Monday, May 31, 2010

Turning The Page

I went to a writers' conference last summer, only my second one. I'd signed up because an old friend would be there, one of the organizers, and because Dr. Motes was going fishing in Canada and so I thought well, two can play at that game.

The conference offered bracing advice on Using The Internet, and Publishing Do's and Don'ts. (Mostly Don't) And I opted for Short Story Writing in the morning (a promise of discipline - keeping things short!). But that left afternoons: Childrens' Fiction, Gender and Something Studies or Poetry, so I signed up for The First Page.
Because one can always learn more: how to be more like Elmore Leonard, for example. (He of Get Shorty and Out of Sight and now one of the geniuses behind FX's Justified.) One of his latest rules, apparently: No adverbs!
(Really? But then watch this: "She whispered softly.." "He shouted loudly.." "He ran quickly.." "He cursed angrily.." Your chosen verb is grown up; it can be let out all by itself.)

And every writer wants to find out the trick to speeding up and getting that great first page. If we could get even one dollar for every day spent on our First Pages, we'd all be living in the lap of luxury.

So there I was with about thirty others, having handed in all our First Pages and they were read in turn and each time the question was asked: "Would you, as publisher, agent or simple reader...Turn The Page?
Each time however bizarre, dull or embarrassing the First Page, at least half the class was in favor and raised their hands.
I had no new First Page but was quite proud of Orchid Territory's. Maybe because it was the last First Page, our instructor read it in a dull, weary monotone. And then the head was raised: "Well?"
No-one stirred- The question was re-phrased: "How many of you would NOT turn the page?"
Every hand shot up. People turned to each other and rolled their eyes. Did Orchid Territory really need a British accent? A British sensibility? (ie Are these people morons?) Are we really divided by a common language?

I'd always thought a lot of my very first line: "The dead pig jiggled behind Mark, sliding to and fro on a piece of bloodstained cardboard." Fetching the pig on Christmas Eve, in the old Volvo. There was something about the words cardboard and bloodstained, together. I'd fallen in love with those two words, allowed myself to be carried away. But even bloodstained didn't sway the crowd.

Yes, why would you turn the page? The pig was dead- nothing more to find out about the pig. Mark had only just arrived - the young Hugh Grant- the innocent in the South Florida orchid scene. There would be intrigue and conspiracy and finally cops and special agents but for the first page?
Would the group like: "Little did Mark know as he rattled along with the pig that in the dark days to come.."Not really. Later on he would think of the busty blond at The Rat and Parrot, but not on the first page. He'd fret over the lovely Rachel, fall afoul of the evil Regina..but not on the first page!
No, I should have begun just two pages on, with the second chapter- when Aunt Charlotte appears, announcing loudly over the menacing whine of her wheel chair, "You forgot the gin!"

Yes, Aunt Charlotte, with the occasional forbidden adverb, she would have done it. She would have got at least one or two hands up.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Orchid Territory, comical, economical

Redland is over - the Redland International Orchid Festival - the big one - as in "After Redland I'll wash the dogs, clean the ceiling fans. After Redland I'll walk 30 minutes every day...write dynamite blogs.." And now it is after Redland, well after Redland. And here we are.

Well, Redland was a great success and Dr. Motes' Florida Orchid Growing, Month by Month, now considered the bible for South Florida growers, continues to fly off the shelves. And now there is Florida Vanda Growing Month by Month...

Me? I sold about half a dozen Orchid Territories. The South Florida Comic Orchid Novel. OK, so I was busy selling orchids not buttonholing passers by, most of whom anyway, had the glazed look of the orchidist let loose among a million orchids all for sale.

And it was not so much that I had competition from Florida Orchid Growing and the new Vanda book but I had competition from myself. It seemed every warm, humorous, intelligent, orchid loving literate person passing by already had Orchid Territory.

In fact, most people stopped by not to buy Orchid Territory but to tell me how much they enjoyed it. One wonderful young woman reported: "As soon as I finished it I just started to read it again!" And she's not the first one to say that. Bet they never said that about War and Peace.

And Brenda- Here's a shout out to Brenda!- "Had to come by and say how much I loved your book. I laughed out loud all the way through!"

Actually, according to the miserable stats on novels in this day and age, I've done quite well. Most novels, according to the Times Literary Supplement, sell less than a thousand copies. Orchid Territory has sold over two thousand. And if people weren't so clubby and sharing, then I could boost that number a great deal higher.

For example, Dennis from Maine, down for the Redland Show, came by: "Oh yes, I've read Orchid Territory- laughed! It went all round our orchid society. The members loved it."

What is wrong with this picture? It's not the economics of the thing - though it would be great to get more ten dollars each time - but it's the stats. Like basket ball, it's the stats. I need to improve my numbers. If I could add on all the orchid society free loaders, and friends of friends, I could up my numbers.

I don't help the cause. I like to joke that I'll just sign my name, (no dedication,) so if the buyer is a clean reader, no wine stains, no greasy fingers -then, Ha ha! in these tough economic times Orchid Territory can be re-gifted. ("It will be our little secret!")

Instead, I should be intoning: "Neither a borrower nor a lender be.." Because without any encouragement from me it seems people are just too generous with their property. Maybe I should up the price; instead of a mere ten dollars a copy, I should make Orchid Territory thirty-five. Then there'd be a lot more "Hey! I paid thirty-five for that! You buy your own!"

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Happy International Workers' Day!

My fellow Americans, today is May Day! International Workers' Day! Do I hear a Huh? It's just like soccer. You Americans (actually, us Americans, now I'm a citizen - Hallo Arizona!) are so cut off from the world.
Here the closest politicians can come to supporting the masses is: "I'm for the hardworking middle class!" A dynamite slogan if ever I heard one. And that's what the Democrats have to say.

Here we should have International Capitalists Day! I see them marching below the rippling red flags of individual money making liberty... Anyway, I have a fond feeling for May Day having worked in a workers' paradise (the old Peoples' Republic of Yugoslavia) for seven years. The Yugoslavs, of course, especially the Serbs, were the last ones to celebrate working. They were much better at holidays. "Mary!" I was always warned: "Only marry a Slovene!" Slovenia was up on the Austrian border and full of quiet, hardworking husbands. I was down south with the Serbians, Albanians, Montenegrins, Macedonians, Turks and gypsies.

Before eight o clock classes at the Faculty of Philosophy, we would all go down to the buffet to get started with coffee and a brandy. Then again for a second brandy and coffee; "elevenses" as my dear colleague Kornel called it. Even better was the invitation from the Chemistry department- they always had the real stuff in a drawer somewhere - homemade plum brandy from someone's village.

And then, at lunch time everything stopped and didn't start again till four. But in Belgrade it was the same. Yugoslav's attitude to work came to international attention when the capital of the Peoples' Republic became the first, with much fanfare, to welcome a McDonalds. So many Belgraders lined up to apply! It was all so bright and golden and western! But after a few months Mcdonalds was having a big problem. As the employees explained to the reporters: "They want us to work!"

That is, not put on the coffee, and slip out to the market to buy the vegetables and water melon for lunch, to sit down with Politika and check the football results. McDonalds wanted four solid hours, half an hour off and then another four.

Actually, coming from England, I am shocked at the American work day myself'. I've done a lot of jobs in my time, from kitchen worker, to Ministry of Pensions, to selling at Harrods, to working on a farm and everywhere it was ten (really fifteen minutes) tea break in the morning, an hour for lunch - and the tea break in the afternoon. Here? Grab a few minutes AM and PM and just half an hour in the middle.

I should be unfurling my workers' flag and arousing the masses. Don't Tread On Me! would be a good one too. Certainly the way things are at the moment, there should be a lot of able-bodied men and women just hanging around, free to march. So perhaps, on reflection, this is not quite the right year.