The Book Signing of Shannara and Other Musings

The posts this week got me thinking about significant experiences in my life, and, not surprisingly, many of them revolve around writing and writing events, such as conferences. Some were pleasant, some bittersweet; others were odd, unmentionable, or the kind of incident you look back at and laugh, even though at the time it might have been stressful. However, all were learning experiences, and since I love to learn, I wouldn't trade any of them for the world. So, on this lovely Sunday, even though family business has kept me from posting in a timely manner and Blogspot has fought me for an hour or so, I thought I'd post a couple of memories of literary fun I've had over the years.

One of the first conferences I attended included Terry Brooks as a keynote speaker during lunch. When I discovered he'd be signing books as well, I was thrilled! He was one of my mother's favorite authors and she spent many happy hours with his books. My conference experience now took on the definite air of a pilgrimage. Immediately, I ordered a hardcover of his book on writing, Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life, and waited for the big day. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the conference, I discovered I somehow, in the rush to get to the airport, left the book at home. Undaunted, and inspired by his keynote speech that afternoon, which was very entertaining, I bought another copy of the book at the conference bookstore and took my place in line.

When my turn came, Mr. Brooks glanced at my name tag, but I'd turned it over. I asked him if he would sign the book to my mother and briefly told him why--his work had been very comforting to her in her last few years of life. He paused and looked down, but recovered quickly as I spelled her name, which is an unusual derivation of a more common spelling. He tried to pronounce it, and the last thing he said was something about it sounding like something he would have named one of his characters. I think my mother would have liked hearing that. I know I appreciated his willingness to respond to my unusual request, and as I write this, I realize how bizarre it actually sounded: Umm, can you sign this book to a dead person? However, Mr. Brooks handled it with great aplomb and showed himself to be not only a brilliant author and speaker, but a kind and compassionate human being.

What I learned from this is that if you have a favorite author, take some time, if the opportunity arises, to let him/her know how his/her work is cherished. I'm sure Mr. Brooks has heard all kinds of stories; however, even multi-published writers need to hear their work has value and impact. Also, if you are getting ready to do a book signing, keep in mind that your books may be significant to a reader for more than just literary reasons, so don't be surprised if you get some odd requests. While I would draw the line at stripping naked while inking my signature in a tome, I would still be open to other, less revealing suggestions. On a final note, the other copy of the book ended up finding a home across the US with a science fiction writer I met at another conference.

Some people say you can judge a conference by its keynote speakers. I say it's the food, but keynotes definitely play a role, as they are sometimes a huge drawing card for many authors who are fans of literature and publishing. Let me just say up front that not all authors, editors, agents, and/or publishers make good speakers. Some are actually fairly terrible at it. However, others are pleasant surprises. I think every author should consider what he/she would say if asked to address an audience at a literary event. Have you ever imagined YOU up there on the dais speaking to a hundred eager writers waiting for your words of wisdom? I have, and in some cases, that's the only reason I haven't gotten up and walked out on a terrible speaker. I know it can't be easy, although some people seem to make it seem so.

For example, at a conference years ago, Stephen J. Cannell, of A-Team fame, was a keynote. He'd added writing novels to his long list of accomplishments. I didn't know what to expect, but he was funny, inspirational, and humble. He made a point to note that he'd been taking workshops at the conference to improve his craft even though he was published, and reminded everyone that a writer can never know everything about writing.

Another of my favorite speakers, who shall remain nameless, was someone who had been the forefather of a genre and was, at the time, being pushed out. He made some rather direct, blunt comments about publishing and fiction, which sort of shocked everyone, but he was absolutely right. Inspiring? Yes, if you were mature enough as a writer to not get offended. Informative and entertaining? Yep!

If you do ever become a keynote, here's some tips that I suggest you keep in mind, and I base this on the rotten, as well as the great, speakers I've witnessed. First, realize that your audience is there to be inspired. They may care about your path to publication, but truly, every writer's path is different, so there must be something more to it than that. I've seen more than one writer get up and ramble on about how he/she broke into the business, but in many cases that can only get part of the audience to connect. I saw a famous writer at one conference who obviously got her big break because she was part of a literary dynasty. In other words, there was no way this person wasn't going to be published unless she didn't want to be. Struggling writers couldn't empathize with her, and she came off as rather out of touch.

Secondly, realize that you are there to inspire, regardless of who you are supposed to inspire. Some of the people in the audience are not writers, but perhaps part of the publishing industry, and they need a pep talk now and then as well, or even as in the above case, a little kick in the pants. Anything is better than nothing. If everything is geared toward one group of people, the others feel left out and disconnected. As with all things literary, the success of the speaker depends on how attuned to the audience he/she is.

I will have to end this on a rather abrupt note, leaving out the part about throwing my panties at Sherman Alexie, because I'm late on posting. However, I'd still like to know: Do you have a specific keynote speaker you loved or hated? Why? Is there a conference memory you'd like to share?


Carol Ericson said...

Cameo, I was very inspired by Debbie Macomber, who spoke at the RWA Conference in Reno. It was my first conference and I hadn't sold yet. And honestly? I'd never read anything by Debbie Macomber before! She mentioned something about being at a conference as an unpublished writer and "winning" a critique by an editor or agent at one of the workshops. After the editor/agent read Debbie's piece, the ed/agent said something to the effect that this person would never be a writer. The way she told the story brought tears to my eyes. She then had us take a 3 X 5 index card from the table and write down five writing goals for ourselves. I wrote down five goals and as of this point in my career I've accomplished three of those goals! I still have the card and look at it often even those two of those goals have changed.

Carly Carson said...

Interesting post. I am not a fan of keynote speakers because I'd rather get to know the people at my table. Some of them do go on forever. Jessica Anderson gave an entertaining speech at the last NEC conference. She was funny, and I think she connected well with everyone.


Cameo Brown said...

Carol--My mom loved Debbie Macomber. She read her when she started out early on. It sounds like her keynote made a lasting impression--great job on meeting those goals! So far I've met every goal I've set except a couple, and I find that focusing on one at a time really helps. Always setting new ones, too. :)

Carly--I don't mind keynote speakers if the organizers of the event get the timing right and the speaker is worth the time. That's why those who ramble on really just become an interruption to the meal and networking. I was at a conference years ago where they had a panel of published authors DURING lunch, which I thought was a big no-no. Lunch and dinner are sacred networking times. As it was, the moderator kept telling everyone to be polite and listen. She actually told the audience we were rude and sort of chastised everyone, even though some of the comments where discussions of what the panelists said. I ended up sitting there miffed because these were not authors nor a topic I had an interest in, and I thought it was rude of them to force everyone to participate. Talk about a captive audience!

Nicole North said...

I enjoyed the keynote speeches at this year's RWA national as well as the last one I attended in Atlanta. And a couple of small conferences. One that sticks in my mind from a few years ago was by Sherrilyn Kenyon. She's very inspiring and also one of the nicest people you could meet.