Monday, October 31, 2011

What if...?

Here's a bad old joke I remember:

A man walks up to a woman in a bar. He introduces himself and asks, “If I paid you a million dollars, would you go to bed with me?”
The woman considers the question, and then says, “Yes.”
The man then asks, “Well, if I paid you five dollars, would you go to bed with me?”
The woman looks outraged. “Of course not. What kind of girl do you think I am?”
The man says, “We’ve established that. Now we’re just haggling over the price.”

On Friday, Rachelle Gardner (if this keeps up, I’m going to have to start calling her my muse) posed this question: What if there were no money in writing? Would you still write? Like most of Rachelle’s posts, it generated a lot of comments, quickly: 179 as I sit down to polish this up now. The overwhelming run of comments went one of two ways:
1. There’s money in writing? Lol
2. I don’t write for the money. I’d still write.

Reading the post, and those responses, the next logical question occurred to me: If a publisher told you that they would devote their top team to your book – the best editor and proofreaders, the top typesetters and layout designers, their number 1 cover artist, and the best of their marketing department; if they told you they would spare no expense in getting your book into book of the month clubs, and on ‘Off the Page’; if they could do all that, but told you they wouldn’t pay you a single dime for it, that the book was either going to be given away for free, or they were going to keep all the money from sales—would you do it? Would you give it away?

Keep in mind, there are no guarantees. Your book might flop. Or, it could be critically acclaimed, a mega-bestseller that moves a generation and becomes a beloved classic, read for generations to come. It could be just another throwaway read, the sort of thing that ends up in library book sales for $1, quickly read and enjoyed, but just as quickly forgotten. It could launch you on a career path like Stephen King’s, or it could go absolutely nowhere. You could end up toiling in anonymity for the rest of your days.

Would you do it?

As a businessman, I know there are times when it's a smart decision to take a loss on something in order to build reputation and goodwill. But setting out an entire book (at this point, almost a year's worth of labor) for free is not the same thing as tossing a few hundred bucks at a community event, or giving away a few dozen widgets at cost. My inclination is to say no. But pondering it in the theoretical world is a lot different than having the question posed in the real world, so I would have to think about it, very carefully.

What about you?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Casting Call!

Yesterday, the white stuff fell for the first time this year, amassing a whopping less than half an inch. My wife is grumbling. I point out that last year, the school had to burn a snow day before the month of October was out, so we're ahead so far (technically, we're even with last year, because we had to cancel the second day of school due to Tropical Storm Lee, but that was extreme rain, not snow). She didn't appreciate the sentiment.

So, here it is ....

Thanks to Melodie Wright, Lisa L. Regan and Carrie Butler for hosting this. It's been a lot of fun to think about, and a lot of fun to see imaginations in action. It took a lot of work, and it was a lot harder than I thought to find images that were just exactly right (and free!). In fact, I'd say my internal vision doesn't match up at all with what I could find, but in the end, that's OK. When you read my book someday, you will have your own pictures in your head of what these people look like, anyway. The experience was enjoyable, and breaking away from the WiP to go on an image hunt was like getting up and taking a walk around the block every once in a while.

In the end, I decided to use some words from the actual book to help describe my characters . So, here we are, the Parallel Lives Casting Call:

CHRIS BURKE (Camera shy)
“You haven’t changed a bit,” she said. “And look at that hair!”
I ran my hand across the top of my head. My forehead was now a five-head, but I was lucky: I had more hair than Dave and Mike combined.
“Implants,” I joked. “Had to look good for the boys on the cellblock, you know.”
Her smile vanished. “That’s not funny.”


"The illusion broke and I saw her as she was, a forty-something year-old woman, still pretty but starting to lose the battle against time. Strands of grey lurked at her temples; tiny deltas spread from the corners of her eyes and mouth; little pouches of flesh sagged here and there: beneath her lip, along her jaw line, at her throat. Her eyes and her smile still radiated warmth, but it was a pale reminder of what it had been, like the sun in February: you can see it, and almost feel it, but it’s not as strong as you want it to be."


that's so high school!
"LaValle cultivated a tough-guy look, with his denim jacket with the Pink Floyd logo painted on the back that he wore everywhere, his faded jeans, and boots. He carried a wallet on a chain in his back pocket…In this picture, he didn’t look at all like the sneering, jeering King of the Burnouts; he looked like everyone else in my high school yearbook: a kid looking forward to a bright future. A future he never got to have."

There you have it. I still have a lot to learn about formatting and making things look neat and clean. I'd like to blame blogger for limitations, but that's a cop-out: the limitations are either with my own vision, or my ability to play around with code. Now, I'm off to check out some other Casting Calls. Thanks for reading, have a great weekend!

NOTE: Photo credits: 'September Sun' by Yana Ray.

'That's so High School' by Paul Moody.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Monday Musings

In case you’re not already aware of it (and aren’t a reader of blogs belonging to Carrie Butler, Lisa Regan, or Melodie Wright, this week they are running ….

and I jumped in with an entry (Fool! What have you done?). However, I’m not ready to run mine today, so it will have to wait, probably all the way until Friday—unless I decide to break with my usual Monday-Friday posting schedule. We’ll see….

Parallel Lives drags along. I haven’t been working on it too much over the weekends lately, I’m not certain why. I have been hammering away at it during the week, however, and I think I could actually be done with this latest run through by the end of the week. And then, it’s off to a couple of readers, including my wife, who has been waiting for a long time. That may be the biggest hurdle yet for me. Maybe subconsciously I’ve been dragging my feet out of fear of giving it to her (if you’re new to this blog, we’ve covered why here).

I continue to produce what I think are interesting bits for my Writer’s Group, but they’re like the little doodles you do on a cocktail napkin. I haven’t done anything with anything I’ve written in there in who knows how long. It’s not a waste of time-it's practice, if nothing else—but it would be nice to come out of it with something more than a collection of words and a feeling like, "this could be something; but what?"

I’ve experienced a ‘senior moment’ yesterday afternoon. I asked a question on Absolute Write in response to someone’s problem. Late last night I went to see if the ‘OP’ had answered said question…and I couldn’t find the thread. I scoured up and down, all the various subfora, nowhere to be seen. I checked into my post history, it wasn’t there. I went to bed last night wondering about my sanity.
This morning, I found the thread and the post, and realized it was there all along. I just completely ignored the particular thread title. “That’s not it,” I’d say, whenever I scrolled past it. Help!

NaNo Yes, or NaNo No? Still haven't completely decided, but I'm leaning towards NaNo Yes (hunts down old notebook for that really good idea....)

That's all for today. See you on Friday. Or, possibly, sooner.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Back on the Platform Again

A few years back, I had the following conversation with a friend of mine, who was considering selling his house in order to get a larger one for his expanding family.

Him: “They’re [real estate agents] telling me my house is worth $400,000. You’ve been in my house, Jeffo. You know it’s not worth $400,000!”
Me: “Rob, if they’re telling you it’s worth $400,000, it’s worth $400,000!”

The way I saw it, the real estate agent case is the professional. She can look at the house and assess the kind of condition it’s in. She knows what similar houses in the area are selling for. She knows the sales trends in the neighborhood. In short, she knows her business, and if she thinks she can get interest in the house at that price, then my friend was best-off deferring to her. The real estate agent is hired for her expertise; let her use it.

I’m thinking of this story as I continue to sort out this whole platform thing. Rachelle Gardner stepped into an even deeper pile (but you knew this, right? Because you already follow her, right?), when she published this piece earlier in the week The venom in some of the comments spurred her on to write this one the next day, and also note, in the comments section, that it’s enough to make her consider giving up blogging. Let’s hope she doesn’t; her blog is an excellent resource for writers.

Anyway, my new conclusion on this whole platform thing is this: If the agent believes that platform is important, then platform is important. Rachelle has her finger on the pulse of publishing. She’s an industry insider. It’s her business to know the trends in publishing. Her livelihood depends on knowing the business, inside and out. She’s in contact with editors and the like every day. Note what she says: “what publishers want to see”. This is the information she’s getting back from the people who are deciding whether or not to print YOUR book. Like it or not, it’s part of the face of publishing in this era. Two years down the road, something else may matter more, but for now, platform is important.

So, what do we do? Let’s go back to the one that got this whole thing going in the first place, 10 Tidbits About Author Platform, specifically, tidbit #3:
“For first-time novelists, publishers still make their decisions based on the book itself, but they’ll expect you to have a head start on some kind of online platform, and they’ll expect you to step it up once you have a contract.”

This tidbit keeps getting lost in the shuffle. I think a lot of people (ahem, maybe myself included) latched onto the rest of the things in her posts and interpreted the worst-case scenario, which is something along the lines of, “They want us to get 15000 unique page views a month! Not only am I supposed to write the book, now I’m going to be the only one marketing it! GAAAAH!”

Most of you who are regular readers of this blog are like me: somewhere on the long road to getting your first novel published. Some have already jumped the hurdle of getting an agent and have one or more books out on sub; some of us haven’t even gotten our first queries out the door yet. Should we be dropping everything we do in order to re-craft our blogs into something so spectacular that we can point to several thousand followers when we shop for an agent? Or, worse yet, should we pay someone to artificially-inflate our numbers and hope that no one realizes it?

In my opinion, the answer to both is an emphatic NO. To address the second part first, dishonesty is no way to begin a relationship with a publisher. I won’t go any further than that, other than to say it’s cheating, plain and simple, and if you are found out, you might find yourself pretty much frozen out of the publishing game.

It’s the first part that’s more intriguing. From what I gather from looking at the profiles and blogs of my 17 followers (woot! Up 1 from last week!), most of us are in pretty much the same, overcrowded lifeboat. We are all somewhere between writing a first novel and getting published. Some are a little further along, and have multiple books written; some of us already have agents and actually have their works in circulation; at least one of you has self-published a book. What I think appeals to you about this blog is pretty much the same thing that attracts me to yours: Commonality of experience. We can relate to each other. Let’s face it, most of the people we are involved with in our 'Real Lives' don’t really understand how this whole writing thing works, or what we put ourselves through day-after-day, in search of the right words, and the right story, and the right audience, but YOU, my fellow bloggers, YOU do. And so I can come in here twice a week and spout off about this problem or that insecurity, and YOU get it, you know exactly what’s eating me, and you offer sympathy and encouragement, tips and tricks about how to get over it. For me, that’s the real benefit of this blog, and if I changed it in an effort to build up an army of potential book-buyers, I would lose what is most valuable to me at this moment.

I think the best course of action--for ME, right now--is to spend most of my time working on my books, in the hope that the books themselves become the platform. Maybe I’m being na├»ve, but that really seems like the best approach right now. In the meantime, I’ll continue posting here, reading and commenting on your blogs, and working on being a better participant in the bloggy sort of things that go on in the blog world around me, but I’m not going to let the tail wag the dog. Platform is important, yes, but the book must come first. I hope that makes sense.

Have a great weekend, all.

Monday, October 17, 2011

I Don't Like Mondays

(Actually, I really don't have anything against Mondays)

When I was in my teens, radio wasn’t quite like it is today, where everything feels so compartmentalized and genreficied (I think I just made that up). Sure, you had stations that were rock, and stations that were country, and stations that were dance and new wave, and yet, it seemed like there was a lot more freedom in playlists. Yes, popular songs got a lot more airplay, but you could hear plenty of unusual songs, and more so-called ‘deep cuts’ on the album-oriented radio stations than you get today.

In the latter half of 1979 and early 80, one of the songs that got a lot of airplay was I Don’t Like Mondays, by the Boomtown Rats.

According to Bob Geldof, the Rats’ singer, and writer of the song, the song is based on a real-life event. Geldof was doing an interview at a radio station when the story came out over the station’s telex machine, a terrible story of a sixteen year-old girl who opened fire on a school playground. When asked why she did it, her response was “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.”

It’s a grisly tale. The song itself was released in the UK in July (and became a #1 hit). It didn’t fare so well here, but received regular play. I remember hearing the song a lot, but the song’s true inspiration was just a rumor. It certainly sounded plausible, but so did the stories that Mikey, the kid from the Life cereal commercials, had died from eating Pop Rocks and Pepsi (this might have gotten started from a joke that made the rounds, that said Mikey died because “he ran out of Life”, haw haw). In the pre-internet stone age I lived in, there was just no reliable way to prove anything. In some ways, it was a lot more fun back then. /nostalgia

Inspiration strikes in funny ways. We are constantly bombarded with information, sights, sounds, images, from all over. A story can come from anywhere: a woman sitting on a park bench; a spilled bag of flour; a report heard on the news. It’s a process I still don’t understand, but I’m always happy when it strikes—although I may not like the ‘inciting incident’ all that much.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Epically Bad

In 1982, one of the greatest rock bands of all time, The Who, announced that it was over. They put out one last album (It’s Hard) and toured North America, culminating in a concert in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens in December. The tour brought them to New York for two nights at Shea Stadium. Given that the Mets were in the process of finishing about a million games out of first place, there was absolutely no chance of a conflict on the date. I had the privilege of seeing them on the second night, October 13, a night of trains, rain, and music, and not getting home until close to four in the morning—and then having to go to school the next day. As my mother said the following day: “That’s the last time you go to a concert at Shea Stadium.” Turns out she was right about that. It also turned out that I saw the Who more after their ‘retirement’ than before (coincidentally, on Thanksgiving night the following month, I saw another great British band, Squeeze, in their ‘final’ New York appearance. Like the Who, I ended up seeing them more after their ‘retirement/break up’ than before. Go figure.). As Seinfeld might say, "Everyone knows the first break-up never takes."

I went with three of my friends, one of whom was on the school newspaper. A few days after the show, he told us he had been tasked with writing a review of the show for the paper and, since we’d all gone, he figured we should pitch in. So we got together, sat down with a notebook in front of us and….


The problem wasn’t with having four differing viewpoints about the show. We all loved it. The problem was getting started. We just didn’t know how to begin. After spinning our wheels for some time, someone suggested we start at the beginning.
What was the beginning? The unexpected set by David Johanssen? Maybe we should start with the Clash, a band that many had anointed as the natural successors to the Who (and who would be broken up within a year). Or was it when the Who hit the stage? We didn’t know. We couldn’t start, until someone wrote down what we thought of as the real beginning:
“First, we went to Lee’s house.”
What followed was a lengthy recount of the night’s events, which included opening a beer bottle on a garbage can, changing trains multiple times, having a couple of guys offering us $10 for the shirts we had just bought for $14 (hey, it was 1982; the concert tickets themselves were probably less than $20), wading through nearly ankle-deep water in the outer concourse that seemed to emanate from the row of port-o-johns, and a four AM walk-through at a Burger King drive-thru. Oh, and there was music, too. The hallmark of this piece was that, aside from the first line (“First, we went to Lee’s house.”), every other sentence began with the word “Then”. So, it went something like this:
“First, we went to Lee’s house. Then, Dave came. Then we drove to the train station.”
Etc., etc., ad nauseum, ad infinitum.

We knew as we wrote it that it was not publishable in any way, shape or form, and not just because there was cursing and references to underage drinking. It was bad writing, plain and simple, but a hoot to write (and it’s a hoot to read—every few years, we get together and have a reading of what is now known officially as “The Epic”, not to be confused with “The Script”, which is a much better piece of writing in which two of my friends were turned into Superheroes trying to save Levittown from nefarious evil-doers. That one might actually be considered good. But I digress).

Once we got the silliness out of our system, we were able to write an actual review of the show, one that focused on the night of music that we had witnessed. I won’t claim that it was a great piece of writing--when one of your sentences states that drummer Kenney Jones “pounded the skins and rattled the tins”, how good can it be?--but it got the job done. But we did indeed need a starting point, a way to open the mind get words on the paper.

So much writing time is spent in thought. I know sometimes feel like I spend every waking moment thinking about my book or my story, worrying over this event or that line of dialogue, wondering if there’s enough at stake, and on and on and on. The worst time for writers is often when they first sit down, be it at the computer, the typewriter, or the coffee shop, notebook at the ready and pen poised, and stare at all that white space. Everything that was rattling around in the brain, the characters, conversations and situations that were so vivid, go as blank as the page. Now what?

Just start. Even if it turns out to be nonsense, the important part is to just start, just put some words that relate in some way to a character or situation down on the paper. It may be bad (but it won’t be as epically bad as “The Epic”; trust me on this) but it’s something. And when you’re just getting started, whether it's as a writer in general, or a new project, just getting started is more important than the quality. I also find that the quality tends to improve as I warm up.

Just write.

Have a pleasant weekend, all.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Note of Explanation...

...for why this is what it is.

I admit it, I am a fan of so-called ‘Seat of the Pants’ writing, or, as it’s frequently-called on Absolute Write: Pantsing. I hate that phrase, not because it isn’t accurate (it is), but because of the way the word looks and sounds. Pantsing. Pantser. It looks ugly in print, it sounds ugly when you say it. It’s ugly. People who don’t write ‘by the seat of their pants’ are called planners, plotters, and outliners. Those all sound much better (though ‘plotter’ has a bit of a menacing tone to it). I much prefer to use a phrase like ‘Discovery Writer’ or ‘Adventure Writer’, though both of those are rather clunky, and ‘Adventure Writer’ is a genre, I suppose, not a method.

Discovery Writing can be a lot of fun. When I sat down to start Parallel Lives ten months ago, I had nothing more than an image in mind of a character. I knew her personality, what she looked like, what she was interested in, what she was all about, but I had no story, no plot, nothing. I had done several weeks’ worth of thinking, several weeks of trying to generate the right situation, the right story, for this character, but I didn’t have a real idea. So, I sat and started to write. I started with the description of the character, a story began to develop, and, in the great tradition of discovery writing, things went in directions I had never imagined. It was great fun.

The thing is, ‘discovery writing’ is great for fiction, especially once you get the ‘front of brain’—where all the visible stuff happens—working with the ‘back of brain’ (I’ll talk about my own vision of front of brain/back of brain another time). It’s not so great when it comes to fact or opinion pieces, however. It’s too easy to write yourself into a corner. And when you’re writing for your own blog, where there’s no editor looking over your shoulder and saying, “What the hell are you going on about?” it’s easy to publish something that maybe should have been reviewed a little bit more, thought about, considered, and, yes, planned a little more.

I didn’t exactly go off half-cocked on Friday in my post about Platform, but I knew, even as I hit the ‘post’ button, that I wasn’t quite done with it, that there might be more that needed to be said. And there is. That became evident when I was commenting on the comments. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to order my thoughts on it enough to get something up today. Maybe Friday, maybe next week, but I will get to it. Some things just take more planning and consideration.

In the meantime, I stumbled across an interesting blog this morning--Shrinking Violet Promotions. I haven’t had time to delve too deeply into their online workshop (which was begun just about a year ago), but I like what I see so far. Take a look, and enjoy. I'll be back on Friday.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Platform Thing

About a week ago, Nancy Thompson wrote on her blog about…well, blogging, and how tiring it had become. She started her blog because she’d read that it was important for writers to ‘establish a platform’, and blogging was a means of doing that. But the blog thing is wearing her down, and Nancy finds herself yearning for the days when she could just write her book in blissful ignorance of this whole ‘platform’ thing. Nancy wondered if it was that important, given how much time the whole blog thing took, both in terms of crafting her own posts, and visiting and commenting on other blogs all the time. In the comments section, I suggested that platform-building was perhaps not as important for fiction writers as for non-fiction writers, and that she should really concentrate on her fiction writing.

Based on my definition of platform, I thought I was right. My definition of platform was very similar in idea to what Jeff Goins expressed in his post the other day. He said:
In the simplest terms, a platform is permission. It’s the right to speak to a group about a certain topic. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting that.

If you have something worth saying, you want people to hear it. A platform amplifies and legitimizes your message. It gives you authority to influence.
And that’s pretty much how I understood it when I first came across the phrase. ‘Platform’ is an author’s expertise, her credentials, her bona fides, her credibility. When viewed this way, it’s understandable why I would think it applies to non-fiction, not fiction. You won’t buy a book on fish biology by Luca Brasi simply because his author bio reads, “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”

You might pick it up and look inside to see if it was a joke, but if you were serious about learning about fish biology, you’d put it down and pick up something by a guy with a Master’s in Icthyology. Lee Iacocca has credibility when it comes to management strategy or the auto industry. Neil Armstrong has a platform on the space industry. The cast of “Jersey Shore” has a platform on…well, whatever it is they actually do. I might be able to write a non-fiction book on GM or NASA or tanning, but one look at my biography, and an editor would probably say, “Why should I believe anything you say about this subject?” I’d have to write one hell of a book to get a look, and rightly so.

I thought expertise could help for fiction, but that it wasn’t necessary. If I were to write a series of books about a New York City detective, an agent/author/reader might give me more weight if my bio said “Jeff O’Handley was on the NYPD for thirty years.” Reading that, you might figure that I could capture a lot of the gritty details of police work, along with the culture of the NYPD. If you were in a book shop and saw two detective novels side-by-side and could only buy one, would it really matter that much to you that one is written by a retired detective and the other wasn’t? That ‘platform’ might account for a few sales here and there, but it probably wouldn’t make that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. The key for fiction, I thought, is a good story, written well, that finds its way into the right hands at the right time. Platform? That’s for the non-fiction writers, right? That’s what I thought, anyway.

Well, a week after Nancy's post, Rachelle Gardner wrote a piece that defined platform in a completely different way. Rachelle’s definition:
“It’s the way you, the author, will get your name and your book in front of potential consumers. It’s the way you will bring sales to the table. It’s a group of people who are likely to buy your book, if you should ever publish one, because they already know of you and they like something about you.”
That’s a game changer, isn’t it? So, in view of this, what can I say?

Huh. Thirty-something years later, Fonzie still can’t say it, but I can: I was wrong. And so I apologize to Nancy and anyone who read my comments and thought, “Cool! Jeff says I don’t have to worry about platform!”

This new definition of platform certainly makes sense, given the way the world—and the world of publishing—has changed in the last 20 or so years.

Think about it: Agents and editors assume a huge risk when taking on a client or a project. Most of us authors have a source of income aside from writing. We pour a lot of ourselves into our books, and lay ourselves on the line, but unless we’ve quit our day jobs to become authors, the only risks we take when we query are to our egos, and our hopes and dreams (not that that’s a small thing). The agents do a lot of free work on our behalf in the hopes of a big payday. It’s entirely possible they will flog your book—talking you up at meetings and conferences, writing queries (do they call them queries when they come from agents?), shopping you around--for a year or more and not get any takers. No sale means no income. Publishers, meanwhile, lay out actual cash in the hopes that your book does well enough to at least break even. They assume a huge risk in offering a contract, with no guarantee that your book is going to earn back the advance, let alone all the other costs associated with getting it published and out there. It’s natural they’d want to hedge their bets, and I guess they look at an author with a blog-following, tweet-hanging, facebook-friending army of a few thousand as less of a risk than someone like me. After all, an author with a few thousand blog followers is going to sell books to at least some of them, right? And a lot of those followers have blogs of their own, with followers of their own, and word will get around and make that book into a best-seller. It makes more sense than taking a chance on someone like me who has 15 followers and a whopping 140 blog hits a month (I'm not entirely sure this line of thinking is totally accurate, but that's a subject for another day, because this post is already too long, and it's all speculation; I have not platform).

But Rachelle’s piece also speaks to another question, one that was just asked of me this week by a fellow blogger and reader of a portion of my manuscript, and one that I've been avoiding as I write: who is my audience? Are you, my dear 15 followers, the true audience of my WiP, or anything else that I’ll write down the road? Or is it someone else? And if you're not, should I aim my blog at them? I’m afraid to say I haven’t really answered the audience question, but I’ll have to address it by the time I’m ready for the query process. In the meantime, I’ll keep working on my book, and blogging the way I do. But I’ll be thinking....

Have a nice weekend, all.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Musical Monday

It's turned out to be a rather difficult weekend for a number of reasons, and a tough start to what will likely be a tough week. So, here's a grainy, poor-quality video clip from 1976. I've been singing (badly) this song to myself all last week and through the weekend. Enjoy.