Diving into Creative Swamps….

That queasy feeling in my stomach I’m presently feeling is only partially due to my head cold, and not at all due to our dinner last night of pork posole. (Mmmmm. Pork posole….) No, this feeling of vertigo and fuzzy focus and slight fearful paranoia means only one thing: I’m on the precipice of writing another book.

Oh, how I live for the writing life! I put up with this just so I can work in my slippers?

Dissecting where these feelings come from never does me much good. I know that the fear comes from a worry that I will neglect or let lapse some unspecified “important things” while I mesmerize myself into a strange state that brings the words on the page. While I’d like to state dogmatically that there’s nothing more important than my giving birth to another tome, I’ll leave that up to the bigger blowhards. I’m just not a big enough asshole to state that meditating in my little mental playground is more important than, for instance:

• Supporting my ever-lovin’ wife in her new and demanding job
• Helping Number One Son begin his college search, and arranging all the campus visits
• Helping the Urchin prepare herself for the arrival of high school
• Helping them both with homework, as I promised to do back in September, like every year.
• Keeping the household solvent and the college fund stocked
• Keeping the fires burning under my OTHER books and projects with other people that need tending. (Honk Honk, My Darling, Bardball.com, the PC Bedtime Stories e-book, the Rex podcast, two new comic book ideas, plus a new book that is now in the hands of my agent)

But this is my job, and I can be Joe Lunchpail if I try. People are already starting to bug me about writing a new adventure for Rex Koko. And since I now realize that The Wet Nose of Danger, which is almost completely finished, is really Book 3 in the series and not Book 2 as I had thought, many weeks now lay in front of me full of questions like, “Who is this character, and why the hell should anyone care about him/her?” Repeated through six or seven drafts.

So now it’s time to head into the creative hinterlands, armed with a few sketchy ideas, some characters that may or may not prove crucial to the plot, little baggies of gorp, and faith (not confidence) that I’ll be able to pull it off again. I can see a few spots on the landscape that I want to visit, if I can just build some bridges and/or drain some swamps to figure out how to get there. Drain enough of that swamp, and my little Shangri-La will emerge. (The swamp metaphor might push me to say “Disney World”, but there’s too much baggage attached to that.)

My brother once asked me about how I go about writing a longer story. To his way of thinking, everything from plot to characters would have to be laid out for him to even consider getting started. I tried to explain that that wouldn’t be writing, or that really it’s a PART of writing, but it can’t be the WHOLE part. When you want to build a fire, you make sure you have tinder, kindling and fuel, and that you can find an initial spark, but it’s foolish and pretty boring to predict HOW the fire will burn.

Fire or swamp? My metaphors are already starting to confuse me. Time to start scribbling, and Devil take the hindmost.

I’ve Got No “Woody Allen Problem” About Creative Awards

The setting last Saturday was my favorite bookstore in town, the Book Cellar. The event, the Book of the Year Awards for the Chicago Writers Association. When I got there, maybe six people were scattered around on folding chairs. I went to say hello to Randy Richardson, president of CWA, and his wife. I introduced myself to the other winners in the competition.

Before too long, I turned around and was shocked to see the bookstore completely packed. More than 100 people sat and stood, waiting for us to get the show on the road.

A face or two was familiar, but none were more important than those of my ever-lovin’ wife and two kids. My kids have never seen me read at a big event, because during the past decade, almost all of my readings have been in taverns. There were times 15 years ago when I could occasionally pull a crowd this big. I wanted to show them that their dad wasn’t just the creep who prowls the mezzanine, stocking his mancave with stage props and comic books.

Earlier in the afternoon, I had faced the panicky decision of what to read for the evening. Most of my books have lent themselves to easy excerpts for events like this, but Honk Honk, My Darling was fiction of a weird, rambling, immersive sort. Could I come up with 8-9 minutes that were exciting and coherent and gave a good taste of the book’s contents? I decided against reading the passage of the brawl at the clown bar (want to avoid HHMD being pigeonholed as a clown book) and chose a two-person scene that had a smattering of circus parlari but not too much. Oh, and one that ended in a theatrical killing.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more nervous before a reading, certainly not recently. It’s been a long while, and the relaxed stage demeanor is only easy to fake when I’m in shape. And all false modesty aside, while HHMD was being given an award, it’s a very strange book, not suited to everyone’s taste. This would be an acting exercise, because the two characters in the passage were very different. In reality, this was going to be a short audition, in front of a packed house, in a familiar place (a fact that actually made things harder).

Randy introduced the program and the mission of the Chicago Writers Association. Then, first up to read was Krista August, who won the Nontraditional Nonfiction award for her catalog of the statues in Chicago’s Grant Park, Giants in the Park. She had also illustrated the book with her own watercolors, which I hadn’t realized. She brought along the whole box of them. She told the story of General William Sheridan, both his personal history and that of his statue. (She omitted the tale of what happens to the horse’s genitals on the statue whenever the Pittsburgh Pirates come to town, and she asked me to keep it to myself. Being a classy guy, I acquiesced.)

Next came Pamela Ferdinand reading from her memoir about three friends, late romance, and donor sperm, Three Wishes. Her passages were very funny and touching. Transplanted from the East Coast, she’ll be a good addition to the Chicago scene.

Then Randy introduced me, with way too much praise to make me comfortable. (He’s a huge fan of the HHMD podcast, and makes me feel guilty when I fall behind in production.) He handed me the lucite award, plus the gift card that came with winning. It felt dense yet incredibly delicate. I became afraid of dropping it, so I set it on a table quickly.

This was the first physical trophy I had won since high school, when I got a statue for staying in the Gabriel Richard Club for grade point average for four years. That one sits in my office, not ironically, but with pride and affection, because my father made sure the panel on the statue was engraved with all four years.

My intro describing the genesis of Rex Koko and this self-pubbed book seemed long and rambling, but my wife told me later it was spot-on. I then read a passage from Chapter 8, in which Rex confronts the daredevil Flying Fleming to find the woman he’s looking for. The most frightening part was how easily I slipped into those two characters. Recording the podcast had forced me to create their vocal profiles, but upon reading it started to become my own one-man show. Laughs were not numerous, but somehow the audience grew stone silent and hung on every word. A reflection on the writing? I guess, but it was the comfort with acting that was the most disconcerting. It all felt too natural. Does this mean I have to get out of my mezzanine command center and actually perform in front of people again? St. Genesius, please spare me that fate. I’m insufferable enough as it is.

The final reader of the night was the lovely Christine Sneed, who read from her book of short stories, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry. She read a funny and perceptive passage about a creative writing teacher reacting to having a famous young actor in her class. Christine’s writing is strong and clear, and you’d do yourself a favor to check it out. (For profiles of all these winners, go to the Chicago Writers Association blog.)

Do I have any kind of problem with books being chosen for awards? Hell no. The word “appreciation” doesn’t begin to describe how I feel. After working on the Rex novels for more than 10 years, operating solely on faith and stubbornness, it’s almost unreal that other people believe in the book as much as I did. It’s like everyone recognizing your invisible, imaginary friend at a dinner party. I’m grateful but disoriented.

But now I can tout “Rex Koko, Private Clown” as an “award-winning” mystery series and not be lying (except for the idea that a book and a half constitute a “series”). Frankly, that’s going to help on those slow mornings when what I do seems like a ridiculous way to spend one’s life.

Woody Allen’s whole “don’t show up at the Oscars” schtick is a little rarefied and elitist for me. Furthermore, I think it’s a calculated move to cement his image, what with his clarinet gig that he simply won’t interrupt to schmooze in Hollywood. He won the statue for “Annie Hall”, and he can rest on that while avoiding the awkwardness of being nominated and not winning.

The arts are in no way a competition (except maybe for movies on Memorial Day, but even then, it’s not like a movie ultimately “loses”), even if the presenting of awards makes it seem like there are winners and losers. It’s human nature to want to find distinction among a group of peers. And because they are popular, awards are a good way for people to expand their reading rosters beyond their comfort zones. Anything that promotes more reading is good for writers earning a living, so I’m behind that.

But I’ll say it now: If I’d lost out on this award, I’d’ve been a pretty miserable prick to be around for a weekend or two.

UPDATE: Here are a few pictures from the event. The first two were taken by photographer Mark Thomas.

And here is me with Christine Sneed, who won the Traditional Fiction award for her book of stories, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry. Photo by Mitsuko Richardson.

New Year, New Plans, New Paperback

Hello, all you bips and kinkers. Hope your New Year is still smooth and shiny, still sporting that New Year smell. Things are finally quiet here on the Mezzanine Level, as both my Ever-Lovin’ Wife, Number One Son and The Urchin have all returned to their respective schools. Me? I just return to the four corners of my battered yet resilient psyche.

(I sure hope the WordPress Self-Aggrandizing Filter is still activated.)

I can’t find an overarching theme or topic to string all my thoughts together, so I’ll just toss ’em out here and let them fall where they may.

1. Thank you very much to all my readers and fans out there who scooped up e-copies of all my books. December was my biggest month yet, and I hope that you all enjoyed the various PC stories and the sawdust-and-tinsel epic of Honk Honk My Darling.

2. Thanks also to those of you who downloaded the special Rex podcast, “Have Yourself a Monkey Little Christmas.” I’ve taken that audio file down now, but it will come back later in 2012 as a Christmas treat. I hope the next audio chapter of Honk Honk My Darling will be ready to go by the end of next week. (If you haven’t been listening, it couldn’t be easier to catch up on old episodes. You can subscribe at iTunes or go straight to LibSyn to grab them: http://rexkoko.libsyn.com.)

3. My incredibly slow but unstoppable conquest of all media continues, with the release of the paperback edition of Honk Honk, My Darling! Yes! A physical book you can hold in your physical hands! It would’ve been great to have had it ready in December, but we had some snafus uploading it to Amazon’s CreateSpace. But after some tweaks and another round of proofs, it is here, and looking very professional. I didn’t know the art would look so sumptuous when expanded to a paperback format, but I am very very pleased with the result.

Here we see Zippo’s appropriate reaction to the beautifulness of the paperback. (Zippo appears courtesy of Germany’s renowned Circus Roncalli.)

The paperbacks are printed on demand by CreateSpace and are for sale at Amazon for $9.99. They will also be available this Saturday, as the Chicago Writers Association honors the 2011 Book of the Year Winners! At 7 p.m. at Lincoln Square’s wonderful Book Cellar, we’ll be having readings and snacks for everyone, so everyone in Chicagoland, come out and support your local writers! This year’s winners are Christine Sneed, Pamela Ferdinand, Krista August, and yours truly. For more on them and on the awards in general, head to the CWA blog.

4. For those who want the whole five-cent background on me and the evolution of Rex Koko, check out the interview on the CWA Blog.