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Decisions, Decisions

May 5th, 2010 4 comments

This will be my last column for Storytellers, at least for the foreseeable future.  After one year of writing my monthly blog it felt like a good time to step back, especially with pressing familial concerns.

My biggest regret about Storytellers is that I never got to meet the other columnists and readers.  If there is ever a Storytellers Unplugged gathering, count me in.  The internet is great for a lot of things, but nothing beats personal interaction and putting faces to the words, and laughs to the comments, and all that good human stuff.

When we write, we make umpteen decisions.  We are alchemists:  we try and transmute lead into gold, and make characters come alive.  We endeavor to make scenes jump from the page, crafting dialogue that sounds and feels real.  We try and draw readers into our plot and world.  We tinker in our labs with our Frankenstein books.

For much of April my son agonized over what college to attend.  I recognized his angst.  To some degree I feel that same pull of cross-currents with every book I write.  Like all writers, I have to decide what is best, what is right.  My son had to decide between the familiar, and the unknown.  It would have been easier for him to choose the familiar, but he went with the unknown.

It’s not necessary for writers to choose the unknown, or the unfamiliar, but if there is a choice in the matter I always believe we should be working on the book that feels “right.”  For many years people have been asking me when I am going to write another one of my humorous “Hotel” books.  I like the characters, and I like the books, but I never felt challenged by the writing.  It seemed too easy, and not quite substantial enough.  One day I might return to the series, but I won’t do that just because it’s a book that could easily be sold.  If I’m not enthusiastic about writing that book, I am afraid that would show in the pages.

By the way, my son chose Grinnell College.  He had never been to Iowa, never been to the Mid West.  The world he will soon be part of is very different than the one he has always known in San Diego County.  Grinnell didn’t offer the engineering degree he thinks he wants, but it appealed to him in enough other ways that he’s willing to take his leap of faith.  It will be an adventure.

In the midst of a marathon novel it’s hard to remember that writing should be an adventure.  Tapping at a keyboard doesn’t seem the stuff of Lewis & Clark, but to take readers someplace we need to make that journey ourselves.  We have to surmount obstacles, create bridges, and always look for the right way.  And if we recognize we’ve taken the wrong way, we have to be willing to backtrack to the beginning.  That’s a crossroads we have all been to; that’s the necessary decision we have all made.

Thank you for letting me be a part of the family for the last year.

Pax,

Alan Russell

May 5, 2010

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What follows below is a guest blog from my friend and fellow writer Ken Kuhlken.  Right now Ken is on the road trying to find an audience for his latest book THE BIGGEST LIAR IN LOS ANGELES.  I have always felt that writing a book is tough enough, but that’s a world I understand and know.  The selling of a book is a world alien to me, so here’s Ken with some insights – AR.

I’m an old timer. When my first novel (Midheaven – Viking Press) came out, what we authors did was forget about that one and move on to the next. If our publicist suggested an avenue for promotion such as a signing or an interview, she made the arrangements and we showed up and tried to act civilized.

Well, that routine made me neither rich nor famous, and stuff (family, creditors, neuroses etc.) intruded upon my creative productivity. So years passed between books. By the time the next one (The Loud Adios – St. Martin’s Press) came out, the rules had changed. Now the game involved hitting the road, which suited me. After all, I grew up on Jack Kerouac and Woody Guthrie. I teamed with Alan Russell on some more or less epic journeys, which we chronicled in Road Kill and No Cats, No Chocolate.

But damned if all those miles made me either rich or famous.

Once again life intruded. Next time I got back into the game, I found not only the rules but the whole world had changed.

Now, being a published author felt about as prestigious as surviving a colonic, thanks to the likes of I-Universe. And those self-published folks (may God bless them all) are about six steps ahead on every marketing trick the rest of us might consider.

Not long ago, at a writers’ conference, somebody asked an agent what she looked for in an author. If you think she said, “A great story,” or “A unique voice,” you may be a beautiful dreamer. She said, “A platform,” which means a topic on which you pose as an expert, such as the secret of losing belly fat. “And,” she said, “subscribers to your blog or your newsletter.”

Every day, mostly from email groups, I get bombarded with marketing chores. Since my new book The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles might get lost amongst the million or so other new books, I pay attention and do what I can. I’m on facebook, though I can’t quite figure why. I have a blog. I try to post once a week, though I’ve not yet decoded how to bring the masses to it. I’m writing guest blogs, like this one. My website has nifty breadth and depth and cartoons and free stuff. When I look at my calendar for May and June, I crave whiskey.

From all this chaos, I have gleaned a rule to live by. Most every day I tell Zoë, my amazing seven-year-old, “Just do your very best.”

Meanwhile, instead of nearing the midpoint of my next novel, I have an outline and some notes. Once, I was a novelist. Now, I wonder, what am I?

A suggestion to publishers large and small: along with the contract, send a job description.

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