Wooing Art, Success and Lady Luck

I grew up with Hammett, Picasso and Cagney. Throw in Beethoven, Ellington and Buddy Holly. The list goes on, from Bogart, Raft and Robinson to Cezanne, Matisse and even Pater Max. Plenty of examples of artists with rare talents, works of brilliance, and all with varying degrees of success.

You can't lose if you don't play.

You can’t lose if you don’t play.

How would they make their way today, if they made it all? You can’t account for luck, fortune, kismet—however you want to tag it, so I’ll skip that. What I’m spinning on is approach. I’m less than a month out from launching my first book, and the promotion side is overwhelming. How would Chandler or Hammett play it today? How would any of the Black Mask boys?

Can’t say I have an easy time transplanting these guys into another era. Except for his writing, Chandler came off like an SOB unfit for any setting. Would he join the crowded field of indie authors? Would you find him going exclusive with KDP Select and running book giveaways on GoodReads, etc?

Hard to picture Picasso giving away pictures. A two-for-one sale on signed lithographs? Are you kidding? Or Mozart plugging his latest divertissement MP3 on Facebook, linking back to his website where you can sample movements from his latest symphony? Would Buster Keaton start up his own YouTube channel?

Perhaps the oddest fantasy that springs forth is Charlie Chaplin. World famous, wildly successful, a man of his day who kept at his art form for decades without significantly changing. But Chaplin was also a social butterfly, a guy you could easily imagine rubbing internet shoulders on every social platform imaginable.

There’s no one way to succeed, and thousands more ways to flop. All I can do is put it into perspective. Those great ones who inspired me found their own way somehow. They did what they did, mostly on their own terms, and their success stories are as unique as their art. Maybe I can’t account for luck, but maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to discount it, either. Sure.

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Your Title Here

By this time next month, give or take a couple days, I’ll have my first book. I don’t mean some tome by Sendak or Seuss, no A.A. Milne. I mean my very own. That stack of my papyrus marked through by my personal keyboard scratchings. That either-riding cowboy full of sure’s and swells and uh-huh’s. That pile of piles with that curious tag on the front and spine, “By Ben Solomon.”

thbd1-1I know. You’re all tingly. Like seeing you name in lights, isn’t it? But that’s where they all started. Every last one of them had their very first. Fitzgerald. Hemingway. Groucho. Sure, once upon a time each on of them a literary virgin. Carefully protecting it. Trying not to give it away. Makes you wonder if their moms and dads ever gave them the talk on the facts of publishing.

Of course that was long before independent publishing. Not that such a thing ever stopped Homer or Tommy Paine. But those were different eras, different cultures, different markets. Nowadays, any monkey can independently publish any damn thing he likes. That’s any monkey with a credit card. Even a rhesus like yours truly.

So I’m joining the fray, diving in, holding my nose. I’ve got my 73,000 words running 212 pages. I’ve got my cover, I’ve got my spine. I’ve even got some awful nice blurbs from some very gracious folk.

Of course there’s a catch. There’s always a catch. There’s no avoiding it, no getting around it or making up for it by doing more stomach crunches or downing more coffee or buying Grecian Formula: if a book is listed on the internet, and there’s no one there to buy it, how do we know it’s any good?

That’s where I am today, and that’s where I’ll be a month from now. I’ve got to wonder where I’ll be in another two months, or three…or fifteen. Sure.

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Would You Sell Your Soul on Amazon?

If that headline sucked you in, that means I’m learning. The art of the huckster. The pitch and woo. The bait, the push, the draw, the close.

"What are you selling, Johnny?" "Whaddaya got?"

“What are you selling, Johnny?”
“Whaddaya got?”

What am I selling? Just the same thing you’re selling. The same as you and everyone and their mother. Sally Fields, the president, the man in the moon. I’m selling me.

I’m selling my Facebook profile, my Twitter tweet, my ether charm. If you go for any of that, maybe you’ll go for this here bridge I’m trying to unload. I’ve also got some pet rocks and a slightly used personality. But don’t take my word for it—rent my personality for a few days and purchase it later if you like. And I can make you the sweetest payment plan you ever did see.

I’ll bet you’re tempted. Am I right, or am I right? Your curiosity runneth over like George Lucas’s bank account. Now there’s a man who can sell.

Me? I can’t help myself. It’s not like I’ve always longed to get thick into the selling game. It’s not like I was born to be the the poster child for Glengarry Glen Ross II. But self-publishing’ll do that to you.

Sure, you can write a book and choose to do nothing with it. Reaching an audience? That’s asking for loads of aggravation. But if you prefer foregoing that peace of mind, welcome to the new Madison Avenue. Query agents. Query publishers. (Query’s fancy talk for sell.) Or publish the thing independently.

Every step of the indie way there’s another consideration involving the old flim and the flam. There’s selling the book to proofreaders, getting blurbs and reviews, designing the cover, lining up bookstores and readings and the media. You might even try to sell to a reader or two.

Sure. That’s what I’m up to. Watching the shill hit the fan. But there’s just thing more, one last piece to figure. And it’s the mother of the whole shebang. It’s at the drop-dead center and heart of all this soul-mongoring. Who’s the yoyo that sold me on the idea of writing a book in the first place?

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Vampires, Dicks and Scouts: 3 Heroes

dracula_bela_lugosi_103Marlowescout

 

 

 

 

 

Dracula, Marlowe and Scout. Oh my. A bloodsucker, an SOB and a kid. A true range of characters, that is. Proof that when it comes to heroes, anything goes.

I’m talking about traditional narrative, as I see it. I see it from a lifetime of learning outside the classroom. From movies and comic books and television and comic strips and books. Following the teachings of everything from The Brothers Karamazov to The Brothers Warner, there are three standard molds from which our fictional heroes are stamped.

You, Me, the Girl Next Door
Look down in the street. It’s a worm. It’s a pain. It’s everyman.

Think Scout, Dorothy, Huck, George Bailey. Characters you’re drawn to rooting for because they are you. Sure, you can relate to their ups and downs, their dreams, their conflicts. You want them to make out just like you want yourself to make out.

Here I Come to Save the Day
Look at the way he saves the poor damsel from being flattened by the oncoming train. Dig the way she stands up to authority and sticks it to the establishment. You have to admire the way he seeks truth, justice, etcetera.

Some heroes are truly heroic. Mythic, even. You admire their ethics and principles, their honesty and grit, their pretty costumes and cleft chins. We’re talking knights that slay dragons and bring civilization to heathens. We’re talking renegades who rob from the rich and give to the poor. We’re talking tough hombres whose reason for living is to find justice where none exists, whether its the wild frontier of the Old West or the boulevards of post-World War II Los Angeles. A bigger than life story calls for a bigger than life protagonist, right?

Fascinating Rhythmmightymouse
Then there’s that Dracula bit. Not exactly the man in the street. Not your go-to guy when the planet’s being threatened by some intergalactic hoodoo. He’s just so damn fascinating. I mean, he’s the undead, for chrissake. He drinks human blood and turns into a bat and can’t use mirrors. Hannibal Lecter’s pure evil and purely intriguing. Even more everyday monsters like the Corleones are riveting stuff.

Most of us regular folk don’t relate to these kinds of heroes. We can’t root for them, either. But we’ll follow their adventures because they make us so damn curious.

Hybrids
John and Jane Doe, Superman and Mike Hammer, Raskolnikov and Jordan Belfort represent the old guard. The basics. The tried and true stuff of narrative heroes. If you can truly create any of these, you’ve got it knocked. But what if you mix and match? Can you summon up a hero who’s part monster, part everyone? Pull that one off and maybe you’ll find you’ve got a Travis Bickle or a Humbert Humbert. Maybe even King Kong.

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Publish It Yourself and Welcome to Hell

Maybe you don’t know which side is up. A bit dazed. A bit confused. Punch-drunk, even. Shall we say, perhaps, bewitched, bothered and bewildered? Sure. Let’s say that.

The author on a good day.

The author on a good day.

If that’s the case and you’re wondering where to turn next, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve got just the gig for you. The perfect enterprise. The supreme undertaking that’ll spin your wheels like they’ve never been spun before. Sure.

Yes, you too can put your best frazzled foot forward when you self-publish your own book. The mind-boggling, overwhelming bottomless pit of indecision can be yours if you act now. Platforms, formats, editors, designers and distributors are standing by. But act now before submission guidelines change every couple of minutes.

Publishing’s the true trick in this scenario. Cranking out the book itself is a comparative snap. Sure, writing the great American novel’s the easy part. Millions are doing it each and every day. And if English is your second language, don’t let that stop you. Who said the great American novel has to be in American, anyway?  Give me your tired, your poor, your pigeon English—didn’t Hunter S. Thompson say that? In Gonzo English?

These things run in cycles, in case you hadn’t noticed. A few cycles back everyone and their mother had a movie script. The next “Gone With the Gravity Unchained in Twelve Years.” But we did that one to death and turned to talk shows. If Johnny, Merv and Dave can do it, why not Rosie, Grodin and Conan? Right now, books are the new black, and indie publishing is the new purgatory.

With self-publishing comes one, big daddy catch, too. See, there’s a gazillion questions involved. If you go the physical book route, there’s all those decisions about page count, font size, leading, etc. Around and around she goes. Paper or e-book, you’re still going to need a cover. You’ll need a snappy title, too. And a cover graphic. And a pithy blurb from pithyblurbs.com. And that’s not to mention your pen name. For instance, you know how many different Ben Solomons you’ll find on Amazon alone? Christie, Chandler, Steele—seems like the best authors are already taken. Are you going to distribute your book on your lonesome or go the way of Smashwords or Untreed Reads or Lulu or around and around it goes? I could go on. You get the idea.

So back to that big daddy catch. Multiply all those above factors by infinity and you get an idea of the noose you’re tying. And that’s not to mention publicity and promotion. You’ve got press releases and interviews and advertising. There are reviewers and blogs and social media—before you’re done it’ll feel like  anti-social media. I could go on. You get the idea.

So back to that big daddy catch. With all of that to contend with, and then some, it comes down to this: there is no right way. No two indie ventures are the same, successes and flops alike. On the one hand, you have to respect the hell out anyone who’s managed even a nominal victory in all this. On the other hand, you’ve got every justification to fall flat on your face—you didn’t know any better the same as everyone else.

So let’s take a bath together. Jump in face first. Dive, even. The water’s fine. Or maybe there’s no water at all. Sure.

 

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The Hell With Worms

The smallest things can do a number on you. Fill you up or tear you down. Rip you up, apart, sideways. Blow you away, blow you to kingdom come, blow your mind. It doesn’t take much.

A couple nights ago I dropped in at a nearby reading series. Good stuff for the soul. The guys who run it don’t know me that well, so they’re still glad to see me. I find it a welcome escape from the isolation routine of writing. They welcome me, and they read to me. They present original things—some more original than others—things they’ve created, things they’re serious about, things they’re excited about. For me, that’s better than a bottle of Centrum or a hoity-toity cocktail.worms

So this one egg gets up. His piece recounts a half-year in his life as a grade school teacher. Maybe he’s not the next F. Scott Hemingway, but who is? He pulls off some nice gags, works in a poignant moment or two, and it’s got a good beat to it. I’ll bet he’ll never believe what bit threw me for a loop.

This is a local guy, right? He’s local, I’m local. That’s what you get most of the time at these readings, but not entirely. You can’t count on it. You never know. But in this case, sure, the bird’s local. He’s so local that, when I least expected it, he references this neighborhood park just two blocks from my house. Just a small thing. An easy thing. A throw away bit.

I smiled out of recognition. Actually, I downright beamed. In the midst of this writer’s foreign experiences, this moment hit home big time. I experienced a great dose of pleasure in sharing recognition for the familiar plot of land at the end of my street. Then zoom! It hit me. It struck me. Like a flash. I won’t go around the bend and talk thunderbolts, but zounds if it wasn’t good enough to spark a low-watt bulb.

The moment struck a chord, and that chord connected me to the format of his presentation, to reading, to writing, to literature, to all of goddamn art. And the humble idea that washed over me was this: that very moment is what art’s about.

I’m not talking about glib references to local haunts or shallow name dropping. I’m talking about that feeling of recognition. Can you pull off that recognition moment with an observation, a bit of dialogue, a particular series of actions or the denouement?

If you can make a reader register hard with some form of truth, then you’ve really done something. That’s something to shoot for, baby. But you’ve got to aim high. Awful high. Who wants to aim low, anyway? All you’ll hit is dirt. Maybe bag a worm. Worms ain’t for me. Sure.

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Money is Art Shmart?

Do you like dough as much as the next guy? Apparently the next guy likes it like a kid likes fun. Blind, unthinking, hypnotized. He needs it like a wildfire needs some schmuck with a match.

I belong to lots of writers groups. I get a lot of links from writers. I scan, skim and read tons of industry blogs and put in plenty of related research. I know it’s a business. I know that side of the endeavor’s the point for most of these groups and posts. But I can’t help but reel from the abundance of crass commercialism.

Do not pass go, etc.

Do not pass go, etc.

Here’s a big-daddy tip to keep your readers turning pages. Find out how to generate more five-star reviews on Amazon. Here’s how to suck up to an agent or a publisher. I get that. There’s a major business side to this business. But once in a while, at least every blue moon or so, just as an exceptional goddamn change of pace, could someone hint that there’s an art aspect to all this?

That hint is out there if you look for it. If you’ve got a high-powered sight on your browser or your RSS feed. If you can weed through ninety percent of the cold, harsh, show me the money takes out there.

I’m sure there’s plenty of starry-eyed sights and blogs out there, all about dreamy aspirations, inexperienced hopes and unprofessional, uncommitted wannabes with naive principles and the raw inspiration to match. That’s swell, and let them have at.

I’m talking about writers who are “out there,” the pros and seasoned authors hitting their heads against the walls of keyboards and publishers and agents and magazines and ebook distributors. Do they still have the fire in the belly? The magic in their fingertips waiting to cut loose? A lit spirit drunk on the idea of achieving the purely creative?

Maybe most of these people and places still got it. Maybe they simply don’t get around to expressing art for art’s sake, for one reason or another. Could be a matter of time, platform and format, or I might be missing a trick altogether. Sure.

But I’d sure like to read about it every once in a great while. I can’t expect to achieve any kind of literary greatness. That’s beside the point. It’s what I strive for. That’s the point. Something special in the words, the flow, the ideas and their translation to the page. That’s what it’s all about and that’s why I do what I do. I’m compelled, riveted by it, obsessed with it and hooked like a strung-out addict.

And as long as I’m at it, how about making as much money as the next guy? I wouldn’t kick.

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On a Roll and Keeping It There

The wondrous free-form, ambiguous, loop-the-loop writer’s life. Freedom and shackles. Self-imposed, self-made and selfish. No grounding, no way, no how. It’s another dimension of space and time way beyond taking hold of your television set. It’s all that and a bag of chips with a double espresso and four fingers of  hooch thrown in.

Whoever said freelance got that right. Free is right. All ways round. Time, pay, you name it.

I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king
I’ve been up and down and over and out and I know one thing
Each time I find myself flat on my face
I pick myself up and get back in the race

That's life...

That’s life…

It’s all in for me. I don’t know any other way to do it. Load the chambers and start blasting. Throw your hat in the ring without taking it off first. Go gangbusters. Go for broke. Throw in the kitchen sink and jump right in after with a good plunger. Sure.

If you throw enough stuff at the wall, will any of it inevitably stick? Depends on the wall. Depends on the stuff. Maybe it depends on your throwing arm.

Talking for myself—maybe I’ll talk for you another time—everything in this life is subjective, relative, a matter of perspective. With that in mind, I’ve been on something of a roll as of late. I just took a quick look-see at my honor roll of writing to glean I’ve had nine pieces published in 2014. So far. On the boards are an anthology and two podcasts. Maybe a podcast series. And I’ve got my first book up my sleeve, though it’s scratching me like the devil.

Attaboy stuff? Rah rah? Go get ‘em? Maybe. Very tentatively maybe. This writer’s routine is being entombed in a vacuum chamber. And some lug nut forgot to install the off switch. I’m talking isolation with a capital I. Solitary confinement with pages for walls, words for bars, and imagination for the key.

So I tell myself I’ve published more than one piece a month this year. And that sounds pretty good to me. Sounds like I’m on a roll. And it’s only natural to wonder if I can keep it up. The whammy is not leaving it up to publishers and e-zines and magazines and the like.

Jellyroll, sesame seed? Writing roll, piano roll? The matter of getting on one, finding your balance and staying there—in the end it’s not up to anyone else. It’s up to me, baby.

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Three Wishes

Sure, I got my world view. I can be big about things. Of course I wish the world would stop kicking itself in the keister every chance it gets. But most waking hours find me in the all-American, tunnel vision, pass the blinders mode.

There’s no shortage of wishes out there. I don’t have to tell you that. There’s big wishes and little wishes. There’s even ‘tweener wishes. There’s so much stuff to this existence—no lack of dreaming or hoping or hungering. Could be the simplest of things, materialistic possessions, things that go bump and grind, aspirations, flights of fancy.

You can't blame a fella for dreaming big.

You can’t blame a fella for dreaming big.

I can dream big with the best of them. I could go on about books and television series and movies. I could weave you tales from philanthropy to philistinism. The choices are endless, and so are the wishes.

If I’m anyone to go by, the romanticism of dreaming big never stops. The visions, voices, instincts remain intact. What does change is perspective. I’m all about perspective. You kick around long enough in this world and your daydreams learn to take a backseat. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about abandoning any level of fantasy. My dreams occupy a special, cherished portion of my psyche. What’s changed is that I’m increasingly preoccupied with more tangible pursuits—tag it small wishful thinking.

I wish I was smarter. A whole lot cleverer. I really do. I’d love to have a knack for devising locked-door mysteries. I wish I read more, learned more, was more literate-like. I know I must be able to write faster. And a hell of a lot better. Sure. I could go on.

So here’s the punchline. The funny thing about all this. The gag, the kicker, the crazy thing. My wildest dreams are exactly that—wild, fantastic, practically beyond approach. Taking them on is like going Ming. Remember Ming? Flash Gordon’s worst, bald-headed nightmare? What do you think was at the top of Ming’s to-do list?

  1. Conquer the universe

Show me the action plan to make that happen and you’ll be getting somewhere. Maybe my daydreams lack a tad of Ming’s ambition, but they’re far-fetched enough, thanks. Not exactly the most realistic of expectations to bring to your life-coach. If you had a life-coach. Maybe you wish you had a life-coach.

So back to that small wishful thinking I mentioned. I can do something about each of those wishes. At least I can try. And every last one of them could play a role in my reaching my most fantastic dreams. From little acorns, baby. Slow and steady. And smoke ‘em if you got ‘em—I just wanted to write that one.

So if a curious lamp tumbles into my possession, I’ll apply a little Brasso and a little elbow grease. Sure. And if some Persian-carpeted version of Robin Williams or Barbara Eden wafts my way, I won’t kick. Suppose they give me three wishes. Maybe I’ll settle for a little better brain power or a flourish of creativity. I’ll be better off and I’ll still have my dreams.

 

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Take Your Best Shot

Dead in the water. Before you start. You’ve got about as much of a chance as a cheerleader for electroshock therapy. Sure.

Independent publishing ain’t the future. It’s here. It’s now. It’s happening. It’s the revolution that everyone and their Aunt Sylvia has been waiting for, right? Come on in, the water’s fine. The more the merrier. You can’t have too much of a good thing. Maybe. Maybe not.

I’m thinking of the old line about a tree falling in the forest. Today, there are so many people in the forest, so many trees toppling, you couldn’t hear one from another if you tried. But what else can you do but try?Target

The catch has always been getting noticed. That’s assuming you’ve got something worth noticing. In the old days, meaning a couple years ago, you had to get the attention of agents and publishers. Any way you could. By hook or by crook. Today, going the self-publishing route, you’re looking to garner the attention of John and Jane Doe.

Indie publishing feels a whole lot more direct. More immediate. And that’s potentially more rewarding. But it’s a cinch that marketing and promoting yourself can be just as daunting as it ever was.

If you’re a writer, what else can you do? If translating those voices in your head to the blank page is what you do, you’ve got to take your best shot…whatever the hell that is. And you’re completely on your own to figure it out.

One thing’s for sure—nothing’s for sure. There’s no right or wrong, no up or down, no absolutes in the world of writing, whether it’s regarding artistic or business aspects. There’s no roadmap, no one-size-fits-all “Successful Publishing for Dummies.” I can’t tell you the way to do it. No one can tell you the way to do it. Therein lies the remarkable leveler.

The playing field’s the same for all us wannabe self-publishers. It’s fair game for everyone. Anyone can do it. Everyone’s got a shot.

So you keep writing. Write your best. And take your best shot.

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