Tuesday, April 2, 2013

You're a writer? I've always wanted to write. Can you help me?

Note to aspiring writers: 

Once in a while people ask me what I do for a living.  When I say "I'm a writer," the next thing out of their mouths is "Oh.  Have you ever been published?"  When I say "yes," almost without exception, the next question is "I've written (or am writing, or want to write) a book.  Can you help me get published?"  Either that, or they look at me sideways and think I'm delusional.

It's gotten to the point where sometimes, when people I meet ask what I do, I feel like telling them I'm a plumber--except then they'll want me to come and unstop their toilets or something--for free.

Don't be fooled!  Writing is hard work.  Writing for a living is even harder.  Just because I work at home, sometimes in my bathrobe, doesn't mean I've got it easy.  My commute is easy (20 feet from the bed to the office), lunch is easy (a short walk to the fridge), but that's where the easy stops.  

The odds are something like this: one out of every 25,000 manuscripts submitted to publishing houses is actually published.  Of those books published, less than half ever earn out the advances paid.  And only a minuscule fraction of books that break even and/or earn royalties ever become best-sellers.  

I'm a freelance writer.  I don't just write fiction (though it's my first love and I do it as often as possible)--I'm a write-for-hire guy who will do anything from a short article for a web page to ghostwriting books for people who have a great idea but can't write worth diddly.  In this business you only eat what you kill, and that might mean a 60-hour week to do a job that you thought would only take twenty (goodbye expected profit margin).  It means prospecting for new clients every day, even if you already have more projects than you think you can handle.  It means laying awake at night wondering if next week will be as good as this week, or if it was a bad week, wondering if it's a harbinger of things to come.  I'm motivated less by the creative muse than by the fact that I have a family to support, wondering if I can keep this up indefinitely or if I will have to return to being a corporate drone and only moonlight as a writer.

Contrary to your romantic notions about writers, multimillionaire "overnight success"  authors are a very small minority.  There are probably more people who make a living as professional athletes than there are people who actually make a decent living from writing--and there are even less who survive writing only what they want to write, like novels or short stories. 

Most of us are more like freelance musicians.  Few musicians make a full-time living just playing jazz or symphonies.  As a young man I tried to make a living in music--and found that the only way I could eat and pay the bills was to play dance jobs, community theatre shows, weddings, recordings, ballets, park bands, cheesy swing bands with deaf accordion players, arranging, and mostly teaching lessons to school band kids. And I had to learn to play more than one instrument.  I had very little opportunity to ever get paid doing what I had trained myself to do--play jazz.  Now, as a writer, I don't just write fiction--though that's my favorite thing to do and I've had a certain degree of success with it.  I've had to broaden my skill set--ghostwriting, copywriting, editing, proofreading, and just about anything else involving written words that someone will pay me to do (including writing ludicrous poetry--see http://bardofthenuthouse.com ).  

It's not always easy, but I'm learning and getting better at it.  And the cool thing is, for the moment at least, I'm making a living at it.  Despite the frequent struggles, it gives me enough satisfaction that I can resist the temptation to tell people I'm a plumber!

Friday, January 11, 2013

More ordinary things that inexplicably creep me out

Brussels sprouts.  I can't eat them.  I've outgrown a lot of my childhood vegetable phobias--broccoli, cauliflower, spinach--and I've slowly become converted to asparagus as long as copious amounts of mayonnaise are involved.  But Brussels sprouts?  No-o-o-o!

My wife and some of our kids love Brussels sprouts.  I have been watching them carefully for many years now...just to make sure my real family isn't stuffed in an alien cocoon somewhere..

(the spoils of a day's battle with malevolent aliens)
It's not because Brussels sprouts make me gag (though they do), It's just that they look like...like little severed Martian heads. 

Don't believe me?

Take a look at the 1963 sci-fi B-movie classic Day of the Triffids, when evil Martians seeded Earth (via meteors, of course) with these things, which proceeded to kill every Earthling in sight with their nasty little tentacle-tongues that shot from their branches and dragged them into their fronds where they were slowly absorbed.

You can't see the resemblance?

What about this picture?

I know it's dumb, but that movie scared the pickles out of me when I was a kid!  Pickles...okay, we'll save that one for another post.

 Now how do I know when I stick a Martian head--er--Brussels sprout in my mouth that those tentacles aren't going to suddenly spring out and grab my uvula?  I'm pretty sure that's why I gag when I attempt to eat them.

In Day of the Triffids, every weapon imaginable was used on these things--guns, bombs, flame throwers, etc...but the only thing that would vanquish them was seawater.  That's probably why when I was a kid growing up in Florida my mom never bought them...we lived close enough to the ocean that we were protected.  But here in Texas, they're all over the place...and I just know they're coming for us...

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Olympic Events...for the Rest of Us!

The human drama of athletic competition…the thrill of victory…the agony of the feet…face it, 99.999999999% of us will never qualify for an Olympic event, even for events that we didn’t really think could be defined as athletic competitions.  I mean really, air rifles?  Is there a Red Ryder category?  Has anyone accidentally shot someone’s eye out?
If the International Olympic Committee can sanction BB guns, they should also consider the following events that represent extraordinary accomplishments by ordinary people:
The 5000-meter Large Dog Walk
This involves leading a boisterous, untrained and completely slobbery dog weighing no less than 120 pounds through a simulated suburban neighborhood.  Participants are required to be out of shape, wear uncomfortable shoes (ingrown toenails are also a requirement), and attempt to prevent the dog from romping through flower gardens or pooping on driveways.  Cats and squirrels will be periodically released throughout the course, which the contestant must attempt to prevent the dog from chasing. 
Popcorn Speed-Eating
This is a team sport, sort of.  A couple will be seated in a simulated movie theater and given a large $7 bucket of popcorn.  One contestant (the woman) will open by taking one handful and savoring it during the opening credits of the movie, while the man must hork down the entire contents before his partner finishes her first handful and then say “oh, I thought you were done” as apologetically as possible.  Style points will be awarded for slurping an entire large soda without belching…which reminds me...
Did you know there is a World Burping Championship?
The Supermom Hurdles
In this event, the participant must attempt to wake, feed, and clothe four obstinate children between 5 and 15 and get them into a minivan and to their respective schools before the bell rings.  This event will include finding lost socks, getting gum out of hair, and convincing the youngest ones that they will definitely be in an accident if their underwear is not clean.  Also, the teenaged drama queen has been up all night texting and Facebooking and has not done her homework that’s due first period.
And what Olympics would be complete without The Synchronized Snack Toss, Face Pulling, Mud Hole Waterskiing, Belly Flops, Blob Jumping, and Rock, Paper, Scissors (which has an organized league—the USARPS)?
It’s time for us ordinary folks to start lobbying!

Monday, July 23, 2012

A Note of Warning

After watching Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones on DVD, I found myself wondering about the movie's premise--that a mysterious alien race cloned a Polynesian fullback forty zillion times and created a huge intergalactic football league.  The details are sketchy as I had O.D'd on popcorn at that point and was no longer coherent, but it got me thinking about why we haven't heard much lately from the scientific community on the matter.

The debate over cloning began in earnest during the 1980's.  Specifically, it had to do with
Magnum, P.I.  Though scientists didn't actually succeed in cloning Tom Selleck, it appears that they did succeed in cloning his moustache, which began appearing on college students, football players, and aspiring game show hosts nationwide. 

Not much has been said about cloning since Dolly the Sheep and a few rogue "clone your dead dog" services that have popped up here and there.

There's a reason you haven't heard more about it.  Cloning technology has long since fallen into the wrong hands.  Shadowy terrorist groups have already harnessed the ability to use cloning to disrupt our communications and create fear and confusion.  An army of clones has been surreptitiously deployed throughout the country.  While it's true that the terrorists have used Mortimer Snerd's DNA, this in no way diminishes the threat.  In fact, they want it that way.

Yes. Be afraid.  Be very afraid.  They've infiltrated the customer service departments at the telecom and utility companies.  The fiends have calculated that we'll all be gibbering idiots by the end of the year.  Yup, yup, yaw.


Friday, July 6, 2012

The Blunder Years

(This column of mine was originally published in 2005 by Absolutewrite.com)

I believe that most authors have had a pivotal moment in their lives when it became clear there was no other choice than to be a writer.
            My moment came in seventh grade, September 1969.  Renate Allen.  She didn’t spell it “Renee,” or “RenĂ©,” it was “Renate” with a silent t.  I believe it stood for “tall.”  More correctly, it meant I was short, like most other seventh grade boys.
            I knew her from Sunday school and our mothers were good friends.  I both loved and hated Sundays—I never knew what to say or what to do with my hands—but I got to sit across the room from her and try to pretend I wasn’t gawking.
            Sixth grade had not been a problem, but over the summer something happened.  Her cooties fell off.  She became tall and beautiful, somehow bypassing the normal seventh-grade awkwardness.  Suddenly the lights came on.  Suddenly everything was crystal clear.  Suddenly I was a complete bonehead.
            I went to great lengths to make her aware of me—I figured out her whole schedule by taking alternate routes between every one of my classes until I was able to pass her in the halls five or six times per day.  If she said “hi,” I was floating on air for the whole day, filled with hope.  If she didn’t notice me, I just knew she hated my guts, and was probably telling her friends what a total dork I was.
            If she happened to be talking to a guy, I was, of course, consumed with jealous rage.  I made a voodoo doll collection representing every guy in the school who was taller than me and/or had muscles and/or a personality.
            Renate Allen filled my life with purpose.  What that purpose was, I was not sure, except that more than anything I wanted to be tall enough to kiss her.  But what could I do?  I was not a jock; I was a nerdy crew-cut third cornet player who wore white socks with green pinstriped high-water flares. 
            I decided that the pen was mightier than the mouth.  I would write her…a NOTE.  Notes could be any length, actually—some would argue that they actually were “letters” if they exceeded more than one page—but the true definition of “note” was in the way you folded it.  Girls usually folded notes into rectangles with wrap-around points that tucked into each other.  That was way too sissy—not to mention complex—for a guy.  We preferred the “triangular paper football” fold, which was less conspicuous because all of us carried paper footballs around for those tabletop matches during homeroom and lunch.  No one would have guessed that it contained the summation of my desires, except that it was about an inch and a half thicker than the ordinary football.   I mentally rehearsed my delivery—pull it from left jacket pocket, flash smug James Bond smile, slide it into her notebook as I passed.    She would read it and be swept off of her feet by my brilliant, witty prose. 
            It had to be a masterpiece—this was, after all, Renate Allen, sans cooties, the most beautiful creature in the seventh grade.  It couldn’t be ordinary, couldn’t be “hi, I like you.”  It had to have the same impact on her that her mere existence had had on me.  But it couldn’t be too mushy—it had to be cool, it had to be funny, it had to be the greatest thing she’d ever read in her life.  I made up jokes, I wrote silly poems, and I even drew cartoons.  She had to know that underneath that crew cut was a mind for which she could and should love me, and maybe she would be patient enough for my body to catch up in a few years. 
In the corner by my bed I kept a tall plastic kitchen wastebasket. By April it was overflowing with wadded-up pieces of notebook paper.  Every day I carried a new note, painstakingly scrawled in a marathon of creativity the night before, and every day I chickened out.  I’d come home disgusted, read the note I’d written, decide it was stupid, crumple it up one page at a time (I averaged about nine pages per note), throw it in the corner, and start over, racking my brain for the magic words that would make her love me.
 I chickened out one hundred sixty-three times that year.  The pile in the corner grew until my bed disappeared and Mom quarantined my room.
            Renate never received a single note from me (although I did finally get to kiss her at a spin-the-bottle party in ninth grade), but through those nightly exercises I eventually became a writer, which above all other endeavors requires the persistence of Don Quixote.   
            Twenty-something years later, I met Lesli.  Due to logistical difficulties, a large part of our courtship was conducted via the U.S. Postal Service.  Suddenly I was an infatuated seventh-grader again, curled up every night on the floor next to my bed with a spiral notebook and colored pens.  Whatever came into my head at the moment seemed like a wonderful thing to share with her, and the more ridiculous, the better.  I found myself recycling much of the drivel I had trashed in my youth.  She fell for it and married me. 
Thank you, Renate, wherever you are.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Random Silliness: My first Renaissance fair

My daughter, after scrimping and saving for a year, recently treated her best friend and me to a day at the Scarborough Renaissance fair near Waxahachie, TX.   Every weekend from April through the end of May, a pastoral stretch of woods and grasslands in this agrarian/manufacturing community an hour south of Dallas is transformed into a mecca for medieval aficionados, artisans, bagpipers and assorted minstrels, along with food, frivolity, and the biggest collection of screwballs I've seen since my one and only Star Trek convention twenty years ago.

Forget historical accuracy--you'll see representations of everything from the 13th to the 18th century as well as fantasy characters, along with some really weird stuff.

Costumes ranged from a very authentic Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn (complete with her original head) to budget-conscious home-made creations that may or may not resemble 16th-century garb.

Black T-shirts are the perfect accessory for kilts.

In fact, I was amazed at the number of burly, hairy-chested biker types I saw wearing kilts.  Apparently it's the manly thing to do at such events.  Thankfully there were no strong breezes that day.

This guy worked at a food vendor called "The King's Nuts."
After speaking with him for a few minutes I was convinced the name did not refer to the food.

Nearly all of the shopkeepers spoke with faux British accents.  You ain't heard Cockney 'til it's spoken with a Texas twang.

That's why I found this elven munitions dealer so refreshing--he used a fake Russian accent instead.

I never believed in gnomes until I saw this character.  Most intriguing is the hat on top of his hat--kinda like the Harry Potter Sorting Hat playing cowboy.  Well, heck, it's Texas, ain't it?

I have no clue what Dr. Frankenstein has to do with medieval/renaissance culture--nor what he's doing with that ray gun.  But that wasn't half as weird as this:

The front view was even scarier, which, mercifully, I didn't get a picture of.  The real frightening thing is that she's pushing a baby stroller...which means they're allowed to breed!

The highlight of the day was when the sheriff and his assistant shouted for everyone to clear the road.
It was followed by the most unusual parade I've ever witnessed.

Nothing says "Renaissance" like a 200-lb middle-aged belly dancer...

...not to mention your standard authentic Renaissance muffin-top tattooed devil-troll thing.

A kid on a leash...

Followed by another kid on a leash (not a bad idea, I might add):

Parade watching always makes me hungry.  What authentic Renaissance repast would be complete without a $5 slice of ye old slippery cheese pizza? Omnomnom...

    Signs, signs, everywhere a sign...

Did I just see a Klingon?

The inebriated fellow above was apparently hired by a rival vendor to stand in front of this shop and shout bizarre things at passers-by--a sort of professional village idiot.  He's probably a congressman on weekdays.

I think this may have been a real nun...

...but I'm not so sure about this guy! 

Nothing quite like funky music performed with bagpipes and replicated medieval military drums.  They were rockin'out, believe me!

All in all, it was a fun outing--a chance for some father-daughter bonding on a beautiful spring day in Texas (we don't get many of those--it goes quickly from 65 degrees in April to 95 in May), but I have to admit I'm not as young as I used to be and I had to stop and rest!

In October the Scarborough fairgrounds will be transformed into one of the largest Halloween carnivals in the state, complete with haunted houses and likely a lot of the same kooks from the Renaissance fair.  Too bad I already have plans...

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Ordinary things that inexplicably creep me out...

They're out there...things that trigger a subconscious emotional response for no discernible reason.  Maybe something from my childhood or a movie I saw once...but I am really creeped out by clay chimney stoves:

Why, I can't really say...but I find them extremely creepy.

I don't ever want one of these things on my back porch.  It looks like it might eat me, or worse yet, sing weird evil songs in the middle of the night and curse my wife's vegetable garden.  A regular old barbecue grill is fine.

I'm not a horror writer like Stephen King--I have never been bothered by fears of 1958 Pontiacs coming to life and committing random acts of roadkill--although I do remember as a child having a nightmare about the water heater coming to life and chasing me over a mountain.  In spite of that I have never since been afraid of water heaters, not even when ours sprung a leak a couple of months ago and flooded my office (which is also our bedroom closet).  But don't let me near one of those clay stoves!  When they're on display in front of our local grocery store, I take the long way around to get to the door.  I don't want them to see me. 

I swear I am not crazy.  I'm willing to bet many of you have seriously silly phobias that you can't explain.  I'd love to hear about them!