Making Ugly Art

ugliness

I can’t pretend that high artistic aspirations have ever driven me. I aim for an entertaining story to amuse myself and the audience (such as it is). I would very much like to be the aloof creator who sends their work out to the public and sneers in neglectful disdain at the response.

But I’m not that guy. I want people to like my work, in part because it is too deeply linked to my sense of self. Liking my book=liking me. (By the way, this is an issue I need to get over, because I cannot go hide under a pile of blankets and sob each and every time someone doesn’t like my work.) Other than the routine rejections from various publishers and literary agents, though, there hasn’t been a lot of negative response. And then I wrote an ugly story.

Ugly? Yes, ugly. It is full of bad people doing bad things, to each other and to strangers (I talked about the story in this old post). It’s a good book, the best I’ve written so far, but it is rough. Violent, mean, bloody, gory, offensive, etc. Everything that I have written and foisted onto the public up until this point has been easy to consume and support. This book is not. One advance reader had to put the book down and walk away. Two others struggled to get past the first chapter (but enjoyed the rest of the book once they did).

So now I am caught between Scylla and Charybdis (as an aside, I spelled that correctly the first time and I am super-proud of my self for doing so. Tiny wins!). One one hand, I want people to have fun while reading my books. On the other hand, I have to write the story as it shows up in my mind. If I change it, I open the door to BEING WRONG, and once that door is open, the hateful imp in the back of my mind will insist that EVERYTHING I DO IS WRONG. I really don’t care for that imp.

And there is a small but feisty element of artist’s arrogance in play as well: who the hell are you, audience, to tell me what to do? Buzz off, jerks. I wrote this. It’s mine and I’ll do what I want. This is not an overly…helpful attitude to have. Some confidence is good. Aggressively ignoring feedback is not.

(sidenote: in searching for an image to feature in this post, I stumbled across the cover for the book ‘On Ugliness‘,which looks at humanity’s fascination with ugliness in art. Intriguing. )

 

 

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The world’s worst query letter

The good news is that the first draft of my new book “Falstaff Gets Found” is done. The murder rainbow has reached its bloody pot of gold. Soon I will take my editorial hacksaw and mutilate the body until all the bad parts have been lopped off.

But before I launch into the grim process of editing, I am whipping up a query letter. A query letter is the way that you beg…I mean…offer your book to an agent or a publisher.  It’s like a resume for your book and for you as an author, and who doesn’t LOVE working on their resume?

There are expected formats and rules to be followed, so that your query looks professional. Or, you can get frustrated, ignore the rules, and write the world’s worst query letter. That’s what I did! You see, every agent and publisher sees hundreds of these letters a week, if not more, so even a perfectly polished one could accomplish nothing.

Below you will find the letter that should not see the light of day. Soon I will rewrite it to make it more predictable and respectable. Probably. But until then, enjoy!

“Dear Agent/publisher,

I don’t know you, and more importantly, you don’t know me. 

This is a terrible query letter. I want to be honest about that. I’ll explain why in detail further on. But the story is good. It’s a hardboiled detective novel of 90 000 words called “Falstaff Gets Found”, the first book in the “Faded American Empire” series. It’s about a coward named John Falstaff who can read the dirty little secrets written all over the faces of humanity. He can’t shut it off, so he numbs himself to the constant barrage of the awfulness of people, with whatever drugs he can get his hands on. Even when he’s high, he can’t keep his mouth from getting him into trouble. It’s a good thing he can take a beating better than most people. It’s a shame he can’t fight his way out of a wet paper bag.

He hides from the world until the loneliness and boredom become unbearable, and the money runs out. Back in reality he turns a good run at the casino into a bad end, and is dumped in the desert to die alone. A peculiar head-hunter interrupts his death throes to give him a job offer: bloodhound. Falstaff has to find a killer by sniffing out the secrets of junkies, liars and thieves. All he wants to do is find his next high.

This is the paragraph where I would talk about my previous publications…if I had any. I have self-published 4 books that very few people have read, in a young adult series that I love and will finish with book 5 in the near future.

And to explain my earlier claim: I could either write a serious and professional query, full of emboldened claims and inflated experiences, or I could be honest. I think my odds of having either version of this letter read are almost identical, so I might as well enjoy the process.

You’ve made it this far, so I applaud your kindness and tenacity. I’ll close by assuring you one last time that the book is good, which is in and of itself another of the cardinal sins of query letter writing. I’m happy to send along a sample chapter, more of a plot synopsis, or a poorly executed sketch of what I imagine the protagonist would look like in real life. Whatever works for you.”

 

The Story Rainbow

(Title note:Boy oh boy I hope LeVar Burton doesn’t have my legs broken for referencing “reading rainbow”. Big fan, Jordi! Totally an homage)

The fruits of the newest iteration of my work process: a rainbow of murder!

img_20170112_1502090911

No, wait. That is a terrible name. Forget I said that. Sure, the novel-to-be that’s outlined on the index cards below is a hardboiled detective story about trying to stop a serial killer. But really, “rainbow of murder” is possibly the worst thing I’ve come up with as a title. Let’s never speak of it again.

For the fans of the process of writing a book AKA literary sausage-making, here’s what my current procedure is:

1)have a story idea (pretty obvious). A beginning scene and an ending scene are the basics.

2)write a list of chapter titles, attempting to make the titles colourful and informative. NO ADDITIONAL NOTES OR DETAILS. Then walk away for a bit.

3)For each chapter, write an index card of plot points. NO ADDITIONAL NOTES OR DETAILS. STILL! Walk away again.

4) write a 1/2 page synopsis for each chapter. THIS IS WHERE YOUR NOTES/DETAILS GO. Walk away and forget about the story for a little while.

5) If you’re ready, write the first chapter. If not, expand the 1/2 page to a full page per chapter. Chill out, hero. You’re doing it.

6) repeat step 5 until you’ve got a first draft.

DISCLAIMER: I’m only at step 4 right now, so I can’t say for certain that this is the path to a fantastic (read:less monstrously terrible) first draft. What I do know is that the stress of making a million cognitive leaps and guesses has been chopped into more manageable, bite-sized pieces. Progress, one piece at a time!

The Christmas Coffee Pot

A few days before Christmas, December 21st to be exact, a disagreement broke out in the Loblaw kitchen. I went for a cup of coffee from our coffee maker and found that there wasn’t a drop to be had. I knew that a pot had just been brewed. In fact, I’d seen my lovely wife sitting and drinking a cup moments before this.

With as much tact as I could muster, I asked about the missing coffee. Had she taken a second cup before I had poured my first, I asked gently.

Why no, she replied.

It would be out of character for her to slam back two cups of joe back to back, true, but it was also out of character for her to make exactly one cup of coffee. She’s not usually one for teasing. We locked eyes and scrutinized each other for signs of an explanation but found only confusion. If we weren’t the problem, what was?

I flipped up the lid of the coffee maker and our answer appeared. The rest of the water destined for the pot has decided to stay put, right there in the reservoir. Apparently our coffee maker had grown tired of continual percolations. Pressing the brew button a second time brought the coffee maker back to life, and a few minutes later I was drinking an adequate cup. “We can hold out until Boxing Day to get a new one” I proposed, and my wife agreed. It was the frugal thing to do.

The next morning I woke and stumbled downstairs, as bleary-eyed as I normally am. I fill my mug with a brand new cup of coffee. It was lukewarm and overly strong.

“Nine times” she said as she stood by the kitchen sink.

“Huh?” I replied. I had come to this morning debate completely unprepared.

“I had to turn the coffee pot on 9 times to get 6 cups of terrible coffee.”

It seemed that our coffee maker had a terminal case of diminishing functionality, and no amount of compromise or begging was going to reverse its downward course. I sighed, and stated my intention to go find a cheap replacement.

“From Canadian Tire?” my wife asked.

I don’t know why I took it as a point of pride to refuse the suggestion, but I did. “Oh I can find a place with a better price on coffee makers than a store full of auto parts and gardening supplies” I said with an air of arrogance about me. Mark this moment in the story as the beginning of my fall.

When the day allowed for it, I left the family warm and secure at home and struck out for my holy grail: The perfect coffee maker. It had to be a coffee maker with a thermal carafe. These aren’t the most popular models, because they cost a bit more, but I was sure that there would still be an ample variety to choose from. My faith was strong, even if it was entirely misplaced.

My first destination was Masonville Shopping Centre. It’s the largest mall in town. With that many stores contained within the sprawling structure I was bound to find all the comparison shopping opportunities I wanted, right?

A thorough search of the entire shopping centre revealed scores of clothing boutiques, more makeup stores than you can shake a stick at, and exactly zero coffee pots. In the perfume aisle of what used to be a department store, I wondered if my memory was playing tricks on me. Had they secretly demolished the floor with their housewares department on it? Or was the escalator to this mythical department hidden by sorcery, like platform 9 and 3/4. Further investigation did not reveal any such escalator.

The mall had failed me, or maybe we had failed each other. It was generously offering me an unlimited supply of free makeovers and tea samples, but not one coffee maker. Wherever the regular shoppers of the mall bought their housewares, it wasn’t in this building. I left the mall.

If you overhear me tell this story in the future and I pause at this part to tell the audience that I was undaunted, please remind me gently of the truth. I was completely daunted. The throngs of frenzied holiday shoppers had sapped my will to continue. But even stronger than my sense of imminent defeat was my stubborn sense of pride. I would most likely fail in my quest to find a thermal carafe coffee maker that day, but I swore to die on that hill, with a package of basket coffee filters clutched tight in my hand.

I drove to the completely opposite side of town, hitting every stretch of terrible pre-Christmas traffic that the city could muster. I passed pairs of expensive cars locked in their post-fender bender embrace as they blocked off entire lanes. I remember shouting at people for all manner of driving crimes and poor etiquette. Luckily, my windows were up and my nattering well contained to my own car.

I arrived at the next location, the smart centre. It’s a strip mall on steroids, a string of massive box stores in the middle of a no-man’s land of a parking lot. My plan was to start on the end and go into every store that might possibly have a coffee pot.

I struck out at the Home Depot, as you would expect. The Homesense 3 stores down had complicated and almost completely ornamental manual coffee pots. I gave them a half-point for trying.

In Bed Bath and Beyond I had a glimmer of hope. Deep in the Beyond, there were a modest selection of coffee makers. Most were well out of my price range, and included features I neither understood nor wanted. I rooted around in growing desperation and  found, tucked down below a shelf of returned merchandise, a coffee maker of the very type I wanted. I hoarse cheer escaped my parched throat.

My elation was short-lived. The box appeared to have been viciously molested by an enraged shopper, torn and mangled. As I inspected the package for any sign of a price tag, the lid flopped limply open. The interior contents were jumbled together, like the coffee maker had been hastily repacked by a fugitive as the police showed up at their door. Further inspection revealed that there was no carafe at all in the box, which made the whole thing pointless. I decided against the purchase.

The search of the rest of the plaza came up empty. As I trudged back to the car, I looked across the street to the Canadian Tire store sign, and sighed in my first act of acknowledging defeat. Too tired to soldier on, I would go to the store my wife had first suggested to buy the coffee maker, even though it would silently proclaim to my wife and the whole world the three words I was loath to speak: I was wrong.

There was a peacefulness to surrender. I walked calmly into Canadian Tire and turned to their kitchenwares section. There were 4 coffee makers for sale. None had a thermal carafe. I left Canadian Tire carrying only my growing sense of despair.

In a daze I staggered down to the massive grocery store beside the Canadian Tire, a store that carries my own family name. I begged the store, from one Loblaw to another, to have a thermal coffee maker for sale. My pleading fell on deaf ears.

Standing in the frozen food section of the Loblaws I resigned myself to perpetual failure. This was my life now, roving from store to store in search of the unattainable. I considered buying a roasted chicken to eat in the car as I prepared to continue my coffee maker death march, but decided against it due to the high likelihood of getting chicken drippings all over the interior of the car.

The sun had set while I had been inside the grocery store, much like hope had settled below the horizon of my heart. I drove on. I pulled through a parking lot of a furniture store, on the off-chance that the housewares store that used to be beside it had somehow been rebuilt and reopened since last I looked. It had not.

In the growing dark I felt the crushing weight of desperation on my shoulders and I made my final act of surrender. I drove to Wal-Mart.

Every time I find myself in Wal-Mart I swear that I will never return. Shopping at Walmart is like drunken sex with an ex-lover from a particularly dysfunctional relationship. It starts off as a bad idea and ends with everyone feeling cheap and demeaned. And yet, there I was again. Shoulder to shoulder with the miserable people of Walmart, staff and shoppers alike.

I was now one of them, broken by my own shopping hubris. A woman asked for directions to the in-store McDonald’s, because this Wal-Mart was different from her regular one, and I helped her out. I was useful to my new people.

I stepped around the employee leaning on the frozen food freezer with the haunted look in his eyes and I turned down the small appliance aisle, avoiding the woman yelling into her cellphone about bread. I walked slowly down the row of coffee makers. Each step took more time, because I had no other plan past this one. What would happen if I reached the end of the row and there wasn’t a thermal carafe coffee maker to buy? I feared the answer.

I didn’t reach the end of the row. Sitting proudly in the middle of the line of coffee makers, gleaming in the flickering buzzing light that is standard Wal-Mart issue, was the Black and Decker 12-cup thermal programmable coffee maker. I crouched down to check the shelf below the display model, or maybe I fell to my knees in grateful prayer. Looking back at it now, it’s hard to tell. I snatched the last Black and Decker 12-cup thermal programmable coffee maker from the shelf and ran like a man possessed to the checkout. I resisted the urge to give high fives to the cashiers and my fellow shoppers as I paid for the coffee maker.

I returned home with the coffee pot held high over my head, like a great trophy of a grueling ordeal. My wife came into the kitchen as I steadied my trembling hands and placed my now-prized Black and Decker 12-cup thermal programmable coffee maker on the counter.

“That took you a while” my wife said with a sense of understatement.

“We have a new coffee maker” I replied. “Now let’s never speak of this again.”

 

Grab that money, Canadian Indie publishers!

homertodoThere are one million business-related details that seem designed to suck the fun out of the indie publishing process. I’d love to sit huddled in the basement thinking about monsters and ghosts, instead of puzzling out advertising plans and taxes.

 

But I would also love to get adequately paid for my work (hypothetically, it could happen some day. Don’t burst that bubble, okay? It’s Christmas time, for crimmey’s sake)

But good news, I killed one of my lingering business irritants! Selling my wares via an American website, my earnings are automatically taxed by the U.S. government. To be specific, they withhold 30% of the money in anticipation of your tax filings in the future. Now, my country (Canada) has a tax treaty with the U.S. That treaty eliminates the 30% withholding IF you can prove that you qualify.

And so I studied the exemption qualification process, furrowing my brow in a vain attempt to understand. The stumbling block that kept me from completing it was getting the right identification number. Did I need an ITIN, an ETN, a WTFISTHISBULLSH*T number? And whatever the actual needed number was, the process demanded that I send my passport, driver’s license, blood sample, hand-etched pictograph of my entire family tree (or certified true copies of each). That costs money. In fact, it was goign to cost more than the meagre amount of revenues sitting waiting for me in my smashwords sales account.

Remember when I said I studied the process? Well, I did a pretty awful job at that. Details have never been my strong suit, so it is reallly astounding I’ve ever written a logically consistent sentence, much less 4 novels in a continuing series.

Anyway.

With the help of the internet, I reread this minor detail: “Or, provide your non-U.S. tax identification number”. That sounded strange and mysterious. Why would I, as a regular Canadian, have such an odd thing? Finally, the answer came to me (okay, I googled it and found the real answer 3 pages in): that number is my Social Insurance Number or S.I.N. You know, the number I got when I was 14 but still haven’t memorized? That one.

With that one revelation, a point of minor but perpetual stress was removed. I used my SIN to complete the tax forms on Smashwords and Amazon (for ebooks and print books, respectively), and moved on with my life. It is astounding how the whole bookwriting machine can grind to a halt while the accounting department puzzles over some financial minutia. So my lesson to you all, especially to my fellow Canucks thinking about self-publishing,  is this: sometimes, the answer is much simpler than you think it is.

 

The massively uphill climb

homer-mountain
“I made it all the way to the-aw crap! It just keeps going! I give up. You beat me, mountain!”

I marvel at the ingenuity of my internal saboteur. This week was supposed to be focused (and I use the word ‘focus’ very loosely) on the next steps to take in book promotion, with a side order of planning the next project. Oh, there was also a blog post about author branding thrown in there too.

So I hopped over to the admin page for this very blog. With a concealed snicker, my inner saboteur makes a suggestion. “Hey, why don’t we take a look at your yearly stats? I bet you’ve reached a huge audience.” And like a sucker, I take a look. I read the miniscule number of unique visitors who have shown up here over the last year and my ego deflated like a cheap balloon.

Did I have dreams (or less charitably, delusions) that there was a legion of fans following along with every post, eager for news of the next book? Of course I did. That’s how human beings get through their days. Imagination! But along comes “facts” and “reality” to rain on my parade.

I’m not going to lie to you all and say that I quickly picked myself up and kept trucking along. I was under the metaphorical blankets for a couple of days. Success seemed totally impossible. Yeah, I can keep churning out stories until the end of time, but you can’t pay your mortgage with stories.

So how did I pick myself up and go back at it? Not easily, I can tell you that much. (lack of income woes go to the next level when Christmas is looming around the corner). But here’s the recipe so far:

1: acknowledge successes, despite their size. Hoping for the easy big win made me blind to the little wins that keep happening. A win is a win.

2: Get stubborn and feisty. Yeah it’s not going gangbusters right now, but I’m going to keep at it. Wanna fight about? That’s what I thought, internal critic. Shut up and let me work.

3:Embrace the weirdness. This is the life I’m supposed to be living. Even with all the bumps, disappointments and panicked moments of being directionless, writing is what I do. And I want people to read the stuff I write, so I am going to keep putting it out there.

 

My New Glasses (a eulogy)

I’ve worn glasses since the age of 9. If I want to see and function normally, I have to wear them. And I have never, in that entire time, liked the way I looked in glasses. They have been a necessary burden. I hated going to get glasses. It was stressful, confusing, and always disappointing.

Why stressful? Because I overthink everything, so trying to accurately answer the optometrist’s questions (Which is better-1 or 2? More blurry? Sharper? I DON’T KNOW) creates a bundle of anxiety. I put off getting new glasses until I could barely see through the old ones.

But after 7 years with the same beat-up pair, I finally relented and went to the optometrist a couple of weeks ago. I went because my friend Jeff worked at the place, and he assured me that they would make it a less stressful experience.

And he was right: the exam went much more smoothly than it ever has for me. Of course, this led to the second challenge for my overthinking brain: choosing frames. I was prepared to get wound up and anxious as I flailed around trying in vain to find a good pair of frames.

I walked resignedly into the showroom, and felt an immediate swell of relief. My pal Jeff was there. I started trying on frames and asking his opinion, which he gave freely. I knew I could trust his opinion because a) he knew his stuff and b)he was an honest and kind friend. (Not that I thought about it that way at the time).

As I hummed and hawed, Jeff came back over with a set of frames. “Here try these” he said. I slipped them on and felt something I had never felt at the eyeglass shop: happiness. For the very first time in my life, I had a pair of glasses on my face that made me feel good about my appearance. And I had them because of my friend.

Jeff was always looking out for his friends, the first to help, the first to care about your challenges, the first to cheer your triumphs.

I hate having to write about Jeff in the past tense. He died suddenly last Friday, and my life is poorer for the absence of his unmistakable kindness. jeff