Whew. Another release week in the rear view mirror, and this one was a doozy. Launch day is always a roller-coaster: will people buy my book, if they do will they LIKE it, will I stumble across a terrible review that will emotionally cripple me for days … It’s a bit like watching someone juggle your newborn baby and a live chainsaw.
We’re all works in progress, and I’m no exception. Always learning valuable lessons. This year, I learned two very valuable lessons—perhaps the most important one about vetting something you read at an author event.
I was honored to participate in this year’s Fox Cities Book Festival, at which I read a scene from my novella Closer Than They Appear. It’s a cute little tale about missed connections, featuring two characters who meet at the same stoplight every morning during their commutes. I write from each character’s perspective, male and female. You should know that I don’t believe in tidying up the male point of view. Guys are crude. They’re raw, real, and warped, if they’re being honest. (This is important for the story.)
The scene I chose to read was from my male character’s point of view, and he’s in a particularly miserable, heart-broken frame of mind at a bar with a friend. Oh, and did I mention it takes place in Oshkosh, the city in which I live? (This is also important for the story.)
So I’m reading, and everyone is laughing and enjoying themselves. Excellent! I think, and file the piece away for another day. I whistle a jaunty tune on my way home.
Fast-forward to Tuesday night, launch night, and I’m giving a chat in Oshkosh at a fundraiser for the Winnebago Literacy Council. I know, I say to myself, I’ll read the same piece that got such a great reception at the Book Festival! It takes place in Oshkosh; people will like that. This is the best idea I’ve ever had!
The Literacy Council is a terrific organization, and that night they introduced five young men, recent refugees from Burma, Ivory Coast, Uganda, and Pakistan, to showcase and put faces on the great work the council is doing. They’re sitting in the front row, listening to me very politely. I finish my author spiel and begin the reading.
And I get to the part on the very first page where my main character, annoyed at being jostled around while trying to order a drink, says to his friend, “Jesus Christ, remind me why we came here again? I feel like I’m in some third-world country waiting for bags of rice to be tossed out the back of a United Nations truck.”
A few people laugh in a kind-of shocked way, like you do in church when an elderly woman in the pew behind you audibly farts. My blood turns to ice in my veins. Oh dear GOD, how did I forget about this line? I very nearly stop reading. There are almost fifty faces staring at me, waiting to see how this plays out, waiting for the juggler to drop the chainsaw on the baby. A small voice in my head says, No—you have to keep going. Own it! Be real! And never, ever write from the male point of view again!”
I continue, and so does the fun, because soon we get to three song references that are totally unfamiliar to the crowd, followed by a reference to “Pretentious Asshole Bingo,” which I forgot to set-up before the reading, and a reference to an ex-girlfriend who used to send really dirty texts.
I begin to feel faint. I’m sweating profusely. The words feel like rubber in my mouth. Ah, and then I remember how I end this scene:
From somewhere behind him: “Hey, if it isn’t Steinbeck 2.0!”
Zach gritted his teeth and manufactured a smile for the second time that evening. “Matt Nelson. What’s up?”
Matt Nelson was another local writer. Privately, Zach always tacked a GD to his name, as in, “GD Matt Nelson.” It stood for Grammar Destroyer. He’d self-published a thriller last fall and now routinely posted screen shots of his Amazon ranking to his Facebook feeds: Cracked the top 100! I’m on fire! “Dude, just sold my forty-thousandth copy of Archer Falls. Can you believe that shit?”
Forty-thousand people actually paid to learn that you can’t tell the difference between they’re, there, and their. Jesus wept. “Hey, congrats.”
“Yeah,” Zach said, thrilled he actually had a positive update to share. “I just sold my novel, actually.”
Matt’s smile hitched ever so-slightly. “Oh yeah? That’s great! Who picked it up?”
“It’s a small indie press. They specialize in gritty, urban fiction.”
“Huh. I thought your book took place on a farm. So what kind of advance they offer?”
Zach took a swig of beer, growing increasingly uncomfortable under GD Matt Nelson’s scrutiny.
“Not much, but they do a great job with their authors.”
But Matt had stopped paying attention. “Hey, I gotta split. Just saw Kara Peterson. Chick’s got nipples like fuckin pencil erasers.” He grabbed his beer and disappeared into the crowd.
After he left, Zach let out a strangled sob. “How can such a gross human being win at everything?”
Josh craned his neck to see where Matt had gone, wearing a vague expression of curiosity. It looked like he was trying to solve a sexy riddle. “Pencil erasers. Huh.”
Did you get that?
"Chick’s got nipples like fuckin pencil erasers.”
Did I mention that two of my nice young audience members in the front row were from Pakistan?
I looked around for a box I could crawl into, or maybe a bathtub of vodka, or a candle I could light myself on fire with. Finding no such retreat, I ended with a vaguely mumbled, “Um, so it’s kind of colorful. Just a fun little thing.”
OH MY GOD SHUT UP SHUT UP.
People clapped politely. Some were still laughing (with me? Nah, probably totally at me). My whole body is still unfolding from a nearly semi-permanent and disabling cringe.
So the lesson here is: something that plays well in Peoria may not play as well in Albuquerque. Check your audience and triple-vet anything you share before you get up on stage. And write something new as quickly as possible, if only to scour your latest shenanigan from your brain.
(Thank you, everyone, for the support and kind words this week; you kept me from soaking in that bathtub of vodka, which actually sounds kind of relaxing now that I think about it ....)