Monday, March 26, 2012

Memoir Monday: You better work

The older I get, the less respect I have for intelligence and talent. Not that those things aren't valuable, but I've come to believe that the ability to work hard is just as valuable…and twice as useful. All three are in the same family, of course, but if there is room for only one of these siblings, I'd pick hard work every time.

Dan and I came up with The Duchess of the Shallows back in 2007 as an RPG. It was this vague idea of a thief operating in an urban setting that was something like Seattle and a bit like San Francisco, adding our own ideas, of course. As the game went on, the city became something distinct from either, and the character became less of an archetype and more of an individual. Soon enough we had Rodaas and its first named inhabitant, Duchess.

The game went on for a long, long time, and in November 2008, Dan surprised me by presenting me with a manuscript based on the game he'd produced as part of NaNoWriMo. He planned to have it printed and bound as something we had shared, which was sweet and romantic. However, when I read the manuscript, it felt more like a summary than a story, so with Dan's permission I began to enhance and enlarge it. Dan, may the gods preserve him, had recorded every single session, so I was always able to go back and check what we'd originally done in the game. After a month or so, I presented him with a dramatically expanded manuscript and a suggestion that we continue to work on the thing with the goal of eventually publishing it. Reluctant at first, Dan quickly came on board and we got to work. And for the next year we did, on and off, until in early 2010 we had in our grubby little hands a manuscript that was ready to send into the world.

In doing so, we learned some lessons about the world of publishing. The first was that publishers really don't want your damned book. They want the next James Patterson or JK Rowling, and the major houses won't even consider manuscripts from lesser, un-agented authors. We were neither Patterson nor Rice, nor did we have a literary agent, so we focused first on the small presses who were willing to take un-agented manuscripts. Turns out the small presses really don't want your book very much either, and we received rejection letters aplenty. The only avenue that remained was the literary agencies, who are the gatekeepers to the mainstream publishing industry.

We approached and were rejected by many, but in March 2011 we finally hit pay dirt with Rebecca Strauss of McIntosh & Otis. We were awed and delighted to have secured the representation of so substantial an agency, and although we were willing to work on the revisions Rebecca requested, we privately resolved that, no matter what, we would not lose control of our vision. I'm proud to say we never did, but in maintaining our grip on our vision we let the process slip through our fingers. Rebecca put us through months of revisions involving the addition of tens of thousands of words, and we engaged it all without a word of complaint. As spring turned into summer, and then summer into autumn, we began to wonder when this was going to end. We had dramatically expanded and improved the manuscript, which was originally scheduled to go before editors in June, but there we were in September with no sign that the revision process was anywhere near complete. Sure, we could revise indefinitely, but as any writer knows there is a point of diminishing returns, and we were keenly aware of the artists' prayer: "Let me finish this work before I fuck it up."

We felt uncomfortable pushing back, however; Rebecca was the only agent who'd agreed to represent us, and as anyone who's only gotten one invite to the prom knows, you dance with them what brung ya. Besides, she was thus our only point of entry to the world of publishing, so there was a definite power differential and it favored her. At the same time, we had been writing and rewriting our manuscript for more than half a year, and we were discouraged and demoralized enough to push back. And so we did, politely but firmly, stating that the manuscript was as good as it was likely to get and that we felt the time had come to unleash The Duchess of the Shallows upon the publishing world. We felt good about reasserting this control; even though the seas were stormy, we were finally steering this ship.

Rebecca felt otherwise, and when we took the helm she headed for the lifeboat. She unceremoniously ended our business relationship – by email, if you can believe it, which is kind of like getting dumped via text message. My initial reaction was anger at the way the entire situation had been handled, and relief that the seven-month revision process was finally over. Dan felt much the same, and that day we did two things. First, we went out for a walk to process the situation, our feelings, etc. Second, we began our final proof-read of the manuscript in preparation for self-publishing. The Duchess of the Shallows might die an ignominious death, but we were determined that it would do so on sale and not on our hard drive. And that's true whether we sell five copies or five hundred.

Self-publishing is not for the faint of heart. You not only have to write and edit a novel, but commission artwork, lay out the print file, format electronic versions, keep records, and of course conduct the costly, thankless, and endless task of promoting your work. Lots of things are like that: getting your master's degree, building a house, raising a child. If you're going to turn back every time you hit a bump in the road, you might as well not get in the car at all. So although the twins Intelligence and Talent can create your dreams, only their sister Hard Work can bring them to life. So whenever I go on a ride, I always save her a seat.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Memoir Monday: Behind the d20

When I told Dan the story of my first gaming group, he said it sounded like a VH-1 "Behind the Music" special, in which a band goes from rise to demise and back again. I laughed at the time, but the more I look back, the more insightful his comment seems. Although it would be cooler if we'd been musicians instead of D&D geeks, here's the story of our road to ruin.

I'd started playing Dungeons & Dragons when I was fourteen, and from the first I was absolutely hooked. Back then, D&D was cool even though geeks really weren't, and I had a (very) small amount of notoriety for being of the few kids in my class who knew the game well. I played the game right into college, and when I was 19 was introduced to my first gaming group of adults.

And we had a blast. Burt was bold and fearless, ready to pit his character against any foe, no matter how fearsome. His chutzpah was infectious; in one battle he rallied the entire group against a dread underwater spectre, turning a near-rout into a smashing victory. Dennis was careful and calculating, and never committed his full resources to any battle unless he was certain we could win it. James was shamelessly power-hungry, but in such an endearing way that no matter what trouble he got us into we could never stay angry at him. He knew how to use power, too, which brought woe to more than one of our enemies. Sam was nearly telepathic in battle, able to tell just when an enemy at the point of exhausting his strength and willing to push him/her/it beyond that limit and into defeat. I was the sort-of leader, always coordinating efforts and concocting some crafty scheme to gain advantage over our foes, and more often than not, my schemes were successful. Our individual styles complemented each other, and we were a force to be reckoned with. We spent many an evening wiping out hordes of orcs, goblins and sundry critters, and matched our wits against craftier foes like warlocks and demons.

Back then our individual foibles were things we appreciated, and we got along equally as well outside the game, and quickly got to know each others' families and other interests. For me, being in a group in which I did not feel like an outsider was completely new...and completely welcome.

Going back to the "Behind the Music", it's been said that the same chemistry that can make a band rule can also make it explode, and so it proved for us. For each of our strengths there was an equally formidable dark side. My tendency to take charge sometimes manifested as an inability to accept and appreciate limitations and to release control. Burt's fearlessness could very easily give way to stubborn sullenness, and he seemed almost to delight in causing disruption and resentment. Dennis could be as cold as he was cautious, and seemed to have little problem taking advantage of others. James and Burt were having unrelated problems that added significantly to the tension around the table, and I was spinning slowly down into an ever-deepening well of depression. After a few years, these fault lines began to cause big ol' quakes. In-game difficulties became real-life problems, and attempts to resolve the various issues that arose often degenerated into grudge matches or on one occasion, a shouting match, which was one of the two times in my life I have ever raised my voice in anger. None of us was innocent, and no matter who started the fight someone else, often me, managed to make it worse.

We should have had a real talk about what was going on, but each of us was prevented by our individual issues. Burt was not the kind of guy to confront issues in a helpful way, Dennis too emotionally distant to try, and Sam and James, younger than the rest of us, were just unable to cope with the rising tension. As for me, I was too emotionally guarded to open up, and secretly fearful that the others would recognize me for the loser I thought I was. We tried again and again to recapture the spirit of those early years, but you can't make amends for mistakes you don't know you've made...and are still making

Before long we were all talking behind each other's backs, and knowing we were doing so, but after awhile there wasn't much we could say that hadn't already been said. We'd known each other for years and were as familiar as family, but less like the Bradys and more like the Bundys. I don't know why we stayed together for the years we did. Maybe, like any dysfunctional family, we just didn't think there was any other way for us to relate to each other. Relationships often run from scripts, and no matter how unhealthy those scripts may be, they offer comfort. Given where I was for so much of my life, I needed all the comfort I could get.

My engagement in therapy and subsequent recovery from depression sparked a realization that I needed to throw that script away. I decided – finally – that I was capable of building better relationships, ones that would not vacillate between familiar camaraderie and angry frustration. Not long after, along with Sam, I walked away, and before long the group collapsed. Looking back I see how sad it was, but at the time I was just relieved to get away from that emotional maelstrom.

Most “Behind the Music” specials end with the profiled band putting the past behind them and reuniting for another album and tour. I'm afraid this story does not have so rosy an ending. Sam and I are still close, and we both still see James, but Burt and Dennis went their own way. Dennis I've had no contact with, although Burt and I later – much later – made amends via email. I'm sad to say that missive was not the introduction to a renewed, healthier friendship. The five of us inflicted a lot of emotional wounds on each other, and time doesn't always heal those. There's some music you can make only once.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Memoir Monday: Revving on Rudeness

I typically get along best with polite people, probably because I take great pains myself to be polite. I don't take without asking or presume upon hospitality, and I try to phrase even harsh truths in the gentlest way possible. Rudeness puts me off, and yet I have this strange fascination with people who are blunt, even painfully so.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had a biology teacher we'll call Ms. Chadwick. (Name changed to protect the sort-of innocent.) She was a round, bespectacled woman with hard eyes and a no-nonsense manner, which I suppose was an occupational necessity for someone who dealt with 15-year-olds all day. At the time, however, I resented it, probably because I had little interest in biology and even less in the rude woman who taught it.

And she was rude. She moved quickly, covered a lot of material and gave out a lot of work, and you either kept up or you didn't. To all appearances, Ms. Chadwick didn't care which. She was also notably unsympathetic to complaints that her standards were too high or her grading system too demanding. I distinctly recall her once saying, "When you take your car to the mechanic, you pay him for getting your car fixed, and not for trying. It's the same in this class. If you learn the material, you'll get good grades; if you don't, you'll get bad grades. I don't care how hard you try if you fail." Yikes. I did everything I could to avoid her gaze, and contented myself with silently hating her.

I limped through her class at first, maintaining a solid "C" average, but that came crashing down around March, when I just sort of gave up on school. The depression I conquered in my twenties had been with me all through high school, and although I was too young to cope by having sex with strangers, I was just old enough to blow off my studies. Turns out I was equally successful at both, and for my efforts I was rewarded on my next report card with a big fat "F" in Biology and English. My mother, not one to obsess over grades, asked me, "How do you fail English?" She never asked how I managed the same with Biology. Mothers always know.

Depressed I might have been, but I understood immediately that I had exactly three months to turn my grades around or else face (dramatic music) summer school. I hated school like fire, and the notion of spending three extra mind-numbing months there turned me from Depressed Slacker into Super Student. My biology textbook, formerly a nice way to prop open my locker door, became my best friend, and it accompanied me everywhere. I did every single assignment Chadwick handed out and turned them in with a smile, and begged for extra credit. Chadwick, never averse to working students like dogs, obliged by assigning various essays about mitosis and meiosis and other cell thingies in which I had formerly had no interest. In class I went from staring out the window to jumping to answer any question, counting on that good-ol' class participation credit. I was surprised to find I knew most of the answers. When we did our weekly, graded team drills, I found myself in high demand, which was new for me given I spent most of my high school experience practicing invisibility. I won that week for my team, and on the way out of class Chadwick said to me, "You've really turned things around this semester. Keep it up." That's not exactly gushing, but I was absurdly flattered nonetheless.

In May, we had to write a semester-ending essay in response to the question, "What is Science?" This was big-time for the sophomore set, and the competition was intense. All my hard work aside, I sensed I was the dark horse in this race, a feeling confirmed when I saw the mounds of research my classmates were conducting. There was no "Project Runway" back then, but if there had been, that was the moment Tim Gunn would have appeared to tell me that no matter what happened, I should be proud of what I had accomplished. So I decided to go all MTV unplugged – another TV show that had not yet materialized – and my essay answered the question of what science was with one word: why. I maintained that science began with one guy or gal, somewhere back in the deeps of time, asking why water never ran uphill or thunder happened. It was a gutsy call, but I believed it then and, looking back, I still do. So I turned in a two-page paper amongst the dissertations my classmates produced and then went back to my extra credit.

And do you know I won that sucker? Chadwick had a gimlet eye and an unsentimental heart, but she gave me full credit for it in front of the entire class. They were impressed and amazed - I was pretty good at being invisible - and it was the first time I ever felt like I'd accomplished something real in school. Sure, it was only a high-school class, but when you're 15, that's enough. At the year's end I got a nice fat "A" in Biology. I ended up with only a "C" in English, but my mother evidently decided two miracles were too much to expect and left me alone about it.

Years later – many years – whenever I encounter these utterly blunt, unsentimental people, I think of Chadwick and her who-cares-if-you-try philosophy. I can't say it was the best tack to take with children, but it spurred me to succeed and earned my grudging respect. I think that people often rise to the demands placed before them, and sometimes the best you do to help is to insist upon their best. That's not always polite, but it gets the job done.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Duchess of the Shallows

Dan and I are excited to announce the release of The Duchess of the Shallows, the first in a series of novels set in the fog-shrouded City of Rodaas. The story features the redoubtable Duchess, whose adventures we hope you will enjoy as much as we do. We spent the better part of three years, and almost the entirety of the last three months, getting this work ready for its debut. Self-publishing is complicated and time-consuming, but we're ecstatic about the results.

Some of you are no doubt wondering, "Self-publishing? Weren't you guys working with a literary agent in hopes of a book deal?" We were, and I could try to soft-pedal this, but...she dumped us. I won't go into detail in this forum; suffice to say that after months of work it became clear that Rebecca Strauss was confident not in the story we wrote but in the one she envisioned. That might have been a great story, but not one Dan and I were interested in writing. Ironically, the more Rebecca pushed us in another direction, the more closely we came to understand our own vision. In a way, we couldn't have made this story without her.

Just as integral to this work was the amazing Amy Houser, creator of the gorgeous illustrations that grace the book. We were delighted to secure her services, and she bowled us over with every sketch. We could not have been more pleased with the work she did.

Although TDotS (that's our clever acronym) is set in an imaginary world where the supernatural is possible, it is not genre fantasy. Duchess will not quest to find the Sword of Destiny. She will not face off against King Sinister or Lady Evil. The story will not culminate in the ultimate battle of good versus evil. In TDotS, the scale is smaller and the stakes more personal, and all of the characters – Duchess, her allies, and her opponents – have motives that are genuine and understandable, if not always sympathetic.

On several occasions we've been asked, "Is there anything I can do to help?" The answer is YES. Post about TDotS on Facebook. Write a blog post. Tweet. Tell your friends. Recommend the book to your reading club. We hear most books are selected based on word of mouth, and all these methods help get that word out. And we are grateful for all of it.

Speaking of gratitude, we have to tip our hats to the people who gave our manuscript a look before it went public. There were many, and we're grateful to them all, but we have to call out those who spent particular time and effort: Daniel J. Linehan, Mark Fabrizi, Sean McGarry, Rosemary Auge, Rob Wetzel and Amy McClenahan. You folks are on the dedication page!

The book is available in print or in electronic form, and you can find links to both at Peccable Productions. You'll also find free sample chapters, so you can try before you buy. In time, we hope to add some audio files of Dan and me actually conceptualizing the Imperial City of Rodaas, and the sketches Amy made that, wonderful as they were, did not make the cut. Eventually, there will also be spoilers for the next book in the series, The Fall of Ventaris, so check back once in awhile.

In the meantime, enjoy!

Monday, March 05, 2012

Memoir Monday: Think, Think, Feel

One of the biggest problems with people, in my view, is that they feel when they should think, and they think when they should feel. I usually don't have the first problem, but boy, am I susceptible to the second. Fortunately – very fortunately – I started getting over it Halloween 1998.

I met Dan when I was twenty-eight, at a poetry reading in which I had for some reason consented to participate. I don't like much poetry, I don't write much of it, and up to that point had never inflicted my own on an unsuspecting world, but I was flattered to be asked. Unbeknownst to me, the dude who organized the reading had an ulterior motive for inviting me; namely, to meet a friend of his he'd also invited. This friend was Italian-looking and hot in a long, leather trench coat, and he very graciously complimented me on the poem I'd read, which was entitled "Blades." (I'll post it someday, if I can dig it up.)

The three of us repaired to a coffee shop afterwards, where Dan and I were able to chat while I ran Dan through my mental potential boyfriend check-list.

Grad student = good earning potential (+1)
Computer science major = intelligence PLUS good earning potential (+2)
Writer = creative tendencies (+1)
Lived locally = no long-distance problems (+1)
Hot-looking = hot-looking (+1)

When Dan revealed he was five years younger, however, my man-assessing algorithm dutifully churned out a result:

Younger = being second to reach every life milestone: turning thirty, getting backaches after exercise, becoming unable to get through medical underwriting (-15)

If you're counting, that worked out to -9, so I filed Dan away in the "just friends" cabinet and moved on…or tried to. Dan was not so easily filed away. When I showed up for the swing dancing lessons a local club was holding Monday nights, who was there? Dan. And since I did not have a partner, he graciously offered to stand in. My mental check-list ahemed:

Good dancer = good in bed (+1)

When others remarked on how moon-eyed Dan got when he looked at me, my checklist reminded:

Moon-eyes = emotional accessibility (+1)

My boyfriend-meter still read -7, however, until that Halloween saw me at a bar where there was to be a costume contest hosted by the Maneater from Manayunk, Stella. When I found out Dan knew Stella personally, my check-list pinged:

Likes Halloween = likes Halloween (+1)
Knows cool people = is cool person (+1)

I entered – and lost – the costume contest, and as I was preparing to leave the club with the friends I'd driven, Dan seized the moment and me, and socked it to me with a Casablanca kiss. My check-list chattered:

Good kisser + hot + smart + sweet = put away goddammed checklist and do something that just feels good for a change

And so I did, and still do.