Showing posts with label workshops. Show all posts
Showing posts with label workshops. Show all posts

09 October 2017

BSP For You & Me

by Steve Liskow

On the heels of Janice's excellent discussion of how to prepare for an interview...

This year has been a good one for short story sales (for me, anyway. Most of the other contributors to this blog sell more in any given month), but it's still stacking up as my first losing season since 2013.

Yes, I have more books available than I did then (so far, twelve novels and a collection of stories), but both my close friends know that the annual sales and royalties from those self-published books won't pay for our cats' prescription diets for a week.

The bulk of my writing income--and "bulk" is a misleading term here--comes from other sources, mostly editing and conducting writing workshops. Over the last two years, the State of Connecticut has been plagued with horrendous budget problems that have been passed on to libraries, where I usually hold those workshops. In 2015, I led sixteen sessions, my all-time high. This year, I did one in April and only had one more scheduled until last week. I know three other writers going through the same straits, and for the first time ever, we're competing with each other for the same few gigs.

How do you get more business without bumping off the competition?

Packaging.

Years ago, comedian Bill Dana, AKA "Jose Jimenez," had a routine in which the interviewer asked him, "How did you get the title 'King of the Surf?'" and he replied, "I had cards printed."


 That's not quite as outrageous now as it was then. We need to figure out the continuum of shrinking violet, effective promotion and obnoxious BSP. It's a fine line, and when you're offering to teach, it gets even finer.

Most people want to drive a car before they buy it. I have yet to buy a guitar online because I need to hear it and touch it first. It's the same with writing. People need to believe that you can help them write better, so you have to show them what's under your hood. Obviously, your own books can help, but some people don't have time to read them before hiring you.

When I began editing, I offered a freebie through Sisters in Crime. I would examine the first twenty-five pages of a manuscript for free to the first three respondents in exchange for a reference letter I could post on my website. The requests arrived in my email so quickly that I ended up reading five samples. Satisfied customers give you more cred than anything else. If you're a writer, nothing tops reviews from happy readers...except maybe blurbs from other writers who have a large following.

Those references are on my website, and I keep a printed copy for when I meet a librarian or--as happened last week--the head of a writer's retreat that plans to open this month.

I also bring blurbs that better-known writers (practically everyone) wrote for me. These are people I met at various conferences. In a few cases they mentored me or led workshops I attended. Reviews written by a real person, especially a legitimate critic or Publishers Weekly or Kenyon Review mean a lot, too. I print out a list of my awards and nominations because they mean that someone who knows the business thinks I won't stink up the joint. Besides, it's great being able to say I lost an award to Karin Slaughter or Dennis Lehane.

Be flexible. I have a printed description of my workshops and can make them last from about sixty to ninety minutes by encouraging more questions or giving people more time to work on the activities I include. I taught high school English for thirty-three years, so I know how to create a decent worksheet.

One of the first rules of grant writing is that you have to show how the public will benefit, and it's the same here. You're working with the library, bookstore or other venue. Remember the new writers retreat I mentioned above? Instead of charging my usual fee for workshops, they will charge the students and we will split the fee. I'll get less money than usual, but the Story Teller's Cottage will get some money in the coffers right away, which means they can grow...and invite me back again. You can spend "less," but try spending "nothing."

I gave the new director some of my business cards (yes, thank you, Bill Dana), which mention my editing. I gave her several bookmarks, too. The front is a head shot with my website and Facebook page. Easy to read, and won't need updating. I can use it forever, especially since I don't plan to age at all. Ever. I assembled the list of books on the back three years ago when I had the titles but they weren't out yet. Planning that far in advance meant I could buy the bookmarks in bulk (lower price) and use them longer. Starving writers go for cheap, OK?

The bookmark serves two purposes First, it shows people that, yes, I did write a book, which suggests what's under the hood. Giving the titles means people can find the books and read them, which does even more of that.

Sure, it's creating an image, but it's also content and credibility. I don't wear a tie when I meet people, but I don't wear cut-offs and a Playboy tee shirt either.

I've learned to ask a few questions, too. These help the venue and me work together and help that professional image again.

Do you have Wi-fi? Most places do, but I'm beginning to sell more books at events by card than by cash, so it's good to know, especially if I post the event on my website or Facebook page. If you take a credit card, it suggests that you're a "real" business, too.

Will you print out my handouts? If the venue takes registration in advance, they know how many copies they need. That means I don't show up with a bunch of extras I'll have to recycle. It also means that if someone decides to attend at the session at the last minute, the venue can print up more copies and I don't have to ask someone to share.

Do you have an easel or dry marker board (I hate power point!)? I can bring one, which shows I have my own equipment, but it's easier if you have to cart less stuff around.

Finally, I encourage librarians and other people to take pictures I can use on my sites for further credibility. But do I really look that funny?

Yes, it's BSP, but it gets your foot in the door. And the best promotion in the world won't hide a lousy workshop.

Does this all work? I picked up three workshops last week. They satisfy my teaching Jones. And since this is a new venue and we're guessing at the best times and days for the sessions, I'm adding an evaluation sheet that asks participants about the format, content, presentation, time and space. It also asks if they'd like to take another workshop. Criticism and suggestions are how you get better.

The Story Tellers Cottage (check their website and Facebook page) held their open house last Saturday, and I made a point of showing up with more bookmarks and to meet more people. They're doing the same thing I am, but they're taking a bigger risk, so they have fewer chances to get it right.

I think they're on the right track.


22 January 2016

The Possiblities Are Endless

By Art Taylor

This week marked the start of the new semester at George Mason University, and except for an immediate snow delay Thursday and the cancellation of classes Friday (and potential syllabus reshuffling), all has been going well.

One of my classes this semester is a fiction workshop, and on the first day, I invited the students one by one to introduce themselves, to provide some background about their writing, and to say what they hoped to get out of the semester ahead in terms of honing their craft. Several of them mentioned various elements of fiction—character, plot, setting—as areas they'd like to focus on, but one student's response seemed particularly frustrated. She said that she simply had trouble finishing her stories.

I asked for clarification about that, since—to my mind—there were at least three different things she might be saying, specifically: 
  1.  I have trouble writing full drafts of stories.
  2.  I have trouble writing endings in particular.
  3.  I can write full drafts and get endings, but no matter how much I revise, the story on the page ever feels done, never seems good enough, never seems like it matches what I pictured in my head, etc. 
Turns out the answer was a little of all of that.

I assured her and the class that many writers have struggled with these same issues. Endings are indeed, for me, often the hardest parts of the story to write. And I'm a constant reviser—even after I've submitted a story for publication, I often keep tinkering with it—so I understand that sense of a story never feeling like it's entirely finished.

I've written elsewhere before—in other blog posts and interviews (so excuse me if you've heard it)—about a lesson I took from the work of sculptor Alberto Giacometti and specifically his Women of Venice series. Back when I worked at the North Carolina Museum of Art, we hosted an exhibition that included one of the sculptures (the series as a whole is pictured to the left), and I was fascinated not just by the artwork itself, the texture of it, the existential starkness of it, but also by the story of how Giacometti created the series. As I understood it, all of them were cast from the same mass of clay, clay which Giacometti worked and shaped and reworked and shaped until eventually it reached a form that he found suitable, at which point he called his brother in to make a cast of the "finished" product.

And then he began working and shaping that same clay again.

In the end, Giacometti ultimately created ten sculptures, each unique in its own way, each with a kinship, clearly, to her sisters, and each—here's the key—equally finished, perhaps equally perfect, as the next in the series.

Over the years, as I've thought and reflected on this anecdote (and hopefully not transmuted it in my own mind from the truth of it), it's become core to my own sense of process. Certainly we can and should keep searching for the best word, the best rhythm of a given sentence, the best flow of a paragraph, the best structure to a story, etc.—but after a point, we could keep working and reworking any choice we've made as writers and it might be tough to say with certainty which revision is better.

I'll likely bring up this story to my fiction workshop later in the semester, and as we embark on the revision section of the course, we'll study Raymond Carver's stories "The Bath" and "A Small Good Thing" in their various incarnations—the same story told in two dramatically different ways, and each with its own strengths and weakness, to the point that in the past when I've taught them, no class can agree which is better, which more finished or complete than the other.

It's not only the new workshop that has me thinking about this, but also a book that I've recently picked up. As I mentioned in my previous post here at SleuthSayers, I like to kick off a writing session by reading a little something about writing: craft essays, exercises, etc. Having finally completed Rules of Thumb, the book that had become a regular companion in that regard, I've just started browsing between two other books: Patricia Highsmith's Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (a rereading in that case) and Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, which was recently recommended my way.

Though I'm only partway into the Queneau, I'm already fascinated by the project—which reminds me of the Giacometti anecdote but also takes things a step further. Exercises in Style presents a very short story about a man on a bus—an argument, and a chance encounter later the same day, the whole thing barely a half a page in length—and then retells that story 99 different times, determined in each case by certain approaches. "Notations" is the headline of the first version, which presents the story as fragmented notes. "Litotes" tells the story in understatements. "Retrograde" tells it backwards. "Metaphorically" tells it... well, you can see where this goes. In addition to underscoring the fact that there are many, many, perhaps innumerable ways to tell any story—and tell it well each time—Queaneau's project also reminds us that writing is or can be or should be fun, playful even, which is something that I sometimes forget, I'll admit. That's a lesson for my students as well there, some of whom might be as fretful as I often am about my chosen craft.

Queneau's Exercises also remind me of something else too, an idea inherent in all of this: Style is constructed out of a series of choices.

Yes, we hear folks talk about a writer's style as if it's a natural part of their being, or about a writer needing to find his or her own style, as if it's waiting there for each of us if we'll just look hard enough. And maybe after a while, each of us does have a set of approaches and mannerisms, etc. that become like second nature—a part of who we are as writers and instantly recognizable to readers too. But at the same time, I think it's worth recognizing and remembering that the development of that style reflects a series of preferences and opinions and decisions; and an awareness of those preferences, opinions, and decisions—of the impact of those choices—enhances our skills as writers.

At least I hope.

Maybe.

In any case, I'm enjoying the new book, and I'm curious if others have read it—and curious too about a number of other questions. How would you define your own style? Is style something that you have self-consciously cultivated? Do you shift styles depending on the project at hand? Would love to hear, of course, about others experiences!