Authors Can Be Sitting Ducks

Isn’t it amazing what people think they can say to authors at signings or readings?

They’ll criticize characters, plot, writing style, or the way a book ends–and rudely, too.  And then not even buy a book.  They’ll just unload on the author who’s a captive and has to be polite and just take it, no matter how unfair and uninformed the comments may be.

Mean NerdSometimes events can work your last nerve, but sometimes the situation’s just different enough where you don’t just take it.  That happened to me once at a university where things went awry from my getting off the plane.  The minion picking me up announced that she had no sense of direction, and got me lost 1) in the airport 2) in the parking structure and 3) in the city on the way to my hotel when we went drove in the wrong direction for at least ten minutes.

road-map-lost-imageWhen we finally got to it, the hotel room in a dinky “annex” was filthy with cobwebs and dust balls everywhere.  I called the host professor and asked to be moved somewhere else, but he insisted on seeing it for himself, assuming I was a diva, I guess.  He took one look and moved me to a Hilton Garden Inn.  But that was the end of his competence, because rather than do a short intro to my talk and reading, he read from my official, page-long author biography.  Slowly.

I timed him.  It took ten minutes.  And he stuttered.  Still, I made it through and was doing fine until the Q&A when someone raised my first novel Winter Eyes where a son of survivors is unsure of his sexuality and sleeps with a man and a woman at different times.  That gay reader accused me of “brutalizing” him with the open ending, and leaving him alone with his pain.

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I wasn’t rude, but I said plainly that he had misread the book and the characters who believed at the end that labels didn’t matter at that moment in their lives.  And if he was in pain, it wasn’t the fault of my book, but his issues that he needed to deal with.

I’d never been that assertive in a Q&A, but it had to be said.

Would I have replied as I did if the afternoon and early evening had gone better?  Maybe not.  But I felt I had to stick up for myself as an author and stick up for my book.  And for authors everywhere….

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.  Follow him on Twitter at

What Authors Never Say At Book Signings

airplane_0Being an author on a book tour can be a wonderful experience, until things go wrong: missed flights, poor turnouts, noisy and uncomfortable hotels, cab drivers taking you to the wrong book store in the wrong part of town, hotel WiFi crapping out–and a host of other problems that can work your last nerve.

So sometimes your charm can wear very thin, and you start to feel that the same kinds of remarks or questions you’ve heard before feel like swings people are taking at a piñata.

800px-pinata_in_san_diegoThe stress can leave you most vulnerable when you’re marooned at a table waiting for people to come over and get a book to be signed.  This isn’t after a reading, but when all the bookstore wants you to do is just sit and sign.  You end up feeling like you’re not much more than somebody’s desperate grandmother at a weekend yard sale trying to unload worthless junk rather than an artist selling a book you’ve slaved over.

LandscapeHere are some moments many authors have experienced, and what some of them might have been thinking in their weary, frazzled, tortured little hearts.

Scene: Customer rifles through a book for five or more minutes while the author sits at the bookstore table grinning stupidly and helpfully, imagining alternative realities that would have kept her home: a stalled car or a civil insurrection or just a plain old flu.

sick in bedCustomer puts book down and mutters, “I’ll get it on Amazon.”  Customer trundles off.

Author would love to say: “I won’t sign it on friggin’ Amazon!”

Or Customer asks, “Will I like it?”

Author would love to say, “You will adore it.  It’s gonna improve your sex life, give you a green thumb, help you lose weight (and seriously, honey, it’s time because have you seen yourself from behind?), get your kids into their first choice colleges, and make your dog stop peeing on the couch.”

guilty dogCustomer says out of the blue, after inspecting as if it might have bed bugs, “I don’t read much.”

Author would love to say, “I could tell from the vacant look in your eyes.”

Customer sighs after putting the book back upside down and face down, “I have so many books at home that I have to read first.”

Author would love to say, “This is way better than the trash you’re used to.”

Customer bustles up to you and scolds you at length for some plot point in your last book and says you better not have repeated the same mistake in the new one.

Author would love to say, “I’m so grateful!  That was amazing advice! Nobody’s ever pointed that out to me before!  I’m dedicating my next book to you!  Here, take a free book!  No, take two!”

Friend_hugLev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in many genres.

Authors: Don’t Sabotage Your Book Readings

Readings make a lot of writers nervous.  After all, we spend most of our time alone, well, alone with the voices in our head, anyway.

writing handsSo you can understand that for some of us, when we get invited to speak about our work and read from it at a book store or library or college, we goof.  We don’t choose the right excerpt, we don’t take the time to plan our remarks, we don’t practice our reading.

But the most egregious thing I’ve seen authors do is sabotage their own readings without any idea they’re doing it.  What do I mean?

Some authors will feel their best chance of establishing a bond with their audience is to start with something like, “On the way over here, I was going over about what I planned to say” or “When I was invited here today, I was wondering what you might want to hear” or even “I haven’t tried it before, but I’m pretty sure this part of the book might work.”

boratTaking people “behind the scenes” in those ways can come across as way too informal.  It’s also inappropriate. The audience doesn’t need to hear about how you put your talk and reading together or hear you share your doubts.  This isn’t a workshop about doing an event–this is the event itself.  There’s really no need to start with any kind of “process preamble.”

Then there are the authors trying way too hard to be funny. Of course, jokes or cute anecdotes are fine, but keep them short–if you go that route at all. Your work is what you’re there to represent, not your dazzling comedic personality.  Because remember at the end of the day, you’re still a writer, not Chris Rock or a talk show host whose meanderings are part of the act.  Nobody invited you for your shtik.

ellenSome authors nervously mark time.  Sharing a stage with other authors they’ll mistakenly  comment, “Well, it’s been a long night, and–”  Yes it has, but keep that to yourself and pretend everyone just got there. Or, “As the middle author of five tonight, I think I should be the one to boost your energy in case it’s flagging…”  No you shouldn’t.  What if people weren’t tired until you said it?  And if they were, your bringing it up isn’t likely to make them feel better.  Or, “I’m going to keep this short.”  Whoa!  That’ll make the audience start looking at watches rather than you.

Don’t ever take your audience behind the scenes. You need to play your part in a solo or group event without calling attention to the performance in any way–and that’s exactly what it is, a performance in front of an audience.  What you need to exemplify is the Italian sprezzatura: the art that conceals all art.  Do you want to come across as polished, or do you want to possibly come across as uncertain and even bumbling?

WizOfOzGetting things right takes a lot of time and effort.  It also takes thinking through every aspect of the event, from the nature of your audience to your goals to your own role as, like it or not, the star–or at least co-star.  The audience deserves it, whether you’re speaking to 5 or 500.

Lev Raphael has done hundreds of invited talks and readings on three different continents–and in more than one language.  He’s the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery and you can find them on Amazon.

Secret Shame & Public Joy: The Writer’s Life Can Be Crazy

Writers don’t tend to talk openly about their disappointments. It’s too revealing and often too painful. But we’ve all had them in one form or another, whether it’s a prize we didn’t get or a book that bombed.

My biggest one in a decades-long career came by way of an agent. This wasn’t your ordinary agent.  Oh, no.  She was one of the biggest in the country, with clients on the best seller list and a history of major deals.

When she read my book, she gave me the kind of feedback for making changes you’d expect from best, smartest most tuned-in editor. And her emails were as upbeat as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Working with her her was like jamming with a fellow jazz musician–we were so much in sync. But there were some false notes. She wanted the book to open in a way I thought was deadly dull, and she wanted to change the title to something awful.

I won about the title, but caved on the opening. Maybe she saw something I didn’t? Then she she arranged meetings in New York with almost two dozen bigwigs in publishing–people at the very top of their houses or imprints, people I’d read about but never dreamed would be looking at a book of mine.

Her talk was as bold and inspiring as her editorial advice. There was going to be an auction, and she thought $100,000 was a good floor. This was dizzying to someone who’d never gotten more than a $15,000 advance on a book.

Then the bomb dropped. She launched her campaign to sell my book just before Thanksgiving, even though I’d expressed some anxiety about that, it because I’d always thought the period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s was when publishing slowed way, way down. At least in my experience, and I had published quite few books by then. On top of that, the stock market collapsed in New York, publishers were firing staff and in a state of panic, and nobody was buying big books–not even from her.

depressionI’ll never know if she would have sold the book in a better financial climate, but I do know she dropped me in a New York minute, wouldn’t consider revisions and acted as if as if I had somehow disappointed her.  Her advice at that point was brief: “Why don’t you write a memoir? Those are flying out the door!”  And then she handed me off to her assistant.

I was crushed. That’s not hyperbole.  Six years later, the wound of being revved up by her and then dropped still stings.

I told her I’d already written a memoir that was being published (and had sold before I signed with her) and couldn’t just write another on command.  Besides, even if I could, I wondered if she would have as much success with a memoir as she had with my novel.

Ironically, that memoir hadn’t earned me much of an advance, but when it was published soon after this debacle, it scored me dozens of very well-paid speaking gigs in the U.S., Canada, and Germany.  I made many new friends, And then I sold my current and future literary papers to Michigan State University’s Special Archives for a satisfying sum at a time when authors I know were having trouble giving their papers away.

A very dark time turned deeply fulfilling, almost magical. As we say in New York, “Who knew?”  When I related this crazy sequence of events to a friend, he said, “Writers can be as normal as anyone else, but their lives are manic depressive.”  And he couldn’t be more right.  We go from high to low, sometimes within the same day, out careers as crazy as the stock market, trying to hold onto what really matters: the work we’ve devoted our lives to.

inexpressible_joy

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His work is taught in colleges and universities across the U.S. and has been translated into 15 languages.  You can read more about his books at his web site.

Digital Diet? Not For Me.

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Years ago, I followed health guru Andrew Weill’s advice and took a “news fast.”  I stopped reading newspapers and news web sites for six weeks.  I found myself calmer during that period, and spending more time both working and enjoying myself.  I read more books, I wrote more, I relaxed more.

Lately I’ve seen talk about “digital diets” or fasts: taking time to unhook completely from our constant connectedness.  I get that.  I actually returned my Android phone six months after I bought it and went back to a pre-smart phone.  I had found myself more obsessed with email than usual, checking it at doctors’ offices, on line at the post office, even when I was in my car stopped at red lights or train crossings.  I decided I need more free time away from work, and the phone was just too tempting.

But going cold turkey, for even a week?  I just can’t.  It doesn’t make sense from a business standpoint. Like most authors, my professional life is digital.

E-mail Symbol Laptops Shows Mailing On Web Stock Image

If my publisher or my editor contacts me, it’s via email.  If an editor wants me to write a story or essay for a new anthology, that’s how I heard.  Ditto with other authors or anyone who’s found my email address via my web site and wants to write me fan mail or invite me to speak at a conference, a university, a library or any of the many other venues where I do talks and readings from my work.

I’ve done entire book tours here and abroad without ever needing the phone.  In fact, the only time I’m on the phone for business is firming up details that have already been set up via email, and that’s infrequently.  And when I am connecting via phone, I’m often simultaneously checking details on line, or even emailing something to whoever’s called me.

Now that I’m also a visiting assistant professor at Michigan State University, a digital fast makes even less sense. I need to stay in touch with my students and also with other faculty members. That’s become specially important as I continue to work on the planning for a study abroad program I’m co-leading in London this summer.  Emails to various people and institutions in London have been legion.

The place where I can cut back, though, is Facebook.  I think I can live without cute cat videos for a week.  Who knows, maybe even six weeks…..

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Author

I’ve done hundreds of talks and readings from my books across the U.S. and in Canada, and in Great Britain, Germany, Austria, France, and Israel.

When I’m picked up on tour at a train station or airport, one of the most frequent questions is a rhetorical one: “This must be pretty exciting, right?”

It is.  I’m an extrovert.  I love meeting new people and speaking to new groups.  I prepare extensively for every gig I do: finding out as much as I can about the audience and venue in advance, then writing talking points, studying and rehearsing those, and practicing my reading to get it right.

It helps that I did so much theater in college, and that I’ve taught for many years as well and feel comfortable as a performer of my own work–and my own life.  And yet there’s always a trace of sadness, too, that’s unrelated to being away from home.

I was recently in Marquette, Michigan, a picturesque town of about nine thousand, and my days there typify being a tourist author. I did five different talks starting with a keynote at the beautiful interfaith Holocaust memorial ceremony.  My time there was more intense than a typical tourist’s would be.

I got to see the area from the local standpoint because I met so many natives and so many people who’d moved there either from elsewhere in the Midwest and around the country.  I saw the beautiful tiny synagogue in tiny Ishpeming, which has remarkable stained glass windows and feels like a spiritual jewel  box.  Members told me about the area’s Jewish migration patterns and gave me an in-depth look at local sites and drives.  The beautiful downtown with its late 19th century stone buildings and churches was especially impressive.

And I had what I always have, whatever the city or country: intense talks with people I’ll probably never see again.  I was lucky to be there three nights, because it’s rare to spend more than one or two days on tour as an author.

The whole experience is intense, and wonderful, and fulfilling–and then it’s over way too soon. That dynamic repeats itself over and over and over.   That’s one thing I never expected when I launched my career as writer many years ago: the miles it would put on me, the smiles, too, but also the sadness of random, lovely contacts that fade away–until the next tour.