It can be difficult to find the time, energy or creativity to get those precious words down on paper after a long day at work. All of us can find reasons to procrastinate. This has been borne out by recent studies that show humans tend to greatly underestimated the time it takes to finish any project and find working on projects much more exciting than completing them. If you’re writing a book however, you need to finish or you’re missing the main purpose of writing in the first place — to find your readers.
As I was sitting in a coffee shop recently, tapping away on my laptop, it occurred to me that I am as guilty of these stalling tactics as anyone. Knowing this about myself, I have devised a few habits to get around my natural tendency to procrastinate. These have helped me maintain my productivity even though I work a normal 40 hour per week day job. Looking back, it has made a difference.
Since I published my first book six years ago, His Life Abiding (2013), I have written two more full length novels, The Men in the Trees (2014) and My Summer (with Robots) (2018). Additionally, I have written and illustrated the first two volumes of my graphic novel serious, Dark & Fevered Dreams, in 2016 and 2017 respectively, and created an immersive website for the same. Although I sometimes kick myself for not doing more, I think every writer has to keep things in perspective. If I look back on what I produced in the six years before that, which was essentially nothing, then I’ve made great strides.
So here are a few habits I’ve adopted since becoming a professional author. If you have some of your own, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section at the bottom of the page.
NARRATE WHEN YOU CAN'T TYPE: Using smart technology effectively might not help you become a better writer, but I can help you get your thoughts down more quickly and efficiently. Because I often drive long distances for my day job, I will use that “downtime“ to capture my ideas or work on a book chapter. Since anything I narrate will be refined in rewrites, I don’t worry if what I’m saying is uninspired. All I want is to get words down on paper... or in an audio file as the case may be. Later, listening back to my narration, I will use talk-to-text technology to get it into a usable written format. Talk-to-text means I can do it a few minutes what might’ve taken me an hour to type manually.
SET BOTH LONG AND SHORT TERM GOALS: The longest long term goals I set is only six months. Again, this timeframe is based on sociological studies that show if a person doesn’t accomplish a task within six months, they probably never will. My six month goals tend to be higher level achievements such as “finish the first draft of my new book“ or “increase my social media following by 10%.“ Short term goals tend to be daily or weekly. I keep these flexible because if you’re a creative person your productivity is dependent upon your mood. I’ve given myself permission not to write on my up-and-coming books every day if I don’t feel like it, but to do something every day. These alternatives may be scheduling social media posts, writing a blog such as this one, or corresponding with my readers.
DO TWO THINGS EVERY DAY: From your list of short term goals, choose two that you will accomplish every day. Any two are fine — you can mix and match as desired — but make sure you do at least two.
MAKE YOUR GOALS ATTAINABLE: Human beings respond better to positive reinforcement and you'll actually create a positive feedback loop for yourself if you have goals that you're completing regularly.
WORK ON MULTIPLE PROJECTS: I don’t always feel like working on the same property project every day so I will bounce back-and-forth between several. Currently, I am finishing up work on Volume 3 of Dark & Fevered Dreams and just started writing the sequel to My Summer (with Robots). If I don't feel like writing, I may pick up my iPad and iPencil and work on illustrations for Dark & Fevered Dreams instead.
TEND TO WHAT YOU PLANTED: The publishing industry rule of thumb is that a book tends to sell best in the first six weeks after its release. Still, your previous novels may have a lot of life left in them and there are things you can do to remind your readers of their existence. For example, publicize them alongside your new releases; arrange free giveaways of your older titles; change the cover art periodically; or start an online discussion about some aspect of the novel to draw in new readers. In my experience, the release of a new novel has always helped sales of the old ones.
STAY FOCUSSED ON YOUR MESSAGING: If you are a small or independent author, you will not have the massive marketing tools of the corporate publishing world behind you. Instead, you will have to work that out for yourself and may need to resort to some guerrilla tactics. This isn't a bad thing, because it forces you to directly interact with your readers, booksellers and potential publishers as a result. Social media, book related websites like Goodreads, and online chat rooms can you do a great job of helping spread the word. However, nothing will help if your messaging and brand is not clear and focused. Take a look at these resources on how to brand yourself and then come up with a clear message and look so readers can find you in a very crowd field.
GUARD YOUR WRITING TIME JEALOUSLY: It's not selfish, it’s necessary. You have to think of writing, even if it’s not your livelihood, in the same way as a normal job. Set hours, quotas and standards for your work times and then require those around you to respect them.
ASK YOURSELF: WHY AM I DOING THIS? A friend recently asked how much I earn writing books. My answer was simple: "not much." Honestly, authors at my level are lucky if writing turns into a lucrative hobby but hopefully you’re not doing it for the cash alone. If your goal is to become rich, there are a lot quicker and easier ways to do it. And the rise of independent publishing has made the competition to find readers even worse. But why are you writing anyways? Is it because you want to be famous or because you have something to say? Analyzing your motives and measuring your success in ways other than dollars may help you feel better about what you're doing.
As the publication of my third young adult novel, My Summer (with Robots), approached, I began thinking more about those books and stories I read in my youth which still resonate with me today.
It was easy to come up with a list of significant popular fiction from my childhood. Titles such as The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder; Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh; Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George; and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien are all standouts. But as I thought about it, I realized how much I have been influenced by stories found in unexpected places, maybe even tales whose titles I’ve long since forgotten but still linger in the shadowed corners of my mind.
Perhaps the most important of these was a short story called “The Bend of Time” by Howard Goldsmith ,which appeared as installments in Child Life magazine from October 1976 through January 1977.
During the 70s, Child Life was one of a myriad of youth magazines which flooded mailboxes, libraries and school book fairs alike. Others, like Dynamite and Pizzazz, were identifiable by their techno-colored covers and pandering features about the celebrities and pop culture fads. If humor was more your style, you might pick up Cracked and Crazy, imitators of the better known and more irreverent Mad magazine. And for the younger set, there was Jack & Jill, Highlights and, of course, Child Life.
What impressed me about “The Bend of Time” was how dark and sophisticated it was for Child Life, a periodical that specialized in science fiction and mystery but adapted for readers as young as 8. Lavishly illustrated by Werner Willis, the story was about a teenager named Roy who had returned with his parents to help recolonize Earth centuries after the ecosphere became uninhabitable. The family moves into Fallingwater, an abandoned house designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright during the early twentieth century. Although constructed to accentuate natural light, the home has been completely boarded up and the living room filled with banks of antiquated computers. Discarded on the floor, Roy finds the faded photograph of a boy about his age. On the photo’s back is written: SUBJECT: KEITH EDWARDS. AGE: 14. INTELLIGENCE LEVEL: SUPERIOR. DATE: AUG. 15, 3220. Over the next few days, Roy begins to have highly realistic dreams of visiting Keith in the boarded up house some 800 years earlier. Roy finally realizes his dreams are slips in time, peeks into an age when humanity was enslaved by a race of sentient robots called Ogolots. When an Ogolot ominously tells Keith he’s been scheduled for removal from the house so his brain can be "studied," the boys escape from Fallingwater with a phalanx of machines hot on their heels.
The story doesn’t end there, of course… but for me there would be a 40 year pause until I could finish reading “The Bend of Time.” You see, back in ’76 my mother didn’t renew Child Life so we never received the January 1977 edition containing the final installment of the story. I have kept the first three issues ever since, occasionally conducting searches through used book shops and online for the highly elusive conclusion. But it wasn’t until last month that I discovered that “The Bend of Time” was originally published in an anthology called More Science Fiction Tales: Crystal Creatures, Bird-Things and Other Weirdies, edited by Roger Elwood. Finding a used copy on Amazon finally allowed me to finish the saga of Roy and Keith.
After the digesting the story in its entirety, I began to realize how it foreshadowed a lot of the same themes I’ve been writing about for years. Whether its supernatural connections between people born to different eras (as in His Life Abiding); my fascination for abandoned places (as in The Men in the Trees); or the curiosity of thinking machines (as in My Summer (with Robots)), inspiration was perhaps divined early on from this short story in a now defunct kids’ magazine.
It may seem strange that I kept these now yellowing magazines all this time, but we all do things similar, don’t we? How many people reading this blog have that dogeared copy of a favorite novel still sitting on their bookshelf? Maybe they even re-read it every few years? After all, the point of good fiction is to impact and inspire.
PS: If anyone reading this happens to own a copy of the January 1977 edition of Child Life magazine containing the final installment of “The Bend of Time” and is willing to part with it, please contact me at email@example.com.
Also, if you happen to know anything of the author, listed as Howard Goldsmith in Child Life but William Danton in the original anthology book, I’d been interested in knowing that too. I’ve not been able to find anything about the man — or even if he wrote anything beyond this single short story. He has become, curiously enough, part of the mystery for me. Thank you!
Regardless of what you’re writing, social media can be a valuable tool to connect an author with his or her readers. At it’s best, it will provide insights, education and entertainment to those you’d ideally like to transform from “followers” to “fans.” At it’s worst, it can become a marketing bludgeon which may eventually drive people away from your feeds — or at least cause them to ignore you.
After about a decade of working with social media, I decided to get serious about it in Fall 2015. I created a social media strategy, set benchmarks, watched my stats and attended workshops and other professional development opportunities to stay current on social media trends. I work at least an hour a day on my social media feeds, creating, scheduling and reviewing both new and curated content. Since then, my online following has increased by 160%. This hardly places me as a social media superstar, but it does underscore that having a plan and carrying it out faithfully can yield results.
As part of my new plan I began watching other author’s media streams, not just for inspiration but also to be mindful of annoying and counter-productive habits. Toward that end, and with my tongue somewhat in my cheek, I present my list of the top 6 things authors should NOT do on social media.
Don’t inflate your success. Have you noticed how every author you’ve never heard of claims to be both “best selling” and “award winning?” In many cases, this is completely disingenuous. There’s no universal standard for measuring a best seller, so unless you’ve made it onto the much coveted New York Times list, doing so is akin to labeling a food “organic” — it sounds good but what does it actually mean? As for book awards, well, these can actually be purchased by authors who have a few hundred (or thousand) dollars to burn. Both of these strategies may give someone bragging rights, but that’s not the same as connecting to your readership. I can’t ever recall purchasing a book just because it was “best selling” or “award winning.” I purchase books because I’m interested in what the author has to say — which is really more important than whatever epaulets they have on their shoulders.
Don’t fake your followers. Speaking of disingenuous social media trends, authors may purchase Twitter or Facebook followers in order to give the illusion that they’re popular. There are a tons of online services that will happily provide you with as many fake followers as you're willing to purchase. Once I published my first book, I was deluged with offers from companies and individuals who promised me thousands of followers for prices as low as $5. If you’re an author who’s just interested in playing a numbers game, more power to you but you may be wasting your money as Twitter, Facebook and the like crack down on "fake accounts." It you’re actually interested in building a loyal social media following, it takes time, dedication and creativity. Twitter has some free tools to help you do this, which you can access here.
Don’t make everything a sales pitch. Every writer wants to sell, but there comes a point where you really need to cool it with the constant sales pitches. Some authors I followed on social media were rebroadcasting the same ads / Amazon links multiple times a day. Does this actually translate into sales? Honestly, I don’t know. Certainly it makes for a dull, obnoxious social media feed that tells you nothing about that author except he or she is a very motivated seller. In my opinion, a better habit is to strategically promote your books (during a special event for example) and then provide occasional free content as well, such as a book giveaway, a short story or an ePub version of an older book. You want to stay in your readers’ mind — but not because you’re obnoxious.
Don’t just use other people’s content. To elaborate on my previous point, it’s important for authors to create something NEW for their followers. Curated and reposted materials are fine if the author’s selective. Simply hitting the “retweet” button on everything tagged #amwriting is not the same as being a thoughtful social media editor. Like a good book, a good social media feed has a voice, a soul and a story to tell. Figure out what those are and only share other people’s content if it helps enhance your message.
Don’t be afraid to follow back. Your readership may have interesting things to say and you can tap into that by following them back on social media. Not only can this be a great way to distill ideas for your next novel, it can also tell you what your audience is hungry for and allow you to engage with them one-on-one.
Finally, please don’t wear fedoras. This seems to be more of a trend among male authors who specialize in crime novels or spy thrillers, apparently borrowing a page from the handbook of Mickey Spillane. For Spillane, the fedora worn at a rakish angle may have been iconic in the mid-twentieth century, but today it’s just a schlocky affectation. This isn’t just about hats, of course. The larger message here is that ridiculous props and costumes can make an author seem pretentious rather than genuine.
Do you have additional tips for authors on social media? If so, use the comments section below to share them.
Back in December 2016, I went hiking with two of my best friends to Seven Falls, a natural area located just north of my home town of Tucson, Arizona. At first blush, such a thing would hardly seem blog-worthy, but for me it was highly cathartic. Before I reached my 50th birthday, which would happen two months later, I was making it a point to reconcile myself with a few things that had happened to me in the previous decades. This had been an ongoing process, started in earnest after I had left Arizona for Oregon in 2010. My reasons for leaving my home state were varied and complicated and I won’t bother addressing them here. But suffice to say that I left behind some unfinished business. In the author’s vernacular, these were incomplete stories, needing just a few more sentences before I could put them away for good.
Thus the hike to Seven Falls.
Like so many other Netflix viewers, I was blown away by Stranger Things. If you haven’t had the pleasure yet, the series takes place in 1983 and is a direct homage to the early films of John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg, with perhaps a little Joe Dante and George Romero thrown in for good measure.
In true Spielbergian fashion, the first episode introduces us to four boys playing Dungeons & Dragons late into the evening. The scene is clearly reminiscent of the first few minutes of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), not just for the RPG reference nor the suburban setting, but because of how the mundane is suddenly interrupted by the extraordinary. In the case of Stranger Things, the interruption is not caused by a potato-shaped alien botanist, but a bloodthirsty monster released from an alternate dimension by meddling government types. (Yeah, E.T. had those too if you’ll remember…)
Stranger Things isn’t the first to attempt this kind of throwback. J.J. Abram’s Super 8 (2009) covered similar themes with similar characters, but Stranger Things does it better thanks to its excellent writing, outstanding performances and the sheer creepiness of its execution. Abrams' work, by comparison, got bogged down by his typically over-the-top special effects and world-destroying violence.
But what I realized as I tore my way through the mere eight episodes of Stranger Things is that the creepiest aspect of the show had nothing to do with monsters and everything to do with the disappearance of one of the young role-players named Will (Noah Schnapp).
If you lived through the 1980s, you might recall it was the Era of the Missing Child. And I don’t mean that more children went missing during those ten years, but rather that Americans became suddenly, frantically aware of the issue thanks to the use of mass media.
If you have to put an iconic face to the problem of missing children during the 1980s, it must be that of Etan Patz. The six-year-old vanished while walking to a school bus stop in May 1979. His father was a professional photographer and made many portraits of Etan available to authorities and the media. For years afterwards, tow-headed Etan grinned back at you from the pages of the newspaper, the nightly news, thousands of MISSING CHILD posters… Etan’s face was also the the first to appear on the back of a milk carton, bringing the issue of missing children literally into the family kitchen.
Two years later, Adam Walsh vanished while playing video games in a Sears store. His head was found floating in a canal weeks later and this grievous crime launched his father, John Walsh, on a lifelong crusade to protect children and bring criminals to justice. Walsh’s television show, America’s Most Wanted, ran a whopping 24 years (1988-2012) and was lauded by law enforcement and American presidents alike as an essential public service.
If there was one 1980s child abduction case that impacted me the greatest, it was the 1989 abduction of Jacob Wetterling. The 11-year-old was riding home on his bike from the local video store when a man in a mask appeared and held he, his younger brother and a friend at gunpoint. The man told the other boys to run away and not look back. Jacob was never seen again. I was in my senior year in college when the Wetterling case broke and, coincidentally, was managing a video rental store. I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Jacob and the innumerable kids his age who wandered in and out of my store at all hours of the day and night. Were they at risk, I wondered? Most of them lived just around the corner, but in the Era of the Missing Child it didn’t seem to matter. Apparently you could vanish without a trace doing even the most innocuous things — going to school, playing video games, renting a movie. I remember watching the news night after night, hoping that Jacob would be safely recovered. To this day, his fate remains unknown.
As I watched Stranger Things, I realized that the scenes that affected me the most were those with Winona Ryder and Charlie Heaton (who played Will’s mother and brother, respectively) dealing with their grief of not knowing the boy’s fate. I don’t know if Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer intended Will’s disappearance to be so reflective of other boys like him during the same era. I guess it doesn’t really matter, because it struck a chord no matter what the intent. I can only imagine the anguish that the Wetterlings, the Walshs, the Patzes and other families of missing children still deal with daily. If Stranger Things did one thing for me personally, it was reminding me that monsters needn't come from alternate dimensions. We have plenty of them living among us…
Related Information: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
I'm going to make a brief argument against one of the most pervasive trends in Hollywood these days — the almost obsessive need to create reboots and sequels of just about every movie that's been released in the last 30 years. I've felt this way for a while, but it perhaps came to a boil for me when Netflix announced their sequel to Ang Lee’s game-changing martial arts film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Starring Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang, the original film was a gorgeously produced and multi-faceted story of unrequited love, misguided loyalties and enduring compassion. Moreover, it was an indictment of how traditional Chinese society repressed women. The film went on to win four Oscars, including Best Foreign Language Film which is really the Best Picture award for flicks where people speak something other than English.
Jump ahead sixteen years and we find Netflix producing a sequel entitled Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny. Even though they managed to talk Michelle Yeoh into reprising her role as Yu Shu Lien, make no mistake, this film is an imposter of the highest magnitude. Gone is any attempt at subtle storytelling. The plot is a simple retread of the “evil warlord must be stopped” trope with the Green Destiny sword now strangely imbued with almost magical powers where, in the original film, its power was wholly symbolic. The magnificent stunt choreography of the original is replaced with run-of-the-mill CGI effects, a lazy and galling substitution for so many reasons. The acting is horrendous.
Why Netflix felt the need to provide Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with a sequel may seem baffling, but this is the company that gave Adam Sandler an exclusive four movie deal, which, to a fair, has turned out marvelously for them (read more about that here.)
But Adam Sandler is not Ang Lee anymore than The Ridiculous 6 (shudder) is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There’s no expectation on anyone’s part that Sandler will ever be remembered as a great filmmaker while Lee certainly is. And this brings me to the crux of my argument… Frankly, I’ve come to believe that some films are so important, so culturally significant that reboots and sequels should not be allowed. Of course I write knowing this is impossibility for a variety of reasons. Who, for example, would determine which films are and are not “culturally significant”? Beyond that, filmmaking is often big business, which means little regard is ultimately given to the intrinsic value of a thing if there’s money to be made (hence that Sandler-Netflix deal.) In the end, I think it relies more on the viewing public to curtail this trend by withholding our attention and dollars when necessary. Yes, there will still be the occasional unwanted sequel and reboot, but maybe, just maybe, we can stop things before a franchise is born.
Most creative people probably don't spend much of their day thinking about their personal copyright issues. That's because American copyright laws, which were vastly revised and improved in the mid-1970s, made it very easy for artists, musicians, authors and others. Put simply, the moment you create "a thing" — a poem, a novel, a song, a painting, a silly little doodle, whatever — you're copyright protection is immediate and inherent. Put more simply, the act of creation is all that's needed to cover you under U.S. copyright law.
Now it didn't used to be this way. Prior to 1976, whenever you created "a thing," you had to register said thing with the U.S. Copyright Office. It was an enormous amount of work, bureaucracy and bother. Plus, there were some dangerous loopholes. Your protection only lasted 28 years, and if you forgot to re-register your work THREE DECADES after you created, well, then you no longer owned the copyright. Needless to say, if you were a prolific artist, or just one who's been working for a long time and has amassed a large body of work, then trying to stay abreast of your registrations would be a nightmare. But all that changed in 1976 and it's worked well ever since.
So why does the Copyright Office, certain Internet-based corporations like Google and elements in Congress want to change it?
Well, they'll tell you it's because how we produce and deliver art has changed radically since the 1970s, with most of us now using electronic means to do so. As such, they argue, it's time for a re-think. But really it's about money. Entities like Google, Facebook, etc. have been trying for a while to co-opt our creations through their privacy and terms of service agreements. But if there's not inherent copyright protection for anyone — whether you earn your living as an artist or not — then anything you put out there can be essentially legally stolen and resold. Imagine Facebook running its own stock image business using photos pilfered from their users. How messed up is that?
The last time these changes were attempted was in 2008 and it failed miserably due to the massive defense mounted by artists of all kinds from all over the country. It's time to do that again.
And don't be fooled. This effects all of us. If you create anything, you could lose your rights to that "thing" if these new rules pass. Toward that end, I'm encouraging you to join the defense. I've added some links below to where you can learn more and where you should send letters rejecting any changes to the existing copyright laws. If you want to learn more, watch the attached podcast for details from illustrators Will Terry and Brad Holland. But hurry, the next deadline for comments is July 23, 2015.
Teen filmmaker in action. My friend Jake Kreager is only seventeen but he's already a veteran filmmaker. He and his cousin cranked out this suspense film in two days without a script or even a cameraman. You can follow Jake on YouTube here.
Even though I've been doing it since I was nine-years-old, I haven't written much about filmmaking on this website. It's an unfortunate oversight, because I feel we're in a very exciting time for filmmakers of all levels. The ease, affordability and prevalence of digital cameras, editing software and video-sharing websites has given a whole generation the chance to flex their filmmaking muscles. And though this has also given us way too many videos of kittens riding Roombas to the screaming chords of "Eye of the Tiger," the chance to express, create and share with each other is unprecedented.
So filmmakers, indulge me while I tell you how young people once made movies before all this technology made it so darn easy...
My interest in filmmaking began in the mid-1970s when my grandfather gave me an 8mm camera which, even for the time, was a primitive device. It looked primitive — a black metal box with a pebbly surface and a small lens. There was a trigger to expose the film and a large silver lever to operate the zoom. You had to focus manually and though filming in color wasn't an issue, there wasn't any sound. Fresh film was always in short supply. A reel cost about $10 — half of my monthly allowance — and there were still trading cards and that copy of Starlog magazine I needed to purchase, too! Needless to say, my early works had a certain "economy" to them. A typical film was three minutes, an epic would grow to nine. Everything had to be filmed on the first take.
The first film I ever made was entitled "The Horror of the Desert" and starred me, my sister, and the three kids who lived next door. We were all between the ages of 11 and 15. The plot was simple enough. I put on a bright blue papier-mâché monster mask, draped myself in an old blanket and menaced the other four for a total of six minutes. Granted, "The Horror of the Desert" wasn't a long on plot but at least there was lots of running and screaming. (Okay, there wasn't any screaming because, as I just mentioned, the camera had no sound.) Instead, in the true tradition of silent film, there was plenty of melodramatic pantomime. Finally, one of the neighbor girls drives a wooden stake through my monstrous heart, a technique which apparently works as well on aggressive space aliens as it does on vampires. The film was a huge hit, the least among the other neighborhood kids who immediately lined up to be in my next production.
Editing of my 8 mm creations was done by hand. I had a cheap, manually-cranked machine through which you could watch your footage on a tiny screen, slicing out the unwanted bits and reordering sequences by taping the strips of film back together. The basic concepts behind editing haven't changed with the newer technology, but the results and rapidity of the process have improved exponentially. What I can now edit by computer in thirty minutes might've taken an entire day in 1979.
By junior high, I was dabbling in stop-motion animation and practical special effects. The latter usually involved creating elaborate miniatures complete with painted backdrops and then setting them on fire in my backyard. By the end of college, I had several "co-producers" assisting me and troupes of amateur actors to do my bidding. And by the mid-90s, I was constructing elaborate parodies of science fiction and fantasy films under the name "Aneurysm Theater."
Technology advanced as well. Eight mm film gave way to videotape and finally digital media. But the real boon didn't come until the home computing giants, Apple in particular, created video editing software which more people could afford and understand.
All this was fun, but it had yet to become a serious venture.
In reality, filmmaking didn't become part of my profession until the early 2000s when I was tasked with creating law enforcement training films in Arizona. I produced six videos in all and that experience paved the way for my current work with the Oregon Coast Aquarium's Oceanscape Network, a web-based project which is extremely video-intensive.
So why am I telling you all this, young filmmakers? Because whether you hope to make film your profession, or it's just a fun hobby, you have tools at your fingertips I couldn't even imagine when I was starting out. And as with the publishing world, the internet and associated technology now allows you the opportunity to reach an audience without having to go through the traditional "gatekeepers" of those industries. Take advantage of it. If the past is any indication, this field's just going to get better and better.
RELATED: For examples of my filmmaking, visit my profile on Stage 32.
I'd heard of Ashland, Oregon, long before I visited it. Its Shakespeare festival, which runs February through November, has a international reputation and is often mentioned in the same breath as Stratford-on-Avon, where the plays originated. I can't say I'm a devotee of The Bard's work, but I have seen and enjoyed enough of his plays to jump at the chance to visit Ashland at the height of the festival. It was road trip time, down through the winding hills and thick forests of Oregon to just a few miles north of the California border. My anticipation was high, but my expectations of finding costumed denizens and live jousting ala a Renaissance Faire turned out to be very different from my experience.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is a celebration of live theater. But a word of caution about this... If you intend to see Shakespeare performed in the classical Elizabethan style, read the play descriptions carefully or you may be disappointed. Some of plays reengineer Shakespeare, placing them in times and places far removed from what the playwright had imagined. The performance I attended of Romeo and Juliet was an excellent example. Set in 1840's Alta California (a Spanish colonial province which is today the combined area of California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah), the performance suffered from a unique case of split personality disorder. I'm still trying to wrap my head around actors delivering their Elizabethan lines in thick Mexican accents; or punctuating an impactful monologue with the occasional Spanish word as if only to reinforce how this version of Romeo and Juliet was so very different. Judging by the recurring snickers from the audience, I wasn't the only one who found this, well, ineffective.
Fear not. If altered Shakespeare isn't your cup of tea, the OSF and Ashland provide plenty of other live theater choices. In fact, we had twelve different options ranging from other Shakespeare titles to off-Broadway productions. The selection reinforced Ashland's catchphrase: "Come for four days, see four plays." With performances running continually in a lavish complex of both indoor and outdoor theaters, you could actually see more than four if you had the inclination and the money.
When I tired of Shakespeare, I strolled the downtown area which, in many ways, reminded me of Sedona in Arizona's Verde Valley. Most of the businesses were upscale boutiques, creekside cafés and art galleries with a strong hippie vibe. The penchant for live performances spilled out onto the sidewalks, where everyone from teenaged crooners to stringed quartets to transients with broken ukuleles vied for attention and tips. The heart of the downtown area is Lithia Park. Dating from early twentieth century, the park was designed as a tranquil refuge where urban dwellers could enjoy the arts, explore nature and ponder their existence. It was also the most visible expression of the Chautauqua educational movement, which strived to bring culture and beauty to America's more rural areas. A century later, Ashland still embraces Chautauqua and it was gratifying to see such large crowds (and so many children and teenagers) attending the plays, hiking the nature paths or listening to music. In the era of Jersey Shore and Twilight, it seems like America needs a good dose of Chautauqua. Kudos to Ashland for providing it!
For more on Ashland and the chautauqua movement, see my articles on the Oceanscape Network.
What author doesn’t crave a stellar review from the New York Times or Publishers Weekly? But for most of us plebes, the chances of getting such an honor are worse than winning a Powerball jackpot. Which begs the question for new, rising, and independent authors — what reviews can you feasibly get without spinning your wheels forever? I’m going to encourage you to concentrate your efforts on reader reviews.
Professional book reviewers like those mentioned above are deluged with requests and simply cannot or will not consider a title by an unknown writer. Additionally, professional reviewers are usually embedded with the publishing establishment and won’t consider books written by independent or unagented authors. They might give a variety of reasons for this, but what it boils down to is they simply don’t consider these writers to be legitimate and thus their work is not worth reviewing.
But don’t feel bad. If you’re an indy author for example, remember that your "thing" is still a relatively new — only about seven years old at this point. Like other trailblazers, you’ll have to pay your dues along the way. Independent filmmakers have been battling the same recognition and legitimacy issue for much longer and are only now making real headway. Heck, indy films are even considered chic these days — a far cry from a few decades ago when brilliant artists were labeled as unimportant because they refused to play the Hollywood game. If you’ve seen any of the films by Jonathan Levine, Nicolas Winding Refn, or Gun van Sant, you’ll agree that “indy” in no way means “untalented” or “illegitimate.” In truth, most of these folks probably just wanted greater control over their own creations, without having to sacrifice their vision to marketeers and studio execs. Sound familiar, authors?
So instead of spending all your time trying to garner reviews from people who won’t give you the time of day unless you’re sanctioned by their industry, concentrate your efforts on engaging with your readers. Having published two books in the last two years, I’ve found that the average reader is much more open to new talent anyway. Honestly, most book enthusiasts just want a good story and they don’t give a flying fuck if the book came out of Simon and Schuster or Amazon’s CreateSpace. Pedigree doesn’t matter as much to their eyes, and a large number of them thrill to discover new authors. The popularity of book sharing sites like Goodreads and Shelfari further enhances your ability to reach your readership and garner their feedback. You can also encourage reader reviews by doing the following:
Once you start getting reader feedback, don’t ignore it. After all, this feedback is coming from the rank-and-file of your audience, the people who actually buy your titles, tell their friends about you, and wait anxiously for your next release. Obtaining their feedback could be extremely valuable as you continue to write, allowing you to better craft your work and ultimately transform your readers into die-hard fans.