Signings, Advice, and Other Stuff You Can’t Live Without
March 12, 2007 | Written by admin
Okay, I just spanked somebody on a writing blog for whining, so I’m in a mood. Too much of the "poor me, I’m a writer" goes a loooooooong way with me. Fer cryin out loud, what do people expect? That making a living as a writer is going to be easy? I’d venture a guess that compared to other arts, writing (and actually getting published) is easier than painting or sculpture or dance or singing or playing the viola. Trust me — you spend your life training to be a dancer or a concert violinist. It takes years of practice and classes to be any good at sculpture or glass blowing or singing an aria. And you’ve got to be really good if you expect somebody to plunk down twelve bucks in order to come watch you in the ballet, or gaze at your paintings, or listen to you sing. But just about any schmuck who can figure out the difference between a verb and a noun can create what they consider to be acceptable writing. Therefore, some seem to think the world owes them attention.
It doesn’t. Great writing isn’t easy. The best have a natural gift with words, but most have also spent considerable time honing their craft. Like learning a fine instrument, finding your voice and figuring out what constitutes greatness takes years of rehearsal. The fact that you can create a story because you learned to read in first grade does not qualify you to be a writer. And it certainly doesn’t make you an artist — even if you’re misunderstood.
If you’ve read widely, you know that there is a world of difference between the art of a Thom Pynchon and the bottom scrapings of Barbara Cartland…and yet I can tell you without a doubt that Barbara Cartland is way better than some of the stuff I have sent to me. So let’s get a little perspective: Writing, like any other art form, is a tough job. It’s highly competitive. There are very few people who are great at it. And it usually doesn’t pay all that well. If that doesn’t sit well with you, find some other art form to whine about.
Glad to get that off my chest. I got a great question from Ron, who noted that he is "plagued by writing advice," and asked me, "How do I know who’s telling the truth — especially when the advice is contradictory?"
I generally rely on my Magic 8-Ball. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it doesn’t require me to think through the issue deeply. However, I happen to know you’re a Baptist, and you’re no doubt wondering about my eternal salvation at this very moment, so I’ll offer some other, less-easy, tips. First, consider the source. In college, my writing instructor was famed fantasy writer Usula K. LeGuin. When she spoke, I listened. If I was getting conflicting advice from Melvin P. Hickenlooper, I had a tendency to lean toward the voice I trusted. Second, take your time. Decisions I’ve rushed into have a tendency to be the ones I’ve regretted. Sometimes setting the project aside, then coming back to it later, allows me to gain some perspective. Third, ask yourself what makes the most sense to you. Maybe your muse will tell you. And fourth, stop trying to convince yourself that there is one right answer to everything, and that taking the wrong step will somehow kill your career. We all make mistakes — especially in our writing. Sometimes mistakes are the best learning tools. But there are few things any of us do in our writing that are big, irreversible decisions. Part of the fun of writing is the choices we have — presenting us with endless opportunities to screw up and beat ourselves with our own mistakes. What fun!
In a similar vein, I was asked, "I’ve heard book signings are mandatory, but I’ve also heard book signings are a waste of time…which is true?’
I think book signings are great fun in your home town, where you can have people show up and point out they spelled your name correctly on the cover. They’re also fun if you’ve got a bestseller and everybody wants to have their picture taken with you. And they’re generally good for your ego, assuming some customers actually show up. Do they help sales? Not unless you’re a star, though they can sometimes help create buzz about you, garner you some local radio or tv time, and get some extra word out on your book. As publicists say, all publicity is good publicity. But there are few things sadder than walking into a book signing by accident, only to find a desperate author trying to pump his new work. You walked into the store to buy the latest Norah Jones CD, or to pick up a Brian Haig paperback, or to use the men’s room, and here is this overweight guy with a desperate look on his face, asking you if you’ve seen his book on "The History of Mayonnaise." You smile, nod, offer encouraging words, and try to get out of there quick. Put yourself in his position. It’s awkward. Pretty deflating. I know, because I’ve been there. (I once helped the ladies at Barnes & Noble stock the shelves, since there was nothing happening at my book table. I only resented it when they tried to charge me for the bottled water they had offered.)
My friend Annette Smith tells of having her first book signing. She had written a wonderful book of short stories, called The Whispers of Angels, and the store had special angel-wing napkins printed up for the event. They also had enough food for a small army. The good news? She ate well for three weeks, and when they ran out of toilet paper before their Christmas party, those angel-shaped napkins came in handy.
One more: "A friend recently told me that editors and agents hate flashbacks. She said it’s ‘the fatal flaw.’ But at the moment I’m reading Cold Mountain, and Charles Frazier’s elegant use of flashbacks fills the book. Should I slash all the retro material?"
Maybe I should add a "fifth" to my earlier answer about conflicting advice: Understand that there are very few "always" and "nevers" in writing. Without having seen your work, I couldn’t say if you should cut the flashbacks or not. And, yes, I suppose your friend could make an argument that flashbacks are currently on the way out in most popular fiction. But we could also argue that flashbacks have played a part in countless significant novels, from Mark Twain through the present day. So while I’d be cautious about overusing that particular literary device, I would not consider them to be the "fatal flaw." And tell your friend that, if she’s regularly coming up with terms like "fatal flaw," she’s clearly been reading too many Victorian romances.
Let’s end on a high note — one last quote from Carolyn Sloan’s book for singers entitled Finding Your Voice (Hyperion 2006):
A voice is like a life. When it is freed and allowed to resonate in its natural channels, beauty abounds. If it is forced, manipulated, or controlled in any willful, arbitrary manner, the voice — the life — withers and eventually loses its innate energy and life. What I’m describing here is the need for authenticity. A voice is as unique as the person it belongs to, and in order to truly sing, that fact needs to be respected, even as we are told that our voices should conform to some idealized form of singing…we are our first song.
Beautiful stuff. You can order Ms Sloan’s book through Amazon. Thanks again to Judy Mikalonis for passing this along to me.