Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Mid-List Author's Inbox

Zestful Blog Post # 64

I've been so occupied preparing for my stint as the Genre Fiction Whisperer (my self-bestowed title) for the Lambda Emerging Voices retreat next week that I almost forgot about this blog today. Am realizing that even a whole week with my Fellows won't be enough to impart everything I want them to absorb. But we'll try!

Beyond discussing writing technique and the particular requirements of genre fiction, studying some great fiction, and doing writing assignments, I want to give them an idea of what it's like to be a professional author running your own factory, including the obligations and responsibilities that come with it.

I'm what you'd call a mid-list author, which is publisher-speak for 'not one of the big shots who make us most of our money'. Between signing my first publishing contract and the time the book came out, I joked to friends that I was 'cherishing the last of my precious anonymity'.

It's funny, though, how that anonymity gradually evaporates even if you don't skyrocket to household-namehood. I do have a somewhat unusual situation in that I have a dual career—novelist and writing authority—which seems to have magnified things.

A common occurrence for an author is to get a message from a reader, which is almost always a fabulous thing. (Think I'll deal with the 'almost' part of that in a future post.) Reader messages are fun and easy to respond to, until they hit the unmanageable threshold, which they do for the rock stars. Then there's everything else. A sample daily email in-box for the likes of me:

·         Request to speak for free at a conference.
·         Proofs of my latest article for Writer's Digest, requiring 48-hour turnaround.
·         Note from a grateful reader of You've Got a Book in You.
·         Note from an (understandably) impatient reader of my novels: "When? When?"
·         Request for a jacket blurb from another author.
·         Request for a summary of the conference session I blithely agreed to do for free six months ago.
·         An agreement to be filled out, signed, and returned to the conference regarding on-site book sales.
·         Request for a bio and head shot for the conference program.
·         Request for a one-page handout for attendees to my conference session.
·         Request from an aspiring writer to read their work and give feedback for free.
·         Request from an aspiring writer who is willing to pay for my help.
·         3 junk mails from Writer's Digest, which list I have to stay on so I don't miss mentions of myself that I ought to boost.
·         Amazon remittance notices. (yay)
·         Correspondence with the graphic artist I've hired to make my self-pubbed covers look better.
·         Request for news for the newsletter of one of the literary societies I maintain membership in.
·         Notice that someone new has signed up for my blog.
·         Notice that someone has tweeted something about a book of mine.
·         Notice of the automatic charge for maintaining my domain name.
·         Exploratory email from someone interested in somehow getting my books translated to TV.
·         Email from publisher asking when I can write another book…

Besides, of course, the photos and messages from friendsnfamily, blogs I've signed up for, and other personal and professional business.

What does all this take, even if 'no' is often the answer? You got it: time. I envy the headliners not for their writing skills, but for their ability to hire assistants.

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[power plant photo by ES]

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Beating the Challenge of Inflection

Zestful Blog Post #63

I have dialogue on the brain, having been working on, finishing, and sending in my latest article for Writer's Digest magazine, on how to write sparkling dialogue. Last week in this blog I wrote about the difference between writing words for the stage and words for the page. Today I present another angle.

When I was in my 20s I did a few voice-overs for radio commercials in Detroit. One such job consisted of one line, and that line consisted of two words: "Jones Transmission?"

The client was present during the recording session. On cue I spoke, "Jones Transmission?" into the microphone, striving for an upbeat tone of encouragement for the male actor who would then tell me more about the best place to take my ailing auto.

"No, no," said the client, Mr. Jones, over the studio speaker. "Say it like this: 'Jones Transmission?' "

" 'Jones Transmission?' "

"No! 'Jones Transmission?' "

"That's what I thought I said."

"Try it again," cut in the director.

"Jones Transmission?"

"No!" broke in the client again, wringing his hands. " 'Jones Transmission?' "

The director and I thought I was mimicking the client's tone and cadence exactly, but the client's ears were not so tuned. We went back and forth like that for a while, until I almost told the director to just shoot me in the head. Or the ear.

I think you get the point that vocal inflection is infinitely variable, and on top of that we evaluate the sounds we hear quite subjectively. If a simple inflection can be heard so powerfully differently by different people in the same room, no wonder music fans thought they heard anything from "Paul is dead" to "Dressing on the side" when they played "Revolution No. 9" backward.

Also I hope I showed here the essential impossibility of representing inflection precisely on the page.

So what's a writer to do? Simple awareness works wonders. Above, I wrote, 'striving for an upbeat tone of encouragement,' to characterize my voice, knowing that the explication was necessary if I was to make my point. Sure, it took more words, but sometimes the words you add to dialogue are what bring the dialogue to life. But sparingly, sparingly. Notice how you didn't need any more information as to how the phrase was being said, as Mr. Jones and I went back and forth. It works and it's funny and it's spare.

BTW, I heard the ad on the radio about a month later, with a different actress's voice asking, "Jones Transmission?" It sounded just like I had said it, but all I could do was hope the client was happy at last.

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[slightly blurry ear selfie by ES]

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Stage vs. The Page

When I was in university I went to see one of my friends in a stage play. In one scene, she was part of a crowd of villagers who murmured amongst themselves while the leads spoke in full voice downstage. The rabble sounded perfect: not too loud or soft, totally convincing.

"What do you guys say to one another during the crowd scenes?" I asked my friend after the show.

" 'Peas and carrots, rutabaga,' " she said. "We say it over and over in varying rhythms and emphases. The mix of vowels makes it sound real, yet indecipherable."

[OK, this is the fruit guy. The vegetable guy went home early. Photo by ES]

Right there, I realized a critical aspect of writing for the stage vs. writing for the page: On the page, no word can be there for the sake of effect alone. Every one must play a role in the whole. That's it.

Speaking of writing for the page, I'd like to give a plug to a new educational venture in central Florida, The Writer's Atelier: The founder, Racquel Henry, is determined to help writers!

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Solo Acrobatics

On a long plane flight yesterday I was writing notes for an author panel I'll be facilitating at the Golden Crown conference tomorrow. I suggested a panel from an author's point of view on working with your publishing team, that is, how to work well with all the different people who put their fingerprints on your book, so to speak, before it gets to the marketplace.

And I was thinking how the team for getting a book to market is so much different than any kind of team you've ever been on before.

For me, I always felt part of the companies and organizations I worked for, and it was very clear we were all on the team together. To simplify, we shared a mission statement, and we all performed our roles in the service of that. So when I became an author and got my first publishing contract, I thought I was on a new team.

"Oh contrare," as I once saw it spelled. I realized that everybody's goal is a bit different, and everybody is actually playing for different stakes. And certainly as nobody's goals are exactly the same as yours, nobody's job is remotely the same as yours. In fact, you're more like a solo acrobat than a power forward.

Your agent and agency represent you and work for you in some ways, but they have their own bottom line.
Same with your publisher. Sure, everybody wants to put out great books that sell well. But those folks work together every day at the same place, they have their own group dynamics, their own pecking order, egos, etcetera, and you are not really part of that. Moreover, unless you're a big shot (meaning an author to whom they've just paid a huge advance), they don't particularly have an incentive to make you happy, because you're not their customer, either. Book merchants are their customers: bookstores, online retailers, etc.

You are a supplier to your publisher. You sell them raw material, and they run it through their machinery so that they, in turn, can sell a finished product. Actually, I suppose, it's more like they license material from you, because then they pay you a percentage of sales. (Royalties.)

So it's a vastly different business dynamic than many of us are used to, whether we come from the world of business, or academe, or even public service.

To make it all work to your advantage, you simply must try to understand where every single person on that team is coming from, and figure out ways to help them. Then they're more likely to want to help you. A backbone of steel is a plus, too.
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[Photo of solo acrobat by ES]

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Cultural Currency for Writers

One of my professors in university kept a coterie of devoted students around him, who sucked up to him for approval and grades. If you were one of "Jerry's Kids", you could count on him for support.

The rest of us scorned the whole business. The term "Jerry's Kids" was a cruel reference to the actor and humanitarian Jerry Lewis and the children afflicted by muscular dystrophy and similar diseases whom he'd been helping for decades. The implication was that the professor's favorite students couldn't make it on their own, but needed the equally needy professor to coddle them along.

When I mentioned something about "Jerry's Kids" to another professor, she looked at me blankly. English was not her first language, she hadn't grown up watching the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, thus she had no idea what I was talking about. I shamefacedly explained it, and she got it, but the moment was not jovial.

Authors often use common cultural references to get a point across, and it seems more and more, as our culture changes, expands and diversifies, the odds of somebody "not getting it" keeps going up. As authors, I guess we should bear this in mind, but slang and idioms can add juice to our narratives. (From the Latin idioma, meaning peculiarity in language or phrasing.) I like old ones, like "getting ridden out of town on a rail," "deadpan," and "shoo-in".

[Irrelevant photo of old-time train by ES]

It's funny how these get misinterpreted. I once read something by an inexperienced writer that went, "He got ridden out of town on a rail, but he'd helped lay the track." Having read Mark Twain's of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I knew what it meant to get ridden out of town on a rail, and it has nothing to do with trains. (It was a horrifying punishment from colonial times, where the victim, with bound hands, was forced to straddle a fence rail (painful at the least, most fences being made of narrow wooden rails or poles) and be carried in humiliation through town and dumped on its outskirts, often after being doused with tar and feathers for good measure.) The expression currently means something like "cast out in shame".

"Deadpan" is another one whose origins lie far back. In 1920s America, pan was slang for face. Remember Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Battler"? The old fighter notices Nick looking at him and asks, "Don't you like my pan?" If you looked at somebody with a dead pan, you were giving nothing away by your expression. I also like "shoo-in", which I've seen misspelled as "shoe-in". The phrase originally meant a horse that's set to win a rigged race. When you shoo something, you sort of wave it on. These days you might use it when talking about a political candidate who's running unopposed or against token opposition.

A good copy editor—that is, one with a vast personal storehouse of linguistic experience, is worth his or her weight in gold to an author. They catch stuff that would embarrass you if it got through into print. How to train yourself to be a copy editor? When you come across an expression that makes you go, "How did that come about?", look it up.

Ever noticed slang or an idiom being misinterpreted? Do you find yourself thinking about this kind of stuff too? Click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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