Christmas letter

Dear Theophilus,

It is long since I have written to you, for which I beg your forgiveness, and much has happened. I was furnished by the astounding generosity of my 3.6 Loyal Readers, plus benefactors I had not known of, with the funds to get a proper set of book covers done for the Orchard; only I have no book to wrap them round, for I have been ill and stymied. Ill, not only with my usual maladies, but with a recurrent flu, which may be the same germ that turned into pneumonia when my father got it, and carried him off. (You will know, of course, through the usual channels, that he has died.) I shall speak a little of my other troubles; then, what matters more, of my efforts – and what has stymied them.

My mother is pitiably ill; she is not eating, or not voluntarily (though she complains about not eating even while she refuses to do so), and her whole conversation, these days, consists of trying to make anyone within earshot feel guilty for not taking her out of the nursing home. But where would she go? There is no money; there are no beds. In theory we might buy her a home and pay for home care, but nobody I know of has the hundreds of thousands that would cost even in the short term. She certainly hasn’t got it; and she will have less, if my stepbrother, who holds her Enduring Power of Attorney, acts in his customary manner. She says she would be happier to be turned out in the street; but that, of course, is nonsense, and anybody who acted upon that request would be rightly put in prison.

In one respect, my father’s death has eased my own distress. He was, it is true, the only one of my family who honestly cared fo me – cared, that is, enough to actually wish to know me; unlike my mother, who felt what she called (and calls) ‘love’ as a kind of stylized show of affection for a largely imaginary object, but who never listened to me (or to anyone, for that matter) or made any serious attempt to find out what kind of person I was. She was a bit like Lewis’s Mrs. Fidget, who was always browbeating her family to help her do things for them that they didn’t want done; and she was like that because she never troubled to ask what people wanted, but only assumed that they wanted the things she thought they ought to want. She was and is a difficult person. I used to envy people who could really talk to their mothers; as a child, I was rather frightened of other people’s mothers, because they did not seem like mothers at all (or what I thought of as a mother), but more like people instead.

But enough about her: the point is that my father gave me great help and good teaching, and unfailing moral support (and material support, too, when I needed it, as alas! I usually did), and moreover he was a good and honest friend. I spoke to a number of people who knew him, the other night, at the reception held after his cremation (there was no funeral as such); and they all agreed about that. He was well liked, and is well remembered, and if God thinks no worse of him than they do, he should not have much to worry about where he is now. That he is now, I do not find myself seriously doubting – to my surprise. He was lost to his own self in that last terrible year, lost without speech, almost without reason, and with not much left (so far as one could tell) even of memory. But when I knew that he had died, somehow it seemed to me that he thereby became more himself, not less; that he was more truly himself than he had been for years – more, perhaps, than he had ever been before. It was rather like the scriptural passage in which the elect go to meet God and he tells each one of them their secret name, known only to God until that moment. Only at that moment it seemed like something I could apprehend directly – not a feeling, for that implies emotion, which comes and goes – but almost a direct perception, interior to the senses.

God bless Lloyd Alexander for putting it in good words. Someone asked ‘good old Doli’ how he knew there were Fair Folk nearby. He snapped back: ‘How do I know? How do I know? How do you know how to swallow your dinner?’ This was rather like that. It seemed to me – it seems to me now, when I do not try to dwell upon it, for then fear comes back, and self-doubt, and I mistrust what I think I know, because it is only I who know it – but when I just leave it in the background, and look at it out of the corner of my mind’s eye, you know, it seems to me that I know, and not merely by being told, that my father has come into his own; that he is not identical with the ashes in that box I saw; that they are a shed skin, a thing he has left behind, having no need of it, for his Father will give him better clothes now that he has gone home. And I know it as I know that I myself have a body, and am not identical with that body; I know it as I know how to swallow my dinner. It sounds ilke mysticism when put into words, but it is not mysticism; it is as plain as potatoes, and twice as practical, but it is the sort of thing that we have no words for, because it is too interior to want them. Can you yourself, Theophilus, describe to another the precise feeling in your belly when you are hungry? You pretty nearly have to make do with the word hungry or its synonyms, intensified or diminished, and let it go at that. It would be a very gifted artist who could portray that feeling in words without using words for hunger or food or want. And this, it seems to me, is the case about my father’s present state, dimly as I can grasp it. Words fail, not because it is too remote for them, but because their focus is too remote for it; just as my eyes cannot focus on the end of my own nose.

Still, for those of us left behind, there is a world of trouble. I have alluded to the difficulty with my stepbrother, and do not wish to say more. It appears likely that the money I have been getting from my father’s trustee will now end; I have no known resources after the end of this coming February. To borrow another of Alexander’s phrases, the robin will have to scratch for his own worms. And the robin is not well, and he has needs that cannot be met with worms. I have fallen behind on my medications, and I cannot afford to fall behind on my rent. For all that, I worry more for my mother than for myself. It would, in some respects, be a kindness if she did not live much longer; but that is neither something we can count on, nor a thing that any person of good will ought to wish for. But I can do nothing to help her without first finding a way to help myself. One drowning man cannot rescue another.

For the usual regiment of medical reasons, I cannot well work at steady employment for another; I cannot really even begin to look for such employment. I appear to be stuck with Hobson’s choice – with writing; and I have very little time to make it pay – far less time than a traditional publisher requires even to take notice of a submission, let alone decide to buy it. Supposing the impossible, that some great international publishing house decided it must have my next book, and offered me a million dollars for it as quickly as ever it could, it would still arrive months too late to help me in my present difficulty. And in fact no publisher of that magnitude has ever taken the least interest in any of my work. It is conceivable (in the technical sense: that is, it is a thinkable thought, though a damned silly one) that I am the next J. K. Rowling, who worked in obscurity for years, and sold her first book to various hole-and-corner publishers in different English-speaking countries, because the big firms knew that school stories would not sell. The big firms do not know that epic fantasy won’t sell; but they know that it is a saturated market, and they have all the writers in their stables that they want, and do not propose to encourage anyone to compete against them. They are not hiring in my field.

Now, it is far more likely, given my track record of almost no sales for my first two books, that I am a failure simpliciter, that there really is no audience waiting for my ‘stuff’. Likely, but not yet certain; for I have never had the means to advertise my work in any way, or the connections to get it favourably reviewed, except on the personal blogs of one or two other writers. I am glad to say that Wendy Delmater (whom also may God bless abundantly) thinks it may be worth while to try to organize a ‘book bomb’ for my next work, presumably the Orchard, and to try to interest such names as John C. Wright or even Larry Correia in it. I think it would be of some interest to the sort of people who like to read the ‘Evil League of Evil’; but then again, the E.L.O.E. tends towards what I wryly call ‘Baen’s Disease’ (because ‘Baen’s Bane’ would be just too cute), which consists in regarding science fiction as categorically superior to other imaginative literature, and fantasy as largely beneath serious notice. To shorten the tale, I do not think Wendy has any great prospect of success in this matter; but it is better than nothing, and I have nothing likelier to suggest. And we are left with Hobson‘s choice again.

But I must get writing, and writing regularly, before I can have anything new to sell; and I keep going by fits and starts, and then being shut down partly by illness, but much more by fear. A man may brave great dangers and show such courage as legends are made of, if he thinks there is some great cause to be gained by brave action; but if he sees nothing to be gained, he will let even a small fear stop him. He will call this prudence, and he will be right. A man does not wager even a penny for nothing; there must be some stakes offered on the other side. For too long, I have been in a state where the stakes offered were pitiable – a few copies sold of an obscure book, enough, perhaps, to pay the immediate cost of putting them online, not enough to pay for professional art, or for advertising, or for anything else. I have been compelled to play the game for such small stakes that even winning represented a net loss, if I set any value at all on my time. It is like playing blackjack in Alberta: it is legal to play, it is even legal to count cards, but the table limits at all the casinos are so very low that the most skilful card-counter can barely make minimum wage, so the skilful players do not play there. I need to find a way to play for higher stakes; but first I must get into the game.

Well, then: I cannot think of anything very good to try, so let me try something bad – at any rate let me try something. I am, at the moment, afraid to work on the Orchard, because I shall have to spend my last two thousand dollars or thereabouts to publish it when it is done, and I cannot afford to lose the money. But I am also afraid of writing in general, because I have lost my confidence, such as it was. What I propose for the moment, Theophilus (and if you have a better plan, then as God spares you, tell it to me), is that I shall write simply anything. And I shall do it today, which is now Christmas Day; and I shall make it my Christmas gift to anyone who cares to receive it. I shall write as many words as I can string together, for as long as I can keep awake and think of anything to say; and I shall not trouble about whether any of it is publishable, or amusing, or instructive, or worth reading – let that sort itself out. But I shall write it, and I shall put it out there; or rather, out here – on this blog. And if any of it strikes a chord with anyone, if it shows promise of leading to better things, then I shall have some notion of what to do next.

There are a good many things that I have had in my mind to say, only fear has stopped me: fear of choosing the wrong one, of wasting my limited time on an effort that will not help me meet the coming crisis. Well, today I shall not trouble to fear. If I did not spend today writing, I would spend it doing nothing. I have no family except my mother (whom I have no means of transport to visit) and my stepbrother (whom I do not even wish to see, and besides, he is in Mexico). My friends all have families, and are spending the day with their nearest and dearest; not one of them has invited me to participate, and I do not blame them for it. I have not been invited to any event on Christmas Day for six years now, and that last time was an awkward one, for it was a family gathering at which I was the only true outsider. Let us not do that again; if there is to be suffering on Christmas Day, let me do it alone and not make other people share in it. Instead I shall make a gift of whatever writing I can do this day; and if I am laughed at for it, well, at least someone will be getting the pleasure of the laugh.

I should be abashed but not surprised to learn that even you, Theophilus, are laughing at me now, after reading this absurd proposal. But I have nowhere to go today, and nobody to see, and nothing of any more use to do; so I shall please myself in this, and take the consequences.

Yr. obt. svt.,



  1. Thanks for that letter, I really believed it. I mean it really touched me. Gareth.

  2. *says nothing and just sits with you, sipping forlornly now and then from a glass of wine*

  3. Merry Christmas, anyways. Wish you could visit.

  4. When you speak of spending $2K to publish, what are you referring to, Tom?

  5. Assuming the 8 episodes are ebook only…

    Have you considered either variants on a scene (see my approach to a street scene with a gradually improving building , where my main cover costs are $150, and I use the back cover of the novels as the front cover for the shorts, with a $50 element for each one) or perhaps one large scene with a suitable right-central element for the novel cover, where each serial component focuses on a single part of the larger image? That might bring your costs down significantly, if you can be clever about what sort of image you want.

    Re: incidentals, if that includes copyedit/proofing or formatting (if you’ve been outsourcing those), I imagine you can find some among your 3.6 fans to help with that (including me).

  6. There are any number of indies who brag of publishing at basically zero cost. It seems best to do that – since the hard part, the writing, you do eminently well – and, if warranted later, improve said covers out of any proceeds.

    Given the tripe that passes for fantasy, if you can plot half as well as you write, and your characters are a quarter as good as your jeweler, what you need is to get your work OUT there. Nobody can buy what’s not for sale, nor review it, nor tell their friends about it.

    That it has to have the presentation of a big publisher is a fallacy. And, if you do well with it, a publisher may pursue you more on that fact than on the writing – at which point you MIGHT have a decision whether to accept an offer.

    But if you’re waiting, there’s nothing to vote on.

    That’s what I tell myself, by the way, as I am compelled, beetle-like, to finish Book 1 of my story, so I can get to Book 2 and 3. And I have nowhere near your depth of intelligence and learning.

    No other time in history has had it as easy to put work in front of readers. For so little cash expenditure.

    Once it’s finished.

    • The thing is, I have tried publishing at zero cost, and it doesn’t work for me. Nobody ever gets to hear of the finished product. And of course this is always the catch, as you say:

      Once it’s finished.

      In the last four years, I have had a stroke, a TIA, a concussion, a spinal injury, a duodenal ulcer, several major bouts of depression, the loss of a home, two court battles for the survival of my aged parents, the death of one of those parents, along with the usual petty problems of daily living (exacerbated by lack of money). I have, in all this kerfuffle, managed to publish just four books, which is nothing according to the experts. I have to do more, whether I can or not. And time is almost out.

      Getting things finished requires an act of faith or an act of desperation. And my faith, at least in my ability to write salably, is heavily overdrawn. Now I am trying to bull through on desperation alone – but you can’t do that as cheaply. ‘Good, cheap, and fast: pick any two.’ Good is indispensable; now I have to trade cheap for fast, and wonder where the money is coming from.

    • For what it’s worth, my own marketing skills are deplorable, and I’m not much of an artist either; still I am convinced that book covers do no require the services of a professional to *look* professional. As I recently pointed out to a friend, most of the latter would merely feature a scantily-clad lady holding a sword or gun anyway, so anything else stands out by virtue of originality. For sure, if you can secure the services of a good artist, that will help, but you can do it for as little as $50 if you know what you want. My best cover came about in this manner, and I got to sponsor a friend on the same occasion.

      Don’t listen to the “experts”. They’re like chefs who only know to cook in the kitchen of a fancy restaurant, with a little army of helpers, and are lost around their own gas stove at home. Not to mention they have a vested interest in inviting you to the restaurant, where they can charge considerably more for, at best, the same food. To wit, four books is more than I have published, and while my earnings have been pathetic so far, they still exceed my publicity budget. Which is ironic, considering that most of my sales have come from networking with my peers for free, and not any formal advertising.

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