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Keep It Short

I’m proud to say that I’m a member in mediocre standing of a great writers’ group, the Brandywine Valley Writers Group, that regularly features great and informative guests at its meetings. My mediocrity stems from only being able to make about half of their monthly meetings thanks to my wife’s rotating work schedule.

So when I was able to attend the November meeting with no elaborate scheduling shifts or kid hand-offs required, I was pretty excited (of course, it might have also had something to do with the meetings being held at a great Irish pub with Guinness on tap, but that’s neither here nor there).

The speaker that night was Dennis Tafoya, a writer of modern noir who lives in another part of the Philadelphia area

Dennis Tafoya, author of crime thrillers

and whose novels include Dope Thief and The Wolves of Fairmount Park. The vibe at BVWG meetings is pretty informal, much like a dinner party where one guest is allowed to hold forth and everyone else gets to eat, drink and be educated. Dennis was very gracious in sharing with us his process of writing, his literary philosophy and what drives him to do what he does.

One thing I found particularly interesting was that his success in mainstream publishing can be directly attributed to his having short stories published with a few online journals, then discovered by a West Coast film agent who steered him in the direction of an East Coast literary agent. It’s that magical publishing kismet that you sometimes hear about, then hate having the knowledge that this apparently really happens to some people.

My first response to this was surprise that Hollywood folks, who only seem able to rehash old crap or generate new crap these days are actually trawling through online fiction journals looking for great stories and their authors. My second thought was, “Wow … I’ve really got to up my short story game.”

That would be, at this point, a game that doesn’t really exist. Approximately 20 years ago, I managed to bang out and finish a nice little story that was published in the University of South Carolina literary magazine, Portfolio. Please ignore that it was at the same time I happened to be the fiction editor. Really … that had nothing to do with it. I swear.

Anyway, that story won an honorable mention in a statewide competition, which was very cool. Since then, though, I’ve been stuck. No nice little awards – not even honorable mentions, mainly because there haven’t been any stories.

See, my trouble with short story writing is that A)  the things I begin working on intending them to be short stories morph into full-scale novels that end up taking 20 years to finish (please see Immaculate Deception), or B) I have great ideas that I get started on but never actually finish.

As I speak, I have between 10 and 15 half- or 1/4-complete short stories sitting in a computer file awaiting my attention after months or years. If they were people, they would have given up and moved on long ago. Even though they’re just stories, I still imagine them tapping their feet and looking at their watches impatiently, wondering when I might return.

Yeah, me too, guys.

I try doing a little self education every so often, attempting to get myself into the short story groove by re-reading collections like William Gibson’s Burning Chrome and Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things, and even the hefty (especially in paperback) collection of Mark Twain’s shorties hoping that some of their excellence at brevity will rub off on me. I like to think that rather than soaking it up right away, I’m slowly processing and absorbing it in the hopes that at some point it will blossom within me and I’ll be able to easily crank out some stellar (and short … and entirely complete) piece of fiction.

So far, though … nothin’. Well, that’s not true. I did start something the other day, but if I had a nickel for every time I started a story I didn’t finish I’d have … um … it looks like about 75 cents.

Something Cinematic

Commercial motion pictures didn’t exist until the 20th century, and it’s a pretty safe bet that since then it’s been tough for writers of prose to ply their craft without those pesky images from a darkened movie theater encroaching on their work.

I know that in my brain there’s an ongoing battle between what I imagine is original and what’s already been done. There’s a scrawny hipster of the old video store variety living up there who’s constantly second-guessing my creative choices as derivative hackery cobbled together from43 years of pop-culture immersion and ravenous movie watching.

But in retrospect, writing “cinematically” – that is, while imagining the events played out on the page as a running visual narrative in one’s mind’s eye – was likely happening long before putting images to celluloid was even considered. After all, the primary element of our human capacity to imagine is to see things in our heads, whether through dreaming or conscious effort, as if they were really happening. Plus, acting out stories onstage predated film by thousands of years, so the art of rendering a story with actors playing established parts had plenty of precedent.

However, I’m sure some artists who consider themselves more pure of heart would argue that our 21st century immersion in cinema (and TV and videogames) has somehow negatively altered the writer’s art. I could see how this might be the case if all the writers out there were somehow taking everything they learned from the Transformer movies and translating blind action and idiotic dialog to the page. (Actually, that does happen quite a lot in movies, but that’s a conversation for another time).

But long before there were movies, bad prose still made it into print. During the Victorian Age, when the novel as we know it now first emerged, there was plenty of crap being written throughout Europe and America, and no one had the luxury of blaming it on Michael Bay and giant robots randomly blowing stuff up.

Great books are often defined by their standout lines of narrative or dialog. So are films. So who’s to say that “Call me Ishmael,” or “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” can’t be ranked right up there with “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” or “Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker”?

As for being derivative, no less a writer than William Shakespeare was accused by his contemporaries of the very same thing. Sure, he used tried and true plot devices and narratives that had already been a part of folklore and wandering minstrel storytelling for years, but when he took them into his own hands, he added his own unique pathos, wit and social satire to create something wholly new, immensely popular in its time, and brilliant enough to be repeatedly performed over the subsequent five centuries.

In short,  intelligent and talented writers take what they learn from personal experience, personal experience, established story structures and – yes, other art forms and media – and cleverly fold them into what they are doing on their own.

In my own case, I can tell you outright that my writing is highly influenced by films I’ve seen throughout my life, the books I’ve read and the TV shows I’ve watched. But perhaps most of all, it’s influenced in rhythm, pacing and atmosphere by the music I listen to.

The idea for SHAG, the terrorist organization made up of youth-obsessed octogenarians in Immaculate Deception, emerged directly from my experiences with the Baby Boomers of Florence, S.C., who grew up dancing the shag to Stax and Motown R&B on the jukeboxes in Myrtle Beach nightclubs.

So in crafting the story itself, these songs stuck in my head and I imagined them playing along with certain scenes in the novel. The same went for the character of Eli, who at least appears as an elderly Rastafarian surfer. That necessitated some reggae.

So in my mind, along with imagining the scenes of the novel as if they were playing out onscreen, I also had musical accompaniment. What resulted was a full “soundtrack” for the entire work, from opening title sequence (Matthew Sweet’s “Divine Intervention”) to classic reggae (“Rivers of Babylon,” by the Melodians) to beach music legends (“Give Me Just Lil’ More Time” by Chairmen of the Board). For the full cinematic experience, you can listen to the complete soundtrack here.

It’s not only a great extra element for me as the author, but it serves the readers in much the same ways as book trailers or audio books do. A novel soundtrack – born from an author’s head and laid down in electrons like a globally connected mix tape – is a way for readers to add an extra dimension to their reading experience and perhaps build upon their enjoyment of the novel itself.

Lots of folks have been very kind in suggesting that Immaculate Deception would make a great (even blockbuster!) movie, and I’d be lying to you if I said I hadn’t imagined that it someday would make it to film. But in the meantime, the novel itself will have to do – with a little bit of appropriately cinematic music thrown in.

Sons of Beaches

Forgot to mention last week that Immaculate Deception was named a reader pick for “great beach reads” in the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Summer Reading package from the June 26 edition of the paper. Find the story online here.

Full-Frontal Self-Congratulation

Great news from Codorus Press Central Command in NYC this week – Immaculate Deception was named a July Staff Pick for two of Barnes & Noble’s biggest stores, the Fifth Ave. flagship store and the Union Square location. If you’re in NYC, check it out, buy a copy for yourself and let us know what you think. Since the Nook version when live the B&N page is looking a little bare of reviews, so we’d love to see some up there soon.

Do the Hustle

There are plenty of newbie or wannabe authors roaming around out there that are still under the mistaken impression that a big publishing house will do the work of marketing and promotions for every author it takes on. Every time I come up against this misconception (usually put forth by someone who has rejected independent publishing out of hand as something that “real authors” don’t do), I do my best to correct it.

This week the Philadelphia Inquirer went a long way towards doing that for me with this story on how all authors are now responsible for a good portion of their own marketing, and are forced to be darn creative about it, too. For instance, the author who wrote a book about the New Jersey Shore has done much of her marketing – especially now that summer is here – at the exceptionally busy resort towns along New Jersey’s coast. As a result she targets not only year-round locals, but the year-round residents of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware who flock their in droves as soon as Memorial Day arrives.

I have a colleague and fellow novelist, Bob Yearick, who wrote an excellent novel called Sawyer that is essentially a detective mystery set in the world of professional football, with one of the players serving as the de facto private eye. When we saw each other at a professional event not long ago, he tapped me for a little marketing advice and the first thing I suggested was that he start setting up tables to sell the novel in the dealer rooms at sports memorabelia events, trading card conventions or other sports-related gatherings. It doesn’t matter that you’re selling books and you therefore feel like all your appearances should be at libraries and book stores – the goal is to find where your readers will be and go to them.

That also means going beyond the physical world and deep into the virtual, targeting bloggers that can help spread the word for you in a much quicker, more efficient and, most important of all, less expensive (often free) way.

I’ve seen written a number of places that as much as “launch parties” can stroke an author’s ego, there’s really no payoff for the ordinary – and certainly not for the independently published – author. You’re announcing a party to a public who has no idea who you are and frankly doesn’t really care. Aside from giving friends and family a chance to congratulate you in person, such an event is really pretty useless as far as building the buzz needed for a book to succeed.

For me, the target market  for Immaculate Deception from the very beginning has been split between science fiction fans and folks interested in how we’ve gone about setting up Codorus Press. As side markets, there are the coastal areas of South Carolina, in which the novel is set. The only real “signing” I’ve done was in my home town, where I knew I had a ready base of buyers from my time spent there as a child and as a newspaper reporter during adulthood.

Otherwise, the press itself has done larger events like the Philadelphia Book Festival and other regional book events. This fall we’re shooting for, among other things, the Collingswood Book Festival and the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Book Festival, as well as PhilCon – the Philadelphia area’s huge science fiction convention.

We’ve also made shameless use of our former (and current) newspaper connections. Some of the best traditional press I’ve received so far has been from newspapers I used to work for. We’ve also used the editorial judgement we developed on the desks at a number of papers to craft better and more effective press releases. We know what editors see as a story, and we try to give it to them each time we send out a release.

So in marketing your work, make sure you explore all angles, both the most and least obvious. It’ll result in a better payoff for you all around.

Get It the F**k Out!

I’m not a children’s author (although I might be some day). But in years and years of consuming entertainment meant for kids – and for the past seven years being the parent of small kids – the one thing I’ve learned is that you shouldn’t talk down to the kids, and you should always remember that there’s probably an adult either reading the story or viewing the program/film alongside those who fit the primary demographic.

This isn’t a children’s book, but Go The Fuck to Sleep is certainly written and illustrated to reflect that genre, and is most certainly aimed ONLY at the parents of those kids who seem to fight sleep like a cat fights a bath – biting, clawing, hissing, spitting and caterwauling included.

The spin that author Adam Mansbach and illustrator Ricardo Cortes put on this kids book paradigm (there’s a word you won’t see me use often) was sheer brilliance from both a humor and marketing standpoint. And in spite of (and probably directly because of) it’s lewd title, it has shot to the top of many to-buy or have-bought lists. It gives grown-ups what we’ve always gotten from the best kids shows. Looney Toons weren’t originally intended for kids and often reflected some more adult themes. Today, one episode of Phineas & Ferb can contain more grown-up in-jokes than one mind can even process.

Mansbach is likely all too aware of that, and so he wrote a “kids” book aimed solely at adults. Did it pay off? Let’s just say this: at the moment I write this, it sits confidently atop Amazon’s sales rankings for not just the parenting or humor category, but among all the books Amazon sells lumped together.

The lessons in this are two: First, never forget that some adult has to serve as the intermediary for kids to enjoy much of their entertainment, so it should, at some level, appeal to them, too. While GTFTS is only for grown-ups, it takes that truism to the farthest extent.

 The second lesson is that you shouldn’t abandon your “nutty” ideas. This guy is a dad who secretly thought the very words of his title – just like zillions of other parents – and instead of silently stewing about it turned it into something creative and brilliant and now universally popular.

My nutty ideas for ID were kicking around in my head long before I wrote a word. I’d sit in my Methodist Church youth group as a teen and silently mock the self-righteous counselors who would try to steer me down a path I thought was theologically bogus. I bore early suspicion for televangelists. I internalized the injustices of the newsroom and elsewhere in the working world and sat amused as Baby Boomers tried their darndest to deny the truth of time’s passage. And it all spilled out onto the page.

It’s that stuff – the secret angers, aggravations, resentments and amusements – that give good fiction its soul and brings the characters and situations alive. And even though it’s small and funny and totally inappropriate for kids, Go The Fuck to Sleep deeply reflects those parental frustrations that are at the core of raising young kids. And for that the book deserves to be on top.

Work That Mojo, Baby

If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my career as a journalist, it’s that you can’t be afraid to put yourself out there when it comes to people you don’t know.

In journalism school at the University of South Carolina, one of the first assignments we received during our senior “practicum” semester, was to go somewhere we would otherwise be completely uncomfortable. For instance, the prim and proper middle aged woman from England was sent to a truck stop.

I was sent to a gay bar. I don’t think it was because of an obvious homophobia on my part, but instead because I came off to others as so vigorously heterosexual. Suffice it to say that it was no big whoop (after you see your first guy in assless chaps, the rest don’t really make much of an impact), but it proved to me once again that people were people, even if what they’re up to at a given moment might seem a little out of the ordinary based on your own personal experience.

We weren’t assigned to actually interview anyone, but that would come later. The purpose of the exercise was to get us a little more comfortable with otherwise uncomfortable situations.

As a reporter, those would more often than not be hostile police departments, the offices of less-than-friendly politicians or situations where someone had died in an unpleasant fashion, and rather than just making it through a couple of drinks (and politely refused propositions), I was required to actually speak with those people and extract from them important information they were often reluctant to share.

Now, as I ply the waters of indie publishing, I’m finding those “putting myself out there” skills are coming in handy again. As ID has made its way into Barnes & Noble stores nationwide, we at Codorus Press have mounted a concerted effort to make sure that the other stores where it really should be have them on the shelves. Those include, most importantly, the New York City stores (where big-shot reviewers and tastemakers could stumble across it) and the Southern stores, where readers will recognize the places and characters in the novel most clearly.

That’s involved what most people dread – cold calling. Every day, Codorus shaman Wayne Lockwood and I are on the phone and paying visits to the folks who can make the decisions to get us in front of even more readers. We don’t know these people and they don’t know us. In addition, they’re wary that we are trying to sell them on a product that might somehow be inferior or unprofessional. Not only must we be bold about introducing ourselves, but confident enough in the product we’re pushing to make them take notice.

To paraphrase the Kinko’s guy from Jerry McGuire, sometimes you just have to hang ’em out there. And that’s essentially what aggressive marketing is – hanging them out there and hoping they don’t get cut off.

And speaking of mojo, I just couldn’t help including this. Enjoy.

The Love That is Linkage

I was just tipped off by Wayne Lockwood, the wise and mighty shaman of Codorus Press, that our great neighbors at the Philadelphia Book Festival gave us some link love via their blog Me Want Food.

Leigh Ellwood and Kat Lively had the booth next to us on that particular very rainy day. Leigh writes erotic lesbian fiction and Kat writes rock-themed mysteries. Both of them were very cool ladies and seemed to really appreciate some of our clever little bits of marketing (like the faux Church of the New Revelation religious tracts – specially designed to look cheap and cheesy, just like the real thing!). For our part, we really like their style and the whole vibe of their booth (which featured a sign declaring “Ass Kicking Fairies!”).

A funny story – I realized toward the end of our damp day that I had actually shared some time with their boothmates previously when I appeared at The York Emporium in York, Pa. (birthplace of Codorus Press) at this time last year for their Sci-Fi Saturday event. There’s video of my interview with Jim Lewin, owner of The York Emporium, from that appearance, as well as a reading. Check out the interview below and follow the link for more of the event (thanks to Codorus team member Tom Joyce for shooting).

Speaking of events, I’m looking forward to some other events later in the summer and into the fall, both focusing on ID and Codorus Press. As the marketing word gets out, we’re hoping to get more interest in presenting our indie publishing road-show, The Wandering Heretics Independent Publishing Tent Revival and Old Time Medicine Show, at book stores and other locations. We’re also planning for a couple of book-related events, including the Collingswood Book Festival in Collingswood, N.J., and PhilCon, the annual convention of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society.

We love interacting with fans of ID and anyone interested in indie publishing, so we hope to see you out at these and even more events throughout 2011 and into 2012.

The Never-Ending Explanation

I’ve been fortunate over the last few months to have received some great positive response about ID  from Barnes & Noble, probably the largest remaining major retail book store chain now that Borders has gone completely belly up.

As part of that, I and other folks from Codorus Press have been on the phone with customer relations associates at individual stores that don’t already carry the novel to spread the gospel of why they should. One of the nicest bits of feedback we’ve received is, “Wow, you guys really did your homework.”

In other words, the folks in charge of acquiring books at the stores have dealt with a lot of amateurs – self- or vanity-published authors rolling in the doors with a crate full of their books expecting B&N to be obligated to carry their work, and storming out shocked and offended when the store offers to take two or three – on consignment.

As a small press, we at Codorus vowed from the beginning that at every turn, we would make our operation as professional as possible, especially in dealing with the book stores and the distribution networks through which they order their stock.

It was reassuring to hear such nice words from pros in the book biz, and it wasn’t the first time. Repeatedly, we’ve been told that our method is not just revolutionary, but exceptionally forward-thinking in this rapidly changing market.

But we still come up against the stereotypes of the self-publisher again  and again, so it requires constant explanation on why that’s precisely what we are not. I went so far as to put together this YouTube animation explaining the differences.

Still, some folks just don’t get it. Back in the fall, I appeared at a meeting of the National Writers Union. At the meeting was another writer who later blogged about how the Codorus Press model of cooperative publishing sounded like “self-publishing, but as a group.”

Well, yes and no. If it was self-publishing, it would just be me. There is a capable and highly qualified team that makes up Codorus Press, which by the very defnition of self-publishing takes it out of that category.

The proof in the pudding will be this fall, when my talented colleagues at Codorus Press start rolling out their very own novels, guidebooks and children’s literature.

So, so much for that whole “self” thing, and kudos to us for doing our homework.

Not Our Manifesto, But a Pretty Good One

I never considered myself as having come from radical roots, so when I embarked upon the great adventure that has been (and still is) the publication of Immaculate Deception, I looked on it as a pretty radical thing. Here I was, circumventing a lot of the conventional wisdom of the modern publishing industry with little more than a firm belief in myself and my partners in Codorus Press going for me.

Here’s a piece from someone who does have radical roots and who eloquently writes on how we independent publishers and publishing groups are blazing a new trail for not just ourselves, but the readers who no longer have to depend on what the big publishers want to feed them and can instead seek out and discover things they like all on their own. Check it out here.