The roads life takes are entirely unpredictable. We can make plans, and there's a satisfaction in seeing them come to fruition. Case in point: my upcoming northeast/Canadian tour, in which I've had little trouble booking the dates I want. Okay, booking NYC has been a pain, but otherwise it's shaping up nicely. But every once in a while a project ends up being entirely different than what you anticipated. Maybe it takes longer. Like, three years longer. Case in point: Hard Times Blues.
Shortly after the release of A Dance With Dragons, George R.R. Martin did a blog post in which he chronicled the book's progress, year by year. To show the fans how and why it took so long. Since I am a big copycat, I'm doing the same.
In July of 2010, I did a reading in Richmond with Christine Stoddard. It was a good reading, pretty much in front of family members, at Chop Suey Books. I'd learned about Christine through some mutual friends, was seriously impressed by her writing and the publishing work she did at VCU. We've been good friends ever since. It's rare to meet somebody so driven, or so ambitious at such a young age. In August, I proposed a project to her.
"I'm writing because I was wondering if you'd like to do a project with me. I'd like to put out a joint book wit another writer, and I was wondering if you'd be interested. Something like the Ace paperbook science fiction double books that came out in the 50s, where the books are put together and one is upside-down when the other is right-side-up. I think it would be cool if we both wrote something, and shopped if to each other as we went along. Then we could publish it sometime next year."
The plan was to work on our books for the last half of the year, send what we had to each other, and critique each other as we went. We hadn't yet figured out how we were going to publish it. Her end was Once Upon a Body, a collection of her fairy stories. Mine was a novel called The Motley & Plume Players.
After publishing Jack Daniels Sessions, I wanted to put out a book a year. All my literary heroes were prolific, churning out their sword & sorcery epics at an alarming rate. Back in the day, Michael Moorcock could write an Elric novel in a week. I'm pretty sure some of this involved narcotics, but still. I wanted to go at that pace.
Soon after meeting Christine, I went to Oakland, California, to start my MFA. During this time, I was divided between school and editing the new edition of Jack Daniels Sessions, as the old one had typos. Started looking for a tour partner for 2011. In December, I flew out to snow-covered Pittsburgh, where Christine was visiting writer at Cyberpunk Apocalypse. We had a pretty fruitful meeting about the project, how we were on our respective ends, and how we would fund it. We discussed publishing options, like Lulu.
The Motley & Plume Players is a piece I started in my early 20s. It's about a man who finally starts dating the love of his life when they're in their fifties. That's just the beginning. I expected it to be 150-200 pages. In March 2011, I turned in 40 pages to Christine.
I did the ConDor convention in San Diego. I was a panelist at the first FogCon. While walking around the ConDor dealers room, I found out all the cool authors who had done teche-a-beche books for Ace. Christine and I talked about publishing through Papercut Press, an imprint she was familiar with. We set up a Kickstarter. I tried my damnedest to get the book done in time. Sometime in there, I released the new edition of JDS.
In May of 2011, Christine suggested I run the project by Six Gallery and see if they'd publish it. I agreed, with the caveat that the press' resources are very limited. We would end up doing a lot of legwork and there would only be as much promotion as the company could afford. As an indie author, it's best to know these things up front. I remember having the conversation with my 6GP editor, standing on a San Francisco sidewalk, outside a cafe where I was workshopping with others from the Interdisciplinary Writers Lab. 6GP agreed to publish the book, and we geared our Kickstarter specifically towards raising money for promo. Christine's friend, Josephine, agreed to do editing on the project.
In July, I told this to Christine:
-I've come to an impasse with Motley & Plume Players, and I'll give you the short version. 1. It's gotten to be about 300 pages long. This makes me worry about the equity of space between our two ends of the book. Of course, things can be cut down if need be. 2. 100 of those pages are not done, and I'm dedicating my summer to getting them in order.
I was still confident in my ability to get it done, but was learning that my writing style did not coincide with deadlines. The piece, which I still wanted to publish that year, was nowhere near the quality I wanted. However, a good friend of mine agreed to do some art for the piece, and our collaboration was keeping me energized.
I turned in a revised 50 pages to Christine. I did the Interdisciplinary Writers Lab. I toured with Kim Vodicka. I discovered Open Office, downloaded it onto my laptop, and no longer had to wait until I was at school to do writing.
In July, I polished up 100 pages and sent them out to Christine and the growing number of people involved in the project. The Kickstarter ended in August. I got nominated for two Carl Brandon Society Awards. During this whole time, I was hard at work on Motley & Plume. At this point in the book, the characters were still futzing around American University, and I was having trouble getting them to the next section of the plot. I was breaking every deadline we set. To keep things rolling, I made Motley & Plume my thesis at Mills. I was hoping that working closely with my director would help get the novel in shape.
What happened was that I realized, definitively, the book was not ready to be published. It had grown in the telling, and all the workshopping only presented more problems. I knew that one day it could be a great book, but that greatness would not come in the space we were giving ourselves. I was learning the difference between myself and the fantasy writers of old. Many of them could have quality and quantity, but I could not. Then there were those with quantity, who could not care less about quality. As pulpy as my writing is, I couldn't put myself in that headspace, either.
On top of these setbacks was real life tragedy. Our editor, Josie Stone, passed away in an accident. She was 23 years old.
It felt like a relief to switch my end of the project to a story collection. The stories: "Graveyard Shift." "The Elvis Room." "The Revelation of John." "Pulp." Possible inclusion: "The Piper's Christmas Gift," my Christmas card story from two years beforehand.
We discovered in February 2012 that Createspace, our print-on-demand publisher, wouldn't do upside-down publishing. My publisher advocated for making an exception. As far as our two collections, stories went in. Stories went out. We considered doing the book follow-the-leader style instead of teche-a-beche.
March 2012. I turned in the first 30 pages of "Graveyard Shift." Thought it best to only do four pieces. We were aiming for a May release date which didn't happen, because I wanted more time.
Over the summer, I tightened up my stories for an August release. Did the "Low Lives" festival. Graduated Mills College. (Very) sporadically worked on my audiobook. Put "The Piper's Christmas Gift" back on the table, but it began to grow in the telling. By the time it was clear that this short story was becoming a novella, I had to shelve it again. Thus, I've gotten not only a story collection, but two unfinished novels out of this project.
Although she was out of the country, Christine and I continued to shop each other's pieces. That's what this project was always about: collaboration from beginning to end. By now, we were pushing for a this-is-it, no-BS, this-time-for-real December book launch. Did some more rounds of edits. We started working on promo, and I started planning a December tour to coincide with the release.
Moved to Lafayette. I sent the finished stories out to my trusted beta readers. The publisher gave me leeway to add a fifth story, and I put in a piece I'd been working on that summer. It's called "A Song For the Yellow Prince." It's short, and kind of sad, and I hope you enjoy it.
My friend who did the art for Motley & Plume Players was doing some lovely preliminary cover art for the collection. The publisher ultimately wanted to go with an artist they were familiar with. Compromises, as always. We sent out press releases. In November we decided to delay the book in order to better do promo. We sent out press releases correcting the last press release. Copies of my book were sent to blogs, magazines, and authors. I toured the south in December. The press was talking with an independent printer about doing the books in the original format.
Then in March 2013, Christine told me she and 6GP were going to release the books separately. To take more time to work on hers. I can't say I wasn't disappointed, as I wanted to do an old-fashioned double. It's a cool concept that should come back. And Walter Mosley brought it back last year. So did Cat Rambo. Hopefully more and more people do so.
And here I am with one book, 170 pages, that have taken three years. A lot happened in that time. I learned that I am a slow writer. I really don't feel comfortable cranking out anything. I learned that I'm more of a perfectionist than I ever thought I was. What's next after this book? The Piper's Christmas Gift? The Motley & Plume Players?
Who knows? All I know is I'm excited for it.