Monday, March 17, 2014

Creating Sacred Space

While opinions often vary, and there is no one right way to follow this career path, I'm of the opinion that writers need their own space.  Whether it's a room with a spectacular view or one with no windows, blank walls or covered in inspirational art, a writer needs to have a place where the muse speaks to him or her.  I'm not saying you must consecrate your space with white sage and candles (but if you do, more power to you), but writers need to have a space all their own.  At least, I do.

For many, it's a particular end of the couch.  For others, it's the kitchen table.  I can't work in such conditions.  Nothing against those who can, it's just not for me.  When I write, I need quiet.  I need solitude.  I need to be left the hell alone so my creativity can jump from the ether to my heart, from my heart to my brain, from my brain to my fingers and from my fingers to the page.  I was fortunate enough to have someone who understood my need, and who indulged me by allowing me to stake out areas of the house and claim them as my "office."  And from day one, the moment my desk goes into the room, it belongs to me and me alone.  And my children, my friends, and anyone who ventures into my home knows that my writing room is holy ground to me.  It's a place where I can be me and entertain my most depraved thoughts without judgement.  A place where everything is where I put it, and where nothing is moved or added without my say-so.

Yes, for the record, I am aware that I sound like an egomaniacal bastard and an absolute nightmare with whom to live.  I accept that.  I don't feel it's true, but that's not the point of this article.

So what's in my sacred space?  What makes my office mine?  What makes my little room an area where the muse can speak to me?

First off, there's the door.  I can close it if I need to and I know no one will disturb me.  For me, a door is crucial to the solitude that I crave to get stories written.  Second, the walls are adorned with art by friends and family, certificates of accomplishment, gargoyles and hats.  I even have a pro-wrestling championship belt on one wall, with the Golden Crackpipe award (long story) on another.    I have a leather easy chair, which is usually occupied by Owen, and the great glass desk that I keep meaning to have replaced.   But the real secret to my office is in my shelves.

Oh, my shelves.  Keepers of arcane knowledge and inspiration the likes of which the world has never seen.  One shelf holds only books by me and by my friends and former students.  Another contains reference materials on witchcraft, ghosts, demons, monsters, and other religions.  But then, there are things that, to look at them, one wouldn't know what to think.  There are shelves in my office that contain memories from my adventures in writing and in life, things I've made and things that were given to me.  The top shelf contains real, honest to Legba, Mojo Bag, made by a vodoun priestess.  The shelf below contains candles, daggers, incense and a bottle of "Coffin Liquor," made by my dear Tabby and given to me.

And amid the other shelves and their contents of sonic screwdrivers, pro wrestling memorabilia, statues of Chaplain and Harpo and my hand-made replica of the Necronomicon (yes, really), there is a special shelf.  One that makes me smile whenever upon it I look.  On this shelf is a bottle of tears, an alligator's head, a venus fly-trap, a big-ass piece of candy corn, monster cars and innumerable other items that hold special meaning for me.  They are things given to me by former students.  Treasures that I hold more sacred than gold.  I look at each of them and I know from where they all came.  I know the names and the faces, and I draw inspiration from them.  My very first student, Betsy Whitt, gave me a miniature horse blanket, named "Horse Thrall."  It hangs on my wall just above my computer where I can see it when I look up.  Are there things I treasure more than others?  I'd be lying if I said no.  But every piece in the collection has a meaning for me, and every piece represents another person who touched my life and who pushes me on.  Every time I get knocked down, I picture them all doing their best impressions of Burgess Merideth, screaming "Get up, you son of a bitch!  Because Mickey loves you!"

And that's the point, I suppose.  My office, my sacred space, is a place that energizes me.  The ghosts of stories past and of stories yet to come live there, and when I am within her walls, they speak to me.  They speak only to me.  The things in this room mean nothing to anyone but me.  And so, for everyone else, it's just a room full of my junk that this old fool won't let anyone touch.  But to me, it's Wonderland.  It's my sacred space because in here, I can touch the gods.

Leave a comment.  Tell us about your sacred space.  Let us know how you work.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Surviving the Con

If you are a writer (and, let's face it, if you're reading this, you probably either are or want to be), you will eventually be faced with one of the most terrifying and wonderful experiences an introvert can have:  The Convention.  It doesn't matter what your genre is, there is a convention dedicated to it.  Don't believe me?  Google it.  Go ahead.  I'll wait.

Satisfied?  Good.  Let's move on.

Writers use conventions to sell their books and meet their audience.  While most of us would be happy never having to leave our dark little caves, the reality is that you'll need to get out and shake hands, press the flesh, and use good will to try to get some new fans.  You can only sell books to friends and family for so long.  Eventually, you need to get the word out about your work if you intend to have a sustained career.  To that end, I'd like to give you a few pointers about how to make it through your convention experience with as little emotional or physical trauma as possible.  Keep in mind, this is for you AS A GUEST or a vendor, not as someone who goes to the conventions.  That's a whole 'nuther issue for a later post.

First off, you want to come across as professional.  Easier said than done.  Dress the part, yes, but don't costume yourself out.  Remember, a little goes a long way.  For my convention wear, I have a fairly standard "uniform."  I wear a nice black shirt (usually a work shirt or a button-down), blue jeans, motorcycle boots (because I always wear motorcycle boots or converse, and my boots make me taller.  Don't laugh.), and possibly a red tie.  The colors I wear are almost always black and red.  I often wear a tie-tack that is a small (subtle) brain if I'm wearing a tie, but other than that, you have my typical look.  If I wrote steam-punk, I might consider a pin on my lapel made from gears and cogs.  If I wrote sci-fi, I would pick some other subtle piece that denoted my passion for that genre (in my case, most likely my Serenity pin that reads "I aim to misbehave.") without being too ostentatious.  On the other hand, if I'm going to be formal (and we're talking really formal), I wear my kilt with a black button up shirt, red tie, black vest, and a black sporran.  Why?  Because I'm proud of my Scottish heritage, and that's my formal wear.  It sets me apart from other people, but doesn't come across as a costume.  If you dress in a somewhat flamboyant manner all the time, then go with it.  The point is, be comfortable because people can tell when you "dressed up" and when you are being real.

World Horror, 2013, with Kristin Dearborn and Tim Waggoner

Second, let's talk about your table.  The tables are usually of the six-foot long variety, and you may or may not have to share it with someone.  If you don't, you have plenty of room to spread out your wares.  If you do, conservation of space along with division of property is key.  Decoration of your table is a good thing, but again, I prefer to go with subtlety.  The last thing you want is for people to walk by your table and not know who or what you are.  For me, the books should be the focus.  I arrange them at several different levels, making sure that each title is clearly visible from the front, and that I can move them without knocking the others down.  If you have only one book, you have less to worry about.  If you have more than one (13 here), you need to arrange them so they complement each other.  Parts of a series go together.  Chronological order (when they were published) should be considered.  But of great importance is also whether or not someone walking by can see YOU.  Set your books up so they frame you, rather than hide you.

Pictured:  Owen, my seat saver, with books and stuff.

I said I like to use a few subtle decorations.  Over the years, I've used everything from gargoyles to Owen (my creepy doll that sits in my chair when I run off to do a signing or go on a bathroom break).  Owen still goes with me, but I've refined my decorations.  I carry with me a cup that looks like a pile of skulls (it's actually a toilet brush holder, but no one usually knows that, and it's only been used in conventions as a…) for a candy dish, a small coffin (about six inches long) to hold business cards (more on this in a moment), and some other receptacle for sharpies.  I also bring my own table cloths because I don't trust that the convention venue will provide them, and if they do, they're usually dirty and white. I carry with me one extra large satin black tablecloth (which can be folded for size constraints) and a round spiderweb table cloth (a gift from my mother).

I mentioned the candy dish.  Fill it with Jolly Ranchers.  Not chocolate, not mints, not anything generic.  Jolly Ranchers.  Why?  Because everyone loves them, no one is allergic to them, they keep forever, and you can buy them in bulk.  Jolly Ranchers attract people to your table.  Everyone wants a freebie from every table, and if you have Jolly Ranchers, you hit the "must visit" list.  I buy bags of them from Sam's Club and keep my candy dish full.

Note the candy dish on the left?  Also, this is an example of a non-cluttered table.

I mentioned, also, business cards.  Folks, they are the single best investment from a promotional standpoint that you can make.  Design them yourself or have someone design them, but make them look professional.  And they are not expensive at all.  I use GotPrint,  and I get 1000 glossy-front, color front, black and white back business cards for about $20.  Seriously.  And I pass them out everywhere I go.  Make sure it has your name, e-mail, website, and something identifying on it, but for $20, you can't go wrong.

Pictured:  Something Identifying

I also make sure to have a banner for myself.  I carry a small wooden easel upon which to hang it, and also carry duct tape for wall hanging.  A banner should announce your name and have some identifying characteristic on it (like your business card), and they too can be done cheaply.  You can get one that you can use over and over again from the same company (that's GotPrint, btw) for about $40.  You can also get them from your local Kinko's, or even from a buddy at a university with access to a plotter.

You also need a change box (with enough money to make change), a receipt book (because some people insist on them) and a clearly marked price list.  Do not short-sell your books.  Make deals, sure, package them together, but make sure you are not selling them at cost.  Make the trip worth your while.  You should also get a card-reader for your smartphone so you can take credit cards.  Companies like Square allow you to process credit cards, send out virtual receipts, and charge a very small percentage.

Finally, let's talk about you.  When I go to conventions, I usually see two types of people.  The first hides behind his books (iPad, smart phone, etc).  Whenever people walk by, they act like they don't notice, or pray not to be noticed.  The second is the wolf… The one who is obviously there to sell things.  The one who, as the convention progresses, gets more and more desperate to sell.  It it shows.  That person reeks of desperation.  You should strive to be a third type:  The personable vendor.  You make eye contact.  You smile.  You say "how's it going."  You have your one-line-synopsis ready if they ask, but you're more there to meet folks and shake hands.  When people approach you, they're interested in meeting you.  In fact, what you're selling at your table isn't a book.  It's you.  And you are your most valuable commodity.

When you're at the convention, be nice to everyone.  Be professional, but come across as you would want them to remember you.  Be nice to the other vendors because they'll share tips and send other people your way.  Be nice to the promoters because they want you to come back.  Be nice to the fans because you want them to be your audience, and you never know who you are talking to.  Be.  Nice.

Lastly, whether you're booked to do a reading or not, have something prepared, just in case.  The motto of the Boy Scouts is the rule here:  Be Prepared.

So that's it.  Those are my tips for surviving the con.  Do you have any that you'd like to share?  Leave them in the comments!  Until next time, see you on the road!