Wednesday, January 31, 2007

CROSLEY Continues to Score

CROSLEY: Two Brothers and a Business Empire that Transformed the Nation continues to pop up on various bestseller lists. It's currently No. 6 on Barnes & Noble's list of bestselling business books, and has made the Wall Street Journal's hardcover business book list, as well as the New York Times extended bestseller list (twice).

Not bad for a book in its third month of life.

I'm presently working on follow-up books for the same audience. These are narrative nonfiction books that examine some fascinating business, personal, and technological subjects in the same way CROSLEY does.

Another Problem with Ebooks ...

When Ebooks are all we have (as enthusiasts predict will "someday" be the situation), what will authors autograph?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Google, the McCartney Effect, and Writers

What's up with Google? Famous for searching, the company has moved into advertising, E-mail, and other Web ventures. Why? It's almost as if McDonald's started building houses, simply because it has the money.

What I think it happening is this: Having reached the summit and finding it can go no higher, Google hopes to duplicate the exhilaration of its original run-up to success by engaging in new projects. It’s not about the money; it’s about the magic.

But the magic isn’t there, thanks to what I call “The McCartney Effect.”

Paul McCartney has worked to recapture the magic of the Beatles’ early days since he wrote “Get Back.” But those days cannot live again because the uncertainty, anticipation, and risk are gone. That’s the McCartney Effect: You can’t undo the legacy of success.

Succeed or fail, Google trying new Web ventures is like Paul McCartney organizing new bands, making movies, writing opera and so on. He’s still McCartney, and Google is still Google. Neither will ever “get back.”

This is not uncommon in pop music or other facets of the entertainment industry, where few people every really drop out and disappear to the extent that they must truly start over as an unknown. When a person or organization reaches a certain level of fame, it is impossible to subtract that fame.

More examples: Chuck Berry returning from infamy and prison, or Willy Nelson coming back after being wiped out by the IRS. No problem! No risks or uncertainties. Each had his fame behind him--fame and images that obviously could not be taken away.

The effect doesn't seem to carry over to writers, though. Once a writer slips away from reader consciousness, making a comeback is like starting over. And if a writer tries a new endeavor, the fame and image don't seem to carry over--unlike, say, an actress becoming a singer, or vice-versa.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Friday, January 19, 2007

How I Got Started Writing, Part II

In early 1960s I started paying attention to the “About the Author” blurbs on book flaps and noticed an interesting common thread. Most writers seemed to have spent their pre-writing lives working at jobs involving manual labor at poverty wages in unidentified but possibly exotic locations, rather like Bob Dylan’s early self-portrayals.

This left my young self with the impression that one had to live in poverty and work a lot of boring jobs before becoming a writer. Which begged the question: Did holding mindless, low-paying jobs make you want to write, or were writers incapable of holding a job? Not that I was thinking of becoming a writer. But some writers made such an impression on me that I was inspired to learn who these people were.

Ten years later, at the age of 20, I found myself working on the assembly line at a GM plant. I was taking evening classes at the University of Cincinnati, driven by a fuzzy idea of becoming an engineer. I had no idea of writing for a living, or writing very much at all beyond the occasional newspaper piece.

If it hadn’t been for the high pay and great benefits, I wouldn’t have stayed at the job long. The work was physically demanding and deadly boring--circumstances that drove some to seek relief in alcohol and drugs on the job. Others, high-seniority men who had the easier jobs, operated small businesses that fed on the boredom. They sold pot, pints of whiskey, pocket knives, and a wide variety of other merchandise that they hand-delivered to customers the line. One such entrepreneur not only sold whiskey but also managed a pornographic book-of-the-week club. Peter Lorre rented out 120-page paperback novels for twenty-five cents a day. (No, it wasn't the real Peter Lorre, but this guy could have been his twin.) For the less literate, Mr. Lorre offered a selection of porno picture books at slightly higher prices.

Although I was bored, getting drunk or stoned didn’t appeal to me, and reading porno novels seemed pointless. But that gave me an idea. Each day I took a book to work with me, mostly science fiction or mystery, though I alternated my reading with textbooks. I managed to read a book a day for most of a year, stealing glances at pages as I waited for the next car on the line to roll up, or during the rare 8- or 10-minute period of freedom I could create by working back the line.

It was a desperate existence, however well-paid. But in the summer of 1971 a slump in the new-car market brought sudden relief. The plant cut an entire shift and I was laid off. No worries, though: I had worked on that line for over a year (minus a couple of months on strike), and under the terms of the union contract I would receive 95 percent of my regular pay every week for six months. Plus medical benefits.

The only requirement was that I apply for a job at least once a week, and report that to the state unemployment bureau. There was a Catch-22 in my favor: I didn’t have to accept a job that paid less than what I was already receiving. As you probably know, the take-home pay of auto workers was huge—almost university vice-president level. When you’re 20 years old and unskilled who else is going to hire you at six times the minimum wage?

Right. There I was, my life completely subsidized. I was a new father, which took up some time, but I was mostly bored. It was a less-antagonizing boredom than standing on the assembly line, but boring enough. Getting another job was out; I’d seen co-workers try that, get caught, and lose the free ride. Going into fulltime party mode wasn’t for me. But I couldn’t just do nothing. More than that, I felt moved to do something worthwhile.

I had no hobbies at the time. I tried volunteering for community organizations, but the opportunities were limited. So I continued writing newspaper stories, for which I was actually paid from time to time, anywhere from $5 to $15. I also managed to talk the owner of a print shop into letting me write some ads for him. I made less than $200 writing that year, but I was beginning to feel like a writer. Doing something worthwhile, or at least something that produced tangible results.

I traveled some. I was still reading, and picked up a dozen or so magazines every month. I subscribed to several, including Popular Science, Mechanix Illustrated, Science Digest, and Analog science fiction magazine. I was strongly drawn by the idea of writing for magazines, but I didn’t feel that I had the skills. I thought about writing books, but here again I felt my skills were lacking. Still, there was one book in particular I made notes to start several times: a biography of Powel Crosley, Jr.

I was also intimidated by the idea of creating a book-length manuscript. At that time in my life I was unable to put so much sustained effort into a project without feedback. Shorter works were my m├ętier.

And short fiction ... well, there was an idea. I was reading a lot of fiction in the monthly magazines, and short story collections were prominent among the books I took to work every day. Why not try fiction?

Why not, indeed? Years of reading had left me with some idea of the structure of fiction. I noticed how sentences were organized, soaked up dialogue technique, and studied the styles of various writers. I was already editing stories in my mind, changing characters and outcomes. (It helped that my 7th-grade English teacher had drilled us on sentence diagramming so much that for weeks afterward I was mentally diagramming sentences as I spoke them.)

So I spent a lot of hours at the typewriter, pounding out mainstream and science fiction stories that were more wish-fulfillment fantasies than marketable fiction. I found it gratifying to write short stories, but I was frustrated that my stories didn’t read as well as published work, and mostly didn’t have satisfying endings. (Some had no endings at all.)

After a few hundred pages I decided to seriously attack the problem of writing style, to answer the question of why my writing was so ... clunky. I studied how writers like Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein achieved certain effects, and slowly developed sets of rules to help me produce smoother prose. Heavy editing and rewriting reinforced what I was learning.

The six-month summer eventually came to an end, and I had to find a job. I returned to the automotive industry; family connections help me “get on” at the local Ford transmission plant. Big money, big benefits. I was in Fat City again--but with a killer schedule.

Night shift. Noisy. Grim, bleak, and depressing. Midnight to 8:00 AM four days a week, and Midnight to Noon three days a week. Reading was forbidden, a covert activity. I was lucky to get in 20 pages a night. I drove home each morning (or early afternoon) to toss and turn for hours before I dropped into a fitful sleep, only to wake up a couple hours before I was due at the plant--when everyone else was going to bed. No time for writing. I wanted out, but it seemed to go against all logic to walk away from the kind of money I was making, the equivalent of $3,500 a week in 2007 dollars.

One morning I stopped by a Walden Books store (they were two words back then) to find something to read myself to sleep with. I was perusing the science fiction shelves when for whatever reason my eyes shifted to the right, into the Reference section.

A title on a book’s spine jumped out at me: Writer’s Market.

“I wonder if that’s what I think it is?” I asked myself. I slid the book off the shelf and flipped through it with growing excitement. It was what I thought: a directory of magazine and book publishers for freelance writers--imagine that! Inside I found magazines that I read, and--amazingly--most of the magazines paid money.

I paid my $7.95 and took the fat paperback home. It was a revelation. I had never thought of just sending an article to a magazine, or even sending a query. Magazines were put together by editors in faraway places, people beyond the pale, people who would ignore submissions from someone in Cincinnati, of all places.

But Writer’s Market indicated otherwise. These publishers actually seemed to be inviting submissions, from anyone. As I paged through the book that morning, I was set on a new road. (Little did I suspect that one day I would be endorsing this book in full-page ads in Writer’s Digest.)

Thrilled, I wrote up a short humor piece and sent it to a magazine called Modern People. I’d never seen the magazine, but the WM listing said the editor wanted humor. A few weeks later I received a check for $25. Wow! I was hooked. Maybe I could make some decent money at this stuff, enough to let me take a more sane job.

I may even then have been thinking, in the back of my mind, about making my living as a writer, but consciously I was still thinking of engineering.

The next time I took a newspaper story to Leona Farley I told her about the sale, and Writer’s Market. As it turned out, she knew all about it. And she gave me a dozen or so back issues of Writer’s Digest, a magazine I didn’t know existed. (I was so busy reading marketing listings in WM that I didn’t notice it was published in Cincinnati by Writer’s Digest.)

This was a real boost. Here were people telling you how to write better, and how to get your work read and published. I started sending out more articles, and queries, too. And it didn’t bother me when I learned that Modern People was a tabloid when I finally found an issue at a downtown newsstand. The checks didn’t bounce, and that was good enough for me.

Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

How I Got Started Writing, Part I

Thanks to the Crosley book making the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists, I’ve been interviewed by several newspapers. Most of the reporters were curious as to how I got into writing for publication. In case you're curious, too, here’s the story I told them:

Although I always did well in languages in grade school and high school (English and Spanish), I never gave a thought to being a writer. I admired several writers, but if I thought about what I would do “when I grew up,” I figured I would be an aeronautical engineer or, later, a rock musician.

Aside from class assignments, my writing was limited to a few songs and quite a bit of poetry. Most of the poetry consisted of typical teenage angst and social criticism, as did the song lyrics. An English teacher persuaded me to give one short poem to the school newspaper as part of a class project. It was published, but I didn’t see myself as a writer. I felt more like I was just getting something off my chest, and otherwise didn't share my poetry. (The paper was the Milford [Ohio] High School Reflector.)

My first serious thoughts of writing were inspired a couple of years later by a fellow named Cary Sunderhaus. Cary and I had been friends off and on through most of high school. After graduation I moved out of Milford and we saw less of each other. But I still picked up the hometown weekly newspaper, the Milford Advertiser. One Friday I was scanning its pages when a familiar name caught my eye. There, beneath a headline about a golf tournament was the line, "by Cary Sunderhaus." When did he start writing?

I read the article, which was well-written, and thought, “This looks like fun. I'll bet I can do it, too!”

I’m not completely sure where that thought came from, but thus was born an urge to write and be read that continues to drive me today. It was supported by my having recently bought a cheap typewriter at a yard sale. I had no idea what I would do with it at the time; it just seemed like a good idea to own a typewriter. (I had taken typing in high school for the easy half-credit, finishing with a C-.)

And now I had a use for the typewriter.

Going from idea to publication was fairly easy, thanks to the fact that the paper’s editor, Leona Farley, was the mother of another friend, Mike Farley. If I hadn’t known her, I probably would not have approached the paper; I was seriously introverted.

But having a contact gave me confidence. All I needed was something to write about. Something timely and newsworthy ...

The subject came to me almost immediately: it was May, 1971, and everyone was complaining about a proposed increase in the cost of a First Class stamp, from six cents to eight cents. I would, I decided, write a public service piece about the issue. Pencil and notebook in hand, I went to the Milford Post Office, where I interviewed a clerk with whom I’d often spoken, and asked two customers what they thought about the increase. Armed with carefully copied quotes, I went home to tap out the story on the old typewriter. I kept in mind the “who, what, when, where, why” rules I’d once read about newspaper writing, but mainly my technique was to write and rewrite until the story “felt” right.

The next day I took my two-page manuscript to Leona Farley. She looked it over, made some corrections, and told me she would see if the paper could use it. Three days later I opened the paper to find myself in print!

There followed a few more stories for the Advertiser, after which I branched out with small pieces for other local weekly papers. Leona was encouraging, and helped me improve my writing with suggestions like, "If you're not sure you have the right word, replace it with its antonym. If you do that and the sentence says the opposite of what you wanted to say, you had the right word."

All of which helped prepare me for the next step: writing for national magazines. My first editor would have a role in that chapter of my writing career, too.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Getting Your Book Published

"I've been working on a book. How can I get it published?" This is a question I get asked a lot. After some discussion I usually learn that what the writer really wants to know is how she can finish the book, and whether there's any way to know if it's any good.

It happens that I'm teaching a course for the University of Cincinnati's Communiversity program starting next week, so I've been thinking about these matters a bit.

Rather than tackle how to write a book (certainly a subject for another posting), let's go to the main question: how does one get published? The short answer is that you write your (book, article, story) to completion, submit the manuscript to someone who might buy it (do your market research first), and if it's rejected send it out to another market. If it's returned with a note suggesting changes, by all means make those changes and resubmit.

In real life, it's not always that simple. Requests for changes will be rare. And rejections inspire questions, such as "How many rejections should I collect before I give up?" and "How do I know if my work needs changes?" Not to mention, "If I'm rejected does it mean my writing is poor?"

Let's examine each of those questions. (The answers I provide apply whether you're submitting a completed manuscript or a proposal. As for whether you should be submitting a proposal or completed manuscript, see my article in the November, 2006, issue of The Writer magazine.)

How many rejections should I collect before I give up?
Only you can answer this question. The first two short stories I published each went to seven magazines before they sold. My first book sold to the first publisher to whom I submitted it. The same thing happened with the first newspaper and magazine articles I wrote. My second book sold on its fourth submission. I have stories that I wrote and submitted eight or nine times, and never sold. And just today my newest book proposal was rejected. (I'll send it back out tomorrow.)

Obviously, persistence can be a good thing, but there is no set number of rejections. I know of an author who submitted his first novel 84 times before it sold. That's extreme, and I don't recommend that kind of persistence. It can be emotionally wearing, and an absolute waste of time. The time and effort you put into the 10th through 84th submissions might be better invested in writing a new novel, one that may have a good chance of selling because of what you learned writing the first book.

For my part, I figure five or six rejections mean that the manuscript needs work, or that it's hopeless. At that point I examine it to see what sorts of changes I might make.

How do I know if my work needs changes?
Most writers are not qualified to critique their own work--not immediately. Repeated rejection may be taken as an indication that the manuscript needs some changes, corrections, or improvements. But you can't be sure until you've been away from the manuscript for a while. Ideally, you will be working on another project while the manuscript is in circulation, and hence it will have been out of your thoughts for a while. At this point, when you have as objective a viewpoint as possible, you can judge whether the work needs changes, or if you should just keep submitting it. (Recognizing the changes you need to make is a subject for another posting.)

If you feel that you can't improve the manuscript, perhaps it's time to retire it for a while. A few months later you may find that the market has changed, or that your perspective with respect to that particular work has matured enough to enable you to see what might be wrong with it.

If I'm rejected does it mean my writing is poor?
This question, implied by the preceding one, is a tough one. Manuscripts are rejected for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with quality. There are almost as any reasons for a manuscript being rejected as there are for bad books getting into print. Here again, detailing those reasons is a subject for another post, but you should be aware that a rejection doesn't mean you should give up. It may hurt, and you may take it personally, but rejection is not necessarily a comment on the quality of your writing or the viability of your subject matter. Only repeated rejection, combined with the ability to critique your work after gaining some distance from it can tell you that.

A Solution?
If you have only one writing project going at a time, all the worry over rejection (not to mention the length of time it takes to get responses to submissions) can skew your judgment. Waiting six months to be rejected can shoot the hell out your confidence. So can going through several three-week waits followed by rejection.

To avoid this, don't put all your eggs in one basket. Work on more than one novel or story or poem or whatever at a time, and keep multiple manuscripts in circulation. When you do this, a given rejection will have far less impact. And when you hit writer's block, you will have an alternate project to tall back on, which means you won't compound the block with frustration over not getting any writing done.

Do I Need an Agent?
Looking back over this post, I see that I haven't said anything about agents. To answer the obvious question, you can sell a book without an agent. But it can help to have one--in terms of getting your manuscript in front of the right editors, getting a good contract, and in other ways.
(Do I have an agent? Right now, no. But I've agented for other writers.)

Recommended Reading
For lots of useful info on the book publishing business in general, read Another Life: A Memoir of Other People, by Michael Korda. Want to learn about agents and marketing? Read How to Be Your Own Literary Agent, by Richard Curtis.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Making the Bestseller Lists

Almost nothing turns out the way you might expect or want it to. A case in point: Between December 23 and January 7, CROSLEY: Two Brothers and a Business Empire that Transformed the Nation made the New York Times Bestseller List, the Wall Street Journal's hardcover nonfiction list, and the New York Times Hardcover Business Best Sellers list.

If you believe what you see in movies, you might expect me to be whooping it up--buying a new house and looking for a 1963 Jaguar XK-E coupe as I sign six-figure contracts and consider film offers.

Hardly. Little has changed, at least not on the professional and financial fronts. Neither editors or agents are contacting me with offers (though I'm open). I'm in the same nice little house, and still drive the mini-van with the trick transmission. My banker friend, Greg, is still waiting to recommend investments, and I'm putting off buying that 1958 Fender Precision bass.

Did I expect my bank account to suddenly swell to mammoth proportions, or that I would get calls from Hollywood? Truthfully, no. I've seen enough writers make bestseller lists and fade into obscurity to know that bestsellerdom isn't necessarily life-altering. Besides, these things take time. (Remember Cheops' Law: Everything takes longer and costs more.)

But what the heck--I never expected to even make one bestseller list, let alone two!

And some things have changed. Relatives I haven't heard from in years (and who once ridiculed my writing) are calling me. When I do a bookstore signing, scores or hundreds of people turn out instead of two or three. People who have seen me on TV or in newspapers congratulate me and enthuse over all the money I must be getting paid.

Most of them are so honestly happy for me that I hate to burst the bubble by explaining that it will be most of a year before even I begin to see any money from the book. That the publishing world has taken little notice of my name on the bestseller lists. That, aside from a box of books and a couple of neat shirts I haven't gained anything material from this.

Oh, certainly I had a book advance, but that was years ago, and I spent far more time writing the book than the advance warranted. (It's usually my practice to get a large enough advance to cover the time I put into a book. That way, if it doesn't earn royalties or sub-rights money I'm not disappointed. But CROSLEY was a special case. I'd been waiting decades to write this book)

Otherwise, publisher response is as slow as it ever was. I suppose I could speed up the responses by making a nuisance of myself, but that's no way to sell books. (Another aphorism comes to mind: If you press for an answer, you'll likely get the one you don't want.)

The lesson in all this is fairly straightforward: Public acclaim doesn't always translate to professional success. But it's all fun!
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Writers as Optimists

If there was a job description for writing for publication, optimism would head the list of required character traits. After all, what is more optimistic than writing a story or novel without any feedback, then sending it out to be judged by someone you've never met and who has too much to read, anyway? Only an optimist would seriously contemplate such an absurd act.

Before I started writing for a living I regarded myself as a pessemist. I was always looking at the negative side of things, worrying about what might go wrong next. But 20 years of fulltime writing has shown me that I'm a fulltime optimist. Without optimism, I’d never have made it for a year, much less 20! Late checks, impossible deadlines, canceled contracts and columns … any of these could have easily run my career right into a dead-end if I wasn't optimistic that things would get better through my continued efforts.

So far, it's worked out to be a self-fulfilling prediction.


Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks