I’d hoped this post would be very different.
I’d hoped to tell all of you that Tess Fowler had returned to work on Doc Wilde and The Mad Skull. That she and I had revisited the conflict between us and, like thoughtful, reasonable adults, had reconciled and gotten back to work.
Toward that end, I emailed and called her several times, with humility, ready to eat more than my fair share of crow in order to make peace, in order to allow her to make good on her promises. I did this not only because I’d paid her a great deal of money which was as good as flushed if she didn’t complete the job, but even more because I love her work and still think she might have produced a beautiful book. And that’s still my goal.
She simply ignored me.
Now, I already wrote a post about all this, a post full of anger and bile, and I’m sure some of you saw it. But I took it down soon after because that wasn’t how I wanted to be. I didn’t want to present myself that way. I didn’t want to talk about Tess that way. She’s a fellow creator, and I don’t want to tear her down or hurt her.
But, because I wrote that post, I sort of feel the need to re-address the matter in a calmer, more objective way. I also feel a certain accountability to all the Kickstarter supporters who put their money toward the dream of these books, a lump of which I just lost. I’m deeply sorry this happened; it has set progress way back, but you will still get the books you were promised.
Below is a full account of Tess’s time on this job, and the unpleasantness that followed. It’s long, but I think it’s only fair to show our work relationship in detail to fully and accurately represent what happened. It is, at least, a good case study in how choosing the wrong person to work on a project can go very badly. For those unwilling to read the whole thing, here’s the short version:
I hired Tess Fowler in mid-May to do the cover, 20 pieces of interior art, and layout for a Doc Wilde book to be released by Christmas. She took a $1,000 advance from me.
I patiently worked around her scheduling needs, including an enforced break due to carpal tunnel syndrome. I repeatedly tried to get her to read the text and engage personally with the material, to find the things in it that excited her and contribute creatively rather than just drawing what I told her to. She refused. She did say, several times, she enjoyed working with me and liked that I gave her detailed notes on her work.
Tess did not devote much of her time to the project, working on it just a day or two per week, even after losing the weeks to her carpal tunnel injury. Most of her time went to other personal projects.
By late October, less than two months before the book’s release had been planned, Tess had produced just a handful of rough character sketches. She had also done a layout sketch for the cover that I liked a great deal, and had been trying to paint it, but it was turning out so badly that in a fit of frustration she literally ripped it to shreds without ever showing it to me.
She then accused me of being hard to please and denied the very terms she’d agreed to months earlier. She also insisted she was only supposed to do five illustrations, rather than twenty, and that she had never agreed to do layout “since that’s not even in my list of skills.” But the terms of the agreement are in the email I sent her, as very clear bullet points, and her agreement to those terms is just as clear (and enthusiastic) in her immediate reply.
While we were debating this, and our relationship was collapsing, she started trying to use my depression (which I’m very open about and have written of quite a bit on this blog) as a weapon against me, trying to portray me as irrational in order to make it appear our problems were all my fault.
Now, Tess Fowler has cut off all contact, despite my repeated efforts at reconciliation and to give her another chance, and refused to refund the advance, even though it is now past Christmas, the book is not out, and I have received not a single thing she’d agreed to provide for that money.
Now, the full story…
I’d been watching Tess Fowler’s work for a few years, and when I got the rights to my Doc Wilde books back from Putnam and went indie, had Gary Chaloner (already a long-time friend of the Wildes) not agreed to do the art, Tess was the next person I planned to talk to. I kept her in mind, just in case some day Gary stepped down from working on the series.
Early this year, as Gary and I finished up work on Frogs and prepared to get going on The Mad Skull, I decided to also put together an anthology of Wilde short stories by other writers. This would not only be a cool project, I figured it could also serve as an audition of sorts for Tess, and establish her as part of the Wilde team.
I offer Tess the job, and she accepts. We agree that she will do a painted cover and five full-page illustrations, one for each of the stories. I tell her, “Ideally, I’d like the book itself to be out before Christmas. That’s the extent of scheduling at the moment…your scheduling needs will help determine a more specific time-frame.” And, “I’m hoping for a long-term relationship, and that you’d be an at least somewhat regular member of the Wilde family.”
She says, “This sounds like a really fun gig. And I hope you know I’ll sweeten the deal, sir. You’ll get your money’s worth with me.”
Tess says, “Ready for Doc Wilde. When you know what you want cover wise, let’s discuss. I have MUCH more time now. =)” She writes, “This sounds like it will be more of a painted cover as opposed to a colored line art illustration [emphasis mine]. I can deliver sketches upon reading of the first book, and the cover itself should take me two days to a week. 10 days if it’s complicated or I lose my mind and can’t let go of it. Which is often the case with me. Haha I can jump on this as soon as you send materials.”
I send Tess a PDF of Doc Wilde and The Frogs of Doom.
Tess writes “In other news, I finished Frogs. Wonderful!”
Crushing news from Down Under: Gary Chaloner resigns as the Doc Wilde artist. Trying to fit Frogs into his schedule proved a hardship, leading to it being finished a year later than initially advertised. He had, nonetheless, stood by his word, pressing on until the book was done. And it was gorgeous. Losing him was heartbreaking and demoralizing. But, at least I’d already established a relationship with his possible successor.
I offer Tess Doc Wilde and The Mad Skull, putting the anthology on the back burner. She accepts. We agree to get the book out by Christmas. Tess contracts to do the following:
- Layout (using the templates already established, and Gary says he’s glad to help)
- 20 full page illustrations (though we may want to cut some of them in two and do half pages in spots).
She writes: “Okay, I read through all that and I’m pretty sure I understand it all. Whichever way you decide to go, I can say I’m okay with it. Payment wise too. I can make it happen. Right now I can’t start until I get back from San Diego [Comic Con], though. I am SWAMPED.”
My approach to collaboration is to hold the line on my own vision while allowing my artist a lot of freedom to explore their own ideas and bring their inspiration and creativity to the world. This worked wonderfully with Gary, who innately understood and loved the pulp roots of the Wilde adventures, and brought individual flourishes to the imagery that I never would have thought of but which fit my vision perfectly. So I tell Tess, “I’m more invested in you expressing yourself than in holding to preset ideas, though general branding should stay close to what we’ve established,” encouraging her to be a full creative partner.
I post the press release that Tess is the new artist.
I send a paperback copy of Frogs to Tess, telling her “When you have it, I’m open to any ideas you might have about the overall approach to branding and everything…” We agree that the approach on the cover should be “More pulp/painterly, less comic/cartoon.”
Tess returns from San Diego Comic Con. “Okay. I’m home. What’s the plan, Captain?”
I tell her, “Start noodling your take on the characters and their world; I’m open to new takes on them, including vests and such if you have cool new ideas you want to try.” I also ask her to start reading the book and listing possible illustrations, seeing what images spring out at her that excite her. I think that sometimes when the artist follows their own whim, the art takes on even more life. Gary did this with Frogs, contributing ideas for a good number of its illustrations, and that collaborative approach paid off.
Tess is ready to get to work. She agrees to give me the original artwork as part of our deal (“Part of the deal was that you get the originals, right? Hence the bigger payment?”). We explicitly reiterate the terms. I PayPal a $1000 advance to her. I tell her, “By the way, just to reiterate, I’m open to considering any changes you might come up with for the look of the characters, the books themselves, the branding, etc. I like what Gary did, but he did one book and you’ll hopefully be doing several, so your vision will be the predominant one for the series, and I tend to like your choices. Still, run your ideas by me so I can decide whether to go with any particular change.” We agree again the cover should be “more painterly, less comic booky, and stylistically somewhere between the original Doc Savage pulp covers by Baumhofer and the sixties/seventies paperback covers by Bama.”
Tess sends a couple of initial character sketches. I say, “Looking awesome, Tess. :)” I give her a few notes, including “I prefer the topmost take on Doc, though each version seems a little long in the chin.”
Three more rough sketches. I give a few notes, including: “I love the ‘Danger Clothes’ pic. The kids are pretty close to perfect, I like the look of the clothes, I like the detail…Doc still looks a little long in the chin to me, but overall I really like his look.” She says, ” For Doc I was going for a cross between the original sexy Savage covers and a young Kirk Douglas. I love the big chin. Haha. I don’t know. Maybe if I squared it off and shortened it. I’ll give it a shot.”
Tess tells me “I like that you’re tweaking and refining what I’m doing.”
Tess sends a very rough sketch of a cover design with the Wildes beset by snakes. I say, “I really think this is a good approach, very cool and dynamic…”
Tess has carpal tunnel and can’t work. I write “If your paw is giving you a lot of trouble, don’t push any extra on my account. I’d prefer you healed and raring to go to ergonomically damaged and in agony. Just sayin’.”
Tess still suffering and unable to draw. I write, “I hope your paw is recovering, and look forward to seeing you back at work (on everything, not just my stuff). :) Give yourself the time. As I’m sure you know, if you push too hard it can do permanent damage.”
I add, “BTW, I was thinking about my comments about the sketches you did, and want to be clear: I do want Doc to have a strong chin, I just find his chin a tiny bit longish (or perhaps too narrow) in the early sketches. It gives him sort of a caricatured look. But it shouldn’t take much alteration.”
Tess still has carpal tunnel. We’re losing a lot of valuable time, but it can’t be helped. I write “No worries. I’m willing to wait because I really want you on these books and I don’t want you damaged. Let that hand heal.” I also say, “Logo, layout, character design, weapons, whatever, I’m open to your ideas.”
Tess is profiled on a prominent website. They ask her what she’s working on. “A lot of creator-owned books, mostly. Right now I’m doing an anthology of short stories, and a Western graphic novel…Also on the table is Doc Wilde cover and interior illustration work with creator Tim Byrd (who does wonderful work, and you should check him out!) Also have some very secret irons in the fire.”
“How’s the paw?” I ask. Tess replies, “I’m moving slow, with lots of boring breaks, but I am working. It’s arduous, to say the least. But it’s progress. It’s still crappy and in pain ( the hand). Just not as crappy as before. And so long as I work lightly I seem to be okay.”
I ask, “How’s it coming?” Tess replies “Good, actually. Just working on the pencils now. I’m enjoying myself. You might totally reject it but I took everything we discussed and just let fly on it.”
I say, “Well, I do want you to enjoy yourself. :)”
Tess sends a new cover sketch. I like it, a lot. I give a few notes, including “I like the dynamism of the poses, though Brian seems a bit off somehow.”
Tess sends a more refined sketch. She asks if she can share it publicly, I say yes.
She asks, “Should the skull be bigger?” I say, “It may be fine, it may work better being larger and more dominant…Your sense of composition is far better honed than mine, but I can imagine a skull back there that fills most of the sky. But only if you think it would work, and only if you think it would work better than something else you have in mind.” But I leave it up to her. She says, “My gut says big skull peeking over the horizon like that works best.” I reply, “I’ll trust your gut.”
I say, “Also, the more I look at the pic, Brian still seems sort of stiff and static. He looks like he’s studying the snake more than wrestling with it. There needs to be more tension in his body.” She responds: “On Brian, I know. That comes with color. I guess I can finely render everything, but it takes a lot of the coolness out of the final stage of this. I tend to fix stuff like that in the painting stage. And it lends more to the finished piece if I find his proper tension and emotion right at the end. I may even find I want to change his expression. Showing it all in pencil without the shadows, etc is rough if I’m not inking it because then I have to erase it all.” I say, “Gotcha. But, likewise, my comments are all based on my ability to extrapolate from what’s there, and I can’t be sure I’m visualizing what you have in mind. So instances like this are possibly moot, but it’s better to communicate earlier than later.”
“So, any more progress?” I write, “Because I’m starting to feel even less sanguine about the possibility of hitting that Christmas or shortly thereafter release target.” Tess says, “I’m still toying with designs. I have like 11 so far…” I say, “That’s reassuring to hear. Just let me know a little more often what’s up.” Tess says “no problemo will do” We confab about the costume designs some; she sends her concept of what she’d really like to do, if I’m agreeable.
I say, “It doesn’t really feel like my Wildes.” And even though I’d been largely positive about the direction she’d been going (other than the circus folk approach in that sketch), she gives up and goes back to Gary’s designs. Which is fine, as his designs are great, and the consistency between the books will be nice…but it’s a bit disappointing because I can tell she’s throwing in the towel creatively.
[And lest you think there was a lot of back and forth and rejected designs and such, know this: she said she’d done eleven concept sketches of the “Danger Clothes,” but she only showed me one, which I gave her notes on, and then she showed me the sketch above. Then she gave up.]
I go back to to the one costume sketch (aside from the garish one) she had sent, and tell Tess “I like this quite a bit.” I give her a few definite notes on how she can fine-tune it. It’s not going to take much. She asks, “Are you comfortable with me going ahead on the cover, or do I need to do another sketch? This is good info. I feel good enough to attack the cover. But I want to make sure you’re okay with it.” I tell her I am.
Tess writes, ” I have a slew of progress photos. Kind of boring, but they exist. Am I allowed to post them on Facebook?” I say sure. I ask “So, when will you be posting? I’ve been on tenterhooks since this morning.”
She writes, “Update: Still working on cover. Have not forgotten you.”
As you can see, even when she was working on the book, we weren’t making much progress. Weeks passed in which she spent only a day or two doing anything related to the book. The rest of her time went toward other commissions, and I was getting progressively more concerned about the possibilities of getting Mad Skull out in the agreed time frame, especially when she got that case of carpal tunnel and was barely able to work at all. I was willing to wait for her, as her injury needed time to heal, but I expected once she was drawing again, she’d reward my patience by doubling down on the book. That didn’t happen. At all. She kept giving the Wildes one day a week, usually Thursday, and barely any art was appearing.
I write “The more I look at the text, and try to pull possibilities from it, the more I think it might be best if you find the things that you think you can really do something cool with, the things that inspire you, and run them by me. There will be images along the way that I think are essential, but I’d think you’ll do your best with imagery that directly inspires you. I really feel we’ll get the best stuff mostly from your inspirations.” She flatly refuses. “You’re the captain. What I need from you are clearly worded orders, that I can either execute, or discuss with you openly. I’m happy with the creative dynamic between us.”
Sometime around here, she posts the painting process shot on Facebook without even telling me. With it, she includes some sort of comment about how it doesn’t look anywhere near as good as it will when it’s done, that it’ll look a lot better when it’s done..
By chance, I happen to see the process shot. It looks pretty terrible; the painting is murky and rough, and the skull looks awful and disproportionate. I’m a bit annoyed that she didn’t bother to let me know she’d posted it, or to send me a copy directly. I write, “I only just spotted the process shot of the cover…It’s looking promising. I’m hesitant to say much, since, as you point out, it’s tough to see the final product in it yet. I will say that Brian still seems static, and the skull doesn’t (yet) look very much like a realistic skull. But I trust that’s the nature of the early stages.”
She doesn’t reply.
I write, “Any more progress?” She says, “I plan on posting a photo later today.” I say, “Cool beans.”
Then a series of emails from her: “I’m really close to scrapping this cover. After your last comments, and the more I look at this, the more I think it’s not what you want. But then again you aren’t really sure what you want either. So I’m between a rock and a hard place.” Then, “Yeah, I’m scrapping it.” Then, “Okay let’s start over. The first cover is gone.”
I tell her, “Well, it is hard for me to give input when I don’t see the piece. You want me to communicate, which I understand. But that goes both ways.”
She literally rips the painting up without ever showing it to me in its advanced form. Accuses me of not knowing what I want. She says, “The commentary about the skull not looking human and you not liking Brian’s pose was frustrating.”
She writes, “My advice for color if you want to keep the skull is we go with an entirely black and grey inked piece like the Harry Potter I just posted. Then the contrast of the nose hole and eyeballs won’t clash with the snakes, and everything will stand out properly. Then I can color it by hand. This way we don’t have to worry about anyone being washed out, and the snakes will be reduced to their most basic elements, and fewer colors. It’s a noir piece vs a painting. Much easier, much cleaner, and fewer issues.”
This was the Harry Potter piece she referenced; it didn’t make me optimistic.As you can see, it’s not exactly evocative of pulp covers, nor is it remotely what she’d hired on to do.
I write, “Okay, I’m going to need more time to grok all that you’ve said, but I do want to say that the narrative of our interactions that you’re presenting doesn’t seem fair to me. Any vagueness or ‘not knowing what I want’ that I’ve exhibited has largely been expressly to allow you as much creative input as I could without actually losing my own vision. For example:
“1) The Skull. From the outset, I offered you options. I asked you questions. I said I’d planned on it being a black skull, but what did you think, we could make it more of an aged caramel color if you thought that would work better. I said that whichever way you wanted to go, I’d alter the text to fit. I said the skull might or might not have human eyes, it was up to you and what you thought would work best in your art. I said the runes could be red or white or blue or just carvings without any glow, whatever you thought best. I at no point said it had to be black, or that it had to have the eyeballs. I did want it to look like a skull, though, and not a cartoonish or symbolic representation of such, and I said that.
“As far as its size, you depicted it smaller in the sketch for the cover and asked if it should be bigger. I said maybe, I wasn’t sure, and I offered the horizon-spanning skull notion as a possibility, again expressly stating that I wasn’t sure how well it would work and asking your opinion. You said you thought that was the way to go, and I said okay because I was willing to trust your compositional sense. Then, rather than showing me another rough with the big skull, you committed fully to your decision with no further input from me, so that by the time I saw the process pic (posted without even letting me know that you had done so), the oddly shaped skull you’d put in was already pretty much cemented in place. I didn’t know what to say, because I couldn’t be sure how it would look when finished, and I didn’t want to give you needless grief over something in its rough form. So I tried to imply that, however you could, you should try to make the skull look like a skull. Had you sent me even a phone picture of the sketch with the larger skull shape in it, prior to painting, I might have been able to comment more usefully. Similarly:
“3) Brian. I expressed concern that Brian looked sort of stiff and static in the original sketch, and you told me you knew and not to worry, he’d come to life in the painting process. So when he still looked stiff and static in the process shot, I pointed it out. It’s not like I sprung that on you, we had already covered it and you’d assured me it wasn’t a problem. I don’t see why that should have been ‘frustrating’ to you.”
“We had originally planned for a Christmas release… I’ve tried not to put any real time pressure on you…but we lost a few weeks right up front to your carpal tunnel, which was completely fine as I expressed at the time, but afterward you didn’t seem to be working on the project more than a day or two a week. With a goal of at least early winter, expressed to allow for the time lost to your injury, I sort of expected more of a steady stream of progress.”
I write, “Still pondering…you’re sort of telling me we can’t do what we originally planned to do, so I need to settle for something different.”She replies, “Had I known you were going to be so hard to please my responses might have been different. But this is what we have.”Now, unfortunately, I start to get angry. But remember, I hired Tess in mid-May, the book was supposed to be out by Christmas, and here we are most of the way through October and all she has produced is a handful of rough sketches. I have accommodated her schedule, her injury, her slow progress, without complaint because I wanted her on the book. I have offered her, at every turn, the chance to be a collaborative partner in the book’s creation, and been shut down. And she ripped up that cover, which I’d loved, at least before she started trying to paint it. I’d paid her a huge amount of money and was starting to fear it had been wasted. Now she accuses me of being hard to please. So I think most rational people could understand how that might rub me the wrong way.I wrote: “Hard to please. Huh. I think if someone objectively read through our email threads they would find that my being hard to please mostly amounted to a couple of requests for Doc’s chin to be shorter, a few ideas tossed in about vest design, an observation that Brian was stiff in a piece I otherwise loved (an observation you agreed with and said would be fixed), a refusal to have the characters dressed like Russell Brand, and a note that mostly said ‘I hope this skull will look better when it’s done,’ after that skull had been rendered and committed to without my input. Other than that, I’ve offered you the chance to take the designs in new directions because, you being so detail oriented, I thought you’d come up with cool details. It’s not like you did a dozen versions of their outfits and showed them to me only to be shot down because I didn’t like the buckles on that one or the flared collar on that one. It isn’t like I said, no, the small skull sucks, do a big one, then made you redraw it a dozen times. No, you asked if the skull should be bigger, I said maybe and maybe it’d be cool if it was way big, what do you think? I’ll trust you on it…and you said, yeah, bigger will be good, I’ll do it that way, and made a skull that was bigger but also looked less like a skull, and which I had no productive opportunity to comment on.”If I have come across as hard to please, I have utterly failed in my every intention. I have certainly been far less so than any art director I ever saw in action when I worked in publishing and game design.”Tess replies, “Can we please stick to topic from here on out? I know you’re going through a lot but so am I. And I can’t sit and read through these lengthy e-mails or respond in kind. My hand is back in a brace at the moment and I am on a tight schedule. Please deal only with the art. Thank you.” Now, if you read my message above, which is quoted in full, I think you’ll see that it is very much on topic. Yet now, she’s essentially telling me to shut up and not bother her with all this communication stuff.In frustration, I start to give up on the collaboration: “Okay, if we’re at that point. Do your cover. You, after all, have the money for it. If I like it, I’ll use it.”
She says, “OR you could go back and read through my options [these being her options on creating a cover that was not painterly, after all], and we could discuss those. Since that’s the best way for me to give you what you want. And since I spent $500 on copics and paints to DO this.”
And, I break. “Let’s cut our losses. You were going to get $2,000 for the book, half up front. $500 was for the cover, $1500 was for twenty pages of art and book layout. We can stop right here and you can return half of the advance, as that was for work that has not and will not be done. I’d prefer all of it back, but suspect that’s a fight I’ll only win in small claims court, so if you return half I’ll write it off as lessons learned.” Note that, though I’m angry and this is combative, I’m actually telling her she can keep half of the advance. This is because I knew she’d bought materials and, even in my anger, I was willing to take that into account, though of course that wasn’t how I put it at the time.
Tess says, “I never agreed to book layout since that’s not even in my list of skills.”
I respond: “This is cut and pasted from the email that defined the terms You agreed to them.
Extrapolating from the rates you gave me for the anthology, $2000 per book would seem fair, with half up front, half upon publication. That’s also what I can just afford. That would include:
- Layout (using the templates already established)
- 20 full page illustrations (though we may want to cut some of them in two and do half pages in spots).
“And I’m disappointed too. I’m also stressed to the breaking point, afraid I just pissed away a huge chunk of cash when I’m about to have to spend almost all of my savings on ECT treatments, and deeply saddened that while I thought I was offering an open, creative, cooperative work relationship, you think I was being “hard to please.” But, sorry, I’m supposed to shut up and just talk to you about the art. Mea culpa.
“Since our communications have floundered so badly, though, I’ll say what I was trying not to say: from here, it looks like you committed to painting the cover, then were unsatisfied with the result and tore it up, deciding to push me into taking an approach using techniques you’re more comfortable with. And I’m not saying that to be unpleasant, that is literally the way it looked from here. And then, unfortunately, you seemed to need to paint me as unreasonable in my demands, when in actuality you overreached on what you committed to. If it wasn’t that way, then I can accept being wrong about it. But it did surely look thus at this end.”
Tess says: “Those were the things you requested. THIS is what was agreed to. And I will send you screencaps if needed. I was super confused when you talked about me needing to do 20 illustrations up front, when you said that before. Now I see you were confused. In all fairness we did exchange hundreds of messages. So I get why you may have missed this.” And she quotes the terms we’d agreed upon for the short story book she was initially supposed to do. She also says, “I think maybe you do need to get that help you were talking about…Our exchanges have been confusing and weird to say the least. And I didn’t understand. I can only assume it is the illness.”
I have been open and forthright about the chronic depression I suffer, as longtime readers of this blog know, and about the fact that it had gotten very bad recently and I was going to do a round of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), aka electroshock, to help me. And lets not even dwell on how much Tess’s lack of progress over the months had contributed to my present state of despair. And now, she starts to use my honesty, and my illness, as a weapon against me.
Tess continues: “If you are not willing to move forward and are in fact firing me from this project, let me know. I will conduct myself accordingly.” You can clearly see here that Tess does not immediately interpret my earlier frustrated comments as termination. And, indeed, I didn’t mean to fire her, I was just frustrated and pissed off and venting as human beings will do.
I write, “What you quoted to me were the terms for the anthology, which did not happen because you agreed to take on art duties for the series. What I quoted to you were the terms for the Mad Skull, and reflect what you agreed to do and what I agreed to pay for the book. What I agreed to pay was extrapolated from the rates you had earlier quoted, but the terms and scope of the deal were larger.
“I do have to wonder how our exchanges have been ‘confusing’ and ‘weird.’ I’m usually quite clear and thoughtful in my written communications. I ask not to goad you but because I am genuinely interested, and, indeed, if I communicated in a ‘weird’ manner it might even be useful information for me in going into treatment. Because I don’t see it.”
Tess Fowler’s reply: “I did NOT agree to do 20 pieces up front, without pay. The agreement was for $1000 for a cover and FIVE illustrations, with you getting the original art. Considering how many e-mails you tended to send flying all at once, your confusion actually doesn’t surprise me now… You had no real idea what you wanted, from day one. And I could cite multiple times when you communicated via emotions instead of logic or facts. And you got frustrated when I would try to steer discussions in a logical A to B type direction…I really thought I was comprehending what you wanted, but I was following emotional cues from you that were mixed with informative cues, and it really became a jumbled mess. Reading Frogs was actually much the same way. Lots of jumbled detail and criss crossed lines of logic etc. Emotions delivered like a hammer fall. It kind of makes more sense now that I am aware how deep your condition goes down the rabbit hole.”
She adds: “Maybe it might be a good idea to halt all of this until your health has been seen to. I’m willing to shelve it until you’re actually up to the discussion. Or if you’re feeling the need to fire me, that’s fine too…” Again we see that she doesn’t see what has been said up to this point as termination.
I say, “I’m thinking perhaps you didn’t actually read the details you agreed to closely enough, Tess. The stuff I quoted earlier laid out the payment scheme and the larger scope including twenty illustrations and book layout. Your reply, in the very next message?
Okay, I read through all that and I’m pretty sure I understand it all.Whichever way you decide to go, I can say I’m okay with it. Payment wise too. I can make it happen.
“That was explicitly in agreement to the terms I quoted earlier. Terms based on a $500 for the cover and the rest for illustration and layout. It’s there in black and white, both the clearly stated terms and your clearly stated agreement…”
I continue: “If you’ve been going forward assuming we were going by the terms of the original plan for the anthology, rather than the clearly defined and agreed to larger scope of the novel, that’s not my lack of communication nor any madness in my words, that’s your bad for not reading closely. No matter how many “weird” emails or blabbering foolishness I may have sent you, since that seems to be what you’re accusing me of. And really? You’re going to try to take my depression and try to make it out to be some sort of derangement that not only shows up in my emails but in my published writing? My published writing that Kirkus called ‘fast-paced, intelligent prose laced with humor and literary allusions’ and was celebrated by many other reviewers? That writing?
“Our contract, in legally acceptable text, is that email I quoted from, asking for a cover, layout, and twenty pages of illustration, and the email immediately following in which you agreed to those terms. I guarantee you that no matter how hard you dig, you’re not going to find any alteration in that agreement in the emails that followed, only an understanding acceptance on my part that your injury and inability to work for a while was going to delay the book.”
Tess says, “I was trying to be both kind and understanding about this. I can see that’s not going to happen.”
I reply, “I’m not being unkind or showing a lack of understanding. I am defending myself first from accusations that implied I have been a harsh task master, when I have not been, and then from your decision to use my depression tactically to cast doubt on my ability to think clearly. I assure you, I think very clearly.”
Tess then proceeds to quote, at length, the negotiation and terms we’d had on the anthology she’d originally signed on for.
I say: “Tess. Again, everything you’re quoting was about the anthology. That was all superceded by the agreement we made later when you agreed to take on the main books instead.”
Tess replies: “Tim, maybe you should re evaluate your health issues…I cannot find the exchange you’re referring to. But does it matter? [Uh, yeah, I think the terms of our contract matter quite a bit.]…I cannot change what you’ve decided you don’t like. So all I am receiving message wise from you now is why you think you’re right and I’m wrong. But I see now this was done in an effort to fire me.” She also dwells more on my depression, casting it more and more as the cause of our troubles: “There just seems to be no winning with you in may ways. And that’s difficult to stomach. Mainly because I know how difficult it can be to battle your kinds of issues. Tim, I’m not angry with you. I just feel like maybe this might have gone differently if you were not currently facing a crippling disease that clearly causes you no end of trouble, by your own admission.”
I reply: ” I actually started today’s exchanges with two things in mind. First, to let you know I was still considering the things you’d said, including the different possible approaches to the cover. Second, to let you know I wasn’t crazy about the ink-washed idea so that, perhaps, you might find another solution…
“Your reply called me ‘hard to please,’ and I took umbrage at that because I found it radically unfair. When I tried to express that, reasonably enough, you essentially told me to shut up and talk about the art only. Since I was actually communicating in an attempt to clear up what I saw as a rapidly confounding work relationship, I took your rebuff as an indication that the work relationship had degraded to the point where you were saying just talk to me about the art, otherwise shut up. Because, well, that’s what you did. The exchanges did reinforce my already present fears that we couldn’t work well together, since you already judged my reasonable requests about the art as unreasonable, and seemed to promise a future of ill-fitting collaboration. So I decided we would probably both be better off if we cut our losses, and I said so. Again, I had no intention of doing so when we began the exchanges.
“Then it became about not only that I was a harsh taskmaster, but I was addled and never communicated clearly to you because of my madness. This was less hurtful than annoying, as it’s tough to be hurt by simple untruths. But it was very, very annoying. Then you even disparaged my writing. Nice way to take the high road, there. You really figured that would make me see things in a way more to your liking?
“Of course, it has now unfolded that you didn’t even actually understand the terms you agreed to, and have been working only to provide a fraction of what was being paid for. Paid for according to our fully legal agreement. So, essentially, you accepted payment but never intended to fulfill the deal.
“That said, I understand your frustration with the situation. Your frustration with me, personally, I understand less so, but maybe you’re wise to travel the indie route and work on your own creations, because most serious IP owners I know really are harsh taskmasters and much more demanding than I am…
“So, you laid out a list of options I had to choose from as far as the art went. I’ll return the favor and give you a couple of options:
“1) We continue, honoring our legal agreement for you to do the cover, the interior illustrations, and the book layout. When you finish the job to my satisfaction, as is industry standard in such contracts, I will pay the balance of the money and go to press. Perhaps by that point we’ll have gotten over this friction and will be happy we stayed on course.
“2) You refund all that I have paid you, as I have nothing you contracted to provide. You even tore up the cover you did without allowing me to see it.
“So, that’s pretty much where I am, after all this.”
Tess replies: “I am not reading this. And I gave you my answer. Goodbye.” So, given the choice between getting back to work and making a good faith effort to salvage the book, or quitting, Tess shuts the door. And keeps the cash.
Again, I try to salvage the situation: “Tess, This will be longish. Please read it, as I’m not trying to badger you; I’m trying, as well as I can, to make peace.
“I’m not really angry at you, Tess, not any more. Just very sad and stressed. And everything I communicated earlier wasn’t meant in a hostile way, it was meant as an attempt to address the situation and, hopefully, find a mutually agreeable path out of it. Anger did get in the way. But I’m reminded of the book Audition by Michael Shurtleff (I think), which I read many years ago when I did improv and acting. He wrote that an actor should always look for the love in the scene, no matter how negative the emotions being played. That there was something in the character that made him or her want to be in the conversation rather than just walking away.
“All of the above, clumsy though it may have been, was an attempt to find the love. I kept talking because I didn’t want us to stop talking. I never expressly fired you, or at least I never intended to. My intent was to put the option out there, but hopefully work back from it. Was it colored, unfortunately, by my rising stress regarding the issue, on top of the other great stresses I’m under at the moment? No question. And I apologize for that.
“…In hindsight, I was sort of pissed off that you had posted the process image without telling me (not showing me before the world was one thing, but then to not even let me know…), and then you reacted to my very short and mild comments by tearing the piece up, accusing me of being hard to please, and then sending me a message that very much read (or at least felt, at that point) like ‘We’re not going to do it your way, choose one of these instead.’ That sequence, more than any of its parts, is what curdled my mood, I think. The whole sequence, posting without telling to ripping without showing to giving me my options, seemed to imply that my input was unwelcome. As the creator of the Wildes, and an investor in Tess, that was hard to take. But I’m really only recognizing how much it grated, and how much I was suppressing it, as I write this.
“I LOVED the image you sketched for the cover. LOVED it. Brian needed a touch up, but I trusted you could do that. The big skull didn’t work, but don’t painters routinely paint over areas of their work to try different things? You tore the piece up, but I was wondering why, when the underlying image was so cool, that was necessary. Why not just paint over the big skull? I never got to ask that question before it was too late, nor see the image in its more advanced state. You got mad (or, at least, frustrated) because I didn’t like the skull, and then seemed to cut me out of the loop because of it.
“I am far from a wealthy man and can’t afford to spend a thousand bucks and not get a book out of it. But also, frankly, it breaks my heart to think of both of us walking away from each other in bitterness. To say I liked and respected your work would be to seriously understate. I have always been blown away by your versatility and creativity. With my old gaming industry and publishing contacts, I could have gotten a pretty decent artist for less than I was paying you, but I wanted you.
“I had also come to respect and like you as a person well before even contacting you about Doc Wilde, based on observing you on Facebook. With the vast personal distances we both defend around ourselves, I’d never presume to say we were friends…but certainly friendly in some nice, virtual ways.
“And here I am, still trying to find the love. And to show it to you. Whatever that’s worth at this point.”
I write, “Now that some time has passed, and blood hopefully cooled, I was wondering if there’s any chance of us getting back to work?” She refuses. Angry, I say, “I suppose it’s easy to walk away when you have the money and don’t have to work for it. Money you work for is a tougher gig. And an honorable one, of course.”
I post the blog post titled “TESS FOWLER: Hiring Her For Art Was A HUGE Mistake,” in which I give a shorter version of all this, accurate in its details, but also rant a bit about Tess and her intentions, professionalism, and integrity. It’s too angry, and, having vented, I cool down soon after and remove it from the blog for the reasons I stated way back at the start of this piece.
I also consider, and threaten, possible legal action, an option I ultimately decide against as it turns out a small claims court case like this one would be, carried out across state lines, is overly complicated.
Tess responds with a public statement which tries to paint me as some sort of deranged possible lunatic who is not to be listened to:
Yes I know there is a former client trying to assassinate my character in a very public way.
This man has in writing stated that he’s mentally ill and in the present situation of having to pay for what he called “more electro shock therapy” that he can’t afford. I spent a great deal of my time and energy trying to please him, to no avail. Trying to do work for him when he was hell bent on picking fights. He fired me in writing. Yes, I said fired. And now he’s claiming I’m a thief in the night who made off with all his money…
I did not know his mental issues when we started working together. I am not currently worried about him. But I’d advise being careful and not engaging him. He’s been in my e-mail, on my fan page, and in my inbox thus far. I don’t know where he will go next…
I understand she was no doubt upset and very much in damage control mode, but this misrepresentation of my illness — which affects my energy and motivation, not my rationality or emotional equilibrium — was just an escalation of what she’d already been doing privately, and it’s sort of playing dirty pool.
Additionally, Tess actually tried to wrangle my girlfriend, Nydia, who she doesn’t know beyond a very casual Facebook connection, into taking sides against me. She sent her this message: “Do you realize Tim FIRED me? He outright fired me from a project I was trying to work on for him…I repeat, the man FIRED me…” Only thirteen minutes later, she sent this: “Am I to take that as you don’t care, and want to spin lies? Fine.” And she unfriended my girlfriend and blocked her, so by the time she actually saw these messages, Nydia couldn’t reply to her.
Now, as noted prior, Tess refuses both to work on the book (I have very clearly made it plain that she is welcome to continue; she ignores me entirely), and to refund my money. “No refunds” is her stated rule, without recognizing that, unless she actually produced something she was hired to produce (the cover, or interior art/layout), she can make no legitimate claim to the money she was paid. She says she bought a bunch of Copic markers, so she shouldn’t have to give me that money back, but I paid a thousand dollars and I have nothing to show for it. She’s essentially telling me I paid her to go shopping and buy markers she’s going to use on other jobs. Had she used the markers and produced a cover that I rejected, her argument might hold water. But she was working on a cover I was liking, got angry because apparently she was having difficulty producing a work like she agreed to produce, and then, all on her own, destroyed it without showing it to me.
She hired to do a painted cover, twenty pages of illustration, and the book layout. She did nothing she contracted to do.
So for her to now say “No refunds” as if the failure is at my end, and I didn’t accept the work she did, is ludicrous.
So, that’s our sordid tale. I’m not proud of some of my actions, particularly that earlier blog post, but for the most part, I think it’s clear that I was very patient and reasonable to work with. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on the rest of the matter.
UPDATE: See also my post TESS FOWLER: I Let the Artist Have Her Say.
UPDATE: Another of Tess’s victims has stepped forward and allowed me to share his account. Read it here.
UPDATE: Tess victimizes the creator of the comic Rat Queens and his wife. Read it here.