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The Power of the F-You Factor

It’s all well and good for authors to talk about deciding to pursue writing for the sake of art.

But today it’s time to talk about a secret reason many do it, and a possible motivating factor for you to do it, as well.

It’s called revenge. Or as I like to refer to it in terms of writing, the F-You Factor.Fight-for-your-right-to…give-the-finger

Consider this: Many writers, no matter how early they begin, are told either point-blank or through inference that pursuing a career in writing is for losers/social outcasts/people resigned to being broke.

Somehow, the fact that you have stories in your head that you simply must get out is treated like a passing fancy, pointless daydreaming or – worst of all – mental illness.

You’ll often see this kind of treatment early, usually by playful dismissal from parents who haven’t a damn clue what they’re doing. Remember, folks, the idea is to lift your kids up and let them reach their full potential, not to be a soul crushing demotivator because your kid decides she doesn’t want to be a radiologist.

“Ha, ha. You make up such cute stories, Ricky. Too bad that’s just going to get your ass kicked at the country club and ensure no one will ever let you into Harvard.”

Later in life, such comments will come from people like teachers and guidance counselors who are really bad at their jobs – again, demotivating rather than motivating – who say, “Yes, that’s all well and good. But no one can ever make a living being a writer.”

Assuming you make it out of high school with your aspirations intact, you are indeed going to have to make a living. And for lots of people, that living relates to writing not one bit. Everyone has to eat and pay rent, right? But mention your writing aspirations to co-workers and you might get sneers and snickers as they go about their meaningless existences slaving for the evil corporate overlord, with only complete viewings of every season of “The Bacholorette” to show for their pathetic, meaningless lives.

For some this might be the final straw, killing the spirit of potential writers, binding them up like bowels after a big French cheese course and forcing them to never pick up a pen or sit down at a keyboard again, unless it’s to prepare the dreaded TPS reports for the passive-aggressive boss they secret wish they could see sodomized with a garden trowel, partially eaten by maggots, then dumped into pit of molten lava.

But out of all the things listed here, there is NOT ONE that should ever stop you from writing if you feel driven to do so.

In fact, all the above situations should result in you being a better writer – or at least a more motivated writer – because you’ve got plenty of reason to want to prove every single one of those people wrong. You’ve got to want to put your words to paper and have their very presence there shout a resounding “F-You!” to all those people who told you, “You can’t.”

A confession: My wife loves the singing competition The Voice. And because I love her and like being around her, I often watched it with her this past season. There, 18-year-old contestant Trevin Hunte confessed that his prime motivation for auditioning for the show was to prove wrong the teacher who told him he’d never succeed. And when he sang, he sounded like this:

That, my friends, is a prime example of the F-You Factor at work. He could have ended up working in a McDonald’s or an insurance office or any of the other places we all end up having to work, so consumed by his rage –  by a debilitating case of the woulda-coulda-shouldas – that it ate him away at the insides, affected every relationship in his life and drove him to an early grave.

Instead, he got out there on national TV to show the world – and that unsupportive teacher – that he would at least give it a try. And to tell that single doubter that she couldn’t keep him down.

The missing piece to someone getting writing accomplished isn’t actually believing they can do it – most aspiring authors have no problem with that – it’s not giving in to all the people around them who say they can’t do it that causes trouble.

So what if no one has ever told you that writing was a sucker’s game? What if you got along great with your parents, they’ve always been supportive and your teachers nurtured and fostered your artistic ambitions?

Well, chances are there’s still someone who’s done you wrong. Class bully make your junior high years a living hell? F-You! Have him eaten by a car, Christine-style, in your latest horror story. Girlfriend or ex-wife ditch you for someone with a cooler car or bigger paycheck (or other attributes)? F-You! She gets to be the first victim of the serial killer in your detective thriller. Those co-workers who sneer? F-You! They’re the troop of zombies your hero defeats by luring them into an industrial furnace.

It’s a stereotype that the best writers come from the most painful backgrounds. I would never say this was true, because everyone that goes through a harsh life doesn’t become a great artist. What an artist does is takes that pain – and joy and ambivalence – that we all feel and translates and distills it for consumption by the masses.

As an author, you’re turning against what most people do, which is keep feelings deep inside hoping they’ll go away, or turning to expensive therapy where someone is paid to listen to them air their grievances. Instead, you get to take that anger, that hurt, that pain of unrequited love and use it to fuel your creative engine, drive you towards greater things and give your work the depth that comes from real, honest emotion.

So if you’ve been told you’re not good enough, or just need a little extra oomph to get that honest writing flowing, be like Cee Lo, and embrace the power of the F-You Factor.

 

 

More About Ray

Chances are if you’re visiting this blog today it’s because you read an essay I wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer about my former boss, Ray Daub, who passed away Thanksgiving week at the age of 61. If so, thanks for stopping by and for being interested in finding out a bit more about Ray and me.

Ray Daub
Ray Daub in better days, while renovating the Dickens Village Christmas Carol display at Philadelphia’s flagship Strawbridge & Clothier department store. Photo/Philadelphia Weekly

If you arrived here via some other referral, thanks to you, too. It’s always nice to see some new faces. If you’re interested in the essay referenced above, you can find in the paper edition of today’s (Dec. 12) Inquirer or here at Philly.com. If you need to head over there to get caught up, I’ll give you a minute. Here’s some background music to read by.

Good? No worries. I promise we weren’t talking about you while you were gone.

Actually, it’s funny because Ray would have appreciated that musical interlude as much as anyone. In addition to being a master craftsman of lifelike static and animated figures, he was an unrepentant music fan and occasional snob.

In his workshop there was always music – usually a radio tuned to Philadelphia rock stations WMMR or WYSP – and he never passed up the chance to mock a moldy classic rock war horse (he used to refer to the band U2 as “Why Me?” and, as a longtime Motown and Stax soul fan, was notorious for rhetorically asking when black people would start making decent music again). He’s the one who first recommended to me the Squeeze album (we called them albums back in the ’80s when they were big and vinyl) East Side Story as a pillar of alternative pop. His love for music was brought to life professionally when he helped craft a life-sized figure of blues legend Muddy Waters for the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Miss., in 1990.

If you read the essay in the Inquirer, you know that I credit Ray with a lifetime of inspiration on what it really takes to be a working artist. What you might not know, however, is that I was inspired by Ray in another, more unorthodox way.

I’ve mentioned in this space that it took me 20 years to complete my first (and so far only) novel, Immaculate Deception. During that long period of time, I found myself reaching into various different areas of my life for inspiration. So when it came time for me to create the character of William Z. Robert, a low-rent, chain-smoking demon, I knew where from my own life to pull his appearance and character traits – Ray.

Just take a look at the photo above (taken about 20 years after I last worked for him) and then read this:

“He was not what Jon expected, especially after Eli’s briefing. He seemed of indeterminate ethnicity – maybe Italian somewhere – with thick, dark hair trailing down the back of his neck in what his dad used to call a mullet. Jon imagined the length in back  was to compensate for the thinning of the hair that remained on top. On his face was a full beard that was in need of a trim, and the droopy lids and half-moon circles under his eyes suggested it had been a while since he had slept well. He wore a white tank T-shirt and, on his legs crossed at the ankles under the desk, Jon saw khaki chinos and block high-top Chuck Taylor sneakers. His ancient metal office chair creaked as he leaned back and pulled on his cigarette while tapping out a quick rhythm on his thigh with the other hand.”

If you had ever spent more than 15 minutes with Ray during the 1980s – or I’d wager at any time during his life – you would know that when I was imagining Robert offering Jon Templeton a less-than-aboveboard contract for service, I was envisioning Ray.

And just so you know, despite the occasional crap Ray dished out, he was never demonic. I’m not beyond using revenge against a living human to craft an unsavory character, but in this case it was a shout-out to someone who in my mind – and I’m sure the minds of many others – was the quintessential Character. There was no way you could meet Ray and not remember him. Now I hope generations of readers will enjoy my tip of the hat to the way I remembered him, too.

The Cranky Reader Redux

Back in October I wrote here about the Blessings of the Cranky Reader, in which I ruminated on the emotional and creative repercussions of receiving my first 1-star, boy-this-book-really-sucks review for my novel Immaculate Deception.

Strangely, in the last couple of days that review has disappeared from Amazon. I was aware that Amazon had started paring down the reviews of some authors’ works when they might have been written by those who could profit from the book doing well, but this certainly didn’t fall into that category. Amazon has also targeted “competing” authors who write poor reviews of their peers’ books, but this guy seemed more of a literary wannabe who took pleasure in eviscerating the work of others than someone who would be able to create on his own.

So now I’m trying to decide if the author of that review had a change of heart, or realized that because I had blogged about it his review might have gotten a lot more attention than he originally intended.

I’m not sure either way, but I’m going on record here to say that while I did direct people specifically to that review for purposes of illustrating the points in my earlier blog entry, at no point did I solicit any flaming, complaints or commentary from anyone who might have taken issue with what he review said. I don’t work that way, and was fully prepared to let that review stand as a testament to someone having read my book and just not liking it.

In fact (and this does sound a little weird), I kind of miss that brutal review. It was a nice little link to the real – a reminder that I should never start believing my own hype and that we’re never as good as we think we are, but we should still always strive to be better.

So adieu, Mr. Cranky Reader. I’m sure you’ll find other folks’ books to bash. But I just want you to know that I still appreciate you reading mine and taking the time out to bash it yourself.

The Story On Toy Story

With the Thanksgiving holiday and school out for a long weekend, there’s been lots of kid TV on around the house. And with all the junk that’s out there, I’ve been reminded of what gems the movies of the Toy Story trilogy are.

Such gems, in fact, that when Toy Story 2 came out, it was cited as one of the few films that represent the “golden ratio” of film – that combination of factors that make for a perfectly balanced screenplay.

Another great thing that the Toy Story movies did was free animated film – and specifically Disney-produced and distributed animation – from the bonds of musical featuring princesses and rehashed fairy tale stories. Nothing against musicals – they certainly have their place in the world, and even in genre film.

This happened once before, if you remember, in the 1950s when Walt Disney (the man) got consumed with creating his eponymous theme parks and left the studio animation division to others. It’s funny how you can tell exactly when that happens – it’s when stories based Grimm brothers tales diminish and the number of plot contingent musical numbers decline or are replaced by those that swing rather than soar.

Eventually – whether because of laziness or because of perceived saleability – the Mouse decided to go back to fairy tale musicals and began following a pretty strict formula that Pixar animator and director Andrew Stanton details in this TED video.

Pretty soon, you could recite in your sleep what each new Disney animated feature would entail – a trite retelling of a tried-and-true childhood story that would be girl-centric without abandoning the Mouse’s ever-present princess fantasy of a happy ending married to a handsome prince. For a while there, Disney just gave up.

What Pixar chose to do, Stanton explains, is to take that formula and throw it in the trash. They created original stories that, while appropriate for children almost from the moment they can understand that they’re watching a movie, are universal in their appeal and cut no corners in the level of their quality or storytelling. They were built from the ground up – no source material from the 18th century or designed to appeal to a particular demographic.

So what does this have to do with your writing in novel or short story form? It’s a great example of how you as a writer aren’t bound in any way by what people (or your genre) might expect or suggest you should create your work.

In this day of entire bookstore sections devoted exclusively to subgenres like “Teen Paranormal Romance” – also known as the “sexy teenage vampires in love” genre – it’s easy to think that the best way to have success is to write something that fits into a specific box. You can even see it in book titles, particularly among the indie e-book market, where nearly ever title seems to contain either “shades” or “grey” – or some combination thereof – to in an attempt to somehow capitalize on the success of the ubiquitous erotica phenomenon Fifity Shades of Grey and its sequels.

If all you want to do is sell some books, it’s easy to ride another’s coattails or cram yourself into a pre-existing pattern that someone else has created and others have replicated.

But keep in mind that he most renowned writers are the ones unafraid to toy existing structure or form. Some of the most popular are the ones who decide to willingly cross boundaries of style or genre to create something truly amazing.

In other words, don’t try to fit into a box for which someone else has already set the dimensions. Instead, create your own box, work within the parameters you create and don’t worry about the hot genre of the moment.

Knights of the Roundtable

A few weeks ago the Codorus Press crew – represented by me, founder Wayne Lockwood and editor/forthcoming author/master of promotions Tom Joyce – traveled up into the Appalachians for the Western Maryland Indie Lit Festival, put on by Frostburg State University’s Center for Creative Writing.

It was a bit of a hike for us, as we do our best to keep our book festival trips within relatively close range to our homes in New York, southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, respectively.

But the lure to Frostburg was twofold: First, there was the appeal of an entire event dedicated to the pioneering spirit of the indie publisher. Second were the invitations Wayne and I received to participate in two roundtables each.

In a couple of years of doing book festivals around the mid-Atlantic, this was the first time we’d been asked to share what we’ve learned about writing and publishing with other aspiring writers and indie publishers, and we knew we had to jump on this opportunity. Boy, am I glad we did.

Splitting our time between selling and speaking made for a busy day, but getting the chance to talk about what we do on so many levels was an incredibly rewarding experience. The roundtables were intimate – no more than 15 people in each, including the panelists – which made for a great, salon-like feeling to the proceedings.

The participants were genuinely interested in what we had to say and all had great and insightful questions. They were also polite and patient with our (cough*my*cough) occasional tangents, which, of course, eventually led to their own insights (or at least that’s what I kept telling myself).

One of the nicest surprises about the entire event was that I got to sit as a panelist on the sci-fi/horror and fantasy panel with fellow University of South Carolina grad and Gamecock student newspaper alum Andy Duncan. Like me, Andy’s early work history took him through the world of southern newspaper journalism, and he eventually began to dip his toe into writing short fiction.

Since then, he’s been published in some of SF’s most storied magazines and a lot of fine anthologies, as well as come out with a few himself. Beluthahatchie and Other Stories, his first collection, won the World Fantasy Award – no mean feat – and his second, The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories, came out earlier this year.

In a lot of ways (at least in my own mind), it was a bit like me, as a sometimes actor in community theater, being asked to talk about the craft alongside Robert DeNiro. Not to be too self-deprecating, I have a novel to my name and Andy has lots of truly fine stories. I knew when I saw that we’d be seated on the same roundtable I’d have the opportunity to learn some things from him.

What I learned was a lesson I really already knew – there’s little productive in being star-struck. If you meet someone in your field for whom you’ve got lots of respect, it’s rarely helpful to gush and fawn and always better to spend your time conversing with them not necessarily as equals, but at least as peers. True, I don’t have the awards and accolades Andy can boast, but we’re both writers in the same genre drawing from many of the same places in literature, geography and culture.

Truly, most of the other writers I’ve met who are far more successful and well known than I am have been modest, kind and generous folks who truly enjoy talking to other writers about writing. And I always remember that when I talk to other writers who are still working on their first books or stories and (heaven help them) look at me as an example of what they could be.

The Blessing of the Cranky Reader

No matter how big or small your writing ambitions happen to be, there will come that point in your endeavors that someone will be happy to tell you that you suck.

I was fortunate in my career to work for newspapers for a good many years, and there’s nothing like a pack of newspaper subscribers to take it upon themselves to inform you of your many shortcomings with indiscretion and a hearty lack of tact.

Oh, and not to mention that they frequently do it via the letters to the editor, so those slings and arrows would almost always end up in print.

During the course of my stint as weekly columnist for my university paper and then my home-town newspaper, I was variously called a Marxist, Fascist, socialist, godless heathen, punk, whippersnapper and clueless kid. My skin was already thickened by my boot camp-like journalism instructors, and dealing with ornery readers put the last thick layers upon the callouses of my soul.

Since then, I’ve been happy to have my work critiqued by both friends and strangers and have been strong and open minded about accepting those negative comments that they had and using them to make my work better.

But when the novel you’ve worked on for 20 years finally ends up in print, you’re submitting your work for the approval/dismissal of an exponentially larger spectrum of folks. And the chances are pretty good that no matter how incredible you think you are, how great your friends and family say you are and what kinds of positive reviews you’ve received from readers, there will always be that person who’s ready to tell you how much you suck.

My worst reader review so far came in recently – a raging one-star review on the Amazon page for my novel Immaculate Deception, and I was immediately struck by a strange mix of emotions.

Much like the classic Five Stages of Grief, I was struck on a number of emotional levels. The first was the hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach I used to get in school when I’d get a terrible grade back from a teacher. I had failed, and this person had called me on it.

The second was that punched-in-the-chest feeling I got whenever I would get the “It’s not you, it’s me” speech from a girlfriend. It was the “you’re just not good enough” feeling.

The third was boiling rage – how dare this guy have the nerve to say that about me?Had he been standing in front of me at the moment, I would have landed several powerful blocks on a couple of particularly soft and vulnerable points on his body.

The fourth feeling was one of inevitability. Not everyone likes everything, I said to myself, and it was almost guaranteed that someone out there would dislike my work enough to go on record about just how much they disliked it.

The fifth and final stage was dismissal. I looked again at the overwhelming number of positive reviews I’ve received across the board, then checked on other things the fellow had reviewed. He genuinely didn’t like anything he read, and my last thought was that perhaps he just needs to re-evaluate what he’s reading if nothing he picks ever makes him happy.

And in a way, a truly poor review is a form of validation. It demonstrates that your work is indeed being read by people who aren’t your friends, family and adoring fans. It shows that someone you don’t know and have never met was intrigued enough to pick it up, plow through it, turn their nose up and decide the entire thing was a waste of time and then take more of his valuable time to tell other people why.

This is perhaps the best compliment a writer could receive, because it means people are picking your book up or download on a whim – not because you begged them, not because they felt obligated, but because it sounded like something they might like.

Or, as my friend and colleague at Codorus Press, Tom Joyce, put it, “Scott’s really arrived, because he’s got his first troll.”

A Public Display

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I remain a frustrated radio guy trapped in a writer’s body. But despite the fact that I don’t get on the air that often, I do get the chance to speak in public every once in a while, and frequently it’s in support of some bit of writing I’ve done.

Recently I was fortunate to participate in a group reading with the Brandwine Valley Writers Group, where I’ve had the good fortune to be a member for the last six years or so. This was a special reading, because it was likely the last one to be hosted by our friends at Chester County Book & Music Co., one of the best indie book stores you could hope to find. The store recently got word that its lease for its current location won’t be renewed, so they’re in danger of shutting down forever. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

Over the years been a favorite stop for author Christopher Moore, and has also become firmly entrenched in Codorus Press legend, as it has was scene of a good-natured ambush of Mr. Moore by Codorus founder Wayne Lockwood and me during which we forced on gifted him with a copy of my novel, Immaculate Deception.

For this particular reading, I figured I’d move on from ID for two reasons – one is the fact that I’ve been reading from it for a few years and figured the audience would prefer to hear something new. The second was that the novel does contain some – um, adult language and erotic situations, and the presence of the reading podium in the store’s children section has resulted in the BVWG’s establishment of the Scott Pruden Rule: Keep the naughty bits to a minimum … for the children!

So please enjoy this little sneak peek at my latest work in progress, the as yet untitled second novel and pseudo prequel to ID.

Radio, Radio

Once upon a time, I aspired to be a broadcast, rather than print, journalist. It was during those early, heady days at the University of South Carolina that I realized as much as I loved being on the air, I loved writing better.

And honestly, I was probably better at the writing anyway.

For the last 20 years or so, my full time job has been writing or writing related, but I’ve still relished every chance I’ve had to appear on the radio, usually promoting something.

Last night I had the chance to join Carlette Norwood Ritter on her podcast Lette’s Chat. The show was co-hosted by my good friend and fellow Codorus Press team member Tom Joyce, and we had a great time talking about Immaculate Deception, the process of writing, combining sci-fi with erotica and satire and what’s up with those scuppernong grapes, anyway?

We were also joined by a special guest caller, so listen in and see how much fun we had. You can link directly to the podcast here.

 

Gargantuan Book Giveaway Week!

One of the greatest ways to get books into the hands of readers – you know, other than sneaking them into their messenger bags on the subway – is to offer them for free.

I’ve done this a couple of times with some degree of success, especially in the e-book market, where offers of free books are welcomed heartily by all those Kindle readers out there who think 99 cents is just TOO DAMN MUCH to pay for books.

Really, though – everyone loves a bargain, and if handing out books like they were bank teller lollypops is what it takes to get back in there with Uncle Kurt V. at the top of the Satire cart on Amazon, it’s what I’m willing to do. As I often tell people who are considering getting into any kind of publishing – indie or mainstream – giving away a certain amount of free product is a great way not only to get your work in front of more sets of eyeballs, but also to start building a rapport with readers who appreciate the fact that you’re willing to occasionally share your art with them for nothing.

Naturally, as an author I hope for a couple of things in doing this. One, that readers who take advantage of offers like this will return the favor with reviews of the novel. Notice I didn’t say “favorable” reviews – that would just be asking too much. I really want to know what a wide variety of readers thought, and I’m understanding of the fact that my novel isn’t going to be everyone’s idea of a good time. But the more people at the party the better, and I like to hear from everyone, even those who are honestly sharing what they didn’t think was fantastic.

So, if you’re a Kindle reader and have yet to download your copy of Immaculate Deception at the normal low, low price of $2.99, take the opportunity to get it through Aug. 22 for everyone’s favorite price, FREE! Just click the Kindle photo or here to go straight to the e-book site and enjoy.

The other giveaway running simultaneously with that for the Kindle is a hard-copy giveaway through Goodreads, a fantastic social networking site for people who love reading and love interacting with other people who love to read.

In this one, also running Aug. 20-22, five signed copies of the paperback edition of Immaculate Deception will be up for grabs, with the winners chosen by Goodreads’ mystical oracle of all knowing bookdom, then reported to me for final delivery of the books.

While I’d love to give out as many paperback editions as e-books, the economies of scale don’t really permit it (and the resulting marital discord it would cause wouldn’t be worth the hefty legal fees it would take to resolve things). Still, though, I like the Goodreads option because it again gets more eyeballs on the cover and synopsis, luring more potential readers to add the novel to their “want to read” lists, in the hope that someday they will in fact read.

So come join the party either way. Download or enter to win your free copy, have a beverage on me (in a virtual sort of way) and have a scuppernong grape from the table of cyber muchies. You’ll be glad you did.