Sunday, August 16, 2009

Shake, Rattle and Write

by James Scott Bell

On this date in 1977, Elvis left the building for good.

He was found face down in his bathroom at Graceland. The official cause of death was heart failure. He was forty-two years old.

Elvis immediately took up residence in the pantheon of pop culture icons. The Soviet newspaper
Pravda announced that America could be thanked for three things: Mickey Mouse, Coca-Cola and Elvis Presley. A new industry – Elvis imitation – sprang up, bringing employment to thousands. In fact, everyone started doing Elvis, even around the office. How many times have you heard a fellow worker give the Thank you. Thank you very much line over some trivial favor?

Last month I went to a Dodger game with a friend. I thought it was just going to be baseball. But it was "Elvis night." Elvis songs were featured between innings, and numerous fans were decked out in Elvis regalia—fake sideburns and sunglasses and big black wigs.

And every time the JumboTron showed one of these ersatz Elvises, the crowd would go wild.

Thirty-two years after his death.

A true American original, Elvis. Yeah, you kind of have to overlook the years he made such masterpieces as Harum Scarum and Change of Habit. And we all know his last years were not happy ones, on the concert stage or in his personal life.

But early on, moving and shaking, all that energy and appeal and singing ability, that was true Elvis. The Elvis who amazed Sam Phillips and blew away Roy Orbison, not to mention sixty million viewers of the Ed Sullivan Show. The Elvis poignantly recaptured in his 1968 "comeback" special.

There are no guarantees in the arts. But the ones who make it big usually do so by finding that spark of originality within them—that certain passion that ignites their creativity—and wedding it to a practical look at the commercial marketplace.

You want to sell? You have to do both. When you write, you should feel a little like 50's Elvis. Shake it, go for broke. Give freedom to your voice and vision, the twins that make up the definition of originality. As Elvis put it in a 1956 interview, "Some people tap their feet, some people snap their fingers, and some people sway back and forth. I just sorta do 'em all together, I guess."

To break through, you have to find out what it is you do well "together," and do it for all it's worth.

But you also need a little
"Colonel" Tom Parker in you, understanding that publishing is indeed a business, and you are offering a product for consumers.

It's an ongoing balancing act. You must never let your desire to be published drain you of your spirit and singularity (your inner Elvis). But if you want to be published by someone other than Kinko's, you need market sense, too.

So how do you find the right mix in your own writing? Do you think about both sides of the equation early and often? Or does doing so get you all shook up?

Don't be cruel. It's now or never. Discuss.


  1. Good food for thought... Thank you. Thank you very much.

  2. Interesting thoughts on writing. :)

    I love the Elvis analogy and "voice and vision"

    But IMHO, it's more than shaking things up. I can do that... anyone can shake things up for the sake of "shaking things up." But will it be effective? Is it me?

    Elvis was not trying to do or be something other than himself. He rose to the top because he was a voice not an echo.

    We have a lot of echoes in the world today.

    Elvis also had a certain charm, that something special that can't be defined. Sometimes I think it takes "that" to really cause us to stand out.

    I want to be a voice. If I shake things up in the writing to world, it will only be because I'm being me. What that looks like, I don't know. But I'm searching. :) Do I have that something "special?" Don't know that either, but my dog sure likes me a lot. :P

    Good post, Jim.

  3. Interesting post, Jim. I think it gets to the heart of the age-old discussion of what portion of any successful artistic endeavor is talent and what portion is craft. I think the talent part is that part of an artist which knows what makes him or her unique. Or, maybe it's better stated that it's the part of an artist which knows what she he or she does better than others.

    The craft part includes all the mechanics of putting abstract concepts into usable form (learning to play the guitar, studying techniques of sculpture, writing stories, etc.), but it also includes that certain market sense. It involves knowing who your audience is, based upon the ind of work you do.

    Not everyone likes my books. There are members of my own extended family who make it very clear that they'll never read my books because my writing is nowhere near their intellectual capabilities. They read books I've never heard of. I don't want to write to that audience because ten years from now I don't want to be an author who people like me have never heard of.

    I'm not interested in writing for the audience who can't stand violence, and I'm not interested in writing for the audience that expects graphic sex. I'm good at writing the former, and I'm not comfortable writing the latter. My audience is the crowd that like fast-moving, fairly complex stories with well-fleshed characters. No talking cats, no crime-solving parakeets. Right now, the market for my kind of storytelling is strong; but if it shifts dramatically in a few years, I don't know that I'd be able to shift with it.

    I think your story of Elvis impersonators is fundamentally sad. Discounting for the goofs who do their impersonation as a joke, there are some really talented people among Elvis impersonators who have dedicated their lives to never being original. The most the very best impersonator can hope to be known for is to be nearly as good as the original. That's not a great epitaph. Ditto the writer who aspires to be the next Stephen King or [insert your favorite author here].

    True artists aspire to be the first themselves.

    John Gilstrap

  4. The first thing I thought of was the cowritten book I did a few years ago. It never went anywhere--because of marketing.

    In this case, my cowriter was a marketer, and when he talked about the story, he talked about the places he was going to go to sell it--not what it is about or how fun it was to write it. When a handful of agents weren't interested in it, he became convinced we hadn't done the marketing side in the book properly--though he could never explain what--and wanted to change it based on what other published writers had done or commented on. The worst was that a romance writer who hated guns had reacted badly to the appearance of a gun in the book (a thriller set during a war), so he was thinking "Guns + marketing = bad." He wanted to take all the guns out at the expense of the story itself because it wasn't "marketable."

  5. Nice post, Jim. I was never a big Elvis fan but I’ll be the first to admit that his impact on music and society was an earthquake while most others were merely tremors. In addition to what Rachel said about Elvis’ talent and originality, I think there are two other factors that must be considered with any successful endeavor including publishing. Timing and luck. Not that we can control timing, and when we try, it usually results in a mess. But there’s a lot to be said for being in the right place at the right time. Try and imagine Elvis or the Beatles emerging on the music scene today. What would be the outcome? Another example is Tom Clancy. He single handedly invented the “techno thriller” subgenre. His timing could not have been better. Could he do it today from scratch with the cold war becoming a distant memory?

    And beyond timing, I believe the biggest factor of all in becoming a successful author is pure luck. A writer can have all the talent in the world and write the best book in history, but without the luck to have everything including the stars line up just right, that fantastic manuscript may spend the rest of its life buried in the slush pile or at the bottom of a desk drawer.

  6. Rachel, thanks for stopping by, and for the great thoughts. It takes some risk (the "shaking") to find the real "you." That's the inner Elvis thing.

    Good point: a lot of echoes. We don't need more.

  7. John, very well stated (as always). The world prizes the original. It's sad indeed that more artists don't try to find it. It can be in any genre, too. There's a sort of vibrating energy that infuses any novel where the voice and vision are singular. There's always a "heart" aspect to your novels that is unique to you.

  8. Joe, when I counsel new writers I tell them their job is to write the best book they can, using the combination I described in the post, and then do it again, and again, and keep on doing it. That's ALL they can do as they "climb" the publishing pyramid. Then, at the top of the pyramid, is a "wheel of fortune." It spins around and lands on...Da Vinci Code.... or....Harry Potter, etc. That is out of your hands. Your job is to get books on the wheel, so they have a chance.

  9. Great post Jim. I wish I knew the secret to the right balance of shake rattle and roll in my writing! I do know that when someone suggested that I should try romance writing to make money I knew that I'd never be able to just 'write to the market'. In romance as in every genre you have to love what you write. Readers want an authentic voice not one that a writer thinks will make him/her money. I say remain true to yourself and hope for the best.

  10. Indeed, Clare. I could have written romances as Belle Scott-James (I suppose) but it wouldn't have been me, and the author photo would have been a challenge.

  11. I actually did get my photgrapher to do a more 'romancy' photo just to see what it would look like. I was standing near our roses in the garden and he put the gauzy filter on and everything.

    I looked like an idiot.

  12. Interesting post. I think I'll stay all shook up and hoping for more.

  13. Hi Jim You might remember me from twitter @ibeatcancrtwice
    I am a new fan and am delighted that your blog and the comments are so enjoyable. I'm embarrassed to admit I don't know the writers in the Kill Zone, but soon I will.
    Especially infatuated with Clare--can picture her in her rose garden all misty.
    We could tweetup, don't live far!

  14. Jamie, we're so glad you stopped by and left a comment. And isn't it great to discover new authors? Come by often and get into our heads, too. You never know what's going to come out...and isn't that what makes for a good mystery and thriller?

  15. Thanks for the insight. It really does seem to involve a lot of luck as much as writing talent and skill at seeing the market. But if one is ready with the right training and preparation once the luck strikes, victory can leap into our laps like a red salmon into the net during the Kenai dipnetting run. (look it up if you don't know what it I'm talking about)

    So, I wonder if I were to take the analogy literally and start during Elvis impersonations at book signings, would sales potentially increase?