I have a new project with ambient music artist and longtime friend Mark Zampella. Basically, I read four stories from my collection, Sensual Nightmares: Tales From The Palomino, Vol. 1 over Mark’s weird music beds. The words and music work together to create a listening experience like no other — beyond conventional spoken word albums or ambient jams.
The Glue Trap — (RT 35mins) “No one knows how deep the well is, or what lives at the bottom …” Some creatures will chew off a limb to escape from a trap. What will Lloyd do to escape his gambling debts and tyrannical father-in-law?
The Hole — (RT 10mins) “There is a hole at the bottom of the Earth, in the deepest part of the world…” Suspense, strangeness, and ancient legends meet in the darkest depths of The Hole.
Black Fire — (RT 15mins) “There’s a robbery in progress at the QuikMart…” This is Mark’s chance to be a hero, and stop a crime. But today just isn’t his day …
Park, Bench, River, Gun — (RT 10mins) “It was a beautiful day. Tom sat on a park bench by the river. A gun sat next to him.” A bittersweet plan to end suffering unravels in a sad folly of forgetfulness and sorrow.
Check it out! Only $3!
Perfect for the Halloween holidays, or anytime you want to get creeped out!
Their construction is so basic — paper, ink, glue, and cardboard. But each is a doorway into another time and space, alternate dimensions both real and imagined.
It doesn’t matter if you’re reading true crime, historical fiction, or a cookbook; all are woven from the fabric of the human condition. Books are a reflection of us, who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we might be headed. Books offer a double whammy of knowledge and enlightenment coupled with escapism and fun, simultaneously invigorating and relaxing.
Childhood Friends, Adult Companions
Books have been my friends and teachers since childhood. I loved cracking open a new book when I was a kid (still do). The smell and feel of crisp pages beneath my fingers felt like opening a treasure chest. I borrowed from the library often, and learned to appreciate the beauty of well-thumbed books, too. The ghosts of old dog-ears, the depth of the creases in the spine, and the occasional handwritten note in the margin told the story of all the people who had touched — and been touched — by this book. Who else had feasted upon this tome, and how did their mind digest its contents?
Once upon a time, before the modern printing press (itself a dinosaur now facing extinction), books were rare, precious commodities. They still are and always will be. Because books are the ideas and the words used to express those ideas, not the ink and paper they’re delivered on. Books are created in the heart and mind of the author, and live in the hearts and minds of readers. The bound stack of pages with writing on them is merely a transfer method. There are other ways to read a book now.
Dime Paperbacks Gone Digital
Digital books, ebooks, are the new “dime paperbacks,” cheap and easy to distribute. Traditional publishing houses need to either embrace this new technology or face extinction. You don’t have to look any further than the nearest abandoned Borders to see the future of print publishing.
Publishers should sell print editions that come with free/discounted links to ebook and audiobook formats. Print-on-demand technology allows authors to sell reasonably priced print editions — even signed editions — to fans that want to put something on their bookshelves. These new technologies are changing — in fact, have changed — the face of the publishing industry.
In the 1990s, the rise of digital music formats — and sites like Napster — caught the record companies off-guard. Sony, BMI and the other biggies were reluctant to say goodbye to the $18 CD, but eventually settled on a $9.99 iTunes download. Similarly, book publishers need to bid farewell to the $30 hardcover, and embrace a lower priced ebook format.
History may repeat in another way. Musical artists learned a decade ago they really didn’t need the support of giant record companies to connect with fans. They could do it themselves with You Tube, Facebook, and Twitter (Justin Bieber, anyone?) Authors may discover the same thing, finding an audience for their work without needing the support and approval of a handful of big New York publishers.
Good-Bye, Books … Hello, Books!
I learned to separate a book from its content when I became a book buyer. I’d read paperbacks because they were inexpensive, and easy to transport. It wasn’t a tragedy if I left one on the bus, or dropped it in the bathtub. If I read something I really enjoyed, I’d seek it out in hardcover, or — back when I could afford it (i.e. pre-kids) — in a signed, limited edition. Over the years I amassed a sizeable collection.
But I donated most of my books to the local library last year when we relocated/remodeled. I figure I’ll replace my favorite books with digital editions over time, much like I have done with my music collection.
But I miss my books, the fading covers and yellowing pages. My wife tells me to stop whining, there’s less on the shelves to gather dust, and I suppose she’s right. (Isn’t she always?) I already read all the books I was donating, consumed their contents, and if I want a refresher, I can find what I need on the Internet.
It was Kurt Vonnegut. He looked the same as he did on the back cover of my copy of Slaughterhouse Five. Only older, with wilder hair. The desk guy shook his hand. I did, too.
“Cat’s Cradle is one of my all-time favorites,” I said. I wasn’t lying.
A moment later the elevator doors opened, and we both got on. I was alone in an elevator with one of my literary idols. I felt lightheaded, giddy, and nervous.
“Doing an interview with NPR today?” I asked. National Public Radio has its studios on the seventh floor of our building. In the past, I’ve run into other celebs on their way to NPR. A few years back I shared an elevator with Paul McCartney and his supermodel wife, Heather Mills. That time the elevator had been crowded, and the ride short, so I didn’t say anything. But I wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip away.
“I hope so,” Vonnegut said. “That’s what they tell me.”
An awkward pause followed. I kept staring at Vonnegut, and I think it made him uncomfortable. He looked away, and I stared at the numbers on the elevator panel. I knew I had roughly another minute before we reached the NPR floor. I cleared my throat and spoke.
The question surprised me. Evidently Vonnegut judges writers the same way publishers do. If their stuff doesn’t sell, it must not be very good.
“I’ve sold a couple of things,” I said. “Small press stuff.”
The most I’ve been paid for a piece of fiction is fifty bucks. I won first place in a short story contest once. The prize was a plaque and ten copies of the magazine. The magazine went belly-up after issue #2.
“Good for you,” Vonnegut said, “Keep at it.”
I had time to share one more thought.
“Writing,” I said, “is sort of a solitary profession, don’t you think?”
Editors or collaborators may make suggestions, but the bulk of all writing is done by one person, working alone, with only their thoughts and a computer keyboard for company. Sometimes it’s a very difficult, very lonely job.
Vonnegut laughed nervously, but he looked right at me. There was a kind of sadness in his eyes. And something else, too; something that looked like fear.
The elevator doors slid open. We had reached his floor.
“Stick with paperbacks,” Vonnegut said as he stepped out. “I’m into paperbacks now. That’s all anyone ever reads these days.”
I have no idea what Kurt Vonnegut was talking about. Maybe he was urging me to seek paperback publishers for my science fiction tales. Maybe he was encouraging me to read more paperback novels. Maybe he was answering a question someone else had asked him hours before. I don’t know.
Instead of asking for clarification, I shouted, “Thanks!” as the elevator doors slid closed. Kurt Vonnegut was gone, and I was alone again, pondering just what the 82-year-old author might have meant, and hoping against hope that if I ever make it to 82, I’ll still be publishing…and getting paid.
But first, let me tell you what blows about my debut novel.
Hangman’s Jam is a rock ‘n roll horror novel about a haunted song that gets passed along through the musical generations. It winds up in the hands of a New Jersey bar band, which rides it to worldwide success…and global destruction.
Hangman’s Jam may not be my greatest creative achievement, but it’s certainly one I’ve put a lot of time and effort into.
But it could’ve been better.
Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind
Since my novel is about music, specifically rock music, I incorporated many classic rock lyrics into the text. This gave the work an extra credibility, like my haunted song had always existed alongside these classic tunes. It showcased how music and life are interwoven. I packed my novel with all sorts of musical quotes, some subtle, some overt. I polished that draft until it was pretty good. I polished it until it sang.
Then I began researching the legal ramifications of using song lyrics in literary works, and quickly realized I was in deep doo-doo.
You can use song titles as much as you like, but using lyrics without permission and compensation is a big legal no-no.
A friend of mine was writing a follow-up to her bestselling cat story (Homer’s Odyssey by Gwen Cooper). Her cat is named Prudence, and one of her characters invites the stray tabby to “come out and play.”
What Cooper found when she ran her manuscript by the Beatles estate was it would cost a couple thousand dollars to use two lines from “Dear Prudence,” plus three cents per copy sold in perpetuity.
I’m sure Paul and Ringo don’t need to make a few hundred dollars off a struggling writer. But evidently their lawyers think otherwise, as do the majority of music publishing attorneys.
Lawyers Can’t Dance
As a songwriter, I understand the reason for this legal protection. You can’t have people stealing your lyrics.
But all art builds on the art that came before it. Why can’t I use a piece of another artist’s creation to illustrate my own? Hip-hop producers do it all the time!
If I wrote a book called Attack Of The 50-Foot Steve Buscemi, Steve Buscemi could rightfully say I was using his name and likeness for financial gain. Still, somehow Being John Malkovichgot made. It’s possible, but in the case of my work—a novel that was liberally sprinkled with musical quotations—it wasn’t financially feasible to get all the rights and permissions I needed to write the book I wanted to write.
So I rewrote the novel, and took all the musical quotes out.
It irritates me. Why can’t one confused character say to another, “There will be an answer. Let it be”? Well, you might get away with it in a mystery or romance novel, but in the context of musical fiction it’s asking for legal trouble. As a result, my characters now say, “We’ll let the music speak for itself,” instead of, “We’ll let the music do the talkin'” for fear of being sued by Aerosmith’s attorneys.
The final published draft of Hangman’s Jam is still pretty strong. I hope you’ll check it out and see for yourself (you can find both print and digital editions on Amazon, Barnes&Noble.com, iTunes, etc.) Maybe if enough people buy it, I’ll have the means to publish a revised edition with the music put back in.
You should buy this book. You should buy all my books.You should build a shrine to my books in your home. Then write positive reviews about them, and tell everyone you know — total strangers, even — about how awe-inspiring they are. Then go out buy additional copies for everyone you spoke with.
[This was my 1996 Christmas column 14 years ago. Not sure what my problem was, but I was clearly f’d up. Maybe I have “holiday issues.” Strange year, 1996, like so many before and since.]
Santa has received the letters you’ve sent to him over the past several years. Every year you’re grouchy, grumpy, and grinchy, and I’m sure this year is no exception. In hopes of preventing your usual end-of-the-year gripe, I’ve decided to drop you a line personally, just so you know we’re still thinking of you.
I hear you got a new job this year, Rob, working for a men’s magazine in New York City. You may enjoy looking at pictures of naked ladies all day, Rob, but this has landed you on Santa’s “Naughty List.” It’s quite a shame, really—all your talent squandered on a porno rag. I guess you figured it was a step into the world of “big time” publishing. I’m not sure what you stepped in, Rob, but it’s stuck to the bottom of your shoe, and it’s beginning to stink.
Speaking of stepping in things, Rob, I understand you’ve been volunteering at the local animal shelter this year. This is a good thing (not enough to move you to the “Nice List,” but it’s a start). Santa got a big laugh when he heard you played “Santa” during a recent Get Your Pet’s Picture Taken With Santa event. Kind of strange, don’t you think, a Scrooge like yourself dressing up like jolly “Ol’ St. Nick.” A literary type like yourself must surely appreciate the irony of that situation.
There have been other moments of reprieve for you this year, Rob. Like that time the bag lady on the subway asked you for money because she was hungry, and you gave her a couple of bucks. But generally, Rob, you’ve been more naughty than nice this year. This is the case year after year. Santa’s beginning to think you might be a perennially naughty person, and you’re dangerously close to being added to his “No-Way List” (an unfortunate roster of non-believers who have been written off by Santa.)
This will be the second Christmas without your father, Rob, and I’m sure you miss him very much. But please don’t blame Santa for his death—Santa’s not God, after all, just a guy who distributes gifts every December 25. For a non-believer, you sure ask Santa for a lot. Don’t hold it against him when you can’t get everything you want. And take a little responsibility for your own actions, for a change.
In closing, I just wanted to wish you a good holiday, Rob. I’m sure you won’t appreciate the spirit of the season until it’s over, and then it will be too late. But keep up those good deeds next year, and you might just find yourself on that “Nice List” after all. It’s up to you.
PS—Santa really resented that comment about his weight in last year’s letter. Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately?
The phone is ringing, but I’m not going to answer it.
It’s a quiet Saturday morning. The dogs have been fed and walked. I’ve got a steaming mug of tea next to my computer, and I’m settling in, preparing to write a column. I’ve got a good, juicy topic —
There goes the phone again. Ignore it.
Anyway, the column is about Passaic County office workers selling the names, addresses, and phone numbers of local residents to junk mail companies. Evidently it’s a longstanding and lucrative side business for employees in the County Clerk’s office and the Register of Deeds. There’s nothing illegal about it — the records are public. Instead of hiring an outside researcher to gather the names, it’s quicker and easier for marketing firms to have people on the “inside” who can funnel the data to them as soon as it comes in.
Ugh, the phone again. This is the third time in 40 minutes. This time I answer it.
You’re Talking To An Idiot
“Hello. Is this Robert … Ferrera?”
My middle initial is F (for Francis – hey, no laughing!). People who are reading my name off official documents often merge Robert F. Errera into Robert Ferrera. It’s a dead giveaway I’m talking to a salesman (or, as they say in the ’90s, “customer service representative“).
“Yeah, this is Robert,” I say, because I am an idiot.
“Mr. Ferrera, I’m calling today to offer you five cents per minute on all your weekend long distance calls …”
This continues for a full three minutes. The perky female on the other end of the line is good, barely pausing for breath as she chronicles the amazing deal she is offering. Finally, there is a lull in her diatribe and I see a chance to get a word in edgewise.
“Uh, thanks but I’m really not interested.”
“But Mr. Ferrera, with this select plan, you can save up to 50 percent on all your long distance calls…”
She goes on for another full minute, picking up momentum and showing no sign of slowing.
“Look, I’m really not interested,” I say, way past annoyed.
“But why, Mr. Ferrera? The service is free for 30 days and you can cancel at any time…”
These are the last words I hear before hanging up. Considered me canceled.
Cold Calls Make Me Hot
Back at my desk, the tea has cooled. I plow through the first two paragraphs of this column before the phone starts ringing again. I’m beginning to see the irony here. A glutton for punishment, I answer the phone.
“Hello, is this Mr. Ferrera?”
“He isn’t in right now, can I take a message?” I’m so clever.
“No, this is just a courtesy call. We’d like to offer Mr. Ferrera the opportunity to upgrade his windows before winter arrives. Do you think this is something he might be interested in?”
“I don’t know, and frankly it’s not my place to authorize any home improvements. You’ll have to call back some other time.”
You can see where I’m going with this. If county workers hadn’t sold my personal information to a bunch of marketing firms, maybe I could get some work done. I’ll never begrudge someone the opportunity to make extra money—lots of people, myself included, need it to make ends meet. But by doing their part-time job, these county employees have made my part-time job more difficult. The moonlighting county workers say they aren’t paid enough, and need extra income. I say quit disrupting the lives of the residents who employ you, and find a new part-time gig. (After this column, I’m sure there are plenty of county workers who’ll wish the same for me.)
The phone rang two more times since finishing this column. I didn’t answer it. The dogs bark at the postman, and I check to see what he’s brought. The mailbox is overflowing with junk — leaflets advertising aluminum siding, carpet cleaning, and discount pizzas.
In the distance I hear the demonic cackle of a county worker.
Not exactly. Keitai shosetsu are “cell phone novels” and they’ve been all the rage in Japan and China for the last decade. Yeah, novels written on cell phones in tiny, 100-word chunks and delivered in installments to other cell phone users.
How popular are keitai shosetsu in Japan? In the first half of 2007, five of the country’s top 10 bestselling novels were written on mobile phones, selling an average of 400,000 copies apiece. That’s got Japanese print publishers happy, while Japanese literary critics decry the form as tawdry and lurid.
Now, with the rise of “unlimited texting” plans and cheap, QWERTY-keyboarded handsets, cell phone novels are making their way to America. There are already several web sites dedicated to helping people get their cell phone novels out to the public.
Pro and Cons of Cell Phone Scribing
Will the cell phone novel fly in America? Will people take the time to bring their own inner novel to life – in tiny 140 character chunks? Seems silly, but the cell phone novel is an interesting idea for a number of reasons:
a) Writing a novel on a cell phone solves the age-old writer’s dilemma of “never having time to write.” You can write anytime you have a few moments and a free thumb. And it solves the reader’s dilemma of never having time to read. These are novels broken down into text messages – everybody’s got time for a text message.
b) The cell phone novel offers an immediacy and connection with the reader that traditional paper and ink books lack. Readers can comment on the book as it is being written and help shape its development. It’s a new kind of interactive, user-directed fiction.
c) Cell phone novels are portable, and private (nobody can see what kind of trash you’re reading on your handset!) and since they’re downloaded directly to your phone they save you a trip to the bookstore. Plus they are enviro-friendly: no more dead trees and stinky paper mills.
e) Once upon a time, when kings and queens ruled the land, the poet was the top of the literary food chain; they earned the most money and commanded the most respect. Nowadays most poets can’t earn enough from their writing to buy a cup of latte (unless they’ve sold out to write advertising copy). But the cell phone’s space constraints demands an economy of words that the poet is uniquely qualified to deliver. The rise of the cell phone novel could mean the rebirth of the poet…or, at the very least, a new market for crafted verse.
f) Using cell phones as a writing tool encourages more non-writers to write, and the World of Letters always needs new blood infusions to stay alive. As a writer myself, I should think that anything that gets people using written words to express themselves is a good thing, right?
Well…yeah, but…I’ve got some problems with this last one. Because “texting” isn’t writing. There are elements of writing – word choice, sentence structure, narrative flow – that you can only learn through reading and studying how things are written. Maybe everybody has a story to tell, but not everybody has the tools to be a writer.
You are supposed to be able to write competently by the time you graduate high school. But look at 90 percent of Internet blogs, and you’ll see that is not the case. Even though there are more opportunities than ever for people to express themselves as writers, people have never been more ill-equipped to seize those opportunities.
You’d think that having the chance to reach millions of readers would make people want to become better writers, but that doesn’t appear to be the case either. Japanese cell phone novelist Katsura Okiyama won a keitai shosetsu contest that earned her cash and a print publishing deal. But before tapping out her prize-winning story, she admits, “I had never written a story…I had never liked reading either.” She developed her style writing 100 text messages a day and using the same format and tone for her fictional story.
The Slush Pile is Everywhere!
At the risk of sounding like a pompous elitist, cell phone novels allow a lot of non-writers the opportunity to unleash their inner Stephen King or Danielle Steele and while I’m all for free expression, I’d rather see somebody take time to shape their writing before sharing their masterpiece with the world. Writing is a craft, a skill, a gift – you can’t just “tap it out” and send it like a…a…quick text!
Consider this. Cheap video cameras, powerful editing software and YouTube gives everyone the power to create their own cinematic masterpiece. But have you seen a new Citizen Kane come out of YouTube yet? No. You see a lot of goofballs acting goofy. Cell phone novels give everyone the chance to share their writing with the world. But if you think it’s a matter of time before the next War and Peace arrives on your cell phone you’d better hunker down for a long wait.
[Rob Note: Since writing this column, I’ve written a novel on my cell phone (well, most of the first draft was written on an LG Envy-2, the re-writes and edits were done on a standard computer). Because I’m old school (read: old) I’m looking for a paper-and-glue publisher – if you know one that likes rock-n-roll horror, please let me know!]