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FRESH DIRT: Scott Nicholson's Journal 3-6/03

June 25, 2003
Somehow I lost several posts that I'm sure were succinct and insightful. I know I've updated this recently but apparently the FTP program fumbled the ball (wonderful that we have all this technology to blame for our failures!) And I've completely forgotten whatever it was I was philosophizing about. It couldn't have been too important.

News: The first chapter of
The Harvest is posted if you want an early taste. Let's see, story "You'll Never Walk Alone" appears in The Book of Final Flesh, the third of Eden Studio's zombie anthology series. In the midst of bookstore mailings for the Harvest tour. and the B&N store computers claim the book's release date is Sept. 28, but it's actually Sept. 2. It may create some havoc in setting up my store signings. An interview with Margaret Maron is posted in the Ghostwriter section.

June 17, 2003
There's something wonderful about how a genre can celebrate its "lowbrow" status yet still maintain a cerebral aloofness about itself. For example, SF writer (sorta) Jim Munroe targets his work as being in the "cultural gutter" in an essay published at Booksense, the central brain and a noble attempt by independent booksellers to stave off the conglomerates. What makes the essay decidedly askew is that his titles (I haven't read his fiction, and can't vouch for quality, etc., but he writes sentences well enough) are published by the esteemed small press outfit Four Walls, Eight Windows. Yes, they are literary SF books, apparently, and that clouds his entire argument. He is as removed from the SF ghettoes as Joyce Carol Oates is removed from the "horror" label, a trade paperback writer in a mass market world. Even the writers linked in the article are of more highbrow SF such as China Mieville and Ted Chiang, award-winning type stuff that has its literary merits touted as much or more than its fantastic qualities.

I love independent bookstores, and support them with my dollars whenever I can, but I think they hurt themselves by taking a high-minded, intellectual approach to bookselling. Perhaps they feel they are better off competing in quality rather than in quantity, but it does smack a little of snobbishness. I've been told by some indies that they won't have me for signings because my books are "in the chains" and that we "can't help each other." I utterly disagree. If indies reached out more to regular book buyers, the impulse shoppers who don't feel the need to impress people with the books they read in the coffee shop, more of the stores would survive and even thrive. Sure, they can't compete on cranking out Potter or Hillary, but they can find those books that even the chains get tired of and actually build their own authors. I know this can be done because I've seen it happen. A single store where the employees are enthusiastic about a book can sell dozens more copies than the place across town that just dumps them on the table for a month. It doesn't even have to be literature that's "good for you." It doesn't even have to be "literature." It can just be a book.

June 15, 2003
At last I have a free moment to reflect on my impressions of New York City. Admittedly, my perceptions were fleeting and skewed by the fact that my exposure was limited to mid-town Manhattan. I went in expecting aggression, rudeness, crime, trash, noise, and graffiti. What I saw was a lot of people doing their own thing and letting everybody else get on with their lives. I saw only three American flags the whole weekend, only one of those on a vehicle. Here, the flag has almost become a symbol of arrogant oppression, to the point where the mere lack of publicly displaying patriotism makes one suspect. I got a sense that New York was over it, the war, the Trade Center, the terrorist fear. They haven't forgotten but they haven't surrendered to paranoia, either. Quite frankly, they restored my faith in the country, which I had been fearing was consuming its own miserable tail through xenophobic nationalism.

What also struck me is the city's residents have something on the ball, energy and optimism and places to be. They don't mill around with cell phones glued to their ears the way so many people do here. The only roadway aggression I saw came from professional drivers, the taxis, buses and shuttles that have been placed in a highly competitive arena. The regular drivers were as patient and polite as those in any of the rural areas I've visited. I loved the diversity and vibrancy of the city, the evolutionary power of the buildings shooting into the sky, the throbbing pulse of a huge, multi-limbed beast. True, I didn't get mugged, or I might be singing a different song. But it's second on my list of favorite places, right behind these here Blue Ridge Mountains.

June 10, 2003
The advance reader copies of The Harvest have arrived and I'll be sending them out over the next week or so along with Pinnacle as soon as we harmonize our strategies. I'm making a more focused regional approach this time and am expanding my signings into Tennessee, Virginia and South Carolina in addition to the Old North State. I've put up a few more promo shot thumbnails for the "Deliverance Banjo Boy" tour. Now I'm eager to actually get back to writing. It's been a while since I've fallen into a serious grind, and I need it for my mental health. I've been getting some acupuncture lately and it's pretty neat. After experiencing some of the cynicism and arrogance that pervades western medicine, I believe it's almost better to die in a state of inner peace than live in the shadow of a doctor's ego.

June 8, 2003
Just back from New York. That is one wild town. I thought I would hate it, but it turns out that I connected with it in a way I never expected. Looking out on the city from a high floor, I got a sense of a huge organic being, every bit as vital and willful as the rolling mountains I see here around home. I look forward to returning someday when I have time to do all the cheesy tourist things. As it was, this mountain boy was sitting by a fountain in Central Park nibbling a knish. Who woulda thunk?

My agent is amazingly cool. I got to meet him for the first time, after about two years as business partners. I met my editor Friday. The Red Church didn't win in its Stoker category, but that's okay. There were some great people at the conference, some truly bizarre moments, and a bunch of stuff that is insignificant. More on all that later. For now, some rest before the return to the weary workaday world.

June 3, 2003
Not much chance to update anything with all this traveling. Got to meet some great writers at ConCarolinas, such as Andy Duncan, David Weber, MM Buckner, Stephen Euin Cobb, and Laura Fowler. I went from Spock ears and medieval combat on Saturday to suits and ties at the Rotary Club this morning, and each were equally alien. I hope to pop in Thursday, trying to fit news around the Nix the Hillbillies campaign and a screenplay rewrite. An advance check showed up yesterday and I'm thinking of getting a car whose wheels don't fall off (which is a constant threat with an old Sabaru). I was hoping to save up and buy a small piece of land but I guess that can happen maybe next year or later if I'm lucky enough to sell another book or get a decent royalty check. Since I've never owned a car that was less than 15 years old, I guess it's time to think about moving into the '90s.

A publicity photo by Marie Freeman for The Harvest campaign is up in the press kit. There were some good ones (despite the worthless subject matter!) and I'll post a few others as thumbnails for press use. This is the one I'll probably send out with my press kits.

May 30, 2003
Off to Charlotte tomorrow for ConCarolinas, a chance to see some good friends and relax a little as well as play "writer" on some panels. I'm also taking some books to give away, stuff I rescued from the cheesy trunk of terror. Unfortunately, some of them got wet in my car and got a little moldy with stuck-together covers. Lots of minor classics. Ah, well, the way of all flesh and that bit. Next week will be extremely busy: A Rotary Club presentation on the Nix the Hillbillies campaign, a trip to Whitesburg, KY, to the Center for Rural Strategies, interview with a major daily newspaper about the campaign, then pack up for New York and the HWA conference on Friday. I must confess I am as excited about seeing the Apple and the Met Museum, and meeting my agent and publisher after two years, as I am about the conference itself.

My article "Square pegs, Triangular Holes" about book genrefication will run at Scifidimensions through June. I've also been playing solo parent for the past few days. Not many dirty dishes: Taco Bell and pizza for dinner, though I do like to cook. Not fussy, fancy meals but three-piece things like chicken, pasta, veggie. One day I hope to master the art of spicing. I usually keep it simple because food is so expensive, though I find myself buying more organic food these days. It has actual taste.

May 27, 2003
Okay, three months to go before the release of The Harvest, time to start the old promo campaign in earnest. I think I've got a good campaign idea, and I'm trying to expand my region a little bit with this one. What's interesting is the roster of horror/suspense mass market paperbacks I'll be competing against that have release dates that same month: Robert McCammon (one new and two re-releases), Douglas Clegg as well as his alter ego Andrew Harper, Richard Laymon (who's the most prolific dead author since L. Ron Hubbard), Bentley Little (perennial competition, since my publisher appears to be positioning me as the Budget Bentley), and Al Sarrantonio, as well as any re-releases my publisher puts out and any OTHER paperbacks from the other major companies, not to mention the usual seasonal slew of small press titles. And it's also the major hardcover release season, getting warmed up for Christmas.

My bookstore contacts tell me all the competition isn't necessarily bad, because it will bring more readers to the stores and probably into whatever section we all happen to be shelved in. My philosophy is that any impulse buyers are a gift from the heavens, and those who find out about the book through my promotional efforts are also extra. And you, my reader and supporter, are the most important and cherished thing I could ever have. Even if you don't buy my books, at least you think enough of me to pop in once in a while and confirm your opinion of my sanity.

May 23, 2003
Just finished revisions for the Triptrap project which will be printed out over the weekend. One last bit of immediate business is to revise the screenplay for "The Manor" and send it into the Chesterfield competition. The Nix the Hillbillies campaign is going well, getting a little interest, and about 130 people downloaded the petition in the first two days. I hope to get some paper copies floating around locally, too. I wish I could take a week and devote to this drive, but I'm very pleased to have given it a decent launch and hope others will pick up the torch.

Took publicity photos yesterday for The Harvest campaign, theme of "Deliverance banjo boy with a typewriter." It's amazing how synchronicity plays a part in this thing a lot of people call "art" but I consider "reality." So many events seem to correspond and intersect at appropriate times whenever I'm working on something. I don't know if I would call it divine guidance or luck, but positive energy yields positive results. My friend Marie Freeman took the photos, and she is very gifted. If you want to hire her for a shoot or get some wonderful scenic Appalachian photos, let me know and I'll have her contact you.

May 21, 2003
It all happened fairly rapidly, but Sharyn McCrumb, Homer Hickam and I have launched a petition campaign against the planned CBS reality TV show "The Real Beverly Hillbillies." While obviously those two writers are far better known than I am, my role in the trenches as a journalist has allowed me to contribute a bit. You can read about the campaign here or download your own petition.

I have already heard people tell me, "I'd probably watch an episode or two," "That wouldn't last a season anyway," and "If people want to take money to make fools out of themselves, that's their right." To which I can only respond, does that mean we bring back public hangings, midget wrestling, and gladitorial deathfests? The idea essentially grew out of a Sharyn email line about Hitler: "Evil flourishes when good people do nothing." Maybe comparing CBS to the Third Reich is a little extreme, but given the overall reluctance of people to speak their minds against a seeming majority, I'm pleased to be able to express my democratic rights and principles. I respect people's decision not to oppose the show, but I'm also not apologizing for my own opinion.

May 19, 2003
On the theory that it's dumb to waste a year of my life on an unplishable novel, I've been engaged in a rewrite of last year's book, which we can call "Triptrap," since that's most likely not the name that will be used. I actually like the story better now that I have a chance to go through the whole thing and make changes. It's a little bit different for me, a little claustrophobic, and several of the main characters are kids. If all goes well, it could be published in a couple of years or so. I finally got a contributor's copy of Black October #3, which published my story "Penance" last fall. I like the art they used, very perceptive, since the tale was inspired by the Medieval practice of walling Black Plague victims inside their homes.

I'm putting together the last pieces of the promotional campaign for The Harvest, and have begun the process of setting up the signing appearances for September and October. I'm going to mix in more libraries and writing group presentations this time. While the bookstores are still the front lines for meeting readers, the truth is that you're more likely to get local media publicity for a non-commercial event (though of course you hope to sell books in addition to giving people entertainment and education).

May 15, 2003
The new issue of Hellnotes opened with a quote from me in its "Write Off The Bat" segment, a snippet from my article "Confessions of a Bottom Feeder." When I write these things, I only expect one or two people to read them. When a lot of people pop in at once, I feel a little as if my fly is unzipped-- meaning, I ask myself, "Did I say what I THOUGHT I was saying?" But one of the benefits of being a journalist is that you learn to stand by your statements, because you figure you were right the first time. If you start second-guessing yourself, you end end up...I think they call them critics.

May 12, 2003
I discovered there is a new rock/metal band called The Red Church. I wonder if the name was inspired by my novel. Somehow I doubt it, as your average rocker doesn't read all that much. The band seems to be new, forming in the last year or two, and they make a big play on the religious aspects of their name. I'm sure neither of us have enough money to sue the other and titles aren't copyright-protected anyway, though the band could claim it is a trademark. For the record, I was using that title when the manuscript was begun in 1998!

I made the horrifying realization that the novel I was expecting to publish someday (the last one I completed) may be too off-the-wall and unwieldy to allow to see the light of day. At the least, it is going to take some major work. It also veers off the linear path I envisioned for my career and, uh, call it my "artistic direction."

The first five chapters of The Red Church will run this week, one per day, at the aptly-titled Chapter-a-Day. Signup is free by sending email here. You get a new book sample every week.

May 10, 2003
Just as I was shipping The Manor off to New York, I got the final proof pages for The Harvest. I forgot I had to go through the book yet again. Ah well, it will give me something to do, even though I'm unable to make any changes at this point and that old devil, Doubt, starts raising its ugly head. I have to keep reminding myself that the book is done and over with, and it's time to get on with the rest of my life. Which at this point includes getting back to the novel-in-progress that I had to shelf for a few weeks, and also a quick second draft to the novel finished more than a year ago that I haven't had time to do anything with. Sure beats working for a living, no matter how you look at it! (Not that this is a living.)

May 9, 2003
Sometimes you really have to wonder about this business. Some former reporter named Glass, who was busted and canned for making up a lot of his facts and sources for major magazine articles, is releasing a novel about a pathetic reporter who makes up lies and fools people. I guess the joke is on NY (or all of us) because he has a 55,000-copy print run and lots of publicity. The sad fact of American celebrity is that you can be an idiot or a crook and still be idolized, especially if your name is in headlines.

Another recent one I heard: one of the Bachelorette TV show runner-ups got a book deal because some editor was sitting behind him on an airplane. Christ, can anybody remember the name of the actual winner, much less the runner-ups? Stories like that are very discouraging for the average writer who toils in obscurity and finally sells something after many years and rejections, then has to work like mad to get any public notice at all. The only saving grace is that the Bachelorette book is guaranteed to be canary-cage lining within a year, while a truly well-crafted work that contains an author's entire soul will probably find a way to stick around and maybe make a difference in the world.

May 5, 2003
I got a new printer over the weekend, and it's amazingly fast. My former one was probably eight years old, and I had to practically feed each page in by hand to make the rollers catch. Now I can do several things at once while the printer's working. Last draft of The Manor, two copies to publisher and one to agent. I've done three more drafts since I submitted the outline. This thing has probably gone through at least seven drafts and I'll bet less than half of the original remains. As usual, I alternate between loving it and hating it, but either way I'm finished, at least until the copy edit comes back sometime next year.

I traded for a bunch of used books today: Spider by Patrick McGrath, A Graveyard for Lunatics by Ray Bradbury (a novel I'd somehow never heard of), Boy's Life by Robert McCammon, and In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead by James Lee Burke.

I'm tightening up my PR angle for The Harvest, going with the Appalachian/Deliverance banjo boy with a typewriter approach. The first draft of the press release is here. Also, the new feature " action!," a page where I'll post photos of my book signings and convention appearances.

May 1, 2003
If you're in the Charlotte NC area May 30-June 1, you should check out ConCarolinas. Nice guest list including David Weber, dgk goldberg, Karen Taylor, Andy Duncan and yours truly.

Reading several interesting books at the moment. The car audiotape is The Hot Zone, about the ebola virus and how it nearly hit America hard in the late 1980's when some funky monkeys reached an Army lab near Washington, DC. I have a theory that viruses (or viri, in strict Latin) are the pinnacle of evolution, the perfect "life" form, even though they are more akin to machines than organisms. Our place in the chain? We're here to serve as hosts. The SARS story is pretty fascinating. I've read that the strain in North America is different than the strain in China, showing that it mutated that rapidly, and that there's at least more strain. It apparently has been around awhile but some strange unknown trigger caused it to make the recent jump to humans.

Also reading Created By, a novel by Richard Christian Matheson, who is mostly a television and movie writer. It's written in a fast, cinematic style and is a fairly bitter though darkly humorous indictment of Hollywood.

April 26, 2003
One of the few problems with being an unknown author is that most of the time you can't slip into "recluse mode" and still bring new readers to your work. While I try to remain professional in my promotion and not scream my alleged greatness from every message board and rooftop in the world, once in a while I suffer an immense hunger to shut down the Internet and disappear for a few weeks or months. Having been a professional journalist for nearly six years now, I think I've reached the level of information saturation. I write opinion columns on world events, I can't help perusing the Yahoo headlines and the front pages of the regional dailies, and I get paid to keep up with local government. Ten years ago, I couldn't have named a single county commissioner and probably no more than two members of the President's cabinet. Now I'm developing the traditional cynicism that accompanies the profession, and I don't like cynicism. Someone said to me a few days ago, discussing this very subject, "Scratch a cynic and you'll find a disappointed idealist."

Yesterday morning, standing on my back porch with a cup of coffee and listening to the birds, I remembered what it is I want out of all this writing-type stuff: a farm with enough of a boundary that I don't have to know or care what the neighbors are doing. Maybe that's a dream that's both simple and difficult to fulfill, but it's more important to me than any award, perceived success, critical acceptance, peer approval, or wealth. The more hectic and discordant life becomes, the more I crave peace, both for the world and for myself. And for you. Find it wherever you can.

April 22, 2003
Whew, between a family birthday, a family wedding, a holiday, and a sick daughter, I finally understand what people mean when they say that the real world sometimes gets in the way of writing. Not that I'm making excuses, because I'm still getting my moments, but sometimes I just long for a delicious stretch of uninterrupted time. Isaac Asimov wrote about looking forward to holidays because he knew the phone wouldn't ring since the rest of the world would be busy with family. I don't know whether he had any children or not, but he did write over 300 books, so maybe he had a point.

I've finished laying my travel plans for New York in June and I'm craving a visit to the Metropolitan Museum. I don't have any other places on my wish list at this point, though I'll probably want to ride a subway at some point and maybe check out Times Square from a safe distance. Got an insightful review of The Red Church from Rick Kleffel, one of the more thoughtful of literary observers. I like his line "It's American faith-based fiction at its finest."

April 17, 2003
I usually don't go into personal matters here, but my grandmother has a brain tumor and is expected to live less than two months. She is 80 and has led a full life, has a large family, and her religious beliefs allow her to face the prognosis with a great deal of grace. Such things always fill the family with regret because not only is it a reminder of the mortality of each of us, but we think back on all the missed opportunities and things we should have done. I feel a deep regret over not having spent more time with my late grandfather, who was a backwoods savant, philosopher, inventor, musician, and all-around maker of things. While he struggled in poverty all his life, I think he was simply born a generation or two too soon. Of course, a lot of his talents live on in the bloodline, and perhaps in some small or large part in me. Never forget that we always follow in the footsteps of those who walked before us.

April 12, 2003
Sitting in Wal-Mart to promote literacy today was an eye-opening experience. Since the store wasn't selling my books, I took a box of old books from my collection and gave them away, one per person. I was startled by how hard it was to give away books. Even after people overcame their idea that I was trying to sell them something, they were hesitant to pick out a book. I got the usual, "My parents won't let me read Harry Potter because it has wizards" and "I don't read horror, I only read the 'Left Behind' books." I didn't have a wide range of genres, because I don't have many westerns or romances in my collection, but the Hemingway went well and I even met one horror fan, though nobody took the science fiction books. If Wal-Mart is truly a cross-section of America, then I understand why people get the impression that literacy is dying in America. However, I did meet a couple of real book enthusiasts, and of course that always makes up for everything.

April 8, 2003
Okay, the latest screenplay is finished except for one last pass at tightening the final act. (Yeah, we call it the "build to climax" in any other form of storytelling, but all these screenwriting advice books have to impart the secret language so you feel like you're getting your money's worth.) The three-act structure that the expensive workshops teach is nothing more than a natural form that's been around since the cave dwellers-- beginning, middle, and end. It's there in The Three Billy Goats Gruff and Cinderella, it's there in Shakespeare, it's there in any Stephen King novel, and the construction worker at the bar is using the same format when telling about his weekend fishing trip.

I had a great idea for my third novel, The Manor, which I'll be revising over the next four weeks or so. The basic story is already in place but a couple of elements popped up when I went past the obvious and sought what I like to call "the third twist." Usually the first twist you think of will be the ordinary one that's been used before, then you invert that, but even the inverted twist is not really a surprise. That's when you have to wander into left field and find an answer that's suggested by both of the previous twist possibilities (setting up a certain expectation in the reader). This third twist should be unexpected, yet also seem obvious and simple once the beans are spilled and the curtain dropped. Not that a surprise ending should be the only pay-off; if that's all you have to offer, you're stealing a reader's time and money.

April 4, 2003
The Red Church made the final ballot for a Bram Stoker Award in the 2002 "first novel" category. The award is given by the Horror Writers Association with the winners announced in June. Some deserving work didn't make the ballot, but the psychology of the voting is always interesting in itself, regardless of who wins. I try not to covet things like that, and winning awards has never been a big goal for me, but I'm proud that the novel's readers felt moved enough by the book to show such support. Given the hallowed list of Bram Stoker winners that includes Stephen King, Joe Lansdale, Bentley Little, Neil Gaiman, and many others I admire, I'm certainly honored to even brush up against such legends. I'm planning to attend the award ceremony in New York and learn a little about the publishing world and see how this mountain boy fares in the Big City.

I have a lot to finish before then. I'm getting excited about The Harvest's release, and I'm wrapping up the latest revision on a screenplay to submit to the Nicholl Fellowships contest sponsored by the Academy of Motion Pictures (the folks who dole out Oscars). I must turn in the final version of my third novel before June, and I have a couple of smaller projects under construction. All in all, it's a fun season with far more tasks than time will bear. As I told a fellow Stoker candidate, as they say in the Big Leagues, "I'm just happy to be here."

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