Monday, May 23, 2011

Chapter 55: In Which I Rhapsodize About My Love of Others, as if I Have Just Smoked a Vast Amount of Opiates

Oh my God! I just love everybody!

Not really. But lately I've been on a collaborative streak. While I think writing is, for the most part, a solitary act, collaboration gives me the opportunity to look at things from a new perspective. I've learned this the last few weeks at the Interdisciplinary Writers Lab. We have a pretty tight-knit group of students who, most importantly, feel comfortable around each other. This has made for some interesting interactions.

Brenda Wong Aoki taught the class different theatrical movements, or kata. For instance, there is shooting a bow, in which you draw back and imaginary bow and shoot an imaginary arrow. There is one for throwing a spear. There is a kata for hysterical crying, terrified crying, belly laughing, demure schoolgirl laughing, dying, etc. All of these actions are done to the rhythm of "jo-ha-kyu" (no idea if I spelled that right), or "beginning-middle-end." I find this an intriguing way to look at the world; every little action you take has a birth to death life cycle, whether its dialing on your cellphone or walking to a door or whatever. Brenda was very adept at reminding us of the emotion behind each action, and what should be going through our heads.

So we learned these katas. Then we had to come up with sequences in which we string them together. For instance, my group did a sequence like this: we show sadness (bringing our hands slowly in front of our eyes), then we say farewell (holding our hands up with the palms inward, then exhaling). We did this three times, then three of the people did the kata for love (drawing your right arm in an arc, ending with the hand in front of your heart, then holding the hand outward as an extension of love), which I did the kata for hate (glowering and shouting "Ho!" at some imaginary target). I'm sure that whole description I just did was very vague. But anyway. There was another group whose sequence was three "dying" katas in a row (sit up on your knees, stretch to the sky, then fall over), in which they fell across each other like victims of a massacre. Again, it was cool to see the physical comfort that enables people to do that.

Where things really got interesting is that Brenda had us perform these sequences in the background while individual students read creative pieces. Even though there was no rehearsal, it was amazing to see how synchronous everything was, how a certain sequence of kata could make a story or poem seem comical, sinister, or so much more profound. This is collaboration, and we're going to take that collab into the performance on July 6th. I'm going to read an older piece, and I've been thinking of having some of my classmates perform movements while I read. Should be fun. No, scratch that. It will undeniably be fun.

Also, I'm writing a piece for the 1000 Words reading on June 2nd, in Portland, OR. Here's how it works: the curator Mel Favara is sending us weekly prompts based on a theme. The theme is CONSCIENCE. Every week, Mel gives the readers a set of 5 words and a phrase to fit into a 250-word piece. I am writing a complete fiction story based on the prompts, but there is the option to do four independent pieces, and they can be any genre. Some writers don't like any kind of guidelines, but I love projects where I have specific parameters. I can go back later and edit the piece however I see fit, but the guidelines really help focus me while writing, and provide for new ideas. This is another kind of collaboration.

Also, I'm working on putting together my first anthology editing project. I won't go into too much detail on this, since who knows when it'll come to fruition, but it's been cool talking with other writers who have editing experience, learning the steps I need to take. Again, collaboration.

In other words: I just love everybody.


You know who I don't love? Amazon. Yes, they carry my book. This is not altruism on their part. They take a 70% cut from any sale. Buy my book on Amazon and I see very little of that. I'd much rather somebody buy it from an independent bookstore or the online Quail Bell shop, which also sells JDS. Plus, them being a monolithic corporation that apparently has gotten into politics with this Wikileaks suppression. Plus, the fact that Createspace, their print on-demand arm that Six Gallery publishes through, has straight up botched orders and printings of my book. I'll leave it to you to guess whether they compensated for this. So I'm not really feeling them, though I see the necessity of selling and publishing through this company.

My editor pointed this site out to me recently as a home for the ebook version of JDS, which I am prioritizing over the summer. They have pretty widespread distribution, but also offer the author 85% of the sale. Anybody who promotes the book online gets an 11.5% affiliate commission if the sale is through them. Right now I'm leaning towards Smashwords for the ebook. I might have a Kindle edition if I can scrounge together the money to upload, just for the extra revenue, though it wouldn't be a lot. The fact that Amazon takes a 70% cut from the sale of an electronic book (i.e. no printing costs) is pretty out there.

It's good to know there are alternatives to these seemingly onmipotent companies. Take Greyhound, for example. Shitty accomodations, sky-high prices, rude employees. Yet everybody rides with them because they're the only game in town. This is why I say "Hallelujah!" for the Megabus. Comfortable seating, bootleg movies to pass the trip, and, most important, reasonable prices. All it takes is one alternative to shake up the system.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

New Blurb

Karen Russell is one of the premiere magical realist authors out right now. I first became aware of her writing through St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, her weird, wonderful short story collection. Her debut novel Swamplandia! is currently setting the world on fire. I love her work, and she had this to say about mine:

"Elwin Cotman is one of the most original new voices you will encounter--he is a synthesizer of the domestic and the fantastic, of soaring myth and the grittiest realities, of lewd dialect and high lyricism. His stories are profound engagements with suffering of every stripe--they will also make you hoot with laughter. I was amazed by the force of Mr. Cotman's pinwheeling imagination."

Wow. Such an honor. Getting feedback from authors such as Ms. Russell is hands-down one of the coolest things about my writing adventure.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Chapter 54: In Which I Scramble to Get Things Done

I saw Catherynne Valente read at Dark Carnival a few nights ago. Dark Carnival is pretty much the best-kept secret in the Bay. It's a fantasy bookstore in Berkeley that's been there forever and has tons of space. I first visited a month or so ago to pick up a Robert E. Howard book that Other Change of Hobbit didn't have. The few times I've been at this amazing store, I keep finding new twists and corners among the labyrinthine bookshelves. Not only do they have tons of space, but they have the inventory to fill it. There's very little they don't have, in the way of fantasy books. Perfect place for Catherynne to read during her sojourn to the Bay.

Last time I saw her was on the Palimpsest tour, when she and SJ Tucker did it up rock star style at Borderlands, with Catherynne reading and SJ performing her songs based on the book. It was pretty cool, and got me thinking a lot about how I present my own work. This reading was a lot more intimate. There were no chairs, or even room for chairs, so the people who came for the reading sat down like they were at a folk-punk basement show while Catherynne read from Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland. Very cozy. Afterwards some questions. This being the Bay, there were some witches there who let her know that her books were assigned reading at their coven. The print version of Fairyland has come out pretty much simultaneously with her Koschei the Deathless book, which is crazy, because I thought her new book was Prester John. Literally give the woman six months and she'll give you a new novel. And they're all good.

According to Catherynne, SJ Tucker has finished a Fairyland album that they're going to perform at WisCon. Out of all she's accomplished, including a Hugo nomination or two, the thing I truly envy is the way she melds her words with song. Maybe somebody will do an album based on my work someday. Anyways, I didn't get a book signed, because I didn't have a book to sign, and autographs aren't really my thing. They were when I was younger. I own an autographed sketch page I bought from Scott McDaniel at the 1993 Pittsburgh Comic-Con, back when he was an independent artist working his artist alley table and I was a 9-year-old boy. The idea that we crossed paths randomly, and so early in our lives, and that something about his work popped out and grabbed me the same way it would later in life, is something I genuinely cherish. That's never going up on EBay. Nowadays, the autograph thing seems a weird, demeaning way to show respect to someone. Ever since I drove four hours to FairyCon just to tell Charles de Lint I appreciated his work, I've found it a great relief to remove the celebrity/god aspect from my interaction with other artists.

Oh, right. Catherynne Valente. I think she's a writing genius and have found her work inspiring, both in the content and her ability to market it. I told her I wrote a term paper on Palimpsest. I think she was flattered. Then, since I was just standing there shooting the breeze, I capped off our writer/fan interaction by having her sign my Jack Daniels Sessions Summer Book Tour flier. I thought that was cool. Then I went home. The great thing about San Francisco is that everybody who's anybody eventually stops through here. Unless you're George W. Bush, who never came here. If there's an author I like, they will do a reading here sooner or later. It's that kind of town.

Speaking of fantasy, I just finished Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia. There were freebie copies at FogCon and I grabbed one. Worth the hype. Her writing is so evocative, her concept of history so vast, and she's now another author who has my loyalty. I've said it before, I'll say it again: now is the most exciting time for fantasy. There are people out there making work that is not only creative but honest, dealing head-on with this world that's collapsing around us. Sometimes I wonder if i'm up to the challenge of being a 21st century fantasy author.

*cue 80s movie montage music*

Tour is in less than two weeks. I have a pile of fliers (way more than I need, really) for my Oakland show that I'm posting around the East Bay, but only a few places. The promo stuff is exhausting, and ultimately doesn't guarantee anyone will come. The most effective way to get people to come to an event is leafletting at similar events, which doesn't work with my social anxiety. So I'm not going to wear myself out posting fliers, but rely on good ol' word of mouth. I'll definitely bring handbills to a few Bay area readings.

Just got a package of 10 books in the mail. I'm waiting on an extra 40, which should last me through tour, and probably some readings besides. I'm also ordering a few copies of the Cyberpunk Apocalypse zine #3, for people who like zines. "Graveyard Shift" is a story I find myself liking more and more every time I look at it.

I will be reading at Baycon and the SubRosa infoshop on the same day, May 28th. This is actually three readings in one day, since I'll be doing the poetry and urban fantasy readings at the convention. I feel like fucking Elvis. He used to do three shows a day. I'm not scheduled to do any panels, at least not yet. I don't own a car, so I had to rent one just for that Saturday. I'm picking it up early from SFO, since all I've read online are horror stories about Budget Rent-a-Car's wait times and shitty service. If I'm going to have to wait an hour to get the car, I should factor that time in. Unfortunately, these traits seem to be across the board for all rental car companies in the Bay. There are bad ones, like Budget, then there are the worse ones who hit you with the hidden fees. I hate doing this, and don't trust these companies to act honorably, and when I have the money I'm buying a used car because this stress is unnecessary. Budget: please prove me wrong. Show quality service when I get this car.

All angsting aside, I am very excited to see Santa Cruz again. The last time I went there was for an anarchist conference at SubRosa inoshop. I went to three workshops, most of them related to childcare, an odd choice on my part, then said "fuck it" and spend the rest of the day exploring the Lost Boys beach with some Iraq Veterans Against the War. It's a magical piece of land, way more inspiring than the SF beach, and the boardwalk is so fun. I remember drinking 40s around the fire, while in the distance a huge cloud of black smoke emanated from the scene of a 4-alarm blaze. We had nowhere to sleep, so we crashed in the redwoods outside UC Santa Cruz, wrapped in our thrift store blankets. The veterans were some of the loveliest, most hopelessly macho men I have ever met. So I am excited to return, for the beach alone.

I still need to mail fliers to the Redding date. I also need food for the trip. Luckily, I live by a food bank. My hippie housemates make regular trips there to pick up free food for the house. Pita bread, cereal, that kettle corn they pass out a million bags of. We eat so much kettle corn at my house.

I couldn't finish the audiobook in time for tour, because of my end-of-semester work at school. This is not really a disappointment for me. Even if I finished recording the tracks, I would have had to edit them together in a hurry. I don't like hurrying, it doesn't yield good results. The audiobook will be finished, ready for sale and absolutely the best piece of art it can be before the end of the year, so I'm fine with this. While I had little time to work on creative stuff during school, now I'm hard at work on a few different projects. I'm writing a new piece for the 1000 Words reading in Portland, and polishing off an old one for the Interdisciplinary Writers Lab. Both of these have to be done by May 31st. The day I leave for Redding. The day I must be completely prepped for tour. Ah, multitasking.

Speaking of multitasking, one thing I learned from writing term papers: you always should start earlier. I sat in that library for 8 hours a day, doing nothing but typing and looking up passages, but the time kept flying by, and I still ended up handing in my Victorian lit paper a half hour before the deadline. If I even gave myself one extra day, it would have saved a lot of stress.

Speaking of Portland: it's the city where Kim and I will be spending the most time, and it's the city where we have nowhere to stay. Finding crash space in Portland = high on agenda. There's got to be some crusty hippies willing to lend a couch.

Speaking of the Interdisciplinary Writers Lab: I'm in it. It's a series of writing workshops put on by Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco. Different artists come in and lead workshops. The best part has been interacting with the other students, who are amazing artists, passionate and kind-hearted and intriguing people. Last week we did a performance workshop with Brenda Wong Aoki, whose a theatre person from Utah. I wouldn't have minded if Brenda did the whole 8-week workshop, but, alas, she is the last of four IWL instructors. And I'll blog all about my study under her after Saturday's workshop, in which we will perform pieces. I feel that I've fallen off on the performance aspect of my work, so these last few workshops are a benefit.

Very soon I'm going to do another "Music of the Elvenslaughter" post, because my mind is all on tour. Keeping busy until then.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


I am in the middle of writing a 20-page paper on Charlotte Bronte and Mary Shelley. Six outside scholarly sources. Just did a final on the New Testament, and before that a report on three books I read over the semester.

When all this is said and done, I don't even want to think about any books but my own.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Chapter 53: In Which I Discuss the Gospels and Certain People who Read Them

I have been a lifelong fan of the Holy Bible. Anyone who reads my work can tell. I have literally been reading it my entire life, continually amazed by the literary quality of these ancient writers. Like many, I grew up on the King James Version, but have recently delved into new translations. I am partial to New International. While it jettisons the high language of King James, I think the straightforward phraseology is probably closer to the Hebrew.

I always preferred the Old Testament to the New. Going to Sunday school inevitably made me think Jesus was a boring guy, whereas the Old Testament provided all the blood, war and sex my young mind desired. Of course, as I got older I appreciated it more for the epic quality of the stories. I will always watch Moses' evolution into a prophet with interest, and cheer on Esther as she saves her people.

So I've been reading the New Testament for a class. Knowing more about the storytelling techniques used by these anonymous masters has given me an appreciation for the text. Mark is fast-paced and relentlessly gloomy. Matthew has a lot of historicity to it. Luke is a lavish, fantastical writer who gave the story its most exciting features. John is full of epic language. There are speeches, poems and stories-within-stories. All the Gospels, in their own way, present different facets to this historical figure, and contradict each other a lot. What is great about mythology is that the same figure can be a completely different person depending on the writer. Jesus existed during an actual historical period, making his story relatable in a way that the Old Testament is not.

Something happened last week that pissed me off. I was tabling for BAAP at the Cinco de Mayo festival in Oakland. A joyous celebration of Mexican culture. And I see these people who believe that Judgment Day is in two weeks. They have the audacity to be wearing shirts that say "Have You Heard the Good News?", smiling while they hand out pamphlets about their god's plan to cast most of the world into eternal torture. One of them came up to me, and my reaction was not polite. Out of everything in the Bible, they havedecided to internalize the Book of Revelations, which is a great source for heavy metal songs, but otherwise horrific stuff. These people literally desire the end of all creation. They want their deity to wipe away this beautiful planet. Fuck each and every last one of them.

I stopped believing in Jehovah, Zeus, Odin and Santa Claus all at the same time, around when I was seven years old. Of course, I think people should worship however they want. It's been hard being a "live and let live" type of atheist in a world where George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden declare war in God's name, and these death-worshippers try to scare people into joining their church. Lately I find myself leaning towards the new atheism, in which religion is the enemy of humankind. It pisses me off that these people and their ancestors invented Hell. Life is not scary enough, as an inevitable march toward annihilation of the consciousness. We need some pissy character from Middle Eastern myth to have his minions scourge us with flails.

And it pisses me off that they drill that stuff into children. When I was a teenager, I outed myself to my mother as an atheist. Like most black folks of her upbringing, she grew up Baptist. Would have been cooler if she was born a bit further south and did voodoo, bu I digress. She proceeded to spin a hypothetical scenario where I am walking down the street. Some white people drive up, beat me and lynch me. While they are stringing me to the tree, I will be screaming "My God, why is this happening to me?"

"Then you'll believe in God," she said.

I did not join the church after that. I did realize the scare tactics involved in religious doctrine. The Hell stuff was something I learned in Catholic school, alongside, you know, actually useful stuff like math and history. This was how they asserted control. The fact that adults threaten children with eternal damnation (or Jim Crow-style lynching) in order to bully them made me sick.

So when I saw these people smiling about the destruction of my planet and the damnation of so many non-Christian cultures, my response was not polite. There is a lot of great allegory in the Bible, and a large section of Biblical scholarship evaluates it that way. There is also beautiful poetry, like the highly erotic Song of Songs. Read non-literally, these stories are a source of philosophical and creative inspiration, as opposed to hate- and fearmongering.

Read the Gospels. In some of them, Jesus is a cool guy. In others, he's an asshole. The differing perspectives is what makes it so enthralling.

And for the love of god, people, stop wishing for the goddamn world to end.