Monday, 7 May 2012

The Whole Story Behind The Hole Stories (or How I Fell Into a Hole and Found My Way Out)

With the release of THE HEALING SAND, Book Three in The Hole Stories, a personal eight-year journey, almost as epic as that of the characters in the book, has come to an end. Though I didn't have to battle any hyper monkeys, jumbo jet sized worms or one-eyed villains on my journey, I did experience some of the greatest highs and lowest lows in my life along the way.

This is the story of how I fell into a hole and found my way out of it through words, through strange conversations with mysterious men, and through the positivity and sticktoitiveness of two ten-year-old boys named Onus and Twig.

THE HOLE STORIES began with a dream in 2004. But before I talk about that dream I must talk about my entire life as a writer before that. It began as most writer's lives begin: with a Creative Writing teacher and a handful of friends (who had seen the few things I had written) telling me I could really write. Yeah, bad poetry and stories with way too much swearing in them! That's what I'd say back. But positive reinforcement has a way of infecting even the most skeptical.

When high school ended I had this crazy idea for a book and I really believed I could make it work...and make it the greatest book ever written. I toiled over this 'masterpiece' for almost five years and when I finally wrote the words THE END, I had never believed in myself more as a writer. The book was a ridiculous 120,000 words long and was loosely based on my upbringing in the uber-religious Fraser Valley. I was so excited I packaged it up and mailed it off to two dozen publishing houses and agents. As the self addressed stamped envelopes came pouring back in with two dozen different ways to say, "No thanks" written on them, I began to question myself and my friends. But I did not give up on words. How could I? I loved them, despite seriously butchering them at times (which I still tend to do when I don't take the time to properly edit what I've written).

So I switched my focus from fiction to real life. I enrolled in a Journalism program and spent two years learning how to edit, research and ultimately, write. And I learned to love the writing process. What I didn't love was the being a 'Nosey-Nellie' process. I quickly realized I wasn't aggressive (or some might say rude) enough to be an effective journalist. I didn't like asking people questions they didn't want to answer. So I returned to school and took creative fiction and non-fiction courses and I learned the art of short-story writing. I had a piece of flash fiction published in a Canadian Lit mag and I started a new novel loosely based on my experiences as an assistant wedding photographer. Again, my teachers pumped up my ego by telling me I could really write. And so I returned to my 'Odyssey' (which was actually called DIVERSIONS), editing it over and over again, now with a bit more life experience behind me to help me along the way. My queries and submissions for the book suffered the same fate as before, leaving me on a very thin precipice.

I so wanted to write fiction, but the truth was becoming harder and harder to ignore; I just couldn't do it the way I thought I could. And when I was about to put the pen down for good (yes, I would actually hand write a lot of my stories back then), I crossed paths with Lemony Snicket. I didn't physically bump into the man, but I spotted a young cousin reading his first Unfortunate Event, THE BAD BEGINNING, and I was instantly drawn to the book. Perhaps it was the cover image of the ominous character in shadow (Count Olaf) staring down on the three children at his door, or perhaps it was the book itself,  a jacket-less beige hardcover with a navy blue spine, or perhaps it was the way my cousin's eyes never left the pages, even as people tried to engage her in conversation. When she finally did look up, I asked her what she was reading. Her enthusiasm for the book sold me. I read the book in two hours and when I was done I thought to myself, I can do this.

So back to that dream I had. It was 2004 and I was still ho-humming about what I wanted to be when I grew up (even though I was a well-lived 28 year-old man by then): journalist, teacher, photographer, editor...writer. I was planning a wedding with the girl I had been with for almost five years (well, she was planning the wedding and I was nodding my head up and down a lot). And I had just finished reading Lemony Snicket's THE BAD BEGINNING and had had the thought that maybe I could try my hand at writing for children. And that very night after I finished the book I had one of the most vivid dream's of my life.

I dreamed that I was walking through a forest daydreaming, when I fell into a very deep, very dark hole. But I wasn't alone when I hit the bottom of the hole. There was a man at the bottom of the hole and he had been there for a very long time. I asked him how he ended up in the hole, and then my dream shifted to a road in front of a castle-like mansion. There were all these police officers hobbling around their squad cars. They were hobbling, because they all had prosthetic legs...but they weren't normal prosthetic legs. Not at all! They were legs made out of wood. When I woke up I jotted down the details of these dreams and I got to work on my first middle-grade novel. Six months later I was married, I was still floating in career limbo and I was putting the finishing touches on the novel I had titled THE KING OF ARUGULA, Book One of The Hole Stories.

But I didn't want to rush this one out like had done with my first novel. I wanted to take my time with it and make sure it was in the best possible shape it could be in. I sent it to an artist friend of mine in Finland and he was inspired to create some rough artwork for it, which I instantly fell in love with (sadly, this work never made it into the book...but I will share some of it with YOU). With the artwork and some lengthy excerpts in hand, I travelled to the classrooms of friends who had become elementary school teachers. I read my book excerpts to a range of nine to twelve year olds and I asked them what they liked and what they didn't like; what worked and what didn't work. I continued doing this for almost a year.

Concept illustration of Onus and William Ernest Fang by Kai Johansson.

Concept illustration of William Ernest Fang by Kai Johansson.

Concept illustration of Twig and Onus by Kai Johansson.

It was at some point during this process that I received a phone call from my mom. She had had a vivid dream that she needed to share with me. She told me about these funny creatures that were half moose and half ox. She told me about a magical sand that fixed broken things. I told her that if I had any luck with THE KING OF ARUGULA, I would take the literary nuggets she had handed me and I would build my next two stories around them. I already knew how the whole series (which was originally planned as a five-book series) was going to end, but I was still missing all the meat between the beginning and the end.

And when I felt the book was as good as it was going to be (I found out later with my editor, the book still had a long way to go before it would see the light of day), I packaged it up and sent it out. The positive vibes flowing through me sparked another wave of creativity, and while I waited to see what fate THE KING OF ARUGULA would endure I wrote the second book, which I jokingly titled FOWL, SWINE AND THINGS THAT SEND SHIVERS DOWN YOUR SPINE. I wrote this book in three months and placed the first draft file in a folder I would not open again for several years. During this time I also felt the need to return to school and find somesort of rock-solid career direction, because my career as a barista/writer wasn't getting me far.

I enrolled myself in an intensive publishing program and began learning the ins and outs of book/magazine/digital publishing. From day one, I found the technical world of publishing fascinating. It harkened back to my days in Journalism school, building an article out of pieces of information. The difference here was, I didn't have to go out and get the information. I could assign someone to do that for me. I just had to put it all together in one nice little package and make sure it looked pretty. It was while I was at home working on one of these pretty little packages (I think it was a business-branding assignment) I got a letter from Thistledown Press saying they were interested in the sample chapters I had sent them and they wanted to read more. I had never had a response as positive as this to my work. I quickly mailed out the rest of the manuscript and a few weeks later another letter arrived saying they wanted to publish the book.

I remember opening this letter in the foyer of my apartment building and reading it right there in front of the mailboxes. I remember my hands shaking and a sudden nervous excitement infecting every inch of my body. I remember running up the stairwell hooting and hollering and I remember swinging my front door open and proclaiming to my wife, "They want to publish my book! I'm a writer! I'm a writer!" I'm sure all the published authors, from the most famous down, remember that first letter of acceptance and how it made them feel. It is a most gratifying, satisfying, nerve-wracking feeling. Overwhelmingly, though, it is a feeling of relief and vindication for something you and your friends and your family had always known. That you are a writer...

So I was a writer, eh? All the tough times were over. I'd be rich and famous and never have to worry about future publication. Little did I know. Little. Did. I. Know.

While still in the publishing program, I began the editing process on THE KING OF ARUGULA with a real editor. A few major things were changed, including the ending. I had imagined stretching my escape from the hole over the five books, dropping hints here and there about how me and the smelly Mr. Flex eventually did it. Though it was decided to show this ending at the end of the first book, I was okay with that. There were so many more mysteries to explore.

When the book was finally ready, another waiting game began. It was mid-2006 and the book had a release date for May 2007. I thought the wait would crush me, but instead, it sparked another wave of creativity. In the early mornings before school I would work on the third (and what would eventually become the final) book in THE HOLE STORIES. Because I had spent a number of evenings sitting at the dining room table outlining plot points, I was able to get a strong 25,000 word start to the book in only a few months.

And then a big 'ol crow flew into my life.

I remember the exact point I left my characters hanging. I remember it, because it was frozen in my mind for so very long, like a movie on pause waiting waiting waiting for that play button to be pushed so it could continue on. Onus and Twig were standing on a beach looking out at the setting sun, momentarily distracted from all the problems they were facing; distracted by the beautiful colours in the sky and the beauty of the world, which they had almost forgotten existed after seeing so much evil -- after losing so much hope -- in the week before that. Having been so transfixed on the sunset, they did not notice the two dark silhouettes approaching from behind them. They were completely oblivious to the fact that as the night grew darker, so too would their tale. But the rest of this tale would have to wait.

One of the last projects I was given in my Publishing program was to develop, from business plan to first issue, a magazine. This project would steal ALL of my attention for the next five years. It would also teach me about some of the cold realities of distraction and about the changing world of words. After thinking about the type of literature I was writing and after doing a ton of research, it became apparent there were very few, if any, literature magazines for middle-grade children that focused on, what I liked to call, 'playfully dark' literature; twisted, creepy, scary, hilarious and intelligent, but never pandering or exploitative. Kids are smarter than a lot of people give them credit for. I knew this having talked to so many of them during my school visits. They deserved literature that entertained, challenged and taught (a few good scares were never a bad thing, either). I set out to give them this and built the bones of what would later become CROW TOES QUARTERLY. After school I raised/borrowed the money to make my school project a reality...and with a real focus (something I rarely had before) on it, I launched the first issue in January 2007.

In May 2007 I returned to Onus and Twig's world when we launched THE KING OF ARUGULA at the wonderful BOOK WAREHOUSE in downtown Vancouver. It was one of the great nights of my writing life; reading my words to dozens of friends, family members and curious onlookers; signing my book. If I could live this night over, I would a dozen times. In the days after the launch I wandered around Vancouver, looking for my book on bookstore shelves. I went to the Vancouver Public Library and searched out my book. I looked for all of my online listings. I'm sure all of you first time authors did the same thing.

As editor/publisher of CTQ, I only had time to read other people's work, put the magazine together, maintain the website and write small pieces for a blog that accompanied the magazine. When the initial hoopla around the release of THE KING OF ARUGULA died down, I returned to my magazine. And as the years passed and the magazine evolved and the book quietly disappeared from bookshelves, my focus drifted from the magical worlds inside my head to the real world outside. Besides sending off the first few chapters of Book Two in THE HOLE STORIES to my publisher, I thought very little about getting it published. Instead, I was more concerned about the publishing environment and how it was becoming harder and harder for small publishers to make it. I was struggling to get every issue of CTQ out. As much emotional support as we had and as hard as we tried, we just couldn't get the grants we needed to keep us safe. It didn't matter, though. Near the end of the decade, things were moving online at such a rapid pace, the printed magazine I struggled so hard to get out felt ancient. I knew I had to move online or I just wouldn't get past our tenth issue.

The last six issues of CTQ were published as eZines, with very small print runs, which we sold through the website. It was hard not seeing the magazine on bookstore shelves, but the magazine was still breathing and that was all that mattered. And in that period, the most amazing creative experience of my life occurred. It was a collaboration with Kristian Adam, a CTQ cover artist five times over, and MST Company's Michael Sasi, a writer whose stories had appeared in the magazine several times. Together, we developed ANIMALOPLIS. ANIMALOPLIS was a series of paintings and short stories about two young girls coming to terms with their impact on the environment. The collection was published in CTQ and displayed at AYDEN GALLERY in Vancouver. ANIMALOPLIS gave me a renewed hope for the magazine. But this hope was merely masking a truth I wasn't yet ready to accept. As I moved onto the next issue of CTQ, the world broke apart beneath me (metaphorically, of course).

Me, Michael Sasi and Kristian Adam outside the ANIMALOPOLIS exhibit.

Deep-rooted frustrations with the magazine, the publishing world, life choices I had made and my finances (or lack thereof) seeped into my real life and began to cause fissures in my world view. Then a few very important people in my life passed away. I didn't know how to handle these things so I started shifting blame onto those I cared for...and I was becoming a sad and bitter man. Suddenly, I was falling into this hole that didn't seem to have a bottom. I often wondered, Would Mr. Flex be at the bottom of this hole?

When I hit the bottom and looked up, I didn't think I would ever find my way out. I squeezed out one more issue of the magazine, but then it was gone. I had lost not only my magazine, but also my marriage and a few great friends. Maybe worst of all, I had lost my will to be creative: that thing that made me me. I drifted around for a few months trying to figure out what had just happened to me. Trying to figure out how to get my life back together.

During my time in limbo, I would often think about that paused image of Onus and Twig on the beach. I would close my eyes and think about how I had put them through so much in such a short time. How they should be angry at the way the world was treating them. But they weren't angry, because the world was still so beautiful. But I just didn't know where to take them...even though I knew where I wanted them to be.

There is a huge process involved with healing and coming to terms with certain truths in your life. When 'they' say 'acceptance' is a big part of this healing process, 'they' aren't lying. I worked tirelessly trying to improve myself as both a writer and a human being when my world fell out from beneath me. Part of that work was voicing my frustrations...breaking off the top of the bottle and releasing them from inside of me. I did this through the adult novel I had begun writing years earlier about a wedding photographer who goes over the edge. All my anger and insecurity and immaturity was poured into this work. It was dark and violent and angry. It did what it was supposed to do. It allowed me to breath without fire on my breath for the first time in months. It also made me want to finish THE HOLE STORIES, even if the two final stories were never read. I wanted to finish THE HOLE STORIES for me. I wanted to get Onus and Twig home safe so they could go on living their lives. And I could go on living mine.

But I still didn't know where to go from that beach. My outlines did not go further than that (or I had lost the notes I originally made all those years earlier). I needed something to kickstart my creativity. I needed a change of scenery. So I packed up my car and I took a road trip. I also consciously chose to leave my laptop at home. I needed a change to get the juices flowing again, so I took only a pack of pens and a few notepads of paper with me. I was going old school.

The road trip wasn't just for the writing, though. I was still struggling heavily with the loss I had experienced over the past year. I was looking for a sign that I was going to be all right. And (I think) that sign came my very first night away, while I was in Lillooet, BC. Lillooet had always been a place of mystery for me. In 2001, while staying at my dad's suite in Lillooet, I had a very intense experience with, what I believed was, the supernatural. You can read about that experience HERE. So it is no surprise this 'sign' happened while I was in Lillooet. Perhaps I'm making more of it than what it really was, but it's just so hard to tell.

I had settled into my dumpy little hotel and I was raring to flip open my notepad and see what would pour through my fingers when I put pen to paper. I wandered down to Lillooet's main street (and if you've been to Lillooet, then you know there is only one main street, and it is appropriately titled Main Street) and walked to a series of picnic tables that overlooked the stunning valley. With so much amazing-ness right there in front of me, the play button in my head was quickly pressed. I began to write. Page after page of almost-illegible handwriting. I don't know how much time I was sitting there when I heard the crunch crunch crunch of approaching feet on pebbles. I looked behind me and saw a man in his late sixties/early seventies walking toward me. I hadn't heard him pull up in his pick up truck. I hadn't heard him get out of the truck or shut the door. There were several empty tables along the way, but for some reason he was walking toward mine. The man wore shorts and had metal braces on both of his legs. He had a weathered face and a patchy, white beard. A box of chicken from A&W was in one of his hands and a root beer was in the other. When he reached me and I looked up at him, he said, "Oh, I don't mean to bother you. I just want to look at the view while I'm eating my dinner." I wanted to say, "There are tables all around us with nobody at them. Wouldn't you enjoy the view better on your own?" But instead I said, "No problem" and returned to my writing. He awkwardly worked his way onto the bench and for several minutes he sat there next to me chomping on his chicken, licking his fingers, loudly sucking out the last of the root beer through the straw in his cup. When the chomping stopped I decided the awkwardness of not talking to the man was more than I could handle. I put my pen down and I asked him where he was from.

THE KING OF ARUGULA begins with me falling down a hole on my way home from my Uncle Sol's funeral. At the bottom of the hole is a man I can't see, but I can smell. He has been at the bottom of the hole for days and he smells like death itself. When the shock of falling down the hole wears off, I ask the man how he ended up in the hole. And so begins the story of Onus and Twig. It is a story of sadness, strength, friendship and the power of positivity. When I asked this strange man sitting next to me on the bench in Lillooet where he was from, I may as well have been talking to Mr. Flex, because for the next hour this man told me about the journey he was on. He was from Arizona and he had never left the state before. He had lived a tough life, digging ditches, teaching and even preaching at one point. When his wife passed a few years back, he turned to liquor to mask his pain. He began to resent the world and his beliefs. He became bitter. And then his legs began to deteriorate. He believed that if he lost his ability to walk, he would not have a reason to go on...he had lost so much already. Drinking and struggling to walk at the same time was just too much to deal with, so he gave up the liquor. And in his struggle to keep his mobility, he found all that he had lost in the past. He found his will to live again. He found his belief in God again. He found his need to explore the world he knew was out there, but he had chosen never to see, despite being what he called 'an old man.' It was a phone call from the wife of an old friend that made him pack up his old pick up and head north. His friend was dying and if he wanted to say farewell, he'd have to drop by soon. After spending meaningful time with his friend and saying a proper and emotional good bye, he continued up the coast and into Canada. He couldn't believe the beauty of our province. He couldn't believe how BIG the world was. His dilemma had become his route. His destination was Lake Louise, but did he want to go up through Jasper, or straight through to Banff? After he finished telling me his story I told him a little bit about me...about some of the things I was struggling with. There was something compelling me to share my struggles with this complete stranger. Something about him made me feel at ease. We talked about my writing and our concerns with the impact technology is having on kids today. We talked about the fact that A&W doesn't put ice in their root beer. We talked about nothing and everything. And as the giant moon settled into the valley and the sun disappeared behind the mountains, we stopped and watched it all unfold. After several minutes of witnessing day turn into night, the man who never told me his name stood up and looked down on me. "It's good to believe in something," he said. "And if you're struggling to find something to believe in right now, there's always YOU. You can believe in you. God be with you." And with that, he hobbled back to his truck and drove away. I sat there for several minutes wondering the strangest thing. Did that really just happen?

THE HEALING SAND came together at an alarming rate after my experience in Lillooet. The book was taking on epic proportions (for a middle-grade book, that is) and I was nowhere near the end. With my characters still trapped in a creepy asylum for 'weird' people, I decided to jump ahead and write the ending. It was suddenly in my head and I knew If I didn't get it out then, it wouldn't be the right ending. So I sat in a park in Kamloops, and as the sounds of a lonely guitar echoed through the air (a music festival was happening in the park), I got it out and onto paper. And though it veered from the ending I had envisioned all those years ago, this ending was as it always should have been: touching, sad, reflective and inspiring. When I wrote the last word and dotted the last period, tears had pooled in my eyes. Happy tears.

In the days following my impromptu road trip, I put the finishing touches on the first draft of THE HEALING SAND, and when all was said and done, it was double the size of both the previous books. It would need a rigorous edit, but like a fine wine, new words need to age. I dropped the first draft in a folder on my hard drive. I would not look at it again for another seven months.

It was now early fall 2011 and THE KING OF ARUGULA had been available for more than four years without a follow up. My preconceptions of getting the follow up published  by 'traditional' means was gone (and to be honest, no longer important to me). I was under a new mindset with my writing; I was no longer concerned with anything other than sharing the words with those who wanted to read them. I was content with my day job and making enough money to live. When I began writing/editing for myself again, I began to have fun again. I also found that thing that made me me.

With my priorities shifted, I now set about finding a method to get my final two HOLE STORIES out. A couple of months earlier I had experimented with online publishing using my adult fiction book VANILLA (the one about the crazy wedding photographer) as the guinea pig. My research of eBooks lead me to Smashwords takes your thoroughly edited (using their style guide) work and puts it through what they term their 'meatgrinder.' The meatgrinder then converts your work into various digital formats, including PDF, ePub, .mobi (for Kindle) and so on. Smashwords then verifies the quality of the conversions and ships the files to various online retailers, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and iTunes. Depending on how much YOU work to promote the book, you can make a lot...or very little money doing it this way. But if making money is not your sole purpose for writing, then this method is amazing for sharing your work with a large audience. Within a few weeks VANILLA was on iTunes, and available for all the core eReading devices.

The success I had putting VANILLA into the world made my decision easy. I would self publish the last two HOLE STORIES with Smashwords and promote them through various social networking sites, like Twitter and Facebook. The process was being used by a whole new generation of writers who weren't having luck publishing the 'traditional' way (or no longer believed in the 'traditional' way), and for the few with a talent for marketing, the process was making them famous. Look at top ten lists around the world. Many contain eBooks published just this way. As I was no longer concerned with money, notoriety, or vanity, this route just made sense to me.

I spent a month editing FOWL, SWINE AND THINGS THAT SEND SHIVERS DOWN YOUR SPINE (keeping the title, because I began to really like its poetic, quirky flow). And released the book in late October 2011. Four years was a long time between two books in the same series, but the wait was worth it. The book I released was one-hundred percent mine, the way I imagined it from the first day I started writing it. The people who had read THE KING OF ARUGULA would finally get to learn about the unruly swans and passenger-train sized worms mentioned at the end of the book.

In March 2012 I broke one of the last chains holding me back. I moved from Surrey, BC, to the heart of downtown, Vancouver, BC. Surrey was a place of intensity and great upheaval. But it was also a place that held memories and (false) hopes and I didn't want to let go. So I held on living there far longer than I should have. The move downtown rejuvenated me in a new way. Living by the ocean. Walking everywhere. Going to plays and concerts. Visiting art galleries. Simplifying. My spirit felt better. And even though it rained for the first two months I was downtown, nothing could dampen my spirit. I was in a new home. New feelings coursed through my body. The time was perfect to finish up THE HOLE STORIES.

Onus and Twig saved the town of Arugula from William Ernest Fang and all they wanted to do was go home. Part of my struggle when I began these books was figuring out where (and what) home was, not only for my characters, but for me. I had an ingrained notion of what home should be...but that notion was making me bitter and angry. My journey, like Onus and Twig's, was filled with unimaginable sadness and overwhelming joy. It was filled with confrontations and difficult realizations. I believe, though, through that journey I have finally learned where (and what) home is. Home isn't walls and a roof. It isn't that place you keep your toys and your gadgets. Where you sleep at night. Home is the people in your life you take comfort in: your family and friends. Home is writing for the fun of it. Home is sitting on a beach, staring at a sunset. It is being happy just living. Home is...

After eight years of searching for answers and looking for endings...after releasing THE HEALING SAND and bringing Onus and Twig's journey to an end, I finally feel like I am home. And it is a most wonderful place to be.

Who's up for watching a sunset?

  THE HEALING SAND (Book Three: The Hole Stories) 
Available now at 
Available everywhere else in the coming weeks