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