Freedom’s Mask – Chapter 1, Part 1

Over the next few weeks we’ll be previewing the first chapter of Andrew’s new novel, Freedom’s Mask (© 2017, ISBN: 978-1-976-40079-7). The book will be available soon in both print and digital formats, but you can read it here first. We hope you like it!

 
Chapter One, Part One

I could feel the sun blazing down on my face, lighting up my eyelids and threatening to outdo the pain that was throbbing behind them, my right especially banging away. No, not my right eye, the place behind my right eye, just at the root of the socket, where all the gangly wires join the eyeball to the brain. I was keeping those lids firmly closed. More pain was not what I needed.

But the poking continued. And that voice. Was it a voice? It was something patterned, it had to be human. Repetitive. Was it English? No, something similar perhaps. A sing-song pattern, ups and downs, ups and downs. I thought that maybe if I rolled over my eye might hurt less, but it felt like I was lying on some wet and squishy ground so I decided that might not be such a good idea. No telling what I’d roll over onto. But I had to do something. Whoever it was out there – and by that point I knew it had to be a who and not a what – wouldn’t shut up. I moved my right arm to put a hand over that dancing ball planted in my face, to put some pressure on top that might help calm the fires beneath, and as I did so I felt my sleeve cling to me; it was soaking wet. How did that happen? One thing at a time. I squeezed both of my eyelids shut extra tightly to gird myself for the big move and then cracked open the left, blinking immediately and rapidly under that scorching inferno in the sky, letting the focus come slowly as a shape shifted above me.

It was human. He was human. And still poking away, muttering that same string of nonsense. I blinked a few more times and pressed down a little harder on my right eye; the thing would not let up. What was the guy wearing? Some kind of conical hat like the kind you saw fake Asians wearing in movies from the fifties. He didn’t look like a real Asian though, but then he didn’t look black or white either. I couldn’t place him racially speaking, not that it really mattered. He might have been all races at once for all I knew. He did have a thin beard, or maybe well-trimmed stubble; a style choice? His eyes looked kind enough; real concern hovered there amongst the soft browns. Thick black eyebrows, a tall straight nose. Why wouldn’t he stop poking me? I blinked again and tried to speak, my voice coming out like gravel, rocks being dragged on asphalt; speech was evidently a non-starter, all wrong, dead. I was in shocking pain, wet, and my throat was evidently damaged to boot. Giving up on chatter for the time being I cocked my left arm under me to prop myself up, keeping my right where it was to hold down that jack-in-the-box of agony. He, the guy, took a couple of steps back and stood up slightly, looking away and maybe calling to someone. He was dressed in a set of black pyjamas and rubber boots all speckled with what looked like dirt; and he was wearing one of those goofy Asian hats. I didn’t blame him for the apparel though, the sun was intense. Searing almost. And the humidity; was that why I was so wet?

I tried to look around a little; there were green shoots poking up all over the place. I was on the ground all right, stuck in the mud, and in more ways than one, I mused. I soon discovered too why my clothes felt so drenched. They were drenched. I was lying in a few centimeters of murky water, not more than five so there was no need to swim – of course – but the color of the water, and its warmth, with the little plants everywhere and the sun frying every molecule, instantly made me think the place must be swarming with bugs. I forced myself into a proper sitting position.

For the most part that was easier than I thought it was going to be. I wasn’t injured in any way that I could tell and aside from the ice pick jabbing away behind my eyeball I felt no pain whatsoever. I might have felt other pains had my headache not been drowning them out, but anyway nothing seemed broken, cut, scratched, or bruised. If I had fallen here then I did so somewhat remarkably, or maybe just luckily, because I didn’t seem to be any the worse for it. Still, I was the worse for not knowing where I was. And why couldn’t I understand the people around me? There were three of them now, with a fourth approaching, all wearing those same black pyjamas and rubber boots, faces shaded by their umbrella tops. I stared at them. They were staring at me so I couldn’t see the harm in it. Their facial features were mixed, quite varied within the group, and their skin tones were differing shades of a pleasant but mysterious not quite red or yellow, black or white, as that church song about Jesus loving the little children goes. It occurred to me that they really ought to retire that song; it’s racist. The two who were most animated were both men and one had a fantastic moustache of a dark brown, kind of reddish hue, while the third and – having just arrived – fourth were women who might have been quite striking had I been able to get a good look at them. For now they hung back and appeared worried.

I tried speaking again but it was still no dice. My throat was a rock tumbler. They, however, had no trouble speaking, and pointing. Calmly though; I had to give them that. I pushed a little harder against my eye and tried to remember what I had gotten up to the night before. It was easy enough to concentrate as I could tune out the sound of those people’s water-pouring-over-dishes-in-the-sink gibberish without any trouble at all. The trouble came when my memory attempted to stretch beyond about nine p.m. I finished work late-ish, not too bad given my average, and stopped off for a drink on my way home which turned into five. I probably should have eaten something. I vaguely recalled walking (stumbling) to the station, some issue with the stairs – slipping? not falling… – and looking through clouded eyes at blurry and dancing train times. The twenty-one eighteen, that was the one I wanted; did I make it through the gate? Did I collapse on the platform? Did I knock out on a bench? Did I fall onto the tracks? Did I really try walking through a Metro tunnel? It was impossible to tell. I was there then and not now. But where in the hell was I? And why in the hell couldn’t I understand anyone?

I sent my left eye roving upwards again and saw that one of the two women had now stepped forward and appeared to be taking charge, speaking quickly to the two men as she pointed first at me and then at one of them. She seemed to be motioning for the other man, Comrade Moustache, to run off in another direction, though towards where or for what purpose I had no idea. Of course I had no idea. I had no idea about anything. She then approached me directly, bending down to meet my gaze as I sat there like some dumbfounded cretin, and the look she gave me was one of such warmth and genuine concern that I nearly melted. I was putty. She reached out and gently, delicately, pulled my right hand away from the dancing taw in my face. She seemed satisfied by what she saw – and I was sure my eyeball looked fine because all the trauma was located behind it – and then held her hands up, palms outward and with earnestness etched onto her every detail, apparently signaling that she meant no harm by whatever it was that she was about to do or by what she had done. She could have skipped all that because I would have let her touch me all day long, she was gorgeous and there were no two ways about it. Her brown-black hair was pulled back into a bun that remained just within the shade of the cone cap they were all wearing, some loose bits at the front falling over a tanned forehead and accentuating almond-shaped eyes out of which two emerald jewels shone brightly. I let my gaze slide down between them to a little button nose that perfectly offset a full pair of soft and welcoming lips. I was transfixed. I stared at her with my mouth half open while she leaned forward and placed a hand under my hair to lift it out of the way, inspecting the place where my third eye would be if I were more enlightened. She then made the same non-threatening gesture and undid the top two buttons on my shirt, pulling back first the right side and then the left, checking the central areas on both sides of my chest. I thought it a pity that she didn’t take the whole thing off. And my pants. Redoing the buttons she nodded at me, allowed a slight smile across her lips and in her eyes, and then stood and turned to face her group. While she spoke to them in low tones I tried to imagine what kind of figure she had underneath her pyjamas; I could barely make out the set of her hips and the fullness of her derriere but it was a challenge I gladly rose to. It even made me forget about my pain for a few blissful seconds.

 
Part two next week!
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Flogging the artist

It’s easy to consider the 1960s as the time when the various counterculture movements in the world’s industrialized nations reached their peaks for both potency of influence and hypocrisy of intent. There was plenty of money to be made on the backs of those who very loudly proclaimed a disdain for money, and there was plenty of money made by those who very loudly proclaimed a disdain for money as well. (With some on that spectrum used more than others (e.g. Leonard Cohen, z”l), and some using more than others (e.g. (I suspect) Bob Dylan).) This is most famously the case for music, although all of the arts were involved, and as publishing can find its way into everything via collections, books from, about, and related to this era stand out particularly.

One such book is the recently published Okinawa by Rat Hole Gallery. In it, for about US$40, you will find fifty-eight pages of photography by Takuma Nakahira. Questions beginning with Who? Where? What? and Why? are probably all jostling for attention in your mind right now, and so let me fill in some of the background. Nakahira was a pioneer in the kind of rough and blurry style of street photography that became a staple of Tokyo’s underground protest magazines such as Provoke (which Nakahira also co-founded) during the decade. Some gains were made, some battles won, but the war was ultimately lost, and perhaps lost more definitively in East Asia than in other places. Disillusionment inevitably set in. Nakahira gave himself a coma via acute alcohol poisoning in 1977, and coming out of it was left without a memory and largely without the ability to create any new long-term memories. His first period of recovery was spent in Okinawa, and it was then that he took the photos found in the new collection. These efforts are of a completely different style than his earlier ventures, being of a far more straightforward full-exposure and head-on type of photography (some critics have labelled them “mere snapshots”.) You can read about the book and Nakahira’s story in this review by Darren Gore from The Japan Times.

Nakahira remains a broken man, a shell who must be taken care of by his family and whose days now consist of two jaunts along a predetermined route through his neighborhood, taking pictures of this and that which he happens to come across. We can only guess at what it must be like to be him, but what drives his new agent and publisher is probably easier to ascertain (but not all negative, I’m sure at least a (good?) part of the motivation comes from a desire to share the man’s work). A name that was famous then can still sell now. Enter Bob Dylan and his prose-poetry book Tarantula.

Tarantula was written in 1966 and is mostly stream-of-consciousness, unpunctuated snippets, strings, scraps, and shreds of the mind that produced so much wondrous music and verse during the latter half of that era. It never saw the light of day until about a decade ago, and this reader would consider it no loss to the world had it never seen the light of day; but then there are all of us Dylan fans who would be very curious if it hadn’t. And that, I think, is the sad point of all this recent nostalgia: money to be made. The artist who once stood (posed?) as the rebel, the iconoclast, the prophet, is now – or has always been? – both predator and prey, raging against the system while at the same time supporting and sustaining it, purposefully or not. This of course is a trite observation, but it’s worth mentioning because the spirit that drove publications like Provoke may not be dead but is on life support. A situation that is especially a pity given that the Age of the Internet and of Self-Pubbing has now put the production and distribution of all mediums directly into the hands of artists in a way unimaginable fifty years ago. At present, as then, we are co-opted only primarily to the degree that we allow it, that we seek it, that we prefer personal profit or fame over message and content. It is the ideas that matter, and it is our thinking that will either drive us on to a truly new way of living or keep us at the same self-flagellating that has proven so durable in its appeal to our worse natures.

Next week, a sneak peek at Freedom’s Mask, a new work that is very much meant as a step in that liberating direction.

 

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Mixing metaphors

Many good-intentioned people seeking to help will tell you never to mix your metaphors, that it is a hallmark of poor writing, that it confuses or fails to engage the reader, and that it is either sloppy or amateurish. In almost all cases they will be right; but then, in almost all cases everyone giving general enough advice will be right about everything. And regardless of topic, in each case there will be exceptions and times when the rules are best ignored – or purposely violated. There is nothing definite after all, nothing set deeply enough in stone that we can rely upon it to guide us safely through a life in an uncertain world, and whatever guideline-giving stones we do have, their compositional material itself shifts and moves, crumbles and fades as the aeons pass and the stars turn, blinking out our existence with barely a backwards glance.

If that last paragraph didn’t provide enough, here are some more jumbled analogies, and I would be honored if my salvo above were considered half as touching as these, found in a single verse of the Rig Veda (book I, section 124, verse 4):

Like a wondrous bird she reveals her breast. She discloses delights like a singer of songs. She awakens sleeping mortals like a fly, ever returning, a most faithful apparition.

The “she” here, the subject (or hero) of the verse, is the dawn, personified, as she has been, for the entire string of verses of which this selection is a part. We start with her revealing, titillatingly, a part of her that is normally modestly covered, and then our joy deepens as she entices our ears (by allusion) as she has our eyes, before moving the metaphorical spotlight onto us as we are said to be “like flies”: briefest, busiest, and most utterly – annoyingly – meaningless of the natural world’s swarming life. Finally we find our focus brought back to good dawn as she is proclaimed to always come back, but not as our sturdy domestic companions a dog might, rather as a ghost. That last is particularly jarring, for who would even want to be revisited by a phantom? Differences of cultural judgments here, perhaps, or historical ones.

What does this verse do for us? To us? Where and how does it take us along with it? I can only speak for my own experiential journey, but I was quite struck by the literary grab bag offered here out of the depths of the second millennium B.C.E. The first sentence immediately brought to mind a red-breasted robin, and with that memories of my hometown, the climate, and the geography there that are all so different from the place where I currently pass my days. I was especially taken by the use of “reveals” rather than “shows” or “displays”; it caught my breath a little. Going from that to “a singer of songs” was something of a letdown as my image of a troubadour was thereby conjured, and unfortunately for me – possibly due to the kind of movies I watched during the eighties – troubadour largely equals buffoon. “Disclosing delights” is a lovely phrase though, if not quite as catching as the one that preceded it.

As another shift points now to the reader, “mortals like a fly” is a wonderful way of putting us in our place, in both applicable meanings of that. We find ourselves thinking of just how brief our time here really is, and we are also reminded of the small and insignificant position we occupy, despite the way we carry on. On repeated readings, however, it occurs to me that “She awakens sleeping mortals like a fly” might in fact be another reference to dawn and the manner in which she stirs us from our slumber. I feel a little embarrassed at my initial reaction – but no, now confusion. Flies wake us up in the most startling way, not at all like the breaking sun and its gentle pink hues do. What could be meant?

And then there is that final “most faithful apparition”. The sociohistoric trough at which we have fed during our formative years has caused us to think of the spirited dead in utterly negative terms; there is clearly something else afoot here. A reference to beneficent manifestations of one’s ancestors? That seems a real possibility, and we think that such visions might stem in part or in whole from our dreamworlds, notably given the context the conclusion appears reasonable. Whatever the case, more thought and, importantly, more emotions are triggered in us as we continue to interact with this brief text and its many metaphors. That is, its many mixed metaphors, and, we may wish to add, productively so.

 

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What is the point of poetry?

Congratulations to George Saunders on his recent Man Booker Prize win for Lincoln in the Bardo, a book that tells the story of Abraham Lincoln visiting the grave of his young son and encountering the voices of the many dead. I haven’t read the work myself, and given the size of my reading list I probably won’t (or at least not anytime soon), but the article linked to above relates how deeply moving the story is without falling into sentimentality – something it easily could have given the premise. It is, it seems, a very human story about a very real man who had to live with tragedy and somehow carry on; and that is a tale to which we can all relate, a tale, in fact, which in one degree or another is each of ours.

Saunders’ book is a novel and not a collection of poems, and so you may be wondering why I chose to lead with it. The reason is a simple one: pathos. That is, pathos specifically and emotional arousal more generally. It is here, I think, where poetry shines best, where poetry shows that it does have a point, a purpose, and that it is an important one. In dwelling on that as I read about Saunders’ accomplishment I thought I’d give a few lines to the topic as I fear that in our hyper-everything-all-at-once times we are in danger of mistaking tweets for thoughts and quips for verse. These trends belittle and reduce us, but a good poem can and does set things right. How so?

Poetry lives in the subtle expression of that which we cannot adequately define but which we know, absolutely know, deep down within by virtue of being a human being and experiencing the emotional spectra that we do. Poetry gives voice to that voiceless song which is felt as an inaudible tightening around the sternum, a twisting of the stomach, an off-beat of the pulse, a race down or up the spine; this is the poet’s gift, to find a way to state that which is so physically bound up with how we exist in the world that the term “feeling” must be wrenched out of the solely mental categorization we usually give it and stretched over the course of the whole body. A good poem finds that hidden place where head and heart meet and takes aim. We engage a poem before we understand it, for poets are well aware that as human creatures we are emotional first and rational a distant second. (In addition to that post of mine from earlier this year, see two of Nick’s thoughtful pieces on self-referencing in poetry and prose from our archives: here and here.) Consider an example from Philip Rowland’s Something Other Than Other (p. 83):

anchor
i
tic

That’s it, that’s the whole thing. No title, one word, three lines. What are we to make of a poem like this? Joseph Massey (also a poet) found it so admirable that he selected it for the Scorpion Prize (awarded by a haiku-focused journal), and there is indeed a quality to the work that gives pause. The word means a hermit, a religious seeker in recluse, and that alone conjures in the heart and the head a certain mystification that simultaneously signals what we all recognize when we allow ourselves the space to see: that there must be more to being alive than consuming calories, dumping them out, sleeping, and the odd roll in the hay. There is that something else (is this referenced in the title of Rowland’s collection?) which is so valuable and significant that we don’t consider a thing to even be alive without it (think of our attitude towards robots, and insects too for many people). Then there is that “i” set off in the middle of the word, the middle of the poem, which brings our attention to the fact that it really does come down to that. My “me”, my “I”, my journey through this trackless length of time that starts and ends with a whimper and a gasp.

Lincoln at a grave, his son, the voices of the dead; all involved in a careful dance, a nuanced interaction, a communion of souls lost and souls found. Poetry confirms what we might feel too humble to admit: That the only story worth really telling is yours, this beautiful and unique story of you – individuation and universalization; humanity, the human, each one of us, warts and all.

 

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Craft’s slow burn

The nightly nine o’clock news here, as most national news in most places, always has a bit of fluff in its middle, and depending on the news day that fluff can be quite extended. In a recent program a local mystery writer was discussed for a good fifteen to twenty minutes. I half-listened as I read a paper but one aspect of what was covered really stuck with me. The man in question, and I’ve already forgotten his name, was claimed to have written some six hundred books in his fifty-year career. That is an astonishing amount of output, absolutely breathtaking. It also very quickly raises the question of quality.

I realize of course that everyone writes at a different pace, and I recognize too that when one’s career is actually writing a project is able to be finished much more efficiently than when it has to be balanced and measured out against the demands of other work. Do the math though, six hundred books, even in fifty years’ time, means cranking titles out at a faster rate than some magazines. As a mystery writer formulae are no doubt a big part of the man’s practice (and he continues to write, the main part of the news segment was on his recently released autobiography), and again that eases the load somewhat, but I have to wonder just how good – on average – the works in question are.

But then what is good and who am I to even raise the question? A light read for the train is considered by many to be a much better book than a ponderous tome by a Nobel winner. And fair enough, really, as all readers approach their chosen fare in their own way and the interaction that thus ensues can be quite beautiful whatever the content. Still, as a writer who has very painfully learned the drill, a part of me does wonder how much heart can go into something that took maybe a couple, maybe a few, weeks to complete.

Now, I do not consider myself to be a great writer. I do not think that I will ever win any literary prizes, nor do I even dream of such. Life – fate – unfolds and we find ourselves where we are and make do with what we are and what we have. No one could ask for more from frail creatures like us. We do ourselves a disservice when we fail to try to be more though, when we take easy roads and let challenges be subdued by contravening circumstances, uncooperative feelings, or a lack of motivation. I want to be clear that I am not accusing the writer in question of sloth, for he very clearly is not lazy, nor am I implying that the man does not know his craft, but from my own point of view a really effortful piece takes time. Slow-brewed art, if you will.

Attempting to master a skill is a difficult and demanding endeavor, and the blood and the tears shed in the doing of something worth doing makes the titular “burn” description very apt, I think. My forthcoming Freedom’s Mask took me two years to actively produce and probably took about five to ten years off of my life. I put myself on the rack for that book; a rack of my own making given the goals I set, but a rack nonetheless. Was it worth it? For myself I would say yes because it is certainly my best work to date, the culmination of years and years of practice and thought, and whatever becomes of the book in the world it will be something I look on as an expression of myself purely as my self, a book that marks the sum of my years on this good Earth from my birth till today. In its creation I noticed time and again just how I have wound back onto certain ideas, certain convictions, and how this journey I’ve been on has hardly been a straight line – but then neither a circle either. It has been a spiral, a loop, where I’ve started at point A, swung out in an arc, and then ended back at A but as A*, point A again with a new perspective that makes it ever so slightly different than the original. Maybe we’re all on such loops, or maybe I just don’t know what I’m doing. Whatever the case, I’m going to keep giving everything I have to my writing, total book count, money, recognition, success – all of that – be damned.

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Readers and (their) writers

Nietzsche once remarked (paraphrasing) that if one cannot find true companionship among the living then one should seek it from the dead – in books. To pick up a book is to begin a journey of an unknown duration and unforeseen destination. It is to embark with a number of travel mates, some of whom might be familiar or even close (an author you have read frequently), some of whom are being met for the first time (characters), but all of whom are in the boat together with you, plying for those other shores. Here is the vast importance that a book has but which no other type of printed material does, and this value is found entirely in the affective influence carried.

A book by itself is after all very little. Some mulched trees pressed and cut, bespotted with ink and held together by glue. Simple inanimate matter, little different from a brick and usable in many of the same ways (though far more vulnerable to fire, of course). A book that is being read though – now that is another matter entirely. In the act of reading a book becomes a sorcerer, enchanting and transporting its reader as the spell unfolds. The words that the writer has so arduously labored over cease being a monologue and become a dialogue, they become dance partners for the reader into whose mind they are pouring. This is a romantic way of putting things, yes, because what we are discussing is indeed a romance. The reader has every chance to fall in and out of love with the book they hold, and the reasons for either result might be just as arbitrary as they are in every interpersonal relationship. Betrayal too is a real possibility, and the sting of it can be felt just as deeply. Expectations met, expectations not met, anticipation, excitement, disappointment; peaks and valleys. Crossroads, rounding corners, dark tunnels opening to the light, or succumbing to collapse. All of these are held in the author’s hands and none of them exist without the reader.

What is the writer’s responsibility in all this? What is anyone’s responsibility in any encounter? Decency, one would think, at the very least. Yet what does that mean for a storyteller setting out to spin their tale? Write for a target audience? Choose a genre and follow its rules or purposely disregard them? Would the latter mean upsetting the reader, or delighting her? What kind of engagement is one after? What kind of reader is one after?

That is a question that is probably asked very seldomly. The default, after all, is to go for as many readers as possible, and that goal is only natural (particularly if one is tying to make money at it). Write then for a certain type of reader? Again the issue of genre, and its concomitant rules, comes to the fore. Perhaps the questioning stops there and the answer is found – authors looking to make a living by their words are best advised to stick with what works. For others though, the more adventurous, the more artistic, the more curious, inquisitive, the search may go on. Perhaps there is a single person, an individual so admired and so intriguing, that the image of them is muse enough to dedicate one’s work to. For this person I write – and no other! That would be an interesting approach. And why not? If money is not your bag then the sky is the limit.

But if money is not your bag and the sky is the limit, then there is an even subtler methodology that one might apply: write for the sheer experience of writing. We might read for any number of reasons but primary among them will be the joy that comes from the activity; shouldn’t the same pertain to the production of books as it does to their consumption? And if it does, then what? Then, astoundingly, what ends up happening with the piece makes no difference whatsoever. Pour one’s heart out with a pen and notebook paper and promptly burn the lot, or hack it out with a keyboard and post the results for all and sundry – it is the same. And you, monsieur le littérateur, are suddenly very, very free. Now that is a writing life to be envied.

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Selling ebooks: Smashwords and Amazon

I joined Smashwords in 2011 after I had published my second book. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and it probably was. Smashwords provided free ebook file conversions for the many ereading devices that were just being produced by companies such as Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Sony. Each had their own peculiarities and technicalities, necessities and demands. Once converted your files would be available to customers and would also be listed in the catalogues of other associated booksellers (such as Barnes & Noble, which was trying to break in on the digital book marketplace to augment its standing retail outlets). The settings were pretty open as well, allowing you to choose how much of your book prospective buyers could sample for free, how much you’d like to charge, and later whether or not you’d like to offer it for free to libraries. All of that made much sense to me, and all of that remains now as well for current users; little in that regard has changed. My own works are no longer on Smashwords though, and that is because what has changed – the world – has forced that difficult decision on me.

The ebook market is even more dominated today by Amazon and its Kindle device than it was then. This is the reality of the situation, and as writers we need to face that reality whatever our ideals or feelings about the matter may be. I will admit to not being an ereader (all of my books are of the paper kind, which I’ve taken to calling “real books” to differentiate), and so I’m not sure what the advantages are of the Kindle versus other devices or platforms, but I am – I suppose – an ewriter and so I’ve had to learn a bit more about how it all works in preparing to launch Freedom’s Mask (not long now, only cover and proof copy issues remain to be dealt with). Of course, it is possible to offer your book through Amazon and Smashwords, and for the past six years I’ve done just that. What made me stop was the emergence of Amazon’s KDP Select service.

To enroll your books on KDP Select they must not be available anywhere else; naturally that appears to limit a book’s potential reach – but only in some ways, or maybe not at all. This is where a hard look at the overall situation is necessary, and it will no doubt vary for each struggling – or not – writer out there. In my own case I had many hundreds of sample downloads from Smashwords but few sales. Now this could perhaps simply be because my books stink and after reading the samples no one chose to buy them; that could be, but based on the reviews I’ve gotten on the books and the comments I’ve had from readers I suspect that the books are in fact not quite that bad. (Self-delusion probably clouds my judgment here; feel free to tell me in the comments to this post if you disagree!) One problem is the sheer volume of books on Smashwords, over 465,000 and constantly counting, and how their site is organized: a search for my own full name turned up over two thousand hits (all “Andrew”s). Genres are tagged of course, but finding anything on there without a direct link is painstaking and off-putting, you almost have to rely on happy accidents to occur. Moreover, as stated, these other ereader machines are quite simply dying or dead – Kindle is king. The final negative factor with Smashwords that made me choose to quit the service so that I could sign up with KDP Select was that Smashwords forces you to use PayPal for all royalties. For many this is perhaps not an issue, but for me it is. I don’t use PayPal and don’t want to. Simple, end of story.

What are the advantages to KDP Select? That tale has yet to unfold, we’ll see how things go with my books on the program and whether or not I do actually find sales increasing (remember that my books might well stink!). When you do join it is for three month blocks at a time, and in that three months you can make your work(s) available for free for any five day period of your liking – a nice promotional tool. You also qualify to receive royalties at a 70% rate instead of the standard 35%, but there’s a catch to that: your book must be priced at a minimum of US$2.99 in order to get the 70%, otherwise you’re stuck at 35% even if you are on KDP Select. My own books are now both at US$0.99 and for reasons discussed last week I don’t want to charge any more than that. Another promotional tool that KDP Select offers is a countdown sale wherein your book’s price is reduced for a set amount of time and advertised as such – but there again you must be at the US$2.99 or higher mark to take part. Still, just by being on KDP Select your title is automatically added to the Kindle Unlimited (a service for Amazon Prime members) and the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library catalogues, and there is a global fund set up such that for every page of your work that a member reads for the first time you receive royalties (via a portion of the overall fund). For me though the main advantage to it all is not so much the money but all of the internal advertising that Amazon does for its KDP Select titles. With most digital readers being Kindle readers this could mean that by “limiting” yourself to only Amazon you are actually greatly increasing your work’s exposure. Let’s hope so, anyway.

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Distribution channels and pricing

There are many pluses and minuses to the various print on demand services (POD) available to self-pubbers wishing to release paperback versions of their books. We here at the Drugstore use and recommend CreateSpace, which is probably the biggest and most well-known of the group. That doesn’t always mean that it’s the simplest, however, and as with seemingly everything that relates to self-pubbing these days once a POD has been chosen your decisions are nowhere near over.

Take distribution. There is of course little sense in going through the difficult and time-consuming process of preparing your book to be published if it will not then be widely available to readers. (This is the case, by the way, even for ebooks, which have their own quirks and demands when getting the files ready – unless you just want to slap a pdf version up on a website or something, but then there might be compatibility issues with the various ebook readers that people use and you could possibly be limiting your readership to those willing to scroll through on a regular pc, smartphone, or tablet. Fine for a short story maybe, but not for a whole book.) Every POD has their own website and webstore, but without a link and without hearing about your book elsewhere how will a reader find it? Even once they have heard about your new release and want to order it what limitations will they face? Will they need to pay for shipping from the US or can they use domestic rates? What about taxes? VAT and all the rest of it? Again, there is much to consider.

Let’s look at CreateSpace: It is directly connected with Amazon and as such its titles are automatically listed not just on Amazon’s original US site but on all its (now quite many) other country-specific sites. That means that someone ordering your CreateSpace-printed paperback can buy it in their own currency, have all domestic tax issues already handled, and use local shipping to boot. Those are huge advantages for both your readers and for you as the author/seller. A real no-brainer. That is not CreateSpace’s only avenue of distribution, however, and here is where things become more complicated and a bit murkier.

CreateSpace titles go up on Amazon standardly, and they also go up on CreateSpace’s own estore site. (N.B., one feature of that estore worth knowing is that authors can order their own books through it at a discount; that is not an option with Amazon.) There are three other “Expanded Distribution” channels though, and they are: 1) Bookstores and Online Retailers, 2) Libraries and Academic Institutions, and 3) CreateSpace Direct. Essentially what all these other channels do is to allow middlemen other than Amazon to come into the process. This potentially enhances both the reach and exposure of your book; something which can only be good, right? Well, not necessarily. The big drawback to these additional channels is that, by allowing others into the sales interaction, the price of each copy perforce goes up.

Consider my forthcoming Freedom’s Mask, for example. Sized and formatted it stands at 592 pages. That is a lot of pages! And the vast majority of a book’s price comes from its production costs and the added taxes (sales tax, VAT, etc.), meaning that the longer the book the more it will cost to make and therefore sell. (Remember that no POD will allow you to sell at a loss.) I want to make my books as inexpensive as possible for the reader and so when I’ve set the pricing for them I have always reduced my royalties to a bare minimum. That’s the ethos we operate under at Drugstore Books and it’s a personal ethos for me as well. Playing around with the settings on CreateSpace for my new title I find that if I enable the Expanded Distribution channels my book’s production costs force me to sell it at US$6/book higher than if I only use the standard distribution routes. This added moola of course goes to the introduced middlemen. Now this makes for a quandary. I would like to have the extra reach and I would most definitely like to support brick-and-mortar bookstores (as they’ve (oddly, in my opinion) come to be called), but I do not want to be compelled to pass on the extra price hike to readers; and yet there is no way that I can avoid passing it on. What to do? Here is what I’ve decided: I will initially release the book only through the Amazons and the estore to offer it as modestly as possible, and then later, in order to support very worthy outlets like bookshops and libraries, and too so as to help the book reach more people, turn on the other channels and reluctantly increase the price. That seems fairest to me and it also seems like a reasonable way to go about a book launch, though certainly there are many other approaches that could be taken. One thing everyone can agree on though is to be sure to order my new work early. (Wink, wink!)

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Formatting a book’s interior: Blissful tedium

There are few feelings better in this writing life of ours than when a project is nearing its completion. The heady early days of The Idea are long gone, the creative bursts of the planning stages when all the world seemed at your fingertips have passed, the love/hate relationship of the first full draft has already become simply the hate of the edit, the edit, the edit, the edit that just will not end – and then it finally does. Your bleary and blood-stained eyes at last can glance into the rearview mirror and see something of substance left behind. You are on your way to holding your book in your hands, and what a moment of glory that will be. Yet prior to that lie the finishing interior touches, and dealing with a few of them is what I want to consider in this week’s post.

If you are trad-pubbing you will have limited input on the aspects to be considered, but if you are self-pubbing then your project is YOUR project and a myriad of details will demand your attention. What size will you make your book? What font will you use? What font size? Do you want all chapters to begin on the right side (odd-numbered pages) of the book or don’t you care? Will you try to limit the total number of pages or let them run as they will dependent on the book’s dimensions? How will you divide your chapters and/or sections? Will you insert illustrations, images, photos, etc., or won’t you? If you will put them in then how? There is very much to consider.

In my own case with my forthcoming Freedom’s Mask the size question was easy as I wanted to make it the same as Tomorrow, as the Crow Flies and Randolph’s One Bedroom. (For Green Skies Eric and I opted for a physically much bigger book as it suits the graphic format better.) With that answered, what next? CreateSpace offers templates of all of their various sizes but I didn’t find the files terribly useful (somehow they simply didn’t work with the way my brain does; I have heard good things about them from others). It came down then to changing everything manually, which was easily enough done through Word’s Page Layout tools. But then another issue immediately came up: margins. Having dealt with this now at the end I would recommend doing it at the beginning. Decide on what you want to set them at and then, again through Page Layout, make the necessary adjustments, keeping in mind that you’ll first need to choose the option for “open spread view” (or whatever your version of Word calls it; mine is in Japanese and I’m uncertain of the US type’s title on that) so that you get the interior and exterior choices and not just top, bottom, right, left. (The interior margin will need to be slightly bigger than the exterior to account for binding.) The margin sizes you choose will also, of course, have a big impact on the total number of your pages.

With that set I’d also advise taking care of the page numbers. If you want your first page to begin with the first chapter (and not right at the opening of the file where things like the title page, dedication, matters page, etc. will go) then you will need to use the section break option (found in the Insert tools). With your chapters in a separate section you can put the page numbers in to start counting from that section rather than starting with the whole file, and while you are at it don’t forget to choose the option that sets odd-numbered and even-numbered headers (or footers) differently. Your page numbers will either be in a header or footer and so dealing with that at the same time will make everything easier; check under Word’s Design tools. By doing the odd/even headers or footers separately you can make the odd-numbered pages (again, the right side of the book as you hold it) be right-oriented and the even-numbered pages left-oriented, meaning that for both the page numbers will appear on the outside of the page. This is also the time when you can set any text you want in the headers or footers too, and if you really want to get fancy you could even make each new chapter a section break and then assign the header/footer accordingly (e.g. with that chapter’s specific title). Don’t neglect to add a new section break at the end as well or otherwise your book’s final pages (if you want to insert any) will have the same page number and header/footer settings as your chapter pages do.

One final practical note connected with all of this is on spacing. We naturally think of spacing when it comes to book size, margins, fonts, what have you, but what can escape our attention is the word to word spacing within the text itself. These days everyone (quite justifiably – pun intended!) has their content set to justified so that the word processing software stretches and squeezes as you go along. Problems can come up, however, when your A4/letter-sized file gets shifted to its book size file. Suddenly a string of words that was just fine before comes out looking odd with giant spaces within some sentences and none at all within others. This especially happens if you have hyphenations as they are read by the software as a single – and therefore mandatory to hold together – word. One trick that I learned is to insert a technically unnecessary space within the hyphenated phrase to trick the software into alternative spacing. What I mean is that if you have something like “her adversary’s ne’er-do-well-but-do-it-anyway attitude” which is gumming up your otherwise evenly spaced and fine-looking paragraph then you guess and check on how the phrase might be split to even out the spacing by inserting an extra space anywhere within the string of “ne’er-do-well-but-do-it-anyway”: perhaps after the “well-” would work, or after the “it-“. In such a way the phrase will be adjusted to wrap from one line to the next the way long words used to be split when writing them in notebooks or on old typewriters (for those of us who remember writing by candlelight). That little trick proved quite useful for me.

The bottom line when it comes to interior settings though is this: Be prepared to go through the entire document many times and be prepared for many headaches when making all these adjustments. (Discipline yet again, does it ever leave us?) The payoff, though, is a book that looks just as pretty on the inside as it does on the outside.

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Writing about writing

There’s an old saying that “Those who can’t, teach.” (And fans of School of Rock will remember Jack Black’s character’s immediately juxtaposed corollary: “And those who can’t teach, teach gym.”) I don’t think that’s true, or at least not often true, but it is funny and it is thought-provoking. Many, maybe most of us, certainly assume it relates to writing when it comes to the critics.

I get the print version of The Japan Times – and may print versions of newspapers never die – and recently on Sundays they’ve been running a series on historical literary critics in the Time Out: Books section. Now, I am not a Japanese scholar and not a historian and so take the following with a grain of salt, but it seems that fiction in Japan didn’t really get off its feet until the Meiji Period, which was the time that oversaw the restoration of imperial rule and spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Japanese culture had of course produced fictional works prior to that (the thousand year old Tale of Genji being perhaps the most famous example), but such were mostly for court consumption and were often difficult and dense texts that required very high levels of education to access. For the masses there were ghost stories, and there continued to be little else until the aforementioned Meiji Period. Naturally improvements in literacy greatly helped the situation when it came to fictional works becoming more popular, but the issue was really not just one of accessibility but also – possibly more so – one of attitude. Here is where literary criticism seems to have played a definitive role. Fiction had been viewed on these shores mostly negatively, a bit like Stolid Literary Appreciators today might approach a Spider-Man comic. The critics, however, were amongst the social forces able to change that by writing about writing, by taking what has really always been a bit of nothing (flights of fancy and all that) and applying theory to it. What is the value in this?

Fiction, literature, is at its heart an examination of the human condition. Even when done very poorly and schlockily (e.g. anything with the words “Star Wars” in its title) it is a view, an exercise, in what it is and what it means to be human, and this is done from the inside. We enter the characters’ minds and situations and we feel along with them as their circumstances and journeys through life unfold. Along the way we learn something even if they don’t. This is fiction’s great contribution to our species and it is a wondrous, enormous contribution, undoubtedly of far more value than all the academic treatises put together – and I say that as a professional academic and not someone taking pot shots at eggheads. These stories we tell each other and ourselves let us see who, what, and how we are as we struggle along in ever-rotting bodies inhabiting a world that cannot last. They, again, tell us this from an internal perspective.

Literary criticism flips that as it looks in from the outside. It examines not life but the writing about life that is fiction. It applies theory to this writing and by so doing it abstracts what is otherwise a very visceral encounter. What I mean is that it moves the experience of literature out of the gut, out of the heart, and into the head. (And as a sidebar here I note that traditionally in Japanese thinking the stomach was the seat of the emotions, not the heart.) From felt to thought. This process of abstraction is probably as necessary for us in coming to terms with being human as the originary work of fiction is. As the creatures we are we live on the conceptual level, and we look out at our environments from that middle-sized point of view: we are categorizing, ideas-based animals, and we cannot function otherwise. Critics contribute to this great process, this exhausting effort, of self-examination by giving us the means to take a step back from the tales we tell and, from that other side, learn even more about what is really going on here. And so thanks to them, really, and thanks to the writers whose work they dissect. We are indebted to you all.

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