Tuesday, May 29, 2012

In My Opinion: Lists

Maybe it's a time to consider questions and I have so many of them I could spend several lifetimes trying to answer them, but answers are usually subjective. One of the questions I am most frequently asked is what is your "Favorite" book? Movie? Oops! Those who ask more often than not use the word "Film". They assume I am sophisticated. Who is your favorite actor? Actress? Then again, I'm asked,  what do you consider the "Best" book? Movie? (Oops again...) Film? The questions are totally different and rarely do they require the same answer.

If I were asked to name some of the "Best" films I've seen, I would have to include "The Mark" with Stuart Whitman (nominated for an Academy Award), Maria Schell and Rod Steiger, but it is not one of my favorites. It is very dark though it has positive resolution. The same with "Night of the Hunter" with Robert Mitchum. I don't think I could ever refer to any film as dark as these, as good as they are (In My Opinion), as a "Favorite". A "Favorite" for me is one I want to see over and over.

"Shadows in the Sun" is one of my "Favorites". Is it a great film? Is it one of the "Best"? No. (In My Opinion). It's a decent film, has a few interesting nuggets, good performances, but not one I would consider for my list of "Best" films. And what of the ones that overlap? For me the consummate example would be -- get ready to laugh at my lack of intellect -- "Pretty Woman". Fluff? Probably yes. Chick Flick -- a term I think demeaning -- not quite. Entertaining? Absolutely. A best film? Yes (In My Opinion).

Technically, after thirty years of acting and directing, along with the music -- I was a busy little bee. Wonder where all that energy went? -- I can give some evidence. The writing is superb. Does it make a statement about mankind? To say that would be a stretch, but does everything labeled "The Best" have to make a statement about mankind? And, personally, (and I know a number of generally classed as "significant" people) I don't know anyone who is qualified to do that. The writing in this film achieves its purpose.

From a theatrical point of view, I have seldom seen, across the board, better performances by a cast of characters. From the leading characters to the hotel manager (Hector Elizando) to the elevator operator (one of the best "bits" I have seen), the shop ladies, who are so typical of exaggerated "class" -- I know some of those -- Jason Alexander, slimy enough to make one's skin crawl, all the way down to the character who walks the streets of Hollywood shouting "What's your dream? This is Hollywood. Everybody has a dream!" Maybe that's the statement about mankind. The film, IN MY OPINION, is perfectly balanced, but my opinion is the only perspective I can speak from, a fact many pontificators ignore.

Why write this little bloviating piece of opinion? Because we are constantly bombarded with "Best" and "Worst" and "Favorite" lists, and some are even more absurd: World's Most Absurd Warning Signs, Ten Most Ridiculous Phobias, World's Best Shin-Kicker. Films, books, music, artists and performers seem almost sensible by comparison. The problem I have is that the compilers or authors of these lists do not preface their list with the three simple words: IN MY OPINION, which is all it really is.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What Am I Going to Write Next? Part Deux

In my last post I was at a critical point. I had the settings -- Nashville, Philadelphia and New York with various stops in between. I selected a group of characters from my experiences (I think most writers do that) -- a singer/songwriter, a producer, a group of organized crime personalities and a woman. Maybe two or three. Easy pickins, I thought. (no pun intended).

The next step was the most worrisome: putting words circulating in my mind on paper. The first line is critical. A writer can win or lose the reader with a good or bad first line. Often when I am in bookstores, I open numerous books to read the first line. Most of the good ones have been taken: "It was a dark and stormy night." (Weather is used a lot.) "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." (Social commentary has also been done.) "I felt..." (I am not going to write a romance novel.) I decided on "It's gonna be a good day." That leaves the option for interpretation to the reader. Positive? Ironic? Negative? Disappointing? Good or bad, that's where I was determined to start.

I don't outline (I would feel like I was playing "Fill in the Blanks" or doing a research paper) or look ahead. I let the characters tell me where the story must go. I seldom know what's going to happen on the next page. This is insane according to some of my writing friends, but the technique has carried me through five published novels. With this book I was lucky; the story created itself as I wrote, part of that being because I was so familiar with the material. Once it was completed, I was fairly well pleased, but, as anyone who writes knows, this is where the real difficulty begins. Finding a publisher.

First, let me say I respect agents and I respect publishers. I just don't understand them. I did a bit of agenting in the music business and, when an act auditioned for me, I either liked them or I didn't like them and gave my true reasons in hopes that it might help them improve. When I began submitting this book, Nothin' Left to Lose, (yes, the title came from "Me and Bobbie MaGee") the response was more amusing than devastating. "Love country music, love Nashville, love your characters. We're going to pass." "The book obviously has commercial appeal, but I'm not sure I will be able to sell it because I'm not sure it will make any money." What's commercial appeal? This one I loved: "Your book has too much depth to appeal to a country music crowd." Really.

Finally, I met a small publisher at a literary conference (The "country music crowd" was not there) and after some negotiation, she agreed to publish the book. She was very optimistic. Was going to do an initial run of eight thousand books, which she did. I was going to be published. I didn't expect to be John Grisham, but I couldn't have predicted what was going to happen.

Advanced reader's copies were sent to reviewers. I did my part getting newspaper coverage in any town I had stopped in overnight. "I was originally from here and I wonder if..." Small town newspapers are a sucker for home-growns who have become famous or might become famous and know where their town is. I was shocked when the book got a very favorable review in "Publisher's Weekly" and also in "ForeWord" magazine. I was floating. The publisher scheduled a few appearances, but I handled most of that and had a pretty good schedule arranged by the time the book came out. The launch for the book would be at Bay Street Trading Company in Beaufort, SC, Pat Conroy's home bookstore and a diamond among independents nation-wide.

Three weeks before the launch, I started getting responses from the stores I had contacted in my marketing plan that they had buyers and couldn't get books. My first act was to call the publisher. No one answered the phones. Finally, two weeks later, I managed to contact her and she advised me that they were filing for bankruptcy, but if I wanted to get books for the launch, I could come to Columbia, SC and she would provide them.

Actually, as I look back, that lack of cooperation (she couldn't afford to ship the books) was a blessing in disguise (cliché, Carl). I went and got the books and the store had a great response for the initial signing (over 300 books sold); however, I knew that was the end of it. The publisher would ship no more books. The blessing in going to pick up the books was that I located the warehouse where the books were stored.

Everything had gone so well and the response to the book had been so good that I refused to let it disappear. I called a friend who had a van and, under the cover of darkness, we drove to Columbia, cut the chains on the warehouse door and purloined a thousand books. I had already decided to buy the remainder from the bankruptcy court, but I knew that could be months away. I set myself up as a distributor with Baker & Taylor and proceeded to ship the books myself, set up signings and get on with the promotion. The book sold over four thousand copies in the first year from my jury-rigged efforts. It was later optioned for film twice by Tim Moore (the man behind Gran Torino, The Changeling and others). Never made it to the big screen, but the experience kept me going.

The only real problem I encountered after Nothin' Left to Lose was what I was going to write about next, but that's a story for another time and not any less dramatic.

Nothin' Left to Lose will be released an an eBook in June.

Monday, May 14, 2012

What Am I Going to Write Next?

Ahh, what a question! When I began the quest to write a book, I started, as many writers do, with a story that was nothing more than "Bibliotheraphy". Did I coin that word? In any case it was centered around a rather unsettled life I was going through at the time, not that much has changed. After putting that beginning aside for twenty years to pursue borderline careers in Rock & Roll and theatre and at the behest of college bud, Tom Robbins, I picked it up again.

I was again unsettled, but thought maybe if I continued where I left off, I could prime the pump. When I read it, I couldn't believe how (wonderful? No. Awful) it was, but it was a beginning, so I persisted. After two thousand pages with nothing happening, characters I could no longer relate to, affected description and more, I threw it away and faced the proverbial question: "What am I going to write next?"

I was lucky in one sense. I didn't have to live up to a previous "best-seller". I didn't really have to live up to anything, but I didn't have a subject, so I began another self-serving "Bibliotherapeutic" (I know I coined that one) novel. It would have been easier to write a biography of someone else. I did complete it, though not my literary therapy, and even came up with a decent title: A Slow and Careful Dance. A couple of agents liked it, but did nothing with it; consequently I went back to my old technique and "put it aside". (It is still there). The same question then faced me again: "What am I going to write next?"

I asked friends and fellow scribblers and was answered by one friend with a question. Don't you love that? Actually, it got me started on the right track. The question was, "What do you love most?" Obviously, in my previous two attempts it was "myself", but that didn't work. I thought about it for a minute and a half and answered. "Music." It was a revelation. An epiphany. I was elated and then asked myself what I was going to write about music.

The answer was not immediately apparent, but the more I thought about it, the more I knew there was something to that suggestion. I had, after all, been in the business for many years, had taken part in almost every form of music, except classical. Pop combos, progressive jazz, doo-wop, rock and roll country and finally management. Much has been done with R&R(Almost Famous) and Doo-wop(The Five Heartbeats), so I discounted those. It was in the last two, especially management, where I believed I could use the knowledge I had gained through experience and come up with a decent story line.

I had been in Nashville when the country music industry changed. The old familial atmosphere was becoming a money-driven environment that competed with the most popular forms of music. Lyrics began to loosen up a bit with sex becoming a significant ingredient via Kris Kristofferson (Help Me Make It Through the Night), the white and black hats arrived and with all these changes, the more seedy elements of Rock & Roll and other forms of music tagged along.

This was where the story lay. I had dealt with these elements in managing groups I represented in Philadelphia and New York. Michael Corleone had nothing on some of the people I had to work with back during my Rock & Roll days and the general public had no concept of what the industry was like. Even many of the performers had no idea. They had people like me to handle those things. The story was there. The characters were there. I could write about something from first-hand knowledge that provided information that not many people knew. Now all I had to do was write it.

The ghosts of novels abandoned past haunted me, but I made up my mind to persist and the quest began.

(To Be Continued)