Writing for a Time Capsule

August 3, 2010

“No legs, no jokes, no chance.”

That was the response of a producer to an out-of-town tryout of Oklahoma! Audiences, however, were delighted. The program noted that the show went on to become Broadway’s longest running show for thirteen years.

Oklahoma! was the first modern musical because the songs and dances didn’t just entertain, they served the story. The show was based on a straight play called Green Grow the Lilacs, which wasn’t a hit and to which Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration added music and lyrics.

Elizabeth and I just saw a summer stock version of the show at the Sacramento Music Circus. More than ever, I appreciated the show as a time-capsule musical, the inspiring, quintessential play about the hope and promise of America. A century from now, if people want to watch plays that capture the American dream, Oklahoma! will be one of them.

Dreaming Big

The show also suggested a wonderful literary goal: writing books that will be read in a hundred years. Are there stories–long or short, true or fictional, American or foreign, successful or obscure–that you can re-imagine for today’s and tomorrow’s readers? Whatever narratives you choose to write, remember a simple criterion for every word: serve the story.

The Web gives you to tools to create in any medium and link your work to your e-book as well as link to anything else on the Web. This makes enhanced e-books that enable you to build a community of readers first modern books. They vastly extend your creative potential as well as your ability to reach readers. Old ideas, new techniques—the arts evolve, but the needs and desires of people and artists don’t. Seize the chance to tell the stories that only you can in the way only you can tell them.

Expect out-of-town rejections. In his outstanding keynote at the San Francisco Writers Conference, Steve Berry said that before he hit the bestseller list, he received 85 rejections on five novels before selling one. (His talk is available at www.sfwriters.org.)

Only time will tell if you’re right, and if you dedicate yourself to your craft and your career, you will be.

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Engaging Your Readers for Life

June 9, 2010

New York is a city where something exciting is going on all the time, most of it unsolved.

–Johnny Carson

Elizabeth and I are back from BookExpoAmerica and meeting editors in New York, and solving the mystery of why we go is easy. May in Manhattan heats up by the end of the month, but it’s a delightful time of year to be in the Big Apple.

The cozy, funky basement apartment we rent in a federal brick building on a quiet, tree-lined street in the West Village makes an enjoyable oasis from which to visit editors, promote our conferences, and meet with friends and family. (We also saw the wonderful production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music with Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta Jones.)

Going to BEA is the only way to get a sense of the state of publishing in one place. In addition to booths on the floor of the huge Javits Center showcasing publishers’ fall books, there are signings, free galleys, talks by authors, and panels on subjects of interest to publishers and booksellers.

Thanks to our marketing director Barbara Santos and the BEA, we had a booth for the San Francisco Writing for Change Conference (November 13-14, 2010; keynoters: Dan Millman and John Robbins; www.sfwritingforchange.org), and the San Francisco Writers Conference (February 18-20, 2011; keynoters: Dorothy Allison and David Morrell; www.sfwriters.org).

BEA was more upbeat this year than last, reflecting the improving economy. Even with 22,000 attendees, the convention is an annual reunion, because there are people, including out-of-New-York editors we only run into at BEA, as well as the unexpected pleasures of meeting people from around the country in a line, at a panel, or at an author breakfast. Booksellers and publishing people are in the business because they want to be, so their shared passion unites them as members of the family of the book.

Attending BEA, at least once, is a valuable experience for writers. It gives you a perspective you can’t get elsewhere on the business and the enormous flow of books into which yours will merge.

When we first went in the late sixties, it was held in the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. on the steamy Memorial Day Weekend. The holidays have always been the most profitable time of year for booksellers, so publishers used the convention to promote their fall books. Publishers had book jackets spread out on tables and special offers for  booksellers who ordered at the convention. I remember the air conditioning failing, but it was a bustling, relatively small event that gave independent booksellers the chance to meet with publishers.

The word from this year’s convention that stuck with me and will help you is engagement, because building communities has become as essential as writing, promotion, and having a platform. The web enables you to become engaged with potential book buyers who see whatever you choose to send forth into cyberspace: your site, your blog, your articles or short stories, your videos, your podcasts, and your profile and comments in social media and elsewhere.

Engaging a growing community of people you want to read your books is one of the web’s greatest opportunities for writers. Go get engaged. Your readers are waiting for you. Some of them will become life-long fans.