Category: Fiction (page 1 of 9)

Joe Versus the World

A little something I’d like to say to the world:

Ten Most Influential People Who Never Lived

So there’s this book called  The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived.

Who are the ten most influential people who never lived in your opinion?

Here’s mine:

1. Captain James Tiberius Kirk

Not to be confused with the man who played him.  My childhood was suffused with Kirk and Star Trek, well before the Star Trek phenomenon took over the world (to my eternal dismay).

Kirk was a hero, a leader of men and women, and a champion of limitless human potential.  My first real introduction to Star Trek was through books, not television.  Science fiction writer James Blish turned each episode into a short story in a series of books in the seventies.  I devoured them. I still own every one.  And one cannot talk of Captain Kirk in the context of inspirational imaginary characters without pointing out that Kirk himself was allegedly inspired by yet another imaginary character: Horatio Hornblower.

2. Johnny Sokko

My favourite TV show when I was six

I grew up in Summerside, Prince Edward Island.  When I was six years old we had access to all of three television channels.  Saturday mornings at eight one of those channels played a show called “Johnny Sokko and his Giant Robot,” about a boy who discovers a wristband that allows him to control a giant robot with which to fight evil.  Can you imagine?  Your very own giant robot with which to fight evil!  I can honestly say that were it not for this show I would never have been inspired later in life to build my own giant robot with which to, um, fight evil and, ah… never mind.

3. Hawkeye Pierce

“Let’s go join the nurses,” suggests MASH surgeon Trapper John to fellow surgeon Hawkeye, who  replies: “Yeah… make them into one big nurse.”

No one ever laughed at Hawkeye’s jokes, but that didn’t stop him from cracking them.  Humour allowed Hawkeye to cope amid the insanity of war.  He got away with a lot because he was the best at what he did, and he had the coolest nickname on this list.

4. The Man With No Name

Clint Eastwood’s cooler than thou cowboy in Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western trilogy may in fact have had a name: an undertaker in a Fistful of Dollars calls him Joe, and he is referred to in the credits by that name.  It has been suggested that the appeal of The Man With No Name is that he can do things that none of the rest of us can.  I know I certainly wouldn’t mind a piece of the poise that “Joe” exhibits on screen .  (Although as cool as The Man With No Name is in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, it’s really Eli Wallach’s character Tuco who steals the show.)

5. Merlin

Merlin advised Kings, shaping world events from the shadows.  Though he appeared to age normally, he experienced life backwards, from death to birth instead of the other way around (try wrapping your head around that one).  My knowledge of Merlin is mostly gleaned from the novels of Mary Stewart and T.H. White, as well as the brilliant portrayal of Merlin by actor Nicol Williamson in John Boorman’s superlative film Excalibur.

6. Bugs Bunny

Rivaled only by Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name for sheer, unadulterated cool, but arguably more human, and infinitely funnier.  To an adversary who happens to be a bull: “What a nin-cow-poop!  What a gulli-bull!”  But the real appeal of Bugs Bunny to me is the meta-cartooning genius so often displayed by his creators: Bugs Bunny as cartoonist/God messing with a thoroughly irritated Daffy Duck, just to cite one classic example.

7. Gully Foyle

In Alfred Bester’s seminal science fiction classic The Stars My Destination (or perhaps more properly Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, the original title of the novel) Gully Foyle illustrates the heights any of us might achieve if only we were properly motivated.  There’s a lot of great science fiction being written today, but damn I miss the sheer frenetic vitality of books like this.

8. Hobbes

The tiger, not the philosopher. Hobbes is Calvin’s best friend, there when Calvin needs him and more than willing to go along with Calvin’s every crazy scheme.  Who doesn’t need a Hobbes in their life?  Words fail me.

A certain wizard

9. Gandalf

I hung on just about every word in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring’s chiefly to find out more about Gandalf.  Who was he, really?  What was he?  Where did he come from?  We never really find out, though I suppose there might have been more information on him in the Silmarillion… alas, I never could wade my way through that one.

10. Hoopoe

In my teens and twenties I read just about everything written by James Michener.  His book The Drifters inspired me to spend the better part of a year in France and Europe.  Another book of Michener’s, The Source, prompted me to question my every assumption concerning religion.  And in that book it was The Psalm of the Hoopoe Bird, the story of Hoopoe, the ancient Israeli engineer who so resembled the Hoopoe Bird , that touched me the most.

One Year Later

It’s been just over a year now since my debut novel, A Time and a Place (ATAAP for short), was published by Five Rivers Publishing.

Time to sit back and reflect a bit on the experience.

One year in and I’m not exactly in J.K. Rowling territory. Still got the day job and the bank account looks roughly the same. I did not expect anything different. I went in to this knowing that I might only sell dozens of copies, that it could have been critically ravaged; or worse, completely ignored.

I also went into it with the intention of making it as uniformly positive an experience as I could possibly manage. I’m happy to say that I’ve (mostly) succeeded on that front. And that it hasn’t been critically ravaged or ignored.

It was a year marked by at least a couple of miracles.

The experience started on an amazing note when, shortly after publication, I stumbled upon a positive review of A Time and a Place by Publishers Weekly. I hadn’t even heard of Publishers Weekly before publishing ATAAP. I had to look it up, and when I did, I was interested to learn that Publishers Weekly is considered one of the Bibles of publishing, having been published continuously since 1872. To get a positive review from them was enormous validation of all the work I’d put into the novel. It meant that the work had paid off, at least on a critical front. It also immunized me from any subsequent bad reviews. Publishers Weekly liked it! Who cared what anyone else thought? Well, I did care, but one positive PW review meant that I could easily stomach any other bad reviews.

In the Bistro of the Free Times Cafe before the launch. That’s genuine happiness you see on my face there.

The second miracle was the book launch. The Merril Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy (of the Toronto Public Library system) agreed to host the launch of the book. Having the launch at such a respected venue gave the launch some credibility, in my mind. And Bakka-Phoenix Books, Canada’s biggest SF&F bookstore, agreed to sell the book for me at the launch. And the attendance at the launch blew my mind. Seventy-eight people confirmed their attendance beforehand and I’m pretty show we had more than that actually show, as it was an open-door event. I remember walking into the Merrill Collection the night of the launch and being gobsmacked at how many people were there. It was a packed house. One of my favourite movies is It’s a Wonderful Life, and the classic line from that movie is “no man is a failure who has friends.” The book launch was my It’s a Wonderful Life moment. That night I felt like I had friends.

We sold fifty-eight copies of ATAAP that night, which made ATAAP the number one best-selling Trade Paperback for Baaka-Phoenix Books for the month of October 2017. It was a great start to the life of the book.

That same day my wife and I were invited to meet the Mayor of Whitby, Ontario. We had a great chat with Mayor Don Mitchell and he graciously purchased a signed copy of A Time and a Place.

Shortly after the launch, I was approached by a film/TV rights database called Rightscenter inquiring about the dramatic rights for ATAAP. I thought this sounded promising but apparently it’s actually just standard practice. Around the same time I was approached by someone about translating the book into Italian. These two events, along with the great launch and the Publishers Weekly review, made me think, holy cow, who knows what’s going to come of this book? But nothing came of either the film/TV rights or the Italian translation.

It was fun tracking ATAAP on Amazon.ca over the year, where it sat on Amazon’s bestseller list for Hot New Releases in Time Travel fiction for a while. I’ve conducted a few interviews about the book over the year, including one on CBC Radio Charlottetown (approved by the CBC ethics commissioner, a requirement because I work there), another for an online radio station in the states (Jessie’s Coffee Shop), and another just recently on Hunter’s Bay Radio in Muskoka (Storylines with Christina Cowley).

I spent one day in Chapters attempting to sell ATAAP (sold nine copies that day) and several days at various other events attempting to do the same (Bookapalooza, Ad Astra, etc). I’ve read from ATAAP at several events, including Words of the Season for the Writer’s Community of Durham Region, and twice at the Parliament Street branch of the Toronto Public Library. And I participated on a panel for Indie Author’s Day in Ajax.

I was roundly ignored by the organizers of Toronto’s Word of the Street, which stung a bit, especially after sending them (at their request) two copies of ATAAP, but apparently they’re run by a small team of volunteers, so maybe I just slipped through the cracks.

I had hoped that ATAAP might get shortlisted for an award or two (the Sunburst or the Aurora Award) but it didn’t even come close. My publisher had warned me that this would likely be the case but one must have one’s illusions.

Over time ATAAP continued to garner excellent reviews, mostly four and five stars, on Goodreads, Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, Chapters, Library Thing, Audible, and even one five star review on Amazon.co.uk. There is one two star review on LibraryThing and one three star review on Goodreads. Some of the reviews are by people I know and some are not. Without a doubt, ATAAP has received at least one or two extra stars from some of the people I know. For this reason, it’s hard to know where ATAAP actually sits critically. There is that positive Publishers Weekly review though, and several four and five star reviews from people I don’t know, so I think I can safely conclude that at least some people like the book.

Gradually the interviews, events and so on began to taper off. Sales, too, began to dwindle. To combat this, and at the behest of my publisher, I created an audiobook version of ATAAP, which was released a couple of weeks before the anniversary of its initial publication. As I type this, it has climbed to the top of the Amazon Audible Bestseller list (in the niche category of Science Fiction/Time Travel), fallen off that list, and climbed back up gain, where it currently sits at #2 on the Hot New Releases in Time Travel list.

That sounds impressive, but to tell you the truth I have no idea what it actually means. It could represent two hundred sales or two. The ways of Amazon and Audible are largely unfathomable. I won’t know until I get my Royalty statement from Five Rivers.

So, one year later I can report that although A Time and a Place has not made me rich or famous, it has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It has taken me to a few new places, made me a few new friends, and introduced me to a couple of new opportunities.

The thing about books, as someone told me recently, is that they have long lives.

A Time and a Place may have more to offer yet.

 

 

CANCON 2018

This past Friday I headed up to Ottawa to attend CANCON 2018, an annual convention devoted to readers, writers and fans of speculative fiction with an emphasis on the writing part of it all. It’s the only such convention I attend regularly, having attending three times now in four years. It’s the kind of convention a person can really feel at home at, for a lot of reasons. It’s inclusive and welcoming, attended by a lot of friendly, like-minded people. Importantly, it’s got a well-thought out Code of Conduct designed to protect attendees, a Code of Conduct that’s enforced and taken seriously. It’s got great programming on everything from “Advice to Aspiring Writers on the Craft” to “Rules of Writing: Are They Really Rules?” to “Swiping Right on the Monster”. There are pitch sessions during which you can pitch to various publishers and Meet the Agent sessions with big-time New York Agents and Meet the Editor Sessions with Big-Time New York Editors. It’s attended by newbies and professionals and famous folk in the field and everybody in between.

The first time I ever attended CANCON I got offered my book deal for A Time and a Place. Which as you can imagine was really exciting and has resulted in a lot of good things. So there’s a special place in my heart for CANCON.

So, bottom line, it’s a con that’s got a lot to offer. I attend for all those reasons, but I also attend because I have never failed to find it a rejuvenating weekend, a weekend that leaves me better off than when it found me.

This year was a particularly striking example of that.

I landed at the Con Friday afternoon after driving up with my friends Tanah Haney and Tonya Liburd. I always drive up and like to take a few other people with me, because that’s more fun, and also it’s helping others out who might find it a bit pricey to get up to Ottawa.  On this particular day I was really exhausted for some reason, coming off a busy stretch of wearing myself a little too thin physically and mentally. Tanah and I met up with our good friend Jenn Delagran (second year in a row we’ve done the con together), and I socialized a bit into Friday night, but I was feeling really fried. By the end of the night I was seriously wondering how I was going to make it through the con. I imagined feeling this way the entire con, having to fake smiles and pretend that I wasn’t about to completely fall apart, and I did not find that prospect the least bit appealing. So I made it a point to hit the sack early Friday night, hoping that the Power of CANCON would work its magic through the night and restore me to something resembling my usual self.

Con Pals Tanah Haney and Jenn Delagran

And it did.

I felt so much better Saturday morning. And it just got better from there.

I headed down for breakfast around 8am and got a table by myself. It never fails that someone interesting comes along when I do that. This time it was Ira Nayman, novelist and editor of Amazing Stories magazine. We had a great chat about a wide range of subjects. Discussing dogs, Ira observed that, “In a worst case scenario, they will eat your face,” which struck me as unnerving but amusing.

From there it was off to the Dealer’s Room, where Myth Hawker, the (fabulous) Travelling Book Store had graciously consented to sell A Time and a Place, which they have been doing successfully for a few weeks now, having sold copies to a trucker in Vancouver and to a cat lover in Ottawa and others that I have failed to obtain biographical information on. I was their “featured author” for an hour and a half, during which the Myth Hawker crew (mainly Lisa Toohey and Diogo Castelhano) tried to teach me how to sell my wares better (“don’t cross your arms!” “Work on your pitch!” “Seek out cat people!” and so on). We did manage to successfully sell one copy while I was the featured author, though me and another writer also managed to frighten one potential customer away by inadvertently ganging up on her. It continues to be a learning process.

Kurestin Armada speaking at CANCON 2018 (photo by Lisa Michelle Toohey)

I attended a few panels and readings. I like to support people I know, so I often eschew more popular panels to attend book launches and readings from friends and acquaintances. I attended a launch for Maaja Wentz’s new book Feeding Frenzy and a panel on writing for themed anthologies that featured my travelling companion Tonya Liburd. I actually abandoned the programming list, trusting the opinions of my con pals Tanah and Jenn to lead me to interesting programming of their choice. I was glad I did, following them to a talk by Guest Editor Kurestin Armada of PS Literary Agency, who spoke of her Manuscript Wish List, and walked us through the first few pages of several successful recent novels, explaining where and how they fit in and why they worked. Afterward I chatted briefly with Kurestin about what kind of space opera she liked, as I happen to be polishing up a space opera right now, which I hope will become my second published novel.

Myth Hawker, the fabulous Travelling Bookstore, run by the equally fabulous Pat Flewwelling

And the day continued in that positive vein.

You know how they say extroverts draw energy from people, and introverts expend energy that they must re-acquire in privacy afterward? I expend energy with some people, and draw energy from others. I don’t know what that makes me. An ambivert, or freak, or something. Anyway, I was drawing energy from the people at this con, friends and strangers alike. By the end of Saturday I was feeling pretty good. This despite some adventure Saturday afternoon when, to my horror, Tanah and Jenn got stuck in an elevator for an hour! I spent that hour at the front desk on my cellphone texting Tanah, reassuring her that help was on its way. There were ten people trapped in that elevator, but they did a pretty good job of keeping themselves cheery and calm. I was terribly afraid that Jenn and Tanah (and the others) would find the experience deeply troubling, and that it would ruin the con for them, but it wasn’t the case. Although not a lot of fun while they were trapped, they managed to forge some new acquaintances in that elevator, and treated it as an adventure afterward. For my part, I got to know one of the con co-chairs, Marie Bilodeau, as we worked together at the front desk to relay info and try to keep those trapped calm. If I ever get stuck in an elevator, I want Marie on the outside working to free me (I actually was stuck in one once in the middle of the night on my birthday, but that’s a story for another blog post).

Tonya Liburd on one of her panels.

Sunday morning I woke up even more refreshed, having slept in a bit. Waiting for the elevator to head down for some breakfast, who should step out of the room next to mine but Special Guest Kurestin Armada, the New York Literary Agent. “I’m so sorry,” she said as we waited for the elevator. “I was watching television late last night, and only too late realized that I might be keeping you awake.”

“That’s okay, whatever you were watching was very entertaining,” I said, attempting to be funny, and then hastened to assure her that I was just joking, I hadn’t heard a thing.

Before we parted, I said, “I’m gonna pitch you later, if that’s okay,” meaning that in a few months I would send her a query letter and a pitch for my new novel.

She said, “Oh, come and find me after eleven, I’ll be hanging around the second floor and would be happy to hear your pitch,” or words to that effect.

I hadn’t been clear. “Uh, okay,” I said. “I would be a fool not to accept that invitation. I’ll see you later!”

And then over breakfast became afraid that I’d come off like a jerk, threatening to buttonhole her later, and that she’d only said to come and see her to be polite. I resolved to look her up afterward to explain that I hadn’t meant to obnoxiously pitch her at the con, but to do so later via email.

Looking her up at the appointed hour, I found her about to talk to someone else, and asked if I could have a moment afterward, which she readily agreed to. And felt even more like an obnoxious jerk, because in my attempt to reassure her that I was not some obnoxious, self-serving pitch-wielding asshole, I felt like I was ironically beginning to appear as exactly that. So I decided to forget the whole thing, and just enjoy the rest of the con, and email her my query in a few months as I originally intended.

I attended a few more panels, chatted in the dealer’s room, bought my quota of three books (including my colleague David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother, whose panel I had attended the day before, during which he related a quite amusing account of the publication of The Bone Mother with Chizine Press), had a lovely lunch with Tanah and Jenn, and shortly afterward gathered my belongings from my room, intending to leave this yet again excellent, rejuvenating con.

On the way out, I ventured into the Dealer’s Room one last time. Kurestin Armada was sitting by the door behind Chizine’s table. She smiled and waved me over. I awkwardly set all my belongings down somewhere hoping that people wouldn’t trip over them and grabbed a chair next to her.

I tried to explain to Kurestin that I hadn’t actually meant to pitch her just then…

Kurestin Armada of PS Literary Agency

“Shut up and pitch me,” she said, except not in those words, she was much more polite than that, explaining that she was in fact there to seek out new talent.

So I shut up and pitched her.

Maybe it helped that we were sitting right next to Myth Hawker, where my first novel was prominently displayed. I showed it to her. I don’t know what she thought of that, but maybe it helped that she saw I’d already successfully completed one novel that a famous, fabulous travelling bookstore felt comfortable carrying.

“Send me the first fifty pages of your new novel,” Kurestin suggested.

“Uh, okay,” I stammered.

And that’s how you end a wildly successful con.

The Awkwardness of Having a Book Out There

I’ve only written one book. That makes me pretty much a novice at the whole book writing thing. So I imagine there’s a lot I still don’t know about writing and publishing.

But I know this.

It’s awesome to have published a book.

It’s also kind of awkward.

It’s great because getting a book out there is the culmination of a lot of time and effort. It’s the realization of a dream. People are happy for you. Some even like the book, and that makes you feel good. You think, I wrote one, I can write another. So you’re hopeful, positive, optimistic.

But it’s also awkward.

It’s awkward because you’re expected to sell the book. Selling things is awkward when you’re not a salesman, when you don’t own a store, when you don’t have a lot of experience at selling, when you’re not even really interested in selling, you’re just interested in writing, and not-so-secretly wish the damn thing would sell itself.

It’s awkward when you rent a table at some event and sit there for one, two, three days in a row with copies of your only book artfully arranged in front of you, trying to make it look appealing (which would be a lot easier if it were made of chocolate), trying to make eye contact with people walking by who are just as fervently trying NOT to make eye contact with you so that they don’t get roped into buying a book they don’t want. And you’re trying to strike a balance between being too nonchalant and too eager, trying not to appear too desperate, never quite getting the balance right, because let’s face it, you ARE desperate. You want to sell enough copies to at least pay for your table, to make the days you’re sitting there feel at least a tiny bit worth it.

And it’s awkward because once you do sell a few copies, you inevitably sell some to people you know. And that’s terrific because it means your colleagues are supporting you, and sometimes it’s really great because they come to you after they’ve finished the book to tell you how much they liked it. Sometimes they come to you afterward to tell you that they liked the book and ask if you wouldn’t mind a bit of constructive criticism, to which I always reply, “No,” because there isn’t actually much I can do about it now, but we laugh, because of course I’m joking (sort of) and then they give me the constructive criticism, and I really don’t mind because I’d like to make the next book even better, and I have a pretty thick skin by this point in the game.

What’s particularly awkward is the people who’ve bought the book who you see around but who kind of avoid eye contact or head in the other direction when they see you, and you’re not entirely sure why or whether you’re just imagining it. Sometimes I assume it’s because they simply haven’t got around to reading it yet, which is absolutely fine. I always tell friends when they buy the book, “You have ten years to read it, and I’m very good about extensions,” because I know what it’s like to have piles of books at your bedside, many of them written by friends. We all have enough stress in our lives that the last thing we need is people bugging us to read their books. We’ll read them when we have the time and the interest, thank you very much, a philosophy that certainly extends to any books written by me.

And then there’s that rather more exquisite awkwardness. The one you experience with those who have started your book (you know this because they told you they did), but who have never mentioned it since. And this (you suspect) is because they simply couldn’t get through it. Or worse, they did suffer their way through it, but didn’t like it, maybe even hated it. You don’t know because you’ve never actually discussed it with them. It’s never come up in conversation because they’ve always successfully avoided you, or skillfully danced around it in conversation the one time they failed to avoid you.

But that’s okay too. There’s no law that says everyone has to like your book.

Maybe they’ll like the next one.

And I would tell them that if I could ever figure out a way to bring it up that isn’t painfully awkward.

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