Books and the City

Had a great time at the Book Blogger Convention in New York on Friday. I’ve become acquainted with a few book bloggers during the pre-release promotion for The Joke’s on Me. But what an awesome opportunity to meet a whole lot of them at once! While it’s unfair to generalize about any group, these bloggers, mostly younger women, displayed one distinct quality: passion for the written word over nearly all else. Or, as one blogger put it, “I have books; what else do I need?”

They love books. They breathe books. Even with stupendously busy lives that include (in some combination) college, motherhood, partnerhood, writing their own novels, and multiple jobs, they regularly read and write about books.

As part of the convention, I participated in an event that was a kind of “speed dating” between authors and bloggers. It was the first year the BBC had done this, I was told, and it got a bit chaotic, as way more authors showed up than anticipated, and far more young adult book bloggers chose to partake than adult-book enthusiasts. But I got a good chance to circulate among several tables of very engaged book-lovers. Like most things in life, turns out I was some people’s cup of tea, but not others. I appreciated the direct yet tactful way these women have learned to say no to what’s not in their wheelhouse. (If only I had that skill when I was younger; I could’ve saved myself a lot of problems.)

We authors, too, got to mingle throughout the day, swapping war stories, swag ideas, and business cards. Most of the authors I met have books that have either just been released or are on the cusp of dropping. From them I learned important lessons: bring an ample supply of swag to book events, drink plenty of water to keep from losing your voice, and your ranking on Amazon is like your weight: don’t check it too often because it will make you crazy.

All in all a great day. Regrets? That I hadn’t been able to get to the four days of the Book Expo that preceded it so I could get books signed by some of my fave authors, like Jeffrey Eugenides, Erica Jong, and Dave Barry, and meet celebs like Jane Lynch, Florence Henderson and John Lithgow. And that I hadn’t brought one of those cute little rolling backpacks to carry the books I’d collected. Hey, I live and breathe them, too.

And now a question for you: Besides the book, what kind of giveaway goodies do you like sticking in your swag bag at literary events?

Get Your Hands on This Book

Apologies that I’m late with this one (with a book coming out, I’ve been a little distracted), but I just finished reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.

It’s fabulous. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in recent memory. And well worth its Pulitzer.

Ignore the media flap. Ignore what might or might not have been said, ignore who or who did not get her panties in a bunch, and get your hands on this book, especially if you are a writer. This is a master class on structure, the use of fictional time, character development, dialogue, and point of view selection.

For me it combined the three best qualities of a “literary” novel: I couldn’t stop reading it, I didn’t want it to end, and I’m still thinking about it.

The novel is laid out as a series of linked short stories circling around a rock promoter and his assistant. I don’t want to spoil too much, although this has been a topic of media consternation since its early reviews, but one of the stories is told as a PowerPoint presentation. And it was one of my favorites.

As a reader, I appreciated the compassion Egan had for her characters. Some of them are deeply flawed and make choices that could be considered unsavory, like Sasha, a young woman who can’t control her impulse to lift an unguarded wallet in the first story. But Egan doesn’t judge her, or her other characters. She helps us understand them and empathize with them.

As a reader, I also enjoyed trying to figure out where I was in time and space in each story, depending on the characters that showed up, and where they were chronologically. Rather than, say, employing an easy chapter subtitle like, New York City, 1983, Egan conveys the time and place as an integral part of the story, using the cultural events going on in the background or the stage of the recurring characters’ relationships with each other. Readers like to feel smart, like they’ve figured out the riddle without having it spoon-fed to them.

I’m looking forward to reading her earlier books.

Did you read “Goon Squad”? If so, what did you think?

Tips for Ghostwriting Success

When I tell people I’m a ghostwriter (among other things), I usually get the same two questions.

First: “What are you working on?” To which I respond, “I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”

Second: “Don’t you want credit for your work?”

My answer?  Not especially. I’m performing a service and getting paid. It keeps me in organic produce, which makes me happy. But don’t believe for a minute that equating ghostwriting to a bread-and-butter, background service makes me lackadaisical about what I write. I want to do the best possible job for my clients. It’s their money; they should get the byline or their name on the cover. Any credit on my part is appreciated, although not necessary. If I do a good job, I might be hired again, so I can buy more organic produce, which will make me happier.

In my previous career as a freelance graphic designer, I certainly did not expect a credit to appear on my designs. Again, as an independent contractor, I did a service and got paid. Even the book jacket designs I created did not carry my name. No big deal.

So what makes a good ghostwriter?

Discretion. Nobody wants a ghostwriter who will go around various virtual hot spots blabbing about the potential bestseller he or she is writing for Really Big Celebrity. Or that the President of the Acme Widgets Company does not write the sales letters that go out bearing his name. Keep it to yourself and don’t blow your credibility. I have been in “black ops” with clients so many times I could probably get a security clearance from the CIA.

The ability to mimic somebody else’s voice. I was called in to “ghost edit” a children’s story that a publisher was translating into English. The writer was very well known in his field. My edits had to keep in line with the author’s voice, or else his fans (and the author) would know something strange was going on. Or perhaps you are writing the CEO’s blog for the company website. You’ll need to write in his or her style, comfortably.

The ability to write about different topics with ease. One day you might be ghostwriting a real estate blog. Another day it could be an article for a busy entomologist about the mating habits of the Madagascar hissing cockroach. Although expertise helps, you don’t necessarily need to know everything about everything. That’s what Google is for. You need the patience and curiosity to do the required research, and the mental flexibility that allows you to go back and forth among topics comfortably. Yes, you could specialize, and many writers are very successful at this, but in a tight economy, and especially for a beginning ghostwriter, you may want to be more open-minded.

A collaborative spirit. Sometimes you’ll get a client who is happy to let you write the whole shebang on your own, but most of the time, your ghostwriting assignments will be a collaborative effort. This may mean you’ll review and contribute to a client’s outline, or write a rough draft and submit it for your client’s opinions and suggested revisions. It may take time to develop a collaborative relationship with a client, and this is vital if you hope to turn it into a long-term proposition. If you can’t take constructive criticism or do not play well with others, perhaps ghostwriting is not for you.

Professionalism. This includes all the stuff you’re supposed to do as a professional freelance writer. Work out an agreement. Stick to it. Communicate well. Meet your deadlines. Meet your deadlines. And most importantly, meet your deadlines.

Have you ever done any ghostwriting? Can you share some of your experiences? Without giving away too much, of course. Wouldn’t want you to blow your security clearance.

(Image courtesy of Alexandria Library Incorporated. Copyright 2006)