The Olympics

I haven't posted a blog update in awhile. What you are about to read is a facebook post that received several "TLDR" responses, so perhaps this is the better venue for my rant. At any rate, here are my thoughts regarding the RIO Olympics, in all their splendor: 

So I was going to write a post scolding people for being dismissive of the Rio olympics, but then I remembered/discovered a few things:

1. The quality of the water in Rio might actually be bad enough to be a legitimate concern. I first dismissed this as false facts being amplified by the facebook echo chamber, but Newsweek says that some places where olympic sailors, rowers and conoers will be competing are teeming with human excrement.

2. From the same Newsweek article: Scientists  found "super bacteria that could cause urinary, gastrointestinal, pulmonary, and bloodstream infections, along with meningitis in the waters that marathon and triathlon swimmers will compete". Both points one and two are legitimate concerns.

3. And then, I come to number three. Does it really matter if I post this on facebook, or my blog, for that matter? Does anything that we post on facebook or other social media outlets have any effect on the material world? Does it matter at all how many people watch or don't watch the olympics? If I don't turn on my TV and cheer on Michael Phelps, will he only get fifteen medals instead of seventeen? Does the number of viewers affect his percentage of the advertising revenue? 

I think the opening ceremonies were neat, if not a little disappointing, based on comparison to previous outings. But, as Americans, do we really want to be petulant and turn up our noses at a lower budget affair? The talking heads kept repeating, in almost apologetic fashion, that they only had one tenth the budget of previous opening ceremonies. I thought Americans gave credit for effort, not on the amount of money spent.

Also, should we really judge the whole contest based on something as insipid as a dance show with flashing lights, clever set pieces and awe-inspiring choreography? Do we want to promote the idea that we're vapid, brain-dead zombies only interested in shiny things and explosions? 

I say we focus on supporting the athletes, who have no doubt worked their ASSES off to get where they are and sunk themselves in debt to make the rest of us couch surfers look good. They are ambassadors for all of us, saying to the world: "Hey! Not all Americans, despite what you might think, are morbidly obese, amorphous play doh creatures, fond of consuming entire bags of cheese puffs while binge watching netflix and cable television. Some of us are champions, and through hard work and good old fashioned nose-to-the-grindstone American work ethic, have become pinnacles of physical achievement, worthy to compete on the world stage. We wish you the best of luck in your efforts to best us."

 

Why do I write?

I can still remember the days when I first started stitching together the ideas that would ultimately become my first novel. Harry Potter had become a phenomenon, though none of the movies had come out yet. I remember listening to the first book on CD my senior year in collegeduring a twenty or so hour drive to spend spring break at a beach house in Virginia Beach. (That’s a story for another time). 

I was captivated by the characters and blown away with the blatant creativity. J.K. Rowling did what many great authors have done, taking established ideas, tropes, characters etc, and putting them together in a way that was innovative and fresh. Could Dumbledore and Gandalf be distant cousins? Yes! But they are both compelling in their own way and have great traits and character arcs of their own.

I’d been telling stories and coming up with my own plots since I was able to write more than just my first and last name. Before that it was creating my own universe where He-Man and Lion-O could team up and fight bad guys together, or maybe mercilessly pummel Ken and take over the Barbie mansion.

In my middle and high school years I continued to write. Sometimes in spiral notebooks (which is a pain when you are left handed), or in yellow legal pads (which is still somehow a little awkward when you are left handed). I wrote stories that often included my friends which usually climaxed with their gruesome and sometimes hilarious and heroic deaths.I also read as much of Stephen King’s back catalog as I could, and a friend of mine gave me a steady supply of Dragonlance novels to read. (Speaking of, where is the Heroes of the Lance movie we all deserve?) I would rather die than share them now, for most of them were just Stephen King hodge-podges featuring carbon-copy characters with different names. Basically the literary equivalent of those bootleg action figures you can find at flea markets or occasionally at the dollar store: somewhat convincing at first glance but unable to hold up to close scrutiny, and certainly unoriginal.

I never considered the notion of writing the “great american novel”. Even now the idea of trying to write books for adults/about adults and/or adult things is a scary proposition; I just don't think I have a Holden Caufield in me. Fantasy, science fiction, and comic books are what I know, so that is what I have written so far.

What J.K. Rowling did with Harry Potter was show me that you can write a fun, engaging, creative story that appeals to people from all walks of life, kids and adults alike. It doesn’t have to be a tome that you have to use two hands to carry around. It doesn’t have to be high literature that only sophisticated people read, if just to impress people at parties. One only need to check out amazon’s best selling book lists or peruse the movies showing at the local theater to see that there is a large market for this kind of material.

I wondered to myself: if she could do it, could I? I came up with what I thought was a pretty cool concept and tried a few times to get it started, but never got very far. Then came the self-publishing boom. Suddenly it seemed as though I might be able to find an audience for my quirky story that featured an alien race of talking green bear-like creatures. So I started writing in earnest.

I started having what Han Solo would call “delusions of grandeur”. It’s embarrassing to say that I had already predicted that my book would be a big seller. After all, I had done my research. I had read a lot of self-published books that were doing quite well, and I believed that my writing was as good if not better than a lot of books that were raking in the cash. I daydreamed about leaving the nine-to-five world behind, doing what King does: cranking out no less than three thousand words a day, going for daily walks, and reading as many books as I could. I evenstarted pricing the BMW I was going to buy when my royalty checks started coming in. Started talking to my wife about what hip, cool, and groovy city we should move to.

Then I published my book. Once it was live on amazon I began checking the sales page like a Kindle Direct Publishing junkie. I couldn’t stop. Of course it didn’t take off immediately, but that was to be expected, I supposed, since I was a complete unknown. But the cover art was pretty snappy and would not doubt catch people’s eye. And once amazon’s algorithms kicked in and started putting adverts for my book in front of potential customers, things would really pick up. 

And there was one fine day where I sold somewhere in the neighborhood of five hundred books. I was elated. I had finally made it. Surely this exponential growth would only continue. People out in the world were reading my book (I assumed) and would tell their friends about it, and it would spread like wildfire. 

It didn’t. Sales haven’t gone higher than that initial peak since. I have to admit it knocked the wind out of me. It seemed unfair. Why were those other guys selling more than me? I read their books. What did they have that mine didn’t?

It had to be because I only had one book available on amazon, and the first book was ripe for a sequel (a little too ripe for a sequel, as some reviewers have complained, if you know what I mean). So with a little, actually a lot of help from my friends in the form of a successful kickstarter campaign, I was able to raise the funds to have the artwork and editing done for Letho Ferron: Book 2. 

It didn’t sell anywhere near as many copies as the first. And again I was crestfallen. What was I doing wrong? 

Nothing, is the answer, of course. I don’t have any statistics here, but I can imagine my novels appear as a needle in a massive literary haystack, now that anyone can write anything they want and upload it to the amazon marketplace. It’s a saturated market. Some of it’s great, and some of it’s garbage. It can be difficult for a potential reader to even find your book, let alone pick it from a heap of other independently published books, determining that your novel, over all the others, is worth his or her hard earned money. It’s like everything else, you have to hit at the right time, and even if you are pretty good you may never make it. I know there are tons of artists in all media formats struggling to make it, and the odds aren’t stacked in their favor.

After a while I closed down my pity party of one, put my big boy pants on, and started writing again. And I think I’ve figured it out. I shouldn’t be writing simply for money. Sure, it would be nice to make some bank doing something that I really enjoy, but I don’t think that’s the reason that many of the great artists I look up to create art. Everyone has to put food on the table and clothes on their backs, but is that really all there is to it?

I think they do it because they have to. Because they have something big inside that they think is beautiful and unique and it feels wonderful to birth it into the world and share it with other people. This is why people paint, write and perform live music, play in orchestras, act and sing on stage, sculpt things, design architectural marvels, and the list goes on…

So I’m going to keep on writing, and I’m going to finish my third novel, and release it into the world. Hopefully there are a few people out there who are waiting patiently for this day to arrive. I know I can’t wait until all the work is done and I can once again release something that I created into the world, for art’s sake.

 

But a few benjamins would be nice.

From the archives...

It's funny what you find when you go through boxes in your garage. For example, I found a $1 silver dollar certificate, a ninja turtle iron-on patch from when I was in 6th grade (it looked really sweet on my blue jean jacket), and the beginning of a story I started in high school with a remarkably similar plot-line to a movie that would come out years later featuring The Governator.

I also found a bunch of sketches I did of Letho Ferron characters that were mixed in with my college notebooks and textbooks. I've written before that I started thinking about the story that would eventually become my first novel, Fulcrum while I was in college, right around 1999-2000. It's really interesting to me how different the end product turned out to be from these initial sketches. For one thing, the bad guys were called "vampirates". I realize that many of you are thinking about closing your web browser (if you haven't already) and never coming back to my site after having read the word "vampirates", but stick with me. 

Crimson Jim's character hasn't changed much, but his look has. Here's one of the first drawings I ever did of Jim:

He has bat wings.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace came out around the time that I was working on his design, and I think it's pretty obvious I had a man-crush on Darth Maul from the design choices I made.

Rowr!

Oh, hi there! Do you have a moment to talk about our lord and savior, Je-Ha?

And one more:

I hate to dine and dash, but...

And here we have the jolly roger. As you can see he is much different here than the description in the book.

Floating skull wraith in an armor suit: check.

Here is a picture of the character that would ultimately become Alastor Wyrre. Check out his sweet braid a la episode one Obi-Wan and disproportionately large head. I originally envisioned him more like a druid priest of some sort, instead of the undying barbarian warlord that ended up in the novel. Also note the deformed hand. I ended up using this idea with a different character in the second novel in the series.

This shirt is really awesome. It's super tight on my chest, accentuating how SWOLEHOUSE I am.

And last, but certainly not least, I give you Kak. Apparently at some point the slave bears were going to look like this, and one of them was named "Kak". Also, it's a space bear wearing an undersized human space helmet and some sort of overtly large medallion.

Take me to the space rave.

I hope you've enjoyed taking this little stroll down memory lane with me . I'd like to give a shout out to Brian Fajardo, the cover artist for books one and two, whose beautiful art work helped bring the characters to life in a way that I am technically incapable of doing myself.

13 Years in the books!

Despite the fact that "book" was in the title of this blog post I am not going to talk about my novels (edit: I did at the end). I am talking about my day job.  In case you are unaware, I teach orchestra to a very fine group of students at a public high school. Today was the last day for the students, and the classrooms and halls were eerily quiet, allowing a lot of time for introspection during the latter half of the work day while I, free of students, went about the various tasks required to batten down the hatches for the summer break.

I have learned to never complain about my vacation time versus payment when not in the company of fellow teachers. People like to say that teachers are the among the most underpaid of all professionals, and this is true, but when you consider that the average person works about 260 days a year (before vacation and sick days) and my teacher year is 187 days...Let's just say that I'm not complaining about the number of vacation days I get. 

But there is a certain, I don't know, malaise that settles over me when the school year ends. The whole year often feels like a slog, a marathon-length run to the finish line. Sometimes your students are all jogging alongside you, and other times you are dragging them along. Sometimes a few of them will either deliberately throw a stumbling block in your path, or will run headlong into an obstacle (with the full commitment and dazzling aplomb that is characteristic of teenagers), toppling it in front of you. (See misplaced equipment needed to perform classical music on a violin/viola/cello/bass/harp, misplaced aforementioned instrument, academic ineligibility and the inability to perform in contests that it brings.)

When it's all over, you feel like you've given everything, and you're exhausted, emotionally and physically drained. The last few days of school are spent gathering inventory items, collecting paperwork, signing yearbooks, and saying goodbye to graduating students who seem reluctant to leave, knowing that they are about to fly on their own for the first time. You also say goodbye to students who won't be coming back because they can't fit orchestra in their schedule or are just quitting.  You think you should go and shake the hands of these departing students, make a big deal of it, and/or accept a hug. Some of them will stop by to say goodbye, shake your hand or give you a hug, ask you to pose for a picture with them. And some of them just slink out of the door as quick as they can, perhaps because they are just done. Maybe they are afraid that they might not be able to contain their emotions, and you realize that you might be a little afraid of that yourself. 

As an orchestra teacher, I tend not to complain too much, about my students at least. I know that 99 percent of them chose my class, and that makes it special. Students don't choose math or science, though they may truly love those subjects. I'm not saying that students can't form bonds with their math teachers; I just think that elective teachers have it a little better than core teachers in the makeup of their classes. Also, you get to share emotional connections and countless poignant moments with your students through the collaborative creation of music. You get to be part of the evolution of a beginner to a full fledged classical musician, and that's pretty cool. 

So you complain along the way to your wife, Marti Rickaway, and friend Phillip Hintze (who are both fellow music teachers) about how hard it is throughout the year, and you listen to their complaints and commiserate.  Then, just like that it, the freight train comes to a screeching halt, and it's over. That's where the malaise comes in. You start to realize that maybe you were really enjoying what you were doing the whole time even though sometimes it made you angry, frustrated, sad, tired. You realize that you kind of miss the excitement, the movement of it all, the challenges that are sometimes like pleasant but complex puzzles to solve.

It usually takes me a week or two to adjust to having absolutely nothing to do, a luxury that I know most working folk would love to have. It's a period of light depression, where I think to myself often that I should be doing something productive when I'm not. 

Eventually, usually halfway through June, I crawl out of my pity-party-of-one, and my friend Paul Meiller just rolls his eyes at me, and I start to feel a little more like myself. The healing phase kicks in and I enjoy time with my family a little more. I am concerned less with filling my days with projects and tasks, and I decide that it's ok for me to play legos with my kid for as long as I want to, or indulge in a little pc gaming, or take my wife out to a nice dinner. I have the luxury of being being allowed to dive deep into my hobbies of writing my silly stories about green space bears and talking swords, and making music. I have the privilege of devoting time to these endeavors during the day instead of waiting until the kid is in bed. (If you've ever tried to make art while a 7 year old is in the room, you know what I am talking about.)

I look forward to a great summer of relaxation and spontaneous adventures. My plan is to finish the first draft of my next novel, the third and possibly final novel in the Letho Ferron series. It was originally a planned trilogy, but I like to give my characters a little room to breath and be themselves, so who knows? Sometimes the places they end up surprise me. maybe I'll make a little music, and of course prepare myself for the coming school year. 

Wish you all the best!

Doug