Properly Luminous & Sizzling Orange


TC1 is enjoying its best month ever – seven sales so far including the Chirp audiobook and I’ve had a run of four sales in three days and estimated royalties of $28 or so. That’s right, all of $28 (for anyone considering writing a novel to make money). Of course royalties at my level of sales don’t matter – my ACOS is so tilted in the wrong direction (recall that TC1 to date has cost me ~$20K) that I’d have to sell literally one-thousand times that amount of copies to get anywhere past break even. No, I’m not looking at the money. But I remain a little baffled at zero reviews and no ratings beyond the first two, one each in the U.K. and the U.S. How to explain it? I suppose it doesn’t matter. If the bump in sales has something to do with the approaching holiday season or perhaps the increased lockdowns and mask awareness (I’m convinced the cover attracts what might be called covid clicks) I don’t know. But I’d hate for somebody to buy the novel based on the cover expecting it to be about what’s in the news and be disappointed. I doubt that happens because (my blog post explaining the cover aside), nothing about the synopsis implies anything to do with masks and pandemics. But you never know. You read some of the reviews on Amazon and it’s as if the buyer somehow didn’t read the synopsis, other reviews or anything else online about the book or the author let alone did they avail themselves of the “Look Inside” option. You get “My copy arrived in terrible condition: 1-star.” Ugh. So, again, be careful what you wish for regarding reviews and ratings, I get it.

Meanwhile, I would indeed enjoy getting an impression of what readers find compelling about the novel, if anything. It’s the tribe thing and learning something about one’s audience. Why else write except to communicate? Somebody else may regard audience feedback as a curse, as either irrelevant or as information that negatively impacts any future books. I don’t want to know because I have to stay in the zone kind of thing. Not me. I don’t fret about outside influences at all. Which is to say that I can’t imagine somebody’s opinion affecting my writing. I’m at that stage where it’s take it or leave it. Like it or don’t. I’d love to be read and liked, that’s my dream like it’s everybody else’s. But that some authors appeal to their readership for critiques in advance of publication, or for their opinion on book titles and cover art is an insane example of death-by-committee: nothing good comes of taking a survey and trying to please people. Because as Campbell suggested, trying to give people what they think they want, or what they say they want is giving them something they already have. Likewise co-authoring a novel, this stuff just seems crazy to me. Authoring a novel is not a group trip. The exile and single perspective is part of it. Yes, to publish anything worthwhile requires the assistance of other professionals. But that’s publishing, not art-craft. They are not identical. Otherwise, if you want your stories picked apart and vetted by committee watch a damn movie. We all know that studios will audience test a film and change the frigging ending if they have to, among other things, to please people.

Anyway, as I’ve said, I’ve already written the first drafts of the next two novels and I’m fifty pages into the fourth. True, as I edit TC2 I’m rewriting it but not in a wholesale manner: that is, while my editing may be substantive I don’t see any plot or character problems. The stories work. They have solid beginnings, middles and ends. There are requisite disasters and character arcs. The quality will be arguable, perhaps I’m too close to it all, I get it, but I’m wholeheartedly convinced the stories stand up. And if they don’t, if TC2 and TC3 fall flat and nobody buys them and my career as a novelist flops and I look back on four sales in three days as my career peak then so be it: I’ve done my absolute best and the mythology is nothing if not authentic.

When will TC2 arrive? I find that I enjoy taking my time with the editing. When I’m not editing I feel anxious about getting the thing done and published and out there – I’m psychologically all in a rush and slave to the disorientation of being obsessed with outcomes. But when I’m working on the manuscript things slow down and the characters make their presence known, which is to say they mandate their own exposition and proper development. I’ll assume that this or that scene is a minor one (or a major one) and the characters are going to do this or that and inevitably I’ll be convinced that, no, when Mr. Z. encounters Zizo as an old man in 1954 Bombay (I’m sorry but that is a far more evocative name for a city than Mumbai), for example, it’s suddenly and unexpectedly an opportunity to investigate the existential dilemmas – the HDT entanglements as I call them. Again, the plot doesn’t change during the editing but the exposition – the accounting for the story, so to say, does. Likewise the character arcs: the shape of the curve changes to better communicate what the underlying mythology is driving towards. In other words, when I write fiction I’ve not so much an idea in mind as an intuition that I follow, and then the trick is to get myself out of the way of what the characters are up to, what needs to happen, what needs to be communicated.

That’s how it works after the series has been established, at least. I can hardly recall now what it was like to write the first draft of TC1 it’s so long ago – almost six years. I remember beginning the manuscript, sitting at my kitchen counter (I’ve always used the kitchen as my office) very soon after the New Year with an attitude of experimentation. I’ve been writing in some manner my whole life (the story is within the DOP) so that writing isn’t new but writing out a story to accompany the image of what became Five (my brother’s original image is also explained within the DOP) was new to me. My brother and I had been making up fanciful scenarios to explain his characters (he had an image of a fox wearing a plaid overcoat and high-top tennis shoes that became Mr. Z. and he’d also illustrated the Mothman, which he referred to as a Slothman before I changed it). And while it was merely a larkish thing to do for my brother the story telling on behalf of the Five image somehow wouldn’t let me go. This is the nature of being seized by something, very often an image, literal or imaginary: you must allow the unsettling experience and then explore ways to express the energy – to transform the potential energy into kinetic. Such is inspiration.

I sat there, then, at the kitchen counter that afternoon and clacked away just seeing what I could manage to crank out, expecting to have everything peter out at any moment. But the story just kept coming. In spite of the fact that I’d literally not written fiction since I was in the first grade (another DOP story). I’d never had a creative writing class in high school or college. I’d never once considered writing a short story or a novel. The idea of writing dialogue was such a mystery to me that when I began hammering out Time Crime I didn’t even know how to properly format the paragraphs. It sounds silly but it’s true – for a couple days at least I wrote out the story without any line breaks for dialogue. And attributions were an experiment to say the least. “said Mr. Z.” or “Vixy said” and all that. I just ran everything together until I found myself with enough story to think, well, I’ve got to learn how this is done now or I’m going to have too much writing to have to go back and fix later. So I spent an hour or so reacquainting myself with the novels I had at hand and if I poked around the web at all regarding the proper technique of novel writing I don’t remember it. It all came quickly and fairly effortlessly, the getting up to speed on how to do it. And of course this is how it is with anything you’ve got a flair or talent for: you make exponential progress, your skills are realized in leaps and bounds where when you attempt things you have no talent for you struggle to make the smallest advances and it never gets any easier. This is the difference between playing to your talents versus trying to learn a skill: talents, once engaged, more or less take care of themselves whereas skill sets can require a lifetime of painful and frustrating endeavor to acquire. Let alone mastery. One doesn’t achieve mastery, that is, unless one begins with talent in a thing.

But dear readers please do not misinterpret what I’m describing as something akin to patting myself on the back or claiming that I possess notable talent from the perspective of others. No. I’m only communicating the idea of natural born ability versus acquired ability or skill. We all possess talents. Through deliberate practice one’s talents can be honed into strengths and finally mastery. Skills can be acquired in anything regardless of one’s level of talent in a thing and it shows for skills are merely the building blocks of accomplishment in anything that if you’re merely skilled you never really get past – working on one’s weaknesses is like this, that is, you make very little progress in a lifetime – but talents, as I’ve said, by their nature tend to take off on their own, as if one has no limits and nothing is a barrier. Skills can be taught, of course. But talents cannot. You acquire skills. You are born with talents.

But aren’t skills part of talents? Yes. But when working within one’s talents the acquisition of skill sets seems to progress so exponentially more quickly and efficiently that it seems you’re not learning anything at all and you’re merely born with the skills. Which is to say that if you slowed a talented person’s process down you would see, as in slow motion, the skills being acquired bit by bit. But in real time it happens so fast – the precociously talented little Mozart, for example, who at the age of six is playing the piano and composing classical pieces as well an adult. And then by the age of sixteen they’ve achieved mastery and are writing works regarded as genius for the next several centuries. So that there are levels of talent. We’re not all Mozart. But we all have our talents that, when expressed, stand out.

Back to the idea of editing. It is also a talent. And it ‘ain’t pretty. If I edited these blog posts in anything besides a slapdash on the run manner, for instance, I’d be rereading and rewriting at least three times before posting them. I don’t do that because if I did I’d never get anything else done in life. Editing is time consuming as hell. In fact at least for me it’s all a fairly miserable experience, at times torturous because an author mostly just wants to be done with the book as quickly as possible. Hey, as a comparison, when have you as a reader read anything more than once? Let alone reread something with an eye towards improving it? If it’s your favorite book perhaps you’ve done that. I’ve read The Great Gatsby something like five times. Lord of the Rings I think perhaps three. The Hero With a Thousand Faces and The Masks of God and Pathways to Bliss all more than once. But really never with any type of critical perspective; rather, I’m rereading my favorites to reexperience what I like about them and to be free of technical criticism. Meanwhile, mostly we read a novel, especially, and then on to the next one.

But as Neil Young suggested, you have to respect the muse. And as Joe Campbell declared, It’s not me, it’s the myths. And the characters write themselves. So that grinding away for two days on a paragraph may seem an impossible waste of time and speak to the idea that I suck as a writer. After all, doesn’t a great writer get it all right the first time and submit sparklingly edited manuscripts chock full of ferocious prose to their big time traditional publisher who merely has the thing printed and shipped? Mostly no. I read somewhere that John Updike submitted immaculate manuscripts that flew through the copy-editing process like there was no tomorrow. Substantive editing? I don’t know. But most of us are catching typos, second state, third state, yadda, blah until we meet the grave. And regarding so-called line editing and substantive editing we read our work and think, inevitably, I could have done that better. Such is the life.

In other news, my brother the “Hot Wheel Guy” finished his second commission, the Swingin’ Wing on time and the customer was pleased. “It’s better than the real thing,” she said. And this of course speaks to the idea of the affecting image. Which can be anything that resonates, be it a hawk circling the treetops, a babbling brook, an illustration of a science fiction alien, a Hot Wheel. Whatever works. Or, more accurately, whatever does its work most affectingly (and effectively) upon you.

What is it, then, about the Hot Wheels paintings that people like? Well, they are the expression of zeal, of inspiration, of the muse and they are in particular an example of personal mythology – that of my brother’s – being effectively communicated by way of his talent as a painter and an art-craft visionary. The woman who has been acting as his de facto agent so far said, “You can see the love.”

Loving a thing, of course, does not guarantee that one can render its expression adequately to qualify as art-craft. You can love to paint or love to golf or love to tie fly fishing flies but that doesn’t mean it’s anything more than your hobby. As I’ve described elsewhere a hobby is that which you do for the love of it but for which you do not possess any particular or otherwise recognizable talent. This is another topic, a life’s work in itself, the discussion of what is art-craft and what isn’t. What I’m aiming at here is what my brother, hereafter referred to as HWG (Hot Wheel Guy) is on to. What is he trying to do by way of painting these castings and toying (pun intended) with their dimensions and perspectives?

The process, by the way, involves HWG spending untold hours capturing the perfect perspective of each casting (a particular Hot Wheel model is referred to as a casting) against the perfect background color as a photograph. Then he paints the photograph in whatever dimension (canvass size) that seems right to him or, as in the example of this last commission, the size requested by the client. It works best, he says, when all the information is in the photograph. Otherwise, when he has to combine bits and pieces from more than one photograph or if he has to imagine or otherwise make something up to get where he needs to be with it, it’s much more difficult and the results therefore are less predictably successful. This has to do with mastery and vision and the high wire act that is authentic art-craft. That is, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t and oftentimes it’s somewhere in between so that the whole experiment is a fascinating discussion played out on canvasses.

Joe Campbell suggested somewhere that when you ask an artist to explain his work and if he doesn’t like you he’ll do it. Campbell for his part possessed very much an astute artistic mind and in a nutshell interpreted art – what I call art-craft – as an expression of context, though he never used that phrase explicitly. That is to say, people ask what art is and isn’t and it cuts through all the bullshit to understand that art-craft is whatever anybody says it is and that’s that. With the caveat that claiming an art-craft context does not at all guarantee quality or successful communication. The other argument about art-craft is that it is nothing if not an attempt at communication. Context and communication, then, suffice as a definition of art-craft to allow us to continue discussing it.

What is HWG doing? Can he explain his work? Those of us who are interested are fortunate because while the best work requires no explanation (and his does not) he’s keen to provide one as part of his experiment. And I think it’s compelling.

“It’s better than the real thing”. No, it’s not. What it is, is, this is what it actually is, as in a microscopic view of the reality of the thing. A painting is an artifact, this style like a hyperventilation – it’s a swooning, in that everything that is embedded in the thing has been heightened, pushed, to tickle the human condition.

Amplified is a better term. I guess I was referring to how an artist looks at something, the discernment. We look intensely at a thing, which most people don’t. When I take a photo of these cars (luckily with digital it costs nothing to take hundreds, which I do) it needs to be exactly right, I need to capture the essence of that car to me, my interpretation of its essence. Everyone sees them in their own way. I guess the paintings are my way of communicating how I see these things, or what I see in them, or how they affect me.

This has to do with connoisseurship and aesthetic arrest, entire studies unto themselves. But I’d suggested the idea, originally Campbell’s, that affecting images involve amplification. And there are studies (which Campbell references in the first volume of his Masks of God series) or examples that demonstrate the effect of literal amplification, namely, of making a thing extra large or extra small or extra dark, light, bright, what have you. Such amplification affects animals, too. There is a type of moth, for instance, for which the darkest colored female attracts the male (or vice versa, I can’t recall) and if a dummy version is created that is even darker than any version found in nature, it is that version that most effectively attracts the moths to each other.

All of this plays into what HWG is doing. I’ve described Hot Wheels as little big things and any affecting image as such, implying that by way of something about a thing’s proportions alone one can arrive at something affecting. It goes beyond that, of course; size indeed matters (!) but color and form and context and… well, I’ll stop there.

The image I have, a crappy smart phone photograph, doesn’t do the painting justice at all – the real thing is far more vividly colored, the spectra-flame paint is properly luminous and the background is a sizzling orange like the flesh of a butternut squash. To see it (and the other HW paintings), go to HWG’s website (you’ll have to wait until he gets the new image up):