Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Setting, Scenes and Book Signings

Jean Hegland

I have mentioned before on this blog how much I enjoy belonging to a writers club. It is the process of interacting with others who share my obsession with the written word that inspires the creative flame within me.

This past weekend my club sponsored the second of three editing workshops and had its monthly meeting.

So I saw writing friends and colleagues on both Saturday and Sunday. On the drive home Sunday night I felt euphoric.

Things had gone fabulously and I had some incredible new insights that will inform my future writing and that I wanted to share with my blog readers.

Jean Hegland, author of Into the Forest, led a workshop regarding the importance of setting. She began with the situation of a person waking up from a coma and that the first thing they would ask is, "Where am I?"

That is the question that a writer needs to answer when they begin a story or a scene so that the reader will know whether it is day or night, what season, what year, whether it is indoors or outdoors and where this scene takes place geographically. Because each choice has an impact on the overall story.

Setting gives a story verisimilitude when it takes readers to a place they have not been before or if it is to a place in which they are familiar. It is vitally important to get the details right for if you choose a real location and say you put a grocery store on the wrong side of the road, those who know the area will complain.

Jean then gave an example of how important it is choosing settings for individual scenes and how by playing with your choices you can change the tone and meaning of a scene.

She referenced Jordan Rosenfeld's earlier workshop about scenes and Jordan's insistence that a scene not be comprised of "talking heads in space" and that each scene involve some action. Then Jean gave an example of an action such as a couple having sex where the setting chosen would reveal character.

The actions by the characters could be written the same, but depending on the setting the meaning and the tone of the scene would be different.

The following were the three different settings she used to illustrate her point:

1) a cemetery (ewwww)
2)
a bedroom
3) a boardroom

During that discussion I could not help but blurt out my "ewwww" comment in the class, which led to a nice round of laughter from the group. Camaraderie among writers is a wonderful thing.

Jordan Rosenfeld

Now onto the subject of scenes which was Jordan Rosenfeld's topic. She described scenes as the building blocks of a story similar to beads on a wire. Meaning that each scene needs to be complete in and of itself and it is the stringing together of the scenes that create the overall story.

Each scene should be comprised of:

action
character
POV (point of view) in which the scene is communicated
new information revealed
conflict and drama
and it must take place in a tangible setting

In other words: No talking heads in space!

She also stressed that not only is the first scene in your book important to hook your readers, but that as each character of any relevance is introduced that you must take the time to recognize that this is their first scene. Writers must reveal something compelling about each important new character without resorting to a data dump summary.

Jordan feels that it is better to give such information via dialogue and action than by summary. Ye olde "show don't tell" maxim.

She described dramatic tension as a sense of danger, complexity, mystery and a sense of discovery. Each scene should have some dramatic tension. She also stressed the need for variety in the style of scenes so that there are peaks and valleys in the tempo or else the reader will become either fatigued or bored.

Plot is created in relationship to the scenes. She gave a list of 4 D's for plot revelation that each scene must include at least one of these:

Dialogue
Discovery
Demonstration (such as a flash of unexpected anger)
Devices - e.g. letters or memorabilia

She described a well balanced scene as one where the reader is:

not confused
knows the setting
knows the characters
there is tension and drama

The time to change a scene is denote a break with time, place or POV. That can be done with a full chapter break or by using a blank space within a chapter to signify the change.

For those interested in knowing more about Jordan's thoughts on scenes, you can buy her excellent book Make a Scene

by Writers Digest Books at your local bookstore or available online.

Then on Sunday at the monthly meeting of my writers club we had Stephanie Deignan the events coordinator of Copperfield's Books come and speak.

Stephanie Deignan

For several years now I had wanted to schedule a speaker who could give the bookstore's point of view in regard to author appearances. I had approached two other events coordinators in the past to give such a talk, but they declined. So I was excited when last summer I spoke with Stephanie on the phone and she accepted.

I wanted our members to know how to go about getting an event scheduled, what to expect in regard to publicizing from the bookstore, and what their responsibilities are in order to have a successful event.

Stephanie started by saying that we should all be aware that bookstores are understaffed and underpaid and so when you approach a bookseller in the hopes of arranging a signing, you need to be understanding and patient. The information that you need is to discover the name of the events coordinator, their phone number and email address. Do not bother the harried bookseller with the information about you or your book as it will probably get lost in the shuffle.

In your initial contact via phone (most likely a voice mail message) and email you should include your name, your contact information, the title of your book, the publisher information, give a brief synopsis about what the book is about, any publicity information such as radio interviews scheduled, any published reviews, as well as book distribution information. Mention if it is carried by Ingram, Baker and Taylor or a smaller independent publishing distributor or if it is a POD title (print on demand) which would necessitate being on consignment.

Then be patient and wait for a few days or so to hear back. Be professional and be willing to call back if necessary. Again, they are short staffed and bookstore employees are trying their best.

Stephanie at some point discussed the difficulty bookstores have with PODs titles because generally they are non-returnable. Bookstores will order POD titles for customers if it is paid at the time of ordering, but they do not want to be stuck with books they cannot return and might never be able to sell.

The different kinds of author events were described as "traditional author talks" where an author talks about their book, does a short reading, a question and answer session and then signs books versus "meet and greets" where a table is set up and an author can interact with customers in a more informal setting and talk one on one instead of to a group.

She said that for authors who are not yet established would find it easier to have a "meet and greet" scheduled than an "author talk." If for no other reason than it causes less havoc for booksellers since they do not have to rearrange the bookshelves in the store to make room for chairs for people who may or may not show up to the signing.

She admitted that the emphasis that bookstores give to publicizing their author events is tiered depending on the name recognition of the authors. Those who are big named authors are given "A list" treatment and more time is spent on trying to generate crowds. Then publicizing for "B list" and "C list" authors are by necessity given less time and energy. This comes back to the reality of being understaffed.

That means that a large onus of publicizing the events rests on the shoulders of authors. Once you have a scheduled event, you must do as much to publicize as you can by utilizing the old tried and true methods of fliers, posters, and postcards, as well as newer media such as online events calendars, keeping an up-to-date website with your events listings, and social media such as Facebook and blogs.

She also stressed the influence that radio interviews can have in making the events a success. If you should be lucky enough to score a radio interview with someone like Michael Krasny of KQED Radio - who has an audience known for being book buying fiends - be sure to let a bookstore know so that they can buy adequate stock. Recently an author returned for a signing and after having been interviewed on Krasny's show and he drew a significantly larger crowd than the had the year before with a previous title. The problem was that the publicist did not alert the store and there were not enough books on hand to meet demand.

Which is why authors should always carry at least a box of books with them to signings...just in case. You never know when a bookstore's order might not come through on time due to blizzards in the midwest or strikes by UPS, etc.

(A few side notes: if you are lucky enough to score a radio interview prior to a book signing, do not forget to mention your scheduled book store event including the date, time and location. That is what will bring people into the store and get their butts in the seats for your signing! And if you want to know more about what to expect with talk radio and radio interviews you can read an old post of mine on the subject of the Do's and Don'ts of Talk Radio.)

On the day of your event you should call the store early in the day to confirm, arrive early and check in with a bookseller. You should bring a sign up sheet for those who would like to be on your mailing list as well as fliers to any upcoming events such as workshops or conferences. You should also bring postcards with the cover of your book, business cards and even book marks with your website and blog addresses. Make it easy for people who are interested in you to follow your career.

Stephanie suggested an event drawing between five to ten people for small authors is doing good. She also said that if there is a ratio of 30%-50% of books sold to the number of attendees present than it is a successful signing.

During the discussion with our members, Persia Woolley mentioned another reason for authors to always be prepared. One time she went to a signing and the author never showed. The audience was getting restless and being a trooper - she offered to pitch in and give a talk about her book. The events coordinator was thrilled to have someone save the day and she had the opportunity to talk to an audience she otherwise would not have had.

Stephanie thought that was great of Persia to help out in that manner.

Persia then said that the favor wound up being returned by another author when she got lost trying to find a small venue. She arrived late after finally getting directions from someone at a gas station and discovered that another author had warmed up the crowd in the interim. (Another reason for authors to keep a box of books in the trunk of your car. You just never know when you will get a chance to sign and sell them!)

Stephanie was asked about timing of when to start trying to schedule events at bookstores and she thought that two months before publication would be a good time to start. Then on the other end is how long you have before the books start getting returned. That happens at about three months post publication for hardcovers and six months for everything else. So after about a year of publication unless your book has really taken off, it will be hard to interest a bookstore in doing an event.

Her last words of wisdom on the subject was to enjoy yourself and make it fun.



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