I’m very late to the TNB fifth birthday party, but I didn’t want to let it recede too far into the distance without writing a few words of appreciation.

It was late 2006 when I first heard of the TheNervousBreakdown.com. This was the first iteration, back when there were maybe twenty-five or thirty contributors writing mostly to amuse each other. Zoe Brock suggested I contact Brad, and she kept after me about it when my first reaction was lukewarm. After all, I was authoring a popular blog on MySpace, generating a large amount of conversation with every post, so the unimaginative guy in me saw no reason to branch out. Like I was really going to take the time to write a post that maybe only twenty people would read?

Also, before MySpace I’d done very little non-fiction or memoir type work because I’d focused almost exclusively on developing a career writing novels.

But the idea of interacting and collaborating with talented writers was alluring. Yes, I sometimes wrote thoughtful pieces on MySpace, but my most popular posts were silly things about Paris Hilton and Victoria’s Secret models and a hypothetical Dungeons and Dragons-type game where nerds roll dice to pick up imaginary hot women.

And to be perfectly honest I wasn’t fully confident of my writing ability. I knew I was fairly good at composition and could pen a mean action sequence, but publishing a couple of novels with Random House’s Ballantine imprint didn’t make me feel like the hero like I expected. Selling those novels was awesome, don’t get me wrong, but even before the first one was published I could already see I wanted to grow. I longed to be taken seriously as a writer. Like we all do.

What I found with The Nervous Breakdown, once I began to post, is the collective nature of it, the regular interaction with a number of talented writers, had a profound impact on my own ability. There were so many styles and personalities and backgrounds, and the pieces were short enough to be digestible in a single sitting, that I realized a big reason why people bother with writing programs and degrees: competition. These writers were good, and if I didn’t want to embarrass myself, I had to step it up.

This may all seem obvious and predictable, but I’d never known any other writers serious about their work. Growing up I didn’t have many artistic friends. And the writers I met after I was published, at conventions and other events, were there mainly to talk about sales. Sales are important, of course. But I already had a background in marketing.

As a novelist, if I’m known at all, it’s as a science fiction writer. Which is a strange thing for me since I don’t like genre fiction. Novels that exist only because they’re written about a particular subject matter (science, crime, romance, history) don’t appeal to me. But high concept ideas do. So how to tell a story about a science-related topic without being branded a sci-fi writer? I’m not sure it’s possible. But if it is, the way to do it, in my estimation, is to immerse yourself in everything else.

One of TNB’s frequent readers once wrote to me, I love your writing, but I don’t read your books because I don’t like that kind of stuff. No offense. I didn’t take offense, not at all, because for me her words meant I’d made a little progress. I wasn’t necessarily reliant anymore on high concept ideas to tell a story. Which makes me smile a little.

In September my next novel is being published. It’s called Thomas World, and it’s about a man who believes the whole world is a game that revolves around him. Either that or he’s losing his mind. It may sound like science fiction, and it owes much of its existence to Philip K. Dick. But in reality it’s the least sci-fi book I’ve ever written, and it owes just as much to the community of contributors and readers here at TNB. I couldn’t have written it without you guys.

Thank you.

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RICHARD COX is the author of The Boys of Summer, Thomas World, The God Particle, and Rift. He can be reached on Facebook or at his personal web site, www.richardcox.net.

26 responses to “TNB at 5: The Unwitting 
MFA Program”

  1. Gloria says:

    Thomas World – great title. Love the cover, too. Should I pre-order, or will it be a TNB book and, therefore, the funds should go to the TNB Book Club instead?

    Thank you, Richard. You make me want to write well. (Did you see my thank you note in my TNB at 5 appreciation piece?)

    • Richard Cox says:

      I need to talk to Brad about the Book Club thing. I certainly hope so.

      I hadn’t seen your thank you. I totally missed that link. Thanks for that! You rock!

  2. Irene Zion says:

    I can’t wait to read “Thomas World.” Everything you write takes me away.

  3. Ahhh! I’ve read all of these TNB b-day posts. I really have. And I haven’t commented on any of them because I still feel like the new kid hanging out on the periphery laughing at jokes I didn’t quite hear so it looks like I’m right in there with the rest of the cool kids. I do love reading how so many of you got started here and how your writing (and TNB’s online community) has evolved since. It really is a fabulous thing. Like Thomas World itself. And when you say it’s the least sci-fi book you’ve ever written, you know I’m looking around for a paper bag to breathe into. You’re messing with my zen thing, man!

    • Richard Cox says:

      Got a machinehead, better than the rest
      Green to red, machinehead
      Got a machinehead, better than the rest
      Green to red.

      Breathe in, Cynthia. Breathe out.

      • Gloria says:

        hahahaha

        It took me a second to realize where you were heading with that lyric. I’m slow.

        But seriously – don’t mess with Cynthia’s Zen thing.

        • Gloria: I read yours too, I read yours too! I’ll try to catch up w/ comments tomorrow, but I’ll just say for now that the surrogate Tawni is fantastic!

          Richard: hahahahaha!

  4. Jeffro says:

    Synopsis for Thomas World sounds interesting. As for here, I’ve always enjoyed your writing . . . even essays on golf, but mostly on three point shooting.

  5. Congrats on the new book–I can’t wait to read it!

  6. Joe Daly says:

    Coxy-

    You hit on a great point about the air of competition here. When I read an essay that I really enjoy (which is quite often on here), it’s often in the back of my head as I compose my next piece. I look at word choice differently, tighten up the editing, and generally try to avoid as much suckiness as I can. Without the ever-rising bar on here, my writing would stagnate and eventually get worse.

    Keep rocking. Speaking of, got any rock posts coming soon?

    Also, stop leaving me weird messages on my voicemail.

    Thx.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Hey Brian,

      The competition is key. And you could try to compete with your favorite author, like Jonathan Franzen for instance, but you have to weight eight years in between his novels and also it takes a couple of years for your own to come back. Whereas on TNB there are several new posts every day.

      Really there aren’t many sites on the web that come even close to the quality and breadth of our content. We’re certainly lucky to have each other.

      And dude, call me back. I mean, Brian. Whatever.

  7. Thomas says:

    I like the idea of a game like that. And I like the title of your book, too. 😉

  8. dwoz says:

    Ditto on the quality of the community.

    I’ve been told over and over that I’m an excellent writer, a good writer, an amazing writer, you should write books, why aren’t your bits published in the better publications, etc.

    (I know it sounds badly self aggrandizing to say that. It’s true, I got all those comments)

    But what they all really meant was that my writing is a lot better than the majority of writing out there in the huge internet universe.

    Which is another way of saying that I write better than at least half of the people who can’t write.

    When you then actually see your work up against REAL quality, you (or at least, “I”) suddenly realize just how pedestrian it is, and how far it has to go to be able to stand on that same stage.

    Suddenly all the little tics and problems become glaring. It’s not at all amusing.

    • Richard Cox says:

      I’m a firm believer that only you can really improve yourself as a writer. In this case, comparing oneself against the stable of TNB contributors is still essentially doing it yourself.

      I think it’s rare for someone to go, Hey, Dwoz, you should do X and Y and Z and for Dwoz to be able to internalize that and substantially improve. At least where style is concerned. There might be structural things you can teach someone, storytelling best practices, etc. But even so, the writer has to figure out how to integrate those lessons into his own work, and that’s where the real challenge lies.

  9. Tawni Freeland says:

    Reading and now writing here on TNB definitely makes me try harder and judge myself more harshly than I would without it. It’s not always fun, but I think it’s a good thing. It’s how we get better, right? (Right? Like how punching myself in the face makes me focus better?! RIGHT?!)

    I remember your funny MySpace blog. And I met you on Brad’s MySpace blog. A moment of appreciation for MySpace, please- the poorly aging first wife of the internet. Let us not forget the beautiful children she gave us before we moved on to the younger, sexier social networking site.

    I’m so excited about Thomas World! YEAH.

    Nice one, R.C. (:

    • Richard Cox says:

      The first exchange of ours I remember is when I wrote a comment about how Christianity was goofy. Like the logical silliness. I wish I could go back and look at that, because I’m fairly sure that comment inspired me to write the blog “Let There Be Ants,” which inspired Thomas World. Isn’t that fun??

      Thanks, T-Money!!

      Yes, I’ll have a soft spot in my heart for MySpace. FB is great, but I met so many awesome folks there, and FB just isn’t built that way. It’s more geared toward maintaining relationships than creating new ones. I wouldn’t be on TNB and know any of you awesome people without MySpace.

  10. ZaraPotts says:

    I was never a big My Space participant but having re-read all your posts there, I feel like I really missed out on something awesome. Lucky then, that here we all are at TNB. You are absolutely right- the quality of writing here pushes me to be a better writer and I find myself inspired by so many people and their posts almost every day. I’m just so glad that we have such a unique bond between us all, it has really changed my life in such a massive way. Happy birthday, TNB. You all deserve a big slice of cake. Xx

    • Richard Cox says:

      Hi ZaraPotts!

      You are one of the brightest spots in the sunlight that is TNB! Thanks for being such a good friend.

      And thanks for going back to read my old MySpace posts. That’s going above and beyond.

  11. jmblaine says:

    MFA wouldn’t have me
    but TNB would.
    I think it ended up OK.
    You are right on, sir
    & I always enjoy bantering
    with you here.

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