Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Branding Wheel

They now have a new name for your personal style. The kings and queens of marketing have identified a new moniker that is supposed to define who you are, what you represent, what you’ve accomplished and ultimately what you’re selling. It’s now called your brand.

Branding was probably born in your standard public relations cubicle then took on a life of its own. It’s the newest prescription tailored to distinguish your marketing efforts from a divergent field of competitors and in turn help you claim some individuality in a world of uniformity and conformity.

Businesses are now into branding big time. Apple wants to be known for its simple yet elegant design work. Netflix has mastered the art of digital streaming movies. Disney tells its investors that it has mastered the art of the movie franchise. Each business is claiming to be unique with its own individual brand.

Branding can be found in consumer products…think Coke, Toyota and a bevy of ‘must have’ or ‘gonna get’ items we can’t live without. Retailers scramble to inject their best image into the minds of consumers and fill store shelves and the airwaves with recognizable products and services.

Over the last several years, the publishing world has changed radically. Gone are the days when unknown authors might be picked up by a publisher and given a marketing budget to get the word out on him or her. Nowadays even if you’re lucky enough to be picked up by the publisher, most of the promotional work is still left up to the author unless you’re a proven entity like Steven King or Nicholas Sparks.

So what can a writer to do to promote, advertise and market him or herself? Most writers would rather walk on hot coals than get in front of a group of people, even potential readers, to talk about themselves. Writers, at least most of them, are uncomfortable with the whole marketing and promotion routine. Many of them don’t understand and in fact hate the process…let me repeat that for emphasis…hate the process and are lost in what to do. Add to that the fact that many writers are introverts and it’s one heck of a challenge to even think about promoting one’s own work.

I’m no different. While I understand the fundamentals of marketing and promotion, I also know that the world has changed radically since I wanted to be a copywriter back in the ‘Mad Men’ era of advertising. Knowing of the new rules of the game doesn’t make it any easier for me or any other author.

Nowadays, you’ve got social media, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and so forth. There are book clubs to approach and speaking engagements to connect with your audience. There are giveaways suggested and even paying for book reviews.

You also have a plethora of wonderful opportunities to spend a fortune in designing, editing, and promoting your book without any guarantee of success. I’ve actually read articles in writing magazines that claim a new author must spend between $5000 and $10,000 per book just to get it ready for publication. Baloney. Think about it for a moment. What would your break-even be if you spent that kind of money up front before your first sale?

So what is the answer? You most definitely need to have a good editor to edit your work. I think the book design is important as is the cover and back cover blurb about its contents. In other words, create a good product to sell but don’t spend a fortune to get there. You should have a good web site and a presence on Facebook and other relevant author web sites.

I’ll admit I’ve been seduced by the hype and need to promote myself in some manner. So in an effort to play to my strengths and compensate for my weaknesses I’ve created my own roadmap to breaking out of the mold and trying to distinguish myself from other self-published writers. While I don’t have marketing answers for other writers I’ve found this guide works for me. I call it my branding wheel.

Let me repeat that this isn’t necessarily a roadmap for other writers. It was designed with my personality, limitations, ambitions and goals in mind. It suits what I want to accomplish and my comfort level in getting there. That is precisely why it works for me. Let me explain.

I have many shortcomings as a writer not the least of which is a short attention span. I can’t focus on any one subject for extended periods of time. So how do I deal with that short attention span?

My solution is to focus on my writing for two or three hours in the morning until my attention span drops off the preverbal cliff.  I consider any concentrated time over several hours to be very successful. If I can do the same in the evening, it’s been a very good day.

Often times I’m not sure what to write about although I know I’m not going to stick to just one genre. So I forget about trends and write about any subject matter that interests me. I always have multiple projects going on at the same time;  blogs, plays, marketing, etc. A lot of different subject matter all at the same time. It might be a western, a suspense thriller, a historical action/adventure/romance novel or issues around aging. My blogs cover the gamut of various subject matters of interest to me.

I have no intention of just writing in one format such as novels or non-fiction pieces. So I don’t and instead let the subject matter dictate what format my storyline might follow. I have written novels, non-fiction pieces, blogs, plays, screenplays, articles, and I’m still very interested in starting up a comic strip series featuring my grandchildren. And I’d also like to write some music for some of my plays.

I occasionally have a hard time staying motivated. If I have an off day or can’t concentrate I simply walk away. I can’t force myself to sit at the desk and stare at a blank screen because if I do nothing will happen.

Usually that isn’t much of a problem for me though. Writing has become my new positive addition. Much like running which I did for over 40 years, I am now addicted to writing. If I don’t write for a period of time, I get antsy and irritable.

My branding wheel is a roadmap that allows me to reference, sometimes, on a daily basis my progress made. It allows me the flexibility and ability to shift from one genre, one topic, one subject matter or current interest without halting or hindering the output or flow of information in and out of my brain. I can try to match up speaking engagements with book fairs or book clubs. I can cross pollinate exposure in the newspapers with appearances at events. I can advertise events on multiple levels and platforms.

I can continue to write no matter the topic or format. I can talk about what I want to talk about and write whatever I want to write. It provides constant input and output without feeling I have to work at it.

Simply put, it’s a roadmap to guide me along the way of the writer….and most importantly, it works for me.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Vultures After Me Again

It’s about a 10,000-foot drop from Huayna Picchu (‘Young Mountain’ at Machu Picchu) to the river bottoms of the Urubamba River. If you’re lucky (relatively speaking) you might bounce off of a rocky outcropping which would end any speculation in your panicked mind of the certain outcome below. If not, the gravel and rock-strung floor of the Urubamba canyon will end any question of what happens when you slip and fall off Huayna Picchu.

Now it looks like I’m going to risk life and limb in that mountain citadel resurrecting one of my first adventure/suspense/romance novels. ‘Follow the Cobbler’ is coming back to life. It was an exhausting pursuit the first time around. I expect this second rebirth will be just as challenging.

After an absence of almost five years I’m renewing my quest to ‘find the Cobbler.’ The pursuit began in 2010 and after a year’s worth of writing it ended up languishing as an unpublished novel.  Other projects crept ahead of its editing and the book lay dormant until a yawning gap in my writing schedule pushed it back to the forefront. This time around my editor has been engaged and we’re off to the proverbial races…around the world.

There are no 911 calls to make nor any medivac helicopter that can be summoned when you’re in Machu Picchu. If you fall off the mountain you die and then the vultures will eat you. Probably long before any recovery party can trek to the site of your scattered remains.

I thought about that scenario as I pondered my bad luck at not being able to climb Huayna Picchu the only afternoon I spent in Machu Picchu. If you want to climb this mountain adjacent to the ruins, you probably need to be in Machu Picchu for at least two days. Trains only arrive around noon each day and it’s safest to start climbing the mountain early in the morning at first light.

Above all, you must return before nightfall. After dark, your chances of missing a step or walking off a narrow ledge on the edge of the mountain increase expeditiously. And then you die. It seemed the perfect spot to place my two protagonists (Brian and Katherine) in pursuit of the Cobbler while being hunted down by hunter-assassins hot on their trail.

Machu Picchu is a pre-Columbian 15th century Inca site that was created at the height of the Inca Empire. It was built in classical Inca style with polished dry-stone walls. No mortar was used in constructing the buildings. Yet the stone walls are so tightly packed together that not even a piece of paper can be slipped between their joints.

With its discovery in 1911 by explorer Hiram Bingham, Machu Picchu made its debut as an authentic archaeological enigma. For as much as the ruins have been picked and poked and examined, the ancient city still largely remains a mystery.

You don’t have to be a mystic or a shaman to appreciate the wonders of this lost city of the Incas. At almost 8000 feet above sea level, the ruins sit high on a mountain ridge above the Urubamba Valley of the Andes Mountain range in Peru. It seemed the perfect lair for a mysterious figure such as the Cobbler.

Standing among the ruins for the first time is breathtaking. Flocks of birds soar by beneath your feet and you look down on the clouds that gather in the canyons below. The thin air can wreak havoc on those with respiratory issues or are out of shape. Few people move quickly at that altitude unless K12 is their playground or they’re mountain goats.

In this age of computer technology and high tech medicine, it’s easy to look back at those ancients and laugh at their worship of the sun and the moon as their Gods. Yet their understanding of climate change (without Doppler radar), architecture (without 3D digital imaging), construction (without concrete or mortar) and agriculture (without computer forecasting charts) is quite remarkable. Their cures (now lost over time) for some illnesses would rival the best that the Mayo Clinic has to offer. For as much as they were behind the times, they were so far ahead of us.

To get to Machu Picchu, you must first travel through Cusco. Hundreds of years ago, Cusco was the historic capital of the Inca Empire. It’s an ancient city with many of its modern buildings built upon the ruins of its predecessors. Mayan culture abounds everywhere; in the people, their clothing, their mode of transportation and certainly in the central marketplace. Their lifestyle hasn’t changed for hundreds of years.

At over 11,200 feet, movement around Cusco must come slow and easy. You’re advised to chew on coco leaves to help cope with the altitude. I woke up at 3:00 am one morning unable to breath. If panic had set in, I’m not sure how I would have survived. Fortunately, I imagined a long slow run up a mountain trail and eased my nerves back into place and then steadied my own breathing. I doubled down on my leaf count after that night.

Of course there is a counter to the benefits of coco leaves. That would be forgetting you have them in your pockets or not cleaning out your pockets thoroughly of their residue before going through customs. At the airport a fellow ahead of us forgot that lesson and was quickly surrounded by machine gun cops and angry dogs. Then he was hauled off before he could explain his mistake.

There are two sure ways to get to Machu Picchu. Either by railroad or the ancient Inca Trail. Back in the 80s, the Shining Path (local terrorists fighting the government) were robbing and killing travelers along the Inca Trial. We opted for the railroad instead.

The ancient railway is a narrow gauge rail line that was recently washed out by the flooding of the stream, which runs alongside it for miles. The old wooden rail cars are as ancient as the locomotives themselves that pull the tourists and vendors to and from the ruins.

At every stop, tiny urchins and vendors flock alongside the rail cars, peddling their wares. Most of the children just have their hands out for offerings of money or food. It’s heart breaking to see those children begging for anything you have to offer. Many were about the same age as three of my grandchildren. There but for the grace of God…

At the base of the mountain you can’t see the ruins on top. The switchback that leads up to Machu Picchu only allows for two small vehicles to pass on the road. There are only inches between them when you pass. That gives you a taste of Huayna Picchu.

Besides the terraced gardens, the numerous outbuildings and clusters of stone structures not yet categorized, tour guides like to point out the three main structures of the ruins. The Intihuatana (Hitching post of the sun), the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows. All three are located in the Sacred District of Machu Picchu. All three are fascinating but they’re not the heart and soul of Machu Picchu.

If you want to truly feel and understand the wonders of that place, you must wander off by yourself. Get lost among the ruins and let the grass covered stone pathways lead you from
one cluster of buildings to the next. Walk along the terraced gardens where crops used to thrive.  Imagine yourself, some 500 hundred years ago, living in that vibrant city above the clouds.


The ruins are the same, the pathways remain unchanged and the mountains and clouds and flocks of birds are all the same as hundreds of years before when dark-skinned ancients went about their daily business. But instead of google, the Incas had their oral history. Without GPS, they relied on trail runners. They had no hiking boots so they wore thatched sandals instead. Woolen clothes were warmer than any Patagonia jacket.

I’m told the climb up Huayna Picchu is a slow and treacherous venture. The path up the mountain departs from the Sacred Rock area. The most direct climb to the summit takes experienced climbers several hours. Rising more than 1300 feet above the Principal Plaza of Machu Picchu, the pathway goes up an almost vertical stairway of more than 130 feet and passes through small caverns carved from rocky walls. Mountain mist can make the grass and stone pathway very slippery. High winds often buffet and pummel climbers even as the hot sun above bakes them.

Now I’m going back to Machu Picchu if only in my mind. Together with Brian and Katherine, we’ll explore the ruins once again and hike up Huayna Picchu. I’ll go slow and easy, trusting on my instincts and fear of heights to keep me away from the edge of the mountain. Brian and Katherine can do all the heavy lifting. I’ll let my fingers do the rewriting. It’s going to be one heck of a climb once again.

Even the sight of those circling vultures won’t keep me away from living my long dormant fantasy of climbing above the clouds and finally getting that story out of my system and into print.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

On the Road Again

It’s my first long distance bike ride of the season and the season is almost over.

My normal routine of long bike rides was upended this summer by play practice, acting, and finally the production of my own play ‘Riot at Sage Corner.’ I sprinted to freedom the morning after our cast party.

Long distance bike riding, or in reality, meandering - is soul-searching at its finest. It’s yoga on wheels and meditation in the saddle. It’s a rediscovery of past haunts, mis-spent youth, lost love and between the sign posts… myself.  I’m alone with my recollections, dreams, passions and ever-present tape recorder to capture those fleeting thoughts that sometimes go in one ear and get stuck there.

The coffee shop is a welcome sight of iron riders and rail thin runners. These mostly white middle-age athletes are gearing up for several races this fall.  They’re early morning vagabonds who need their cup of Joe to kick-start each day. It’s an eclectic group of support crew, racers, runners and neighborhood hangers-on gathered together to taste the first bite of dawn and forthcoming self-induced punishment. I’m here to look and marvel and suppress my envy.

There are also a lot of runners out training for the Twin Cities Marathon. The Tour de France wannabes haven’t yet begun to cluster around my coffee shop before their race down Summit Avenue. Today it’s only the hardcore diehards or marginally insane who are out exercising this frosty morning.

After they leave I’ll begin my Saturday morning meanderings through the Twin Cities. There won’t be an agenda or route to follow. My imagination and ever elusive recollections of times past will point me in some direction. Crossing the bridge, I see the U of M rowing club is out before barges crowd the waterways.

It used to be that during the summer months I’d take long bike rides to peruse my old haunts for changes or as a way to recap old memories still lingering there. But something happened late last summer that altered that perception.

Surprisingly it wasn’t the old haunts that had changed. Instead it was something that clicked differently inside my head that time around. I came to the sobering realization that not only were the old places gone but now they were relegated to the dust bins of history.

The Twin Cities had become a wasteland of relics from my past. A time long forgotten except in black and white photos and old vinyl recordings. Time has that tendency to erase most vestiges of a period and in its place leave only vapid memory vapors that drift in and out of our consciousness from time to time.

The changes were all around me but I didn’t see it until last fall.

Much like another blog At the corner of Fairview and Summit, this ride will take me past a lot of my old haunts and a retracing of my other lives. Most of those old places are now generations apart from where I am today. But they still bring back a boatload of memories, most of them good and a few very poignant.

It’s so early on Summit Avenue, the governor is still asleep. My first romantic breakup after Sunday mass took place just down the block. At this point in my third and last marathon I was pretty much a walking, jogging zombie; each step as painful as the last. I worked briefly for the Catholic Archdiocese in the James J. Hill Mansion. Sharden Productions, Inc. and related real estate ventures were conceived in those oak-paneled halls.

The Little French Church is now surrounded by high-rise apartments and light rail tracks. For me it was eight years of Catholic education. Daily mass because we had to and public transportation before it became hip. Does anyone remember the street cars which came before buses?

I moved with public television down to Lowertown when it was still empty warehouses and parking lots. Now it’s a hip thriving ‘happening’ place for millennials. Nearby the Mississippi River has long been a magnet for the land-locked before Laguna Beach and the PCH fueled my own latent surfer’s imagination.


Melanie’s home is just two blocks off of my old paper route. Here the latest rage is teardowns and larger homes because the neighborhood has gotten so hot. Who knew? Fifty years ago we couldn’t wait to ‘get out of Dodge.’ Now they’re flocking back to raise their families in my old backyard.

There’s something about this place that still draws me back even in the chill of early fall. And it has nothing to do with the images that corporate and government Minnesota want to paint for outsiders.

Forget about what the PR hacks are saying or the Chamber of Commerce’s latest spiel about the glories of living in Minnesota. Forget our professional (subsidized) sports teams or even dare I say, Garrison Keller’s Prairie Home Companion as a folksy homespun version of Grandma’s tales of yesteryear.


Instead I’m talking about a culture of intrinsic family values, a creed of hard work and an unapologetic pride in being from here. They say our cold weather leaves just the strong of heart behind. I touched on this in my blog: Going Home Again. Whether it’s true or not, it is a moniker I subscribe to.

I don’t think I’ll be retracing my old bike routes anymore. It won’t be because of bad memories. Rather the absence of visible landmarks makes it harder to reconcile memories with recollection, nostalgia with history and reality with a reflective glance at my past. It’s a gravel road that has been paved over.

Yet time is on my side. I still get to look back through old photographs in awe and amazement at what once was while still listening to those old familiar musical refrains. I’m still reliving so much that others can’t or won’t see or feel themselves.

Come next spring, new adventures wait. Charlotte, my youngest granddaughter, is now a two-wheeler like her brother. Perhaps I can enlist them as my posse and together we can discover new routes and adventures around the Twin Cities. I’ll be a younger man then and hopefully still eager to blaze new memory trails for that younger generation.

Perhaps I’ll cross trails with some old memory haunts yet undiscovered.

That wouldn’t be a bad thing either.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Once a Soldier Always

Me by my locker in boot camp

I’d forgotten about that period in my life for such a long time. It was two years juxtaposed between stumbles in education and prying open the door on my lost years. Now it’s back in flavor whether the conflict in question is justified or not.

Back in early 1964 I had dropped out of the University of Minnesota before they asked me to take a hike. Two weeks later I got my draft notice but fooled them all by volunteering for the Army instead of having to wait around for several months before the inevitable.

It was two years away from home and my girlfriend, learning new skills and traveling the country. To be honest, I couldn’t wait to return to civilian life. Back then I looked on that period not necessarily with fondness but rather with an abject acceptance of it being a minor detour out of my life. Now with creeping age and reluctant maturity, I realize I answered the call from my country and did my duty…and I’m damn proud of it.

So much of that period of my life was re-captured and/or imagined in ‘Love in the A Shau’ in the persona of Daniel and his adventures in life and the military.

Me on the steps of the barracks

Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri offered up my first taste of ‘hurry up and wait,’ screaming drill sergeants, diverse interests and goals and a yearning for life back home.

Showing off my PFC stripe

The Presidio of San Francisco back then was considered the ‘country club’ of the Army. I grabbed every opportunity it offered me. College classes at night. A great part time job in an art theater in a sketchy part of town. A motor scooter to challenge the hills of the city. Tip-toeing through Haight-Ashbury and the wonders there. Wandering down the coast to Half Moon Bay, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and other coastal communities. No serviceman had ever had better duty.

Life was so good there; I volunteered for duty in Vietnam because it was in a foreign land and included hazardous duty pay. The Army was getting 500 applications a month, but mine wasn’t accepted. Of course, they weren’t shooting GIs back then.

Fort Polk, Louisiana

Fort Polk, Louisiana was the flip side of that city by the bay. It had to be some of the worst duty on earth. Summers in Louisiana are and were a modern day version of hell on earth.

Reading in a snow storm

Listening to the Beatles

Fort Lee, Virginia was good duty for a sergeant who was a short-timer and ready for a new chapter in his life. It was all coming to a close and I had no regrets. Then two weeks before my discharge the captain called me into his office and presented me with his best offer.

It seems he had been watching me and liked what he saw. Putting on his most father-like appearance, he confided in me. “As sergeant in just two years, I can see that you could have a great future in ‘this man’s army.” He threw out a few more platitudes then gave me his punchline. “Re-enlist now, son, and I guarantee we’ll send you to Vietnam.”

Mustering up my most sincere look, I politely declined, citing my enrollment back in college and classes starting in just several weeks. To be honest, I’ve sometimes wondered what my life might have been like if I had taken him up on his wonderful offer to tour South Vietnam between mortar rounds and sniper’s bullets.

After that, my life moved on and I forgot about those twenty-four months, 1964 through 1966. The bitter aftertaste of Vietnam lasted a long time for my generation. For me it was time spent out of the loop and living another kind of life.

Then eventually, some president found a reason to go to war again. We were off to the killing grounds for the next generation. Now the media and government PR machine embrace the military. “Thank you for your service to our country.” Sad but true, men and women go off to war and we’re back in the game again.

Spec 5 (Sergeant)

Politics aside, I’m proud of my time spent in the service. I wasn’t a ground-pounder or in Recon or Special Ops. Daniel got that out of my system and safely ensconced in my imagination. It was time spent in the service to my country and an opportunity to pay back my country for past generations.

My father holding me as an infant

This is the country of some long forgotten itinerant peasant who came over from France generations ago. An immigrant who brought his love of life and passion for work first to Canada, then Quebec and finally down through the generations to the Twin Cities. It was a grandfather, a father and finally the father of my children who now have children of their own.

In retrospect, my time spent in khaki was a small price to pay for what my country has given to me and my offspring. For all those generations and for me, it truly is the land of the free and a cauldron of opportunities for the taking.

45 Days to go

I did my job in the United States Army and I did it to the best of my ability. Two years is a long time out of a young man’s life. But it was time spent in service to my country.

I owed my country that much.