THE SECRET TO AN ARTIST’S SUCCESS

I work and associate with artists of all sorts. It’s not just writers, but film specialists, photographers and painters. Occasionally, one of them decides that this dream they’ve been chasing just doesn’t feel right anymore. They don’t enjoy the hassle of working by day while being an artist by night, and have decided to just throw in the towel. And while I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing (my wife went from actress to doctor and couldn’t be happier), if you’re quitting just because you’re frustrated, you’re doing the one thing that successful artists everywhere did not.

Becoming a leader in any field is a tough accomplishment. You have to constantly be in a state of mind that makes you want to improve while being patient enough to understand that nothing happens overnight. Now throw in the fact that artists, much like a lot of professions as of recent, are a dime a dozen and suddenly the goal of becomes that much more daunting. The odds seem against you and the stress can sometimes wear down the soul.

 But fortitude is the name of the game. For example, Picasso was penniless and unsuccessful for years during his Blue Period. As disheartened as he was, he committed to drawing, though he was nearly as poverty-stricken as some of the grim depictions of poor that he rendered. It wasn’t until his Rose Period nearly ten years later that he truly emerged as one of the 20th century’s greatest painters. Resilience, stamina, endurance, these were what helped him through the trying times.

It’s not just Picasso though that blossomed. Hundreds of household names such as Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Allen Poe and Dylan Thomas are living testaments to what willpower can bestow. You don’t have to be a starving artist like some of them, but just continuing to nurture your talent without surrender should be enough. Don’t jeopardize the wonderful art that you may gift to the world someday just because times are tough. It’s like George Bernard Shaw once said, “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.” It would be a shame if you deprive us of what you can do. 

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The Strigoaica

Deep in the darkest woods of Munţii Retezat lives a creature known only as Strigoaica. Refused by hell, she makes her home in the rock beneath a gnarled oak tree, the skins of children her only decor.  She neither lives nor rests, but is cursed between. And though no one knows who she once was or what she is, it’s certain that she’ll always be. A black cloud on the horizon, she is ever enduring. 

She has bone colored flesh with a mane of decrepit sable. Her eyes are coal, her teeth are gnarled and her fingers are sharp as talons. She has a crooked back and withered breasts concealed in a rotten gown of fawn. Her arms are long, her snout is bent and her wormlike tongue is a mawkish plum.It is said to lay eyes upon her is to welcome death, though few rarely ever get to see her. Instead it is her song they hear or her stench they breathe which warns them of her coming. She can hum a melody that starts like gentle rain but ends like a storm, louder and more maddening than anything thought natural.  Her sickly aroma is that of the grave, a bouquet of rot and turned soil. A perfume so foul that it thickens the air, suffocating those nearby.

No one knows why she haunts the veil hidden behind Munţii Retezat. Some say she seeks vengeance for the child she lost while others claim she is Lucifer’s discarded first wife. Still a few insist that she is the hag-witch of the mountains, created by the cliffs as a warden.What is certain is that she hungers to torture men, quiet women and feast upon children. It is a desire that can never be quenched, ever constant in her mind.

So wayfarer, if you’re ever traveling through the roads of the old world and come across Munţii Reteza do not make camp. No, continue on your journey until the hairs on your neck and lump in your throat withdraw. For lurking in the night, hidden in the shadows cast by the moon are greedy eyes, curled claws and a hungry maw. She can neither live nor die, but is always waiting for a fool to venture too near to her gnarled oak tree.

Author Notes

While traveling to research my latest novel, I came across some frightening folklore in Transylvania, Romania. This folklore helped inspire my rendering of the Strigoaica.

© Justin Alcala. All rights reservedImage

GET BEHIND THE MULE

One of my favorite songwriters and artists is no doubt Tom Waits. He’s witty, dark, and can write one hell of a melody. No doubt, his lyrics are sometimes cryptic, often with numerous meanings, but the guy really knows how to deliver a catchy tune. Get Behind the Mule, is a song from his “Mule Variations” album that has really stuck with me throughout my writing career. While the entire song is a bit grim, his chorus is something that always stirs in my head whenever I’m having trouble motivating myself to write for the day.

“Got to get behind the mule-

In the morning and plow.”

The line repeats itself several times throughout the song, delivering a haunting, but sensible message. Sometimes, you just have to pull your sleeves up and get the job done even if it’s the last thing you want to do. It’s easier said than done I know, but nonetheless, valid. If you’ve entered the book writing world hoping for an easy publishing process with minimal complications and easy, no mess acceptance, you’re probably not being realistic. Publishers are extremely particular, and will ferociously pick apart your manuscript to the last word. That’s because they have to be in order to do their job.

The trials are exhausting and a bit demoralizing, but you can’t let them break your formula. Read and write every day, send out your manuscript, and continue to stay focused. These are the steps that will eventually get you published. A lot of times we forget this because we don’t want to admit that it’s tougher than we’d thought. It’s okay. Long waits, rejection letters, and criticisms are part of the game. Don’t let it stop you from being productive. Got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow.

HOW MANY DOES IT TAKE?

How many books does an author need to sell in order to be considered a success? That question has been debated on writer forums, agency websites and author blogs for sometime. All you need to do is type in the question into your internet browser and you’ll find that no one can seem to agree on an exact number. According to Steve Laube of the Steve Laube agency, industry veterans recently deliberated and came up with the number five-thousand. Other sites state that seven-thousand copies mean that you’ve really knocked your book out of the park, though two to four-thousand means that you are a strong seller. Practically no one seems to be able to agree upon a number and here’s why.

 Book sales, like movies or music, all depends on whose helping produce it, what category it falls under and who is the target audience. While a major publisher might be disappointed by a reader-friendly mystery novel because it only sold four-thousand copies, a smaller publisher might be ecstatic. The same goes for the genre. A first time science fiction book might expect to have at least two-thousand sales within the first year where as a less popular genre such as literary fiction might only aim for one-thousand. Likewise, a children’s book that targets audiences from age three to twelve is forecasted to drive better results than a children’s book that only targets children from the age of five to seven.

As you can see, there are far too many moving parts to dictate what number is considered a successful in terms of sales. Other factors include if an author is making their debut, where the publisher plans on allowing the book to be purchased and if the book is being sold in hard cover or paperbacks only. Some publishers calculate advertisement fees, traveling costs and taxes into their estimate on a success while others use regional demographics or even the author’s writing style. There’s almost no limit as to how someone can predict the amount of sales needed for a book to be successful.

The question you really have to ask yourself as a writer is WHO thinks it’s successful. While selling three-thousand books in a year might seem amazing to your family and friends, your publisher or agent might think otherwise. My opinion is to ask yourself, “How many books will make my publisher or future publishers happy?” If you’re looking to make this a career, then ensuring that your first book is a success seems to be key. While you never want to stop campaigning for your book, you may be able to relax a little if a publisher decided that five-thousand book sales is enough to offer you a contract for future endeavors. Similarly, if you’re hoping to upgrade to a larger publishing agency in the future, you may aspire to reach a number of sales that they find acceptable for representation.

Now some of you might be saying, “Justin, what’s become of you? Aren’t you the guy that preaches write to write, not to earn money?”

Worry not. I assure you that I have not become some sort of business orientated writer. It’s quite the opposite in fact. The more I deal with manuscript inquiries, agents and advertisement costs, the more I feel that one needs to write because they love it. Let the rest fall in place. Nonetheless, educating yourself on what the publishing world considers successful is a key component to understanding a part of the writing world that you love. So, the next time you feel like putting the pen to paper so that you can spin your next yarn, remember this: the number of sales you might have is what might keep you on the bookshelves, but it’s the number of worlds, plots and character that you create which truly make you a writer.

Ghosts of the Past

Have you ever opened up some of your long forgotten poems, short stories or novels? Painful right? The document is probably littered with vague pronoun references, unnecessary shifts in tense and fused sentences. Even worse, there are sections of the story that don’t contribute to the plot, insignificant characters and mawkishly sentimental underlying messages. 

 If you’re like me, the first thing you do is plant your face in your hands (a.k.a. the “Face-palm”) and try not to cry. Afterwards, you stare at the Delete button, tempted to obliterate all proof that this story or poem was once yours. Finally, after waging a war with your conscience, you decide to live and let live, leaving the document alone, but lamenting about how terrible your writing once was. 

 But wait, that’s not fair. Your old work shouldn’t be some dark secret that needs to be hidden from the world. It should be a testimony of what you’ve accomplished. Not only did the “old you” put a lot of effort into that story, but the work is a reminder of who you as a writer once inspired to be. It’s a roadmap of your writing life. 

 Sometimes, we as writers are very hard on ourselves. We have to be because we’re constantly pursuing perfection. However, we forget that we didn’t just learn how to write overnight. There wasn’t some magical gift bestowed upon us by a divine being. No, we had to start somewhere and work at it, and those old documents are a symbol of that.

 For me, once the shock wears off of how bad my writing once was, I realize how beautiful these works really are. Because behind the jungle of grammatical errors and turbulent plot hooks is a vision I once had. I see Justin Alcala, the writer who wanted to give readers a little scare with his horror stories. I see Justin Alcala, the yarn spinner who wanted to give a fresh perspective on legends and folklore. I see Justin Alcala, the young man who wanted to make people happy by telling great stories.

 All too often, we authors get swept away by the power that comes with having your works published. I know I get a real kick out of talking to my publisher about cover art or sending new ideas to my editor. It’s fun to put your work onto bookshelves. But we can’t forget about the fundamentals. We need to remind ourselves why we started writing in the first place, and those old tales are just the thing. So the next time your dusting off an old manuscript, remember what those pages really mean. The words may tell a bad story, but the history of its creation is its own sort of autobiography.