Friday, September 30, 2011
Yet I would not be writing today in any capacity were it not for the work of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Middle-Earth first entered my consciousness in the sixth grade or so. The Hobbit was assigned reading. Unlike most students, I didn't consider assigned reading a form of torture. (Well, except when the books sucked -- which they often did.) I liked reading, and the books we had to read were often excellent. The Outsiders, Lord of the Flies, The Pigman, 1984, and many other books I still cherish today were introduced to me through school assignments.
The Hobbit, though, was something different. I'm sure I devoured it in a day or three. Noticed a classmate reading more books by J.R.R. Tolkien, this Fellowship of the Ring thing, and naturally dove in myself. (The classmate was Jason Dixon, our elementary school's best cartoonist. I don't know what he's doing today, but I hope he's still drawing.) Like millions before me, I was swept up in Tolkien's saga about hobbits and rings and orcs. Yet there was something more here. A profound sense that this work was somehow different. That this place existed in a way fictional places aren't supposed to exist. That someone "discovered" it, in a way, and set it down on the page. It wasn't merely a story, it was a grand, majestic construction intricate beyond imagining.
I'd been hit by a bolt from the heavens. Reading would again again be the same.
Something about Tolkien's work opened my eyes to what the act of writing could be. It showed me that writing wasn't merely putting words on paper, it was a powerful act of creation. You built entire worlds when you wrote. You constructed dreams. You invented places for other people to explore. You etched out other realities and invited people to enter them.
I wanted to do what he did. I wanted to create other realities. Wanted people to get lost in my worlds. Wanted to build a vast and wonderful and mysterious landscape and say, "Look. You can go here." And I wanted these creations to be my life's work. To be my legacy. To be a piece of me left behind after I died, living on, engaging people long after I'd rotted away.
Like so many others inspired to write by fantasy literature (and by Tolkien in particular), my earliest "I'm serious about writing now" works were feverish fanboyish imitations. Semi-elaborate knock-offs with one-dimensional characters, cliche-riddled plots, and stunningly poor writing. They were horrible. That's not false modesty talking. They were and remain awful.
That was in part because I hadn't developed the skills needed to write well, but even more it was because I had yet to find my voice. I had yet to discover the kind of stories I wanted to tell.
It took a lot of years of pecking away at the keyboard before I realized that I didn't need to write like Tolkien to be deeply inspired by him. Turns out I didn't really want to tell Tolkienesque stories. He inspired me. Still does. But he is not the writer I want to be, his stories are not the stories I want to tell, and his legacy is not the legacy I want to leave behind. I've got my own voice and my own stories to tell.
Yet I still dream of sweeping people away. Of placing them in other worlds, albeit briefly, and giving them an experience. And regardless of my waning desire to write fantasy literature, I owe that to J.R.R. Tolkien.
Oddly, despite his influence on my desire to pursue writing, over the years I haven't written much about Tolkien. Not formally, at least. A two-part essay contrasting it with Alan Moore's Watchmen and this blog post about J.R.R. Tolkien and beer, but that's it.
Maybe one day I'll rectify that. Maybe this post is a start.
Some essays about the work of J.R.R. Tolkien penned by yours truly can be found in Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture. Check it out. It's a good book.
Monday, September 26, 2011
After two comic anthologies, both of which I'm very proud -- thanks to my collaborators, Pitched! and Pitched! 2 were quite awesome -- it would be natural to assume a third is on its way. And in fact, as I've posted, Pitched! 3 was at one time in progress.
Key words being "at one time." Life happens. A host of factors (none of which are necessary to go into here) ground it to a halt this spring. Though there were brief moments throughout the late spring and summer when I thought maybe I could light a fire under it and get things cooking again, that never materialized. Not the time. Not the energy. Not the people.
And most importantly, I came to the realization that for now I was okay with that.
Portions of Pitched! 3 do exist. There is some unfinished material kicking around. Some scripts and plots and sketches and ideas. Quite a bit, actually. A whole mess of stuff that could turn into two new anthologies. A fully storyboarded and scripted science fiction story, a fully thumbnailed and scripted crime story, some concept sketches and plot for a mythology-meets-noir tale, and more.
But the fact is, projects like this take time, energy, and a whole lot of management. For me the tough part wasn't the writing. To be honest, that came pretty easily. The tough part was juggling the work of upwards of a dozen people from across the country, keeping them energized and eager to work despite it taking a whole lot of their precious time (without pay, no less), making sure everyone stayed on task and stayed on schedule, and seeing the whole damn through to the end ... not to mention getting word out about it, formatting for the printer, and all that other crap that isn't writing.
It's a lot of work, and life -- both mine and my collaborators' -- didn't want it to happen right now.
Maybe some day. But not right now. So Pitched! 3 will just have to wait.
Friday, September 23, 2011
Today's first foray into posting some (very) short fiction was an attempt to write in a "hard-boiled" style. Wrote it a few years ago. It began as satire, but ended as something I like.
Oh, and Frank Saxon is a real person. This story is not about him. But he is real. This work appears in a not-yet-publicly-available collection self-published fiction called The Place of Dreaming, and is, in fact, the shortest work in it.
I slouched next to Saxon at the bar. He tried to bum a cigarette. Asked, but I wouldn’t answer. I carry cigarettes, yeah, but Saxon’s no woman, and my smokes are only for the fairer sex. He asked again, and grunted a curse when I wouldn’t respond. Man was frustrated. He had every right to be.
Downed the first drink and Ted slung me another. He had a scar above his right eye, pale white. I always wondered what that scar was all about. Never did find out.
Saxon turned to me, his face red, probably insulted by my silence. He pointed a long finger at me, accusing. Lurched a bit. Bastard was drunk. He slurred out a long stream of profanity and started to get up, looking like he wanted a fight.
So I turned away from him – disrespected him, really - and downed my second gin (no tonic) in a swallow. Man wants to fight, he’ll have to show me he means it.
“Talkin’ to you,” Saxon spit, swaying in a wind that wasn’t there, his shirt stained with lunchtime spaghetti and his left shoe untied. “Day in a fookin’ life, man. Read da news ta day!”
“Sit down, Frank,” I said into my drink. Beatles. It figured. “You and me ain’t got time for this.”
“Wiff a little help from da friends!” The old drunk seemed suddenly happy. Quick mood changes. I always liked that about the guy. Frank, he could go from loving you to hating you in a minute, then right back again. “Tay ... take sad songs an’ make ‘em better. Let ‘er inna yer heart!”
Put my finger in the air and before I could put it back down Ted had another drink in front of me. It was gone before Saxon was able to get his ass back on his stool. I wheeled about. Faced him.
“It’s time, Frank. It’s time.”
Looked at him long and hard. Real hard. He knew what I meant. The booze passed from his eyes, sober arrived, and he straightened himself out as best he could.
“So,” Frank said, “I ... I guess I should say my goodbyes, then?”
“Yeah, say your goodbyes, Frank. This job isn’t going to be an easy one. Your goodbyes? This time, you’re gonna mean them.”
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
They spend years writing a book, then even more years trying to get a literary agent and publisher to back it and then, when their book finally comes out, the author breathes a huge sigh of relief and assumes that their book will be discovered, widely read and will sell around the world in bucketloads.
Well, any new author needs to wake up and smell the rankings. Most books, however well written, hardly sell many copies at all.
And that's the reality most people don't see (including, sadly, many aspiring authors). For most folks, the world of books and publishing and authors and the like is an alien one. It's the stuff of movies, where we see alcohol- and coffee-fueled writers banging away at typewriters and raking in the dollars for their efforts. They struggle, they finally get published, and all is well with the world. People hear you have a book on the shelves and they think you're swimming in extra dough.
For the vast majority of published authors, that is a fantasy and little more.
The reality is, most books sell very little and most authors make close to squat on their work. Even when you do hear about authors getting a big advance -- and those stories are more scarce than ever these days as publishers are increasingly gunshy about dishing 'em out -- you're hearing about it because it's Man Bites Dog. It's unusual. It's news.
I'll avoid specifics because I've always thought it rude to talk about pay, but take A Year of Hitchcock, the book I coauthored with Jim McDevitt. We earn royalties on the sale of that book. Those royalties are in line with typical industry numbers. It's a niche book by a small academic publisher, and it's also pricey (the upcoming paperback will thankfully be very affordable), but hey, it's a great book and it did fairly well for its niche, so we did okay, right?
Not really. Last year earned us each about enough to make a car payment, based on 2009 sales. This year, based on 2010 sales, enough for a couple of nice dinners out with your significant other.
Not exactly the great windfall of cash people expect when they hear you're a published author.
So back to the blank book. How do you take that? How do you accept the idea that a book filled with blank pages can outsell 99.9% of the others books out there? Well, you just do. The truth is, when it comes to getting paid your marketing strategy and potential audience is more important than the actual work. That's neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It's just reality. Authors should know that. They should know they're doing the work for love of the work. Any money that comes of it is gravy.
Because rest assured, in most of our cases there won't be much money coming from it at all.
Friday, September 02, 2011
The panda gets his cheeseburger, savors every bite, even wipes its mouth with a napkin. Then the panda pulls out a gun and shoots every person in the restaurant. Everyone except for the waiter. Soaked in blood, he can only ask the panda, "Why?"
The panda pulls out an encyclopedia. It flips the book to the P section, places it on the bar, and points to his picture. Then he turns and walks out the door.
The bartender leans down and reads the entry next to Panda:
"Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."
This is an old one that shows how a minor bit of punctuation -- in this case a comma -- can totally change the meaning of a sentence. It's so well known, in fact, that it became the title of a book on on punctuation. It's also kind of funny. So I posted it.
Have a nice day.