’Tis the Season

Now the crass commerce of American Thanksgiving and its shadowy cousin “Black Friday” have permeated every corner of the globe thanks to the internet, the stage is set for the crass commerce of the “holiday season”, which seems to span the month of December. Merchants and retailers the world over sweat bullets in anticipation of the biggest consumer spend of the year. Giddily, they line up yet more junk nobody needs but so many want because it will make them look better, nicer, and—most important—richer to their friends and colleagues.

Here in Australia, hot on the heels of adopting Halloween as a worthwhile event, some retailers thought they should cash in on the American “Black Friday” phenomenon, completely ignoring Australian custom of naming any day of bushfire tragedy as a ‘black’ day. Oops. They also conveniently ignored Australian custom of heavily discounted sale day being Boxing Day (i.e. 26th of December), but that probably won’t stop them providing sale opportunities at that time as well. Two for the price of one, so to speak. As long as the money flows. Looks good for the economy, and augments the myth the 99.9% are well off enough to permit tax cuts for the 0.1% and all that. The politicians and their owners must be in serious danger of breaking something from laughing so hard, but since folks are sheep-brained enough to vote for them, they thoroughly deserved to be fleeced.

In these difficult times of predatory online discount sellers like Alibaba and Amazon, many brick-and-mortar retailers have every right to be nervous about the changing landscape of consumerism. Booksellers have been a miner’s canary for retail, demonstrating just how much of an impact a well-positioned mouse click can have on the real world. Of course, the demise of so many, wreaking havoc on real estate, experienced staff, logistics specialists and sundry others who made their living from the sale of books in the pre-internet days, in favour of a few, seems to be the way of things now. Why worry about a thousand people losing their jobs across one nation when a handful in a single city in a completely different nation can add a few extra million to their bank accounts every few days instead? Living the capitalist dream, after all. Yet in all this, the underlying constant is the actual books themselves. The books remain, whether they’re sold online or in a brick-and-mortar shop. Printers might be missing out as more people opt for ebooks, while requests for hard copies are fulfilled by print-on-demand (“POD”), which can now crank out a paperback, but it’s about adapt-or-die. Why pay talented specialists to run printing presses when an underpaid spotty 19 year old can press a button on a machine instead? Think of the savings!

What comes out at the end of the POD process tends to be comparable to the cheapest of pulp paperback of the 1960s, whose pages half a century later, brown and brittle, are easily forgotten and crumble to dust if they’re not binned first. It’s anyone’s guess where an ebook might end up half a century from now. Gone are the days of widespread quality book production. Quality books are still produced—the bookshop in my favourite art gallery stocks luscious titles in scintillating binding, with paper so tactile the pages make love to both your eyes and fingers as you fondle each word—but the cost of doing so tends to be so prohibitive, only the most exclusive titles celebrate such treatment. Thus exclusivity becomes the norm. Books become a luxury, and reading survives chiefly via self-published ebooks. The problem is those very same self-published books struggle to gain eyeballs as authors are left to promote their own work in a sea of voices clamouring to be heard. As a result, the next Shakespeare, the next JK Rowling, the next Edgar Allen Poe, the next new voice capable of shaping and challenging and improving the world gets lost in a morass where commerce is king and content is commodity first, concept last.

Do the world a favour. If you feel compelled to give something to someone this holiday season, make it an original work of art or a book. The world doesn’t need another piece of moulded plastic. What it needs are ideas. Thoughts. Emotions. Humanity. Fewer beneficiaries might be in the chain leading from author to reader these days, but the reality is perhaps someone who has suffered a job redundancy might read new words which provide an idea or inspiration to set them on a new path in life. Books can give hope, just as they can share wisdom. In a world now seemingly led by crass, self-centred and stupid people, now more than ever the world needs intelligence. Don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution. Give a book, and may a wonderful, life-improving, inspirational book come your way too.

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Uh-oh … Cynicism Time…

Note: parody! Not a challenge to be like this!

“We at Mega-Super-Awesome Literary Agency want strong fiction and narrative non-fiction for adult and young readers (no picture books, no screenplays or stage plays, no poetry, nothing religious, no science-fiction, no fantasy, no adventure, no romance, for God’s sake nothing with vampires or werewolves, nothing with more than four syllables and nothing Beryl in accounts receivable thinks might be particularly tawdry or immoral). We prefer writers rather than categories though, so those who have the potential for identifiable, long-term career-development we can mercilessly exploit are welcome to apply.

We want authors who are committed to being life-long professionals with unique storytelling talents. If anything you’ve written remotely resembles anything anyone ever throughout history has ever written, we’re not interested. If you’re a new writer, sucks to be you. We want authors who have already published. We’re not spending our precious time worrying about some gormless git under the age of sixty who can’t already pull in six figures writing flat-pack instruction pamphlets. Already self-published? Stay the hell away from us. We have no interest in any of that newfangled internet crap.

Are you the next Tolstoy, Dickens, King or Austen? Let us be the judge of that. Neville in Human Resources claims he owns a box filled with the entire works of Lady Blitherington-Smythe’s “Nursery Rhymes for Special Needs Children Except Roger Who’s a Deviant and Has to Sit in the Corner (Third Edition)”, so we know what we’re talking about. We’ll balance the entire worth of your literary career on your query letter where you’ve had to condense your entire life’s work into two sentences we won’t read anyway because you haven’t addressed your letter to Beryl in accounts receivable as stipulated in the footnote on page thirteen of our website we haven’t bothered to update since 2002.

Yes, we are that good.

Since this is now the age of do-my-job-for-me-yet-still-pay-me, you’re going to be responsible for all the marketing of any book we assist you in getting published. Doesn’t matter what any publisher might want. We’ll get them to send the entire marketing budget to us, and hold it for you while you toil in futility at social media and self-funded book signing tours to whatever godforsaken patch of nowhere you can find that still actually has a bookstore. Of course, our holding onto all that cash will incur various fees and a special reserve tariff (which invariably ends up costing more than the funds we’re already holding for you).

We aim to respond to queries within three to four years. We’re all terribly busy here dealing with people far more important than you (especially Beryl in accounts receivable, who can be positively insufferable if she doesn’t have her cup of tea at precisely 10:30am … and woe-betide anyone who forgets her shortbread biscuits and lemon-scented refresher towel). Any submissions found to have spelling errors, grammatical mistakes or words of more than three syllables will incur a special query proof-reading charge of $95/word.

We don’t provide feedback on submissions. In fact we don’t read submissions. We just look at your email and if it’s more than one sentence, we hit ‘delete’ and laugh and laugh and laugh at all the good times we’re having at your expense.

Have a nice day.”

Beggars Can’t be Choosers

There’s an old saying: “Beggars can’t be choosers”.

I guess for most of human history that’s been true—people asking for something without paying should be grateful for what they do get. In this age of mega-corporations masquerading as charities though, it’s a case of beggars get to demand what they want.

When a truck arrived at our house to accept a load of surplus furniture, electrical goods and soft toys we thought would be helpful for those in need, they went through it all and ended up taking only a couple of things. The rest they left behind. What they chose was based purely on what they could make money out of from re-selling, rather than taking everything to hand out to the needy. Yes, they’re a registered charity. WE could have sold everything on eBay or Gumtree, but we decided to donate to help the less fortunate. Turns out we were helping those way more fortunate than most others.

How times have changed.

The same could be said for publishers and literary agents. More than a few websites I visit to find an agent for my own work, and all I see is “we don’t want this, we don’t want that, and if you’re an unknown, we don’t want you unless you’ve been through hoops A, B and C; or you could pay our subsidiary assessment company wads of cash to go through your manuscript and tell you after months of nail-biting we never wanted you anyway”.

Self-publishing never looked so good.

I understand why some agencies do this. I imagine if I was bombarded by so much purple crayon get-rich-quick aspirants I’d become a bit guarded or jaded as well. The recent controversy on Amazon where the purple-crayon-brigade were artificially inflating their readership numbers to score “bestseller” status merely proves there’s always a few rotten apples prepared to game the system for their own benefit at the expense of everyone else. I don’t doubt agents are vulnerable to those seeking to game the system somehow as well.

So how, in amongst all this noise, is it possible to be recognised and appreciated as a genuine writer with a genuine manuscript (plus several more waiting in the queue)?

To me, an agent is an important component of a winning machine. Self-publishing aside, a writer can’t publish all by themselves. They need marketing experts, distribution networks, beta readers, editors, printers and e-book formatters, and a host of other things to make a success of their hard work. If I come across an agency website where there is snobbish dictatorial attitude oozing from every syllable, I move right along. I have no intention of calling such people my colleagues, confidants or team-mates. What comes across is not a collaborative attitude, it’s snide bullying that wins no friendship or allegiance from me. If an agency is so accomplished and filled to the brim with winning authors, hooray for them, but why are they still advertising for more? Is it like the charity, combing through what’s on offer and simply cashing in on what they can lay their hands on rather than recognising what’s in front of them is useful to someone somewhere? I don’t get it, but then I’m a simple fellow with simple needs.

My current problem is I’m too simple. I don’t have the aptitude to adequately self-publish. The technical side is—for me—a doddle. Cover design? Interior layout? Professional typesetting? Graphic design? No problem for me—decades of experience in desktop publishing has that covered, no dramas.

It’s everything else.

The marketing. The paid promotions on social media. The newsletter lists and email addresses harvested from free handouts. It’s the cross-promotions, reviews on well-patronised blogs and all the other places where people can find out about your writing. It’s effusive Goodreads coverage and Amazon star ratings. In this brave new world where expert literary critics have been put out of work by everyone’s-a-critic, the signal to noise ratio has skyrocketed, and meaningful cut-through is hard-earned and rare.

Imagine if JK Rowling had the first Harry Potter book ready to go today instead of twenty years ago. It’s a book aimed at middle-grade readers (9 to 12 year olds). It’s urban fantasy. Imagine she’s still a struggling mum, living on welfare in the boondocks of an English town. She hasn’t the finances to pay for Facebook promotions. She has a couple-hundred contacts across Twitter and Facebook, most of them friends and family with a few mildly interested onlookers. Agent website after agent website tells her they’re not interested in urban fantasy that doesn’t have vampires and werewolves, especially from a first-time author. She might come across a few who are, but they prefer a female, LGBTI or “diverse voice” perspective (i.e. not a white male protagonist). Some agents prefer women’s romance where the most money is made, and could Harry be a 20-something woman maybe. Some might be looking for Young Adult opportunities, but Harry’s too young, despite possible subsequent novels (which can’t be mentioned in the pitch) qualifying. After careful consideration and refinement of her query letter (which costs her the equivalent of two week’s rent to get looked at by specialists), she sends out pitches. Rejection after rejection, and that’s not to find a publisher—that’s to find an agent who will represent her to a publisher.

She can’t find anyone. There are lots of “not taking submissions at this time”. She still sends off query after query to those who have their door open, each pitch carefully customised to the agent’s preferences as laid out on their website. It’s a lot of work. This isn’t writing, but it’s an essential element in getting writing recognised. A lot of agents don’t even bother to respond, while others send form letters to let her know she’s not what they’re looking for. If she’s lucky, she might get one or two who ask her why they’re reading about the Dursleys and not Harry in the first chapter. If she’s really lucky, she might have an agent offer a critique and perhaps recommend she get the manuscript looked at by a professional editor.

She looks to self-publishing again (after writers groups on Facebook warn her of the dangers of vanity presses). She hasn’t the money to promote, nor does she have the resources. More importantly, she knows middle-grade literature requires specialised marketing to parents looking for a book for their youngster, and even more specialised to youngsters capable of the “nag” factor, neither of which is available on social media, but is available in bookshops (conducted by publishers, not the bookshops themselves). Where does she go from here? Does Harry Potter ever see the light of day?

Now, I’m not saying my own literary work would be the next Harry Potter, but that analogy is where I’m at, and I really don’t want to try and self-publish middle-grade. I’m at a bit of an impasse. Agent after agent either aren’t looking for submissions or what I have to offer. So what does one do? The first answer to come to mind is: be patient. It’s a shifting landscape out there. What’s good one year becomes passé the next, dictated by the whims of consumer-spend statistics combined with whichever way the wind is blowing, or chicken entrails or whatever horse wins the derby or how hot the agent’s cup of coffee was that morning.

I’ve kept a record of all the agents and agencies I’ve sent queries to, partly to make sure I don’t send the same thing to them a year or so later, but mostly so I can work out who’s worth dealing with and who’s not. Like being completely ignored, a form rejection letter three months after the promised eight weeks is a definite black-lister for me. A kind “I’m not looking for this kind of thing right now, but I encourage you to consider re-submitting in a year” rejection definitely goes in the ‘potentially awesome’ list. A punctual rejection is somewhere in between. It’s a growing list but there will come a time where I will have exhausted the possibilities. I’ve been through the query letter refinement process. I’m not fielding rubbish, and I’m certainly not a purple crayon writer. I’m a serious writer with a growing portfolio who will consider themselves an ‘author’ once I have a published work in my hand. I’m also perfectly capable of researching how to write query letters, and have refined and refined to the point where I don’t believe it’s possible to further refine. The cruel twist is many agents judge a writer’s work not by actually reading it, but by how the query letter is worded. It’s like judging a painting by how good its frame is. For some, they simply don’t have the luxury of time. For others, it’s because they can’t be bothered.

My self-publishing attempts have been expensive and futile. I know where I need to be. I might personally have not even two pennies to rub together, but I refuse to beg. I’m not begging for my manuscripts to be published, I’m offering a partnership, a collaborative relationship where everyone involved wins. For those who think something like that is too hard, good luck to you. For those with vision and heart enough to recognise it, I’m here, and will continue to be here for as long as it takes, or I die in the process.

Just please don’t be that charity and take what’s on offer for granted.

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.

Update (Redemption?)

I am taking a little breather right now. Friday morning, on advice, I “restored” this laptop to an earlier version, and there was an earlier incarnation of my destroyed WIP. 20k words as of 1st June. Not 52k as of the Wednesday 14th of June, but better than 25 pages of “#####” as it ended up being Wednesday evening.

I’d written down notes on Thursday—everything I could remember before my typical brain fogginess could creep in and wipe it all from my mind.

Since finding the 20k version, I’ve been typing like a demon. Notes to one side, cups of tea to the other. I’ve only been stopping for bathroom breaks, meals, and the sleep of the dead. It’s now Sunday afternoon, and my word count is 41k. I didn’t know I could type so fast! That’s 21k words in almost three days! Yes, my fingertips are numb. Yes, I’ve been backing up. Yes, I’m tired. Yes, my neck and back between my shoulder blades are killing me. No, I’m not stopping until I have my book back, although my break right now is really welcome. At this rate, by tomorrow evening or Tuesday, I should have my first draft nailed.

Screw you, Windows. You don’t take my baby away from me that easily.

So Little … For So Much

My latest 52k literary masterpiece only hours from completion has been reduced to 25 pages of “#######” because Windows had to do an update and the laptop crashed, taking my OpenOffice file with it. The OpenOffice backup folder is empty, as is the temp file folder. I can’t even find any older temp files to unerase, so there’s zero hope of recovery.
It’s–of course–my own fault for not fastidiously backing up and duplicating versions of the work every waking second of every day, because who needs to be creative when being technical is paramount? It is well and truly gone.
52k pages of joy and confidence and creative wonder, character journeys of laughter and sadness, defeat and victory, imagination and inspiration. 52k words that lifted me from depression and anxiety. 52k words that had every potential to be published and bring warmth and cheer and inspiration and excitement to readers everywhere.
I’m gutted. Well and truly gutted.
I knew I didn’t like this laptop and Windows, but this has sealed the deal for unmitigated incandescent hatred for a system insistent on automatically updating in the middle of user activity. So I have a wonderfully updated laptop. Yay. Not sure what I could do with it now. Writing on it isn’t really an option if it’s going to randomly kill files. Doorstop? That’ll work.
It’s time for brandy. Lots and lots of brandy.