WHEN YOU’RE A novelist and your first book comes out, people ask you the same question. They don’t want to know about the characters, or if you’re writing another book. They could care less about a book tour, even if it includes stops in Antarctica. Or Timbuktu.
They want to know how you did it.
How did you write it? Find an agent? How did you revise it, sell it, promote it?
How did that thing in your brain turn into this thing on the shelf?
Fruit pie! I told them. Trampolines. Have you ever tried Barcelona? In roller skates?
But as I began giving actual answers as opposed to snarky ones, I realized that being a debut novelist was exactly like something else I’d already done: playing in a garage band.
The similarities were eerie. And I wasn’t even in well-known garage bands. I was in punk-soul bands who opened for the Delta 72 and The Mooney Suzuki. Exene and the Original Sinners. The Total Sound Group Direct Action Committee and Holly Golightly. Andre Williams. We played music, but we also wanted to make records on labels like Estrus, Goner and In the Red. So how did we do it? The same way writers do it, apparently. Only with a lot less gear.
1. Practice Makes, Well, Just Practice. There’s no way around this one. Whether you’re learning minor chords or story arcs, the only way to do it is to do it. You’d think it would be harder in a band, with other people, but it’s not. You, the writer, have characters to wrangle. And everyone knows the drummer, I mean, the antagonist, is the most challenging.
2. Start Young. Look, nothing against old people, I’m an old person, but pulling all-nighters is less fun after thirty-five. Somewhere along the way, Red Bull tastes awful and wrinkles from lack of beauty sleep are more noticeable. You will always write/play late – that’s part of the fun of it – just don’t expect to bounce back as quickly. Or look as good, doing it.
3. Rent a Space. You know, to write in. Or rehearse in. Or drink beer in while making up band names/character names instead of rehearsing. It doesn’t matter if it’s dark, dank, and consistently smells of old socks. Or lemons! It’s yours. Go crazy.
4. Realize that First Rehearsals Always Suck. No one knows each other, the bass player can’t find a groove to save his life and your effects pedal just ran out of batteries. Even if you start your novel with a great cast of characters, they don’t know each other, yet. So give them time to fumble around. Eat Cheetos and watch bad TV. Eventually, you’ll kick one of them out for taking the longest, most annoying solos ever.
5. Believe in Robot Soul Punk. Or whatever new genre you’ve invented. Indie-Free Blues Trance? Awesome! Like books with magic in them, new ideas can be hard to place. But as long as you believe in it, there’s no reason not to go for it. In fact, there’s even more reason to do it. Writing a macramé-exotica-Western? Right on! Just be prepared for some looks. Oh, and have your pitch ready. Rhoda meets True Grit, plus Playboy. You’re gonna be a star.
6. Get Blood on the Keys. You’ve never actually bled while typing? It’s possible. And not just from a torn cuticle, either. I mean, it’s easier to do while swiping your hand across plastic organ keys, but the idea is the same. You have to feel it to mean it. And you have to mean it to write it. Still squeamish? Fine. Go for metaphorical blood if it makes you feel better.
7. It’s Quality, Not Quantity. Remember that time you played to two people in a bowling alley in Oklahoma City? It’s going to happen again. Only this time you’ll have a book out and be standing behind a podium or sitting at a table. That’s when you’ll wish you could hide behind your instrument. But remember: you have something better. Your words! That people bought! The audience may be small in number, but they’re future readers of your work, and you love them for it. Quality, baby.
8. All Hail the Superfan. You know the guy in front who dances wildly at every show? And asked you to sign his stomach that time? When you’re a published author, he’s on Twitter. And he’s following you. (Sidenote: fans are awesome.)
9. Keep On Pushing. When I played with The Now Time Delegation, we covered this song by The Impressions. It was recorded at Sweatbox Studios in Austin, and the Hammond organ was on wheels. By the end of some songs, I was all the way across the room. But by the end of this tune, I was teary. It’s so emotional and true: when you have something to say, whether it’s in writing or music, you don’t give up.
Whether you’re in a garage band or a debut novelist, you know better than anyone that we don’t do this for the money. We do it for love. So keep on pushing. Even when the idea eludes you. Even when the words won’t come.
Keep on pushing. That’s how I did it.
And if you’re a writer, feel fortunate you only have to carry a laptop.