The Most Heart-Wrenching Spam Comment in the History of the Internet

April 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

If you have a blog, you get a lot of spam comments–sometimes, more than actual comments. You’ll write post of deep intellectual honesty and emotional bravery (or at least some of the finest dick jokes known to man) and someone (some robot?) going by the name of drebeatsdiscount will post a comment of barely intelligible gibberish, seemingly cut and pasted from some dark corner of the internet. The goal, I think, is just to have their name up as a link to their sales and/or malware based website.

I guess the part I don’t get is who would ever click on one of these links? “Oh, here’s someone with nothing apropos to say about anything… Maybe I should see what their personal website is all about… And now that you mention it, I do need a good discount on generic viagra!” How many people need to be naive enough to click on these things to make it a worthwhile use of a grifter’s time?

Up until this morning, I was also unsure of who would even approve one of these comments to appear on their website. Is there anyone out there desperate enough for internet attention to treat each and every comment as a badge, no matter how obviously it doesn’t engage with your content? Or is there something else at work that gets these comments to stick?

I found MY answer this morning, when I received, as a comment to a post I wrote a few years ago about Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, this message from “gold jewelry hallmarks”:

“We find that talking to our son helps enormously but the pain of never seeing his physical presence is
too hard to bear right now.”

One glorious sentence, complete with artful line-breaks, exploring the relationship between hope and pain, I found that this spam was just too beautiful, too haunting to delete. I had to approve it because to do otherwise felt like silencing something that needed to be said. Even if it was some bot created by some con-artist that needed to say it.

But then I couldn’t just leave it hanging there, so I did a little writing exercise to warm up for my other work of the day, trying to come up with a little “poem” that matched the tone of a lot of these spam comments while saying something that might speak to what gold jewelry hallmarks was trying to convey. You can see the results below, or over at the original post.



Just don’t click on the link, no matter how much it breaks your heart.


Nut Meat for your Ear Hole

April 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

That’s right, y’all. It is once again time for the Cracked Walnut Reading Festival to take over the Twin Cities. After hosting writers from around the world for AWP in April, it will be great to refocus on our own literary scene, as Satish Jayaraj and his crew put on 29 themed readings throughout May and into June, featuring over a hundred local writers, all at unique locations around Minnesota. You can check out the full schedule of events here to pick and choose your whatever fits your interest, schedule, and home area.


That said, I obviously feel that the one reading you absolutely shouldn’t miss is number 3: Divinity and Humor, at the Richfield Community Center (7000 Nicollet Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55423) at 7:00 pm on Tuesday, May 5th. Featuring myself, Hawona Sullivan Janzen, Catherine Dehdashti, Jeanne Lutz, Ron Palmer, Amy Salloway, and James Bohem, it should deliver the thoughtful yuk-em-ups that readers of this blog are by now familiar with.

But why not check out number 7, For the Game, as well. At the East Lake Craft Brewery (South East corner of the Midtown Global Market) on Monday May 11th, it will feature Andrew Blissenbach of MANDREW’S BLISSENBLOG and David Stein of AutoAnatta, both great friends of The Oldest Jokes of the World. Furthermore, the great writers Kate Shuknecht and Jordan Wiklund, will also be reading.

And don’t forget about number 15, Fractured Fairy Tales, at The Lift Garage on Thursday, May 21st. My lovely wife, Jenny Mcdougal, will be reading, along with the very awesome Lewis Mundt and Thomas Rohde

But really, any event is worth checking out. It is a great way to connect with the vibrant writing community in the Twin Cities, and the perfect way to meet Satish so you can read in next year’s festival yourself!


Jokealong: #AWP15

April 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

We’ve got a very special Jokealong today: the #AWP15 edition. url-1Last week, the Twin Cities were lucky enough to host writers, editors, publisher, and professors from across the globe for the 49th annual Association of Writers & Writers & Writing Programs Conference. If you’ve never been, it is a blast, and you can get a feel for the general atmosphere in this New Yorker Recap.

With it in my hometown, this was the first year I wasn’t overly distracted by the tourist sights and culinary delights of the host city, and I managed to stay on task for most of the conference, spending lots of time in the book fair selling chapbooks and meeting authors while working the Red Bird table, as well as taking daily laps of the other tables were I gained a ton of cool books, journals, and new acquaintances.

That said, I didn’t really hit the panels like I used to. While I feel there is always a lot more to learn about craft for a writer at any point in their career, I am not convinced you can learn much about writing from a fifteen minute speech followed by a Q&A. Reading, writing, and reading again feels like a better use of time to me. Worse still are the panels about the secret to this or that aspect of the business. If there is a secret, no one is going to tell it to a room full of a hundred twittering writers, but the confused and contradictory accounts of success only make it clear that no one really knows what they are doing. If there is a joke to be found in these sorts of panels, it is that the only secret to success is pretending that there is one and you know it.

So I went in search of panels that would instead entertain and inspire me—and that’s where I found the bets jokes, too!

One of the funniest moments came as part of Keri Miller’s interview of Charles Baxter and Louise Erdrich for a special Talking Volumes. I love both of these authors, and it was great to hear their wisdom and insights on everything ranging from craft to the midwestern landscape, but the real laughs came when they tried a few different recitations from memory: despite the fact that they both listed the Bible as an early education in the importance of story, both had an easier time remembering bad reviews, word for word, than any psalm.

The biggest laughs of the conference, for me at least, came in the awesome panel Rain Taxi put on about hip-hop and poetry, making good use of our local luminaries POS, Dessa, and Kevin Beacham, along with poet Adrian Matejka. Highlights included Eric Lorberer quizing the panels on whether certain lines came from rap or page based poetry, but POS was responsible for most of the big laughs (which I never would have guessed, listening to his mostly punchline-free music). It was great to know that he shares an affinity for another one of MN’s most famous word-smiths, F. Scott Fitzgerald, especially once he revealed the secret to overcoming his early distaste for the author: a friend told him to read it again and imagine Gatsby was black.

My favorite moments came, though, as he looked through the exegeses for several of his lyrics. One of the best was his line “Who really listens? Precision with a verse draws a crowd,” from “Let It Rattle”. A commenter wrote that the line is, “A commentary on the fact that most people don’t understand the meaning behind the words, they are only interested in the rhymes and whether or not it sounds good,” which POS explained he was flattered by, though all he’d actually meant by the line was that he was great at rapping so lots of people came to his concerts. In a conference dedicated to dissecting every little aspect of a business that really just comes down to whether you are actually writing or not, it was the perfect bit of levity.

That said, I know I didn’t hear a hundredth of the jokes that were told by and about writers at the conference, so please relive the fun and post your favorites below—jokes about Minnesota and Minnesotans are especially welcome.


April 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

Just a quick note to let it be known that I’ll be attending The Associated Writing Programs Conference and Book Fair ( #AWP15 ) this week in big-time Minneapolis. I’ve been to five conferences, and they’re always an inspiring and educating experience, so after having to miss last year’s, I’m excited to have it in my own back yard this year.

I’ll be resurrecting our #jokealong series for the week, too, tracking down all the best humor in the keynotes, panels, and hallway banter before nominating a best joke of the conference. If you’ve never been to an AWP before, check out the #jokealong from AWP Boston for sense of how much fun shooting the shit with a bunch of other writers can be.

I’ll be working the Red Bird Chapbooks booth on Saturday from 1-5, closing down the book fair, so stop by to look at some gorgeous hand-made books, get info about submitting to us, or just to say hi and give me your best literary joke. I’ll also have some copies of Slash in my backpack to sell—but honestly, if you go through the trouble of tracking me down, I’ll probably be flattered into giving them to you for free!


How You, Too, Can Gain 100 Twitter Followers in Little Over a Year

April 1, 2015 § 3 Comments

Hey guys. Earlier this year, I was asked to give a talk at Hamline University as part of their The Writer’s Life Lecture Series. If you live in Minnesota, it is a great series to check out, as they cover topics like how to find a publisher or get work in academia that are useful and difficult for writers of all experience levels. I was asked to give a twenty minute talk as part of a panel discussion on building web presence, along with publicist Linda White, web designer Christine Rousu, and fellow author Addie Zimmerman, and I feel like I gained more knowledge from the fellow speakers than I managed to impart during my speech. That said, everyone was so enthused by the whole day that some of the audience suggested that I post my remarks to my blog. 

So, here it is, everything I know about building web presence for authors (please note, though, that I have edited it a bit for length, and to remove many of my witty remarks which, while hilarious, don’t make as much sense written as they do spoken (they’ll just have to remain a bonus for all the lovely audience members who paid the price of admission on the day of the lecture)):

Thanks, it’s a real honor being invited back to talk at my alma mater, especially about social media, since social stuff and media stuff is really difficult to me. If they would have asked me to do this two years ago, when I was first planning to self-publish and promote my serial novel SLASH, I would have had nothing to tell you. Almost nothing. I knew that the Internet liked cats, which is why my first-step was to get an author photo of me holding a kitten. I’d encourage everyone to do the same. Not that I think it has led to any sales or anything, but holding a cuddly kitten was undeniably the most pleasant part of the self-promotion experience.

It is tough enough putting your work out there as a writer, but with social media, it feels even more like you are putting your self out there. It is hard not to feel like you’ve wasted your life when you spend three hours a day, six days a week, for a year working on a novel just to make a big post announcing to everyone you know: “Bump-pa-dum-dum! It is here, the novel that will change the world and affirm your life!” And you get seven likes. You’re not even asking anyone to pay money for it, just affirm the fact that you still exist after refusing all coffee-dates and matinee invites in order to follow your passion—and only seven people seem to notice. Meanwhile, your wife takes a picture of you with your cat and posts it to your wall: seventy likes, instantly. How do you do the math on that and not think you’re wasting your time.

I hear it is hard for everyone, but I do feel, probably fueled by the social media spirit of our age, that it was especially hard for ME. I became a novelist, in part, because, thinking about what to do with my life and how to give something back to society, one of the most pleasurable things I could think of was spending a long stretch of quiet time alone with a familiar feeling paperback in your hands. Conversely, some of the most unpleasant things I can think of are fast-paced, publicly performed social interactions that require you to learn a new operating system and sign a new privacy policy every six months. So, having an infamous stick in the mud like me tell you about how to succeed with social media and web presence is, I think, a way of saying that anyone, truly anyone, can do it.

Obviously, though, not everyone can be a social media superstar/novelist like Kim Kardashian. I’m being facetious, of course, but I’m joking about it mostly because that’s my real fear about social media—the way it very concretely quantifies and commoditizes our achievements and selves into winners and losers. Of course, not every good writer can write THE great American novel, just as not every great novel can become a widely read best seller, taught in schools for generations—but I think that ultimate subjectivity is some of what is so appealing about being a novelist for me, too. It is somehow reassuring to me to think that, even if the world seemed indifferent at the time, Herman Melville or Virginia Wolfe were doing great, meaningful, and consequential work. And even if it still seems that the world at large is still indifferent, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, because when you’re an engaged reader, you can feel and take part in that certainty of purpose with them.

I’m a big believer in the idea that as a writer, while you obviously always need to be working on your craft and pushing yourself, ultimately you can’t judge your own writing: the healthiest thing you can do is show up to the page every day and do your work; how much the world celebrates or ignores it is largely up to luck and privilege, but as long as you’ve done your best at honestly finding and expressing your voice, you can count that day as a success.

With the ability to constantly empirically measure not just up-to-the-second book sales, but even engagement on your most trivial blog post, it can be a lot harder to find a balance with social media. At least it was for me. Starting off with my serial novel Slash, I wasted a fair amount of time and money chasing social media achievements that turned out ultimately meaningless to my goals as an author, and there was always that nagging doubt when comparing myself to others. It is all out there for everyone to see, so it is hard not to be like, “Well, I blogged, tweeted, tumblred, and FBed for three hours every day this week, so much so that I didn’t actually have any time to write, and it all earned me five new followers and one sold book. Why don’t I just quit it all!”

So in my attempts to get a web presence and use social media to sell my book, I needed to find something like my goal to show up to the page every day, a goal that would be productive and keep me going and trying even in the face of disappointment and failure. So, just as you show up to the page and write until you discover something fresh, I now try to do my social media for the day until I’ve had some sort of meaningful interaction. And by that, I mean something surprising, outside of the normal exchange of social media that can feel and, in fact, often times is, automated. While you’re writing, it is nice to imagine an ideal reader—maybe thousands of them—but if you are really going to make this work as a self-published author, you are going to need real individuals to read your book, one at a time. It’s not only deluded and pompous to treat them like faceless mass of fans, but it is counter-productive, too, because they can tell when you are just trying to sell your book to anyone and everyone—and that’s only if they care to look in the first place. Your readers, if you’re lucky enough to find them, are real people with dreams, desires, and opinions every bit as idiosyncratic as your own, so if you’re going to try to make something out of interacting with them, you need to interact with them as such.

So there, that’s the secret, I guess, if I’ve got one to tell you. While I wouldn’t call myself a self-publishing success, I will say that I am usually satisfied with myself as long as I keep trying to make progress in that way, and the responses I get encourages me enough to keep me writing. Whereas selling myself at first felt like a distraction, and then later, like it might wither my creativity completely, since I’ve started approaching it that way, it actually feels like a fruitful part of the process.

I’m sorry that I’m not promising you some secret to achieving your wildest dreams—there are certainly a lot of self-published books you can buy if that’s what you want. But we all know that anyone trying to sell you that is faking because if there was a secret to winning we could all buy, we would all buy it and no one would be winners: we’d tie. And that’s not how capitalism works. I do, though, think writing can work that way: we all have the chance to better understand ourselves and eachother. So I’ll spend the rest of my talk here giving practical examples of how to have those meaningful interactions I’ve taken as my goal when I set out to sell my work for the day.

I think a great place to start is with a blog. As a writer, I feel like is the form of social media that comes most naturally: you don’t even really need to have it be about yourself at all: it can just be writing. Just choose a topic that somehow fits with the audience you think your book will have and get posting. Which isn’t to say blogging is just about writing. It surprised me, at first, how social an activity it is, though I don’t know why it should have, as I had never read a blog before I started blogging. Because most of the people reading blogs regularly are other bloggers, and they are mostly reading so you will read their blogs, so the only way it can work is as this large conversation. WordPress, which I use, even has this follow and like function, which makes it even more obvious how FB and Twitter like it is. The difference, though, is that you don’t add your mom and your coworker and your high-school crush: you have to earn every follow you get in this new community. So the way to do this is being a genuinely engaged and enthusiastic community member. If someone follows you, follow them, if they like something, go to their blog and see if there is anything you like. But the sort of button-clicking steps lose their power after a while. Once a relationship is established like that, to keep it alive and growing, you need to actually engage with and comment on what other people are doing, so they hopefully return the favor: that’s the daily goal of a genuine interaction I’m talking about.

It really is about community, and if you’re writing genre fiction or non-fiction on a specific subject, you might have an easy time finding a ready-made community to join, but for general, literary fiction, which is the world I found myself in, you just have to be a little more creative. For my first blog, I wrote about the relationship between humor and literature and found myself connecting with other literary jesters and misfits. When I was ready to start promoting Slash, I wanted to transition into a blog/website hybrid, where I could draw in attention with fresh posts while still having the links to purchase and review the book there at all times, so I launched hoping to become a hub for literary fan fiction. Four months in advance of the release of the first episode, I started posting more experimental fan fiction contemporaries of mine were doing. The aim here was to flatter: if you post someone else’s work, you know that is at least one person who is going to see it, appreciate it, and probably share it with their friends.

I think it really helps to come up with a series of things to do like that when it comes to blogging, because besides being genuine, consistency is the second key. You need to generate something fresh on a regular basis just to stay a relevant part of the community. If you only speak up in the conversation every other month, no one will remember who you are. Doing Slash serially helped with this, as I had a schedule of built in posts: a preview the new episode, releasing the new episode to ebook, revealing the new physical cover for the ‘zine version, etc… But I’ll also note that after a while, I stopped counting these routine posts as my social interaction for the day unless I got creative with them, changing them from another self-promotion no one asked to hear into something at least partially engaged with an existing conversation.

I use WordPress, and will say in its favor that it is relatively easy to use, but I don’t want to get too bogged down in the specifics of that sort of thing today, in part because they change so quickly. Unless you’re ready to publish tomorrow, much of which I could tell you today about publishing with Kindle Direct versus Smashwords or making FB groups will be entirely different by the time you’re ready to publish. Amazon’s self-publishing wing went through big changes in the year I was self-publishing, with many of the authors who were held up as success stories of the community starting to claim that the new lending system has destroyed their livelihood. In this realm, I think the best advice is to stay educated and be ready to change. Because you can believe that if authors are making huge profits off of Amazon or any other giant corporation, that business is going to find a way, sooner or later, to refigure things so that it gets a bigger share.

So let’s do talk about money, next. It is easy to get caught up in the self-publishing rhetoric about the liberation that comes with doing away with gatekeepers, but I’ll tell you, there are a lot of tollbooths on the road in their place. Starting out, I picked up a special self-publishing issue of Poets & Writers, thinking I would find one of those secrets to success. I was surprised to find, instead, that it read, cover to cover, like a special advertising section, detailing which book designer you could hire for three thousand dollars, and who costs only a hundred, how much you should pay for a publicist, etc. Unlike the rest of literary history, there are not too many self-publishing success stories that start with someone dedicating their life to literature, working a shit job all day to focus on craft at night until they are discovered. Instead, they mostly involve a successful life in a different career followed by the decision to use the riches they’ve gained to pursue a dream that has been on the back burner most of their life.

So, what can you do as a poor MFA? Here, I let the having real interactions goal guide me as well. When it came time to put the book together, I’d heard horror stories from blogging authors who signed on with one of the big self-publishing conglomerates for a package deal and ended up either dissatisfied with their cover or the editing, because, big surprise, the wage worker the company hired it out to didn’t seem to care as much about the project as the author did. Instead, I think you should hire cover design out to an actual artist you know, and the same with editing. Assuming their friendship is real, and their passion for what they’re doing is as genuine as yours, they are going to do a much better job than someone who drudges through this sort of thing as a day job supplementing the work they’re actually passionate about. And furthermore, everyone you hire to help is person invested in your project, another person guaranteed to help you promote it.

One arena which I haven’t found much success with yet is advertising, in part because I’ve only tried the impersonal route so far. I’m sure you’ve lately noticed more targeted ads in your FB feed—you can pay to get your page to show up more often, and it increasingly seems like they are moving to a model where you won’t show up randomly at all without paying, so it can be tempting. I was tempted by some similar self-service ads on Goodreads, thinking it might draw people to a give away I had for the first episode. I had misgivings, at first, because, honestly, I would never click on a tiny two sentence Internet ad, but I felt reassured that you paid by the click, so if no one really cared, I wouldn’t be out much money. And at first, no one cared. I think three people clicked that first campaign, and I ended up paying 45 cents. For my next give away, though, I ran it again, and all of a sudden, hundreds of people were clicking it, I was excited at first but then disappointed when none of them even led to a single free download. After talking about it to some other writers, I realized I must have been the random target of a click farm. A click farm is a place you can pay to like your page or add your book or watch your video to get some social media momentum going, but companies like Goodreads or Facebook try to crack down on them to get you to buy clicks the honest way, through their advertising services. So in order to not be obvious, click farms often now click random stuff as well as what they are paid to click, so that they seem more like genuine users. I didn’t have anyone to complain, too, though, because I’d just typed my credit card into a form on a website. I know that some people have had better luck running ads on smaller but more focused websites, so that might be my next step if I ever have money laying around again.

In the meantime, social media seems the best option. I’ll not say a lot about general social media, because I think Linda already did a better job than I could. I’ll just reiterate that like with a blog, you need to be genuine and consistent, so only do what you feel comes naturally, not what you’ll only find the willpower to do once every couple weeks. I’d heard that maxim, but I still tried to force myself on to Twitter, and even with my rule for making interactions, I still couldn’t seem to make it work for me and have happily retired my account to refocus on blogging.

So now I’m focusing on getting reviews for Slash, which is really the self-publishers bread and butter. Probably the best way to get reviews at first, and a way to sort of cement yourself as a member of your little corner of the self-publishing community, is trading with other self-published writers who have new books out or coming soon. It’s a pretty common practice, and the general rule everyone I’ve done it with goes by is that if they are going to give it a bad review, usually anything lower than three out of five stars, they’ll give you the option of posting it or not. But honestly, these reviews are usually pretty casual and the practice seems more about fostering the self-publishing community than practicing exacting literary criticism. It’s a great way to get those first few Amazon reviews, which an author needs to start showing up on searches, and it is also a great way to get those first few blurbs for your promotional materials. It may not be the same as having praise from Michiko Kakutani on your book, but it is a little more official than a quote from your mom.

As far as official book reviews go, I’d say this is the one place where I spent some money for a service and was happy with the return. There are several services out there that will give professional reviews to self-published books for a fee, most around a couple hundred dollars. It might feel scummy at first, but it is much the same process through which traditional publishing houses pay to be reviewed in Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and just like there, there is no guarantee of a good review. I went with IndieReader, because I knew they had a reputation for giving tough reviews; one of the authors I traded books with got bombed by them, so I felt like I wasn’t just paying for undue praise. Plus, you get to deal directly with their publisher and founder, with quick email responses, instead of just dead-uploading something to a server. They ended up really liking SLASH, giving it five out of five stars and putting it on their Top Books of 2014 list. That said, I don’t know how many sales it lead to, at least directly, as I don’t think too many people visit IndieReader other than other self-published authors. It was the first piece of my press kit, though, and I include it in most of my promotional materials, so I’m sure it has helped with some sales. And I think it has really helped open the door to book bloggers.

That’s my big social media push these days: looking for book bloggers to review the new collected edition of Slash. You can blanket the blogosphere with form emails, but there are a lot of bloggers out there doing the same, so you need to stand out. It helps to have a professional review in your press-kit, as proof your book is at least readable, but I think, moreover, it helps to familiarize yourself and connect with the blogs. I’ll usually set out looking at the latest posted book reviews until I find one that I think might fit with Slash, based on what they’re reviewing. Then in the email I send them, I try to reference one of their reviews and say how it made me believe they might like Slash. Because they aren’t blogging in order to promote your book, and they aren’t waiting patiently for your email. They usually have their own goals for the blog, maybe as a resume builder to become an editor or break in to professional reviewing, so you need to convince them that you fit in to their plan—and even better, that you believe in their plan and would love to be a part of it. If you do your research right, you should be able to avoid negative reviews, and most bloggers will say that if they don’t like a book, they’ll quit it instead of plowing through just to slam you in revenge. Even if they don’t lead to a sale, every review leads to a new, very engaged reader: the reviewer themselves, so I try celebrate every one as a goal accomplished.

Lastly, I’ll say that you need to still get out into the real world. I’ve had great luck selling hand-made books at local bookstores. So much so that, at first, it was more popular than the ebook and I considered focusing just on the real world. But then you have to realize that the only way people know to go to the bookstore and get the latest episode is through social media, because, in a way, nothing really happens that doesn’t happen on social media. But that works in your favor, too, as local people and businesses can give you a great social media boost after you’ve met them in person. I got over half the names on my mailing list selling chapbooks at an art sale some friends of mine put on at the Carleton Lofts. That’s my last advice then, say yes to every opportunity, but be flexible in changing out what doesn’t work for you and for what does. If someone asks you to take part in a blog chain or trade a book, say yes. This past year, I joined a podcast on that advice, had a bunch of fun doing it, but eventually figured it really wasn’t helping me interact with possible readers, so I dropped it this year to take an invite to write a monthly literary humor column, so we’ll see how that goes. Who knows?

In the end, much of what I like about writing is how subjective it is. It is a chance for reader and writer to collaborate at making meaning at a level that I don’t think any sort of social media will ever match. Through subtext, a piece of writing can invite the reader into an experience so intimate that the book becomes a part of their life. In the same way, for someone to find your work meaningful enough to give it a try, you need to find a way to make them feel like it is a part of their life, not just yours. Hopefully, some day, after hundreds of such days of hard work, it will be because everyone they know is reading the book and they want to be part of the discussion, but at the start, it really needs to be about actually meeting them where they are.


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