The Wednesday edition of my regular blog over at Eat, Sleep Write.
The Wednesday edition of my regular blog over at Eat, Sleep Write.
The Wednesday edition of my regular blog over at Eat, Sleep Write.
Today’s installment of my writing blog on Eat, Sleep, Write. Today we talk about self doubt, sometimes called ‘Impostor Syndrome,’ an all-too-common trait in creative people.
I think it’s one of the most used metaphors in existence, ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover.’ And while I agree with the sentiment, in general it’s not wise to judge people or things on appearances, the truth is — at least as far as the world of book publishing — this rule just does not apply anymore.
I think the saying comes from the not too distant past, when all books had hardcovers, and the most decorative thing you could manage was splurging for the good leather.
These days the cover seems like a vitally important part of the book, I would say they are as important as cover art for albums back in the day when albums mattered.
I have seen many authors lately sharing some of their cover ideas. Some are better than others. Many authors still just do not recognize the importance of this step.
We spend countless hours writing and rewriting and then editing and re-editing, I think it is important to give the book cover the same degree of time and devotion. These are the containers we use to package our product, and they are so much a part of the product themselves. A good cover can persuade sales, and likewise a bad cover can keep a great book from being read.
I learned a lot putting together Meowing on the Answering Machine. I am glad Kat Mellon jumped in when she did, otherwise I would be on the other side of this article and probably simmering.
There was a time when book reviews in newspapers or magazines were not accompanied by a picture of the cover, because at the time it wasn’t considered important or relevant. These days are gone. It’s probably the internet to blame once again, the market is cluttered with publishers and independents fighting for a sliver of attention for their work and will use any means they have to hook a potential reader. And these days so much of our retail world and social lives are online, the chances are good that a majority of people will first encounter your book as a thumbnail.
This is important to keep in mind when you design your cover. Besides looking at how it will look when printed at say 6 by 9 in paperback format, you want to also make sure it looks good, the title and your name are legible when the image is reduced to 110 x 75 pixels.
I believe it’s important to recognize what the cover is and what its purpose is. It is meant as a representation of your product, if you are writing horror your cover should convey this. If the image and feel doesn’t complement the story, you run a risk of frustrating your readers.
When we get down to basics, your cover is the packaging of your product. Every detail should be aimed toward describing the product, as well as attracting attention and persuading people to take a chance. Your blurb should be short, direct and intriguing. Give them some mystery, a struggle or a contradiction, something to make them want to investigate further.
‘It was a dark and stormy night,‘ and almost any talk about the weather or the atmosphere or the ‘tension in the air’ probably should be snipped out of your sixty thousand word manuscript, descriptions such as these have absolutely no place in your two-hundred-words-or-less blurb, where they will stick out like a sore, but boring, thumb. Show us conflict and intrigue, make us want to crack the book open.
Get professional help if you can. I generally believe in the ‘you get what you pay for’ adage. But there are a ton of cover artists on the internet with a variety of different skills and a wide range of prices. Some of them are authors themselves and may be willing to help out a fellow writer, especially if they believe in your work.
But even if you do it yourself, take the time and do it right. If possible, don’t do it with the cover creator programs that createspace and lulu offer. These are functional and ‘okay,’ but do not give you many options and make it difficult to get a really professional look. I believe even using free software like GIMP, or even Paint, will let you make a more professional looking product.
But recognize what your cover is, it will be the first impression many people have of your work, and in some cases it will be the factor between tossing it in the cart or putting it back on the shelf. Make sure you honestly represent your work, and take this opportunity to hook a new reader, make it impossible for them to put that book back down.
Usually when you see these guys with the extreme low-rider baggy pants, it is two fifth graders, standing one on the other’s shoulders, most likely sneaking into an R rated movie.
Oh, Mrs. Williams, if you could only see me now, a couple thousand feet above the east coast, swirling around, twisting in the clouds and probably about to die. I hope there’s something soft down there to land on…
~Fly, MEOWING ON THE ANSWERING MACHINE
Sunday, February 9th marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Beatles first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, in effect the beginning of Beatlemania as well as the British Invasion. For the first time in the short history of Rock & Roll, a band stayed relevant beyond the few years which were expected at the time, put out an incredible and prolific stream of music, and completely transformed popular music, if not the world.
By the time I came around, it was over. But some of my earliest memories relate to The Beatles, at a very early age they managed to make quite an impression on me. With much of their music it’s impossible for me to remember the first time I heard it, it seems to have always been there, certain songs go as far back into my memory as I do.
I have been thinking about this as I hear the media gearing up for a celebration, tried to remember what their music meant to me even at such a young age.
Even at eight years old, in 1980 when we heard that John Lennon had been shot, it impacted me greatly, I can still recall the day clearly. I was in the backseat of the car, looking out at the yellow winter day, feeling the bit of heat the sun managed to push against the glass. I was too young to know that the Beatles had broke up before I was born, and in my simple mind I didn’t realize they all wrote songs and sang, I thought John sang all the lead parts in the band. “I guess the sun will never come again,” I remember saying, apparently already poetic and melodramatic, and also referencing a song George Harrison wrote and sang.
Although I can’t quite make out when, there is an otherwise clear memory of us, my family, getting a little stereo system from Sears or Kmart or a similar place. Cheap but effective, it had radio, a cassette deck, and a record player.
This is when music first affected me in a magical way. I remember going through the stacks of old records I found around the house, my moms and my dads. Even at the time much of it didn’t impress me or hold my attention, until I got to The Beatles albums.
This was something different. A lot of the music I heard before sounded mechanical and boring, but this was magic. Each song was a tiny spell cast; engaging, hypnotic and impossibly fascinating.
The first time I can remember having a favorite song, it was I Am The Walrus. It was on an album called Reel Music, which I don’t believe has ever been considered for reissue on CD. It was a collection pressed by the record company, a sampler of songs from the movies The Beatles made. I am the Walrus stood out because of the nonsensical lyrics and the fact that I couldn’t recognize how any of the sounds were being made. I was sophisticated enough to know a guitar or a piano or a violin, but this song was so thick and random and – let’s face it – weird. As often as I listened to it I had no idea what it was about or how it was done. I am sure this has influenced and instructed my own art more than I need say or probably can recognize myself.
I can’t quite recall how old I was when I decided I wanted to grow up to be John Lennon, but I did. There was a project in elementary school where we were supposed to research the career we would like to pursue when we grew up. Many kids gave the expected responses; fireman, police officer, president, garbage man, plumber, so on. It came to my turn and I said, “Rock Star.”
This was the first big laugh I ever got, the entire class erupted around me. I wish I could say this was my intent, but it wasn’t. I was far too serious for my age. The laughter burned my ears. The teacher only made me feel worse, telling me being a rock star wasn’t a profession.
The assignment was to research your chosen career and give a report on a handful of aspects such as how to go about learning and training for your field, what you will need to know and what will be expected of you once you arrive. I spent some time in the school library as well as the public library, trying to find some information on how one goes about becoming a professional musician. I came up with next to nothing, there was an encyclopedia entry on Musicians, but nothing about how they went about getting there. It is entirely possible I didn’t know what to look for, but there seemed to me to be no information available on how to get a job playing guitar and getting rich and famous at the same time.
I’m not sure if I ever finished that report, but that was nothing out of the ordinary if I didn’t. I do know my mind had already been firmly set on what I wanted to do when I grew up.
Even back in kindergarten, a dim distant memory that is only coming to me now as I write this, I was trying to write songs and start bands. I had a little plastic electric guitar, a toy, it took a nine volt battery and had one thick metal string that blurted out of a cheap plastic built-in speaker. I made my brother and our neighbor join my band, and I remember walking back to school one afternoon, dragging our instruments along, to play a few songs I had written for the music teacher.
I have no idea what the songs were, but I am certain they were terrible and probably not music, technically. I can’t recall how the teacher reacted, but I don’t think it was what I expected. It was probably a polite dismissal, a ‘that was lovely, thank you. See you in class tomorrow, goodbye.’
Everyone waved goodbye as the gym teacher ran off, struck and tumbling, in a twenty-one dodge ball salute.
~Cleansing, MEOWING ON THE ANSWERING MACHINE
I’ve added a new category for my posts here, this one is the ‘Writing’ selections. I’ve been pondering it for a while, it has turned out to be a subject I do talk about more than I realized, definitely more than I thought I ever would.
I never set out with any intention to write about Writing. I think I didn’t feel qualified, I didn’t think I had the credentials. For the most part I am self-taught. I wasn’t really paying much attention to anything in my time in high school, and a majority of what I have learned about this craft as been picked up since leaving school. I don’t have a degree in English, I have no certification saying I know how to write.
Not that I believe that these official documents actually represent a good education or the honing of ones talent, most of the time I believe that is truly all it is, a piece of paper. It really doesn’t describe anyone’s ability beyond a capacity to memorize facts and take tests effectively. The diploma says you learned how to play the game, by their rules. It doesn’t say you can write.
I know this, I believe this, but I still live on Earth.
Humans still want you to prove your abilities especially if you are attempting to instruct them or advise them. They want to know how you know, and why they should listen. They want to see something stamped and official looking stating you are proficient in your field and capable of pointing people toward the right path.
And here I don’t have much to show, but my work.
Despite this, I have been told on several occasions that I should teach, creative writing or something along this line. I have been asked to pass along my insights on humor, to help people write funnier characters and stories.
Others have said they’d like to learn how to come up with the random sort of ideas I inject into my writings, how to cultivate their originality or imagination.
Teaching on aspects such as these has always felt foreign. The subjects, humor and originality, are so wide and intangible. I don’t know if anyone anywhere can teach anyone else to become funnier, I wouldn’t even know how to approach it; humor is such a pervasive characteristic, for myself anyhow. Before I can even talk about how to attempt to write a joke, I have to reference the countless hours I have spent laughing my ass off. Becoming exposed to Monty Python at too young an age, and every instance since that would instruct to expand on what I found funny. It can get muddy, subjective and philosophical at this point, taste and sensibility come into play.
It could be argued that I have been learning to make my writing funny for over forty years, every little moment of life that made me at least chuckle has been a tiny lesson or example in how to write humor. Before I teach you to write it, I have to teach you to laugh, and how the hell is anyone supposed to pass something like that along to the next guy?
So essentially I’ve always felt unprepared and under dressed, and I didn’t think I had any wisdom worth passing along to other writers.
A couple of facts have forced themselves into my focus recently. I realize that even though my education didn’t come in school or any traditionally recognized avenues, but my dedication and desire to learn and improve, and my persistence to keep swinging this old wooden bat, I have worked hard to learn what I know, and I have studied intently and experimented repeatedly. Sometimes you only discover the right way to do something once you have exhausted every possible wrong idea.
At this point in time it is worth mentioning that I have been writing for twenty-five years now. It is impossible to deny there has been considerable growth and improvement. I have learned quite a few things along the way, and even in this arena I believe I have a few funny stories I can tell.
Hanging out with writers and discussions in the groups have got me thinking a lot more about the craft and artistry and even the mechanics that go into writing. I do have a few things to tell, even if occasionally it is only to tell you what not to do.
Still I am uncertain how one can teach humor or originality, and I am not the guy you would usually turn to for tricky questions of grammar or punctuation. But I have picked up quite a few skills that are worth sharing, even if they can only be passed indirectly. The intangible aspects I can’t quite describe, I will hope they are also transferred, at least laterally, or understood in the subtext. And I really don’t insist that anyone needs to heed what I say, I know I didn’t the first time around. But a lot of my writings about writing have spawned from questions raised by friends and accomplices. I’m not worried about proving my capabilities to anyone except myself. And I think I am finally ready to admit it, maybe I have convinced myself once and for all; I do know what I am doing, writing is a skill I have been learning for forty years, all the thought processes and actions that build up to it, all the skills that go into the art; I add up their totals to equate the task, the craft of creation with the written word.
I do have some stories I can tell and some lessons I can demonstrate. I can inspire, and I can educate, even if the only thing I ever learned was exactly how not to get it right.
©Robert Emmett McWhorter
I was Fourteen, going into high school. It seemed like a big step and a fresh start. Five or six elementary and junior high classes coming together in one school. There would be a lot of new people I didn’t know, and they wouldn’t know about me.
I was already starting to stretch out a little artistically. I was mostly playing around with music. But I was getting an inkling about what I wanted to create, the type of artist I wanted to be. It was only theoretical for the most part.
I had spent very little time actually writing or drawing anything. I stabbed out some rudimentary songs, but there was very little technically there, beyond the notion of a few verses, a chorus and possibly a bridge.
I had been drawing since I could grip a crayon, but I knew I wanted to learn and get better, at this point I hadn’t spent any time at all learning what I was doing in any discipline.
But I recognized some of the more outrageous things I had encountered, and I recognized that even if I wasn’t technically proficient by any means, I could still stand out and make sure I got noticed if I did something wild, audacious and completely different from what anyone else might do.
Up until High School, art was a class everyone took, like music and gym. I think more than anything these classes gave our primary teacher a chance for a smoke break. They were more about involvement and participation than they were about actually learning the technical side of creating any art, unless you count Papier Mache.
But High School art class was going to be different. It was no longer requirement, and I naively thought it would be filled then with people who wanted to be artists. A good number of them did, but I had yet to really account for folks who took ‘easy‘ classes just to avoid harder ones.
So, the first day of art class came. The teacher comes out, Mr. Wood, he greets the class and introduces himself. Rusty beard and plaid, he fit the image of 1960s-survivor gone PBS painting hour. He said our first assignment would be our chance to introduce ourselves, we were to draw a self portrait.
That was all.
I think we had forty minutes. I decided I was going to make an introduction, one not easily forgotten.
I looked around the class and saw most people sketching away with pencil on paper, some were measuring their features in mirrors, mapping out the head with an oval and sketching dividing lines where the features would lay, trying to show some real technique; others were glad it wasn’t a math class and drew an indistinct blob with a few eyes and a nose-like protrusion.
I noticed I was really the only one using color. I think one or two other pictures had little hints of tint for the hair or eyes, but mine was sure to stand out.
Near the end of the class Mr. Wood came around collecting the completed attempts, commenting on most of them in a polite, friendly manner. He stood over my shoulder and said ‘WOW!’ and his eyeballs almost hit the back of the head. He chuckled a bit, eyes dancing over the drawing I handed him.
He seemed at a loss. I can’t remember exactly the reaction but he seemed impressed by the creativity, the technique decent but could be improved, and it was unlike anything he had ever seen in a classroom.
The next day I learned about the display case outside the art room where students projects were shown to everyone passing by. My picture stood out on its own, considerably larger and the only one in full color, and definitely the only one with a nail in the forehead and some sort of ectoplasmic ooze dripping from a melted neck, or any melting body parts at all.
I had succeeded, I got noticed. I saw the different way some kids in the class regarded me, and the art teacher had taken note. He said he was expecting good things from me. I saw kids walking past the display case in the hall stop, stare, laugh, gasp or shriek; a reaction, I didn’t care how it manifested.
I did learn as well that getting noticed can be costly. A spotlight shines the same no matter who’s watching and what they’re watching for.
I was made to visit with the school counselor. Something about drawing myself with a nail pounded into my flesh and the melting neck and all, gave some of the teachers and staff the idea I might be dangerous, or at the very least not completely well.
I tried to explain it, although I’m not sure if I could properly express it; and I felt I shouldn’t have to say, telling my intention was giving away the secret of the magic trick. I tried to tell them I drew a ridiculous, obnoxious, absurd picture of myself simply to stand out, simply to get noticed. But they couldn’t believe it.
I was noticed. I would have to visit with the school counselor once every few weeks just to ‘check in’ with him and babble about the difficulties of being a teenager. I knew I wasn’t crazy, or at least I thought I knew, but I couldn’t convince the school, not that it would have mattered to them. I had made the radar, I would remain on the radar.
It was a lasting and recurring lesson. I can be outrageous and absurd and different and it will make people notice, but not necessarily for the right reasons, and it could make real life uncomfortable.
I learned about the very literal, or lateral, way a lot of people think. I was shocked at what seemed, from my end, to be a lack of imagination. A nail drawn into my forehead, to me, did not mean I wanted or planned to put a nail in my forehead, and it seemed like that part especially didn’t make sense to people. How could I just imagine it and draw it because I thought it was different. It had to, in their thinking, stand for a real desire to poke holes in my head and make my neck ooze.
That completely perplexed me, and it still does at times when I butt up against that sort of mentality.
So I still claim it a successful experiment, I had done as intended and made myself known. It was the start of a long, enjoyable run of art classes, but it was a long while before I attempted such a splash.
I wanted to be noticed for my technique and incremental improvement, although the accolades would be quieter and come from fewer places, it would at least be notice for a positive, artistic reason.
I learned all publicity is not necessarily good publicity. I learned about being noticed for the wrong reasons and misinterpreted.
I could have easily kept turning out shocking work after shocking work, but the attention it would bring would not all be welcome. Surely people would think I was crazy, and I saw how it could actually push me over an edge.
For one piece of weird art, I was already on the roster of recurring characters in the schools mental health department. And it was already getting on my nerves, under my skin, the number of adults who couldn’t see a drawing as call to attention, and not a cry for help. They all wanted to ask me, repeatedly ‘Are you sure? Are you really okay? Are you sure that’s all it is?’
I felt the repetitive and rote questions, the constant interrogation about my mental well-being could very easily drive me ever so slightly out of my mind.
© Robert Emmett McWhorter
On a bus headed for the Appalachian Mountains, I found my life in danger due to the man seated next to me. He was wearing one of those illegal Explosion Suits, and by the look in his eyes, I knew it was due to go off at any moment.
I cleared my throat and turned toward him. “That’s a mighty fine suit you have on there.”
“Thanks,” he was sincere but obviously nervous. “It’s made by Bigsby, Kruthers, Smith and Wesson. Cost me a bundle.”
“I can imagine,” I replied.
He was a stocky man, tanned and worn. Black wavy hair dissipating on the top of his head, fading to a bleak shade of silver. His eyes were kind, but the lines surrounding them scrunched and muddled into a map of one man’s broken life. Somehow it had come to this, traveling through the the country by bus, wearing an Explosion Suit.
“I bet when it goes off, though, it’s quite a blast! Must be some sight to see!” I limply attempted conversation, as enthusiastic as I was terrified.
His eyes dropped to stare at his shoes, and he mumbled a few syllables of acknowledgment and agreement.
An uneasy silence sat between us for a few moments before I gathered to courage to ask, “How often does it go off?”
BLAM!!! I must have uttered the trigger phrase; my dumb luck, always saying the wrong thing.
The whole bus explodes and I find myself hurling through the air, high above the Earth. My arms and legs flailing and grasping frantically for something, anything to hang on to.
I was reminded then of my third grade classroom, where I was asked once what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I said, “Fly.”
My teacher, Mrs. Williams, was the first woman I ever had a crush on– the way her cheeks would blush up a rose color and her full lips curl when I came to class late and without my homework, or the tricky gaze of admonishment and silent approval when she caught me out on the playground burning down the monkey bars.
“People cannot fly,” she said. The rest of the class laughing wildly around me. Her eyes burning right into my skin, intimidating. My hands were bloated with sticky sweat, my forehead quickly overheating body. “People cannot fly!”
Oh, Mrs. Williams, if you could only see me now, a couple thousand feet above the east coast, swirling around, twisting in the clouds and probably about to die.
I hope there’s something soft down there to land on…
© Robert Emmett McWhorter