Thursday, April 29, 2010

Mom Gets My Book

Mom phoned from Arizona to tell me through her tears -- she lost a brother, 88, last week and a sister-in-law, 81, on Monday -- that she received my book in the mail, thought it was nice, and although it was not written for people like herself, she was reading it. How glad she was, too, I had sent her something she didn't already have.

This is the first book I have ever sent her. Mom is not a reader or a net surfer; it is unlikely that she knows previous books exist. Close relatives who received the earlier books responded, shall we say, frostily -- a response richly deserved because I sincerely don't care whether they like what I write. I don't write for family. This time, instead of bothering them with a new book, I sent them my new author photograph. Sounds awful, but we manage to get along only through denial and ignorance of what we each care about; there is so much more, like blood, that unites us.

Doris Lessing was once asked if her mother was not mortified by her novels, which include sex scenes and whatnot. Lessing replied, "Mothers die much less readily than they would have you think."

But why risk it?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Are You a Writer, or an Author? Part III

Webster's etymologies, as far back as they can be traced:

: "to increase, produce"

: "to scratch; to tear"

I think writers do both. The difference seems to be that writing is composing, and authorial actions are quantifiable or measurable. As in:

Have you written the next chapter of your novel?
Have you authored your 1500 words today?

"Author" and books are related because published books can be counted. Most people have no other way to take the measure of a writer.

OK -- this question's settled. Now: Have you written the next chapter of your novel? Have you authored your 1500 words today?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Are You a Writer, or an Author? Part II

Literary theorist Roland Barthes said of the difference between an author and a writer, "The former performs a function; the latter an activity."

What is an author's "function"? To go on lecture tours, like Mark Twain? To be on Today? To appear at signings and banquets? To inspire writers who aren't at the touring/Today Show level yet? Twain , the most famous touring author, wrote (1896):

I got horribly tired of the platform toward the last -- tired of the slavery of it; tired of having to rest-up for it; diet myself for it; take everlasting care of my body and my mind for it; deny myself in a thousand ways in its interest.

Seems that without actively writing, an author is decorative -- they do call it "an appearance" -- or at best a pawn in his own money-making game.

And doesn't a writer have a function as well as an activity? Like, to stir people's minds? To entertain them? To educate? To stand for something?

Those literary theorists...I'm sure Barthes explains his statement well and in depth, but I read more than enough theory in the 1980s, before we all found out that literary theory ("literature means nothing") was the brainchild of a former Nazi collaborationist, Paul de Man, who in the rest of his lifetime neglected to mention that rather telling fact.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Are You a Writer, or an Author? Part I

Common sense says an author is a writer who's published a book. But according to the national Author's Guild (AG), "authors" are those who've published a book "by an established American publisher" who gave them an advance.

I know someone who joined AG because it excluded people like myself whose books were not "legitimate" but still somehow a threat. Mine were published by my choice and with my money -- that is, with courage and confidence. But with my fourth book I qualify for AG now, and if I needed to feel better about myself I could cough up $90 dues and join.

But I feel fine, and won't join a club whose point, apparently, is to exclude the riffraff: the vast majority of American writers. The AG makes further fine distinctions: Writers having a contract with an established American publisher but no book yet may apply for Associate-level Authors Guild membership. Freelancers qualify if they've published three works in periodicals commonly found at newsstands, receiving in return "significant" payment.

In my 35 years of writing, I have never received a "significant" payment. (I once won a "significant" prize, but it wasn't a publisher who gave it.) My guess is that you, like most writers, haven't received "significant" payment either. It's always been peanuts.

How about we forget all this hierarchy business -- it's too D.A.R. for me -- and respect and help each other, especially to get paid what we are worth.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Lessons from the Conference: Saturday

At the MO Writers Guild conference, I led a workshop on chapbooks in the morning, and in the evening had dinner and gave a keynote speech. I am not a speechwriter, not at all. I learned:
  • Be organized; it helps when so much is going on around you.
  • People are impressed if you appear organized.
  • Far from feeling cheated that I wasn't doing everything ex tempore, the workshop attendees appreciated it when I read from something I'd written years ago about chapbooks.
  • Real-life examples -- I brought along every chapbook I own -- practically did the workshop for me.
  • There's a speech in every writer's future.
  • A speech is a transfer and amplification of energy.
  • Nobody minds if you read your speech rather than memorize it or make it up as you go along.
  • When I couldn't find a topic to precisely fit the title I'd announced six months ago, in desperation I chose an unrelated topic, but one that really gets me started: writers accepting less than their due. I was concerned it might end up a harangue or a Howard Dean Scream. There wasn't time to try it out on a friend. But I did rehearse. I am never, ever sorry that I rehearsed.
  • Speeches need not be as highly polished as essays. You don't need "good transitions" or perfect grammar.
  • Be yourself, with all your quirks. Onstage, you are as good as naked. No use trying to be somebody else.
  • People like it if you express your true feelings because likely you are also expressing some of theirs.
  • I had a "speaker shepherd," Judy Moresi, at my side during the cocktail hour and dinner, chatting me up as the hour of the speech approached, and I am so grateful to her, and to David Lucas for the whole concept of "speaker shepherds," because, although I was among fellow writers, like anyone in the spotlight I might otherwise have felt very chilled and alone.
  • Listeners appreciate it if you speak with spirit, not withholding or droning. I knew that, but didn't know if I could do it in a prose speech lasting 35 minutes. Sure I could.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Lessons from the Conference: Friday

First glimpse of my new book, Meet Me, last Friday; it was already being sold by St. Charles' Main Street Bookstore owner Vicki Erwin (yes, the writer) who ran the book sale at the Missouri Writers Guild conference, carrying 100 titles, all by conference presenters and workshop leaders. Amazing, the number and variety. Who had the most books? NYT bestselling novelist Bobbi Smith, "Queen of the Western Romance." If you like handsome, emotionally available cowboys, Bobbi's your author.

Authors were to be present from 3 to 4 p.m. for signings, and I had the pleasure of meeting my book's first buyer and second buyer.

My publisher, Winnie Sullivan of Penultimate Press, met me there Friday, bringing my authors' and contributor's copies, plus my order of 100 copies for my personal stock. This cost me $970 with tax, but I got that over with, and Winnie helped me shelve them in my personal rolling bookstore. I was destined to sell two copies from the trunk before the weekend was over. Winnie and Vicki talked business.

Lessons learned on Friday:
  • authors at "signing events" mostly stand there doing nothing.
  • at conferences, dress to look prosperous, not like the ink-stained wretches we all really are.
  • offer your business cards, if you leave them on a freebies table, in something that will hold them upright, or at least hold them.
  • don't be afraid to bring your books even if not asked. Don't be afraid to want to sell your books or -- very classy -- have them sold for you.
  • always carry copies of your books in your car.
  • it is nice to have a publisher who'll help you move heavy boxes of books and talk business and promotion with a bookstore owner.
  • have a good idea or two about how you will inscribe the books you sell.
  • it takes two or three weeks for a new book to get on

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Book Is Forever

A year ago today I was finishing and formalizing a manuscript, the most sickeningly hard work I have ever done. (I didn't then know that I didn't have to do it all myself, but that's another story.) I would've preferred cleaning toilets over the calling and faxing necessary to find and obtain permissions from copyright holders. Tedious fact checking, organizing the "front and back matter" such as the introduction and the "T of C" (table of contents) -- ech. And then formatting ("do not use tabs for paragraphs; instead, indent three spaces...").

But it was my responsibility because the book was mine, and nobody else would devote so much time and care or waffle over a word as I, because it was mine, and was also my sole contact, forever, with the future and with readers I would never know. I could earn their respect only with the quality of my book.

Several writers I personally know are finalizing manuscripts for contests, or are under contract and a deadline and up all night, among dirty dishes, stressed out of their minds, eating junk or nothing. Awful. Yet noble. This is a privilege. Which of us would change places with a non-writer? What else is there in life that compares with having completed the epic project that is a good book?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Titles for Contest Entries

"Bake Sale" was the poem's working title; it's about bake sales. I wanted to enter it in a contest, but knew a title such as "Bake Sale" was a liability. That's because contests are run by organizations that like to appear serious, having boards and grantors to answer to. They' re reluctant to announce that a trivial-sounding book or poem -- good or not -- has taken their prize. Therefore, at great psychic expense to myself (just kidding), I sought another title that might sound better in a list of winners, finally settling on the title "Homemade."

I retitled another poem, "Soda in Bottles," as "Delight."

I retitled "Aunt Emily" as "Pure as the Driven."

You see the kind of thing I'm getting at.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Titles Are A Bear -- Or Are They?

Ideally, a title (on anything) should be:
  • unique
  • memorable
  • short (think Twilight, Sanctuary, Black Boy, Rebecca, Rent, Big Love, Lost, Little Women). A big marbly mouthful can work if it's fun to say, such as Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form, or What Narcissism Means to Me.
  • fun to say
  • mellifluous
  • intriguing
  • appealing (that's the sunny version of "intriguing")
  • a summary of the gist of the work
  • accurate
  • informative
  • pleasing to the author
  • indicating contents that many people in many walks of life could be interested in
The correct title often hides out in the manuscript. Scrutinize the work for a phrase of two or three or four words that might sum it up. I like to imagine that I'm naming a song or a CD.

Test potential titles by asking people, "Would you read a book (essay, poem) called....? or would you rather read one titled.... ?"

Google your title finalists. In 2003 there were 4 new books titled Guilty Pleasures. Titles are not copyrightable, so if you want to call your next book Gone With the Wind, no one can stop you, but sharing a title with other books has advantages and disadvantages.

Check to see if there are any other books by that title.

The bigger the project, the more crucial it is to get the right title for it.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

O Bitter, O Sweet!

O Bitter! Very best unpublished poems rejected by a print litmag called Rattle which I admire enough to subscribe to, and wanted to be in. They didn't take even 1. Well, that cut me down to size...

O Sweet! My poem "Hide and Sex" published as a poem of the day here at Janet Riehl's blog

O Bitter! The end of a job very important to me.

O Sweet! Publication date of Meet Me: Writers in St. Louis, April 9 -- in two days!
and, O really, really sweet! Everybody's support and suggestions, even a tupperware full of vegetables! How can I ever thank you?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Buying a Laptop

Rule #1: Always deal with professionals. Their expertise saves time and money. When I said wanted a good solid “five-year laptop” the first computer clerk I spoke to said that honestly the low-end HPs and Dells her store carried were not five-year material, although the Macbook was. She dismissed Netbooks as “accessories.” If I wanted a decent Windows laptop at around $500 I might try the brand Asus. “It doesn’t advertise. That’s why you’ve never heard of it,” she said, and suggested Best Buy.

At Best Buy, I viewed and typed on HP, Dell, Sony, Toshiba, Asus and Acer floor models. I confessed that all I did was write, email and surf, and the sales associate said I shouldn't then pay for a machine with gaming extras. Chose an Asus with a 17-inch screen and Windows 7. I paid $79 more for having had the Geek Squad pre-delete the factory bloatware and adware and pre-install an antivirus program good for a year – saving me time and money. I once installed an antivirus program on my own. It *#*&#*!@ up my whole computer and I spent hours on the phone to tech support.

Computers are our tools. I take mine very seriously. I like the Asus’ light weight, speed, and 17-inch screen, and surprise, I don’t hate Windows 7. But I wasn’t done dealing with professionals. Went to Clayton Computer to have the whole IBM desktop transferred onto the Asus, cringing at the cost. But knew I might otherwise waste days fussing with downloading programs, transferring files, and naturally making mistakes and corrections. I had professionals do it. Like anyone else I hate parting with money, but I’ve spent the same amount on trivial things, such as bracelets. Better to seek and pay for expertise. Better to save time, which is priceless.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Portfolio? Me?

Until now I hadn’t thought of putting some of my work together into a portfolio, the way other professionals do. But of course I should.

Decided the portfolio should show the range of what I can do, emphasizing what I think most marketable: articles, grant applications, web content, and book-proposal packages sent to agents, including synopses, marketing analyses, and those carefully crafted cover letters that “hook” the agents into wanting to see my manuscript. (I’d deleted practically all of them, because I was ashamed that six months of hard work hadn’t hooked me an agent!) Include also my favorite blog entries, at least one book (prepare to give it away), testimonials from clients, and letters I got in the mail saying I had won a prize. Plus a resume and a full CV.

How to put it together? Tuck the writing samples into sheet protectors which then fit into a normal three-ring binder. In the back of the portfolio I have everything again, in duplicate, in case someone wants my originals to present, say, to a hiring committee. Now I am ready to grab my portfolio and chase down some writing or editing work. -- And you know what? Having the thing gives me confidence!!!