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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ode to Songwriters



This blog is dedicated to songwriters, because I envy them. I mean, I’ve tried my hand at ads, poetry, novels, short-stories and the dreaded query letter, but I can’t write a song to save my life. It’s hard. You have to rhyme a little, but not too much, or else you sound like Dr. Seuss. You’ve got to read and write music, appeal to both young and old, look hot, sound sultry, show the potential to resurrect your career if the inevitable looming threat of becoming a has-been actually comes to pass. (Nowadays you may be asked to appear on Dancing with the Stars.) Ideally, you should play an instrument—but not drums, because it’s nearly impossible to keep the beat while singing lead vocals. (If Karen Carpenter couldn’t do it, no one can.) Yet, songwriters make the arduous seem easy.
     The one thing they’ve got working in their favor is time. At least when a music artist sits down to connect with the muse, he has a realistic expectation of coming up with something by that evening, which means I’ll be jamming to the fruits of his efforts way sooner than if he were an author cranking out a book. He (Or she—of COURSE I mean he or she whenever I write “he”. It’s just all those he/she’s totally clunk up my blog.) is lucky in that sense. In the world of “it’s never done”, it would be nice to be done. Wouldn’t it? The songwriter gets to go out and have a beer to celebrate. He probably doesn't come home and feel pressured to make more revisions. It's done! He goes to bed. 
     As usual, my envy has made me want to rip apart the objects of my jealousy, making this less of an ode to songwriters and more a tirade against them. I honestly didn't plan it that way. See, odes are similar to songs—and as I said before I can’t write them. I simply wanted to use the word ode because it sounds cool. Still, I’m sure that I could write both song and ode if I lifted a familiar melody from somewhere else. I like Train as well as the next girl (I actually LOVE Train), but seriously? Seriously?    
Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

Did you hear it? Even the videos seem constructed in a parallel vein. I mean, meeting David Hasselhoff in a grocery store is as surreal as being swept away from the Opera House by a deformed-yet-somehow-charismatic masked man in a gondola, first by way of an underground stream—and then…by horse?
 It’s no surprise, I guess, that certain elements appear again and again in fiction. Yet, somehow, novel writers get reamed. With us, this is called cliché. With songwriters, it’s called homage to an early influence. They get to cite artistic license and all that jazz (pun intended), while I can’t even describe my character’s eyes as emerald green or make them roll up in exasperation. There is no justice in the world.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Worthy Dream


This past month, the community I live in voted on a millage to support the arts. If passed, it would increase funding for local libraries and allot a small portion of taxes to the art museum in the nearest metropolitan area. I voted—and I’m proud to say it passed, resulting in free admission for area residents to the Detroit Institute of Arts. Being the cheapskate that I am, I took my children to the museum, like, the second the polls were in.

     All of my kids show great artistic potential, and I want to be supportive if they do decide to pursue a career in the arts. Yet, like many parents, I’m tempted to urge them to have a “backup plan”. The danger is that they may see this as an indication of my being unsupportive. Am I? Yes. It’s like saying, “Follow your dream, but have an alternate one in case the first one doesn’t pan out.” It goes against the very definition of a dream.

     It's a conundrum, for sure. We may be authors and artists, copywriters and graphic designers, documentary-makers and photographers…but would we wish all the toil and turmoil we went through to earn these titles on our children? It's harder to be on stand-by than to be working toward the goal ourselves.
Talk about a sense of entitlement!
My kids use the easels that, I'm pretty sure,
are meant for art students.
     While waiting in line for a book signing, I saw how the author/illustrator stifled a wince every time a parent insisted his or her son or daughter was going to be an artist too. The woman in front of me in line had proof: her seventeen-year-old son had already sold a picture. “That’s great!” I said, and smiled as she went on to tell me that he wanted to attend an art school. I said I didn’t wonder; it must be heartening to have success at such a young age. Her next comment surprised me. She confided that she’d rather he study something else. Something stable.
     So I suggested he pursue a career in advertising. (I’d forgotten that it was considered to be art’s ugly step-sister.) Perhaps I gushed, because I loved my job in ads. Yet I was honestly trying to be helpful, showing that there was some hope of financial stability in the arts if one went about it realistically. As an art director, I reasoned, her son would have a stable paycheck yet could still market his art on the side. Then if the work turned out to be steady, he could give up working on ads and just do that. The moment the first syllable of the word “advertising” fell from my lips, she began to look at me as if I’d suggested that her son backpack across Mars, post-college. She never spoke to me again. (She grabbed her signed book, and was out of there!)
Did I mention that my son's gonna be an artist?
     Whatever! It was good advice (It was!), and if Brett Helquist had given it—she probably would’ve listened. Her loss—or maybe her son’s. In any case, it gets me back to my point. We must support our children in their decisions to pursue artistic careers. Our job is not to judge, but to guide them in going about it realistically. We must strike a fine balance between warning them of the pitfalls they’ll encounter and putting a damper on their dreams. Make it clear: We too deem these dreams worthy. If we don’t do all this, we are big-old, artsy-fartsy hypocrites! Not to mention, bullies. So, there. That said, I’m going to stop pressuring my kids to be dentists. Pinky promise.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Disclaimer


     I can’t say they are what I miss the most about advertising (that would be the people—duh!), but there was comfort in being able to screw up royally, and then rely on the fine print for absolution. It was a quickie confession of sorts--although a bit less quick when the disclaimers became as long as the ads. At that point, a person of some consequence would have to swoop in and sweet-talk The Client into editing out some of the legalese. Because people tend to be suspicious of advertisements that are ALL disclaimer. (They look funny, for one thing.) Still, it was nice to know you had a chance to redeem your lowdown attempt to manipulate innocent people into mass consumerism, even if it was just a brief, incoherent passage tacked on at the end. Not only did disclaimers help us sleep better at night, they are a kick to spoof. Feel free to leave any goofy versions of disclaimers or disclaimer-related stories in the comment section if any come to mind. (Ad folks: This Means You.) The funnier, the better.

     Please read responsibly.


     So I was thinking, I’d disclaim my blog up front so there will be no illusions of its ability to provide edification. Here goes: I know nothing. I’m not an expert. I’m unemployed, unpublished and at this moment…unfollowed. I don’t care. The internet is the great equalizer, and as I see it, we all have just as much right as anyone to ramble on about the topic of our choice. All that is required is a Google account.  

Me being unseen and unheard.
     This self-deprecating attitude can be traced right to my childhood. When I was growing up my dad used to say “Children should be seen and not heard," and I took his words to heart, knowing they were targeted at me. They had to be. I mean, I was the only child in my household, since both my siblings were at least a decade older than I was. So don't bother telling me I was being oversensitive. I wasn’t! As a result of this household mantra, I became quiet and contemplative. Little did I know that technology would gallop in and come to my rescue, striking and reversing these restrictive words. Thanks to facebook, blogging, various discussion threads, it became possible to be heard and not seen, which reminds me of my copywriting days because in making ads, most of the creative energy is expended behind the scenes. You can project your vision on the masses and still remain anonymous. Now thanks to all the aforementioned forms of communication, everyone can opt to be heard and not seen. Unless we're Kim Kardashian. Which we're not.


Friday, August 17, 2012

Oh, Lemony Snicket!


     So here goes my attempt to beef up my blog. Last time I promised to tell you which one of Stieg Larsson’s dynamic characters personifies the ad biz and which represents publishing. Keep in mind I’ve just proclaimed my love for both of them--kind of like Erika Berger. Mikeal Blomkvist is the noble journalist and Greger Beckman is the enigmatic artist.  From what I recall, he is artsy and kind of a wuss. Case in point: He lets his wife run around with Mikael. Mikael is the more memorable of the two (which is apparently why Erika can’t give him up). Case in point: I had to Google Greger's name, while I knew Mick’s off the top of my head, maddening Swedish spelling notwithstanding. Since this week I like ads better (I’ve just received another rejection), Mick is ads and What’s His Name is publishing. Sorry, publishing.
   One promise kept. Now for my first retraction. In my last blog post I implied that literary agents and authors don’t have faces. This is not true. They do have faces. I mean, they’re plastered all over various web sites and blogs as proof. The one exception is Lemony Snicket who, I’m sure you know, is the author of the best-selling children’s series A Series of Unfortunate Events. Snicket exists as a blurry silhouette in the imaginations of children everywhere. He gets away with it because kids don’t really care what authors look like. Plus his readers walk away from the series with their imaginations so improved they are no doubt able to embellish the author with characteristics that go above and beyond. He trusts that their version of him will be better.

Hyperion Books
     Not only do I love those books (I mean, who doesn’t?), I found the author-photo gimmick to be a brilliant touch.  We’re all used to those lame pics, featuring glum people in wing chairs, their chins cupped in their hands. No doubt about it, the traditional authors’ photo is long overdue for a face lift. Too bad we can’t all hire actors to appear as us, like Richard Castle. But kudos to author Gae Polisner (The Pull of Gravity), who I’d argue is the subject of the best author pic in recent history. Polisner is photographed in a pool, literally standing in it. Refreshing. (See it at http://gaepolisner.com/)
     Where was I? Oh, Lemony Snicket. (Hey, that would make a pretty good alternative cuss phrase, and one you could get away with during school.) In May I attended my first writer’s conference and had the absolute privilege of hearing Brett Helquist speak. I never expected to be so tickled by his presentation, him being an illustrator and all. He is in fact the man behind the illustrations in the Snicket series, which obviously rock, as well as the art for many other middle-grade novels by other writers and various children’s books he himself has authored. His insight at the conference benefitted both writers and artists, and gave credence to my claim about the complementary nature of advertising and publishing. Collaboration is key in both industries.
     Publishing, however, is a bit backwards by advertising standards. An ad—especially print—is primarily art from its inception. Ads are mocked- and storyboarded-up long before the accompanying words are due to appear. In fact, ads often route through the entire agency with placeholders for copy. Lorem ipsum dolor….yada yada. (I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere, sometime an ad went out like that, causing heads to roll.) It wasn’t until just before the ad was finalized that my copy would be plunked into the tiny place the art director reserved for it, because who cares about words? Certainly not art directors! At my first Caddy show (like the Academy awards for ads) I witnessed a writer mumbling out an acceptance speech for an ad with no words at all. I’m sure he felt sheepish, but I’ve since learned that the lines between the two job descriptions are about as blurred and elusive as Lemony Snicket’s author photo. Writers often come up with visuals; art directors pen headlines. Collaboration. Collaboration. Collaboration.
      According to Helquist, while books are similarly collaborative, the author has more control of certain projects. Helquist described some behind-the-scenes incidents confirming this. I was surprised to find that he's read every single book he’s ever illustrated—sometimes four or five times, although he admitted it wasn’t a common practice. Some artists work from outlines of the story, especially for longer books. But Helquist’s attention to detail and  his perseverance pays off in the defining works that result. The Series of Unfortunate Events books certainly wouldn’t be the same without him. And I’m sure Dan Handler is grateful—although they’ve only met once or twice.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Finally!

     First off, let me tell you what a pain in the neck it was to name this blog. Every name I considered was already taken. (Is there anyone who doesn’t blog?) This name is probably taken, but when I Googled The Rut, which was my first option, I saw there was a movie of the same title forthcoming. I mean, I love plays on words as much as the next person, but I didn't really know that rutting has to do with the mating patterns between deer species. I thought it was a small trench or a stifling period in one's life inspiring panic and a sense of claustrophobia. That is the rut I was talking about before the deer factored in.

     I finally settled on The Block because, for a writer, that is pretty much the same thing as a rut. One glitch in the previously smooth flow of ideas--and suddenly it seems as if the well is in danger of running dry. Panic sets in. We can all relate. Worst. Feeling. Ever.

     On the other hand, The Block also inspires visions of block parties and bike rides "around the block"--a leftover term from my suburban upbringing (ironic how we tried to emulate the big bad city). Now I live in a rural area. We have no sidewalks, no blocks. Neighborhoods are measured in acreage and bounded by ponds, meadows and clumps of trees turned squatters. Yes, even this far out in the country I feel guilt at impinging on nature's hospitality. Sometimes I think I might as well have stayed in the suburbs, where there was no pretense of protecting habitats. So you can see how The Block might manage to inspire a twinge of nostalgia.

     This brings me to the big decision leading up to this blog. I've recently concluded that the two passions in my life aren't mutually exclusive. Two separate and diverse styles of writing can live as one. Here’s the thing: I was a copywriter before I wrote books. Then the kids came. I put the little nippers in daycare for a spell but by the time the third one came along I found myself reassessing. I quit my job and reported for kid-duty.

     To my dismay, the advertising industry in Detroit went through a dark period, a mere few years after I'd dropped into another life. I watched from the sidelines as The Big Three struggled and their problems trickled down into the ad community. I retched when some of the car companies outsourced their work to shops out-of-state. (I retched even more at the resulting ads, because you need to understand Detroit to make good ads for our cars. Those who don’t live here can’t possibly understand.)

     Through all the turmoil (my husband likewise works in the auto industry) I kept writing--mainly because I couldn't stop. I figured I'd get into publishing. I could work out of the home, typing happily away while my kids grew up around me. I had this illusion of the publishing industry as a noble entity that turned out quality books, putting literacy above all else. I was wrong, but I don’t mean to sound bitter. I've since discovered that it's not noble or ignoble. It's just another industry. I still believe I'll break through someday, but of the two I prefer advertising. Maybe it's because I know a lot of people in the ad biz. Unlike the amorphous literary figures—the agents and editors that float in cyberspace, their lips eternally forming the word “no”, and the smug-looking authors on book jackets and web sites—ad people have faces and families. They do a kick-ass job, and then go home to live productive, meaningful lives. In the D, they're car nuts, absolute afficionados, perfectionists. The very term Creative is tongue-in-cheek. Creativity abounds in every aspect of ad production and everyone knows it. I miss that sense of collaboration, feeling a part of something bigger. At the same time, advertising doesn’t claim to be brain surgery. It’s more of a craft with a smidgen of art thrown in. There's honor in that. So here is ridiculous revel number one: Advertising is real. Duh. I can’t believe it took me nine years to realize it.

     This blog commemorates my epiphany. I’m hoping it will provide a venue for all writers to sound off about the stresses and the triumphs of the job. Here, copywriters can be "real" writers for a change and sales-challenged novelists can be Stephen King for a day (you know you want it). The Block is where we all meet to laugh, to drink, to dance, to talk, to get each other through the blocks inevitable on any journey. Plus where else can a pasty Irish chick foster the illusion of being a luminous Latin beauty? Today I become Jen from The Block (I’m tucking my tongue firmly into my pasty cheek. Can you tell?) I'll refrain from posting a picture right away so that when I do, you can all laugh your butts off at the extent of my delusion. Until then, feel free to sound off about the industry--publishing or advertising. Doesn't matter to me. I love them both in a truly Erica Berger-esque fashion. (If you're wondering, she's Mikael Blomkvist's mistress in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. Next week I'll tell you which industry is personified by Mick and which by her artistic, intense hubby who allows the open marriage. Like you care.)