May 2010

I have a few incredibly amazing things on the burner right now – one thing I haven’t mentioned anywhere in public (FB, Twitter, here) and another that I’ve only hinted at, but if either comes through, it will be a major, life-changing moment.  Like… the things that I worry about now would not be the things I worry about after, in large part – they would be replaced by other things that would hopefully be more fun to work on and deal with.  Am I being intentionally vague?  You know it.

Here’s the thing – I have learned over the years that it’s best to assume that particularly low percentage awesome things will never work out, because when they don’t, you’re left feeling like the status quo has been maintained.  It’s not that big a deal.  It’s a manageable disappointment.  However, if you get all worked up and start making serious plans about how you will live your life once everything changes – then it’s even more crushing when it doesn’t change.  The odds don’t change whether you’re excited or not.  You want to keep a cool head.

But within that, you also have to maintain a certain level of optimism, otherwise you’ll never get excited enough to do anything at all.  It’s a tricky balance.

This philosophy originated for me (not that it’s all that original anyway – I am sure many other people do this too) after my first novel was politely declined by a set of high-powered editors at New York publishing houses.  I had spent years on it, gotten an agent (no easy task at all) and revised the book to the point where it was ready to go out.  I was certain I would have a good-sized advance in hand soon, plus a contract for several sequels to the original manuscript.  I was going to spend my life doing all I’ve ever really wanted to do – creating things, telling stories.  Six weeks later, after the editors had been given their customary review period, I got a phone call from my agent.  He was nice enough about it, but the message didn’t change – the editors liked the book, but not enough to buy it.  I hung up the phone and stared at my life, not changing in a single miraculous moment, kind of dully staring back at me.  It was ugly.

Since then, whenever I’ve been dealing with something big, I’ve tried hard not to think about the “after” portion too much, and just focus on increasing my odds of success as much as possible in the “before” portion – after all, that’s the 0nly place where I have any control.  I keep expectations to a low burn, at best. 

It’s also helpful, I’ve found, to, you know, appreciate what you have?  My life’s pretty phenomenal in many ways.  Even if neither of the things I mentioned at the beginning happen, I won’t have anything to complain about.


Four or five days ago, I probably wouldn’t have remembered what the subject header means, or have been able to read it in Chinese.  Today, though, as I sit waiting to return my rented bike before heading to the airport to go back to NYC, I absolutely can.  I studied Mandarin for a year in high school, and then majored in it in college, but that was unfortunately a good little while ago, and somewhat more unfortunately, I haven’t been back to mainland China very much since graduation.  I have spent time in Singapore and Taiwan, both of which are Mandarin-speaking countries to a certain degree, but for the real good mainline Zhong.wen you need to be in Beijing, I think.

My Chinese was okay back in the day.  I could read about three out of four character on most signs, although that doesn’t necessarily translate to being able to read 3/4 of a given sign – many Chinese words are made up of two or more characters, and unless you know what the characters mean when combined, it doesn’t mean you can read the word, even though you can recognize the characters making it up.  Sort of like “butterfly.”  You could know what butter is, and know what a fly is, but the image you get when you put them together isn’t much like what a butterfly actually is.  My speaking was better than my reading – I was confident, even if I wasn’t always fluent, and could understand a lot of what was said to me and get by with the basics.  I wasn’t having philosophical discussions, but I was pretty good at getting around in a Chinese-speaking place.

After more than ten years where my Chinese use was restricted to occasional, at best, a lot had faded.  I was supposed to possibly go to the Beijing Olympics, and I had planned to bone up (I still have my thousands of Chinese flashcards waiting to be picked up off my desk at home) but when that fell through, I sort of felt that my years of prior work had gone down the drain.  Kind of a shame, but nothing I was actively regretting.  Life’s too short.

I was interested to see how much I would remember when I got here, though.  When I first rolled in, not much – more like little flashes of remembering here and there, but nothing concrete.  The people I am staying with are both pretty avid Sinophiles, and both speak decent Chinese.  They’re both Western, and while I get the impression that their respective vocabularies aren’t quite as big as they would like, they have a very impressive fluency and confidence when they speak.  So, they were able to answer my questions, act as sounding boards, correct my errors and generally help me get back into fighting trim.  By the end of my first full day here, Mandarin was FLOODING back into my head.  Every word I remembered seemed to trigger another, or a grammatical structure (just yesterday I remember that yi.qian means “before” and yi.hou means “after”).  I was recognizing characters I hadn’t thought about in ten years.  I’ve never felt anything like it that I can recall – it was almost a physical sensation, and it was pretty kickass.  It also made me feel good that the foundation I originally had is still there.  The accumulated detritus of more than a decade since regular study just needed to be cleared away.

I think that if I could be here for longer, maybe six months instead of six days, I could be pretty solid again.  That’s impossible for me right now, but it doesn’t mean I can’t still practice at home.  I hope real life doesn’t intrude too quickly, because being able to speak Mandarin is a skill I would love to have in a big way.  It’s actually a very beautiful, elegant language, with all sorts of cute things built into it, almost like a code you unlock as a reward for putting in the effort to learn the language.  We’ll see how things go.

But right now, I have a bike to return, and then I have to return myself to NYC.  More on Beijing in an upcoming post, hopefully – I have lots of great photos, as well as some truly amazing Chinese comics I’d like to scan, at least in part.

At the moment, I am sitting in the pleasantly deserted gate 175 at Pearson International Airport in Toronto.  I am in the midst of a 7-hour layover on a trip to Beijing.  I’m going to visit a very good, old friend of mine, and for once, there’s no agenda to this trip.  I’m not going to be pitching anything, I’m not going to be networking, I’m even, to the extent possible, not going to be working.  It’s tough for me to take a true vacation due to the nature of what I do for a living, as I’ve mentioned before, but I have been working hard over the last two weeks to scrub my to-do list as clean as it can possibly be.  So right now, I feel… can it be… relaxed?  It’s a pretty foreign feeling, which is kind of awful.  You see a reference to someone being a workaholic and you think, “damn, that poor sap,” but I don’t know that I’m that far off.  I used to think I was safe, because the textbook definition of a workaholic would have to be “someone who chooses to work to the exclusion of everything else, including presumably more pleasurable or entertaining activities.”  Seemed impossible to see myself being that way.  But these days, most days, I rarely get to lose myself in fun – two exceptions are when I’m seeing a good movie in the theater and if I’m out at a bar or otherwise hanging out with friends.  During almost everything else, I’m thinking about what else I “should” be doing – advancing creative projects, working on day job work, etc.

On the other hand, I can’t imagine I’m all that different from anyone else.  I just have 7 hours in Toronto to fill and a blog to write (but of course, that doesn’t make me that different from anyone else either, except perhaps the Toronto part.)

Point is, I’m relaxed!  Right now!  There’s nothing I HAVE to do.  I can watch some of the TV I have stored up on my laptop, read something on my brand-new Nook e-reader (purchased for this very trip), finish The Thousand Ships, consider how to get started on an entirely new project, do one of the crosswords I printed out, or hell, maybe even play a game (still haven’t beaten Dragon Age, and I got that ages ago.)  It’s kind of amazing.

But at the moment, I’m blogging.  I had the good fortune last night to have a few minutes to catch up with Brad Meltzer, the bestselling thriller and comics author.  He and I went to the same school, although he was a few years ahead of me, and he came to give a talk about writing to one of my classes.  His career was just getting started at that point (although he was already on his second or third published novel, I think), and as I was interested in writing myself, I got in touch.  Over the 10+ years since then, he and I have met and corresponded from time to time – he’s given me great advice as I have tried to navigate my own path into the writing world, and as some of you know, even went so far as to read my first graphic novel and gave me a killer quote.  This is a guy who doesn’t have to do any of this.  There’s no reason for him to do it, and he certainly has people placing demands on his time who are more important than I am.  It’s kind of amazing, and if I ever get to the point where I can give someone a leg up in the same way, I’ll absolutely take a page from Haley-Joel Osment’s book.  In a minor way, I try to do it now – from time to time these days writers or artists will come up to me at cons with questions about breaking in, or the path/process, and I always make a point of giving them my time.  It doesn’t cost me anything, and it’s not like there’s any real advantage to keeping anything secret (or any real secret at all – it’s mostly about working very hard, networking and continually improving your work – constantly on all fronts).

I’ve met creators, editors, etc. who act like complete prima donnas, like their success has given them license to be disdainful of people who haven’t quite made it to their level yet.  It’s the least appealing thing you can imagine.  No one stays on top forever, and I’ll tell you, if you’re a good, generous person when you don’t have to be, when things are going well for you, then if things ever turn the other way for you you’ll find tons of outstretched hands willing to help you out.   But be a dick, and eventually, you’ll get it right back.  I think there’s some sort of rule about that principle, actually.

Anyway, so there it is – Brad’s a great guy (and a kickass writer, of course),  and provides one hell of an example for me to follow in my own slowly evolving career.

Okay, six or so hours left to kill.  Hopefully the next post will be from Beijing, and will include some cool photos.

My office window at home looks out onto a central courtyard formed by the backyards (or back lots, really – almost no one in my part of Brooklyn actually has a “yard”) of most of the buildings on the west half of the block.  The ground floor of a building around the corner from mine is being converted into a Thai restaurant, and as part of that conversion they are expanding the back section out into a kitchen.  For the past four or five months, a team of Chinese construction workers has been diligently altering what was a bare concrete slab into what will be a 12-15 foot high extension with a basement beneath it, about ten feet deep.  My office window (and all of the windows in the back of my apartment, actually) look right out on the construction site.  It’s been kind of neat to see the process (although it was incredibly annoying when they were jackhammering up the slab, of course.)  This city is infinitely malleable – and that’s not to get deep, it’s just true.  No matter how permanent-seeming something may be, if you have the know-how, the time and the materials, you can turn it into something else.

Perfect example: I used to live in Hong Kong, and I go back as often as I can.  There’s a series of books called “Over Hong Kong” that are entirely made up of aerial photos of the city.  They put out a new edition of the book just about every year, because Hong Kong changes constantly.  My last visit was back in 2005, and the sounds of construction followed me just about everywhere I went.  Human will can change just about anything.

Where is all this going?  Well…. I do have a point.  Since I last posted, I have attended two cons – the MoCCA con here in New York and C2E2 in Chicago.  They’re very different from one another – MoCCA is a long-established small-press con, full of indie books, bizarre zines, cool t-shirts, outsider art, you name it.  It’s held in an armory at 27th and Park, and it’s associated with the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art here in NYC (a very cool place, if you ever get a chance to visit.)  I had a table, and I was there selling Strongman, getting people excited about Strongman 2, and networking/pitching 27 (don’t have a link for that quite yet, but hopefully soon.  I tried to register, but apparently you haven’t been able to register two-character domain names for like ten years – back to the drawing board on that one.)  C2E2, in contrast, is a huuuuge con, probably the biggest I’ve been to outside of San Diego or New York.  Tons of exhibitors, guests, people in costumes, big booths and attendance from all the big publishers (except SLG, the Strongman publisher – they rarely seem to attend cons outside the west coast).

So, MoCCA first.  It was very fun.  I touched base with a lot of people I know (every con it seems I know more people, which is as it should be, right?) and sold every copy of Strongman I brought, about 50.  I’ve written about this before, but I love the selling aspect of cons.  Pitching your book to someone who swings by and getting them to reach into their pocket for some cash – it’s a huge rush.  I also, very gratifyingly, had some people come by who had already read the book and just wanted to tell me how much they enjoyed it.  I wish I had some substantial new thing for them to read, but I did have a preview book for Strongman 2 with the first issue’s worth of material and a bunch of back-ups.  I was selling it, technically, but if anyone was kind enough to tell me how much they loved the book, then they got one for free.  But the bigger thing out of MoCCA was the response to 27.  I had the first 50 lettered and complete pages of the book with me in a neat little presentation binder, plus the new cover blown up to poster size (scroll down for that – I debuted it in the last post.)  People stopped at my table just to ooh and aah over the cover, and often flipped through the finished pages.  I was incredibly encouraged by the reaction to my 30-word pitch, which I tried out and refined over the course of the weekend.  (That, by the way, was a conscious effort.  I knew I would be pitching the book “for real” at C2E2 the following weekend, so I wanted to make sure my pitch was succinct and well-honed.)  So, it was a successful and very fun con, almost a dry run for C2E2.

C2E2 was a quick trip for me.  I flew in Friday and back out Saturday.  It was designed to be a blitzkreig of networking and pitching.  The convention itself was beautiful, in a huge space right on Lake Michigan.  Unlike many convention halls, it had gigantic windows that let in tons of light and air.  It didn’t feel like a basement (hello Javits Center.)  I wasn’t planning to go at all until about three weeks before the con, when I won a sort of auction to have dinner with several high-level editors from one of the biggest publishers in comics.  Years ago, I heard a story about a guy who did something similar and got to have lunch with Joe Quesada – and got some work for Marvel out of it.  I vowed to myself that if I ever got a similar opportunity, I would take it, no matter how much it cost.  This was that chance, so I got the dinner ticket and then picked up a very cheap plane ticket and an even cheaper hotel room.  Yes, it was an expense, but the opportunity was too substantial (in my opinion) to be missed.   You do what you gotta do.

The dinner was extremely fun.  Three editors attended, and there were four “regular guy” dinner guests, including me.  Another fellow was there to introduce himself as a writer, and the other two guys just loved comics.  I took my chance to chat with the folks, told them about my work, and in general just tried to use my networking skills to their utmost.  Did it “work”?  Well, hard to say so far.  Certainly it made me more than just a random email address and possibly a vaguely-recognized name from the comics websites and so on.  Also, I passed along a few copies of Strongman to the editors best situated to throw me gigs down the road.  Hopefully they’ll read it, and like it… you never know, but it certainly gets me closer than if I hadn’t flown to Chicago.

The other news, though, is that the next day I spent some additional time on the con floor at C2E2 before I flew back to NYC.  During the course of those four hours or so, I did some more catching up with friends old and new, and connected with editors from the many publishers exhibiting at the con.  Oni, Archaia, Image, Dark Horse, Boom, Marvel, DC, etc.  I had dropped off some copies of the 27 pitch the day before, and so I followed up on that as well.  I had to leave for the airport at 4, and at about 3:50 I ran into one of the folks I knew, a very talented writer from New York.  He told me to hang out to talk to his editor, to just touch base again on the 27 pitch.  I did, even though time was ticking, and spoke to the editor after a bit, who told me to hang out even longer, because the head of the company had looked at the 27 pitch and wanted to talk to me.  By this time, it was 4, but I said I’d wait – of course.  Long story short (too late?) I talked to the main guy and he picked up 27 on the spot.  He even mentioned how many cold submissions they get and how rare it is for them to pick one up, which was… well, it was something.  With this pickup, which I can’t formally announce for a little while yet, I take a step into the big(ger) leagues.

There is NOTHING I have experienced that feels quite as amazing as having a pitch picked up.  I know how hard it is to do – there are literally hundreds of thousands of people vying for slots at publishers, and maybe twenty publishers that could be considered big enough that getting a book out through them is measurably different than self-publishing.  I worked at it for almost three full years before Strongman was picked up.  Being admitted to the club of published writers – it’s a professional and creative validation like you wouldn’t believe.  And even though I’ve been in that club for about 18 months, ever since Strongman got picked up, there are successive levels, like smaller and smaller VIP rooms in some fancy joint.  I’m not in the inner sanctum, not by any means, but if Strongman got me past the bouncer, 27 definitely moves me into a roped-off section.

And here’s my point – none of that would have happened if I hadn’t decided I was going to do everything I possibly could to make it happen.  The C2E2 dinner/con was an experience that I didn’t need, exactly – it cost me a bunch of dough, and it was a lot of time and effort – but it was a smart play, and it paid off massively.  No matter what you’re trying to achieve, you have to take risks, and you have to exploit/leverage opportunities.  There’s a direct chain of causality between a decision I made when reading that Joe Quesada story years ago and 27 getting picked up at C2E2.  Human will can change just about anything.

You do what you gotta do.

Man, I worked myself into a lather over this topic, eh?  It’s important to me, though.  More on everything when I have more to announce – the 27 publisher, the Strongman movie, big news!