My "first novel" was called INVASION OF THE MUTANOIDS.
Yeah, you read that right.
I started scribbling it out in an unlined art book in the winter of 1988.¬† I had
just turned nineteen. ¬†I eventually "published" the book myself in the winter of
1998, after being turned down by every imprint I submitted the damn thing to.
¬†In the ten year gap, in addition to being a writer, my job description
included: dishwasher, prep cook, adult book store manager, cameraman for a
religious talk show, film director, musician, producer of audiobooks . . . oh,
and for an entire year, I paid the rent by selling my body to science.¬† (This
was, incidentally, how Robert Rodriguez footed the bill for his first feature
film El Mariachi—and when I say that, I mean that this was
exactly the way he did it.¬† See, the medical research lab I volunteered
at was the very same place Robert did his time in my hometown of Austin, Texas;¬†
During this ten years, I banged away on the novel, never quite sure if it was
done, moving forward in fit and starts, like many young writers do when they are
first getting their sea legs.¬† ¬†Once the thing was done, it played sort of like
Natural Born Killers meets THE Hitchhikers Guide To the Galaxy, with a healthy
dose of Gravity's Rainbow tossed in the soup and liberal dashes of Kurt
Vonnegut, Phillip K. Dick and even some William Gibson.
Oh yeah, and the Splatterpunks, too.
I was a big fan of guys like David J. Schow when I was a kid.¬† Still am,
really.¬† Joe Lansdale was another of my heroes.¬† John Skipp and Craig Spector,
too.¬† You know, those really nasty guys who got pretty famous and sold a lot of
books in the mid to late eighties, mostly paperback originals, featuring all
manner of exotic torture and mutilation, done up with a heavy metal backbeat
that made them kind of like literary rock stars.¬† Most of the "boys" went on to
become screenwriters in Hollywood with varying levels of success. ¬†A lot of them
are still publishing.¬† (Lansdale never considered himself part of the movement
and still hates the label to this day, which may be one of the reasons why he
still makes good bread in the biz.) ¬†¬†Invasion of the Mutanoids was kind of my
love letter to those whacky Splatterpunks, on top of all the other nutty
inspirations.¬† And I probably had no idea at the time that the bizarre
combination of elements I had thrown together, spearheaded by this totally
insane stylistic overdrive I'd developed, was something that wouldn't get me
arrested ten years later.¬†¬† It was sad, but by the time Mutanoids was more or
less ready for the
world, the ‚Äėpunks had come and gone, the fad had died out, some of the more
unlucky ones were even broke and starving . . . and, well . . . my book
wasn't really that amazing to begin with.
It was, after all, my "first novel."
I had gleaned the basics of the craft from devouring a lot of books, but I was
still kind of standing on the outside, looking in at guys who were far more
skilled in the art of grabbing and holding a reader with visceral storytelling
tools.¬† Also,¬† I was still really young.¬† Coming from a fractured and extended
family of artists, hippies, sex addicts, dopers, musicians, filmmakers,
streetwalkers and Just Plan Crazy People, I had developed a scary worldview, and
a weird sense of humor, but tying all that together in a way that would truly
involve an audience beyond dazzling (or maybe just bludgeoning)
them with a very strange and unpredictable story (not to mention a lot of
off-color jokes), was still something I needed to work on. ¬†
Still, at the time, MUTANOIDS was my one and only baby, and I hung in there, for
better or for worse.¬† It's what young writers do.
As an only child coming from the street, I've always been a
DIY kinda guy.¬† It never even occurred to me that I might need an agent to
champion my work back then.¬† So I just went out and did it myself.¬† This was an
especially difficult and even cumbersome process at a time when there was
virtually no internet, no email, no cell phones, and book submissions had to be
done the Very Goddamned Old Fashioned Way:¬† with phone calls, inquiry letters
and giant manuscripts packaged up and sent through the mail.¬† Mutanoids was a
whopper, too: almost eight hundred pages, properly formatted.¬† This was also an
expensive process, and I was very much a starving artist at the time.
As I said before, the book was rejected by everyone I submitted it to.
That happens a lot to young writers also.
Which brings me to the best writing advice I ever got in the biz.
The last editor I approached was Eric Raab, who ran Tor Publishing for many
years.¬† (To this day, some editors will take anybody's call—go
figure.)¬† Eric seemed like a sharp young go-getter with his thumb on the pulse
of the cutting edge, which was basically the post end-days period of
splatterpunk, when a lot of edgy horror stuff was still coming out, but getting
less and less so all the time.¬† When I described my book to Eric as NATURAL BORN
KILLERS meets THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, he perked right up and said:
"Golly, man, that sounds like exactly what we're looking for right now."¬†
Needless to say, I was hyped by this, and mailed off the big-ass manuscript in a
happy fog, hoping to conquer the world with Eric as my champion.¬†
It wasn't in the cards, obviously.¬†
And I am calling out Eric by name here, but not because I am bitter so many
years later that he rejected my book.¬† He had every right to.¬† The book was
terrible.¬† However, he read every page, dutifully . . . even painfully, I'm sure
. . . and I want to thank him openly for that.¬† But mostly I want to
thank him for what he wrote in the letter that accompanied the returned
800-page package.¬† The exact words (and I don't have to go digging up the
letter, either; I have it memorized) were this:
"While I appreciated the (overall) offbeat tone of the work, I'm afraid that,
in the end, I just didn't become involved with the story viscerally, as a
Twenty eight words, people.
The best writing lesson I ever received from anyone, anywhere, EVER.
When I decided a year later to self-publish a limited vanity run of INVASION OF
THE MUTANOIDS (that'll show the bastards!), Eric's words were foremost on my
mind during the revising and editing process.¬† When I continued writing new
projects, this time creating the short stories that would win my first critical
acclaim, Eric's words were foremost on my mind.¬†¬† I struggled hard
through life experiences such as death, heartbreak, loneliness, drug and alcohol
addiction, and all of those things became the worldview that shaped my art and
spurred me on as a maker of words-on-paper . . . but the visceral
imperative, that final, almost imperceptible push that my skill set as a
writer required, was always foremost on my mind.
I needed to involve people.¬† I needed to put them in the soup.¬†
I began reading people like Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk.¬† I went back
to Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson.¬† I began to see what Eric was talking
about.¬† I even revisited my Splatterpunk chums, particularly Dave Schow, who
were masters of visceral involvement, especially when it came to action
During this time, I also discovered a writer who would become
one of my personal gods, for many reasons.¬† Andrew Vacchs.
Andrew seemed like a strange bird to me at first: a NYC lawyer who had been
frustrated by the reception his textbook on child abuse had gotten, and so had
turned his energies to disguising his crusade as bracing, stylized crime
fiction.¬† The irony is that those books have, of course, made him one of the
most respected noir writers in the world.¬† He also happens to be one of
the best no-bullshit prose stylists I've ever read.¬† He wrote this in the
introduction to his incredible short story collection, Born Bad:
"Writing short stories is like boxing in a very small ring.¬† You have to get
busy quickly, and it costs a lot more if you make mistakes."
He wasn't kidding around.¬† Andrew's short stories were like revelations.¬† They
were fast, stabbing, sometimes just a single page long, fired by deep beliefs
and harrowing truths, all centered around the urban nightmare of violence and
child abuse.¬† Moreover, they were also chillingly real—as in actually
real, cribbed directly from a lifetime of terrifying experiences with
disenfranchised youths.¬† But more than all that, the style was simple and
visceral in a way I'd never seen before.¬† Then I read Andrew's novel
SHELLA—which was, essentially, one of his stories made a little bit
longer—and it blew my mind.¬† It remains my favorite piece of
hard-boiled noir fiction to this day and one of my Top Ten Books of All
And so . . . during this period, my whole perception of the form changed.¬† But
it didn't happen overnight.¬† I had to work years for it.¬† This was like
attending graduate school, and what ultimately made me into a real professional
INVASION OF THE MUTANOIDS, was finally "released" in an negligible vanity run of
just over three hundred copies.¬† My reasoning at the time was that it would be a
great "calling card" to give away to other writers and to publishers.¬† I was
sort of half right about that.¬† My hero Joe Lansdale did read it, and
said he liked it a lot, which made me feel pretty good—that's why they
call it a vanity pressing, after all.¬† We became friends, too, and even
collaborated on film projects later in my career.¬† ¬†
Publishing your own book, by the way, was a difficult and expensive undertaking
back in in the fall of 1997, in the days before Print On Demand.¬† I worked for
two years in a video store to pay for it all.¬† I had to hire a designer, I used
a local printer.¬† I even contracted an illustrator to do the cover and some
beautiful interior work.¬†¬† I still actually still think the best part of that
book are the pretty pictures.¬† Jim Keating, who eventually did all that great
work for free, presented me with the original 27X40 oil painting of the cover
illustration, which still hangs on my wall in the living room.¬† It's at once a
chilling reminder of where I began, and where I was going.¬† Not to mention a
really great conversation starter.¬† It kind of looks like what would happen if
H.R. Gieger and Doctor Seuss had a baby which vomited Clive Barker's HELLRAISER.
Bottom line:¬† INVASION OF THE MUTANOIDS was schoolwork, people.¬† You have
to learn how to fall before you fly.¬† That's why I never even purchased an ISBN
number for the book.¬† I wanted it off the radar, in my own private training camp.
What came next was my real career.
And my real first novel, written just over ten years later.
That novel is RESURRECTION
EXPRESS, and it comes out this week from Gallery Books at Simon and
Schuster.¬† It's been a hell of a ride.
I hope you'll come with me for the rest of it.
20 comments posted.
This story sounds amazing! This is just my type of book. I actually felt my heart racing just reading the brief description. I will find this book!!!
(Stephanie Strausberger 8:39am September 19, 2012)
I appreciate you sharing your experience. Sometimes it takes the pure honesty of another to make you take a step back, learn and develop.
(Carla Carlson 11:56am September 19, 2012)
It was really interesting to hear your experience with the first attempt to get published. I agree that if a book doesn't engage me in the story, really draw me in, then I will stop reading or I might finish the book but never read that author again.
(Pam Howell 12:49pm September 19, 2012)
That sounds really cool! Its always a good thing no matter what profession you go in to when you are able to listen to other peoples advise and then apply it.
(Chelsea Knestrick 2:19pm September 19, 2012)
This sounds like a great book to read especially with the nice cool fall nights here. Thanks!
(Julie Parrish 4:54pm September 19, 2012)
Wow. It took a lot of time invested to writing this book but congratulation on getting it done. I didn't know that a writer goes through all that. Seeing how a book gets written and publish from your experience says alot.
(Kai Wong 6:43pm September 19, 2012)
Writing is such an art. Authors are so creative and getting published is so hard. Having said that, kudos to you on your new novel, Resurrection Express.
(Susan Coster 6:51pm September 19, 2012)
i think i could really learn something from reading this book..hope i win...thanks
(Kimberly Hoefs 9:08pm September 19, 2012)
Thanks so much for an excellently written tale of the Mutanoids! I think 800 pages was just too long and many books of SF at the time were a lot shorter - unless you were Frank Herbert, say.
Style is so important and you do need to read a lot, and a lot of different authors and time periods.
I am very interested in reading your new work and I hope it does very well for you.
(Clare O'Beara 6:33am September 20, 2012)