Mapping It Out

Some time ago, the early Terry Pratchett Discworld novel Sourcery (1988) featured a quip early in the text that read: “This book has no map. If this bothers you, feel free to go and draw one of your own”. I remember being so pleased Pratchett wrote that, because it meant my mind was free to imagine where things were and make features as important or trivial as I wanted.

When the Discworld was eventually mapped and drawn and catalogued and defined and filmed and all the rest, it was as if that magical butterfly of my imagination was euthanised and stuck to a board with a ruddy great pin through it. I’m sure many lepidopterists are keen to have a record of a beautiful butterfly to study, but frankly I’d rather butterflies were left to fly free, since that’s what they’re best at doing. I’m not sure Mother Nature really intended them to be stuck with a pin and kept in a drawer.

I’m not sure my imagination benefits from being mollycoddled.

These days, a map in a book of fantasy seems to be mandatory, the lack of one perhaps considered heresy, or at least discourteous to readers. I’ve been asked a few times if I’d draw maps for writers, but I’m loathe to take such work because a) I hate doing art commissions; and b) I think maps in books are contrary to allowing the reader’s imagination to roam free. If a writer needs a map to ensure their geography is consistent and authentic within their writing process, then fine. Spelling it out to the reader with an illustration included in the book just feels like another form of excessive description. Tolkien had a map, but then the map was in the story. More maps came later, and while some maps can help clarify details, such as how arduous and lengthy a trip is from one place to another, the reality is so many maps in fantasy books are either superfluous or too-much-information or both.

Cover art can sometimes be a bit of a giveaway about how certain characters might appear, but maps and props and all manner of other things can—at least for me—dampen my mind’s eye and quell my imagination’s fire a bit. It just seems a bit of a shame. My imagination is special to me. It’s one of the few things I still have. It needs exercise and expansion, not suppression and frustration. To a writer, the scale of a mountain range or the breadth of a river might mean a great deal. World building is an art as well as a science and often such a tremendous amount of work needs showing off, but to the reader, does all of that really matter, especially when it’s already mentioned or observed by one or more of the characters in the text? When does it become too much information? Some books I’ve read seem to go overboard with adjectives, descriptions, outlines and illustrations. All I’m left with is wondering how one character is going to react to another, because that’s all my imagination has left to work on. The rest has been done for me. Ho hum.

To me, less is often more. Don’t give me a map. Don’t show every character on the cover art. Give me a hint here, a shade there, and let my imagination colour in the rest.

That will be a book I will appreciate more.

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Got It Covered

One of the more common words of wisdom imparted to up-and-coming authors is to never, ever try to do your own cover art. Always give it to a professional.

By professional, we’re not talking a well-meaning friend or relative, either.

Amazon is replete with ghastly attempts by some people to skip paying a professional, and really, their notoriety ends up not being about how wonderful their story is, rather how fitting it is their cover art ends up on lousybookcovers.com

It’s hard being an up-and-coming author. The all-pervading idea of self-publishing can happen for free is just plain wrong. There are expenses. You have to pay a professional editor to comb through your manuscript and fix anything that needs fixing. You have to pay a cover artist, even if your work is only an ebook. You have to pay for this and that and the other, and even then after you’ve doled out for paid promotions and goodness knows what marketing swag, you’re not guaranteed you’ll see any of that back in sales.

Getting published by a publishing house these days is no easier. Indeed, the general wisdom is any money you might receive as an advance is best invested in the same promotions you would have done as a self-publishing indie. Don’t go spending it on extra coffee or plans to go from one meal a day to two. Spend the lot (after careful research, of course) on anything that will help sales instead. On the plus side, you won’t have to spend any of it on cover art, interior layout, ARC or promotional copies or any of the other things a publishing house will cover for you (kind of—they simply take all those expenses out of any earnings), but at least you have a promotion budget! Yay!

Above all, do your level best to avoid anything you create going anywhere near lousybookcovers.com. While a one-star review on Amazon might be easily brushed off as the ravings of a lunatic, it’s hard to argue with lousybookcover’s reckoning.

To Market, To Market

Did I say “Happy New Year”?

No?

Oh.

Happy New Year.

There. I’ve said it now.

Satisfied?

Good.

In the week-and-a-bit since all the excesses of ringing in the new year, I’ve been head-down. I promised myself (not a new year’s resolution, I swear!) I’d make more art this year. The trouble with that is it means less writing. I’m awake for only so many hours in the day, after all.

Sydney’s way too hot to be sculpting wax or firing up the foundry just yet. I’ll wait until the weather cools a bit before I get into bronzes this year. I have plans for some calligraphy, some oil painting, some pen-and-ink drawing, some pencil drawing and maybe a piece of jewellery or two, but the biggie is a set of bronzes.

When I’m not writing.

Writing has dominated my time, and continues to do so.

The anniversary of Terror in the Ranks came and went, but still with no interest. That’s the price I pay for not having a marketing budget. If anyone tells you self-publishing can be done for free, they’re technically correct, but incorrect if the idea had been to earn anything from the writing. To make a self-published novel work at making money for its author, said author needs anywhere between $800 and $2000 to pay an editor; and a further $1000 for paid promotions across social media. Add another few hundred bucks for hard copies mailed out to advance readers who can provide legitimate reviews, a few hundred more for promotions in traditional media, such as the local newspaper, printing bookmarks, flyers, posters and all the sundry collateral, and you’re talking a few grand all up. Costs usually covered by a publishing house if you go the trad-publishing route.

I don’t have a few grand.

I don’t even have a few hundred, so marketing and me are not a happening thing.

Spamming my contacts and friends on social media isn’t really helpful, and paid promotions on Facebook require cash and cleverness I can’t focus on in my current state. So … my book languishes at the bottom of Amazon rankings. What do I do? I simply ignore it and move on. I have other books to write, other stories to tell. I’m a writer, not a promoter, goddammit. Hell—I even have a sequel in the works for Terror in the Ranks. It’s unlikely anyone will read that either, but that won’t stop me cranking it out. One person who did read Terror in the Ranks reckoned it would make a great movie. My eyebrows shot up at that one, and I’ve been left bemused at the idea. Bemused, and indolent, unconvinced any studio would back a story based on a book that went nowhere.

If I make artwork and sell it, maybe then I’d have a budget to promote the book. If I could find an expert in book marketing, someone who can do all the necessary things for me, it would be even better. Not just someone who spruiks on Twitter. Not just somone who books ads on Facebook. It would need someone who does the lot—social media promos, keyword optimisation, SEO, brick-and-mortar placement, the whole shebang.

I wonder if anyone like that exists?

Art is an Expression of Humanity

Art is an expression of humanity.

To be without art is to be without emotion, without feeling, without what it is to be human.

Some of the earliest surviving artefacts from human history are art. Art has solidified and coalesced spirituality and human relationship with the environment into tangible form, from rock art of the Pilbara to frescoes of the Sistine Chapel.

My own journey of art started like most other infants—scrawlings on scrap paper, discovering line, colour and early structures. Unlike most children, very early on I drew what I saw, rather than what I knew. Art for me became an extension of expression and a reflection of context. I was drawing portraits of the cat, perspectives of a tree outside my bedroom window or experiments with the way afternoon sunlight reflected off a door at around the same time as I was learning how to walk. I didn’t consider this as ‘art’. I simply thought of it as a way to communicate in the same way as I was being taught how to speak or sing or body language to tell a parent something important, like I was hungry or needed a wee.

As I grew, so did my art. I discovered art books, and goggled amazed at lifelike portraits, rough sketches, sculptures in bronze, clay or marble and so many other wondrous things. My own art supplies expanded and painting became a dominant medium for me. To me, treasure wasn’t mountains of gold coins or fancy clothes. It was art.

Through my tortuous teens, art was my refuge, my solace, my love. In studying art, my eye differed to those of my fellow students—architectural lines of the Sydney Opera House or the muted tones of a late Rothko were profound to me in ways inconceivable to most others my age. I didn’t gaze upon the voluptuous curves of naked flesh in a Rubens and think ‘porn’. Instead I thought in terms of light and shade, flesh tones and body language, sensuous vulnerability, high drama and story created at a time before movies and television. I could also see proportion, composition and recognise the golden ratio.

As much as art was a part of me, from time to time there were shades to drive it into inaccessible corners of my being. Subject to appalling emotional abuse from an early age, depression would frequently stultify my art, and I would endure periods of blank oblivion. Much of what I had created was destroyed, relegated to the bin to make way for more important things, according to my elders and betters. Of course, art was never to be a career, never anything other than an indulgence that called into question everything from my intellect to my sexuality. That abuse also created a negativity inside myself which persists to this day. It’s not a voice to criticise what I create, instead be critical as to why. Even on medication it persists and with it the inevitable blank oblivion. Sometimes words will come and I will write (I consider writing as simply another art form), but canvases and pages remain idle, ink in its well, paints in their tubes, bronze as chilled ingots of copper and tin. Inspiration abounds, and sometimes the motivation rises to set up easel and commence, but my system is so sensitive all it takes is a single critical word and my art comes to a halt. All too frequently, that all-important word comes from within.

Yes. I am my own worst enemy.

I persist with professional therapy. There is so much damage to repair I may not live long enough to be entirely free of it (lesson: be kind and supportive with your children, respect their learning and never be jealous of their accomplishments and possessions. Also, never neglect to give them cuddles). The constant challenges of my mental health drive me to want to draw or paint for nothing other than therapeutic value, but for the last year every single attempt has ended in abject failure.

Recently I witnessed an art exhibition which left me utterly frustrated. While many of the works had their own particular delight and had been crafted skilfully, so much of it was also banal, flawed, dull or uninspired. I questioned myself on why my own work languishes while so much of this is not only exhibited but sold for quite considerable sums. “Because you’re a loser who doesn’t deserve success” comes the voice. “Stop being so egotistical. As if anyone would like what you create,” it persists, in spite of having sold works in the past. “Stop bothering other people with your lacklustre talent and small-mindedness. Nobody’s interested and nobody cares,” and so on.

I have yet to find the strength to not only pick up a brush but apply paint to canvas. I have done it before, but while that anti-ego voice fills my head with self loathing, cynicism, sarcasm and general negativity, I have yet to do it again. Even words fail to flow, although sometimes a tiny ray of sunshine will penetrate the gloom to illuminate the darkness and give rise to something. Today, it’s this essay.

Until I can return to my art properly however, to me I remain far less than what it is to be human.