Monday, August 27, 2012

Sneak Peek of QUIET, PLEASE!

Only the very final touches remain before publication of my latest book, Quiet, Please! I'm very excited about this, because it's something I've been writing off-and-on for a while, between other projects. Frankly, I thought it was going to be one of my "drawer books;" that is, shoved in a drawer (electronic, in this case), never to be seen by the public. It was very rough after its first draft, but it's matured over the months into something that I think is fun and that readers will enjoy. It's quite different from the original idea I had, which seems to happen a lot with my books, leading me to believe that I may be fickle. I guess there are worse things to be.

Is Quiet, Please! going to inspire people to solve the world's problems? Probably not. Will it help someone forget his or her real problems for a while? Maybe. Will it make people laugh? I hope so, since that's kind of the point.

Anyway, without further ado, here's Chapter One. I promise I won't make you wait much longer to read the rest. Enjoy!

Chapter One
     What am I doing here?
     Not literally. I know that. I’m labeling, cataloging, and shelving books, activities that are almost as natural to me as breathing. What’s unnatural is everything else about this situation.
     I’m in a bright, airy library that’s painted in vibrant colors with cheerful murals depicting children who are reading (and looking unnaturally happy about it, in my opinion). But that’s not the strangest thing about what’s going on. The strangest thing is that I, a professional, highly educated librarian—a librarian for adults, I might add—am in charge of this place. What’s most alarming, though, is that in a week, this place will be flooded with kids. “Strange,” I can handle. Kids… I don’t handle them as well.
     I’d better figure it out, though. And quick.
     Anyway, I’m up to the challenge. Aside from the fact that I don’t have a choice, I can do this. Maybe. I mean, they’re only kids, right? It’s not like they’re going to know that I’m terrified of them. Huh-huh. Or that I’m not at all confident in my ability to do this job. Huh-huh-huh. To them, I’m merely another—gulp—teacher. As long as I look the part and act the part, they won’t know that I’m a bundle of nerves inside.
     I obviously fooled the school’s principal, Renalda Twomey. That, or she made a bad decision after being twenty minutes late for my interview and hardly paying any attention to my answers. I didn’t fool her harried secretary, that much I know. I could tell by the wide-eyed, panicked look on her face when Ms. Twomey interrupted me halfway through my answer to her third question—which was technically more about whether I liked her purse than about the job opening—to say that I was hired.
     As an explanation for her sudden decision, she added, “I like you, Kendall; you’ve got spunk! And you’re just cute as can be! Those kids are gonna eat you up!” in her heavy North Carolina accent.
     I tried to take that as a compliment and block out all mental images of the children picking my bones clean on the first day and leaving them on the floor in front of the shelf that holds the Berenstain Bears books.
     The secretary, who had introduced herself to me as Sam Kingsley while I waited for Ms. Twomey to arrive, interjected, “Okay, but… Ms. Dickinson, how does your previous experience in…” she consulted my resume, “…the Kansas City Public Library system relate to or prepare you for a job in a public school setting?”
     Her mention of my former employer immediately made me break into a cold sweat. Vaguely, I answered with a bright smile and wide eyes, “Oh! I dealt with kids all the time at my old job.” And co-workers who behaved like them.
     “Did you work in the children’s section?” she persisted, her voice pleasant but her eyes informing me she wasn’t going to let me get away with that lame answer.
     I gulped and admitted, “No, not specifically. I filled in often, though. And…” Here, I had to fight my natural instinct to be completely and brutally honest about myself. “…I love kids. Love them! They’re so… cute and… young.”
     Ms. Twomey saved me then. “Oh, Sam, stop givin’ the poor girl the third degree! Whitehall Elementary needs a librarian… and fast.” Turning to me, she confided, “Our current one is retirin’. And she was super-experienced, but… we need someone younger, I think. That’s what I’ve been sayin’, anyway. But all the other applicants are… well, old! And I don’t want to have to hire another librarian in another coupla years, when one of those old people retires.”
     I pretended like it wasn’t at all ironic that a person who’s not a day younger than sixty would call anyone else who’s still active in the workforce “old.” Nor did I point out that it’s illegal for her to discriminate based on age. Instead, I saw my salvation in this disorganized, seemingly clueless mess of a person and nodded enthusiastically.
     Pouring on the Southern accent a little thicker than mine really is, I enthused, “Exactly! And let me tell you, I’m here to stay. Came here to be closer to my parents, so I’m not going anywhere.”
     Ms. Twomey grinned at Sam as if to say, “See?” and directed warmly at me, “Well, anyone with such good family values is a winner in my book. We’ll see you back here on the first Monday in August. That’s when teachers are supposed to come in to get their rooms ready and stuff.”
     After that declaration, she rose from behind her desk and grabbed her purse from the floor, where she’d dropped it when she rushed in, profusely apologizing for being late and muttering something about slow service at the hair salon.
     “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to a meetin’,” she announced.
     Sam very obviously rolled her eyes and asked, “How long will you be gone?”
     Waving off the question, the principal stayed focused on digging for something in her purse. Coming up with a lipstick, she replied while applying it, “M-dunnoOne, two hours?” She replaced the lid on the tube and said, “Don’t wait up for me, Mom.” Then she smiled naughtily at both of us and swept from the room, leaving behind the cloying smell of Aqua Net and Red Door perfume.
     Sam stood and leveled a chagrined look at me. “Sorry about that. If I don’t ask at least one legitimate question in these interviews, it doesn’t get done.”
     I smiled brightly at her. I didn’t care. I had a job! And I didn’t have to go into any detail about why I had to leave my other job. Generously, I said, “Don’t sweat it. I kind of noticed she has an… unconventional management style.”
     Bluntly, Sam corrected, “She’s an incompetent buffoon. And she drives me crazy. I’m counting down the days to her retirement.”
     “When’s that?” I inquired, trying not to laugh.
     “Probably never. Because God hates me. Come on, let’s go back to my desk and get the employment forms you need to fill out. I’ve got some of them here, but you’ll have to go to the district main office to do the rest.”
     Since that day, she’s been really nice to me, showing me around the school and introducing me to the other teachers (the ones who are here already). But I’m not letting her get too close. I mean, standoffish isn’t in my nature. But I haven’t accepted any of her offers to go to lunch or grab drinks after work. Work friends are overrated. I want to have a life outside of work this time around. I have no idea how I’m going to do that, but I’m sure I can think of something to do with my spare time that doesn’t involve hanging out with the same people I see all week at work or playing Skip-Bo with my parents in the evenings.
*****
     Fortunately, I have some experience with this reinvention thing. And this time around, it won’t even be as difficult as it was nine years ago.
     We moved from Colorado to this tiny town before my junior year in high school. The move was a godsend. Suddenly, I was the exotic newcomer from “out west.” This preconception made it fairly easy for me to lay the groundwork for going from geek to chic. In Colorado, I couldn’t buy friends, but nobody in North Carolina knew that. And if ever I made a misstep in my transformation, all I had to say was, “Oh, well, that’s how everyone does it/says it/thinks in Colorado," and it suddenly became a trend. It. Was. Awesome.
     But it only lasted for two years. Hardly anyone, including myself, stays in this town after high school graduation. It’s basically an outpost for professionals who work in Charlotte but want to live and raise their families in a smaller community. I stuck around a little longer than my classmates, because I went to college at UNC-Charlotte, where my parents are professors. But as soon as I had that university diploma in hand, I tried to find the farthest-flung job openings in libraries across the country. I wanted to be a grownup. I wanted to prove my independence. Biggest mistake of my life.
     Since returning from Kansas City with my tail between my legs, I haven’t run into any of my former classmates from high school (thank goodness), and I haven’t actively sought out anyone, either. Friends weren’t my motivation for coming back. What brought me back here was family. My parents, more specifically. I needed to reset with a safety net under me. I moved into my own place with the knowledge that if I couldn’t find a job, they’d open their house to me in a heartbeat, just like they did more than twenty-five years ago.
     This job has saved me from the ultimate defeat—moving back in with my parents—but I need to remember some old tricks if I want it to be a permanent solution. And I do. I’m sure the terror level will lessen with each passing day. Right?
     Anyway, I don’t have to change everything about myself this time around. No, I merely need to do a bit of research and observation and figure out what this whole “teacher” thing is about. Maybe I’ll watch some classic movies about the sort of teachers who inspire, like in Dangerous Minds. Yeah… I’ll be bad-ass, leather-sportin’ Michelle Pfeiffer. Or maybe not. I guess elementary students here in the sticks don’t need that sort of direction. Perhaps I should consider channeling “Jess,” from New Girl. People are constantly telling me that I remind them of Zooey, so why wouldn’t I be a teacher like her character on the show? Ooh! Maybe I’ll meet a hot, rich, single father who looks like Dermott Mulroney and date him for a while, too. Yes… I like this plan…
     During my daydreaming, I’ve somehow managed to put away all the books that arrived this morning. I collapse the box they came in and carry it behind the counter, where I’ll store it until I have a chance to take it out to the recyclables dumpster later. Then I pull out my weekly schedule and study it, as if I don’t already have it memorized.
     What’s most daunting to me is that while the rest of the teachers each have 25 to 30 students in their rooms each day, 100 to 120 students will come through the library on any given day. I’ll have to learn all their names and pretend that I like them. I think the latter part of that challenge is the harder half.
     I wish I liked kids. And maybe I will when this is all over, if these kids are nice enough not to make me hate kids even more. Not that I hate them. I don’t. That word conveys too strong an emotion about them. I’m almost totally indifferent to them. I don’t ooh and aah over babies or the cute, funny things that older children say or do. Most of the time, I don’t give any person under the age of 21 any thought at all.
     Maybe it’s because I don’t remember what it feels like to be a kid, so I have no empathy for them. It seems like I’ve been a grownup forever. As a child, I was precocious, and as I grew up, I was always mature for my age. Being an only adopted child, my parents took me everywhere and included me in everything they did until I was old enough to stay home alone. Since they’re academics, I was privy to dinner table conversations that ran the gamut from the weather to the political climate in third world countries. I learned early on how to hold my own in these conversations, but I was lost when it came to playground debates about Barbie versus Brattz. The point is, I met political activist and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel at one of my parents’ dinner parties when I was eight and had more to say to him than I did to any of my classmates in the lunchroom on a daily basis. That meant I had to actually study pop culture like another school subject to avoid being a complete outcast.
     So, I flourished in college. By about the third week of the fall semester my freshman year, when all the lightweights had dropped out and those of us who were serious about learning were left, I knew I was in my element. This was an atmosphere that encouraged intellectual debate and exploration. Sure, there were the fraternities and sororities that seemed more interested in partying, but there were as many of us—if not more—who cared about academics. I was no longer a minority. I didn’t have to waste time boning up on reality TV stats.
     Naturally, I chose one of the most notoriously nerdy majors:  library science. Technology was making it more interesting than ever, and I couldn’t think of any other career I’d rather pursue. The idea of being surrounded by books all the time for the rest of my life was thrilling. I’d never run out of knowledge to soak up, and I’d be ensuring that same knowledge was accessible to the masses.
     It wasn’t until I got my first real grownup post-graduate job in the Kansas City Public Library system that I found someone with like interests who also made me feel that spark of attraction.
     But anyway… with less than a week to go before school starts, I’m way too busy to think about him.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Lights, Camera, Action... (Or Not)

Obvious statement of the day: I'm slightly behind the curve when it comes to literary marketing tools. That's also the understatement of the day (I love multitasking). So, I'm sure book trailers aren't new devices in the ever-growing and -changing literary world, but it wasn't until recently that I started seeing these things everywhere.

In case you're more clueless than I am about these things (and bless you, if you are), a book trailer is similar to a movie trailer, only for a book. Wow. Is it any wonder I'm a writer, with such apt descriptions as that? To be more specific, the ones I've seen have combined written text with actor depictions of certain parts of the book, narrated by the author. If you ever took a literature class in college, it's sort of like a fancy book talk. In this case, the author's delivering the book talk, telling you about the book under pictures and video and text.

I hated book talks.

While I've been processing my thoughts on book trailers, I've been avoiding bringing up the topic with Smart Guy, sure he'll suggest I do one. Narfity narf narf. So imagine my surprise when he sent me an email late last night that read, "What is with 'book trailers?' Remember when you just bought a book because you heard it was good?" Then he sent me a link to one he'd run across. I was relieved that he sounded less-than-enthusiastic. That means we're on the same page, so to speak.
 
What is happening to us, the reading public? As readers, have we become so lazy that we can't even READ a book description to decide whether we want to read a book? As writers, do we have to turn everything into a cinematic experience to drum up interest? Who is the audience for these trailers? Readers who don't really like to read? Are we tricking people into reading books? "Look! Reading this book will be just like watching a movie!" No, it won't be. Reading this book will be just like reading a book. And if you don't like reading books, then... you won't like reading this one, either, no matter how you found out about it.

Okay, I'm being intentionally obtuse to prove a point, an annoying habit of mine that drives my friends and family crazy but that amuses me greatly and wins me many arguments. At least, it annoys people enough that they let me have the last word, which I usually interpret as "winning."

To prevent you from thinking I'm a complete idiot, though, I'll admit that I do understand what the purpose of a book trailer is. It broadens an author's marketing reach. Selling books is all about exposure. Most of the challenge is making people aware that your book even exists. You gotta blitz your potential readers. Bombard them with tweets, Facebook posts, posters, billboards, print, TV, and Internet ads, and now... book trailers. People are bound to see at least one of these forms of marketing. In theory.

The book trailer Smart Guy directed me to last night will remain nameless here, because I'm going to give my very blunt opinion of it. It was awful. It's not that it didn't look professional, because it did. I'm sure the author shelled out a ton of money to produce it. It looked like she did, anyway... for the most part. There were some questionable film shots used for certain parts of the trailer that didn't seem to correspond with her description of the plot, but the film quality was good. In other words, it didn't look like she recorded it on her cell phone. It was disturbing that I never saw an actor's face--there were a lot of hands doing things--but I guess that was in keeping with the literary tradition of allowing potential readers to use their imaginations. Very artsy.

The worst part of the trailer, though, was the author's description. It was rambling. She was sitting at what appeared to be her kitchen table, her laptop in front of her on the table. And while she may have had a rough script, I suspect there was a lot of ad-libbing going on. The director probably said, "Keep it casual, like you're talking to your next door neighbor about real people, not book characters." I wish she had ignored that advice. The two-and-a-half minute trailer could have been condensed to a minute, easily. As a matter of fact, I stopped watching about ninety seconds into it.

In spite of all that... I sort of want to read that book. I would have preferred taking thirty seconds to read a blurb about it on Amazon, instead of cringing my way through a minute-and-a-half of an author gushing about characters like they're her best friends and watching incongruent film shots featuring people with no faces, but I didn't run across a book description on Amazon, did I? This is the first I've heard of this book. And that's just it, isn't it? The trailer was the format that reached me first. And I didn't even have to watch the whole thing to decide I was curious enough to read it. So... it worked.

I'm fully aware I shouldn't admit this, because it means that a certain someone is going to use my own admission against me in an effort to convince me to do one, despite the fact that he seemed as perplexed and skeptical about them in his email to me. It's another tool in the toolbox and blah, blah, blah.

But when I visualize myself in a book trailer, I want to cry. As critical as I was of the author in the most recent trailer I watched, she came across a zillion times better than I would. I look like a writer. I look like I sit on my ass 95% of my life and stare at a computer screen, too absorbed in imaginary lives to care about things like skin care and haircuts and a balanced diet. And because I express myself in written form most of the time, I've pretty much lost my ability to speak coherently. I'm constantly mentally editing, which produces pauses and backtracks in my speech that make me sound like the village idiot.

Plus, as gooberish as she sometimes sounded when talking about her characters, she was cool and composed compared to the way I'd be. Since I fall in love with every male lead I've ever written, I'd sound like a giddy teenager while describing them. I'd be exposed as the pathetic dork I really am. I benefit greatly from people seeing as little of the real me as possible.

No, the book trailer would NOT be a good marketing medium for me. Hear that, Smart Guy? Not good.

Now, I need to go buy that book.