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.

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