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Category: Writers

The Author Photo

For some of us the quest for the Author Photo is a thing to be dreaded, embraced with all the joy of a root canal. For others, it’s a breeze, a delight, a skippety-do-dah romp in the sunshine. If you are in the latter group, this article is not for you. 

The Author Photo is, pretty much, you naked. Only with clothes. But naked in a much more lasting way, not a mere flit from bathroom to bedroom, but you, exposed and leering from the back cover of a book, or the bowels of the internet, forever–yes, forever. Because nothing ever dies on the internet. The Author Photo, in its many ghastly incarnations, will always come back to haunt you.

Some people achieve The Author Photo with a mere click of a shutter, or perhaps three, and then it’s, “Hmm, which of the three shall I use? They’re all soooo good.” Again this article is not for you. 

For others it’s a quest, a saga, a never-ending journey. Certainly that’s been the case for me. Half of my family is extremely photogenic. The other half is not. Guess which half I belong to? I’ve never liked having my photo taken. For years I pulled faces at cameras or avoided the wretched things altogether.

But once you become An Author, there is this horrid—and completely unreasonable— expectation that you will provide An Author Photo. What difference does it make what I look like? Will it enhance your reading pleasure? I think not.

But still various powers-that-be demand one.

The tendency at first is to look among your snapshots for A Nice Photo. You quickly discover there is no such thing. You discard all the ones with your tongue poking out, or your eyes bugging or squinting or popping. What is left (in my case) is a snap someone took of me when I was in a band. In it I looked relatively normal, happy and was wearing a pink feather boa — all good for the romance writer look, don’t you think? Ignore the fact I appeared to be doing unspeakable things to a big, black microphone — well, it is romance — it was the only picture I had. 

After a number of rude comments about said photo, I decided it should be replaced at the earliest opportunity. I got a friend to take some photos in her back yard— she’s an artist, so I was sure the shots would be suitably artistic. They were. The resulting photos could have been entitled “Variation on the Theme of Broken Capillaries,” with a secondary series called “Waterfall of Chins.”  (And no, I’m not going to share!)

Obviously I needed something more professional. I went along to a local suburban studio — let us call it Reservoir Brides. The photographer was elderly, dapper, and very sure he knew exactly what I wanted. “Just put yourself in my hands, young lady.”  The “young lady” should have been a warning sign, but no. . .

He sat me on a high bar stool. “Cross your legs. Now, lean forward. Stick your neck out, yes, that’s right, now chin down a little, head up, tilt your head, smile and … look sexy!” 

I looked like some cross-legged female quasimodo grinning maniacally while not falling off a stool.

My next attempt at The Author Photograph was in a very much more cool environment, at an inner-suburban studio where a young photography graduate was starting his career. I should have walked out when he produced The Hat, but going to a photography studio, for me, is a bit like going to the dentist — once you’ve got yourself there, you just need to endure until it’s over. 

I quite like hats, so I donned this one and proceeded to do all those things photographers tell you — chin up, head down, look here, look there. I came away feeling almost positive. Like when the dentist hasn’t hurt you.

And then I saw the proofs. The hat was lopsided. Severely so. I looked utterly and completely demented, like I’d dressed while drunk from a selection at the op-shop. (And no, you’re not seeing those ones, either.)

The next attempt was at a big conference in the US. Heaps of authors get their photos done there. It was the obvious choice. We met. She was jolly, very jolly. She cracked jokes and made me laugh and encouraged me to ham it up even more. No problem, there. I’m already on edge getting my photo taken. The photo shoot was a laugh from beginning to end.

The photos? Completely demented. Plus we were all laughing so much nobody noticed my blouse had popped open — and not in a good or sexy way.

Next was after a TV appearance where they’d done my make-up and hair. A friend rang me after the show — it was live — and said, “You look great. Go and get your photo taken.” So I rang a photographic studio and made an appointment for a few hours hence. I had time to kill so I sat in front of my new computer and played with the Photo Booth program. Click click click. The photos came out great.

I headed off to the professional photographer feeling confident. If my computer could make me look good, what could a professional do?

Make me orange, that’s what. And highlight every wrinkle I had. I looked like a science project; “Close-up of Middle-Aged Decay.”

I used the computer photo. That’s it on the right. The only problem is, it’s not high resolution enough for most purposes.

I’ve had quite a few newspapers take photos of me. They pose me — I’ve lain on a floor, a rose between my teeth and I’ve been draped with feathers — romance writer, see? I always come out looking demented. Don’t believe me? Here’s one of them.

Some of the best photos have been taken by friends, when I’m dressed up (usually in costume) at some conference. Here’s one that a friend  took of me at a romance readers convention where we dressed up as . . . something, I can’t remember. I’d use it, only it looks as though I’m about to attempt a pirouette, or graciously knight someone with a quill, or burst into song.

Then there was the photo shoot Penguin Australia organized for authors. They even hired a make-up expert (so-called) to do our hair and make-up. I ended up with strange brown eyebrows.

In my most recent attempt to scale Mount Author Photo, I tried another professional photographer, a woman who’d taken some gorgeous shots of an author friend. I showed her the computer photo and said “One like that, please.” 

“Oh, we can do better than that,” she said. She did my makeup and hair. She
posed me here and posed me there, all the time encouraging me to smile, and laugh, laugh, laugh! You guessed it. High resolution demented woman. There’s one at the top of this page, and here’s another. But it’s what I have, so it’s what I use.

Meanwhile, the quest continues…

Writing Retreat

I’ve recently returned from my annual writing retreat — that’s a time away (in our case almost a week) with a group of writer friends, working. We’re all multi-published writers, but even so there’s an emphasis on professional development as well as producing words on the page.

This is our tenth anniversary as a writing retreat (I reported on the first one here  and over the years we’ve refined the process into one that works for us. Here’s the post I wrote while I was away on our 10th retreat.

I’ve had enquiries from time to time asking for more detail about how we run ours, so here’s my view of things.

Location
The first retreat, and all but one of our retreats have been beside the sea. There’s something about the sea and the salt air, the interface of land and water and sky, the constantly changing view and the endless rhythmic pounding of the waves, hypnotic and soothing and inspiring — it feeds our muse.

Another requirement for us is a range of affordable and varied places to eat nearby. We can cook our own meals, but a lot of people prefer to grab take-aways — Thai, Japanese, Mexican, Greek etc — or eat out in a group.

A room of our own
From the very first retreat, we decided this was important, as each of us needed a private space to write in. That’s not actually true for all of us, we’ve discovered — some write in bed, some in cafes, but for some a table and a private space is vital, so that was a priority.

Planning
In the weeks leading up to the retreat we start to toss around ideas for professional development. From craft-of-writing exercises (because we can all do with refreshing and honing our craft) to “the state-of-publishing” discussions, to discussions of books or movies, and the sharing of good writing books — we brainstorm ideas, come up with a schedule, and assign people to lead each session.  The leader doesn’t have to be an expert — just do a little preparation and lead the discussion.

Schedule
On the first night together we grab fish and chips and champagne (it’s now a tradition), and we plan the week.

Mornings are the most creative time for most of us, so the majority of us stay in our rooms, writing until lunchtime. Some go out for breakfast, some make it in their room (we have cooking facilities), some go for an early morning swim or a dawn walk, but we don’t meet as a group until lunchtime. And if anyone wants to keep working, they skip the lunchtime meeting.

We bring our own lunch to the meeting room and the first professional development session takes place.

Then it’s back to our rooms for more writing — or in some cases, shopping, swimming, walks, naps, whatever. 

In the evening we meet again for dinner — sometimes we go out as a group, but mostly we bring take-away or home-cooked and there’s another professional development session. And after that there’s wine and chocolate and lots of fun.

Some sessions/discussions we’ve had — in no particular order:
*  The changing face of publishing — always something new to discuss there.
*  Contracts and business matters
*  Theme
*  Subtext 
*  E-publishing
*  Movie watching and discussion
*  Plotting — sharing and discussing individual methods
*  Book discussions — of fiction, and of non-fiction writing books
*  Story collage
*  Our processes — how we each approach writing, and deal with problems that arise
*  Brainstorming – we brainstorm plots, story problems, and titles
*  Dealing with revisions —the approaches vary considerably.
*  Keeping the magic alive
*  Paramedic, medical and midwifery advice for use in books
*  How to keep the muse fresh and bubbling
*  Writing the back cover blurb
*  Tips for writing faster/better
*  Dealing with perfectionism
*  Dealing with editors
*  Visibility
*  Learning Styles
*  Meditation and exercises for writing health
*  Promotion and publicity — what works what doesn’t, what we like/hate
*  Planning a series
*  To blog or not?
And much more . . . .

We came together as an experiment — at the first retreat half of us had never met — but now we’re all good friends. We’ve gone down different pathways in publishing and it’s a constant journey of discovery and rediscovery.
We’ve already booked for next year’s retreat. I wouldn’t miss it for anything.

PS — I would have included more photos, but for some reason WordPress won’t let me upload them, even though they’re all under 30kbs. sigh.

The muse

A gift from the muse can be a two edged sword — wonderful and dangerous.

Some writers start with a scene in their head — a gift from the muse — and no idea what it’s about or where it will go from there. They will write the scene down and push on, trying to work out what the story is about. This can work brilliantly, but it can also be a source of much angst. A writer I know often starts this way, then gets a few chapters in and wails, “I’m stuck!”

And that’s where the real work of writing starts — working out what your story is about, and how to make it work. This is the problem for most  “pantsers” — people who write (or plot) by the seat of their pants — or as some people call it “writing the discovery draft”, where the writer writes the full draft to discover what the story is about.

I, too, often start with a gift from the muse. There are days or nights, when I’m drifting off to sleep or slowly waking in the morning in a semi-dream state, and I will find a scene unrolling in my head, almost like a movie, with dialogue and all. I’ve learned to write those scenes down and to this end keep a large notebook by my bed. It can end up as three or four A4 pages or more, and will often contain  long dialogue exchanges.

The times I haven’t written them down — usually because it was such a brilliant idea that I knew I wouldn’t forget it — it’s gone by the next day, even within an hour or two. All that’s left is the conviction of its brilliance and the frustration with myself for not writing it down at the time. 

Sometimes what comes is a scene or dialogue exchange from the characters in the book I’m working on, and sometimes it’s a scene completely out of the blue, where I have no idea what it’s about or who these people might be. This last doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it has usually sparked a book or even a series.

And some of the scenes or dialogue exchanges I scribbled down in my notebook are almost identical to the final edited scenes in the books. Here are some examples:

a) The ballroom scene in Gallant Waif. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know it comes toward the end — it’s the heroine’s black moment, and it’s a scene that people always mention when they talk to me about that book. I started with that scene in mind, and worked backward to decide where the actual book would start.

b) The scene in The Perfect Rake where Prudence first meets Gideon, and thinks him someone else. That book sparked a series.

c) The scene where Harry in His Captive Lady, sees Nell riding on the back of a wagon in the rain, and gives her his hat.

d) The scene in To Catch a Bride where Rafe finally captures Ayisha. All I knew from that initial scene was that was here was a very cool, uptight, elegant regency rake teamed with a spitting, fighting, furious little guttersnipe. And the combination made me smile.

e) The scene in Bride By Mistake where a young soldier finds a young girl being attacked and saves her. And then doesn’t know what to do with her, because he can’t leave a thirteen year old to fend for herself in a war zone.

f) The scene in The Autumn Bride where Abby first meets Lady Beatrice. The scene was about a girl (who I knew was a good person) climbing through a window to find something to steal —she was desperate and this was her first time — and instead of some small object to steal she found an aristocratic old lady in a desperate situation. This sparked a series.

There are more — in writing this I’ve realised how many times this has happened — but you don’t want to read a list of my books and how the muse helped me with each. These posts are about your writing and how to get started — and keep moving. 

A gift from the muse is not a random accident — you can train the muse to appear on command. Or at least to turn up regularly. 

The thing is, you don’t have to be wildly lucky to get these gifts from your muse  — I believe any write can develop a state where it happens regularly, but you have to work at it. It’s partly about allowing yourself to dream, and partly about developing a habit, and in this I’m going to encourage you to follow the advice of Dorothea Brande — or Julia Cameron if she’s your preference. I go with Dorothea because she was first, and I found her book early in my writing career. 

Dorothea Brande was a writer and writing teacher in New York in the 1930’s. She wrote a slender little volume called Becoming a Writer — and it’s still in print today, which shows you how relevant her advice still is. If you’re interested in the quick and easy version of how I “follow Dorothea” there’s an article on my website you can read.

Dorothea Brande talks about training the muse to perform on command, and lest you imagine its some magical mystical airy-fairy way approach, the tone of her book reminds me a little of a dog trainer’s instructions. ;)  She’s very down to earth. But, she says, follow her method and the magic will happen. And it does.  

Try the method I outline on this page, and see how  you will gradually get better at tuning into your muse. And eventually having her turn up at your command. I’ll talk some more about this  process next week.