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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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Vanity of Vanities Saieth the Preacher, All is Vanity

March 5th, 2010 Comments off

Recently I was asked to blurb a self-published book. I declined to put my name to the book for a very good reason – it wasn’t good. But instead of coming right out and saying that I didn’t feel comfortable extolling the virtues of something I didn’t like, I offered up the excuse that I don’t blurb self-published books (truth to tell, on one or two occasions I have done just that).
At almost every writing conference I have ever worked a pre-published writer has come up to me and asked for my thoughts on self-publishing a book. My comment has always been, “Unless you are a hell of a salesperson, and you really enjoy marketing, promoting, and most of all, selling your book, I would advise you not to do it.”
My advice runs contrary to all those websites promoting self-publishing. They tout such books as THE CHRISTMAS BOX, THE CELESTINE PROPHECY, A TIME TO KILL, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, and even REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST, as examples of incredibly successful self-published books.
Yes, and I can cite you hundreds of people that have won millions playing the lottery. Does that make you want to go out and bet the farm?
There’s a reason a lot of people want you to play the vanity press game – it’s called a profit motive. There are firms and individuals employed in doing the artwork, design, packaging, printing, and promoting of the book. Even if you can cut out all of those middlemen, you are left with the marketing of your book, and especially if it’s fiction you are going to have a tough sell.
With the non-fiction market you might have a particular niche or specialty area that can generate sales. Certain occupations are better suited to self-publishing, as they operate in venues that make for easier sales. Public speakers have ready outlets because they address audiences on a regular basis. High profile individuals and occupations have a better chance of generating sales than most. However, if you’re Joe Schmoe, just how are you going to unload those books? The difficulty quotient soars if we are talking about fiction.
Vanity presses like to cite famous books that have been rejected by publishing houses. Their implication is that you probably have written one of those books, and the world will realize its merits after you get it “out there.” I hate to tell you how many garages are full of such books that only silverfish seem to have discovered.
Yes, sometimes publishing houses blow it. There are cases when good books have had a difficult time of finding a home. In my own writing career I know I have been ahead of the curve several times, and books I have written were rejected for not fitting into an easy niche. My literary agent has lamented two books in particular that mixed genres before others were doing that.
Does that mean I should have self-published those books? I doubt it. I am notoriously bad at sales. Some of my novels have starred reviews, and wonderful plaudits from such newspapers as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune. Did those books become bestsellers? I wish. If major publishing houses couldn’t move my books, does it stand to reason that I could?
If you are great at sales, you should probably disregard everything I have written in this column. Several years ago I did a series of signings with a self-published writer (he set up all the signings, did all the legwork, arranged everything, and just asked that I show up). This individual knew he wasn’t that good of a writer, but he also knew he was a hell of a salesman. While I sat quietly he hawked, pitched, and cajoled. At most of our signings he sold more books than I did. He is a great carnie-barker; unfortunately, he’s a bad writer. I always felt sorry for the people that purchased his book and just wish I could have directed them to fine books that deserved to be bought.
In most cases there are good reasons for books not getting put into print by mainstream publishers. There can be any number of areas where the book failed. Perhaps the prolix was burdensome, or the characters didn’t come to life, or the book just wasn’t original, or the prose was pedestrian and didn’t sing. Just because a book has been written doesn’t mean a publisher should buy it. And it also doesn’t mean that book should be self-published.
I know there are all sorts of technologies that now make self-publishing easier. When a writer experiences close but no cigar too many times self-publishing becomes that much more tempting. I know the heartache that writers feel at not finding a home for a book they love. I know that sometimes it seems the entire publishing industry is conspiring against a book ever seeing the light of day. I know it is human nature to want to show friends a copy of what you’ve been working on for years. I know the book you are considering self-publishing might very well be better than a lot of the crap that does get published.
All of that said, though, I still think that when it comes to self-publishing there are more negatives than positives. After you have published your book you will find that most bookstores won’t do signings if you are self-published. And I wish you good luck finding shelf space for the display of any of your books. Getting the book reviewed is also not going to be easy. Of course there are seminars – for a price – that will tell you how to get around these obstacles. And there are people that will advise you on how to get your book distributed. But wouldn’t all that time and energy spent on selling this self-published book be better spent on writing a book that a mainstream publisher might actually publish?

Pax,

Alan Russell
March 5, 2010

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RUSSELL’S RULES FOR PUBLISHING SUCCESS?

February 4th, 2010 Comments off

Over the President’s Day weekend I will be teaching at the Southern California Writers Conference.  Because I am no stranger to this conference, its director rarely consults with me regarding what courses I will be teaching.  This week I learned that one of my classes is, “Russell’s Rules to Publishing Success.”

Given a choice, I wouldn’t have picked that title.  In previous years I taught a course titled something like “Russell’s Riting Rules” (clever alliterative touch, right?), which provided writing tips for the pre-published.  The new course title suggests I know something about publishing success.  Although I have had my share of novels published, I still don’t feel like a publishing success.  Stephen King or John Grisham should be teaching this class, not me.

One rule I will probably emphasize is that writers must back up their work.  The reason this will be on my mind is that 10 days ago I lost several weeks of work because I wasn’t practicing that cardinal rule.  I set out to do the right thing.  Because the rain was producing gremlins on the electrical grid, I asked my born with a silicon chip son to back up two files on an external hard drive.  This is a kid who will be majoring in computer engineering next year.  This was child’s play for him, a trifling task, a quick favor for his Luddite father.  So what did Mr. Digital do?  He took the old files (same name) from the hard drive and rewrote them over the new files on my computer.  My son had never made this mistake before, and felt terrible.  It really was my fault, though.  I should have been doing my own backing up, but I’ve never been totally comfortable with the hard drive.  Having learned my lesson I went out and bought a laptop.  Now I’m backing up my writing with a USB memory stick, and the laptop.

However, I’m betting the class won’t be gasping with admiration when I tell them that they should backup their material.  I suspect they’ll want a roadmap to the New York Times bestseller list, and not my pabulum about it being the journey and not the destination.

Years ago my friend Ken Kuhlken and I did a booksigning at a mystery bookstore, and we were told by the owner that if we wanted to write a bestseller we should have the plot revolve around cats and chocolate.  It’s possible the bookseller’s advice was right on the money.  Maybe if he had said dogs and beer I might have even considered it.

Ken and I responded to that advice by writing a tongue and cheek book called, NO CATS, NO CHOCOLATE.  In the book Ken and I are the main characters, traveling from one unsuccessful booksigning to another.  During the journey, the two of us decide that since we can’t make a living from legitimate writing, we might as well sell out and write romance novels.  By book’s end we have the revelation that if we’re going to write about murder, we aren’t going to do it with high tea, doilies and bon bons (or cats and chocolate).  To thine own self be true.

Good writing explores theme and character – it shouldn’t be about exploiting mediocrity.  I hope that doesn’t sound elitist.  Mickey Spillane once said something to the effect of, “What the literati don’t realize is that there are a lot more people that like peanuts than caviar.”  Peanuts work for me if they are done well, and salted perfectly.

In writing, like medicine, I think the goal should be to first do no harm (that applies to both the writer and readers).  To my class I am going to offer such tried and true advice as:

*Create specific images.

*Don’t trust the opinions of your family or friends.

*Omit needless words (thank you Strunk & White).

*Don’t let the reader be complacent.

*Write the book you most want to read yourself.

*Don’t chase whatever’s trendy at the moment.

*In the words of E.B. White, “Don’t write about Man, write about A man.”

*Study the magic.  Reread your favorite books.  Why do they work?

*One good page a day for a year equals a book.

*Read your dialogue aloud.

*Develop your authorial bullshit detector.

*Repeat the mantra of every good writer:  show, don’t tell.

*Do the research, but don’t feel you need to bludgeon the reader with all that you’ve learned.

*Writing is a marathon, and the race is not always to the swift.

*Read Storytellers Unplugged every day so you can benefit from the advice of fine writers (I might really use that one).

*If you’re stuck in your writing, deviate from routine (Sully’s Rule).

That’s the kind of pithy advice the class will be getting.  I am sure some of the students will be disappointed at the “elementary” nature of my rules of writing.  I would appreciate any comments about your own “rules for publishing success” (whatever the hell that is).  Tell me what works for you.  It always means more if you get it from the horse’s mouth.  I thank you in advance, and so do the students.

Pax,

Alan Russell

February 5, 2010

Categories: Writers, Writing Tags: , ,

Books From the Other Side of the Fence

January 5th, 2010 Comments off

Ninety minutes ago I realized that I had a column to write that should have been posted in the wee hours of the morning (some 12 hours ago), which prompted me to begin furiously typing away.  There are many excuses for the late posting in the day of this column, including:  1) I didn’t get my 2010 calendar until last week, and have not yet included my handy reminder notations on the fourth of every month to produce said column; 2) I was out of town; 3) I am still on 2009 time; 4) Because it is the fifth, I plead the Fifth, which means I do have the right to not incriminate myself.  Enough said.

Just because I am not incriminating myself, though, doesn’t give me a right to back out of this month’s writing column commitment.  Today’s topic is criticism.

Six months ago I took on a new writing gig:  a sometimes book reviewer for a daily newspaper.  The rationale for my taking on the job was that since I do a lot of reading anyway, I might as well get paid to review some books.

I do about one review a month.  I wish I could say that I had my pick of books, but my editor is the one that does the selecting.  Typically he chooses books written by local authors.

Unlike some book reviewers, I don’t enjoy eviscerating books or running up the insult totals.  If I don’t see any merit in a particular book I have been assigned, I usually try to opt out of doing the review (my editor sometimes has me interview the author as a compromise).

Having always been on the other side of the fence (having my books reviewed by others), I never appreciated the difficulties in writing a good review.  In a short space I have to summarize the plot of a book, and describe what I liked or didn’t like about the book.  Like an attorney wanting to make a point, I have to bring in corroborating evidence (usually a written passage, or description of a scene).

As a reviewer, my aim is to be scrupulously honest.  My review is my own Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.  I believe I bend over backwards to be fair.  I am aware that no author ever sets out to write a bad book; I am also aware that what I am reading probably took at least a year out of the writer’s life.  That is why I never savage a book.  At the same time if I perceive that the writer falls short in any given area, it’s my job to point that out.

As is often the case, a review sometimes comes down to reflecting personal taste.  When my fifth novel was published the reviewers for both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus both happened to cite the same scene; one of the reviewers thought it was a tour de force, while the other wrote that it was over the top.  It was a great example of the saying, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.”

Overall I feel very fortunate in having received a number of wonderful book reviews over the years.  It’s great to be appreciated.  At the same time, I also remember one or two less than stellar reviews.  It’s terrible to be misunderstood.  As writers we need to remember that not everyone is going to love our words.  The only time I have taken umbrage with a review is when the reviewer mixes up characters, or the plot (dammit, I want to say, are you reading from the right book?).

One of the reasons I agreed to be a reviewer is that so many daily newspapers have axed their book sections, and these days it is harder and harder for an author to get reviewed.  As a writer, I fear that trend.  When I was offered the chance to be a reviewer, I felt obligated to take the job.  For the sake of our livelihood, we need readers.  As a reviewer I can only hope I am helping to prime the pump.

I am not sure if my part-time job is helping my full-time work.  Criticism is not creating, but at the same time I hope to be more aware of practicing what I preach (and have criticized) in my future novels.  Physician heal thyself.

Elmore Leonard probably offered the best writing advice I have ever heard:  “When you write,” he said, “try to leave out all the parts that readers skip.”

As writers, it’s our job to try and figure out what parts those are; it’s the job of the critic to say whether we have succeeded or not.

Pax,

Alan Russell

January 5, 2010 (Mea Culpa – 2:15 P.S.T.)

Categories: book reviews Tags: ,

Secret Agent Man

December 4th, 2009 2 comments

Secret agent man, secret agent man,

They’ve given you a number and taken away your name.

Show of hands:  how many of you are happy with your literary agent?  My guess is that probably fewer than half of you are raising your hands.  In my writing life I have had three agents.  When I was with agent #2, like the lyric above, I felt as if I’d been given a number (and it wasn’t one of those high numbers reserved for the best-sellers she was handling), and she’d taken away my name.

These days I consider myself lucky.  I think the world of my agent.  However, before finding true love I went through two divorces (literary agents #1 and #2).  And yes, they really felt like divorces (or at least what I imagine a divorce would feel like – knock wood, I haven’t experienced that fate).

Aspiring writers think that an agent will solve all their problems.  Nope.  Uh-uh.  Wrong.  Before landing that agent you need to be realistic about what he or she can and should be doing.

A favorite quote of mine is, “A friend is someone you can speak to aloud without thinking.”  Actually, the real quote sounds much better than that, but I just Googled the phrase and couldn’t find it.  The point is that with a good friend you should be able to speak your mind without a lot of mental editing.  The same holds true with an agent – you need to be able to speak freely.

Being an agent is a tough job especially given the fact that they have a clientele of writers (does the word “certifiable” mean anything?).  I have gone to conventions where I have seen agents surrounded by their writers and have always been reminded of parent birds returning to the nest.  We clamor, we cry, we remonstrate, all of us demanding the worm.

What should you expect from your agent?  Among other things:

1)     They need to know who is buying and what they’re buying;

2)     They need to be your advocate;

3)     Even though they advocate for you, your relationship should be such that they can honestly tell you their opinion re whatever you’re working on;

4)     Don’t expect them to edit your manuscript; do expect feedback;

5)     Most agents aren’t lawyers, but they should know their way around a contract.  The writer should also take their advice if they suggest a lawyer should look at said contract;

6)     They don’t need to be your friend, but they should share the vision you have re your writing;

7)     They should tell you their “game plan” when you submit a book or a partial to them;

8)     They need to kick you in the butt every so often;

9)     They need to return your calls or email in a timely manner – that said, the writer shouldn’t be contacting the agent every time she has a hangnail;

10)There needs to be mutual respect on both ends.  Yes, writing is tough, but I think being an agent is even tougher.  They get the “no” before we do.  They have to deliver the news.  They have the unenviable task of trying to find a home for our words.

One of the most difficult decisions a writer can make is leaving an agent.  I left my first agent when I could no longer tolerate her negativity towards a book I was working on.  There was nothing about the book she liked, and I thought her suggested changes were so antithetical to my thinking that it was a divide we couldn’t bridge.  I knew this agent couldn’t possibly be enthusiastic about representing the book, so I went and found another agent.  My decision was vindicated when MULTIPLE WOUNDS got a Best Mystery nomination for most of the major crime writing awards.  Being right didn’t make it easy, though.  It was a tough career decision made with more than a few tears.

It was easier leaving my second agent.  We never really had a simpatico.  She was professional and well-respected in the field, but I always felt as if there was a time-clock clicking whenever we talked.  Our conversations were stilted, and I never felt a personal connection.

As for my current agent, it would be hard for me to imagine working with anyone else.  With her in my corner, I have always felt that at least it was “you and me against the world.”  I am only sorry that I haven’t succeeded more for her.  It’s a good thing she has other clients bringing in the big bucks, for I am afraid she would have starved had she counted on my earnings.

One great litmus test in determining whether you have the right agent is how you feel when you talk to him/her.  Even when the news is all too discouraging (and I am afraid that is the norm rather than the exception), I feel better whenever I talk with my agent.  She gets it.  She gets me.  We commiserate, we plan, and we plot.  I love the way she doesn’t give up, and that inspires me to keep getting up off the mat.

I also like that my agent understands that we can agree to disagree.  Several months ago I showed her a partial.  When we talked it was clear that the book made her very uncomfortable because there were some graphic sex scenes involving an adulterous couple.  I told my agent that those scenes were necessary as a setup, and that the book wasn’t about gratuitous sex.  She listened to my explanation, but still wasn’t convinced.  Morally, she said, she would have problems representing the book.  She told me that when I ultimately finished the book she would read it with an open mind, but if her opinion didn’t change she would have to refer the book to another agent.

Was she judgmental?  She was not.  She told me the other agent represented erotic literature, and would be better for the book.

One day I’ll get back to that book, and prove to my agent it’s not “erotic literature,” and that it is a novel that she would want to represent, but in the meantime I can only respect her Solomon-like decision.  She wasn’t telling me what I could write, just what she couldn’t represent.  And she was going to find an agent for me that would represent the book.  The whole situation just made me admire her that much more.

Everyone talks about writing being a solitary pursuit, but I know better.  When you have a good agent you’re not doing it alone.

Pax,

Alan Russell

December 5, 2009

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When I Wish I Wasn’t a Writer

November 5th, 2009 3 comments

When people ask me what I do for a living, I am always at a bit of a loss as to how to answer.  It sounds a little too highfaluting to announce, “I am an author.”  You just can’t say that sentence without sounding like you graduated from Oxford, or that you have something large that needs to be pulled out from your backside.  My preference is to say, “I’m a storyteller,” but that involves too long an explanation.  Usually I say, “I’m a writer.”

As all of you know, that answer never suffices.  You have to explain what kind of a writer you are, and then you are expected to talk about your books.  Some writers have business cards listing their books.  I am always saying I should have those kinds of calling cards, but that I have never been organized enough to get them speaks volumes.

Other professions don’t require the explanations that ours does.  It surprises me when people actually say, “Do you really make a living at that?”  To date I have not answered, “Are you really stupid enough to have asked that?”

As writers we need to remember that two percent of the population buys more than 90% of the fiction that is sold.  I have yet to figure out why it is that I never seem to get into a conversation with that elusive two percent of the population.

There is a certain danger that comes with others knowing about our profession, and because of that I think the official headgear of writers is the same as that worn by court jesters.  I have been approached to read manuscripts by more “friend of a friend of friends” than I care to remember.  Need a newsletter written?  Need a paper edited?  Need a business letter crafted?  For some reason because we work with words, others seem to think we would love to be involved with their endeavors.  What we want to say is, “Frankly, Scarlet, I don’t give a damn.”  What we usually say is, “Okay.”

Invariably, those requests come without an offer of remuneration.  “It’s just a page or two,” we are told.  I don’t ever remember telling a plumber, “It’s just a leak or two.”  I mean, plumbers love to work with pipes, don’t they?

As for speaking engagements, beware those that tell you, “We don’t pay an honorarium, but you can sell as many books as you like.”  Those are usually organizations that even Ron Popeil couldn’t sell to.

There is a difference between writing full-time, and writing fool-time.  When you are too often side-tracked by writing that is not your own, you are a fool-time writer.  Guilty as charged.  I am glad that I am in good company, though (Thomas Sullivan, come on down.)

I am proud of being a writer, but November is not a good month to remind others of that fact, especially if they have high school kids.  In years past I have been hit up by friends and acquaintances to “take a look” at their children’s college essays.  I have been encouraged by those parents to “spruce it up a little.”  Talk about trying to make a silk purse out of a cow’s ear.

Now I am getting an education as to why these parents were so desperate.  Maybe the thought of their child’s staying at home while attending a J.C. for the next two years drove them to seek out “that writer guy.”  Yes, the birds have come home to roost.  My 17 year old boy is in the midst of filling out college applications.

You would think by now I would be ready for this, as I have been through the process one time before.  Four years ago my oldest boy wrote his college essay and then asked me to look at it.  When I finished reading it I asked him, “When you wrote this were you trying to give the admissions people every possible reason to turn you down, or just most of them?”  We revised the essay.  It is a process where you should not have any sharp instruments nearby.

Now I am going through that process again, but it’s even worse.  My middle child has decided he should apply to schools like Swarthmore, Rice, Cornell, the Naval Academy, and Brown.  Naturally, all the schools want different essays, and many of them want multiple essays.  There are six supplemental essays alone for Brown.

You know Munk’s painting The Scream?  This month it bears an amazing resemblance to me.

In another week or so, assuming the two of us survive our collaboration, my son’s college essays will be done.  Until that time, though, I really wish I wasn’t a writer.

Pax,

Alan Russell

November 5, 2009

Categories: advice, Uncategorized, Writers, Writing Tags:

Hello world!

September 28th, 2009 1 comment

Welcome to Storytellers Unplugged. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!

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Dem Bones

September 5th, 2009 2 comments

Fledgling writers make the mistake all the time. Even experienced writers sometimes get caught up in the same trap. You work on a book for months, you write a substantial number of pages, and then the wheels start coming off. Something is very wrong.

You tweak the chapter. You finesse the words. You try and build a better mousetrap any number of ways, but it’s still not working. Usually it’s because we are not looking for the problem in the right place. We think the fault is with chapter 10 (or eight, or 14, or wherever), but much of the time the real problem is elsewhere.

When this happens to you, it’s time to sing a song. The answer, my friends, is blowing in Dem Bones. Let’s sing it together, shall we? I want it sung with gospel vigor, with clapping of hands and shaking of body parts. One, two, three:

The foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone,
The ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone,
The leg bone’s connected to the knee bone,
The knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone,
Oh hear the word of the Lord!

The song might not work for American Idol, but it does help with explaining the Great American Novel. In this column it’s my job to be the word of the Lord. The adult body has 206 bones. Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to sing through all the connections, but trust me, there are a lot of them. When the human body is a bit out of kilter the problems can manifest themselves in any number of places. Just watch the show House if you don’t believe me.

A book is a series of interconnected parts that is as complicated as the human body. When we hit that stumbling block in a novel we hope that the answer is to take two aspirin and regroup in the morning. Sometimes that works. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But those bones can be tricky. Sometimes you have to do a hard diagnosis of your book.

Maybe your novel isn’t working because the setup is wrong. When I wrote my third novel, THE HOTEL DETECTIVE, I couldn’t understand why the book wasn’t coming to life. I knew the world of hotels only too well, having worked in them for many years. I knew the characters, and I had the stories. As far as I could determine, there was no problem with the plot. Still, I was 150 pages into the book, and it wasn’t right.

Oh, dem bones.

I had to look at those bones. I studied the foundation of the book. If you’re going to build up, you better have a solid foundation. That’s where I got an inkling of what was wrong. I had built the book in the wrong way. Because my first two novels were written in the first person, I thought THE HOTEL DETECTIVE would follow suit. But first person was absolutely wrong for this book. There were too many characters in the hotel to have everything revolving around one individual – hell, the hotel was a character in itself.

Before my revelation, I had spent weeks tinkering with the book. I had been convinced my problem was in and around page 150, which turned out to be about 150 pages from the truth. As soon as I started writing the book in third person the novel took off.

Every author has to be their own doctor. Proctology exams are no fun, but they have to be done. Why isn’t this book working? Maybe your protagonist is wrong. Maybe your character needs a better support system. Maybe your subconscious knows the plot isn’t right and is putting up roadblocks to the book’s completion. Maybe the setting is wrong. Maybe you need to visualize the book as it should be. Anybody with a bad back knows how having the wrong bone out of place wreaks havoc on the body. Books are impacted in much the same way. When something is wrong the entire book is out of kilter, and though we want the solution to be expedient (i.e. on the chapter where the problem surfaces) sometimes we have to be willing to unravel that thread no matter where it takes us.

It’s all about dem bones.

So you better hear the word of the Lord!

Pax,

Alan Russell

September 5, 2009

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You Say Tomato, I Say Writing

August 5th, 2009 9 comments

I suppose this column is about plot, although I’m not going to use E.M. Forster’s definition (“The king died and then the queen died,” is a story; “The king died, and then the queen died of grief,” is a plot).

Nope, this is a different kind of plot, because right now I am seeing red (which is a good thing). At the risk of sounding like Chauncey Gardiner (the main character in Jerzy Kosinski’s book – and the Peter Seller’s character in the movie BEING THERE), I thought I would talk about a few essentials in gardening as well as writing. BTW, if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, I recommend both, which is a rare double recommendation.

Anyway, this column is inspired by the abundance of homegrown tomatoes currently coming out of the Russell garden (last Saturday my 10-year-old daughter sold 24 bags, with four tomatoes in every bag). More than the quantity, though, is the quality. I love homegrown tomatoes. And when the tomatoes are running, I am busy making salsa and bruschetta and tomato sauce with flavor that trumpets it’s the ambrosia of the gods.

Two years ago my tomatoes earned a second place finish in a Taste of San Diego contest (where I won a $500 gift certificate to Ralph’s Supermarket). Because of my success with tomatoes, people are always asking me, “What’s your secret?” It’s the same question I get when people ask me about writing.

Don’t we wish there was a secret? No one is born with a green thumb. By trial and error you learn what works. It’s the same thing with writing.

A plot starts with a seed of an idea; same with a garden. But unless you have one of Jack’s beanstalk seeds, don’t expect that you can toss said seed into a pile of dirt and shortly thereafter start ascending your stairway to heaven.

Before that seed gets planted in the ground, the garden has to be prepared months earlier. In San Diego I usually grow tomatoes until Thanksgiving. In December I pull out the plants, and sow rye grass. It’s a perfect cover crop, and it fixes nitrogen in the soil. In March I usually spade the soil over, and in April I sow the seeds for the year’s crop.

When tackling a plot, the pre-writing is important for me. I have the seed, but I need to prepare the garden in my mind. I mull over what’s going to happen; I think about characters; I get excited about possibilities; I nurture the book in my mind. I plan what will grow and where. I think about the best way of working my plot. In a garden some plants work well with one another. The garden is enhanced by the scents and the symbiotic relationships going on. In a book you have to find that balance. Tomatoes work well with basil; what’s going to work for your book?

There are always obstacles in the garden; a book is a series of interruptions, false starts, and wrong turns. In both enterprises you have to give blood, sweat, and tears.

In the one endeavor you contend with blight, weather that doesn’t cooperate, weeds, and vermin. A garden has its problems as well (drum rim shot, please).

Your plant/book usually doesn’t grow as you had planned. It wants to spread out in too many directions. There has to be some wild growth in your plot, but it can’t run amok.

The early results in both enterprises are often disappointing. Every tomato gardener faces blossom rot. You second guess yourself on the amount of gypsum and calcium you put in the soil. As a writer you have to tinker with what goes in the early product so that the end product comes out better. Are you cutting roots, or weeds? With tomatoes you worry about water: too much is as bad as too little. I have the same worries about my words. It’s a balancing act. With my plants I stick my finger an inch down into the soil, testing for the wetness. I use a different divining rod for my words, but stories are just as delicate a crop.

You do your best – you hope – for a good ending. You work to make it happen. Sometimes you feel like Job, with everything conspiring against your work and your life. You fight pestilence and personal disasters; every year you think getting a crop was never so hard.

Bullshit is not good in a garden. It’s a fertilizer that burns. Bullshit is not good in a book. It’s a fertilizer good readers recognize.

I talk to my words. I talk a bit in the garden as well. I praise the beauty of certain tomatoes. I caress a full tomato, if not exactly in a Tom Jones kind of way, then still mindful of its pendulous, feminine beauty. It’s not only a male thing. Yesterday my daughter picked a tomato and exclaimed, “What a supermodel!” Usually I curse more at the computer screen than I do in the garden. Literary weeds are more pernicious. But perhaps I am reflecting with rose (tomato?) colored glasses. Early in the season a gopher took three of my seedlings, an action that prompted something other than measured equanimity.

If you work your garden every day, you will get a crop. Perhaps it won’t be the crop you wanted, and the result won’t be what you hoped, but the secret is to just keep trying. This year I had a bounty of tomatoes; the word harvest was not as fruitful. I am considering that I need to rethink my literary garden, and work it in a different way. It might be time for crop rotation, or taking on the challenge of new plantings.

I’ll think on that now, as I chew on a tomato. Hope springs eternal when you eat a homegrown tomato.

Pax,

Alan Russell

August 5, 2009

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Boohoo: My Life as a Ghost

July 5th, 2009 3 comments

A recent column by Wayne Allen Sallee used the G word – ghostwriting.

It took me many years of writing before I figured out how to make a living from our craft – all you need do is write the words of people that can afford to employ you as a hired gun (writer). Oh, there’s also the little matter of selling a piece of your soul to the devil.

My most monetarily successful year of writing occurred when I ghost-wrote four books. You notice my twitch? Yes, the money was good but it came with a price. Before I started ghosting books I decided to work only on non-fiction. Somehow I had it in mind that since I wasn’t writing fiction I would be able to keep producing my own words. Well, that didn’t happen, because in most of these projects it seemed as if I had to be a therapist in addition to being a writer. I signed a non-disclosure clause for most of my clients. Be aware that if your clients have the money to hire you as a writer, then it’s likely they also have a lawyer on retainer. That’s why no names or books are mentioned here. Since I am not officially a medical health professional I cannot say with a certainty that most of my clients suffered from psychiatric disorders, but I sure as hell have my suspicions.

If my appraisal seems a tad biased, it’s possible that my feelings color the reality. It is true that when I write the words of someone else I don’t have a proprietary feeling over what I created. Even though some of the books I ghosted won awards, I never felt invested in the work. The jobs were a means to an end. I guess my sentiments are best revealed by MY titles to those books, titles that are considerably different than what’s written on their covers.

The memoir book I refer to as BATHROOM REMODEL. As for the historical, it is HARDWOOD FLOORS. The financial book I call FRONT AND BACK LANDSCAPING. My title for the psychological self-help tome is MY SON’S FANCY LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGE. The rags to riches Horatio Alger story is INTERIOR AND EXTERIOR HOUSE PAINTING. The animal care book is MY SON’S FANCY LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGE, PART II.

Because those books paid the bills, that’s how I view them. That’s not how I look at my own novels (but maybe it would be healthier if I did).

Instead of whining, though, I should probably be grateful that I was able to ply a trade that was akin to my vocation.  Still, it’s not something I want to do again, as it seemed to sap my creative energy even more than other jobs I have worked. Maybe you can only look at a computer screen so many hours a day. Maybe my muse went on strike when I dipped my pen into another’s ink.

All of this actually does lead into one of my writing rules: Work a job that allows you to write. That might sound a little self-indulgent, especially with the current high rate of unemployment, but it should be the goal of any writer. When I graduated from college I decided to be a night auditor (a clerk that works the graveyard shift) in a hotel. It seemed like a good choice to me, as I imagined that I would have ample time to read and write (which proved true). Like any job, though, it had its pros and cons. When you work the graveyard shift you become a zombie, and lead a life that goes against the circadian rhythms of most of the world. And there was also the matter of my neither making much money, nor seemingly much headway into my professed career, while at the same time my peer group was going on to become doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs. Writing is a tough mistress. Deal with it.

Still, there are jobs, and there are jobs. Some work is all consuming, and doesn’t allow the hours to even dream about being a writer, let alone practice the craft. That’s not the kind of job a writer should be working. If you can’t carve out a respectable amount of hours every week to write, you will never have a chance of succeeding. My night auditor job allowed me to work and write full time.

My first literary agent once told me, “Alan, instant success in the writing field is a ten year wait.” She emphasized the word instant. It’s a carrot I have stuck in front of my nose for a long time. It’s another one of my writing dictums. You have to approach writing like you would a marathon. You train, train, and train just to be able to go those 26 miles. You learn how to persevere and grind it out. If you’re lucky, along the way you might get some insights as to how it’s the journey and not the destination, and along the way you get the chance to type The End a handful of times, but the carrot keeps you going towards another finish line, and another.

The End, The End, The End . . .

Pax,

Alan Russell (7-5-2009)

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