This is How Things Happen Part 1

JAcksonSunset

I haven’t found the exact right metaphor yet for the way things happen. But for now I’ll say that it’s like watching plants or children grow. It’s happening. Every day. But when you try to watch it, when you try to measure it there’s not much to capture. Sure, if you were out there with a yard stick every day there would be a millimeter or so difference between one day and the next on those tomato plants. And if you wanted to give your child some strange neuroses you could put them on the scale and line them up on the wall every day and you could add a couple centimeters or a couple pounds every few months.

But just try to sit there and watch it happen right before your impatient eyes. It won’t. Even with all your jedi mind tricks and all your transcendental thoughts. I don’t know about you, but that has always been a constant bummer to me. Very few things in life satisfy me so thoroughly as when I see a project or plan come to fruition, but that is a far more rare occasion than the day to day chipping away of uncarved blocks of progress. And so my writing goes.

I can write a haiku in a few minutes, a poem in 15 to 30 minutes, a short essay in a couple hours, a short story might take anywhere from a day to several months, and so on. But that’s just the writing, next comes the editing, which can be a few hours to a few months depending on the complexity and frustration level of the project. And then comes the formatting, the re-editing, the re-formatting, the checking of proofs a dozen times until it’s mostly right, then the first print doesn’t turn out right, so it’s back to the beginning, etc., etc., forever.

I wanted to talk about the self-publishing route today, and the nearly four year project of One Day as a Raven, my first self-published young person’s picture book. Where do I begin after this insanely long journey that it’s been to publish a 34 page children’s book? Well, it all started with a story.  I wish I had a cool story of the inspiration of One Day as a Raven (aka the Raven’s Curse, aka the Jackson story, aka A Day as a Raven), but really I just started writing. I had an idea that I wanted a kid’s story with Coyote and Raven. I knew I wanted to name the main character Jackson and have him based loosely on some kids I had encountered as a teacher, and of course incorporating a little of myself. I started by describing this boy, Jackson was his name. Once I felt like I understood him and his motivations I dropped in Coyote.

Coyote has been a long term obsession of mine. The trickster archetype is probably my favorite, and Coyote is my favorite trickster in all of the mythology that I’ve encountered. He’s just so perfect as a trickster, but he’s also terribly complex. In some Native American cultures he’s that stereotypical bumbling trickster who always ends up tricking himself the worst in the end. In some stories he’s just a poor archetypal fool. In other stories he’s a bit more malevolent, and in some stories he’s a benevolent character with godlike powers. He’s deemed as the creator of the earth and of people and animals in some ancient stories. I decided to play him off as a semi-malevolent, but also purely trickster for the tricking’s sake kind of character. For my story it just worked to play him as the antagonist, though I still have the utmost respect for my dude Coyote.

So the story went, unfolding itself as a I wrote. New storylines and complexities revealing themselves along the way. This is often the case with my writing. I am not much of a plotter. I usually go from inspiration alone and then when I do the work of writing the story maps itself out and tells me where to take it. Of course I decided to factor in the addition pain in the ass of rhyming everything. So not only did I have to tell a story, but I had to rhyme everything and follow some kind of rhythm and keep in mind the correct use and placement of all the poetic devices at my fingertips and all the lyrical tricks under my malnourished poet’s sleeve. How clever and truly poetic I was remains to be analyzed by the critics. Most everybody that has read it just reads it for the entertainment and the sing-songy qualities. I am forever and always my hardest critic so I could take apart the story and rebuild it over and over again and never be satisfied, but some things just have to be let go. And so I finally came to a point where the story was done enough for me to give it away to the next process.

Some 3 ½ or 4 years Patrick Cross began illustrating One Day as a Raven. I can’t speak to much of the illustrating process because my visual artist bone is either completely broken or never formed at all. What I can speak to are the hours and hours and hours and hours that Patrick put into the art. Some of the smaller illustrations might have taken Patrick 10 hours, maybe, on the short side. The bigger ones took 20-40 hours each. And he made, I believe, 36+ illustrations. That’s a whole lotta time at the illustrator’s desk. And from when he started to when he finished he almost became a whole new artist. He learned his own style, uncovered new techniques and dug up, like an archaeologist digging up an undiscovered dinosaur, latent artistic skills and creative wells. And even when he thought he was all done 3 ½ years later we came back to the text and saw that there were too many words on a page here, or a missing illustration there, and then we needed a back cover image and a title page. There is always more work to be worked on.

But for today this is where I will end, a non-dramatic cliffhanger that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Yes, I do know how thrilling and suspenseful it is to learn about self-published children’s books and their fabled creation stories. In the next portion I will reveal the drawn-out process with the printers, the musical odyssey and sound engineering voyage of the audio book, the downtrodden days of being a salesman of my own book, and some more uncategorized tidbits, along with plans for the future and short and long term writing endeavors.

And for making it this far I’m going to give you the beginning of story of which I have no particular direction or idea of where it is going. This could be it, so enjoy.

Julian opened the door of his Buick LeSabre and untied his shoe before walking into the Goodwill. In the ten yards or less that he had to walk to the door he feigned ignorance of his dangling laces. But with every step Julian had to fight a cringe, and a neurotic repulsion he had to the thought of something so close to him out of place, dysfunctional, disorderly. He opened the door for a woman and her screaming child, glanced at his watch, and he entered the store.

He pretended to browse the wares for a minute, looking through wicker baskets with a weaver’s eye.  He looked at his watch to make sure that precisely two minutes and twenty-two seconds had passed since he entered the store. Then he went to the front case, which held odds and ends like jewelry, shoes, purses and such that the thrift store thought too valuable to leave unsecured. In this case, underneath a pair of moth eaten opera gloves was a gold pocket watch. This pocket watch held the answers to a million riddles inside of it that Julian had to know.

It was only $99.99, but it was money that Julian did not have, and would not have in any foreseeable future, unless that pocket watch was in his possession. He bent down to tie his shoe. Reaching into his shoe Julian carefully removed a lock pick and a tension wrench. He made sure the sales clerk was busy at the cash register and otherwise occupied. Then he began to work. He had watched dozens of youtube videos on the proper technique and he had done his research on the design and model of this particular lock. He was a watchmaker and an antique clock repairman by trade, not a cat burglar, but his profession had taught him a steady hand and a deep affinity for working with the small, delicate inner world of mechanisms.

Julian had the lock open in 7 seconds. His tools were stored back in his shoe and his shoe was tied in 15 seconds. But the sales clerk was quick and adept at her work at the cash register.

“Did you need to see something in the display case?”

Julian had to focus and steady himself on the quivering hairs of her upper lip to keep from running, or going catatonic, or screaming out his guilt. If he looked at her broad, wide-nostrilled nose he would be lost and the war-torn mud holes of her abysmal brown eyes would certainly swallow him whole and send him into a prison of desolation. It was the small micro-verse of the single mustache hair just above the mountainous mole on the left side of her lip that kept Julian’s mind scalpel-sharp, laser-focused. He spoke to that mustache hair, and that mustache hair alone when he responded.

“What color tag was on sale today?”

“Green.”

The word came out with the stench of stale cigarettes, a smell that had always been calming and reassuring to Julian. It reminded him of his mother.

“Ah, in that case… no.”

He turned abruptly and went to the books, all the while keeping his eye on the register and the artificially peach-haired, broad bosomed woman behind it. He watched and waited, knowing that if anyone else came up to the display case and asked to see inside they would find the lock open and his guilt would be wide open with it. He imagined a SWAT team and a rabid canine unit descending upon him. He found a cobweb in the back corner of a bookshelf to look into and find his peace, his center. The cobweb had several gnats, a price tag, and a candy corn inside its wispy world. When he looked back at the register a new customer was just dropping her musty clothes and gaudy paintings of landscapes on the counter. Now was his only chance.

He returned to the display case. The sales clerk cast a wet, leering eye in Julian’s direction, but not a suspicious glance, it was the look she would give to a beggar or a stray dog. Julian pretended to be tying his shoe again, he was not enough of a scam artist to think of anything else at that moment. He pushed the glass aside, the case squeaked and almost sent Julian careening backwards with its intensity, but neither clerk nor customer took notice. Julian’s bony, nimble fingers reached in the display case and took hold of the end of the pocket watch’s chain. He pulled slowly and the opera gloves danced in response. He pulled again watch clinked against the glass. Again, the noise like a trash can marching band to Julian, but it coincided with a beep from the price gun on the register. It took Julian one more slow, steady pull on the chain to release the pocket watch from the display case. And then there was the frantic, infinite moment when it was in limbo, out of the display case, but not yet in his pocket. That moment, for Julian, was like a thousand days in Alcatraz, an eternity in the prison of a genie’s lamp. When he finally had the watch in his pocket his heart was beating like a techno thunderstorm. He could hear nothing over his pulse, over the blood throbbing  like an erupting volcano through his frail body.

He actually did fall backwards this time when light and sound caught back up to him.

“Hey! Hey! You there? I said ‘did ya’ change yer mind about the display case?’ Jeeze, they don’t pay me enough for this crap.”

Julian picked himself up and managed to mumble a ‘no thank you’ or some other similar noise before he was retreating like a wounded giraffe out the door. He could feel the power of the thing in his pocket and the ticking of his destiny coming closer.

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