Surly Questions: Yuvi Zalkow

If you aren’t already watching the brilliant, funny,  videos of soft-spoken and self-deprecating Yuvi Zalkow, you should be. A self-confessed “failed writer,” Yuvi nonetheless keeps turning out content, including his latest novel, A Brilliant Novel in the Works, which is available on Kindle now. Which is a great hook for some cheap, “Who’s on first” type comedy:
“I have a brilliant novel in the works.”
“What’s it called?”
“A Brilliant Novel in the Works. “
“Yeah, but what’s the title?”
Thanks for the great interview, Yuvi!

1. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I was pretty late to the party. It wasn’t until my college years (when I was studying to be a computer engineer) that I realized how badly I wanted to tell stories. I was a bit of an emotional wreck during those years and I was dying to get those feelings out of me and onto the page. Those first stories were way too self-absorbed and melodramatic, but I kept at it. It was another ten years before I got any good at telling stories. Now with 33% less self-absorbed-ness and melodrama!

2. The tagline of your website reads “novelist, failed writer, schmo.” What does “failure” mean to you?

I just got asked that question over lunch recently and I realized that I change the meaning of “failure” on a weekly basis. In one of my Failed Writer videos I try to tackle the subject. That attempt is probably as good as any. But to sum up, my take is that feeling like a failure is a state of mind. And not necessarily a bad state of mind. There is a constructive aspect and a dangerous aspect. The bad part is the way I can carry around a paralyzing feeling of shame. The good part is the attitude that I always have a lot more to learn and I should never pretend like I know what I’m doing. I move between these worlds more than I’d like to admit.

3. What inspired your video series?

I knew I wanted a venue for having a conversation with other creative types. I started out attempting to blog but it just didn’t flow right for me. A week after every blog post, I’d delete the post in disgust. In 2010, I did a video slideshow as part of a lecture when getting my MFA at Antioch University. A few months later I started thinking just how much fun it was to make that video and present it. And so I tried another one. And another one. They got more complex and quirky each time — that goes for both the content and the way the videos were made. I started animating them using my terrible artistic skills. Pretty soon, I realized that a common theme running through my videos were about the crooked writer’s life, and in particular, the ways I’ve slipped up along the way. So I created the I’m a Failed Writer video series using that theme.

4. What equipment do you use to produce the videos?

This could turn into a very long and very geeky answer if I’m not careful. The main screen recording software I use is ScreenFlow ($99) for the Mac. This is a nice, easy way to capture the screen, as well as edit video and audio. I also use my iPhone to film video footage. I have a Blue Yeti USB mic ($99) for audio. And I use other tools, depending on the video. It seems like each video, I try to learn something new. Which explains why it takes me so many damn hours to make these things. I’m constantly stumbling through new tools.

5. Self-deprecation seems to play a big part in your videos. Is this just your sense of humor at work? Is it a way of coping? Both? Neither?

Both. Definitely. It was born out of a deep sense of shame I felt as a child. But at some point (between the ages of 18 and 30?), I learned to intentionally use self-deprecation for humor. Both to cope with a genuine, low self-esteem, but more and more because it is so much fun to watch others get caught off guard by how willing I am to throw all my flaws out on the table for them to look at. My novel is an exploration on how far I can go with that sort of persona.

6. What does your wife really think of your writing and your video series?

Wow. Now that’s a question from someone who has really been watching my videos! Nice. Just last month, when I made my wife review my video Beyond Microsoft Word, she said something along the lines of, “You know, I don’t *really* get that upset with you.” And that was when I realized that I make her out to be a lot more annoyed with me than she is. The wife character in my novel (which is about a writer named Yuvi) is also an unrealistic depiction of my real wife. Don’t get me wrong, she gets annoyed with my many quirks, but not quite like how I portray her in my storytelling… Then again, maybe I’m lying here too 🙂

7. What has been the most rewarding thing about connecting with other writers through social media?

I never thought I would join the social media game. And I’m still horrible at Facebook (even though I stupidly have an author page, a book page, and a personal page). I do feel more at home with Twitter: I love its brevity. What is satisfying for me is to see people who really know how to shine on these forms of social media… not just annoying self-promotion, not just stories about their pets, not just complaints after going to the post office, but the right balance of many things. It’s easy to make fun of people who spend eight hours a day on Facebook instead of writing, but I think there’s also an amazing aspect to the virtual communities that form in these social media realms. Having a satisfying banter with smart, funny people on Twitter every few days is a real joy for me.

OK. I haven’t answered your question. I guess I don’t know what is most rewarding. But it’s nice, especially for writers I think, to have this way to connect with others during their lonely and isolating pursuit. You don’t even need to put your pants on. Which is a plus.

Just don’t ask me about Pinterest. I still don’t get it.

8. What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

I honestly don’t know if I made this up or someone actually told it to me but the advice goes like this: “follow the advice that speaks to you and disregard the rest.” It’s sort of a meta-advice piece of advice. But it was helpful for me because there is so much good-sounding advice out there that is actually bad to pay attention to, depending on where you are at in your writing and in your life.

9. Can you give us any hints about your “next big novel”?

Well. I do have a novel in the works. It’s about this Polish Jewish immigrant family who moves to rural Georgia in the 1930s. It’s quite different than novel #1, largely because this one doesn’t play with the novel/memoir boundary. And I actually have to do some (AHHHHH!!!!!) research. I’ve got a completed draft at this point, but I can tell it needs LOTS of work. Much harder and more audacious a project than anything I’ve attempted before. So look for it between 2013 and 2043.

10. Are there any other exciting projects in your future?

My next projects involve working on novel #2 and finding a new angle on the Failed Writer series. Let’s see how well I fail at those two things.

11. What are your top five “desert island” books?

The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, Herzog by Saul Bellow, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky… and Sugarcane Island, by… somebody… It’s a Choose Your Own Adventure story that was my favorite as a kid. I haven’t read it in 30 years so who knows how corny it is now. But it seems like good stranded-on-an-island material.

Oh wait. Scratch that Sugarcane Island crap! What about Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, Chekhov, Cheryl Strayed, Alice Munro, David Sedaris, John Updike, Malamud, IB Singer, Kafka, Marquez… I NEED MORE TIME! GIVE ME MORE TIME! I can’t decide! Too many choices!!! For the love of God, give me more f!@#$!ing time to choose my desert island books!!!

Are you an author looking for an interview? Know anyone who is? I’m always interested in talking with authors. Email me

Learning is Not Doing

Photo credit: andy_carter on Flickr.

When people ask me for writing advice (and God knows why they ask me in the first place) the first thing I tell them is: go find some books on craft and read them. There are plenty of great ones:

  • On Writing, by Stephen King
  • The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, by Jack Bickham
  • Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell
  • The Art of War for Writers, also by James Scott Bell

And so on. I firmly believe that passion and intuition will only take you so far. There is a craft and a design to good fiction, and it’s not always subjective and elusive. Not every piece of fiction should slavishly follow a wildly complicated, Robert McKee-esque diagram — but there is, all the same, a formula, and even if you don’t want to follow it, you’d be well-advised to at least know what it is.

But there’s a limit.


Like a lot of writers, my shelf groans with how-to books on writing. I have more of them than I’ll probably ever read in their entirety. I have more still in my Amazon wish list, and have gone so far as to ask people not to buy them for me because I already have too many, thus defeating the purpose of a wish list. Now it’s a list of dread and moral horror.

The first four books I put on my Kindle? How-to writing books. All free, because man, if there’s one thing we writers know how to do, it’s how to give our advice away for nothing.

I’ve spent many hours reading up on craft, and it’s served me very well. But there comes a point where you have to set the driver’s manual down, get behind the wheel, and start causing some accidents.

Learning Can Be Resistance

I’ve talked before about Steven Pressfield’s notion of “resistance,” the sneaky deceiver that creeps into our subconscious like Gollum and cranks out excuses for us not to write on its tiny jack-in-the-box of failure. As Pressfield points out, resistance isn’t always obvious. It can take the form of things we think are productive, like:

Creating elaborate filing systems

  • Drawing up a four-page backstory for that cabbie in our novel who shows up in one scene and is immediately shot
  • Drawing plot diagrams
  • Reading about drawing plot diagrams

In other words, self-education on writing craft can itself become an obstacle.

Learning Can Paralyze You

A lot of writing advice is flat-out contradictory, especially when you read around the blogs of your writing peers. Everyone has a process that works for them, and while some elements of fiction are universal and axiomatic, others are highly subjective. If you take everything at face value, you’ll soon find you can’t pen a single paragraph without violating someone’s deeply revered First Rule of Writing.

Does all that information you’re absorbing convey any benefit if it paralyzes you into not writing? Not really, no.

Learning Takes Time

As I said above, you can read the driver’s manual all you want, but you’re not going to really start learning until you get behind the wheel and start the engine. Theory is just theory. It doesn’t mean anything until you put it into practice. I think it’s vital that writers learn the tools of craft, but every hour spent reading writing advice is an hour spent not using those tools. The rubber’s got to meet the road sometime.

How Do You Know?

So are you learning, or stalling, or possibly both? Fortunately, there’s a handy measure that can, beyond any doubt, determine whether all that sassy, irreverent writing advice is doing you any good. Ready? Here it is. In your mind’s eye, check one of the following boxes:

And it’s not multiple choice.


If the answer is “no,” then yeah, you’re stalling. Shut down the browser, put down the book, and get to work. It’s as simple as that. Optimally, take some of the stuff you’ve just learned and kick it into play. Find out if it works for you — because hey, maybe it doesn’t.

Just keep writing. That’s the game we’re all out to win, and, to butcher a WarGames quote, the only winning move is to play.

The Woeful Writing Warnings of Superman III


If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then I’m about to compare JM Bell to Jesus Christ incarnate, because this entry is basically “What Can Superman III Teach You About Writing?” without any useful pedagogy.

If you haven’t checked out Bell’s “What Can So-And-So Teach You” series over on Start Your Novel, you should check it out. Bell offers lean, well-researched cuts of delicious insight on how to be a better writer. I serve up heaping slabs of snark with a side of sarcasm gravy. I am the Fuddrucker’s to his Morton’s Steakhouse. So pull up a chair, stick your napkin into your collar like some kind of animal, and prepare to chow down!

As this post might imply, I recently watched Superman III. Yes, on purpose. Now, I know what you must be thinking: why? The truth is — heresy alert — I prefer the campy idiocy of Richard Lester’s film to the bloated, galumphing Donner films (that would be I and II). I realize that among comic geeks, this admission places me in good company with Stalin and Pol Pot, but that’s a cross I’m willing to bear rather than sit through the original Superman again.

Not that Superman III is actually any good. In fact, it’s terrible. (This is just the kind of blistering insight you keep coming back for.) It has writing lessons to offer, but nearly all of them are outstanding examples of What Not to Do. And while I realize that bagging on Superman III for being crappy is like calling out Milli Vanilli for lip-synching at this point — it’s basically taking the low career point of a bunch of people who are now mostly dead and saying “hey, mostly dead people, your past work sure did suck!” It also dates me rather badly, but that’s inevitable at this point. Y’damn kids!

But, being wildly unfair and obvious never stopped me before, so let’s get started, won’t we?

Superman Laugh-In

Blind man operating dangerous machinery: metaphor for the film and its director?

Not one to keep the audience waiting, Richard Lester chose to disappoint everyone right away by starting Superman III with a bunch of slapstick. You know, mimes, flaming penguins, people getting hit with pies — basically an all-star lineup of unfunny sight gags. You think I’m making that flaming penguin thing up, don’t you? Nope. Now, I didn’t love Superman Returns by any means, but at least that movie had a good sense of how to begin — with a high-speed flight from Krypton to Earth.

The lesson here being, don’t start your story with something that sets entirely the wrong tone.

Gus Gorman, The Funniest Murderer-Genius

Well, Burger King didn’t work out, maybe I can murder the Man of Steel for a job!

Last week, when I was asking around for blog post recommendations on Twitter, the inimitable Angel King (@KingsElementals) recommended I do a piece on schizophrenic characters and how to avoid them. Cool, well, here’s my quick guide.

1) Watch Superman III.
2) Observe the actions of Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor)

I hope you appreciate all the hard work I’ve put into this tutorial.

But seriously, Gus Gorman is a terrible character in almost every sense of the word. He’s funny (if you consider Richard Pryor funny), but he makes no sense at all. We first see Gus as an unemployed nincompoop who can’t even hold down a job mopping floors. Then, in the space of a few minutes, he becomes a sort of computer savant who manages to program computers without knowing anything about them. Since computers in movies are magic (see below), his genius is established by him typing things into a terminal in plain English like “DO AMAZING UNBELIEVABLE STUFF.” And then the computer does it. Damn, that Gus Gorman is brilliant!

Now, I can forgive that, because the movie itself is so goofy and clearly doesn’t give a tinker’s damn for verisimilitude. What I can’t abide is Gorman casually trying to assassinate Superman halfway through the movie by synthesizing Kryptonite. Gorman makes a big green chunk of Kryptonite, walks right up to Superman, and hands it to him. When Superman doesn’t die, he calls his boss in mild bewilderment. SUPERMAN, Y U NO DIE?

Now, the story has already established Gorman as an unsuccessful janitor, so it’s not really a surprise that he should also be an unsuccessful assassin of superheroes. But then, in the third reel, Gorman goes berserk when the super-computer he designed — which was built specifically to try to kill Superman — attempts to kill Superman. Gorman takes an axe to his own creation, crying out “stop it, you’re killing him!” Um, yeah, a-hole, maybe because you designed it to? That’s been your whole arc. And what leads him to change his mind and give up his dream of super-homicide? Nothing, really.

This is Crap Characterization 101. Gorman has one motivation through most of the movie, then changes his mind for no reason other than the story calls for it. A good character has clear goals and sticks with them unless some important catalyst turns him from his chosen path. Protip, “because it screws up my story otherwise” is not a valid catalyst.

Computers “R” Magic

C’mon, LOTUS 1-2-3, scan the galaxy and make me some Kryptonite! Ctrl-Shift-K!

I don’t expect much from Hollywood computers. Actually, scratch that — I do expect almost everything from Hollywood computers, and that’s pretty much the problem. Hollywood computers are wizards. The Eighties loved pulling this kind of crap — WarGames being a prime (although entertaining) example.

My favorite part of Superman III (aside from the “Shoot Superman With Rockets” video game built into the defense system, complete with Atari 2600 Pac-Man sound effects) is the bit in the middle where Lex Luthor Lite (Robert Vaughn) tells Gus Gorman that since weather satellites can predict the weather, it should be a simple matter to make the weather satellites change the weather. And then Gus agrees, and then that’s what they do.

I’m sure there’s a great story to be wrestled out of the conceit of surveillance equipment being able to directly manipulate the things it observes. Since parking garage security cameras can watch you park their car, it should be a simple matter to make them drive cars themselves! Watch for my upcoming screenplay, P2 II: Killer Kameras, starring Rachel Nichols’ ample cleavage against a murderous cadre of Prius-driving electronics.

Granted, the lesson here is a tad feeble, perhaps something like “please do basic research and do not make your Commodore 64 into an omnipotent sorcerer.” Unless your story is about a Commodore 64 which is actually an omnipotent sorcerer. That plays Archon. Against itself. And is patched into NORAD somehow. And then tries to checkmate… the world! HOW ABOUT A NICE GAME OF CHESS?

Plot Sagging? Just Add Kids! Better Yet, Don’t

“Natural selection is telling you something, kid.”

I don’t have much against cute kids in movies. I recognize them as something of a necessary evil. No superhero ever scored big points with audiences by saving asthmatic octegenarians from runaway wheat threshers. But there are limits to my patience, and the “cute” kid in Superman III scampers right past those limits and triumphantly spikes the ball in the End Zone of Annoyance.

For a cute kid to work in a story, he shouldn’t be completely worthless. By which I mean, he should be able to go five minutes without breaking something expensive or wandering obliviously into an obvious deathtrap. The kid in Superman III, Ricky, is pretty much without redeeming virtues. He’s a terrible bowler. He lies to his friends about Superman showing up for his birthday party, then sulks when his birthday party is turned into a town-wide parade. Lana Lang takes her eyes off him for five minutes and he runs directly into the path of running farm machinery, nearly getting himself violently hay-baled and forcing Clark Kent to break cover in the middle of his nice picnic. Great, now his feast of unlabeled dog food is ruined.

Later, Ricky knocks over a bunch of stuff and then goads Evil Superman into a murderous frenzy with a torrent of high-pitched whining, which is arguably the only positive act he commits in his fictional lifetime. Does Ricky learn anything from this? Does he even show signs of rudimentary sentience? No. He continues to be a clumsy imbecile until the final moments of the film.

I could probably write an entire post called “Unlikeable Characters: That Little Bastard Ricky From &%^$! Superman III“, because Ricky is a great example of how to write a character no one will empathize with. In general, the point of a “cute kid” archetype is to either amuse or garner sympathy when they’re endangered somehow. If your audience is praying aloud for their violent dismemberment by the time they get to the “endangered” part, you’ve blown it.

One Good Character, One Outstanding Moment

Behold, the movie’s only smirk-worthy joke.

So we’ve firmly established by this time that Superman III does plenty of things wrong. There are, however, a couple things it does awesomely right — much as it pains me to admit it.

First, the character of Lorelei, the bubble-headed, poodle-haired arm-candy of Lex Luthor Lite. She’s flighty. She’s dopey. She’s dumber than a bag of hammers — except that she isn’t. Where Gus Gorman is presented as a hapless dolt who is somehow a genius (just take the film’s word for it and don’t ask questions), Lorelei actually is a genius pretending to be a hapless dolt. We discover this through a couple key moments of dialogue, where the story reveals that Lorelei’s brain-dead blonde act is just that — an act — without hanging a lantern on it. The movie doesn’t do as much with this concept as it could, but it’s still a nice touch, and for me, one of the only genuinely funny things in the movie. (Which is still not very funny, but it’s better than the concentrated, Neil Hamburgerian anti-humor of, say, the opening credits.)

Last but not least, I’m going to talk about the movie’s crowning moment: the junkyard fight between Superman and Evil Superman. I won’t lie — this sequence is awesome from beginning to end. It’s Superman kicking his own ass. It’s Superman calling himself names and tossing himself into a car-crusher. Why wasn’t the whole movie like this? I mean it. Why isn’t the entire movie made up of the junkyard fight? Ninety minutes of Superman clouting himself in the face. I’d watch it. Of course, I watched the movie as-is, too, so we’ve established my standards aren’t high.


My favorite moment in this sequence comes early on, when Evil Superman lands in the middle of the wrecking yard and starts screaming in agony as the employees look on. Does anybody try to help him? No. They clear out at top speed, because they have the good sense to know that when Superman shows up at your workplace shrieking like a banshee, you better clear the hell out.

What I love most about this scene is its simplicity. We don’t get any Zack Snyder-style slow-mos with gravelly voice-over explaining why this battle is important, or its psychological implications. There’s no monologue. Clark Kent just chokes his alter ego to death and then goes back to taking care of business. The way it ought to be.

Howard Hawks once said that to make a good movie, all you needed was “three good scenes, and no bad ones.” Well, Superman III has bad scenes falling out its wazoo, and I’d argue that the junkyard fight is the only good scene in the whole flick, aside from the supercomputer turning Lex Luthor Lite’s hag of a sister into a killer cyborg for twelve seconds. An audience will forgive a lot if you give them one spectacular, memorable sequence.

Social Media and Indie Authors: How (Not) to Behave

twitter fail image
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A while back, I wrote a post on how not to respond to reviews. Oddly enough, the author who lashed out at me in the first place recently followed me again on Twitter. Which made me wonder if she simply forgot how totally wrong and dumb I was about everything, or whether some piece of software followed me for her. And then I moved on with my life. But that (along with an anecdote from another Twitter-er-er), got me thinking.

Which brings me to today’s subject: how not to behave on social media. First, the self-evident stuff, because what is Internet pedantry without presenting common sense like it’s some kind of mystical Zen key?

Don’t Be a Jerk

Everybody loves sarcasm. Oh, yeah, everybody in the world just loves sarcasm. Go on, ask them, I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to tell you all about it.

Witty complaints or acidic barbs can entertain and enthrall — in moderation. But no one’s interested in a constant bitchfest. Your followers do not want to hear about what a burden it is to have so many fans, or how angry you are that so many authors are promoting their books(instead of yours).

I recently read a blog post in which the blogger (who shall remain unnamed) complained at length about how readers were lazy, fickle, had no attention span, and only enjoyed reading genres that he held in contempt. And that’s why his sales were crap. Well, gosh, let me run right out and buy your book, mister. Nothing captures my interest like an author telling me what an idiot he thinks I am. You’ve got a fan for life, sir! Was his screed aimed at me? Probably not. But it doesn’t actually matter — here’s an author who finds readers in general to be an inconvenience. Pass.

When interacting with your (potential) audience, keep your energy positive. If you have some kind of trouble that you think others can help with, just ask — people love sharing their expertise, especially if it gives them a chance to dispense advice like an obnoxious blowhard. (Cough.) But don’t go on your social media platform of choice to let the world know how terrible you think everyone is. Dale Carnegie would not approve.

Don’t Be a Machine

I’ll be the first to admit it: I use automation software for social media. I’m part of several tribes on Triberr. I use Buffer to tweet when I’m not at the computer. Mostly I do this because I’m terrible at scheduling and can go days without being on Twitter (or any social media) at all. But there’s a danger to overusing this kind of tool.

People don’t get on social media to interact with machines. They want to interact with people. The more you rely on software and automation, the less human you become to your followers. Twitter is already more of a link-sharing tool than a social engagement platform at this point, but don’t let the software do all the talking for you. Log on, start some conversations, say something funny or insightful. Engage. Like Jean-Luc Picard, it’s not that hard. There’s a horrible, soul-blasting filk song in there somewhere.

Don’t Oversell Yourself

Though I disagreed with him on the prophetic nature of Hunger Games, Jeff Goins wrote a great article on why your ideas aren’t spreading. This is internet marketing 101. People don’t want to be sold to. They don’t want to be shown an advertisement. They want to engage and participate. Give them that opportunity.

Try this experiment. Scroll back through your Twitter feed. If you follow any number of writers, you’ll see plugs for their books. Probably a whole barge-load of them. Which ones truly catch your attention? Are they the ones that include excerpts? Reviews? Quotes? The ones that say “HEY BUY MY BOOK C’MON DO IT”? Personally, the more sales-y the pitch becomes, the less interested I become. In an arena with such fierce competition, where the price point is quite often “free,” you need to be a bit more clever and engaging to make a sale.

A recent positive example that comes to mind is the contest Michel Vaillancourt ran for his Sauder Diaries cover. If you don’t know the backstory: Some months ago, Michel found out that his cover art was plagiarized. He pulled the book off the shelves, and, instead of just hiring another artist, held a competition. Not only did he manage to turn a negative event into a positive one, he engaged his audience and got people participating by creating art and voting. Did he get any more sales out of it?

I have no clue. But he got attention, and that counts for a lot.

Just Say Hello

On the internet, attention is currency, and you might be surprised at how much good will you can buy just by doling a little out. If you’re an author with a fan, just saying hello can make their day. Even if you’re an indie author with a small audience… in fact, especially then. If you’re an indie, those people who take time out to read your material, comment on it, and engage with you — they are gold. They’re the ones who will spread the word about you, leave you reviews, lend your book to friends. Neglect them at your peril.

No one’s time is infinite, and the more one’s audience grows, the harder it becomes to carry on conversations with complete strangers. As authors and human beings, we have limitations on our time and energy. Chuck Wendig, for example, recently posted a set of “rules” detailing all the things he will not do, and the reasons why. Wendig has a pretty big audience and gets a lot of comments and tweets aimed at him — yet he takes the time wherever he can to acknowledge people, when they’re polite or funny. And a lot of the time, that’s all it takes.

Big thanks to M.K. Hajdin for the inspiration behind this post! (See? I’m SAYING HELLO OVER HERE.)

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