Sunday, July 19, 2020

Goal Setting for Writers

Are you familiar with the story of Jim Carrey writing himself a future check for $10 million when he was poor and unknown? If not, here it is:

I never did that. Money has never been my goal. Or at least, not my ultimate goal. I did something simpler.

This is a picture of me in 2005. I am holding a cheque for $60.40, for a small column I had in a monthly newspaper. Not a large sum. Those are Canadian dollars too, so even less than you might have thought. But that is the first cheque I ever received as a writer. I had won a poetry contest the previous Spring--and was paid in books. This was the first time anyone had ever given me money for my words. Pittance though it was, it felt great.

I gave the money away.

I had been thinking about first fruits, how the Israelites were to dedicate the first fruits of the harvest to God, and trust Him for further blessing. So I made a donation in that exact amount, and prayed that this would be the first of many.

Now, I could be accused of trying to manipulate God in my quest for publication. Granted. I don't smoke or drink, so most of my vices tend to be of the "character-disordered" variety. Motivations aside, however, it still seemed like a worthwhile practice.

It was another nine years before my first novel, Caravaggio: Signed in Blood, was published. That felt like the BIG TIME! A trade publisher that even gave me an advance on royalties! (I won't tell you how small the advance was, because that would be in poor taste. I will tell you, though, that I blew the whole wad on books that I sold at events over the the next couple of years. I probably made more that way, but when it comes in $13 dribbles over several years, it doesn't feel like much!)

At the time Caravaggio was published, I was 42. I had spent six years writing that book. I felt old. I felt like other writers younger than me had published more books (and better books, and in several genres, and, and, and...). I didn't write myself a cheque like Jim Carrey, but I did set a goal: I would have three books published by the time I was fifty. Three seemed like a brag-worthy enough number and, most importantly, it seemed doable. Vow made, I started work on another novel.

I hate writing novels.

I mean, I love them when they're done, but they are all-consuming. Plus, I teach full time, so I will go stretches of months where I write nothing, instead correcting other people's writing (that of my students). And sometimes, in those gaps, I'll write shorter pieces for younger children, just to have something to send out.

Fast forward to last year: I was still working on that same novel when one of those short pieces was accepted by Owlkids Books, a Toronto-based children's publisher. They liked a picture book I had written and wanted to publish it. We talked about the story, went back and forth a bit, and finally in August I got to talk to the editorial director. During the conversation, I mentioned an idea I had for a mystery series for beginning readers. She liked the idea, and had just wrapped up a mystery series and so was looking for something new. We hung up, and I got to work.

Today I received the contract for that mystery book. I should say "books." It's a two-book contract, a beginning of a series with more to come, hopefully.

The picture book comes out in the fall of 2021, and then the first mystery book comes out in the spring of 2022, at which time I will still be--you guessed it--49 years old.

This isn't some mystical "law of attraction" nonsense. Just old-fashioned goal-setting, hard work, and a little bit of lucky timing. I'll take it.

Now I just need to come up with a goal for when I'm sixty!

Thursday, June 25, 2020

NYC Midnight -- I Made It Through Round One!

I ask my creative writing students to enter a contest at least once in the semester as a way to give them a meaningful deadline and an opportunity to prepare work for a reader who has no interest in them personally. This year, I thought I would model this as well--I often write assignments I ask of them, but while many contests for teens are free to enter, most of the contests that adults write for involve a fee. What can I say? I'm cheap.

But this year, with everything shut down for COVID-19, I decided to go for it anyway. I saw a tweet about a contest that looked interesting and not too onerous (I will never do NaNoWriMo while teaching full-time!) and entered. I needed something to do, and the contest fees were going to charities helping during people through the pandemic. The NYC Midnight 100-word-story contest  gives contestants 24 hours to write a 100-word story in an assigned genre, featuring an assigned action, and using an assigned word in the text. A word counter rejects any story greater than 100 words, "be it but so much as makes it light or heavy in the substance or the division of the twentieth part of one poor scruple." Okay, not quite, Portia. But 101 words gets rejected. And it doesn't allow formatting like italics, which means emphasis really has to come through the word choices themselves.

So I brainstormed, then wrote a first draft of 250 words. After that, it was all cut, cut, cut. Though I'd never tried my hand at this kind of microfiction, my recent work editing down other manuscripts had me in the right frame of mind. Still, I had no expectations. It is an international contest, with over 7600 writers competing. Then last night, voila! The results came back and I was in the top 20, moving on to round 2 among 1600 writers. Now the pressure's on, I guess!

Round two starts tomorrow night, when they'll send me a new category, action, and word. The timing couldn't be better: my report cards are done, and tomorrow is the last day of school for teachers. My summer holiday begins perfectly: writing!

Here's my first-round submission, if you want to read it:


She entered and sat on the stool, a purple scar rounding her neck.
SoShe wasn’t dead. “Studio’s closed,” I said, pretending not to recognize her. Years had passed—did my beard disguise me?
“One quick photo?” She posed, then fingered her scar, smirking. “Maybe a retouch?”
I looked outside. Nobody. “Fine. One shot. Let me switch lenses.” And retrieve my gun. What alternative was there?
When my back turned, the entry bell jangled. She’d gone.
Her purse, however, remained.
“Gotcha. Tonight you die.”
I opened it, expecting her identification. Instead, greeting me with glistening fangs, a coiled viper hissed.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

A Delayed Review!

Yesterday, one of the most thoughtful and comprehensive reviews of Caravaggio: Signed in Blood arrived in my inbox. I had submitted the book to the journal Studies in Medieval And Renaissance Teaching (SMARTfor review nearly four years ago.

Four years!

If I've learned anything about publishing, it's patience. (And it's good to have your advanced reader copies ready a year early!)

Here's the review:

Caravaggio: Signed in Blood
By Mark David Smith
Vancouver, BC: Tradewind Books, 2016
152 pages | Paper | $10.95 |
ISBN 978-1-896580-05-0 | 

Book Review

Roy Hammerling
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century ground-breaking painter, is both a perfect and a perplexing choice for a book directed toward youth in their teens. Perfect for two reasons: first, his genius helped lay the foundations of Baroque and modern painting (cf. Troy Thomas, Caravaggio and the Creation of Modernity), and second, he lived one of the most colorful and controversial lives of his age. Out of this second point, however, emerges the tricky elements for a book intended for youth.

Mark David Smith’s first novel admirably negotiates the more troubling aspects of the story of Caravaggio’s life and career intended for teens by deflecting the central storyline away from Caravaggio himself onto a fictional character by the name of Beppo, a fifteen-yearold indentured servant, who early in the story is falsely accused of the murder of his master, a thieving and unsavory wine merchant. As Beppo flees Rome, he joins forces with Caravaggio, who himself also just happens to be escaping his own troubles because he has just killed a man in a street fight. Smith creates sympathy for Beppo by making plain that although the poor orphan is a youth of honorable character, he sadly is the unfortunate victim of circumstances. Then by having Caravaggio befriend and employ the young homeless lad, Caravaggio likewise comes off as a compassionate master, whose life has spun out of control due to a calamitous incident. The two find a bond in their similar circumstances. However, as the novel progresses, and as Beppo gets to know his new benefactor, a more complex picture of the brilliant artist emerges, mostly focusing upon an unpredictably brusk personality that fluctuates between being “choleric one moment and sanguine the next” (87) or between being “melancholic and mystic” (63). Caravaggio and his faithful retainer throughout the story are on the run pursued by unscrupulous men seeking revenge. The book ends before that later part of Caravaggio’s mysterious life and untimely demise. Smith presents the artist with certain heroic, if shadowy, qualities, but none are as endearing as the painter’s care for the boy Beppo. 
Middle and high school educators, who happen to be looking for a book that will supplement their discussions of Caravaggio as an artist, probably will be disappointed. If teachers, on the other hand, want an adventure story to peak their students’ interest in Caravaggio by means of the literary devices of danger, romance, and a happy ending, then this short book is their tale. Along the way, Beppo falls in love with the beautiful Dolcetto, who sadly has an arranged engagement to a wealthy man; Beppo has a ripping good sea exploit; and in the end, everything works out well, far beyond Beppo’s wildest dreams. And of course, along the way, he gets to know Caravaggio.

At best, the book touches on Caravaggio’s art only tangentially, mentioning just a few specific paintings and his revolutionary technique in passing. Some of Caravaggio’s famous works that are discussed include how Caravaggio employed “the most beautiful courtesan in Napoli,” who is as lovely as “Botticelli’s Venus” as his model for the Virgin Mary (68–69). However, for educators, this means that they will have to explain why such a choice was a scandal. Another episode tells of how Beppo and Caravaggio rob a grave in order to get a realistic model for a painting based on the biblical figure of the just-risen-from-the-dead Lazarus, a scene in which Caravaggio himself appears in the crowd as an onlooker (87). Smith even has Caravaggio portray Beppo as the famous boy King David in his David with the Head of Goliath, where Caravaggio places his own face onto the severed head of the giant. Another chapter tells of Caravaggio and Beppo’s adventures on Malta and the painting The Beheading of St. John the Baptist and how Caravaggio is said to have signed it in blood, a reference to the book’s title, but in reality, here Caravaggio simply dips his finger into red paint (138). 

In the end, Smith’s first foray into youth literature with a book that engages a tough topic is a successful, quick, and enjoyable read, if one’s expectations about the title character are not too high. By making Beppo the central focus and avoiding Caravaggio’s later life altogether, Smith is able to side step some of the more troubling elements of this brilliant painter’s life, and that perhaps is not a bad thing in a book for youth. The book ends with a brief historical note to supplement some of the stories in the text. 

Still, this reader cannot help but wonder what might have been, had Smith undertaken a more pointed look at one of the most flamboyant figures in the history of art. Smith appears to write his story in a way that hints at his own desire that the life of Caravaggio might have ended differently. There is a certain longing in this fairy tale of hope that hints at the idea that had Caravaggio had his own Beppo, he might have lived longer than his 38 years and painted many more works of wonder. The effectiveness of this short work for educators looking for a story to supplement their teaching about Caravaggio will depend upon the degree to which the reader longs for the same thing.

Roy Hammerling is Professor of Religion  at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

A New Book

I suppose I should have posted this back in September when it was actually "news"--at this point do I term it "olds"?--but I signed a contract with Owlkids Books for a picture book, something I have been working towards for the last 15 years! I can't reveal anything about the title or the publication date yet, as these are not confirmed, but stay tuned. I will say that this book is very close to my heart, and reveals much about my sense of what ought to be my priorities. Is that too cryptic? I'll try to be more forthcoming in future posts.