Monday, February 28, 2011

Personal Branding II: Author Photos

Before I even began submitting queries to agents and publishers, I sat for a series of professional author photos. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made.
If you consider publication the turning point between “writer” and “author,” I was definitely still a writer, but I wanted to be prepared. Besides, “head shots” are a given for anyone who wants to build a professional image.
After some research on the Internet, I decided to check out our local Glamour Shots, even though I thought it was a place to go for that special Valentine portrait. In fact, they do many kinds of photography, as I learned during my fact-finding visit. A face-to-face is a good idea before you hire a photographer.
I’d always considered myself a poor photo subject--all the more reason to book an appointment with a professional—and I didn’t look forward to the session. Once upon a time, the publishing company where I worked had its own photo studio. I had my picture taken there after receiving a promotion to supervisor. Well, in addition to “dressing for success,” I decided to emulate executives who looked brainy and serious and visionary in their photos--in other words, I didn’t smile. When the contact sheets came back, I was surprised to see that I’d scowled in every shot and had to repeat the whole session.
In order to make my author session fun, I scheduled the appointment to coincide with a visit from my granddaughter. At seven, Annie was the perfect partner. She loved to dress up, so I knew she’d have a blast with the kid outfits at Glamour Shots. She could wear whatever she wanted for her individual poses, I’d get my author photos, and we could have some pictures made together.
In anticipation, I finally made that eye appointment and got new glasses. I made my beauty appointments a few days ahead of the session, making sure my hairdresser didn’t cut too much off. Luckily, after all these years, Tina didn’t take offense at “Don’t scalp me.”
Glamour Shots had advised me about what to bring to the shoot. I put together several outfits, including a business suit; some travel clothes, because my book is about a trip; and a casual set for the shots with Annie. Then I took her shopping and bought her a top to go with mine. For her individual photos, she picked out a green fairy dress with a matching headpiece.
First we went to Hair and Makeup, just like the Kardashians. I let Annie choose her hairstyle, French braids. Listening to her occasional sharp intakes of breath, I was glad my much simpler do required only a couple hot curls and a bit of gel.
Annie’s makeup was a light touch, while mine was a dousing with Luminess, the spray-on foundation of movie stars. As for the eyes, “We line both the upper and lower lids,” the make-up artist said. “Looking in the mirror, you’ll think your makeup is way too heavy, but your pictures will look great.” They did.
The session went smoothly, and at the end of it we were able to view the digital results there in the office before placing our order. I won’t give away all my secrets, but if you need retouching, many things are possible on a computer.
I had Glamour Shots deliver my author photos on a CD-ROM. It wasn’t cheap, but I can use them over and over—as long as I don’t change my hairdo.
Annie proved to be a natural. Her mom and dad have taken countless family photos since she was born, and she’s been on stage as part of a dance company since she was two. Here’s my favorite pose from our session. Now, there’s a face for the cameras!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Personal Branding I: Business Cards

Personal branding is the core of publicity. My publisher has explained this principle to me—the same principle found in numerous how-to books for writers: The publisher’s job is to publicize the book, and your job is to publicize yourself—starting NOW. It’s called platform. If you don’t have it, you’d better get it.
It’s an odd word, platform, used like this; but I’m beginning to make peace with both the term and the concept. I have to, and so do you if you’re counting on the public to support your creative efforts.
At least now when I hear the word platform, I don’t think of platform shoes. Instead, I automatically picture a stage, maybe one with a section that rises amid blinding lights and billowing smoke, like Justin Bieber’s did in Never Say Never. In my case, the vision is symbolic of what the shy, solitary writer now has to do.
I had to draw up a publicity plan for myself. It seems that bookstore buyers want to know who this so-called author is--and why they should care--before they decide to carry a book. That’s power.
A neophyte when it comes to self-branding, I once tried to re-brand my tenth-grade English teacher by deliberately mispronouncing her name to new students so they’d trip up. Some people just invite mischief.
This was the same teacher who asked me a question in class about the origin of my surname, which back then wasn’t Congdon. In tenth grade I didn’t know what a surname was. As it turned out, I’ve had three: my family name and two others gained or lost in love—branding of a different kind.
One of the easier tasks on my publicity plan was ordering business cards. I’m glad I did that, because already—seven months before my book pub date—people ask. It’s good to be able to hand them something.
As with many jobs, I began with research. Fortunately, others have gone before us. I used a blog by author Jennifer Hudson Taylor as a guide for what to include on my card. Did you know that author business cards are different from those of companies? I didn’t. Hudson tells why; check it out: http://jenniferswriting.blogspot.com/2008/09/author-business-cards-are-different.html.
I took Hudson’s advice to use a photo—I am my “company,” after all--and to highlight my product, which is my book. I made up a tag line and put the essential contact information on the card. That was it. Oh, I shouldn’t mislead you; I hired a graphic designer to give my business cards the professional look they need.
I didn’t take a pen name, even though many people misspell or mispronounce Congdon. I don’t see what’s so difficult about it, but in making restaurant reservations I use a simpler surname.
And that brings us back to my tenth-grade English teacher. She was a compact lady with perfect gray curls, professionally dressed and quite proper, so it was a shock when one of her hands would disappear inside her blouse to fish a wayward strap out of her sleeve. She did this by touch, never missing a beat of the lecture or conversation and never taking her eyes off the class.
Ditto.
Mrs. H. was at her most fascinating in short sleeves. We used to watch her arm flap when she wrote on the blackboard, and sometimes one of those errant straps would come right out of her sleeve, and we’d get to follow her hand on its spellbinding journey. Now and then fingers would even appear, like a magic trick. All she needed was a top hat.
My point is that people will remember something about you. What do you want it to be?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Book Tests

How do you spot a good book? Is it possible to know before you spend your hard-earned money and time whether a book will be as good as its cover promises? That’s one purpose of best-seller lists, of course. Reviews and book club selections are helpful, too, and let’s not leave out Oprah. But sometimes it’s fun to choose our books for ourselves. 
In matters of biography, the author or subject of the book will sell it. You either want to know more about a person, or you don’t. Although I’ve read a few boring biographies and put down others that were poorly written, fascinating life stories don’t often disappoint. With fiction, it’s trickier.
I start with the summary, to see if I like the story. Mysteries are my usual choice, and some plots just don’t get old; for example, I love relentless chasing and villains who will stop at nothing. I don’t like stories about women whose exes are still hanging around waiting to fall back in love.
Next I read the blurbs, the quoted accolades on the cover and in the front of the book. No publisher is going to print negative comments, but blurbs from the right sources can signal a hit. I hesitate if the blurb is about the author and not the particular book, though, wondering why no one raved about the item I’m holding in my hands.
A known author is usually a good bet, although I’ve given up on two very famous ones. The first has taken on co-authors, some of whom are terrible. I’ll say it again: Terrible. The second ex-favorite just got on my nerves; in attempting to acquaint readers with her quirky fictitious family, she went overboard. All right, already! So the daughter is bright, but stubborn. We get it; move on.
A good new author is a treasure, and new could mean new to writing books or just new to the reader. I love to discover an author, and when I do it generally follows that I can read everything she’s written and expect a similar level of competence.
Maybe you read the first paragraph or two to determine the author’s writing skill and style, as I do, or to see if the story hooks you in. If you’re of a certain age, you might also be reading to see if it rings a bell. I’ve bought books twice, thanks to senior moments. Recently I purchased a paperback of The Lost Symbol, forgetting that I’d read the hardcover version from the library.
My mother used to carry around a list of her favorite authors because she couldn’t remember their names. Now I do it.
If I like the quotes and the summary on the flap or back cover, and if a book passes the author and/or “initial paragraph” test, I’ll buy it. All of that screening pays off most of the time, but once in a while flags will pop up later. The worst ones are those memory triggers—Wait! He carried her into the hospital? I’ve read this!
Winking and grinning are big red flags for me. If the characters start winking and grinning when they speak, they’re not going to stop. Instead of looking for the next instance—a most annoying distraction--I look for my next book.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Borders

Our local Borders is one of the 200 “underperforming” stores that will close as a result of the recent Chapter 11 filing by their parent company. I’d seen the list of closings by the time I went to the company’s website, www.borders.com, and checked the page for my local store. It already carried an announcement: “This store is expected to close no later than the end of April. We’ve enjoyed serving the many customers who have shopped this store over the years.”
It reminded me of the scene in You’ve Got Mail when Meg Ryan had to post a similar sign on the door of The Shop Around the Corner, only this wasn’t an independent bookstore being eaten by a chain; it was a chain store. When you get right down to it, the important thing is this: It was a bookstore.
I live in an area that was farmland when our first house went up, a place so rural that people scratched their heads and made sure they had a few snacks in the car before setting out. My town was created as a “planned community.” Even so, the area was devoid of significant retail opportunities for years. Then we got a mall.
We had shopping centers, and even a Barnes and Noble in the other direction; but this location was convenient for me. It lay between home and what was then my office. Borders was an anchor store.
Shopping at Borders was impersonal most of the time, in a nice way. The employees were helpful the few times I asked for assistance and polite when I checked out. That was all I needed.
Once an employee saw me lingering among the Mystery shelves with a studied expression and tried to help me select a book. She didn’t realize that sometimes I stood in Borders for 30 minutes with that look on my face. I loved scanning every title on the shelves before settling on just the right one. Finding a new book is an experience to be savored.
The Digital Age is the reason often given for the demise of bookstores. I’ve considered e-book readers for a while now, but I don’t have one yet. It isn’t that I object, but sometimes I’d like to slow technology down. Yes, I would.
The extinction of bookstores has been predicted for years, so I suppose we should be prepared, but it still makes me sick. Even though it wasn’t spoken for the same reason, I keep thinking of Tom Hanks’ line in You’ve Got Mail: “Don’t cry, Shopgirl.”
One of the last times I was in Borders, I was on an assignment from my publisher to find the shelf on which my book would sit once it was published, then to see what would be on either side of it. I talked to a woman named Laura, who was lovely. “Would you like to have a signing here?” she asked. “In fact, if you want to contact the ghost hunters who write about haunted places in Ohio, we can do a Sci-Fi Night with multiple authors.”
It was a fine offer, made—I believe--before she knew her store would be closing “no later than the end of April.” So thanks, Laura. Thanks to everyone at the Borders in Deerfield Towne Center, Mason, Ohio. I’ll miss you.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Inevitable Error

I write in books. Not borrowed books, not library books, but the ones I pay for; I can’t help it. How can a career editor leave a mistake unmarked--even in a printed book, when it’s too late? If I merely continued reading, it would seem that I was condoning the error or—far worse—hadn’t seen it.
When I was a young Editorial Associate for a textbook publisher, our company president used to say with a smile, “There’s no such thing as a perfect book, but we keep trying.” Perfection is an editor’s reason for being, but something always slips past us, doesn’t it? Back then I had a love-hate relationship with the newly printed books I’d worked on: I loved to see them finally come together, but I dreaded to learn that someone had found a mistake. It’s like that first little door ding on a new car: Ouch!
I’m never 100 percent sure whether errors in a book should be attributed to the author or to an editor later down the line, but my vote goes to the editor. After all, if your eyes are the last to see a manuscript or a set of galleys, you have to take the heat.
I don’t think for a minute that Sue Grafton gets dual and duel confused, but I found this sentence on page 18 of the paperback version of U is for Undertow: “I shut the engine down, locked my car, and crossed the street, passing through the squeaking gate that serves the duel purpose of doorbell and burglar alarm.” Even if an author doesn’t know, the editor should.
Nathan’s Run is a fabulous suspense novel written a few years back by a very talented author named John Gilstrap. After I discovered him, I began reading everything he’d written; but did he know the difference between farther and further? It didn’t seem so as I corrected instance after instance of misuse in my second-hand copy of Nathan’s Run, but I’m not blaming Gilstrap. Someone else either missed those errors or made them.
After 30 years of being that set of editorial eyes, I wrote a book—a book that’s now being EDITED. Gulp.
I’d be lying if said it didn’t give me a thrill to find mistakes in other people’s books. When it comes to grammar, spelling, punctuation, and word usage, I’m picky and unforgiving, superior and smug. I hope my editor is every one of those things. I like to think I don’t miss a thing, but we know better, don’t we?
If we leave out the life-and-death aspect, there’s an editorial equivalent to the fundamental principle of medicine, which is “First, do no harm.” The editorial equivalent is “Don’t introduce errors.”
Just so you’ll know, I don’t like the word woken. Many people do; it appears in virtually every book I read. The website www.dictionary.com offers no cautions about using woken, defined there as “a past participle of wake.” The word just sounds wrong to me: “After he had woken...” sounds like a mistake. I’ll rewrite to avoid it. I don’t correct it when I see it on the printed page, though—unlike dual vs. duel or farther vs. further, the correction is complicated. I do underline it, though, to say, “I see you.” If you ever read a book of mine and find woken in it, I didn’t put it there.
For all our efforts--my editor’s and mine—there’s still a chance my book won’t be perfect when it’s published. The inevitable error will surface, and it might be my fault. I just hope I’m not the one to find it.
This post is a thank-you to all of the great authors and editors out there, those who champion what’s best about language and are the squeaking gates of our published books.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mental Prep

My brother and I have been meeting to work on a new book. One recent morning we went to a coffeehouse. Joe had been up for hours, so he was ready for coffee and company. I was scrambling to have my beauty routine done and my electronics packed by the time he picked me up.
We’ve found a writing process that works for us: He talks and I type. This is really his book, but I’m the writer. He’s the storyteller. If I can manage to capture Joe’s stories, meaning keep up with him and retain the flavor, I’ve done something.
The way it usually goes, I interrupt him constantly with questions. I have to; it’s either then or later, when I’m refining my notes. He’d prefer it if he could just tell the thing without any typing or stopping, but our process is a compromise.
We schedule two-hour sessions. Usually we talk constantly, prompting one another, and I worry that we’ll get too loud. That morning we’d been working less than an hour when we fell silent. It was the first time we’d run out of material.
“Well, let’s just sip our coffee,” I said, “and not force it.”
Lots of times if I start doing something else on the computer, Joe will begin to talk and I’ll have to get quickly back to my typing. After a couple trickles, though, the stories dried up that day and my mind turned to the other things I had to do.
Neither Joe nor I had spent enough mental time preparing for that writing session. He’d been bored from waking up so early, and I’d been too busy getting ready. We hadn’t made space in our minds for the project.
In the past I’d given Joe assignments—thought starters for the next session. “I knew what it was like to be poor,” I might say, meaning that he should think about how he made it when he was on strike for 14 weeks with two children to feed. I might ask him to think about why even ghosts couldn’t scare him into quitting a night job. Sometimes I went for a particular kind of family memory. But not that day. That day we hadn’t done the mental prep.
Writing works best when we open our minds to it. All of the content is there; we just have to access it. The collaborative process at its most productive is a beautiful thing. And when those stories do start to come, my sage advice is pretty simple: Start typing.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Play Dead

As I write this, mystery novelist Harlan Coben’s “latest” book, Play Dead, is on the stands. On the very first page is a warning by Coben that Play Dead is one of his first books, written more than 20 years ago--before he became, in the words of Forbes, “a suspense maestro.”
I love Coben’s books and can’t wait for a new one, but I heeded the warning in Play Dead for weeks. Then the other day I went out in a snowstorm because I’d finished the novel I was reading and couldn’t go a day without a book. Cold, blustery weather like that will make you wish you could reach for an e-reader instead of the car keys.
Once I arrived at Borders and knew how slick the roads were, I didn’t want to linger. I went no farther than the C’s in the mystery section, plucked out Play Dead, and in minutes was on my way home.
Coben is right about the book. I knew it two pages in. Though the story may end up having the energy he attributes to it, the book is overwritten, full of clich├ęs, and predictable. I sat at my kitchen table that day thinking what fun it would be to edit Play Dead. The irony was that my own book manuscript was awaiting me upstairs. At 3,800 words over my publisher’s limit, it was screaming for an edit, too.
Instead of planting myself at the computer where I belonged, I was ready to take a pen to Play Dead for the rest of the afternoon. Why?
Rewriting a book is like tackling a home improvement project: You have to make a mess before you see the improvement. Ruthless self-editing is frustrating, confusing, and exhausting. Deleting words can break your heart. The process isn’t called “killing your babies” for nothing.
I could see what to do with Coben’s book; I had no stake in it. But instead of following my whim to “edit” a published book, I came upstairs and worked on my own manuscript, hoping that one day it would bring a fraction of the success that Harlan Coben’s wonderful novels have had. Now I understand that he’s earned it.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Transylvanian Sisters

Here’s an interesting story about how I came to have a Transylvanian “sister.”

Aura Imbarus grew up in Romania under the oppressive rule of Communism. Her life in the city of Sibiu, in Transylvania, was restricted by fear. Shots were fired. People mysteriously disappeared. Neighbors became informants for the government. As a girl, Aura had few people to trust. She felt that even the windows called “eyes” built into the German-style homes in her city were watching her.

Aura was smart and ambitious. She had a dream to go to America--to California--and have the kind of life she’d seen in the movies.

A few years earlier, another girl was growing up in America. One day when she was 13, she saw a Dracula movie. Right then she knew that one day she would go to Romania to find the mountains and castles of Transylvania that she’d seen in the movies.

Aura moved to America to pursue her dreams. She became a teacher in California and wrote a book about leaving Romania titled Out of the Transylvania Night. The American girl pursued her dream to see Transylvania. She was working on a book titled It Started with Dracula.

I was that American girl, now grown and still unable to resist a book with “Transylvania” in the title, so I bought Aura’s memoir. After I read it I wrote her a note telling her how much I’d liked it. Complimenting other writers is one of the things we do as part of the writing life.

Aura wrote back. One thing led to another as we compared our stories. “If not for the difference in timing, our planes could have passed in the sky,” I said in my e-mail. We declared ourselves “Transylvanian sisters.” Aura even introduced me to her publisher--a generous offer from a generous person. And that’s how two young girls with dreams influenced by the movies found each other as adults.

For a bit of related trivia, see the latest Transylvania Trivia on my website. For more about the writing life, look for Carolyn See’s book, Making a Literary Life, published by Random House. Check out Aura’s website at http://www.auraimbarus.com/.

Delivering the Goods

I just finished reading Breaking Dawn, the fourth book in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. It wasn't just the subject of vampires that prompted me to read the books Meyer had created for young adults; I did it for the same reason I read Harry Potter: to keep up.

Breaking Dawn presents the culmination of a romance between Bella, an ordinary high school girl, and Edward, a vampire. We know going in that Bella wants to become a vampire, too, and that Edward wants to marry Bella. With a three-book buildup, the author's job is clear: Breaking Dawn must answer one tough question over and over again--What's that like? And she does.

It doesn't matter that the Twilight series is fiction. It doesn't make one bit of difference that Bella's and Edward's experiences–like those of all the other Twilight characters--are made up. We want to know.

It's easy to glide through an explanation, minimize it, hint at it, or skip it altogether--but the thing I liked best about Breaking Dawn was that Stephenie Meyer didn't do that. She took us over new ground in satisfying detail, which is the only way she could have told this story. I'll avoid examples; my point is not to spoil the experience for future readers, but to say that this is what I learned.

Books can teach us a lot about writing. I didn't always find the Twilight series compelling, not all the way through, but I kept going. Two thousand pages later, Breaking Dawn showed me how important it is for an author to deliver the goods and make good on the reader's investment.