Confidence, man

A year ago today I put myself through the emotional wringer and pitched my international thriller at ThrillerFest’s PitchFest.

It was New York City. The event packed people into hotel meeting rooms in cattle-chute like fashion. I had some interest, some requests for manuscripts. Since, they’ve either been declined or never heard from.

I’m pleased I did it. I learned from the experience, gained some real know-how, and met a few people. I’ve spent the last year correcting my many mistakes (I’m sure there are more) and pursuing an agent for my novel.

What I haven’t done is write much. I did some, but not nearly enough. For all the good the event did me, my writing confidence cratered. And confidence, even if it doesn’t look like much, is the main ingredient in writing a novel.

I took this whole year too hard, I admit. Hell, I still am. I never gave up. I just sent out queries last week, and this week re-wrote my query and synopsis. Those two things are the hardest, most uncertain, and most painful pieces to write.

Those are all the necessary transformations I have to make for myself. They’re stubborn things to learn, and take their toll. But they don’t get me down.

The only thing getting me down is writing the next one. I’ve got a start on a novel, and another idea sketched out. I’ve been writing a couple short stories lately. I needed to do something to show myself I could. It sounds like taking my medicine, but it sure tasted good.

I’ve got to get back into the hard routine of writing the next novel. With everything I’ve learned, it can only be a better book, and probably also an easier sell.

Pitchwars 2017 #pimpmybio

Hi, I’m Matt. I write adult thrillers and dark and speculative fiction. I use my full first name for that – Mathew. I’ve been chasing my writer dream for too many years, and I had too little to show for it until the last few years.

Now, I hone my craft and work with local writers and friends. I’m active in the Des Moines Writers Workshop, which is thriving. That’s been a good lesson for me. Helping other writers, and getting help in return, keeps me writing. I may have gotten a late start, but it came with a lot of good lessons and experience about writing — especially the what not to do parts.

Pitchwars, Again?

I participated in Pitch Wars last year. It’s a fascinating event. I have more thoughts about it I’ll share later. For now, you may enjoy this Top 10 list I wrote last year that others liked: Ten Steps for the Miserable Writer.

I enjoy interacting with writers, and Pitch Wars makes that happen. Of course, we’re all chasing the dream to get published. I’ve been at that for a little over a year now, and I’ve already learned a lot and gained experience pitching and querying. I’ll keep at it.

About My Book

My book is The Hidden Vector. It’s an international thriller set in Georgia and Romania. Here’s the run down:

When a human target smuggles a bioweapon out of Russia in his own bloodstream, CIA targeting officer Ethan Pierce must overcome the guilt of losing a fellow field officer and find the secretive group behind it all. Smart and relentless, Ethan discovers their plan to unleash the deadly virus and ruin the CIA. But he also learns the price for his efforts. Their plan will begin with infecting his ex-wife, the woman he still loves.

Paul Corso, Ethan’s mentor, is the only person he can trust. But Paul confronts conspirators inside the CIA who threaten his devoted wife. Both men race to save the lives of thousands, but imminent danger for the women they love drives each to desperate action.

It’s an exciting read, I promise! Think of it as an assassin’s origin story. It’s a slightly subversive story. I intended to challenge a lot of the “gung ho” nature of modern thrillers.

I had a lot of fun putting together this mood board for the book recently:

About Me

I live in Des Moines, Iowa, with my wonderful wife, two brilliant kids, and a lovable golden doodle. By day, I work at a major agriculture company doing digital marketing. By night, I make up crazy stories and sometimes drink a little whiskey. I’m a news junkie, love hiking, play more video games than I ever should, and love all kinds of table-top games. I even used to write my own games. In the fall and winter, you can find me muttering about Hawkeye and Steeler football.

Three books that sum me up pretty well:

  • The Polish Officer by Alan Furst
  • The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy
  • Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin

Three movies that deliver:

  • Munich
  • No Country for Old Men
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark

Three albums I’ll never get tired of:

  • Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin
  • The Soul Cages by Sting
  • Love and Theft by Bob Dylan

You can follow me on Twitter here: @mattsnyder

Like my author page:

Say hi any time. I love talking about writing and meeting writers.

Find other #Pitchwards #pimpmybio participants here. 

Wolverines! My favorite X-Man through the ages

Superheroes are big deals these days.

That wasn’t the same when I grew up. They were a big deal to me then, too, but we had to look a little harder than Netflix.

We did have some movies. The original Superman was fantastic, but it was a lonely great among a bunch of terrible movies and shows. Superman was the hero of a prior generation. My friends and I mostly found him to be pretty boring.

And, sure, we had Spider-Man on the Electric Company and Saturday morning cartoons. Batman reruns were pure camp, though Tim Burton showed up later on.

But, comics! Oh, the comics were wonderful. I inherited hundreds, which we stored in a great big galvanized tin garbage can in my shared closet. Avengers. John Carter. Micronauts! Power Man and Iron Fist.


My first comic love.

At a certain point, for a certain range of ages, there are all other superheroes and then there are X-Men. They were quintessential. They spoke to my generation (being generous a few years). The characters were, well, uncanny. The storylines epic, but accessible. Chris Claremont’s run on writing X-Men is as legendary as anyone’s.

I wasn’t even a die-hard. Friends were, and I learned from them the stories of Dark Phoenix and the Sentinels and Storm and that paragon of compassion and morality, Professor X, and on and on.

But Wolverine. Man, Wolverine was the king of a very big heap of characters. We loved him. We loved everything about him. He defined anti-hero in a decade in which anti-heroes became beloved, even expected. He survived anything. He had attitude. He fought back against anyone. Wolverine, the man you could never beat. The mutant who never died. The hero we 80s losers deserved.

Like fan-boy kids do, we argued about who was the best, who could beat who. Wolverine wasn’t always top of that most powerful list, but he was so beloved that the debates turned to borderline fist fights. Wolverine, man! Far and away, Wolverine was the coolest, most bad ass favorite of nearly everyone I knew back then. We wanted to talk like him, sneer a little like him, imagine our own stories of bad-asses like him. WOLVERINE!

Revenge, adamantium style.

Fast forward a few years. Bryan Singer makes an entertaining X-Men movie. The sequels aren’t great. The reboots are fun, then flat. Wolverine’s “solo” movies aren’t so great, either. Still, Hugh Jackman’s good at it. He builds his own history.

And it comes to the last movie, a movie only possible with all this history, all the parts and histories of those comic glory days and more recent Hollywood dazzlers.

Here he is, not even Wolverine anymore. Logan, an old man, who’s survived it all. Sure, the set-up is a little cliché. The old Wolvie fan in me loves it anyway. Professor X as an even older man, virtuously begging his old friend for help, never letting the dream die. I hear his powers don’t work. Everyone he loved and fought for appears to be gone. I’m watching this trailer for the 30th or so time and pumping my fist.

“Someone has come along.” (sniff) What? No, I’m not crying. Leave me alone.

This movie could be a total disaster, though I just saw a review that says it ain’t. If nothing else, give the people who made this trailer an Oscar. It took thirty plus years for it to age this way. The Johnny Cash version of Hurt. The last shred of hope in Patrick Stewart’s voice. Logan the anti-hero resisting, then fighting, one last time. The last X-Men standing. If the movie is half this good, put it among the best of the superhero pantheon of movies. All the trailers are brilliant, but Trailer #1 kills me.

I can’t wait, bub.

Book Review: Made Safe by Francis Sparks

Murder comes to Des Moines in Francis Sparks’ Made Safe. And things are just getting warmed up at that point in this wintry Midwestern neo-noir debut.

Made Safe by Francis SparksMade Safe starts with the familiar elements of crime. Moses Winter, a middle-aged, down-on-his-luck private detective gets in over his head while investigating a cheating husband.

He forges an unlikely, and sometimes too trusting, partnership with Raif Rakić, a Bosnian immigrant who’s earned his way to detective on the city police department. Rakić steals the show at first. He bends the rules to protect his cousin, who is the dead husband’s mistress. He stifles anger and old trauma from atrocities in the old country.

Winter seems flatter at first, stumbling from one clue to another and taking a beating for it along the way, but his depth and drive blossom as Sparks reveals more of the Des Moines locale and Winter’s native born familiarity with it. He’s less familiar with the Bosnian underworld he discovers, including the vampy Majka, who has more to do with the conspiracy than Winter wants to admit when she starts up a love affair with him. Winter is sharp and good hearted, and he grows into an likable guy.

Winter’s relationship with Majka mirrors his with Rakić. They warm to Winter a little too abruptly, but they’re necessary strands to make the mystery drive on. Drive on it does. Winter discovers a human trafficking ring — young girls from Europe herded literally like cattle with a chilling amorality. There are surprises here, though at the expense of a too-connected string of characters.

Winter time Des Moines provides a unique backdrop. Sparks crafts what seems at first a plain city and straightforward place, but becomes a murky setting that takes on the sturdy grays of film noir, suffering, and uncertain resolution. His ending teases readers a little too harshly, but the crime story holds up.

Book Review: The City & The City by China Mieville

Imagine a tale of two cities separated not at all by distance but by perception. Now insert a murder. This is China Mieville’s formula for The City & The City.

The City and the City by China MievilleThe novel carries the reader through this fantastical framework by means of the familiar – a police procedural, complete with aging police detective Tyador Borlú, a slightly cynical bachelor with enough curiosity to prod around the edges of a murder mystery no one wants him to investigate.

On its face (faces?), the city is absurdity. Mieville constructs a fabulous mosaic of a city, a modern thing drenched in a dual history. Its details are rich and raw and completely fabricated. The conjoined-twin cities occupy some uncertain spot, perhaps between Turkey and Bulgaria. They are fictional uncertainties, yet vibrant ones with the hallmarks of Mieville’s proclivity for settings richer and more engrossing than his characters. Mieville unveils this veiled place one neighborhood at a time, taking his time with the strange culture required to ignore the parts, pieces, and people of a foreign city that uses the same streets. He invents names and histories, even archaeological artifacts, that seem at once plausible and strange.

Mieville inserts twists on these real-world analogs — where Ul Qoma seems Muslim in spirit, it’s a strictly secular place with a recently thriving economy. Beszel is the run down eastern European world of bureaucrats, nationalists and “unificationists” who wish to see the split personality of the city obliterated. These tweaks give the cities more character, and thankfully skirt around the black hole of allegory.

The book is more powerful for it. The metaphor outgrows a tired East versus West analogy, and instead explores polarized identities so hard set against one another that they literally refuse to see, hear, and smell each other. The book seems prescient since its 2009 debut, though that’s more a testament to Mieville’s ability to capture human division more than current events.

Lurking in the cracks of it all is the Breach, an Orwellian threat everyone seems to fear should they break the convention of recognizing anything in the mirror image of their city. Breach’s strict and arcane law is prime, and Tyador comes face to face with it.

The mystery itself is intriguing, though not pulse-racing. More interesting are the perceptions Tyador and his rival city cohort wrestle with as they investigate. The book avoids navel gazing, but the thick and inventive writing force one to pay attention. This is a book to savor, layered with metaphor and intrigue, spiced with fantastic perspectives, without becoming intellectual medicine. It is a book not everyone will enjoy, but a rich and unique read for those who do.

The City & The City by China Mieville: ★★★★

Book Review: The Nix by Nathan Hill

Two decades ago, by means of which I remain skeptical, I managed to write my way into a selective creative writing class at the University of Iowa. I knew one other classmate whose writing immediately impressed and confounded me. I knew two things: I had no idea what I was doing, and Nathan Hill could write like a son of a bitch.

the-nix-by-nathan-hillI was right on both counts. Hill’s debut novel, The Nix, impresses and confounds me again. It’s a brilliant, hilarious, prescient book that has nothing and everything to do with me. My meager history with Hill has nothing to do with the book’s greatness, but my generational and Midwestern kinship drive its home as one of the finest books I’ve read in years and years.

The book is a sprawling daisy chain of generations fighting the tide of their anxious culture. Hill playfully shifts eras as much as he does voice, viewpoints, and structure. He’s treading dangerous ground more like a literary veteran than debut novelist. He reveals the saga in ten parts, and within each toys with chapters that reveal his skill as a short fiction writer as he sneaks us into the head of minor characters like Laura Potsdam, the spinning top of coed destruction that sets main character Samuel spinning out of control. Hill’s mastery with these sections compels the next, but he lets the story reveal itself, cheating perhaps slightly in the very last chapter in what may be my only slight reservation about the book.

Samuel, for his part, is a sensitive, anxious failed writer whose life collapses when he – along with the rest of the country – watches the mother that left him at age eleven in her fifteen minutes of fame throwing gravel at a presidential candidate. The encounter sends him on a path crossed by characters pitiful and grandiose to reckon with his lost youth.

Faye, the mother, begins an enigma, but with each piece of the book, the story truly becomes hers. She’s the richest character in the book, real and complicated and recognizable for all her faults. Characters and deliberate caricatures surround her and Samuel both, and the effect is a book teetering between sublime and satirical. Her arc from anxious, even cruel mother to naïve daughter and do-gooder, are a time-reversing wandering into a tragic, lovable soul.

Then there’s Pwnage, Samuel’s newfound friend and hopeless addict of World of Elfscape, a fictional analog of World of Warcraft. Pwnage is at once virtual master and real life disaster. He is a paradox so absurd as to be unreal, but Hill makes us adore him anyway, and pity his useless bouts with self-improvement. Pwnage doesn’t even have a real name, but his frustrations with diet and success and divorce are as real as his physical pain and deterioration.

The moments of Samuel’s strange suburban childhood and Faye’s troubled counter culture coming of age have more emotional truth than historical verisimilitude, though Hill’s frantic portrayal of the Chicago riot in ’68 captures the moment well and simultaneously reveals more about 21st century life than 20th.  But those moments in the modern day, when Hill observes the absurdity and anxiety and dysfunction of our current life capture exactly my amusement and consternation. There are no secret truths here, and I expected none. But neither did I expect the foresight in reading it during the fall of 2016 and the insanity of the election. Hill writes as one of us secularized people who want the world to make sense when it can’t. When it doesn’t, and what it all represents. (Read it. You’ll get it.)

This is a book more about my lived culture than any work I’ve ever encountered. My forays into video games show up, along with Hill’s tongue-in-cheek section written as a Choose Your Own Adventure book, one of the fads of my (and Samuel’s, and obviously Hill’s) youth. The dehumanization of social media and 24-hour news cycles seethe under the anxious gooseflesh of characters overwhelmed by their addictions to their own culture. Somehow, despite all that, I laugh right along with them, relieved that I’m not alone in trying to make sense of the senseless. This is a novel that matters to me in a way like nothing I’ve read. It relieves me of the condition that my culture is plain to the point of shameful. That Hill’s prose and elastic characters are skillful makes this all the better.

Hill is keen on one running theme – that the things we love the most cause us the most harm. That’s something of a half-truth and partial wisdom. I’d wager that Hill would agree, and that’s partly why I’m able to count him, however distantly, as an old friend and kindred spirit. What he does not say, but crafts over and over again in the telling is that honesty and language arm us against that anxiety and harm, along with a healthy shedding of shame. Those are hard lessons for real Midwesterners to accept, including the fictional Samuel and Faye.

The Nix by Nathan Hill: ★★★★★

10 Steps for the Miserable Writer


How to turn this:


Into this:


Pitch Wars selections end soon. With all the successes and good vibrations, it’s easy for those of us who didn’t get requests or become mentees to get frustrated or down.

Keep things in perspective, writers, and figure out how to get out of the funk. To succeed, you need to learn these emotional tools as much as you need to learn the craft of writing itself.

1. Pitch Wars is just one step in the process. A very cool, very enthusiastic one. But even then it’s optional.

The event is bonkers, and it becomes very easy to get wrapped up in. Brenda Drake & Co. organized this to help you, not to disappoint you. They aren’t winning awards, and neither are you. It’s networking, honing craft, and hopefully connecting to agents. Don’t lose sight of that.

2. With genuine respect to talented, insightful mentors, many are still only a few steps farther along the journey. Remember!

This is no dig at mentors. They’re great. But they’re not the Editor in Chief of Penguin, either. They’re mostly just writers like you who – in some cases – beat out a colleague by subjective whim. Without that, they’d be in the trenches with you.

They probably do differ from you in how much effort they put into reading and helping others. Learn from that, too. Just keep in mind most are also chasing dreams like yours.

3. That mentors are just a little further along probably means they’re more accessible. Interact with them. Read them.

Again – they’re just like you. They’re busy and tired and excited and love that one book you love. Ask them something. Say hi. Thank them. The worst thing that can happen, I wager, is that you get no response. And that’s different from where you are right now exactly how? Right, it’s not different.

And, yes, go check out their books if you can.

4. “Never give up” may not feel good now. Think about the real steps you need to do in the next week. One. Step. At. A. Time.

I’m a jaded son of a bitch sometimes. I hate hearing “never give up” when I feel like giving up. It’s a hill too big to climb. So just take a step. Tomorrow, go fix that one chapter you know you need to fix. Hell, go fix that one paragraph. Sentence. Word. Do it. Then do it again. And again. Progress is amazing. Look back in a week, and know you climbed out of the mud.

5. Set your goal. Pitch Wars is a means, not an end. You should set your goal on getting an agent. Not getting picked next year by mentors.

Is your goal what you think it is? Mine wasn’t for another event. But you learn. You don’t have to have it in writing (but it can’t hurt). But you do have to actually think about it. Think about it for your immediate work. What is your goal with this book? Have one.

You can have goal for your life as a writer. That’s great, but it’s too big right now. Set a goal for your book.

6. Many of us want to belong to a club of insiders. It’s not wrong, but it’s not being published, either. Reach out to outsiders.

This might be the most important point on this list. Pay attention.

Get serious about understanding why you’re disappointed. Is it really because the novel you submitted isn’t good enough? Or is it really because you don’t feel like you fit in? Or that you aren’t good enough?

I can’t solve that for you. Neither can Pitch Wars unless you’re that talented-cum-lucky one person in 114 who submitted and became a mentee.

Someone else out there is having the exact same thoughts you are. Right now. Find them. Misery loves company, as they say. And company brings validation. Validation brings confidence.

Confidence writes books.

7. Wait for the off season. In a few months, when mentors can breathe, ask one for a single tip on how you could have improved.

Screw summer. It’s too damn hot in Iowa. Give me fall any day. This October, when the Steelers and the Hawkeyes are undefeated (hey, it’s my dream), I’ll forget to reach out to Dan Malossi or Kellye Garrett & Sarah Henning or Kristen Lepionka about my Pitch Wars submission.

But that’s just four kinds of stupid. Maybe something in my query was awful or vague. Maybe my first chapter didn’t help them see the book’s direction. If they can tell me one thing to change, that’s one thing that might matter to others. If they can’t tell me even one thing, the least I can do is take that time to say I didn’t forget that they read my work.

8. Get over it however you can. The emotions you have are valid. But they also absorb your time, and time is your best resource.

I’m driven, but when I mope around my wife wants to strangle me. I’m a real bastard to live with that way. Mostly, it’s because I get down, and then get cranky because I feel like I’m wasting precious time.

I am.

Take care of yourself. My long experience with writers says they’re prone to melancholy. Find a single, simple thing to do and find what you can be proud of. And if you are prone to mental illness or depression, talk to someone. Find help however you’re able. There is no shame in this. Seriously.

9. Go love a story with great characters. Movies are allowed. Remember why you did all this in the first place.

You already know what your favorite movies and books are. What are you waiting for? I guarantee that if you re-read or re-watch one of those you’ll learn something. You’ll learn something while watching something new. Go get a little inspired. It’s why you did all this in the first place, damn it.

Me? I’m gearing up to watch There Will Be Blood and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, both of which I’ve seen. I’m reading Leviathan Wakes, which I’ve never read. All of these are thick, heavy duty stories that I can’t wait to dive into.

10. Read someone else’s whole manuscript. You both need this. Others are working on CP exchanges. Find one.

This isn’t easy. Finding someone or a group to critique with is tough. But I also guarantee everyone who submitted to Pitch Wars wants someone to read their work and offer ideas. Keep a look out for people organizing CP (Critique Partner) events, but you don’t have to wait. Just watch the feed. Stalk people’s Twitter bios. Figure out if they’re in your “camp,” and ask them to read their stuff.

Do so respectfully. The great thing is that as you read, you’ll automatically learn from their writing. Whether it’s their mistakes or their brilliance, you’ll learn. You won’t be able to help it. Yes, it takes time, but it also directly helps your craft and theirs. Do it.

11. Also, whiskey. (Contents may vary.)

It doesn’t have to be booze. It does have to be relaxing. Get some chocolate chip cookies, BBQ, sushi, a massage, a hike – whatever your particular poison happens to be. You can’t get out of a fog by working harder. Well, you can, but you’ll still be miserable at the end anyway. Take it easy once in a while.

Girls Go to Jupiter … To Kick Ass and Take Names

I spent the last week obsessing over a Twitter event called Pitch Wars. It’s a mentorship contest where writers team up with writers and editors to workshop a full manuscript, then parade the selected winners in front of literary agents later this year.

The whole thing is a fascinating study in community and identity. Brenda Drake is the queen bee for the event, having started it a few years ago. I don’t know her, but kudos to her spirit to help others. Sure, it promotes her own work. Why shouldn’t it? The same is true of her colleagues who help.

Pitch Wars, and other events she organizes, is by writers, for writers. They just went out on social media and did it, demonstrating many times over how the Internet empowers people. The mentors volunteer a huge amount of effort and time. Judging from the blog posts and especially the Twitter posts, writers get swept up with enthusiasm and camaraderie.

The community is mostly women. Most participants are in Young Adult or Middle Grade fiction. Romance comprises a huge majority. Science Fiction and Fantasy are widely represented and celebrated. My manuscript is an adult international thriller, which absolutely is part of the contest, just in the minority overall.

It’s the kind of exercise my skeptical, cynical brain can’t figure out. Hell with it, I thought. Why not! So, I participated this year. I submitted my query and first chapter to three mentors (one is a tag-team duo). My expectations for response were low given the descriptions of what mentors said they wanted. 

That’s not meant as criticism. I’m wading into dangerous waters here. Pitch Wars and all its participants are doing a good thing. It’s worth celebrating. If I’m criticizing anything, I’m criticizing myself and possibly others like me — especially other men.

I’ve spent the last couple years attending various writers groups, workshops, and conferences. The women outnumber the men at these events by a huge margin. Several times, I’ve been the only guy in the room. This isn’t by design to exclude men. It’s just the tendencies of who participates. That’s not very surprising. Besides, we men could use a little dose of experiencing the minority position to better understand things in general.

What is surprising to me is the spirit these women engender. The feeling is one of open-armed, de facto sisterhood (who also welcome men, I should note). They are enthusiastic and emotional in a way many men usually aren’t. They make what appear to be sincere and strong relationships in ways the men I know don’t. They organize and support one another, leveraging their strength as a group.

Men, by contrast, seem to stand against the crowd. I observe a kind of individualism among male writers I know. They’re not withdrawn misanthropes. But each tends to be making a name for himself, without anywhere near the level of mutualism I observe in women writers.

When a guy like me wanders in, doubt wanders in too. Am I too off the mark for their interests? Does my writing have a shot? Maybe it’s not fair or right to think that way, but I think it’s honest.

I’m speaking in generalities here. Of course there are many healthy exceptions. And, of course men participate in Pitch Wars. Of course there are more individualistic women and more community-minded, more emotive men.

But, on the whole, the difference to me seems significant. Many men are working just as hard with — anecdotally — less success and support. Some become bitter, and they think that proves their point. It’s a lousy reaction, but I understand the frustration in that.

Remember that skeptical, cynical brain of mine? I suspect there’s more behind-the-scenes drama among the women (and the men, for that matter) than I realize. The cynic in me sees all the congratulatory enthusiasm and the dreamy, hyper-referential animated GIFs and it just feels … off. I don’t know if it’s an age thing, a gender thing, a social media thing, or whatever else. It’s not my “scene” or sense of humor. There’s no harm in that. I’m not asking the tribe to change for me. That’s on me to adapt or be the change. And they’ve done nothing but welcome anyone willing to participate. Still, I keep wandering the wilds for my tribe.

Without a doubt, finding writing partners has been the hardest, most frustrating reality for my writing path. I think that’s mostly from my cynical nature. I’m awful at making new friends and fitting into social circles, though I’m no misfit either. I’ve got a strong individualist nature that resists community, all while knowing I’d benefit from a bunch of fellow creatives.

It’s not that have I none. I’m in two local writer’s groups, and I’ve started working with a good friend on a “guy’s fiction” (as in: action thrillers) cooperative that I’m hoping takes off.

So, here’s to hoping communities like Pitch Wars thrive. It’s a fantastic event. I sincerely hope it helps many writers — of all kinds — achieve their dreams.

Unpacking from Thrillerfest 2016

I went to Thrillerfest in New York City in early July, and I’m still trying to unpack.

The clothes I wore are still on my bedroom floor while my wife waits patiently for me to put them in the hamper. Then there’s the confounding jumble of thoughts I can’t make sense of while my wife waits patiently for me to figure out what the hell I want to be when I grow up.

Matt at Thrillerfest 2016
Still in the dark …

I put everything I had into that trip. It was my self-imposed deadline to finish my first novel, and I did that. I spent the month of June between my day job and my night job of editing, and I just about hit my limit.

I spent the first day at the conference with a small workshop led by Gayle Lynds, spy writer extraordinaire. Our group gelled, and Gayle dispensed reams of advice. I floated away, ready to brave her edits for my first chapter and conquer the publishing world.

Day two was good, too. I happily volunteered for seminars and handing out registration packets. The rest of the time I attended several seminars by published authors that varied from good to so great I can’t tell you. Walter Mosley just about had me standing in my chair shouting “O Captain! my Captain!”

Day three things hit home. More morning seminars, with some interesting fireworks among a panel of agents. I ignored that, my head focused on the afternoon of PitchFest. Think of the event as speed dating meets sales pitch to land an agent. They packed us into a ballroom, then into a serpentine line I still don’t know where it started and ended, then into much smaller conference rooms packed with anxious writers and waiting agents.

My pitches went well. I had two request a full manuscript, a few more request partials. I paid dues with a couple that weren’t much interested. I had every reason to walk out of there excited to conquer the publishing world. Instead, I exited in a state of emotional confusion that I still can’t figure out.

With all the feedback from agents, and all that I observed, I can’t make sense of any of it. I don’t know how to make my manuscript meet what they want at this point, but I think that’s what they need from me.

Much of the industry baffles and terrifies me. I see my potential future selves walking around and wonder if I want to be them. Or wonder if I have the writing chops they have. I wonder if it’s too limiting to follow the rules they live by. Or do they find it freeing to be published? I know I want to publish my work. But the day taught me my goal isn’t as clear as I thought.

I’m a thinker that way, which doesn’t mean I’m smart. I brood and think through things. Three weeks later I still can’t figure this one out. It’s driving my wife nuts even today, which is our nineteenth anniversary.

I’m at the edge of a next novel, and two very different ones are fighting inside my head for attention. I don’t know what I should do.

One thing I do know is that behind me was a guy who didn’t write, and that guy’s not ahead of me anymore. I hear him sneaking up on me, always.

Stranger Things, my childhood nightmare

I watched Stranger Things (a miniseries on Netflix), and it was like having a nightmare about my childhood. That’s supposed to be a snappy way of saying I loved it.

Stranger Things
Yes, Barbara, there really is a demogorgan.

The story’s fun and creepy. The characters are mostly adorable. They nailed the trappings of 1983, with only a few forgivable music nods out of the timeline. The story opens with kids playing D&D in the basement. They ride dirt bikes. Missing children. Cold war paranoia. Grainy intro titles and a synthesizer soundtrack. The Thing references.

The episodes hold up. It’s creepy and tense when it’s not lovable and sweet. It’s a love letter to moms, and a complicated message about dads.

I can point to pieces of Tupperware and cars and movie posters and electronics brands and toys and say, “I remember those.” It was like I could smell the food cooking in the houses and feel the heavy plastic of the radios.

There are fabulous nods to beloved movies like E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Goonies, and especially The Thing. (Man, I love The Thing!). The Stephen King nostalgia and references are thick.  It’s Stand By Me on LSD. His books literally appear in the show as nods and references.

But most of all, it was the first time watching anything that I felt like my stereotypical Midwestern childhood was legitimate grounds for storytelling. I don’t know who the Duffer brothers are, but they seem like all my pals from when I was about the age of the kids in the movie. Radical, man.