Friday, May 31, 2013

Living the Dream

I suspect most aspiring novelists have an idealized impression of what success as an author is like. I think I'm to the point now where I feel I can consider myself moderately successful, and I can tell you it's not all cocktail parties and coffee shops. On the other hand, there are a lot of authors who'd have you  believe that the modern life of a novelist is hardly discernible from a  destitute coal miner in the Twenties.

The general consensus is that trying to be an author is one of the dumbest things a person can do. The odds of success are a hair away from impossible, and success only means an isolated life of drudgery working two jobs or chained to a keyboard day and night just to keep the heat on. In a recent speech at the Digital Minds Conference even Neil Gaiman questioned if the day of the gainfully employed novelist has already passed.

Given all this, I suppose I'm an outlier. Not because I managed to make a living writing novels, but because I see it as just about the best job anyone like me could have.

I recently spoke to a fellow writer who mentioned how hard writing is—that having written is great, but that the actual writing was a pain. All they could think of was how they looked forward to being done so they could go out and do fun things. I found this strange as I always thought writing was the fun part. But before you jump to the conclusion that the only pleasure that can be obtained by being an author is the joy of writing itself, I think I will tell you how I spent yesterday.

Carrying a mildly battered leather courier bag filled with a notebook and pens (always more then one), my cap, an umbrella, and a garment bag, my wife and I hopped the train to New York. We arrived at Union Station around ten in the morning and dropped off our bags at the swank hotel Belvedere. Then walked the few blocks to meet my Orbit editor and marketing director who treated me to a long lunch at a classy wine and dine restaurant. Wine and Dine are actually part of its name.

Entrance to Recorded Books
We chatted about business, other authors, and how well my books were selling. I was pleased to learn Riyria is doing nicely even a year and a half past publication. We concluded lunch with a chocolate molten cake, and fond farewells. By then it was two in the afternoon. I had received an email from Claudia at Recorded Books asking if I'd be willing to come down after my lunch to record the Author's Note for my upcoming novel, The Crown Tower

We had a few hours, so of course I said yes. Robin and I navigated the New York Subway system and traveled downtown to the famous Strands Bookstore, above which Recorded books has its studios. Up we went and received the grand tour. I was introduced to the gang who were delighted to meet me as if I was somebody important. They even took pictures.

Recording Author's Note inside Studio no. 4

I sat in booth 4 with Claudia as my engineer, who patiently walked me through the process of professional reading. Let's just say I won't be giving up my writing in favor of a career in dramatic voice acting. To be honestI'm awful. Still, Claudia smiled brightly offering encouragement and somehow I trudged through. 

Those four pages taught me just how talented and skilled voice actors are. Nevertheless, it was a wonderful experience, and one more cross-out on my life-list. After that we had to say our quick farewells because we needed to get to our hotel and prepare for the night's festivities.

The room at the hotel was large by New York standards and on a quiet side street. The place also had a bathroom you could land a zeppelin in, with a walk-in shower that could easily accommodated a small musical quartet.

After a quick shower, I unzipped the garment bag and took out my tuxedo. I splurged choosing to purchase one rather than rent, as math insisted that if I wear it three times the tuxedo will pay for itself. So buying it was an act of faith, a hope that believing in something will help make it happen. That sort of thing has been working pretty well so far.  

Outside the Audie Award Gala at the Historical Society Museum & Libriary

After struggling with the real bow tie, I managed to knot it properly, and with my wife, Robin, in a gorgeous black evening gown, we hailed a cab. A few minutes later we were on Central Park West in front of the Historical Society Museum & Library where the Audie Awards Gala was being held. 

The evening began with white wine, incredible hors d'oeuvres, and all manner of finely dressed folk milling about the priceless art work. I met Tim Gerard Reynolds as he was attempting to fill a small plate with meatballs. This was the first time I had met the man who so successfully breathed life into my words that he was nominated for Best In Fantasy for 2013. 

Tim Gerard Reynolds (narrator of the Riyria Revelations) and myself

Tim is a marvel. A wonderful man who is far too humble for his immense talent, a talent I was all the more impressed with after literally sitting in his seat in the Recorded Books studio. For the next hour we talked while both of our plates of food remained untouched and forgotten. We spoke of Myron, and Archibald as if they were real people; of the new book, The Crown Tower, due out August 6th, that he just finished the day before; and the next one that he has yet to start. All too soon we were called away to the award assembly.

We sat in the multilevel auditorium as Daniel Handler, the author of the Lemony Snicket books, emceed the evening with the sort of snarky wit you would expect from the inventor of Count Olaf. Neither Tim nor I were at all nervous until our category came up. A huge slide appeared and there they were: the best in fantasy nominees. My little book tucked down in the right corner next to a picture of Tim. 

Then they said it.

Not the name of the winner. That was still twenty seconds away. 

They were still listing the nominees. In the auditorium with us were actress Anne Hathaway, nominated for narrating The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Ellen Kushner, author of Swordspoint. Other nominees that evening were the likes of Michelle Obama, Dustin Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson, Margaret Atwood, and even Bram Stoker. And in that multitude of amazing talent and skill,  I heard the words: “ ...and Theft of Swords, by Michael J Sullivan.”

After years of watching the Academy Awards I couldn't help thinking, so that's what that feels like. I was also disappointed that they didn't say Tim's name. Maybe they didn't have the time to add, "Narrated by Tim Gerard Reynolds," but I wished they had. The award really was for him. I just wrote the book, he's the one who brought the story to life. He was the reason I was at the gala at all. At least they had his picture and name on the big screen.

We didn't win.  

I was disappointed but not because we lost, but because Tim never got to hear his name being read after the opening of the envelop (and yes they actually did open envelopes.)

You see the thing is, I get fan mail, these days quite a bit. Tim doesn't. He doesn't, but he should.

I've recently listened to his performance of Heir of Novron, and boy does he make my words sound good. I find myself thinking Wow! This is great. There's no way I could have written that. It's all because of Tim. But since it's my name on the book, I get the credit, and poor Tim, who made Modina sound so cute, and Myron so wise, is ignored. He appeared dumbfounded to hear that much of “my” fan mail mentions that the reader loved “listening” to my books. Right now Tim's audio version are the most popular forms of my books selling on Amazon. So not only did I  want him to win; he deserved least he deserved something.

When the ceremony concluded, I leaned over and whispered. “I'll just have to write you a better book next time.”

Truffles, chocolate dipped strawberries and champagne followed, and a whole host of strangers spoke to me as if I was a celebrity. I met a writer from the Daily Show and author Kevin Bleyer, and singer song writer and author Janis Ian.

Tim left early as he had a recording to do in the morning. My wife and I lingered until near midnight then we took another cab back to the hotel where fans were already tweeting me condolences. I'm not sure why. The award was superfluous to the success of that day. After all I got to take a train to New York, be treated to dinner by my publisher, record part of my own audio book, and pretend to be James Bond as I attended a Central Park West awards gala where my name was read as a finalist!

All I can say is, as an author, writing is the fun part of my day, but occasionally there are also days like yesterday.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

I Call It Magic

(This was originally written as a guest blog and published through Bookworm Blues on Dec 7th of 2012 as part of a promotion for the Triumph Over Tragedy anthology created to benefit the victims of Hurricane Sandy. I'm reposting it here in case anyone missed it, and because I like to keep a copy of all my blogs in one place.)

When I graduated high school I had two career choices: artist or novelist. Yes, my mother was terrified.

Since I couldn’t spell and was awful at grammar, I took the art scholarship. In art school there were two types. Those who copied from other artists, photos or the real world—I called them illusionists, and those who could sit down and create beauty out of nothing at all. I deemed this to be true magic. I was never that good at true magic.

When I retired from art at the old age of 23, and began writing, I discovered the same sort of thing existed in literature.

I wrote stories that I made up. I constructed clever plots, colorful characters, twists and turns, tension and drama, but never did it seem…real. It lacked emotion. When I read what I wrote I was pleased. It was nice, but it wasn’t powerful. I didn’t know why.

Over the years I’ve read many novels that I found interesting, clever, even entertaining, but only a handful have ever hit me emotionally. Those are the books that stick, the ones I carried with me, and still do. These are the novels that made me cringe, laugh, and cry.

This was magic—real magic.

Somehow the authors managed to reach out from another time, another place and inject me with the exact emotion they intended.  This wasn’t just communication of ideas—that’s easy—this was jacking right into my non-verbal gut and uploading sorrow, concern, terror, and laughter. I wanted to be able to do that, but I didn’t know how.

I stumbled on the means one day when I we trying to write a very simple scene. Instead of inventing something cerebral, I looked in myself and pulled out an experience. I remembered something—something painful. I was terrified to write it, to pour myself into the page. Such a thing was embarrassing. What if someone I know reads this? It felt as if I was stripping naked in public. I told myself, I was only going to write it and never show anyone. I just wanted to see how it would come out. The result was astounding. I cried in the writing. I cried in the reading.

What I never expected is that readers cried too.

I realized then, that in order to get emotion out of readers, the author had to invest part of themselves. There needs to be a sacrifice, a little bit of a person’s soul invested into the work and that dash of honesty results in a powerful recognition. Readers immediately relate. They know this isn’t faked, this isn’t illusion…this is true magic.  

The more painful and embarrassing the memory, the more personal the thought, the more powerful the writing.

At first I expected the worst. I expected ridicule. Like kids in grades school, people would point at me and laugh. “Is this how you really feel? You’re such a looser!”

Oddly, it never happened. I was only the author. The events happened to a fictitious person, a character in a story, not me. I was the wizard behind the curtain, the hand inside the puppet that no one saw. It was my voice, my feelings set out exposed to the harsh glare of the bright lights, but I, as the author, was safe behind the mask. Instead of foolish, I was impressive.

People are fond of saying that pain fuels art. I many ways it does. Fiction is full of tension and conflict. The best way to prepare to write such, is to live it. Then reaching deep, you scrape out the honest truth, warts and all and put them on display. It isn’t easy. The process is often painful, humiliating, and depressing, but the end result is always stunning.

I think everyone—while not the same—are similar enough that we connect on the same levels, share the same feelings. When we read, or see something that registers so personally, so perfectly with something we would never share with anyone, then that becomes profound. In that understanding we see a tiny miracle. Someone else knows my pain. Someone else understands how I feel. I’m not alone, I’m like that character. This is what makes literature come to life, this is what makes Pinocchio a real boy.  It is the touch of the Blue Fairy.

I call it magic.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Champagne Wishes and Metro Dreams

It has long been a dream of mine to stumble across someone reading my book in public. 

I imagine I am on the Metro (the DC area subway) across from a person holding open a copy of Theft of Swords. I would be staring in disbelief, trying to gauge from their facial expression if they like, or hate, it. I will debate saying anything, concerned they will take offense, or worse, berate me for having written such an awful book and demand their money back. Finally I will get up, saunter over, and opting for subtle humor say, “That’s my book.”

Whereupon they will look up startled, and a bit annoyed, replying. “No it’s not. I just bought this.”

I will smile my most Great Gatsby smile, tilt my head ever so slightly, shifting my weight from one foot to the other in a humble manner and say, “You don’t understand. It’s my book. I wrote it.”

At this point I imagine the reader will appear confused, then a smile will grow. Their eyes will widen. “You’re Michael J. Sullivan?” 

This would be followed by a look of awe and the admission that they love it—they love it and have already mentioned such to their parent or employer who happens to be a major Hollywood movie producer. I will be invited to their swank penthouse in New York—all producers with an excellent track record of successfully adapting novels keep one for just such occasions. That evening we all dress in tuxedos and evening gowns and have champagne on the terrace where we discuss which actors would best play the lead roles, and would I be willing to fly out to LA to sit in on some casting sessions, as my input is highly desired.

That’s the fantasy anyway. The reality I suppose would be that the reader would glare, move away and exit the train at the next station whether it was their stop or not. If I was really unlucky they might find a transit officer.

Such fantasies as this are not uncommon among authors. Numbers on Amazon, and emails from fans all feel so ethereal, so illusionary. Seeing a person at random holding a copy glued to their fingers would add that elusive measure of reality. Somehow, such a sighting would be undeniable proof, the smoking gun, that it hasn’t all been a dream.

As ebooks become more popular, the odds of such a sighting dwindle. In today’s electronic-warming, the natural habitat of the paper-book-reader has shrunk to a fraction of its former size, and it would just be creepy to peer over an e-reader’s shoulders to try and figure out from the text what they're reading. So I didn’t think such an aspiration could ever become reality.

I have spoken of this fantasy of mine to others who all humor me.  Then I received this image in a text message:

It was from a friend and had the caption. “Saw on Metro today.”

I smirked and replied. “Is this fake?”

Answer: “No. I don’t know her.”

I wasn’t convinced and soon forgot about the incident.

A little over two months later I received this email:

Hi Michael,

In October or November I was taking the orange line from my job in D.C. to my apartment in NoVa. The previous day I had visited the MLK library in Chinatown and happened to come across what looked to be the first book in an interesting fantasy series--your Theft of Swords. I didn't know anything about it beforehand, but it caught my attention and I checked it out.

So there I was, reading on the metro when this complete stranger taps me on the shoulder and asks me if she can take a picture of me reading the book. You're from the area, so you're probably familiar with metro protocol. Occasionally you may share exasperated expressions with other commuters when you end up single tracking during rush hour, but otherwise everyone is pretty much off in their own world.

It was a bit jarring, but she rushed to explain that she was a friend of the author and that he had always wanted to see someone reading his book in public. I thought that was a very serendipitous encounter, so I let her take the picture. She thanked me and got off a few stops later.

Ever since then, I've been curious to know if you got that picture. I'm not sure who the woman was--I never got her name--but if I had toiled over six novels and spend countless hours writing and rewriting, I would be very happy to come across someone reading my finished work in public.

I tore through your second and third volumes and finished the series pretty quickly after that metro ride. I enjoyed them thoroughly, and I look forward to The Crown Tower.

Discovering the image and the sighting was genuine, I was shocked and happy, but also a little disappointed. As Archibald “Moonlight” Graham in Field of Dreams said: It was like coming this close to your dreams... and then watch them brush past you like strangers in a crowd.

At least I now know it’s possible. And in a way I sort of got my wish, even if it was vicariously lived. Most dreams are never fully realized, or never live up to the imagination, so maybe I’ll have to accept this sans champagne, version as the closest I will come.

But secretly, I still look.