Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Book clubs - a way to sell books

Two Tuesdays nights in a row I had the pleasure of being the guest of honor at book club discussions of my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living With Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide (Lucky Press, 2011).

Last week we had just a short question and answer discussion about the how I prepared the book and the benefits the writing of it had in my healing process. Only one person asked the questions.

Last night in a room full of fifteen or so women, the questions kept flying from each one of them, starting with did I think I left anything out of the book to how do I feel twelve years later as I speak about the loss of my son. Does it still affect me emotionally? We also discussed what stigma is and does it still exist, psychopharmacology versus talk therapy, jails versus hospitals in caring for the mentally ill, and whether or not I think my son’s former girlfriend has read my book (I don’t think so, but of course I’ll never really know).

I am so grateful to have had the chance for such intimate and pointed discussions – so much in keeping with my goal of making people aware of the truths about mental illness and suicide and how that awareness can possibly save lives.

I highly recommend my author friends out there to get invited to a book club or two. It’s a great way to spread the word about our books.

Monday, February 27, 2012

A great family visit

Our great niece, Khloe, was here from Denver with her mom and dad this past weekend. She really liked putting her feet into the Pacific Ocean and playing at our local park. 

And now it's time to get back to my writing work. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"It's always a fiction"

My writing teacher and mentor Jack Grapes sent out the email reproduced (in part) here over the weekend. I am in complete agreement with him that our sentences are always fiction. We cannot recreate the past except through writing our own version of the facts.

In my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, I wrote down the truth as I remembered it. Some of the sentences I wrote about my truth were not as my husband remembered, but since it is my book and not his version, he is okay with it. I’m not distorting his version. I am stating my own.

Anyway, please read Jack’s comments below. By the way, I took his method writing classes. I recommend them to you all.

David Ulin's review in Sunday L.A. Times,
"Critic's Notebook: What is Fact, What is Fiction.",0,1862704.story

Sad to say, once again the subject of fact and fiction, fact and non-fiction, or fact and memoir, or fact and creative non-fiction, blah blah blah, continues to confuse the idea of an objective fact that lives in the past and can never never never be recreated except through a kind of fiction called writing. It's always a fiction, because not only does each person remembering the so-called fact have a different "version" of what happened, there is even a philosophical point of view that would posit that there is NO OBJECTIVE way to retrieve what "actually" happened, because that would involve so many different levels and aspects, that in truth (or in fact), one can never really retrieve some objective "fact" since no such objective fact can exist. 

But forget that philosophical approach, there's a deeper truth about fact vs fiction that concerns me, that concerns us as writers.

What the article in the Sunday Times misses, or I should say the review of the book, is that sentences are the thing, not facts. They continue to argue about facts, when it's sentences they should be talking about. The only thing that really happens are the sentences. The sentences are the objective facts, not the so-called "facts" that are embedded in the sentences. I'm not splitting hairs, I'm trying to break open your brain and get you to think like a writer, or think like a writer should, and not get sucked into all this nonsense about facts vs fiction, etc.

My mother, who carried large castles of flesh on her head,
slapped me whenever the bridge to the moat was lowered and her paranoid fear that the peasants were revolting became real.

My mother, according to my therapist, was a paranoid schizophrenic, but why did she have to slap me?

My mother slapped me for this, slapped me for that, yelled about this, yelled about that, until one night, I slapped her back, and for a moment, everything stood still.

My flushed mother who knows broken fibers of glass what she saw as she reeled religiously from charm to rage in the flash of a flesh pan.

My mother slapped me a lot, my brothers too, slapped anyone within striking distance, if the situation warranted it.

My mother slapped me a lot, mostly for things I didn't do, mostly for things she imagined I'd done, mostly so she wouldn't have to slap herself.

All of the above sentences are factually correct.

But each sentence is different, and if all they are supposed to do is convey facts, then as writers, we're in big trouble. Whether it be fiction or non-fiction, or any of those other categories, we're not writing facts, we're not writing fiction, we're writing sentences.

Is the fact true or false?

That's the wrong question. The question is, which sentence works better in the third paragraph of chapter three? I'm not even sure where the fact in those sentences lie. I could claim the sentences to be true, I could call them fiction, I could say it's creative non-fiction, I could say it's part of a memoir, but . . . . what does that mean anyway? Even the claim might be false. I could say it's fiction, when in reality it's non-fiction; I could say it's a novel, when really it's an essay. I could say it's a memoir, when really it's a plate of spaghetti.

When, as writers, we fall into the trap of thinking there is a difference between fact and fiction, we lose sight of the real work, which is writing sentences. The point is, Plato banished all writers and poets from his ideal republic because writers and poets lie. That's what we do. We lie about the facts, but the sentences, as Hemingway said, must always be true. Whenever I have writers block, Hemingway said once, I just say to myself, "Write one true sentence. You've done it before. You can do it again. Write one true sentence, then write another, then another."

Like the wooden beam that must be cut correctly and balanced correctly before it is nailed into place in order to keep the whole house from collapsing, the line of the beam must be true. That's what Hemingway meant. Not the fact. There is no fact. Only the sentence. And it's truth--or perhaps I should say, it's trueness--lies in the words chosen, 
the order of the words, the inflection conveyed by the words in the sentence (sarcasm? irony? etc.). One of the great sentences I ever came across in my life was from my first grade reader: "Run, Spot, run." Hemingway would have beamed at that one. . . .”
By Jack Grapes

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Writing critiques are not all alike

Sherwood Smith

I attended a Greater Los Angeles Writers Society critique session yesterday afternoon that was different from any I have ever been to before. It was led by author and writing workshop leader, Sherwood Smith.

First a little about Sherwood. She walked in at exactly 2:30, the time we were supposed to start. She was wearing a long flowing blue skirt that only showed her Birkenstock sandals and a ruffled jacket type top that matched. Her reddish brown hair pulled back from her plain unmade up face fell down her back past her butt and seemed to fold into her skirt. She had a black leather tote bag and carried a parasol – it was definitely not an umbrella. She sat down, got out her bottle of Fuji water, and arranged herself while Tony, our GLAWS leader, in his usual way started the meeting late, made lengthy announcements, and didn’t introduce her until almost 3:00. As she was waiting she took a fan out of her bag, unfolded it, and began to fan herself furiously. I was impatient too. I wanted the reading and critique to begin. Tony then told us to move our material to the table in front. And then Sherwood explained how our critique would work.

She told us first to move our seats so they were in two sections facing each other, not facing her up front. She said she would read two pages of each piece herself and not mention whom the author was. She told us to keep our eyes closed while listening to her read unless we were the author of the piece she was reading. We were to raise our hands – still with our eyes closed – if we had a reaction to what we were hearing. The author could keep his/her eyes open to see any audience reaction. At the end of each reading she would take a comment or two, make a comment or two herself and ask the author for a question or comment – about a minute critique total for each piece.

After shuffling the pages up, she started reading promptly at 3:00 and finished at 5:15. In between keeping my eyes shut during the readings I wrote down several comment points that I thought were applicable to my piece:
  • Start with a story
  • Name the characters – editors aren’t interested in a pronoun
  • Provide detail
  • Present a scene before the story – telling can be deadly
  • Move fast
  • You can create a strong character by talking tough
  • Get rid of the italics
  • Provide a big time hook
  • Don’t instruct the reader what to think about the character

All of this sounded very familiar. I’ve heard it many times before, so as the readings progressed all I could think was how my opening pages violated all those rules. I was gearing myself up for a comment to trash all my story and history telling and get on with the scene already.

My turn finally came – she read my piece near the very end – and as she read several hands bobbed up and down. I was encouraged by that.

When she finished she said even though she had told us over and over to get rid of the telling, my book, which she characterized as literary fiction – the best comment I could have hoped for – needed it. It needed a slow start with a retelling of the history involved at the time my book takes place. In fact, she suggested I add some more details about that history.

Well, for a two-page read and a one-minute critique, I felt my wait was very well worth it. Thank you Sherwood, you made my day.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A restaurant rant - why I won't eat at Gjelina's anymore

I met my friend Gail for lunch yesterday. She suggested a place about half-way between our homes on Abbott Kinney in Venice Ca., Gjelina, one of the new restaurant faves. I had been there once before about a year ago, and she goes there often with her son.

The menu there is quite creative. Gail had a chickpea stew with greens, israeli couscous and spiced yogurt and harissa, and I ordered a tuna sandwich with roasted peppers, arugula, and caper aoioli. I always order mindful of my dietary constraints. By a choice I made over thirty years ago I don't eat red meat of any kind, and I am lactose intolerant so I cannot eat dairy products.

We arrived a few minutes before Gjelina opened at 11:30 so we didn’t have to wait for a table. However, by the time we left at 1:00 the place was jammed with people waiting around the room's perimeter for tables. I suppose that they are so busy gives them permission for their no-substitution policy. 

This policy was stated to me when I asked that they leave off the ice cream on a piece of cake I wanted to order for dessert. No, said the server. We don’t do that. We won’t even put it on the side. She said I could move it to the side once I got the plate – but of course then I couldn’t eat it because ice cream would already be all over the top and seeping into the cake. What she was essentially saying to me is this restaurant doesn’t care if a customer with health issues makes a request in order to save him/her from getting sick from their food. 

So, I opted not to order any dessert, and the server lost a sale. She also lost my regular 18 to 20 percent tip. Gail and I agreed to only leave 10 percent.

I have never had this experience in a restaurant before. I’ve asked for the ice cream or whipped cream that is often served with cake or pie to be placed not only on the side but in a separate dish, and no one has ever flatly refused before. 

I find Gjelina's behavior unconscionable, and as a result it has lost my business forever - even though I admit the food I've eaten there is quite good. Hopefully those who read this piece will consider banning Gjelina or at least complaining as well. 

I get very ill if even a touch of dairy gets in my system. I would think that in these times when there are so many people with allergic and dietary issues, Gjelina would be more mindful and accommodating to its customers.

Hmmm. I just read a November 22, 2011 Huffington Post article about Gjelina that mentioned other blogger complaints about its no-substitution policy. Well, I wasn’t asking for a substitute. I was just asking for something to be left off the plate. The article was mainly about its recent drop from an A to a C-rated restaurant. Need I say more? Yes, I would give it an F. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Thinking outside the box when it comes to book sales

Okay, as promised here’s more about last Saturday's Digital Author's Conference.

Another thing Elaine Wilkes talked about was developing a list of outside the box businesses to approach about placing our books. In my post conference emails with her, she suggested I write a list of fifty such places – and I must say that is a tough assignment.   I got this far:

Magpie gift store
Soothe the Soul gifts and aromatherapy
University classes
Speaking engagements
UCLA Psych Department
Other mental health organizations
Book clubs
LA Times Festival of Books
Harmony Works gift store
Things Remembered gift store
Our House grief counseling organization
Grieving and suicide prevention sites’ recommended book lists

But I’m going to continue. I need to start reading Elaine’s material about how to get my book into all types of stores right away. Perhaps that will help me get to a list of fifty outside the box places.

 Get your book into

And I’d love your help as well. Where else do you sell your books – besides brick and mortar and online book stores?

Monday, February 13, 2012

What makes a book sell?

I attended the Digital Author’s Conference this past Saturday, sponsored by West Coast Writer’s Conferences with special recognition and discounts to Greater Los Angeles Writer’s Society members. Coincidentally, both are headed by Tony N. Todaro.

Tony and his staff do a great job in getting interesting and informative speakers to their events. I found some of the information presented on Saturday so beneficial to my writing life I thought I’d share a little bit here.

One was a mention of a blogger I recently started following (at the suggestion of Marketing the Muse’s Marla Miller) Seth Godin. I have been marveling at how much meaningful information Seth can impart with just a few lines of short sentences, short paragraphs, and a lot of white space on the page.

And Elaine Wilkes, Ph.D. who spoke about ways to place our books everywhere and how to write emails and books that get results said this is the kind of writing that is selling best right now:

Short – even one-line – paragraphs.

Two or three word sentences.

Not every sentence needs a subject and verb.

Another thing she stressed:  Our books are judged by our:
Subtitle that states the book’s benefit

Guess why? Buyers looking for books to place in their stores don’t have time to read book synopses.

Please see the right side bar for a link to Elaine's course on how to get your book into stores or click here

Okay you be the judge: does my cover, title, and subtitle pass her test?

That’s it for today. I’ll get into more of what I learned last Saturday in the next few days.