Running errands this weekend, I happily discovered Elvis Radio, a Sirius XM channel devoted to the music and life of the iconic Mr. Presley. Eager for a continued walk down memory lane, I spent part of the afternoon (post chores) listening to him croon Fever, Can’t Help Falling in Love, If I Can Dream and much more. His catalogue of hits is so big that it’s hard to single out one or two as favorites. Click here for iTune‘s tally.
Elvis Presley had fans around the world, including other famous entertainers. Singer-songwriter Mac Davis said “Every performer who ever performed in rock and roll or even close to it is lying if they tell you that they weren’t influenced in some way or another by Elvis Presley. He turned the world around.” Celine Dion called him the “greatest entertainer of all time.” Rolling Stone Magazine refers to Presley’s artistic accomplishments as “unparalleled.”
The numbers reflect his continuing popularity. According to the Graceland website devoted to all things Elvis, he has sold over one billion records and boasts “no less than 149 songs to appear on Billboard’s Hot 100 Pop Chart in America,” with 114 in the top forty, 40 in the top ten and 18 number one hits. Even after his untimely death on August 16, 1977 at age 42, the legacy of this mover and shaker (literally and figuratively) lives on, tugging at our heartstrings as we ponder where we were when we first heard Jailhouse Rock, Kentucky Rain and countless other foot-tapping melodies.
There’s a lot to be said for creating a body of work that remains timeless and enjoyed by generations, old and young. In this real way, Elvis Presley and those whose work keeps giving serve as great role models for artists who want to make a difference with their creations.
If you are in midtown Manhattan, try to make your way to 41st Street, between Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue, for a glimpse of delightful expressions about books, writing and life. Known as Library Way, this series of bronze placards calls out notable words from famed authors that include Thomas Jefferson, Ernest Hemingway and Langston Hughes. Click here to read the full catalog of quotes. Once you have finished (if you are moving east to west), you will be rewarded with a view of the impressive main library building and the pair of lions, Patience and Fortitude, that guard the door. Time permitting, go inside for a tour of the public reading rooms or to visit the gift store.
On my recent trip to New York City, I took snapshots of as many of the plaques as I could. Unfortunately, it’s hard to stop and ponder during the day with so many individuals busily walking to a final destination. Selecting a favorite is likewise a challenge. One I especially like is by Emily Dickinson and reads “A word is dead when it is said some say. I say it just begins to live that day.”
I finally made the time to watch Love Between the Covers, a “feature-length documentary film about the little-known, surprisingly powerful community of women who read and write romance novels.” In a fast-paced eighty-five minutes, director and producer Laurie Kahn gives the audience a fascinating peek inside the publishing world devoted to figurative affairs of the heart.
The romance book market is huge. According to the Romance Writers of America website, 2013 sales in this genre surpassed $1 billion with thirty-nine percent of sales in the form of e-books and mass-market paperbacks accounting for thirty-two percent. Quartz reporter Thu-Huong Ha, author of “Maverick women writers are upending the book industry and selling millions in the process,” describes word-hungry consumers who might buy a handful of romance books each week compared to a typical reader who buys a dozen books in a year. In 2014, 30.89 million romance books from traditional publishers were sold, putting love stories right behind general fiction with 33.52 million books sold.
In 2015, the Nielsen Company profiled romance book fans as avid readers with steady buying habits and hailing in large numbers from the South and Mid-West regions. Elsewhere in “Literary Liaisons: Who’s Reading Romance Books?“, the point was made that mostly female readers between the ages of thirty to fifty-four or slightly younger used word of mouth recommendations to guide their acquisitions. The takeaway is that smart authors will engage fans via social media since Amazon ratings and insights from book bloggers influence sales.
It’s no surprise that the potential for big profits is like literary catnip for authors with a good imagination, willingness to produce and a recognition that this market segment is growing at a fast clip with no end in sight. In “The Lure of Romance Writing (and Earnings) for the Literary Set,” one of my favorite publishing experts Jane Friedman chronicles the developments of this genre and ways to get ahead.
From what I can tell, it’s not just the pursuit of money that sustains romance novelists. In Love Between the Covers, interviewees seem genuinely keen to create strong protagonists as role models for their readers and extend a helping hand to other romantics. I’ll know more about this warm and fuzzy zeitgeist after I attend my first romance writing conference in September. I registered at the strong suggestion of an author friend who couldn’t say enough about the generous spirit of men and women she met at Romance Writers of America events.
Until then, “Viva l’amore…”
Anyone who attends workshops or reads articles about becoming a better writer has no doubt heard the message that word goals and schedules are important. You need to write before you have something you can sell.
How you get the magic to appear on paper is another issue altogether with variations aplenty. Some outline. Others see where the first words lead them. Night owls say goodnight as the larks commence their morning workout at the typewriter. Some folks write here and there. Others throw themselves into a project for months at a time. Some are calm. Some are frenetic. The important thing is to discover what makes sense for you, acknowledging that your preferences might change over time or zigzag during a project.
Regardless of one’s path to fame and fortune, it’s worthwhile heeding the wisdom of Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. During his 2004 Ted Talk, the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and founder of the Quality of Life Research Center said “There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback.”
I haven’t quite decided on THE optimal approach for me, in part because I write both fiction and nonfiction. Outlining is a big plus when I’m penning a technical article that reflects research and specific questions I want to answer for my audience. Fiction is harder in my view because the author is making something up from scratch instead of analyzing what is. I want to let my imagination soar when I am crafting a novel.
I need to stick to a schedule but I likewise recognize the need to relax and let the ideas come by trying to avoid distractions. I love yoga, especially a class that challenges me physically. In the last few months, I’ve had some of my best “eureka” moments in between poses. Nature is another treat which is why my daily outing to Starbuck’s includes a ride past a neighbor’s farm. Watching the cows happily swooshing their tails on a sunny day gives me great pleasure and inspires me to make a difference with what I write.
However you find your flow, may the zone be with you as you create.
When I first taught university-level business courses, I regularly asked students to analyze a company’s financial health and write a cogent research report. After a few semesters of putting my red marking pens to work, I grew frustrated with poor grammar, inconsistent logic and otherwise sloppy work from dozens of individuals. Whenever I received an assignment that read too well, my first task was to run blocks of text through a plagiarism checker. With great disappointment, few literate papers passed the test. Many students cheated by having someone else do their work entirely or extracting full pages of words from published professionals. Eventually I insisted on better vetting before I would accept something to grade. A year or two later, I gave up on written homework altogether and had students tackle mathematical problems instead.
Earlier this week, I was reminded about the ethics of original writing when a colleague emailed me with a question about how I credit others whenever I excerpt their work. My answer was to err on the side of caution and attribute direct quotes whenever possible.
Alas, experts say that cheating is not always easy to recognize, especially the kind that can lead to legal challenges. According to “Stop Thief! Writers and Plagiarism” by Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas (The Book Designer, March 4, 2015), “Plagiarism is often confused with copyright infringement and piracy, and even with simple lying and fabrication. All of these practices strike at an author’s integrity, but they’re not plagiarism.” They reference a book called The Little Book of Plagiarism by Judge Richard A. Posner, cite famous wrongdoers and offer hints about how to avoid problems. Given the complexity of the topic, I’m heading out to the bookstore to purchase my copy.
I took away lots of lessons from ThrillerFest 2016, including the need to spice up dialogue and emphasize active over passive. More than a few faculty members, bestselling authors all, went so far as to encourage attendees to learn about screenwriting techniques.
Ever eager to learn, especially now at this early stage of my mystery writing endeavors, I signed up for the next Save the Cat workshop in New York City. For those who don’t know, this famed approach to screenwriting was created by Blake Snyder and described in a series of books he wrote prior to his untimely death in 2009.
In a Writer’s Digest article, Michael Ferris describes seven differences between writing a screenplay versus a novel to include a focus on the visual, economy of text, story simplification and knowing one’s audience. Some might counter that these reminders apply to books and not just film scripts. Interestingly, more than a few successful thriller book authors such as Lee Child started in television.
Ahead of my screenwriting class, I’m doing homework by watching mostly British police procedurals such as Prime Suspect, The Fall, Broadchurch, Luther and Happy Valley. I then review the episode scripts (when they are available for downloading) and of course spend time banging out my own magic. Like anything else, there’s a lot to know.
For the last year, I’ve been reading books and attending events about writing technique, how to market one’s book, what to look for in a contract, how to work with an agent and much more. After a whirlwind week at ThrillerFest 2016 during which many of these topics were addressed, I’ve decided that a writer has to do it all, especially if one is contemplating self-publishing one or more books. Even if an individual has an agent and/or is publishing with a traditional firm, my view is that it is still smart to inform yourself about topics such as intellectual property rights, cost-effective ways to market, the composition of your audience and time management.
The good news is that there are ample resources for any writer who is predisposed to constant learning and improvement. Having been a financial education start-up entrepreneur in a different life, I see lots of similarities. When you visit venture capitalists and angel investors, you are seeking to convince them that your story is solid and you have done sufficient homework to know that your product can fill a market want or need. You must have a good sense as to how consumers buy and what will compel them to open their wallets for your work. You must demonstrate the ability to stay on deadline and then promote the final product with passion and motivating others to enthusiastically do likewise.
While commonplace to think of writers as creative and right-brain dominant, a key question is whether they can monetize their ideas on the fly or need to exercise their left-brain “muscles.” Most experts would quickly say “no” and encourage a writer to craft a comprehensive business plan.
I hesitate to repurpose content from my two business blogs but I can’t resist sharing this quote by Ray Bradbury here. “Living at risk is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down.” Yes, an artist can create in a garret and count on Lady Luck or purposely architect a path to move ideas from paper/celluloid into the hands of readers/viewers.
I’m just back from ThrillerFest 2016, raring to put lots of great ideas into action. Kudos to Kimberly Howe and her colleagues for producing an educational and inspirational event. Thanks as well to all of the faculty members who shared their wisdom and made themselves available for questions.
As it turns out, one of the panelists, bestselling author Mr. Thomas B. Sawyer, is a favorite of mine although I did not know it until I attended a session entitled “Playful, Stern or Downright Rude? How Dialogue Affects Thrillers.” Introduced as the showrunner and head writer for one of my all-time beloved shows, “Murder She Wrote,” he now teaches others how to engage and entertain with words. After the panel concluded, I thanked him for fond memories of snappy patter, intriguing plots and “slice of life” gems from Maine’s famous amateur detective, Jessica Fletcher. You can still catch reruns of Angela Lansbury and her pals on Netflix, the Hallmark Channel and elsewhere. Books by Donald Bain and his fictional co-author Mrs. F. are likewise fun to gobble up in a single setting.
It must be a wonderful feeling to know that what you create persists for millions of fans around the world to enjoy across the years and generations.
I finally got a chance to watch the biopic about screenwriter and author Dalton Trumbo and am glad I did. Bryan Cranston served his real life model well by portraying this Hollywood blacklist member as a man of principle. While I disdain communism for lots of reasons, I do believe in free speech and understand that the politically charged era of the late 1940’s was beyond difficult for many who were ousted for their views.
Regardless of one’s philosophy, an aspiring writer can readily look to this prolific artist for lessons about perseverance and discipline. According to Biography.com, Dalton Trumbo was “one of the most successful and sought after writers in Hollywood.” Ginger Rogers, Spencer Tracy, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Audrey Hepburn are a few of the boffo movie stars who gave cinematic voice to his ideas. After serving almost a year in prison for contempt, he found work by writing under pseudonyms. His script for Roman Holiday won an Oscar although it “was fronted by his friend, screenwriter Ian McClellan Hunter, who was himself later blacklisted.” (It was later posthumously awarded to its rightful owner.) He won another Oscar for The Brave One although the official winner was someone he called Robert Rich. About a decade later, he was finally able to pen under his real name for movies such as Exodus and Spartacus that endure as classics.
Presumably Mr. Dalton was motivated by a need to earn a living but one senses that he likewise loved to write, always had something to say and couldn’t wait to get started. This notion of “let’s go” came to mind this morning as I read “The Storyteller” by Maggie Shayne (Romance Writers Report, July 2016). Her take is that writers MUST bring words to life as their calling to “convey the tales of our people …” and connect one another to “our shared past and to our imagined future.” She adds that every writer should think about what and how their stories will contribute and that potentially changing lives of readers is “the best feeling in the world.”
I heartily concur with both Mr. Trumbo and Ms. Shayne. Making a difference matters. On that positive note, I’m off to attend ThrillerFest 2016 in New York City. Ciao!
Genius, based on a book by Scott Berg, emphasizes the dedication of Scribner editor Max Perkins to bring out the best in writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. With red pen in hand and a fedora atop his head, Colin Firth does a valiant job of taking the audience along for the bumpy ride that is the creative process from idea to book launch. At the same time, he reveals Mr. Perkin’s humanity as someone who wants words to empower and inspire. Selling books seems almost secondary.
Jump ahead about eighty years and you might hear authors shout “My how things have changed.” Their plaint is that corporate pressure to generate short-term profit keeps most writers from winning access to a team of focused editors, marketers and publicity gurus. Author and blogger Brian Klems seems to agree. In “Do You Have What Publishers Really Want?” (The Writer’s Dig, April 8, 2014), he explains that a good idea is only part of what an acquisitions editor or committee will consider. Other factors include: (a) large number of potential buyers (b) competing products (c) author’s plan to market and sell (d) credentials and (e) his or her platform, i.e. “a large, built-in readership.”
Based on my experience as the author of a decade-old nonfiction technical finance book and discussions with fellow writers today, the strong sense is that it’s a lucky few who have the kind of handholding that Max Perkins offered, along with his friendship and ex-office hours. I’m happy to have found a wonderful editor who is far from shy with her constructive feedback. However, I understand, as plenty of individuals with a passion to inform and entertain now know, commercial success frequently depends on an author’s business acumen. Assuming a good product, it may not be a traditional publishing company that provides the deep bench.