Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Preparing for Publication - by Penny Orloff


The Blurb. Condensing a 100,000-word manuscript, or a 90-minute performance piece or film, or a 14-song CD into 300 words is a daunting task. But it is probably the single most important step to getting your finished work out there. 

 The descriptive copy on hardback books is known as “jacket” or “flap” copy. Paperback copy is called “back cover copy.” It can be used in any number of ways – cover letters, press releases, etc. - to promote your work. This writing is meant to give a brief description, grab readers' attention, highlight any reviews, and identify the author. This is where you have about twenty seconds to hook your audience. 

Here are a few guidelines for distilling the essence of your work into promotional copy for your book, CD, film, or performance piece.

A-B-C. Accuracy, Brevity, Clarity. Keep in mind the goal of the blurb: to offer a brief summary of your work, engage your prospective audience, and offer them a reason to buy. Do not try to explain every character, plot twist, and feature of your novel. Do not go into all the personal reasons you wrote these songs. Stick with Accuracy, Brevity, Clarity. 

Research. Visit a library or bookstore and read jacket copy. Look at copy on different types of books, films, CD’s, focusing on work similar to yours. Whenever you find copy that really grabs your attention, jot down what you like about it. 

 Have someone else write a synopsis or distillation. Enlist the help of a friend or colleague who is willing to read through your manuscript, watch the video of your performance piece, or listen to your recorded tracks. Have them write a brief summary of your work, noting the specific points or plot elements they liked most. This is a great way to gain a fresh perspective on your work and can be a helpful starting point. 

Excerpts. If you're having trouble condensing your project into a few brief paragraphs, comb through your manuscript, play, songs looking for passages or lines to excerpt. Place the passage in quotes and, introducing or underneath the quote, identify the passage as having come from your piece. For example, I summed up my novel and subsequent solo show, Jewish Thighs on Broadway: Misadventures of a Little Trouper, in one phrase— “Breaking into Show Business is like breaking into Fort Knox; breaking out, we’re talking Alcatraz.” 

Review quotes. If you've been fortunate enough to have your oeuvre reviewed, include the best quotes from those reviews. Take the most complimentary phrases from the review(s) and put them in quotes on the back cover. Name the source. Note: you can do this even with “bad” reviews…

Author bio. In one short paragraph list your accomplishments, other books you've published, schooling (if it’s MIT or Juilliard), awards, grants, etc. Mention where your work has appeared - newspapers, magazines, online journals, theaters, radio, etc. Establish your authority on the subject. Do NOT include non-relevant accomplishments. Your breakthrough discoveries in vulcanology are not enhanced through mention of your college poetry prizes… 

Try it on. Print out or visualize how the copy will look on the jacket and back cover of your book. Keep it BRIEF and MUSCULAR. Invite them in and give them a reason to stay. 

Reviews. A good review is the best form of free advertising any artist could hope for, but even a “bad review” is publicity. 

 Publicity departments of large publishing houses have the resources and staff to send out press releases, bound galleys, and multiple copies of completed books to reviewers. Smaller houses and self-publishers don't have the wherewithal for that. Instead, authors doing their own publicity should send a press release to all appropriate reviewing outlets. The press release should describe your book and highlight what sets it apart that might be worth a review. It should let reviewers know who you are, where you can be reached, and how soon you can get them a manuscript if they request it. 

Contact your local newspaper, ask if they review books, and get the name of the appropriate editor. Many alternative weekly newspapers, special interest publications, literary magazines, newsletters, and websites also feature book reviews. The Literary Market Place contains listings and information on many periodicals.

Once the press release is written and mailed, your book may or may not get reviewed. If luck and timing are with you and your book is reviewed, excerpt the most complimentary parts of the review (a word, phrase, sentence, paragraph), and use this quote in a blurb to get the attention of your local bookstore, other reviewers, and publishers. 

If you don't promote your work, it won't get promoted. It's worth taking the time to write an accurate, informative press release and send it to reviewers you believe would be most interested. Your ultimate goal is to let as many people as possible know your work is Out There, and having it reviewed is an important element of that process.

Constantly be ready to represent your work or arrange a signing or reading. Easiest is probably the Open Mic. Look for these in local papers, attend the event, and read your work!! Word of mouth is the most powerful advertiser. PS – bring copies to sell. You never know… 

Bookstore Readings. Contact the store and get the name and correct spelling of the Community Relations Coordinator. Send this person a professional press kit. Include a copy of your book and any praise your work has received. 

Follow up a few days later to ask when might be convenient for you to come in and discuss a possible in-store reading. Don’t just show up and ask to see the CRC without an appointment. Calling or emailing and requesting time is professional courtesy.

If you have done other readings or lectures, be sure to bring flyers, newspaper clippings, or other evidence with you. This can help to sway a planner's decision to give time to an unknown local writer. If you do book the event, help promote it on your own. An article in a local paper or strategically placed posters or flyers around town can only help. 

As you're talking with the CRCs, remember that while you know how great your book is, they know the clientele of their stores and what sells. Sometimes they say "no." In some areas, fiction books sell best; in others, political nonfiction packs the room. 

Generally, CRCs are gregarious professionals who may have some great suggestions for improving your press kit or recommending other stores where your book may work better. Even if the meeting results in "No, thanks," be sure to send a quick note afterward to thank them for seeing you and to ask them to keep you in mind for other upcoming events. Better to be remembered for that friendly thank you note than as the temperamental Artiste who stormed out in a huff. 

Most CRC’s know other event planners within their company and competing companies. A bad impression on one could affect your chances at another store.

Press Release. Probably the most important promotional tool at your disposal is the press release. 

Keep it to one page. Your release should be double-spaced, have a killer headline, and start with the standard Who, What, Where, When, Why intro. Your contact info belongs at the top, with additional contact info (website address, phone number, email) at the bottom. Proofread your release! 

It’s a good idea to write your press release like a news article with the main point first, followed by further details. Give enough information to get their attention and provoke questions. Write press releases and send them out, if possible, in conjunction with a relevant holiday or event: If your book is about finding True Love, send something out a few weeks before Valentine's Day. Include supporting quotes—these can be from you—or solicit quotes from another writer, a celebrity, or a recognized expert in your field. Stay clear of anything that smacks of hype. 

Get accurate contact info and deadlines for releases sent to newspapers and magazines. Many monthly publications have as much as four-months lead time. Get the facts! Spell the editor’s name correctly! 

Here’s a tip: fold the letter with copy side out and position it in the envelope so the headline and opening lines of the first paragraph can’t be missed. 

If you get “free ink” or any type of feedback as a result of your press release, be sure to write thank-you notes. That’s just good manners. And good manners count! 

Penny Orloff was a working actor/dancer in Los Angeles when a Juilliard scholarship took her to New York. She had featured roles on Broadway, working for directors Harold Prince and Joseph Papp, and sang more than 20 Principal Soprano roles for New York City Opera under Julius Rudel and Beverly Sills. In a career spanning more than 50 years, she starred in over 100 productions off-Broadway, regionally and internationally. Her first solo show, “Jewish Thighs on Broadway” (based on her best-selling novel of the same name, available on Amazon), toured the U.S. for a decade, including a successful off-Broadway run in 2005. Having outlived most of her early competition for film roles, since 2012 she has enjoyed acting in a range of interesting shorts, Indie, and feature films (silver-white hair and a Botox-free face being, apparently, in short supply in LA.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Operational Organization for Authors and Artists Part 3 - by Jeanne Burrows-Johnson

When I began this series of articles, my goal was to help authors, artists, and other creative professionals organize their physical environment to effectively plan and complete work projects, including aspects of their:

~ Office contents and arrangement
~ Updating hardware, software, and electronic gadgets
~ Using the Cloud for backup
~ Organization of books, files, and folders
~ Reviewing document and design elements for future usage 

With the tools of your trade at hand and a New Year unfolding, it is time to consider the possibilities as well as the probabilities of the contents of your calendar for 2023. With our work spaces stocked and organized, we may appear ready to move forward into the year. But despite having reference materials, basic tools, and necessary folders and files readily available, past years may very well demonstrate that our plans can easily go astray. Even when one is fortunate to have assistance in our home or office, we may not be able to avoid some pitfalls while striving to meet our goals. As we examine the preparations we have made recently, there may be a few additional tweaks that can assure we are prepared to launch many months of a heavy work schedule. This could involve another round of polishing and cleaning, and the sharpening or replacement of key implements.

As successful authors and artists, the relationships we establish and maintain with colleagues and our local and even our international community can be vital to our productivity. So, moving forward in 2023, let us expand and refine our relationships. Such strengthening of connections near and far can greatly enhance the quality of our personal lives and our awareness of the life that flows around us. 

Starting points for exploring such relationships can begin with reviewing our past year’s calendar, as well as incoming and outgoing email and other communication, which should disclose potential elements for our forthcoming year. Checking the scheduled events of organizations to which we belong and the plans of fellow members will also reveal probable aspects of our own upcoming year. And that brings us to consideration of our own work and that of our editors, publishers, and other key figures in our personal and professional commitments.

By this point, you may feel overwhelmed by the amount of data being entered into your calendar template. But without details fleshing out the days, let alone the months yawning forward, it will prove difficult to see how the details of your completed projects, presentation materials, travel plans, and new events may result from these activities.

Wishing you the best in your creative endeavors, 

Jeanne Burrows-Johnson, author, narrator, consultant, and motivational speaker
For more ideas to aid your career as an author or artist, visit: JeanneBurrows-Johnson.com

Tuesday, February 7, 2023


“Hold your horses,” my Scottish granny used to say (she was a lover of all things Western, although she never traveled further west than Texas or Minnesota). As all my novels take place in the American West, there’s bound to be some slang thrown in. From “itchin’ to go North” in Eliza Waite to “cinch up” in Answer Creek to “hotter than a burnt boot” in Hardland, there’s an undercurrent of Western slang in all my work.

How to use slang in fiction? How much is enough? How much is too much? And what about vernacular and idiom? Enough? Too much?

One need not turn any further than Mark Twain for this argument. I’d bet five beans in the wheel that half of us would have Twain’s back as the best example of slang/vernacular/idiom and the other half would take issue with his use of language. Without a doubt, Twain is the first American author to use Southern vernacular throughout his narrative with plenty of slang and idiom thrown in for good measure. To some, it’s genius; to others, it might be labeled a distraction. 

According to the University of Virginia’s “Mark Twain and His Times,” a collaborative effort of the Department of English at UVA, Huckleberry Finn has “been in trouble” since its publication in 1885. Hemingway said it was the “one book” from which “all American literature” owes a debt to, although many of Twain’s contemporaries viewed it as “coarse” and “racist.” It was banned almost as soon as it was published and has continued to be banned off and on for 138 years. Still, Huckleberry Finn remains near the top of novels read in U.S. high schools (various sources). 

Let’s look at Twain’s language (it goes without saying that slang and vernacular have no place in academic or formal writing unless the topic expressly addresses the subject). Using slang in fiction, and in dialogue in particular, has the ability to bring the reader right into the narrative. 

This, from Huck himself: “What’s the use you learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?” Here, we hear a young boy confronting his own better/worst angels as he wrestles earnestly with doing right vs. wrong.

This is from Jim, Huck’s African American companion: “Sometimes you gwyne to git hurt, en sometimes you gwyne to git sick, but every time you’s gywne to git well agin.” Here, we picture Jim, without description, as he imparts a universal truth

And this from Huck’s Pap: “Thinks I, what is this country a-coming to? It was ‘lection day, and I was about to go and vote, myself, if I warn’t too drunk to get there, but when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that n***** vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote again.” Here, again from language only, we hear the words of a drunk bigot, prejudice dripping from his lips. Arguably, the language is brilliant. And arguably, it’s distracting (and disturbing). 

I canvassed several peers—critique partners, authors, editors, and proofreaders—to ask the following: 

How much slang/vernacular/idiom is enough to bring time/place/mood/character alive? 

Conversely, how much is too much? 

“It depends on the reader and how complicated the vernacular and how unfamiliar the slang,” one author responded. “It’s a matter of balance—not too much, just enough to give it flavor.”  

A proofreader weighed in to say it’s not distracting if you pepper your manuscript with slang/vernacular, ie. dropping the final “g” in words (givin’ you a hard time, workin’ your tail off) or using an occasional expletive for oomph, as long it’s intentional and not used indiscriminately.

An editor who’s partial to foreign fiction contends the essence of a place—especially through language—is what makes different worlds jump off the page and challenge perspectives.

With the rise of sensitivity readers, manuscripts that once might have passed muster with editors without a second thought are getting a thorough going over. The danger lies, however, in the manuscript being watered down for the sake of not wanting to offend.

Imagine if Huck had used proper grammar (“What is the use of learning to do right . . . ?”) or Jim had said, “Sometimes you might get hurt and sometimes you might get sick, but every time you’ll get well again” or Pap had said, “What is this country coming to?” It just rings flat.

I’m in the camp that appropriate slang/vernacular/idiom must be present in manuscripts for historical accuracy, especially in historical fiction and Western literature. My advice: used intentionally and creatively, especially in dialogue, use of period slang and vernacular and idiom help manuscripts find legs. (Note: If you use racial or ethnic slurs, consider including a footnote in your end pages, i.e. “While I do not condone the use of slurs used in the manuscript, I am unwilling to whitewash history.”) 

Some of my favorite Western sayings, A-Z: 

Adam’s Ale: water
Bones: dice
Cat’s sleep: pretending to be asleep to catch prey unawares
Death hunter: undertaker
Elbow grease: hard labor
Flash man: bully
Grease: to bribe
Hear the owl hoot: get utterly plastered
Irons in the fire: refers to branding, and the many irons used
Jabber: talk loud and fast
Keno!: “I’ve won!”
Light-fingered: thief
Murphies: potatoes
Night Horse: one who can find his/her way in the dark (literally and figuratively)
On tick: buy on credit
Peppered: inflicted with venereal disease
Quicken: when one finds herself pregnant
Rim Rocker: sturdy and tireless horse
Saddle Bums: drifters
Tonsil Paint: whiskey 
Under the gun: do or die
Vixen: comely woman
While the gate’s still open: do something while you still have the chance
E(x)pended: Killed
Yack: refers to someone stupid
Zounds!: “What the heck?!”

*Gleaned from The Cowboys, by William Dale Jennings, Cowboy Slang, by Edgar R. “Frosty” Potter, and other references

Use of language—verbal and written—is an argument as old as time itself and I’m sure as shootin’ we won’t settle it here. Did I let the cat of the bag? The bullet out of the chamber? Maybe so. But I argue that, like anything of importance, use of language begs to be talked about and debated. Especially by authors. 

Write me at contact@ashleysweeneyauthor.com with ideas you’d like to see covered in upcoming blogs. 

Until next time, Happy Writing! 


Ashley E. Sweeney is the winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for her debut novel, Eliza Waite. A native New Yorker, she is a graduate of Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, and resides in Tucson. Answer Creek, released in May 2020, is her second novel. Her third novel, Hardland, is set in the Arizona territory at the beginning of the 20th century. It was released on September 13, 2022.