Monday, June 20, 2011

If It Ain't Bea, Who Is It?

Do you ever think about the word aunt? Do you pronounce it “ant,” “ont,” or maybe “ain’t,” the way Andy and Opie addressed Miss Beatrice Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show?

I prefer “ant,” which is why my mind skipped naturally to Aunt Bea while I was chasing the other kind with a can of bug spray this morning. Before I’d even had my coffee, I spotted the insidious little things crawling along the molding under my kitchen cabinets. I don’t mean the molding on the floor; they had already climbed to the upper level!
What IS it with ants? I once made a boat from a cantaloupe rind when I was a kid, so I could sail it in the bathtub. I thought I was pretty clever. I set my boat on the rim of the tub, and when I returned a few hours later, it was covered with ants! Our bathroom was on the second story. How did they do it, and why?
Someday I’m going to study ants--not in person, but in books, or maybe on the Internet. I’m going to find out what drives ants, what caused them to sniff out my little boat and make the long journey upstairs in our house, to swarm the pathetic remains of a cantaloupe; but not today. Today, I’m going to the store because I threw out virtually every container of food in my kitchen cupboards.
You may be asking about now: What does this have to do with writing? Well, if it hadn’t been for the irresistible pull of the book I'm working on with my brother, now about halfway into first draft, I might have paid more attention to what was going on in my kitchen. I’ve been lax in the cleaning arena for a while now, preferring to sit at the computer and write.
Some writers freeze when faced with a blank page, but I don’t. I’m not bragging; it’s just a fact. Words and phrases flow through my mind all day, every day. I love the process of writing and shaping those words. I never need prompts, and if this blog isn’t evidence, I don’t know what is.
So, to wrap up the ant story, if I hadn’t been so interested in writing for the past several weeks, I might not be in this pickle. Oops, don’t say “pickle” out loud; it’s sure to draw more of those persistent little fiends that are still hoping for a morsel of food in my empty cabinets.
And that brings us back to Aunt Bea. Remember the Emmy-winning pickle episode? I could use a few of those kerosene cucumbers about now. They’re probably better than ant cups.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Personal Branding VIII: What Was That, Again?

My brother and I were driving south on Interstate 71 when I noticed a sign on a building: “Retirement University.”

“Look at that,” I said, wondering what it meant, and in the same breath: “Hip, Hip, Hooray: Intro to Replacement Surgery.”
“Cat Food One-Oh-One,” Joe said.
We were two retirees, having a little fun. But really, what was Retirement University? Was it an institution to teach people about being retired, or a school meant to attract retirees? I supposed it was the latter, a university for senior citizens--that supposed leisure class interested in lifelong learning, but no exams: Tired of golf? Try our evening courses. No class runs past 8:00 p.m.
I was wrong. Retirement University is for learning about retirement, primarily the financial side of it. The school is sponsored by an investment advisory firm, but it also offers workshops on leisure activities such as photography and book clubs. Most students would be those interested in retirement topics, but that wouldn’t limit the population to seniors.

You might be asking, “Just what is her message this time?” Well, the point is that we need to be clear in branding ourselves. For instance, if you’re an author and you haven’t hit upon the ideal title for your book, you’ll soon understand this concept.
The first title I gave It Started with Dracula: The Count, My Mother, and Me was Cold Moon in August. That was early in the writing process. Later I came up with It Started with Dracula—because it did. The subtitle was A Travel Memoir of Romania. Then, not wanting to limit the scope of the book, I shortened the subtitle to A Travel Memoir. When my publisher questioned whether we wanted the book to be placed in the Travel section of the bookstore, it became A Memoir. Once we began writing promotional copy, the whole game changed.
Whether the main title would even survive was a cliffhanger. It all depended upon the potential for sales. Would the bookstores go for a book with that title—meaning, did the sales reps think the bookstore buyers would consider it fascinating enough to attract customers? I fought to keep it--well, I didn’t fight; I hoped. After all, I’d already told people the name of my book. I’d grown used to it and liked it. My publisher knew how I felt, but sales potential would drive the final decision. It Started with Dracula squeaked by.

“You’ll need a subtitle for your book,” my publisher said, and that prompted another round of suggestions. We chose The Count, My Mother, and Me because it’s intriguing and it gives the reader further information about the topic.
Every word in a title counts, so to speak. And we writers aren’t just pleasing ourselves. If you want your book to be a commercial success, you’ll need to put on a marketing hat, for when it comes to the business of publishing, the question that always persists is how to catch the fascination of the public. There is a place between literary loveliness and cha-ching that you’ll need to explore, as I did. The goal of that exploration is a final product that you and your publisher can be proud of as it flies off the shelves.
Names should communicate clear messages. That’s my point, returning us to Retirement University. The name on the building did send me to the Internet for more information, so in that regard, it’s a success. I wish the institution well; maybe I’ll even show up there one day. What was that about book clubs, again?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Grandmama's Teeth

The summer after her sophomore year of college, my sister worked as a waitress in Myrtle Beach, living in our great-aunt Iva’s spare room. In August Mom, Grandmama, and I drove down from West Virginia to pick her up, and that’s how I ended up standing in Aunt Iva’s bathroom doorway one morning as my grandmother was fixing her hair.

Grandmama was finagling her long, salt-and-pepper hair into its familiar bun. She held the hairpins between her lips and talked around them, glancing at me in the mirror as she used both hands to gather her hair and twist it into shape. Her movements were automatic.
Grandmama had what were called finger waves going back from her face. She would sleep in a hairnet to preserve the style and then use a smaller net during the day to hold her bun in place.

Having me watch her that morning didn’t seem to be a distraction. When she’d pinned the last pin, she picked her hairnet up off the vanity without looking, spread it with her fingers, and popped it into place. Then Grandmama looked down at the sink, completely puzzled. She looked at herself in the mirror and then cast her eyes over the sink and vanity. “Where did I put my teeth?” It wasn’t a full set of uppers and lowers she’d lost; more like a section.
Bewildered, she swung her head left and right to look around the bathroom, and then I saw what she couldn’t: Grandmama’s false teeth were caught in the threads of her hairnet. Her movements made them twist and bounce and finally whip outward in an arc behind her head. Anchored by nylon, they sailed past me, grinning at our little secret, and I grinned back.
“Where in the world…?”

“Hold still,” I said, hating to end it. “I know where they are.”
This experience actually happened to my brother. I wrote the piece to see if I could adequately capture the humor in someone else's story. This piece was the First Place winner in the Writer's Wall contest for prose held by West Virginia Writers during the organization's annual conference June 10-12, 2011.