by Will Viharo
“The King,” meaning Elvis Presley, would’ve turned 81 this Friday, January 8. Unless you’re a fan like me, that means absolutely nothing to you. After all, it’s David Bowie’s birthday, too. And he’s still with us. I dig Bowie, too. But he’s no Elvis.
But even if you don’t like Elvis’s music (and who are you?), you have to admit he broke a lot of ground as a singer. He didn’t plan to become an immortal icon. It just happened via a combination of luck, timing…and design.
Here’s how all this relates to you as a little ol’ writer in the 21st century…
So this is not 1956. You’re not Elvis. You don’t have sideburns or a curly lip or hips that swivel on command to the nearest guitar. You’re not even a singer.
So how can you become the “Elvis” of the indie lit world, then?
Well, we all need someone or something to aspire to. An industry standard, if you will. And sometimes it’s both fun and instructive to choose a model outside your chosen field. There’s less direct competition that way, so you don’t feel that pressure.
You’re also applying the proven strengths of a successful individual to your own endeavors, even if all you have in common is ambition to achieve something beyond your current situation.
To paraphrase the title tune of the 1962 Elvis movie co-starring my stepmom Anne Helm, Follow That Dream…
Be Unique and Innovative By Combining Influences
Elvis made his mark by instinctively merging the musical styles surrounding him as a boy in Tupelo, Mississippi – gospel, R&B, blues, country – into a unique hybrid marketed as “rock ‘n’ roll.” Sure, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino were all doing the same thing at the same time, but Elvis got most of the credit. Unfair? Yes. So Elvis didn’t really deserve his success? Untrue. No. He was still an incomparable package despite the prejudices of his era. Because Elvis didn’t “steal” anyone’s style. He made his own.
So you should try the same approach. You’re influenced by crime, romance, and horror? Write a nightmarish noir with a love story at its center – in your own voice and style.
Or maybe you prefer historical drama and science fiction? Write a time travel tale set in medieval times. Yes, that’s been done to death. But you could put a fresh spin on it so, to paraphrase Elvis, “I don’t sound like nobody.”
So don’t really be Elvis. Be like Elvis, by just being yourself.
Be Your Own Colonel Parker
Elvis’s career is largely credited to his infamous manager, Colonel Tom Parker, the cigar-chomping negotiator behind his landmark, RCA contract, million dollar Hollywood deals, and later his legendary return to live performing all around the country until his death (disappearance?) in 1977.
Rumor has it Elvis wasn’t all that happy with many of The Colonel’s choices (especially when it came to his increasingly formulaic if reliably lucrative movies), and many observers feel Elvis might’ve been better served if he cut the Colonel loose and followed his own instincts. But he was too loyal, maybe at his own artistic expense.
But you’re not Elvis. You probably don’t have a manager (agent) in your corner, barking orders. You are in charge of your own promotional campaigns. You make your own deals. You are the custodian of your own career.
And that’s a good thing, because that gives you something not even Elvis ever fully possessed: autonomy.
Change With the Times
Elvis wasn’t just an innovator. He was a survivor. In fact, his career spanned the entire epoch of rock’s epic evolution as well as revolution, from “Rock Around the Clock” to “A Hard Day’s Night” to “Stairway to Heaven” to “God Save the Queen.” How did he remain relatively relevant and consistently popular throughout this turbulent series of cultural upheavals?
By shifting tones and styles and fashions, adding in contemporary sounds to his recordings, keeping pace with the fast changing fickle tastes of the consumer public. That’s why the guy with hits like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” later scored on the charts with totally different songs like “In the Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds.”
As a writer, you need to keep your finger on that same pulse, and adjust your output to suit the audience’s needs. That is, if your goal is to make money as a writer. If you want the world to subsidize your dreams, you have to give ‘em what they want. The Colonel had that much right.
So if you do all this, will you be crowned “King” of indie publishing?
No. Not a chance. Sorry. There is no surefire formula for success in any field, much less King-sized mega-stardom. Even Elvis would tell you that. The Colonel might have a different idea, but who cares about him anymore?
But if you do decide to follow in Elvis’s footsteps, at least spiritually speaking, you will feel like you’re a king – of your own kingdom. And you will rock your own world.
That’s Taking Care of Business, baby.
How are you King of your own literary castle?
PHOTO: MAX PENN
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New Orleans, LA