Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Shape Poem Podcast

Recently, Terrain.org asked me to record two shape poems, "Consolation" and "Return to Sender," for inclusion in their winter 2009 issue. As part of the process, I created my own podcast; you can listen to these poems directly at http://www.gcast.com/u/michaeljvaughn

Note: For writers who may have need of MP3 files, but don't have the right software on their computers, the Gcast process is superbly easy. You record items to the site through your cell phone, and can then convert them to MP3s for export eslewhere. Highly recommended!

Image: a photo of the shape poem "Consolation"

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

My Life in Publishing Hell, Part IX

The Epic Karaoke Novel Arrives at IUniverse

I am a dedicated karaokephile, and have always been fascinated by the instant community that develops when people sing to each other. It's only natural, then, that I would use a karaoke bar as a setting for a novel. Outro follows the life of Channy Lebeque, a karaoke hostess in Gig Harbor, Washington who, despite the merry atmosphere that she nurtures at her shows, seems to be suffering from some great unspoken grief. The source of this grief is revealed by the antagonisms of Ruby Cohen, a talented singer of jazz standards who has come to Gig Harbor after a failed Broadway career. The sessions of storytelling between Ruby and Channy go to places that surprised even me, revealing the ill fates of Channy's young, gung-ho husband that led to a bad ending in Iraq.

Bouyed by the credentials that I earned through my many stories at Writer's Digest, Outro got many, many nibbles from the agents and editors of America, but none that resulted in a contract. Part of the reason may have been revealed by the analysis of my friend Michelle Sutton, who told me that, although Channy's mysterious early griefs definitely pique the reader's curiosity, they're also a little irritating ("Like, what's this chick's problem?"). I tackled this by doing a little chapter-switching, opening with a flashback of Channy's meeting with her future husband at the Alaskan Highway's famed Signpost Forest. I hoped that this would show a younger and happier Channy, before she was beset by the tragedies that have caused her current depressions.

Not enough to get an acceptance, mind you. But I am far past the idea that agents and editors put good writing at a priority - celebrity status and author platforms being much more important - so I took my rejections like a man and re-entered the self-publishing process at IUniverse. As of this writing, I have submitted the text, back matter, author bio and photo (the splendid work of my journalist pal, Anne Gelhaus), all through the online submission process. Most importantly, I obtained another incredible image from my Italian photographer colleague, Paula Grenside, who supplied the startling cover for my previous novel, Double Blind.

The photo, "Warmth," is something I've had my eye on for quite a while. I used it previously as the cover image for my online literary journal - geocities.com/capricejournal. The image satisfies all the elements I look for in a piece of cover art. First, it's a striking image that will help the book to "jump off the shelf." Second, it evokes the themes of the book without overtly spelling them out. The photo portrays a young woman, her identity hidden by brilliant photoshop overlays of texture and color (notably a sublime spring green), cradling an object that gives out a reddish glow. I think of that glow as Channy's grief, which is simultaneously comforting her and keeping her hidden from the world. The title further emphasizes this idea: "Outro" is the opposite of "intro," a word that comes up on the karaoke lyric screen when the singing is over but the music continues.

Third, "Warmth" is a piece of art unto itself, produced by Paula years ago, with no intention toward some novel that her colleague Michael might write. I cherish the idea of contributing to the dissemination of Paula's brilliant images, and intend to keep doing so with future novels. (I have always preferred photography for cover images, and have used it all three times that I have had the say-so in such matters, including my first novel, Frozen Music, in 1995.)

The designers at IUniverse did their usual excellent job with the piece - notably in continuing the luscious background tones as a wraparound to the back page - but gave me a little conundrum. The designer used a fanciful, gothic type for the title word. It was lovely, but "Outro" is not a well-known word, and I feared that people would have a problem making it out through the typography. So I apologized profusely and asked them to change it to something plainer. They went with the type they used for the author name, and it's all ready to go. I found 30 or so typos on my proofread (an embarrassing amount for someone who prides himself on clean manuscripts), and as soon as IUniverse corrects two more the book will be on its way to press.

I am considering some unusual marketing for Outro. I may take a little tour of karaoke bars, using my singing as an opening to give people flyers about the book (and getting that astounding cover image into their hands), and looking for reviews from karaoke magazines and newsletters. I also may reproduce the entire text in a serialized form on this site, with the addition of notes explaining some of the writing processes of each chapter. (I am currently publishing a serial version of my earlier novel, Gabriella's Voice, on my opera website, operaville.blogspot.com.

If Outro ever did make it big, I am not so sure that I would sell out to the major publishing houses. I love the artistic control afforded by the IUniverse system, and could be very happy just selling my future novels through their site and gathering up the royalties. I have been through way too much publishing hell to trust an industry that has become overconglomerated, tasteless and cowardly, and have often fantasized about accepting some huge literary award and taking the opportunity to tell them all exactly what I think of them.
Image: "Warmth," manipulated photograph, Paula Grenside.

Friday, December 19, 2008

My Life in Publishing Hell, Part VIII

Double Blind
The Self-Publishing Experiment

My next project was based on something I'd always wanted to do: to write a novel about sex that got away from this silly American giggliness and spoke in plain terms. To bolster my approach, I used a first-person male narrator who is also a scientist (and much more apt to see sex as a natural process). I came up with an outlandish plot (a husband accidentally getting his wife involved with an Internet porn site) that had some surprisingly poignant things to say about bringing unnecessary chaos into the lives of children. I was also relieved to be back in the land of the non-autobiographical novel, and the kind of imaginative, pure storytelling that had produced my earlier favorites, Gabriella's Voice and Frosted Glass.

Blessed with the credentials I'd recently gathered writing for Writer's Digest, I thought I would have a better chance with agents and publishers. Alas, no. I had, however, crossed a personal boundary: I no longer had any doubt in the merits of my writing, and particularly in Double Blind, and I knew that it deserved to be read. So I decided to do it all on my own.

Some of this decision was fueled by the can't-beat-'em-join-'em angle. I went with IUniverse, largely because it's owned by the same folks who own Barnes & Noble and is thereby well-connected with the distribution system.

Tossing all humility aside, I am the perfect self-publisher. With my stringent self-editing habits I handed IUniverse a near-perfect text (I have yet to find a typo, two years later). They did a beautiful job with the typography and layout. On the design side, I had the chance to pursue the photographic approach that I had always envisioned. I'm a sometime-photographer myself, and have always been drawn to book covers featuring photos. My first book, 1995's Frozen Music, featured a Susan Merrill photograph that I still adore.

With Double Blind, I was in some extraordinary luck. A few years before, the online journal Avatar Review accepted some of my poetry. I became a regular correspondent with the poetry editor, Paula Grenside. She lives in Italy, and as an opera buff I enjoyed attempting some conversations with her in Italian. One day she invited me to check out her online photography portfolio, and I immediately fell in love. Working in a wide variety of styles - black and white, color, computer-manipulated and not, landscapes and model work - Paula had created some fantastically imaginative work. I asked to use some of it for an online journal of my own - geocities.com/capricejournal - and a few months later, when it came to Double Blind, I knew I wanted to use one of her works for the cover.

Scanning Paula's portfolio, I though I was looking for a nude shot - something as frankly sexual as the narration - but then I happened upon a non-manipulated black-and-white of a svelte young woman with a lizard tattoo and a feathered mask. There was something so flirtatious and mysterious about her demeanor that I knew this was my cover. (Later, a friend would point out that I had, in fact, written a mystery, so it's no wonder the photo made that connection.) I asked Paula to send a Tif file of it off to IUniverse, and what I got back was perfection: a design that used shadowed blue-gray type to blend the title and author name with the graytones of Paula's image.

I've also been pleased by the customer service at IU. They assigned me to a customer service rep who walked me through the process: she was prompt with answers and always encouraging in her tone - even when wrestling with my clumsy attempts at getting the right format for the author photo. Later, they offered some intriguing group advertising buys, and even though it didn't help sales at all, I did appreciate the opportunity to have DB in Poets & Writers and the New York Times review of Books. (I got a call from a long-lost colleague who assumed that the latter meant I had hit the big time. I did not correct her.)

After trying for a year to encourage people to buy DB online, I discovered that a friend of mine had just published a book on recession economics (nicely timed!) and decided to set up some readings for the both of us. We called it the Sex & Money Tour. And here are my findings: as a self-published POD author, you simply have to bring your own copies. It's the only way a bookstore will host you. Our two readings received some excellent response. In the book-mad county of Santa Cruz, CA, we drew 60 folks to the Capitola Book Cafe, and in Silicon Valley, 30 came to Books Inc. in Mountain View. I did my usual dramatic readings (with a couple actor friends to add dialogues) and was very happy with the audience response. I was especially pleased with the Books Inc. store, which afforded my title some excellent display space, sent me a check for sold copies a week after the reading, and still has six copies on their shelves six months later. The Capitola store has sent me nothing, but does have some copies of the books still on its shelves.

Although DB was far from a sales success, it taught me some valuable lessons, and I am set to try some more ambitious things with my upcoming IU book, Outro, which I will chronicle here as the process goes along.

Next: Outro, epic karaoke novel

Find Double Blind at http://www.amazon.com/Double-Blind-Michael-J-Vaughn/dp/0595418074/ref=pd_bbs_sr_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1229729394&sr=8-3

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Birth of a Novel

I'm jumping ahead on this a little, but here's the image I'm using for my upcoming novel, "Outro," currently being developed by the design staff at IUniverse. It's a manipulated photo, "Warmth," by Paula Grenside, the Italy-based artist who also supplied the image for my previous novel, "Double Blind." So, see if you can imagine what might be done with this, and in a couple days I'll publish the designer's first attempt.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

My Life in Publishing Hell, Part VII

Rhyming Pittsburgh
A Dive Into Weirdness

With my next novel - an account of a failed marriage proposal that I now refer to as "The Long Island Fiasco" - I decided to try a new twist on the autobiographical-novel form. I made my protagonist, Jake Willoughby, into a poet, and used actual poems that I had written to my girlfriend in the context of the story. Even with this innovation, my publisher at Dead End Street was not interested in the title. The struggles over POD distribution had left us all a little exhausted, and trying to market another Subtle Literary Work from Vaughn wasn't really on his priority list. I didn't blame him - and besides, it seemed like time for the both of us to move on to something else. I had also become increasingly self-assured as an artist, and was looking for a publisher who (unless large cash advances were involved) would give me pretty much complete control over the text.

My limbo lasted all of a week, and my subsequent alliance with LBF Books unleashed a string of art-imitates-life-imitates-art that's a little hard to explain.

Jacqueline Druga-Marchetti was the author of my second editing project, The Shroud, a sci-fi novel based on the Jurassic Park-ish idea of cloning the DNA from the Shroud of Turin. It was a brilliant idea, but the prose needed some tightening. I was tough on Jake's writing (yes, that's her nickname), but I involved her in the process at all times, and I gave her absolute veto power over all changes. She really appreciated this approach, and we became friends as well as colleagues.

When Jake heard I was moving to Long Island - with the goal of proposing to my long-time girlfriend - she invited me to take part in a book festival she was organizing in her home town, Pittsburgh. The post-festival party featured her cover rock band, and when their drummer flaked I played a set with them absolutely cold. (The experience was crazy-scary and crazy-adrenalizing. A horror novelist played the second set and managed to bloody his thumb on a drumhead. Typical.)

A month later, when my Long Island trip officially became the Fiasco, Jake invited me to hang out in Pittsburgh for a month, so I could lick my wounds before heading back to California. And also to play a couple of gigs with her band, which had fired the flaky drummer.

All of this became fodder for the novel. I retrieved my soul in Pittsburgh, especially on the artsy, quirky South Side club district, which is why I used the name of the city in my title (and also to reflect its predecessor, Painting Tacoma). While I was writing the novel, Jake got together with an author/physician/investor to start a small publishing firm, LBF Books. When she learned that Dead End Street had turned down Rhyming Pittsburgh, she immediately offered to publish it.

Oddly, the use of "Jake" for my protagonist is complete coincidence. It's a name I had always used at cafes when I got tired of three different "Mikes" trying to steal my latte. Otherwise, nothing in the book is coincidence, and, to summarize, one of the characters in the book had just become its publisher. Weird!

LBF designed the book with some intriguing illustrations by Laura Givens, based on photographs of models in various scenes from the story. These were used on the cover as well as in several interior illustrations - an old-fashioned touch that people really seemed to enjoy (except for my subsequent girlfriend, who realized that one of the photos was meant to represent me in bed with another woman). We debuted the whole line at the West Virginia Book Faire, and had one helluva good time. I drove there with a poet who turned out to be a professional mezzo soprano, and who also could do a mean impression of Cartman from South Park. After that, naturally, I was a judge at Jake's karaoke contest.

Seeing that this book was not a POD, but a small, standard-print run, I looked forward to booking some author appearances, but found myself with a whole new set of obstacles. LBF was wholly ineffective at satsifying the requirements of the distributors, and when bookstore managers couldn't find the title on their computer listings, they refused to even consider me. When I finally found a couple of real pros who could see through the problems, one of my readings, at the University of Washington Bookstore in Tacoma, was cancelled when LBF failed to get the books there on time.

My single reading came at the Borders in Tacoma, and this time I managed to screw things up all by myself. Not realizing that LBF didn't accept returns on autographed books (a silly policy), I signed all thirty copies that had not sold at the reading. The district manager sent me a nasty email accusing me of blackmailing my way into shelf space. I apologized profusely, feeling terribly embarrassed, but then something weirdly wonderful happened. The bookstore manager got ticked off at the district manager for being so nasty with me, and decided to get back at him by making me her personal cause. She placed all thirty copies of Pittsburgh next to the lines for the cash registers, during the holidays. Out of sheer guilt, I bought five copies myself, but the other 25 sold out by New Year's, confirming what I had always suspected: that if any of my books ever got the proper treatment, they would sell. And God bless that lovely store manager, wherever she is, for taking up my banner. I will try to piss off district managers from now on.

After that, Jake became increasingly flaky and incommunicative, and it became counterproductive for me to even bother with any further marketing. The entire LBF line was later purchased by a Canadian press that sends me irritating emails and does absolutely nothing to promote my book.

Next: Double Blind and the world of self-publishing.

Find Rhyming Pittsburgh at http://www.amazon.com/Rhyming-Pittsburgh-Michael-J-Vaughn/dp/0975453335

Image: One of the very cool interior illustrations by Laura Givens (see lauragivens-artist.com for more).

Monday, December 8, 2008

My Life in Publishing Hell, Part VI

Painting Tacoma

The End of the Dead End Street

Already beset by the challenges of trying to get the publishing industry to open itself up to POD titles, my publisher John Rutledge was increasingly eager to fish in the Hollywood pond instead, and went to the extent of publishing my screenplay adaptations of Gabriella's Voice and Frosted Glass. The adaptation process surprised me. Unlike many authors, I absolutely relished the process of re-forming my stories into the visual language of cinema, and had no problem hacking and slashing wherever it was called for. We had some serious nibbles. Sam Waterston of Law & Order fame expressed interest in Glass, but had to beg out due to scheduling conflicts. Gabriella drew an offer from a small filmmaking group in New York. After reviewing the contracts, John decided that the group wasn't up to snuff, and turned down the offer. That's a decision I have grown to regret. Since I had no real name built up, I think we should've taken the chance.

Into this rather dismal atmosphere came Painting Tacoma, based on my relationship with a born-again Christian woman with bipolar syndrome. I thought the issues of cross-faith romance (I'm an atheist) and mental illness - along with the setting in my adopted second hometown - would be enough to carry the book, but John had been hoping for something a little "sexier," something with the grand storytelling impact of a Gabriella or Frosted Glass. On the up-side, my writing process had attained the point of near infallibility. John seemed almost disheartened that there was no real editing to be done. Knoll Gilbert came up with a magnificent cover design - blending the paint of the title with fantastical colors reflecting the hallucinatory stages of bipolar episodes - and we put out another beautiful book.

Faced with the continuing frustrations of the bookstore-distribution process, however, Painting Tacoma never had a chance. Many of my own energies were, ironically, being taken up with a resurgence of the very romance I had written about, so I lacked the strength to beat my head against that brick bookstore wall. In the end, the book that would prove to be my last with Dead End Street died a quiet death.
Find Painting Tacoma at http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Painting-Tacoma/Michael-J-Vaughn/e/9781929429929/?itm=1

Next: Rhyming Pittsburgh and a dive into weirdness.

Friday, December 5, 2008

My Life in Publishing Hell, Part V

The Legendary Barons
Let the Autobiography Begin!

TLB - based on the exploits of my long-time softball team - was noteworthy (in a publishing context) for its cover, done by a guy who formerly designed a Nine Inch Nails album cover - and for the inclusion in its story line of the book tour for my first novel, Frozen Music. Called by a friend "The I-Told-You-So Tour," my cross-country traveling crew included a friend who had recently lost her mother - and who decided to indulge in a full-scale alcoholic adventure during the trip.

Barons was the first of an autobiographical trilogy that would prove to be quite a struggle for me. The effort was to balance real-life events - which rarely follow the perfect arcs of classic storytelling - with the requirements of fiction. Although I am happy with the work I did in this gray area, I have come to realize that my best work - as in Frosted Glass and Gabriella's Voice - comes from material that may be drawn from real life details, settings and characters, but follows storylines that are not tied down to the rigors of memoir.

After the great success of Frosted Glass, Dead End Street was firmly behind me. In fact, after the editing boot-camp conducted on FG by myself and publisher John Rutledge, DES hired me as an editor for Michael Kelleher's true-crime novel Suspect Zero and Jacqueline Druga-Marchetti's apocalyptic sci-fi book The Shroud. Barons was the first application of this new editing rigor to my own work, and it showed in the final editing process, which did not require much work on John's part.

After a successful release party at the San Jose Barnes & Noble, I sought to book some appearances in outlying regions of Northern California, and began to run into the roadblocks that would continue to plague my DES efforts in years to come. Even with print-on-demand firmly established as a publishing technology, the bookstore distribution systems refused to adapt to the new realities. The system was clearly set up to accommodate books with thousands of copies at the warehouse, and even when we sent the required minimum to those warehouses, the Ingram readouts refused to list their availability.

The other issue was returnability. Distributors refused to offer full returnability on copies that didn't sell in the bookstores, and even after DES offered full guaranteed returnability direct to the publisher, the bookstore managers refused to go for it. What's more, POD had begun to open the floodgates for poorly designed, poorly edited, poorly written titles, and bookstores refused to believe that DES was actually producing professionally designed, edited and written books. The stores began to ghettoize POD titles into author faires; authors were required to bring their own copies to the faire, give the stores a percentage of any copies sold that day, and then take the rest home - which removes the most basic reason for arranging author appearances, which is to get copies of your book on the shelves, where consumers might see it and take a chance on an unknown author. Faced with glass ceiling after glass ceiling, I began to wonder how I would ever be able to bring my novels to a wider audience.

Next: Painting Tacoma, the end of the Dead End Street

To see Legendary Barons, go to: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Legendary-Barons/Michael-J-Vaughn/e/9781929429899/?itm=5

Sunday, November 30, 2008

My Life in Publishing Hell, Part IV

Frosted Glass

The Editor-Go-Round

Dead End Street signed me up for my next novel, Frosted Glass - about a down-on-her-luck marketing executive who falls for a beachcombing eccentric on the Oregon coast - and we immediately ran into problems. The novel is narrated by the protagonist, Sandra Lowiltry, and my editor, Christine Mrazovich, hated her. She also didn't like the style, which was much more "unreined" than Gabriella's Voice. In a way, I could understand Christine's feelings. From what I knew of her, she was a divorced mother, and Sandra's profile - a self-involved businesswoman who desperately wants a baby, and who acts like a complete twit when it comes to her personal life - would not be someone Christine would be fond of. Nonetheless, I had the ultimate faith in Frosted Glass, and it was clear that I couldn't work with an editor who would prefer to rewrite the whole thing. So I asked my publisher, John Rutledge, to assign another editor to the project.

The next editor was an absolute train wreck. He had a PhD in Creative Writing (a degree which I've always viewed with great suspicion), and he seemed intent on completely rewriting Glass in his own style, in accord with many great theories of literature that he had picked up in college. When I protested his machete style of editing on my first chapter, he responded, "No author has been allowed to have a personal style since John Updike." Excuse me? I decided to use some of the cache I had earned with Gabriella's Voice, and asked John to dismiss this editor, too.

Then a rather marvelous thing happened. Running out of options (and editors), John decided to take on the project himself - and became the best editor I've ever had. John Rutledge's "day job" is as an intellectual properties lawyer. At the time, he was working for a firm in Marin County that represented the Grateful Dead and many other Bay Area artists. I teased John one day when he mentioned a conversation with "Carlos." I said, "Come on, I know you're trying really hard not to name-drop, but I know who 'Carlos' is, pal." In any case, John's life mission, it seems, is to cut the unnecessary verbiage from traditionally overwritten legal documents (I noticed this with DES's author contracts, which were actually understandable!). I had come to understand that I had intentionally overwritten Frosted Glass, and that it did need some hacking and slashing. The difference with John was that, while he was tough on me, he let me be a part of the process, and allowed me to review and rewrite changes that he suggested. This removed many of the adverserial feelings that can creep into an author-editor relationship. Not that we didn't argue - boy did we argue! - but he was nice enough to let me have my say. In the end, once we whittled the excess away from Glass, we had ourselves a beautifully crafted novel, one that I still consider my best.

I learned so much about the editing process from the Frosted Glass experience that I soon became one of DES's editors, and it has always been my hallmark to include the authors in on the process - and, in fact, to give them final say over all changes, thereby gaining their trust. I received excellent reviews from my authors, because I gave them the same consideration that John gave to me.

The cover design for Glass was a marvel of synchronicity. In researching the image, my designer, Holly Smith, had gone to websites featuring the finds of beach glass aficionados. She chose to use as her subject a gorgeous piece of cobalt blue with a faint star at its center, and framed it with bits of seaweed, sand and foam. The piece she chose is perfect for the story, which features a large piece of the "rare and lovely blue" as a pivotal sign of affection between the beachcomber and Sandra. It turns out, however, that Holly had not read that far into the story - had simply picked the blue piece because she found it to be the most stunning piece on the website.

The book came out in July 2002, and I managed to assemble a Northwest tour - including a stop in Lincoln City, OR, very near the novel's setting, and other appearances in Washington, Montana, Colorado and Nevada. After a memorable stop in Great Falls, Montana, I drove head-on into a blizzard, and spent the night stopping every few miles to chip the ice from my windshield. (My brother-in-law, Rick, had graciously loaned me his 4WD truck for the trip, and I needed every of its power to make it.) I called it a night in Casper, Wyoming, and had to cancel my Colorado appearances when they closed down I-80 due to all the ice on the freeway.

During the planning of this trip, an unsettling trend began to appear: bookstore managers began to balk at arranging appearances for POD authors, citing distribution problems and returnability issues (DES's guaranteed return policy did not seem to impress them). These issues would intensify in later years.

As a side note, John asked me to write screenplay adaptations for Gabriella's Voice and Frosted Glass. Unlike many authors, I very much enjoyed the opportunity to adapt these stories to a visual medium, and hacked and slashed wherever needed. DES eventually published both adaptations in soft-cover. We received some notable interest from John's Hollywood mailing list - especially Sam Waterston of Law and Order fame - but failed to land a contract. A small indie company in New York made a play for Gabriella, but John turned it down, citing indications that the company didn't really have its act together. With perfect hindsight, I wish we had signed them up, anyway, because I'm not exactly Michael Crichton, and why not take a chance?

Next: The Legendary Barons and the Autobiography Bug
Find Frosted Glass at: http://deadendstreet.com/v3.asp

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

My Life in Publishing Hell, Part III

Gabriella's Voice
The Breakout

My great love for opera inspired Gabriella's Voice, the story of a young opera singer and her mysterious patron. After a couple of interesting rejections from an academic press that said it was "too plot-driven" and a commercial press that said it was "too intellectual," the book was accepted by Dead End Street LLC, a new publisher in Washington state dedicated to using the new ebook technology to give exposure to worthy books that might otherwise get overlooked.

For a brief while in the latter days of the millennium, the ebook trend appeared to be working. I attended an ebook convention in San Francisco, and was pleasantly surprised to find that a new electronic reading device, The Rocket, was developing a cult following, and that my novel was becoming an increasingly popular entry into the Rocket's memory banks. The Rocket was eventually re-manufactured by RCA, and basically vanished from sight. Wish I could tell you more.

But there were other, plentiful signs that the consuming public was just not ready to read their books in this form - a notion bolstered by the ever-rising prominence of traditional-book chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders. My co-publishers, Ivan Black and John Rutledge, were savvy enough to see this reality, and to switch to the mid-point technology of print-on-demand. Thus, the real "book-book" version of Gabriella arrived in 2001. (And a real book, of course, was what I had been after all along.)

The editing of Gabriella, by Christine Mrazovich, went very smoothly, but we had some consternation with the cover design. The artist had assembled a montage of items related to the story, and it sorely lacked a strong central image. Taking camera in hand, I took my opera-singer pal, Jennifer Der Torossian - the woman who inspired much of the title character - and set her in a pose from the novel's final scene: Gabriella, weeping atop a pile of wardrobe in the dressing room. I sent the photo to the artist, and he came up with his own version, a pleasingly rough piece of art that people seem to really respond to. (Years later, DES came up with a "smoother" cover design, but readers seem to prefer the original.)

I lacked the time or money to pursue an extended tour for Gabriella, but I did manage some local readings. The first featured Opera San Jose soprano Barbara Divis, who joined me in reading dialogues from the book and then performed related arias. The performance, at the Borders in Los Gatos, CA, drew 200, which pretty much blew me out of the water (I suspect most of them were there for Barbara, but I was perfectly willing to make use of her popularity). Two years later, Barbara and I re-created this performance at the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble, directly across from the home of New York's Metropolitan Opera. Gabriella also garnered a $3,000 fellowship from Arts Council Silicon Valley. Things were looking up!

Next: Frosted Glass and the Editor-Go-Round

Sunday, November 23, 2008

My Life in Publishing Hell, Part II

Courting the Seventh Sister

Doing the EBook Limbo

After the usual round of universal rejections, I had actually relegated Sister - a story about the world's most perfectly run adulterous affair - to the "cold case" file, and had gone on to marketing my next novel, Gabriella's Voice. In one of those rare moments of simultaneous acceptance, I received two offers for Gabriella, two days apart. (Before you begin the ethics investigation, they both requested samples, but not exclusively.) It ended up going to Dead End Street Press (more on that later), and then I had the awkward job of telling the second press, an ebook publisher called Online Originals, that the book was no longer available. Bless their hearts, they were gracious enough to look at Sister as an alternative, and seemed to like this one even better.

Based in the UK, O.O. was one of the first all-ebook publishers. I saw no reason not to give the new technology a whirl, especially since ebooks were suddenly a hot topic in publishing and technology circles around the world. Besides, it gave me a chance to dig Sister out of its undeserved grave and give it a chance to be read. Very soon, it received a featured spot on the well-designed O.O. website, and we were on our way.

To, pretty much, nowhere. As much as people were pushing the new technology, no one was actually buying ebooks. People were just too attached to the traditional paper-based book.

I have had high hopes of resurrecting Sister yet again - I really do love the story, and the setting, inspired by my years as PR director at the Villa Montalvo Arts Center and mansion in Saratoga, CA - but have largely been blocked by the publishers. A conversion to print-on-demand entails a large fee to the author, and a much-needed rewrite (a rewrite that I have already performed) would require even more fees. The only way out would be an offer from a standard-print publisher - and even that's tricky, because any potential publisher would also, naturally, be interested in ebook rights, which are held by O.O. I currently count Sister as a lost work - perhaps waiting for that day when my Pulitzer win/Oprah appearance/marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow thrusts me into the spotlight and forces somebody to pay Online Originals massive sums of money for the rights. Meanwhile, I have consoled myself by resuscitating two of the main characters, Scootie Jones and Audrey LaBrea, and inserting them into subseqent novels.

Next: The Breakthrough: Gabriella's Voice

Art: The title image for Courting the Seventh Sister from the Online Originals website: http://onlineoriginals.com/showitem.asp?itemID=128

Thursday, November 6, 2008

My Life in Publishing Hell, Part I

Even though I am a contributor to writer magazines, I am not entirely trusting of their contents. The articles are often too one-size-fits-all to be of any use whatsover to the individual writer. With this thought in mind, I decided that a blow-by-blow account of my publishing history might be of use. I've had extremely varied, sometimes bizarre experiences with publishing. Take from it what you will.

Frozen Music
Dodging the Scam

My first novel, based on my experiences in a college choir, was accepted by Northwest Publishing in Salt Lake City in 1994. There was a catch, naturally: a $3,000 price tag for "subsidy publishing," in exchange for a guaranteed printing of 5,000 copies.

My first editor, gifted with the uber-literary name Gwen Bloomsburg, was a doll. She made few changes - changes that inevitably improved the text - and she became a personal in-house cheerleader for my novel and its humorous, rambling narrative. ("Half the fun is getting there," she was fond of saying.) Our mutual proofing was so immaculate that it took two years before someone discovered a typo. I had described Jesus on his way to "Cavalry," which to this day inspires a mental image of the Messiah on horseback, dressed in a Union uniform.

Northwest allowed me some say-so on the cover, and I had just the right image, a photo by my friend Susan Merrill. The pigeons in Susan's photo were "frozen" in flight, portrayed in gray tones against a sepia background, produced through the decidedly low-tech process of covering them with rubber cement before dipping the photo in a sepia bath. The Northwest designer wrapped the photo around the spine, applied some tasteful typography, and I couldn't believe that my very first cover could look quite so good.

These were the days when Barnes & Noble was still the new kid on the block, and anxious to fill its calendars with author appearances. I managed to arrange a 25-bookstore tour, from Las Vegas to Brunswick, Maine, and was accompanied by two friends in a VW Vanagon (the particulars of that tour made an interesting chapter in my subsequent novel, The Legendary Barons).

Soon after the tour, I began to hear rumors about my publisher. The company was making use of a new technology called print-on-demand, in which entire books were stored digitally and then printed on high-tech copying machines whenever orders were placed. The resultant books were actually rather remarkable in their quality - only an expert could tell the difference between these and standard-print books. The scam, apparently, was that they were printing the 5,000 copies designated by author contracts only if those copies were actually needed.

Even considering this possible scam, I couldn't see how NWP could make enough money to continue operations unless they actually did market their books effectively. And I had certainly damaged their little operation by placing some 1,000 copies on shelves across the country. But I, like all NWP authors, was about to be screwed royally; I had no idea till recently how deep the scam went. The following is a report I recently found online, from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (sfwa.org):

"Northwest was a fraud right from the start. The idea was to use a small portion of the author's investment to print a few hundred of the several thousand books promised by contract, and convince the author that the rest of the books were being warehoused. Meanwhile, the balance of the money, converted to cash, went directly to [company founder James] Van Treese, who--according to charges later brought against him--took most of it to Las Vegas and gambled it away.

"Inevitably, income from author contracts ceased to be sufficient to replace the funds being taken out of the company, and the scheme toppled of its own weight. Northwest began ducking creditors and bouncing checks. Royalties were sent out against insufficient funds; later, they weren't sent out at all. Toward the end the company abandoned even the pretense of publication, stonewalling authors with excuses and delayed publication dates.

"In 1997, Van Treese and his son Jason were charged with 22 second-degree felony counts of communications fraud, securities fraud, tax evasion, and racketeering. In 1999, a bankruptcy judge ruled that the Van Treeses were personally liable for the company's debt, freeing bankruptcy trustees to go after their personal assets. In February 2001, James Van Treese was sentenced to up to 30 years in prison. The sentence is the result of a plea agreement: Van Treese pleaded 'no contest' to four counts of communications fraud, two counts of securities fraud, and one count of failing to pay income taxes. Jason Van Treese pleaded 'no contest' to two third-degree felony counts of failure to pay taxes, and entered guilty pleas to four class A misdemeanor counts of attempted communications fraud. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

"Despite the resolution of the Van Treeses' criminal case, questions remain about the number of Northwest's victims and the actual amount of money stolen. It's estimated that as many as 500 writers may have been defrauded, for as much as $10.5 million. It's unclear at this point as to what (or even whether) future action will be taken to clarify these issues. And as usual in such cases, restitution has not been forthcoming."

Despite everything, I managed to get some valuable things out of my NWP experience: a good-looking, well-edited first book, the experience of setting up and conducting a national tour (an experience I have yet to repeat), and the invaluable advice of the NWP marketing guru I spoke to during a visit to Salt Lake City: "Watch what's on the best-seller list," quoth The Man, "and then write something similar." Genius!
Find Frozen Music at

Next: Courting the Seventh Sister and the joys of ebook limbo.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Big Tease

I spend much of my summers screening entries for the Writer's Digest self-published books competition, and the absolutely number-one writing mistake among the entries goes something like this:

Jenny awoke to a hail of bullets. She quickly rolled out and ducked down next to her bed as fragments of sheetrock rained off the wall. Jenny had only seconds to consider how she had gotten herself into this situation.

It all began in the EZ-Care Senior Center, where Jenny was raised by her great grandfather, Paul Abhrahamson Johanssen, who they called "Spruce"....

Seven pages of background information later...

Now, back to those bullets!

Are you freakin' kiddin' me?! Many authors have this need for their readers to understand every plot detail at all times - thus to write first chapters filled with background exposition. But that's not what first chapters are for - what they're for is getting your reader involved, and you don't do that by pulling this incredible tease-job.

So please, get Jenny out from under that hail of bullets. You've got an entire novel to fill in the details.

Photo by MJV. Artwork by Nina Koepcke.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Challenging Young Writers

Following is an essay I wrote for Diane Scanlon's excellent website for gifted children and their parents, www.dirhody.com

Inside a wooden case that once held a children's-model telescope, I keep a slip of paper from the second grade. It's a test result, revealing that my seven-year-old self had the reading comprehension skills of a freshman in high school. This was a pattern that would continue in later years. My sixth-grade teacher stopped giving me any but the bonus spelling words (the basic words being a waste of everybody's time). In high school, I hated every English class I took, and got A's in all of them.

Looking back, it's amazing that I never got into my school's honors humanities program. I was clearly a natural writer, one who was not being challenged - and that was why I hated English class. But it was the '70s, and everybody seemed to be focusing on the other end of the spectrum, making sure the problem kids would at least make it to graduation.

Fortunately, my SAT verbal score finally tripped the wire. I was invited to San Jose State's honors humanities program, where a corps of professors from different disciplines took us through world history - from Genesis through Nixon - touching on the music, art, philosophy, science, history and literature of each era. And boy did we write! Constantly. At the end of the two-year program, for my final project, I wrote and performed in a play in which Aristotle, attempting to tutor Alexander the Great, has his idealized forms rudely diasassembled by Copernicus, Darwin and Freud. It was hilarious, especially when Craig Carter, playing on Freud's cocaine addiction, emptied two dozen packets of sugar on a mirror, performed his part with a wacky German accent, and then managed to accidentally snort some of the sugar into his nose. I found him in the hallway, hacking and snorting like a rodeo bull.

Since then, things have worked out well. Craig finally cleared his sinuses and became a gonzo-style journalist. I went on to write a dozen novels, seven of them published, to win a few poetry awards and fellowships, to cover theater and opera for several different Bay Area magazines, and, recently, to write on poetry and fiction for Writer's Digest.

So would I have taken this route without that honors humanities program? To be frank - yes. I ran into my sixth-grade best friend Maurice a few years ago, and he said, "Oh yeah. You were always talking about writing novels." Clearly, I'm one of the obsessed.

But I worry that it took so long for my obvious needs to be noticed - that other talented kids with just as much talent but perhaps less determination might not have received the kick-start that their gifts merited. Which is why I'm so glad to see a website like Diane's. Not that kids with learning disabilities don't deserve every attention they receive (let's talk about my brother Larry, who overcame his to win an MBA, and is now a Silicon Valley CFO). But let's not forget about kids with special abilities, talents that need to be challenged in special ways.
Photo by MJV.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


The particulars of writing - the small, physical details - are an eternal fascination to writers (beginning, would-be and veteran), so let's talk about that. Keep in mind, however, that what works for me might not work for you.

Longhand, longhand: I am a devout fan of hand-writing. There's nothing more liquid for the permanent codification of ideas than the easy flow of thoughts from brain to hand to pen to paper. The computer screen, to me, presents entirely too much separation between you and your words. Particulars? Spiral notebooks (for their resistance to abuse) and Papermate Write Bros. light-blue pens (cheapness, inkflow and come on! Black ink? How dull.).

Location, location: A busy coffeehouse, enveloped by that lovely wall of chatter, with plenty of fellow humans to watch when you need a visual respite (there's a physiological, brain-function need for this, BTW - I'll get to it later). A long view is a nice plus, a non-jiggly table an absolute must (apply folded-up newspaper under table legs as needed). And - duh! - some caffeine. A beverage also makes a handy disciplinary device. On a slow day, at least make yourself write until you finish that latte. At this very moment, I'm on a solid window counter at Peete's in San Jose, CA, with a lovely view of the traffic on the Alameda and a solid surface to work on. Comestibles? One strong latte and an ollallieberry scone (because I like to say "ollallieberry"). You may find, as I have, that the largest danger in the coffeehouse is a nearby conversation that is too interesting. Be strong. Move to another table immediately; nothing is more important than your writing. (I almost feel like telling my neighbors, "I'm sorry, I have to move because you're much too intelligent.")

Is there a Draft in here? I'll get more specific later, but following is the rundown of my drafting process:

First: Written as quickly as the pen will fly, as quickly as the thoughts arrive. Think of it as a jigsaw puzzle: you must first pour out all the pieces onto the tabletop so you can begin to sort them out. Remember Hemingway's saying: "Everyone's first draft is shit." Just get it out, baby.

Second: Written a tad more slowly, to allow time for renovation, but still fast and sloppy enough to open up new ideas.

Third: Written as slowly as possible, with a focus on word precision, sentence structure, punctuation - the small stuff.

Fourth:Typing into the dreaded computer. Largely a matter of word processing, but sometimes a garbled sentence will hit the brain-screen and call for a fix.

Fifth: The edit. Print out the completed manuscript and read through it, marking changes with a colored pen as you go. Type changes back into computer.

The Extreme Sixth: For special cases (for instance, my last novel). Take printed-out manuscript and rewrite it longhand, as in the third draft above. Retype the whole thing into the computer. This one is grueling, but does offer a certain reassurance to the author, who can now tell himself that he has been exceedingly thorough.

The Chapter Method: I tend to do my novels a chapter at a time, working them at least through the third draft before going on to the next. This is largely because I work without an outline, so I need to get a firm grip on where my plot and characters stand before I go into the next development.

Shew! Enough for now. I'm sure I'll get further into some of these aspects later. Besides, I just finished my latte.
Photo by MJV

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

An Interview with Diane Ackerman

Through my work with Writer's Digest, I am often given license to root through some fascinating literary minds - none more so than that belonging to Diane Ackerman. Starting out as a widely admired poet, Ackerman took her deeply lyrical use of language and combined it with a talent for interpreting scientific knowledge to produce A Natural History of the Senses, a collection of essays on our perceptual equipment that became a surprise best-seller in 1990. She has since applied her unique package of talents to such topics as the human mind, the animal world, the history of love and the sources of creativity. I had the chance to interview her for WD articles on author-poet "double-threats" and the application of brain science to creativity. Her answers were like small poems, ink candy, so beautifully wrought that, frankly, I felt like I was cheating. She made my job too easy.

Ackerman's latest venture is narrative non-fiction. The Zookeeper's Wife (2007, W.W. Norton) chronicles the use of the Warsaw Zoo as a hiding place for Jews during World War II. In a sense, the story is right up Diane's alley. Her descriptions of the animal population, of Polish culture, and of the attempts of Nazi scientists to re-create extinct species through back-breeding are filled with the same sense of wonder and precision that imbue her essays.

Ironically, it was precisely that fascinating brain that kep me from finally meeting Diane in person. She was scheduled to appear at a bookstore near my hometown of San Jose, but suffered a concussion and couldn't make the flight. Still, she was gracious enough, as always, to answer a few questions.

MJV: How did you come upon this remarkable story? Was it something that you've been considering for a long time?

DA: Decades ago, I proposed an essay for National Geographic that would carry me into the primeval forest skirting Poland's border with Russia, to see animals of the sort paleolithic artists painted in ochre on the cave walls at Lascaux. I'd heard that a few living fossils-- including ancestral horses-- were still running around this Polish preserve, and also that they had something to do with Nazi perversity.But I didn't know, when I proposed the story of ancient horses in Bialowieza Forest to my editor at NG, that I was sharing some of Adolf Hitler's, Hermann Göring's, and zoologist Lutz Heck's passion to revive extinct animals. NG had a photographer sailing to French Frigate Shoals, in the Hawaiian archipelago, to chronicle the last few monk seals left on earth (they used to pepper the Mediterreanean, Caribbean, and South Pacific) and he dispatched me there instead. But over the next fifteen years, all sorts of miscellaneous facts, lore, insights, and other fare began to accrete, until I rejoined my quest where I'd left it, on the trail of horses, bison and Nazis, and layer by layer, a bizarre fascinating story began emerging.

MJV: How did you find the shift from your more essay-style works to a narrative form?

DA: I had to learn how to write narrative nonfiction, but many of its elements were familiar, since I'd written a lot of nonfiction prose about studying animals in the wild, which required merging drama, conversations, facts, observations.

MJV: The amount of detail is (no surprise) just amazing. How much time and effort went into the research for this? Did you do any traveling to investigate things first-hand?

DA: Because The Zookeeper's Wife is nonfiction, I couldn't make anything up, but I needed to detail the sensory texture of daily life at the zoo in Warsaw for this particular woman. So I saturated myself in Antonina's world and the era. In Poland, I spent time at the Warsaw Zoo and in the villa where the Zabinskis lived; followed Antonina's footsteps down some of the streets she wrote about; spoke with people at the Warsaw Zoo; interviewed the Zabinskis' son; spoke with women, now in their eighties, who served in the Underground during the war; visited outlying cities and Bialowieza Forest; located the insect collection that plays an important part in the story, and visited other relevant sites and museums. I read a sea of books, interviews, and testimonies-- by and about people who witnessed the holocaust-- and studied WWII history, armaments, cuisine, leaders, airplanes, medicine, architecture, fashion, music, films and such. And I studied the sounds and smells and behaviors of the animals that the Zabinskis adopted as pets and those they tended in the zoo. I had great fun learning about Polish plants and animals and folk customs. The whole process was completely fascinating and absorbing.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Phoning Molly

Molly Ringwald was coming to town, starring in a touring production of Sweet Charity, and the young men of the San Jose media community were freaking out.

"One of them said he's afraid he'll start drooling halfway through the interview," said the PR agent, who was clearly enjoying all the hoo-hah around her latest assignment.

As the senior journalist in the bunch, I had a distinct advantage. About the time that Molly was making her mark in The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, I was in college, and in that superior way that college men adopt, had no time for some teenage actress.

Looking into Molly's post-stardom bio, though, I found something pretty intriguing. She had a propensity for hooking up with (and, on one occasion, marrying) novelists, and had surprised everyone in Connecticut by writing a series of book reviews for the Hartford Courant. Apparently, the woman who always played the strange-but-smart girl actually was a strange-but-smart girl. That afternoon, I called the interview number - a rehearsal hall in Boise - and we were introduced. After covering some expected subjects regarding the show (singing in her dad's jazz band, honing her dancing skills), I told her I was a novelist and really appreciated her enthusiasm for the form.

"Oh!" she said. "What kind of books do your write?"

"Literary, mainstream. They're sort of slice-of-life, a lot of contemporary issues."

"So what's your latest about?"

"It's called Frosted Glass. It's about a Silicon Valley woman who..."

You can see where this was going. I had succeeded in getting myself interviewed by Molly Ringwald! Sadly, on the cusp of launching into a digression about mythological motifs in modern narrative, a little switch went off in my head, and I realized two things: 1) I had been granted only 15 minutes for this interview, and 2) I had not yet obtained enough material for my article.

"Geez, Molly, as much as I love talking about my writing, I think I need to ask you some more questions about the show."

"Oh. Okay. Sure."

She actually sounded disappointed - and it's easy to figure why. Considering the cold realities of a national tour, she probably had to conduct one of these interview sessions for each new city - repeating the same snappy quotes to several different reporters at a sitting. (And I hate to think of the lame questions the droolers came up with.) I flatter myself to think that she much preferred talking about my latest book.

Thanks, Molly, for turning the tables. Don't you forget about me.

Read the original article at:

Boredom breeds creativity

And this blog is proof.

In my constant pursuit of verisimilitude in fiction, I have talked myself into forsaking my current novel, Monkey Tribe, for two weeks. The story centers on a life coach who's trying desperately to broaden the horizons of his client, a nerdy Silicon Valley accountant who has recently been tossed out of his narrow, workaholic life. Some of the early ventures are visits to Burning Man parties and to the pagan drum circle of the title, but recently I decided that this client, Jack, had to experience the hoity-toit side of life, too - and had the perfect setting just waiting for me.

Thanks to 25 years of covering the performing arts in Silicon Valley, I will soon be escorting a genuine diva, soprano Barbara Divis, to the 25th anniversary gala of Opera San Jose (and yes, my journalism career coincided divinely with the birth of the opera). I met Barbara years ago, when my reviews of her singing became ridiculously poetic; divas like nothing better than critics with an ear for genuine talent. But Barbara was also interested in my tennis skills. It has since become my assignment to run her ragged around various courts, so she may continue to fit into all those gorgeous gowns that her roles provide her.

Beyond this plot twist of sending our hero unexpectedly into the higher levels of society, Barbara fits neatly into a running theme of the book: unassuming characters who turn out to have extraordinary talents. So the novel demands that I include her, and it would be silly of me to write the scene until after the actual gala, when I will assuredly pick up all kinds of helpful details.

I harken back to Randall Platt, a gifted young-adult author in Gig Harbor, Washington, who tattooed me with this thought: if you are able, in any way, to personally experience what your character is going to experience, you have to do it. This is not always easy. Years ago, for my novel Painting Tacoma, I made plans for my character to walk out on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge late one night, leading the reader to believe that he was contemplating suicide (don't worry, he was not). "Well, you know what that means," sayeth Randall. "You better go walk that bridge." Damn, I thought. She's right.

As you might expect, the subsequent trek produced all kinds of details that I might never have dreamed up otherwise. Primarily, that the bridge's narrow sidewalks and lack of separation from traffic make it the Worst. Bridgewalk. Ever. Helped very little by the carload of teenagers who drove by yelling "Jump!" (I also spotted two other teens walking the other direction, apparently on a date!)

My big problem is that I am addicted to the novel-creating process, and the idea of going two weeks without, whilst I wait like a 17-year-old for the senior prom, and dig through thrift stores for a do-it-yourself tuxedo (another assignment I have given my hero), fills me with dread. So, I thought, why not start that blog that I have been putting off forever?

Welcome aboard. I hope I can be of service.

Upcoming: a few words with Diane Ackerman, author of A Natural History of the Senses and the recent The Zookeeper's Wife.