Monthly Archives: April 2013

Art is like Being Haunted: a spoiler-free review of WHAT MAKES YOU DIE by Tom Piccirilli

Delirious artistry comes down to us, as it always does, from Dionysus. Take two of these and write until tomorrow morning, so to speak. Tom Pic, the character who is also a screenwriter is no stranger to the demons that walk the edges of the page. His latest book decides to let the demons step into center stage and walkabout, and merge and blend with all the people and places that populate a page under the best and worst of circumstances. In some respects, one question comes to mind, if this character is as bad news as he seems to be, and as bad news as everyone says he is, are the people who put up with him real or a hallucination?

WHAT MAKES YOU DIE is a hallucination of a novel, with a narrator so unreliable, you never know who is living or who is a ghost, because he never knows who is living or who is a ghost. The whole work is reminiscent of the drug-addled, psychosis of the late 60s. It could just be a dream of a bum, talking to himself, and stumbling from one abandoned building to another, clutching at drugs as if they were the dreams of Hollywood, flickering in the dark on the screen, and not the other way around where the drugs create the dreams.

He has written a screenplay. Or, rather, he has written part of one. It is a very exciting screenplay. There’s a dead body on the roof. There’s a leg in the bathtub. It might be the leg of the character who is missing a leg. It is an amazing screenplay for someone climbing their way up to the top, or struggling on their way back to the bottom. It is apparently so good, even the deadbeat Hollywood agent can see that something is special, here. Something is different. Money can be made with it. Go forth, then, Tommy, and figure out how to finish.

He has no memory of the script, and was locked up in a psychoward for attempting to carve a komodo dragon ghost out of his stomach. Here is a moment where we can delineate the horror genre from the fantasy one: The narrator does not believe there’s really a ghost inside of him, and prefers to stick to the knowledge that he is hallucinating. Do you believe him? Is this the way a hallucinating man interacts with his world? Is this what it takes to create great art? Do you have to carve the art out of your gut like excising a parasitic demon?

Hollywood hands over all proceedings in the text. He stumbles through his own memories, glories and failures, while stumbling between his mother’s house and all the places the wasted man shamble when they are procrastinating.

Hallucination, then: Beside this haunted man’s agent’s office, where he had gone for a meeting, there is a store that sells witchcraft supplies and he meets a white witch who wishes to help. Which is it, then? Which side is the hallucination in the convenient coin toss? Is the agency real, but the Wiccan a lie? Is the Wiccan real, and did it draw him there under the pretext of the agency contract, because deep down, poor ol’ Tom needs to be healed? My advice is trust no one, and try to stay focused on what feels real, because feelings don’t lie in fiction. If it feels real, then it might as well be real. If it is real to Tom, it’s real.

There’s so much to get lost in here. The memories of Hollywood seem hyperreal, and we suspect they aren’t true early in the book. No one is that lucky. But, we suspect they might be true, because Hollywood and art is a world of nothing but luck. Is the Laurence Welk show really playing in the other room for the sister that never changes the channel? Is it even on TV anymore? Which of the phantasms that pass through these pages is alive, and which is dead? The author is not interested in answering that question, and merely drops clues like the Welk music, that something isn’t right.

Okay, so let’s move on to other things. There’s a missing girl deep in the past, and a father that died young from cancer. Both seem to be things that broke the main character off the normal path, and into the writing path. It’s as if their ghosts haunt the man. The absence haunts him. Literally, perhaps, he is haunted. A young boy was hit by a car, dragged to his death across the blacktop. All these accumulated ghosts weigh him down; he writes to them. He’s trapped inside the veil of the phantasms, wandering the streets lost in his own head. He knows there’s this amazing screenplay inside of him, if only he can cut deep enough, and dig out the damn dead dragon that’s curled up in there.

Fiction is only a lie if you refuse to hear the truth. Komodo dragons in the belly, and a maze of confusion, uncertainty, failure, and strong liquor, then. Feel something. Do something.

Read this book.

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Weekend Getaway

When a dachshund, placed in a racing shoot, and encouraged to run across the field when said shoot opens, most don’t quite understand what they are supposed to do. They wander about, with a dazed look on their faces, happy to see all the people and other dogs. Some have been training for this day, and they shoot across the field. loping like nimble gazelle, except with tiny, tiny legs. For most racing dachshunds, finishing the race is quite enough of a challenge that attempting to achieve speed is too difficult. Confused by the crowd, and desiring to meet all the people, even fast dachshunds might try to run around the sides, and say hello to all the people and fellow dachshunds.

A band was playing. Dogs barked among the rows of festival tents.

We walked downtown, and visited some of the shops, and I learned what “antiquing” was, and found it to be a strange, and dull sport, and not as much fun as dachshund races, but there were some really nifty old books in one of the shops, with the sort of illustrations that were only made before the second world war.

Small town festivals are a hoot. So are large groups of dachshunds.

Wear closed-toe shoes.

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Pick a corner of the world…

The Golden Horde was a powerful political body that ruled in the Ukraine, taking over from the kings that came before. They were the Western edge of the Mongolian empire, and re-organized the native Varyngian people there to their liking. For two hundred years, they ruled. Even after their empire began to crumble, and they were merely the Great Horde, they ruled. The Polish and Lithuanian kings pushed back in a deluge that lasted decades, to drive away the Tartarian warlords that nibbled at the edge of their nations.

Before the Golden Horde, was another ruler, and another empire. Before that, they were Byantium, and the Varyngian guards were sworn to the emperor, and feared.

Pick any corner of this planet, and there is the ebb and flow of nations and kings. Before the white men came here, where I live now, the Caddo lived in fear of the Comanche, who were newcomers, just as the Caddo had driven their own former masters south, into Northern Mexico. The Karankawa Indians clung to the coast line, at the edges of rivers, making casseroles out of native bell peppers and the human arms of their enemies. Pick anywhere, at all. The ebb and flow of history drives new kings and pulls them down.

Every time I pass the history section of the store, I wonder if I could just pick one corner of the world, and go back into the dark shadows of the past, when history was being born, and learn everything I could through time, and write everything I could from that knowledge. But, there’s just too many fascinating corners. There’s so much history in history. There’s so much striving and inspiring and amazing.

When I pass on from this life, I hope there is a well where my soul can drink that contains inside of it the knowledge of history – all history. I could spend an eternity at the pool, reinventing the past through my own imagination.

There was a nation once – a powerful and fearsome nation – that was called the Golden Horde. Poland and Lithuania together beat it down into the dust of time.

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I’ve been reading heavy, long books. I’ve been slowly burning through them.

Watching movies from the library, we keep it light, mostly.

Here’s one I saw recently, that I thought was worth everyone’s time.

A mumblecore musical, or something like it. But, a guy who made a movie because he loves movies, and used his friends and the people around him in Boston to do it, and it’s better than movies I’ve seen with big budgets and shiny effects. It’s a joy and a treat, and magical.

You can really feel when art is made because people love to make it versus rote, capitalist pandering. (“New Adult” indeed.)

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Never Settle

I’ve been reading about planting an avocado tree because I am about to do so. They get pretty big – up over 25 feet and more – and they stay sort of columnar-ish half as wide as they are tall. some Mexican varieties are cold-hardy down to the low teens, unlike the delicate Guatamalan Haas. They are not salt-tolerant, though, and where I live there is nothing but salt in the soil from the centuries long ago when this was all an ocean. I will have to build a mound up, with cactus soil, and mulch over it for aesthetics. I will build an island in the front yard where the tree may grow, up above the ground. I will be placing the tree in a burlap sack, and I will cut holes the sack, and use this to let the tree ease into the ground we have.

There are only two others in my neighborhood who seem to share my passion for fruit trees. People aren’t willing to work for fruit trees. They aren’t willing to spray the peaches, or learn how to prune. They don’t want to bother with harvesting, processing, and all that stuff.

Also, we don’t live like we used to, back when land was passed down to eldest sons. We don’t think of our houses as permanent things, where we will live with out families for ten-thousand years. That’s how it used to be, on this earth. You stayed where you were, and planted where you were, and cultivated where you were. Some fruit trees take so long to fruit, that people who plant the seeds might not live to see the fruit. A pear tree, bought at your local nursery, has been alive for years, and will take years when you transplant it to produce a single fruit.

We move around, then. We sell our houses and move where there’s work. We think of our houses as an investment we will one day cash out. We do not ever think our children will live in this house, and their children’s children, and so on.

Driving around my neighborhood, I see that in the landscape. Plants are ornaments, only. HOAs demand ornaments, property value maintenance, grass, certain kinds of high-value ornamental trees. What a strange way to live, when you think about the rest of human history before our own time. You are required to maintain the value of your home, so that everyone in the neighborhood can get a good price when the land is sold to the next itinerant resident.

Everyone’s just slowly, slowly passing through to the next place. We are such a restless people, we Americans.

I plant fruit trees knowing I may never see the fruit. A job offer might come through, and I might have to go. My wife and I have discussed where we want to live next, and where we want to go next. But, I plant fruit trees because this is the right way to live: to treat everyone who comes to this house after us as our heirs, our good friends, our deserving followers. I plant fruit trees because the abundance we have now, in our stores, cannot possibly last when the price the earth pays is so very high. I mapped out a year of fruit harvests. I plotted and schemed to always have something coming in to harvest and devour.

This week, I will plant an avocado tree in the front yard. It will grow tall, and undoubtedly my neighbors will sneak up to the thing to snag an avocado from time to time, despite my objections. They will go home and may even wish that whoever lived in their house before them had bothered to plant one of the trees. We will, all of us, move on to our next houses, where we live for ten years and think it an eternity to stay in one place for so long, to really settle in. It’s not settling in, though. It’s just slowly passing through, like Minecrafters who eventually get sick of their plane of creation, and wipe things clean and new, build a new world for ourselves. Move on to the next house. Move on until we are not moving on to the next house, but rather moving on to the nursing home, and to the houses beyond the walls of time. Never build a home for a thousand years. Never grow an empire in a single neighborhood, buying up houses as they go empty, and planting descendants inside of them. Never carve a new world out of the high plains, where generations can watch the nations rise and fall.

Never settle. Move on from here. Maintain your house that you can protect the value of it, and sell it in ten years, to build your dream house somewhere else, and the next dream house after that one.

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Hurry Up and Wait

There was lots of talk the last week or so about things and stuff. All we can do is wait, now.

Now, all we can do is wait.

I mailed off some contracts on stories and stuff. I wait.

Hurry up and wait. That’s the job. I keep working. Schedule to keep up, and whatnot. Grab a cup of the brown stuff the shade of an acorn, and don’t stop working until the moon comes out and stars. All in all, another splendid day on the job.

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Some days all you can do is brew something fun and maybe bottle it later…

This has been a long couple weeks, folks. Lift a cold one for me, out there, wherever you are.

Stay frosty out there, people! Don’t give up for a goddamn anything!

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Herodotus’ Alternate History

Every night, for weeks, I’ve been reading Herodotus before falling asleep. It is fascinating, and it also acts like a magic sleeping pill. The kings of the past would not be out of place among the presidents of the modern day. I find fascinating, in particular, how rarely history talks about the food of the armies.There is the floods of Egypt (I am currently reading about an Egyptian king named Aramis, or something like Aramis.. I don’t remember his name.) and the productive soil such floods provide. There is the arrangement of land. But, the nobility and the warrior class are the ones who cut a path across such books as these.

Imagine what would happen if such men as Herodotus praised not the kings, but the shepherds and farmers and mothers. If all these great moments in history were not such trivial matters as which violent nobleman squats upon a throne and for how long, and instead questioned the way farmers grew and prepared food in all the kingdoms of the world,and the way mothers raised children. Glorify not the warmongers, but the grandmothers who keep the household gods, Herodotus. Build a society upon these histories. Western Civilization that is founded upon the books of the home and hearth, the farm and field. Scoff upon the men who would cut down the sons like hard winter wheat. Curse them, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Homer.

Imagine the epic poem of just Penelope,managing the lands to feed the guests that groan upon her paving stones, driving back the battle-hardened,braggart men, fistfighting in her lawn, and how could she raise a son like that, with all those awful,noisy men in her courtyard? History of kings and warlords is skimming the smoke of discerning a history of the civilization from the smoke trails of faded clouds.

Herodotus, tell me not of the harem intrigue, and tell me not of the palaces and kings. The ceremonies of state religions tell me nothing about the little gods that watch over the faithful hearth. Herodotus, I wish you had glorified the home and hearth, and the men who hid their cattle, hid their daughters, and served their land, sending no sons to war for foreign kings and glory, staying where they were and being honest and building a future in every little decision and deed upon their ancestral ground.

Picture the world constructed from a peaceful myth of origin. Picture the nations that result who do not glorify in war of Ares or Roman Mars, but only glorify the Pallas Athena, protectress of cities. Glorify the good farmer, the honest wife, the skills of the smiths, and the good life that comes from hard work, peace, and building always for the next generation.

Dream of this when you sleep, as I do, after reading Herodotus.

All our generations of scholars and kings, for 1000 years studied Greek and Latin, and filled their imaginations with such wars and such petty, miserable would-be godkings… What an example they made, those Greek and Roman historians, for how great men should behave. What a horrible example of how to be a great man, by the edge of a sword and the deceit of politicians, and the destruction and subjugation of empires and religions and making others eat their own dead.

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Night Shade/Skyhorse/Start Redux

At this time, I haven’t signed the deal. I’m waiting on details from one more person before I make my decision.

I think it is a good sign that so many originally unhappy people, like Michael Stackpole, have been won over where it matters: the contract terms. Skyhorse/Start didn’t come to the table to be cruel or unusual. In fact, the boilerplate we saw initially would not be out of place at a major publishing house. What is unusual is that ¬†they acted in good faith to amend the deal presented, and alter the contract terms for everyone.

Regardless of whether I sign or not, I feel very positively about Skyhorse/Start and their future in SF/F. Pleasing authors goes a long way towards a bright future in genre. Their good faith actions to adjust their contract terms have proven they are serious about this deal, and are trying to do more good than harm. No one can blame a business for trying to make a profit in a difficult climate, like print publishing, but the escalators indicate that maybe authors can also look forward to a piece of the action once that initial payment to clear Night Shade’s copious debts clears into the black.

There’s one thing I’d still like, and I’m waffling because of it. It is such a small detail that it doesn’t merit mentioning. Also, I haven’t heard back from my own legal counsel on the contract, and anytime bankruptcy is rearing a stink, it’s time to get legal advice from someone, even if you’re trying to prevent bankruptcy.

Everyone’s situation is different, and I don’t think anyone should feel pressure to take the deal, either way, and I know I’m still researching the complexity of my own situation. This is actually not as simple as “deal/no deal” because what is best for each individual author depends on a lot of different, totally personal, circumstances.

Regardless, if you would like to influence my future as an author in a positive direction, pick up a couple of these bad boys, and share them with your friends, because as I mentioned yesterday, this book had a rough time getting born, and may not be long for this world regardless of the outcome of the pending asset transfer:

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Just to make clear what I mean when I say Night Shade seemed hell bent on ending my career…

So, Borders collapsed in September of 2011. Before then, my sales was something like 10-40 a week. Not spectacular, but not the end of your career, as long as it’s better than the first novel and shows some growth, which it seemed to do considering my first publisher, back in 2008, was dead within three or four months. This also was not counting the eBooks of which we moved quite a very many, indeed. This was all before the release of WHEN WE WERE EXECUTIONERS, and before Borders collapsed.

Borders’ collapse did have a huge impact on me, personally. It really might have been the end of my career as a writer of fantasy under the nomduhploom J. M. McDermott. It had this effect on my career because my most prominent title was with someone in too deep with Borders books. I had a feeling at the time, honestly, that it was going to be bad for me, and a lot of others midlisters might be going down with the ship with publishers who were going to get a lot of discounted copies and returns. People around me at ArmadilloCon in 2011 might remember me, then, thinking about the end of careers a lot. I was reaching out into the indie world, experimenting and getting ready, at the time, for whatever came next. Books don’t last long on shelves, under the best of circumstances, so there’s only a short window of time to make an impression before the world moves on. The world moved on, and surprisingly, so did Night Shade from Diamond distribution right when I had another book coming out that was scheduled to get lost in the transition.

I have never even seen evidence that WHEN WE WERE EXECUTIONERS was in a book catalog, at all. I have never seen evidence that librarians knew it existed. I have only seen evidence that 2 reviewers got a copy that didn’t come from me, directly. I have never seen one on a physical shelf, not even at an indie bookstore.

I pulled up bookscan numbers on the 2nd Dogsland Book, when they crossed over distribution from Diamond to PGW and left me swinging with minimal support, a metric ton of promises, and nothing in the end:

Per Bookscan, that’s 131 copies moved, total, of WHEN WE WERE EXECUTIONERS, for all time.

That’s what the end of careers look like, folks.

Night Shade can’t take all the credit, and it’s too easy to blame a long-suffering scapegoat with the current news all over town. I wrote the damn things, right? Ultimately, the blame and the consequences lie with the author. They have to.

But, I guess my measuring stick on these issues is going to be self-publishing. If I have stronger self-publishing numbers on a harder-to-sell short story collection than a publisher does on a critically-acclaimed series, then that publisher is not helping me much. If the numbers are so low as to be astonishing that they claim to be a real publisher with distribution and stuff, well… You expect to lose people moving forward in a series, but the cliff here was suspiciously steep. It could be it’s poorly written – always a risk – but I argue that John Clute and Jesse Bullington don’t praise books in their reviews at Strange Horizons unless they’re at least interesting. It’s very hard for me to feel like the book quality is to blame. I suspect they weren’t marketed correctly, and got sent to a lot of paranormal and urban fantasy reviewers who either got surprised and liked it, or didn’t even finish it.

Honestly, people, I’ve moved more copies of the eBook of WOMEN AND MONSTERS with a micropress and a staff of 1 1/2 than Night Shade did, at all, total, of the 2nd Dogsland Book.

If you would like to continue reading books written by someone named J. M. McDermott, to make the whole lot of books easier to find in the future, perhaps even written in the fantasy genre, might I suggest that now would be a great time to pick up a copy of WHEN WE WERE EXECUTIONERS and share it with a friend? Pick up half a dozen and make a library donation or five. Hoard some under wraps somewhere, if you’re so inclined, because I still haven’t made up my mind about the current news. I don’t think the Dogsland books will be long for the shelves, even if I cross over to Skyhorse, at these numbers. If I don’t cross over, they’ll have an even shorter lifespan.

Frankly, after this it will be some time before anyone picks up a new fantasy novel by me, even if I change my name, outside of the indie writing world, who are often disinterested in putting books on the shelf at Barnes & Noble.

Fortunately, the indie world – and I mean real, independent publishers here, not whatever they’re calling self-publishing these days – is the one area where I’m seeing huge growth in the weeks and months to come. Honestly, I made a list of my top publishers to work with, on current and future projects, and Big 5 imprints weren’t on that list. Distribution and marketing are getting very flat, these days, and people with talent and small, agile teams, absolutely can compete on a big scale, and find “real publishing” numbers.

Still, I do urge you to snag a few copies of WHEN WE WERE EXECUTIONERS while you can. No matter which way the news happens, this is a book not long for the shelves. At 131 copies, total, what businessman in his right mind invests any company resources into it? What bookshelf will stock it for browsers? Heck, honestly, if it were with my micropress, I’d be very cautious about putting any weight behind something selling that poorly.

Do you want this book to be the second-to-last fantasy novel by J. M. McDermott? I’ll keep writing, but if I change my pen’s name, as I likely will have to, now, it will get harder to find my stuff without really paying attention.

It’s 3:14 AM, and I can’t sleep. I keep reading and feeling tired, then I can’t sleep again and come back out here to read. It’s 3:15 AM, now.

3:16. 3:17.

Soon, it might even get to dawn.

I’m sitting here, reading, and waiting and I don’t know what happens next.


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