Does Paid Editing Increase Ebook Sales?

WARNING: A LONG ASS POST! You can skip to the take home message at the bottom of the post.

Go to any self-publishing forum.  Most of its participants would advise you to have a professional cover and professional editing  before publishing. But the reality isn’t so simple.

Traditional publishers usually have s multistage editing process: content edit, developmental edit, line-edit, copyedit, proofreader. Perhaps you’d not recieve all of them, but the last three are crucial.    An editor presumably could do all of them, but that’s rare.  Usually you’d have 2-3 editors for the entire editing process. Freelance editors quote anywhere from $.005  per word to $.08 per word,  content/developmental edits being more expensive. A basic 70,000 word manuscript could easily cost a thousand dollars in editing expenses alone.

Covers costs are more flexible. Costs could be anywhere from  $0 or $5 from fiverr, to $20-$40 premades, to  $60-$100 Photoshop stock photo manipulations to $200-$500 for high end photo-manipulations to a few thousand dollars if you want original illustrated art that’s usual to the epic fantasy genre. Oh dear, the costs of being professional aren’t trivial.

Are these costs truly necessary in order to produce a book that will sell?

Seems like an easy question to answer, after all we can point to risible covers languishing in the ranks or underperforming books in dire need of edits.  However,  there are not an insignificant number of ebooks with self-done covers and weak edits selling well enough.

Thankfully Hugh Howey has done the hard task of collecting data that we need. He released groundbreaking report on authors earnings on the Amazon kindle publishing platform. I’d urge you to read it if you haven’t. In conjunction to his study of kindle ebooks, Hugh is running a voluntary survey of book earnings. The survey includes questions about editing and cover choices.

The data is free and available to all.  As of this posting, there are 988 responders.  If you’ve self-published or trad-published, I urge you to fill out the survey.  We’re in crucial need of data to help us understand the self-publishing landscape.

I peeked at the data, actually ran a hacksaw to it. Here are some preliminary thoughts. I’ll look at questions of editing expenses in this post, and on the next post, examine the cover art debate.

A number of caveats first!

With survey data, confirmation bias is KING. Those who make money are likely to respond than those who make nothing. (If you make next to nothing, I urge to fill out the survey). Additionally, there’s a stigma against unprofessional books among serious indies because it’s seen rightly or un-rightly that these books give indie books a bad name.  To avoid scrutiny, those who don’t pay for editors or covers are less likely to respond than those who do. And motivated indies are more likely to respond than those who upload a book to Kindle and forget about it.

Besides, people lie or their recollections are imprecise. A indie reported making $13,000,000  in the last year! True or false? A typing mistake? Who knows.  Some appeared to have published their first book six months in the future, or some reported income even though they reported publishing zero books.  There’s no specificity about fiction/non-fiction, genre or word length or whether the books are in a series.

On a more technical point, the meaning of editing is undefined.  Editing could be mean proofreading. Or it could mean a more thorough copy or line edit or developmental edit.  I’ll take it to mean that the author paid someone to look through their manuscript in some fashion. ‘Friends and Family’ (F&F) could mean editor friends and family or functionally illiterate friends and family. Which group does beta readers belong to? Among F&F or Critique Groups/Other Authors (CG)?

It’s not uncommon for self-pubbers to publishe a book that is either self-edited or edited for free, and when sales start rolling or presumably when they get bad reviews complaining about the lack of production values, they use the profits to fund a edited version or a more professional cover.  Hugh Howey himself has famously said he relied on friends and family to write Wool.  His first covers were DIY.

Well then, let’s jump into the data.

totalearnpie

Of the 878 who identify as indie, the pie chart shows the breakdown of their editing decisions. Those marked undetermined did not click a response on the kind of editing they used.

More than half pay for some kind of editing. If the survey is illustrative of self-publishing as a whole, then perhaps the stereotype of entitled wannabes foisting their unedited ‘masterpieces’ upon the masses isn’t very accurate.

How do the past year’s reported earnings compare?

Average Median Max
Critique group / Other authors $19,104.50 $725.00 $1,000,000.00
Friends and family $21,651.00 $1,000.00 $567,000.00
Hired freelance editor $93,646.70 $5,250.00 $13,000,000.00
None $31,743.60 $3,000.00 $1,000,000.00
Undetermined $2,476.78 $500.00 $10,000.00

The calculations were done on the total raw earnings of the last year.  As expected, those who hired editors did better over all since they have the highest average and median income.  But strangely  those who relied on CG’s and F&F seemed to be worse off than the self-editers (None Group).

We need to look at the data more closely. For instance, the intrepid self-editer, who reported earning a million dollars, also reported publishing a hundred books! The author who reported 13 million dollars had published 33 books.  It’s well known that earnings tend to jump exponentially with each additional books published. Perhaps a large backlist can overcome the purported disadvantages of  no-editing. 

To control for backlist bias, I decided to analyse the mean earnings per books instead of total earnings.  The mean earnings per book is the total earnings divided by number of books published.  A few data points were spurious because some authors reported income but also reported publishing zero books.

MeanEarningsPerBook

The first $1000 is a good benchmark to study the different groups. Expectedly those who hired editors did the best in that earnings bracket, as 50%  of them earned less that $1000 per book. Those who relied on F&F did second best.

Take a look at the CG group and the None group.  Surprise, surprise! While the self-editors were more likely to make nothing, they weren’t worse off compared to those who relied on CG’s. 70% of them compared to the 73% of the CG’s made less than $1000.  5% of self-editers made more than $50000 per book compared to the 0% of those who relied on CG’s.

Is the paucity of data to blame for the apparent well being of the self-editers compared to those who relied on CG’s? Probably. Nevertheless, one thing’s certain: authors with varying levels of resources are still able to maximise their potential.  Not hiring an editor isn’t the kiss of death. 

Are authors earning more because their books have been out longer?  Are they writing novels rather than shorts? Are glittering covers the reason for their success?  There’s the added fact that after a certain income threshold, time is literally money. It doesn’t pay to edit yourself. Your time is better spent marketing and writing rather than fussing over edits.

Examining mean earnings per book  doesn’t quite isolate the legacy of luck, timing, and persistence. And so I decided to look at authors who have published one book only in the last year excluding the month of December. I excluded December because I wanted books with at least a month of earnings. The data cuts down drastically to 58 points, which isn’t much but enough to tinker with.

earn3

How about their earnings? I adjusted earnings to take into account the length of time the book has been on the market. In effect, I chose to play with the mean daily earnings instead of total earnings.

earnone

8% of those who have hired editors earned zero compared to the 28% of those who relied on CG’s.  It would have been nice to see  how that compares to those who self-edit, but alas with only one data point, we can’t say anything.

Let’s take a total earnings of $1000 as the benchmark to evaluate results; this translates to 1000/365=$3.6 daily mean earnings. Here, we’re making an assumption that books have daily uniform sales, which is far from true.

Concentrating on the level of the green boxes, we see that those who hired editors and those who relied on F&F came out ahead.  Actually they did about the same. 48% of them earned more than $3.6 per day.  Those who relied on CG’s did much worse,  less than 10% earning over $3.6 a day.

The chart would show that those who relied on F&F did better than those who hired editors, especially so as their earnings are pure profit. But the raw numbers tell a different story.  Here are the averages, median and max of  mean daily earnings for the different groups.

Average Median Max
Hired freelance editor $52.38 $3.14 $520.83
Critique group / Other authors $1.15 $0.37 $7.03
Friends and family $14.94 $3.33 $109.49
None $4.00 $4.00 $4.00

The average author who hired a freelancer earned $52 per day compared to $15 per day earned by the average author who relied on F&F.

By looking at the max earnings, we see that paid editing enables the author to earn a lot more.  However, there’s a crucial caveat: To earn that first $1000, editors don’t help much–this we can can see, as half of those who paid editors earned less than $1000 in the last year.  Editing costs can easily run over a $1000 for long manuscripts. How long can you stand being in the red?

THE TAKE HOME MESSAGE

Self-editing yea or nay?  The self-edited book performs worse than the paid-edited book. AND the book  has a greater chance of earning zero dollars. I personally would think twice about self-editing.

You shouldn’t worry too much about hiring an editor either, especially if you’re strapped for resources.  You should search high and low for slaves (F&F) to massacre your manuscript. Your earnings potential  would be hurt on the top side, but the chart also shows that earnings on the low to medium side doesn’t get massacred either.  Moreover, the earnings will be pure profit that can be ploughed back into the book or to make the next book better.

As for relying on critique groups and other authors?  The data would confirm what many veterans of writing groups have long suspected. Writerly opinions on your writing might be helpful to learn the rudiments of writing, but not so much when it comes to the book you’re hoping to publish.  What writers like to read and what the ordinary readers likes tends to diverge. At some point an aspiring author has to graduate from critique groups to seeking the opinions of those good friends  or family who have a vested interest in helping them succeed.

Next post, should you pay for professional covers?

ETA: Ok I see some argumentation from my old folks at Scribophile.  I used to be active there, back in the day. Hello!

Those who paid for editing are more motivated to succeed.  I have no quibble about that.  But I’m more interested in the comparison between those who relied on F&F and those who relied on CG’s and other authors.  Who’s the more motivated among the two of them?

Even without more precise data about genre and book length and marketing, it’d seem that those who relied critique groups and other authors aren’t doing all they can to make their book succeed.  And yet those who relied on F&F seem to be able to do it.

We’re back to the sticking question.  Is the mechanics of critique groups or the writer’s lack of know-how  or is it just bad data to blame for the relative lack of performance?  I think the data points to something awry about relying on critiques groups and authors, but this is neither here nor there. We can all agree that  everyone should try, if they can, to hire editors.

As for the divergent tastes of readers and writers . Let me give an example.  Look at the Amazon top 100 fantasy bestseller list. You can tell which books are indie. And their bad reviews tend to be consistent: cliche or juvenile plot,  thinly veiled dungeons and dragons campaigns, bad editing. There’s a certain woman who’s making a killing in indie fantasy despite her reviews that ding her for poor editing.

After reading a lot of bad reviews of the indie fantasy bestsellers and those ranked well in the top 5000, it seemed to me that the average indie fantasy reader is easy to please. As long as you tell a good yarn, with clearly drawn tropes, they are fine.   The ultra-refined reader who prefers hugo-award winning stories would be appalled that selling authors are still mucking about with the messianic farmboy hero trope.  I bet the editors of the pro-paying scifi/fantasy mags would be appalled by what is selling on the top lists.

Writers tend to have more refined tastes because they tend to have read a lot more. They have thought a lot more than the average reader about the mechanics of story and character, prose and style.   A common complaint among writers is that they can’t turn off the inner editor when reading published books. They get so snagged with the badly crafted words that they miss the overall story. Readers who aren’t writers tend not to do this. While the unsophisticated reader might not care for cliche or juvenile plots, writers tend to care more. It’s my theory that critique groups can rag a writer too badly for cliches and unoriginality to the detriment of story appeal to the average genre reader.

Nano madness

I don’t think I ever taken part in Nanowrimo before. Never been tempted to. The idea of pumping out first drafts doesn’t tempt me.  My laptop is filled with first drafts that need editing, and I’m in no hurry to add to the stack. The first draft is like playing with a shiny new toy,”ooh I have write about Steve boinking Paul to get to Cynthia,” but second draft is just work. I have to worry about nuance, description, tone, voice, subtext, adverbs …. I can’t pump my way through that, and I have to stop and think about it every 2 seconds. At some point I just want to give up and go play with another shiny new toy.

On that note, I have to go back to editing.

Hard Characters

The first iteration of Luke’s character in Love and Go
was something of a sarcastic, couldn’t-care-less character mucking about in a garden of hurt. Fun guy really. If you’re interested in reading an unedited version of Love and Go with hardass Luke, ask me. It’s probably a better rendition but there was issues with motivation and the like. And I thought I was getting too comfortable writing the same sort of characters, and then I read The Defense by Nabokov which portrayed a disturbed chess player.

And so I came up with a fucked-up Luke. I hope not fucked in a way that’s off-putting, but fucked up in an interesting way.He’s mess of things. He’s gentle, naive. He aims to please. But at the same time, he’s apathetic and can be very unyielding. It’s a challenge keeping his actions monotone and maintaining a constant tension about him.

Can’t say I’ve succeeded because readers so far complain about his lack of emotion. Unfortunately becoming more emotional isn’t part of his character arc. In some sense he’s the impact character. He doesn’t change, which drives Hao completely crazy towards the end, triggering devastating events. But Luke does have an arc, that of finding personal salvation. It’s Hao’s challenge to get over himself, ignore Luke’s strange manners, and help Luke save himself before it’s too late. Whether Hao succeeds or not is still an open question.

Subtle dialogue

I run across dialogue in which people say what they mean and mean what they say. For instance, two characters who sit and talk about their vulnerable circumstances without any hint of obfuscation. They have a heart to heart straight to the bone talk. Or the dialogue in which two characters engage in passionate duel over their beliefs without a hint of subtlety either.

I understand some readers derive some vicarious pleasure or emotions in these scenes, but really to me, they mostly feel syrupy, dull, and utterly trite.

People don’t say what they mean most of the time, especially in emotionally bare moments because people are inherently protective of themselves. We fear rejection, flouting social conventions, wronging someone, confronting unsavory aspects of our psyche, or because you know most of the time, we are not even aware of what we are feeling, we can’t give a name to it. And so we use hedge words, or outright lie, or speak laterally, or be coy and speak in code. If your characters are inherently dramatic, meaning they have inner tensions that threaten to tear them apart, they will have fears and insecurities that will inhibit them from saying what they mean most of the time.

Anyway back to being a crazy fish.

Sex is a distraction in fiction

Obviously this doesn’t apply if you’re writing erotica.

Sure feeling hot and sticky and shit is nice. But I find a lot of it boring  because author’s tend to substitute sexual feeling for inner tension.  And it ends up just feeling cold and sterile.  I might as well just watch porn–easier for me get off.

I was reading Giovanni’s room the other day.  Obviously given the time period when it was written, James Baldwin couldn’t knock himself out with shooting dicks and big load of cum, he had to hide and at the same time express the truth of the occurrence  The  result is he had to get to the emotional heart of the matter. Get to right to  the emotional tension and show characters in their bare and vulnerable moment.

So look at the consummation of the relationship between David and Giovanni.

He locked the door behind us, and then for a moment , in the gloom, we simply stared at each other–with dismay, with relief, and breathing hard.  I was trembling. I thought if I do not open the door at once and get out of here, I am lost. But I know I could not open the door, I knew it was too late; soon it was too late to do anything but moan. He pulled me against him, putting himself into my arms as though he were giving me himself to carry, and slowly pulled me down with him to that bed.  With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes.

Nary a word about hard dicks and big blunt cocks, just pure emotions of the moment. I was touched.  No I wasn’t hot and heavy, but touched where good fiction is supposed to touch you.

Now of course if this was supposed to a fuck and dump session, the language and the line of attack will be lot different. But you still need to get to the emotional heart of the matter.  Usually that means finding the character tension even in a fuck and dump session, and making  that the forefront over all the bathroom gymnastics.

Some thoughts for the day.

Too old for old tricks: Chapter 1

It was Easter Sunday. Whatever of life and death, sacrifice and the resurrection were subsumed by the festering jubilation in the grocery store. Buy one get one free rabbit-sized bonbons, seventy percent off honey-glazed ham. Perhaps one could prevision death and its runny afterbirth from the scarlet poinsettias gracing the gardening aisle.

The cold and the diarrheic glimmer of beer bottles billowed from the open-faced fridge before Anton folding him arms tightly across his chest. His bangles felt icy against the scars on his wrists. Something itched, rather wriggled underneath the squamous scars. Ratcheting the cool metal over his wrists, Anton regretted the short sleeves of his tshirt and the white hairs over his arms and the infinite choices for beer.

And oh yes, beer. Brown bottle, green bottle. Gold foil cap, slovenly monk with apricot cheeks. Anton reached for the choice of the past seven years: the case of all-American swill refreshing crisp lager. Emmanuel preferred it and he preferred to prefer Emmanuel’s tastes. But he thought, Easter seemed an occasion for something different, something of spring, leastways a resurrection for better beer. And what perhaps of the all-Japanese swill or the all-Chinese swill—How now beer from the middle kingdom of el-cheapos?

It was decided a case of the house favorite. Then he perambulated the aisles, like a whale that had lost sight of the sea and its obviating vastness, no more content, no less disinclined to feel disappointed in himself for defaulting to the familiar.

Perhaps a different brand of mustard? Emmanuel bought the mustard. Or the organic, natural, non-fluoride, non-sweetened toothpaste? But the regular one with ingredients of unpronounceables looked less frightening. The soft head brush toothbrush should be better than the medium head toothbrush? Emmanuel preferred the medium head, but wasn’t the soft head better?

The dental conundrums were no more clearer than the conundrum in his back pocket: a handwritten letter addressed to Emmanuel Cohen.The letter had arrived three days earlier, but Anton held onto it instead of placing it on Emmanuel’s study desk, like he always did. And in examining the letter again, feeling the ink strokes mark the white envelope, he decided its precise curlicues and the compact loftiness were of a feminine hand. This ‘Chris Winston’ on the sender’s address must be female, which ruffled him.

Why should Emmanuel, work-twenty-seven-hours-a-day Emmanuel, receive handwritten letters in this age where sharing and caring were worth less than a byte? Unsurprising, given Emmanuel’s lucky happenstances, but still, Anton held fast, in tremulous wondering, to his own letter addressed to Antonin Bulgakov. He would like a letter, too. It was just as well Emmanuel would dismiss his want with a pathetic shrug; and therefore Emmanuel should not mind if the letter came from a bronzed ephebe lounging on a far-off Greek Island—warm sands and warm bodies. But Emmanuel would not mind; rather, Emmanuel did not care to mind.

Unnerved, he stuffed the letter back into his pocket and slipped back into deliberating between soft head toothbrushes and medium head toothbrushes. Analyses were still as muddy when the loudspeaker bleated the last chance for six inch round lemon chiffon cakes at seven ninety nine. Randomly, he tilted his gaze over towards the row cakes on display and was immediately and quietly seized by the irrefragable fact of the day being Emmanuel’s birthday. He dumped a pair of medium toothbrushes in his cart and trundled to the bakery section.

The assistant looked young, rudely and flippantly handsome, as he played with his tongue in his mouth, rounding cheek to cheek in a careless rhythm. The boy reminded him of rich acorns and fluffy moss. Anton wanted to reach over the glass display and pop those cheeks. Maybe jump over the display—no, bum knee, bum kidneys—and lay the boy’s face over where his cholesterol-clogged heart was. And he would whisper restfully about hog-tying bucks or practicing the loops of a hangman’s noose—no, none of that—Morse code for SOS or SOB.

Rubbing his wrists mindlessly, he mulled the delicate yellow lemon cake inside a glass shelf.

“Sir, you get an inscription on the cake,” the boy said as if celebration was wanting.

How good of you to call me sir. Anton suppressed the flutter working up his face. Unearned familiarity was always discomfiting, formality comforting, even subtly arousing from the boy now eying him impatiently. Anton, looking down, contemplated the crisp frosting flowers on the cake. An inscription might read, “Happy Birthday Emmanuel, love Anton,” or, “Happy Birthday Emu, many more steaks to you, love Crocky?”

The choices felt dry, wasteful. Emmanuel’s father was a reformed Jew, mother a Jamaican Jehovah’s witness. Birthdays, Easter, the cake being this sop to the crisis of spring, Emmanuel would not understand it or the pleasures of a handwritten letter.

There was the blare of the loudspeaker again announcing the cheapest unbelievable Easter eggs, and Anton’s senses whittled away in the disorder murmuring away to eggland. The cake sans inscriptions sounded better, or perhaps just the unfrosted cake, even better to leave off the cake and take home the empty box.

Anton saw the boy’s fingers uncurl over the glass counter like it was surrendering to the Easter din around. A line of a shadow trailed up the short fingers and its hairs up to the arm and his folded sleeve, and to the face, evidently suffering a gaze on him. He must be new here. Anton decided not to smile or soften; the boy braved to keep up his stare. His face could be more gentle, could be more innocently boyish. And pink grilled around the temples. The eyes, blue as the twilight, as those myriad eyes that flickered and watched him in his dreams like ghosts roused rudely from stupor.

Anton hoped the boy was docile as his stance presupposed. He was too tired to fight or boast illustrious feats, much less conquer or claim.

His wrists troubled him again, causing him to fidget with the tight clasps of the bangles. There were inscriptions embossed over the dull metal; inscriptions held no meaning, drove no need in him. And yet casting them aside never occurred to him as a possibility.

“Cool bangles,” the attendant interjected.

“You like them?” He regretted his too eager reply and quickly blurted, “Titanium. They’re made of titanium”

“Titanium? Get out of here.” The boy’s smile was the glitter of clear water. “Now, where does anyone get titanium?”

Anton saw now the squareness of his hairline, and the mole underneath the brow. The boy could be … Francis, truly? The name had the ring of the faint clink of pebble ricocheting down a well. No face fastened to the name, or smell, or touch. But the name had the surety in his mind, and Anton concluded it had to be this Francis who gifted him the bangles. But that could not be. Or was it Wilson, the military orthopedic surgeon, who had given them to him before he was discharged dishonorably for gross sexual misconduct.

“Must have been someone important,” Anton said noncommittally.

The boy looked more serious. “You want the cake?”

“Since you insist, I shall.”

“Hehe, doing my best to make more money for the Man,” the boy said. “You want an inscription?”

Anton chuckled. “Sure. ‘Happy birthday Emu, love Crocky.’”

“Man…” The boy guffawed. “Your name’s really Crocky?”

Anton looked back at the discolored incisor jutting out of the laughing mouth like misshapen stump. And the puns followed with more laughter and feelings warmed expansively.

“Crocky?” The boy repeated to himself, feeling the size and girth of the word. Then he removed the cake from the shelf and placed it on the counter. He raised sharp eyes to him. “Pink, all right for the inscription … Crocky?”

“Green … if you don’t mind.” Anton’s voice rose a little. “And you don’t get to call me that.”

“Emu sure can.”

“He stuck around in spite of my balding head. I think he earned the right. You’d have to give me some of those napoleons for free before I might let you …”

“He—I should get this done.” Cake unsteady in both hands, the boy turned away to the table in the shadowy recesses beyond the light display.

Anton was amused with how fast his eyes narrowed and his cheeks lost their high mien. But it was all right for dreams to last a moment. A flame that flickered for an instant was no less a flame, after all.

The wrists bothered him impolitely now. They felt as if a hot wire were boring down his wrist and piping up his forearm. Anton examined the clasps of his bangles, the darker-colored scars underneath, the reticule of thickening veins. Something was clawing from beyond the grave of his youth, where names were whispers and faces were chimeras ghosting the deep. Whatever was coming, he did not feel ready.

The boy returned without expression on his face and with the cake yellow, blue and green in a clear container.

“Enjoy,” he said, deadpan.

A tub of ice cream and dishwashing soap, completed the groceries. At the checkout counter, conversation plodded about the involuble weather, paper or plastic, cash or credit, if forty is the new twenty-five.

The cashier’s cheeks were thin and her eyes darkly deep. But there had to be something delightful in her because she smiled and chatted and smiled and chatted a lot. Even though she smelled of the earthy mushrooms in the forest damp, Anton could not help but think of her smiles like lipstick on a skull.

“Forty, wow, I have got five more years till then,” she chimed then defaulted to a careless laugh. “Age is all in the mind. My three-year-old son runs me around all day. I feel old and young at the same time. You get what I mean?”

Anton nodded, fixed his gaze at the automatic doors, open, close, toddler in a tutu, open, close, man gnashing teeth, in search of coffee. And then the burble on anxieties he was the wrong sex to understand. And of course the son.

“Did I tell you, the kid put a frog in his mouth the other day.” She clutched her breast dramatically. “It scared the bejesus out of me. The last time, it was a cricket.”

Anton thought of the crying, the puling, the mewling of the wobbly things. Those wobbly things were supposed to his lottery ticket to meaning, to immortality. Beautiful things want to beget beautiful things. Good things want to beget good things in the transcriptions of DNA and RNA.

Her words floated on him, floated through him, floated away from him. He was rotating his wrists now to wish away the renascent discomfort.

“You have any?” she asked.

Anton blinked. “Children? Happily … no.” He pasted a smile then took hold of the handles of the grocery bags. “Here’s to remaining thirty-five forever.”

“Thanks.” Her smile wilting on her lips, she dumped the pair of toothbrushes into the bag. “Wish Emmanuel happy birthday for me.”

“I shall.” Anton sighed, moved to lift the bags away, but his wrists hiccupped in pain and the bags dropped with a light bang.

The cashier’s eyes narrowed. “You okay, there? You need a carry-out?”

“Thank you, but I’m all right.” I’m fifty-three, not ninety. He gritted his teeth as he jerked the bags off the counter in a show of his lusty strength. The pain was definite, like gears turning the bones in his wrists. Useless hands. Useless body. Futility was on his mind as he glided from the store, to pavement to his car. Inside the car, he refrained from starting the ignition, instead wriggling his fingers and clenching and loosening his fists, trying to feel the strings of pain each action effected. Its prickling sounds lulling him, the wind assaulted dust and pollen upon the windshield and flurried the dry leaves onto oil slicks. He looked at the sky maddeningly bright, maddeningly blue, and waited. For what? For how long? The pain called to pain, his worries called to Emmanuel.

Gently and precisely, he got his cellphone from his pocket. After a glance at its artic blue screen, he tossed the phone aside and wriggled the letter from his back pocket. It felt warm and damp. There was the graceful name again, ‘Chris Winston’.

Emmanuel always had truculently asserted his right to identify as bisexual. Anton dismissed his view as droll; after all seven years of monogamy should decide it one way or another. Yes, but they had had seven years now of what exactly?

His pusillanimous thoughts so appalled him that he flung the letter into the grocery bags on the passenger seat and stuck the keys into the ignition.

“Ow!” Gently again, he cradled his right hand to himself, but burls of discomfort grew wilder in his forearms and his hand flamed. He could see the ash black roots curled over his digits, stretched and spiraled over his biceps, and clawed its pin tendrils up his neck. In that great revelation of pain, he lifted his eyes to the eastern horizon. His mind, in an instant, expanded, warped, sheared—a great tree darkening half the sky, its leaves of magnesium-blue flame, its fruits hanging like massive lanterns during a Chinese New Year. Today was Easter; more importantly, it was spring, and therefore the season of its pollen celestial tide.

The pollen streamed from the east, covered all over rooftops and electric pole, passed through windows, open hands, open mouths—diamond dust, metaphysical dust enthralled his eyes and prickled his skin. But his hands, the inky roots were bulging and pulsating underneath his taut skin, and neural darts harpooning and bursting the myriad corpuscles in his brain. His vision swooped close in from the sides. Lost in a shattering darkness behind his skull, he slumped onto the steering wheel. Then he remembered.

Francis was not Francis. Wilson was not Wilson. The bangle was not made of titanium. It was simple iron, as old as himself; it was an emblem, a seal gifted to him from his parents.

Light and its variegated hues bled down his vision. And his arms felt like postulating appendages. The air was thick and dry in his nostrils. He moaned, “Why now? Why now after thirty seven years?”

simple vs complicated prose

I’m in that stage right when I need to decide how I want to write.  Everyone says, simplify. Don’t try to sound writerly. Be yourself.  Don’t try so hard.  To some extent I agree.  However that’s hard for me because the more time I spend on something, the more garbled or more complicated it ends up.  So that might suggest, I shouldn’t think so hard on the edits. But the my first drafts are shitty. So I’m in a quandary.

Take the first two hundreds words or so of something I’m working on. This was the first draft, no pre-planning, no edits. Just pure energy here.

The assistant had asked Anton if he wanted an inscription on the cake.  The question had Anton in stitches as he looked over the glittering display of baked goods.

“How much  extra is that?” he asked.

“No charge.”

He thought a cursive incriscription mwould beperfect. ‘happy birthday Bruce, and many steaks to ya’ perfect for him but not for Bruce. The surly African-american – hated the birthdays, much less obvious cakes to reminded his death day loomed closer.

Anton asked for the cake clean of inscriptions, if possible he would have asked for it to clean of any aura of loving care.  It would send the wrong signal, rather it would ill-fit the benign insouciance that had settled on their relationship of seven years.

A cake, a case of craft beer, and a pack of floss picks completed the groceries.  He was opening the door of car when a fierce wind blew dust, grit, pollen over the windshield.  He could see the dry leaves roll over the oil slicks left on the grounds.  And in an instant, his mind expanded, warped and sheared over a apparition—the great tree of Angrador, the its leaves of magnesium-blue flame and the fruits hanging like massive lanterns during a Chinese New Year celebration.  Roots curled over his digits, stretched and spiraled over his biceps and clawed its pin tendrils up his wattle.  He stood naked to a wind of longing, for the ecstasy for the Angrador, to climb up its branches and be one with its life-force.

I think there isn’t much atmosphere.The description is thin. but it gets to a point. now I don’t how complicated that sounds to you.  I think it lacks overall.  And I hate the name Bruce.

It was Easter Sunday.  Whatever of life and death, sacrifice and the resurrection were subsumed by the festering jubilation  in the grocery store.  Buy one get one free rabbit-sized bonbons, seventy percent off honey-glazed ham, perhaps one could prevision death and its runny afterbirth on the scarlet leaves of the poinsettias gracing the gardening aisle.

The open-faced fridge billowed the cold and the diarrheic glimmer of beer bottles and sale price placards before Anton tightening his folded arms across his chest.  The titanium bangles felt icy against his scarred wrists. Something itched, rather wriggled underneath the bare squamous scars. Ratcheting the cool metal over his wrists, Anton regretted the short sleeves of his tshirt, and the white brush of hairs over his arms as well.  But what of beer, he thought.

And oh yes, beer. Brown bottle, green bottle. Gold foil cap, slovenly monk with apricot cheeks. Anton reached for the default choice of the past seven years: the case of all-American swill refreshing crisp lager. Emu preferred it and Anton preferred to prefer Emu’s tastes, but he paused midway into the gelid air drying his eyes. Easter was an occasion for something different, he thought, something of spring, leastways a renascence for better beer. And what perhaps of the all-Japanese swill or the all-Chinese swill—How now beer from the middle kingdom of el-cheapos?

Stupefied over the foreign trade deficit, Anton grabbed the house favorite.  He perambulated the aisles like a geriatric whale, no more content, no less disinclined to feel disappointed in himself or trade deficits.

Perhaps a different brand of mustard? Emu bought the mustard. Or the organic, natural, non-flouride, non-sweetened

 

That is the second draft.  I changed bruce to Emu for a reason though. We are nowhere near the hook of the angrador tree. It has more atmosphere. But perhaps I have garbled something that was working? I have no idea. You decide.

The Cross and the Black, sample read

Here is the first two chapters of The Cross and the Black.

St Joseph’s day, 1584, Toulouse, France.

It was Lenten season, the time of grieving and repenting and braying sententious monks. Enter here, Claude Severin ambling home, grinning like a happy baboon. The melody of a gavotte sloshed in his heart, its rhythm light on his fingers tapping his thighs. Passersby gave no eye to his threadbare tunic or the ragged hose, nor did they stop to admire his hat—lined with velvet, decorated with a red plume, a gift from an apothecary for times sweaty and jaunty.

The feast day of St. Joseph, patron saint of manly losers, drew to an end. The bell of St. Sernin, St. Etienne, St. Nicholas, rippled across the heavens a meandering, exuberant tirade, counting the hour of vespers. And Toulouse began to gather its horses and hunger, toil and tiredness for the salve of home and hearth. In front of the College de Foix, three youths strode their boisterous way around a peddler with a heavy-looking box on his back. The men were draped in the brown copes of university students, hilts of illegal two-handed swords poking from their waists.

A cramp raced up Claude’s left side. Halting, he stifled an urge to yelp. No, he was not a speared goat or Christ wounded on his side. He had recognized Benoit—the stupid one—among the youths. His face looked like mangled dough and sported a prominent chin and forehead, and a dimple for a nose. God had punched his face in before he was born. What more, Claude owed him five sous—a gambling debt from a tennis game, which had promised the lucky chance of “mammon and victuals.” Whatever did that mean.

No God-raped sissy would catch him this time, for Claude whirled away southward towards to the Garonne. But barely had he lifted his right foot to dash away when his side cramped again.

There in the twilight view upon the cobbled streets, Bearitz Alecon cowered before a trio of maidens bound in an unrequited love for Isarn.  It was familiar occurrence for the daughter of a seamstress. The maidens yanked at her auburn hair and poked flinty fingers at her kerchief shielding her humble bosom. But Bearitz stood mute and pale, like Mary Magdalene before her accusers.

“You dare lift your haggish countenance on our Isarn again.”

“Your sallow color isn’t fit for our Isarn.”

“Cheeks like maggots and you dare bewitch our Isarn.”

Isarn, Isarn, Isarn, the words dammed in Claude’s mind. Bearitz’s piteous face had him shuffling elbows and twisting gazes and scratching his lice-ridden testicles in his pose of rabid contemplation. Isarn, he thought, a rakehell of broad shoulders and tawny lovelocks, a thief of his good peace, who rammed his ears with love conquests. And this grand show of passivity—Claude fisted a hand to his lips—silliness from wenches who should kiss more and swoon less.

Those maidens now were imperiously smacking Bearitz’s shoulders.

“Isarn desires no lame sow,” another screech scrawled on his peace.

Fight back, you coxcomb wench, Claude thought maddeningly. But this was no time for intervention, not with Benoit and friends approaching closer from behind.  He swallowed hard. Flittering nervous gazes, he determined, Bearitz would have to learn of mettle all by herself.

To his left, right by an ass nuzzling its head against the supporting beam of a stall, a cart rolled away from the entrance of sparse-looking alley. Claude bounded one step to freedom, only to view a magnificent slap upon Bearitz’s face. Her lips rippled in a tremolo of umbrage and tears, thrusting him into a fluster of fury.

“Thou rump-fed toadstools!” he cried. “Why you demonesses slap her for?”

The women upturned their venomous gazes onto him, and so did attentions of the three men.

“Marry, is that the sissy who owes me five sous?”

For Certes!”

The students’ blades brandished their annoyance, the wild metallic whine slicing through the barbarous air. The evening crowd scarcely gasped or shrugged as the clatter of hard boots charged for Claude. In the moment it took to sigh at his fate and huff an athletic breath, Claude sprinted and traversed through the row of the Isarn-addled wenches, grabbing Bearitz as his prize.

“Raaaaaat!” The students bellowed at the escaping duo in the square of L’Eglise des Cordeliers.

“Dog.” By the College de Narbonne.

“Devil-buggered sheep.” By L’Eglise de St.. Pierre de Cuisines.

All the while Claude’s maiden expended more energy spitting, “Bon Dieu, bon Dieu” than running her fair share.  They darted around the wagons immobile with barrels and the footmen leading ungainly masters. Those idle over the setting sun knew instinctively to step aside. Even the throng of monks marching barefoot in Lenten procession to vespers parted easily before them like the miracle of the Red Sea.

They ducked into a small street tucked in amongst the rose hues of brick houses. Bearitz’s home was a narrow tall two-story building with a massively carved door. He swung her against it and told her to open quickly. Worn out and blue-lipped, she hung her hand on the handle and plopped her head against the door.

“Open it!”

She did not budge. Footsteps flitted past them.

Claude immediately hunkered over Bearitz, pressed forehead to forehead, embraced her tightly. The pose was scandalous in the not yet dim evening and more so unthinkable, for he had no feeling desirous of her fluttering eyes. But there were only a few moments to be borrowed from the rich storehouse of impropriety and discomfiture; he hoped and waited and panted.

Claude’s lips quivered.

Bearitz’s eyes fluttered.

Claude’s lips quivered.

“Where went that effeminate oaf?” A foreign male voice echoed down the length of the street.

Claude’s face twitched up fireworks, and he turned to the voice’s direction to demand who was this lady oaf. But the door opened, and the couple fell over like a sack of flour into a conical figure of Dona Alecon. Such a lovely couple they were, Bearitz and Claude, rolling and rolling their noses in what seemed like a downy pillow—much too perfumed with musk and flesh.

“Claaaaude Severinnnn,” Dona Alecon growled.

Claude kicked off to the side and jumped to his feet. He bowed repeatedly. “God keep you, Na.” With a quick one-two glance at both ends of the street, he scurried away before she would fetch her itching powder reserved for the lubberly suitors who asked after her daughters.

Enter here again Claude Severin kicking lazily down Le Rue de la Bourse. He felt safe, safe from the gnarly hands of creditors, safe from Dona Alecon’s violent fatty hands. He did wonder if the good of saving a maiden from bullies made up for the sin of gambling and absconding from creditors. There was no satisfactory answer on that, and he would just have to ask the priest during his next confession.

As he thought of other theological things to ask his confessor, his blond hair swirled in a sudden updraft. The crest of his ears bit with cold. He reached for his hat.

No hat.

“Jhesu Christz!” Claude cursed some more, ‘the Virgin’s fingers’ and then hotfooted through a gushing stream of blasphemies, “The Virgin’s fingers, toes, nose”. When he was about to defame the beloved womb that birthed his Lord and Savior, God conspired to suffer him some reverence and bumped him into dogs playing jingle with their jewels or sooty children with greedy stares. Holy reverence was necessary, the day being St. Joseph’s day and all.

Claude calmed down to a halt as his troubles came to focus. Benoit was not his only creditor. There were two other debts outstanding.

Money. The desire for it was like an unreachable itch.

Claude nodded his head thoughtfully, “Should I or should I not?” The innkeeper Picard would have work for him.

Money beckoned with its tinkles of pleasures and satiety. And so he turned around started for Picard’s inn in St. Cyprien quarter on the west banks of the Garonne.

Against the canvasses of red brick, evening shadows lengthened their pall. The charcoal stains and brown handprints on the walls blended into the familiar color of black. The ever-present stink of urine bothered him none, nor did the rot of excrement chopped up with the heady aroma of supper bread. The Garonne painted a serpentine grave of spit, sewage, and sand banks. Tournis Island floated to the south. The Basilique de Notre Dame de la Daurade stood sentry over the Le Pont de la Daurade, which spanned a cuboid bridge across the river. The Hotel Dieu and l’Hopital de la Grave towered jointly like a colossus at the eastern end of the bridge.

Just before crossing the bridge, Claude covered his ears as he passed by the bellows of a one-eyed Jacobin.  The black-robed monk spoke of his fervent vigils before the statue of the Black Virgin in the Daurade church.  He testified of the statue crying milk tears.  A sign, he wailed, of another summer of plague and dust that would befall Toulouse, just like the last summer of plague and dust. Claude mouthed, “Oc, yes, yes … hell, very hot. Yes, yes … no heaven for me,” and shambled into the St. Cyprien district.

The cold, dry air herded him past the busy square of St. Nicholas and swiftly into the warmth of Picard’s inn. The room was roaring with a crackling fire, a sonorous troubadour, and men with impatient appetites. Rubbing his hands and jumping, he was delighted for the livelier songs rocking the inn and not the dirges of repentance usual for Lent.

From a counter Picard raised his eyebrows, his chest swelling in uplift as though he were going to announce something triumphant and invariably jabbing. Claude scurried to the counter before Picard could yell his ‘I-told-you-so.’

Picard grinned, blunt nose and hairy ears lifted. “More than glad to be your stumbling block.”

“I need a new hat,” Claude said.

“Spend you less than you earn, you wouldn’t lack, you’d be able to keep pious for forty days and forty nights,”

Forty days and forty nights were how long Jesus spent in the desert where He was tempted in everyway man could be tempted and yet prevailed. Never Claude to prevail. Not Claude to eschew uncleanliness. He needed money, he needed men.

Claude leaned into Picard, smiling in the airs of a coy thing. “It is St. Joseph’s day. I must be like Christ in his cheer, not only in his suffering.”

“Deo Gratias, you are in my employ.” Picard motioned him to take the stairs.

Space was dear, bedding scarce, heating too expensive. Picard demanded his guests bundle up in the beds bespeckled with rat turd. Thrice the fleas, twice the warmth, he proclaimed. However, Claude was headed for the special room meant for single guests.

A rope bed padded with a mattress stuffed with straw took center view of the room. The windows were shut to the cold. A lamp lit up pale shadows on the wall, permeating the air with an acrid smell of burning tallow. Claude sat on the prickly softness of the bed and waited. Perhaps the porter who swore women carried the plague? Or the tanner who grunted yes, grunted no, grunted the same during his horse-like exertions? He fell back into the bed and allowed ease to roll over him. Curiosity mused itself such an aphrodisiac.

The door opened. Benoit’s doughy face appeared. He was without a sword, newly appareled with a womanishly ornate stomacher over his chest. Claude shot to his feet, half to flee, half to gather his wits on what to tell Picard. But it was a transaction, a trade, and he could not renege, or Picard would catapult his hacked bits to the Garonne. Oh misfortune. God had tuned His tail in his way today.

Benoit’s upper lip curled. Stupid one could not decide whether to jeer or wring the neck of the stringy, but handsome bean.

He parted his mouth open. “You owe me money. Now I would pay for you, a hag?”

Claude blinked for precious furious moments. Men were all the same. He was twenty, and that was too old. Sixteen was middle-aged, thirteen was perfect, but not twelve that was just pure evil. Oc, this was Toulouse, the most Catholic city in France.

Claude strutted to him, childlike, free, and quite content with his Toulouse that would not bend to his rule of reason. He dragged Benoit’s hands over his buttocks. Feel the twenty-year old suppleness. Feel the twenty-year old moistness.

Claude’s lips lingered over his ear. “Who needs money when you have me?”

Benoit’s eyes slit shadows. Bony fingers gripped his forearm and twisted him around to face the door. The roughness was all too familiar but still surprising. Claude’s thoughts fled to the honey-brown eyes of the tanner, his satin palms, his velvet kisses.

“Be gentle and St. Joseph shall keep you in his favor, and St. Sernin, and St. Georges,” Claude said. “At least, kiss—”

Benoit crashed him against the door and heaved inside with a careless thrust. Claude sighed. God was punishing him for not being a good Catholic this Lent. Benoit gasping. Why did God hate his tail? Benoit squealing. God made his hat fly away. God—A loud dissonant note walloped his senses, and Claude burst into laughter.

Bang, bang, bang. Benoit thrusting away. Sweaty fingers dug into Claude’s pelvic bone.

And the silly sound was the bard downstairs singing about the Virgin and her grace, her beauty, her mercy. Claude laughed on, desperately now, painfully, against the branch scouring inside him.

“Harder.” He wanted it to end soon, so very soon in a merciful oblivion of seed and sin.

***

Claude leaned on the main counter of Picard’s inn, eagerly awaiting the heavy feel of coins to vouchsafe him satisfaction for a job well done and relief to his sore buttocks. Thick veins crisscrossed his forearms, bulging against the taut skin. His fingers trembled against the grain of the counter, and he stared down Picard’s wife standing across from him. Her cheeks were like a dog’s lolling tongue. A charcoal line of hairs rimmed her hard lips. He could see in those grey-circled eyes, his future, concern and condemnation. He divined his fading youth, the fundamental inutility of his life. Perchance it was time he threatened his master to take him as a carpenter’s apprentice.

He deemed the idea a fool’s prattle. He did not care for carpentry or gainful work. Being a servant with free evenings was the good life.

Picard waddled to her side, and she made a clicking noise of contempt. “Whores are not enough—” Her eyelashes swept up, down Claude. “You must also keep a half-man, a gelded goat.”

Claude turned away brusquely, only to see Benoit striding towards him. He hissed. Benoit gave the I-just-fucked-you smile. The air sank stiffly as everyone upturned their gazes to the window tabernacle of the Blessed Mother on the east wall, pretending heresy against the body had not taken place.

“The sissy owes me money, a gambling debt,” Benoit said to Picard.

“I do not!” Claude yelled.

Picard pitched a warning stare at Claude and groaned, “How much?”

“One sou,” Claude interrupted.

“Five sous,” Benoit said.

Picard looked at Claude then questioningly at the client. A good-for-nothing sodomite or a tattletale to the Palais de Justice, who lately have being pyromaniacs condemning all manner of heretics to the stake?

“Claude, you shall earn your keep next time,” Picard said.

“You are welcome to the College de Foix to earn it back.” Benoit kissed the air at Claude.

Claude grunted those anguished noises of men who came so jubilantly close to kissing Lady Fortuna’s lips, only for her to traipse away to another man already arrayed in fortune. Putana. The whore she was. He stomped a strides towards the exit and then clenched at the pain in his buttocks. Had he just offered his virtue so painstakingly saved up for the past three weeks for free?

“Christ’s blood,” Claude muttered.  He then eased into limping gentle step after gentle step to the door.

But Clovis blocked his exit, grinning. His nose was bulbous and wrinkly. A patch of unnatural white hair darted from his temple to the back of his head. A garbage-dwelling badger or a besotted crone? Claude could never decide on the man who plotted riches over the fortune of his anal sphincter.

“Where is that foppish hat of yours?” Clovis said.

Claude tossed his sweet smile of evasion and sidestepped him for the exit. Clovis took him by the shoulder and turned him back inside the inn. They did not stray from the exit, instead idling by a wooden stanchion and overlooking the busybody ministrations of harried servants. Serving porridge with sparse strings of green beans. Serving the evil eyes to the guest ruminating aloud on which infirm goat had micturated the supper.

Clovis finally patted Claude’s back and said, “Offer me some wine for this feast day. He is your patron saint.”

Claude glared. The cuckolded St. Joseph was not his saint.

“How else could he keep fidelity to our Blessed Mother? A cherub here, a boy there,” Clovis said.

Claude shrugged off the arm. “Beg him for your coin.”

Clovis ignored him, as his eyes wandered everywhere but on Claude. The fireplace crackling its heat. The bard crooning strained with feeling. All the men humming and oinking over too-weak wine.

Clovis leaned into Claude, business-like, and whispered, “Esteban desires more blond musings.”

“Imagine his Easter, so joyful when he proclaims Christus Resurrexit with a risen cock.”

Clovis puffed a short air of derision but remained aloofly business-like, which prompted Claude to laugh and nudge him to be at ease.

“How much did he offer you?” Claude said.

“Ask you the baker how much he earns on his bread?”

“Yes, if I am his bread.”

Clovis slid his hand around his shoulders again and shook with the familiarity of friendship. “See how your veins pulse and plump. Your Easter shall be in want of rejoicing. Esteban can’t wait till Easter. One sou to relieve him of his torment?”

Claude shrugged off Clovis’ arm, but the arm held firmly. “Ten sous.”

“Brother, I must eat.”

“Ten sous.”

“One sou. Take it or leave it.”

“Methinks, I will find Esteban myself.”

“And you shan’t find him.”

“Then deliver him to your pillicocks on the riverbank. I’ll do without your widow’s mites.”

Straining to be gentle, Clovis pushed him aside. He smoothed the sides of his head then laughed away frustration. “Esteban did prefer younger blonds, handsomer blonds without beards.” Content with his insult, he walked away to a table crowded with forelocked men.

Claude felt his chin and cheeks. Sandy and unwelcome. The hatchet-faced badger.

From afar, Picard’s wife glared her sermon of thrift and industry. Claude winked at her, defiant. Youth was his caged pet, not hers.

Two

 

In his cell Claude lay on a thin arrangement of blankets on the ground. His eyes were scalded to the pitch darkness. The oblong slit for a window yielded no light, not even stars. Hell looked preferable to the black aether of his bed. At least fires burned, albeit cleansing, painful fires, but lap and lash for life they did. Like charcoal crumbling, he felt his feet segment into the dark, his shins, his thighs, his belly …

The door opened and a smoky clove scent swarmed into the cell.

“I keep holy for Lent,” Claude said without the strain of protest to the stocky bulk of his master Serge. His clothes reflected dully a muffled white in the dark.

“You weren’t home when I returned from the Guild.”

“May St. Dennis strike me dead. Jules and I watched the dyers at the river all day.”

Oc.”

Moments quivered tautly until Serge, with as much as a florid shrug, drew away from the door and slipped into the bed.

Thoughtlessly, Claude began fondling Serge as duty commanded. Duty also commanded taking care of Serge’s morning ablutions, and cooking, and washing, and mending, and rubbing him stiff to a fatal spill. That or the streets.

Pulling and tugging on Serge, Claude dreamed about the apothecary kissing him and taking him in the mouth, unlike Serge too cowardly to give him a brotherly kiss. He yawned and stroked away. All the things he did for a sound roof over his head, three meals a day, and a paltry thirty sous a month. At least, Serge would never consent to be his clyster pipes like the stupid one. Oc, the stupid one, who took him without paying. For free! He stopped paying attention to Serge, gathering the thought faggots to burn up a bright consternation.

It was too dark. That Serge was seething with the rage of a dispossessed lion, Claude could not see or care to see. Serge shifted and cleared his throat repeatedly, all the while Claude’s mind resounded with ‘for free, for free.’ He folded his arms on his chest and frowned through a mental sludge of blasphemies.

Serge wagged his thighs to rouse Claude. “Ahem.”

Claude came to himself and an erection wagging at him for attention, like that nuisance child tugging at his tunic for alms. “You want a log? Get a wife.”

“I did arrange a wife, Mireille Bonace. We did much discussion today on the marriage contract.”

Claude shot upright to sitting. He could feel in his chest the rusty start of time’s gears, like a grinding wheel.

Claude muttered, “Deo Gratias. Good news indeed. You are here, ripe with good cheer and lust.”

“It was you who touched me!”

Claude cradled his head. If only his ears could be deaf to the self-deception deepening Serge’s voice.

“She would not do with an unwholesome servant in her employ. You can’t stay here anymore,” Serge said.

“Dilated you to her keepers on your she-cur of a servant? ‘He steals into my bed and rides me like a stallion of the apocalypse.’” Rolling out of bed, Claude laughed helplessly at the violence of its image. “Now you shall be married and I return to the streets.”

“What’s this to do with me? You have friends wide and vast.”

Claude spun on his feet and shoved his face into of Serge’s. “God damn you.”

Serge looked away.

The craven goat. Claude staggered backwards and wiped his face as he fought to retain composure.  Then he stumbled around in the dark for clothes.

“I might arrange something with Seyr, if you stop being womanish,” Serge said.

Oc womanish.” The words rolled out of Claude, who was now dizzy in a vague sense of  loss. Serge was supposed to be the glum carpenter, who stared blandly at gewgaws or rainbows. This dull Serge had suddenly become his most needed cornerstone. Feeling for his pile of clothes on the floor, Claude felt clammy and bursting around his diaphragm. It was as though he had been thrust into the murky misty heat of a bathhouse. Soon enough, he wrestled his arms into the sleeves of a woolen coat, kicked feet into shoes.

“Auguste has need of an apprentice,” Serge said.

“Or another servant for his wife and nine whelps.”

“Claude … where are you going?”

“Off to find a good rider.”

Claude banged the door of his room, banged the door to the house, slumped onto its cold hardness, facing that same starless night.

Gears, rickety and rusty, turned in his heart, rattling against the tightness in his chest. Restlessness rolled in like the morning fog over the Garonne. He pulled his cloak tighter around himself and shuffled on to find men who would stop his time.

Fire to fire, hope to hope, he stumbled onto the banks of the Garonne. Fires burned from the man-made sand banks bracketing the river gates and Tournis Island. Gleams floated like lilies, eyes unblinking to the sky and moon, ears deaf to men howling for sweet wine. Over the city walls inking into the purple void, down the length of the river, a gale coursed and swaddled his lanky body. Claude made for Le Rue de l’Empire. Over there congregated the congresses of strange flesh away from the eyes of the night’s watch and the Capitouls—Toulouse’s aldermen and moral guardians.

Claude considered looking for Clovis again among the vagrant shacks on the riverbank. Certainly he would have to be more reasonable about fees and expectations.

Pilgrims picked at the ground with walking sticks. Journeymen bellowed to the air, they were still male and still in God’s favor. Students escaping Latin and curfew in search of lucky die and cream thigh. And Claude saw him imperial above the hoi polloi

Gold things on the stranger’s fingers and silver things on the shoes gleamed and beckoned to Claude. A lovely toque on the head, much better than his old hat, if only because this toque existed and the hat did not. A lovely toque on the gentleman who must be used to silk and velvet. A lovely toque, which he did not possess, and with the prospect of a future with a nine screaming babes, he may never gain one.

Putana, Claude cursed, rubbing his chapped lips like a genie lamp.

A beggar littered with unwanted benedictions on every drunken, pleading step around the stranger.

“A denari or two for some wine, Senher. God have mercy on you, Senher. St. Joseph’s eye is over you, Senher. Our Heavenly Mother have watch over you, Senher,” the beggar said.

Virtue, consequences, pride whooshed away with the winds of initiative. Claude skipped behind the beggar, bumped him into the stranger.  Just as the beggar fell jerkily into the stranger, Claude stumbled affectedly into them as well.  And they all tumbled down like the walls of Jericho. Claude ended atop the heap of grumbles and bones and was rather pleased to see the toque flat on the ground.

Without a shrug of scruple, he swiped it and wore his prize. Velvet and the cool feathers caressed his fingers. A smile rose on his face in anticipation for daylight to crown him beautiful.

The drunkard still fondled and slobbered his way on the stranger’s body. Shoving the beggar aside, the man growled, “That is mine.”

Claude flicked his head back, eyelashes lowering, and he considered the pathetic twosome.

The stranger at last rose to his feet. “I shall have that back now.”

“Ah, your wife would tame you with her spindle for gifting your hat to one of your many whores?” Claude removed the hat. Its dark beauty held his eyes momentarily. “What do you want for it?” The stranger reached for it, but Claude stepped back, shook his head in disapproval, and purred. “See how constipated you look. The Dona will understand … she had better understand. A handsome lad was more deserving of it. At least, ’tis not your runnions who keep it now.”

With that Claude spun around and leaped eastward towards L’Eglise de la Dalbade. He held to his hat, his bouncing heart, his forceful breaths while black blocks fell aside and tossed themselves out of the way. God would incline his magical hands on him this time. Lady Fortuna’s cheeks would be his to kiss this time.

In the grand square of La Bourse, he slowed down amidst a thicket of familiar men. A friend, Jules wanted to fix a date for hare-coursing.

“Wednesday, Wednesday, Jules,” Claude said, out of breath then leaned gratefully on Jules’s shoulders.

“Whose cock granted you that fine hat? I know ’tis not the apothecary,” Jules said, taking a slight pride in the fact of Claude resting on his shoulders.

Claude looked up and there was the stranger headed for him. He pointed. “His.” The men laughed with great mirth, echoing, “Berdache!” the word for a male whore. He reminded them who had the bigger girth before picking up and running again.

Northward on Grand Rue he divided another pocket of men. One screamed at the offense. Another barked, “Claude Severin, you owe me three sous.” And fresh youth were on his heels.

The gritty air stung his nostrils. His tired body forced him to halt and settle into a dark nook in the Romanesque façade of a Carmelite Monastery. Footsteps ran past him. Claude collapsed against the wall. His lungs burned. On the slightest pressure, his legs trembled like resonating cymbals. Surely the darkness and the silence were his triumph over the stranger.

A figure divided from the dark and sallied towards him. “’Tis been awhile, I have been on a hunt.” His voice was effortlessly rich.

It shook Claude to breaking out of the nook and walking backwards away from him. “You may offer me wine for your hat? No money? No worry. Bend over, and l shall bore you. You would only know my name.”

The stranger laughed in fits and starts then uproariously. “And what’s that?”

The howls and barks of unseen beasts quaked the gloaming around, and Claude shivered. “What is what?”

“Your name, your name?”

The feeling, just a feeling, hinted something taken aback. Claude clenched on the toque and staggered away from the stranger, little strides, unsure steps into the boundless dark. “You’re not getting your hat—“

As death sure of its prey, the stranger swaggered for him, and Claude fled blindly into the chasmic night.

Rue des Croix Vieux, Rue de St. Claire, Rue de la Madeleine, streets blurred black, right turned left, left turned left. The hat was his. The hat would be his. On the morrow Serge would tell him, he was jesting about sending him out. Serge could keep his wife, as long as he could remain free, unblemished by purpose and forethought as the servant.

Claude limped up the steps of L’Eglise de St. Nicholas. Huffing and puffing for air, he leaned on his knees. Iron sharpened iron in his lungs. Frozen and hooded, faces stared dark but victorious. The prize was his. His hands, too tired and too jittery, bounced the hat over his head.

A figure approached, his hair a black veil.

Claude’s heart pumped mutiny and lye. His hands were welded his knees, his legs felt like iron weights. His eyes beheld Lady Fortuna lapping her wanton kisses on the stranger’s face.

“My woman will not be doing unspeakable things to me with her spindle. Bless St. Joseph!” The stranger removed the hat from Claude’s head. He smiled with the Devil’s luck about him and sashayed away, losing himself among persons and shadows.

Braggart

Serge had proclaimed once after Claude had rubbed him to spilling, St. Joseph was the patron saint of unfulfilled men shafted with stubbornly virginal wives, of hen-pecked men, of cuckolded men … of useless men. Never mind St. Joseph was the patron saint of his carpentry guild. That man was not his saint. He was Claude’s.

The pockmarked carpenter was right. He was getting married to a woman of virgin skin and virgin mind. Good fortune but not his good fortune. Claude crashed to sitting on the cold, cold ground. Time’s gears clanged louder and louder still; it had moved forward again, and he would be left behind.

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Shakespeare’s Sonnets and babies.

So, I decided I needed to read me some poetry. Because they say, a writer should develop an ear for rhythm and all that nonsense.

Anyway, I picked up Shakespeare’s sonnets.  The first one–you need to have babies.   The next two more poems–you really really need to have babies.  Because well, if you don’t have babies, you’re being selfish, he calls it niggardly. You deny the world your beautiful face.

Apparently the first 17 of them is hurry up and make babies before you die or you’d have failed as a human being.

And I’m like, wtf???  I am in serious need of something nihilisitic to balance out three poems on my duty to procreate.  Any suggestions?

The Fox Woman, Kij Johnson

I am going through a binge right now where I am trying to lay my hands on fiction set in medieval or feudal Japan.  The Fox woman is one such story, set in Heian era Japan.

The book is based on a folktale, in which a married man falls in love with a fox woman, marries her, apparently has a family with her.  It is only with the intervention of the villagers and the priest, does he get back to his human family.

The story is written with three first person pov accounts. From the wife SHujiko, husband Yoshifuji and The fox woman Kitsune. I found this not well done. The husband and wife sounded the same while  Kitsune had a clear distinct voice.

Kij begins with the married couple, Shujiko and Yoshifuji. They are rich and idle and are beset with marital problems.  The problems are bit hard to empathize with because of the setting. Shujiko is quiet and demure, suffers silently because women are supposed to be bear it all. Yoshifuji finds his wife unrealistically perfect.  The first half of the book was slow going over the emotional problems.  I thought it laboriously slow and found myself straining to care really.

From the wild, kitsune and her fox family watch over the family curiously. At first, this was interesting until the Kitsune suddenly falls in love with Yoshifuji.  Then Kitsune turnas into the annoying teenage girl who is in love.  She is strident,  she wants her man, despite the obvious problems and consternation from her family.  I didn’t like her at all.  I suppose she was to supposed to correct for Shujiko’s passiveness. But I just found her to be an incorrigible husband stealer.  And I couldn’t understand the basis of her love.

Through some contrivance Kitsune and Yoshifuji get married and make a family while Shujiko and her son worry about the missing husband. This was the part of the book was hard for me to read.  First off, Yoshifuji easily abandons his family for the fox woman.  I might have sympathised if there was something substantial to the attraction, but it was a nothing.  It seemed to me just some kind of physical attraction.  I was not feeling it.  Also Kitsune becomes really annoying as she tries hold onto Yoshifuji while her family has to put up with it all.    I was just reading through, wishing quickly for an act of god to end the farce.  Shujiko, meanwhile, becomes a stronger character in my estimation.  She slowly learns to be stronger. If not for her transformation, I would have deemed the book a hollow reed.

The author Kij Johnson is a Nebula award winner.  She is no lightweight, clearly.  But her writing style was not my taste. The prose was rich with description but I found the imagery lacking.  For all its richness, there were only one or two lines that struck  me.  In fact the prose was too rich. I think this is my own subjective taste here.  I do like highfalutin prose but the certain kind that is brazen with cleverness and witticism. This prose was more on the soft poetic side.

There was too much pathos and emotional wrangling, and not enough psychological heft.  I suppose being first person accounts I shouldn’t expect more psychological depth but I really wished for something to counterbalance the emotions because I wasn’t feeling it.

The husband is a heian nobleman so he’s supposed to be interested in poetry and hunting and things of a delicate aesthetic.  However, Kij mishandles his masculinity, I think, in the sex scenes from his pov.  They were really sounded like a woman wrote them, all flowery and emotional.  I think it takes a certain skill to show delicate sensibilities while still retaining an essential maleness to it, and Kij doesn’t quite grasp it.

Also there were the clumsy insertions of  random japanese words like sake-wine, shoji-screen, and things like that.  It was annoying. It added nothing. It didn’t make me more transported to medieval Japan, only reminded me that Kij knows a few Japanese words.

On the whole, the book is well written but the characters fell apart for me.  The writing is strong, very strong but not to my taste. But if you’re interested in Heian culture, then definitely read this book. It is very detailed and very interesting in that regard.