Tag Archives: fiction

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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No One Sweats the Small Stuff

Easy to over think. Those little gray cells pounding. The brow furrowed, eyes narrowed. Put your left foot in, put your left foot down. Pick both feet up and fall on the ground. Sure.

A big-five agent discusses the merits of first-time writers with the author.

A big-five agent discusses the merits of first-time writers with the author.

The book is distracting. Nothing fatal. But it sure makes for the 5,000-pound Packard in the room. So far I’m on schedule as far as my monthly short story series is concerned. Tales 49, 50 and 51 are falling into place, thank you. And on time, so far. Go figure. But thoughts about the book swim about like an up and coming victim thrashing at the surface of his liquid sarcophagus. The melodrama!

I’m big on perspective. Real big. Why do some people appear to grow wiser? Gained perspective. What gives Marlowe his snap, crackle, pop? A unique perspective. What puts the Mm in Michelangelo?  Perspective, baby.

Which leads me to the maxim: no one sweats the small stuff. If you’re sweating it, must be something big. It doesn’t matter if it’s screwy or compulsive or eccentric, even. If you’re sweating it, it’s gotta have weight. To you, at least. Of course there’s always a catch—whatever it is, is it really so damn important? Maybe you should second guess its ranking.

That’s how I feel as I toil away at my first book. Do you know how many unknowns are involved for the uninitiated author? I’ll spare you the whole known unknowns, unknown unknowns, etc. There’s plenty. Trust me.

  • Should the cover go towards a throwback, pulp-ish take to hook potential readers? Or should it embrace a wider audience with a more contemporary feel?
  • Can I get away with self-formatting?
  • What distribution is smartest? Smashwords? Untreed Reads? Bookbaby?
  • When should I release the damn thing?
  • How the hell do I get anyone to notice?
  • Do I have to blog about Miley Cryus and Justin Bieber?

I tell myself to turn down the heat. After all, I’ve got more strikes going against me than a Chicago baseball team. We’re talking a first book. We’re talking self-published. And we’re talking a collection of short stories, no less. Not exactly the kind of stuff to make the Paris Review sit up and take notice. I expect to have a whole new perspective on those babies. Six months from now. A year from now, maybe. Life’s a revolving door that leads you to another revolving door.

For now, I’m in miniature schnauzer mode. For quintessential dogged determination, there’s a breed for you. Strong and stubborn. I’m putting my head down. Forging ahead. Plowing. Arms up, swinging, but no looking back or stopping to smell the billboards. Hammer it out, the mug in the mirror says. Hammer it out as damn well as you can and move onto the next. The small stuff can go sweat itself to death.

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Letting It Rip

boxers3Mostly I let it rip. At least when it comes to my subscription series. Coming up with three, old-school detective stories every month doesn’t leave a whole lot of options.

These yarns don’t write themselves, so I let it rip. And I mean rip. Month in, month out. I’ve been getting away with that in short form writing. To date, I’ve gotten away with it to the tune of 45 yarns. That’s more than 235,000 words, for those of you keeping count.

While we’re at it, let’s put that in perspective. A short mystery novel these days runs from 60,000 to 70,000 words. I’ve cranked out three books’ worth in fourteen months. I’m not saying that makes them good or bad—I’m just saying.

I guess that achievement will impress some people. But that accomplishment doesn’t mean anything it itself. It proves squat. That claim’s neither here nor there when it comes to quality. It doesn’t mean I’ve got anything worth reading, let alone publishing. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

So I keep grinding. The very best I can. One story at a time. You’ve got about four weeks in a month. That gives me one week per story, and one week to final edit and polish. Such as it is. That leaves no time for looking over the shoulder or rearview mirrors. That barely allows time for making coffee, for chrissake. No time for sightseeing. No daydreaming. No dilettante, diva dance steps.

Give me a hook and I’m off to the races. A colorful character, a pointed situation, a splashy opening line. That kicks it off and I wing it from there.

Have you ever planned a murder?
Johnny Shin was gassed.
Five whores, an infant child, and a flask of gin.

Evocative stuff. Catchy. Three different openings to three different stories. I had no clue where each was going. I typed the words and took it from there.

How crazy is that? Does that make me nuts? I fancy I’m creating in the grand tradition of golden age pulp writers. It takes a strong work ethic, sure. No waiting around for muses. No tap dancing until inspiration strikes. You give it your best shot. And another. And still another.

I’m picturing a boxing ring. Writing as the fight game. You train, you work out, you shadowbox until you’re so bleary you don’t recognize your own shadow. Then the bell sounds. You come out swinging. You’re up, you’re down, you’re up again. Put up your dukes and don’t let them drop. Not until that first tale’s in the bag. Then the second. Then the third. Fight fair, fight clean, and never throw in the towel. Sure.

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Hooray for Hollywood Narrative

You want a crescendo, don’t you? That splashy finish? An ending to end all endings?

You’ve seen it more times than you can count. Think about classic Hollywood and you’ll recall a string of examples.

  • The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.
  • After all, tomorrow is another day.
  • He used to be a big shot.
  • Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
  • Oh, Auntie Em—there’s no place like home.

They don’t make ’em like that anymore. Sure. Whether you’re rolling your eyes or not, those are classic examples of ending on a high point. And the same idea works throughout the rest of those features, scene after scene after scene.

Somewhere along the line, especially with the influence of European new wave filmmakers, scenes became flatter. Narrative language and traditions changed. And that’s swell. More is more. More artistic language, more options, more devices, more techniques, more etcetera. There’s no right or wrong in story telling. The bottom line is making it play.

But I miss the old Hollywood construction. The approach was basic, solid, classic. In it’s time, it established an approach that served melodramas and comedies alike. The form can be applied to any art form, including my indulgences with the written word.

Creating top-drawer quality is never easy—a look at most flicks, books or TV shows is proof of that. But the idea behind this old-style story telling is simple enough. It’s plenty obvious, too, but we don’t always think about it. Plenty of authors go on about editing. They talk about cutting out the extraneous, creating dialogue, giving voice. There’s lots of attention given to creating characters and their arcs, how the protagonist has to go through personal change.

That’s a bunch of moving parts to contend with. Continually. Nonstop. They feed each other, affect each other, overlap like crazy. And they can all fit into one, repeated pattern until you reach your boffo crescendo.

That big bang ending still holds true today, most of the time. Once upon a time in Tinsel Town, however, they worked it scene by scene, beat by beat. The accepted standard was that a scene should rise in pitch until its high point, then cut! If you can’t contrive that climax, toss in a comedic character actor, set up a good joke, and go out on that high point.

You wind up with a series of scenes that start quiet or slow, catch fire, and ignite in a flash. One after the other, over and over.  If you do it right, the overall story line, it’s drama or conflict, spirals at the same time until you reach that biggest daddy high point of them all.

Simple, isn’t it? To put it another way, every chapter or section is a mini-version of the whole work. You’ve got a beginning, middle and an end. From A to B to C. From once upon a time to they lived happily after ever. Or not so happily if you’re writing noir. Scene by scene by scene.

The approach is a tough nut in the short story form. And maybe it’s not foremost in my thoughts while I’m working. But I’m pre-wired that way. I like that rise and bang! I want that. I dig that. Pulling it off is like creating a beautiful friendship. Sure.

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Updating the Writer’s Slugfest

“What the hell is going on?”

Not one for subtle openers, my inquisitive writer continued. “You took your father’s razor. You don’t write. No calls. Not so much as a cable or email. What’s the latest, hard boiled-wise?”

I suppose I am due for an update. It’s been a while since I posted any sort of “latest and greatest” report. I’ll make it short and sweet.

In January 2013, I walked out on my nine to five after nearly twenty years of service. I launched my online subscription series, “The Hard-Boiled Detective,” the following month. Ain’t timing funny? Or grand? It certainly keeps astrologers and pathologists busy. I hadn’t planned things that way, but there it is.

I’ve been plugging out three yarns a month ever since. And struggling to keep my head above water, too. The whole experience feels like maintaining a fistfight in a riptide. Very up and down. In and out. Seemingly by its own accord. Sure.

The series reached its first anniversary in February. That’s got to be some kind of achievement. Maybe nothing so noble, but I’m proud of the small, loyal following my nameless detective has developed.

Progress is slow, but there have been signs. Kevin Burton Smith kindly published my fictional interview with Raymond Chandler over at his thrillingdetective.com. The third story in the series has been accepted for Jochem Vandersteen’s upcoming anthology, “Shamus Sampler 2.” Then there’s Kings River Life Magazine’s plans to publish my eighteenth story this spring. I’ve also begun editing a batch of “The Hard-Boiled Detective” adventures, preparing it as a collection in book form.

If only the writing went faster. If only the hours stretched longer. I don’t know about other unknowns, but I can’t imagine this type of undertaking is a rational choice for anyone. Some days I’ve got enough piss and vinegar to fill Lake Michigan. On other days, the words and characters and plots read flat, voiceless. The next monthly deadline looms. I grind on, grind it out, and move on. The stuff of detective fiction and series create its own bloody inertia.

I hadn’t planned things this way. But there it is. And that’s probably just as well. There’s only so much time for so many things, especially when you’ve painted the next story into the proverbial corner. Sure.

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Any Damn Thing You Like

It can be any damn thing you like. That’s at the heart of it. The people, their faces, their voices. The places and smells and colors. The themes and morals and tone and voice. It’s any damn thing you like. I’ll never get over that.

When you come down to it, an author can write any damn thing he likes. Whatever floats her boat. No handcuffs in this racket. The sky’s the limit. It’s just you. You and your brain and your gut and the blank page. That should be anything but daunting.

I’ve seen kids get lost. Give a fledgling a piece of video and an editing program, and don’ t expect to hear anything for a long, long time. They’ll crank through limitless adjustments, tweaks, experiments, checking out every last effect at their fingertips. Sure. If only they knew what they wanted.

If you’ve got something inside you that’s got to come out, you’ve got no headaches where that blank page is concerned. If you know what you want, all you have to do is work on getting there. Arriving’s no easy matter, but that shouldn’t stop you. What do you have to say? Let your passion run free. You’ve got that opening line, or that hook in mind, or a twist. Maybe you’ve been writing an outline in your head for a week. Maybe you’ve got a character whose story is itching to bust out. Put it down on the page.

The blank page should never be daunting. It’s freedom in rectangular form. Have at it. Tickle it, slap it, nudge it, punish it. Play with it until you’re spent. You’ve got something inside you and you’ve got something to say. Let it explode.

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