The Scurrilous Lie of the “Reasonable”

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I spent the last 10 days doing absurdly awesome things with absurdly awesome people. In two weeks, I’ll spend another 20 days doing arguably even more absurdly awesome things with equally absurdly awesome people. A small representative sample of the activities I’m talking about:

  • Swimming in a jungle river miles from civilization
  • Teaching my youngest son how to say and when to use the Litany Against Fear
  • Watching muay thai matches in Bangkok
  • Running up a jungle river to visit orangutans
  • Playing D&D at a table with three native languages
  • Absolutely not peeing a little when a scorpion the size of a small car appeared a meter from my feet
  • Riding elephants on a safari in Nepal

When I share some of these things, or even more pedestrian parts of my life like writing for a living or spending a year abroad, a lot of people say the same thing:

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Terry Pratchett Meets His Most Iconic Character

As most of you know, the literary world became much poorer late last week with the passing of Sir Terry Pratchett. Sir Pratchett’s work bridged the gap between fiction and philosophy, and…

…it’s hard to come up with adequate praise for the man’s body of work…

…let’s go with…

…Sir Pratchett’s novels didn’t just make me wish I was a better writer. It made me want to be a better person.

I cannot write well enough to comment adequately on the man’s death. So I’ll leave it to him:

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Something Cool, but Not Cool


self-publishing-word-cloudSo something cool happened this week, but it got me thinking about something that’s not so cool.

A lot of my readers already know about the Baby Shoes flash fiction anthology that I Kickstarted, and that beat our funding goals by almost a thousand dollars. I’m hugely happy and immensely grateful for how much people have embraced the project, but that’s not the cool thing that happened this week.

joe lansdaleThe specific cool thing I’m talking about is how my literary hero Joe R. Lansdale hasagreed to put a story in the collection. I cannot express how thrilled I am about this. One specific cool thing about it is that the other I wrote him his check and put it in the mail.

Here’s where things get weird.

I’ve bought a lot of books by mojo writing master Lansdale over the years. I’ve seen all of the movies based on his work. I’ve even picked up a couple of those crazy expensive volumes they print for him over at Subterranean Press.

And you know what? Because of the way royalties work, all of those purchases and all of that support probably comes to less than half of the money I gave him with that check. Hell, I know of three people who love his work specifically because of me…and together we probably haven’t been responsible for enough royalties to equal this one (not very big) payment.

I have another writer friend, Linda Needham, who was a best-selling romance writer in the 1990s. Romance writers make a ridiculous pile of money, but if you want to hear somebody really go off on how much screwing is involved in a standard – or even celebrity – writer’s royalty deal, you give her one glass of mead and say “self-publishing.”

That’s not to say I have no use for traditional publishing. I’m in talks with two agents and a publisher about three projects right now, in addition to my self-published projects. But it is to say that self-publishing means you get a metric asston (approximately 1.2 imperial buttloads) more money from each sale than you would from the traditional route.

Like almost every important business decision, this one boils down to math. If you’re writing for a 10% royalty (a huge amount for most writing contracts), then the publisher had better be able to sell ten times as many books as you would have while self-publishing.

Which is pretty unlikely, considering how much publicity support a first-time writer is likely to get.

Right now, we’re seeing a lot of what I call “Reverse Hybrid” writers. Folks who had success as traditionally published authors who use their existing platform to make even more money on the self-published market. Linda’s doing that, and I think Mr. Lansdale is doing it too with the short stories he has up on Amazon for a buck or two a pop. I’m happy for them, but that’s not great advice for folks who haven’t yet made a name for themselves.

The rest of us have to build that platform from scratch. That means knowing how to build a platform, and build it well. Over the years, I’ve found a few great resources to help you do that. Here are a few of my favorites for your reading pleasure.

  • Self Publishing Podcast – smart people actively experimenting with what works and what doesn’t, then telling us about it.
  • John Ellis on Tactical Social Engagement – one of the smartest guys working with social media today.
  • Everything Derek Wyatt Ever Wrote –including graffiti at rest stops.
  • The Creative Penn Blog — a great resource for handling your self publishing like a business.
  • Bookbub — a hard to get into, but extremely effective site for promoting your books.
  • Podiobooks – the method for getting an audiobook version of your work out into the world

Building platform takes a long damn time, and requires a lot of focus and work…so you should learn how as quickly and painlessly as possible. The geniuses behind the resources above will help you do just that.

So…what did I miss? Who are the writers, bloggers, podcasters, movers, shakers and monsters you recommend for awesome building of platform? Tell us about them in the comments and tell me what’s up.

10 Reasons We Love Malaysia

IMG_1899It’s about halftime for our one-year family journey to Malaysia, so I figured I’d do a quickpost about the things I love most about this place, its people and the time we’ve spent here. Later on I’ll do a follow-up about the things I like least, along with the techniques we’ve used to circumnavigate or learn to accept them. But for now…

  1. The Food (Oh God, the Food!)

Let me put it this way. When word trickled out in the Pacific Northwest writing community that I was moving to Malaysia, I received phone calls from three food and travel writers who excitedly told me how much I would love the food here. They were right. It’s an eclectic mix of Thai, Chinese and Indian influences with a few dishes all their own. Between the flavor and the price, I’m probably going to spend time at home mad about how bland and expensive the ethnic food is.

  1. Smiles Everywhere

Despite a lot of poverty, people are friendly and laid back here. Friendly greetings, shared laughter and a general sense of “Ain’t all of this kind of fun, even the messed up parts?” are just how folks interact. Part of it is probably a veneer of civility laid over an area where multiple cultures live in enclaves but interact daily, but overall folks are friendly and mellow. It’s nice.

  1. Everybody Dresses Like Me

My penchant for casual dress actually embarrasses some of my friends when we’re out in public together. Unless I’m “on duty” you’ll find me in ancient jeans or shorts and a t-shirt I probably got as part of my registration for some kind of sporting event. I wear sandals whenever I can get away with it. In Malaysia everybody dresses exactly the same way. Fashion-wise, the mother ship has called me home.

  1. Family Connections

At home, my family is deeply connected to a complex web of family that includes blood kin, marital bonds, adoption and friendships. Our home includes two adults who aren’t part of the nuclear family. I love that, and would think living long-term apart from it a deep poverty. But a year of just the four of us in the crucible of travel and expatriatism has taught me much about how I’m doing well and poorly as a father and husband. It’s a growth opportunity I hadn’t anticipated and am grateful for.

  1. Bonus Holidays

Melaka has a deeply mixed population of Indian, Chinese, Malay, Western and Arabic people all of whom remain vibrantly proud of their ethnic heritage. One result of this is they all celebrate their traditional and religious holidays. It seems not a week goes by that some kind of festival, street theater or party doesn’t happen someplace in this city. My lovely and talented wife expressed this best, when she looked out our bedroom window and said “Fireworks? Must be a Tuesday.”

  1. Celebrity Status

When you’re a Westerner in a friendly Asian nation, you get a lot of positive attention. People come up and talk to you, try to give you free drinks, go out of their way to be kind to your children or help you when you get lost. (You will get lost). Some day I’ll be enlightened and mature enough that I don’t enjoy this for its own sake. Today is not that day.

  1. Location, Location, Location

One problem with living in the United States is it’s hard to get anywhere else. Besides visiting tropical jungles and gorgeous beaches and nifty historical sites and religious festivals right here in Malaysia, our travel history and immediate plans include trips to Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, Korea and Japan. It’s hard to do that in Oregon, and we don’t plan to squander the opportunity.

  1. It’s Really Cheap

You pay the same number for most things here. A bottle of Coke costs between 2 and 3 units of currency. A hotel room for a family between 100 and 200. A casual meal for four between 50 and 100. But Malaysian Ringgit are a little under 1/3 the value of a USD. We had a perfect Indian meal for our family, including a teenaged boy, for fifteen bucks and I just booked flights the rough equivalent of Seattle to Portland for the rough equivalent of 30 bucks each. It makes adventures feasible.

  1. The Weather

It can be crushingly hot at times, but overall the weather here helps me understand why people from England showed up and decided to stay.  About 70 degrees with a breeze off the ocean most days, and in the summer we get thunderstorms like God’s own fireworks. Even the rain is great. It falls with vigor and authority, washing the air of pollution and heat, then it’s gone.

  1. Cultural Awesomeness

My average morning walk passes street food of four different kinds, signs in three scripts and five languages, and four different kinds of religious building. The opportunities to learn from and about different parts of the world, and about ourselves and America from our reflection in what we learn, is why we came out here in the first place. Those opportunities have been daily, surprising and an absolute joy.

Thaipusam in Kuala Lumpur

The world is an awe-inspiringly bizarre place, and its people are utterly, charmingly insane.

IMG_1937When we’re not busy blowing each other up, getting overly judgmental about which representation of the divine we prefer, valuing things over humans and otherwise being jackasses…we are really, really interesting and cool.

 

 

Case in point: Thaipusam

Pronounced “TIE-poo-sum,” it’s one of the more important Tamil holidays of the year, ranking just behind Deepvali. Because a surprising number of Hindu legends read like a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, the festival celebrates when Shiva created the hero Skanda to lead the celestial Deva forces against the demonic Asuras. Tamil Hindus observe Thaipusam by praying and giving sacrifices to Murugan, divine vanquisher of evil, to their bad traits and bad fortune can be destroyed.

These sacrifices are typically of milk, carried on a pilgrimage to a nearby temple. For the temple at Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, that pilgrimage is 9 miles long and made by around a million people.

Another quarter million or so come to observe, support or run vending stalls along the route. If the entire event declared independence, the population would be larger than 20% of the world’s countries. It’s a big deal, and it was happening two hours north of our home in Melaka.

IMG_1899So we got in the car. Specifically, we drove up the night before and got a hotel with (a) a generous parking policy and (b) a location within walking distance of the Batu Caves.

IMG_1904In the morning, we were glad of our park-and-walk decision before we’d covered one of the three kilometers to the temple site. Cars were parked and abandoned in the middle of the roads, just sitting there in the median lane. They got thicker as we got closer, and our little foursome soon joined a loose tide of tourists and penitents all bound for the event.

Let’s talk a little bit about those penitents. Most of them carry jugs or pots of milk, which they’ll carry 9 miles, then up a loooooong flight of stairs, and deliver at the temple in the cave at the top. But a few of them go the extra mile.

In this context “go the extra mile” means “pierce your body in a variety of ways and/or carry an extremely heavy display of peacock feathers and metal the entire length of the journey.”

IMG_1934So there we were: me on point with Gabe on my shoulders, Bev and DJ forming a triangle behind, close pressed on all sides by a crowd of onlookers from eight countries I was able to confirm (plus a German and an Australian — I didn’t meet any of either, but there’s always at least one). We were in the middle lane, with the rest of the well wishers, tourists and general carriers on. To our left were those simply carrying the milk. To our right…

01ThaipusamAs the procession neared the entrance to the temple complex, we passed through a village of food stalls and shops. A news crew stood on the roof to the East and energetic Hindi music thundered from the speakers on the right. Our line moved forward one step every three or four minutes. The milk bearers moved more slowly, while the pierced and burdened in the fast lane alternated between marching swiftly along, dancing to the beat or resting on stools brought along by various members of the supporting cast.

I had just climbed the first three of the 272 steps to Batu Caves when the music changed over to the Star Wars theme.

Let me write that again.

I had just climbed the first three of the 272 steps to Batu Caves when the music changed over to the Star Wars theme.

It stayed on Star Wars for ten minutes or so, then cycled back to the traditional dance music. Meanwhile, I climbed 272 steps with a 50 pound kid on my shoulders who kept wanting to turn around and look down at the crowd stretching behind us for miles into the city. We did ultimately reach the top and enter the Caves themselves.IMG_1973

Things opened up a bit and the crowding level downgraded from “so close we would be legally married in 22 countries, but not this one” to “I had no idea this part of a person smelled like that.” The vibe in the Caves was also different.

The Caves are the destination of the pilgrimage, so in addition to the two lines of people heading to the temple proper — located at the center of the next chamber in — we were among finished pilgrims resting on the floor. Those who had piercings were being doctored physically and spiritually, surrounded by their families. Most pilgrims were eating plain foods and drinking lots of water (fasting in the days before Thaipusam is another part of the pilgrimage process).

We almost didn’t go to the second chamber. It meant passing through a choke point where the crowd upgraded to “probably married in 30 countries, possibly including this one.” But we soldiered through and were rewarded with two gifts.

Gift One: the second chamber has a hole in the top, allowing beams of sunlight to warm and illuminate one of the most astonishing grottoes I’ve personally seen. Even with the massive crowd and its attending litter everywhere, I could see instantaneously why this had become a holy site.IMG_1951

Gift Two: Monkeys!!! A tribe of medium-sized monkeys lives in the upper reaches of the cave walls. Because they know tourists have food, they come down and eat the leftovers, which people toss to a ledge at about head level on the east wall of the cave. The well-fed critters scamper for the food, then run up the wall to eat it.

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I’m old enough now to understand that there are very few objective, no-exceptions truths. People who believe otherwise, just haven’t been enough places or done enough things to learn better. But I’ll tell you right now one of the capital-T Truths I’ve learned in my travels.

Monkeys are awesome.

We stayed on site, ate our lunch and watched the primates run around being monkeys. Eventually, we joined the crowded line to pass through the Caves, down the stairs and out into the city. The Star Wars theme took its turn in the rotation twice during our descent.

Thaipusam: a million people celebrating a chance for a new beginning by paying homage a legend about the Goddess of Death and Change conjuring up a celestial badass to lay down some smack on demons, observed by safety-pinning offerings to a penitent’s back so he can walk nine miles and climb 272 stairs and remove in a cave while somebody plays Star Wars music in the background.

The world is an awe-inspiringly bizarre place, and its people are utterly, charmingly insane.

I am so happy to be a part of both.

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