Monthly Archives: December 2008

Jonathan Coulton and Artistic Niches

Independent musician Jonathan Coulton’s journey as an artist fascinates me. I was introduced to his music about a year-and-a-half ago through word of mouth, and I’ve been listening to him since.  His music does not fit the mass market tropes (for example, he’s got quirky songs like “Flickr”, “Mandelbrot Set”, and “Re: Your Brains”).   Music label companies are looking for hits, not artistic niches, so Coulton ended up creating a small business to sell his music.

He’s written a long blog about his journey entitled “How I Did It” on his website.

Several things struck me when I read Coulton’s blog post on how he got to where he is:

1) He played for live audiences, experimenting with his music, and watched their reaction. Over time he figured out what sort of music he was good at (i.e. finding one’s ‘voice’ as an artist).

2) He learned–as he became interested in doing so–how to produce his music, first in posting mp3s to his website, then in having a CD made, and eventually in building an entire store of music on his website. Nothing happened overnight, it just slowly snowballed as he tried new ways of reaching listeners.

3) Putting his music under the Creative Commons license became a way for him to encourage people to share his work with others if they liked it.

4) After he quit his job as a programmer, he did a project called “Thing A Week” where he wrote a new song on a weekly basis. It ended up lasting for a year. This helped him learn how to work past creative blocks, and also (inadvertently) meant there were lots of songs that could be purchased from him by fans.

5) Technology has reached the point that niche artists can side-step distributors who require mass market appeal.

6) Selling one’s artistic work is a small business, like any other small business. You gotta learn about marketing, means of production, operating costs, technology, et cetera.

There’s a good article by Clive Thompson for the New York Times Magazine from May 13, 2007 which explores the time and emotional demands of doing your own marketing as an independent artist.

Interestingly enough, a heated debate erupted in March 2008 over Kevin Kelly’s blog post “1000 True Fans”, but I’m going to save discussing it for a separate blog post. Let me just summarize by saying people argued about how many “true fans” are needed in order for an independent artist to make a living without a distributor.

Lisa Gardner’s Lectures on the Synopsis

So, it’s time to write a query letter and a synopsis for your novel.  Bestselling suspense writer Lisa Gardner has an excellent lecture series on writing a query letter, short synopsis, and long synopsis, and she has been kind enough to put the lectures  on her web site,, for writers to read.

I didn’t directly link to the relevant page since she might reorganize her web site in the future.   You can find the synopsis lecture series under the “Tricks of the Trade” subheading.  She also has a lecture series on writing romantic suspense, as well as articles on doing research, creating a memorable villain, and plotting.

I’ve found that her synopsis lecture series gets straight to the point with no wasted words.  There are ten lectures, and by the time you work your way through them you’ll be well on your way to having a query letter and a synopsis to send out.

Shizuku Tsukishima in WHISPER OF THE HEART (Portrayals of Writers)

The animated film WHISPER OF THE HEART (Mimi wo Sumaseba, Studio Ghibli, 1995, Rated G) follows the struggles of fourteen-year-old Shizuku Tsukishima to discover herself as a writer.  The screenplay is by Hayao Miyazaki, based on a manga of the same name written by Aio Hiiragi.  For those who don’t know, Miyazaki is the co-founder of Studio Ghibli in Japan, and one of the premier directors/producers/screenwriters of animated feature films in the world.

And this film has a lot to say about the creative process and the struggle to become an artist.

I don’t want to spoil the movie, so I’m not going to provide a plot summary.   But I will mention that my favorite scene is between Shizuku and a wise old artist, Shirou Nishi.  Nishi-san has just read the first draft of her first attempt at writing a novel, and comforts her in her despair that the novel is no good and so therefore she is no good.  He points out that a rough draft is like quarried stone–through polishing the gem inside the story can be found and brought to the surface.   He’s right.

I also love how in this film Shizuku’s deep involvement with her work-in-progress results in her having waking daydreams about her story.  I’ve actually had that happen, so it was fun to see it happen to a writer character.

There is also a wonderful romance subplot, but I’ll leave that to you to discover if you see the film.

What matters most to you as a writer?

As you can see, I went on hiatus from this blog for about two months.  Part of it had to do with major writing commitments I made in early October, and part of it was an old-fashioned case of writer’s block brought on by putting too much pressure on myself on what this blog had to provide.

There are only 24 hours in a day.  You have to decide which writing is most important to you, and do that writing first.  My first love is fiction writing, and I spent my available time rewriting a 553-page novel manuscript down to around 400 pages.  But for someone whose passion is writing blogs, blogging would come first in the time available.  Figure out what you care about most, and write that first; the rest is just gravy.

Writer’s block often comes about when we demand perfection from ourselves.  Even though I started this blog with the intention of just having fun, after awhile old bad habits reasserted themselves, and I put pressure on myself to get things “right” (the rightness being defined in such a vague way in my mind that there was no way I could reach it).  And then I started feeling guilty about not blogging, which made the block worse, and so the cycle continued until now.  We’ll see if I’ve finally got this blog block under control.

I have a half-finished commentary on WHISPER OF THE HEART to come.  This time I’ll just have fun with it, instead of turning it into a class assignment for a grade in my head.  I am also going to open up this blog to anything in the arts (as it relates to writing or the writer’s life) that catches my interest–such as musician Jonathan Coulton’s making a living as an artist using the internet.