason. What I’m afraid of is producing work that floats off into the ether like space debris: forgotten and forever to orbit in the dark vacuum of nothingness. Perhaps that means it was bad, perhaps it doesn’t. Sometimes you can feel so damned positive you’ve written something great–or at the least good–only to watch it wander into an uncaring world that as much notices it as avoids it altogether.

Maybe that doesn’t qualify it as bad, exactly, but as a writer it becomes difficult to separate good from bad when feedback is non-existent.  Sure, you get some words of encouragement from those who know you, or from other writers, or beta-readers, or even your Publisher/Editor/Agent. They like it. They praise you in widely generic ways. They might even specifically site an instance in your work they particularly liked. Which makes you smile. It makes you proud. It gives you that momentary feeling of heroic wonder. Then it becomes print, you talk about it through various social media portals, maybe you have some events, and you wait for the accolades and reader reviews. And wait. And wait. Ultimately, the silence invades your mind, leaving a gap in your defenses wide enough for an F5 tornado of doubt to plow a destructive path through your pristine landscape of ignorant bliss.

No matter how much you talk it up, nobody’s talking back. Your book sucks. It must. It has to. You re-read it. It doesn’t feel as sublime as the last time you looked it through. Are you no longer blind to the truth, or have you allowed silence and doubt to insert their impression in your head? What does that mean for your current manuscript? Should you suspend writing in order to review what you’ve written? Will this unedited piece of unfinished potential crap offer you insight as to why your recent work is failing? Or are you over-thinking it? Of course, you can go to your Publisher/Editor/Agent for advice, but they’ll tell you to cool your jets, this kind of thing happens all the time. But no, you think, this is happening to me. It wasn’t supposed to. My book was good.

Or was it?

It’s troubling to think all this can cross through the mind in a fraction of a second. Even more troubling, however, is the anticipation it can and might likely happen to your work-in-progress–before you’ve even finished it. You have constructed a fully viable, fully entrenched, vision of your manuscript’s future while it still doesn’t even know how it will end. The characters are gathering for an intervention and you’re in the corner wallowing about how nobody will ever care about anything you write. Ever. I suppose if I were a parent, I might better understand this, or how to cope with it. My cat doesn’t inspire worry. Her naps will always be quality naps.

So, I’ll stare at the computer screen, eyeing the open Internet tabs, finger ready to open Scrivener. I might read what I have to that point, if I haven’t wandered off already. Maybe pack the laptop and head out for coffee, read it there. Maybe take a drive to hunt for inspiration. It doesn’t happen all the time, and generally by the time I’ve begun typing, my fears have waned. My characters are at the forefront. I’m a God, moving pieces, orchestrating fates, divining obstacles. All is good. My work is good. My story is good. My book, so far, is good.

I’m a writer. I don’t write simply because I can. I write to entertain, to bring something to someone’s life they will enjoy and share. It’s narcissistic, cathartic, inspiring, and humbling. I like to imagine a God, creating a Universe, filling worlds with living creatures, molding paths, futures, destinies, holding arms to Heavens when the job is done, with a notable “Huh? Awesome, right?” expression. That God would be bummed if even the crickets went silent. I guess it’s okay for me to be as well.

I just need to keep writing.

Maybe a drive first, though.

The Peaceful Madness

A writer breeds madness.

Truthfully, this could be said of any artist. Any Creator. We are gods, after all, desperate to create worlds in which we’d much rather be, sculpting rules and destinies from the jagged peaks of our imagination, reforming the memories of our past and the hopes of our future into triumphant tales of heroic adventure. We write the code for the program, doing so with a reckless arrogance, ignoring reality in favor of the most favorable path to redemption. Not simply for our heroes, but for ourselves. And when we step away from our narcissistic free-for-all, we find bills, hunger, war, political mudslinging, and for many–loneliness beyond repair.

Something happens in the process that alters us forever. We begin to long for the worlds we created.  We begin to hunger to complete the stories, to enhance the landscapes, to better realize this fantastic scope through which we peer. Reality becomes less real. Fantasy more believable. Either word seems insufficient and life gets twisted somewhere in between. We find more time to stare through windows on scenes so far removed we appear to be catatonic, or angry, or one Sugar Snap away from inviting Dig ’em for a lengthy stay.

Our worlds live and breathe in our minds, taking on a life of their own; and though we see the world as perfect, the characters as family, we find the words lacking. Not simply because we doubt their ability to convey, or because they are insufficient or weak, but because they don’t breech the boundaries of space and time. They don’t open a portal to our worlds. They don’t allow us to escape. So we keep writing, we keep creating, we keep building, hoping to find something of our fantasy within the reality we are trapped.

We never do. Yet, the desperation is a madness we crave, the only place in which we truly find peace.

There are times I find this idea unsettling, depressing, an incurable infectious disease in which small pieces of my brain melt helplessly away by the day. Then I find things like this in my work:

“It is apparent to me now there is less between imagination and reality than I dared dream. I wonder at times if closing my eyes will be the end of me, or if I can never truly begin until the world fades to black. Therein lies the deceit of lightness and dark: They serve your need, or leave you mired in blindness, unable to distinguish truth from lie.”

And I realize my madness can manifest in beautiful ways. My characters can trumpet my words in ways I will never be able. My stories can bring civility to the war between the lightness and dark; and though I may never step foot in the worlds I create, I can give them life, hope, and a path to fulfillment. I can give them–with due struggle and pain–all that I want for myself. I will give them a life that pushes what they can handle, but allows them a heroic end. A Happily Ever After. I know their path through and through. I don’t know mine.

I can only hope, when my final second ticks and the clock draws into silence, I have left words that resonate. Words that, beyond belief, beyond the bounds of reality, have given life to worlds that will always be visited by eager minds. Perhaps then I will truly know peace.

So I write and I dream, and I hope that somewhere, in some world, there is someone writing my story, smiling at my ways, counting the days until I can be the hero I was created to be.

(Insert Non-Snarky Humorless Title About Self-Publishing Here)

I try to be serious. Really, I do. I’m just not very good at it. My mind wanders, and I start thinking about all the things I could fit in a can of peanuts. Minus the peanuts, of course. I’m not stupid, after all. Then, my once proud, informative, title about a forthcoming Self-Publishing seminar turns into The Devil is in the Peanuts, or 100 Ways to Freak Out Your Cat With an Empty Peanut Can, or the more functional There is No Peanut, Only Zuhl. None of those have anything to do with Self-Publishing. I can see no amount of philisophical twisting that will bind my peanut to the topic. Yet, I persist, and now I have a full paragraph about nothing but my wandering mind’s affixation with an empty peanut can. So…

Riiiiiiggght

 

Yeah.

Anyway, my point was to talk up an upcoming event that is useful to all you local writery type people in the area. Saturday, June 7th, from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. in the Decatur Library AuditoriumThe Georgia Center for the Book will be hosting a seminar on Self-Publishing, moderated by my inconsistently focused brain and whatever function of my physical self I can pull together on that day. We’ve assembled a panel of four gifted and knowledgable minds to discuss the various points of the Self-Publication process, and whether or not it’s the right course for you to take. Whether you’re waffling over Self-Publication vs. the Commercial Industry, wondering about the pros and cons of staying digital via the ebook, starting your own Indie Press, or simply overwhelmed by the sheer volume of Self-Publication possibilities and in need of some clarity, you’re going to want to join us.  The Publishing Industry is in flux, after all, and having the chance to further your understanding of where you should take that manuscript you’ve worked so hard on is essential. Maybe you find that you’d rather stick to the grind of finding an agent, seeking that Big Publisher Contract, and letting the process carry you forward. Excellent! Our panel is well-versed in that process too! Ask all the questions you want! After all, there’s a great deal of benefit in staying the course, and having the opportunity to explore your options will only bring you greater confidence in that decision. However, even notable authors, such as Daniel Wallace (Big Fish), have explored the Self-Publishing route.  Wallace has found a great following for his latest work, pitched through the crowdfunding website InkShares. The Hybrid Author has the choice, from manuscript-to-manuscript: Commercial or Indie?

What you need are options. To better understand those options, you need information. That’s what this seminar aims to offer. Now’s the time to chase your dream, in whatever form you wish it to take. With knowledge comes great power. Or more peanuts in your can. HEY! I just tied it together!

Good job, brain.

So, short of yammering on about all-the-things-not-topical, I present you with the four esteemed guests who wish to fill your head with peanuts (Get it? The Empty Can is now your head! Because … just … never mind.).

S.R. Johannes

  S.R. Johannes

 

S.R JOHANNES is the award-winning author of the Amazon bestselling thriller series, the Nature of Grace, featuring the titles Untraceable, Uncontrollable, and Unstoppable. She is the winner of the 2012 IndieReader Discovery Awards (Young Adult category) as well as a Silver medalist in the IPPY awards for YA Fiction. She was nominated for 2012 Georgia Author of the Year (Young Adult category), a Finalist in The Kindle Book Review’s Best Young Adult of 2012, and a YA Finalist in the US Book News Best Book of 2012. 

 

 

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley

 

COLLIN KELLEY is the author of the novels Conquering Venus and Remain in Light, which have just been re-issued in new editions by Sibling Rivalry Press. His poetry collections include Better to Travel, Slow to Burn, After the Poison and Render, chosen by the American Library Association for its 2014 Over the Rainbow Book List. A short story collection, Kiss Shot, is available exclusively for the Amazon Kindle. A recipient of the Georgia Author of the Year Award, Deep South Festival of Writers Award and Goodreads Poetry Award, Kelley’s poetry, essays and interviews have appeared in magazines, journals and anthologies around the world. He is currently writing his third novel, Leaving Paris.

 

Bill Bridges

Bill Bridges

 

BILL BRIDGES is an award-winning writer and narrative designer of numerous games. He was one of the original developers of White Wolf’s World of Darkness and is the co-creator and developer of the Fading Suns science-fiction universe. He is a Fellow at Atlanta’s Mythic Imagination Institute.

 

 

 

 

Barbara Friend Ish

Barbara Friend Ish

 

BARBARA FRIEND ISH is the author of the Compton Crook Award Finalist novel The Shadow of the Sun and the 2015 novel The Heart of Darkness. She moonlights as Publisher and Editor-in-Chief for Mercury Retrograde Press. Books edited by Barbara have been covered by Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Locus Magazine, and electronic and print outlets worldwide. Her cats run her life.

 

 

The seminar will begin at 11, running for an hour as I lead the panel through a section of questions. We’ll break for 30 minutes, come back and devote the final hour and a half to your questions. Each of the panelists will be available after the seminar, should you have any further questions, or wish to purchase any of thier books. If you have any questions about the seminar, you can email me at steelez@dekalblibrary.org.

Hope to see you there!

Russ Eat Meat

This whole Talking About Wordsmiths thing is at a merciful end. Its intended purpose–to purge the final glistening dew drop from the leaf of my life (whatever that means)–has been fulfilled, as I find myself lacking the desire to post anything further. I’ll drop some pictures with brief captions tomorrow, in an effort to blast the final tidbits of favorable memory into the ether, and to honor those who meant more to my efforts than they might realize, but I think this will be it.

I can think of no better way to finish it.

I previously detailed the launch night of Anointed as one of my favorite nights. Though I must admit to the self-centered affixation to that’s night’s purpose, I can’t deny the book launch portion was but a reason why it was my favorite night. You see, Wordsmiths Books became the ring for a rather entertaining (and, admittedly, one-sided) tug of war. One that carried on like a fifty round bout, no ref in sight to stop the continual beatdown suffered by one of the contestants. Or better, it was like watching a train wreck, plane crash, and hundred-car pile-up, all rolled into one, unable to turn away, unwilling to ask why it must go on in perpetuity. It was mesmerizing.

Enter the ring, one Joe Davich. Undefeated. Unbeaten. Indestructable.

The Undisputed Featherweight Champion of the Verbal Smackdown

The Undisputed Featherweight Champion of the Verbal Smackdown.

His opponent, his defensive retorts weighing in at an unprecedented, and immeasurable, Zero G, Russ Marshalek.

Um...

Um…

Every war has an end. Every skirmish a victor. Every moment, a future defined. On February 22nd, 2009, the verbal spat that was Davich v. Marshalek came to a climactic conclusion, on the stage of Wordsmiths Books, before a captivated audience of 150. It will forever be known (by at least one local, who flings it with regularity every time he sees me) as the day the world paused in reflection, uttering the words “Russ Eat Meat” with nary a clue as to what they meant.

Setting the ground rules only encouraged the wine, and the whine.

Setting the ground rules only encouraged the wine, and the whine.

Content is unecessary. In fact, ask me to recount the round by round commentary, and I’ll stare at you blankly for a time, finally bringing myself to say only, “Joe won,” with a notable shiver. I don’t remember the punches. I only remember the result.

I can offer for certainty that Russ fought with great resolve, challenging his opponent with cited passages in defense of … well, no idea really. In defense of something.

The Defense

Joe responded, as only Joe can.

"Dear God, Mother Mary and Madonna" was uttered a few dozen times.

“Dear God, Mother Mary and Madonna” was uttered a few dozen times.

His counter left Russ reeling, coiling into a bottle like an infant to the teet.

At some point, you just have to forgo the glass.

At some point, you just have to forgo the glass.

Posters were brandished, slogans were uttered, Marisha Pessl was slandered, people laughed, people cried (out loud as part of laughter perhaps, but still), I was amused, the wine vanished. In the end, the champion stood, proud and victorious, stepping from the stage with a haughty grin, parting the crowd like Queen Elizabeth (for a more detailed description of anything Queen Elizabeth ever did, please see Sir Davich), off to celebrate his long-sought dominion over the defeated Wonderboy.

If not smug if you're Joe.

It’s not smug if you’re Joe. Neither is it ever misspelled.

It was a great night. A fitting end to a store that was about more than just selling books. It was a sitcom without cameras, a novel without a writer, an entertaining home without a pug. It took a great deal to organize (actually it just took a customer telling the two of them to put up their Hello Kitty purses and hash it out on stage, which was a glorious moment for all), a tremendous amount of wine, and a propoganda war unlike any ever seen, but it happened nonetheless.

Wordsmiths Books: Wage your verbal war on our stage. Please. We’re bored.

How to Count to Five in Eight Easy Numbers

A couple of things up front. First, my “every day with a blog about Wordsmiths” thing didn’t work. I blame the snow. And the logjam of work it piled up in the process. And my need to do actual writing that benefits my future. And side projects I don’t talk about that take up more of my personal time. And Bush. Secondly, I find my titles in the bottom of coffee cups, so don’t blame me if they fail to convert into meaning of any sort, or link to the post I ultimately write.

Nothing is my fault. I am the fault of nothing. The Nothing. Oh, that was a good movie. Like.

There aren’t many days left to February, which means I have only a few more opportunities to write about my wayward bookstore before it’s five-year-closing anniversary sweeps on by. So, some of what I might have written about (which perhaps might not have been that interesting anyway) gets canned like Armageddon Tuna. I don’t know what Armageddon Tuna is, so don’t ask, but I’m sure it makes sense somewhere to someone. Hopefully, they have a can opener. The rest of the process of opening and closing a bookstore is really just a matter of money anyway. Or, lack thereof. Having cited how the store got behind at the outset, I don’t think there’s much mystery left. Quite a lot less than, say, how I can write a heartfelt post about Wonderboy, and not hear a peep from him about it. That’s quite mysterious to me.

Take away the stress-laden nausea-inducing daily grind of owning Wordsmiths Books, and what I’m left to talk about are a few standout moments, and a few exceptional people. Maybe I’ll find the time to go one more post deep about the inner mechanics. Maybe not. Maybe I’ll drink more coffee and see if my dog’s empathetic beacon fries. Beacon fries? Bacon fries. Whoa. Want.

Bacon. The momentum killer.

Where was I?

Um.

Dunno. My brain just completely stopped.

Well, regardless, I know what I had planned on writing about, so let’s a get a move on.

In addition to the forthcoming Closing-Date anniversary, there’s a far more pleasant anniversary to celebrate. Five years ago tonight, Wordsmiths Books held its final event. There are a great many things about that night I will always remember, but saying farewell to my employees as they passed through the door a final time (I was to work the last week alone…it just seemed appropriate, and a bit necessary to be honest) was heart wrenching.  I knew I’d see most of them again, true, but it didn’t lessen the blow. They were my family. Another memory involves a debate on the stage, which is easily my favorite moment ever in the entire run of Wordsmiths, and the next post in line. So, stick that in your pocket for now. The event that night, however, marked something special for me. It marked the launch of Anointed.

Best pile of books ever.

Best pile of books ever.

For the first time, with more than 100 people in attendance–friends, family, and some devoted customers as well–I read published work of mine in public. It served as a nice transition into my post-bookstore life. Closing the doors while opening a new set. Despite what I knew was to come less than a week later, the building was filled with laughter, smiles, cheerful conversation, hope. I couldn’t have scripted a better end. I closed out the brief but notable tenure of the Wordsmiths stage, overextending my reading like an uncomfortable goodbye, signing books, offering the store banner for everyone to sign, and somehow being far too busy to eat some of the best cookies ever made (which were made by The Moss, who found herself in my life almost two years later, cookie recipe along with, so I win). If the best thing to come of opening Wordsmiths was that night, then all the stress was worth it. Granted, it wasn’t the best thing, but it surely hit the top (insert arbitrary number not to exceed five here).

Anointed isn’t the best thing I’ll ever write, but it’s entertaining, was well reviewed, and had strangers tweeting and writing about their enjoyment in it. Likewise, Wordsmiths Books isn’t the best thing I’ll ever do in my life, but it had an impact, was well received, and created a family full of generous memories I’ll treasure forever. Though I’m ready to let go of the pain, I’ll never let go of those memories, of my people, or of the smile I get every time I see the logo.

Wordsmiths Logo

The (Book)Life and Times of Wonderboy

There is told the tale of a young man who would one day be the hero of an entire bookstore. Head strong and full of hope, he toiled in the bowels of retail, suffering at the behest of a mighty overlord, packed with his clansmen on a yellow bus heading at breakneck speed toward finality. This young man fought for his survival, tying his fate to that of another, whose entrepreneurial plan for escape whet the young man’s burgeoning need to be free, to bring order to the chaotic world of books. Finding peace within his newly unshackled chains, this young man set forth on a path few would ever walk, eyes set upon the blazing trail of wonder before him. He came to know that path as a facet of self, an enigma of soul, and from the fire within was born a new identity. A masked avenger. A vigilante of Event Coordination. Those who knew him called him Wonderboy, and a legend was born.

Immediately his impact was felt. An empty stage hosted a cadre of poets, local authors and musicians. The People were pleased. Publicists took note. Wine was had. People got tipsy. A List was built. Mere months after donning the Mask of Almost-Justice-Like-Kind-of-Action, simple names evolved into Notable Artists. St. Vincent, Amy Sedaris, Ani DiFranco, Rob Sheffield, Dan Kennedy, Tracy Chevalier, James Rollins, R.A. Salvatore, Fonzworth Bentley, Katie Crouch, Frank Delaney, Stuart Woods, Final Fantasy, Christopher Moore, Virginia Willis, and Richard Blais, just to name a few. He gave birth to slam-dunk fan favorites, giving the eager public Open Mic Nights, Wizard Rock, the Black and Red Prom, Storytime for Grown-ups, and so much more.

What once was but a bookstore had become a haven of entertainment. Wonderboy done did good.

Pretty fancy stuff, huh?

I always thought so. I suppose, at this point, it’s all right to reveal the identity of the masked wunderkind known as Wonderboy. After all, he has some new Hipster Musician in Brooklyn identity thing going. Silent Rape Drummers, or something, for a while, getting tons of attention for his bizarre but entertaining re-soundtracking of Twin Peaks. Now he’s in a Place Both Wonderful and Strange, which perhaps brings him full circle, since Wordsmiths was always wonderful and strange. It was also a place. Kudos, fate. Well played.

Russ Marshalek was Wordsmiths Books number one hire, a vital cog to everything Wordsmiths would become. I would have been nothing without his help, and Decatur would have suffered a loss it never knew it needed to recover from had he not taken the job as my Events Coordinator. He took a hell of a lot of grief from me (and a certain other individual with a flair for the dramatic whose one-on-one debate on the Wordsmiths stage was perhaps the defining moment of the store and a blog topic to come), but he trudged on, doing what he did, making the store more than I could have dreamed. I owe him a lifetime of thanks. He owes me a burrito. Or something. There has to be some balance here. After all, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be so important to me had I not hired him in the first place.

Sure, Wordsmiths didn’t make it. But it wasn’t the fault of Wonderboy. What he did few could have. It’s vital people remember that. I know I will. Danke, mein Freund.

Wonderboy can rest easy knowing, once more, he has saved the day.

Wonderboy can rest easy knowing, once more, he has saved the day.

Don’t Start a Marathon With Lead In Your Shoes

Wordsmiths Books opened on June 15th, 2007 in the old Post Office, an absolutely beautiful historic building in the heart of downtown Decatur. There’s a candy shop there now. It are yummy. You must go and support these people, because chocolate. Between the white marble exterior, the wooden floors and exposed brick, I was in love. Yes, I know, I’ve said I will always view the store’s second location as the true home of Wordsmiths, but from a sheer pretty vs. practical standpoint, the old Post Office had the Sun Trust building up against the ropes in the first ten seconds of the first round.

Sorry, that was a boxing reference. Book people aren’t sports-minded. I should know better by now.

I’ve heard from a number of people already regarding the this location vs. that location debate, and it seems the vast majority preferred the Post Office. I did too, but I also didn’t, in a my vision vs. the execution/reality way. Got it? No? Lemme ‘splain. The Post Office truly did offer all I wanted out my vision of what Wordsmiths was to be. Though I wanted to be directly on the square, and though I had grand plans for the Sun Trust building we ultimately found ourselves within, the space of the old Post Office cried out for a landmark. It needed charm and presentation, an audience to marvel over its architectural grace. It also was spacious–far more than was needed–offering the opportunity to grow and expand within a space that didn’t require a massive renovation. Everything about the layout of the store, the event space, the spot where a cafe should have been, the loft office space, front room meeting space…perfect. However, a problem presented itself right out of the gate.

It was mid-April and I was in a time crunch. Wordsmiths had begun as a two-man operation out of an office space not far away. The lease was set to expire. I needed a new home and only had a week plus (at best) to find it. It made no sense to suspend the opening of the store, as the loan for its operation had just been approved. On the original schedule, I would have closed on a lease for the Sun Trust building the third week of April, taking over first week of May, but as detailed, the negotiations stalled and broke down over the length of that lease. I scrambled to the back up, having little to no levarage in my negotiations on the Post Office. The owner was, shall we say, terse and inflexible regarding the terms. I found myself in a dilemma. Take the terms, which required two months up front (plus security, plus first month…you get the drift, a hell of a lot of money requiring the sacrifice of the planned for cafe), or suspend the opening and seek a new location while trying to find a way to make the money needed to keep up with the bank note. Originally, I envisioned a two-to-three-month prep for opening, targeting mid-to-late-July to introduce the store to the public. That left a gap in which I still had the bank note, but without the pressing fear of having no location. I chose the terms.

Despite the glorious run of Wordsmiths in the Post Office, it turned out to be the worst decision I could have made. Hampered by the unplanned for departure of a good deal of cash, the redesign of Wordsmiths left the revenue stream suffering. No cafe meant relying on books, which is never the best idea for a bookstore’s survival. I bumped the initial inventory of titles, expecting to drop back after the initial selldown, hoping to generate the cash needed to, at least, offer some semblance of a cafe. However, issues arose shotrly after the store opened as the owner began making a buzz to sell the building. She made it clear she would not limit herself to selling to investors only. If someone wanted to buy and occupy, she’d take the deal. Which, as time would tell, is precisely what happened. I have no qualms with the family that bought it, they did quite a lot more than they needed to ease the transition. I don’t blame them at all for wanting their business there. However, it became clear investing in a cafe of any size would merely be a waste of resources, so my revenue stream would be what it was; I’d have to make it up elsewhere. Unfortunately, that elsewhere didn’t materialize. Right out of the gate, Wordsmiths fell behind. Having to move 10 months later only worsened the stabbing pain of increasing debt.

So, you see, when I say I view the Sun Trust building as the true home of Wordsmiths, it’s because I know what it had been planned to be–the Vision, if you will–and realize that failing to secure the lease on that space placed the store into immediate, and unecessary, jeopardy. A one-year lease would have been preferable. All hindsight, of course, but enough so to leave a jaded sting when I ponder the value of that opening location.

If I had the money, and that building was again for sale, I would snatch it up in a flash. I love it. It’s grand. It’s historic. It is the true Ghost of Wordsmiths Books.

Wordmiths Books in the historic Post Office. We told everyone how cool it was to be a part of this Decatur historical landmark, but really we just thought we'd be able to read your mail. Nobody said we were smart.

Wordmiths Books in the historic Post Office. We told everyone how cool it was to be a part of this Decatur historical landmark, but really we just thought we’d be able to read your mail. Nobody said we were smart.

 

You Can’t Buy a Car With Cookies

There’s a line in Edward Scissorhands that a friend of mine and I recycle ad naseum. I tried to find a clip, to offer some sense of context, but, alas, ear wax.

It appears this is movie/book line today. I believe there is a limit of two. Moving on.

If you’ve seen the movie, maybe you remember it. If you haven’t, make a date of it. One of the best movies ever. EVER. Pompous Ass Boyfriend Anthony Michael Hall is sitting with Demure Confused Girlfriend Winona Ryder at her family’s dinner table, as her Beligerent Opinionated Father rants about responsibility. He says something, Winona groans or whines. He rants some more, points a finger at AMH, and this happens:

“You can’t buy a car with cookies, can you, Jim?”

“No, sir. You sure can’t.”

So maybe it doesn’t work as well here. That’s why I wanted the clip. I also want financial freedom. And some cookies.

Anyway, the point here is that you need certain things in order to accomodate certain other things, and cookies are not always the answer, no matter how many yummy extras you jam inside them.

Likewise, if you wish to open a bookstore, you need employees who will make it soar. I’ve worked for people who felt any body tossed into the fray will do the trick, but the book game is slightly more targeted than, say, a grocery store or fancy sign twirler dude on a street corner. Bookstores need a knowledgeable staff. Friendly would be nice, approachable even, but neither is necessary. I think most people would agree to being less than shocked if they approached a bookseller, asked for help, with said bookseller then hustling off, face red, to disappear behind a curtain. Book people are generally introverted. It’s why they don’t sell cars. Or go to That Kind of Party.

When I opened Wordsmiths, I didn’t want bodies to fill time slots. I wanted a family. I wanted people I could count on. I wanted to know my customers would always find a voice to guide them through the overwheming cacophany of screaming titles (That’s right. I said titles scream. What are you going to do about it, huh?). It’s one thing to recommend a title that’s been selling. It’s another to passionately sell an author to a new reader. Sure. it’s important to say hello, and have a nice day, and how are you, and why is this phone still ringing; but what truly matters is everything that comes between. It’s the conversation about books that create loyal customers, that make your store worth remembering. I wanted people with great humor, snark, insight and depth to their personality.

I wound up with this:

I did not hire the woman in the black dress, but that would have been kinda awesome, right?

I did not hire the woman in the black dress, but that would have been kinda awesome, right?

There were a few faces that didn’t make this shot, either by virtue of working a day a week, or by not yet arriving, or having not voluteered to work on a night that AMY FREAKIN’ SEDARIS WAS IN THE STORE, but I will always see this as the core of the Wordsmiths clan. Each one brought something valuable to the store. Each one had their place. And I remain in contact with every single one (except for a notable exception that will forever just be referred to as The Woman) to one degree or another.

A bookstore needs its family.

I definitely found mine.

Words In a Box Weigh Heavy

If you ever have a chance to move a bookstore by yourself, don’t.

I made a number of mistakes during the run of Wordsmiths. A lot of them were up front. One of them was not hiring at least one guy who could lift a box of books without tumbling down a flight of stairs. I don’t know, maybe I’m asking too much at this point. There aren’t a lot of physically gifted book nerds in the world, after all, are there? Regardless, the only reason this point has relevance is because one of my other mistakes was not working harder to get the bookstore in the location I wanted to begin with.

The square in downtown Decatur is a charming place. Home to a number of Atlanta’s finest eateries with an endless supply of drink options, unique shops, coffee shops, a MARTA station, beautiful architecture, and as many events as they can cram into that space over the course of a year. It’s hoppin’ is what I’m saying, in case you drifted a bit and began thinking about your next meal. The Arts Festival, Beer Festival, Wine Festival, Beach Party, July 4th Fireworks, and much more, bring thousands of people right there, on the Square, businesses reaping the benefit. And for a bookstore, there is no greater gold than Labor Day weekend, when the Decatur Book Festival arrives. 75,000 (or more) people fill the Square, with books on the mind, and money in their wallet. It is the weekend we long for, our Christmas crammed into three days. If you, as business, aren’t on the Square, then to those who visit, you just aren’t there. Plain and simple. Not when that many people are vying for space, unwilling to wander too far away.

So…my mistake. We’ll call it Mistake #1 on a list that, at last count, has no end.

In my talks with the city, two main buildings were targeted. The first, the old Sun Trust building on the Square, basically ended the conversation for me. That was it. The place. The main floor still housed the ghost of the old bank, longing for something sight-worthy, memorable, befitting of such an historic place. It had a vault, right there in the open, a haven for the creative mind. There were offices, primed to be culled out as book nooks. There were chandeliers, pillars, and so much character. It needed Wordsmiths. I had grand plans at first, far too grand actually. I scaled them back (which if you visited the store might make you wonder how, or what in the world I might have thought was bigger than what I wound up with), focused on the space, and entered negotiations with the building’s owner.

Now, I’m not here to disparage the man. Allow me to make that clear. But–and this is no secret to those who knew him–he was no genius. In fact, to my misfortune, I was the first individual he managed a continued conversation with about leasing the space. Ever. Most people wandered off after “Hello” and “It will cost you THIS MUCH I WILL NEVER BUDGE.” Then again, this was my first leap into a lease negotiation as well. So, there we were, two people with no experience talking about an offer on a lease with no basis of negotiating comparison. In hindsight (a common refrain you may see here), I should have sought advice. I should have asked for help settling on a deal. But as we hammered away, I let my pride, my vision of the long-term dream of Wordsmiths, get in the way. I allowed us to get hung up on the length of the lease. He wouldn’t budge beyond a one-year lease, I wanted at least two (preferring three). Such a short term left me with an unfavorable possibility: Having to move the store after one year, which I wanted nothing to do with. Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. That’s what I said. Oy vey.

It was full of opportunity, and everything I was looking for.

It was full of opportunity, exactly I was looking for.

Negotiations broke down. He told me he had a number of people lined up, waiting for the space. Not wanting to cave, unwilling to deal with him further, I dropped out, wished him luck finding anyone with a business willing to sign a one-year lease, and moved on. Oh, how I wish I had just taken the lease, proven my worth, and built my store there. I would have saved thousands of dollars. Wordsmiths might still be around. Then again, the economic crush of 2008 might have still done it in. I’ll never know.

The story of our second location is another tale altogether. Though the space was beautiful, and historic, it wasn’t Wordsmiths. It wasn’t what I meant for it to be. And it wasn’t on the Square. Granted, it was only a block plus away, but you’d be amazed how far that is. You’d be amazed how much business you gain being in an impossible-to-miss location. Additionally, it left me with the ultimate choice, as mentioned already, I wanted nothing to do with: I had to move the store a year and half after opening it. And guess what? My Country Bumpkin Owner still hadn’t secured a tenant. So we had a chat. Not the first time we would have a conversation about hindsight. And I signed a one-year lease. Just like I should have done to begin with. I’m not a dumb guy, but I sure seem to do a lot of dumb things.

I didn’t have the resources I needed to convert the space to its original design (one that would have included a small cafe), but it came together nicely. I believe, and tell me I’m wrong if you visited and think otherwise, this is the memory of Wordsmiths Books. This is the image that comes to mind when people tell me they loved the store, when they mention the name to anyone, anywhere. When I think of it, I’m sitting in one of the chairs before the store opens, coffee in hand, taking a long look, staring through the front door, clock ticking steadily above the vault to my rear, smiling at the realization of a dream. I could have lived there forever.

It was everything it should have been in the first place. Or, something like that.

It was everything it should have been in the first place. Um. Yeah. Something like that.