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One Small Step and Another

It’s funny because I didn’t plan it this way at all – today I placed my first order for the proof copy of the Stages of Sleep paperback; while at the same time I finished the final assembly and started rendering Samantha Gets Back Out There for output. A short story collection and a short film; both taking a significant step closer to reality today. Just a coincidence – I happened to get needed materials back on a day when I had a few hours free in the morning; and now it’s happening.

Relieved to know my stories won't leave the house naked.

Relieved to know my stories won’t leave the house naked.

You don’t get a single explosion of accomplishment in this sort of thing; because the last steps usually aren’t the biggest ones, and sometimes the moment where you’re actually finished kind of slips by as you grunt your way through little housekeeping tasks. I know it will be big when the proof copy arrives and I hold it in my hands. I know it will be big the first time I screen Samantha for the cast and crew, or if we make it to a festival. But honestly, little emotional rewards have already arrived, as I got my glowing first review of the book, or close filmmaker friends who watched the first cut of Samantha weighed in with brilliant advice and support.

More and more I’m appreciating that a sense for completion is something you need to train for. It’s like mental muscle memory; so you’re not slave to the most tangible rushes but rather cultivate an awareness of what seeing something through really entails. Samantha may be a short film but it’s still a machine with a lot of moving parts, and a lot of different necessary skills. Stages of Sleep is going to be a small book – 8.5″ by 5.5″ by 0.55″, 242 total pages including all the front and back stuff – but it has asked for so much sheer willpower to turn from words into a book.

In neither case will I be DONE done anytime soon – I’ll be working up promotional events for Stages of Sleep for months to come at least, and in a matter of days I will be making the first submissions of Samantha to film festivals; a process that will continue for months and may well end up costing more money than the film itself, particularly if I opt to travel.

This is the career mindset, though, I think. You don’t just say “FINISHED!” and it’s out of your life.

My $1,156 bargain book

Part of the lure of independent publishing is that it feels like a free lottery ticket. Punch a few buttons, publish a book, become the next J.K. Rowling! It’s built on one of the most popular and seductive of our fallacies: that the singular, crazy one-time anecdote of success is not only duplicate-able, but it can happen to you, too.

It CAN. You CAN also win $10,000,000 the next time you drop a quarter in a slot machine. Really, though? You won’t.

People get that for the most part about Las Vegas, but they don’t seem to get it when it comes to the creative endeavors I dwell in. All this silly “acting” I’m doing – why waste my time studying and auditioning when all I need to do is “get discovered?” Same thing with aspiring screenwriters, aspiring web series creators, aspiring aspiring aspiring. All it takes is one example of success to blind people to the intermediary steps, because the stories of the ordinary go untold. Hearing that it’s hard work with no guarantee of success, in fact with failure being a near-certainty, is so much less fun.

And the truth is, the ordinary result is the same one as that slot machine – nothing. You drop your quarter, watch the wheels spin, and they just stop, and you’re there in silence.

Bringing it back to indie authorship, it’s important to articulate your goals and own them. If you’re just proud to create a book and give it to 20 friends, you can do that with absolute ease, very little investment, and very low standards. If, however, you want to create a professional product that can stand deservedly by the professional products on the shelves at book stores, if you actually want to carry yourself like a professional author in the hopes that the marketplace will confirm this, then there is more involved.

Please do not bring up E.L. James at this point. See above.

I know I’m invested in being an author. I’m spending money and time to make Stages of Sleep a handsome book because I don’t intend to stop publishing books.

But how much money? How much time? People just starting out wonder that a lot. I can’t tell you how it goes for everyone, but I can tell you how it’s going for me – the choices I’ve made, the luck I’ve taken advantage of, the risks I’m taking, and the true negative cost of self-publishing.

You Are a Publisher


Typing is just the first part of the plan

The way to remove the stigma from the word “self-publishing” is to take the “publishing” part seriously. You have to take responsibility for the fact that your job isn’t over when you write the book, you have to see to its preparation for the marketplace. That means executing all the tasks previously handled by the professional publishing house you have replaced with your own self – the editing, the artwork, the layout, the publishing information, the promotion, the pricing and distribution channels.

If all you think about is out-of-pocket money, then it is technically possible to do all this for free. But to do it well? What you’re really going to end up with is a hybrid investment of your money and your time; and you decide how much of each to invest. You have to be interested in learning skills (which will pay off if you have the serious intention of publishing more books.) And you have to put time into vetting the services and partners you use, just like a boss (which you are now) hiring vendors and employees.

There are plenty of services offering vaguely-worded “publishing packages” that will happily vacuum money out of the pockets of aspiring writers. Some of them may even deliver what they say. Others will do the easiest and bare minimum necessary, and count on you being too thrilled by the book in your hand with your name on it (trust me, it’s THRILLING) to pay too close attention. Some that call themselves “full service” won’t even offer everything I described above. So you need to spend your time (there’s that investment idea again) figuring out just what you are buying in these packages, rather than just paying the first Google Search result. I mean, that is assuming you care. Please care.

Here are the choices, for better or worse, that I have made along the way for publishing Stages of Sleep:

Editing

You need an editor. If you find yourself saying something like “but oh, I ran Spellcheck and I have good grammar and…”, shut up. YOU NEED AN EDITOR. Now you’re saying “okay, well I’ve got a friend who’s a writer and they’ll look it over for free and,” shut up again. YOU NEED AN EDITOR.

What do I mean? You need a disinterested party with training, up-to-date style knowledge, and experience logging corrections in manuscripts so you can choose to implement them or apply the rare “meant to do that” exception. In this case, an editor who is not your actual friend is your friend.

There are several layers of editing. The highest, “manuscript evaluation”, is where an editor tries to identify and challenge the core goals and themes of your work, perhaps recommending re-writing and reshaping before they have even marked a single comma splice. To use a recent example, a publisher looked at Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman long ago and suggested “what if you focused on the childhood stuff instead?” That turned out to be useful advice.

A professional quality manuscript evaluation from someone with major publishing house experience can cost thousands. I am taking a major gamble by skipping this step – my hope is that my experience as a professional reader and a former development executive have given me sufficient training in answering some of these fundamental questions about what I am trying to do creatively with this book. I would love to be able to afford this step in the future, but I simply cannot right now.

Then there is “proofreading”, for all that pesky spelling and grammar that no one is perfect with, even with Spellcheck. You want someone who is going to be slow and meticulous in the way that you won’t. I did engage the proofreader who handled Seeing by Moonlight for my co-author and I. She teaches at a University and does this for side income, so we got a very competitive rate for professional-level skills. I initially chose her from hundreds of submissions of a Craigslist post and I’ll keep working with her until there’s a reason not to.

Artwork

Look at this website. This is why you need good artwork and your “friend who draws” or your own Photoshop skills are not enough. Hopefully you are convinced.

Artwork was a long process. I first took it to my close friend Heather McMillen, who is a professional painter and illustrator I’ve known for years. She struggled to come up with a defining cover image but was inspired to create the three excellent illustrations that introduce each of the three sections of the book.

The cover art was eventually cracked by Kevin Necessary, who makes his primary income as an editorial cartoonist but does commercial graphic and illustration work on the side. This is another stroke of luck in that he truly is a professional artist, but doesn’t make his living with book covers, which means I get professional quality delivered at a bargain. He’s created art for several of my Earbud Theater episodes and is wonderfully versatile. I won’t tell you the price I got, but our Seeing by Moonlight cover cost about $500, which is a bit more normal. You can get cheaper if you’re lucky like I was, but if you find yourself compromising on quality to save $50, go back to that website and remember the horror.

Those three checks I have written so far – for proofreading and two artists – total $800 out of my pocket. For the level of work I’m getting that’s a hell of a deal.

Layout

Sartre coined the phrase "agony of choice" and he didn't even NEED to select a font.

Sartre coined the phrase “agony of choice” and he didn’t even NEED to select a font.

This is another big risk – I am doing all my own layout, both for the eBook and print versions of Stages of Sleep. This has meant reading several formatting guides (don’t spend money, plenty of perfectly good free ones for what you need) and applying a lot of my past experience doing layout for the old student newspaper, as well as some Matrix-level Microsoft Word manipulations. Not to mention researching margin standards, learning about the readability of serif fonts for printed text and sans-serif for headings and chapter titles and eText. It meant learning about the difference between a freely-licensed font and a font you don’t actually have permission to use in your book – font makers gotta eat too, people! Some great free ones are here though, including the eventual winner for the print version, 13-pt. Tallys.

This was many hours, but since, as I keep saying, I’m going to publish more books, the skills are continually applicable. I’m very proud of how my book looks, inside, outside, and virtualside, and I hope it makes a difference in how consumers view it.

Publishing Information

Do you know what an ISBN is? It may cost you money. Briefly, it’s the universally-recognized tracking number for editions of books, and you purchase them from Bowker, the official issuing agency for the United States.

If you only ever intend to sell your book on-line, you may get an identifying number direct from Amazon and not even need this. But if you hope a real bookstore might put your real book in it someday, you will need an ISBN since that’s how they find and order and organize your book.

I already have, as far as the publishing world sees, two editions of Stages of Sleep, the Kindle version and the Smashwords version that will distribute to all other eBook outlets. More on why I did this below. But a print version of the book is yet another version, and is tracked as such. A single ISBN would cost me $125. But since I plan to publish more, I can purchase a pack of ten for $295.

While that sort of means only $29.50 of that investment applies to Stages of Sleep, I’m still out the whole $295 right now, so for those keeping track, I’ve now spent $1,095 so far bringing this book to market, and that’s with a great deal of luck in my friends and a few major structural risks. There’s also the matter of creating a barcode for the print version – you’re responsible for that and Bowker as well as others will be happy to charge you money. I’m going to take a swing at this tool, which purports to be working and free (since really, making a barcode shouldn’t cost $20-$30 in the 21st century.)

Promotions

My co-author hired a PR firm on Seeing by Moonlight, and that resulted in some sales and some new Twitter followers, which was all well and good. But I just don’t see a lot of authors of short story collections becoming household names these days, so I think there’s a cost/benefit ceiling to PR for this particular book. And again, I’m broke. I do have time and stubbornness, though, and that can be useful.

I spent dozens of hours compiling a list of book bloggers who review indie authors. I vetted them by how many books they review, how many followers they have, and how approachable they seemed like they would be for what I’m offering. This involved a lot of websurfing, note taking, and query letter writing. But if I can have at least ten reviews on Amazon and Goodreads when the book launches, that makes an incredible difference in the book’s visibility in search results.

This means giving away free copies. If you’re worried about giving away free copies when you haven’t sold a book yet; there’s no nicer way to say it, but you’re going to have to get over that. I’m so far only giving away eBook editions, because the print version isn’t ready, and because that’s far more costly to give away; though I may yet do that for a blogger with a large enough audience.

I think I have enough pledged reviews to hit that threshold; but I’ll keep working at it. I may pay $25 for a month of reviews at StoryCartel, since that lead to some reviews of Seeing by Moonlight and is a relatively-small investment. I also have media outlets who previously booked me to talk about Seeing by Moonlight, and I’ll be circling back to them to see if they’ll have me back.

Pricing/Distribution

Where should your book be on-sale? Everywhere? For what price? Stages of Sleep is going to launch for $4.99 as an eBook and $15 as a paperback. I’ll make more money on the $4.99 eBook because that’s how big the difference in margins is between electrons and ink. I chose $4.99, against Amazon’s recommendations, because while I want the eBook to still be in the price range where people can gamble on an impulse buy, I wanted to take a stand that this thing has some value. There may come a time when I drop it to a firesale price to boost sales, but that’s a strategy that’s most effective when you have multiple books for sale, and we’re not there yet. For now, 15 stories for less than a Combo Meal seems more than fair to me. From each of those sales I’ll make about $3.20, from the $15 physical book I’ll likely make around $2.40.

As for distribution, Amazon is the unavoidable 8 million pound gorilla in the marketplace. 90% of the eBook sales on Seeing by Moonlight so far have come through there. This is why I created a separate Kindle edition (with its own, Amazon-exclusive version of an ISBN) even though Smashwords could have distributed to them for me. I’ll make a higher royalty on Kindle sales publishing directly through Kindle, and since that’s where most of the eBook sales will happen, the extra percentage was worth a little extra work to me.

For the print version, I am leaning towards Ingram Spark. I have never used CreateSpace, but their cost structure severely disincentivizes bookstores from stocking their wares, and I have read a few concerning stories about quality control since they farm out their printing to multiple outside services. Ingram Spark appears to have the consistency and universal distribution access which (gambling on my future again) could actually get me into that mythical little indie bookstore if someone there thought I was worthy of shelving – and honestly, for my peculiar little short story collection, that indie bookstore is probably my best possible ally.

This, however, is why I’ll need to buy that ISBN, since unlike other services, they do not supply one. I don’t mind – once an ISBN is registered, whoever registered it goes in the record as the publisher of your book, even if all they did was buy the numbers in bulk and re-sell one to you.

I am still searching up discounts, but their setup costs are $49 plus $12 a year to keep the book on-file for print-on-demand. I’ll be able to buy books from them for about $5.50 each, including shipping, if I want to take a batch of ten to a reading or a consignment store, or even just to sell at my own private discount. But that adds $61 to my out-of-pocket for Year One, bringing us to aforementioned number of $1,181.

So, I’m out-of-pocket $1,181 before I have even ordered a copy for myself, and for each copy I sell I’ll make either $2.40 or $3.20. That tells me that I’ll need to sell between 300 and 400 copies just to break even on direct investment. Would that that make my book “successful?” Hardly! What if I actually tracked the number of hours I spent at all the self-publishing tasks I described? What would I pay myself for that labor? Hell, how long did it take to write the book?

That’s where the transition to being a professional author comes, and it pushes that “success” threshold for sales way back. And I fully admit, right now, I’d be insanely lucky to sell 300 to 400, or even 100; it’s going to take word-of-mouth beyond what I can guarantee to orchestrate. Have a look at this chart; although some of my stories qualify as sci-fi, overall the collection is best labeled as “literary fiction”, and the indie-published slice of the lit. fic. bar in that sales graph is small in a pile of small.

I didn’t write this book to get rich, though. I wrote it because it wanted to be written, and I’m at peace with that because I know I will write more. If you’re playing the long game, you have to see the first couple of books as probable losers, there to build credibility, a library whose prices you can manipulate to get temporary boosts, a public profile that means you’re not starting every project with zero potential buyers.

If I had a theme for this advice, it would be, “Plan to be unlucky.” Plan on NOT being the next J.K. Rowling, because that’s the only way to get out of Vegas alive.

Achievement Unlocked

It’s funny how similar the processes can be. Pay for audition listings. Submit to many auditions. Get called in for a few. Write short story. Pay for curated list of literary magazines. Submit to many. Get selected by a few.

Then you make a movie, pay to submit to many film festivals, and…?

I made a short film. Well, I filmed a short film; we’re still in post-production. We have a first cut that needs to be trimmed down to a locked cut, then sound mixing needs to happen, then color correction, a few other little things, and then we will have made a movie. This makes for a vast improvement in life pride over the time before I had made a short film.

Quick mock-up of a promotional card

Quick mock-up of a promotional card

I only get to go work on the edit one day a week because of other projects and responsibilities; but still, we should have it finished by the end of this month, when there are many festival deadlines.

There are thousands of film festivals around the world, and tens of thousands of short films made every year – well, zillions if you count anything on YouTube or Vine, but I’m strictly focusing on films made with some sort of professional or quasi-professional artistic purpose and ambition. To submit to one film festival can cost anywhere from $10 to $100, sometimes even higher; plus the potential cost of shipping them DVDs or flash drives or whatever they will need to show the movie, depending on their technological sophistication.

My movie is not going to Cannes or Sundance. Seriously, I’m not even going to spend the money on the vanity of submitting; because it’s a first short film and I think it could be good but it’s not going to be THAT good. But past that, you have a vast selection, and only the vaguest guidelines for which will be the most helpful to you in your cause. In my case, it’s to build credibility as a writer evolving into a filmmaker, which can be useful in job hunting and raising money for larger and longer projects.

I’m probably going to be about $7-800 out of pocket on this short when it’s all done; and my partner Barney invested some money in gear that we will use again. We kept it simple because I’m a rookie and I’m broke. If I submit to forty festivals, though, I could quickly spend over a thousand more; and if I’m being honest, that’s all credit card. This needs to be considered when you start out; because the excitement of submitting for festivals can make you stupid awfully quickly.

This leads to a lot of time perusing festival websites, programs from previous years, watching other short films to see what is out there. People love whimsical/magical realism short films, short films about poor urchins in foreign lands, short films with dazzling lighting, and eye-popping color and special effects. Honestly, movies just look goddamn great these days – it has become so affordable to give things astonishing polish and digital augmentation.

I can’t compete on that level right now. I’m not trained on this equipment and I can’t even afford the cheap toys. I can write, though; and I believe I can work with actors. So that’s what Samantha Gets Back Out There is about – trying to capture a feeling in a cinematic way with just the writing and the acting.

I showed the first cut to a few filmmaker friends that I trust, and the response has generally been a) it could be shorter (it’s a first cut, of COURSE it can be shorter!), b) it has a shot at a good festival run. That’s a great response, even better for a first time out.

And, not to jinx anything, but we’re already talking about the next one. While I was sitting behind that monitor, directing, I really did think – yeah, this feels pretty right.

Current stage: Awake…I think…

I now have an official “public” Facebook page. One of my Marketing Committee colleagues at Shakespeare Orange County finally got me past this particular edition of that queasy thing that happens in my throat when it comes to self-marketing. He pointed out that I already had a couple dozen people I don’t personally know following my regular Facebook profile – so I have “fans” as it’s reckoned these days where I wasn’t even trying to create them.

The big reason why I was particularly susceptible to finally taking this step was that, well, I’ve got something to sell:

Cover art by Kevin Necessary

Cover art by Kevin Necessary

My short story collection, Stages of Sleep, is set for publication, now that we have finally settled on some cover art – I’ve worked with Kevin several times but he has truly surpassed himself here. I have been working towards this for a long time; though Seeing by Moonlight got me into the club of “People who have published a book”, this is the first book that’s solely authored by me – no collaboration, no commission, just the stuff I was inspired to write.

I am going to be cutting and pasting this book summary a lot in the months to come:

“15 short stories from writer/actor/filmmaker Nicholas Thurkettle explore the changes that come as we pass from the waking world into dreams. We begin in reality, with tales that are sometimes funny, sometimes painful, all set in the world we recognize – where a wounded soldier asks his best friend to assist him in a strange attempt at healing, and a cranky old retiree becomes a most inconvenient messenger of love.

Then, we drift into another place, where the seemingly-real is invaded – by the secret thoughts and dreams of a household appliance, and by centaurs that saunter into a bar to rid it of all things khaki.

Finally we are cast loose into pure dreams, where an insurance specialist can enjoy wild outer space adventures, and a nameless storyteller is offered a glimpse of an unusual and captivating Hell by none other than the Devil.

It’s a tour through places not summed up by the word “reality”, but nevertheless, all true to our lives.”

Those fifteen stories come with an introduction, a foreword by my severely brainy friend Dr. Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr., and three illustrations by the great Heather McMillen, plus an easy-access link to the audio performance of the story Bubbles, which I produced/directed for Eardbud Theater.

I’m currently submitting review copies to book bloggers in the hopes that we can launch with a smidgen of promotional “oomph” when the book is officially for sale on August 25th at the low, low price of $4.99. There will be opportunities to get free, advance copies, though (another use for that Facebook page above.)

Here’s where to find it on Amazon, and on Smashwords (which will distribute to other leading retailers.) I’m currently reviewing options for a print-on-demand service for people who prefer their books in more book-y form (and did I mentioned that Seeing by Moonlight is available in paperback now?)

I have a couple of bottles of better-than-for-daily-use wine that I am always saving to celebrate special. But one side effect of my personal self-motivation is that I seem to keep redefining what’s worth celebrating into the future. This one, though…going to be hard to keep the corkscrew stowed.

Ever-changing Unchanging Velocity

It’s less than two weeks since my last post, yet once again I see the theme emerging of “crap, things are happening too quickly for me to write anything insightful or perceptive about them, so I’ll just have to say they happened and leave it at that.”

That is in no way a complaint. Over the past few days I have spent nearly all my waking hours at Shakespeare Orange County, and it can get exhausting at times; but if you ever stopped me in a rough moment and asked me if there’s anywhere I’d rather be, I doubt I’d come up with anything. In the years when I was just acting with SOC, this would be the time of year when my work was just getting started; now it has been a persistent top priority for me since December, and I’m already feeling the mileage.

Last night was our 2nd Annual Season Kickoff Gala and Celebrity Radio Show; which we are hoping to turn into a cornerstone fundraising and media event for our season. The radio show is an easy pitch to get celebrities down to Garden Grove for the day – they arrive mid-afternoon, do one read-through, and then have a high-class dinner and a show in front of an enraptured (and lubricated) audience that does not expect deep character work. They get to play without any pressure and contribute to a theater in the process. Not only do they do it for free, one of them told me after that she wanted to give us money for the season ahead. This year we were gifted with the awesome likes of Robert Hays (Airplane!), JoBeth Williams (Poltergeist), Rene Auberjonois (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), John DeLancie (Star Trek: The Next Generation), Seamus Dever (Castle) and many more. Since I was performing in the Gala, it meant I got to be in the official Cast Photo, and to be standing in a Cast like this is one of those occasional communiques from the universe that I might be doing something right.

Proof that you're never too famous to do a "funny one". Photo by Jordan Kubat

Proof that you’re never too famous to do a “funny one”. And yes, I hard time keeping my nerd brain on track with Odo and Q in the same green room. Photo by Jordan Kubat

Of course, to make the time investment as minimal and painless as possible for them (and as joyful and smooth for the audience), a lot of preparation work has to go into it to reduce the bumps in advance. Which required long days from dozens of volunteers, and for several of us to work very late the night before running through the tech for the show.

"Tonight, the role of ALL MALE CELEBRITIES will be played by Nicholas Thurkettle"

“Tonight, the role of ALL MALE CELEBRITIES will be played by Nicholas Thurkettle”

In the middle of all this, we are rehearsing the largest cast we have ever assembled for our production of Romeo & Juliet. Part of our goal is to make the town of Verona come alive and for the brawls between the Montagues and Capulets to feel like genuinely dangerous riots – which means a lot of talented actors committing to Ensemble roles and painstaking fight rehearsals that take many long hours working outdoors.

I think we have something spectacular in the works, though. And despite that I was low on sleep (and probably a little hungover), this morning after the magical experience of the Gala, I was right back at the Amphitheater rehearsing with them.

Because no days off, that's why

Because no days off, that’s why

Honestly, let’s just leave it at that for this round. Much more to talk about, but we’ll get there. The juggling balls are all still aloft.

The Strange Reality

Things are happening at a velocity that does not seem real. I recently upgraded to a Google Phone and so started using their Calendar app to track my appointments – and it has coincided with a period where every day sees me at a critical stage on something.

For 4 1/2 days over the Memorial Day holiday weekend I was in charge of staffing and managing the Shakespeare Orange County booth at the annual Garden Grove Strawberry Festival. It is traditionally our biggest fundraiser of the year – although I think our Celebrity Gala will surpass it in years to come if we keep it up. Running up and down our Amphitheater stairs lugging 5-gallon barrels full of strawberries is a good way to kickstart my summer fitness goals, I must admit.

The stuff plays are made on

The stuff plays are made on

Only days later, on Thursday, I finally reached the end of the first draft manuscript of my second novel in collaboration with M.F. Thomas. Our first, Seeing by Moonlight, recently became available in paperback, so the timing is satisfying. The new book is called A Sickness in Time and, while it is not a sequel to Seeing by Moonlight, it is like the first a mix of thrills and science fiction that takes place half in modern times and half elsewhere.

After some notes and discussions we started the formal drafting of A Sickness in Time on June 10th of last year, and wrote a great deal of it over the following five months, only for each of us to get consumed by other projects very near to the end. It is a source of pride and massive relief to have finished this step, even though we know there is much still to do in re-writing and polishing the book before we start cranking up the publishing machinery. I will say only that the book does incorporate time travel into its story, and when you’re messing with things like that, you especially want to edit carefully.

I drank uncountable numbers of caffeinated drinks in drafting this book. This cappuccino was the last

I drank uncountable numbers of caffeinated drinks in drafting this book. This cappuccino was the last

The very next day, I went to Burbank for the cast/crew screening of the indie romantic comedy feature Cloudy With a Chance of Sunshine. This is the first feature I’ve ever had an on-camera role in, and I shot it about year ago; it’s not at all unusual to have to wait this long. I only spent a day on set, and all my scenes were exclusively with the co-writer/director/star Kevin Resnick, so funnily enough this party was my first chance to meet anyone else in the cast.

The screening was on the Warner Brothers lot, in what we were informed is Christopher Nolan’s preferred screening room. Who knows if that’s true, but it’s a nice place to be when you’re going to see your head in giant size on a screen for the first time ever.

The movie is tight and polished and charming and given the microscopic budget stands as a feather in the cap of everyone involved, especially Kevin and his producer/writing partner/fiancee/all-around-dynamo Rebecca Norris. They are currently raising funds to travel and promote the film in its forthcoming life on the festival circuit, where I think it should see some healthy and appreciative response.

Of my own acting it’s always hard to speak, but the audience did laugh quite a bit; and since it is a comedy that is undeniably encouraging. The feedback from the audience was very warm and appreciative after the screening, although I was difficult to recognize since I am clean shaven and bespectacled in the movie and am currently three months into growing a beard for SOC’s production of Romeo & Juliet.

Our first formal full cast meeting/reading happens this Sunday, and it’s going to be a busy summer of overlapping stage work for me; I’ve been so consumed with casting and writing and other projects that I haven’t been on stage since December, and I happily confess to being restless about it. On top of all the above I have been carrying on my work with Arts Orange County, which is a most welcome and stable position that fits snugly inside my life.

But all of the above, it turns out, isn’t quite enough. A friend and former cast mate named Barney Crow and I are teaming up to produce a short film that I have written and will direct. Not counting class projects from that one time I took a couple of filmmaking classes, or the camcorder movie spoofs my friends and I made in high school and college over a decade before “viral” and “video” ever appeared together outside an essay on Cronenberg, this will be the first time I have seriously directed for film. I haven’t aggressively pursued directing since college, though I have directed several of my scripts for Earbud as well as some short stage pieces here and there. The moment to evolve seemed well-arrived, though, and I actually feel ready for it. Yesterday we were doing lighting/camera tests on our location, and all the work I’ve done on set for other people seems to have given me muscle memory for it all – at one point I caught myself looking around for whoever was in charge and realizing – oh, it’s us. We’re the filmmakers now. And there was confidence there.

Monitor selfie

Monitor selfie

I’m not being reckless about this (well, beyond doing it at all.) This short is designed to be as stripped down and simple as possible – one actor, one location, one locked-down camera setup. The whole crew is about 8 people. It’s just a story and a performance from an actress I trust with anything. When I filmed Cloudy I observed how marvelously-designed a role it was for me to have my introduction to film acting – all two-person conversations in the same location with the same scene partner. Removing variables allowed me to spend more energy on the work. My hope is that the same kismet works on this short film – naturally, we anticipate there will be the customary 2-3 disasters that on average afflict every filmmaking endeavor. We will survive it, though.

The days off are few. I do look forward to them, though.

That’s the way…that’s the way…(THAT SONG RETURNS)

A few years ago I wrote a blog post about the one-hit wonder band Unit 4+2 and their hit song Concrete and Clay. It was one of the more popular posts I have written, and I always appreciate it when the Internet pays off one of the peculiar rabbits I chose to chase.

To my amazement, since I wrote that, yet more versions of the song have surfaced on YouTube, including a minimalist take by one of my all-time favorite bands, They Might Be Giants, during their early Dial-a-Song days.

Here’s a pair of Spanish ladies known as Baccara, taking their shot:

Fun fact: Baccara first found fame in the Eurovision Song Contest…representing Luxembourg.

Staying on the international scene, a clean cut vocal group from down in Australia called The Thin Men did a very buttoned-collar version for all the nice kids to dance to:

Tangentially, The Thin Men did a version of Mrs. Robinson that I find sort of obscenely catchy. It’s like the two sides of the 60’s cultural divide trying to have awkward makeup sex.

Sweden bought a ticket to this dance through their pop hitmakers The Lee Kings. The vocals have that trademark appealing Scandinavian slur.

The Bob Crewe Generation, an instrumental side project of Four Seasons songwriter/producer Crewe, produced this Herb Alpert-adjacent crack at the tune:

It was Crewe’s record label that released the soundalike Eddie Rambeau version of the song whose success prevented Unit 4+2’s original from realizing its full chart potential in America. Crewe was also the co-head of the best-named band of the 70’s, Disco-Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes.

Jerry Lewis’s son Gary led his group The Playboys in a contemporary stylistic cousin that sounds like it’s trying to woo Annette Funicello:

Uhhhh, Finland? I think?

I won’t say this song is idiot-proof – hell, Yesterday isn’t idiot-proof. But it sure is elastic. Here’s a version from a New York comedy club with an unusual arrangement – four vocalists and a coffee wrapper.

Bonus invasion by Tom Jones song.

And if you want to talk about weird convergences, here is a cover version by Björn Again, which is (follow me here), a tribute band from Australia* otherwise devoted to covering ABBA, the pop group from Sweden* which is to this day the most famous winners of the Eurovision Song Contest*. If you told that to the guy from A Beautiful Mind I think his brain would explode.

One hit wonders are a special source of joy to me because they seem like miracles – where a singer or band so preposterously overachieves in creating a moment of joy that a higher power could be at work (maybe the one responsible for magnets.)

These aren’t even all the versions I’ve found. It’s a mystery to me how a song can be at once catchy enough as to be this ubiquitous while remaining, to a certain degree, still ultimately obscure to the world at large. It’s as if it just floats on the edge of our pop consciousness, a perfect mirage of a thing that never resolved into true fame. It remains so striking to me as this little thread running through the tapestry of pop music, one that produces more surprises every time you tug at it. And clearly many people are compelled to tug.

Mic Check

Great article here about how audio theatre, technology, and the real world are beginning to interact in surprising and provocative new configurations. Earbud Theater gets a shout-out, which has some chests bursting around the Earbud Lair, and not for the usual mutant internal parasite reasons, but because of an old-fashioned little internal parasite called pride.

We finished recording a new podplay this week, called Scary Ride. This took two sessions and more recording hours than I think we’ve ever put into an episode. I’m proud of that, it’s a script I’m very excited about and I think the extra-keen focus on the performances is going to shine through in what we’re hoping is going to be a very thrilling and emotional piece.

I’m also excited about the team. My longtime friend and frequent creative teammate Christine Weatherup (appearing tonight on CSI: Cyber!), who was the Danna to my Interface in Habitat and also did splendid work as the relationship-cursed Brooke in The Sounds Below, stepped up into the director’s chair for this episode; and managed the sessions fantastically. With her guiding the performances and my friend Darren Lodwick managing the SFX, music, and mixing, that’s a lot more expertise applied to a story than just me trying to do it all alone.

Earbud_Scary_Ride_Recording

Christine taking actress Anna Anderson on the Scary Ride

One of the biggest conflicts in career strategy out here is between the idea that a diverse group of collaborators will collectively make your own work shine brighter, and the unpleasant reality that the more people you rely on, the more projects can get bogged down and lost. I’ve always likened producing a big project to holding onto an armful of snakes – they’re not TRYING to thwart you, but people in this town can just…wriggle away. Too much to do, too many possibilities that need tending.

You need to balance the size of your ambitions with the number of people you can reliably convince to crawl through glass with you to help achieve them. Keeping things small is good, but watch out for that line where you’re doing something you know you’re not good at just to avoid asking someone else.

I had this script for a short film I intended to make a few years ago. It was designed to work with a crew of almost nobody and a budget of almost nothing. Perfect first short film to direct. The money was there, I believe the crew would have done their jobs – the project really fell down because of a weakness of mine. A silly and incomprehensible one to others; but to me a genuine problem.

Thankfully, I found someone whose strength is my weakness, and here I am now happy to declare that a short film is happening. I think we’ll be filming in about a month; and at that point (if the Gods provide enough breathing space for me to finally lock in the upgrade to this website I’ve been imagining,) you’ll see some news and jabber about that.

I should also have some news about the feature film roles I’ve shot over the past year – the first, Cloudy With a Chance of Sunshine, is now raising funds for post-production and festival submissions, and I should be seeing it on a big screen at the end of this month. My face, on a screen at the Warner Brothers lot. That’s a thought I can’t quite turn over yet. The second, Reclaiming Friendship Park, has locked picture and has an actual by-Gum poster with my actual by-Gum face and name on it.

Friendship_Park_Poster

Nope, can’t process the reality of this either

It’s nice to know that work I’ve already done is percolating and will get out into the world without any further effort on my part, that filmmakers with the grit to make a microbudget feature are on the case. That a friend like Christine would step up and bring perspective to Scary Ride that’s going to make it better. That I have partners around me now that will make future works come to life with me. It feels on balance with that idea.

And it’s nice to be able to blog about it all.

Blog Dust

Fallen off on the blogging this year – I would say it’s because I’m busy but I think I’m basically always busy. What really happens, I suspect, is that in very intense periods I can find it difficult to reach a mental state where I can write a blog post. It has to do with the calibration of expectations for the act of “writing” and the purpose for which I’m doing it. I’m just now starting to emerge from basically a nine-month period where I had a mammoth load of writing to accomplish that was financially and professionally important; and the volume was so consistently high that any time I thought about blogging, it was difficult to disengage from the need for everything to have a shape and a theme and a tone and a finite journey; I would be exhausted before I even started.

It’s not wrong to just blog an announcement, or an idle thought, or anything, really. Outlets have diversified, though. I put my little thoughts on Twitter and Facebook; make announcements there and on the individual pages devoted to my various endeavors. Blogging has been incredibly valuable to me as a writer over the years; and I think it would be good, now that I am actively trying to recover some healthy balance after a period of forced unbalance, for me to do some – and to hell with whether it’s a well-made post or not.

So what’s the news? Well, in the “all-consuming new endeavors” file, I have deepened my commitment to Shakespeare-Summerfest Orange County, where at the end of last season I became part of the Artistic Committee, and have stepped into the role of Casting Director. Having never really organized an audition out here in the professional world, and suddenly having to bring hundreds of people around on a tight schedule to audition for three large-ensemble shows; to answer anxious queries, coordinate volunteer staff, get our company up on audition listing services, sending thousands of e-mails, scanning and organizing headshots, resumes, registrations, tracking the data of every actor we review…it’s been an intense education; practically a full-time job for the last two months, and likely to continue through the end of April.

As “Casting Director”, it’s not my job to decide who plays what. It’s more that I try and put the best, most diverse group with the most potential greatness in front of the directors, and give them the information they need so they can make their choices; and organize the whole shebang and run communications for it.

In any endeavor it’s eye-opening to see things from the other side, and having been to more than my share of auditions in the last few years, it’s great for dispelling the anxiety about the hundreds of things actors can convince themselves might make or break their chances. Acting is hell enough on the ego without those extra fears.

I don’t know if I’ll put these skills to use elsewhere – it was a job that needed doing here and I was able to step up and do it. I am glad for the experience though; purely from the perspective of trying to keep life interesting; and what I found within minutes of the audition day starting was that as long as you were on-time and your paperwork was in order, I didn’t really judge anyone on anything else.

Also under the “unusual jobs” heading – I have apparently become an “expert” for the purposes of talk radio. This is all to do with Seeing by Moonlight; we have a PR firm helping us promote the book, and one of their methods is to book me on radio programs to discuss items in the news on talk radio shows. It’s an interesting content sandwich – I come on, the host helps me plug the book, we break down the topic of the day (which is tagentially-related to something from the book), and then we close with a final plug.

Generally I’m brought on to discuss stories relating to World War II, the Nazis, and Hitler. I admit that I didn’t imagine when I got into this field that it would lead to me doing radio interviews about Hitler; but my co-author and I did do some research, and the Nazis, though long past their heyday, do have a habit of popping up in the news. Recently I’ve been doing interviews about the government of Bavaria’s decision to publish a new annotated edition of Mein Kampf. Naturally, people have pretty strong feelings about this.

The reason I put “expert” in quotation marks is – although my co-author and I did enough research to write a thriller that intersected historical events to a standard we could sign our names to, I am not going to pretend to be a true historical scholar. I have a BA in Theatre Arts and Music.

The truth is, though, the format doesn’t really lend itself to drilling down that deep. You would be surprised how quickly a 10-minute block of radio conversation can go by; really you are just trying to get three or four bullet points across to the layman. I’m not praising or condemning the medium; it is what it is. We give people a few bites of the story, then move on to something else. My experience as a performer is probably as useful as any knowledge store writing the book gave me; because I have that internal clock I can wind to the interview and know when answers are running too long.

So I’ve been on radio stations in Anchorage, Colorado Springs, Redding, Wilkes-Barre, Birmingham, Buffalo, many other cities, some satellite radio shows, web shows. The hosts tend to be politically on the right, but that is just as likely a function of that side of the spectrum having a dominant footprint in the medium. The conversations have all been friendly and very focused; they are, after all, professionals at this. Some have had me around as a repeat guest – it is strange to be introduced as “Our resident Hitler expert”. Probably won’t make business cards of that.

I think this comes back to my essential ambivalence about fame. I can accept that the PR firm’s strategy to sell books is to raise my public profile, and Mr. Thomas has asked if I would be the public face of our writing partnership and I’ve agreed. Beyond the utilitarian aspect of it, though, I’d rather be in a show.

I have heard rumblings that Titan: Dawn the indie video game I provided voices for awhile back, may finally be seeing a public demo release. And the independent features I’ve shot over the last year are going to be screening one by one in the coming months before starting their journey out to festivals. We’ve put out three episodes of Earbud Theater already this year. I wrote/directed two of them, but the third – The Creaky Stairs – is, I think, a bona fide classic, one of the best episodes we’ve ever done. We have another episode about to launch and my next script is already drafted for them.

Through Casey Wolfe, the founder and head producer of Earbud, I’ve become involved in another endeavor, Brick Moon Fiction. It’s an imprint for publishing anthologies of new speculative fiction around specific themes, and I’ve already delivered three short stories to them. One, “Fourth Grade”, was published in their first released anthology – Visions on Visions: Stories from the World of Augmented Reality. Another, “4pants”, was released for free on-line as a look into the future of romance in honor of Valentine’s Day. The third, “The Lake of the Dead”, will be released in their second digital anthology. It’s very stimulating to have an outlet for these little pieces – the turnaround on them is often very quick, and because the themes are assigned to us, it’s always a pleasure to see how some of the other Brick Moon contributors attack the idea.

There’s much more, as always, but this entry has gone on long enough; and with no satisfying theme or fun button to end on. What in the world is wrong with me?

Beyond Luck

I remember in college, auditions were happening for As You Like It. I remember speaking with the director beforehand and asking if he might look at me specifically for the role of Orlando. It was a long shot – I was a physically-awkward introvert without a well-developed voice, and far from the best-looking guy in the department – and yet I thought there was a chance there was a romantic in me. He took my request seriously, saw my audition, and cast me – As Adam, the 80-year-old manservant.

It’s a funny history I have, that the more I pursue “straight” roles, the more eagerly directors encourage me towards the strange, the cartoonish, the character-y roles. I left callbacks for Dracula thinking that the best I’d done was to maybe be the third best Jonathan Harker in the room; then got cast as Renfield. Mid-2014 I submitted an audition video as “Doormat Boyfriend” for a zombie horror film, and off of that, got asked to re-audition in-person as “Infected Cannibal Paramedic”. Which, I must admit, I would have enjoyed much, much more.

A couple of weeks ago, I submitted for an independent feature film called Aventura, and was asked to record an audition video for the role of “Slick, Successful Hollywood Filmmaker”. I felt good about the video I submitted – I’ve been picking up common sense about that process all year. In response, I was asked to record and submit a new video, for the role of “Hippie Sheep Farmer”.

It’s a tremendous compliment, really, and yet it is strange to channel your efforts into believably seeming like one thing, only to have your audience decide you could be something miles away from that. I suppose it’s the character actor’s lot; and if that means I never have to get six-pack abs, I’ll accept it.

And as a result of all of that, I can proudly report I’ve been CAST as “Hippie Sheep Farmer” in Aventura. I’ll be filming in a couple of weeks – I am currently involved in beard conversations with the wardrobe department.

This is going to come off as braggy, but there’s a purpose of encouragement in it. This is the third feature I’ve got a role in during the last nine months, and I don’t have a Union card, an agent, a reel, or L.A.-style headshots. Which is not to say those aren’t really good things you should really want to have, but don’t let the lack of them psych you out of putting yourself out there.

I haven’t known any of the filmmakers in advance, either – these are all completely cold readings with strangers. Which is a great measure of pride. Now, these are super-indie gigs, meaning I’m going to end up with gas money and meals; but I’m learning that a few gigs like these go a VERY long way in assembling the toolbox I described above. An agent, for example, is much more likely to sign an actor who has a proven track record of going into the room and winning the part.

In the next month or two I should see the finished cuts of the two features I shot last year; after which I should get the footage and finally create my on on-camera reel. Here’s hoping that means more opportunities in 2015; and some paydays.