Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Kwan of Book Publicity

In the seminal movie Jerry Maguire, we all remember the scene where Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s character, Rod Tidwell, shouts "Show me the money!" into the phone at his agent, Jerry Maguire. Tom Cruise's Maguire responds by begging his client to "help me help you" by proving himself worthy of the amount he's requesting. When Tidwell finally steps up and resurrects himself after a consciousness-losing hit on the field, Maguire lands him the deal of a lifetime, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Chock full of famous one-liners ("You had me at hello!"), this well-written comedy contains some nuggets of wisdom for writers seeking to land the best marketing deals from their publicists. Of course, we all want our publicists to "show (us) the money." But like Tidwell, we have to do our share. Here are a few suggestions for writers who want to help their publicists help them:

Be available. Your publicist is working hard to schedule signings and reviews, radio and TV spots, newspaper and magazine interviews, speaking engagements, and blog tours. Be forthcoming about your availability, show up on time for confirmed events, and make promoting your book a priority in your own schedule.

Be committed. It's hard work convincing bookstores and media folks to give precious air time to writers, especially those who are unknown. And the last thing your publicist wants to do is call back someone who's agreed to interview you and reschedule the date. Agree only to what you can honestly handle, and be committed to what you say you'll do.

Be patient. Like your agent, your publicist is working hard to promote you to those who may not be familiar with your work. The real magic of public relations – smiling and dialing, I call it – takes place at all hours, through continuous networking and numerous telephone calls and emails. Give your publicist some space, and trust that s/he is working hard for you. If you don't get the results you want after an agreed-to amount of time, move on, but make sure you've allowed your publicist the same distance and courtesy that you require when you're writing your book.

Be willing to go the extra mile. Place ads for your book signings, enter book contests, do pro bono speaking engagements, maintain your website, attend book expos, create a book trailer, etc. If you're willing to do whatever it takes to promote your work, you'll make it easier for your publicist to obtain the media exposure you and your book deserve.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Joy of Artist Residencies

Artist residencies are a terrific way for writers to beef up their writing c.v.'s and see some of this great country of ours. I've been lucky enough to be accepted at three of them: Caldera in Sisters, Oregon, in 2006; Red Cinder Artist Colony on the Big Island of Hawaii in 2007; and The Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont, this coming October.

Residencies are usually awarded based on a writer's work. Some only accept published authors, but many will consider emerging writers who have won awards or otherwise distinguished themselves. A few require references with the application, and many want artists and writers who are able to spend a committed length of time at the facility. They usually offer some type of housing, which can be anything from a log cabin to a room inside a house. Most offer some sort of meal arrangement, although there are some that provide space to cook your own meals. Most expect you to get there on your own and provide for your own transportation while you're there.

If you have kids and/or a busy day job, an artist residency is the ultimate getaway. Imagine two-three weeks of nothing but fresh air and free time. You'll meet many other artists and writers who are there the same time you are. You get to sleep in or stay up late, read, write, and explore the local area.

A great resource for artist residencies can be found at Also, watch for announcements in literary magazines like Poets & Writers.

Here is an excerpt from a note I sent my agent after my stay at Caldera in Oregon:

The residency was an incredible interlude -- so peaceful and beautiful. I got used to waking up in the morning to a blanket of snow on the deck and trees outside the window of my A-frame cabin. I'd build a fire in my little wood burning stove and listen to NPR on my shortwave radio while I made coffee, then worked until 1:30 or so. I usually hiked around Blue Lake or Suttle Lake in the afternoon, or sometimes went into Sisters, which is a really pretty little town. There are lots of ranches up off of Highway 20, and some have a few llamas interspersed with their cattle. The forest in Central Oregon is all Ponderosa pine and Douglas firs, spreading for miles up the valleys and into the hillsides.

There was a blue heron who fed in Link Creek right outside my window. He flew up into the air one day in the middle of a snow storm. It was a lovely sight. I also discovered a pair of bonded eagles that nest at Suttle Lake. The male has an eight-foot wing span. We had lots of salmon in the creek, heading for the fish ladder just outside the Hearth Center. They were returning to Blue Lake to spawn. I laughed out loud one morning when a baby squirrel fell out of one of the pine trees onto the deck outside my cabin. I think his appearance surprised us both. He sat there kind of stunned for a moment before scampering away. There was also a resident blue jay, who was quite a persistent character. He'd hit the railing of the deck each morning with a loud thunk, and then come stumping up to the window, cocking his head and looking at me as if to say, "Okay, sister, cough up the food!"

I miss my fellow artists at Caldera. Even though we spent most of the days and nights working alone or in the center studios, we all got incredibly close. The whole experience of being there was amazing -- almost zen. There is something about being in the woods where, except for the sound of the creek outside your window or the wind blowing through the trees, there is nothing but you and your work. I felt a sense of everything falling away -- all of the noise and material trappings -- and experienced a heightened state of awareness. Everything you do up there, from lighting a fire to walking along the lake shore to putting words on a page, becomes filled with intention and seems so focused and beautiful. It was very hard to leave.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Processing the Process

After exchanging sample pages from our novels recently, a couple of my writing friends noted that my pages look really polished, even though they're first drafts. One of the writers asked if I always write so "clean."

My response to her was that I've always written this way, and I suspect it might be because I have so little time to write. I work as a consultant, teach at a community college, and have two teenagers in travel sports, so I'm lucky if I can write once a week. Because of my schedule, I tend to think about whatever scene I'm working on and try to formulate a few things before I sit down: what is the scene goal, what are the images I want to use (usually the images will drive what happens in the scene), and how I will start and end the scene. Sometimes I envision the characters and try to hear their voices talking -- this helps me zero in on what they're thinking and feeling during the scene.

Once I have all the pieces firmly in my mind, I try to scrape out an hour or two to write. It's hard. I've been really struggling lately, because my business has been going well, and I'm in the middle of the semester at the college. But if I know ahead of time what the scene will be about and, especially, what images I plan to use, I can usually get a scene written in one sitting.

The other dilemma for me is my own bias about being "in the zone." Even if I have the scene laid out in my mind, I have to be in a certain mood to write, or I can't do it. I don't know if this is an artistic thing, or if I just lack discipline (probably a little of both).

I know the experts say we're supposed to write every day, but I've never been able to do that. A lot of writers say we're supposed to revise what we write, too, but I don't do a lot of that, either -- I guess because I have so little time. It will be interesting to see if this process holds during retirement; right now, I can't imagine having every day to write. But I have had two-week periods during artist residencies where I could do nothing but write. During those trips, I usually write every other day. My process seems to be built around having some time to think it all through, or else nothing comes out. But, that's just me. I know other writers who sit down and write for a certain amount of time every day. I guess it's a pretty individual thing.

Do you write every day? If so, I envy you. I think it's a lot easier than the way I do it.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

When Writers Let Lesser Characters Rule

While discussing Thackeray's Vanity Fair with my niece the other day, it struck me that the roguish villain, Becky Sharp, is one of the most memorable characters in fiction. And she's not the main character. In fact, I had trouble remembering the main character's name (Amelia), while Becky and the big-footed William Dobbin came to mind easily.

This discussion got me thinking about the characters my writing group members are creating. All of us are writing novels, and all of us have pretty striking secondary characters. There's a gutsy German World War II POW with a French first name; a non-human child with tattoos and an endearing language all her own, who's trapped on a futuristic ship; a devoted African American man who nurtures his traumatized girlfriend without demanding explanations about her past; an aged college professor who's liberal in his teaching, but fears his daughter's interest in an Indian man; a sexy and dangerous young girl, married to an aged Native American chief. None of these are the main characters in our books, yet all of them stand out – in some cases, to the detriment of the protagonists.

I've pondered why so many authors give their lesser characters memorable characteristics, while their main characters appear faceless and dull. My sense is that, in our attempts to make our protagonists sympathetic, we often strip them of the very qualities that make them interesting. I also believe that many of us base our main characters on ourselves. And when we do this, we're loathe to give them flaws (we aren't like that, so why should they be?) or make them stand out in any way. What we end up with is ordinary protagonists, who pale in comparison to their more exciting and unique lesser counterparts.

Thakeray got away with creating dominant secondary characters, but I'm not sure modern writers can afford to do that. We need to assign some equally compelling characteristics to our main characters. Otherwise, the Becky Sharps and William Dobbins in our novels promise to steal the show.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

How to Build a Book Tour Audience - Part II

In a recent post, I described some tips on how authors can build audiences at bookstore signings. Here are a few more suggestions, based on some of my clients' experiences:

Hit the Malls
Candy Davis, who manages the B. Dalton Bookseller at the Los Angeles Mall, doesn't have room for a signing inside her store. But she loves to set up authors at a table right outside the door, especially during the noon-time rush. "We get all kinds of business professionals at the mall during the lunch hour," she says. And those professionals are interested in meeting authors and buying books. Melissa Wiles at Borders Express Tower City in Cleveland, Ohio, has the same situation in her store. "I set up my authors outside in the mall walkway," Melissa says. "It's a great way for them to be seen." Melissa also hosts an annual book signing table during the holiday season. She invites seven or eight authors to come and sign during one of the busiest times of the year for book buyers.

Partner Up
If you don't have a lot of friends and family to call on, consider partnering with another writer for a joint signing. Perhaps you're a fiction writer with a story about a baseball-loving detective. That non-fiction writer you know with a book about coaching in the minor leagues might be just the person to partner with. You'll bring your friends and acquaintances to the signing, and he'll bring his. And the book store manager will love you both for helping to sell two books at one event.

Consider Holding Your Own Low-Cost Book Tour
I've heard about one writer who takes his annual vacation from his day job in the summer and uses those three or four weeks off to create his own book tour. He packs his wife and kids in the car (along with lots of copies of his book in the trunk) and schedules stops across the country with friends and relatives. At each town he visits, he prearranges bookstore signings and also gives talks at public schools, libraries, and universities. He stays with his friends and family, so he doesn't pay for high-priced hotels, and the folks he stays with help get the word out about his signings and talks.

Promote on the Cheap
If your budget is thin, there are inexpensive ways to promote your signings. Create your own flyers and post them in super markets, college student centers, and community libraries. Email the same flyers to your friends and family and reward them (maybe with a complimentary copy of your book?) for passing the word along. List your signings in the event calendars on newspaper and magazine websites and on announcement sites like Craigslist. Mount printed posters of your book cover on foam core and send these to bookstores for in-store promotions. Give the owners at speaking venues your printed giveaways (bookmarks, postcards, business cards, magnets, etc.) to hand out to customers and guests. And finally, if you're lucky enough to have a friend who's gifted at walking up to people and convincing them to come and hear you speak, ask him to work the room the next time you're scheduled to sign. You could even consider offering him a percentage of your sales. It might be the best money you ever spend.