Friday, February 29, 2008


Darling Husband left me a tasty morsel on the breakfast table this morning, by way of an article by Brooks Barnes in the NY Times Business section, Warner Studio Takes Control of New Line. It begins:
Time Warner announced Thursday that New Line Cinema, one of its marquee movie studios, would become a unit of Warner Brothers, ceasing to operate as a full-service, stand-alone unit.

In the process, New Line will shed an unspecified but substantial number of its 600 employees, including Robert Shaye, the studio’s founder...
WOOHOO! I exulted.

Why? Allow me to explain.

In the early 1980s, I took a job as the assistant (read: abused secretary) to Shaye and his then-VP of production, Sara Risher. In those days New Line was a struggling indie located on the noisome fringes of Manhattan's Garment District. My duties were to:
  • make phone calls for Shaye, even when the Rolodex was sitting in front of him
  • answer the phone in a voice with the perfect combination of sophistication and servility (Shaye drilled me till I got the tone just right)
  • serve coffee to important guests on specially purchased Royal Copenhagen porcelain (which I had to wash up afterwards)
  • analyse screenplays when Shaye/Risher didn't want to pay for outside readers
  • screen videos of movies from small-time producers looking for a distributor
  • take dictation
  • take notes during meetings
  • type, type, type
  • be yelled at--a lot--and like it
My only claims to fame are that I got to meet and hang out with John Waters, and I wrote the first press release (pre-production) for "A Nightmare on Elm Street." Its grabby lead: "Do dreams kill?"

My only excuse for accepting such a wretched job is that I was broke and recovering from a severe concussion (my first equestrian mishap). I guess the brain damage was worse than I'd thought, else I wouldn't have kept believing the job--and my employer--would improve.

Barnes admirably understates:
Indeed, the consolidation may be as much about egos as economics. Mr. Shaye and Mr. Lynne — whose aggressive style and loyalty to offbeat projects like “The Last Mimzy” have raised eyebrows — have long resisted combining New Line with Warner Brothers, leading to a running soap opera for the company.
I was constantly sick while I worked there, and not just because of the then-new office's unwholesome location on 8th Avenue just south of Port Authority. (On my way out to lunch one day, I saw a couple have a knife fight in front of their screaming toddler.) My predecessor had symptoms of MS, which resolved as soon as she left. I was so dispirited that I almost moved to New Jersey. Amazing what stress will do to you.

After 16 months, I found a new job (at an even smaller film company, but that's another wretched story) and gave notice. My last day at New Line was hell. Shaye berated me constantly and I left in tears. To my astonishment, a few days later I received a handwritten letter of apology. I still have it. By now it's worth thousands--maybe millions--as I'm sure it's one of a kind.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Inside Scoop: How to Stay Off the Media Blacklist

Below is the first in a weekly series of tips from Meg McAllister and Darcie Rowan of McAllister Rowan Communications Group, who collectively have 50 years of experience in the publicity business. Darcie will be a guest speaker at my Book Promotion 101 workshop in New York on March 8. She's also been on one of my publicity panels at the Virginia Festival of the Book.

Rule #1: Try not to piss off the media!*

It’s sad but true, the media can—and will—blacklist a publicist, author or expert if they break some cardinal rules. Maybe there isn’t a “Wanted” poster with your picture on it displayed in someone’s office, but some media people will actually flag your email address, pass along your amateur voice mail messages, or ridicule your email misspellings on their personal blogs.

For example, days after the 9/11 tragedy, a national newspaper decided it had had enough with scheming publicists and experts desperately trying to gain ink from a tragic situation. So it published a list of those ethically challenged people, who were from some of the biggest public relations firms.

Here are some tips on the right way to offer yourself as an expert or a source.

Know who you're pitching to.
Never contact a newspaper, TV, website or radio outlet without first having familiarized yourself with it.

Always read newspapers/columnists online, listen to radio shows (many are also online), and watch national TV shows to get a feel for what they’re covering. Mentioning a particular column, article, or segment—especially if it ties into your pitch—is a great ice breaker and is also important for establishing media credibility. Show you know what you’re talking about by targeting your pitch to select media. When pitching to TV producers, help them to build a show segment, don’t just pitch them a talking head.

Don’t be a stalker.
Leaving constant messages, sending daily emails, or contacting media at inappropriate times will win you no friends. Leaving a message once or twice, or doing a voice mail/email combo on a particular pitch is enough. One national morning show producer commented about the hit list of authors/publicists that she keeps on her desk. These clueless people called WAY too much, which bothered her so much that she would never return their calls or book anything with them!

Learn to take no for an answer.
Tenacity is admirable, and as an author/publicist it is your job to be persuasive, but there’s a fine line between persuasion and argumentativeness. You want the media to see your point of view, but you also need to respect theirs. If a media contact says no, it's okay to ask why (politely), as a tool for learning more about that media. Then move on.

Don’t send emails with attachments.
If you have extra materials that you want the person to see, offer a link, whether to a document, video or picture. Attachments clog servers, and clogged servers make it more difficult to get work done. Making their work harder will make media recipients hate you. (Some companies' servers reject all email with attachments.)

ALWAYS be honest and upfront.
Don’t promise something you can’t deliver, and never present unverified information as fact. It will get you blackballed.

*Note that there is no Rule #2. Remember the saying, "Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

It's Not Boasting If It's News

A workshop alum recently emailed me with news that her book is on the shortlist for a major foreign award. She ended with:
Do Americans know about this book award?
I responded:
They certainly will if you send a brief notice to GalleyCat.
She answered:
Erm...won't he take it that I'm bragging?
I shot back:
It's PROMOTION, not bragging. Look at your notes from my workshop!
To recap:
Publicity rules tend to be the opposite of social rules. If you meet someone at a party, the first thing you say shouldn't be, "My book is on the shortlist for the X Prize." You would be a boastful boor, and likely spend the rest of the party nursing your drink alone in a corner. But that is the very first thing you should put in a press release, or in your newsletter, or on your home page. Why? Because it's important news.

P.S. I sent the notice to GalleyCat, with the names of all the prize nominees. It was digested and
duly posted. (And not because I sent it; because it was NEWS.)

How's Your Website?

Further to my New Rules for Authors (also currently on Backspace), it is SO important to have a well-designed, up-to-date website.

In the past few weeks, I've seen one site claim that the author's book is "coming in May 2007" and another tout a "new book" (prescriptive nonfiction) that was published in July 2006.

The latter site also had a button on the home page labeled "Blog." But when I clicked on it, the page that came up only had a screen or two of tips from the book. They're undated, so there's no way to tell whether the "blog" is from two years or two days ago. And the site, which was obviously built--and then left to languish--by the author, was as pokey-looking as a mimeographed worksheet. Which is too bad, as the book appears to offer much helpful information.

I have nothing against authors doing their own websites. But you have to know what you're doing and have a keen eye for design. Client Kim Reid (NO PLACE SAFE: A Family Memoir), who taught herself to use Dreamweaver, is my poster child for the DIY author/webmaster. However, she's one of the few exceptions. I've seen too many clunky, junky self-made author sites, including (or especially) those hosted by the Authors Guild and built with their templates.

Bottom line: Shell out the money for the best web designer you can afford. Or shell out the time, effort and money to learn how to design a beautiful, WELL-WRITTEN, PROFESSIONAL-LOOKING site yourself. And update frequently. (Speaking of which, I recently updated my Website Design & Online Marketing/Publicity listings.)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Vertiginous Valentine

Want to make your loved one dizzy? Don't have time to scamper out for a card or chocolates?

Then download Timothy Schaffert's short story, “The Lovers of Vertigo,” part of the light reading series at Featherproof Books.

Timothy writes:
The story is a bit of a horror-show, full of unspeakable language, terrible cruelty, an unauthorized “Vertigo” tour of San Francisco, and love, sweet love, in hideous disguise. Please consider it my Valentine to you, and I ask that you don’t judge me too harshly for its content. Romance is a very strange bird, and it’s not my fault.

Just print it out, and fashion it into a book courtesy of the instructions available at the site. Adorn the mini-book however you see fit. Bedazzle it, if you choose.

And linger at the website… there are many other fine mini-books available, as well as some excellent maxi-books.

Denver Valentine

Yesterday it was sunny and 68F. While I was walking the dog by Cherry Creek, I saw two young hotties in skimpy tops and micro-shorts.

"Hmpf!" I said to myself--and Jenny, who was scampering about in the melting snow. "I bet this won't last."

Some would call me a cynic. But those would be people who live where the climate makes sense. Here where the Great Plains slam into the Rocky Mountains, I'm called a realist.

This morning I woke up to 24F and to 2 inches of snow, which is still gently falling. I rest my case.

Darling Husband is another realist (and clairvoyant). A headline in today's Denver Post reads, Dry-winter forecasts miss mark. The lede:
Dry-winter forecasts were flat wrong this year for much of Colorado and the Southwest, and weather experts say they're struggling to understand why the snow just keeps falling.
A couple of months ago, when DH read the forecast for a dry winter, he said, "Well, that's it! This is going to be a record year for snow."

"Why?" I asked.

"Last year, we got the first blizzard just days after the forecasters said it would be dry. So here we go."

My Valentine!

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

They're Gonna Love These at Whole Foods!

Swag from the SHOT show.

That's what I said to Darling Husband when he showed me the tote bags pictured above.

"That's why I got them," he replied. Great minds think alike! (But really: Adult precision air guns? Shudder...)

While getting ready to tuck into enormous slabs of meet at Lawry's Prime Rib on Saturday night, DH's coworkers talked about the creepy things they saw while walking the aisles at the show. There were several purveyors of Ghurka knives (left; photo lifted from Bob Tice Knives); one showed a video of a knife being used to hack a side of beef to shreds. "Ewww!" everyone shuddered. "Yeah, and their pitch line is, 'We sell lots of these in Sierra Leone!'" I said, not so sarcastically.

There were also many spears on display, with one exhibitor running a video showing a man stabbing an extremely lethal-looking spear deep into a big block of wood. I'm trying to figure out why your average sportsman or deer hunter would need one.

And then there were the Playboy bunnies modeling Tasers, which really gave the guys the willies. My tagline got a good laugh: "Don't tase me, ho!"

Sunday, February 03, 2008

I Love the Smell of Jet Fuel in the Morning

Views from outside my hotel.

Keep left!

The Las Vegas airport terminal is visible in the center background, right.

Actually, the smell of jet fuel has always made me queasy. My hotel, the hyperbolically named Alexis Park Resort, is near the Las Vegas airport. So near, I discovered on my way back from breakfast, that the terminal is a straight shot out the back of one of the perimeter parking lots. Said parking lot, I also discovered, is in the flight path for approaching jets.

Hence the overwhelming stench of fuel in this morning's damp and stormy air, and periodic thunderous roaring, which I'd been mistakenly attributing to the hotel's heating system. (My windows face an internal courtyard planted with tall pines and grass, so the surrounding views were new to me.) The planes come in so low I bet the passengers could see me wave--or duck and pray.

Today's news flash: Las Vegas has real weather!

It's been blowing like mad all day and this morning was even spitting rain. Now it's up to 57F, but when I first went out it was in the upper 30s. Britons would have felt right at home.

(left) Hard Rock casino, Sunday morning.

There's a construction slump?
Who knew?

Here We Go Again...

Today’s NYT has an “Ideas & Trends” piece by Charles McGrath: Great Literature? Depends Whodunit. The pull quote recycles an ancient myth beloved by the literati:

Today's novelists feel as if they have to choose either pedestal or plot.
"Oh please!" I groaned, to the complete uninterest of two women deep in conversation in an unknown (to me) language at a Las Vegas Starbucks this morning.

In the 4th graf, McGrath states:
Jane Austen wrote chick lit. A whiff of shamefulness probably began attaching itself to certain kinds of fiction — and to mysteries and thrillers especially — at the end of the 19th century, with the rise of the “penny dreadful,” or cheaply printed serial.
Not exactly. Novels and their mostly female readers were decried as "frivolous" long before penny serials made their appearance--in the 1850s, according to Wikipedia. Austen's NORTHANGER ABBEY, written in the late 1790s and published posthumously in 1818, lampoons sensational Gothic fiction as exemplified by Ann Radcliffe's 1794 THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO. In NORTHANGER ABBEY, teen protagonist Catherine and her new best friend Isabella rapturize over Udolpho et al. the same way I and my friends did over our favorite books--first Nancy Drew mysteries, then as we grew older, works by Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt. The clothing and hairstyles may be different, but girls are still the same. That's what makes Austen timeless.

McGrath discusses how genre writers, such as Chandler and Hammett, are "promoted" into the mainstream.
The puzzling thing is that such promotions don’t happen more often. Both Ian Rankin, the British mystery writer, and Stephen King, the horror-meister, have complained about a double standard — a conspiracy, in effect — among critics and reviewers that tends to ghettoize genre writing and prevent its practitioners from being taken seriously....

To transcend its genre, a book has to more nearly resemble a mainstream novel — it has to be less generic, in a word. A good example is the mysteries of P. D. James, justly praised for a characterization so rich and detailed that for long stretches you can forget you’re reading a crime story in the first place.

But is that always what we want — to forget why we’re reading what we’re reading?
Why not? To me, a hallmark of a good book, no matter what genre, is that it makes me forget why I'm reading it, even if it's been assigned to me for review, or for a class. In fact, a really good book makes me forget myself entirely: I'm totally immersed in the world the author has created, to the exclusion of everything else. I don't care about what John Updike, per McGrath, describes as the novelist's "implicit contract with the reader, which is to deliver on the promise that a particular genre entails."

The promise of any novel should be to hold the reader in thrall from beginning to end. I couldn't put down A VERSION OF THE TRUTH by Jennifer Kaufman & Karen Mack (and not because they took my publicity workshop for their first novel, LITERACY & LONGING IN L.A.). Whereas that's just what I did when THE WINTER ROSE by Jennifer Donnelly brought my suspended disbelief crashing to the ground. I was all the more disappointed because I loved A NORTHERN LIGHT, her (very grown-up) YA take on the case that inspired Dreiser's An American Tragedy.

McGrath ends with Henry James, who wrote a story about an author who wants to write potboilers, but can't manage "to turn a silk purse into a sow's ear."
...for most writers there is no such thing as slumming. You write, by his lights, what you have a gift for writing; anything else will be revealed as fakery.
Exactly. Which is why I have given up on writing The Great American Novel. Now I have my sights set on writing The Great American Potboiler--and not feeling guilty or ashamed about it.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Through the desert on a horse with no name

Nevada's Moapa Valley from horseback.

What's the first thing you think of when you plan a trip to Las Vegas?

Horseback riding, of course! If you're me, anyway. That's the first thing I think of when I plan most trips. Before I left Denver, I bookmarked a bunch of sites for trail rides near Vegas.

Yesterday, I went for the Jesse James Sunset Steak Ride offered by Sagebrush Ranch. We saddled up for a two-hour ride, to be followed by a "cowboy dinner." (Naturally it included baked beans; shades of "Blazing Saddles.") I was put on a very furry and wonderfully responsive chestnut quarter(ish) horse.

"What's his name?" I asked. No one remembered. So now I can truthfully quote America (whose songs I never could abide).

My experience was unlike the songwriter's, however. For starters, the desert was chill, still and dead quiet. Though there was "no one for to give you no pain," there were plenty of thorny shrubs and ultra-spiky cactus to avoid. And other than a distant helicopter or airplane, the air was NOT "full of sound." We didn't hear any animals or birds, though we saw bobcat and coyote footprints. In fact, the only visible wildlife was a bee that briefly hitched a ride on the wrangler's shirt back and an eagle that silently soared into a treetop at the end of our ride. No flies either. Bliss!

To misquote another song, I love to see that evening sun go down--especially when I'm someplace wild and beautiful. And QUIET.

Fear & Loathing, Shock & Awe

Above left, baggage claim at Las Vegas airport. I passed many slot machines on the way. Right, obelisk at the edge of the Bellagio garden atrium.

On Thursday evening, after watching the Democratic debate and having delicious tapas at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba, Darling Husband drove me around The Strip. Everyplace in Vegas, I discovered, has speakers blasting music: restaurants (no wonder I nearly lost my voice over dinner), sidewalks, the Bellagio parking garage, the unused swimming pools at our hotel.

NRA caps abound this weekend, as the SHOT show is in town. I stood by the Glock van at the airport while waiting for DH to come 'round in the rental car. (He's displaying his wares at the show, though nothing related to firearms.)

Imagine Times Square--only louder, taller, brighter, flashier and plastered everywhere with images of skinny white girls with big tits--spread out as vast as Los Angeles, surrounded by crenelated hills of brown dirt. That's Las Vegas.

"Oh My God," I kept exclaiming. "Our civilization is doomed."

And then on to Bellagio, where after slow traffic allowed us a nicely heated view of the Dancing Waters (with blaring soundtrack, natch), we were puzzled to find a lavish Chinese display in the atrium garden, per pix below. WTF? Then DH recalled that it's Chinese New Year; apparently the Year of the Rat. An Asian family, complete with baby in arms, posed for pictures.

Bugsy Siegel was onto something. So was Hunter S. Thompson.

Satan is Perfecting His Double Lutz

News flash: Hell has frozen over.

Why? Because I volunteered--willingly!--to go to Las Vegas, where I swore I'd never go.

Why? Due to my surgery on Jan. 2, I had to cancel my annual midwinter Book Promotion 101 workshop in L.A. Then I started missing warm weather, swimming pools and palm trees. Then I remembered that Darling Husband was going to a trade show in Vegas the same weekend (i.e., this one) that I was going to hold my workshop. Then I found out that he was booked into an all-suites hotel, with THREE swimming pools, TWO hot tubs, and ZERO gambling. Then I got a $159 fare on Southwest.

So I've been in Vegas since Thursday, returning home just in time to caucus on Tuesday.

Here's another news flash: Hell isn't the only place to freeze over. So does Las Vegas!

It's been down in the 30s at night; right now it's all of 48F. Tomorrow's high is projected to be 50--WITH RAIN. And on Monday, the forecast is for RAIN & SNOW, with a high of 49.

Looks like I'll be spending more time in the bathtub (extra large, fortunately) than the hot tub. But at least there are palm trees. Who knew they could take frigid temperatures?

N.B. I'm still holding the line at Disney World. One must maintain some standards.

I Froze My Toes for Obama

Wednesday was a big day for politics in Denver: Barack Obama at a rally at the Univ. of Denver in the morning; Bill Clinton in a rally in the same venue less than 12 hours later; President GW Bush at a fundraiser in affluent Cherry Hills--exact time and location not disclosed to the general public.

Above, the line (1 of 2, I learned later) ahead of me for Obama rally at 7:30am on January 30. Goal: the tower.
Below, the line behind me at 8:30am. Goal: no frostbite.

The Boy Wonder (18) and friend EZ (17-1/2), my de facto foster son, are both working for the Obama campaign. (I laughed when Gail Collins noted in the NYT, "Basically, everybody’s son is with Obama.") They started out as interns and are now on staff--through Super Tuesday, anyway. BW spent nearly a month before the Iowa caucus working in the Council Bluffs office and sleeping on a couch across the river in Omaha. EZ came on board the campaign later, so he has spent his nights in comfort in Our Gracious Home.

Thanks to BW, last Sunday I heard that Obama was coming to Denver, most likely at the University. No thanks to BW, on Monday I found out exactly when and where, and how to sign up for an e-ticket online. Doors at DU's Magness Arena were supposed to open at 8:30am. BW told me to get there early. He and EZ went to help set up at 6:00; Darling Husband dropped me off on his way to work at 7:30.

Wow! I said to myself when I saw all the people already in line (per top photo). *#$%! I said when I found out, more than an hour later, that there was another line snaking across campus from another direction. Oh, and did I mention that the temperature was maybe 25F?

Unlike coatless and shivering Kevin in line next to me, I'd read in the Washington Post of Monday's overflow crowd at American Univ., and thus was dressed for waiting in the cold. Even so, I lost my toes in the first hour. I lost my fingers while finishing last Sunday's NYT Book Review (I came prepared with foldable reading in my coat pocket; the RSVP specified no bags), then regained them thanks to a sainted man who was giving away cups of cocoa out the back of a golf cart. Happily, by the time the cocoa had made its way through me, I was inside the doors of Magness Arena--at 9:45am. Better still, the taps in the ladies room had very hot water, so I was able to thoroughly defrost my hands. (It's the little things that matter.)

Per the Denver Post, some 18,000 (!) showed up for the rally. Though I was so far back in line--the first people had arrived at 4:30am--I was among the first 10,000 arrivals, and so got a seat in Magness Arena. A gymnasium was hastily made ready for the overflow, but it wasn't sufficient; the overflow overflow crowd stood in a lacrosse field. Obama, we were told, was running late because he was greeting those contingents. (Smart of him to show himself in the flesh, because his arena speech was only broadcast over loudspeakers.)

Left, the view from my seat when I arrived in Magness Arena.

Below, former Denver mayor Federico Peña gets things going.

This being football-crazy Denver, the first really big name on the roster was Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith (below).

Smith charmed everyone by confessing his nervousness (jittery public speakers, take note!), observing that the crowds he's used to seeing have people with their faces painted orange and blue. Obama got his only jeers later when he announced that he's a Bears fan; they changed to cheers when he added, re Smith, "I know a Hall of Famer when I see one."

Kevin in line said he hoped that there'd be some big star to speak before Obama. I said there probably would be. Little did we know that it would be Caroline Kennedy. The arena erupted when she was introduced by the stammering president of Colorado Young Democrats. Caroline pretty much echoed her opinion piece in the NYT. The crowd ate it up, but it was obvious, as Obama said when thanking her for her introduction, that she's shy and not used to speaking to large audiences. (Jittery public speakers: Dropping your voice at the end of each sentence sounds totally downbeat.)

Then Caroline introduced You Know Who, and the place went wild. At left is Obama embracing her. On the video monitor is Denver mayor John Hickenlooper; that's former senator Gary Hart on the far left, snapping a photo. (Hickenlooper's office claimed that he's neutral. He was also at the Clinton rally that night, attended by only 3000. There was an unforecast--as usual--sudden dump of 3" of snow.)

Most everything that Obama said was covered in the press, so I won't repeat it here.

In vain, I tried to catch a glimpse of BW and EZ in the scrum in front of the stage. I later learned that BW was collecting names and addresses at the lacrosse field, while EZ was seated in the first few rows down front in the arena. (Not being vertically gifted like BW, he wouldn't have seen a thing if he'd been standing.)

After the rally, I lost my toes again while waiting 40 minutes to take a 15-minute bus ride. Halfway home, I had a moment of intense anxiety when a woman, who was talking on her cell phone and looking right, nearly plowed her sedan into us while merging left. Stupid cow! (Another "c" word, which I hardly ever use aloud, flitted through my brain. Desperate times...)

On the bus, I got into a lively conversation with a fellow passenger about Obama and the rally. Much to my surprise, the driver chimed in. (This is a weird city: Bus drivers are pleasant, passengers thank them when exiting, and both parties say, "Have a nice day!" Even the traffic court judge, as Darling Husband discovered, is friendly and chatty. Must be the altitude, or something in the water.)

Almost everyone on the bus was a Democrat. "Go caucus next Tuesday!" I exhorted as I stepped off.