The easiest road through life is the one paved with the biggest corporate names. It's a mentality that only buys heavily-marketed brand names at the supermarket even though the store brands are consistently half the price, which leads you to assume they must be inferior. (Hint, they're almost always the same product.) It's the McDonald's approach to hamburgers - easy, generic, familiar.
Think about it, dear readers: How have you conditioned yourself to choose books? Focusing on franchises, perhaps? Author names in billboard fonts above an otherwise small, mundane title? The bestseller lists? Recommendations from friends? Price? (More on that last one, later.)
Some of our most famous contemporary novelists are also brilliant writers and storytellers. Note the operative word some. Many of them are phoning it in, banking on a name that used to represent something new, different, or even innovative but now is simply a formula designed to keep the cash registers ringing and the Checkout carts submitting.
Franchise authors, like reading only one genre, are comfort food. They assure us that the time we'll be investing as readers will be "just fine" because what we've read of those books before was "just fine." (OK, so maybe even "great" from time to time.) So let me ask: Are the biggest names in any genre the only ones producing great stories? The only ones worth your time? (The answer is "no," which I assume you already figured out.) The real question becomes: Are you willing to look through the vast digital landscape of titles to find books and authors who offer something new and different, equal to or better than what you've experienced so far? Are you willing to look through the sponsored Amazon lists of books that are "similar"? Or do you settle only for the familiar?
There are thousands of outstanding indie writers who are counting on you to eat anywhere except McDonald's, to brave the new frontiers of names and titles utterly unfamiliar. The traditional publishing industry rejects more than 95 percent of everything submitted to it - not because all of that 95 percent lacks quality, but for many other (sometimes valid) reasons that have nothing to do with craft. So thousands of writers have ventured into the digital world to offer their work in a dizzying circus that includes literally millions of titles. And there you will find genuinely remarkable work.
So be adventurous, search for the hidden diamonds, provide opportunities for the authors who are striving for brand awareness. They need your help. (That would include me, of course, but I think you already figured that out.) Check out the sample text, whether on Amazon or any other digital platform. Take a journey down an unexpected path. Don't worry, no one will bite. But we might be contagious - in that wonderful way that keeps you reading late at night.
A final note about price: Just because Sally Bestseller's paperback lists for $16.99 and Betty Nobody's paperback lists for $6.99 is NOT (I repeat: NOT) an indicator of quality. You will find countless ebooks by "nobodies" ranging from .99 to 2.99. They're trying to cut you a deal, not suggest that their work has less value. So take the deal, enjoy the savings, and prepare for a hell of a new adventure.
A poor sod like me can write to his heart's everlasting content, but sooner of later comes that nagging sensation that the whole blasted insanity is worthless without a public audience. Thus, time to sell. It's challenging, exciting, and utterly terrifying, if truth be told. The digital world has created endless competition for our eyes and increasingly short attention spans. People can publish anything they damn well please for free. Amazon, the world's most powerful bookseller, features many millions of titles on its site - everything from literary masterpieces to utter dreck. That's a lot of clutter to break through. So what is a writer to do?
So, here's my choice after 25 years of playing it safe: No more time-wasting trying to find notice in the traditional publishing biz. Agents take weeks (and often months) to respond at a rejection pace exceeding 98 percent industry-wide, and publishers tend to be slower and far more inept. Sure, if you break through, then life can take amazing turns. But the reality of reaching the NYT best-seller list and becoming a mega-best-sellling-empire-of-one is much like achieving stardom in Hollywood: Of all the actors seeking work, only a handful will ever command six- and seven-figure salaries. So I rather think it's time to put aside fanciful notions of literary, financial godhood and turn to the trickier, more daunting task of turning the writing into a startup business.
That's the direction I am headed. Although I have published two books on Amazon and received reviews from my first few readers, the journey ahead will be long and grueling. I'll be launching an advertising campaign for those books this summer, followed by a third novel that is currently going through final edits. I'll then turn my attention to more of my back list as well as future novels and short stories connected to The Father Unbound and The Savage Clock. There's the matter of formulating a business plan, developing spreadsheets to track inflow and outflow, and of course design Facebook and Amazon ads.
Ads, of course, cost money. But what is the central adage of anyone daring to make that startup business work? See the headline to this blog.
And so it begins. The next chapter. The down and dirty. The bottom line. Accounting. Taxes. All quite vile. But if it works, now there's an intriguing possibility. And I'm all about possibilities.
As I have been revising a back title this week in preparation to publish it later this summer, I have thought a great deal about the creative process and how writing is much like gardening - another love of mine.
In the simplest analogy, of course, both are products of the creative process. Neither arises without consideration planning, contemplation, and due diligence - and especially not without a flair for the artistic. I will no more pop down to Lowe's and scoop up a palette of petunias, drop them into the soil and call that a garden than I will read Orson Scott Card and try to emulate exactly what he did. Neither product will turn out anything like what I might have hoped. No, the greater lesson can be found in the continually changing colors, shapes, and textures both in the garden and in the developing story.
When I say garden, folks, I'm not talking about a few shrubs or annuals wrapped in lovely circles at the base of trees. No, no. I'm talking 100 percent grass-free landscapes. Both homes I've owned over the past 27 years started out with grass - and a fair helping at that. Generic, like every other home in the neighborhood. But of course, lawn owners with any measure of pride must follow a strict regimen that allows said grass to flourish in addition to the traditional 5- to 7-day waiting period between mowings - in order to return the lawn to the exact state it was 5 to 7 days earlier. Rinse, wash, repeat. Lawns are static - thin green, thick green, mixed green, one to three inches high. I want a landscape that evolves throughout the year, often in remarkably surprising ways. Colors change, aromas waft, and veggies arrive in time for dinner. In short, the garden - like a good story in development - is full of revelations.
It is that part of the creative process - the unexpected twists and turns - that makes both writing and gardening such satisfying endeavors. Some plants will die, while others will flourish in unexpected ways (perhaps even taking over large chunks of the garden). Same goes for an evolving story. Amazing characters will arrive from out of nowhere, offering plot twists that lead down unexpected paths while other characters can't sustain themselves and simply need to be ... well, mowed down. Either journey is fraught with disappointment and exhilaration, but never predictability. And that's what makes both journeys so gratifying.
One of the great joys of writing fiction lies in the ability to vent about the world - specifically, human beings - without directly coming out and engaging in rambling, acrimonious, sociopolitical screeds that might have more of a tendency to piss people off without serving any particular purpose. What delights then wait in creating a story whereby the author can hide behind the characters and present them as representatives of the various faces that humans present in the real world.
Many years ago I wrote a novel called I Dream in Widescreen wherein 13-year-old narrator Evan Schaeffer defies just about every expected personality norm for a boy in his comfortable, affluent world, but ultimately he has the same needs and desires as any other boy his age - needs that are NOT being fulfilled by the adults in his life. Evan loses himself in an illusion created by his favorite video games, movies, and music; and when tragedy strikes, he melts down. The underlying theme of the story focused on the larger illusions we create for ourselves through materialism and the Quixotic pursuit for more, more, more without consideration of what we're losing in the process. Yeah, yeah, sounds like a buzzkill. Actually, the story is quite fun and, for the most part, one of the more hopeful books I've written. Note the previous use of "underlying," my friends.
Back when i was selling the manuscript to the market, I had more than one agent who seemed willing to represent the book - one hardened o'l bastard even admitted he shed a tear toward the end. But, like so many agents who have hemmed and hawed and over-analyzed my work through the years, he couldn't figure out how to sell it. No matter. I told the story I wanted - and yes, the aforementioned agent did pick up on the underlying theme.
At some point soon I am going to revisit Dream. My experience as a teacher has shown that this immersion into video games and media has created far greater illusions among the newest generation of addicts. The story may yet have relevance.
Or more to the point: Why do writers do this to themselves? Consider this question for a (relatively brief) moment, given that if you are a writer, you already know the answer - and if you're not, well, your interest is already waning.
Writers don't chuck out novels in weeks (well, some do, but those don't involve anything called quality). The usual timetable features long-game words such as months (at least the duration of your typical pregnancy or tireless Major League Baseball season); years (anything from enough time to watch a rookie Congressman turn into a veteran scumbag, or for Microsoft to end support for its second-most-recent iteration of Windows); or decades (think: declining hairlines, sagging bellies, or every time the Boy Scouts of America changes its policy about gay members).
In those long-game windows, we beat ourselves against figurative brick walls working out story conundrums, character journeys, and the nagging feeling that we could be doing something more productive to change the world. We work in solitary confinement as we make up shit that might someday find resonance with the tiniest sliver of the population, if we're lucky. And then we revise, because making up shit the first time wasn't enjoyable enough. And then, upon deciding we have an acceptable story, we move into the editing phase, which is about as thrilling as watching the House Finance subcommittee live on CSPAN2. Except for the sliver among us who are established, successful authors with a loyal fan base, our odds for publication through the traditional route offers slim hope at best and no reason whatsoever for quitting the day job. (After all, aren't pensions the whole purpose for living past 65?)
So why in the hootenanny do we put ourselves through this?
I'm going with a one-word answer: Self-preservation. (OK, so it's one hyphenated word.)
Novelists walk this earth weighted down by the burden of an attention-starved imagination. From time to time (or perhaps every day just before lunch), the Imagination regales us with stories that it DEMANDS we put to paper. Over time, failure to meet these demands risks facing an imagination as impatient as the 73rd guy in line at the DMW. Unless that line starts moving, there's going to be grumbling. Before long, violence will ensue. In this sense, novelists are frail beings who prefer to cow-tow to the grumbling for the mere price of maintaining serenity of mind and spirit.
We can write these stories or .... or we'll be left few options but to consume Fritos and binge Netflix until we realize that the series we're watching is based on a great idea for a novel we had 22 years ago. Which of course means it's time for a nuisance lawsuit. But only if the series is REALLY successful.
This venture came out of the blue, which is to say that it was always inevitable and stewing for decades. I just needed a little push.
So that nudge arrived in fall 2017 when I began to seriously consider taking my ELA classes down the risky road known as NaNoWriMo. Asking 8th-graders to write a novel in a month seems positively mad, but hardly unprecedented. Thousands of kids have pulled this off, and I'm all about taking my students down unexpected paths that offer them a chance to expand their creativity and solve complex problems with language.
The plan arrived too close to NaNoWriMo's traditional November window, so we wrote in January. I decided to write along with the students and pursued the start of a novel that had been been brewing - sans outline (or even the first tangible form of any kind). And that's what I did - until I didn't anymore. Short story: It's a little thing called Poppies, it's totally mental (double meaning, folks), and I'll get back to it soon enough - which is to say somewhere toward the end of the current president's term (may God help us all through this stupefying nightmare).
As the students overcame their own fears and wrote, wrote, wrote, I realized that I needed to show them that they could, in fact, fulfill the promise of this experiment and publish their own works by the end of the school year. That meant I needed to publish online. I needed to go through the process so that I could teach them - because that's what the state pays me gobs of money to do!
And so it came to pass that The Father Unbound - easily my most complex and ambitious novel - now resides on Amazon. My plan will continue in the form of these blogs, another novel to publish very soon, and then a full roll-out through social media. The world shall know my stories. (Note: I didn't suggest the world would love my stories. But that's neither here nor there.)
Now it begins. Deep breath.
I, Frank Kennedy, am a lifelong writer who only recently began publishing novels I have written over the past quarter century. I am also an English teacher, philosopher of the impractical, and occasional oddball. This seems to work out nicely for me.