Saturday, January 16, 2010

My Platform

There are two buzzwords in the publishing industry today. One is vampires. The other is platform. If your work doesn't include the former, the latter is even more essential. Basically, a platform is a writer's ability to demonstrate expertise in the subject matter he or she is writing about, as well as proof of an already-established audience of followers who would be willing to buy what the author writes. Expertise can be proven by previously published articles, lectures given, or media interviews granted; followers are compiled through blogs and other social media, readings and other events, and, in my case, having a large family.

When I originally set out to write my novel, I figured that all I needed was a bunch of words on paper that taken as a whole comprised a pretty good story. Now that the novel is completed (plus four separate phases of top-to-bottom tweaks and rewrites) and has been summarily rejected by a couple dozen agents, I find myself in need of a platform. Initially, I resisted the idea. A "good story well told" was good enough for Mark Twain, I croaked with fists waving like a crotchety old fogie sitting on an orange crate in a rural general store railing against insolent whippersnappers and their newfangled ideas. Unfortunately, though, Twain is a dead author rather than a living literary agent.

And yet I persisted in my scattershot ways by jumping on a variety of diverse opportunities: a one-act play competition where the subject matter must be related to the end of the world; an application to be a children's writer in residence at the Boston Public Library; poetry submissions; and a work in progress about bad dreams. I was desperate to stay busy, desperate to pursue any and all chances to live, work, and act as an author. They all became piles on my desk and burdens on my shoulders, while my manuscript sat in my hard drive waiting for a platform to bolster its profile.

And then a cold slap of reality hit me, in the form of a colleague who started me on this psychotic roller coaster in the first place when she challenged me to enter NaNoWriMo, the annual initiative in which aspiring writers are encouraged to write a 50,000-word novel throughout the month of November. Even though I had a three-month-old daughter at home, I accepted the challenge. Because I had a three-month-old daughter at home, I had barely 25,000 words written as of November 30.

Now that three-month-old girl is three years old and the novel, now an economical 50,600 words, is done. My colleague's cold slap of reality, therefore, was not the first I've received. But it was useful. She told me about someone she knew who collected rare knives. He was an expert on these knives and was known in the collector community. A publisher who specializes in titles about collectibles approached him and asked him to write a book about these knives. He didn't even want to write a book but here was a publisher with money and a contract.

The reason, of course, is that the guy has a platform. It's something he's knowledgeable and passionate about. That's what you need to do, said my colleague to me. You're all over the place but you have a platform already: music. You need to focus on music and claim that as your platform.

I have to admit it made sense to me. I am a music nut. I'm a player and a listener, with a large and varied collection, and an insatiable appetite for sound. Furthermore, my novel is based on "Matty Groves," a 17th-century English folk song. My work in progress is littered with musical references. Another story I want to write someday, about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, was inspired by a song by Cassandra Wilson. A work I began years ago and abandoned concerns a group of friends who'd been in a band in high school and now want to reform to play their 25th reunion. What inspired that was Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, which is almost the story of my life, as the denizens of used record shops seek love and meaning in a grown-up world.

In the past, I founded a progressive rock newsletter that I ran for a few years on my own, and have written record reviews for Gentle Giant's website and promotional materials for professional local musicians. And, of course, I've written frequently about music in this blog. Someday, I'll blog about my experiences as a roadie for a harpist.

So voila, it looks like I actually do have a platform — the makings of one, anyway. At a minimum, it will help me to focus my thinking and prioritize my projects; hopefully, it will develop to an extent where I can successfully articulate and support it to an agent's satisfaction. I'm still working on the act-play, though. Even that relates to a favorite old song: "End of the World" by Skeeter Davis. Maybe there's something to this platform business after all.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

When stars are aligned...and maligned: Andy Pratt in concert

Frequent readers of this space (i.e., me) know that I am fascinated by coincidences and try to see them not as random curiosities but as potentially Divine hints, signposts put in your way by a benevolent guide. Such a coincidence occurred last night.

As background, know that 2009 was an incredibly difficult year for me, and 2010 doesn't promise much more happiness and comfort. There are few pleasures in my life, and fewer still that I can afford. In that context, I was up late last night, searching the Internet for songs about the end of the world. A morbid subject, perhaps, but I chose it not simply because of my own personal pessimism but also because I recently learned of an opportunity to submit one-act plays about the end of the world in a competition, with the winning entry being staged by a New York City-based theatre troupe. I wanted to assemble a mix CD to serve as a soundtrack to my writing.

Some of the songs were obvious and well-known: "End of the World" by Skeeter Davis (which I own, as well as cover versions by Herman's Hermits, Julie London, Bill Frisell, and Nina Gordon), "It's the End of the World (As We Know It)" by REM, and "Until the End of the World" by U2. Others I found within my iTunes library: "My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)" by David Ruffin, "(I'll Love You) Til the End of the World" by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, "Armageddon Blues" by Gary Willis, and "The Last Days" by the Osmonds (yes, the Osmonds, want to make something out of it?).

Googling songs about the end of the world, I found a couple more: "Waiting For the End of the World" by Elvis Costello, and "End of the World Party" by Medeski, Martin and Wood. I also added Todd Rundgren's "Fade Away" and Bunny Wailer's "Armagideon". Finally, I checked a site that offers free mp3 downloads (not totally legally) and found the song "It's Not the End of the World" by one Andy Pratt.

Now, I had come across the name Andy Pratt last year. I don't recall how exactly, but somehow the name got on my radar screen and I learned he was a "one-hit wonder" from the '70s, whose one hit was called "Avenging Annie." The title didn't ring a bell but I heard a sample online and immediately went, "Oh, yeah, THAT song!" Featuring his surprising falsetto and a wicked piano part, the tune was covered by Roger Daltrey on one of his solo albums and made it on the soundtrack of the film, Velvet Goldmine. I read his entry on and was intrigued. Born to a well-to-do family in Boston, he went to the finest schools, including Harvard, but was drawn to a career in music. A virtuoso on several instruments, sustained success nevertheless eluded him. He apparently became enfolded in obscurity and disappeared, moving to the Netherlands and becoming a born-again Christian. And for me, that was that. Until last night.

Last night, when Andy Pratt again was put before my eyes, I was curious. The cut in question was wonderful, much more stripped down than "Avenging Annie" and that tune's follow-up album, Resolution. The voice, though, was still thoroughly compelling, and the lyrics ("It's not the end of the world/It's not the end of the sky/It's not the end of my life/It's just the end of you and I") resonated. So I went exploring. I reacquainted myself with his biography and learned that he moved back to Boston a few years ago and was apparently still active. I went on YouTube and found a number of recent performances that were wonderful. Then I went to his website and looked around. Turns out that "It's Not the End of the World" has yet to be officially released, so it was pretty amazing that I was able to find a version to download.

But the most amazing thing I saw on his website was his gig calendar. Only two shows were listed, but the first was the very next night (meaning tonight), an early show (6:30 p.m. start), and a five-minute walk from my office, with no cover charge. In other words, it couldn't have been scripted any better for someone in the immediate throes of a particular artist, who doesn't get out much because of family responsibilities, who doesn't need the hassle of parking in Boston, and who has zero money to spend. It was just too good to be true. And yet it was. For the most part.

And so this evening I went to see Andy Pratt perform. He was playing in a cozy room in a restaurant in the Back Bay. The small stage faced about 20 small tables, set up for dinner patrons. Those not eating (like me) had to stand behind the tables in a small area with the kitchen at our backs. I arrived about 20 minutes before the scheduled start time, but Pratt was already at the piano, just playing for his own pleasure. Three people were seated at the tables. Pratt was dressed casually, his unkempt hair, still '70s length but with a strip of scalp running across the middle in a sort of reverse mohawk, white and wild. He had the expression of ecstasy such as one finds in musicians who must feel the very force of their music shooting out of their fingers. He looked up at one point, saw me admiring him, and nodded and waved to me. He didn't know (yet) that I was the person he had just friended on Facebook a few hours earlier.

By the time the show started, there were nearly a dozen people at the tables. I was the only one standing. I quickly finished my Bass draft so my hands would be free to applaud. He simply started playing and I was mesmerized by his voice, the quality of his songwriting, and his nifty piano playing, with such exquisite chords and occasional fleet solo runs with his right hand. Unfortunately, his was not the only voice on display this evening. At one table, two women were chatting nonstop. As the set went on, more diners arrived and were seated at choice spots in front of the stage. Few of these diners were there for Andy Pratt, and one couple I overheard contemplated asking the hostess to seat them in the next room away from the music. For the others, Andy Pratt was little more than background music to their own incessant gabbing. I was very annoyed at this.

Some of the people were clearly there for Pratt and were capable of eating and respectfully listening at the same time, but most of the diners sitting comfortably while I stood never even looked at Pratt as they alternated stuffing their faces and talking. A few would give polite applause between numbers, but I was dismayed that this was not a proper concert experience. Any schmuck off the street who knew a few tunes could have commanded as much respect as Andy Pratt did that night. It definitely colored the show a bit for me.

When he finished his set, I went up to him and thanked him for the great show, introducing myself as one of his newest Facebook friends. He wasn't the most communicative person I've ever met, but I didn't care. The man doesn't owe me anything and he just put himself out for my benefit. I was honored to shake his hand.

I left the restaurant being even more interested in the man's music and can't wait to delve more deeply into his extensive catalogue. The term "one-hit-wonder" is typically derogatory, but that's because the emphasis is on "one-hit" instead of "wonder." Well, Andy Pratt is indeed a wonder. A supremely gifted singer, songwriter, and musician, who somehow continues to ply his trade despite the indifference of the music industry, who seems as happy to play for a couple of dozen ignorant eaters as for a hand-picked audience of aficionados, Andy Pratt is an inspired and inspiring performer. He and I share musical heroes in Brian Wilson, and like Wilson he is a survivor. At this time in my life, Andy Pratt's music and his example are very much what I need.

Coincidence? I think not.

Andy past:

Andy present:

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Words from the wise

These words have moved me since I first read them about 20 years ago. They seem to inspire me more now than ever before.

There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual – become clairvoyant. We reach then into reality. Such are the moments of our greatest happiness. Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom.

It is in the nature of all people to have these experiences; but in our time and under the conditions of our lives, it is only a rare few who are able to continue in the experience and find expression for it.

At such times there is a song going on within us, a song to which we listen. It fills us with surprise. We marvel at it. We would continue to hear it. But few are capable of holding themselves in the state of listening to their own song. Intellectuality steps in and as the song within us is of the utmost sensitiveness, it retires in the presence of the cold, material intellect. It is aristocratic and will not associate itself with the commonplace – and we fall back and become our ordinary selves. Yet we live in the memory of these songs which in moments of intellectual inadvertence have been possible to us. They are the pinnacles of our experience and it is the desire to express these intimate sensations, this song from within, which motivates the masters of all art.

Robert Henri, The Art Spirit