What’s an author to do?

By Sally Carpenter

New authors looking for publishers now have two less options.

Last month Oak Tree Press, an independent publisher of novels in various genres, closed its doors. That came as no surprise. Some years ago the publisher had fallen too ill to continue the work, and the company has been slowly winding down ever since.

Some OTP orphans with ongoing series signed on with other small presses, particularly with a firm run by a former OTP author! Other writers, the ones who had only written one or two books and were no longer actively writing or promoting their work, quietly let their books go out of print.

The big surprise in October was the announcement that well-respected indy mystery publisher Midnight Ink was shutting down in 2019. The press had a number of well-known and successful authors under its wing.

Every mystery has a motive, but MI has released little information as to the closure. MI is owned by a larger entity, so my guess is the decision came from the corporate level. I assume the parent company no longer wants to invest in mysteries, focus on other genres, or get out of book publishing all together.

Most, if not all, MI authors are represented by agents, which may make it harder, not easier, to find a new home. Some indy presses do not want to handle the legalities of working with agents. Also, many small presses generate book sales too low to adequately compensate an agent and her author.

As for the orphan authors hooking up with a large New York-based publisher, fuggitaboutit. The large firms, which have now gobbled up the majority of publishers, seem only interested in blockbuster sales, celebrities and their ghost writers, or writers with a massive social media presence. Average midlist authors need not apply.

And signing with a large publisher is not a guarantee of stability. I know of authors who had multi-book contracts with the “big boys” but the contract failed to renew. The reason most given was “low sales.” But these authors had books in libraries, rave reviews in top publications, and worldwide sales. Just how “low” is “low”?

So where does this leave the orphan author? Fortunately, while options are closing in one area, new possibilities are springing up.

With the death of one small press, another seems to appear. Some authors I know are now with presses I had never heard of before. With desktop publishing, anyone can start a book firm from ones own kitchen.

Some orphan authors who have an established fan base are going the indy/self-publishing route. They’re in total charge of cover, content, distribution and deadlines. Nobody can fire them.

The downside of such freedom is the responsibility. Unless the author is a highly skilled jack-of- all trades, she needs a designer, editor and publicist. She must do all the formatting, marketing and grunt work. She also covers all the costs of publication. Self-pub is not for the faint of heart, but for writers who have the time and perseverance.

I will be interested to see what happens to the OTP/MI orphans. Most, I’m sure, will land on their feet. Others may leave writing and move on to other pursuits. And some may launch new small presses.

 

 

 

 

Nowhere man

By Sally Carpenter

My current writing project is putting my first novel, “The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper,” back in print. Before I send the file to my publisher, I’m editing it for corrections and style. I haven’t read the book since it was published in 2011 and I had forgotten some things about my character, such as the fact he has a scar on his cheek that disappeared in the later books!

Being a little more experienced than where I was ten years go when I started writing mysteries, I’m more aware of clunky writing such as “He called the desk clerk on the room phone.” I changed it to “He phoned the desk clerk.” The story is set in 1993, so the protagonist had to use the hotel phone–cellphones were not yet commonplace.

The story takes place at a Beatles fan convention in which a member of the tribute band has been shot. The setting brings to mind the infamous “Paul McCartney is dead” hoax that has bewildered and amused fans for years. Like a detective story, various “clues” were uncovered that seem to prove the story.

On October 12, 1969, Russ Gibb, a DJ for radio station WKNR-FM, received a disturbing phone call from a caller who claimed if he listened to certain Beatles songs, he would hear proof that Paul McCartney was dead.

Shortly thereafter, Alex Bennett of WMCA-AM in New York told listeners of his radio show that the Beatles themselves had left “clues” pointing to the cute one’s demise.

Apparently Paul had stormed out of Abbey Road studios after an argument with the other Fabs and was decapitated in an auto accident on his way home. Apple Corps covered up the death to keep record sales alive. The missing bassist been replaced by a man named either William Campbell or Billy Shears, who had plastic surgery to resemble Paul. The band stopped touring so people wouldn’t notice the substitution.

In fact, Paul was involved in a car crash on November 9, 1966 while driving home after an all-night recording session, but he survived with minor injuries. In 1993 he poked fun at the hoax with an album named “Paul is Live.”

But the various “death clues” seem conclusive. On the “Sgt. Pepper’s” album cover, a funeral arrangement of flowers forms the shape of a left-handed bass, Paul’s instrument. The small statue in front center is an East Indian goddess, a symbol of rebirth.

Paul holds a black (the color of death) clarinet while the others have gold instruments.

A man has his hand raised over Paul’s head, a sign of blessing.

On the back of the “Sgt. Pepper’s” cover, Paul has his back to the camera while the other three face forward. George is pointing up at a song lyric that reads, “Wednesday morning at five o’clock,” the time of Paul’s death. The back cover is red, the color of blood.

The patch on Paul’s left sleeve says “OPD” (officially pronounced dead). Paul claimed the patch really meant “Ontario Police Department” and was an item he just picked up in a costume shop.

On the “Abbey Road” album cover, Paul is out of step with the other three Beatles and holds a cigarette, which is often called a “coffin nail.” He is barefoot, a sign of death. He wears burial clothes. John is dressed in white as an angel, Ringo wears an undertaker’s suit, and George is in gravedigger’s clothes.

The white VW to the left of the cover has a license plate “28 IF.” If Paul had survived the crash, he would have been 28 years old.

On the back of the “Abbey Road” cover, the word “Beatles” is painted on a wall. A crack runs through the word, a sign that the group has split apart.

The song “Come Together” says “one and one and one are three”—only three Beatles are left. “Come together over me” refers to the survivors gathered around Paul’s burial plot.

In the fadeout of “Strawberry Fields,” John seems to say, “I buried Paul.” But John has always claimed that he actually said “cranberry sauce.”

The sound montage of “Revolution No. 9” from “The Beatles” (White Album) has the sounds of a squealing tires, a fire, and a man saying “Get me out!” as if Paul were trying to escape from a burning car. A voice says “number nine” repeatedly which, if played backwards on an old-fashioned record player, sounds like “turn me on, dead men.”

The original “White Album” vinyl records included a photo poster. Paul’s headshot shows a scar above his lip—the result of plastic surgery on his replacement. (In reality, Paul injured his lip in the auto accident). Other photos on the poster show Paul’s apparently separated head floating in a bathtub and white ghost hands reaching out to grab him.

The amateur sleuth in my book discovers some interesting Beatle-ly clues as he tries to clear his name and find the killer. I’m having fun solving the crime with my hero again.

Parodies and pastiches

By Sally Carpenter

The theater in my town recently screened “Galaxy Quest” as part of the Friday night retro-film series. It’s one of my favorite movies. Trekkies consider it the seventh best Star Trek film because it’s a spot-on parody of the fan universe spawned by the Trek franchise.

Parodies abound in literature and cinema. If a movie becomes popular, a parody is bound to follow. “Star Wars” led to “Space Balls.” James Bond begat “Our Man Flint,” “The Ambushers,” “Get Smart” and Austin Powers. TV soap operas inspired the movie “Soapdish.”

The dictionary defines parody as “a literary or musical work in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect or in ridicule,” and also, “a feeble, ridiculous imitation.”

Parodies work best with attention to detail and a deep knowledge of the original subject matter. A successful parody is full of in-jokes that only the most committed fans get (such as in “Galaxy Quest” when Alexander says to Jason, “I see you managed to get your shirt off,” a reference to Capt. Kirk’s frequent and gratuitous tearing of his uniform).

I enjoy a good parody. It’s like being part of an in-group that understands the jokes and allusions that outsiders miss. A good parody will stand on its own, but is more worthwhile for those who know the original subject.

Parody differs from pastiche, which the dictionary says is “a literary, artistic, musical or architectural work that imitates the style of a previous work.” A pastiche does not poke fun, but rather, pays homage to the original.

Over the years the Sherlock Holmes stories have spawned countless imitations from fans. The pastiches attempt to add additional cases for the great detective to solve. These stories stay true to Doyle’s literary style and format. Often the pastiches use other characters besides Holmes as the protagonist, such as the Mary Russell series by Laurie R. King and the Amelia Watson stories of Michael Mallory.

I can read a Holmes pastiche if it bends the canon a little, but not if it beaks it. Some authors go so far off track that the book is Holmes in name only. He’s even traveled in time and outer space!

The arrogant and aloof resident of 221B is also ripe for parody. My favorite parody is “Schlock Homes: the Complete Bagel Street Saga” by Robert L. Fish in which the detective’s keen observations always lead to the wrong conclusions. The stories are also full of word play and puns, which I love.

Hard-boiled private eyes like Sam Spade and Mike Hammer were imitated to death in B-movies and pulp fiction magazines. The stories were not so much homage as a means to cash in on a hot topic without violating copyright laws.

Sometimes beginning writers will pen pastiches as a way to learn the craft while their own style/voice develops. Some write parodies for amusement (as Fish did with Schlock Homes) or to poke fun at pretensions.

I love a good parody, but eventually I always go back to the original. With pastiches, I feel that an author should eventually create her own characters. Hundred of other detectives exist beyond Holmes and Spade and they deserve to have their stories told too.

What are your favorite parodies and pastiches in film and books?

A groovy new book

By Sally Carpenter

Flower_Power_Fatality_jpg (1)

My new retro-cozy, “Flower Power Fatality,” seems like it’s taken forever to write. I estimate the actual writing time at about 1.5 years but it’s been on my mind for much longer.

The idea originated a number of years ago at a fundraising concert at my parish. A group of ‘60s rockers were performing and I thought a cozy set in the 1960s was a pretty far out idea. I only know of one other mystery series in the ‘60s so the field seemed ripe for exploiting.

I considered a series with a college student as a protagonist (campus unrest was a big topic in the era), one book for each year of school. However, high-achieving students are too busy with classes, homework and extra-curricular activities to have time for sleuthing (except for the Hardy Boys who always seem to be on a school holiday). Writing scenes about someone sitting in lecture classes all day didn’t interest me either (my apologies to those of you who write school mysteries).

I didn’t want to write about a rock musician, because I already had a musician in my Sandy Fairfax series. Hippies are interesting characters, but they make poor sleuths. They don’t want to deal with the cops and frankly, some of them are too strung out much of the time to be of use.

One of my writer acquaintances is a Doris Day fan, so I started watching Doris Day movies. The idea clicked with “The Glass Bottom Boat.” Doris plays a civilian who unwitting gets mixed up with spies. Aha!

The 1960s was the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia, with nuclear annihilation of both countries only a button-push away. Everyone knew about CIA and KGB spies, no matter how hard they tried to keep their activities a secret. Mad Magazine made light of this conflict in the wordless “Spy vs. Spy” cartoons.

The spy genre was popular entertainment in the 1960s, kicked off, of course by the James Bond craze. Soon Bond found himself parodied in the Derek Flint and Matt Helm films and in the 1967 “Casino Royale.”

Spies took over TV as well with such shows as “I Spy,” “The Man From UNCLE,” “Mission: Impossible” and “Get Smart.” One could argue “Batman” followed suit as well, with its many bat-gadgets, droll sense of humor and over-the-top presentation like the Bond movies.

“UNCLE” episodes featured a new “innocent” (guest star) each week, a civilian recruited by the agency to help the spies with the mission, much like the protagonist in my book, an actress who stumbles upon a murder and missing microdots.

But I couldn’t start writing right away. I wanted to crank out another Sandy Fairfax book, so I put the new idea on the back burner. Then I researched a big presentation for my parish. Then I wrote a short story for the “Cozy Cats Shorts” anthology (2017). And along the way I was still writing my monthly Ladies of Mystery post and my newspaper column.

At long last I put everything aside to work on the new idea.

Sometimes letting an idea simmer makes it tastier. I used the time to research my setting and the 1960s in general. Being a kid at the time, much of what was going on went right over my head. I also had to check on every product and piece of music mentioned in the book to make sure it was time-appropriate.

And the book has a pet cat. Well, that one was easy to research. I just looked in my yard.

An ‘ideal’ article

By Sally Carpenter

 Some years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Jeffrey Scott, the most prolific writer of TV animation, with over 600 produced scripts to his credit, and all-around nice person.

 In his book, “How to Write for Animation,” which has good advice for any writer, he talks about ideas.

 “There are an infinitive of ideas,” he writes. “All of us are inherently creative.”

 Scott makes a good point that we tend to over think creativity, which is often presented as some mystical, awesome force that only affects a few highly gifted individuals.

Or else we try to analyze creativity as science by probing the workings of the brain or studying the effects of environment or family life to determine the elements that lead to artistry, as if recreating Michelangelo’s studio will produce another Sistine Chapel painting.

Julia Cameron, author of “The Artist’s Way” books, agrees that everyone is born with creativity, only we get “blocked” by criticism, discouragement and rejection. Cameron’s books present exercises that help the reader to “unblock” and let the creativity flow.

While I’m not as prolific of a writer as Scott, from my experience I agree with his observation that the best way to break though a “block” is to write: “Good, bad or indifferent,” he says.

Some writers try to “summon the muse” through complicated rituals before they start working: brew a certain type of coffee, do yoga, take a walk, do writing prompts, meditate, wait until inspiration hits (which could be a very long holding pattern). But sometimes these rituals instead lead to writer’s procrastination, simply postponing time spent writing.

In my day job at a community newspaper, some of my tasks are writing headlines and photo captions. I can’t sit and wait for inspiration to hit. The paper is on deadline and the boss won’t pay for overtime. So I learned how to work quick and dirty, coming up with ideas on the fly.

 I’m not sure where I heard this, but the best way to reach the muse is to “show up at the page” (or the keyboard). In other words, start writing. An author can’t edit or polish a story until words are on the page.

When I was a kid, I had tons of story ideas. Unfortunately, at that age I lacked the discipline to write it all down; I just daydreamed. Even though the stories were childish, a writer must start somewhere. A runner can’t finish a marathon unless she first masters those first wobbly steps as an infant.

 Cameron suggests that artists begin each day with “morning pages,” three pages of free-form longhand (not typing or texting), just writing whatever comes to mind. The concept is to keep the pen moving even if the words are gibberish, to clear out the mental “junk” that blocks an artist, and to activate the richness of the subconscious. Soon gems will appear among the scribbling.

 I recently started writing a short story that I planned to include in the reprint edition of my first book. I wrote some pages, and then had to leave it for other projects. In the meantime, another story idea occurred and I decided to move ahead the second idea.

Did I waste my time with the first story? Of course not. I may use the first idea in a later book. Even if I never finish the story, it’s possible I might not have been open to receiving the second idea had my mind not been “primed” with the first.

For me, a good way to prime the pump is research, no doubt a holdover from grad school. I love to read and learn new things. For my new short story, I got some great ideas by reading a book on the subject.

Writers get ideas from the news, movies, TV, trips, family and friends, and their own experiences. My book “The Sinister Sitcom Caper” was inspired by my work at Paramount Studios.

Scott suggests that one way to general ideas is to pick an object in the room—such as a table, phone, bookcase—and generate stories from it. I see my record albums. I can use a record disc as a Frisbee, float it down a river, use it as a serving tray, hear secret messages if I play it backward, roll it like a hoop, wear it on my head, use it as a shield, hide behind it and peer though the hole—the possibilities are endless.

 If you write it, the ideas will come.