2021 – My Writers Year in Review

Well, so much for 2021. I thought I’d step back and take stock, do a year in review in terms of my career as a writer, or as an attempted writer.

The Bottom line:

All titles collected, I sold almost a thousand books this year, and legitimately made more money as a writer than I’ve ever done in my life. I released three new books this year: LEXX Unauthorized, Little Blue Marble; Axis of Andes and New World War. I had two more books almost ready to go, but couldn’t quite get the right artwork for the cover. In terms of unpublished new work wrote another novel and several short stories. Published a story in Wild Hunt Press’s anthology, Duel of the Monsters. Altogether, I think I wrote about half a million words.

I was recognized and certified as an Artist for purposes of Canada Council and Manitoba Arts Council, which will allow me to apply for grants. I did three Workshops for the Manitoba Writers Guild and appeared on or presented panels for Keycon, When Words Collide and three panels for World Fantasy Convention Montreal, including a reading. Less successfully, I pitched a couple of novels to over fifty agents and a few publishers, no takers, but maybe a couple of nibbles.

All in all I think I can say I worked pretty hard at being a writer, all the while keeping the day job going. Is this bragging? I dunno. I remember something the late Lex Gigeroff said to me. “That’s a lot of work to put into such a mediocre career.”

I keep bashing my head against the wall, I’m not sure there’s a future in it. But I keep plugging away. You take your small victories when and where you can.

Books! My three new titles!

LEXX Unauthorized, Series 4, Little Blue Marble. The fourth and final volume of my chronicle of the rise and fall of Halifax based, surreal space opera, LEXX. Running between 1996 and 2001, LEXX is pretty obscure these days. It was one of a whole plethora of ‘Anti-Star Treks’ that came out around that time – Farscape, Firely, Starhunter, Battlestar Galactica. All of these series rebelled against the utopian, pasteurized version of a benign future that Star Trek represented. They all posited science fictional universes built on human frailty and desperation, that argued, essentially no matter how far we travelled, or how high we climbed, we could never escape the ape looking back at us in the mirror.

I was captivated by LEXX literally before it existed. I’d become a quiet fan of a local maritime production company, Salter Street Films. From modest beginnings, it had built name for itself with quirky B-movies and subversive regional comedy. Through a literally insane set of circumstances, Salter Street ended up creating one of the most demented sci fi series ever. Subversive, sardonic, astonishingly creative, LEXX owed more to surrealists like Bunuel or Jodorowski than it did to Kubrick or Roddenberry, anything could and did happen, and the ideas weren’t just big, they were colossal.

I desperately wanted to write the book for the making of that series – and I got the invite. I spent years on it, thousands of dollars on telephone interviews, travelled repeatedly to Halifax and Toronto, scoured magazines and the internet and every other source for every bit of information… Then it all fell through, too bad, so sad. Eventually I wrote the book that I wanted to write, printed off one copy, and forgot about it.

Flash forward almost twenty years later, here I am releasing the final volume – chronicling both the almost accidental fourth series, the intervention of the US Sci Fi Channel, the desperate race to finish the series with less time and money than ever and the final fall of Salter Street Films as it struggles to climb higher and ends up devoured by corporate sharks. In this season, the series finally arrives on Earth and the tone shifts from surrealism to absurdity.

LEXX was a brilliant series, I think maybe bordering on genius. Not perfect, at points wildly uneven. But some of the things it did, some of the things it tried, that was just breathtaking. And that story of the making, that was just amazing. Of course, that was twenty years ago, and the world has moved on. There’s a lot of works of heartbreaking genius that get left behind in the dusts of time.

When I started releasing these books, I didn’t think there was any kind of market for them. I just wanted to do it. The series was brilliant and I wanted to stand up and say that. And more than that, this book was a labour of love, I put everything into it, and I wanted it out in the world, even if not a single person bought it. Sometimes, it’s just worth doing. I’m actually surprised that over the years I’ve ended up selling a couple of hundred copies.

It’s done. Finally. Three previous volumes, and along the way, I released a couple of scripts, a treatment, an elaborately funny 35,000 page fanfic, and now the final book, no compromises, I wrote and released it exactly the way I wanted it. We seldom get that in life.

But now, I’m finished, I’m free.

Axis of Andes, a Saga of World War II in South America and New World War, part II of Axis of Andes. This was kind of a surprise. My Dad was a mechanic, my Grandad was a carpenter. I like making things work, figuring out how the work, the mechanics of things. So of course, I’m a sucker for alternate history, which is both a subgenre of speculative fiction and a fascinating parlour game. In some places, I’m quite well known for it.

Anyway, here goes: World War II was actually two wars. There was the European War, with a little spillover into Africa, between Germany and Italy, on one side, and the USSR, US and Britain on the other side. There was also the Asian war, primarily Japan versus China and the US respectively.

There was overlap – the Germans and the Japanese were civil to each other, and tried to trade some information and technology. Japan took advantage of the European war to scoop up colonies in Asia. Britain was involved in both. The Soviet Union jumped on Japan three days before it surrendered. But mainly, two separate wars, too separate theatres. The Germans and the Japanese didn’t cooperate or coordinate, Japanese Zeros weren’t at the battle of Britain, and Nazi SS didn’t fight in Shanghai or Iwo Jima.

And Latin America gets left out completely. Sure, Chile and Argentina became Nazi havens, and a lot of dirt has gone down there. But by and large, South America skipped a ruinous continent spanning war.

But what if it didn’t? What if one of these little brushfire wars – say between Ecuador and Peru in 1940 didn’t just peter out? What if it escalated, dragging more and more countries in, sucking up more men and resources, until all of South America was on burning in flames, in a conflict as ruinous and terrible as the conflagrations of Asia and Europe.

Now that seemed interesting to me. How would that happen? Who were the people? How did these societies function? What decisions, what wrong paths would lead down this road. That turned into a major research project, and the result was a genuine Alternate History. Not just a regular novel with characters, romance and subplots wearing an alt-history hat, but a straight up History book, the sweep of nations, full of tragedy and heroism, ideas and ideals, comedy, absurdity, tragedy. A story of entire countries swept up by their own tragic flaws and circumstances.

And, with a special guest appearance by Adolph Hitler.

It turned out to be such a big story, I split it into two books. I had my friend, Even Campion-Clarke do up a pair of covers (for which I paid him) (by the way, Even himself is a wonderful writer) and released it.

Holy Cow, I got good reviews! I got on the Amazon hotlist. I got sales. I think I’ve sold close to a thousand books in 2021, and most of that is Axis of Andes and New World War. LEXX books sell quietly and steadily, and for some reason, something called Dawn of Atlantis keeps selling a copy now and then.

But, wow, almost a thousand! This is pretty insane, because I did no marketing at all and I’m nobody. That’s crazy. I had years where I’d sell forty copies, all told, of everything, in the entire year.

I suspect that it’s not really me. I think I owe a lot to a great title – Axis of Andes. I guess Nazis sell. I probably owe a lot to Even’s covers. But you know what? There are some really good reviews that tell me that at least some people got what I was trying to do and loved it. (Also at least one scathingly bad one, but that’s okay).

I know that in the great scheme of things, selling a few hundred copies is no great shakes. But you know, after beating my head against the brick wall so long and so hard, even a small win feels pretty good.


Other Writing

So those three amounted to a huge investment of time, writing and editing. What else was I doing?

I had a couple of collections of funny fantasy and science fiction that I was calling Aliens and Elves. It’s funny, I wrote a lot of horror short stories, but I also wrote a lot of comedy. Apparently nothing in the middle.

Anyway, I’d released three volumes of horror stories (practically no sales), so I figured I was ready to about face, with a couple of funny volumes. I had a lot of previously published stuff. I wrote a lot more stories, just having fun, and even sent some of the new stuff out to the top rank magazines (came close once or twice), and even had it all formatted and ready to go.

What happened? Couldn’t find a cover or cover artist. That literally was it – if I’d gotten a good cover artist and cover, I’d have had five books out this year not three. Worked with a couple of people, it just didn’t turn out. The best of them was brilliant, but too deathly serious. This is comedy, you don’t want “grim” on the cover. Lightness, that’s hard.

I dunno. I think that the lesson of Axis of Andes is that a lot rides on the title. With my horror collections I opted for literary titles, and they’re doing no business. So maybe I’ll change the title to Drunk Slutty Elves. What to you think?

I was going to do a third volume of my Doctor Who series. Actually, it was going to be a revised edition, with enough terrific new material to extend it from a duology to a trilogy. I got the revised edition about 5/6ths done, and I think it’s a terrific and interesting subject that people will love – brilliant new information on ignored corners of the Doctor Who universe, stage plays, audio plays, the old Super-8s, new generations of fan films.

Why haven’t I done it? Well, really busy with other projects, with work, with life? Part of it is that when I first released these books, I thought I had a hook. We were getting Jody Whitaker, the first woman to play the Doctor. Except that thirty years before, Barbara Benedetti, an accomplished stage actress, had played the Doctor in a series of professional level fan films. I thought that was pretty amazing and wonderful in so many ways. I still do. The Benedetti films are good, they’re better than the crap the BBC was producing at that time – arguably the Nadir of the show. There were so many relevant things to say, and I thought the time was right to say it!

Now? Meh. The Whitaker Doctor has been around for three years, with Chris Chibnall as showrunner, and frankly, it’s distinctly underwhelming. Whitaker just hasn’t run away with the role, as the great Doctor’s have – you have to be charismatic and eccentric, and she’s bland. Frankly, she’s not a patch on Barbara Benedetti, who owned the part from her first moment on screen, or Jo Clayton, who owns the part with only a moment on screen. Chibnall’s stories have been tired and uneven, either bland, or pretentious, or desperately frantic. I guess I’m feeling a lack of urgency. I’ll get around to it when I get around to it.

What else? I worked on project for Scott Ellis. Scott is a friend of mine, another longtime writer, active in the Manitoba Arts Scene (my God, Scott, why?). He is a brilliant short story writer. And I’ve been trying to get him to pull all his stuff together, so I can format it, get a cover and release it to the world. He’s just so good, and it physically hurts me to think of all these great stories just sitting in his hard drive and not being out there in the world where people can read them.

I’ve done a fair bit of work formatting and setting it up. I think we’re at 95%, there’s just a few little things he needs to write – authors notes. And covers. It’s dragging. No reason I suppose, just the Covid bleahs. But hopefully 2022 will be the year. I’d like to be able to help push Scott’s stuff in a way I’ve never pushed my own.

And while I’m at it, a shout out to my friend Christopher Nigro over at Wild Hunt Press. Chris and I are huge Godzilla fans together. That’s how we met, I became a contributor of random essays to his Godzilla site. Chris has had ups and downs, but one of his ups is setting up his own small press and releasing novels and short story collections. One of his latest is Duel of the Monsters. I have a short story in that Frankenstein vs the Ape, I think it’s my only outside publication. Chris is a good guy, he’s got a great collection and several good books. Look for him.

Apart, apart from writing and releasing three books, and working on five more book projects, and writing a bunch of short stories, I wrote another novel. Why not.

This one is called Empress of Asylum. It’s a stand alone sequel to Princess of Asylum, currently unpublished, but you’ll recall, did very well in the Booklife Contest. In Princess of Asylum, Dae Zee Lors, a humble actress, finds herself in the middle of a barbarian invasion. With no other skills but the ability to lie and fake her way through a succession of terrifying situation, Dae survives, makes friends, wins her love interest, overcomes the bad guy and ends up as Empress.

In this sequel novel, Dae starts out as Empress, is kidnapped by an evil cabal, and escapes, battered and worse for wear. While hiding out pretending to be a lowly nobody, she’s abducted again by the same evil cabal. They explain to her that their kidnapping plot went horribly wrong when they lost the Empress, who is probably dead or something. But they’ve noticed her resemblance, and they intend to enlist her in pretending to be the missing Empress. She’s literally recruited into the conspiracy to overthrow her. Then things get weird…

I think it’s a lot of fun, and I think it’s got some potential in the commercial marketplace. So, I should start pitching it to agents and publishers in 2022. And write another novel, while I wait. I think I’ve got about five novels, or six, I’m losing track. One of these days.

Finally, the best for last, I suppose: I’m working on a project with Robert Pasternak and three other writers, for At Bay Press in Winnipeg. It’s called Echelon. Robert is doing a series of artworks, and us four writers will write stories around his paintings.

The trick? We’re all working independently – complete freedom. None of us are allowed to talk to each other or to Robert, we take no cues from his paintings titles, or the order we receive. There’s no word limit, no upper or lower limit to the number of paintings we can write stories for, no limits on which paintings we can choose. Sky is the limit.

I’m planning to write 25,000 to 40,000 words – I’m about halfway through. The deadline is March 31, 2022. After that? Who knows, this is a crazy ambitious artistic project. I’m thrilled to be a part of it, but I expect the editing will be challenging.

So that’s that – writing for 2022? Write another novel. Write more short stories. Keep hammering away.


The Writerly Life

I did a series of paid workshops for the Manitoba Writers Guild during this year. Let me think. In no particular order:

Writing Compelling Characters
World Building
Copyright Law and Publishing Contracts

I got a handful of paying members to sign up. I donated my fees back to the Manitoba Writers Guild. It’s a good organization, and they work hard for their members. I also consented to them recording the workshops and having them available for their members in the future.

Call out to Susan Rocan, Past President, Patron Saint and human dynamo. Susan’s a former member of my writers guild, and had a trilogy of Young Adult fantasy/historical novels about the Red River settlement out through a local press. The rights have reverted back to her. But I’d dearly love to help her get her books back into print and available again. That’s another project for 2022, I guess… if she has time.

And let’s see – I did the local Science Fiction Convention, Keycon, May, 2021. It was held as a virtual convention this year. I was on three panels:

Pantsing, Plotting & Quilting
World Building
Creating Deep Characters

It was a good experience. I got to work alongside terrific local writers like Casia Shreyer, Chadwick Gunther, Ron Hore, Reed Alexander. I also got to meet Catherine Fitzimmons and the writers from Brain Lag books.

By the way, if I’m dropping names, it’s not because I’m trying to cover myself with other people’s glory. I’m basically trying to say: “Hey these are good writers and good people. Buy their books, look for their work, watch out for their names!”

The only downside of the Keycon experience was whatever software they were using for virtual panels, sometimes it wasn’t friendly at all. Casia’s and my panel on Deep Characters was something of a nightmare. Not the fault of the organizers who worked very hard for their convention.

Then, in July, 2021, there was another virtual convention in Calgary, When Words Collide. This is a huge literary convention, up to five tracks of programming. I signed up for a couple of pitch sessions with a Publisher and an Agent. And I did a panel:

Writing Alternate Histories

Only one, but I thought it was pretty good. I shared this panel with Celeste Peters, R.J.M. Dawson, M.E. Powell and Chris Patrick Carollan. I didn’t know any of them, but they were all a pleasure to meet and sit with.

Finally, on the Convention/Panels/Workshops front, I attended the World Fantasy Convention in Montreal, 2021. This is the big deal, this is the big industry convention for genre, although it was sadly impacted by Covid.

Possession is 9/10ths of the Law
Law and Fantasy

I got to do a reading at the World Fantasy Convention! That’s kind of a thrill. And people actually showed up, which is far from a guarantee.

As for the other panels – I guess I was a little typecast. On Law and Fantasy, we had Moderator – Louise Herring Jones. Participants – Louise Herring-Jones, Ian McKinley, Su J Sokol. On Possession, we had Moderator – Mary G. Thompson. Participants – Den Valdron, Leo Vallquette, Louise Herring-Jones, J.R.H. Lawless. I’d met Lawless before when we did a similar panel for the World Fantasy Convention in Salt Lake City the year before. The others were new, but uniformly fascinating. They both went well, I’m happy.

This was my second time doing Panels and Readings for the World Fantasy Convention. So theoretically, that might be a big deal. It’s basically the convention at the top of the industry. So maybe there’s some mystique, some significance, some sense of having arrived somewhere as a writer? Or maybe Covid just thinned out the field to allow someone obscure and unimportant like me to sneak in. You know what? I’ll take it anyway.

I think I’ve been doing readings, panels and workshops on writing, mostly local, but as far out as Calgary, San Diego and Atlanta, for about twenty-five years. I’m not sure why. I don’t think I sell any books that way. And frankly, I’m not ego driven – I’d rather just go off somewhere and write rather than puff up pontificate about writing for a crowd. That just seems silly. I think though, for me, its got something to do with giving to the community, or being part of the community. I work hard at them.

But hey, here I am keeping score on my quest to convince myself, and you, that I’m a writer and working hard on it – so there you go – 10 panels and workshops.  Maybe it will come in handy on a grant application.

Speaking of which, let’s see, I got accredited by both Canada Council and Manitoba Arts Council as a recognized artist/writer. I think that was this year. Could have been last year. Used to be, you just made a grant application, anyone could do it. But now you have to go through an accreditation process to be recognized, in order to be allowed to apply for a grant. I’m not sure what that says about how things have evolved. Less democratic, more gatekeeping?

I haven’t applied for a grant in twenty years. I’ve kind of been avoiding it. On the one hand, hey, if you get it, free money. On the other hand, I’ve got a job, I make a living, seems rather churlish of me to possibly take money that might otherwise go to someone who really needs it. On the other hand, it’s recognition, affirmation, support. I might try in 2022. We’ll see.

Then the painful parts – 2021, I went out and pitched (almost exclusively email) about fifty Agents, mostly with a novel called The Luck. They all came back. One invited me to submit chapters, but ultimately said no. I pitched a small press publisher, and they did ask to see the manuscript, we’ll see where that goes. I was going to pitch more, but life just caught up.

2020, I pitched Princess of Asylum to about thirty. One asked to see the manuscript but said no. I think the difference between this year and last year, was that I had a lot better grasp of the process, and the format and requirements of the process. Not that it helped.

I think the truth is that mail/email pitches are an uphill battle, if not doomed. I suspect that most successes are the result of making personal connections, not easy to do in the Covid era. And frankly, I have a self sabotage streak.

So, probably going to try again this year – Agents – at least 50 to 100, publishers that look at unagented manuscripts, personal contacts if possible. We’ll see.

Did the blog thing – I’m not sure if that counts as writing, or writerly activities. A bit of both. It was a lot less active this year. Lack of interest on both sides, I think.

Did the ‘social media’ thing somewhat. For a while. I put up a bunch of book pages on Facebook, opened an authors page on Goodreads and Amazon. But that was it. I know what as writers we’re supposed to be out there ‘branding’ and have a ‘platform’ and we should be social media mavens all over Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Tik Tok and whatnot. Being on Facebook makes me a dinosaur, and a pretty torpid one.

But you know what? As far as the developing research tells us – these things just don’t work for you. 10,000 twitter followers, or 100,000, it doesn’t sell your books. There doesn’t seem to be a correlation. We’re encouraged to do this, but I think its bad advice. And yes, people can be very successful – if you’re posting constantly, if you’re updating five times a day. If you’re making social media your full time job, then yes you can be a social media star. But I don’t think you can do that and be a writer, or have a full time job. You have to commit to the media. I’m sure people do get lucky through social media, but its luck. And social media seems to have a destructive ugly side. I don’t want that. I just want to write.

A friend of mine, Dean Naday, wants to do youtube videos this year upcoming. I think I’ll dive into that with him. Because it sounds like it could be fun, and because he’s my friend.

The one big thing that I didn’t really dive into this year, and it’s something I’ve promised myself to try and learn, and more than learn, work at the last few years is marketing. I dunno I took workshops, attended panels and courses, read up, asked people. I experimented with buying facebook ads and amazon ads, joined Goodreads.

My efforts were pretty vestigial, I’m still a babe in the woods. And any successes I had were accidental. I really have to invest time and energy into learning this, and learning in a practical hands on way. I have to develop skill here. But easier said than done.

I think that wraps it up. Another year of working really hard. To what end? There have been accomplishments this year. Okay, I guess. There’s the promise of bashing away for another year? And for what?

There’s no guarantee at all. Hard work doesn’t necessarily get you anything but broken in the end. Talent and smarts can be worthless. Connections count, but I’m self sabotaging.

Is this the best thing I can do with my life? Could I be happier, more productive, more fulfilled doing something else?

For now, this is what I choose to do. I think I’m mostly okay with this. Maybe I’m tilting at windmills, but then again, I’ve tilted at all kinds of windmills all my life. So why not? I’m not sure who is going to read this, I don’t think there’s a lot of traffic on the blog. Maybe this year end summary is for me, five years from now, to remind myself.

Anyway, it’s been a year. We’ll see what 2022 is like.