When I worked for my college paper, my friend and I had the chance to cover an early morning Oscar nomination announcement one year. Since the event was more than an hour from campus, I remember more about the drive than the stars or the films honored.
Flash forward to the present where my latest novel, Fool’s Luck, has been entered into several contests. With the first contest, I learned of my success after the fact, making the victory a pleasant surprise.
In the next contest, which is akin to the Golden Globes for my genre, the fanfare was more pronounced, with a live announcement and everything. So, I waited for the appointed hour and tuned in as the finalists were named.
As you likely can gather by this point, I was not chosen to join that august few. After the initial letdown, I realized I was longing for another accolade to bring greater validation to my work, as if awards, while appreciated, make your creation better. I also was reminded of the difference between the ambition required to enter such contests and greed that leaves you unsatisfied unless you receive every recognition possible.
Undaunted, I am moving on with my next project, a film adaptation of Fool’s Luck. Let’s see where that version of the story takes me.
Through this experience, I’ve learned it’s just fine to wait until the day after to discover your fate in such contests. That way, no one will bear witness to how much ice cream is required to commemorate the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.
We just finished the Winter Olympics a few weeks ago and now are in the middle of awards season in Hollywood. The ambition and drive, sweat and tears of athletes and artists are being duly rewarded.
For writers, awards are more like dessert than the main course. We write to tell stories, to entertain readers and to take people to a place they’ve never been before. Sure, we submit our books for awards, but it’s something you do and then forget about because you are publicizing your latest story, hosting signing events at local coffeehouses and bookstores and dreaming of your next labor of love.
Then, one day you get a note from your publisher that you have indeed won a contest you entered weeks or months ago. You realize your work has a larger audience, that people who know what makes a book good think your little tale is worthy of recognition. You are ranked with other writers whose work also has moved people.
They tell you you’ve won a silver medal and you think, well, that’s just a figure of speech. That is, until an actual shiny medallion arrives in the mail. And that’s when it hits you that you’re a writer, an award-winning writer. It’s like they say every four years: it’s not the color of the medal that matters, but the fact that you’re on the podium in the first place.
Then the Olympic motto runs through your head as you begin to assemble the pieces that will comprise your next literary endeavor:
Faster – Higher – Stronger
Writing may seem like a solitary pursuit, to do it well you need to be connected to other creatives. My dear friend, Diana Glyer, literally wrote the book on how connected creatives make each other’s work better by their loving, yet exhortatory collaboration.
For Fool’s Luck, I partnered with several people who made my work better because of their input. One of those people is a very talented friend of mine, Jarret Lemaster. I knew him as a singer and actor, and when it came to securing a narrator for the audiobook version of Fool’s Luck, I quickly learned of his prowess in this arena as well. There was no question in my mind who the right person was to bring Myles Bradford and his friends (and enemies) to life.
When I talked about the audiobook with my friends, many suggested I should have narrated the work myself. While very generous of them, I explained narration was not my strong suit and we wanted the best person at each stage of the project. It reminded me of the scene in the 1992 film Wayne’s World where legendary actor Charlton Heston steps in for a lesser-known actor and turns a small scene into an Oscar-worthy clip.
In a similar way, I might be a decent writer, but I am fairly average at reading my work out loud. If you don’t believe me, listen to the 17-second clip that it took a me about a dozen tries to get it just right (the high quality of the book trailer overall lifts up my performance above what it would be on its own). Then, compare it to Jarret’s narrative brilliance.
This is why I firmly believe creatives should never be threatened by others whose work elevates their own. Let’s work together to make each other better, shall we?
There is an old joke about someone looking so homely that instead of having a face for television, the person had a face for print (think newspapers).
Well, after recording the audio for my first book trailer, I would suggest that I may have a voice for print, not the microphone.
It’s not that my vocalizations evoke flashbacks of nails on a chalkboard. My voice, to me at least, sounds normal enough, but summoning the right pacing and emotion on command is not easy. For starters, I tend to talk faster than most. For those old enough to remember record player speeds, I joke that I think at 78 rpm, while the rest of the world runs at 33 rpm, so the best that I can do on a daily basis is talk at 45 rpm. For example, when I have run mock doughnut auctions in my economics classes, I really don’t have to speed up my voice too much to sound a professional auctioneer. Maybe I missed my true calling.
So, when I sat down to record a four-line, 17 second passage from the prologue of my book, I did several dry runs to slow down to normal human speed. Then I recorded about 10-12 takes to get is as good as I could. Not exactly One Take Milbrandt. You can judge for yourself what you think of the final project.
As a point of comparison, my friend who is a professional voice actor with 50 audiobook credits to his name, sent me a clip of what he is recording for the audiobook version of Fool’s Luck. The quality was sufficient to induce goosebumps.
Let’s just say I know where my lane is and that I might do well to stay in it.
Being an indie author, I am used to creating my own deadlines and publication dates and going as fast, or slow, as I like. If I push out a publication date a month, the only person who cares is yours truly.
So, when Ambassador International was eager to publish much earlier than previous expected, I had two options, protest or get on board for the ride.
The question of whether to be a stick in the mud or go with the flow wasn’t even really a question. When I signed with my publisher, I knew it would be a journey not set at my own pace, and the benefits of having professionals in charge was refreshing rather than intimidating.
Since I wrote the first draft of Chasing Deception in the late ‘90s (and finally shared it with the world 15 years later), I have learned that ceding independence can often mean greater opportunity and exposure. I may like the process of writing books, but I also need to market them and others are better at that than I.
Therefore, as you can see, Fool’s Luck is moving ahead at full steam. By the time it releases in July, I will have learned much more about publishing and you will have a much better product than if I had done it all myself.
And that’s the benefit of going with the flow, even if you are an independent spirit like me.
When I began my writing career, stories came to me one at a time. I would write a novel, wait a year or so, get inspired and write another one. Everything was neat and orderly.
Now that I am getting my feet wet as a scribe for the screen as well as the page, I have found my writing life requires a bit more multitasking.
On the day I wrote this post, I finished edits on the latest draft of my novel for my publisher, then I read through a full draft of the screenplay my writing partner and I are working on. Later, I sent my manuscript to a novelist a lot more accomplished than I am for a potential review.
All this does not take into account the zero draft of a screenplay that I am working through in my spare time and the novel idea for which I have a prologue, outline and some research completed.
Some might compare this to juggling balls or spinning plates, but I tend to liken it to being an air traffic controller. I have several different projects that are varying distances from the runway that is a release date. Which “plane” gets my attention to and in what order is critical. The question is not which project do I want to work on, but which one needs my immediate focus and which ones can be left in a holding pattern.
Because, in the end, I need to get each plane on the ground as smoothly as possible so that the passengers (readers/viewers in this extended metaphor) want to fly with us again.
I remember when I first read The Hunger Games, I liked almost everything: the action, the dystopian world-building, the character development.
What I didn’t enjoy was the use of first person, present tense point of view. It seemed silly to me.
Well, guess what? Several years later, I find myself employing the same POV as Suzanne Collins, and many YA authors who followed her, for my suspense novel.
I suppose that makes me the silly one.
Actually, I realized that the immediacy that both the writer and the reader feel when “I” am telling the story is powerful. You are able to get inside the head of the protagonist and follow him or her on a compelling journey in which all other distractions are cast by the wayside.
When I wrote Fool’s Luck, I would sit for hours on end, banging away on the keyboard as I tried to capture the words flooding out of my head. I lost track of time and external reality as the story itself became the world I was living in.
I only hope by using the first person (and the present tense in the first and last chapters) that readers will get as lost in the story as I did.
Writer Anne Lamott is famous for talking about the importance of writing a “crappy” first draft (well, her language is a little more colorful, but you get the idea). She argues it’s better to finish the whole tale than get lost in the weeds and stall out before the end zone (I think I mixed at least three metaphors there, which may well be a record for me).
With a few exceptions, I am a linear writer who relies on a general outline to guide my creative process.
The problem is, after writing four books, I tend to think my first draft is good to go with only a little polishing. I forget that after draft one, the most important step in my process is a thorough critique by my wife, a fellow writer who takes no prisoners when it comes to poor storytelling or clichéd writing.
On my latest project, I thought my draft was sufficient to send to some well-connected friends for possible dust jacket reviews. Then I realized one problem: my work was still a diamond very much in the rough. It needed a lot of tender loving critiquing to be ready for even my closest friends.
So, swallowing my pride, I had to ask they trash can the flawed draft while I made some necessary repairs.
My first writing career was in journalism where speed was the name of the game as we wrote the first draft of history. In composing novels, I am learning there is plenty of time for a second go around.
The COVID-19 pandemic and safer-at-home orders gave many of us a chance to work on a project we normally wouldn’t have time to complete. Personally, I took the opportunity to finish my current novel, a fictional memoir of a schoolteacher who wins the lottery and decides to run for president.
Considering the current global struggles with a pandemic and systemic racial injustice, you would think this would be perfect “ripped-from-the-headlines” material for my book.
These are vital issues for us to grapple with as a global community to be sure, but there are three key reasons I won’t be doing so in my novel.
The first of which centers on the fact I am seeking traditional publication for this book, meaning it could be a year or two (or more) before it hits the shelves. Will these issues have the same resonance then as they do now? It’s impossible to tell.
Second, to embrace these new issues means I would need to reject my original narrative, which was complex and nuanced already. I’m sure there is a great story out there about a president dealing with such issues in his/her first or last year in office, for example, but that’s someone else’s tale to tell, not mine.
Third, is is hard to tell such sensational stories without looking making your work look like a cheap and insensitive imitation of real events. That's the last thing I would ever want to do.
For now, this is my story to share. Hopefully it will make headlines of its own.
When creatives speak of being inspired by the Muses, one envisions the gentle whisper in the ear to add a stroke on a canvas or a phrase in a sentence. Perhaps that’s how it works for my fellow artists, but not with me (at least not on my latest project).
Normally, I’m the guy who sits down for a month and pounds out a manuscript. Solitude and focus are my primary needs, with food and water being a distant second (Maybe Henry David Thoreau was on to something in Walden).
For my latest book, the Muses don’t seem to want to whisper their ideas while proffering a grape or two. I get the characters from my book waking me up at 5 a.m. to start dictating their story. A professional writer would get up and start writing. Then again, a professional writer doesn’t have to get up in an hour to go to a job to pay the bills.
Those of us who are independent artists for whom art does not fuel our income, creating our works come in between work and chores and family and sleep. As much as I want, I can’t go to my boss and say I need to take the next week off to write a novel that may, or may not, make back the money I put into it.
So, in response to this challenge, I write what I can remember when I get the chance. In the end, hopefully most of the perceived brilliance will make it to the page.
I've been writing stories and taking photos since I was old enough to hold a pencil and stand behind a tripod.