Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Misanthrope's Manual

     I know that of late I've been remiss in my responsibilities to the one or two people who actually care what I have to say about politics and social issues. I'm in the middle of collaborating with a British novelist on a thriller and this was the other reason.
     At the beginning of the week, I'd published on Create Space and Kindle a satirical dictionary I'd intermittently written during the 90's. The Misanthrope's Manual weighs in at a tidy 122 pages for the Create Space edition and when it clears in the next day or so, you can order it at cost for $2.31. The Kindle version is priced at $2.99. With about 500 definitions (including some new ones acknowledging the digital age and Occupy Wall Street), that comes out to more or less a half a penny per laugh, which sounds like a helluva deal to me.
     In case you didn't click on the links for yesterday's post (my interview with my friend and co-author Nick Stephenson), a generous sample of the Misanthrope's Manual can be found here. You can also go to the Kindle page and download most of the "A" words onto your Kindle and decide for yourself if a ha' penny a laugh is worth it.
     These really are some of the most vicious and ingenious definitions written in over a century and is well worth your time to at least check out. Here's the blurb I'd written for the product page when it finally goes live:
     Several hundred of the world's most vicious definitions, the most vitriolic in the 102 years since the last edition of THE DEVIL'S DICTIONARY published by Ambrose Bierce, updated for a more modern 21st century readership.


     Doom, n- The infinitely patient beneficiary of all human endeavor.
     Success, n- Material gain without material witnesses.
     Harmless, adj- Dead.

     What you're about to hold in your hands are 122 of the most hilariously misanthropic pages written in over a century. Don't say you weren't forewarned.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Find your Zen – the art of sublime writing with author Robert Crawford

Find your Zen – the art of sublime writing with author Robert Crawford

Find your Zen – the art of sublime writing with author Robert Crawford

“Apollo is smiling down on us tonight. He’s gotten with the times and has traded his lyre for a plugged-in Strat. He’s playing through me, through all of us, pleasingly pounding the marrow in our bones. It’s that kind of night when even chaotic feedback is exploitable and my vibrating skeleton recycles that energy through my fingers. Maybe Apollo had a hand in helping Jimi Hendrix control and incorporate feedback. But he and perhaps all the gods are on our side tonight.” Robert Crawford, from the prologue to American Zen.
     This week I’ve got quite a treat in store for anyone who’s ever read a book that makes the hairs on back of their arms stand on end – or for anyone out there who’s trying to write something that comes close. Joining us is author and political blogger Robert Crawford, author of American Zen and The Toy Cop, so grab a cup of tea, an English muffin (we just call them muffins here) and settle in for the ride:
Welcome, Rob. I promised you some tea when you come round for this interview, so what’s your brew?
     Twining’s Irish Breakfast tea, which I have almost every day, believe it or not. A tart would’ve been nice, but OK…
Who you calling a tart? Get that tea down you and let’s get started. Primarily, I’d like to take a little bit about your novel American Zen. To help readers get up to speed (and to save me the task of writing it myself) can you tell us what we need to know about this book?
     What you “need” to know about American Zen depends purely upon what you need out of it. It’s got liberal politics, it’s got laughs, it’s got rock and roll (It even comes with a sound track that I can send on CD if you wish). But at its most fundamental level, AZ is about the strength yet the fragility of human love and friendship. It’s about four guys who’d made up four fifths of a rock and roll band who reunite after nearly 30 years. They don’t greet each other with man hugs and merrily pick up where they leave off. There are conflicts, there are tests of their character and nothing can be more testing to one’s patience and good will than a week-long trip in one van up and down the eastern seaboard.
Can you sum up the book in six words or less?
     Coming of age, coming of middleage (Alright, I had to cheat a bit. Never said I was great at loglines.).
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So, for me the pace of the book was surprisingly fast – especially when I checked the word count and realised you were just a few words shy of the 150k mark – which suggests you spent a lot of time tweaking the structure and composition of the novel to keep the pages turning (all 500 of them). How do you decide where to add more detail, more words, more action, and where to cut some out?
     First off, the Create Space version is only 358 pages long (although there are over 40 lines per page, well past the standard 32). Secondly, I really can’t take credit for the fast pacing because it was a rare case of an author not writing a book as one writing the author. I may have mentioned to you that the four months I was writing the draft was my Richard Bach moment. Richard Bach said about 40 years ago that a voice in his head screamed, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull!” And his book completely took over his life. Bach said it was unlike anything he’d ever written before or since.
     Whatever the impetus behind his book or mine, whether it be supernatural or simply riding the surf of a new and strange inner inspiration, this is what American Zen was like for me. The first draft was knocked out in exactly four months flat and during those four months, I’d taken only 14 days off. I wrote it at work, I wrote it at home, I wrote it on the beach. I was fortunate enough to have two friends and fellow liberal bloggers (Alicia Morgan and Steve Benson) as technical experts because they’d been in the music business and had performed with some heavyweights since the 70’s. My protagonist, Mike Flannigan, had to sound as if he knew what he was talking about regarding being in a rock and roll band, the gear that was available at the time, etc. Since I’d published it, people have asked me if I ever belonged to a rock and roll band. One or two were convinced I was.
     What to add, what to cut out. Aye, there’s the rub. That’s one of the greatest challenges of a novelist and luckily, I was on something like autopilot to the point where I could trust my muse to make the right decisions even during the revision process. I was very lucky in that I had all the dramatic spikes (or story arcs) lined up in my head on the first or second day and it was as if some voice in my head was telling me, “Robert, if you don’t write down this parade of images now, you’ll be sorry because you’ll never see it again.” It was almost as if I was taking dictation from a higher creative power, as if I was writing the biography of an alter ego. Other than that, I just tried to end each chapter on a little cliffhanger, such as when Mike gets cold-cocked in Billy’s garage or when they saw Dave’s old van parked in front of the Rock Garden. I usually have a pretty good sense of when and how to end a chapter and American Zen was certainly no exception.
The book deals with some pretty heavy themes – life, death, sexuality, youth, middle age, disease, frustration, and, of course, the music. How many of these big themes are borne from your own life experiences?
     Probably just the middle age and frustration and even then from a literary mindset. I’ve never been in a gay relationship, even though I’m bisexual, never known anyone who had HIV or AIDS, and I never even learned to play guitar. As I said, this was the story as it was presented to me, almost as if I was writing someone else’s memoir. It was written so differently (I’d never written in first person before nor in a purely chronological way) I feel almost guilty putting my name on the cover. I know very good and well I’d written it. But at the time and in retrospect, it just didn’t feel that way.
     Yet, at the same time, little incidents and snippets of conversation from my life in the late 70’s, when almost half the book takes place, found their way in AZ. I’d always wondered why I held on to those meaningless little recollections that by themselves don’t really mean a whole lot but I was able to somehow make use of them in AZ. The Jimmy Carter Show was a real group that was around Massachusetts in the late 70’s and the teleporting drummer gimmick they used in AZ was the same exact one they’d actually used. Dave’s and Rob’s physical appearance was based on two guys I knew at the leather shop I worked at when I was a kid (the same one at which all the band members but Billy worked.).
     Mike is my idealized version of myself: Steady family man, well-paid and respected liberal journalist. He’s where I want to be. Billy is the opposite side of the same coin and he is where I’m trying to move away from. Minus the conservative principles, Billy was where I was: Former Special Forces, haunted, embittered, with a dark side threatening to overwhelm what good is left. Between these two very dissimilar men stands yours truly. I never knew that these two polar opposite guys were actually me until long after I’d finished the first draft. What unites them and maintains their friendship is not the music but a common, inexplicable love these guys feel for each other and others in their circle.
Have you ever been in a band? If so, what did you play, and were you any good?
     See above. Like Mike and Jo Jo when they went to junior high together, I played incredibly uncool instruments like the cornet and French horn. I doubt I even know how to read music, anymore. But as I’d said, several people have asked me the same questions you just did and I take that as confirmation that as a novelist, I’d done my job well and got them to willingly suspend their disbelief.
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How did you manage to create such vivid scenes involving the band mates of The Immortals? Are any of their hi-jinks semi-autobiographical?
     As regards the vivid scenes and hi-jinx, you’ll have to ask my muse. Writing American Zen was like watching a movie with my third eye and conscientiously writing down what I’d seen. The dramatic spikes such as the fight in the graveyard, the Immortals playing White Zombie in the church, the practical joke Billy pulls on Rob at the wedding, to name just a few, are pure fancy. And yet, despite willingly ceding much self-conscious control and outsourcing my critical acumen to this muse, the discipline never left me and this higher creative being still kept these characters consistent, the events compelling and plausible and narrative snappy, lyrical or whatever the situation called for. To create a world from the ground up and sympathetic, identifiable and interesting characters to populate it, all aimed toward a satisfying denouement requires tremendous discipline if not talent. Essentially, the novelist succeeds where God fails.
Tell us about your other books – and, out of all your tomes, which is your personal favourite and why?
     Well, in a lot of ways, American Zen still stands as my high water mark, IMHO. As I’d said above, it was by far the most atypical novel I’d ever written and the only one I’d ever written that made me, me the author, laugh so often or literally cry out loud. Typically, I write thrillers. The Toy Cop is the only other novel I have in print and on Kindle. Whereas AZ took me merely four months to draft, TTC took me close to 14 years. The latter is a classic case of a book that just kept growing and growing, sort of a literary black hole in which a lot gets sucked in and doesn’t escape. What began as a “what if?” question eventually yeasted its way up into what I think is the best hostage negotiation novel ever written. At the very least, The Toy Cop is the first novel to get crisis negotiation right, a point my expert, former FBI negotiator Fred Lanceley, insisted on making. But as good as TCC is, I still think American Zen is my best sustained effort because not only did it radically change me as a human being, it helped write me as much as I wrote it. AZ had a wisdom and rationale behind it that was hidden from me until after it was on paper. There were several times where I’d be proofing a chapter and I’d find myself saying, “Oh, so that’s what I meant!”
You live in Tax-achusetts, a location that features heavily in American Zen, famous for its propensity for wasting perfectly good tea leaves, world class educational institutions (U-Mass, of course) and the greatest rock band in history – the Pixies. What makes MA a special state for you?  
     So, I take it you’re not an Aerosmith fan? Before I’d enlisted in the Navy, I’d enlisted in the Air Force (my father was my recruiter). That didn’t work out so well and the Air Force sacked me at about the same exact time my father retired. His new civilian job brought him to Massachusetts and he picked me up at my grandfather’s house at Central Islip, New York and took my mother and me to Massachusetts. My first lasting job was at a leather shop in West Concord in which I made little keepers for belts just like Mike. Except for brief periods (Navy, out of state girlfriends), I’ve been here ever since and cannot imagine living anywhere else. The winters are brutal but my sons live in the next town so I have some family to keep me tied here.
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As well as being a novelist, you’re also a political blogger. What’s your area of focus, and where can people find your columns?
     I’ve been blogging politically for well over eight years. I’m on my third blog (I’d deleted the first two) and the current one is Welcome Back to Pottersville, which has a It’s a Wonderful Life motif to it. My area of focus? Name it. It’s a chaotic, catch-as-catch-can, all purpose liberal blog and I guess one of its few saving graces is when you surf in, you never know what you’ll get. Occasionally, Mike Flannigan even chips in with his own byline! I haven’t been tending to it as well as I suppose I should be which segues neatly into the next answer. I also allegedly maintain a dedicated book and writing blog called Kindle in the Wind, which I maintain even more sporadically. Like many other authors, I’m also on Twitter, in both a literary and political capacity as @Jurassicpork59 and @KindleintheWind. I’m also on LinkedIn and Google+.
What’s next for Robert Crawford?
     I’m chuckling as I’m writing this because you of all people know what’s next. But for the sake of your readers, we’re collaborating on a thriller entitled TATTERDEMALION in which Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, Arthur Conan-Doyle and Sigmund Freud go after Jack the Ripper in 1888 London. The first four chapters, on which your host collaborated on the third and fourth, can be found on Scribd here, here, here and here.
     This past weekend, I’ve been proofing and reformatting a satirical dictionary I’d cobbled together during the 90’s entitled The Misanthrope’s Manual and a sample can be found here. If you ever read Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, you should love this as it’s a somewhat more updated version of TDD, or what I fancy Bierce would write if he were around today. It should be available on Kindle and Create Space within the next couple of days.
     And, as proof that American Zen was an isolated peak as regards literary discipline, I’m also in the middle of American Zen 2: Rock of Ages which, along with the Misanthrope’s Manual, was featured on Scribd. In addition, I’m also working on what I call the Joe Roman trilogy (although it can easily go beyond that) and have in the works three novels in various stages of completion/disrepair. Roman’s a unique character in that he’s a former Soviet/NYPD detective with dual citizenship who occasionally works for the Russian mob in Brighton Beach but has a soft spot for missing, abused children. It starts with The Saipan Seven, continues with The Puppet Children and concludes with Chernobyl Dreams. In the future, I may also print a volume of my poetry written in the 80’s and 90’s. Multiple self-published authors often sell the best so it’s always important to keep lots of irons in the fire.
     Nick says: thanks for dropping by, Robert – and thanks for taking the bait and mentioning our new project, Tatterdemalion. The book is essentially The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vs Jack the Ripper, and has been an absolute hoot to write. The book should be completed in time for the close of 2013, so watch this space if you’re a fan of thrillers, mysteries, and histories or fill in the contact form at the bottom of this post to get new articles, blog posts and information about free book giveaways emailed direct to your inbox.
     If you would like to get hold of a copy of Robert’s sublime American Zen just click here for his Amazon page and check out the sample – I defy you not to go ahead and download the whole thing. And, after you’ve read through to the end, go back and re-read the prologue – it will give you some serious chills.
     Here’s the link again:
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Friday, March 15, 2013

Yep, I Stepped On It

     Not long after we were settling back into our routine after that guy drove into our house yesterday, I got a phone call from an executive at Createspace who was apparently alarmed by my post, "Steal This Book Royalty" (which has just been deleted from both this blog and Pottersville plus Scribd) and the acrimonious exchange of emails between me and Create Space's Customer Service team.
     Number One, this whole misunderstanding never would've happened had I taken the time to read the TOS. But, number two (and the executive who'd called me owned up to this, after having read the emails), if Create Space's CS people had adequately and simply explained the business arrangement to me, there wouldn't've been an acrimonious exchange of emails and threats of class action lawsuits (as other writers have been threatening).
     To put it simply, anyone following my permalinks to my Create Space estore and buying either of my novels would have ordered it at the cost price, not the retail price. American Zen goes for about eight and a half bucks, The Toy Cop about $10.22. Again, anyone buying them from the estore would've merely been reimbursing Create Space for the cost to produce each unit and they didn't make a penny off me. Obviously, this means I was not entitled to any royalties.
     As the executive had explained it to me, my calculated royalties that had accrued starting in December were from sales made through Amazon. This necessarily involves a certain markup (or a retail price), which would then, in spite of any discounts to the retailer, involve a royalty. Instead of directing people to my Amazon product pages, I was sending them to the wrong URL, or the Create Space estore. When Customer Service told me I needed to sell to third party retailers, this is what they meant. Otherwise, people were buying my books at cost and no one was making a penny from my books, either CS or me.
     So it's obvious I had to man up, delete the erroneous post and rescind my request to boycott my Create Space editions and all Create Space products. I was totally in the wrong because I rushed headlong into the POD world because I couldn't be bothered to read the actual business arrangement. In fact, partly out of self-interest, partly as a conciliatory gesture, I've just spent $25 I really shouldn't be spending for expanded distribution for The Toy Cop. If I can spare another $25 in the future, I'll do the same for American Zen.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Open Thread, Coming Attractions

     This is the embed view of the long-awaited sequel to American Zen: American Zen 2: Rock of Ages (subtitled, I'd like to add, before the execrable Tom Cruise movie). The prologue and first chapter of AZ2 was featured on Scribd's index page just last night and you can still see it below the fold, after the jump.
     The buzz has started at last like the gathering feedback of a Strat turned up to 10. In AZ2, we see Mike publicizing his new book, American Zen, on the Jay Leno show. During the interview, Mike informs the reader that his band, the Immortals, recently went head to head on a nationally televised talent show with the band run by their front man's daughter, Drew Carmichael. Chapter One begins the previous year with Mike jamming with Stephen King and his band the Rock Bottom Remainders.
     Then he gets a stunning phone call from his wife, then a deathbed confession from his mother that changes his life. Then, after his mother dies, Dave's widow Ruby reveals who really broke up the band and it wasn't Dave or the bottom-feeding scout who'd signed him away from his own group. And that's just the beginning.of the dramatic twists and turns in store for Mike and the boys as they once again hit the road and go to LA at a last stab at redemption and respect.
     As for coming attractions, I plan on posting a series of interviews with exclusively independent authors (the "real" ones had long since signaled they don't want to be bothered by wearisome little doorknockers like me even though I can write rings around every single one of them). The first one will be up in a few days to a week, depending on when Nick Stephenson answers my questions.
     Also, for anyone who cares, I'll be posting articles on sundry and assorted topics regarding writing and publishing as well as sample chapters of my other upcoming novels.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Promotional Giveaway

     In early 2006, John Connolly and his publisher released The Black Angel, a Charlie Parker thriller. It was unique in two respects. Firstly, it was more overtly supernatural than the previous Parker installments and secondly, the hardcover edition had bundled with it something I'd never seen before: A music CD.
     In having his publisher secure the rights to release a promotional CD of music, Connolly explained for the first time that when writing certain chapters in the Parker series, he'd think of a certain song. It was a full-length CD of roughly ten songs that are intended to be played while the reader read certain chapters in the Charlie Parker saga.
      I thought that was a helluva good idea and still do. It was original and, from a business standpoint, it was a very savvy move. Connolly's music CD probably not only stimulated sales, it helped heighten what was already a suspenseful, visceral experience. The Parker series, in my mind, are better written than just about any detective series today, better even than Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme series. And, while Connolly's taste in music isn't exactly in synch with mine, his idea to include a CD with the hard cover edition was inspirational.
     I had this in mind while I was drafting American Zen in early to mid 2008. The idea of a soundtrack was inevitable since the book is about a hard rock band from the late '70's. At various times in the narrative I'd described through Mike Flannigan's words how they'd sounded while playing these songs both as kids in 1978 and as middle-aged men in 2008. But even the most skilled writer can't supplant music with mere words. This is why we have musicians. Describing music is as largely pointless as watching food and porn. If it's not interactive and if you can't actually enjoy it, what's the point?
     So the idea of assembling a soundtrack was an inevitable one. Connolly's idea, as I'd stated, was a terrific one but the songs had nothing to do with The Black Angel and it required taking previous Parker novels off the bookshelf and playing the songs during certain chapters. I saw where Connolly was going but it seemed like a cumbersome proposition, all the same.
     American Zen, as far as I know, is the first book to have its own soundtrack. They, too, should be played at certain moments but, unlike Connolly's idea, you don't have to take down books and fumble for certain chapters before you can get the full good out of them.
     So, while still revising the novel in 2008, I had a family member burn for me the first of a series of music CD's using Light Scribe. I'm a writer, not a graphic designer, so the first attempt was Godawful. I tried to create my own Zen font and it came out looking like something an epileptic chicken would make in its death throes. So I had my kid look up a real Zen font and had him use that instead of my abortive custom-made one.
     The sound track is a pretty standard length 41 minutes, consisting of 10 songs. Although both Mike Flannigan and I are head bangers from way back, it's a surprisingly eclectic selection of music, ranging from White Zombie to Neil Diamond to The Allman Brothers to Billy Swan to Queen to Norman Greenbaum. Yeah, it runs virtually the entire gamut of popular music since the mid 60's and every song in it has its proper place. There are other great songs that are referenced and even described such as Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors", Black Sabbath's "Iron Man", ZZ Top's, "Lagrange", Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" (actually a stolen Willie Dixon song), and "Roadhouse Blues" by the Doors. But they didn't make the cut because I didn't think they illustrated the Immortals, Mike's band, as both a music group and a unique dynamic of friends. The songs that made it have an emotional impact and personal significance for Mike, the rest of the group and, lastly, for me.
      As far as emotional impact, the ones that do me in are the songs the boys play when they meet Drew Carmichael's band at the very same night club where the Immortals had played their last gig in 1978. At the same time Jo Jo was trying to save his friends in the final days of his life, Mike was also trying in his hamfisted way to save his childhood friend Jo Jo when he found out he'd given up rock and roll and played organ for Provincetown's Catholic Church. So it's with great joy that I imagine Jo Jo playing in the final minutes of his life the electric piano of "Jessica" and, finally, the group's old signature song, Stevie Winwood and
the Spenser Davis Group's "So Glad You Made It", the one that actually inspired American Zen.
     Likewise, earlier in the book, listen to White Zombie's unforgivably profane "Supercharger Heaven" and think of Mike and the boys performing that at St. Peter's to the pastor's (and Jo Jo's) mortification. Or Billy Swan's "I Can Help" played by a 19 year-old Jo Jo playing on Mike's car stereo while he helplessly watches his best friend die. Then, in the Coda or epilogue, when Mike walks into Dave's old barn and remembers the group's first full rehearsal as they pulled together and played a kick-ass cover of Emerson Lake and Palmer's "Karn Evil 9 First Impression". As he visualizes the younger men they used to be, he plays their cover on his iPod and listens to it at the same time you can. And I dare you to maintain two dry eyes while listening to Jimi Hendrix's "Angel" and reading about Mike, Rob and Billy's rendition during Jo Jo's memorial service at the very same church they'd desecrated just days earlier.
     The tracks are:

1) "Everything Zen" by Bush, the only song not played by the band or referenced by me except in an epigraph.
2) "Gimme Some Lovin'" by Stevie Winwood and the Spenser Davis Group
3) "Spirit in the Sky" by Norman Greenbaum
4) "Bicycle" by Queen
5) "Supercharger Heaven" by White Zombie
6) "I Can Help" by Billy Swan
7) "Jessica" by the Allman Brothers
8) "Hello" by Neil Diamond
9) "Angel" by Jimi Hendrix
10) "Karn Evil 9, First Impression, Part 2" by Emerson Lake and Palmer

     So here's what I'm going to do: Everyone who orders either the physical Create Space edition or the Kindle version can contact me at and I'll mail you a free CD that I absolutely guarantee will heighten the American Zen experience and enable you to better share my vision. This promotion will necessarily be on the honor system so I'll have to assume you're telling the truth about having bought the book. But I don't imagine anyone would resort to disingenuousness just to get a CD of old music.
     But wait, there's more! If you buy a copy of American Zen on Kindle or on Create Space, I'll include with the music the prologue and first chapter of American Zen 2: Rock of Ages including the cover art. Or, if you want, I can embed a little extra surprise, sort of like an Easter Egg studios put into DVD's but easier for you to find.
     American Zen is truly a very good book and I'm not saying that because I wrote it. I freely admit my first two novels were Godawful but I stand on firm ground when I say that American Zen is my most brilliant sustained effort and it's a truly incredible "memoir" of a week in the lives of four old friends in search for redemption, no matter the cost. When you play the music as you read the chapters that make up the dramatic spikes, it'll drive home that point much more effectively than even mine or Mike's words can.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Desperate

     I've known since last year that Robert Barnett was Sarah Palin's "literary agent". Actually, Barnett's not a fulltime literary agent. He's an attorney by trade at the white shoe firm of Williams & Connolly LLP. When the opportunity presents itself, he'll choose to represent someone who isn't actually a writer and has to depend on a ghost writer to keep from sounding like a complete fucking idiot. Fed up to here with disrespect and ignorance from asshole, self-absorbed literary agents, I decided to pitch my novel The Toy Cop to Barnett yesterday. What follows is my letter, reproduced word-for-word (minus the .jpeg).

Williams & Connolly LLP
725 Twelfth Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20005

Dear Mr. Barnett:

     We’ve both been around long enough to know how the game is played. And I can appreciate that.
     Four and a half years ago, America and its John Birch Society/KKK/Aryan Supremacy demographic fell in love with a sneering cheerleader out of Wasilla, Alaska who tapped into their racist fears and secessionist desires and validated them at a time when they needed validation the most. Then they, inexplicably, stayed in love with her even after her burning blimps of two “bestsellers”, a reality TV series in which Daddy had to load her gun for her and a Fox “News” stint that just ended rather ignominiously.
     In you stepped into the political and personal quagmire that was her previously (and justly) obscure life and career and sold the First North American Rights for her ghost-written Going Vague or whatever it was called. I don’t know if you did the same for her when the long-awaited followup came out just two months in advance of the printing of the “Bargain! $1.99!” stickers that would be slapped on it in WalMart’s and Osco’s bargain bins.
     But, either way, I can appreciate you stepping into the breach between good and common sense and putting Sarah’s puss on two books because you, as with any fulltime literary agent would, struck while the iron was hot. This is, after all, America, the rib-thumping, Good Ole’ Boy capitol of Capitalism.
     So here we are, four and a half years after she stumbled on the American scene like Kramer in a typical Seinfeld episode. You’re no doubt hundreds of thousands of dollars richer, she’s millions richer and Threshold, her first publisher, is many more millions richer. Going Rogue became a bestseller only because her political action committee, SarahPAC, bought up 69,000 copies to give away or sell at Bircher and birther conventions. Individually, it didn’t sell nearly as many copies as you and her publisher would prefer to think. But I’m a political blogger and a novelist of some modest brilliance and I read and write about these things for a living.
     America is now just waking up and rubbing its eyes from this latest slumber and beginning to wonder what in the world they saw in this fantastically insane and hateful woman who’s like a chapter of the DSM V come to life. I’m assuming you’re professional enough to have moved on and don’t care one bit at how much you, Caribou Barbie or Threshold Editions had cattle-prodded our nation’s literacy IQ even further below than the drooling, foaming-at-the-corner-of-the-mouth level in which you’d all found it (as proof of this, look at the new flavors of the day in the person of Grammy-goer Lena Dunham and the self-published author of 50 Shades of Gray, whatever her name is, which are apparently doing what Palin had done three years ago: Perpetuating hateful and self-destructive stereotypes and getting paid well for it.).
     But just in case you’re wondering, as are so many us, if maybe you should’ve taken a pass on Palin and let some other attorney or a real literary agent suffer the pre-emptive stigma of being the one responsible for inflicting Going Rogue on an unsuspecting reading public, in case you’re in even the slightest need of some professional redemption, allow me to offer you THE TOY COP.
     This is a 170,000+ word novel that took me close to 14 years to write and revise. Considering I had an agent back in the mid-late 90’s to rep my first novel (a hideously-executed sci fi adventure about Jack the Ripper, written at a time when I was ignorant about the very rudiments of effective and compelling storytelling), it only stands to reason that now, at age 54, I’ve only gotten better as a novelist as well as infinitely more pragmatic about the realities of modern-day publishing.
     Yet trying to find a literary agent nowadays is like looking for a unicorn in a slaughterhouse. This is why I’m approaching you with this. You’re an attorney by trade who only dabbles in literary representation on the side when opportunity meets opportunism. I’ve had my fill of getting form rejection letters from flunkies of agents whom I’d directly written and getting rude silences even when providing quality material and obeying submission guidelines to the letter. Perhaps you haven’t been around writers and publishers so long that you’ve been jaded as all other agents have. For my part, I’m tired of the disrespect to my talent, time and efforts. There is absolutely no reason why a writer of my talent shouldn’t be put between covers, especially when one considers 90% of published books lose money. Mergers such as the one between Random and Penguin are making it even harder for agents to sell properties, readers to get a varied menu of offerings and authors to find placements. This is why self-publishing is taking off like a Roman candle.
     So that’s why I’m betting on you. THE TOY COP is a high concept, white knuckle thriller that benefited from the wisdom of former MA Governor Paul Cellucci and ex FBI crisis negotiator Fred Lanceley as well as invaluable input from several experts in their respective fields. If my first, horrible, novel could get me an honest literary agent in 1996 (she called my house begging to sign me) when I could barely write a coherent grocery list, consider how brilliant THE TOY COP is, a novel that took me half a generation to write with the wisdom accrued since I first snagged an agent.
     Perhaps a man of your level of accomplishment has his mail screened for him by flunkies of his own and perhaps this will go unread. Still, I have to try something. I have a greater instinct for publicity than a talent for it and my own marketing platform is simply not pushing sales. In fact, I haven’t sold a copy of TTC either on Kindle or Create Space in a couple of months. Trying to sell even well-written books on the internet if you’re not a celebrity or have a professional apparatus working for you is like pouring vials of ambergris into a sand dune or tossing a ball of lint down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.
     I’ve had it with agents and I’m tired of publishers telling me I need an agent in order to be even considered. This current business model is thoroughly rotten, corrupt, based on nothing but money and is untenable. The nonsustainability is proven by the mere fact that for the first time in history more books are sold electronically and by independent authors than traditional dead tree publishers.
     Just do yourself a favor. Read even just a chapter or two of TTC. Look at the synopsis I’ve provided below then tell me I’m not the real thing. It’s not a political novel although there are political and legal elements that would relate to your experience as a legislative assistant and federal law clerk. Over the course of 14 years, the writing’s been sanded down to a slick finish and the research impeccable. It’s quite possibly the only novel ever written that actually gets federal-level crisis negotiation correct.
     It’s going for $8 and change on Create Space but I’m sending you a free copy (the Create Space version I used for the galleys) via Word 7 attachment. Just read even a few chapters then, if you wish, keep reading until the harrowing end. And, if you do that and agree with my assessment of its merits, maybe we can do business together.


     Robert Crawford

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Writer Vs Author

     In one of two or three writing communities to which I belong on Linked In, the place where middle-aged and elderly wouldbes go to commiserate, someone asked the same Creative Writing 101 question, obviously fancying themselves to be asking something startlingly original that had never been asked before: "What's a writer and what's an author?"
     It's one of those questions that involves such a necessarily subjective answer that if you ask 100 self-identified writers that question, you'll get 150 responses. Being an analytically-minded writer and political blogger myself, in which a keen instinct for multi-faceted analysis is absolutely essential, I tend to look at even simple-minded questions from different perspectives, such as the colloquial definitions of the words writer and author as opposed to my own personal definition. This is why, if you ask 100 writers you'll get 150 responses. Political bloggers and novelists who tend to tell things from different POVs look at stories and issues like Picasso looked at women (Well, he looked at them as sex objects to be used and used up but I'm speaking of those disjointed portraits for which he became noted in his later years, in which the human face and body was broken up, thereby forcing the viewer to look at it from different perspectives).
     There's the hideously expanded and generous definition of what the writer and author are in the public consciousness. Technically, almost anyone can be a writer. Making out your "To Do" list makes you a writer. "Wake up. Make coffee. Piss. Moan. Surf web for new porn. Write 150 meaningless tweets for the bottomless memory hole. Piss again..." Sadly, that makes us writers. Despite Texas and its Inquisition-minded Board of Education, the literacy rate in the United States is still in the high 90's so, theoretically, we're all writers. If you tweet, text, email or scrawl, "For a good cock sucking, call 555..." on a bathroom wall, you're a writer.
     The public mind is also just as generous regarding published authors. Nowadays, if you're a one-time, half-term, half-wit Governor, a failed Senate candidate or some bug-eyed conspiracy theorist and your publisher assigns you a ghost writer or "co-author" whose name looks shrunken below yours, then, by God, you're an author. Yes, we have to at least until their books eventually end up in the .99¢ bargain bin at Wal-Mart admit airheads such as Sarah Palin, Christine O'Donnell, Glenn Beck and George W. Bush into the same community as Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats and Dickens.
     Then again, 54 years of experience of stumbling across this world with a neverending wonder of how we'd ever crawled out of the primordial ooze informs me that the public is almost always in the wrong. So what if Lena Dunham is currently popular and the traditional publishing industry is now a 50 Shades of Gray and Harry Potter-based economy? Slavery was also popular, as was not giving women and African Americans the vote and invading Vietnam and Iraq.
     So, in the addled public mind, if you relay shit your dad says on Twitter, you're a writer even if it's not your material. If it gets grabbed with all 20 fingers and toes by a literary agent and published by a traditional publisher, you're an author. And if it gets turned into a short-lived and hideously-conceived TV series starring William Shatner, then you're a hasbeen and a future answer on Trivial Pursuit: What the Fuck Do We Have Instead of Culture?! edition.
     And then, there's my personal definition of the words "writer" and "author", which hearkens back to the days before literary agents and generic MBA corporate bean-counters that now make up virtually 100% of the publishing industry.
     There are two types of writers: Those who have to write and those who need to write. If you dream words, or in chapters, if you continue writing your book long after you've been taken by Morpheus (Luckily, to me, he doesn't look like Laurence Fishburne, otherwise I'd have insomnia), then you're a writer by my more stringent definition.
     By the same token, if a photographer sees something fantastic, they'll record it with their camera or kick themselves for not having one on them. A composer and musician may want to write a song about it. And a writer will "feel the itch in the fingers", to quote Stephen Crane, to write about it or kick oneself in the ass for not having a notebook and pen on them. But, in my experience, the real photographers will always have that camera around their necks and the real writer will always have on their person a Moleskine or a cheap .99¢ equivalent in case one of the nine daughters of Mnemosyne abruptly drops in for a visit.
     Growing up in the 70's, I'd grown to consider writers as the scribes of the human race, the historians, the quantifiers, qualifiers and clarifiers of the gloriously bifurcated human condition. The poets try and fail to explain to us what love, life and death is but they nevertheless insist on trying to pin down the elusive aspects of the abstracts of human nature. The historians tell the same tale over and over again because the causes and effects of war and genocide, which marks human civilization over and over like pauses in a Harold Pinter play, never change. But that doesn't stop them from trying.
     And novelists, my people, all tell the same tale over and over again and never, seemingly, running out of variations and that tale is a single question: "Who am I?"
     Any human language is a fantastically complex Rube Goldberg mechanism consisting of anywhere from several thousand to several millions of moving parts all subject to change in shape and purpose. To master the rules of something so admirably complicated and Protean is a feat unto itself. But to marshal such a mastery over the course of a 400 page or 100,000 word sustained effort, especially if it's done well, is damned near a miracle. And that makes you an author. I've done it several times. I've made grown men and women laugh, cry, feel and think. I know I'm a writer and author and I don't need a publishing contract and some opportunistic literary agent to retroactively make me either with a contract designed to make money.
     To accomplish such a feat requires a rare dedication, love and stubbornness eluding the appreciation much less the capabilities of most people in this country today. And to write a novel that suspends human disbelief even for just a day or two, creating an entire world from the ground up while subscribing (usually, unless you're [yawn] writing yet another Lord of the Rings knockoff) to the laws of the natural, real world including normal and abnormal human behavior and to make sure everything works as planned. In other words, a good writer and author succeeds where God failed.
     Putting it simply, being a writer is still, to me, one of the highest callings to which a human being can aspire because we're the self-appointed ones to tell the human saga, committing more or less to posterity every single minutia of the human experience in books, newspaper and magazine articles and blog posts.
     The internet made all of us writers and publishers, at least in a theoretical sense. The definitions of writer and author have been cheapened, expanded and made ridiculously generous by the emerging technology and the reawakened literary ambitions of the human race. Published speech is now no longer the semi-exclusive domain of an anointed few. The marketplace of ideas is a crowded and bizarre Arabian bazaar consisting of tweets about what we had for dinner last night, Facebook updates of our thoughts on the return of The Walking Dead and kvetching about our in-laws.
     And, every once in a while, I'll grant that someone will write a book or three that's worth reading because they, too, had equally high standards of what constitutes a writer and author and exerting over their work and very lives a painfully monastic dedication to achieve a high and admirable end.
     In the meantime, however, we have to accept Palin, Bush, O'Donnell, Dunham and other flavors of the moment in the same company as poor Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats and Dickens.
     Meanwhile, Jesus will be in a corner doing a face palm and weeping for modern day Humanity as it awaits its next great chronicler.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

No, it Wasn't a Dark and Stormy Night

      Despite the best efforts of literary agents and bottom line-driven publishers, authors still still owe it to themselves to produce the best books they possibly can. Anyone who's been in the business longer than a New York minute can tell you there's often a huge difference between penning a good book that's actually worth reading and extruding one out that's brought into being primarily, if not entirely, in hopes of how salable it'll prove to be.
     Imagery is the one thing books most critically need if they're to compete with more visually-dominant entertainment such as TV, movies, video games and a vivid, highly interactive social media on the internet. It could be argued that books could be defined as movies for smart people. But if books are to be competitive in the entertainment/educational marketplace, they need to contain bright, vibrant imagery that frees up that crucial reader imagination that takes off where you necessarily leave off.
     In a 1980 essay entitled Imagery and the Third Eye, Stephen King had told us in no uncertain terms there isn't any such thing as "writer's block." That's a fictional bogeyman writers like to use like The Family Circus's Jeffy loved to blame the "Not Me" ghost for his mischief. So-called writer's block can be boiled down to three less than mysterious phenomena: lack of focus, laziness and story fatigue. Of all three, perhaps story fatigue will get the most sympathetic hearing from me. As the author of a novel that took me 13 years to write and revise, I can perfectly understand getting tired of a story after living with it for a long time. However, I'm also of the belief that a worthwhile story will tell itself when it's ready to.
     In King's landmark essay, one that had changed my entire outlook on creative writing, he stresses the need to make your imagery fresh and vivid and even proposes a writing exercise: Imagine a rainy city street and report what you see. Writing exercises such as this help free up a vapor-locked imagination (and a failure of imagination is, of course, another way of saying "lack of focus.") and also help sharpen up a lazy or wandering third eye.
     Perhaps without meaning to, King offers a couple of brief examples frrom his own writing, including this paragraph from The Shining and, in the process, helps recall a famous poem by Theodore Roethke, "My Papa's Waltz":
His father would sweep him into his arms and Jacky would be propelled deliriously upward, so fast it seemed he could feel air pressure settling against his skull like a cap made out of lead, up and up, both of them crying 'Elevator! Elevator'; and there had been nights when his father in his drunkenness had not stopped the upward lift of his slab-muscled arms soon enough and Jacky had gone right over his father's flat-topped head like a human projectile to crash-land on the hall floor behind his dad. But on other nights his father would only sweep him into a giggling ecstasy, through the zone of air where beer hung around his father's face like a mist of raindrops, to be twisted and turned and shaken like a laughing rag, and finally to be set down on his feet, hiccupping with reaction.
     It may even be King, a former English and Creative Writing professor, was thinking of Roethke's somewhat more famous and reprinted treatment of a similar childhood experience:

My Papa's Waltz

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

     It would be easy to gently chide a younger King of having this poem in the back of his mind when he'd written that marvelous paragraph. Both vignettes involve little boys suspended in midair by happy, slightly-drunk fathers in a playful mood. But what's striking about King's and Roethke's alleged recollections is their brilliant use of sharp imagery.
     Both examples show both a striking vividness yet a balanced restraint that allows the reader to take off where the author ends. Neither paragraph nor poem are heavy-handed with eagerness to impart every single, last sensory detail. As King said, when he'd written his paragraph, he himself could vividly see the hairs on top of the father's head, his juvenile character perhaps noting, as children often do, at how much thinner the flat top was at the crown of the head as opposed to the sides or the back. Both scenes feature the unmistakable scent of alcohol, which will also be picked up by children unused to its sharp smell.
     But in these masterful examples of imagery, both King and Roethke stop short of overexplaining and are content to let the reader take off with their own imagination. It's not important to know what brand of beer King's father drank or what Roethke's own father did for a living. It's just enough to know one was muscular, the other having a scraped knuckle perhaps injured at work.
     The author is like a parent pushing a child on a swing. The adult merely provides the initial momentum for the child to extend their legs and maintain their own momentum. Sometimes one big push is enough, sometimes a series of smaller pushes are what's called for. But the author, especially the fiction author, must be respectful enough of their readers' intelligence and own imagination to stretch their legs, and their own Third Eye, so they can take over.
      As stated above, books are in a dire war with visual medium and, let's face it, Americans are a people with a highly-developed and sophisticated visual sense. In order to compete with visual media that takes a much larger role in providing imagination than to which any author should aspire, today's fiction needs to take a cue from poets, especially those outside of the United States (such as Latin America and Eastern Europe, for instance, two parts of the world with far richer poetic histories than the United States).
     Don't listen to doomsayers who say literature is doomed. Publishing is a roughly $25 billion a year business. It's print books that are on the way out. Electronic books sell by the millions every year. Yet while agents and editors harp on details such as what similar books to yours have been successfully published, authors insist, rightly, on showing the agent or editor how good the book is when all they want to hear is how much cha-ching it'll put in their pockets.
     Everything starts with the author and continues with the reader. If readers make it known what they want, editors and agents will follow suit just as they were forced to when surveyed readers reported about 25-30 years ago they were more interested in character-driven novels than plot-driven ones. 
     Of course, reaching those readers is another struggle entirely and it's just as daunting if not moreso for the independent author to reach them than it is for a writer trying to reach them and met with two jaded gatekeepers (agent and editor). But striking images that start the reader's pendulum of imagination, as well as vivid characterization and plain-old good storytelling, can put books back in their rightful place.
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