I recently had the great pleasure of attending a stage concert production of the musical Hairspray in honor of the 25th anniversary of the cult classic movie on which the musical is based. The music was performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and John Waters, author of the film and the musical, served as narrator. In between the musical numbers Waters recounted tales of his experiences growing up in the segregated city of Baltimore in the sixties, including the racial tensions which served as inspiration for the storyline. Just before the climax of Hairspray where the Corny Collins Show becomes open both to whites and blacks alike, Waters said that this event was inspired by what had happened at a real show in Baltimore called the Buddy Deane Show. A daring group of black and white youths crashed one of the white-only dancing days and succeeded in briefly integrating the show, but sadly as a result of this it was taken off the air. However, Waters then added that this was a movie and who needed reality anyway? So he had proceeded to write the happy ending that never happened. Water’s story got me thinking about why we write fiction. The fiction of the type portrayed in Hairspray is aspirational. It allows us to imagine a better future when we are stuck in seemingly hopeless situations. Sometimes in this “vale of tears” the only thing that keeps us going is our dreams. At other times fiction is used to communicate teachings or experiences intended to inspire. My book The Sun Zebra is this type of fiction. It is not real in the sense that the right things always happen at the right time, in the right way, and for the right reasons. We know reality seldom works like this, but we use approaches like these to get the point across to the reader. Fiction also allows us to stir “stir things up.” It allows us to introduce chaos into our otherwise orderly world and then explore how people react to it and analyze the consequences. In my next book of short stories, entitled Spirit Women, half of the stories involve the supernatural. Do I believe in the supernatural? No, but I use it as a tool to support the themes of the stories. Finally, fiction is used for entertainment. I believe this is because many people are all too well acquainted with the tedium of their predictable everyday lives and they want to experience something different. Reality is often boring and life would be so much more interesting if we could fly through the air, open portals to different dimensions, conjure spirits, or battle monsters. Being unable to experience these things in the real world we seek to experience them in the imaginary realms of books, movies, or games. Regardless of the reason we write it, what fiction with no doubt has is the power to endure. When time has gone by and reality has been forgotten, it is the fiction that is remembered. Nowadays hardly anyone remembers the Buddy Deane Show and the unsuccessful attempt at desegregating it. But for the past 25 years a courageous group of white and black teenagers has battled the forces of obscurantism and triumphed thousands of times successfully desegregating the Corny Collins Show at each performance of Hairspray. You may ask: why is this? The answer is: Cause you can’t stop The motion of the ocean Or the rain from above You can try to stop the paradise We're dreaming of But you cannot stop the rhythm Of two hearts in love to stay Cause you can’t stop the beat!
This past Sunday November 18 my book The Sun Zebra turned one year old! I had a lot of fun writing about the magical adventures of Nell and her family, but other aspects of putting this book together, publishing it, and promoting it have been a different ball of wax. I have learned a lot about the process during this time, and I keep learning because the whole self-publishing universe continues to change. Some things that were valid a while ago don’t work anymore, and new and exciting things are appearing all the time. Like most authors I am still trying to find “the formula” if such a thing even exists. One year ago I self-published my book while trying to curtail any unrealistic expectations by telling myself over and over that my sales would at best be modest. I was not to be disappointed. My book started slow and then went slower and finally dipped into the primordial ooze (the long tail also known as low-sales limbo) with hundreds of thousands of other books. But along came the KDP Select Program that gives authors the ability to give their books away for free. So I enrolled and did my first free promotion with a smile. I gave away a paltry 147 copies of my book in January, which did not gather me a single sale: utter and complete disaster.I fought my depression over my pathetic numbers (which totaled 25 sales over 5 months) and fixed problems with my book, my author image, and my marketing approach. My second KDP promotion in April was a success as I gave away more than 19,000 free copies of my book. Even though The Sun Zebra reached #9 in the Free Kindle Store and garnered me 240 sales and 54 borrows, but it still did not gain a lot of staying power. A third promotion in July was a bust that awakened me to the realities of the effect of seasonality on free book giveaways plus Amazon also changed the algorithms they use in weighing the sales equivalent of a free book download. My fourth promotion just finished last Sunday November 18 and soon I will know whether that went well or not. Either way I will likely learn some more! All in all for the past year I have ended up with 303 sales and 58 borrows. If you take into account the dollar amount of each borrow compared to the percentage of royalties I earn from the sale of each copy of my book, the number of sales plus “sale equivalents” comes to about about 514. Clearly the Amazon Prime program has been a great asset for me. As I expected my numbers have been modest, but the important thing is that The Sun Zebra didn't cost me anything to publish and the money that I have left over from paying for promotions will be enough to pay for my next book, which will hopefully be out in the first few months of next year. I want to thank all the extraordinary people who helped me in this self-publishing project with their constructive criticism, editing, and opinions, or by writing reviews or helping me with promotion. You are all wonderful, take care, and keep on reading and writing! Rolando ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
The adult world is in many ways a betrayal of all the magic and wonder we experienced as a child. When we grow up we discover that most of the time grinches do not return the stolen toys, wolves devour little pigs, Bambi gets shot or eaten, tornados will kill you rather than take you to Oz, and wishing upon balls of burning gas hurtling thought the cold void of space millions of light years away doesn’t achieve much. More often than not, when we become adults, all the stories that wowed us as children are shelved under “fantasy.”
And this is understandable. Growing up facing the endless stream of challenges and frustrations that the average person faces has a way of dulling our senses. Sure we survive, and we have our victories. But the scars of our battles, the accumulation of unrealized dreams, and stifled hopes tends to make many people cynical. Some look back upon childhood as a cruel hoax. Others do view it as a precious experience that they long for and cherish, but still an experience with little practical application for grownups. And finally others forget it or don’t think about it that much. After all, they may reason, to survive in the adult world we cannot be like children. And what can the world of a child possibly teach us about dealing with the complexities and brutal realities of the real world?
My opinion of childhood used to be a mix of the above: until I began to write. Then one day I saw a picture of an animal in a particular situation and a little girl came out of nowhere in my mind. The girl took a look at the animal and excitedly went over to tell her dad she had found a “zebra.” This dad was skeptical of the discovery made by this girl whose name is Nell. Nevertheless he and his wife Rhonda chose to take Nell to look for the zebra and, to quote Robert Frost’s immortal poem, “that…made all the difference.” I won’t tell you the ending of this short story but suffice it to say that the animal Nell saw turned out to be part flesh and part metaphor.
To my surprise, four other stories involving Nell and her family followed. A brave insect set forth on an unusual trek, Poe’s poem “The Raven” came to life in a very peculiar way, a Christmas tree revealed its secrets, and a long forgotten superhero made a spectacular return.
In these five stories the skeptical world of adults collided with the magical world of childhood and sparks of wisdom flew everywhere. I had rediscovered the ability to see the world through the eyes of a child. I say “rediscovered” because it was always there, only I didn’t use it. So I gathered these tales together in a book of “children’s stories for grownups,” and I published them on Amazon as an e-book to share my epiphany with others. The stated aim of the book is to help us discover or rediscover some of the amazing things that children can teach us adults about life.
I want to end this post by admitting that seeing the world through the eyes of a child is hard even after you have rediscovered this ability. The adult world has a way of bogging you down. There are just too many responsibilities and uncertainties. I try to ask myself: what would Nell have to say about this or that? The answers don’t always come right away, but as I discover more of them I will write more stories!My e-book The Sun Zebra will be free on the Amazon store from November 17 to 18. Please download it (it's a quick read), and let me know what you think.You don’t have a Kindle? No problem, you can download the following safe and free application from Amazon that will allow you to read Kindle books with your PC or Mac.
These are the new covers I have obtained for my book "The Sun Zebra." They were made by the talented artist Julia Baumgard, and I am really thrilled by them. Please let me know which cover you like by voting in the poll below. The poll will be open for a week, and I will take your combined opinion into account when I republish my book with the new cover. For those of you who are in the process of reviewing my book please let me know if you want a copy with the new cover. For those of you wishing to review my book send me an e-mail to email@example.com and I will send you a copy.Thank you very much for your participation!
Some people have asked me where Nell came from. Nell, of course, is the unusual little girl that is at the center of my book of stories The Sun Zebra. Part of Nell comes from my real life daughter and my own experiences as a child, but I think another part comes from the comics I have read or watched on TV over the years.There is a long tradition in the world of cartooning that involves viewing the complexity of the world of adults through the prism of precocious children in order to expose its follies. Let me take you on a tour of some of the influences that may be behind my Nell.Little Lulu was created in 1935 by Marjorie Henderson Buell (Marge) and went on to become a hugely successful cartoon running for almost half a century in the nation's funny pages. Marge was also the first female cartoonist in the United States to achieve international success. Lulu is a lively and independent little girl who always outsmarted the boys (and sometimes the grownups) around her.
Nancy was introduced in 1933 by Ernie Bushmiller into the comic Fritzi Ritz which he inherited from Larry Whittington. Within a few years the character became so popular that the comic strip was renamed simply "Nancy" or later "Nancy and Sluggo", referencing her boy friend from "the wrong side of the tracks". At its peak in the seventies it ran in 800 plus newspapers and inspired artists such as Andy Warhol. Nancy always found the funny and the unusual in everyday things.
The comic strip Peanuts created by Charles Shultz was one of the most influential and longest running in the United States (from 1950 to 2000). It has become an American icon popularizing terms like "security blanket" and metaphors regarding someone removing the ball just when you are about to kick it. In the strip the children interact with adults that are never seen but they mostly interact with each other in a manner that constantly shifts from child- to adult-like behavior and back.
Lesser known in the States but very popular in Latin America and Europe is the comic strip "Mafalda" drawn in Argentina from 1964 to 1973 by cartoonist Joaquín Salvador Lavado better known by his pen name "Quino." Mafalda is a soup-hating shrewd little girl concerned about the state of the world and her country. She often rattles her parent's nerves with age-inappropriate questions (e.g. "Daddy, what is a sex maniac?") and mixes with a band of friends of very unique idiosyncrasies. For example one of her friends "Libertad" (Spanish for liberty) is a tiny girl. When Libertad meets someone she asks, "Have you drawn your stupid conclusion? Everyone who meets me draws their stupid conclusion." The strip often addressed contemporary issues like those stemming from the conflict between communism and democracy.
Bill Watterson's strip Calvin & Hobbes about a hyperkinetic albeit imaginative kid and his alter ego tiger ran from 1985 to 1996 in the United States. Calvin is the quintessential brat who strains the nerves of his suffering parents. His only friend is a stuffed tiger that comes to life when no one is looking. Despite being a child Calvin often wrestles with extremely grownup themes which often end up parodied in one way or another.
The Simpsons created by Matt Groening in 1987 needs no introduction. It's the most popular and longest running animated sitcom in the United States. The character I like is Lisa. She is a level headed precocious girl who often acts as the only voice of rationality amidst the utter chaos generated by her brat of a brother and the incompetent grownups around her.
My Nell is concerned about the how and why of things like Lisa or Mafalda, she has a great imagination like Calvin, and she can display a combination of traits of both an adult and a child like Little Lulu, Nancy, or any of the characters in Peanuts. But I think Nell is more subtle. This may be because I am not constrained to delivering a gag in a small amount of panels. Or it may be because when you write a story, as oppose to drawing the characters, you can rely on the reader's imagination to fill in the blanks. I think Nell is different because first and foremost she remains a child.Check out my e-book The Sun Zebra It's a quick and inspiring read, and it will be free from November 17 to 18 on Amazon.
Most adults can share stories of things children did or said that made them smile. There is freshness in the simplicity and wonder through which children view the world. A world which perhaps we adults have made too complicated for our own good; but there is also a weakness. As parents we know that our world is full of wonderful things, but we are also conscious of the darkness that is present, and we are reminded of it while reading the newspaper or watching the news. This world is not a good place to be innocent, which is what children are. That is why children have to be protected by their parents. But in order to do this something has to happen. We, the parents, have to cease being children ourselves.Living in the adult world is difficult. We face the wear and tear of the daily rat race, we do housework, we pay bills, and we worry about what the future will bring. Will I keep my job? Will my health and that of my loved ones be OK? Am I making the best decisions for the future of my family? As we age we progressively toughen up dealing with the world, its opportunities, and its dangers. But many of us lose something in the process, the capacity to view the world as a child. This loss has been recognized as something negative by many cultures throughout the ages. In the Bible, for example, there is a passage about the need to be like a child to inherit the kingdom of God. This is why I wrote a series of stories which I have grouped under the title The Sun Zebra, Adventures in Living of Nell and Her Family. I wrote them to reclaim that freshness, that vision of the world through the eyes of a child that many of us adults lost a long time ago. These stories were fun to write, they made me laugh and cry remembering the child I used to be, and I hope that through them I can make you experience that magic again, or help you latch on to it if you feel you are loosing it.My e-book The Sun Zebra will be free on Amazon from November 17 to November 18. Please download it (it's a quick read), and let me know what you think. If you don't have a Kindle you can download an app that will allow you to read Kindle books on your computer here. Thank you and I hope that you too can go look for the zebra!