Saturday, June 28, 2014

Dad And My Writing

June 28th has always been a special day. My Dad's birthday.

When we were young, it was always a time for our family to get together (my larger family, that is, which always included my Mom's brother, Uncle Leslie, and his family. His sons, my cousins Rodney and Kevin grew up more like extended brothers than cousins, so whenever I thought of the family getting together, they were always a part of it - especially on special occasions like Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter and my Dad's birthday)

My Dad died unexpectedly on an operating room table. It's something I've been dealing with for a long time. Before that, my biggest fear for the longest time had been losing my father. And that was the spark of the novel Morning Son, which I wrote more than a decade ago.

Morning Son is the story of a man who is tasked with spreading his dead father's ashes at his father's favourite fishing spot -- only, his old man's favourite fishing spot was a secret, so the novel's hero ends up leaving his wife and daughter behind to go on a quest to see if he can learn this secret locale -- only, he uncovers other disturbing secrets from his father's past that he wonders might be better left alone.

Dad reading a scene from Morning Son
I had been working on one of the first drafts of the novel when my Dad, Rodney and I were staying at a cabin on Manitoulin Island. They were hunting and I was writing. Although the novel is fiction, some elements had been based on things from my Dad's life, such as a motorcycle accident that had almost killed him when he was in his early twenties and left him with a leg injury that would plague him his entire life -- I thus had my father read a few of the scenes that had been based on real life, like the accident in order to help ensure I properly captured the essence. (I had constructed it from reading the gigantic court transcript of the case)

I shopped Morning Son around to a few publishers, several of whom thought it interesting and with some merit, but none interested enough to publish it. I put it back in the drawer and haven't looked at it in years. I think it's a decent novel, and certainly unlike most of my writing, because it's mostly contemporary fiction, with perhaps a bit of a mystery to it.

But last November, during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I ended up writing about my Dad again. Only this time, it was to explore something that kept happening to me shortly after he'd died. I keep "seeing him" everywhere. Wish fulfillment, of course, because I wasn't ready to have lost him. But my mind kept imagining scenarios where he wasn't really dead and thus there was a chance that the two of us might get together again some day.

And that's how my novella length thriller Evasion was born.

Evasion opens with the following text...

Scott Desmond was looking at a dead man.
    He shook his head, swiped at the sweat running down his forehead and into his eyes, tried to focus more clearly on the sight before him.
    There was no mistake about it.
    The man he was looking at across two sets of train tracks was none other than his father - a man who had died almost eighteen months earlier.

Evasion, trade paperback version - front cover and spine
Evasion explores what happens when Scott Desmond starts looking into his father's death, convinced that he man can't possibly be dead, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Just as he feels he is getting somewhere, people in his life, starting with his boss, begin trying to kill Scott. He is forced to run, wondering if he'll be able to stay alive long enough to figure out what happened to his father.

I hadn't planned on doing anything with it for a while (particularly since I already had two books coming out from traditional publishers and also releasing the 10th Anniversary Edition of my self-published One Hand Screaming all slated for later this year).

But I had posted the novel to Wattpad in the hopes of getting some beta reader feedback and perhaps even winning some money from a post NaNoWriMo contest they'd offered. I figured if I won I could use it for editing and cover design costs for the book. Only, a Wattpad employee found the story, liked it and wanted to feature it in the Thriller category on May 26th.

So I rushed it to an editor, revised the cover and got a cleaner version of the book ready.

It exploded in reads and, to date, has received more than 71,000 reads, over 1000 votes and 270 comments. Wow.

One of the more popular comments including many that ask if the book will be available to purchase and also what happens next.  (Inspiring me with plans to write the sequel to the novel this coming November during NaNoWriMo 2014)

Evasion - trade paperback back cover
The book is available to be read completely for free on Wattpad.  It's also available as an eBook on Kobo and Kindle. (Versions coming for other forms in the near future) And a print version is also now available.

I also thought I'd test out using some book design templates I had read about from designer Joel Friedlander. I had been following his blog for a while and heard many positive comments about his templates and services from trusted folks in the different writer communities. Friedlander has created a series of Word templates that allow authors to easily create print-ready documents for both a book's interior and exterior.

So last weekend, I spent a few hours fooling around with the templates and then loading them to Createspace, a POD solution offered by Amazon.

The templates were simple and easy to use. Despite knowing how to use Adobe InDesign to create a cover flat layout, I used Friedlander's Word template for covers and followed the handy online instructions. I ended up with a template that worked quite nicely and did not look like a cookie-cutter outline. There's enough flexibility within the base template to allow someone to be able to come off with a decent looking design. I was suitable impressed and can highly recommend these templates to authors who don't already have expert support in making print-ready files.

Then I accidentally published the thing.

Yes, in the process of going through the proofing on Createspace, I had meant to order a proof copy (which I did), but I accidentally hit the APPROVE PROOF button and the book went into publish status.

So I hadn't really been planning on letting the thing go live yet. I've been waiting since 2007 for my first novel I, Death, to be published by a publisher I have adored working with. And it's coming later this year.  (I suppose, since Evasion is a novella, I, Death will still be my first novel)

The proof arrived the other day and I looked at it for the first time last night - on the eve of my father's birthday. I was blown away by how gorgeous it turned out.

Evasion is dedicated to My Dad. Writing the book has been a cathartic experience, and testing out the templates and the process to make it into a print ready book has also been incredible.

Interior of Evasion - a Picture of Mark and his father Eugene

On the inside "About the Author" section, I used a picture of me and my father at the BBQ.  It was taken a few years before he died and reminds me of the fun we had on those late June afternoons, hanging out with the family, sharing stories and jokes, drinking a cold beer and enjoying those precious moments together.

When I return to the universe of Evasion this coming fall, I'm certainly going to enjoy further exploring the relationship between Scott and Lionel Desmond, a fictional father-son relationship that has already brought me so much joy in writing. When I look back at it, stories my father shared with me have ended up being used in so many different stories. There are elements of him almost everywhere in my writing.

No, writing Evasion or the next book in that series that explores the father-son relationship between Scott and his father won't bring my Dad back. But it's always fun to dream and wish and imagine.

Happy Birthday, Dad! I love you. I miss you. And I thank you for so many wonderful memories and for the endless inspiration.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Creepy Island of Dolls

I love this creepy story about an island in Japan where Ayano Tsukimi, a 64 year old artist has created more than 350 lifesized dolls to breathe new life into a 'ghost town' of an island.  The dolls are everywhere, posed as fisherman, sitting on bus stop benches, attending an abandoned school or even eerie silent weddings.

Dolls posed in an abandoned school - Source: VIMEO/FRITZ SCHUMANN

It reminds me my first visit to Halifax and discovering the scarecrows of Necum Teuch in a very small community just outside of town. I was doing a book signing for One Hand Screaming at the Chapters on the Saturday night and a Starbucks barista who was interested in horror suggested that I check out this nearby community.

Photo of Scarecrows of Necum Teuch taken by Bob Marchand, Sept 2002

I was so inspired (and freaked out) by the scarecrows, that when I got back to my hotel I stayed up all night writing the first draft of the story A Murder of Scarecrows. It's about a man (Wilson Kendrick) who wakes up in the middle of the night to discover an army of scarecrows is taking over his isolated east coast town.

The story (about 10,000 words) retails for $1.99 US and is available on Kobo, Kindle, Smashwords.

You can, of course, read the entire story for free if you use the following coupon code (good until the end of 2014) for the book's listing on Kobo. Simply throw it into your shopping cart, then use coupon code:  "starkshort" to apply a 100% OFF discount. (You don't need a Kobo device to read it - you can read it on your smartphone, tablet or computer using a free Kobo app)

Seriously - go ahead and download it for free. I don't mind. I'd prefer it, in fact.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Nice Guys And Finishing First

There's the old saying that nice guys finish last.

I'm not a strong believer in it.

Or rather, I'm sure there's something to be said about nice guys losing the battle but winning the war.

I like to think of it as focusing on the long term rather than the short win.

You can push people down, step on them, worm your way to the top in a ruthless manner; or you can work hard and give it your all, commit yourself to something you are passionate about, build a solid foundation that grows slowly, but certainly, providing a base that won't crumble, providing a solid perk that is less likely to topple.

Hugh and a group of KWL team members hamming for the camera

I've met Hugh Howey several times in the past few years, usually in quick and pleasant exchanges at writer's conferences or sitting together on a panel discussion. But last week, when he was in Toronto, I had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time with him.

For those who haven't met Hugh, or perhaps only met him briefly in passing at conferences, you'll know what I mean when I say that he gives off a sense of genuineness and charm. If you only know him through his writing, his blog or the interviews he has done, you'll likely get that same sense of his humble nature and generous spirit.

Hugh with Lorna Toolis at the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy(He really didn't want to leave - it was like watching a kid in a candy store - but he did have to go and greet a huge group of fans waiting downstairs)

But when you get to know him, you realize that the charm, the genuine nature, the humble disposition and the generosity extends far deeper. I had the good fortune not only of spending time discussing writing and publishing with Hugh, as well as the manner by which he makes the most out of the extensive travel, but also seeing him interact with fans, fellow writers and strangers.

The man exudes an aura of brilliance upon all of those he meets. I watched him greet fans, writers, dogs and toddlers multiple times in the past week and he warmly embraced each encounter, making the absolutely best of each moment, each conversation, each interaction. He was truly basking in the moment and living in a very pure "carpe diem" way.

Hugh being interviewed for the Kobo in Conversation video/podcast
For many writers, Hugh is envied and seen as one of the top dogs to be; his success as a self-published writer, his incredible print-only deal with Simon & Schuster for WOOL and his unmistakeable influence on the industry are things that many others aspire to. Hugh himself is genuinely humble, in love with life and more interested in helping and promoting other writers than in pushing forth his own agenda. He doesn't just talk the talk, but he walks it brilliantly; putting most of his efforts into writing.

I heard him explain to a group of fans and writers last week that one of the most frustrating and upsetting moments in the past couple of years was when he realized that he would not have time to answer all of the fan mail that he receives. But it got to a point where he could spend a full day doing nothing but answering emails from writers and fans -- which would have taken him away from the activity that brought him there in the first place:  writing books that he could be passionate about. So he had to reconcile the fact that, in order to continue to produce the books he wanted, he would have to sacrifice something that meant a lot to him -- the in depth interactions. His auto-responder email jokingly suggests that he has been replaced by a robot and then goes on to explain that he is still reading every single email that he gets. And he appreciates them. He just can't respond to all of them individually. He says that having an assistant do that for him would be less personal -- he then breaks the auto-response into three main sections for Fans, Writers and Business Stuff. He also has a section for Nigerian Princes - because, even though it's an apologetic auto-responder chock-full of helpful info, it also contains his warmth and good humour.

From the look in his eyes when he tells the story of not being able to personally respond to everyone who emails him, you can tell that it still truly hurts him that he isn't able to fully engage with everyone who reaches out.

Mark Medley, Hugh, Ashleigh Gardener, Mark - Book Summit 2014 Panel on Non-Traditional Publishing Communities

He more than makes up for that fact, though, when he does public appearances; when he was at the public events in Toronto last week, he showed up early so that those eager fans who wanted to chat with him had the opportunity; and he stuck around afterward so he could engage in conversation with as many writers and fans as possible.

Hugh is successful because he focuses on the important things -- writing (a lot and consistently) and making real connections with people. The idea of marketing or using social media to do anything other than to connect with fans and other writers just isn't in his repertoire.

And with projects like the Author Earnings website he also focuses on helping shed light on the dark corners of the publishing industry, not as a method of attacking publishers, but of helping authors be aware of the reality of the publishing business and also to help publishers adapt and evolve to better suit the needs of readers and writers. The stated purpose of Author Earnings is to gather and share information so that writers can make informed decisions and to call for change within the publishing community for better pay and fairer terms in all contracts.  To quote from Hugh's blog:  "I would make far more money investing this time in writing fiction, but I care more about change than I do about dollars."

He doesn't focus on marketing or self-promotion; he's quite uncomfortable with that, in fact. When I asked him what his favorite piece of his own writing is, he is enthusiastic about how much he put into the writing of I, Zombie (a book in which he addresses personal feelings regarding 9/11) but then he cautions me NOT to read it; suggests that I'm likely to hate it.

Here's the synopsis for the book

This book contains foul language and fouler descriptions of life as a zombie. It will offend most anyone, so proceed with caution or not at all.
And be forewarned: This is not a zombie book. This is a different sort of tale. It is a story about the unfortunate, about those who did not get away. It is a human story at its rotten heart. It is the reason we can't stop obsessing about these creatures, in whom we see all too much of ourselves.

The first thing I did, of course, after that conversation, was go out and buy a copy of it.

In any case, today is Hugh's birthday. And, in Hugh fashion, he's traveling at the request of the many people who are in demand for his time. When he was in Toronto, the Kobo Writing Life team brought in a birthday cake for him for a bit of an early celebration.

Hugh with an impromptu birthday cake

Happy Birthday, Hugh, you nice guy, you! Thanks for helping to support my theory.

Check out Hugh's books and stories.

Check out Author Earnings.

Listen to the interview with Hugh from the Kobo Writing Life Podcast.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Beware The Ides of June

So this is the only Friday the 13th in 2014. And it's a full moon. That won't happen again until 2049. Not sure why it's a big deal, particularly since last time I checked we get a full moon every month - so if my calculations are correct, we might have another one next month, and maybe even 12 every year, and sometimes as many as 13. Cool.

As for Fridays, even though it sometimes doesn't feel like it, I'm sure we get one of those every single week; occasionally a handful of them every month.

As for the 13ths, well, they only come once per month - just like that full moon thing. And they tend to happen about 12 times a year. If we occasionally had 13 of them, now that would be pretty odd.

But something I haven't seen discussed (despite the Friday the 13th / Full Moon lining up), is the fact that today is also the Ides of June.

Yes - in that play where Julius is warned to beware the Ides of March, Shakespeare was talking about the 15th. The Ides are part of a Roman calendar designation associated with the phases of the moon, with the Kalends (the 1st), the Ides (the 13th or the 15th), and the Nones (the 5th or the 7th) The way it all lines up, the Ides land on the 15th of March and 13th of June.

Friday the 13th isn't just a long running movie franchise. It has been a tradition for the small Ontario town of Port Dover to have motorcycles descend upon it since 1981 when a group of about twenty-five friends and bikers got together on that date in Dover, had a ton of fun and decided to do it every Friday the 13th. It kind of grew from there into the extravaganza it is today.

Around 2001 or so was when Francine and I started our own Friday the 13th tradition, which we called our Friday the 13th Hot Luck. We served, beer, wine and other bevies and invited friends over to share their favourite hot and spicy dish. It could get a little stupid sometimes, with recipes designed less for spicy food enjoyment and more to see if we could make the other person cry or stick their head in the pool or chew on the fence or some similar activity to try to soothe the burning hot pain on their tongue and lips.

One of the many Friday the 13th gatherings at the old Chateau Leslie

Some of the fun recipes I've used on Friday the 13ths include my infamous blackout ribs (originally made during the blackout of 2003), then, the less intense but wonderfully tasty rib sauce recipe; as well as a wonderful killer home-made pizza using a crazy sauce and fiery hot Hungarian salami from Denningers.

We haven't held the Hot Lucks in at least the past two years. Timing just hasn't worked out. I really miss them and the fun times we had with so many friends. But perhaps it's good we didn't have one this year.

After all, so many other unique events are all lining up today. It's a unique day in the universe.

It's a Friday the 13th with a Full Moon on the Ides of June.

Thus, make sure you're careful out there, and heed the warning:

Beware The Ides of June!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

No Relation Book Launch

I attended the official launch for No Relation by Terry Fallis last night.

Sure, the book has been out since May and has climbed the charts on the Globe & Mail Bestseller list (no surprise there - it's a fantastic novel filled with both hilarious moments as well as poignant ones), but the evening was Terry celebrating his new novel with a group of friends, associates, family and colleagues.

Tim Fallis kicks off the evening, admitting he has "some relation" to his twin brother Terry
It was a packed house at Dora Keogh on Danforth; standing room only as we cheered and celebrated Terry's latest book. Book City, the very first bookstore to carry Terry's first novel The Best Laid Plans back when it was self-published and Terry was an unknown author, was on hand selling copies of Terry's novels as well as Douglas Gibson's Stories About Storytellers. (I'm proud to state that, while Book City was the first bookstore to carry it, I was the second bookseller to pick up his book and one that insisted we do a book launch for The Best Laid Plans at McMaster.)

Terry's twin brother Tim (who exudes the same charm and wit as his brother), kicked off the evening, congratulating and teasing his brother before introducing Douglas Gibson, Terry's editor and a master storyteller in his own right, who introduced Terry.

Doug Gibson talks about the joy of being Terry's editor and friend

Doug spoke about Terry's reputation among booksellers as a "nice guy" and, speaking with booksellers, you get a true sense that Terry is adored both near and far by booksellers and is an avid supporter of his friends in the bookish trade. He mentioned in his opening remarks last night that when a neighbourhood bookstore closes, it's not just the loss of a handful of jobs nor the inconvenience of not having a local bookshop to check out that occurs, it's that a piece of the very fabric of culture itself has been torn from that community.

Listening to Terry do a short reading from Chapter One of the novel made me want to read it again.I had read the advance reader's copy of the novel, but I want to enjoy the story once more and figure I'll go back and listen to the podcast of Terry reading the novel.

Reading the novel was great - but the humour was much stronger when delivered by Terry's fine reading of the piece. I'm looking forward to enjoying it again, this time through Terry's narration. (Yes, there's a podcast where you can listen to the entire book for free - Terry has done that with every one of his novels and I applaud Random House, his publisher, for allowing him to continue to use this vehicle as a promotional tool to help sell more copies of his book)

The novel is truly Terry at his finest form. I have adored all of his novels, and while I still have quite the fondness for Angus McLintock (brought to life wonderfully by Kenneth Welsh in the CBC MiniSeries based on Terry's first novel) this is my favourite novel so far.

Perhaps there's something about the way Terry addresses family in this novel that provides the ring of truth for people to embrace it.

The very first book launch for Terry's first book - back in Sept 2007 at the campus store formerly known as Titles (McMaster University Bookstore

In my review of the novel on Goodreads, I called the book witty, wry, cunning and clever and said that "the story combines silly humour, slapstick situations and unexpectedly touching moments with intriguing twists, knots and turns, creating a pleasurable, well-rounded and ultimately satisfying journey."

Join me and the smartest booksellers in the land in checking out this book which I highly recommend you add to your summer reading list.

Monday, June 09, 2014

The Little Things . . . Like Smiles

I can't help but be terribly impressed every time I'm waiting in line to go through the security screening at Pearson's Terminal 1 whenever I'm heading to the US.

Because this guy is always there, singing to travellers.

As people arrive to drop off their checked bags, he assists customers with the process and sings to them. It's one of a dozen different tunes that he sings, of course, midway through any song he'll insert instructions on where people need to go next or a simple "have a nice day" at an appropriate time in the melody.

He always elicits a smile out of me, even when I'm stressed and worried about not making my flight (which that security checkout line can easily inspire). He doesn't have to do what he does. His job is to take the bags and perhaps answer questions from confused travelers - but he adds that little extra touch, offering something unique to the day of each person who sees and hears him.

It's a small thing that he does, but it puts smiles on peoples faces.

Last time I went through Pearson, I joked with one of the agents who was inspecting my hands for residue (drug residue? gun oil residue? bomb chemical residue? driver's booger residue?) by asking her if he ever comes in to work in a grumpy mood. She laughed and smiled and said not that she'd ever seen.

I don't know the man's name, but I admire him and appreciate that little thing he brings in people's lives every day.  He also inspires me to consider what little things I might be able to do to make another person's day that much brighter.