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The Best Author Interview – Todd Keisling

Maybe I’ve been wrong all these years and my talent is not in writing, but in interviews. Nevertheless, author Todd Keisling responds to my inquiries about his writing process, and his new book, A Life Transparent, which I fucking loved.

The characters in ALT seem familiar to me. Even the Yawnings. It was eerily familiar as I read it. Why do you think that is?

I wanted the characters to be as real as possible. They’re people to whom the reader can relate in some way. I think we’ve all been in Donovan’s shoes at some point, stuck in a dead end job, wondering if that’s all there is to life. We’ve encountered people like Donovan’s co-workers. We know someone like Donovan’s brother, Michael, or Donovan’s wife, Donna. They’re the people who are living the lives they want to live, or yearn for something more but feel they’re being held back by a significant other. I tried to identify certain archetype figures and incorporate them into the story via these characters.

To me, the story’s pseudo-villain, Aleister Dullington, represents that nagging voice in the back of our minds, reminding us of our action’s consequences, pushing us in one direction even if we’re resistant to it. Even his minions, the Yawning, are manifestations of the way in which our boredom and mediocrity can consume us, thereby defining our lives for us.

I’d like to think those connections came through in the text in a subtle manner, and that what people find so unsettling or eerie about the story is their subconscious connection these things.

I realize that’s probably a convoluted, pretentious answer, but for now I’ll stick to it.

I’ll take it. You had a rough time with your first self-publishing printer. Did you take an opportunity to take another look at the writing in your novel before you republished it anew, with a professional editor?

I’ll preface this by saying my experiences with certain self-publishing outlets were my own. Your mileage may vary.

That said, yes, I did have a rough time. The book was initially published through Lulu back in 2007. Though getting set up in their system and securing distribution wasn’t expensive, procuring copies of the book was overpriced. Toward the end of my time with Lulu, I found it cheaper to buy the book from Amazon and pay my own royalty than to order directly from Lulu with the author discount.

That is completely fucked up. I wish more people knew about that kind of experience, and that there are alternatives. Go on.

In late 2009, while working on the follow-up novel, I decided to look at CreateSpace as an alternate solution. Around May of 2010, I finally started that transition process, and it turned into a huge mistake. There were a number of quality issues that led me to sever that relationship and pull the plug.

Kickstarter afforded me an opportunity to hire an editor and revise the book. I wanted to make a definitive edition, something that would be as high quality as I could make it. My editor made her first pass over the manuscript, after which I took her comments and rewrote the novel during a period of about two months. The end result was a slightly shorter, tighter work. It went from approximately 60k words to about 53k words. The story remained the same, but new scenes were added to flesh out the characters, and minor details were altered to better suit a lead-up to the sequel.

Looking back, I’m glad my editor and I spent that extra time with the book. It needed it (the manuscript was over 4 years old), and the end result is far superior to the original.

Kickstarter is a huge part of your renewed publishing effort. How did you set your budget for what your objectives were, and did you have a backup plan in case the funding didn’t come through?

The Kickstarter project saved the book. When things fell through with CreateSpace, I really didn’t know what else to do. My only other options were vanity companies like Author House and Xlibris (which seem like a total rip-off), and going to an offset printer (which is very expensive, and wouldn’t provide the distribution I needed).

So, you could say Kickstarter was the backup plan. If my project proposal hadn’t been approved, or if the project hadn’t earned out, ALT probably wouldn’t be available today.

I calculated the project budget by obtaining a fee schedule from Lightning Source. Then it was just a matter of doing some rough math. First I figured out how much the approximate product cost for each book would be (paperback vs. hardcover). Then I used that info to pick appropriate pledge tiers ($5, $15, $25, etc.) and the rewards associated with each. I settled on a total goal of $2000. That would be enough to pay the setup fees, editing rate, ISBN blocks, digital layout, and shipping & handling. I’m fortunate to be married to a graphic designer who knows her way around Photoshop and InDesign, so that wasn’t figured into the cost.

In hindsight, I probably should have gone for $3k. Midway through the project, I decided to go a step further and set up my own publishing house. The business fees ate into the funds. My shipping estimates for international rewards were also low. In the end, I had to go out of pocket
by a few hundred dollars. I will say that, had I not had to pay the setup costs associated with the
business side of things, everything would’ve come down to the penny from the Kickstarter funds.

What an experience! So many of us just skip the funding part, and then realize that we get out of it what we put into it.

What are you working on next?

The next book is a direct sequel to ALT. It’s called THE LIMINAL MAN, and it takes place about a year after the events of the first book. Currently, the manuscript is with my editor as she makes her first pass. We hope to go to print early next year.

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Tips from an Idiot

A year ago I was readying to “submit” to agents for mainstream publishing. I read some agents’ blogs and watched their tweets fly by. I decided they are dicks and so I maneuvered around that process, learning that there was no opportunity to get a widespread, quit-your-dayjob publishing opportunity without agents.

So I ditched it all and published my book myself.

I sold about 100 print copies of *that book* (you know what I’m talking about, that I can’t mention it here) and only had a couple of months to promote it before the world ended. I’ve had about 1000 downloads on various free-e joints, so that’s not bad, but you can’t count if people actually read the downloads.

I’m not into analytics on this stuff anyway. I just want to know people enjoy my work as much as I do. That’s actually a lot to ask, but my mantra has been to publish as much as you can wherever you can.

I’m on to my first novel now, which I’m issuing RIGHT NOW. Moxie Mezcal put a great cover together and I formatted this motherfucker last night in a few hours. It didn’t take the month + help I got on my first book, because I took the steps to ensure I didn’t have to retrofit more than 200 pages as much as I would have.

I am an idiot with formatting and graphics. That’s a disclosure it is important to understand. I’m not at the bottom of the barrel–in fact, I consider myself close to being an MS Word whiz. But in order to format a book properly, you really do need to be that whiz, not just be close to it.

Start writing your book the way you want it to look and the process isn’t as painful. I had to retrofit my entire first book, and that process sucked.

Using styles, this book was much easier to format since there were no bizarre blocks of text in a different font. tnd once I realized that my indents were too big (and gee, that’s why the thing looked so lame), I just went in and moved the top tab to .1 rather than .5 and the whole thing magically fixed itself. *Awesome*

Global seek and replace was a winner for my sections–those imperative but annoying breaks within a chapter but not quite a chapter break. I had two asterisks, then I had 5 asterisks, some separated by tabs, some not, but a global search and replace worked wonders.

I write a lot of dialogue that is cut off, like, “Hey, asshole, what are you–” In Word, it tends to not like the emdash followed by a closed quotation, so you have to manually go in and replace the open quote with a closed quote. Again, global search and replace works fine for symbols and punctuation so don’t hesitate to use it. (However, search & replace function doesn’t work for finding curly quotes and replacing with straight quotes. Or at least it doesn’t work on my system. You should try it though, to make sure you have all your quotes in the same style.)

I should have (but didn’t) customize each header to match the chapter, since I wrote Back(stabbed) In Brooklyn with multiple perspectives. It would have required going in and inserting a section break for each of my 36 chapters. Then the pagination gets all fucked up. Meh….

Table of Contents is easy, it’s an *insert reference* function on your menu and you just make sure your chapter headings are identified in your TOC settings. Once you finish formatting, right-click on your TOC field and click update. Because I messed with a few of the headings, I didn’t want to update the entire TOC but just the page numbers.

Mirrored margins was an easy choice to find and it wasn’t a custom or manual function. (This makes it so when your book prints each facing page is centered correctly.)

I laughed when I opened the book on my nightstand to get double-check the pages before the text actually started (copyright, acknowledgements, kudos, bullshit, whatever) in Murakami’s last book there were 10 pages of bullshit before the text started! But I did learn I had to put in a blank page so that the text started on the right side, not the left. I could have put the TOC on two pages then to avoid a blank page, but then it wouldn’t have been facing each other and that’s lame.

I DID NOT align the text along the bottom of each page. I don’t know how to do that and I didn’t fuss over it. I probably should have. I know I’ll get my ass kicked for not doing it. But I didn’t. Meh, again. (If my story is so boring that you are focusing on the bottom page alignment, then I need to worry more about my story rather than the formatting.)

And there it is. I formatted my book. Now go ahead and do yours.

Thanks for reading.

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Commodity or Magnum Opus?

Some people blow through a book in a day or two, while others take a couple of weeks or more. Many people just inhale them like a sweet breeze, one after the other, without stopping in between. I’m worse than that — I just forget the endings of books I enjoy. (Truth is, I don’t even finish books I don’t love.) To most avid readers, books are not only an unquestionable right, but they are taken for granted as a vital component of life.

It’s like when the tourists cruise through the Sistine Chapel, look up and say, “Look honey, Michelangelo’s painting, now let’s go get some spaghetti.”

But to a writer who may spend a year or more writing the damned thing, think about how we feel when we see a pile of books stacked up 5 feet high against the wall of a summer cabin and the proud readers saying, “We read all of these books this summer!” It’s an intractable dilemma. It’s not easy to write a book, and for some it’s extraordinarily difficult and a compelling feat. So when a reader zooms through it and moves on casually to the next one, how are we to reconcile this disparity?

Think of the planning, outlining, and writing. And writing. And writing. Then the editing, proofing, and rewriting. And rewriting. And editing some more. And then the synopsis. And for some who choose to submit their work for mainstream publishing, the sterilizing and demoralizing query process. Then the rejections. More queries. More rejections. Finally the agent, then the selling to the publisher. The reworking of some parts. The publisher meetings. The marketing meetings. The marketing. For the DIY writers, the layout–the horrible horrible layout process, then the pre-marketing, the blogging, the begging for interviews and reviews, the vetting of e-book/free-book websites, the setting up your website and trying to figure out the e-commerce plugins and CSS and HTML, the tweeting and more tweeting, the artwork, the printer or POD joint, the price gouging, the amazon threads that will make you gouge your eyes out, the paltry and late checks from your method of distribution.

And some asshole reads the thing in a weekend?

There it is, that’s the truth. We are at odds with the very mode of entertainment we choose to pursue. We can’t possibly ask or expect the reader to study and appreciate every word and page as we did; we don’t want them to know how we made the sausages, after all.

This supports my argument that short fiction, novellas, and experimental-length and format fiction should not only have more of a platform, especially with e-books, but that more authors ought to put out more of this type of work. ESPECIALLY with more e-books, because readers will devour even more of our work with this enhanced format, right? RIGHT? So all the better to fill up our tanks not with the predictably dull 80,000 word novels, but with interesting work that we can package with other media to deliver in the increasingly sophisticated (but still clunky) devices for reading.

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Chapter 2 – Clear the Noise and Find Some Truth – from Back(stabbed) In Brooklyn

Ralphie and Howard went out after the tattoo and had dinner in a trendy fusion spot and then on to a club with velvet ropes and no signs outdoors. They were whisked inside through an unmarked door, and shown to Howard’s table, segregated away from everyone else. Howard sat there unimpressed with the scene, and felt out of place in the place he came on a weekly basis. He said his hellos, had a few drinks, tried to enjoy himself. Ralphie sent over so many women that Howard couldn’t keep track and it didn’t do a thing to distract him from the fact that Nancy left him just hours earlier, and he came to the realization that his career as he knew it was most likely coming to an end.

Howard left early and returned home. Of all the things, he couldn’t stop thinking about Punch. He called Ralphie to have him get in touch with the kid at the tattoo studio to see about getting Punch’s phone number.

*                     *                    *                    *

Alan made a personal visit to Howard’s home; quite a schlep from Beverly/Fairfax in West Hollywood to Malibu, but he was worried about his friend. He hadn’t seen him in weeks and though he knew that Howard wasn’t angry with him personally, just wanted reassurances that they were ok. He brought rugelah from a great Jewish bakery in L.A. hoping to warm Howard up and make him feel better. Howard answered the door with his usual greeting, a great hug and handshake.

“What the hell took you so long to come see me? I’m not a fucking leper.”

“Howie you know I love you. You said you wanted some time. Or some space. Whatever the hell you said you wanted I gave it to you. I always give you what you want,” Alan gratefully replied.

“I’m glad you’re here. We gotta talk.”

“No word from Nancy?”

“Nah, the slut. You know it’s not really a big deal she’s not here anymore. I don’t miss her. I don’t miss the company. I don’t mind having the quiet around here.”

“So what are you getting at?” Alan inquired cautiously.

“Nothing, I’m just…I’ve been thinking a lot. I think I’m going home.”

“What, home? Which one? The Island? Yacht in Amalfi? You wanna stay at my place in Maui for a while?”

“Alan I’m going back to Brooklyn.” Howard stood up and made the pronouncement resolutely.

“What the fuck is in Brooklyn? Of all the places, Howard…Are you going through some kind of crisis?”

They both laughed at the dramatic effect.

“You sound like a bad screenplay,” Howard joked. “I just thought I’d get the hell out of this town for a while. Get back to—“

“What? Get back to what? There’s nothing there. No one’s left. You know that,” Alan said, knowing that a trip home for all his clients and friends never meant anything good. They hadn’t even made good movies about the subject of going back home. It was trite. Going back home was a contrived context to too many bad stories. It was unlike Howard to fall for such sentimentality.

Howard sat back and basked in the imaginary sun in the enormous living room, soaking in every detail that his interior designer carefully planned, as if to look at it for the first and last time.

“I can’t say I have strong attachments here anymore,” Howard declared.

Alan stood up and appeared to take offense. He paced around a little bit. Howard didn’t look in his direction, but saw him from the corner of his eye and he knew his friend was planning a counterattack.

“Attachments? Howard Motherfucking Kessler, Attachments? Your whole life is here, your career, you were nothing without Hollywood and don’t pretend you would have made anything of yourself without your career in this town. You don’t attach well, if you hadn’t already noticed by now, you cold fuck,” he steamed. Alan inhaled and was about to continue the tirade but then Howard interrupted.

“I’m not saying that I don’t appreciate what you’ve done, or what I have. For chrissake, Alan, this is a $10 million house I’m in; you don’t think I know what I have? That’s not my point. I don’t know what the fuck my point is anymore. I just don’t—“

Alan knew exactly what Howard was getting at, even if he himself didn’t know. And nothing against Howard, Alan knew he couldn’t articulate it anyway. Here’s a guy who was shrewd enough to get where he is today, but by brute force, talent, and intensity, not book smarts.

“Fine then. Fine, how long do you want to take? I mean, you know what happens to people out here when they’re off the circuit for too long,” Alan tried to keep Howard focused.

“I don’t give a shit about the circuit. I’m 66 years old. 26 movies, countless TV shows, a fuckin musical, you think I give a shit about the circuit? What else is there for me here? Taking roles as a Grampa sitting on a porch reading stories to a snot-nosed ankle-biter in some schlocky period piece?”

He was right.

Howard was either too embarrassed or confused to admit what he was really thinking—if anything, Alan thought.

“You’re too old to have kids. They don’t even do that in Africa,” Alan said bluntly, angry that he couldn’t dissuade the headstrong Howard.

“It’s not kids. That ship left a long time ago. I don’t know, Alan, I just don’t have anything of my own. I keep playing these roles, they’re all the same, I’m tired and bored—“

“And those tired, boring roles are what’s gotten you this $10 million home,” Alan retorted.

“I have nothing of my own, is what I was going to say. I mean, I’ve made a living off of a caricature of myself, and I don’t have any identity.”

“Oh, so that’s what you think this is about? Your identity? Listen to me—I mean it, Howie—listen to every word I’m going to tell you, and not  just because I think Brooklyn is a useless piece of shit place, but because I know you better than anyone and I can see from a million miles away that you were about to hit this point—“

“I don’t want to hear it. Alan, thank you, really, I am thankful for your friendship. But I have to do this. I have to get out of here, and I just have to go back home and see what’s there for me.”

He stood up and looked out at the ocean, then turned back around and stretched his arms out to his side, clasping them behind his neck—pulling rather than hanging his arms.

“I’ve got nothing to lose,” Howard said, almost in a whisper, trying to convince himself that it was true.

“Fine. I have strong opinions about this, Howard, I’m just telling you then. Just one last question though. Are you in trouble? I mean, you know, the numbers? I don’t wanna get another fucking knock on the door at 3am by a bunch of animals,” Alan asked, referring to the time a few years back when Howard owed every bookie west of the Hudson.

“No, I’m good.”

And with that, they bid goodbye.

*                     *                    *                    *

Alan left the house and sulked back to his car up the steep driveway. He was losing his friend. Even if he came back, which he doubted he would, things wouldn’t be the same. Once you’ve turned on L.A., you can’t come back the same person who left. Alan couldn’t see anything good out of Howard’s decision to go back home. It had been 50 years and there was nothing for him there. A couple of altakaka’s who used to be hoodlums. Alan’s worst fear is that going back home would resuscitate the old feuds, or bring out the parasites who would suck everything out of his friend that there is to give–money, first and foremost, and the pathetic requests to be set up on dates.

A few quiet days passed. Howard’s phone rang and it was Ralphie with the phone number he wanted from Ben, the tattoo artist. Howard wrote it down on the back of last week’s copy of Variety in thick, black marker. Howard didn’t use pen and paper much for anything, so when he did, Sharpies were his choice writing tool.

He thought he should be clear with Alan, and gave him a call.

“Alan, buddy, listen, I don’t think we had a straight conversation the other day,” Howard said sheepishly.

“What the hell are you talking about now?”

“About going home. Me, when I said I’m going back to Brooklyn—“

“Were you shittin’ me? Because if you were that’s a terrible trick, really, Howie—“

“No, I know you have problems with my decision. But honestly, the first time I thought about it was when we talked.”

There was a long silence. Alan didn’t know whether to laugh or hang up. He had to clarify, since Howie wasn’t a big talker on the phone.

“Wait, are you going back or no?”

“Yeah, I’m probably going back. The whole thing started because I just heard about a guy I knew, one of my closest friends before I left, he’s still around and I just, uh—“

“Alright, I get it, you’re curious. It happens to the best of us.”

“I don’t know if it’s just curious, you know, it’s like, I don’t know, I just want to get back to something I know,” Howard said, though wavering.

“I’m not trying to talk you out of it, but you already know my feeling about this. But I can’t help but tell you that it’s a stupid fucking idea,” Alan rebuked.

“I don’t know if it’s stupid. I have to get the hell out of here. I have to go learn something, find some new things, come up with a new project for myself.”

“Uh, Brooklyn isn’t where you go to learn stuff and find new things, you know, it’s a dead-end.”

“I’m just talking about digging up a couple of guys. Finding out what they’ve been doing.”

Alan had no response.

Losing patience, Howie said, “Forget it, forget I called, I’ll be in touch.”

He hung up. Alan couldn’t change his friend’s mind, even if he knew that Howard’s mind wasn’t exactly resolute.

Several days passed before Howard had the gumption to call Punch. He didn’t even know what he would say. He didn’t obsess over it, though. He spent a few days packing some clothing, arranging for the artwork to be sold or sent back to the galleries from which he borrowed them. He had a cleaning service come in, his decorator arranged for much of the furniture to be packed away, and the management agency to come assess the property for an extended separation. Howard didn’t even know where he was going. His phone used to ring all day—now only a few calls a day from friends or his publicist. Things were winding down on their own, which is just the way Howard likes it.

Howard wasn’t going to stick around town to hear gawkers whispering that he’s a has-been.

Ralphie, who was much less of a mensch than Alan, called Howard out on Ben’s frantic search for Punch’s phone number. “What, you going back home to be a big star there, you don’t get enough of that here?”

“I don’t really know what the fuck you’re talking about Ralphie, so you can fuck off.”

But Howard felt he had to think about Ralphie’s inartfully-said message. Was that really why he was going home? Because he knew that he would get the fawning attention of a New York audience, his home-town? He tried it once before about 25 years ago and it went over well for a while until he overstayed his welcome. He owed money, was wrapped up in a horse-fixing scandal, landed a few punches at one of New York’s 3-star restaurants, smashed a borrowed Ferrari and never repaid the owner.  He was also accosted by everyone who ever came through Brooklyn, claiming to be his best friend and in need of money. But most of all, his old friends always wanted him to hook him up with girls. Most of those guys were so desperate for women that they felt Howie was a silver bullet for dates. It was pathetic.

This time it will be different. He’s not going back as a star. He’s going back as Howie Kessler, to find his friends, clear the noise, and find some truth.

He picked up the phone and dialed Punch’s number.

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Howie Is Too Old For The Part – Chapter 1 – Back(stabbed) In Brooklyn

“Donnie, I understand what you’re saying, it’s totally clear. But what I’m trying to get you to understand is what I’m dealing with here on my end—” pleaded Alan Shiner into a tiny mobile phone, with the other hand covering his ear. His whole body motioned when he emphasized a point on the phone, because he couldn’t use his hands as in a personal conversation.

“Donnie, Donnie, you don’t even have to explain to me anymore. You think I don’t know? Of course I know. I’ve worked with this guy for 40 years. I know like you have no idea I know. You see where I’m going with this?”

And that ended his plea with the big-time director of the new film that Alan’s oldest client, Howard Kessler, was being kicked off and replaced with a younger lead actor. At least younger was the excuse they used. And in Hollywood, that’s a viable excuse. Continue reading

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What Does Your Book Release Mean?

“Yo the next album is dropping next Tuesday.”

“In theaters near you this Friday.”

“And your book release will be…”

Right, so what does that mean for the DIY author? I mean for major league publishing house authors there’s a whole schedule: premarketing, marketing, publicity, press, events, co-marketing, pre-orders, internet pre-orders, ship date, preferred retailers, and internet sales release. But what about the rest of us?

I imagined a big party at a cool club and flyers all around town announcing the book release party. I’d get a band, there would be tons of people. Instead, I got the shipment of my print order books and they sat on my kitchen floor for about a week before I even got a chance to put my first internet orders in mailing envelopes at the post office. And that was it, really. I tried to organize some readings, then I resorted to begging bookstores in the area to let me do a signing event. When that failed, I gave them great terms on carrying the book, even on consignment. Nothing.

Ok, so the book may suck, but all the feedback I’ve recevied is that it definitely doesn’t suck and that it’s funny as hell. Ok, great. but that doesn’t solve the problem here: people are attracted to that deadline, the date, the time, the place. Releasing a book over the internet as most of us independents do sucks a little bit of the excitement and urgency out of it.

Being a part of a writing community definitely helps. For example, at Year Zero, we work hard to promote one another’s releases and are able to cobble together some pretty amazing events. But there are only about a dozen of us in Year Zero, and there are hundreds of thousands of independent writers and their releases. With millions and millions–an infinite amount–of willing readers.

Our issue is to bridge that gap. Our issue is to continue to break down the walls that the mainstream publishing industry have erected to define “legitimate” releases from independent ones. That definition is diminishing, but the independent writing community may have to take another look at the approach we take in releasing a book.

There is a soft release, which I’m inclined to do for my next project, due out as soon as I can get a book cover together (not an easy task), which means uploading to FeedBooks, BookBuzzr, Smashwords, and the like. Making announcements here, Twitter, and a few other blogs. And begging the fuck out of book reviewers to review it. By this point, the print release seems negligible. I recognize that the tactic of offering the electronic copy for free is one that not everyone agrees is the best approach. But for me, who the hell am I to charge money for my unproven work? You can pay when I have a track record!

Then there is a hard release, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Who would come to my book release party, other than my kids’ preschool friends’ mommies, my family and some friends? Exactly. Anticlimactic, which is exactly what I’d like to avoid. While the soft release seems anticlimactic, a shitty result for a hard release is downright depressing.

How are you “releasing” your book?

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