Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Snowmageddon? Really?…

Six inches of snow in twenty-four hours. Where I come from, that’s just called “Winter”. Nothing like the declaration of a state of emergency and fear-mongering to start the week. I think there’s a children’s store that touches upon this kind of mentality, something about a shepherd boy who learns a valuable lesson about crying wolf… no wait, he gets eaten. At any rate, I could rant on but really it comes do to this: citizens of New Jersey and NYC, stop being frightened of literally everything that happens. Yes, there will be horrible storms, there will be nut-jobs with guns, there will be terrorists with diabolical plans, there will be hard times; that’s life. You can wrap yourself up in whatever false sense of security you like, but it won’t keep life from happening. I mean, geez. Grow a pair. And really, it shouldn’t take a politician to convince you not to drive on icy roads. People in Buffalo, Minneapolis and Green Bay must think we’re helmet-wearing morons. To a certain extent, I have to agree with them.

On to my life, which is so much more interesting because I don’t fear a good, ol’ fashion snow flurry…

First off, I intend to release my first Box Book project on the 31st. I’ll make a special blog post to provide all the details for tracking down the book, Hop Hazard Love, and for spreading the word of its existence. I’ve learned over my years spent in publishing, it’s better to go into these things with very low expectations. That way, anything that might happen is good news. I’ll be excited if something wildly unexpected occurs, but I work hard to temper my giddy, reptilian-hind brain and keep things in check.

Ideally, I will have the next Box Book ready to go by the end of March/beginning of April. That is sort of a tentative deadline. April fits my original plan for a year in which I crank out 4 new books. The question really becomes, do I add illustrations or do I keep plugging away with the straight forward writing? There are two factors which come into play to answer that question. The first factor is time. If you recall, there’s a lot going on around here, most of it deals with me retooling my attitude concerning my career. My ten year experiment of inking and writing is over. It’s time to establish the parameters of a new, five year experiment. Essentially that means a whole hell of a lot of writing. The second factor is technology. If I can find a way to use the scanning and printing technology to turn my original artwork into attractive printed illustrations, then I’ll prolly keep rolling out books with some kind of art inside them. If that proves too time or labor intensive, I won’t. I’ve spent enough years with fun projects on the back burner waiting for that perfect opportunity to finish them. I understand that opportunity isn’t going to happen because that’s not how things worked out. But that doesn’t mean I can’t create my own opportunity and be awesome for the sake of being awesome.

Meanwhile, I continue to work with my new style of time management. I’m still running with the whole ‘work for one hour or one CD’s worth of music and then get the hell away from the desk’ mantra. I’m slowly getting the hang of it. I will admit, it’s still a tad strange to get up and find something else to do after I’ve only been working for a solid hour, but it does seem to keep me a slightly more sane. Compared to the days I would sit for hours on end, cycling through entire seasons of TV shows on Netflix, ignoring the desire to eat, ignoring email and phone calls, all in order to get a few more square inches of inking done before I faded away into exhaustion, this new way of working seems nice. Like did you know it’s light during the day and dark at night? I know, how weird is it to think of a world not lit by a 75 watt  bulb? Anyway, I sit down, fire up some work, get in the zone, create create create, the music stops or the movie ends, I get up and do something else somewhere away from my desk. Then, after and hour or so of say cleaning or preparing stuff for the silly part of my life that exists outside my skull, I sit down, fire up some work, get in the zone, create create create. Thus far, this new work ethic is paying off. I’m making cool things, slowly but surely. If nothing else, changing how I operate and what I am operating upon has banished exhaustion from the creative process. Since my goal was to work smarter, I think I’m actually achieving it.

That might be it for now. On to something else for 60-odd minutes. Might be time to plunk away at the CBG for a bit… it is a snow day…

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

January Again, Huh…

There are times when the passing of the years seems to hit light speed, whizzing by in a twirl, then rather unexpectedly, the universe slams on the brakes and I find myself with a nasty case of whiplash. I’m left trying to make sense of where I am and what I am to do next. In recent years, January’s proven to be my whiplash month. Maybe it has something to do with coming off the holiday highs. All that build up. All that food. All that insane fun with family and friends. And, of course, that massive break from my daily routine. Then, faster than I would like, I find myself back at my desk, hemmed in by a frozen world, staring at the wall wondering what is actually important.

This time last year, I was a total burn out. Inking an entire graphic novel with a pen point the size of a flea’s penis was a terrible idea. Sure, it looked good and people seem to love the illustrations, but it pushed me to the edge. I did the math, taking in the last ten years of drawing and inking, I put somewhere between 14,500 to 18,500 hours into my craft. Even my conservative estimate is mind boggling. It explains two things: first, how I was able to whip out 12 new illustrations in five days for the new book almost without thought or effort, and second, why I was at my wits end last year. When you can talk about  your work history in the ‘thousands of hours’, that’s a huge amount of work. I can’t say I enjoyed every moment of those years and there are some hours, days, weeks I’d like to get back; but I’m proud of the books. Would I have liked a bigger splash in the press or found myself overwhelmed by offers to do other things, of course, but as that didn’t happen. It’s foolish to think about the didn’t happen. It’s far better to remind myself that my efforts affected some kids the way I’d envisioned and the work was the best I could do at the time.

But it did wipe me out.

I attacked 2014 thinking writing would be my big thing, swearing never to touch a bottle of ink again. I’m a huge fan of making idiotic, blanket statements about my artistic intentions. If you haven’t figured that out by now, I have no idea what blog you’re reading. You do know like 90% of these rambles is pure rhetoric and fiction, right? Anyway… so I wrote, a lot. I wrote things I’m still quite excited about. I wrote things that still haven’t found a home, which sort of burned me out as well. I understand as a professional writer/illustrator/artist, learning to ignore rejection is part of the game; but it gets old real fast. I ended the year double burned out.

Since what is past is prologue, I think a famous cyclist said that, the crazy of 2014 haunts my whiplash-filled January 2015. Even though I fired out a pile of ink illustrations for the new book, I still feel like keeping my distance from all things inky is a good idea. Pen & ink is a dark, slippery slope and once I start sliding down, there’s very little I can do to stop myself. Were I to get my ink on, perhaps daily, I would chew through huge amounts of time. If I’ve learned anything, there are things I want to do with that time, things that don’t involve hunching over a desk and listening to the seven seasons of Buffy blur past me for the umpteenth time. Season six is a hard one to get through no matter how many times I’ve listened to it. It’s only evil Willow in the last two episodes that saves the whole mess, FYI.

Mandy’s thinks it’s time to give the writing thing another try, to dig my heels in, put my head down and see if I can do better than I did last year. Of course, she’s right. Rejection be damned. I’m not really much of a quitter. Sure, I quit wrestling junior year of high school because it sucked to be in pain while surrounded by dudes who weren’t really my friends and I quit track my senior year because I was too stupid to realize running track wasn’t about athletics, it was about girls. But beyond that, I have a horrible tendency to stick with things to the bitter, perhaps better, end.

I have a handful of unfinished stories sitting on my laptop. It’s high time I wrapped them up. If no one goes for them, I now have a way to produce them myself, remember Box Books? Seems very win win to me.

However, this leaves me with a tiny void. An art void. As we all know, nature abhors a vacuum, so that void is going to bug the crap out of me until I fill it. Between coming to grips with the fact that painting as illustration was a bust and knowing that ink won’t play a major role in my future, I’ve been taking stock of the skilz I might be able to explore on a strictly personal basis. It’s always strange for me to say I’m going to make something awesome and no one is probably ever going to see it or at least not see it for quite some time. Such thinking is antithetical to my education and to my professional acumen. But that’s the Real World talking, the silly world that likes good reviews and the idea of royalties. Fortunately, the Real World doesn’t have much sway in My World. In My World, there’s a huge banner rippling across the sky that says “Hey, moron, you’re going to die, maybe today, maybe tomorrow… so make something cool. Right now! Got it? Don’t make me come down there. I know where you sleep.”

With that lovely, god-like rant in mind, I convinced my dad to work on a little project over the holidays. Knowing I had a wood shop at my disposal and knowing there were piles of vintage cigar boxes laying around and that buying a professionally manufactured pochade box for painting plein air cost more than I can invest in one, I set out to design a small, beautiful paint box and have my dad make it as quickly and cheaply as possible. 

Not bad for an old, wooden box, two pieces of castoff wood as stabilizing arms, $4 in nuts and bolts, a recycled piece of an old camera for mounting the box to a lightweight tripod and a couple of coats of varnish. For under five bucks, we whipped up a glorious storage, transport and easel deally for painting on the fly. This little monster can support up to 8x10 pieces and makes my life ever more Jedi. Gotta love all things small, simple, practical and elegant. Thanks, Dad.

So… I may not know exactly what will fill that art void, but let’s say there’s a nebulous little star of an idea forming. It could take a few million years for everything to come together but I’m nothing if not an astonishingly patient fellow.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Nearly a Year to the Day.

Let’s take a ride in the Way Back Machine for a moment. January 6th, 2014 was the day I wrapped up the illustrations for the Salem Witch book, illustrations I’d started in July of 2013. To say I was relieved to have completed my task would be a misnomer. I was utterly burned out. Not just from seven months of daily toil on a single project, but from almost exactly ten years of constant ink illustration. We’re talking about hundreds of intensely precise images and countless strokes of the pen. Even though I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent doing such illustration, if you were to pick a random hour on a random day from the last decade, odds are I was sitting at a desk drawing.

I entered 2014 determined to do something else. And so I did. I wrote from January to July. It was tough going at first. It always is. Changing gears requires time and focus. I have to tell my brain to translate ideas which come to me clearly as an inked image into a pile of words. It took some getting used to. But then came the chance, and it’s always just “a chance” to try and offer one more idea to a publisher, an idea that would require me to get all illustrate-y again. Not wanting to go through the tough slogging of the Salem book days, I decided I would try my hand at something less detail-oriented and precise, something that would allow for fast execution. Hence, me playing with paint for the last six months. It took some time to get the hang of it and figure out how to fit my style into the medium, but I was starting to get somewhere.

Then came the notion of independent publishing with the Box Book artists. Yeah, get used to me talking about all things Box Books for some time to come. The whole point of Box Books is to take really good projects that the publishing industry types can’t be bothered with because they are, for lack of a better word, esoteric … and awesome and get them out there. As soon as I talk about being esoteric and awesome, you know I’m talking about writing and illustration. There’s no way of getting around it. There are times when my writing wins me fans, there are times when it’s the drawing. Either way I end up with a new fan and to do anything which would limit me infotaining just one more person is to shoot myself in the foot. Consequentially, I went into the holiday season putting together my first Box Book, an illustrated novella containing about 12 images. Since I was using paint, I knocked out the illustrations in a single weekend. It was wonderful.

And then… there’s always an “an then…” When I received the proof printing of the book, I was horribly crushed. All the magic of the paintings, the atmosphere, the depth, the softness; everything I loved about the images, was gone. Now, for those who don’t understand the printing process, it costs a lot of money to make a reproduction look like the original piece of art. That’s why beautiful art books cost $100 and look wonderful while comic books cost a $1 and look like crap. You get what you pay for. As a professional, you learn to deal with the difference between what your illustrations really look like and what a publisher can afford to produce. For me, doing pen & ink, I figured each image lost about 10-20% of its ‘life’ during the printing process. It never made me happy, but I understood why it happened and could live with it. Such is the price one pays for mass production. Honestly, I was happy with such a small loss, having seen what happens to the work of people who use color or find themselves working for less exacting publishers. This is where I encourage my readers to seek out shows of actual work or to buy original art when you can, because you will be astonished by how beautiful the pieces are when compared to work on the page you are so accustomed to seeing. But anyway, I received the proof of my Box Book novella and saw my paintings lost 50-60% of their ‘life’. The printing technology available to me cannot begin to cope with the subtly of the paintings. They were worse than photocopies. I immediately twerked them in Photoshop and ordered another proof, hoping that by seeing how the printing was being done, I could compensate by changing the contrast and tones of the images. But to no avail. The second proof was equally poor. The book looked great, the cover was lovely, the text perfect, but the illustrations were simply terrible.

Nearly a year to the day, on the 7th, I plopped down at my new desk, opened my bottle of ink, taped a pen point to the back of an old brush and began to draw. The irony being, I took up pen & ink in 2004 because I knew it was the best way for a starving artist to make an image which would reproduce well, almost regardless of the quality of the printing. I consciously choose pen & ink because I feared I would be in the position of publishing the work myself. But then I got lucky and spent ten years working with talented professionals who would have made any medium I choose look pretty good in book form. And yet, when I set out to tackle my very first, solo project, I actively avoided pen & ink, the very medium most likely to give me results I could be proud of. Ridiculous, I know, but true.

So, here I am again. It’s like running into an ex-girlfriend at the mall and wondering why we broke up and damn she looks really good and she keeps smiling and there seem to be a lot of extra hugs involved with this meaningless conversation and we both make sure to exchange phone numbers and she sexts several times before I even find my car in the parking lot… Wait, where was I? Oh, the ink. So, yeah, I fell back into the rhythm of pen & ink without even thinking about it, as if it was literally the only cool thing I can do as far as art goes. However, since nothing is ever wasted, I decided I wasn’t going to let ink kill me like it had for the last ten years. Oh no, I’m running the show now. From my summer of painting, I brought all the brush skilz I picked up from six months of constant learning. The idea being, I will use the rough, spontaneous, intricately chaotic nature of brushwork to bring contrast to my drawings and use them to fill space that once would have taken me days to peck away with a pen point. Instead of losing 10 to 15 hours per image, I would only spend 1 or 2 hours. I would bring my precise, needle-like lines to the part of the image which needed such attention, then step back and have at it with the brushes when I came to the parts of the image which required gesture or texture. Thus far, the results are making me happy. Of course, we’ll have to see what the proof book looks like, but honestly, I only expect to lose the 10-20% I’m accustomed to losing, which is almost like winning.

Of course, I will keep you posted on my progress… which will be weird since I will also have a normal life on top of all this inking business. Turns out, living next to New York City is kind of interesting. Who knew?

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The New Year... The New, Big Idea.

Happy New Year to one and all. I hope your holidays were fun, safe and calorically heavy. I had a wonderful time with family and friends. I put my creative existence on the backburner and did my best to behave like a normal person. The verdict is still out on how well I did. What I do know, is it’s time for me to get back to work. Sixteen days of calm and quiet are just a touch too long for my itchy soul.

The big question is, as this is a new year and all, what am I getting back to? I spent a lot of time pondering that question. I made a lot of lists full of the pros and cons of various media. I did my best to objectively measure my talent in everything. I crunched numbers. I looked at my meager finances and projected where they could take me in the coming twelve months. I studied all the data I accrued over the years to determine the most advantageous use of my time, talent and energy. Put simply, I drove myself quite insane.

In the end, I came away knowing two facts:

Writing always wins the top spot on the list of my creative endeavors. I can do a lot of things. I have the time, materials and know how to make some pretty beautiful stuff. To that, I have to say, so what. The only thing that matters is what I do on a daily basis. It is through writing that I seem to channel my clearest thoughts, work the fastest and regularly come up with something awesome. (And for those of you more interested in my visual work, it’ll still be there, I just don’t know how at the moment…)

I know, I’ve been saying similar things for months. We all know it. However, what I know and what I do with what I know can be two very different things.

Which brings me to fact number two:

I spend 95% of my worry-orient brain power trying to solve questions or problems about my battle against the visual arts, despite the fact that the art I produce only accounts for 5% of my creative output and generally doesn’t make me feel happy or satisfied. Put simply, I spend too much time worrying about things that don’t matter. For instance, I took the holidays off from all things artistic. I barely wrote anything and I didn’t draw, paint or photograph anything. Physically speaking, I purged the system. But in my head, I twirled through the same old arguments about illustration versus art or how this medium can do this and that while another medium can to blah and blah… Do you know what all that inner-debating did for me? Nothing, except prove what a wasted of brain power it was.

And so, I find myself back in the JC, ready to pounce on the new year with those two facts clearly in view. Which is good, because it’s going to be a busy year and I have no interest in wasting my creative energy being silly. Get used to me talking about writing projects. Get used to me talking about Art rather than illustration.

On to The New, Big Idea…

During Xmas 2013, I had a conversation with people about the idea of producing my own work instead of always trying to find a publisher. Everyone liked the idea but no one knew how to make it function because the whole point of the publisher is to put money into the production and marketing of a project. But the idea was interesting. I liked the freedom it could afford. I liked the idea of working at my pace and not according to a catalog schedule. Plus, I must admit, I still thought of myself like I was in an indie band, playing one small show after another, and if your band is going to suffer through that kind of slow growth it, made sense to interact directly with the fans rather than with some corporate machine. I was always looking for a way to translate the feeling to the book world. Anyway, I tabled the whole thing for some future date.

In October, I was commiserating with Jamison Odone about the trials and tribulations of being more of an outlier author and how it would be cool if we could produce some of the projects that people in the industry like but can’t get behind because they don’t fit into those neat marketing niches that drive the publishing machine. Being a rather brilliant and creative fellow, Jamie took my rantings and gave them a twist: what if we got a bunch of equally talented people who had some unfinished projects laying around and put together a collective of artists and writers who could, by combining their web presence and marketing savvy, promote new work created by everyone involved, with the technology at our fingertips?

It didn’t take us long to get the ball rolling. Allow me to introduce you to Box Books (www.theboxbooks.com). The goal of Box Books is for each artist to make several titles a year, pool our marketing power and see if we can’t find a home for our stories. A home like yours, perhaps. Each Box Book writer or artist maintains his or her own internet store on createspace.com (think Etsy for book people) and their work is available on Amazon. You can get their books in print or in electronic format. Unlike traditional publishing, the lion’s share of the money spent to purchase one of our books goes directly to the artist who created it. It’s a pretty simple idea.

With that laid out so neatly, let me take second and expound on a few reasons why I’m going to pursue this new path while I continue to do other work, whether it’s with other authors and publishers, kids in punk bands, whatever comes down the pike… :

The key to this experiment in publishing being a success is you, my long-suffering reader/fan. You are my tribe. You like what I do. Here’s a chance to help support me by buying my books, just like being a fan of a band who comes to a show and buys a t-shirt (because you know musicians almost never make money off their recordings, right? It's all about the merch.). Isn’t it a swell idea? And the hope is, since you like what I do, you might just like the work of some other artists you may not have heard of before and buy their books. The more you talk about the cool things we Box Book idiots are doing, the better our chances of success. We’re talking serious, straightforward grassroots love here and nothing else.

I know some people are very anti-Amazon or POD printing, etc., and are worried that with this turn to new technologies, we’re stabbing independent bookstores in the back. First, indie bookstores could buy books from us and we would work out a return policy but that’s just normal book business bullcrap that has little to do with the actual issue. The real point to be made is independent bookstores can’t go to bat for authors who aren’t cranking out bestsellers like Twilight or a Star Wars Lego books because they are on a short leash from the publishers. They can’t champion very many books worth reading if they aren’t going to appeal to the rather dim masses, buying crap in the millions, because the bookstores would go out of business. Can you even imagine an independent bookstore filled to the rafters with interesting titles and not stacks of soon-to-be-forgotten books written by political hacks, celebrities and this year’s literary darling? I can’t. It’s a rather dark time in publishing and no one is about to do anyone any favors. Being at the ass end of the pecking order, authors in my position are left scratching about for pennies. It’s sheer idiocy not to take a shot at a new business model that would benefit the author first and everyone else second. Of course, that last sentence explains why the publishing world is against any change to the system but I figure you sussed that out on your own.

My last point, I really like the idea of working fast. I think the old model of publishing, where it would take roughly two years between books is outdated. It doesn’t take two years to read a book, even if you’re tackling Proust. With the advent of the internet, I feel forward thinking publishing is looking at how music is marketed as a model. Dropping a new single every few months is a far better way to attract fans and keep them interested in all your work than to wait years between projects. The internet is designed to incorporate new material, at any time, and spread it like wild fire. It’s foolish to say books can’t be disseminated to the public as readily as music, movies, magazines, etc. Content is just content, regardless of form. So, one of the key parts of the Box Book experiment is to allow authors to knock out several books in a year to test this little theory of mine.

For 2015, my goal is put out four books. The first, is the novella version of Hop Hazard Love, which will be released on January 31st. I have three other books in the works, all YA novel titles. Even if this whole thing is a bust, I’ll still have four new books on the shelf with my other work. That’s reason enough to give it a shot. 

Oh and the first Box Book already is available to you: a small, picture book of the dark and beautiful poem, Annabel Lee, by Edgar Allen Poe and illustrated by Jamison Odone. Perfect for morbid little geniuses, lovers of poetry or people who just got dumped.