Road Trip V, Days 18-20, Durham, N.C.: Community Lessons For a New Author

One year ago this week I proudly debuted my first novel at the bookstore in my hometown. Yes, Durham is 3,500 miles away from where I live now, so The Regulator didn’t figure to loom large in my new author “career.” But this week, as The Regulator hosted an event for my second book, I realized it had taught me a lesson.

Author readings are not about the author. They’re not even entirely about the work. They’re about community.

Just the author? What else ya got?

Just the author? What else ya got?

Think about it. You’re a busy person. What would make you take time out of your week to sit and hear an author read? You might be enamored of that particular author and happy to get a close-up view. You might wish to ask questions, or get an autograph. But for an author like me, I know you’re there mainly to support the idea of authorship. You are accepting a role in the literary community. Authors need to honor that role.

So here are three new tenets I’ve adopted:

1) Involve community members, especially kids, if possible. I’m a very good reader, having practiced with my two sons and 20 years of students, but still–just my voice, my presence? After my debut reading, I decided I could do better. Now, if I can, I stage dramatic readings with myself as narrator.

Now this is more like it!

Now this is more like it!

2) The beginning is not always the best place to start. I’d thought starting anywhere else would require too much explanation, but audiences catch on quickly. And in the case of my first book, the Prologue is one of the saddest sections. It took me most of the way through Chapter One to cheer the group up again. Since then, I think about it from their point of view and try to choose the most entertaining part. Duh.

3) Offer cookies afterward. Hey, these nice people are giving up an hour of their busy lives to support me. The least I can do is say “thanks” the most tangible way I know, with butter and chocolate.

Terrific students from Carolina a Friends Middle School--my alma mater--with their teacher who used to be mine!

Terrific students from Carolina a Friends Middle School–my alma mater–with their teacher who used to be mine!

I have a big reading coming up next month in Seattle, and I have some more ideas for that one. What other Lessons in the Obvious have I to learn?

So I’d love to hear what else folks might have experienced. What makes an author reading stand out for you–other than, of course, the written work itself?

YA Lit Revisited: What About Old Young Adults? OYA Lit, Anyone?

It’s been almost a year and a half since I first addressed this question: “What is YA, Anyway?”

Here’s what I had to say in July of 2013:

In libraries it’s still called “Juvenile,” but everywhere else in the world of books you see this label: YA. It stands for Young Adult. Problem is, YA Lit seems to include everything from Judy Blume’s finding-out-about-your-adolescent-emotions books to some pretty dark, vampiry stuff, not to mention drugs, sex, and language that sounds like plain old Adult, without the Young. So what, exactly, qualifies a book as YA?

Sometimes publishers will subdivide YA into Middle Grades, meaning “Tweens”–11 and 12, I guess–but there’s still this question: what defines it? Is it a book where the main character is 12? Or one which mostly 12 year-olds read? Under that definition, the first two Harry Potter books both would and would not qualify. When those books first came out, I knew as many grownups in love with young Harry as I did kids. (I was one of ‘em!)

Or maybe the definition of YA/Middle Grades is silly, and who cares? Well, I do, but only for this reason: there seem to be certain rules about what you can or can’t publish under these categories. In later posts, I’m going to examine this question, and I’m going to be asking for your input. Whether you are a young reader, a parent, a teacher, a librarian, or all of the above (?!), your opinion is valuable to me as I wend my way through the thickets of YA publication.

Stay tuned.

Still tuned? Good.

It’s now November, 2014. In the past nine months I’ve published two YA/middle grades books–to give them the label that would seem to qualify best, based on genre, story content, age of heroine. Problem is, I keep getting excited, “can’t-put-it-down, when-is-Book-Three-coming-out?” reviews from people in their 30s, 40s, 50s…on up through 70s. (And one 84 year-old, but yeah, my dad doesn’t count.) So IS this YA?

Young people seem to like my first book too–phew!–but I haven’t heard from very many. Clearly, it’s not the “grabby” kind of book most teens and tweens have become accustomed to. It contains no wizards, vampires, zombies, werewolves, nor boyfriends. (Book Two has one of those beings, but it’s only been out for ten days, so I haven’t heard the results yet.)

I’m not complaining. I wrote the story I wanted to write. But I’m still scratching my head over what to call it.

What genre is THIS? (Courtesy Pinterest)

What genre is THIS? (Courtesy Pinterest)

“YA lit for young adults of all ages” is what I find myself saying more and more these days. “A coming-of-age story.” Or, if I’m feeling a little snarkier, “I don’t know–what would you call To Kill a Mockingbird? Is that Tween lit? Well–there ya go.”

Disclaimer: in no way am I claiming to be a writer on par with Ms. Harper Lee. But the point is still valid, right? Can’t you have a story about a young person without it being a story FOR young people?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this–especially that last question. Anyone?

“Read Me a Story!” How to Spice Up Author Readings

Face it–we all love Drama. Even when we say we don’t. Period.

We also love being read aloud to. IF the reader is animated. IF the story catches our attention. IF we’re not too distracted by when’s dinner-what-time-do-I-have-to-get-up-tomorrow-wonder-how-bad-traffic-is-did-I-even-remember-to-thaw-that hamburger-oh-shoot-I-forgot-to-call-so-and-so to attend.

Notice the difference between Drama and Being Read Aloud To? There are no “ifs” in Drama. Provide it to your listeners, and…they’re yours.

(all photos courtesy Susan Breslow)

(all photos courtesy Susan Breslow)

That’s what I’ve discovered in my first year of Author Readings. Choosing a good bit of the book to read is key, of course. Providing a nice, gracious, humorous intro–also a must.

[Important tip: get someone who KNOWS you, someone who can make that intro part of the entertainment itself, like my friend and fellow writer Iris Graville:Iris

Even when I’ve checked all those boxes, though, I’ve seen some squirming in my audiences, some furtive watch-checking. But when I’ve done dramatic readings of those same bits, with fellow “actors”? RAPT attention.

Yes, it takes a little more work. You have to round up folks. Bribe them with cookies. Meet to practice. And be prepared for last-minute let-downs. In the case of this last reading, the launch party for Headwinds, my 13 year-old “actor” failed to appear, so I had to read her part as well as that of the narrator.attitude

Turns out I love reading the part of a 14 year-old. Can you tell?

Even little glitches become part of the entertainment. So you flub a line–it’s not a play! You’re not a REAL actor! You’re just an author who happens to be a person with a spirit of adventure, someone who’s reaching out to your audience in ways they can appreciate.

Moral of the story: read, by all means! But when you can, bring others along. Bring your story to life.

And then, when they line up to buy your book–they’re not just doing it out of obligation. They LIKE you–they really LIKE you.

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Has anyone else had experience with dramatized author readings, or readings that were made somehow extraordinary? Please share!

There Is an “I” in “Community,” But It’s a Small One

Humbling experiences aren’t always fun. Or tasty. The other day, I had one that was both. I got together with a bunch of people to press apples into cider.

(all photos courtesy Gene Helfman)

(all photos courtesy Gene Helfman)

It started out totally fun, as I’d expected. A huge pile of boxed and bagged apples of all colors and sizes awaited us on the sunny grass. We set up a rough assembly line along two picnic tables: wash, bleach, rinse, cut. Ferry bowls of cut fruit to the pressers; ferry bowls of bruised bits to the compost. Chat, munch, switch roles. Joke, chat, munch. Ah, work parties! On a sunny day in October! What could feel more comfortable, neighborly, plain old right?

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Except that it was taking FOREVER. At one point somebody glanced up and noticed that the giant apple-box pile did not seem to have shrunk at all. Then I made the mistake of asking what time it was. I had budgeted two hours in my busy day for this communal activity. We had been there for an hour and a half, and we were maybe a quarter done.

Uh-oh.I could feel those comfy communal feelings begin to evaporate. Cue pun about “pressing issues”…

I have SO MUCH to do. Gotta finish my Book Two proofs to get them to my book designer in time to upload the fixes and still be able to have Headwinds ready at its launch party. Gotta paint the signs and put up posters for the Gretchen Wing & Friends concert next week. Augh, my concert!!! Gotta practice that run in the third song which keeps tripping me up, and that horrible C-B-flat-G progression I haven’t nailed yet. And I’m having friends over for dinner and I promised them pie. And, oh shoot, when’s the last time I vacuumed?

Did I mention that the group doing the cider-pressing was the Quaker Meeting I attend?Can there be a more communal, thoughtful, self-less group than a bunch of Quakers? Anyone else feeling the irony here?

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Of course I couldn’t leave. That would just have increased the workload for everyone else. No one else was leaving early. Probably no one else was even thinking of leaving early. And plenty of them had more pressing job or family concerns than I did.

Apparently publishing a book and performing in a concert–especially within the same week–can make you kinda self-centered. Especially if you tend that way already.

So I stayed. We rinsed and chopped and chatted and munched. We laughed a lot. Finally, we stopped…not because we ran out of apples. We simply ran out of containers.

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I biked home, two hours later than I had expected to, with two gallons of cider, and another gallon of perspective. Did not get my proofs fixed until the next day. Did not practice. Still have to paint those signs. Haven’t touched that vacuum. But yeah…that pie was delicious. And the cider–even more so.

Does this sound at all familiar to anyone? Do you ever struggle to let communal work find its place amid your personal “stuff,” or do you have the opposite problem? Any tips for finding that balance?

 

Confessions of an Imperfectionist, Part II

I have finished another landscape quilt, and I’m bursting with pride. Please, look at my pictures! But don’t look too close.

004 (5)

“The Enchantments”–based on my Happy Place in the central Cascades.

005 (4)

Detail of the bottom. I like to have the picture overflow out of the border.

007 (4)

A look at the variety of stitching on the back. I try to match the quilting with the picture.

About a year and a half ago, I blogged about my imperfectionism as it relates to quilts. Here’s what I said:

I’m a lousy carpenter. So I never thought I’d make it as a quilter either, and I never tried. Till I discovered landscape quilts.

Landscape quilting is just what it sounds like: you create a landscape, like a painter, substituting appliqued cloth for paint. The effect can be as realistic or impressionistic as you choose. Me, I’m all about the impressionism. Who cares if that flower has eight petals in real life? On my quilt, it gets five, and it’s still pretty.

Nice and sloppy, just like nature.Another way landscape quilting is like impressionist painting is in its wonderful, inherent sloppiness. Who cares if my stitches are uneven, or if I miss an edge here or there which might fray? Nature’s full of ragged edges, weird curves, asymmetry. It’s a gorgeous slop-fest out there! Too much precision = unnatural-looking landscape…or so says I.

Am I making a virtue of necessity? Cheering myself up for being lazy, not to mention bad at arithmetic?

You betcha. But hey: I’m quilting, aren’t I?

 

Now, a year and a half later, my quilts are no less imperfect. Or no more perfect. And I’m still okay with that…in quilts. But in writing? Good enough has never been good enough. That’s why I write draft after draft, that’s why I’m still re-re-re-re-re-revising Headwinds even when it’s in its final proofs.

And lo and behold, with my next community concert looming in a week and a half, I’m starting to apply that perfectionism to musical performance.

You: “What do you mean, starting to? You mean you’ve been performing up till now without caring how good you are?”

Me: “Nnnnyeah….well…not exactly. See, when I first got onstage, it was really kind of a lark. I didn’t think of myself as a “real” performer. So what if I couldn’t nail the hard chords? Isn’t that what the other musicians were there for–to cover for me while I distracted the audience with my singing?”

You: “You’re really buying this?”

Me: “Well…the alternative was to practice a WHOLE LOT more than I wanted to. So…yeah.”

You: “Wow.”

Me: “I know, right? I sat on a stool for my performances because I’d never used a strap with my guitar and I didn’t want to learn. I used a music stand in case I forgot the words or chords. I glanced at my fingers all the time, even when that meant singing away from the mike.”

You: “So is there something you’d like to say to your audiences now?”

Me: “I’m SORRY! I’ve upped my standards. Come to my concert on October 26th and you’ll see.”

GW

You: “Yeah. But you still could have brushed your hair for the promo poster.”

Me: ***sigh…***

OK, all you fellow imperfectionists: where do you draw YOUR line? Where do you let yourself slide, and where do you NEVER let yourself slide? Are you trying to work on sliding less, or sliding more? I am very interested to hear.

 

 

 

Hunted: Why My Book Would Be Banned in Russia

If you’ve been paying the slightest attention, you would know that Russia is not a good place to be gay right now. If you have any doubts, Ben Steele’s documentary, Hunted: The War on Gays in Russia, clears those doubts right up.

I’m not going to post the trailer of that film here. It’s too disturbing. Go to the official website to see for yourself. But here is the synopsis:

In modern-day Russia, where it is estimated that just 1% of the LGBT population lives completely openly, a recent anti-gay amendment to a “propaganda” law has triggered a rising number of assaults on gay men and women by vigilantes who, more often than not, go unpunished for their crimes.

Directed by Ben Steele, the startling expose HUNTED: THE WAR AGAINST GAYS IN RUSSIA looks at this climate of hostility. Matt Bomer (Emmy® nominee for HBO’s “The Normal Heart”) narrates.

Homosexuality was legalized in Russia 21 years ago, but gay people in the country have yet to win mainstream acceptance. In fact, attitudes in Russia appear to be moving backwards. With jobs and relationships at risk if their sexual orientation is exposed, most gay Russians remain closeted. As one gay man who lost sight in one eye during a recent unprovoked attack says ruefully, “Hunting season is open…and we are the hunted.”
HUNTED: THE WAR AGAINST GAYS IN RUSSIA features disturbing insider footage of homophobic Russians who, in the name of morality or religion, beat and torment gay people, posting graphic videos of their encounters online with few or no legal repercussions. These vigilantes see homosexuality as related to pedophilia, stating publicly that their justification for violence is protecting Russia’s children.

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Mainstream US media like MSNBC agree with me, reporting on this phenomenon while choosing not to show the worst images from the documentary. Mainstream US media!

The original law in Russia focused on “practices.” But, according to Wikipedia’s unusually well-documented article on this subject, “The 2013 amendment, which added “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” as a class of harmful content under the law was, according to the Government of Russia, intended to protect children from being exposed to content that portrays homosexuality as being a “behavioral norm”. Emphasis was placed upon a goal to protect “traditional”family values; bill author Yelena Mizulina (the chair of the Duma’s Committee on Family, Women, and Children, who has been described by some as a “moral crusader”),[20][21][2]argued that “traditional” relations between a man and a woman required special protection under Russian law.”

Headwinds is not a book about gays. But two side characters are gay, and this author makes it very clear that sexual orientation, like flying, is a personal characteristic that others have no business trying to stifle.

That would be enough for Putin. Homosexuality a “behavioral norm”??!! I am officially “promoting” the “pedophile lifestyle.” Headwinds would be banned. I could be arrested.

(image by Lanphear Design)

(image by Lanphear Design)

That makes me feel equally proud and sick to my stomach.

Not sure what to do about this, other than what people are doing: keep talking. Keep the lines open. Listen to those on the front lines for their advice on what people who care about their Russian (or, for that matter, Arab, or African, or Asian, or American) neighbors can do to remind people that love is not a crime.

And go see that documentary. Maybe that will give you your own source of inspiration.

Thoughts? I don’t have a specific question here, but I’d like to hear what you have to say at this point, so I’ll stop. Sigh…

 

“So How Many Books Have You Sold?” Why Does That Question Make Me Tense?

Before I published The Flying Burgowski, the question that used to tense me up was “So, are you published?” Now that I’m an Official Author, this is the question that clenches my gut.

“So how many books have you sold?”

Insecurity? That’s just a guess. Like, there’s this Standard of Authorness out there, some random number of units sold, and I’m pretty sure I don’t measure up. Which means…uh-oh…maybe it was all a dream? My hard work doesn’t really count?

My response to this question has been to willfully turn my back on all those handy stats offered by my publishing service. Oh, I could answer that question if I needed to. But I prefer to stay blissfully ignorant.

“I think I’ve sold one to all my friends,” I reply cheerfully. “Luckily I have a lot of friends.”

I’m not a total baby. Of course I set goals for myself: be published by ___, have sold ___ copies by ____. I know I’m roughly on that track–definitely for time, less definitely for number. Turns out that’s enough for me.

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Could I be doing more marketing? Couldn’t everybody? But only at the expense of all the other things we do in our lives. YES, I’m going to invite my community to a book launch party for The Flying Burgowski Book Two, Headwinds, with a dramatic reading and cookies. YES, I’m going to contact the same bookstores and libraries and schools–and add some new ones to the list. YES, I’m going to use the heck out of social media (at least my version of it: this blog, Facebook, and the occasional tweet).

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 I wanted to write a story. I did. Then I wanted people to read it. They are. Lucky for me, I never counted on making money from this enterprise. Therefore: I declare victory and move on…

…to Book Three.

Feel fee to weigh in here if you think I need counseling. I will listen gratefully. Just please don’t ask me how many books I’ve sold!