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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Doing My Head In

Brain at 2:37am: Hey, you know that awesome music you were listening to while revising your manuscript earlier today?

Me: It was great, but please … I need to sleeeeep.

Brain: Here it is with the volume turned up to 11!

Me: Aargh! Nooo! Where’s the volume control???

It’s that Time of Year Again

Easter is just like any other time for me. Good Friday, Easter Sunday, just days.

Living in the southern hemisphere, it’s autumn now. Sydney has lovely autumns. The weather turns milder after the roaring heat-rage of summer, with its sweat-soaked humid nights and scorching days. None of the deciduous trees have turned any colour yet. Everything is green and vibrant, blooms bob in the gentle breeze and there is a complete absence of the relief felt in the wake of a biting winter, giving way to the season for renewal and rebirth.

That’s what Easter is all about, really.

Rebirth after winter.

The egg. The hare (not rabbit), the symbol of Eostre, the heathen goddess of spring whose lunar-oriented festival became appropriated by the Christian church in the kind of corporate takeover to make modern tycoons gasp and sigh with dewy-eyed reverence and envy. In Sydney though, nothing’s being reborn. We’re not entering spring, and it’s not as if winter is ever that devastating anyway. Winter might see deciduous trees denuded of leaves, but it doesn’t snow here. Furry animals don’t hibernate as such. Birds hang around, usually demanding tasty morsels at the back door. Since Australia remains a vestige of British culture subject to religious dominance, at the early stages of autumn we celebrate a spring festival rife with heathen symbolism, overlain with Judaeo-Christian propaganda like the best of them. A salient reminder of our cultural overlords thousand of kilometres away who barely even remember us on our birthday.

My mother—being Scottish—resolutely retains all the traditions of Easter. The cards. Eggs. Various decorations. Hot cross buns. It might be autumn, but the house gets cleaned to put every spring clean to shame. Bedding gets completely changed. Floors are vacuumed with extra vigour, tiles polished to a gleaming shine. It’s Friday, and she prepares a midday meal of fish and bread, a smile on her face, humming all the while. It’s all rather sweet, and what makes her happy makes me happy. I don’t eat chocolate eggs or bunnies or hot cross buns or any of that (partly because of my diabetes but mostly because I personally feel no need to celebrate any rite of spring when it’s autumn), but I won’t begrudge her traditions. I don’t begrudge anyone their traditions, so if you get a kick out of Easter or Passover or whatever and what you find it stands for, then Happy Easter, Chag Sameach, whatever seasonal greeting you feel applies.

Me? It’s another day.

Hey, what’s that delicious smell?

Ooh yum. Fish!

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?

’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.

How Complimentary

I received a compliment the other day.

So what? I hear you mutter as you roll your eyes. Why would something like that be noteworthy?

I don’t normally receive compliments. My less than stellar physical appearance combined with appalling self-esteem means I am typically unsuited to being complimented. Having been raised in an emotionally abusive household, from a young age I was indoctrinated into self-loathing. In the event someone has something nice to say about me, I instantly go into siege mentality. I become suspicious. What do you want? I ask silently. Why are you trying to be friendly? What is it you’re trying to get out of me? What do I possess that you desire?

Yes, it’s really unfair, toxic and dysfunctional. Welcome to my world.

In order to receive a compliment and process it as an actual compliment, I have to intellectualise what has been said. I have to read the circumstances and the person and how they said what they said. By the time all that has been achieved, the moment for an appropriate response has typically passed, leaving little more than an awkward, uneasy silence.

People can be left thinking I lack gratitude, am arrogant or something else. The reality is something else again.

Complimenting my work is another thing. People do it a lot. My art, my writing, all of that celebrates positive feedback, which is—to me—not about me as such, but a form of reassurance my work is on the right track and should concentrate more on that kind of thing. Encouraging my work is somehow acceptable. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

The compliment I received the other day was for achieving something I wasn’t expecting I could do. It’s all part of that self-esteem issue. Filled with self-doubt, I reluctantly applied myself to the activity with trepidation and an automatic expectation I would fail. Instead, I succeeded and saved the day. I stepped back from the job and nodded satisfaction it wouldn’t be a problem any more. My satisfaction became tempered somewhat when the compliments flowed, but then I did something I’ve come to determine is the right thing to do for normal folks not dealing with an affliction like mine (childhood abuse mixed with Asperger’s plus a raft full of other issues).

I lied.

I was nice. I thanked them.

In so doing, I have no idea what they actually said, however the appreciative noises and smile suggested I’d done the right thing.

Fulfilling the task successfully wasn’t the best thing I could do. Being nice to someone was.

I’m approaching fifty. You’d think by now it’s a lesson I would have already learnt and taken to heart.

Think again.

I don’t get compliments. I get ignored. When it comes to receiving positive reinforcement, I’m way out of practice.

I don’t like lying, but this isn’t about me. This is about other people. Other people need care, consideration, compassion, empathy and kindness. Am I capable of those things? Even through my natural defensiveness and paranoia, my social anxiety and my shyness, of course I am. I wasn’t subject to such considerations when growing up, but that doesn’t mean I should be denying it to others, as if it’s a finite resource to be hoarded. Instead I prefer to think of it as an infinite resource to be tapped as often as possible and shared with wild abandon.

So please consider complimenting someone today. Find something good about them and let them know. If you can’t find it straight away, search. Everyone has something special and wonderful about them. Even the ones who are ugly and defensive. Let them know, and do so without expecting anything in return. Share that wondrous resource. Lie if you have to, but do it. There’s no way of knowing how much it might mean to the recipient.

Do I feel better for having been complimented? Not really. Kindness is water off this duck’s back. Nearing fifty, it’s been approaching half a century of cruelty, abuse, indifference and isolation. Turning all that around and accepting positivity, affection, regard and respect is not something to happen overnight.

Give it another fifty years. Maybe then.

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.”