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The Karaoke Writer - Revisted

This is a re-post of a blog I wrote years ago.

Ever wander into a bar/pub/club/coffee house/party, where a karaoke contest was being held?  I’ve been to several and I must say they’re fascinating.  What’s so interesting is the types of people who take part in such events.  Naturally, the bulk of contestants are phase shifted (i.e. drunk or otherwise influenced) and really test the audiences patience.  Men and women alike brutalize classic songs by utilizing notes never intended to be included and change the lyrics even though scrolling prompters have them displayed, all the while attempting to make up for what they lack in vocal range by doing their best Mick Jagger with a microphone impression.  Not a pretty site! Then there are those who manage to sound better than they actually are because they’ve happened to choose one of your favorites songs, and let’s face it, you’re slightly inebriated yourself.  But the ones that make the evening are the ones that really stand out, the singers who after just one chorus hush even the most boisterous crowd and ends up eliciting a standing ovation.   Those are the performers who make you think of a quote from an old Billy Joel song (Piano Man) “man what are you doin here?”  Not only do they ultimately end up taking home the prize money, but also add an air of magic to the evening because everyone goes away feeling like they’ve just discovered the next diamond in the rough.  Those are the karaoke singers…that as a writer… I wonder about.

What do I wonder about?  I ask myself, what is the difference between this person and somebody like an American Idol contestant, or the lead singer of that new band I just found on some internet music site?  The talent is clearly there, so what is it that separates the person standing before me on this make-shift stage in a cruise ship karaoke bar, pretending to be a performer…and that actual artist doing whatever it takes to achieve success in the music business?  Is the difference drive?  Determination?  Do they not realize how talented they are?  Maybe it’s a matter of priorities or lack of connections, or they’re using these contests to hone their craft?  Or is it possible that this person is perfectly content shining brightly on a small stage? So many possible explanations, all of them just as feasible. 

Why do I give them so much consideration, and why should you?  Because we write novels and tell stories, and most of us ask ourselves what separates us from our published colleagues.   I believe I have a talent.  My own stage consists of all the friends, family, CP’s and Beta readers who’ve read my work, the only exception being that I perform all original material.  I’m not content pretending.  Sure, there are those where the goal of publication is not a motivator, taking pleasure in the writing itself, and there is nothing wrong with that. But for the rest of us, let's make it be known that we are NOT karaoke writers!    


(I post this same piece every year on this date. I appreciate your patience with me as I remember her again.)

My mom died on a Monday.  It was chilly outside and the sun was trying to peek through a gloomy grey sky.  I know because I was looking to the heavens a lot that day.  Her death wasn’t expected, but neither was it a complete surprise.  She went into the hospital a healthy woman with a minor case of Pancreatitis, which she suffered and recovered from previously, and two months later she was gone.  There were infections, multiple surgeries, breathing problems, kidney failure, and a long list of other complications that led ultimately to a coma.  In the end, it reached a point where it became a family choice to discontinue the life-saving measures that were keeping her alive and prolonging her suffering.  When she slipped the bonds of her tortured body and moved on to her next journey, I wasn’t in the room.  I couldn’t.  She was 69 years young.

A few days later, just prior to her funeral, I was alone in the basement of my parents home when my Dad came to me with a question.  He wanted to know if I would say something during the service.  I had already been contemplating the notion, so I agreed without hesitation. My dad appeared relieved.  I realized then that this rock of a man, who I had watched wither away emotionally as much as the woman he loved was doing physically, wouldn’t have been able to stand up in front of our friends and family.  He knew that even as shy and withdrawn as I am, my work had provided me experience communicating in front of groups.  It was important to him, and me, that somebody who knew her well would speak for her at the service. 

Even though my parents weren’t regular churchgoers, my mother was raised Methodist and the services were held at a quaint little church not too far from where they lived.  The two of them had only lived in Loganville, GA for ten years, but you wouldn’t have known it from the number of people who made it to the funeral.  Family and friends overwhelmed that poor little church. 

The service was performed by a priest I’d met that very day, and that my mother had never met.  It was generic, as only it could be until he asked if there was anybody who wished to offer a few words.  I stood up, nervously stepped to the podium and looked out over the gathering.  A rush of panic momentarily seized me, constricting my vocal cords and raising the temperature in the room to 120 F.  But when I found my father’s eyes a calmness settled over me, driving out the uncertainty.  I was ready. 

Although what follows isn’t word for word what I said back then, it’s pretty close. 

When Dad asked me if I wanted to speak here today I immediately said yes, but then I spent the next couple of days thinking about what it was I wanted to say.  The more I thought about it, the more this single question kept popping into my head.  Before long that question was all I could think about.  It tormented me day and night.  When the answer finally came to me, I realized it’s actually the reason I’m standing here right now.  I also realized that many of you might be asking yourself the same question.  I hope I can help answer it for you.

First I want to tell you of two memories of my Mom that I keep not in my head, but in my heart.  They represent who she was to me and to a lot of you as well.  The first one took place when I was just 7 or 8 years old and we were living in military housing at Quantico Virginia.  For some reason I was in a different school system than my two brothers, which meant I had to take a separate school bus.  This really terrified me, but I never let on to anybody.  One morning my brothers were already gone off to school and I was dragging my feet getting ready, feeling especially alone that day, when mom asked me what was wrong.  I can still see her standing there in her white housecoat that was three inches too long and dragged on the carpet wherever she walked.  Of course, I said nothing, but she must have known something wasn’t right.  She asked me if I wanted to take the day off.  The DAY OFF?  You can do that, I asked her.  We sure can, what do you want to do first?  We never left the house that day.  She made me pancakes, we played game after game, she watched cartoons with me, it was great.  It was one of the best days ever, and it came at just the right time.  And she knew it without me even saying a word.

The second story occurred years later when I was a sophomore in college.  I had just broken up with what was my first serious girlfriend and I had crawled home to lick my wounds.  Of course, I didn’t come out with it right away, but Mom again knew something was wrong.  Eventually, she got me to open up and I cried my eyes out to her.  The whole time she was calm and soothing, letting me just spill my guts out.  After a while, I felt much better, so she told me she needed to run into town to pick up some groceries.  What I didn’t find out until much later was that when she left the house she drove to the first gas station she could find.  She called Dad at work from a pay phone and cried her eyes out to him over the phone.  She didn’t want me to see how my pain was tearing her up inside.

That’s the way Mom was, and I think that’s why Dad asked me to speak to you today.  My Mother was not an emotional person on the outside.  It was hard to tell where you stood with her sometimes.  Everything with her ran very deep, with very little showing on the surface.  But she always knew when you were down or needed a little extra attention.  She was very in tune with peoples feelings, even though she didn’t demonstrate much of that herself.  And I’m the same way.  Of all us in this family, I’m the one who is most like her. 

That is how I figured out the answer to the question upsetting me, because I’m like my Mom, and she was like me.

And what was that question? Did she know?  When she left us, did she know how much I loved her, how much we all loved her and will now miss her?  Did I tell her enough?  Did I show her enough?

I can tell you now that the answer is yes.  She may not have been the hugging, kissing, or fussing type, in fact, that may have made her uncomfortable, but she knew how we felt just the same.  Just as I would. 

 She knew we loved her, that I loved her, and will miss her terribly. 

Goodbye, mom.

A parent’s passing is a loss that cracks your very foundation and makes you question your every step.  I feel cheated that now that I’m a father with older children of my own, and I’m really starting to appreciate what it truly means to raise a child, that I won’t have her here with me so that I can thank her all the more.  But writing this blog helps me keep her alive in my thoughts. 

I miss you, Mom!   

Telling a Good Joke…Badly

I’ve talked before on the subject of querying—whether it be to land an agent or pitch your book to a publisher—and just how difficult writing the perfect query letter is. The irony is if you read all of the guidelines posted on literary agencies websites, or the publishing houses, there is no such thing as a perfect query letter because although there are similarities, they can’t agree on what constitutes one.  So basically every query letter you send out needs to be customized for that particular recipient wants and needs, all the while maintaining your own unique style and voice in the process. Not an easy task, to put it mildly. And it’s a big deal because you only get one shot with this letter, and a rejection effectively poisons that literary agency or publishing house to you (for that piece of work). There are no do-overs.

I’ve always said that writing query letters (and synopsis – but that’s another story) requires a different skill-set that most writers lack in their toolbag. That’s why most of us struggle—mightily—writing them. You could have the next best-seller sitting on your desk, collecting dust, all because your query letter doesn’t generate enough interest. I liken it to being someone who is terrible at telling jokes. I can’t tell you how many jokes, some really hilarious ones, I’ve butchered while attempting to pass them along to my friends. I just suck at it, so I come off looking silly. And the joke…well, it suffers as well because of my stumbling and bumbling. Unfortunately, I’m the same way about query letters.  
So, what’s a guy to do? What should you do?

One approach (although not a very practical one) is to ditch the query letter altogether and make your pitch in-person, at a writers conference for example. It can be a rather expensive alternative and you could argue that making a live pitch requires a third, entirely different skill-set, but the format does provide something that a letter can not—a back and forth exploration of the material between two parties. Sitting down in front of an agent or editor allows them the opportunity to ask key questions that wouldn’t normally be asked if they were just reading a letter. I landed my agent this way and I can speak to its benefits, but it's not a realistic approach for most writers. Where does that leave us?  

Well…if I’m with a bunch of friends and we’re telling jokes, and I know there is somebody else there who knows the joke I want to express, and he/she tell’s jokes well…then I let them tell it. In other words, get help. I have my critique group review all of my letters and it makes a big difference. Don’t have a critique group? 1) Why not? Join one ASAP. 2) There are numerous forums such as Absolute Write or Query Tracker that freely offer assistance to writers needing help with their letters. Find a forum that suits you and pick the brains of people who know how to tell jokes.

To give you an update on my own querying process, I’m about a month in and I’m two for three. That means I’ve received three responses so far, two asked for the full manuscript and one passed.  So far…so good.


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