Monthly Archives: August 2011

A Tale of Two Book Signings (and what I learned from both)

I miss Bob and Betty’s Bitty Bookstore (not its real name), a small, independent bookstore that thrived for years in a nearby college town. With the advent of the mega-bookseller and the Internet, the prime real estate occupied for decades by this merchant is now a Venti-sized Starbucks.

Aside from fulfilling my desire to support locally-owned, independent stores, Bob and Betty also brought a string of “big name” authors twenty minutes from my home so I could come hear them read from their books and hopefully grab a moment of conversation or a sliver of writing advice while they signed my newly-purchased copy.

Even though I was not a published author back then and had not yet put on my first book “event,” I was apparently soaking up knowledge from watching these authors, tucking it away for my first release.

Author A had been published in the New Yorker when I was still learning the proper usage of the semicolon. He rarely landed on bestseller lists, if ever, but had and still has a motivated fan base. He was a college professor by day. He had also made it his personal mission to breathe life into what was often a deadly dull exercise: the marketing of the literary novel. Therefore when he hit the road and took the improvised stage at Bob and Betty’s Bitty Bookstore, he dressed less like a college professor and more like one of his students, and one who was barely hanging on by his polished-black fingernails, no less. When he read, he performed, with no trace of that studied, sing-song-y lilting thing that normally put half the audience to sleep and made the other half perturbed that they missed “American Idol” for this. During the Q&A he was engaged, interested, and gave thoughtful answers. He made eye contact. He gave each signer personal attention. When I left with my signed book, I felt important, and not just because I put a few dollars in his pocket.

Author B, a skilled and experienced writer, hit it out of the park with her first published novel. Her quirky love story plucked a nerve with the tender thirteen-year-old that resides in every woman and some men, and quickly rose to the top of many bestseller lists. Word had it that a movie was in the works. Gaggles of excited women (and the men they dragged) queued up around the corner and down the street to see and meet her. But she seemed tired. Too many cities, too many interviews and her anecdotes were shopworn. At Bob and Betty’s Bitty Bookstore, she did that sing-song-y, lilting thing, but mainly sounded like she’d rather be home in bed. She appeared uninterested in the audience during the Q&A, and worse, at the signing desk, an appointed minion hustled people along. I got to ask one question and she brushed me off. When I left, I felt like something she scraped off her shoe. If not for the signature inside my book (Did she spell my name right? I wondered), I would have returned it and gotten my money back.

So…when I was preparing for my first book event (unfortunately, Bob and Betty had moved on, but I had the great luck to be supported by Tina’s Tiny Bookstore, a new local venue, and again, not their real name), I did not want to be Author B. But I didn’t have the experience in front of an audience to look and feel as confident as Author A. Regardless, this is what I hoped to accomplish:

1. Show up rested. I meditated and did some deep breathing before I left for the bookstore. It helped me cope with the inevitable things that would be out of my control. For one, the venue’s fan was just behind where I would be reading. No big deal; I’d have to talk a little louder. Imagine how Author B might have responded to that.

2. Show up prepared…but allow spontaneity. I rehearsed. I rehearsed again. I rehearsed some more. But when the task started feeling tiresome, I stopped. Okay, when I had the floor, I was still nervous. But I did it without wetting my pants.

3. Show the audience why they’re there. They didn’t come to hear me flub a word or two. (Or a couple dozen.) They came to see me and buy a signed book. I vowed to try to be like Author A in this respect, and not make my audience regret missing “Minute to Win It.”

Most importantly, I wanted to simply show up. Be present. This was harder; staying in the moment was like herding cats. Would we run out of books? Would I forget my character’s names? Would I forget my own name? Mess up a signature? Oy. At some point it occurred to me to just enjoy and focus on the one thing in front of me. Sign a book. Answer a question. Smile. Much better.

I Will NOT Go The F**k to Sleep by Richard Crasta – A Review

I had the pleasure of meeting Richard Crasta years ago at a networking event, and if not for that meeting (because he’s mainly been published in India), I might have lost out on the experience of his clever wordplay and the playful but biting satire that peppers his writing. Immediately I purchased a copy of his first and most well known book, “The Revised Kama Sutra: A Novel of Colonialism and Desire.” (Buy it if you can.)

Through an accident of the Internet, our paths crossed again, though we are now living on opposite sides of the globe. And through the magic of electronic publishing, I was able to catch up on the books that I missed.

The one that caught my eye first was a book of essays titled, I Will NOT Go the F**k To Sleep, the title meant to be a satire on the recent and popular Adam Mansbach children’s book that’s more for parents, Go the F**k to Sleep. It is, indeed, the title of the first essay in this book, a Stewie Griffin-meets-Bart Simpson take on this command from the child’s point of view. The humor continues, some essays with a political bite, some with inspired silliness, but thoroughly enjoyable.

For instance, one essay, “What You Don’t Know about Bangaloring Could Hurt You,” is a wisecracking look at outsourced American jobs from India’s point of view. Another, “On The Trail of Sex in Kama-Land,” got him censored in his homeland. Crasta also includes an especially funny excerpt from The Revised Kama Sutra, in which our hero, at a tender age and with a repressed upbringing, is disturbed to discover the assertiveness of his male appendage. “A Tale of Two Weddings” puts a satiric lens on the stereotypes many people have about Indian culture.

Crasta is funny, yes, sometimes with a Pythonesque goofiness, but often with an irreverent poke in the eye to those in power. But all good satirists, from Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain to Christopher Buckley and Bill Maher, know that humor is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. Or, as C. K. Chesterton put it, “Humor can get in under the door while seriousness is still fumbling at the handle.”

Or, as Crasta writes in his introduction, “The king’s jester had no sacred cows, and was the only one who could laugh at the king and not pay for it with his life–why? Because to prevent a society from going insane, it needs a band of men and women who have carte blanche, carte blanche to point out that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes, or even that black polka dots on his polka dot pants are not dots but holes.”

Why You Should NEVER Trust Your Spell-Checker

It’s all Maria Mariana’s fault. She was one in a group of six linguists from Georgetown University who, back in the 70s, first developed an automated way to check spelling and grammar on word processing programs for IBM. Perhaps, though, she meant well. Thought it would be a good thing to create this seductive monster that can batch-attack the often time-consuming and ponderous human task of checking one’s work for errors.

Backfire, Maria. Semi-total epic FAIL! Spell-check has made us lazy. It has lulled us into a false sense of security with its offers to change your grammar or correct that questionable word. We all have stories of spell-checking failure, some with embarrassing and humorous results. Here are a few more reasons you should never trust that pathetic plug-in with your important work.

1. Spell-checkers are notoriously obtuse. Consider the following passage:

My physical therapist worked out a weight-bearing routine for me that stimulates my osteoblasts, which are the cells that build new bone.

The spelling and grammar checker in my version of Microsoft Word wants to replace “stimulate” for “stimulates.” It believes that the subject that is being stimulated is plural…actually, I have no plucking idea what it believes. It’s just wrong.

2. Spell-checkers can’t parse your intentions. Like this one:

“Pete’s working again.”

Spell-check suggestions for this alleged error in “subject-verb agreement” include “Pete’s is working” or “Pete’s was working.” The writer’s intention was to state that Pete is once again gainfully employed. But good old SC doesn’t know this, and assumes that something of Pete’s is now or formerly was functional.

3. Spell-checkers can’t find missing words. “Ted raced the sink” has a rather different meaning than “Ted raced to the sink.” In a long document, particularly one you’ve been poring over draft after draft, your brain will supply the missing word. So, you may miss it in the proofreading and lead your readers to believe Ted has been imbibing and sincerely believes he and the sink are in competition.

4. Spell-checkers can auto-correct you into situations in which you do not want to be auto-corrected. A former colleague, who normally relied upon his assistant to correct and send out his correspondence, decided to give her a break and take care of some of his own. In an e-mail that went out to the entire sales staff, he intended to ask for their opinions on a new sales program. He ended with, “I look forward to seeing your evaluation.” Only, because of his less-than-stellar keyboarding skills, his spell-check program decided he meant to type “ejaculation.” Yeah. It went out that way.

5. Spell-checkers won’t tell you if your formatting is inconsistent. This is one reason why you should never abandon something as format-dependent as your resume solely to the eye-chips of your computer program. It won’t tell you that you’ve ended some bullet-text items with periods and left them off others. It won’t tell you a heading is in the wrong font or tabbed in too far. These sorts of things are CRUCIAL to swing by your own eyeballs, especially if the job you desire has anything to do with attention to detail.

6. Spell-checkers don’t measure up to humans…at least not yet. Flawed as we are, we’re still better than machines at certain tasks, like knowing what we meant to say. Don’t have time to proofread or can’t tell if your participles are dangling? Hire a human.

Have any good spell-checking horror stories?

The Fonts of Our Lives

Have you noticed a subtle shift in the use of typography in supermarkets lately? Probably not, because, like most people, you’re more concerned about what’s in the box rather than what’s on the box. Or, unlike me, you have not been indoctrinated by a career in graphic design into the habit of identifying every font that you see. This especially annoys people in movie theaters when I randomly call out, “Gill Sans,” or “Memphis Bold” when the opening and closing credits roll.

I’ve tried to stop doing that, even though I secretly wonder which is more annoying in theaters: hordes of people texting in the dark, errant ringing cell phones, or my typographical Tourette’s.

Let’s go back to the supermarket, shall we? Grab a cart. No, you may not have a candy bar. But take a look at that box of cereal, or crackers, or macaroni and cheese. We’re going sans serif. Serifs are the little “feet” that appear on the ends of the letters. Times Roman, for example, is a serif font. Helvetica is a sans serif font. Historically, and as measured by studies of ease of reading, sans serif fonts are often used for headlines and subheads while serif fonts are often used for body copy, as they have been judged more readable in blocks. Serif fonts are really cool, in my opinion. I love the grace note they put on a character, and how various shapes and flavors denote different periods of history.

But this is not a lesson in typography. I’ll save that for others who are currently working in the field, or for me, when I run out of ideas. This is more about what the Internet has been doing to our eyes, as well as our social discourse and our culture.

I’ve written before on what turns me off about people’s websites, and some of those reasons have to do with typographical choices. But I never thought that the Internet itself, and our reading habits, could change typography. For instance, when using white text on black background (which is a total bitch for anyone who no longer has twenty-year-old eyes), serifs tend to melt into the page and disappear. They also disappear on certain types of screens. Clever marketers, studying the various screens of our lives, have seen a pattern. Extrapolating into a two-hundred-slide PowerPoint presentation unveiled at a conference in an undisclosed location (Akron, Ohio), they have deemed sans serif fonts to be old-fashioned, frumpy, and altogether the domain of “losers” who still gather their information from words printed on dead-tree pulp and would not deign to purchase an electronic reading-type device unless the price dropped below a certain level or they received one as a gift. (Or so I’ve been told. Now that I’m out of the field, I’ve been blacklisted, and even had to return my pica pole and vow to erase the secret handshake from my memory.)

Therefore, packages of crackers and cookies are now devoid of serifs, those nasty, dated, printers’ nightmares, and now sport a clean, modern design, and what has been shown in focus groups to be a younger look. Never thought that buying a package of saltines can make you look younger, did you? Skip that four-hundred-dollar face cream and the Botox injections and just fill your grocery cart with Saltines and Oreos.

I feel younger already.