The Cult of One Good Thing (Revisited)

POV CoverIt was the summer of 1995. I was 20 years old. I was going to Tacoma Community College. I was about to get married. I was living in a tiny basement apartment next door to Stadium High School. And I was absolutely clueless as to what the future was going to hold for me or what sort of life I’d end up leading. One day that summer I went to Stadium Thriftway and picked up a magazine with a worried looking Michael Richards on the cover (In 1995 Kramer from Seinfeld was the biggest star on television.). There was a big headline that said, “WHAT SHOULD I DO?” and yes, at 20 years old this was a question I asked myself all the time but that wasn’t the part that spoke to me. It was the smaller headline just under it that said, “Live like $70,000 while making $35,000 by Jesse Kornbluth (a man who knows)”. This was something I was definitely interested in even if I hadn’t a clue who Jesse Kornbluth was.

The magazine was called P.O.V. and as a comic book guy I couldn’t help but notice it said, ‘Premier Issue’.  I bought the copy and read it cover to cover. The Kramer interview was hilarious. Their advice about Skyy vodka being hangover proof was quickly put to the test and passed. And then there was the Kornbluth article, “The Cult of One Good Thing”.

Now before I go any further it’s important to note that at this point in my life I wasn’t making $35,000 a year. I wasn’t making half of that. My resume was short and unimpressive. But so what. There might be a thing or two in the article I could use and I’d probably be making $35K in no time anyway (not true but optimism in youth is eternal).

The basic premise of the article is that you can live a really amazing lifestyle (or at least appear to) by focusing on quality instead of quantity. This is true. The article suggested good clothes to buy and that joining various clubs and other social gatherings are the way towards a better life and to do so, one should avoid spending copious amounts of money on sub-par stuff for a sub-par apartment. Out in the world, no one knew what kind of place you lived in as long as you appeared presentable.

When I read all of this at 20 years old, it was a revelation. I felt like this article was giving me some sort of cheat codes to life. There was one particular bit of it that struck a chord with me. Regarding other people like yourself who aren’t making a lot of money he said, “At the end of long days, their idea of fun may be to flop in front of the tube and share their miseries; if you hang with them long enough, that will be your idea of amusement too.”  I had many people who did exactly this. Most of them watched sports which I found just mind-numbing. I had no interest in ever becoming someone who drank Bud-Lite while watching the Super Bowl.

Over the years, I would reread this article. I would quote relevant parts to friends from time to time. One friend asked me if they could borrow it and being a lender of things, I let him borrow it. He then promptly lost it.

I continued to purchase P.O.V. until it went out of business in 2000. And to be perfectly honest, I actually used almost none of Jesse Kornbluth’s specific advice. (I still don’t own a Brooks Brothers shirt.) But the theme of the article echoed in many of my actions. The idea of buying something of high quality regardless of price instead of something that was average and cheap stuck with me. Right now I do have beer in the fridge. They are four bottles of craft beer bought at 99 Bottles rather than a case of Bud Lite from 7-11.

A few years ago I decided to find out what Jesse Kornbluth was up to these days. It turns out he’s still giving advice on the good life. He has a website called HeadButler.com which specializes in recommending awesome books, movies, and music. I subscribed to his newsletter immediately. Thanks to the newsletter I saw the excellent and haunting movie Winter’s Bone, I read Cara Hoffman’s incredible novel, So Much Pretty and even reviewed it on this site.  Recently I was thinking about that old article from P.O.V. and I decided to email him and see if he still had it. He wrote back and said that he did not have it.

If it were still 1995, that would have been the end, but since it’s not, I looked on Ebay and found a copy of the premier issue of P.O.V. for $12. This was four times what it cost in 1995 but I didn’t mind. After all, the theme of the article was that quality sometimes costs more.

– Jack Cameron

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The Other Victims

Following is a piece of fiction I wrote a while back about 9/11. It’s pretty much the only thing I’ve written about 9/11. I’m of the opinion that we cannot fully understand what happened to those who lost people on that day. I think the rest of us can have sympathy but we can’t ever really know. The one thing we can relate to is loss. We’ve all lost someone at some point. This is about that.

The Other Victims

by Jack Cameron

My name is Paul Newman Jr. My father is not famous. He named himself after his favorite actor when he came to the United States. He said that he wanted to fit in and that every American he’d ever met could never pronounce his name. And so four years later when I was born, he gave me this name as well. I’m not entirely sure why I’m writing this or why it has taken ten years to do so. They say there is a time for everything and I think the time for this is now. My father died in New York on September 11, 2001. He was forty-seven.

They say that no one will ever forget September 11th and the media seem to want to make sure of that with news specials, retrospectives, online timelines, commemorative magazine issues, and things like that. I’m not sure we really need it. I know I don’t. Honestly, it’s a day I want to forget.

I remember how they read off the names at Ground Zero. I remember how my father’s name was not on there. They talked of financial ‘compensation’ for the families of those who had been killed, as if money could compensate for a life. It didn’t matter though. They never contacted me. And I knew why.

September 11, 2001 was a day like any other. When my dad got into his cab, I’m sure he didn’t expect that he wouldn’t be home that evening. He didn’t know that halfway through his second fare just before eight in the morning, he’d be dead. Neither did I.

At the moment of my father’s death, I was in Oregon at Reed College probably smoking a morning bowl of pot, wondering if I was actually going to go to my Greek class. I remember turning on the television and finding every channel exactly the same: The absurd images of planes crashing into buildings. I think even without the pot, it would have taken a little while for it to register the magnitude of the whole thing.  I didn’t go to my Greek class.

It wasn’t until evening that I got the call. At first there was just crying and I thought it might be Mindy, my drama queen of an ex-girlfriend.

“Junior.” The voice croaked out through sobs.

“Mom. Mom what is it?” My mother was the other woman in my life prone to hysterics.

“It’s-It’s your father. He’s dead.” Great. This whole thing must have unhinged her more than usual. They moved upstate years ago.

“Mom, dad’s not in the city. He’s drives upstate. Remember?”

It was then that she told me what happened. He’d been shot in the back of the head and robbed. While the whole world watched the towers fall, petty thieves and murderers were still plying their trade.

It was two days until my father’s death reached the papers. Even though they lived upstate, he had made arrangements years ago for our family to be buried in New York. Even so, the circumstances made it difficult. The New York funeral home business was having their busiest week in history and prepaid or not, logistics were still an issue. The home finally agreed to have the service but the only time available was the morning of September 13th. The police said they wouldn’t be done with my father’s body in time. So the funeral would have to happen with the burial later.

I emailed my professors and let them know I needed to go back for my father’s funeral. I packed a couple bags. Smoked another bowl to settle my nerves and called to make plans for my flight.

It wasn’t until that moment that I realized no planes were flying. And they weren’t sure when they would be and when they were, there’d be days’ worth of people who needed to get to New York and everywhere else. I couldn’t drive across the country in a day and a half and they couldn’t reschedule the funeral. I wasn’t going to be at my father’s funeral.

It took me two weeks to get out to see dad’s grave. By then he was in the ground and the police had already caught the guy who did it. Seems the camera in the car got a good look at him. It didn’t matter. Just like those who lost people in the towers and in the Pentagon weren’t comforted by the fact that the hijackers who did it were dead. It doesn’t change the fact that I’d never see my father laugh again.

They say that there were almost 3,000 people killed on September 11, 2001, but they’re wrong. The truth is there were hundreds more killed across the country, around the world, and in upstate New York. And it continues to happen every day, but it doesn’t have the impact that 9/11 had on everyone because it’s just not as fantastic. They were right that September 11th was a day just like any other. I just wish it hadn’t been.

A Facebook Confession…or a Confession About Facebook

I’d just like to apologize. As a writer, I have a pre-existing condition for thinking that others need to know what I’m doing or thinking. And so I am on Facebook throughout the day, updating my status and commenting on other people’s statuses because let’s face it, they need to know.

I remember a time when it wasn’t like this. I remember when the only people who knew what I thought about a given issue had called me or shared a drink with me. But now, like so many others, I feel you absolutely must know what I think of any given issue that has kept my interest for more than 30 seconds.

Even this post is in itself a further example of my thinking you need to know what I think about my needing you to know what I think.

Then again, I’m not alone. I can count on one hand the number of friends and relatives who do not have Facebook accounts. A recent post about my abnormally high blood pressure resulted in many comments and a couple of phone calls, including one from my mother in which she would not get off the phone until I promised to go to the doctor.

It’s easy to argue that Facebook has brought us closer. In many ways this is true. There are close friends who I don’t have the chance to see very often, who I talk to on Facebook. That’s nice. But there are times that I think I overshare and there are times I know that others do.

Okay. That’s enough of my rambling. I’ve gotta go check Facebook.

-Jack Cameron

http://facebook.com/jackcameron

The End of Ruin Your Life

Almost exactly three years ago, I published Ruin Your Life. It had taken me the better part of five years to put it all together and when it was done, I was proud of the result. Ruin Your Life did not go on to become a worldwide bestseller, but it was never meant to.

It did succeed in making me a few dollars and selling a few hundred copies. And for a book with no distribution deal and a marketing plan that consisted of word of mouth and some stickers, I’m astonished by the results.

Ruin Your Life has gone throughout the country and the world. There are copies in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are copies in prisons. And people are still buying copies of it. That’s fairly impressive, all things considered.

I’ve done what I set out to do with Ruin Your Life and I’m ready for what’s next. This is why I’ve chosen to stop publication of Ruin Your Life. New copies will no longer be sold by Amazon.com and the digital copy is no longer available. For those of you who have copies, thank you for buying them and enjoy the fact that you now own an out of print book. For those of you still interested in Ruin Your Life, I do still have a handful of copies left in my possession. If you’re interested, you can click the Ruin Your Life tab above and buy one. I’m still selling it for $5.00 plus shipping.

Contrary to the headline, this isn’t the end of Ruin Your Life. Eventually I’m sure I’ll do something else with it, but this is the end for now.

Thanks for all of the support.

-Jack

How I Write Part 7: Scene Cards & Sound Track

If you haven’t noticed, a lot of the things I’m suggesting may seem like they’d be more suited to moviemaking. There are reasons for that. When people read stories, they play movies of the stories in their heads. They can’t help themselves. So it’s best to make your story at least in some ways, cinematic.

By all means you should write whatever you want to write and if it turns out to be more literary than cinematic, that’s fine. My favorite book is Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but the main reason it hasn’t been turned into a movie is that it’s mostly about a father and son on a motorcycle ride. Of course anyone who has read the book knows that a lot more than that is going on, but there’s still the underlying story.

 That’s what this sort of outlining is about. It’s fine to have subtext, but that’s not the sort of thing you can teach. It’s in you and your story or it’s not and at least for me, I’ve found that this is the stuff I like to discover while I’m writing.

So, you’ve got your final outline. You’re ready for the last steps before you jump into the deep end and start writing. Take your final outline and a set of 3” x 5” cards. Write down each scene on each card. Nothing too descriptive. (i.e. “Amber comes  home and encounters burglar”) Every time the place or time changes, get another card. You now have a scene log.

Using your scene log, go through your cards and ask yourself two questions about each scene:

1)      Does it further the plot?

2)      Does it further the character?

If the scene doesn’t do at least one of those things, toss it out and get it out of your final outline. You don’t need it.

 Now you have a list of scenes on cards. As you write the scenes, throw away the cards. This, I’ve found can be incredibly therapeutic. You feel like you’re accomplishing something. Whenever possible use the cards instead of the final outline when you’re writing. This will help you avoid any urge to copy anything from the outline.

But wait! There’s one last thing you should do before you sit down to write your story. This may seem silly and inconsequential, but I’ve found it really helps.

I’m going to assume you have a reasonable collection of mp3s. If you don’t, you know someone who does. Go through your music and make a new playlist. This isn’t necessarily music you’ll be writing to, this is the soundtrack to your story. This music should set the mood you want for your story and will help you get into the frame of mind necessary for the story. Usually, over time, the music list gets longer and longer. This is good.

Now you’re finally ready to write your story. Follow these instructions and I can’t guarantee your story will be good, but it will be solid. Good luck!

I will be posting here throughout the month with updates and tips. It’s almost time to begin.

– Jack Cameron

How I Write Part 6: The Final Outline

Only a few days until the beginning of NaNoWriMo. This weekend is crunch time for me. I’m almost done with my prep work but there’s still some things to iron out.

This is the next to last step in my outlining process. The Final Outline.

Every step you’ve taken so far has changed your story. Your theme turned into a story. Your characters gave your story life. Your characters’ perspective gave you new insight into your story. Now it’s time to take all of that knowledge and turn it into something you can work with.

This is the outline you wanted to write all along, but you didn’t actually have enough information to do so. Write this outline in the order you want it in your story. If your story starts midway through Act II and flashes back to the beginning, write the outline that way. You’ve already worked out any chronology hiccups, so you should be fine. This is your road map if you get lost during the writing.

This outline can be as long as it needs to be. Try not to leave anything out. You can even throw in some dialog if it’s important to the story. There probably won’t be too many new surprises or significant changes in at this point, but you never know. If you do make any sort of major change, go back to your Perspective Outlines and make sure you haven’t screwed up anyone’s story.

Once you’re done with this step, you should feel pretty good about the story. Staring at a blank page shouldn’t scare you at this point. You’re almost ready.

Did I say ‘almost’? Yeah. There’s still two more things you need to do before you finally sit down to write. I’ll get to those next.

 

 

How I Write Part 5: Perspective

I think we’ve all had that experience where we’re watching a movie or reading a book and we suddenly realize that we thought of something that the writer didn’t think of. There’s a hole in the plot and the more you think about it, the bigger the hole gets. Anyone with any good amount of writing under their belt can probably remember plot holes of their own that they discovered. I know I have.

Plot holes can kill a story and given all the work you’re putting into the story, it’d be nice to avoid them. There is no easy way to do this, but I do know a couple of techniques that work fairly well for me.

Even with well developed characters, there are times that the plot can get away from us. Things happen in the story because we need them to rather than because of the actions of the characters. This is when your plot starts to fall apart. Here’s how you stop this from happening.

It’s time to write some more outlines. Rather than telling the whole story like in previous outlines, these are different. Take every character and write their story. This is the same story you’ve been working on, but it’s from just that character’s perspective. It only includes the knowledge and experience that character has. If the character is a main character, it’s likely to include almost all of the story. If it’s an insignificant character, the outline might be very short. Write the outline like the character told you the story of what happened.

Now I know it probably seems like a lot of work for nothing. You might think you can get away with just doing this with the main characters, but really, the more characters you do this for, the better off you’re going to be. Occasionally you’ll find that you assumed a character had knowledge he didn’t actually have or you’ll find that a character was apparently doing nothing for an extended period of time simply because you didn’t need her in the plot for a while.

There are people who think you can skip this step, but I really think it’s one of the most important things you can do for your story.

– Jack Cameron