Archive for the ‘About Writing’ Category

Dark Fiction

May 6th, 2013 Comments off
ManOnRoadI wrote the first version of Something Pretty, Something Beautiful a number of years ago, as part of a series of stories about Tacoma, where I grew up, and four teenagers who lived there. They are all very dark stories and every time I re-read one I like them even more, yet I’m also slightly more disturbed that I was ever able to write them in the first place. I can’t quite reconcile this in my mind, actually. That stories I wrote — now in the form of the novel coming out in June — can at once disturb me yet leave me not only glad that I wrote them, but glad that the book is finally being published. People ask me what the book is about and sometimes I joke that it’s Quentin Tarantino without the jokes. For the most part, people respond to this by laughing nervously. Then there’s an awkward pause in which I’m supposed to say, “No, it’s not that bad.” But I don’t say that. Because it wouldn’t be true. About a hundred pages into rereading the galleys of the book before it was printed, Elizabeth stopped and set the pages aside. “I just know what’s about to happen,” she said. Some days later, though, she finished it. And liked it, again, having read it three times now over the years. I have that same sense when I re-read it. A sense of dread about what will happen next. Yet I wrote it. I like it. And I want to see others read it. Why do we like violence in fiction, be it novels or stories or TV or movies? And I’m not even thinking about senseless violence, the Saw IV’s of the world, the bad crime dramas on network TV. I’m thinking Shakespeare and Cormac McCarthy and Django Unchained. There’s a darkness we seek even if we have to squint our eyes and even turn away. Kirkus Reviews said about my short story “Something Pretty, Something Beautiful,” that it’s about “teenagers wreaking havoc for no particular reason.” I suppose one reading of that is that it’s a criticism, a comment that the story was just another form of senseless violence. But I take it as praise, in that the story — and even more so, the novel — are very much about why people act violently. Why they make the choices they make. Why they turn out the way they do. That, in part, might be the fundamental question — at least one of the fundamental questions — that we want answered in accounts of violence. Why does it happen?  

A New Book

March 3rd, 2013 Comments off
Something Pretty, Something Beautiful - Cover With this new book coming out in June, people have asked me whether it is a follow-up to Shimmer. It isn’t, and really couldn’t be, because I wrote most of it before I wrote Shimmer. This makes people’s heads quiver a bit, especially when I inevitably launch into what I hope is a quick description of the order in which these books were written. However, it never ends up being a particularly quick description. The short version is that Shimmer is the 4th manuscript I wrote, Something Pretty, Something Beautiful is the 5th, although even that is muddled by the fact that Something Pretty is largely based on the 1st manuscript I ever wrote. Here’s the long version: From roughly 1993 to 1995, I worked on a 900-page monstrosity of a novel called Circus Vargas that I managed to edit down to 300 pages before finally seeing it for what it was: crap. A pretentious, rambling attempt at a vaguely post-modern novel intertwining a road trip to New Orleans with flashbacks to the main character’s dark, often violent life as a kid in Tacoma. I spent 3 years on the book. But suddenly knew it was awful. I went on to write a novel called High of Sixty, Occasional Rain, about a bankrupt bill collector hiding out in Juneau, Alaska. It hasn’t been published, although stories pulled from it have been. I think some day it will be published. While High of Sixty was being shopped around, I wrote a novel called Powdered Milk, about a reporter covering a series of arsons in three very small, insular New England towns.  It too hasn’t been published, and for reasons that involve the forced deportation of my former agent, has hardly been shopped to anyone. But it will be some day. And some stories that I pulled out of it have been published. Then I started work on Shimmer, finishing the first version of it in roughly 2002. While Shimmer was being shopped around (ultimately by two different agents), I was trying to figure out what to work on next. I kept coming back to the Tacoma sections of Circus Vargas. And sitting outside in a bar outside  Salem, Mass having a drink with Elizabeth, I had an idea to take out the Tacoma sections and combine them with some short stories I’d written about Alaska and Tacoma. I pictured five points in time, five perspectives, and how the narrative would cycle through each of them, the story unfolding largely out of chronological order. It took a year to write. But it followed very closely the idea I sketched out sitting in that bar with Elizabeth. More on the writing of the book another time. The first of the Shimmer agents had abruptly dropped Shimmer (after admitting to me he’d sent it to 5 editors in two years, a moment of absolute horror for me).  I started sending out the new Circus Vargas, which was ultimately picked up by agent Gary Heidt, who shopped it around for a year or more. But unlike every other agent I’d had (and I’d had 4 by then), when he couldn’t sell my book, Gary asked me for another. I sent him Shimmer and, in 2008, he sold it to Unbridled Books. After Shimmer, Gary and I  had what I think is an amicable break up. I went on to write yet another new novel, Perfection, then to make an effort trying to find yet another agent. Last summer, I decided I couldn’t deal with the agent situation. It’s a terrible business, agenting. At the most basic level, the vast majority of writers make very little money from their books. Agents, in turn, make 15% of that very small amount. Not a great formula. And so in the summer and fall of 2012, I started sending all the unpublished manuscripts out to a variety of independent publishers. Something Pretty, Something Beautiful was picked up first, by Outpost19. You’d think there’d be more of a plan in all this. There was a plan, long ago, when I was writing the first books. But since then, I seem to be staggering, forward mostly, but bouncing along. In the right direction, though. Definitely in the right direction.  

Circus Perfomers

November 20th, 2011 Comments off
New York is a city without children. Even when you do see them, it’s an oddity, like the circus is in town and the performers are being led up 6th Avenue from their train cars. I know there are lots of kids in the parks and in the schools. I’m thinking about the streets, which is where I seem to spend most of my time when I’m in New York. Walking up and down and across various streets. And there are just so few children. Maybe it’s notable to me most because my life right now is filled with children, these four kids we shuttle to and from school and sports and friends, feeding them and watering them and compelling them to bathe on a roughly regular schedule. I’m even more full of children than usual given that I’ve spent the last two years writing about the kids, meaning my thoughts and focus is consumed by their real lives and the lives I’ve been writing, all of which makes me wander the streets in New York wondering what my children would be like if they lived here. If I had not moved. If they also made there way onto the streets in limited appearances, briefly making their way from taxi to sidewalk to home.  
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“I am not an animal. I am a human being.”

November 13th, 2011 Comments off
CLMP LWCBreaking with all recent history, I went to a writers conference recently. I’ve avoided them for all kinds of reasons, mostly involving my total lack of interest in sitting in a room with a group of writers I don’t know and having my work critiqued. Not that I mind having my work critiqued. I just don’t want it critiqued by people I don’t know, people whose work I’ve never read, people whose internal perceptions and biases are unknown to me. This, though, was a conference primarily about publishing. I should have done this a long time. It was hosted by CLMP at The New School in New York. Probably the best thing was a reminder that the people on the other side of what I do – the agents and editors – are, really, just people. And they are people who really like writers. There is so much rejection involved in writing novels and short stories, the often seemingly endless intake of rejection letters and emails, that it’s hard for me not to get a little cynical about the people who read my work. When 30 people reject a story of mine, then 1 at a very good journal says yes, I’m left confused and frustrated. But meeting the people in person, hearing them, it was a reminder of how overwhelmed they are by the number of submissions they get. And especially in the case of books, it was a reminder of how beholden they are to what they can sell.
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Voice, Style and Batman

September 27th, 2010 Comments off
A student of my wife’s was nice enough to read Shimmer and send me some questions about the book recently and which I’m repeating here, if only because these are the sorts of questions people often ask. This was the second part of his questions. (The first part was here.) Another of my questions was whether you write with a certain style in mind or a certain effect? As you write, do you use certain styles and techniques with the intent of them having a certain effect? Or do you just write what comes, and that, in and of itself, has the desired effect? Specifically, in cases where Robbie would get a text or an email, you would go on, not telling the reader what the message was until after you had described Robbie’s reaction. Or when you write only in gerunds, leaving it all in fragments, do you do that with the purpose of creating a sort of detached feeling? Or do you just think, wow I would really like to write it that way? I mostly write my way into a style. Originally, I think I set out to write a much more comic book about office life. (I started Shimmer long before The Office hit TV, but it’s probably good I didn’t write an office-based comedy. It’d be like getting a Batman tattoo in 1987, years before the Batman movies came out, but then after the series of movies do come out you have to live with the Batman tattoo on your chest for the rest of your life while everyone asks you things like, “So do you like the Michael Keaton Batman more than the Christian Bale Batman?” and you have to say, “Well, I’m really more of an Adam West guy.” Not that I know anyone who did this and is, still, living with the ramifications. I’m just throwing it out there as a hypothetical-type example.) But as I wrote, I kept finding my way into these darker, less comic places, and into a more personally, internally conflicted narrator. Still, I never thought about using a particular style, and definitely didn’t think about issues like fragments versus sentences. That all just sort of happens for me, and then evolves as I edit. It’s part of the overwriting that I mentioned, the sense that I keep writing in multiple different directions until I find a direction (or directions) that stick, that make sense, that interest me. (Even these answers I’m writing to you, I’m writing all of this out of order, focusing on one question, then another, with multiple unfinished sentences throughout the message, then copying and pasting pieces around.) And out of that overwriting also comes a voice. In this case, Robbie’s voice. But I never set out for it to sound one way or another, or to use a certain style. I always find those answers through the act of writing. More about my erratic way of writing here:
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Research and Technology in Shimmer

September 12th, 2010 Comments off
A student of my wife’s was nice enough to read Shimmer recently and send me some questions about the book, which I finally managed to answer. This was the first part of his questions. I’ll post the second part next week. Dear Mr. Barnes, I am the student of Mrs. Crosby’s that read your book. I liked your book very much, but I had some questions, and she said I should ask you, since this provided a rare opportunity to ask the author why he wrote the book the way he wrote it. I noticed in your book that parts of it were very technical, and I wondered whether or not you studied all the stuff you discussed, if it just came naturally to you, or if you made it up. My greatest fear no only as I write but also as I converse with people is that they might stop me in the middle of what I’m saying to tell me that in fact I’d gotten it all wrong, there was something I was missing, didn’t know, or had forgotten. Do you write with those people in mind, making sure that every fact is correct? Or do you write in a sort of science fiction setting, where everything works, no matter what? I did very, very little research for the book. Mostly because I hate doing research. (Don’t tell Ms. Crosby.) I get chills and become short of breath just thinking about research. The technology in Shimmer was based on my own interests and experiences. I’d worked at a dot-com type company in the late 90s and had been at a number of publishing companies that were transitioning from old paste up to desktop publishing. This was in the early 90s, which, to my endless surprise, is nearly two decades ago. But comptuers were still new to the workplace back then, and the idea of designing a print publication on a computer screen was pretty radical. I’d always been something of a closet computer geek. Even though I was an English major in college, came out of college wanting to write and be a reporter, I was always interested in computers and technology. So that led me to a whole host of jobs in publishing that, for better and worse, went far beyond writing and reporting. (People ask me if write now for The Daily News, where I’m publisher, and my standard — probably tiresome — joke is, “Not really. But I do put together a really great memo from time to time.”) And so with that background, writing about the technology in Shimmer was relatively comfortable for me. It isn’t real — the technology described can’t and doesn’t truly work — but I didn’t particularly worry about that. I simply wanted the technology to be true itself, true to the reality I was creating in Shimmer. In that sense, yes, it’s like science-fiction in a way. But, really, all books have this problem or challenge in one way or another. And so I wouldn’t worry about someone stopping to question you on a given fact or detail. You have to take control of the reader in a way that negates those questions. If you’ve pulled the reader in, engrossed them in your writing and the story you’re telling, they won’t question the technical details any more than they question the believability of your characters or their dialogue or the setting. Put another way, you have to write with tremendous confidence — really, it’s arrogance, but that’s an ugly word — an unrelenting, unbreakable confidence in all facets of your work, the tone, the characters, the dialogue, the breaks, the style, and, yes, the details. But no one part is more important than the other. You have to own the reader. You have to control them. The hardest part about the technology for me was a concern about how much detail to include because, in including too much detail, I might lose the reader. I tend to overwrite anyway — if Shimmer was 280 pages in final form, I probably wrioe nearly 400 pages over the course of writing the book — and wrote way, way too much technical detail in the early drafts. Parly, I simply needed to define the world and the technology within it to myself first. Maybe this was a form of research, in a way. Writing out a far too detailed framework of how Shimmer and the shadow network and the entire operation of the company all inter-related. Once I had all that detail on the page, then I could come at it from the point of view of a reader — what does a reader want to know? What details are, for a reader, extraneous? In a sense, I had to cull the relevant facts and pieces from my own writing — i.e., do some research within my own writing. It’s all very circular and self referential. Writing, for me, requires a great deal of personal self-denial, constantly removing myself from the words I’ve written, the characters I’ve created, the world I’m trying to create. (By the way, some of the best writing I’ve ever read about the process of writing comes from Kurt Vonnegut. His essays, which are collected in a couple of different editions, are lucid, helpful, practical, self-deprecating and, thankfully, extremely entertaining.) One other thing I did that vaguely smelled of research was putting together a series of spreadsheets that calculated the value and scope of the financial and technical fraud underlying (undermining) the company. And I did a series of big, detailed timelines. I even had to put together a layout of the building — which group was on what floor, etc. Those things weren’t research necessarily, but it’s about as close as I got. Few of those details needed to be in the book, but I, as the author, needed to know all those facts, from which I could choose the necessary details to share with the reader. Ms. Crosby, in fact, was a great source for this sort of perspective, because she’s not someone particularly interested in technology, but she and I tend to like very similar books. My last thought on the technology is that I love when people tell me, “Well, I didn’t fully understand the technology and, actually, I skimmed some of those passages, but it didn’t matter, because of the writing and the characters.” In the end, for me, that’s what the book is about: The people, the characters, the unraveling of their lives. I was actually very disappointed that the publisher marketed the hardcover edition of the book with a lot of talk of the book being a “high tech literary thriller.” All the reviews had to unwind that notion — the book isn’t about high tech and isn’t a thriller, any more than Blood Meridian is a Western literary adventure novel, or Sirens of Titan is a Sci-Fi adventure. I actually wrote about some of these sorts of questions here: Fact and fiction and how a genius called me out on an impossible plot point: Timeline: Spreadsheets: Early notes on Shimmer: Early ideas for Shimmer: More early influences/ideas: And More: And this review, I thought, was very interesting in terms of his take on the techonology in the book:
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All About Me, Me, Me

September 6th, 2010 Comments off
I had to write a biographical blurb about myself recently as part of the promotion for this TV show I’m going to start hosting on our local public television station. I hate writing biographical blurbs. My tendency is to write something short, flat and restrained. But not in an interesting or even self-deprecating way. Instead, I do this in a fearful and insecure way. Thankfully, this time, the person who requested the bio rejected my first blurb, and insisted on more details. And she gave me some questions to answer — What do I read? When did I first start writing? What sort of TV do I watch? My answers follow (and my original blurb is at the bottom of the page): I first got into journalism in 8th grade, when I started writing for the student newspaper and where my deeply sarcastic columns about the holidays caused tremendous discord and not a small amount of confusion among a student body most concerned about buying the newest Journey album. Later, after college, I became a reporter because that seemed like the only paying job an English major could get. That first job was as a community reporter in Old Saybrook, Conn., where I covered everything from the town council to the opening of a new sewage plant. I moved to New York City in 1992 and worked in book publishing, then for a business magazine, as well as getting my MFA in writing from Columbia. I started publishing short stories in 1994 or 1995. I moved to Memphis in 1995 and started working at Towery Publishing. Shimmer, a dark and sometimes funny book about the people and friends at the heart of a company built on a lie, was an American Booksellers Association IndieNext Pick in 2009 and came out in paperback this past summer. Fredric Keoppel was nice enough to say: “One is reminded in Barnes’ language and locution of Don DeLillo’s scalpel-sharp delineation of American corporate culture and paranoia, and of David Foster Wallace’s penetration into the heart of the relationship between human consciousness and rapidly changing technologies.” I have 600 channels on my TV, but seem to only watch Charlie Rose, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. I listen to a great deal of Miles Davis, but, if pressed, I will admit that I remain fan of Led Zeppelin. If I’m alone in my car and a Neil Diamond song comes on, I won’t necessarily turn it off. In phases, I read too much Cormac McCarthy, which can leave me feeling as if life has no purpose and hope is just a dream. At those points, I switch to reading narrative nonfiction focused mostly on various obscure scientific endeavors such as island biogeography and string theory. For reasons I don’t understand, topics such as those have a deeply calming effect on me. I read a great deal of Don DeLillo and most recently finished Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow.” I’ve watched, in their entirety, each of the 8 episodes of Ric Burns’ PBS documentary “New York” at least six or seven times. Here was the original blurb: Eric Barnes is Publisher of The Daily News Publishing Co., which includes the daily business and politics paper, The Daily News, the weekly edition of that paper, The Memphis News, the real estate information service Chandler Reports, and a newspaper in Nashville, the Westview. He has been publisher since 2003. Prior to that, Eric held various positions at Towery Publishing, the Memphis-based national publisher of city guides, hard cover books and business directories. He worked in publishing in New York and Connecticut before moving to Memphis. Eric attended Connecticut College and Columbia University. He is the author of the novel Shimmer. Eric lives in Midtown with his wife Elizabeth and their four children.
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Lost in an Office Building

August 29th, 2010 1 comment
Some of the very earliest ideas for Shimmer came while I was working as a marketing assistant for a big accounting firm in New York. I hated everything about the job. Except for the view. I was in the World Financial Center next to the World Trade Center. The group of 20 or so people I was in were positioned next to what was essentially a wall of glass, floor to ceiling, one end of the building to another, all of it looking out on the Hudson River. I couldn’t figure out why we had such a nice space. We were consultants to an investment bank, actually, and were only supposed to be in the building temporarily. Within a few weeks, it became clear that the scope of the accounting firm’s work for the bank wasn’t very well defined because, many days, I did nothing. I just stared out that wall of windows. I was only a marketing assistant, so it wasn’t that big a deal, but I started to realize that a lot of the full-blown accountants also seemed to be doing nothing. It was as if we’d been forgotten, there on the 15th floor of the building, taking up a huge swath of space, sitting in our cubicles in a deeply pleasant quiet. All of us just looking out on the Hudson. The experience led me to write about the Unoccupied Territories in Shimmer, the fresh and pristine office spaces that the company built in advance of them hiring a new group of employees. And it also led me to include the Rogue Sections, the groups who’d managed to completely remove themselves from any meaningful contribution to the company. And it led me to have Robbie just standing at his window, and staring out, looking at the Hudson and the sunset beyond the river. In the World Financial Center, one day a woman walked into the middle of our group with a clipboard, looked around at all of us, and said, after a moment, “What in the world are all of you doing here?” We weren’t supposed to be there. She was in charge of space assignments for the entire building. And she’d had no idea we wee there. She was moving some group in the next day. She was furious. To her, we didn’t exist. She kept checking her clipboard, looking for some reference to our existence. Within a week, she had us moved to a cramped basement office. Thankfully, it was August and I was going back to graduate school. I think I spent one day in that basement. Maybe not even that. I can’t really remember.  All I remember is that view.
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Layoffs & Excel: How I Started Writing Shimmer

August 17th, 2010 Comments off
Somehow, when I was 35 years old, I found myself as Chief Operating Officer of a $15 million publishing company. We employed 200 people, we published all over the country, we had plans to grow even bigger, faster. I think I got that title largely because of a moment some years earlier, when we were trying to raise money from venture capitalists, but lacked a CFO who could provide them the details they needed. The owner of the company looked at me and said, “Do you think you can put together a spreadsheet?” I had no financial background. Minimal understanding of accounting. I’d been hired as an editor. But the owner was, like so many entrepreneurs, one of those people to whom it is almost impossible to say no. “Sure I can,” I said. I locked myself in my office for a month, taught myself the dark inner workings of Excel, and proceeded to construct an extraordinarily — perhaps ridiculously — elaborate model of all aspects of the company’s operations. When I was done, it was more than 500 pages long. There was no Ponzi scheme behind the model. But as we presented it to potential investors, it became clear that the complexity of the model gave it a self-fulfilling quality. The investors studied the numbers. And they wanted to believe. And so, in those same meetings, my mind started to wander. What would it be like to create a model built on a lie? At night, in the morning, I started to work on Shimmer. Meanwhile, the publishing company had grown too fast and gotten too big. We started cutbacks, layoffs, firings. It was awful. I stood in rooms of 20 people, all of them getting laid off. I met with a woman who’d just had a baby, laying her off as she cried into her hands. I laid one person off over the phone, calling her at home because she’d been sick, using a speakerphone to end it as she lay in bed in her trailer. She’d been with the company for 10 years. Those moments haunt me still. The realization that with my extravagant title, my elaborate model, and my power to have hired so many of these people, with all that I had taken these people into my trust. Every layoff and cutback, however, felt like a violation of that trust. I violated it often. In 2002, I bought five cases of beer, called a staff meeting, and told the remaining 60 people they no longer had a job. We had found investors, but they turned out to be in financial trouble beyond anything I could have imagined. The bank cut our funding. They stopped taking my calls. In the end, there wasn’t even enough money to file bankruptcy. We just walked away. For weeks, the phones still rang. The Web sites were still live. Even the email worked. I assume it was the landlord who finally shut off the lights.

Wanted: Agent Who Likes Arson, Leaves and Stories of Financial Malfeasance

August 7th, 2010 Comments off
I’m looking for a new agent. I hate looking for an agent. Maybe some agent will read this before I even start the process of reaching out to people. Maybe they’ll magically, send me an email saying that they’d love to represent me. Like the magical love affair in a sweet and simple book. I’m still trying to sort out which book I want to send out next. It’s either going to be High of Sixty, about a bankrupt bill collector hiding out in Alaska, or Powdered Milk, about a reporter covering a series of arsons in Connecticut. I finished rereading both over the last two weeks. I hadn’t read Powdered Milk in a year or so. It’s a funny but ultimately very disturbing book. It’s strange for me to have written something so unsettling. Not that I haven’t written lots of dark stories. But I’d forgotten how slowly but deeply the strangeness in Powdered Milk reveals itself. I forget a lot about much of what I write. Not sure that’s normal or not. But so be it. I haven’t written a blurb or pitch or synposis for Powdered Milk yet. It’ll go something like this, though:
Powdered Milk is a novel about arsons, and the newspaper reporter covering them in three isolated Connecticut towns. It is a novel about secrets. It is a novel about sex. It is, in the end, a novel about submarines, love, fire and Monty Breel, a 31-year-old reporter for the local bi-weekly called The Gazette. And it is a novel about leaves. Lots and lots of leaves.
Who wouldn’t want to read that? The High of Sixty pitch is looking something like this:
High of Sixty is the story of a bankrupt bill collector hiding from his debts in a dark, forgotten office building in Juneau, Alaska. It’s a book about the awkwardness of friendship, the loss of wealth, unforgivable mistakes and a bad love affair. It’s a book that, at least in part, is meant to be funny. And it’s a book about Carter’s aunt lighting his uncle on fire at the holidays. It is a book about inter-office memos printed in the waxy purple ink of old mimeograph machines. It is a book about sneaking on board cruise ships to sip tequila and do the rhumba.
So many choices.