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FXXK WRITING: THE GUTTERS III, OR, HOW BEING BROKE FORCED ME TO WORK SMART

LAST column, I told the tale of why you should always get paid and why a lot of micro-presses are horrible. The “sale” of my second story was a pyrrhic victory, and not really a sale, so there I was with two pathetic credits on my cover letters. How long would it be until I sold another story?

Let’s pick up where I left off, in the Gutters of 2002:

  • In 2001 I graduated with an MA in War Studies and began contract work at the Royal Military College in Course Development. Which is a fancy way of saying I made photocopies of academic articles for ten-pound reading guides and basically did the crap jobs my boss wouldn’t touch. Worse, she spoke to me like I was a six-year-old kid on Romper Room (and yes, that’s DoBee . . . the Bee).
  • By demonstrating to everyone else that I knew a lot about, you know, history, I was lifted from gopher to research assistant. I worked for two great historians creating distance-learning courses for the Canadian Forces. It was awesome! I wrote lectures and essays! I got paid! I put my MA where my mouth was! But I was smacked by a cold fact: I would always be fighting for scraps of work unless I had a doctorate (OH THE IRONY!)
  • Winter, I was dispatched to Fleet School, Quebec, to teach the Canadian Navy about the history of technology. The class revolted on the second day due to overwork from their program (the story is detailed in my short essay for the James Jones Literary Society Journal). Worse, despite agreeing with their arguments, I had to find a way to make the class work. My secret? Lead by example. I got them resources, worked harder than they did, slept less than they did, ate with them every day and doubled my office hours, and more. I pulled them out of their funk to a solid grade point average before they vanished with gratitude. One thanked me later when they started doctoral work. When I showed up in Halifax the next year to do the same thing, another former student saw me at a Tim Horton’s. “Oh god no,” he said, loud as a Klaxon, “Ridler’s back!”
  • I also started a column at the oldest continues newspaper in Canada. “Ridler’s Morning Rictus” was where I, “Kingston’s most eligible bachelor,” discussed wrestling, punk rock, and horror novels and more . . . until every staff writer complained that I was plucking from their field (sports, entertainment, etc.). After a single, glorious column, RMR was canceled. I, however, remained the city’s most eligible bachelor for years.

And I was writing. During my break from grad school (2001-2003), I wrote a novel called Trinity of Mirrors . . . a name that served no other purpose other than sounding cool (kinda like how you think naming your band Fart Wagon is awesome . . . until you sober up). ToM was so awful that, somewhere around the 150 page mark, our hero, a kid named Digger, is running through a cemetery. Digger turns around, looks at me, Jay Ridler, the writer, and remarks, “why the fuck am I running around a cemetery? There’s no one chasing me! None of this shit makes sense!”

The novel collapsed under the weight of its own stupidity (a grand tradition among writers). With a notebook in hand, I sat at The Copper Penny restaurant, ate spiced fries and began again. I learned to outline, create detailed histories and character sketches. And I started to write the whole fucker again from the top. As 2002 crashed into 2003, I’d re-drafted my novel Chains of Bone (much better title, still an awful book). It was basically an angry letter to Guy Gavriel Kay for what I saw as a pathetic ending for my favorite character in his novel Tigana. And it was also about Latvian werewolves, or “men with wolf eyes”, who are kind of boring except for the fact that once they give their word, they never break it. I found out about them after reading eccentric clergy man and folklore junkie Montague Summers book Werewolves. Which, as we all know, is “all documented, all true.”

For shits and giggles, I also wrote short stories, about one-per-month.

All were rejected. The novel. The stories. Even a stray poem. Nothing came close. I was still writing garbage after two-plus years. And yet I kept trying to get better, but I had no idea if it was happening.

2003 was a year of plus ça change. I’d decided to go back to grad school . While doing the PhD, I’d focus on writing short stories after cranking out another novel and a half (I’m anything if not reckless and speedy).  So as that year unfolded, the gutters ate up my year:

  • I selected Dr. Omond Solandt as the subject of my doctoral thesis, and began course work in my fields of War and Technology, Cold War History (International Dimensions), and War and Literature. I had initially taken Canadian Defence Policy and worked with future Chief of the Army Major-General Andrew Leslie along with an assembly of nutty and talented grad students and old soldiers, but switched to War and Literature when my instructor, John Marteinson (he of the iron handshake) was diagnosed with terminal cancer and unavailable. John was one of few people in academia who championed my pursuit of a writing career alongside history. I believe his comment was “anyone who tells you to abandon literature is already defeated. They have nothing to tell you that matters.”
  • Was shot to Halifax to teach the Navy again (see above), and lived for two months in the Cambridge Suites Hotel like a king, doing karate in the weight room, goofing off at the Ale House, and learned how to play blue grass finger-picking from a talented Celtic guitarist and singer from Cape Breton.
  • Learned that the urban legend about “Friday Night Singles” in Halifax (where wives of sailors take off their wedding ring and pretend to be single while their hubby is on ship) . . . had some truth in it!
  • I spent oodles of time and money at Strange Adventures Comic Book Shop, befriending the staff (who did competitive Alan Moore impressions!), and thinking deep on how to write comic books from some killer interview books.
  • Continued my streak of eating Life Cereal for breakfast, unabated, since I was fifteen.

And I wrote a lot of short stories.

They all got rejected. All three novels, too. Two years, and no new sales, let alone one that paid. 

I did receive one nice note from the late George Scithers at Weird Tales about my short story “Blood and Sawdust”,  a story that would eventually be sold and become the novel of the same name . . . but not that year! That year B&S was still riding the rails, looking for work, and getting a fistful of nothing as it traveled from slushpile to slushpile like the Littlest Hobo . . .   

2004 rolled around and that shitty “sale” from two years ago was starting to gnaw at me like a starved chipmunk that prefers the taste of flesh to nuts (rim shot!). So I kept writing while the gutters filled yet again with crazy crap:

  • I read most of Hemingway’s war literature for my comprehensive exams, as well as the killer five-volume bio written by Michael Reynolds. Taught me a lot about dialog, action, theme, omission, and compression.
  • I was surviving off my online classes when, that Fall, someone overspent my department’s budget by an order of magnitude. The Ombudsmun laid the smack down on all online classes until the mess was fixed. ALL THE WORK I HAD PLANNED FOR THE YEAR WAS CANCELLED. $15K vanished before my eyes. In shock, and desperate for cash, I did something I swore I’d never do . . .
  • . . . I returned to retail after five years free of saying “would you like a bag with that?” I am forever in debt to Oscar Malan at Novel Idea bookstore for hiring me when he didn’t need an extra hand. I worked the Saturday morning and Monday night shifts everyone hated, paid bills while I read a lot of books at the desk and got a killer discount for all my grad school books. Plus, the staff was a ragtag bunch of misfits, anarchists, slackers, retirees, high school students, and me! Any job that let me play Tom Waits while I read James Jones  was a precious job indeed.
  • My academic supervisors, hearing of my plight, threw research work at me. I still remember the head of the program saying “Your College may have failed you, but your program won’t.” I’m indebted to Brian McKercher, David Last, Sean Maloney and Mike Hennessy for finding enough scraps of work to allow me to continue my studies.

Still terrified about cash, I also harassed those that still liked me at the Kingston Whig Standard to let me write a five-day serialized Halloween story (so no one would think I was dipping into their non-fic fields). . . and they agreed!

Better? They paid me $500.00 for a 3500 story, or, better than pro rates in fiction magazines).

I broke my two-year publication drought and made BANK . . . all without submitting to a magazine.

And why?

BECAUSE OF ALL THE SHIT IN MY LIFE THAT WAS NOT WRITING!

Sure, I was also writing. That’s a given. That’s the LEAST I could have called upon. But that alone didn’t produce that story. Experience, connections, circumstance, creating opportunities outside the norm, and rising to the occasion when it mattered all added to the mix. These factors, braced by my drive to improve, created an idea that became a reality. And, I might add, in the nick of time!

What happened next was natural: a soap opera actress from The Young and the Restless liked one of my stories . . . and what happened next change my life forever!

HAHAHAHA! Well, one part of the above is true. Which one? Find out, next month, as I continue to drag you through The Gutters!

Until then, go buy Jay’s latest novel with a brand new cover, A TRIUMPH FOR SAKURA, which award-winning writer and editor Nancy Kilpatrick called “Hunger Games, Fight Club and True Blood rolled into one bloody good novel.” BUY IT NOW, BE HAPPY FOREVER!

Jason S. Ridler

Jason RidlerJason S. Ridler is a writer, historian, and actor. He is the author of The Brimstone Files, and his latest historical work Mavericks of War was called a “visceral read that is also an important piece of scholarship” by Pulitzer-Prize winner Richard Rhodes. He is a Teaching Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and teaches creative writing at Google, Youtube, and for private clients.

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1 comments
MichaelWinterCho
MichaelWinterCho

Fun articles, esp. as an aspiring author myself. Good cliffhanger, too :)

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