October 1, 2016
I’m a music fan of the baby boomer generation, so how could I possibly resist writing a novel about a rock band? Handmaidens of Rock (2014) centers on a musical outfit that forms at a suburban Maryland high school like the one I graduated from in 1970. Before they can legitimately call themselves a band, the three members—lead guitarist Preston, keyboardist Neal, drummer Brad—must first prove they can hang together long enough to play a gig at a school dance. Once onstage, they must come up with a name on the spot, so they call themselves Homegrown. They amuse their classmates by mocking the local singing star they’re supposed to be backing up, mutilating the cheesy songs he attempts, such as “Love Potion Number Nine” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
To that point, the story is perfectly recognizable and plausible. No doubt there were bands forming all around me at my high school, but since I wasn’t intimate with any of them, I had to make up one of my own. The late 1960s-early 1970s era was a time of improbable rock dreams. The music we were hearing on the radio provided plenty of inspiration to push the envelope of our placid suburban lives. Musically, at least, we could revel in free love, dream in psychedelic colors, and march the streets to demand an end to the Vietnam War and all forms of civil strife. Those songs became closer to true life as many of us moved on to college, the military, and other real-life experiences.
Startup bands have always been lucky even to get a taste of local fame. To make my imaginary band compelling, I had to portray it as more talented than most, or at least extraordinarily lucky. One way Homegrown distinguishes itself from the musical dregs is to pick up some classy groupies, the “handmaidens” of the title. Candy, Hope, and Theda have more going for them than a strong determination to ride the band’s coattails. They’re “handmaidens,” but with ambitions of their own. They aspire to be a journalist, a fashion designer, and an actress-musician respectively. One of them, conveniently, has a powerful attorney father with connections to the music industry.
Any band that aspires to long-term success must write its own songs. How could I get my musicians to do that realistically, when I’m not enough of a musician myself to hear original songs in my mind? One technique was to keep classic rock stations playing on my computer for inspiration. Listening to songs that were popular back in my day, I’d imagine my band trying to write similar tunes. For example, “Time of the Season,” a seductive tribute to the Summer of Love by the Zombies, turned into a piece by Homegrown called “Grooving under the Desk.” The Status Quo song “Pictures of Matchstick Men” used to pound in my head all the time, since I heard it daily on the cafeteria juke box in high school. My band’s take on this was a psychedelic sex dream called “Hot Teacher in Tights.” I always loved the Doors tune “Tell All the People,” a catchy but vague call to arms with shout-outs to youth that could mean almost anything (Set them free! Follow me down! See the wonder at your feet! Your life’s complete!) My take on that was “Revolution for Amateurs,” which might or might not be an actual call to revolution.
Sad songs were part of the band’s repertoire. My lead guitarist Preston, having lost his mother at an early age, mostly hides his feelings behind a hard exterior but occasionally exposes them in song. His heartbreaking “Signals from the Clouds” bears a resemblance to King Crimson’s “I Talk to the Wind.” Idealism is also part of the musicians’ mindset. In “Peace Conquers All,” they envision a new era of free love in the streets, irresistible to the public and cops alike, as in the Animals’ “Warm San Francisco Night.”
Fresh out of high school, my band makes an amateur mock-detective movie with a witchy theme song called “Hex” (something like a popular Cream song, “Strange Brew”). With that in the can, they start writing songs with feverish speed and come up with an eclectic album inspired by that same band’s classic, “Disraeli Gears.” Further adventures follow, including trips to England, Scotland, and California. Scotland proves the most fruitful in terms of new musical directions. They spend time in a commune run by a defrocked priest known to have harbored draft resisters. Their near-worship of him inspires a spate of religious-themed songs, like the one called “Peace Warrior,” inspired partly by Jethro Tull’s “Hymn 43” (with the same refrain, “Oh, Jesus, save me!”) and partly by the Animals’ “Sky Pilot.”
The band changes its name to AMO, which sounds more grownup, and tries to find itself. While attending UCLA, the musicians become involved in a rock festival that ends tragically. Ironically, this is the event that propels them to national fame. Despite their newfound notoriety, the effects of the violence are devastating enough to send them flying off in different directions. The girls break up with their respective musicians and move on to presumably more adult relationships. Still, the wildly creative and romantic ride they took as “handmaidens of rock” can’t be forgotten. A five-year reunion concert takes place in the same high school gym where they first made a jubilant mess of backing up a semi-famous singer. Preston, emerging from a turbulent and fallow period, experiences enough of a creative resurgence to come up with two new songs: one about his inner turmoil called “The Stranger Within” (a take-off on Traffic’s “Stranger to Himself”), and one that celebrates his new marriage to a free spirit, called “Free Spirit of the Road” (which somewhat resembles the Doors’ “Queen of the Highway”).
Assigning a genre to Handmaidens of Rock has been somewhat challenging. No doubt it can be called “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” but how about “contemporary women’s fiction”? That is one of the more popular classifications these days, yet it doesn’t quite fit an early 1970s story. Some reviewers and advertisers have called the book “historical fiction.” That makes me feel ancient, since I remember the era so well. Still, maybe it’s the best way to describe a story with a classic rock soundtrack.
February 26, 2016
Nobody needs to be told by now that self-publishing and marketing novels is no picnic. We all knew that from the start. Some of us have been at it for more than a decade now, and it hasn’t gotten much easier. True, there is far more acceptance for our efforts than there was at first, and that’s a great development. The drawback to that, of course, is that there’s also far more competition.
The trouble with enduring truisms like “it’s no picnic” and “it never gets easier” is that there are some indie authors who are making it look easy. Although it’s still like winning the lottery, there are a handful among us who’ve mastered the art of the self-published best-seller.
How do they do it? It’s not that they have more time than the rest of us, because many are encumbered with jobs and families like “ordinary” people. It helps if the jobs are flexible and the families are understanding, but that isn’t always the case. Some of these self-sustaining authors are generous enough to explain their methods on KindleBoards and other sites. What they do requires writing fast, and writing a lot of books, often in a series. These hot-shots seem to have enough physical stamina to stay up all night if they have to in order to meet some self-imposed goal, possibly one book every two months. I’d have to guess that they’re decades younger than I am, as well as much more into currently hot genres like zombies, sci-fi, apocalyptic, and historical romance. If they’re particularly lucky or prescient, they hit on a winning formula the first time, something involving characters or a fantasy world so compelling that it only needs to be tweaked slightly in order to churn out numerous sequels. They build up a fan base that is enthusiastic enough to forgive a lack of arduous editing. That is not to suggest that just because these books are done fast means they aren’t good. If they weren’t serving a need for readers, they wouldn’t sell.
Even those authors who are making real money with their ventures are not easily satisfied. I come across plenty on the Boards who complain that they “only” sell a hundred or so a month, a result which sounds mighty good to me. In fact, selling 1,000 a year would be a pretty good result for self-publishing. It would enable most authors to cover the investment they made in advertising and printing, with maybe coffee money left over. The problem for the truly ambitious is that it’s not a living. The real measure of success among the aspiring big sellers is to be able to quit their day jobs. Or better yet, attract the notice of one of those traditional publishers who have proven themselves perfectly capable of swooping in to reap the benefits of an indie author’s preliminary hard work.
How do you pursue goals like this if your writing style doesn’t lend itself to speed? You probably can’t. I’ve always preferred mainstream fiction to genre fiction, and I like it to be “literary.” My favorite novels take their time unfolding, and emphasize character development over action. That’s what I try to emulate. I was greeted with incredulity on the Boards when I said I had taken three to four years to write each of my novels. They have numerous characters and complex plots that hopefully fall into place for a reader patient enough to stick with them. I’m still not good enough at writing to do it fast. I make outlines, but don’t stick to them. I run my stories piecemeal through a tough critique group. Even after I have a whole product, I reread it relentlessly and put it through several rounds of editing from outside critics.
So what’s your reward, if wealth and fame seem out of reach because you’re just too slow? It can only be the personal satisfaction of doing the best work you’re capable of, no matter how long it takes.
September 15, 2015
When I self-published my first novel, Secretarial Wars, in 2003, the industry was less advanced than it is now, and both readers and reviewers were hard to find. Only a few were willing to take on my fairly long and complicated tale, inspired by my own secretarial experiences, friendships, and romances when I was a twenty-something in Washington, DC. The story focuses on three women, aged 24 to 35, with 27-year-old Miriam as the viewpoint character. There are numerous secondary characters, especially gossipy office colleagues and troublesome boyfriends.
I was fortunate enough to attract a thoughtful, if rather brutal review from a reader based in England. She did say, encouragingly, that she “enjoyed the banter between the three friends and wanted to know what would happen to them.” But that was somewhat negated by “lack of pace and over-complexity of plot.” In short, I was accused of writing a saga when the chicklit-style story didn’t support it.
The three friends, I must admit, are rather bumbling, as the reviewer said. She complained of too many details about “American football matches” that the girls take in, mostly for the purpose of trying to meet players after the games. Nobody can say the women aren’t ambitious in their own ways, yet the reviewer accused them of lacking “gumption.” Miriam, for example, wants to write an exposé that would blow her own government agency out of the water, yet fails for months to uncover the corruption simmering at her workplace. Perhaps overly cautious, she can’t afford to lose her job for the sake of investigative journalism.
The reviewer complains that “there are far too many characters for a story that is neither a saga nor a blockbuster.” But how, exactly, does a story qualify as a saga? Does it have to be multi-generational, like The Forsyte Saga, or about a family caught up in historic conflicts, like War And Peace? Can’t my story be a mini-saga, since the girls do manage to shake up their own little corners of the nation’s capital?
Maybe the places where they hang out are just too seedy. At their favorite night club, which one of the girls co-manages, they get to hobnob with a second-tier elite, including a faded football star and an underground newspaper editor. The climactic scene of the story features a fundraiser held at the club for a long-shot Mayoral candidate. Things get out of hand, and the girls end up spending the night in jail. Through all their tribulations, they don’t really resolve anything, except to grow up a bit. So how often do we start out writing stories that feel like epics/sagas/blockbusters at first, only to fall a little short?
April 2, 2015
For an introvert like me, public speaking is torture. I hated giving oral presentations at school and work, and usually bombed unless I kept carefully prepared notes close at hand. But nowadays, publicity opportunities for self-published authors are expanding. To take full advantage of these, there are times when a shy author must try to overcome his or her reticence and learn to speak in front of more than one person without babbling.
I recently got a chance to give a couple of radio interviews as part of a publicity campaign for my novel, Handmaidens of Rock. There are music stations here and there that will give a few minutes of exposure to an author whose subject is rock and roll. Being a mediocre speaker, I filled in a questionnaire ahead of time with basic talking points. You’d think I’d know by now what my own book is about, but it’s surprisingly difficult to sum up in a few words. It’s easier to describe what inspired the book, since I can point to numerous things. For me, playing classic rock radio during the writing process was as important as keeping ink in the printer. Certain songs formed the soundtrack of my growing-up scenes, including falling in love and many less pleasant struggles. Some songs still manage to deliver sheer joy. How can you hear Rare Earth’s “I Just Want To Celebrate,” and not remember how good it was back then just to be alive?
I was pegged as a “rock wife expert” by an innovative publicist. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, although I did spend some of my youthful years hanging around local bands that were talented but volatile. That instability extended to the musicians’ love relationships. There were many sad stories primed to turn into sad songs, only to be lost because the bands didn’t stay together long enough to make themselves heard beyond the local clubs. I comforted one close friend who suffered through a marriage with a rock musician that was fruitful in terms of children, but sadly enough, ended up producing one more broken home.
We baby boomers are reaping some rewards for our long-standing loyalty to the music of our generation. Many of the truly famous classic rock groups somehow survived their growing pains and emerged as mature acts, revitalized with sidemen who in some cases appear to be a whole generation younger. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Heart, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Doobie Brothers, Chicago, the Four Seasons, Rod Stewart, and two versions of the Beach Boys in Atlantic City, a favorite stop on their circuit. Frankie Valli, who goes back the farthest of anyone I’ve seen, was almost 78 when I caught his new act. He had surrounded himself with “Four Seasons” who could not only harmonize like the old group, but could dance like the kids they were. This second act for classic rock still has the power to inspire. I sang along to “Rag Doll” and “Dawn,” and relived the many ups and downs of 1964.
August 15, 2014
I’ve been at this self-publishing game since 2003, when I published a novel I’d been working on for at least a decade. It’s been fun and rewarding, but not what I’d call lucrative. Luckily, I never expected money or fame. In fact, I didn’t think it was in the cards for anyone who chose self-publishing. Maybe it wasn’t, back then. But now there are enough success stories popping up every day to get any writer salivating.
I don’t begrudge anyone their success; quite the opposite. I just wonder how they do it. Some are hitting the jackpot by writing a lot of books, preferably in a series, and doing it fairly fast so as not to keep the fans waiting. I have yet to figure out how to write fast. To get it right takes me endless drafting and rewriting, followed by critiquing and editing, followed by more rewriting. And that doesn’t even include the final touches of line editing and formatting, which are best done by professionals who don’t come cheap.
In order to make anything close to a decent living in digital self-publishing (defined as the magic figure that might tempt an author to quit his day job), it seems necessary to publish a new book no less frequently than once every six months. A shorter interval between books would be even better, especially if it appears advisable to offer one or more for free in order to market the others.
So how do these hot-shot authors get so prolific? It can’t be just because they have more time than I do. I couldn’t pull off the same feat even if I wrote every day, all day. Could it have something to do with genre? Perhaps sci-fi and fantasy lend themselves more easily to rapid writing than the complicated plots and character development that my chicklit-style novels require. There’s undoubtedly a knack to keeping plots simple and improvising on proven formulas. That is not to cast doubt on the quality of such rapid-fire books. As long as they’re attracting readers, their authors are doing something right.
December 10, 2013
More than a decade into the self-publishing revolution, it’s hard to believe we’re still being subjected to dire warnings about “vanity publishing.” Can there possibly be a more tired phrase than that? If it’ll do any good, I’ll admit that I’m vain. Whenever I publish, I chose to pay dearly for the privilege. A complete package includes professional covers, copyrights, thorough editing, and at least rudimentary marketing. Those don’t come cheap, and all are absolutely essential for even moderate success.
Like many other aspiring authors, I have found the traditional path not totally unresponsive to my queries, yet ultimately unsuited to my type of writing. There are simply too many rules. I like to mix genres, which makes it next to impossible to fit into a publishing niche. My novels start out as chicklit, but then I complicate things by adding healthy doses of social and/or political commentary. Not an easy sell.
Traditional publishing is not only too limiting in that way, but takes too long. For someone who’s no longer a spring chicken, years of compromise, rejection, and frustration are not a good option. And yes, it takes “vanity” to believe that stories representing my own vision from start to finish, not someone else’s idea of a commercial product, are worth putting out. My only obligation is to make sure they’re not a half-assed job, but the very best I can do.
Does that make us indies any more vain than traditionally published authors? Not so much these days, I believe. On the contrary, it looks like even the trads are increasingly expected to do their own self-promotion, assuming they aren’t famous already. So can’t we just agree that all writers are vain? We must be, if we persist in thinking we have something to say that the world should hear.
June 9, 2013
I’ve never been a fan of crime mysteries in books or movies. All the shootings, blown up buildings, and car chases are plenty exciting but don’t lend themselves to the kind of character development I like. However, since I’m always looking for ways to expand the scope of both my reading and writing, I recently downloaded two classic examples of film noir on Kindle HD, “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep.” I’m trying to see how much I can sympathize with detectives Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe, both portrayed memorably by Humphrey Bogart.
How good are these stories at character development? It seems to me that the detective game forces the crime-solvers to be as diabolically clever and immoral as the crooks they chase, until the two are barely distinguishable. Spade and Marlowe fool around with attractive women clients and are at various times being investigated by the conventional police for the very crimes they’re trying to solve. For my money, neither cops nor crooks are particularly believable. Still, they can be intriguing in their mysteriousness. It’s the acting that brings the characters to life.
What’s astounding to me is that these two classics have many of the same flaws that we self-published novelists are constantly criticized for. The plots are complicated and full of exposition-spouting characters who act foolishly and whose motivations aren’t always clear. “The Big Sleep” in particular seems intent on driving its viewers crazy, dropping red herrings and murdered bodies all over the place. The main plot line involves a chauffeur to a rich family who is in love with the younger of two wild and beautiful daughters. He has apparently (although we can’t be sure of anything) murdered the blackmailer who holds her gambling debts, and then apparently ends up getting murdered himself. Then his murderer is murdered, and so on, except that in a few of these incidents it’s possible the wrong guy got murdered.
So if classic mysteries aren’t all that perfect, why can’t we self-published authors catch a break from reviewers when we try something similar? I made somewhat of an attempt at a crime story in my novel Let’s Play Ball, published in 2010. It has a kidnapping at the heart of it, but the real story is about the relationship between fraternal twin sisters who are buffeted by this event. The “whodunit,” if you can call it that, ultimately involves nefarious doings in high government places. It evolves into a political scandal that takes a long time getting resolved, and imperfectly at that. The main point is that the sisters, after enduring a rough patch, rebuild their relationship and incidentally, their marriages. Thus the book turns into the same old chicklit, which is what I like. I believe in the book, but it gets mostly scorned by reviewers. I can hear them asking: where’s the mystery?
May 9, 2013
Fantasy and science fiction are riding high these days in both books and movies. These genres seem to be outselling most others by a fair amount, and leaving mainstream works totally in the dust. Even though escapism is all the rage, I’ve never really gone for it much since outgrowing Grimm’s fairy tales and Disney cartoons. I get how tempting it is to take a break from real-world problems, but if I’m going to immerse myself in an alternate world, I prefer it to be recognizable. I guess my daily habit of perusing The Washington Post keeps me too grounded in reality. Most of the inspiration for my own writing comes from the news and my own experiences in workplaces and social settings.
So how can I embrace the unrealism that seems to give others so much pleasure … and incidentally, sells a lot of books and movies? Unfortunately, vampires and werewolves leave me cold, despite being proven gold mines and the quickest way for self-published authors to get through the traditional gates. I’d like my magic to be light and fun, not ghoulish.
Witness Pictures, the independent film company that has produced three book trailers for me, is currently churning out a fantasy web series called “Freelancers.” It claims to have a little bit of everything in the fantasy line: “a timeless realm full of magic and monsters, wizards, warriors, dungeons and dragons.” Yet it maintains some of the real-world familiarity I prefer by presenting its characters as flawed personalities who may have extraordinary talents but still need to pay their bills and get along in the workaday world.
The heroines that populate my novels don’t have much in common with the character played by young actress Caitlin Geier: “a fiery, rapier-wielding cat burglar, on the run from … well, just about everyone after stealing a mysterious artifact from a powerful sorcerer.” Compare that to my cast of office workers, aspiring journalists, sports groupies, and college students. But who knows: maybe one day I’ll figure out a way to throw a few wizards, sorceresses, and assorted monsters into my mixes. Expanding my horizons could be fun.
January 22, 2013
I must have written the most preposterous novel ever unleashed on the reading public of the Western World. Okay, there’s a chance I’m being a tad over-sensitive, but that’s what some reviewers seem to be saying about my 2010 novel Let’s Play Ball. Even paying for reviews doesn’t guarantee the reviewer will get it. And I do shamelessly pay for a few of them, because I need an occasional word of praise or at least less of a pummeling now and then. That doesn’t always work: one of my worst reviews came from an expensive service with a reputation for dishing out tough love to self-published authors.
I’ll concede that even the meanest reviewers are capable of making fair points, as long as they actually bother to read the book. It’s true that my story maintains a first-person viewpoint although most of the action happens to other people. Of course there are limitations to that approach, but it suited my goal for the story. My heroine has a fraternal twin sister with whom she is close but competitive. Their rivalry drives the plot. She’s an ordinary bureaucrat with a lawyer husband, while her sister is a sportswriter, engaged to a major league ballplayer. When the fiancé is kidnapped, it’s the sister’s idyllic life that is torn apart.
My heroine tries not to get involved, but she’s inevitably drawn in for various reasons: her husband is having an affair with a possible suspect; she retaliates by sleeping with a teammate of the kidnapped player; through a comedy of errors, she briefly becomes a suspect herself. While her sister’s life is in the spotlight, hers is shaken up too. Does that make her too weak to be a heroine?
I’m also guilty of combining all sorts of genres, including sports, politics, crime, and chicklit. Two baseball teams, in the course of executive-level wheeling and dealing, encounter meddlesome politicians and their equally devious women. A scandal erupts that eventually threatens to bring down a President. Plausible or not? I guess that’s why they call it fiction. I love baseball, political scandals, and catfights, so my readers get all of that.
I still stubbornly believe in this novel. It’s the story of a woman who’s peripheral and minimized and resents it, yet stumbles on the answers. It was my vision, and it endures. In my fevered imagination the story continues, with sleazy politicians and even foreign dictators continuing to meddle with professional sports teams, and gossipy women still churning up even more trouble behind the scenes. The reviewer says these threads are “promising,” but need to be fleshed out with stronger characters and action. I get it, but it’s only a 250-page novel. Is the reviewer perhaps encouraging me to write a sequel? How about Let’s Play Two?
August 19, 2012
Since my novels are primarily about women, I sometimes refer to them as chicklit, although that genre really doesn’t cover it. These stories do qualify in some respects, being chock-full of girly issues such as glass ceilings at work, jerky and clueless significant others, work-life balance issues, raging hormones, cliques, catfights, gynecological issues, etc. Like most women, my heroines pursue that one great love that will satisfy them in every way for the rest of their lives. But real life has a way of intruding and bringing out their cynical sides. In the end they’re prepared to settle for intermittent contentment-ever-after. There are no clear-cut resolutions in my made-up worlds. The most my heroines can hope for is a small island of peace and security in between the traumas of their youth and the even greater challenges that are sure to come in the future—assuming there are sequels on the horizon.
My fictional worlds don’t wrap up neatly on the last page. Numerous issues, both personal and political, hang in the air. Some fodder for those sequels might include:
— Miriam of Secretarial Wars has blasted her way out of her ordinary job by landing a White House gig. Will she be able to keep her ideals and her investigative ambitions intact, or will she end up getting corrupted by the job?
— Imogene of The Rock Star’s Homecoming has succeeded by various heroic measures in snaring her sometimes reluctant boyfriend Steve for their final college Homecoming dance. Does it follow that she’ll be able to lure him to the altar after graduation—or will she even want to?
— The fraternal twin sisters of Let’s Play Ball, Miranda and Jessica, have done their part to solve the kidnapping of Jessica’s ballplayer fiancé and welcome him safely home. Will they persevere in solving the riddle of the embittered ex-wife who was ultimately behind the crime—and who still lurks in the distance?
So stay tuned … maybe. And in the meantime, here’s a chicklit-style trailer featuring the feisty secretaries: