Perspectives of a Writer and Musician

Issues related to writing, publishing and playing jazz music: One man's muse.
by Al Stevens

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Location: Florida, United States

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Final Kiss at Seven

The title of this article is the title to my new work in progress, the second installment in the Stanley Bentworth series of mystery novels. The first is out for beta reading, and I got bored waiting for feedback, so I started writing. This morning.

I wish successful writers wouldn't tell us that they have a quota of, say, five pages a day. Robert B. Parker said that. So did Lawrence Block. When they hit that quota, they quit for the day. So it takes them a little over three months to write a 100,000 word book. That's four books a year, figuring you can multitask editing and correcting with writing. (Don't check my math. I didn't.) That's a lot of books when you're 30 or younger. It's not enough when you're old.

At noon today, I looked down at the bottom margin toolbar and saw that I'd written 10 pages of deathless prose. Am I supposed to quit and go swimming? Or mow the grass? Or wash the car?

I know, it's November. But I live in Florida.

See what you can make of the title. It came first. I didn't write it, but I've had it for 48 years.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Then and Now

Back in the day (my day, not necessarily yours) it took a while for an author and an editor to establish a personal working relationship. Usually, it was impersonal, business as usual, emails back and forth related only to the project. Eventually I settled on one editor with whom I found a personal bond. She is my daughter's age, and she mothers me. Go figure.

She works for Penguin now, but over the years she moved a few times among publishers. Where she went, I went. But, as I said, it took a while for what started as a professional relationship to evolve into a personal one. I dedicated one of my books to her firstborn.

When we got down to work, however, it was all work. As it should be. We knocked out a lot of books together, and she knocked out a bunch more with other authors. And still does. The rest of whatever teams she'd assemble for copy editing, artwork,  layout, promotion, and so on, were mostly unknown to me. I don't even remember any names. We interacted, but only related to the project. I didn't know about their lives, and they didn't know about mine. Those were professional collaborations, in every sense of the word.

Things have changed substantially in publishing and probably in every profession nowadays. What with social networking, texting, discussion groups, cloud computing, and so on, the notion is that you are in a family rather than a business. And in that family, as in all families, you have to be wary of one another's idiosyncracies, personal issues, hot buttons, and such, lest some off-hand comment incites a food fight for the whole family and sometimes the whole world to witness.

It's as if Jerry Springer is overseeing the publishing business.

But solitude is the writer's friend. Drama, suspense, and conflict are necessary inside the book, but outside it, the only interaction I want is with Emma, shown here.

I neglect to give and do not require gratuitous strokes. Except, of course, to Emma.

I guess I have to work on that.

Or self-publish.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


I'm back. They're doing the outside today. It's noisy but I can work.

The wonderful book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (, suggests that you print sections of your manuscript to review it and make notes in the margins. Using the computer, they say, tempts you to fix things on the fly. They are right. That's what I do. So I tried it their way. Instead of printouts, I use the iPad's iBook app. It lets me make notes and highlight blocks of text that need work, but it does not accept changes. Just like paper although without killing any trees. (Yawn, old homily, sorry.)

Their way is better. It keeps me from scattering my attention all over the work. Focus, focus.

Most of my writing and editing in the past was with non-fiction. With fiction, however, there is a laundry list of issues--dialogue, scenes, points of view, and so on--that the non-fiction writer does not need to address. The Browne and King book is a must-have. But don't expect to read and understand it before you've knocked out a fiction manuscript or two. You probably wouldn't relate to a lot of what it teaches, not having already made those mistakes. I find myself reading a chapter of B&K and then reviewing four work-in-progress manuscripts and highlighting areas of concern.

They're tearing the sides off my studio. I may have to go get a haircut or something.

The Studio Gets a Facelift

After almost 20 years, I'm getting the studio polished up a bit. I started the project not long after we moved here in '92. It had been the woodworking shop of the previous owner so it needed an interior finish.

The last two items on the inside to-do list were a floor and ceiling. It has neither. Well, the floor is concrete, but the ceiling is nothing but exposed rafters. I finally admitted that I am not able to do ladders and hammering and spackling things that are above my head. Not without a safety net. So I hired some guys. They'll be here this morning. (In six minutes, if they're prompt.)

They'll also be repairing some siding and soffits and repainting the outside.

The downside is that I have to move all the equipment around, which means disconnecting everything, which is going to be a mess. And I'm relegated to the RV with a laptop. Oh, the suffering.

I hope they're late. (Four more minutes.)

8:27. They just got here. I'm out of here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Simulation and Self-publishing

In the scientific computing community, we used to say, "Simulation is like masturbation; some people get so much into it that they prefer it to the real thing."

We might say something similar about self-publishing. If you believe the countless blog and discussion group posts by those who are happily doing their own publishing on Kindle, Smashwords, Createspace, Lulu, and others, it's the only way to go. It's freedom from traditional publishers, aka the Evil Empire.

They prefer it to the real thing.

Usually, though, it's because they can't get an agent or publisher interested in their work. That doesn't mean their work is bad. It means only that no one thinks they can sell it in the commercial marketplace for all the usual reasons. So the authors self-publish and have either that rare event, a runaway best seller or the more common one, a book that languishes on the e-shelf or in the storage unit.

A lot of emphasis is placed on writing an effective query letter, and you can find many online articles about how to write one, but the greatest query letter in the world won't help if the manuscript is not commercially viable.

A lot of emphasis is placed on using social networking and blogs to promote your books irrespective of how they are published. But the longest list of friends and followers won't help if you write something like, "The Haunted Birdhouse" or "How Fido Met Godzilla, a Love Story."

Write a good book, one that lots of people will want to read.

Or self-publish.

Monday, November 14, 2011

What I Had for Breakfast

W.C. Fields once said in an interview, "I put my long underwear on at the first frost of Autumn and don't take it off until the first blossom of Spring."

When his friend Gene Fowler asked why he would volunteer such unsolicited personal information, Fields said, "People are always telling me things like that as if they are letting me in on something."

Years ago I noticed that when in casual conversations someone mentions what they had for breakfast, it is virtually always followed by each person in the group telling what they have for breakfast.

"It's bacon and eggs for me."
"Just coffee here."
"Cereal and toast."

Whenever I find myself trapped in such a discussion, I quietly decline to contribute. And, guess what? No one turns to me and says, "How about you, Al? What do you have for breakfast?"

If it's so damned interesting, why don't they ask?

Because it isn't about breakfast. It's about them. People are their own favorite subjects.

A similar pattern shows up in books written by writers about writing and in online writing discussion groups. We get the obligatory, "How, where, and when I write" discussions.

"I set aside a fixed time every day."
"I write [insert number] words a day."
"I write [insert number] pages a day."
"I have to write with music in the background."
"I cannot write with music in the background."
"After the kids go to school."
"At the kitchen table."
"I need a stiff drink nearby."
"A big bowl of M&Ms."
"In my study."
"Outside sitting on a fence."
"In my car with a voice recorder."

Ad nauseam, ad infinitum.

Who cares where Stephen King sits and what he sees and hears? How will knowing that help us become better, more successful writers? Can we expect that having learned John Locke's or Amanda Hocking's writing habits, we could emulate those habits and enjoy successes like theirs?

How about you? What are your writing habits?

There. I did it.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The state of contemporary publishing from an old author's perspective

Background: I've been publishing since the mid 1970s with books, magazine articles, newpaper cartoons, and a long-running magazine column to my credit. My book-writing career started with one NYC publisher for book 1, and then an independent small press for subssequent works. I gradually moved back into the NYC publisher realm as the imprint was passed around. I was writing books at the rate of about two a year and living on advances and my paychecks for the column. Those were the days, gone now, never to return.

While doing all that, I had a nocturnal career as a jazz musician. Don't be impressed. That's another whole blog some day, and it ain't all it's cracked up to be.

I retired from writing in 2003 and recently involuntarily retired from playing music when a small stroke made it difficult for me to schlep the equipment and remember the changes to Blue Moon, and when the economy made the world a less-hospitable planet for jazz musicians.

Take a minute to feel sorry for me, then come back. Thank you.

I'd had a story kicking around in my head for several years. It centers around the JFK assassination. With plenty of time on my hands and the phone not ringing, I decided to write the novel, which I completed earlier this year. Or was it last year? I forget. Blame the stroke.

I shopped it around keeping in mind the assassination's 50th anniversary. A release should happen in early 2013 at the latest. Unless the Mayans were right. In which case it doesn't matter. Reaching a publisher that would meet this deadline becomes increasingly difficult given the time it takes to get a publisher to read a manuscript these days. But I got lucky. Maybe.

Eventually a small press showed interest and asked for a full (short for a full manuscript). After some back and forth and R&R (no, not rest and relaxation; revise and resubmit), they made an offer. The contract they sent, however, was way out of line according to what I had been used to in the days of yore.

Given changes in the industry due to technology and the economy, and all that, since those days of yore, I wondered whether this contract was typical. I passed it by some authors whose experience is more current than mine, and they all said, in effect, run, don't walk away from this contract.

So, I sent the publisher a rejection.

Got that? The author rejects the publisher. That didn't seem all that unusual to me at the time, but it turns out that it is virtually unheard of in today's climate.

I submitted the project to a few other publishers and made a sale. A startup company with lots of promise wanted my book. The contract was extremely author-friendly with everything I had become accustomed to except that there was no advance. Even given my publishing background, I figure that since I'm new to the fiction world without a name and a following, advances, particularly from small presses are probably out of the question. I signed.

The publisher and I didn't see eye to eye on a few things, so she agreed to release me from my contracts.

I have put the manuscript in the trunk for now. I'm working on other things and don't have the time or inclination to grovel for a publisher. I figure I have a year and a half before the publication deadline.


Monday, November 07, 2011

I play string bass in a local big band. Although I have a 3/4 acoustic bass, I don't like schlepping it to gigs. So

I usually use an electric stick bass.

I don't play a bass guitar. Everything's in the wrong place.

My stick bass is a Steinberger NS. On our last gig as I tuned the bass, there came a loud boingg! and I found myself holding the upper end of the E string in my hand. I have the bass strung with acoustic bass strings because it sounds and feels more like the real thing. I do not have a spare set of strings. Those suckers are expensive.

So, I had to work the evening on the top three strings. It's a reading gig, so it got to be a challenge whenever the note written went below low A. Obviously, I played those notes an octave up, but sometimes it would be a passage in which every other note was down there.

I got to exercise my hearing chops that night.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

I finished the first draft of "On the Street Where You Die," a novel that has a PI going all over town. The plot, dialogue, and characters are in place. The next job is to fill in those places where brief narrative descriptions of the scenery will be.

There are many locations where the PI spends time: his office, the police station, the courthouse, various houses, the security office at a high-fashion department store, and so on.

It's a ficticious town, with elements taken from many places I've been. But I realized that inconsistencies could creep into the narrative about his travels. Such as the direction and distance between points, proximity of one location to another with respect to which side of the tracks, the routes between locations--Interstate, over the river and through the woods, across the tracks, and so on.

My other fictional works are set in real places. Nothing to create. But this is a town of my own imagination. Towns typically have downtown, industrial areas, upscale houses, shopping districts, middle class houses, and the projects. Urbs and burbs.

So I drew a map:

The map shows four quadrants of a town separated by an Interstate and railroad tracks with a river running diagonally through. Little boxes for the locations helped me get all the scenes consistent with one another.

Doing this gave me two advantages: First, it is a baseline on which to describe the things mentioned above. Second, it gives me a mental image of where things are and helps me make it more believable.

I need to establish a general location, too, to make the foliage, buildings, weather, and clothing fit the time of year, and such. That's next.

I hope this exercise doesn't lead to floor plans.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

A phoenix

It's been a while since I posted here. I spent the summer pounding on several manuscripts.

The Absolute Write forum ran an anthology project. Members were invited to submit short stories in the speculative fiction genre. They had to be new, unpublished works.

First I had to learn what speculative fiction is. I'm not sure I ever learned.

"A Place Called Nowhere"
I submitted a short story that was immediately rejected. It's based on the lyrics to a song a wrote a long time ago. I'm not sure what I'll do with this story.

"The Mulpies"

The AW anthology folks liked my second submission, at least they told me so, but eventually they decided not to include it. It "didn't fit the project." I never learned what was needed to fit, but I guess that will become apparent when the anthology is published. The outcome, though, is that I have a story, probably now of novella length, that I can sell elsewhere, or at least self-publish.

"The Shadow on the Grassy Knoll"
I had submitted my JFK assassination novel to Reck House Press. The editor asked for a R and R, which means "revise and resubmit." She made some suggestions, which, as far as I could see, improved the story. I R'd and R'd and, after a time, she sent me a contract to sign. It was the least author-friendly contract I've seen in 25 years of book publishing. Thinking that maybe times had changed, I asked some fellow AWers whose experience is more current, to look at some of the terms. They gagged. I turned down the offer and submitted to a fledgling publisher. They asked for a final almost right away and then a final, and within a week of submission I had a contract. A friendly contract. I signed it.

"Nursing Home Invasion"
This novel is about crime in a nursing home. All the characters save one are elderly. There's no sex in this book, Viagra notwithstanding. I submitted it to Carina Press, an imprint of Harlequin. After several weeks they rejected it, I suppose because it's not fantasy or romance. It's a so-called "cozy mystery."

"On the Street Where You Die"
This one's almost finished. It's about what I call a "soft-boiled" detective. Might be a new genre there.
Other News
I've been working on an article series about self-publishing. Depending on how that pans out, I might post the articles here. But there are a kazillion books on the subject, and the rules keep changing.

I've been thumping string bass in a big band. Other than for that, nothing is happening musically.

I'm designing book covers for all my upcoming books. That's the job for the publisher, but I like fooling with Photoshop, and I'll have covers ready for anything I have to or decide to self-publish. Plus they will be a starting place for the publisher's artists.

Drop a comment and let me know you're tuned in.