Thursday, June 4, 2009

In Which The Oaf Is A Crabby Fellow

This is a sample of the decorative motifs I'm going to be using at the ends of the stories in the current Swill. I've been feeling unsatisfied with my current method of creating xerographic art from my digital prints. Going to bitmap in Photoshop doesn't really work well for the inkblot pieces. But here's a new method that seems to work -- using the LiveTrace feature in Illustrator. Instead of blocky bitmaps, you get nice smooth lines and irregular shapes. Cool...

I just hope it prints properly.

It’s eight o’clock in the evening, not usually a time when I’m writing. Our cable is out for the moment so I’m using Word rather than going straight into the blog.

I’ve been thinking today. I’ve been thinking hard.

This morning when the missus and I were grocery shopping I apologized to her for being so crabby. I’ve been doing that a lot lately. She asked me why I’ve been in such a bad mood lately.

I didn’t have a good answer. So I started thinking. I like thinking. It works most of the time.

Well, of course I could blame a number of things, like the lack of music and hiking and the company of the people I do those things with. I could blame some quite ugly dramas that are going on in the extended family. But those things are outside of my control.

These are the things I can control: I’m not pleased by the way I’ve been using my time. I’m anxious about the novel. I’ve got a lot of things I ought to be doing and I’m not doing them.

I’m not a flexible person. You give me a single specific task and I will go to it and get it done. Give me an assignment, give me a deadline, and that’s where I shine. But give me four or five things that I should get done eventually? They jam in the hopper and nothing comes out.

Right now I’m working on the interior design for Swill. I’m spending three, four hours a day on it. I like the work – once the fun of the design is done, desktop publishing is simple, direct, repetitive work. I like that kind of thing. I enjoyed being a blue-collar worker, cleaning bathrooms, stuffing envelopes, moving boxes. This isn’t much different from a mental perspective.

But when I’m done with that chore, rather than get cracking on the artwork or the revisions for my novel or the short stories or doing the current and/or upcoming paleontological illustrations I’ve got due or contacting the insurance company or researching grants or sketching or posting on my blog or getting my pain pills or taking a walk, I just drift. I pace. I stare into space. I monkey around in the kitchen. I crack my knuckles and gnaw on my cuticles. I lay in bed and read trivial crap I’ve already read a dozen times. I cruise the web looking for fresh trivialities.

Time is the greatest gift I have in my life. Friends of mine, good friends, have actually gotten angry with me because they’re jealous of the time I have available to me. And I’m pissing it away.

So there’s that.

And there’s the novel. Right now I have something that is a good read. And I’m in the process of making it something a little more than that. On one level, I know this. It sounds arrogant but I know I have paid for and read bestselling novels that simply are not as good as what I’m doing. I think that while it’s a really weird, personal work in many ways it has entertainment values that could make it sell very well. I don’t think it’s literature – but I do feel that here and there it has some genuine literary merit. I should be proud of what I’m doing and in many ways I am proud.

But what I believe to be true and what I’m told by people I trust isn’t enough to put me at ease. To be blunt, I want professional recognition. I want an agent, a contract, and a check. I believe the work is capable of earning these things – but that belief is not something that gives me a sense of confidence. Instead, it’s something I have to maintain through effort and the vampire-like guzzling of praise from the people around me. Right now I am irrationally and pathetically desperate for confirmation of my abilities.

As I mentioned in recent posts, I am gearing myself up to submit the novel to an agent. But as I’ve been reading and re-reading books and internet advice on the subject, what I’m hearing is that you are a fool to show an agent anything that’s less than your best.

Right now I’m working with two writer’s groups. One has a forty-page a week limit; the other a fifteen-page limit. The book is currently a bit over three hundred pages. The critiques I’m receiving in both groups are clearly making the work of higher quality.

And I am so anxious to get the novel done and out into the world that it’s like having to pee all the time. I want to drop everything in my life, charge through it, and have it ready to go in a matter of two or three weeks.

I could do that. I have been intending to do that. But it would mean forgoing the benefit the work would gain by allowing my compadres to give me their feedback. Even if I could produce something that would be publishable, that would get an agent’s interest in that time frame, the novel still wouldn’t be as good as it would be if I were to publish it.

But my fear is that by dealing with it in dribs and drabs rather than tackling the whole thing at once, I’ll wind up blocking my creative flow in general. To be more specific, the current novel is the first volume of three. I wonder if I will be able to make myself start working on the second volume while the first is still in process.

I’ve been working on this for four years. It’s not right to say that I’ve spent four years writing it; rather, it’s taken me that long to learn how to write a proper novel. I’m afraid that it might take me another four years to write the next volume.

Which is nonsense; I have a clear outline for the third volume, I know the ending of the second volume and all that I need to do to get there, I have many scenes written for the second and third volumes, the background and characters are all in place.

But I’m afraid – let me be clear, this means I am feeling fear – that if I revise a chapter of the novel each week for the next thirty weeks that will be all the serious writing I’ll do.

So what I need to do is to take the time to do the revisions of the novel properly – to revise, let the writer’s groups see what I’ve done, and then revise again based on their advice. And it’s going to be nearly a year before that’s done.

I can’t let that keep me from working on the next volume. I can’t let it keep me from doing my other creative work and I can’t let it keep me from taking care of my personal life. It is not time to cut corners and figure out an easier way of approaching the situation; it is time to try sack up and be a fucking mensch. Time to grow up a little more.

Time to just do what I need to do.

No wonder I’m so crabby.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Chili con Carnage & Getting Nervous


Well, the main problem with this issue of Swill is that there are a hell of a lot of interior pages of illustration. Because of this particular mix of story lengths they're necessary to achieve a graceful interior composition. I asked Rob if I could use one of the interior pages to do a set of artist's notes but they were sadly lacking in that Swill touch of obnoxiousness. The following chili recipe is hopefully a bit closer to the mark... If not, I'll just have to try something else.

And I did some more investigation of the agent I want. (Or at least the first in the list of agents that look good to me.) Based on the experiences of the other tall bald guy with glasses in my Monday night writer's group, I assumed that I'd send a query, then if the response was positive I'd follow that up with the first fifty pages.

Instead, he wants a query, first three chapters, synopsis, and bio all at the same time. Sheeee-it. I'll have critiques through the third chapter from both groups by next Monday. Oh, man. I am within weeks of getting all that out to him. I'm not scared but I am... anxious.

Because, after all, if one of the top agents in the business -- to quote from his site, " every one of his authors has had and will have his/her books on the New York Times or Publisher's Weekly bestseller lists; or they are bestselling authors within their genre" -- doesn't immediately jump all over my first novel? I may as well give it up, he bleated plaintively.

But if I can't get this guy, I'll try Neil Gaiman's agent. And then so on down the line...

Anyway, here's my favorite chili recipe, the result of a process of experimentation that began when I was in my teens. These days I make one kind of chili for use on hot dogs that's based on recipes for Cincinnati chili; this one cuts things right down to the bare necessities, then adds just enough lily-gilding to produce perfection.

And let us not forget its miracle healing powers. My first editor, back when I was a cartoon scriptwriter, had a bad case of anemia. I gave her a few pounds of this chili; she startled her doctor by recovering within weeks. The chili got the credit.

From The Swill Kitchen — Chili con Carnage

There are two ways to look at it. Either all chili is good – canned chili, Texas chili, Cincinnati chili, chili size, vegetarian chili, white chili, even the kind your mom makes with hamburger and canned kidney beans – or there’s a right way to make chili. As it happens, I agree with both perspectives. I’ll eat just about any chili you throw at me but there’s only one fucking proper way to make chili. My way.

It takes about a year to make Chili con Carnage. That’s because it starts out as stock. I like my meat the way I like my women – tough and fatty. That kind of flesh needs to be cooked for a long time at low temperatures to be at its best, so when I’m in the mood for a pork shoulder or a chuck steak or the severed head of a local wino (Hey, everyone wave to Horizontal Mike!) I turn to the crock-pot.

But if you simmer meat in plain water you leach all the joy out of it. What I do is make a nice strong stock and then use it over and over again, freezing it between uses. I don’t season it, don’t add vegetables – if there are any off-flavors they tend to accumulate and concentrate and that ain’t no good. The result is stock that tastes more like meat than meat does, stock that adds flavor to whatever you cook in it.

After about a year of this the stock has accumulated enough gelatin to have the texture of vulcanized rubber at fridge temperatures. That’s when it’s time to make chili. Unlike its cousins, the various curries, chili requires the simplest of ingredients; meat, chilies, garlic, salt, and chocolate. Human flesh is best but it’s hard to find someone who needs killing and is worth eating, so you may as well use beef, maybe throw a bit of pork in there. As I said, the cuts you want have a good dose of fat and gristle in them. Chuck, shank, short ribs – that kind of thing. Oxtail is very nice. For chrissakes, don’t use any fucking hamburger. Jesus! If you throw a ham hock or some smoked neck bones in there you will not be weeping bitter tears of regret when you’re all done. I’d love to try mutton in this but where the fuck can you find mutton these days?

Brown your meat on every workable side in a cast iron skillet. Put it in the stock and cook it on Warm in the crock-pot overnight, then put it in the fridge to cool. Now go get some fucking chilies.

Get a good mix of fresh and dried peppers. For the dried ones you want mostly New Mexicos, for the fresh ones mostly Fresnos or Anaheims. But don’t be afraid to use just about every fucking kind of chili you can get your hands on. You know what you like. Get a bunch of red and orange bells for the sweetness. Get some habaneros or Scotch bonnets or Thai bird chilies for heat and fragrance. Get some Serranos, some red and green jalapeƱos, some chipotles. Go wild.

When you get home, pull the hardened fat off the top of the crock-pot and take out the meat and shred it into a great big heavy stockpot. Pull the stems off of the dried chilies and roast ‘em in the oven until some of ‘em have little black spots. Then simmer them in the stock until they’re soft.

While they simmer, cut the stems off the fresh peppers, get out your juicer, and juice them. Be ready to retreat when you’re running the habeneros through – sometimes they emit a corrosive mist. Pour the fresh juice into the meat. Then pour the stock and dried chilies through a sieve, put the stock in with the meat and pepper juice, and run the softened chilies through a food mill. Discard the stems and seeds – as if you fucking needed to be told that – and put the pulp in with the rest.

At this point the chili is going to resemble a soup. Now there are places in the world where they’d add masa harina to the mix in order to tighten it up. Fuck ‘em. Anyone who would do that is a goddamned pervert. What you do is put the chili at a low simmer and boil the excess moisture off.

While that’s going on, peel, chop, and add garlic until you just don’t feel like doing it anymore.

When the chili is nice and thick taste it and add salt. The chili will have a slightly bitter taste at this point. Add unsweetened chocolate until that bitter flavor becomes round and pleasant rather than spiky. Two, three blocks of baker’s chocolate usually does the trick. I know it sounds crazy but it works.

And there you go. Serve it with beans, greens, and cornbread, or frijoles, dirty rice, and a green salad. Three-bean salad goes nicely. It makes a spectacular burrito filling. If you’re feeling self-indulgent, use it to dress a hot dog. And if you made it properly, give some to the cops when they come by and wash the tub out with bleach. Nothin’ like home cooking.