Yippee! Marshall won an IPPY!

Let me apologize in advance for the shameless self-promotion, back-patting and horn tooting that’s about to follow. But if you’ll bear with me, there’s a larger issue on the other side of all the “atta boy!”s  and “hell yeah!”s that I want to talk about.

But first things first. Way back in January, I entered PJ Marshall in the 2013 Independent Publisher Book Awards, or “IPPYs”.  Since I was brand new to the book marketing and promotion scene, I was googling ways to get PJ’s name (and mine) in front of more readers. What I found was a ton of literary awards, fiction contests, book blogs, review sites and the like—so many that my brain overheated from trying to process them all. However, a few of these—including the IPPYs—kept filtering through all the web chatter as being not only legitimate, but somewhat prestigious as well. So I filled out the forms and mailed a copy of Marshall to the judges and waited.

In the meantime, I entered a contest on Amazon—their Breakthrough Novel Award—with a grand prize of $50,000 and a publishing contract. Confident in my inevitable victory, I promptly spent the fifty grand on a down payment on a cabin in upstate New York. I named it “The Brian J. Anderson Institute for Literary Genius” and planned to use it as a writer’s retreat when I was flown in to visit my agent in Manhattan.

You know how that story ends, right?

So you can imagine how excited I was when I found out last week that Marshall had won a silver medal in the Suspense/Thriller category of the IPPYs. Excited, honored, humbled, amazed, validated, you name it. No, it’s not a Pulitzer. But for a new self-published author, it’s in the neighborhood. See all the categories and winners here.

(toot, toot. pat, pat.)

But as notorious downer and ‘Family Guy’ character actor Buzz Killington would say…”BFD.”

Well, for a lot of indie authors, this kind of recognition is a really BFD. According to R.R. Bowker, (the exclusive agency issuing ISBNs to books published in the U.S.) the number of self-published books produced in the U.S. has grown 287% since 2006 to around 235,000 titles per year. Some good, some not so much. And this is on top of books published by the “big 5” New York publishers and the countless other independent and university presses. By some estimates, U.S. authors are churning out as many as half a million titles a year. I’ve got some reading to catch up on.

Since the books coming from the established houses have theoretically been “screened” by agents, editors, copy editors and the like, readers can feel reasonably safe parting with their disposable income for one of their books.  One of the persistent criticisms of self-publishing (rightly so, to some extent) is the lack of this quality control. Anyone with a word processor and a wifi connection can get published. How do readers find something worth reading in this “slush pile”? How do the gems hidden inside get noticed? (toot toot)

With help from groups like Independent Publisher. According to their website, IP is

“…a trade journal for the independent publishing community, specializing in marketing and promotion for independent authors and publishers…Independent Publisher publishes new title listings of books released by self-publishers, independent, and university presses in order to bring increased recognition to the thousands of great — and often overlooked — independently published titles released each year. We sponsor the annual Independent Publisher Book Awards (aka The IPPYs) for the same reason.”

And IP calls the IPPY awards in particular

“…a broad-based, unaffiliated awards program open to all members of the independent publishing industry. The awards are intended to bring increased recognition to the thousands of exemplary independent, university, and self-published titles produced each year, and reward those who exhibit the courage, innovation, and creativity to bring about change in the world of publishing.”

For me and the other 234,999, that’s a pretty sweet FD. If you’re looking for a good read, your chances are good among this year’s IPPY medalists.

Thanks for reading!

P.S. I didn’t mean to “like” my own blog posting below. I was thinking I was going to like someone else’s comment. Now I can’t figure out how to get rid of my self-serving “like”. I’m vain, but not that vain. If anyone knows how to delete this, your help would be much appreciated.

“Trunk Stories,” Part One

Authors use the expression “Trunk Novel” for books they’ve written that, for one reason or another, never see the light of day. Instead, they’re locked away in a literal or figurative “trunk”, relegated to literary obscurity. Sometimes this is done of the author’s own volition, as in:

“Man, I can’t believe I wrote this mindless, incoherent, steaming pile of crap. I must protect the world from this book.”

Into the trunk it goes.

Other times, books are trunked out of frustration with the literary elite and its inability to spot brilliant writing. As in:

Dear Author,

Thank you for submitting your novel, entitled ‘The Best Goddamn Book You’ll Ever Read, Muthafuckas.’ Unfortunately, we cannot publish this mindless, incoherent, steaming pile of crap.

Sincerely,

Pretentious Publishing

Authors need to guard against this kind of literary snobbery at all costs. We’re talking about the author’s baby, here.I must protect this book from the world,” the author thinks.

Trunked.

Either way, the reading public is probably better off with these “masterpieces” locked safely away. Occasionally, however, one of these rag-filled steamers shakes loose a real gem. Blaze, a novel by Richard Bachman (Stephen King’s 1966-1985 pseudonym) languished in a figurative trunk for over thirty years until King dusted it off and decided (after some relatively minor editing) that it wasn’t half bad after all. And I agree. It’s a darn good read.

As for myself, I have a partial trunk novel, written (and edited) circa 1989 with ballpoint pen on notebook paper. But rest assured. Even I can’t make heads or tails of what it’s about, so there’s little danger of it escaping its musty confines. I do, however, have a few short stories that are at least decipherable, if not examples of great literature. I’ve decided to share the first of these in this post.

You’re welcome.

Written in December of 1986, this story—and the ones that may follow in future posts—was chosen because it is one of the first pieces of creative writing that wasn’t required of me as a school assignment. I wrote it purely for the joy of having written something that I (at the time) could feel proud of and that others may find interesting. I must warn you, it’s presented here warts and all, with no editing whatsoever. That is, aside from transcribing it from the original dot-matrix printout. Damn, I’m getting old.

Also, names have not been changed to protect the innocent, because (as you’ll see) the folks in this tale ain’t so innocent. Enjoy.

“Bushwhack Skiing”

I was first exposed to what I call “bushwhack skiing” on a winter campout I took with my explorer post two winters ago. It was the first day of a three day trip in a central Wisconsin state park. We were all pretty excited at the prospect of three days of cross-country skiing, since it had been a pretty slow ski season for us so far. The weather that day was clear, calm and mild—three conditions sure to make any avid cross-country skier restless. Steve Fenske, one of the skiers in our group, is the kind of person who’s always on the lookout for a chance to embarrass someone. That day, Steve’s unique sixth sense spotted a golden opportunity.

We were taking a break from skiing around mid-morning on the edge of the trail. (which, by the way, was bordered on one side by a thickly wooded forty-five degree embankment) It was then that Steve turned to the nearest person, (victim is probably a better word) which turned out to be Brian Brunner, and made his proposition. Brian is probably the best skier in our group, but I can imagine he was terrified at Steve’s idea.

What Steve said went something like this: “Hey Brian—I’ll give you twenty dollars if you can ski down this hill without falling or running into a tree or a rock or something.”

After several seconds of contemplation and tossing aside any thoughts of doing the sensible thing, Brian mentally readied himself and pointed his skis down the “widow-maker.”

Much to everyone’s delight, Brian managed to avoid serious injury. This was possibly due to the fact that he didn’t go down the hill. Because of a bit of dissension by one of our post advisors, Brian was forced to pass up Steve’s offer. My story, on the other hand, doesn’t end so well.

It was a situation much like the one I have just described, only it was a year later and there were no advisors on this expedition. There was only myself, Steve, and one other die-hard skier, Brian Johnson, on this trek. Because we were in the same park in almost the same spot as the previous year, the memory of his failure to demoralize Brian Brunner may have caused him to take his revenge out on me.

I was skiing behind Steve, and he had stopped at the top of a hill and was thoroughly examining another heavily wooded, off-the-trail slope. When I reached the point where Steve was standing, I again heard those infamous words of wisdom: “Hey Brian—I’ll give you twenty dollars if you make it down this hill in one piece without falling.”

After pondering the hill for only slightly longer than Brian had done the previous year, I decided the hill wasn’t so steep, and maybe a few cuts and possibly a hemorrhaging gash or two would be worth twenty bucks. So, after working out the shortest, most obstacle-free route, I started my adventure.

With a scream of “BANZAII!!” I began descending at a velocity much greater than I had anticipated. Because of the incredible speed I had gained in the first twenty feet or so, my attempt at avoiding the first tree resulted in me losing my balance.

001 (2)
Figure 1: Classic “bushwhack skiing” technique. Note the wide ski placement and random arm positioning typical of this form.

Now, if you’ve ever been cross-country skiing, you know that when you lose your balance, you tend to wave your arms and free leg in the air in the hopes of regaining yourself. Well, at this point, my ski poles were spinning through the air at so many RPM’s, they acted much like a weed-whacker, cutting and hacking away the stand of buckthorn in front of me. I effectively, if not gracefully, did regain my balance, and my speed was also reduced by quite a bit. What lay ahead of me, however, was inescapable.

Feeling pretty good about my death-thwarting maneuver, I got a little bit overconfident, gave Steve a sinister laugh over my shoulder, and failed to plan the rest of my route. “The rest of my route,” as it turned out, was through a maze of hardwood saplings with a mean streak in them. I managed to weave between the first two or three with few problems, but upon approaching the last leg of the hill, my right ski and a maple tree had a minor disagreement.

The basic idea when skiing near a tree is to keep both of your skis on the same side of it. I apparently forgot this, and suddenly, my right leg was parallel to the ground because of my ski’s attempt to mate with this tree. The result of this situation was not pretty. I stopped with a jolt, spun around this tree with my right foot acting as a pivot point, and I executed a perfect swan-dive into a tangle of raspberry brambles. For over a minute, I lay there with snow melting down my shirt, thinking: “I was so close, I was so close…”

Knowing my friends would be worried I was hurt, I yelled up to them: “It’s okay, I’m all right!” It was then that I realized they couldn’t hear me shouting over their own laughter. Mortified, I got up, took off my skis and started walking up the “hill of doom.” I was scraped, bruised and cursing myself for taking on such an idiotic dare. I remember telling myself I would never do anything so stupid or insane again for any amount of money.

When I reached the top of the hill, my “friends” were still rolling on the ground, laughing hysterically, with tears running down their faces. I gave them both a dirty look and they stopped laughing long enough to hear me say: “C’mon, give me another chance.” Instantly, the laughter continued.

The End

Nothing I’d want to submit to The New Yorker, but aside from needing some tightening of the prose, (the humor, for example, seems a little forced) for a literal first try…maybe it’s not half bad.

Thanks for reading!

What We Can All Learn From Zombies and Meth Dealers

Basically, it boils down to this:  you really don’t want to become either one.

Okay, there’s more than that. Specifically, as it relates to great story telling.

What got the wheels turning on this post was a piece I saw on “CBS News Sunday Morning” with Charles Osgood. Commentator Luke Burbank was lamenting the wealth of high-quality episodic television on the internet. How cable and the networks pump so much “must-see TV” into sites like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon that it’s impossible to keep up with it all, let alone concentrate on the responsibilities of our day to day lives. If you’re like me, (you know who you are) there’s one or two of these gems out there making unreasonable demands on your time. I won’t get into the details of this phenomenon, as Mr. Burbank sums it up perfectly, and I urge you to check out his piece. If for no other reason than to reassure yourself that you’re not alone. Support groups are forming in your area now.

Read the “Sunday Morning” piece here.

As you may have guessed from the title of this post, I’ve been getting my fix from the current kingpin of television crack, cable network AMC via Netflix and Amazon instant video. You’d think that the millions of junkies hooked on Mad Men alone would be enough to buy the network a nice Caribbean retirement, but then you give us a taste of The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad? Jeez, give us a chance.

Already I can hear murmurs of “what about Game of Thrones or Boardwalk Empire or Lost or Downton Abbey or Dexter or The Sopranos or blah or blah blah blah?” To which I say: I hear you, man. And that’s the point. It’s a nearly endless supply of programming blow. And a lot of it is high-quality stuff. I’m talking primo shit. And when our dealer cuts us off at the end of a season, we can just sample the goods from another. The greedy bastards.

I started watching The Walking Dead when the first season came out on Netflix, mostly out of curiosity. I’d read and watched my share of end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it stories (zombie induced or no) before, so my expectations were somewhat low. Thoughts of “what else can they possibly do with that?” and “great, another mindless gore-fest” crossed my mind.  But, as any fan of the show (or the graphic novels it’s based on) can tell you, they’ve done a hell of a lot with it. A lot that’s new and refreshing, and as a result, highly addictive. And yes, it is a gore-fest, (how could it not be?) but it’s far from mindless. By focusing on the survivors and their struggle to keep surviving, (or, depending on the character, their grim acceptance of death) the show puts a fresh spin (for me, at least) on the zombie theme. And the writing is top-notch.

Here’s an example:

In the series pilot, Rick (the main character) finds himself barricaded inside a house with a man and the man’s son. The man tells Rick that during the zombie outbreak, his wife had been bitten and (per zombie protocol) had become a zombie herself. Throughout the episode, we see the wife staggering aimlessly among a group of zombies outside the house, and when Rick and the man eventually part ways, the man takes a high-powered rifle to an upstairs window and struggles with the decision to put his wife (and the mother of his son) down.

Do you have to suspend your disbelief to be affected by this? Of course. But the story develops organically and is not forced, so for me it works. In highly dramatic fashion.

And don’t get me started on season two’s mid-season finale. I still get goose bumps. That’s all I’m sayin’.

And speaking of suspending our disbelief…

Is it far-fetched to think a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer would turn to manufacturing crystal meth to provide a nest egg for his wife and family after he’s gone? Sure. Does the story work in the hands of AMC and series creator Vince Gilligan? Hell yes.

For me, Breaking Bad came out of nowhere. It had been on almost three seasons and picked up numerous Emmys before I decided to give it a shot. I guess it was the aforementioned premise that had stopped me. “Yeah, right. You can’t make a show out of that. Who’s gonna watch that?!”

But like The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad develops slowly over time. Organically. It takes a couple of episodes for Walt, our chemistry teacher-cum-drug lord to come to terms with his situation, a few more to put together his team and his operation, a season or two to get the hang of dealing with the seedy underbelly of meth culture, but by season five (which I haven’t started watching yet, so no spoilers, please) he’s taking on the Mexican cartels. In the hands of lesser talents, this could come off as a jumbled, idiotic mess. But with the slow build Gilligan orchestrates, along with great acting and writing, it’s as addicting as the stuff Walt stirs up in his lab.

Not only does the show’s overall premise unfold naturally, many individual episodes and scenes exhibit this creative restraint as well. Compared to the jumpy, constantly changing camera angles and non-stop dialogue (which often comes off as incredibly stilted and overly clever) of many shows out there, this is refreshing. And real. (ish)

An example? Sure:

After one of Walt’s early drug deals turns into a massive clusterfuck, he manages to tie up a rival (and very pissed off) drug dealer in the basement of a flop house. He knows that if the roles were reversed, this guy wouldn’t hesitate to kill him on the spot, but Walt’s not there yet. (He’s only been in the meth biz for an episode or two, mind you) He knows what he has to do if this grand plan of his is going to work, so it’s another of many turning points for Walt. The resolution of Walt’s dilemma, which takes a large chunk of the episode to play out, is nothing short of riveting. Two great actors in a basement with a brilliant script. That’s it. Must-see TV.

So what’s the point of all this, right?

Right.

So, depending on whether you’re a fan of these shows or not, I’ve either spent the bulk of this post preaching to the choir or pointlessly babbling on about “my two favorite TV shows that are like, totally awesome.”  Both of these a rather egregious waste of cyberspace if we’re being totally honest here.

My point is this. When you have the freedom to let your story and characters develop naturally, (I think) it makes for a much more dramatic and compelling story. In this way, these kinds of programs deliver an experience similar to that of reading a novel, which is something movies can’t do, given the time constraints. Too often, something is sacrificed when the studios try to shoehorn a novel’s worth of characterization and story development into two hours. (including the music montages)

Takeaway (or throwaway) message: Time and space give the story (and the drama) a chance to grow up big and strong.

Anyway, that’s my two cents. Next time I’ll be fielding complaints from movie fans.

Thanks for reading!

(And no, I’m not getting kickbacks from AMC or the zombie lobby to say all this)

One of the Perks of Self-Publishing

So, The Ascent of PJ Marshall has been on the virtual shelves for a few months now, and the early reviews are in. But before I get to those, let’s back up a bit.

Back when I was writing Marshall’s original draft (there were many along the way that were mercifully put down) I was eager to see what others thought of my writing and story telling. But after my wife, Elizabeth, read what I thought (at the time) was a respectable piece of literature, (sorry honey) it was a rude awakening indeed. As any writer will probably tell you, nothing can open your eyes to problems with your work like honest, detailed feedback. (thanks honey)

A few of these problems: stilted dialogue, weak characters, non-sensical plot lines, poor character motivations and so on. It was, in essence, unreadable. And until a pair of fresh eyes saw all this, I thought I was the goddamn reincarnation of Shakespeare. It was a total buzzkill, but absolutely what I needed.

An example of what Beth had to endure:

In this passage, PJ (the protagonist) is recalling a conversation with Ann (a secondary character, renamed Anna in later drafts) about her employment with an environmental non-profit and Butch’s (PJ’s father) involvement with her group. Try to stay awake…

“…he had learned that Ann joined Earth Justice shortly after graduation from Georgetown with a degree in marketing. She explained how she became so discouraged by American consumerism that she vowed to use her education to fight what she saw as one of the driving forces behind past, present and future environmental crises. In Earth Justice, she met people who shared this view and Ann helped to make ‘economic responsibility’, as she called it, one of their leading causes.

“PJ had patiently struggled with her argument that the conventional economic wisdom of using cheap resources and labor coupled with minimal government regulation is deeply flawed. In addition to placing profits to stockholders over worker’s rights and economic equality, the system ignores the environmental externalities, like air and water pollution, resource depletion and habitat destruction. Earth Justice’s goal is to promote the idea of an economy based not on ever-increasing profits and growth, but on more sustainable grounds, as infinite resource extraction and growth is impossible. PJ could respect the argument that they were trying to make, but he had serious doubts that the problem was as serious as claimed, and their solutions seemed rash at best, un-American at worst.

“The point was moot for PJ, however, as his focus was on finding his father.”

(Really really sorry, honey)

I mean…what the hell was that? If the point of all the soap-boxing is moot, why are you boring me with it? If you want to bitch about stuff, write to your senator. And not only are you boring me with all this shit, you’re remembering all this shit instead of having the actual the conversation. A blatant violation of the “show don’t tell” rule for effective writing. Ugh.

So…back to the drawing (key) board. And after a few years (that’s right, years) of writing, reading, re-writing, reading and writing some more I unleashed on my team of brave beta readers a version of Marshall that was much closer to its present state. Although the general consensus (I think) was that it was readable and somewhat engaging, it was not without its problems.  Among these were issues of character motivation, continuity and realism of the story and dialogue attribution, among others.

This brings me to one of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve heard regarding reviews or opinions. It goes something like this:

If everyone flags the same issue, you’ve got a problem. If everyone flags a different issue, you’re probably ok.

More of a guideline than a rule, of course, but one I tend to follow more often than not when editing my writing. So, after addressing the common issues raised by my team, I did a final polish on the manuscript and released it to the world. (after a lengthy battle in the agent-publishing trenches–the topic of a future post, perhaps)

Which takes us to the topic at hand: those early reviews. Whether by formally posted reviews or personal discussions with readers, quite a few comments and critiques have come in, and like in the beta-testing phase, these are of all stripes. There were two problems with the book, however, that fell into the “everyone flagging the same issue” category. Not literally everyone, but a statistically significant number.

Caution: mild spoiler alert…

“What happened to Butch?” was a question I’ve heard a handful of times. The first couple made me return to the book to check my handling of the issue. Though somewhat vague and off-hand, I felt Butch’s fate was addressed well enough, thank you very much. But as this same question kept cropping up,  I started to really take note. With Butch’s disappearance and PJ’s search being central themes of the novel, I realized that I owed it to the reader to  bring these to a satisfying resolution. (or unsatisfying, opinions vary) But resolution nonetheless.

The second (and by far the most common) problem readers had with the book dealt with keeping track of the point of view (POV) shifts between the protagonist and antagonist.

And now, as promised, One of the Perks of Self-Publishing. With Marshall available only in ebook and POD (print on demand) paperback formats, there is no physical inventory to worry about when releasing new editions, so changes to the content or format of the book is much less problematic.

After years of writing and rewriting, I was somewhat averse to tinkering with the book once I had finally declared it finished, but these issues were clearly too important not to address. As a result, I made the decision to update future copies of Marshall with the following:

  • A couple of sentences clarifying Butch’s fate
  • Chapter headings containing the POV character’s name (ala George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series
  • Retooled cover art and back cover copy. (This was all me–I’d been wanting to change the cover for some time, so I figured this would be a good time. See side by side comparison below.)

Original                                               New

IMG_4089cover_2ndED-002

I’m pretty happy with how this second edition turned out, but if you’re so inclined, let me know what you think. I’m especially interested in what folks think of the new cover. To all who provided feedback and asked the important questions, THANK YOU! Not only does the new self-publishing environment make adapting to issues like this easier for the author, but I would venture to say it makes for an improved product for the reader.

Thanks for reading!

Welcome!

Thank you so much for visiting my site and first (ever!) blog post…

While considering the format and content of this blog, I tried to imagine what it was that I could possibly have to offer. The blogosphere is so chock full of useful information–expertise and advice, news and entertainment, reviews and recommendations–that I thought surely my voice would be superfluous. I mean, who needs my two cents on anything when you have the Huffington Post and Mashable!, right?

And as far as being a place to post the latest Brian Anderson rants or minutiae–forget it. Don’t get me wrong, I think Twitter and the like have a role to play beyond what most of us could have imagined (Arab Spring, anyone?), but I’ve long since made peace with the fact that no one gives a shit “what I’m doing right now” or “what I think” about stuff. And I’m okay with that. Having said that, I will undoubtedly post the occasional link to something I find interesting or that could possibly be of use to someone. I will do my best to keep these relatively rant- and minutiae-free.

So here’s what I came up with. Authors get asked all the time where they get their ideas or where their inspiration comes from. For me, (not that you asked) they’re everywhere. In fact, I had thought about titling this blog “Stories From the Ether” or “Tales From the Ether” (or something equally corny) to symbolize this “everywhere and nowhere” storehouse of ideas, but now (since that would be really, really corny) I think not.

Anyway, what I want to do is talk about the things that have sparked ideas for not only The Ascent of PJ Marshall and my current work in progress, (yes, there is one) but for other things I’ve written, including some one-off short stories, college essays, etc. I’ll probably even post some of the least embarrassing of these early works at some point.

Today I’m posting a photograph that gave me the idea for the summit climbing scene from PJ Marshall. This was taken in the summer of (’87? ’88? ’89?–details, schmeetails) during a trip I took to the Wind River Range in Wyoming with my dad and some friends. We were part of a former Boy Scout Troop / Explorer Post that had remained close and went backpacking nearly every summer for a number of years. On this trip, the group consisted of my dad, two other former leaders, myself and three of my friends. About half the group climbed Gannett Peak (that’s my dad at the top) and the rest (including myself) hung back to explore and fish the lower elevations.001-2

I’ve always loved this photo, but it wasn’t until about 2005 (when I decided to give novel writing another try) that I saw the possible storyline hidden within: a father and son climb a mountain together and then (spoiler alert!) have to get themselves to safety after a frightening accident on the way down. This was basically the inspiration for the entire novel and was the first scene I wrote–even though it doesn’t show up until the third chapter.

In my next post, I’ll talk about some of the other scenes, chapters, characters, descriptions, etc. in PJ Marshall and the sources of their inspiration. Thank you so much for reading!

(If you really do give a shit about what I’m doing or what I think, send me an email–I’ll gladly fill you in)

^