Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Guest: Alon Shalev - Authors Are Funny People

Book Signing Games of BerkeleyAuthors are funny people. Really. Some are socially awkward. We take that for granted given that they sit alone behind a keyboard for long hours and live in alternative realities. Still…

I recently participated in an authors’ fair and, to be clear, most presenters were lovely, social people. I think I just happened to be sandwiched between the um…more interesting ones. I could just see the sympathetic looks I received from other authors around the room safely ensconced behind their tables.

Here is a list: What Not To Do at an Authors’ Fair.
  • Don’t hog the microphone. Seven minutes of Open Mic might be 10, but they sure ain’t 20.
  • Don’t walk up to someone’s table and lecture them how they really must read your book, especially if it is not connected to their genre. Actually, just don’t do it.
  • Either compliment their book covers or don’t say anything. This is a book fair, not an art show.
  • If you say you accept credit cards, make sure you can. Have the app open and ready (and don’t ask the author at the next table to swipe on their phone for you).
  • Do not ask an author to put your promotional material on their table even if you write in the same genre.
  • If you get a phone call when another author is presenting, take it outside. Better yet, if you need someone to tell you that, don’t come back!
  • We understand why you need to eat during a long event, but go wash your sticky fingers before you fondle our book covers.
  • “I’ll swap with you.” Don’t offer to swap books with an author who is making a living from this, especially when there is no genre connection. Go to a Swapmeet.
  • Don’t spend your time telling us how really successful authors in your genre don’t know what they are doing. Sell a few million books first. Then we’ll listen … maybe.
I remember reading a collected work of the musings of Sir Terry Pratchett, who passed away last year. I have to admit never experiencing what he did. During a Book Show, he went to the bathroom and someone passed a copy of his book under the cubical door and asked him to sign!

Guess I have nothing to complain about, eh Terry?

Alon Shalev is the author of magical realism, fantasy and social issue themed fiction.  Click here to explore his work and here for Shalev's popular blog.  He can be found on Twitter at @elfwriter 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Chances Are...

An amazing thing happened last night on my way to another ho-hum day.  

I attended another lecture in another city, and truthfully I didn't even know what the lecture was going to be about or who the speaker was, only that I'd committed to being there.  It has been a blistering long week of meetings and administrative work and other boring things that writers never really talk about in the light of day.  On my drive over, I realized I hadn't stocked up on business cards nor had I brought along my bag of books.  Upon arrival, I frantically searched my car for any back ups, and found one copy of each book buried in my back seat under a pile of half-drunk Diet Dr Peppers, emergency snacks and a box of Kleenex. 

I was tired and overworked and the glow of compliments from my own presentation last month was beginning to fade.  As I settled in to my seat and listened to the introduction of Mr. Sterling Anderson, an Emmy and NAACP award recipient among his awards for screenwriting and other works, I thought crap, I should have been better prepared!  Because I always work better on my spurs, I immediately went to work using my favorite tool (my always-in-hand-phone) to research Mr. Anderson as he told his glory stories, explained what makes a standout scene and echoed my own instructional philosophies on various other elements such as the purpose of dialogue (a way for a character to be seen/heard and expressing what they want which propels the story forward).  In just a few minutes, I knew that his work was being featured in an upcoming new television series, his nickname was Yoda, that his novel was one I wanted to read, his social media presence could use a little work, and that his Hollywood stories had merit.  When the time came for Q&A, I pointed my questions in that direction and therefore put myself in direct line with the speaker before me.  I was able to connect on a more personal level.  The expression on Sterling's face was its own reward when I read aloud a passage from his novel and asked what had inspired it. 

Sometimes we need to take chances.

One of my best pitches ever to a potential client was at another lecture and announced his project in progress to the audience and said he'd be looking for help, namely an editor.  I promptly got on my tablet, looked up his website and jotted down a page of notes on what worked and what needed improvement.  When I approached him later that evening, I lobbed a soft pitch for my services, asked how open was he to constructive criticism and at his invitation I handed over my notes.  It's now a pending contract.

As I stood in line last night to have Sterling sign the books I'd purchased (yes, including his novel), I kept cursing myself for not having business cards on hand.  Before I could say anything to the man, he looked me in the eye and said "Thank you for those great questions!"  I again said how much I appreciate the theme to his book of using our time wisely and curving with life's road, that it's something I write about a lot.  "That's great, are your books available somewhere?" 

Um, what?

In my best think-fast voice, I said "Yes, they are.  I also happen to have copies with me.  Because, you know, every self-respecting author keeps their books in the trunk of their car." 

And that's how I put my books in the hands of an Emmy award winning professional screenwriter.  Now, nothing more may ever come of it, but after having a lively conversation with him and his family as he asked me to sign both books, I felt an enormous sense of pride in myself.  I'd taken a chance, struck up a conversation, found inspiration, made a connection, and now had something to show for it. 

If anything, this amazing story.

Paying the bridge toll for the stranger behind me on my way to the lecture sure did pay me back in fortune.  I am rich in the opportunities that have come my way through this writer's life.  They might not be on a grand scale of things, but that's okay.  It is a legacy that I'm proud to own.

Quote from Five Seconds To Go by Sterling Anderson

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Why First Impressions Actually Count

Anyone who tells you not to judge a book by its cover or that first impressions don’t count is someone who either didn’t listen to given advice or knows they messed up and haven’t yet fixed the problem and are desperate to make a sale.  When it comes to books, first impressions are everything.  The cover is what will catch the eye, then they’ll read the blurb on the back, but then any discerning reader is going to open to that first page and look to be drawn in. 
First sentences are everything. 
But it isn’t only the first few words; undoubtedly, you need to back them up with a great story.  I like to think that it isn’t just the one line, but maybe a few… the first idea, if you will.  It’s different in a movie, where we have visuals to set the story, an actor’s expression to lead us to their character.  With a song, we have the opening notes.  For a writer, we need to use our words wisely. 
We can set the tone of another world seemingly with ease:
  • It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. ~ George Orwell, 1984

  • In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. ~ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Or we can introduce character right away:
  • If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. ~ J.D. Salinger, Catcher In the Rye

  • You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. ~ Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

  • It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. ~ Paul Auster, City of Glass

  • It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. ~ Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
If you’re going to reveal the objective upfront, keep it simple. 
  • Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. ~ Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

  • Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. ~ Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups
And sometimes the words, the syntax, are just interesting enough to pull us in without doing any of the above:
  • You better not never tell nobody but God. ~ Alice Walker, The Color Purple
So, you may be wondering what my own experience is with the first sentence.  My genre is primarily personal essay – it’s not a lot of time to hook the reader.  I’ve got about 1500-2000 words to get my point across, and I need them interested right from the beginning.  My style can be anything from quirky to profound and often is a blend of both.  My first sentence will set the tone.
In my first collection of essays, I strung together 17 years of writing.  That was nearly half of my life.  A lot had happened and when I began to edit pieces I’d written that long ago, I decided to keep the voice of that younger woman as much as possible, sometimes sacrificing the craft I’d learned later on.  In the earlier essays in the beginning of the book show an immaturity and somewhat naiveté that only a 20something can have.  In American Girl, I began with “Deep down, we all want to be smart, funny, strong and sexy.  It’s in all of us.  We totally demand respect like Aretha, cry like Patsy, and shake it all of like Madonna.”  By the end of the book, I am just into my 40s, which is an entirely different perspective.  In the piece titled Bridges, I wrote “Nobody really knows how close I came to death in this past year.”  At the time of writing both of those, I had no idea that they would be linked together in a book someday.  Each was written with the intent of jumping in, having my say and getting out in very short order.  Once I put them all together, I realized that to ask the reader to overlook the simplistic angst of my essays, I had to give them a super strong hook.  I prefaced all of it with a retrospective piece I’d actually written in 1999 but altered to give it the flavor of who I was at the time of creating the book. 
  • I’m leaving my childhood behind today, a long time coming at twenty-eight years old, and for the last time will be walking through the door where I learned how to become a person.  And I’m terrified.
Keep in mind this trick whenever you need to jump start your creativity.  It’s called “The Knife Trick” but you don’t really need a knife.  Pick up any book around you, turn to a random page and with your eyes closed, place your finger on a sentence.  Copy that sentence and let the words flow from there.  Don’t edit as you go, don’t over think it, just let the words tumble.  It could be garbage at the end of it, or it could be the basis of your next great work.  Even if you only create one great sentence from somebody else’s, that’s okay.  Be inspired! 
Keep a journal with you whenever possible.  Sometimes a great first line comes at you when you aren’t expecting it, so be prepared to make a note of it.  If you don’t have pen and paper handy, use your smart phone.  They all have a notebook or a record feature, use it.  Many of my best first lines or prompts are scribbled on cocktail napkins. 
And always remember that first impressions really do count for a whole lot.