Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Snippets: Ice Cream and Immortality

It's so relaxing to finish a work day, go to a three-hour writing session, and then snag groceries and three gallons of milk at Wal-mart... said no mom ever.

ME: *texts* At Wal-mart. Anything you need?
BOY: Ice cream and Oreos.
BOY: I need ice cream and Oreos.
ME: Which do you NEED more?
BOY: Ice cream.

However, feeding and housing a teenage boy means I theoretically have someone to help bring in the groceries.

ME: Get the milk out of the back seat.
BOY: First I want hugs.
ME: Oh, you like me today?
BOY: I missed my mom! Wait, did you get me ice cream?
ME: Sorry. Too expensive.
BOY: What?
ME: I checked out the generic ice cream but they were all out of cookies-n-cream.*
BOY: Humph.
ME: What, no hugs now?
BOY: You didn't get me ice cream!
ME: Oh, so I have to buy you ice cream to get hugs?
BOY: No, but you get more hugs with ice cream.

After unloading the groceries...

ME: Oh, put this in the freezer, would you? *hands him quart of cookies-n-cream ice cream*
BOY: ...You liar.
ME: You're so easy.
BOY: But you're so cheap I would believe you.
ME: Mean! Someday when I'm gone, you'll look back and wish you'd been nicer to me.
BOY: Ha! You're not going to die.
ME: Not soon, but someday!
BOY: Never. You're never going to die.
ME: How am I going to manage that?
BOY: You're immortal.

* This is the only flavor he considers eating.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Snippets and revolution

Monday was the First Amendment Free* Food Festival at the university, organized by the school newspaper and Mass Communications department and cosponsored by the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists.

Basically, they give away free food to the students and staff in return for temporarily signing away their First Amendment rights to enter their little “country.” If you’re wearing a religious emblem, they make you take it off. If your shirt says anything subversive, you have to cover it up or turn it inside out. They make you sit where they say you can sit (freedom of association) and make you talk about the subjects they deem appropriate. The coordinator wears a little dictator hat. Here, have a video about it from last year…

Jim attended this year, since I was still in Kansas City and was unable to do so. Also, free pizza. Beforehand, he texted me.

MAN: Call me before I go to Pizzassian.
ME: I think it was MassCommistan, but Tammy can confirm.


MAN: I’m free!
MAN: Tammy said I was a very good compliant citizen.
MAN: Until I stepped out of the “country” and yelled, “Viva revolution!”
ME: You owe me a keyboard.
MAN: Sorry.
ME: Are not. Did you have to give up anything for your pizza?
MAN: She tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You are being quiet and compliant. We like that in our citizens.” I kept quiet and obeyed all orders. I just thought of myself in the military again.
ME: Oh, that’s going on the blog.

Jim reported that it was actually a little intimidating, knowing that you didn’t have rights. “It was fun, but kind of scary at the same time,” he said. He was ordered to talk to a girl he didn’t know about earrings. She was wearing earrings, Jim has an earring, therefore all they were allowed to talk about was earrings. Awkward. “It’s kind of weird, living in fear,” he said. 

After he shouted in protest, he was ordered to “take (his) democracy elsewhere.”


ME: I think you should know that Mike (the landlord) is taking down the Christmas lights.
MAN: Oh. 
ME: And it’s not even Memorial Day yet.
MAN: Sorry.
ME: It seems I might have mentioned something about this…
MAN: Shit.
ME: I give you the Wife Side-Eye of Impatience.
MAN: Ohhh.
ME: If you would just have let me do it myself….
MAN: No.
MAN: No.
MAN: No.
ME: What.
MAN: No going on the roof.
ME: I do as I please.
MAN: No.
ME: Oh yes I do. Have we met?


Man proceeds upstairs to print something in my office.

ME: What.
MAN:You have Hershey’s chocolate eggs in your desk!
ME: Stop snooping through my desk!
MAN: Chocolate hoarder!
ME: Yes. And?
MAN: Share!
ME: No!
MAN: I love chocolate eggs!
ME: Me too. And remind me, who got an Easter basket full of yummy sweets this year? And who did NOT?
MAN: …
ME: Uh huh. Who sees that Man and Boy both get a lovely surprise from the Easter Bunny each year, and never gets any chocolate herself? And does the same at Christmas, and Valentine’s Day, and…
MAN: Well. Um. I remembered Valentine’s Day!
ME: And so if I run out the day after Easter and stock up on some yummy half-price treats, I’m gonna hide them in my desk so I actually get to EAT them!
MAN: You hoard chocolate.
ME: In this house? You’re damn right I do…

For the next several days…

MAN: (mutters) Chocolate hoarder…


ME: So. Tired.
MAN: Well sleep, hon.
ME: Had to unpack.
MAN: Sleep.
ME: Yes master. As my husband you command me in all things.
MAN: No, I just want you to rest because you are tired.
ME: Well, I'd like to, but somebody messed up my bed. Covers are all catawampus, pillows in the wrong place.
MAN: Oh.
ME: No ohs. Be specific or be quiet.
MAN: Oh.
ME: You are disobedient.
MAN: Yes.
MAN: Viva revolution.

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Saturday, April 16, 2016

What Do You Like to Read?

There's a piece going around the internet that is about 85 percent really good advice. So at first, I hesitated to say what bothered me about it.

Here, read it. It's good stuff. "How Not to Sell Books at an Event." I'll wait.

If I had a dollar for every beginning author I've seen with one solitary copy of his book resting on a bare table... I always have at least one backup tablecloth in my bag, sometimes more. I have been known to offer them on loan to cloth-less authors, and every single time that author came back at the end of the day to say, "Wow, that really made a difference! I'm going to pick up some of these."

Note to authors: Remnant sales at fabric stores. Get an eight-foot length because you never know the size of the table you'll get. Horror authors can pick up nifty patterns in the post-Halloween sales.

Other questions I am often asked: Where did I get that great folding rack? Store Supply Warehouse, folks. If you're in the St. Louis region, you can go by their warehouse and pick it up yourself to save the shipping cost. Otherwise, order online. Tabletop, freestanding, gridwall, everything from comic book racks to jewelry displays. Also those terrific folding stands that work sooooo much better than Wal-mart pie plate holders and don't break in your luggage.

Do offer: business cards, with your website and blog on them.
Don't bother: bookmarks. Expensive and so commonplace the vast majority of them end up in the trash. Business cards cost a fraction of what bookmarks cost you, so if they end up in the trash, you haven't lost much. Bonus: They also work as bookmarks.

All the rest of it is very much on point. If I have to do an event solo, I know I'd best be at my booth at all times. And it goes without saying that professionalism means no complaining. If you have concerns, take them up privately with the on-site organizer. If you have constructive suggestions for future events, email them privately, unless a public forum is created seeking suggestions. Even then, remember that it is a privilege to be invited and you are/were a guest of the show, so can the ego and remember the word constructive.


I do have quibbles with 1.5 of her items, and I think they're worth exploring if you intend to sell books at an event (or, really, plan to hawk your creative wares on the road anywhere. Art fairs, craft shows, Ren Faires, they all kind of apply).

The half-measure: insisting on standing every time someone comes up to the table. It's traditional advice, and I've heard it often from really good salesmen, but it's a touch ableist. I personally cannot stand for nine hours a day (more at the big shows). I'm not in the best of health, and neither are many other perfectly capable authors and artists I know.

Supposedly you'll be more active and engaged with the customer if you're on your feet. But if you believe in your work and you know how to engage with a customer, you can do that on your feet or in a chair. Personally, I'd give body parts for one of those specialty "seller's chairs" that looks like a director's chair but isn't so low to the ground, so you're basically at eye level anyway. But my current budget keeps me in an ordinary camp chair, and so leaping to my feet like a grasshopper every time someone comes to the table is going to require more muscle groups than I currently command.

Also: As a shopper, I find it's counterproductive. I actually feel guilty when I approach a table and an obviously-exhausted seller leaps to her feet. I will sometimes pre-empt them with, "Oh please, you can sit, it's okay." Almost every time, she sinks back into the chair with obvious relief.

Worse: it can intimidate the shy shopper. Sometimes the introverts just want to browse, and they'll steer clear of a table with Mr. Energetic practically leaping over the table at them. The standing seller means they can't just browse, they'll have to converse, and thus they avoid.

Which leads me to my bigger quibble: "What do you like to read?"

Please, let's just stop that one.

First, because it's THE STANDARD QUESTION. If you walk through an event, you will get that question at. every. table. I'm not sure when we decided that was the default ice-breaker at a book fair, but it is now the author version of "Hey baby, what's your sign?"

Second, readers are often introverts, and it puts them on the spot. I find it tends to lead to recoil and a hasty retreat. As I said before, a shy reader perusing for books needs a gentler approach. A question like that makes them stop thinking about my books on the rack in front of them and start thinking about an appropriate answer to my personal question. I'm naturally shy - shut up, why does no one believe me - and it takes an active effort to engage in conversation with strangers. I have lots of practice, but it's work. 

Third, when I'm shopping, I never know how to answer The Question. "Oh, horror, science fiction, urban fantasy, medical thrillers, legal thrillers, whodunits, post-apocalypse, graphic novels, the occasional sword-n-sorcery, short stories and once in a blue moon romance." Great, I've covered the entire genre spectrum with the possible exception of Westerns. 

What do I suggest we say instead, after twelve years of touring? 

First: Leave them alone for a few moments. Let your books speak for themselves. Readers want to explore on their own, not be assaulted by the literary equivalent of a department-store perfume spritzer.

Then engage them in conversation, but make it light. If they're wearing a lovely dress or a funny T-shirt, mention that. But (very important) be sincere. Don't fake flattery. If I hate the earrings, I'm not going to say, "What cute earrings! Where'd you find them?" On the other hand, conventions tend to have really amazing clothes and accessories, not to mention absolutely hilarious T-shirts, so it's not hard to find something to chat about.

I stole some of my best lines from Selina Rosen. "Money is the root of all evil, and we are here to save your soul." This never fails to get a laugh. I have been known to wave my hand Jedi-style and say, "These are the books you're looking for." This works at genre conventions and author fairs with a high quotient of speculative fiction. Try it at a craft fair and you'll get blank looks. But at con? I usually get a guy snarking me: "That only works on the weak-minded." Hey, it was worth a try.

If they're shy, just a friendly, "Let me know if I can help you," indicates that I am available to answer questions without putting pressure on them. Don't push the introverted reader! They may become your most dedicated fans, but they scare easy. Anything like a hard sales push tends to send them running.

If they pick up a book, I wait a few seconds. Let the book talk to them. If my publisher and I have done our jobs right, the cover art and the back cover copy should do most of the work selling the book. Then I might tell them something about it, like, "That one's out of print. I think those are the last few copies."

Again: Honesty. Those really are the last copies. Don't lie, because you might get a sale, but then you're an ass.

Or I'll explain a little bit about the book. "It's a short story collection, kind of Twilight Zone creepy rather than slash or gore." If there's something I can add to its pedigree, I might say, "That one won the Darrell Award a few years ago." They've probably never heard of the Darrell Award, but an award generally means they give it a closer look than if I sit there and say nothing. 

Sometimes they realize I write horror and recoil with, "Oh, I can't do scary stuff." I could be an ass and insist, "But it's not that scary! Look, it's just kinda creepy!" Then you're that guy, like the forty-year-old trying to buy a twentysomething a drink and insisting he's not married because women don't get him. Instead, that's when you return to Ms. Allen's advice: Who else is in the room? Direct them to the hard SF guy next to you or the romance writer down the aisle. 

Don't ever, ever try to sell to someone who isn't at your table. If he's looking at the sword-n-sorcery author next to me, I leave him the hell alone until he's moved on to my table. Only the biggest jerk tries to steal customers from other authors. The reader may or may not realize that you've been an asshole, but the other authors will, and repeated offenses mean you will not be invited back. Worse: there are editors and publishers in the room, and we all talk to each other. The reputation of Asshole Author means you will not sell. As one publisher told me: "I don't care if he's written the next American Gods, life is too short to work with assholes. I won't publish anyone who's a dick."

Being an author means selling yourself. We all know this, or we should, by now. But keep a sense of humor, and remember to be a person. If you act like the chamois salesguy on a 3 a.m. infomercial, you will scare away the readers and you'll annoy the other authors. 

If you can't think of anything else, then fine: go with "What do you like to read?" I guess it's better than nothing. Just keep in mind, they've already heard it from the other 49 authors in the hall.

Except me. I'm probably trying the Jedi Mind Trick on them. From my chair.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Serious Snippet

Boy is working tech crew for the school play: Oliver! He's having a blast, and had the idea this past weekend that we should watch the movie. He'd seen it as a young child, but barely remembered it.

Spoilers ahead for a 180-year-old book. If you haven't read Oliver Twist or seen the movie versions, you really ought to go back to high school and get your money back from your tenth-grade English teacher.

ME: There's a lot of the story that probably will make more sense to you now that you're older.
BOY: Yeah. Like, why does Nancy love Bill?
ME: ... Why does any woman love a man who treats her like shit? You can't really help who you fall in love with. You can choose whether you stay with someone who treats you like shit, but sometimes even that isn't so easily decided.
BOY: I don't get it.

Later, the chilling Oliver Reed as Bill viciously beats Nancy in front of Fagin's boys to coerce her into helping him kidnap Oliver. It's awful and humiliating, as reflected in the boys' horrified faces. This is not a candy-colored movie, as much as people like to think. It never flinches away from what Bill is or what he represents, and more than any other, the faces of the children reflect it.

Then Nancy sings her soliloquy: "As Long As He Needs Me."

ME: This song is somewhat controversial.
BOY: Yeah. I just don't get it.
ME: Some see it as splashing sentimentality on domestic violence, that it's making excuses for Bill's behavior. I see it as Nancy telling herself what she wants to believe so that she can stay with him.
BOY: ... That makes more sense.
ME: Remember Nancy's line earlier, when she was singing about having a normal family with a husband? She said, "But for the likes of such as me, mine's a fine life." That's kind of showing what Nancy thinks of herself. She's the den mom, but she doesn't think of herself as being worth being treated better than Bill treats her. She loves him, though he totally doesn't deserve it, and so she stays with him even though he treats her like crap.
BOY: And it's not like they had shelters and stuff.
ME: No, there wasn't much support or help for domestic abuse. It happened a lot and nobody did anything. Unfortunately that's sometimes still the case.
BOY: *contemplative face*

And we all know what happens to Nancy. It's too often the way the story ends, of course.

I am oddly pleased that Boy has such a hard time understanding it. He doesn't get domestic violence, why it is perpetrated or why the subject stays. His image of intimate relationships doesn't include violence. That's a good thing. Would that it were so for all.

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Monday, April 11, 2016

Manna From the Car Gods, with addenda

Twice in one week. Might be a good time to buy Powerball.

Some time ago, I was informed that my car needed a new cabin air filter and a transmission fluid flush. One of those made sense. The latter, however, seemed a tad premature for a car barely two years old.

Therefore, I took Ariane to CarZeus (the God of Cars). The original CarZeus is long retired, of course, but in his time he kept some truly atrocious pieces of automotive technology ferrying me to and from work. When he retired, he sold the shop to his top mechanic, and I've stayed with them loyally and referred others to them. They have always taken excellent care of my cars, explained things I didn't understand without an ounce of condescension, helped me avoid some costly mistakes, and have never applied the Female Surcharge that always seems to accompany car repair bills when I go elsewhere.

CarZeus's crew confirmed what I suspected: the air filter needed replacement, but the transmission fluid flush was nowhere near necessary. Thus, a $175 bill was averted.

Fast forward a few days, and it was time for my tires to be rotated. That meant going back to the tire place, since I bought the lifetime plan. The car had been making louder noises and vibrating hard at higher speeds, and I mentioned it to them, concerned that maybe we'd gone too long between rotations.

Not quite, they told me at pickup. There's a wheel bearing going bad.

Again, this car is now slightly over two years old. This seems a tad early, just like replacing the tires last year seemed VERY early - how could tires start unspooling off the rim eighteen months after purchase? (It helps if they're made of jelly, apparently.)

The tire place quoted me $720 for the bearing. I fell out of my chair. Figuratively speaking.

Fortunately, I also invested in a bumper-to-bumper warranty for the car. So you'd better believe I made an appointment at my dealership for the very next day. And that night, I dug through the Stack of Doom on my desk (I'm about three years behind in my filing) to locate all the paperwork from purchasing my car, the extended warranty information, even the form indicating that if I went all seven years of the warranty term without using it, they'd refund me the $1,685 extra I paid for it.

Jim and I talked it over: what would we do if the bearing wasn't covered under the warranty? We have savings, but we'd need more. We could pull money out of the 401k, but we had to do that for the tires last year and at some point I would like to actually retire. We talked about whether we'd have to pursue legal action to enforce the warranty, and what would be a cost-effective way to do it.

We strategized about dealing with (mostly male) mechanics and how Jim would go along with me, but sit separately and make sure I went alone to talk to them, because when Jim and I stand next to each other at auto mechanics (other than CarZeus), banks, computer repair shops and other male-dominated places, they talk to him, not me, and it's harder for me to negotiate.

We went in expecting to be screwed, you see. It never even occurred to us that it would, in the words of the immortal Capt. Tightpants, go smooth.

We arrived. I explained the situation to the tech. He looked up my file, confirmed the details on the car and said they'd get me in as quickly as possible. I did emails while waiting. About two hours later they called me back to the shop, and Jim wished me luck as I marched off to battle with my file in hand.

The tech informed me that the bearing had indeed gone bad. So they fixed it, no charge, covered under the warranty. Car is ready to go.

I was flabbergasted. I didn't even have to fight? Not like health insurance, where I have to file appeals at least twice a month for claims improperly handled or vendors who send bills even after they've been paid. Not like the hard drive on my son's computer, which developed bad sectors only nine months after installation and OOPS they only guarantee it for 90 days, so sorry.

We went back outside and found the car, newly washed. And as we drove away, I told Jim, "I was expecting to get screwed. How fucked is that? We've now reached a point where we simply expect to get screwed walking into any situation, and we develop plans of attack based on minimizing the screwage."

"Well, it's us," he said, and he has a point. But it isn't just us. There's a certain amount of "it costs a lot to be poor," and both of us come from that mindset. It's like shoes: a good solid $55 pair of sneakers can last you ten years or more. I know; I'm still wearing a pair of New Balance sneaks I bought in 2004. But Jim's sneakers have always come from Wal-mart. They're $15, and they last six months at most. Then they fall apart.

"Just pay the extra for the good ones." That's the wise choice, because in the end, you pay less by buying a $55 pair for ten years than $15 every six months. But first you have to have the $55.

And that's the key. This is the first car I've owned new in my life. It wasn't easy to get and it isn't easy to pay for, but we're in a place now where we could get it. That meant a warranty. And apparently that means they actually honor the warranty without making you fight. That's a hell of a lot more cost-effective than buying a "cheaper" car that would have put us out $720 for a repair bill.

We've reached a fairly comfortable place in our lives now, where our bills are paid and we have enough to live on afterward, barring disaster. There are trials ahead - a fairly staggering loss of monthly income next year, plus the looming beast of College Tuition for Boy - but for now, we're okay. And that's weird for us, because for all our lives, we've been scratching. Jim was doing blue-collar labor, I was a single mom with two jobs. We're used to the $15 sneakers. And we won't even talk about what it was like when he was laid off.

But this year, I bought him a pair of New Balance. And the car is running so smoothly that I keep accidentally speeding. That's not a bad place to be. But we don't forget where we were, because it's not that far behind us.

In other news:

• I recently discovered that my hairdresser has put a notation in my file that I should be allotted extra time. That's because I'm such a delightful person that she enjoys chatting with me for an extra 15 minutes, right? Not because my hair is a complex and annoying pain in the ass to cut and style? Hush and let me cling to my delusions.

• That aforementioned laptop hard drive? Yeah, that we had to pay for. Normally I ride for all things Apple, but in this particular area, they really let me down. I paid for a new 500GB hard drive for Boy's laptop last year, and they mangled the frame putting it back together, so they had to replace the frame as well. That was all fine and good, but nine months later that new hard drive developed bad sectors. Foolish me, I thought it would be under warranty, but apparently they only guarantee their hardware for 90 days. I get a better warranty on camping supplies.

Thus, my new best friends are at MacHQ in St. Louis. An authorized Mac reseller, they guarantee their installed parts for life. They did my laptop's new hard drive around the same time as Boy's upgrade last year, and I've had zero problems. When I look to buy my new desktop next year, I may be looking there instead.

• A snippet I simply can't let go...

ME: Where the hell are my black pants?
JIM: Hanging in the closet.
ME: Where they're supposed to be? No wonder I can't find them... you finished the laundry?
JIM: Yup. Last night.
ME: You're awesome. I want to be you when I grow up.
BOY: (from other room) You don't have much time.
ME: ....HEY!!
BOY: *snickers*
MAN: *strolls out of room*
ME: Smartass!

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Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Snippets, not-entirely-worksafe edition

When voice-to-text meets autocorrect.... and Man devolves

Man: Did you get the bus pass?
Me: Boobs
Me: I said poops!
Man: Boobs
Me: Hoops
Me: oh for fucks sake
Me: Oops! I said oops!
Man: Yes. Boobs.
Me: That is not what I said!
Man: Ohhhhhh yes. Raaaarrrgh.
Me: So I'll stop and get a bus pass on the way home, you pervert.
Man: Yes. Ohhhhhhhhargh.
Me: This is going on the blog.

Me: When cooking this weekend, don't forget there are two frozen lasagna plus chicken nuggets and fries in the freezer.
Me: There are a number of canned soups and tons of pasta in the basement, plus the makings of curry chicken casserole or spaghetti.
Me: There is a pound of ground meat, please read three
Me: Good lord
Me: Stupid voice to text
Me: Around me
Me: Round beef
Me: Goddammit
Me: Ground meat. Do you frosting
Me: Defrosting!
Me: If you don't use it, green green wtf referee it
Me: Refreeze!
Man: Gotcha. Right.

Boy: How do you spell herbivore?
Me: Isn't it on your study sheet right in front of you?
Boy: I spelled it wrong.
Me: I so enjoy doing your homework for you. 
Boy: Hey, I'm doing my homework!
Me: H-e-r-b-i-v-o-r-e.
Boy: Herbivore. *types*
Me: Thank you for only making me spell it once, unlike your stepfather.
Boy: I noticed that. Every time he asks you spell things you end up spelling it like five times.
Me: Drives. Me. Crazy.
Boy: *snickers*
Me: Like, if you want something spelled, listen to it the first time! Or, y'know, look it up!

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