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Both Sides of the Table (Reader/Writer Courtesy)

November 3rd, 2008 2 comments

If you’re a big fan of books, there’s a good chance you’ve attended an author event at some point. You got off work early, skipped dinner, rushed through traffic and pocketed a speeding ticket, all for the chance to see your favorite author at the local bookstore.

If you’re a writer, you’ve surely been on the other end. You coordinated schedules, took time off from your day job, sent out emails and facebook invitations, drove halfway across the state with no reimbursement from your publisher, and showed up in an unfamiliar city to promote your newest title.

You’d think this would be an exhilarating experience for both reader and writer. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always turn out that way.

As an author and an avid reader, I’ve had some bad moments on both sides of the signing table. Two of my favorite authors have been cold as frozen turkeys after I made great efforts to go see them. One of them didn’t even look me in the eye as he signed the book and shoved it across the table. I’ve also showed up to a signing at which no one else appeared–save the disgruntled browsers in the cafe area, who stared at me as I took the small stage as though I’d announced I would be doing the polka in the buff.

In my day, I’m sure I’ve offended more than a few people inadvertently too, but here are a few thoughts about courtesy in the book business. Nothing to write Emily Post about. Just comments from my own observations.

Authors:

Do look your fans in the eye and greet them individually (they aren’t just sales figures).

Do take a moment to ask what they liked about the book, or some other question to create brief dialogue.

Do thank them for coming and acknowledge their support of your work (without them, you’re sunk).

Don’t rattle on without any interaction from the audience.

Don’t forget to thank the store staff for their help (they are priceless).

Don’t expect each person to buy a book (sometimes my biggest fans have been the poorest, and the fact they drove to see me was a major sacrifice).

**A side note to authors about online interaction: It’s very easy to comment or at least give a helpful vote to those who take the time to review your books online. It shows you appreciate their investment in your work.

Readers:

Do take a moment to meet the author (they’re just as shy about it all as you are).

Do take a moment to tell the author one thing you like about their books.

Do write reviews and tell friends (without you, the word won’t get out).

Don’t tell the author about the idea you have that they need to do for their next book (they have ideas of their own).

Don’t hog the author’s time if there are others around (look back over your shoulder, if necessary).

Don’t offer the author advice about getting on Oprah (they’ve heard it a thousand times already, and it only shows your ignorance of the industry).

**A side note to readers about online interaction: Most authors get relatively little feedback from fans. Take a few minutes to send a thankful email or to write an online review. It can change an author’s entire week.

I’m sure there are numerous additions to these lists, based on your own experiences as a reader and/or writer. This is such a great industry, in general, with lots of die-hard fans and hardworking authors. Let’s keep the oil of courtesy flowing so that the machinery will run smoothly.

Beating Hearts and Electric Bills

September 3rd, 2008 4 comments

My wife won’t mind. I’m sure she’ll let me tell you . . .

A few minutes ago, I was sitting at the keyboard mulling my next blog on this site. With a pressing deadline for my ninth novel, my mind is a blur, but I was committed to coming up with something. In walks my wife. She’s truly one of the sweetest people I know. Oh, she can be a scrapper–don’t get me wrong. But she has a heart of gold and a short memory. (A handy add-on for someone married to a writer . . . or to another human, for that matter.)

“How’d it go?” I ask.

“It was . . . awesome,” she says. Then breaks down into tears.

After eighteen years of marriage, I’ve learned that this is a good time to turn away from the keyboard. I pulled her into my arms and waited for her to share the results of her volunteer work at a nearby hospice for the dying. She goes there to sing, to bring some temporary comfort to ones who are often forgotten. She’s much better at this sort of thing than I. Heart of gold, remember?

What really choked her up was the chance to touch others with her gift. She’s written songs and performed around town in meager hopes of being noticed, but her real drive is to connect and comfort. She refuses to bury her talent, and keeps finding ways to use it that will last much longer than if she signed a record deal.

Yes, this has to do with writing. The majority of writers will never be published, and that raises the question: What should they do with their skill and/or desire?

As a novelist, I’m often asked how to go about getting published. Everyone wants a shortcut. A secret password. A magic formula. I’m sure there’s one out there, but Indiana Jones is still looking for it and at his age it may never be found. What I see in my fellow writers is passion. Drive. Desire. It can’t be just about making money (though it sure helps when it comes to that ninth deadline . . . bills to pay, bills to pay).

My wife’s recent tears highlighted for me again the beating heart behind our talents. Should every ounce of creative energy be centered on ourselves? Or is it possible to direct that energy toward others, to pass it on, to challenge and encourage? Sure, the Pulitzer or Bram Stoker might etch my name in the annals of literary history. Who wouldn’t want that? But my wife has reminded me that it’s possible to etch our names in the memory of a detached teen who feels like no one else understands. Or a shut-in who needs a few good stories to make it through the drudgery of another rainy day.

Doesn’t the greatest reward come from that connection with others? This isn’t just about a paycheck. (How long do those last?!) It’s about something more permanent.

And maybe, one day, I’ll even turn out as kindhearted as my wife. Until then, it’s back to stories of the undead and mysteries buried in Jerusalem and Romania.

Hey, don’t look at me like that . . . Somebody’s gotta cover the next electric bill.

Eat Your Heart Out

April 3rd, 2008 14 comments

Put yourself in their shoes. Would you have survived? Could you hack it under such conditions?

Oh, don’t pretend you’ve never thought about it. I mean, how did Dickens pull it off? What about Austen or Bronte? They didn’t have laptops for mobility, or word processing for easy editing, or iPods for drowning out the screaming babies and clattering horseshoes, or…Well, for that matter, they didn’t have thermostat-controlled work environments or soft reliable lighting.

I write at a desk upstairs, separated from my bed by a bookshelf. I write, preferably, by daylight, but the overhead light and fan do their job when necessary. I have slippers for winter time, but my toes still get cold despite the nearby heater vent.

Would I have survived? Would I be doing this for a living if I’d been born back then?

All modern comforts aside (give me a moment to turn off the cell phone ringer and put my computer on standby), I see a general lack of creative discipline all around, and I worry that it might rub off on me. Each time I prepare to cuddle with my muse and conceive another novel to push through my artistic womb–there’s some gender-bending for all who’ve followed recent blogs–I wonder if I’ve lost whatever it is that keeps me going, that keeps me coming up with new turns of a phrase or nuances on deep-seated fears. Will I fail to come through again? Will I answer the critics from the last go-around? Will I please the fans of my last literary effort?

In the midst of such pressure, I make myself a fresh cup of Sumatran (no wood-stoking or hand-grinding necessary), and wiggle the mouse till the computer comes back to life. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll have a new email or review to brighten my mood and send me skipping back to the upstairs work desk.

And then it happens. I spot two messages on myspace. Three more on facebook. Friend requests and comments. I realize there’s a misspelling on that silly new website I’ve been building for the past week, all in the name of saving myself a heap of cash. Will fans like it? Have they noticed my faux pas? (Hey, when you’re done reading this, feel free to visit the site and see if you can spot it.) As I mull such things, I go to one of my email accounts and see a fan letter, a request to speak at a local writers conference, an enquiry about discussion questions for my latest title–as if I’m trying to write literary masterpieces here…c’mon!–and a slew of other correspondence.

I question how I get anything done. Really. I feel pressured to keep up with the cyber-savvy Jones, especially all those writers whose web-presences loom larger than Hemingway. I’ve gotta stay on top of this. Gotta stay sharp. Stay hungry. Stay aw a kk kke e eeee.

Boy, I wish I lived back in the days of Oliver Twist, when there was at least a smidgen of Sense and Sensibility. It was easier then; I see that now. Fewer distractions. The simple life. I bet none of those hacks could’ve made it in today’s world. Those literary wannabes would’ve been locked away, disconnected from cyberspace, out of touch, and irrelevant. They would’ve gotten nowhere. Nowhere! I tell you.

Smug in this realization, I peek at my bookshelf. I spot Bram Stoker’s name, Dickens’, Hawthorne’s, Poe’s, and Verne’s. I wonder why it is they have new editions around when my first two novels are already out of print.

A new email pops up on my screen, erasing my questions with its synthetic appeal. I’ll work on my latest manuscript after lunch. After I tend to my Internet concerns. I’ve got a slew of things to keep up with.

Eat your heart out, Stoker–you would’ve never made it in these days of endless distraction.