Summer’s Over, Back to Work

Summer is over. It’s time to get back to work.

Sure, for you – for most people in the northern hemisphere – that’s old news. Summer for most people, at least as a state of mind, ends on Labor Day. For me, it’s a different holiday – International Talk Like a Pirate Day, every Sept, 19.

I’m not very productive in the summer. I’m just not. (Obviously, the includes blogging.)  And the two and a half weeks between Labor Day and Talk Like a Pirate Day I’m even busier. As of the two guys who started the holiday and then took the idea way too far, the buildup is a little like I imagine mid-December would be in Santa’s workshop. Not just getting my own schedule together but dealing with our newsletter – The Poopdeck – and the website and interviews, it all gets a little hectic. It’s slowed down some these days, the holiday has taken on a life of its own. It’s reached critical mass and doesn’t need Cap’n Slappy and Ol’ Chumbucket. It’s reached critical mass. Ten years ago we would do more than 80 interviews in a 36 hour period, radio stations all around the world, starting in Australia and New Zealand and following sunrise around the globe. This year we did a handful, and that’s fine. If something happens to me or Mark, the holiday will go on without us.

I’ll talk a little more about this year’s holiday in a later post this week. (No, seriously, this week.) For now, I’m thinking over what I’ve got to get onto.

I’ve got to keep pushing on. I’ve got three projects lined up in a row, that I’d like to have cleaned up and ready to go in the next year. One that’ll be finished in ten days, one to complete by Dec. 1, and then one to have finished by summer.

It’s all a question of being organized, making a schedule and sticking to it. So far, I’ve got the “making a schedule” part. Now for the “sticking to it” part.

Yo Ho Underpants!

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Ol’ Chumbucket works the young crowd – and the young crowd’s parents – at Red Canoe Bookstore.

I entered Baltimore’s Red Canoe Bookstore and Cafe in full buccaneer gear last Friday. A three-year-old looked at me and said one of the things no pirate wants to hear.

“Are you Santa?”

Well, sure, I was wearing my scarlet shirt and my big boots, and my hair and whiskers have gotten a tad – what’s the word I want to describe the color of my hair? Ultrablonde! – that’s it, my hair is ultrablonde. And yes, my waist these days is, shall we say, more than ample – but I’m working on it! But still, didn’t want to hear that.

I growled at him. “Does Santa carry a pirate sword? Does Santa wear a pirate hat? I’m a pirate!”

He laughed and said, “Yo ho underpants!”

Because of course, to a three-year-old boy, underpants is far and away THE funniest word in the language. And that was an important reminder for me, because he was hardly the last kid his age I would see that day.

I had booked the appearance about two months earlier. Red Canoe is a really nice neighborhood institution. I really loved the place, the ambience, the neighborhood, everything about it. It was great. But in retrospect I have to say it probably wasn’t the right venue for me. I knew the store was oriented towards kids books, but I thought a reading of “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter” would not be inappropriate. Thankfully I had made alternative plans. Because as discussions went back and forth by the owner and myself, I realized this would be a kids gathering, not a teen or young adult. And even then, the audience was a lot younger than I had expected. And fortunately, I had alternate material.

First and foremost, I was going to have to switch books. “Chrissie” is a great book and something that kids as young as 11 or so can really enjoy, and kids as young as 8 would enjoy hearing a short scene read aloud. But it’s way beyond a three year old. Cap’n Slappy and I had put together a whimsical ABC book called “A Li’l’ Pirate’s ABSeas.” We have always proudly said it’s not the book for perfect parents to buy for their perfect children. It’s a book the perfect children should get from their drunken bastard uncles so the kids won’t grow up to be insufferable little prigs. And even better, in our book, “U” is for “Underwear.” So that was obvious.

And I have a stock of material that is adaptable, so I felt pretty confident.

But kids that age have the attention spans of fruit flies. Ever try to keep a three-year-old focused for five minutes? I had a deck full of kids, the oldest of whom was probably four and the average age younger than three. And I worked them for more than an hour, by keeping these simple rules in mind:

The first of course, is “underpants.” I was a pirate so I didn’t feel the need to be perfect and polite. In a pinch, I could always get a laugh just by shouting “Yo Ho Underpants!”

Keep things moving and mix it up. I started with a song. Shifted to a bit of pirate schtick. Another song. A bit of reading from “ABSeas.” Another bit of schtick. A little sleight of hand. Another song.

There’s no way to keep that many kids focused for that long – But I could always play to their parents. Each was accompanied by at least a mother or father, some by both. I could and did play to them, and they in turn made sure their kids got the joke.

And I kept in mind why I was there. To sell books. So we spent more time on reading “ABSeas” than any other single thing. And I saved the best for last.

As I was winding up after an hour and 15 minutes, I gathered all the kids and told them I was going to teach them the single most important pirate phrase, a phrase they had to learn by heart and repeat over and over. That phrase was:

“Mommy, I want the pirate book. Buy me the pirate book mommy!”

They repeated it several times under my coaching. And we sold some books.

Another thing that paid off was that in the weeks preceding the event I had posted several reminders of my schedule on social media, and invited pirates and fans from the area to show up. I really wanted to meet them, because that’s always fun. And a couple did show up, and it was a joy meeting them and talking about how they celebrate Talk Like a Pirate Day and incorporate pirattitude in their lives. And god bless ’em! They, too, bought some books, including several copies of “Chrissie.”

And then we were on the road to the next stop.

Six Self-Taught Rules for Book Signings

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Sydney Moore wants to be a writer, and we had a long talk about what that means and how to do it, some tips of the trade. And she bought a book. (Note the table in the background – B&N had already set it up, so we left our fancy decor in the car. Ours is better, but theirs was done and done is art.)

Sunday we did the last signing of this tour, at the Barnes & Noble in Knoxville. It went well. Looking back at the two weeks has given me a chance to think about what works and why.

I won’t try to compare the results of the Blackbeard Pirate Festival in Hampton, VA, to the three bookstores we did – they were different both in type and scale. But some of the observations still apply.

We did signings at the Barnes & Nobles in Wilkes-Barre, PA, and here in Knoxville. We did an event – reading and some schtick – at the Red Canoe Bookstore and Cafe in Baltimore. I prefer readings, because I believe in “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter” and know in my soul that if I can get them to listen to a bit of the story, they’ll be hooked. I love reading to crowds. I’m a ham, I admit it. But sometimes that’s not what the store wants, and you have to take what they’re willing to give.

The two Barnes & Noble signings were similar to an event I did with Cap’n Slappy (my pirate friend Mark Summers) when our book “Pirattitude” came out. That was pretty grim, but I learned a lot that time out and was more prepared this time around. Here are some things to think about when you do a book signing.

A “signing” isn’t a reading. There’s no expectation that you’ll have an audience or even any interested passers by. The store sets up a table for you. In Wilkes-Barre it was five steps from the front door, so everyone had to walk right past me. In Knoxville it was about a third of the way down the main aisle, next to the customer service desk. Good location. They give the table a generic cloth and, usually, a sign, and put a chair behind it.

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There’s an old politician’s maxim that applies equally to selling books, or anything else, I suppose: No one ever made an enemy by telling a woman her baby is beautiful.

Rule 1 – DO NOT sit down in the chair. If you sit down, you disappear, even if you’re dressed like a pirate in full gear from head to foot. It’s too easy for the people passing by to ignore you. Ninety nine percent of them aren’t there to see you, have no idea who you are or what you’re doing in the store. They have their own reason for being there and it has nothing to do with you. They will be happiest if they can slide past you without making eye contact. You’ve got to make them notice you, and you can’t do that sitting on your butt.

I worked the table, pacing front and back. Everyone who passed within the sound of my voice (and that’s a goodly distance) was greeted with a growling “Ahoy!”

You do what you can – or what you have to – to engage them. They’re not going to buy your book if they don’t notice it. Make them.

Rule 1B – Don’t be embarrassed. You are not begging, you’re not imposing on the store or your potential readers. Just get that out of your head! You’re doing them a favor. You’re giving the store an opportunity to make a few bucks by selling a great book. You’re doing the store’s customers a chance to be entertained by your book. They’re going to love it! Believe in your book and yourself. Of course you want to get in their faces. You’re giving them a chance to read a book you really believe in – yours.

Rule 2 – Don’t let the bookstore choose your decor. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve got a lovely table cloth of some bland neutral color, and they might have a sign on a standard. But that’s pretty generic, don’t you think? We have our own table covering – a layer of burlap and a layer of netting – that gives it a nautical flavor. I bought a small chest years ago, knowing that I’d eventually have a book to sell and that this chest at a second-hand store was the perfect size and style to sell a pirate book. And we added other piratey touches that help attract potential readers.

If, like the guy I talked with in Hampton, your novel is set in the Prohibition Era gangster milieu, you might want a violin case that holds your books instead of a Tommy gun (but if you can get a replica Tommy gun to put on the table, that’d be cool.) And dress in a pinstripe double-breasted suit and fedora. You get the idea. Be creative.

Rule 3 – Don’t count on the bookstore for publicity. With the infamous Corvallis Borders appearance I mentioned (and I can certainly see why Borders went out of business) their idea of publicizing the event was to print out a flier with the bare facts, who and when, and stick one on the door. That doesn’t cut it. You’ve got to take the bull by the horns. After this tour was nailed down I sent releases and photos to every newspaper, radio station and TV news show in those areas. (That means you’ve got to learn to write a news release. Start now.) I posted regular reminders of my schedule on Facebook, including “the night before” posts – “Just a reminder to my friends in …” There were people there who came specifically because of that.

Rule 4 – Don’t judge success solely by sales. Yes, you want to sell books. Lots and lots of books. And you can tip the odds in your favor. But there are days when there’s just no one there, for whatever reason no one is shopping for books and didn’t see your PR. There will be good days, and there will be slow days. But no day has to be a bad day. You do the things you can, and try not to worry about the things you can’t control. We sold a lot of books this time out. But more importantly, we had fun. It’s FUN to work the crowd, to engage someone. As they learn about you and your book they get drawn in. Usually, you can almost hear the “click” when they decide to buy. But even when they don’t, have fun talking to them. People are interesting. Listen to their stories and tell yours. Connect. There might be something they say that can work in your next project, or a particular look or expression that you want to steal. You’re learning your craft, and part of a writer’s craft is selling, whether you like it or not. Get used to it. Even when you don’t make a sale, you’re getting the word out, you’re showing the flag (in my case a Jolly Roger, of course.) There’s a cumulative effect to luck. To be lucky, act lucky. To be successful, act successful.

Rule 5 – Don’t give up. At the end of the Wilkes-Barre signing – which was mildly successful but in terms of sales not our best outing of the trip – we had packed everything up. Tori brought our pickup around to the front door and we were throwing everything in the back when a woman walked briskly by.

“You’re not too late to get a great action story!” I said.

She paused.

“Yes she is,” said Tori, creating the dramatic tension needed so that the woman would feel like she was defying odds.

“No she’s not,” I said, I said, making myself the hero.

“What age group is it?” the woman asked, taking a step toward me. CLICK!

I told her, told her about “Chrissie Warren” Pirate Hunter,” and the sea battles and chases and cliff-top duel, the action and adventure. And within three minutes I was signing a copy for her fourth-grade son.

NEVER give up.

This is long enough for today. My next post will be about facing a room full of three-year-olds in Baltimore.

Tales from the Road – Literally

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Daughter and dad – Millie and me Saturday night after a long drive.

I’m writing this Saturday from the backseat of Bubba, our Ford pickup. I’m in the back because Friday night, after our event at the Red Canoe Bookstore and Cafe (about which more in a later post) we drove over to the Greyhound station and picked up daughter Millie, who had taken the bus down from New York. We haven’t seen her in like two years, so we’re very happy.

It’s great listening to Tori and Millie talking about all those things mothers and daughters talk about, and even greater when Millie starts singing along to whatever is on the radio, sounding so much better than whoever is on the radio. That sounds like proud, doting dad, and I certainly am, but it’s also true. Anyone who knows her or has ever heard her sing would know what I mean.

We drove down the freeway from Baltimore as long as we could stand, then found a pretty decent hotel in Frederick, MD, for the night. Now we’re heading to Knoxville, but we got seriously sidetracked by history.

We spent a couple of hours visiting the Harpers Ferry National Park, a kind of amazing little corner of American history, with connections to Washington and the development of the railroad and Lewis & Clark and – of course – John Brown’s abortive slave uprising in October 1859. His raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, to seize the guns to give to Virginia’s 4 million slaves, was a failure, they were captured in three days and Brown was hung before the end of the year. But it was the spark that set off the Civil War.

There was a lot of action on the site during the war, it changed hands eight times during the four years of the war, and we were also able to visit one of those battle sites, Bolivar, a tribute to every foot soldier who ever lived and whose commander picked the wrong terrain to try to defend.

Anyway, a lot to take in for nerds like us. That’s kind of a capsule of this whole trip. We spent a lot of time getting to the next stop, where we flogged the book fairly successfully, alternating with geeking out at the history that’s all around you in Virginia. The ongoing archaeological excavation of Jamestown was the highlight of that side of the trip, but we also got a look at Yorktown, Fort Dickinson, and the above mentioned Harper’s Ferry. And my heart sank a little when I realized I was driving past Antietam, site of the worst conflict of the Civil War. It was closed so there was nothing I could do, even if we weren’t already late for meeting with my niece Jenny and her husband Brian – both of whom would have understood geekiness. And it was hard knowing I was within 100 miles of Gettysburg and the time simply wouldn’t stretch to take it in. Next time.

As I write this we’re back on the road, six hours and 46 minutes to Knoxville. Won’t be able to post this until tonight. We hit the road June 1 and from New Orleans have passed through Mississippi, Alabama, a corner of Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, back through Maryland, West Virginia, back into Virginia and we’re heading back towards Tennessee. Three of those were firsts for me, five for Tori. We have one more reading Sunday at the Knoxville Barnes & Noble.

Millie flies back to New York on Tuesday, and then it’s kind of open. There’s another possible event in Nashville Saturday the 18th, but we’re both starting to feel like we’re ready to get home. It’s been an amazing tour and we’ve met a lot of great people and sold a lot of books and showed the flag (a Jolly Roger, naturally) all over, but it’s beginning to feel like I want nothing more than to wake up in my own bed. Probably with the cat sitting on my chest, poking my face to get me to wake up.

Coming up in the next couple of days, posts on some of the events, thoughts on the things an author will do to sell books (spoiler alert – anything, a writer is or should be willing to do anything to sell a book) and some of the geeky stuff that’s happened on this June jaunt.

Notes from the Road

This has been a good first week on the road, for a lot of reasons, many of them obvious. But I’m going to give three for now.

This is the first time since I’ve known Tori that we have been together without kids for a whole week. We both had children before we met, and after we got married we had three more. (They know what causes that now.) So we have been able to get away for occasional weekends, but that was it.

Today is our seventh day on the road, a full week. And we’ve had a great time. Just driving, being silly, exploring new things together, laughing. It’s always been a “given” that she’s my best friend. How fun to see how true that really can be, when it’s just the two of us, how well it works.

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Ol’ Chumbucket with Constable Heartless, whose name believes the generous spirit of the man,

Speaking of friends, I left Hampton late Sunday afternoon with a slew of new ones, the many fine freebooters I met at the Blackbeard Festival, starting with the members of Blackbeard’s Crew, who were our hosts at throughout the gathering. It was an honor I feel deeply, and I’m proud to call them brothers. Constable Heartless – you’re not fooling anyone with that name. You’re a fine pirate, a fine captain and a fine man. And all the other pirates from the various crews – Hope, Rattanne, Just Gregg, Damon, Mr. Willis, Rummaker, all the crew of the Vigilant, The Moody Crew and the Loose Cannon Company and all the rest of ye – I’m proud to call you brothers – even the women.

This had been planned as a sales trip, and certainly that’s the point. We wouldn’t be doing this without the impetus of “Chrissie Warren” Pirate Hunter.” (Certainly as far as the IRS is concerned that’s all it’s about.) It wasn’t necessarily about selling books as getting it out there, meeting people, showing the flag. But it turns out, so far anyway, that we have been selling books, especially the first day of the festival when we sold quite a few. Not just “Chrissie,” although mostly that. But Tori had noticed early in our “retailing” career last year that the tables that seem to do the best have more than one title on them. So we brought with us some of our earlier efforts written with Cap’n Slappy – “A Li’l’ Pirates ABSeas,” “Well Blow Me Down,” and “Pirattitude,” and sold a few of each. In fact, I think it was the single best day of book selling I’ve had since Cap’n Slappy and I had a reading at a bookstore in our hometown and the audience was packed with our longtime friends. This has been total strangers. So we’re hopeful.

And, like I’ve always said, each book is sold one copy at a time, person to person, one to one. I actually had quite a bit of fun engaging people as they walked by, joking with them, talking about the books, and drawing them in until – Click! – they decide to buy one. You can actually feel it when they make the decision, sometimes they are as surprised as anyone. It’s fun.

We’ve got three readings/events coming up in the next five days, and we are just having fun.

Discovering the Bookends that Help My Story Succeed

This may seem an odd thing to say, but I recently discovered that my novel, “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter,” is a better book than I thought it was – and I thought it was pretty damn good.

Last month when we were at the Jambalaya Writers Conference, one of the presenters mentioned a book that he had found very useful in plotting. It’s “Save the Cat,” by Blake Snyder. It’s about writing screenplays, not novels, but there’s an awful lot of good advice about story and how to make it work that can be applied to novels.

“Save the Cat” is a rather calculated view, one might even say cynical. It’s not about just writing a movie, or even a “great movie,” whatever that is. It’s about how to write a successful movie, successful by Hollywood standards.

But there’s a lot of craft that goes into making a successful movie, and what’s wrong with commercial success? There’s a lot to be said for a movie that people want to see. You, as a writer, have a story to tell. Don’t you want to tell it to as many people as you can?

You may rebel at the notion of there being rules. You, after all, are an artist. Rules don’t apply to artists. Snyder acknowledges this and says you can write any kind of story you want, any way you want. But if you want it to have success in the marketplace, you have to recognize there are things that work and things that don’t.

At the very least, you ought to have an idea what the rules are, so you can enjoy breaking them all the more. But if you don’t understand why they work, you aren’t doing yourself any favor.

Anyway, that’s the gist of “Save the Cat,” (Save the Cat, by the way, is one of his rules for screenplay writing and it’s a good one. But it’s not what I’m writing about here. Buy the book.) A lot of what he has to say about screen writing applies equally to writing novels. It’s all about finding the most effective way to tell a story.

In talking about structure, Snyder says the opening scene and image are the first taste the audience (or reader) gets in discovering the world you’ve created. It’s usually a glimpse of that world before the chaos of the story knocks it all apart. And the ending scene, after the story has been resolved, shows a glimpse of the new world going forward, how the character and the world have been changed by the action that has taken place. (And if there is no change, there is no story. That’s maybe the most important thing to remember as a writer, whatever your medium.) So the opening and closing scene are sort of a question and answer, telling the reader in shorthand what the story is about.

“They are bookends,” Snyder says. “Because a good screenplay is about change, these two scenes are a way to make clear how that change takes place in your movie. The opening and final images should be opposites, a plus and a minus, showing change so dramatic it documents the emotional upheaval that the movie represents.”

And if you have read “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter” (and if you haven’t, why not?) you may recall that I have those bookends, although I never thought about it that way at the time or did it on purpose. Both the opening and closing scenes take place at a table. In the first scene Chrissie is with her family in Hampton, Va., celebrating her 13th birthday. “She’s become a woman!” her father exults. The final scene takes place at a table in Roadtown, Tortola. Chrissie is surrounded by the family she’s created at sea. And when she says she needs to get into a pair of honest trousers because the dress she’s forced to wear is driving her crazy, Charlie slaps her on the back and says … Well, he says what he says. Don’t want any more spoilers than that. When I wrote it, I thought it was a good line. I didn’t realize at the time it wasn’t just a good line. It was a summing up of what story is about.

Now, I had never heard of the notion of the bookend scenes. Wasn’t aware that’s what I had done. But I sure did. The opening and closing scenes are perfect bookends, the closing scene echoes the opening scene in a way I had never even thought about, they are mirror images, neatly encapsulating the the change Chrissie has undergone through her voyage.

It’s not anything readers will notice, hell, I didn’t and I wrote the darn thing. Maybe one in ten thousand would get it, and that one’s probably a college English major. (And oh, please, may I have ten thousand readers. Please.) But it really makes the story work, it’s the cap that makes you sit back with a sigh of contentment, even if you aren’t really aware of the technical thing that brought about that feeling of completeness. In retrospect, I can’t think of any other way the story could have ended that would have worked as well.

Something to think about. NOT, I would add, to obsess about. Trying to force a story into a formula isn’t going to feel right. But at the very least, when you’re writing you should keep in mind “what is this story about?” and focus on taking the reader along on your main character’s journey. A journey has a beginning and an end, and those opening and closing scenes are your chance to make that journey complete and memorable.

(One amusing note. “Save the Cat” was published in 2005, and the subtitle is, “The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need.” Since then there have been two sequels … which you apparently don’t need. Still it’s a good book, and if you’re looking for something to help with a writing problem, especially if you’re trying your hand at screenwriting, I’d recommend it.)

“Coming Soon!” You, too Can Make a Book Trailer

The trailers are often the best part of a night at the movies. And more and more books are getting the same treatment, a minute to two-minute video trying to entice people into reading.

I decided to put one together for Chrissie. Video software is ubiquitous and fairly easy to learn – although like so many things, it’s easy to learn but takes a lot more time to master. But Tori and I have done a lot of videos for the Pirate Guys, so we figured why not.

It took a lot of time, one of the reasons I haven’t posted in a couple of weeks. I was mostly slowed because Apple keeps “improving” iMovie, in particular, the text functions, which slowed me down a lot. It was maddening. But I roughed it out, then Tori cleaned it up.

I like the way it turned out.

After you ooh and ahh over mine (kidding there,) you should go to youtube and search the words “book trailer.” you’ll be amazed how many come up. They range in quality and resources from full-blown productions with actors and budgets (I suspect these are paid for by publishers who only throw money promoting products they already think will be best sellers,) to videos of authors sitting on front of their computers camera talking about the book. Mine falls in the low-budget category. The music, which wasn’t what I was looking for but was perfect, came up on a search for “non-royalty tin whistle music.” The images were all sketches done by my cover illustrator. The words were from fans who loved the book.

We all know the story. When you self-publish, you’re not just the author. You have to do everything, and while that can be onerous, it also gives you a certain freedom. You can be a director, creating your very own video for the trailer.

It was more work than I expected. It’s easy to rough out. Harder to clean it up so that it looks good. But I had fun, probably too much.

Now back to work.