Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Dark Side of the Artist

Lots of readers know me for my oil pastels website, Rob's Art Supply Reviews and Rob's Art Lessons. I also blog on LiveJournal and DeviantART where I should update more often. So why did I start yet another Blog?

The one topic that runs through every blog I currently update is art. I teach art. I do art. I sell art sometimes. I review art supplies and hope to sell a book on street sketching to North Light Books someday. They're all in some way about art. This one isn't, except when I write about blogging.

I'm also a science fiction writer. My first novel, Raven Dance, is a gorgeous big doorstop of a science fiction epic. They should never have called it Utopia. I finished editing it and published it in 2000. Without any marketing whatsoever, it took off and sold six or seven times more than I paid to put it into print, even though it is a massive doorstop that costs $25.

It's a good price because after writing fifty other novels, I look back on my first book with some pride. It's at least as good as the first novels of many of my favorite authors. There are some things about it I'd change if I edit it. The first one is that I'd break it into two volumes. I made one of my most personal rough draft mistakes on this one.

When I get to the end of the novel, I love it and like any reader, I want more. I can give myself more because it's my novel. So I let most of a year pass and jumped right into the first chapter of the sequel. If you read it, you'll know exactly when you get to the end of the last chapter of volume one and notice the next chapter is really the start of another story.

I'd also tighten it and give it a trim, but it's a big story. I wouldn't cut any of the characters or change the plot. It works. It's a good long hefty read for your money and if you think of it as two books in one volume, it's not overpriced.

You can always get to the start of volume two and pencil in "Raven Dance II" on the top of the page to keep track of it on a reread if you want.

I decided to become a writer when I was four years old. My first piece was autobiographical.

I read Cat in the Hat.
I said "I can do that!"

To give due credit, my father edited it. He added the quotation marks and underlined the book title. The font was upper and lower case wobbly crayon letters more or less the same size, the lines slanted up the page and I didn't misspell anything. Of course I was also copying letters verbatim from the book I wrote about, so it was pretty easy.

Shortly thereafter I caught adjectivitis from the Oxford English Dictionary. I've never been that concise again in my life.

In my twenties, I met Leigh Brackett at a science fiction convention. I asked her "What's the most important thing you can tell a new writer?"

"Know your length," she said. "Every writer has a natural length. You can learn to do any length of fiction - short story, novel, novella, short-short story. That's a skill. But your best work will always be in your natural length. It'll always come out easiest and turn out better than anything else."

Of course I brainlessly assumed for years that my natural length was short story. I'd managed to finish short stories. I even sent them to magazines sometimes. I kept getting peculiar rejection slips though.

They'd like it and then add something like "This is a great novel opener. Why don't you develop it? Finish the novel." Or "This reads like the middle chapter of a good novel. You synopsized the beginning and the end. Try expanding them and write the whole book." Naturally I also got this variation: "This is the last chapter of a novel. Write what you outlined in the first three paragraphs and I might be interested in it as a serial."

Wow. Yeah, that sounds like prodigy stuff. I wasn't even making beginner mistakes. I got back checklist rejection slips with no check marks for common beginner mistakes on my submissions. Just editorial suggestions and requests that were for all practical purposes assignments! I got rejection slips most beginners would kill for.

Then I went into a big funk and couldn't write anything. I blocked. I got depressed. I couldn't understand why either - it was fear of rejection but it wasn't. Somewhere on my common sense side, I knew darn well that if I wrote the story the editor asked for, he or she would probably buy it and send me some money.

What froze me in my tracks was something a few astute friends called fear of success. It was fear of rejection. Not by editors. Rejection by friends, family, loved ones and peers. No one in my life as a child ever wanted me to become a writer. They wanted me to do just about anything else. This included dentistry despite a fear of dentists and becoming an abstract artist.

Writing is one of the loneliest art forms in the world. You sit by yourself in front of a keyboard or scribble in a notebook for hours on end. You get lost in your head playing with imaginary friends and putting it down on paper or on the screen. Then you go over and over and over it again polishing it until it reads like something you'd buy in a magazine or at least a cheap paperback.

Along came Chris Baty, who created NaNoWriMo in 1999. I had a good twenty trunk novels by that time. I'd written other doorstops while I was in a homeless shelter and shortened my production time for rough drafts to about a month, just like Leigh Brackett did.

NaNoWriMo created something new: the Leisure Novelist. Leisure painting is a common hobby but most people thought of novels as something impossible for an ordinary person to do. The goal is to create a 50,000 word rough draft during November. A significant percentage of members succeed every year.

I wasn't lonely any more. I didn't have to be afraid of confusing my friends or boring them to tears. I hung out with other people who like to talk about plot and character and word choices and pacing. I had fun. I sometimes posted tips and things I learned.

In 2002, I sold my first pro-paid short story to Crossthought on the Hatestream reverted to me a year later, but various life events intruded.

You might be wondering why I'm that underpublished. If I'm that good at this and I can write that fast and well, how come I'm not looking at a backlist of a dozen novels already?

Well, life happens. I'm disabled, have been multiply disabled either from birth or early childhood. Until I was in my forties, I didn't believe it. Fibromyalgia wasn't even discovered till about fifteen years ago and up to that point, chronic fatigue and pain diseases got labeled as depression.

I'm still a bit surprised my gym teachers never noticed the limp or the bad back, but I got punished a lot for being a slacker. Once I stopped having to take gym at sixteen on getting my scoliosis diagnosed, I didn't worry about that. I just got fired from jobs I couldn't physically manage.

I've got right side hemi-hypoplasia. That medical mouthful means that my left side is two sizes larger than the right. My right leg is 3cm shorter than the left. My right arm is an inch shorter. No clothes ever fit. I walk at a quarter the speed of anyone else my height and it takes five times the body energy for me to do anything physical. This includes standing up long enough to take a shower or walking to a bus stop.

If I overexert without resting, I get slow cumulative sports injuries and wind up sick for months unable to get out of bed. So I had these periodic crises in my life all the time I thought it was depression. I thought I was too apathetic to do anything. I was just tired and in a lot of pain. It looks the same in symptoms.

The big difference is that an aspirin has a bigger effect on it than antidepressants.

I eventually became so sick I couldn't work even at sit-down jobs where I spent 14 hours at work so that I could sit still long enough to make it to the bus stop. I slept about two or three hours a night when I had the one that lasted, it had a good supportive chair down at the office. I did typesetting. So I got some design experience and a very good background in composing pages.

It took ten years between the point I couldn't work at anything and the point I actually got Social Security. Then I had a tumor the size of an eight week old kitten out and wound up with two years of convalescence. I also discovered that writing about art was as much fun as writing fiction.

All the pro writers told me nonfiction sells for more money than fiction, so I rolled with it and created my website and blogs. I'll still do them. They're a good chunk of my future self employment.

I've also got a lot of good intellectual property stored in my hard drive. I'm moving to San Francisco on August 1st. I will have a new life in the city I loved most doing the work I always loved most with the other work I discovered was just as fun - street sketching.

While I was packing, I had to upgrade my laptop to Windows 7. In the process of restoring all my files, I went into my archives. There in the archives folder was another archives folder from an earlier long-dead computer. Within that was "Sales 2002" including a copy of my first acceptance letter and the entire text of Crossthought on the Hatestream.

When you move you always find something you thought you lost. I just never expected it to be my first pro short story!

So I'll be building a new life and building in new habits. This blog will chronicle my writing career and include articles on everything I've learned getting to this point. Up to now I've just been delayed by life crises. Once I'm home in San Francisco, I will have the support I need for independent living. I'll get a power chair and help with my activities of daily living. With those things taken care of, I can turn all of my energies to art and writing.

So let's see how it goes!


  1. Awesome post Robert!

  2. I already knew you were a good artist. Now I can see you are a good writter!
    Your life itself would be a good and interesting book to read!

    Its nice to get to know someone more and more each day.

    Thank you Robert for sharing all this with us. You are a true inspiration to me!
    I wish you all the best in your new journey, and that you may find what you have been looking for. You surely deserve it!

    Érica Kamisaki

  3. I can't wait to read your future posts, Robert! San Francisco sounds like the best thing possible for you, and the art and writings you produce there will be wonderful, I know it.

  4. Best of luck, Robert. Your endeavor in art and writing is inspiring.