My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, December 8, 2017

In Memoriam (John DeCoster)

Like many students, I left high school feeling vaguely violated over what I’d just endured, and a mild sort of antagonism towards the teachers who’d put me through it. I know some students stay and have a moment with their teachers–I've had a few from the other end myself–but for me there was a little Chris-shaped hole in the wall.

I came into my realization of the teachers who had changed the course of my life when I came to those moments where the course of my life bent and realized who I was remembering and what lessons had stayed with me.

It was those teachers who endured, even after decades, who I came to realize were the good ones. While there are dozens I can picture, I can't really remember their names. They did their thing. I resisted on principle. Somehow I walked out with knowledge despite myself. Certainly becoming a teacher myself opened my eyes to how difficult it could be–how instantly the Stand and Deliver fantasy shatters when triaging a state mandated curriculum to a class size of thirty students who would rather be getting a root canal. However, it wasn’t the lessons themselves that resonated. 

These days I can’t tell you how to do a geometry proof. I'm not sure I could map the covalent bonds on a sugar molecule.  I don’t remember Bastille day.

And even though these days I pay my bills with writing, I still need to look up lay and lie.

The teachers I remember decades later didn’t teach me what to learn; they taught me how to learn. They gave me confidence, showed me how to find the path, challenged me. I can find Bastille day in five seconds on my phone, but knowing why the French Revolution was the first domino of modern history is much more complicated. I can reteach myself the covalent bonds of a sugar molecule in five minutes because I know what a covalent bond is and how they work.

I remember those teachers who taught the how even though it was harder. The ones who answered my ceaseless questions for hours, who scaffolded with games that ate their seat time, but to this day help me understand the alliances that led to WWI. I remember the directors who gave me a sense within all future artistic endeavors of how much work lay between “I can’t even read this music” and so many trophies they wouldn't fit on the bus. 

And I remember Mr. DeCoster.

I remember him particularly. I took him more than any other English teacher, always going back to him if he was an option, even for that Film as Lit coast-a-thon that my parents insisted I could only take if I did American Lit simultaneously. (“I get to watch movies for English credit and the only downside is he’s going to interrupt every minute to tell me what’s happening? That’s AWESOME!”) I couldn’t have told you at the time why I liked him so much. I vaguely hated school and most teachers were sort of “the enemy.” But decades later I still remember with how much poise he could navigate a classroom lesson. I don't remember the gerund vs. infinitive or how to analyze A Separate Peace. I remember how he never let us forget the tremendous power and gravitas of language to hold sway our hearts, but somehow also never let us take ourselves too seriously either.  A "Fenork" if I forgot my homework. A "Good man Stan!" if I remembered it. But he never let the levity float out of his reach either–we were learning the language of Shakespeare and Faulkner and Twain, and we weren't going to forget it.

He threaded that needle of laughter and profundity with such a casual grace that the only word that springs to mind is from Victorian court: sprezzatura– the skill so practiced that it can be performed in a way that makes it look easy. He drove the too serious and the not serious enough to apoplectic irritation, but even that never got to him. It was as if he new how to teach despite us.

Lastly a story: It was late fall and two football players came in to discuss their failing grades. I won’t mention their names, but I knew them both. They were ineligible because of their grade point average and the CIF playoffs hung in the balance. We were doing well that year. The players were going around to get their grades improved so they could play. It would be some time before I realized what an indictment of so many things at Canyon High their sheer audacity signaled.

DeCoster was having none of it.  “Hell no! I’m not going to change your grades!” he practically laughed. “Oh fenork! You earned those grades. Why would you even ask? Do other teachers do this crap for you? Get out of my class.” 

Not a day goes by in the world around me–a world that in the last year and change has tried so very hard to chip away at who I am and what I believe is right.....  A world that asks me to compromise my integrity and take the path of least resistance…. A world where it is becoming easier to keep quiet if you're not the ones they're coming for....

Not a day goes by that I don’t remember that lesson of integrity and probity. Not a waiver. Not a pause. Not a hedge. Not a blink. “Hell no!” he said. How could they even ask? 

Sorry if I can’t keep those misplaced and dangling modifiers straight, Mr DeCoster, but you taught me some pretty good stuff all the same.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

No Glamor in the Business of Writing

No, this is not my monthly appeal. I did that a couple of days ago. I'm obviously still hoping to get patrons and I have bills to pay too, but see how you feel at the end of the post.

This is not the post I wanted to write today. I woke to terrible news, and have spent most of the day watching my income fluctuate at the mercy of others. And I can't even blame them.

Also...unfortunately....some days are like this when you're a working artist.

Brent Knepper wrote a blog post somewhere between a personal story and an expose on how No One Makes a Living on Patreon. Some of the low end grousing suffers from a pretty unexamined example of how statistics can lie as much as tell the truth. "Most" people are not making much money on Patreon for the same reason that most people in any art are not making much money–they don't produce enough of enough quality to a broad enough audience to make more than a pittance. And that is an indictment of how fucked up a number of things can be, not the least of which is our current online culture and capitalism in general. However, it's not really Patreon's fault. (I make AAAAALLLMOST minimum wage, but I post six times a week and have a huge audience through Facebook.) There are some structural difficulties that Patreon could streamline to be better at all the unicorn orgasms it says it wants to give artists, but it's not really billing as a promotional service.

However Knepper goes on to point out how much Patreon is making off the artists it supposedly supports, and that's where things get really interesting. Patreon is making enough to attract investors to an IPO move as well as spark several major competitors. (That's a corporation making money for shareholders off the efforts of artists, in case the full implication wasn't clear.) It seems that there's money in exploiting artists–big money. And that part of Knepper's post is much more pertinent since it demonstrates a system very clearly set up to profit off of artists, not necessarily to profit artists.

Jack Conte is quoted within the Knepper piece: “'This devaluing of art and creators is happening at a global scale,' Conte wrote in a blog post on Patreon. 'It actually makes my heart sink when I think of the magnitude of the web’s systemic abuse of creative people.'”

Personally, I might use the word "exploitation" rather than abuse, but you get the idea. Getting artists paid turns out to be big money. The art itself...largely not so much.

The bold new horizon of online work for a lot of artists is a world of huge double edged swords. Finding audiences for niche work has never been easier, but neither has piracy, exploitation, the demand for content so free, people get apoplectic if you ask them to give an artist credit. Content creators are doing a lot of work so that host sites can benefit.

Theoretically this isn't a new frontier. As long as there have been artists making money through their art, there have been those willing to take a slice to help them (sometimes legitimately so and often exploitatively). The internet didn't stop that; it just changed the game. The face of record labels and publishing houses with exploitative contracts and retail markups by middlemen has been replaced with payment processors and hosting sites.

Today, suddenly and unexpectedly, became a day of dealing with Patreon's latest bullshit move. Let me make this clear: as much as I want to hate Patreon, a transaction fee on online money transfer is pretty standard business. You couldn't mail me a check without paying the same amount for a stamp (which is why mailing me a dollar instead of say, TEN dollars, would be an odd choice). I want everyone to make a living wage–including the folks working at the payment processor computer banks.

Where Patreon fucked up is getting greedy. They took a good thing and said, "How can we make more?" They put the transaction fees on the patrons instead of the creators. Which maybe wouldn't be such a big deal for someone paying $20 to one artist who is suddenly paying $20.35, but ensured that a one dollar donor would be paying about 40% more than their pledge amount. (And think about how fast that can add up if you support a bunch of artists at a dollar each.) Adding insult to injury, content creators got an email crafted by The Lord of Lies Satan Himself their PR department to make it sound like they were doing us a big, huge, unbelievable awesome favor to jack the patrons because we would always get 95% of our pledge amounts, but it smelled so funny that I wasn't surprised to see that a blog breaking down the truth was going viral less than a day later. By dinging patrons, they destroyed the viability of the small donors.

And if you want to yell at them, you have my blessing, but that's not actually the take home of this post. Today instead of writing what I wanted to write, I sent my patrons a note (reproduced below) letting them know what was happening, watched my monthly income start to bounce all over the place (mostly down but a generous donor sent it way up and at least one patron signed ON today so who knows where this is eventually going to land--especially if Patreon listens to us), I put a star reminding me to get back to the client of a pet sitting gig email that I was going to flatly turn down for being too high maintenance because who knows what the fuck this is going to do to my income, and I joined the chorus of furious content creators calling on Patreon to do literally anything but charge our patrons more than what they sign on for–even charge us the damned transaction fees.

Seriously like every creator I know would rather make a little less than to betray and abuse the generosity of our patrons by charging them more than they signed on for.

This is beyond infuriating, but mostly because people will (of course) just take their money and walk away when businesses start treating them that way, and so my income may take a hit, and whether it is a small setback or a huge one is largely nothing I can control. But I certainly had my hands full today dealing with it, and trying to make sure folks knew how unhappy I am. As I said in my note to my patrons, right now I don't have a lot of options.

However....here's the takeaway and why I'm blogging about it today. It's not just a "personal update" or "why there's no real post here" post.

This is how it goes some days. This is what I did. I woke up and dealt with this shit until it was time to leave to pick up my charge from school. I did no writing that I wanted to do or had planned to do when I tucked myself in last night.

If you want to write for a living, you're in the business of writing, and it IS a business. Capitalism means we all have to play the game. Same goes for any art. Some days, no matter how much you'd rather just have you're going to be firing an agent or renegotiating a contract or deciding how you want to handle some major fuck up on the part of those who monetize your creative labors. Or chasing down a piracy site and having an email exchange with someone who couldn't care less that you're the real author. Or you'll spend the whole day hitting local bookstores to put stuff on consignment. Or applying for a grant. Or doing the paperwork and interviews to try to get into an art collective. Or. Or. Or.... And that's if you're not doing a double shift on your day job or hitting your side gigs extra hard because the writing didn't pay out like you thought it would.

That dream you have of just writing the days away and getting checks mailed to you....that's not real. Not for anyone working, and not really even for those household names you know. But it's particularly not real when you're starting out.

So if you want to write, write. And if you want to write for money, get ready to do some stuff that is not writing and pretty much sucks.

Hi folks. If you are pledging at a low amount (less than $5), particularly if you have several Patreons you give to at this level, you may want to be aware of a pretty skeevy change Patreon has put into place. They billed it as a great change for us content creators, but it looked pretty suspicious at the time, and now I know why.
Patreon has decided to pass transaction fees on to you. They're generally pretty small and if you only support a couple of artists (particularly for more than a buck or two, it is likely you wouldn't even notice), but if you're only donating a dollar, the base transaction fee (35 cents) means you'll get charged way more (percentage wise) than you signed up for. You can see how this could get unwieldy if you're donating a buck or two to a few dozen creators.

The whole thing is detailed at this link including the running of some basic number numbers: http://www.pretty-terrible.com/funny-money-patreon-style/
Right now Patreon is sort of the only game in town for what it does, and every business that does anything even remotely similar seems to have it's problems, so I'm sticking with it through necessity, but I'll understand if this leaves a bad taste in anyone's mouth. Paypal recurring payment takes a smaller share, but you would have to get in touch with me directly about any rewards you wanted. 
Content creators are contacting Patreon to try and come up with a solution where WE pay the transaction fees. It is possible those efforts would be amplified if you complained as well. 
Thank you for your support, no matter what happens, 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Best Modern Fantasy (Don't Forget To Vote!)

What is the best fantasy book or series written in the last 25 years?  

Don't forget you have two polls to vote in this time around because by fuck we're going to keep this four-month-long poll's final round interesting somehow.

I'm going to start gathering nominations for our next poll soon, but don't forget to vote in this one.

Don't forget you get three (3) votes, but that there is no ranking, so using as few votes as possible is better.

The poll itself is in the lower left at the bottom of the side menus.

I'm told if you're on mobile you have to click "webpage view" then scroll alllllllllll the way to the bottom, you can find the polls.

Big Ol' Personal and Meta Update

I didn't hate this picture, so....
It's been an incredible month, and that means some incredible things are on the horizon. And that I'm going to use the word incredible too often for one paragraph. Incredible!

For the past few years–since The Contrarian was getting ready to do his thing really–one of the main and most powerful themes of my life has been Not Enough Time™.

Though I'm managed (tenuously at times) to keep Writing About Writing churning out articles no matter how outrageous the past couple of years have been, there have been periods between loved ones with cancers, major break ups, moves, toddlers, financial crises, double bookings, and days with all four jobs where I just didn't have the time to do all the writing that I wanted to do. My ambition was writing checks my time management couldn't cash. (Boy that phrasing is just the gift that keeps on giving, isn't it?) And even though I am exactly the type of personal overachiever who tries to meet impossible goals by pedalling my aerodynamically unsound flying machine ever faster, I simply could never get certain things accomplished.

In the last two or three months, the winds have changed.

Though losing patrons, and thus income, is always a looming threat, in the past few months the income from all of your donations has given me...options. I'm only barely barely barely paying the, but the difference between even December and September is that I don't need to take a double booking to stay afloat. And I don't need to think about a third side gig. And I can even relax if I don't book a client for a couple of weeks.

And all of that has one major outcome: more time to write.

Probably at some point soon, I'm going to need to talk more about this. In late November, I did the Nov/Dec budget and discovered that (while I would have to consider my car a "luxury" for the calculus) I was paying the bills–ALL THE BILLS–with writing. No frills. No spending money. No brand name peanut butter. No car. (All that stuff is coming from a couple of side gigs.) But technically, I'm doing it.

Watching a dream that was The Dream™ as far back as fourth grade come into focus is a breathtaking experience. I've been writing for thirty years wanting only to do pay the bills with it and maybe have conversations about my work. I've recently had to trade in my five-years-ago goals for another set, and today I see that I've hit some of the bellwethers I would have called a pipe dream a decade ago. Life is busy, but good, and even though I miss my king sized memory foam top mattress and this dog I'm sitting likes to steal the bed by plopping down in the dead center, life is pretty good right now.

I just wish it wasn't QUITE so many Trader Joe's frozen meals. I really need to learn to cook.

However, today's update is not strictly personal. There's meta in there too.

One of the things I've wanted to do kind of for years now has been sit down with a date book and plan out the next couple of weeks worth of blog articles. Plan the posts that take a little longer. Do some bits that have gone wayward. Set aside some REAL time for my fiction. Knock some stuff out before the last second. Go back and fix the old posts while keeping track of where of I am in that process. Get the mess that is guest bloggers straightened up. Write a couple of filler pieces for the hopper that I can use when life happens.

And of course get some things done soon enough for my patrons that "early access" means something.

I even have date books bought in absolutely good faith thrown away with only a couple of weeks filled in for the whole year.  Instead threw away almost totally empty planners, posted almost everything at the last minute, and said "Why are you like this?" to the mirror a lot.

Basically me AF. 
I spent a lot of time thinking I'm vaguely a fuck up with a good "fake it" groove and between stress and impostor syndrome, I'm mostly convinced I'm just soft shoeing and jazz handsing enough to fool folks. It's been something of a relief and joy to discover that if I give my schedule a little fresh air, I find my way.

One of the things I discovered is that my the update schedule I dream of is basically impossible. At least right now.

I update this blog six times a week. (And it's going to take a better schedule with even fewer side gigs before I can bump that to seven.) I can't actually fit everything in that I want. Product reviews. Listicles. Plot shenanigans. Craft essays. Social justice bard stuff. Revisions. Movie deconstructions. Polls. Personal updates. Guest blogs. Fiction. All of it.

Not sitting down to schedule, I've just been in a constant state of "Just Get Something Up For Today" and then being increasingly annoyed at my inability to cycle through all the posts and the different kinds of posts I wanted to do with a better signal to fluff ratio. Months would go by since my last listicle or I would not get a Mailbox up for the week even though I wanted to. Hell, I've even fallen behind on some of my "jazz hands" because I feel guilty that I put up too much jazz hands.

When you're stressing out because you're behind on jazz hands, you really need to question your life choices.

Hitch: I'd never really looked at my update schedule and seen that at six updates a week, and a certain number of posts that are time sensitive (like polls and monthly reviews and a weekly segment of Mailbox and a weekly personal update). The problem wasn't just how busy I was or that I was failing my way into endless cascades of whatever I was ready to write THAT DAY. The problem was those six slots a week fill up fast.

I know I'm probably more interested in my exact update schedule than all of my readers combined, but several people have said they want to see more mailboxes or more of my silly plot-arc posts. And almost everyone (including me) wants to see me get more fiction published–both of the shorter and the novel-lengthed variety. The key to that is the same, I have to stop winging it so damned much. Flying by the seat of my pants means I write whatever's in my head the day I need to put the post up.

So I'm going to have to redo my current update schedule from the ground up, really soul-search for what bits I want to do weekly vs biweekly vs monthly, and come up with viability and higher fidelity than my current smear of vaguely weekly laid out ambitions.

Look for that later this week.

And if you're looking for the chewy lesson center of today's post, there are a few. If you're writing every day, you're doing great, even if you can't keep up with all your wildest ambitions. Sometimes if "pedalling faster" just isn't working, you might need to stop and take a bigger picture look at the whole machine. And of course, if you're an artist making money at your art, chances are just fucking spectacular that you probably are being harder on yourself than anyone would even dream of being.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

On The Business of Writing for the Non Famous Writer

Deduct THIS!
Oh, wait. You can't. Never mind.
I could write easily write a rant about last night's tax scam bill in the Senate. (In fact I wrote several on my personal Facebook wall.)

However, I don't want the dudebros or squiddies to cry that I just talked about Net Neutrality and this blog was just peachy until I "got all political" or something. Because getting political is totally a recent development and is in no way a regular thing.

So here is what I will say: Writers, and all artists really, regardless of what side of the aisle they are on–whether they thought last night was a stick-it-in-those-whiny-snowflake's-FACE caliber victory or if they're out today comparison shopping guillotine oil–should be paying close attention to the tax bill and whatever form it ultimately takes.

Because for an American writer who isn't just a household name and swimming in movie deals, the tax plan as it is is going to cost us. And even if the ten years of cloudless sky predictions end up boosting the economy exactly as Republican lawmakers assure us it will (because what does the CBO know, really?), we will all have to be much more careful how we budget.

See, the individual write offs are going away, so for a writer who typically declares their office, their computer, their research books, classes, whatever, those will no longer be deductions. You'll have to pay taxes on the money you spend on that just like if you used it to buy MDMA and a swirly light disco ball.

Personally, even though my "office" is about a third of my bedroom and my book budget for writing books is less than most people spend on cereal in a year, I stand to lose somewhere around $500. (Just to give you some perspective my last refund was about $500. Even my English major ass could do the math.) Not a trivial amount when I end most bill paying sessions each month with double digits of discretionary income. And for artists who need lots of art supplies or have more significant business expenses trying to sell their work, that number will only go up.

So stay in touch with your representatives, and don't let them forget they work for you. And keep your eye on that ball if you are in the U.S. and want to be a writer–even if you think this is the greatest tax plan since the robber barons.

It is almost certain to affect you.

ON THE OTHER HAND–if you are more on the "Support Artists" side, it's likely that pretty soon we're going to need your help more than ever before. Find an artist you love and spend some money on their art, or kickstarter, or whatever.
One way you can help THIS artist is with a small recurring donation to MY PATREON.

It doesn't have to be a big donation. As much as I absolutely love to bits my high ticket donors and patron muses, (and kind of couldn't be doing this without them) if life happens to one of them, I could be out 10% of my income just like that. [*Instructions: snap fingers now*] I'm also hoping for a solid support of one, five, and maybe even ten dollar donors that isn't so vulnerable.

Plus there are totally rewards! Everything from back channel polls and conversations with other patrons to extra selfies to signed shit and tutoring sessions.

Of course if a recurring donation is not in the cards, a one time donation can be given through the conspicuously placed tip jar or Venmo (my email is chris.brecheen@gmail.com).  And those who want to support but are not in the financial spot to do so, we can always use social media proliferation (likes, comments, shares) and maybe even just dropping a kind word or three. We usually only hear the bad stuff.