I owned and operated a bookstore for seven years, during which I sponsored at least one hundred book reading/signing events. I came to dread the part of the event when the author read from the book. I found this to be the least interesting, indeed, boring, part of the experience.
Authors routinely—not always—chose to read selections giving little or no context of plot and referencing characters to which the audience had virtually no prior introduction. I saw puzzled faces, yawns, and even some in the audience going to their phones.
So, when I had such an event for my own book, I decided to do something out of the ordinary. I dressed as one of the characters, in this case, the ghost of Ambrose Bierce, American writer and Civil War union soldier. When interviewed by the sponsor of the event, Mr. Bierce scolded and criticized the author of the book—uh, that would be me—.
My character did not hold back in offering his opinion of the shortcomings of what the author wrote—again, me—and thanked my editor for cutting a significant amount of tedious material. Mr. Bierce ultimately accepted that he was “comfortable” with how the book turned out.
I believe the audience engaged quickly with this twist, asking interesting questions addressed to the character in the book. Some of the questions posed were not always about the content of the book. One of the audience members asked if Mr. Bierce could lower the price of the book. Another asked about the biggest change in the world-of-the-living that Bierce had seen since his death. Mr. Bierce replied that it was the ability to sign one’s name with a finger.
Authors need to shake things up when they read from their book. Bring the book alive! A simple reading of a small section of their work seldom does the job. Consider not reading at all and simply talk about yourself and how the book came to be.
A New Haunt for Mr. Bierce is sold wherever books are sold. Now available in print, e-book, and audio formats. Signed print copies at www.page158books.com Shipping available.
A Baseball Analogy for Authors
In the game of baseball, multiple skills are necessary. Most players are known for one or two specific key talents, say hitting or fielding. But if a player can hit for average, hit for power, run fast, and catch and throw skillfully, they are known as “five-tool players.”
One might consider a similar dynamic for authors. Some are better at one element of writing and maybe not others. What would qualify an author as a “five-tool author?”
First there must be the idea, or the inspiration. Whether fiction or non-fiction, there must be a story to be told, the initial creative phase. Then the story, memoir, history, or whatever genre must be polished to readable sentences and paragraphs, all presented in a narrative that is rewarding to a reader.
Then comes the obvious baseball reference; the author needs to know how to “pitch.” The author must be skillful in print or spoken word in giving a concise and appealing description of the writing to a potential reader.
At all steps of development for an author, it is important to connect to other authors, to publishers, editors, critics, and a multitude of others who can both influence and spread the word about the writing. Several years ago, the North Carolina Writers Network proposed the following theme: “No one writes alone.”
Finally, an author must be media savvy. “Book tour” once meant the author driving from place to place with a trunk full of books, hoping that interest would evolve. Now we have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (and more) plus Soundcloud and YouTube…I could go on.
A five-tool author must be able to create, polish, pitch, connect to people, and master the “matrix.” Perhaps then, the “hall of fame” may come calling. Hey, a boy can dream.
Hey, it’s personal. I did the work to create this book. I did the work to market it, to put it out there for others to judge… and to purchase. Fortunately, I’ve been through this a few times. This is not my first book. I’ve been rewarded with praise and humbled by indifference.
I also have the experience of once owning a bookstore and in that role hosted at least sixty events for other authors. Some of these authors, irrespective of the value of their work, managed their expectations well. Others not so much.
More than once I had authors angry with me for a rather small turnout of readers. This led me to create a short, written guide to the authors about what to expect from a store like mine. I gave suggestions as to what is necessary to gather an audience.
There were other times when the visiting author was genuinely delighted even though only a handful of people showed up. You could sense the appreciation felt that anyone would take the better part of an afternoon or evening to show interest in the book.
Some authors are thrilled to simply have brought a book to completion. Others feel a personal injury about not having sold a million copies. I’m somewhere in the middle. Hey, a boy can dream!
Beyond the above, I do expect a few things to happen. I will meet other people, authors and editors, (virtually for now) and be rewarded by the experience. I will read things that are new in the world or legacy writing that I once ignored. These things will assist me in my future writing efforts, and I will keep writing. I expect to be surprised by what I will write in the future.
Most people who review my work say I need to write sentences that are shorter and less complex. Really good writing, “they” say, presents sentences that are direct and clear. Certainly vary the length, but avoid those quarter page meandering structures filled with asides, allusions and multiple modifiers.
But there are those writers who write long and wonderful sentences that can only be described as luxurious and a joy to read. I once diagrammed a Salman Rushdie half page long sentence just to see if I remembered how to do that kind of grammatical exercise. It was such a beautiful sentence, well-constructed and effectively communicated.
And then there is Henry James. The beauty of his descriptions of both the setting and the inner workings of the human soul is like listening to a symphony orchestra. I understand if you prefer the clarity of a violin’s single note and its amazing gracefulness, but give me the multiple chords and contributions of many instruments weaving in and out of harmony and solo.
Here’s an example of a sentence from The Portrait of a Lady, describing the essence of a gentleman:
If he had English blood in his veins it had probably received some French or Italian commixture; but he suggested, fine gold coin as he was, no stamp or emblem of the common mintage that provides for general circulation; he was the elegant complicated medal struck off for a special occasion.
Reviewers and editors, put away your pens and autocorrect programs! Accept my snobbery that if you are compelled to re-punctuate, cut, and substitute, you are just not willing to do the work of the respectful reader. Please just enjoy the music of words.
Why Write Fiction?
Sometimes when I see a news story or read history, I wonder why anyone is motivated to write fiction. The real world is so interesting, and sometimes so strange, the stories are right there already. Do we really need to create new characters and imaginary events and situations?
Of course, many works that are considered fiction draw from real life. The title character of The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James is commonly known to be informed by his relationships with a sister and a cousin. Many other characters in his fiction are recognizable as real people. Detailed descriptions of actual rooms of homes appear in a fictitious context.
When I wrote my first book of fiction, someone who knows me well commented, “Well, looks like you put about half your life in that one.” Few people would have known that, but how far can we go with such a truth? Is there really such a thing as fiction? Is everything we write a form of autobiography?
Another way to think about this is to consider the artistic concept of surrealism. In the most popular definition of surrealism, this involves creating art through the juxtaposition of what seems like irrational images that bubble up from the unconscious mind. But the unconscious mind is still you. These images are from you.
Can we transpose this dynamic to the writer of fiction? Perhaps unaware we rewrite our own story? In our writing we go back and choose the road not taken in our “real” life? Maybe through made up characters we are expressing our own emotions, or releasing hidden exultations, hopes, fears, hates, and loves and we call it fiction.
Is putting it on the page not the same as owning it, either as a wish or a fear? Could we call this an accusation from the unconscious mind, or even a guilty plea? Whatever you create, is it not you?
Two Famous Brothers and a Book Review
I have become obsessed with two brothers, William and Henry James. Born in the mid-1800s, each achieved fame in different fields of study and work. William James makes everyone’s short list of history’s most influential psychologists, laying the groundwork for others, sometimes called the father of American psychology. His younger brother Henry makes the same kind of list for the most influential novelists of the English language.
I am immersing myself in the works and the lives of both men. I practiced psychiatry for 40 years and am now trying to find my way as an author of fiction and memoir. Need I say more about the attraction to me of these men?
The question that presents is who knows best the human heart, those who analyze and study it, or the writer who observes and describes it?
In my exploration of the writing and the life of Henry James, the novelist, I have come upon one of the most remarkable books I have read, The Master, by Colm Toibin. The book is not easily described.
Toibin, Professor of Humanities at Columbia University, takes the voluminous information about James’s life and work and creates a novel that attempts to describe the mind and heart of this great writer. One way to describe the book is an imagined inner life of a very private man, indeed, even a description of the creative process itself.
The Master is not a biography. Some reviewers hesitate to endorse the book as truly capturing James’s experiences. Others, including John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), praise Toibin as doing “more than observe Henry James, he inhabits him.”
Beyond the question of fidelity to James, Toibin’s skill and beauty as a novelist himself is stunning. Should one read The Master simultaneously with Portrait of a Lady by James, one might say that James inhabits Toibin and delivers through him the emotional intimacy and psychological subtlety for which James is known.
Some people write a book or two and are happy to simply have done that. They don’t really go full bore into the activities that come with the author’s life. Some of these tasks are great fun, others not so much.
The 100th time I review my completed manuscript looking for errors is a slog. Even less fun is when my editor says to take out a section because it really does not add anything to the story. What? That was the best thing I’ve ever written!
Twice I have gone to the keyboard with a day open for creative triumphs and found the power out in the neighborhood. No, I don’t have battery backup. Where’s my antique Remington typewriter?
Then there is marketing. So many “vital” online options. So many sign-ups and unique passwords, more than eight letters, at least one upper case…and so on. Phone calls or emails to bookstores and other places to try to wrangle a virtual or in person audience are, simply put, work. I do enjoy reaching out to other authors to ask for an endorsement for my book, but not when I need to call back multiple times as the deadline approaches. I feel like a beggar at the banquet.
It is fun to do “research,” meaning read other books that may inform my own, such as how ghosts are presented in other works. A piece of trivia, or a more substantial historical fact, may find its way into a character I am trying to develop. One simply must love reading.
Then from time to time, I find a day when everything works. A character or a plot line I am struggling with becomes obvious. I’m in the zone. I need a new character and, boom, there she is. I spend six straight hours writing, oblivious to everything else other than necessary bodily functions. Fatigue? Forget about it. Finally, I must go start dinner, but I have twelve to twenty pages.
That’s what I call fun!
From the time the bookmobile came up my rural dirt driveway, when I was ten years old, I knew I would study literature in college. I was accorded sufficient accolades in undergraduate school to gain admission to the doctoral program of a large state university.
Then I started to doubt. I lost confidence that I could earn a living with an English degree. There was also something unrewarding about the way college literature programs were structured. There was little joy or adventure. It seemed to have turned into a quest to remember enough facts to repeat them back on written tests.
One professor gave the same tests every year for each of his courses. My undergraduate school’s fraternities and sororities had an ongoing “project” to remember all the questions and pass them on to others. If you were “Greek” you had a good chance to ace every test whether you read the assignments or not. They also had a sizable library of essay papers that had scored well in the past.
So, I changed course, went to medical school, and practiced psychiatry for 40 years. But I always knew I would “come home.” Now retired from medicine, I am immersing myself in a loosely structured self-study program.
I find it very exciting to go where my interests take me. Authors who bored me fifty years ago are now thrilling. Like Henry James. What? Henry James thrilling? Maybe it’s those 40 years in psychiatry that makes fascinating how an author’s life experiences molded his writing.
After a few years of my self-selected curriculum, I just may give myself an honorary degree. How does “Major of English Literature” sound?
Honoring a Writer: Chapter Two
In part, this blog is a revisit of one I wrote in December of 2019, about how one might honor an admired writer. If you are interested, that blog is in the archive section on my web site at http://www.edrewbridges.com/drews-blog/honoring-a-writer
I make no secret of the fact that I continue to be obsessed with Ambrose Bierce, American civil war union soldier and writer/journalist. The less than obsessed reader may be familiar with his short story, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. This story regularly appears on the short list of greatest American short stories.
He wrote about the experience of the everyday soldier in war. While I have no experience in war myself, others have opined that no one, before or since, has captured the true nature of the soldier’s experience in battle. What I Saw of Shiloh is a good place to start if one wants to read Bierce on this topic.
Bierce’s writing was not limited to war. His Devil’s Dictionary is a collection of humorous and bitter reflections on the human condition. He has been called the “dark side of Mark Twain.” There’s more, but I need to stop somewhere.
So, what have I done to continue to honor him, and perhaps interest new readers in this remarkable writer? I have written a fiction novel about him. It is called A New Haunt for Mr. Bierce. This book is an imagined afterlife of Bierce and asks the reader for a considerable measure of suspension of disbelief, including the proposition that the book is a collaboration between Bierce and me, between the quick and the dead.
In the book, Bierce has been displaced from the house he was haunting and needs to find an appropriate new residence. On this search he encounters other new spirits and against their better judgement, they join a quest to save a human life. In this version of the afterlife, spirits, or ghosts, should not be able to intervene in the lives of the living, but they are pulled into something new in this life beyond mortal death. Read it as a supernatural mystery or as a reflection on aging, loss, and death.
The book is ready for preorder, for a January 10th release. Order from your favorite bookseller, or reserve a signed print copy through www.page158books.com
A Book Is Born
I have a new book coming out in January 2022, and I’m having a hard time knowing exactly how to market it. It does not fit neatly into any genre, and I’m not confident who would really enjoy this book.
Why did I write such a book? I’ll tell you about that later, but first let me tell you about the book. It is a work of fiction about an actual historical figure, Ambrose Bierce, American civil war Union soldier and writer. It describes a portion of his stay in the afterlife, and the other spirits he encounters there. He joins a quest to save a human life.
This is not historical fiction because it deals with an imaginary world and his place in it at a time after his earthly death. There is a murder, but not much question who did it, so not actually a mystery in the way that genre is usually configured.
It is not a book about religion, but I do create a version of the afterlife with which some may quibble or even be uncomfortable. Some of it is a reflection on aging and death.
The title is A New Haunt for Mr. Bierce, referring to the part of the story where he is displaced from the house he is haunting and needs another. The house he finds becomes a sort of character in the story.
So, why did I write this in the way that I did? It is about my admiration, even obsession with the writing of Ambrose Bierce. How I encountered his work and the degree to which I immersed myself in his writing is beyond the scope of this brief blog.
In the process of taking a deep dive into his life and his work, I had a dream. This dream suggested the basic story line and then the characters took over. Really. That happened.
I read. I write. I learn. I’m in a writing group and I have four published books. I’m still pretty sure I’m not Steinbeck, but my heart and soul have found their way back to where they should be.