Jake stops by for a chat

November 6, 2006 | Karin's Blog | 19 comments

The Organ Grinder’s Monkey

I’ll always remember my first day in First Grade.

Back up a bit. Before I was old enough to go to school, my mother used to play the records of Galli Curchi, an operatic soprano from the early part of last century. I used to sing along, loud and high.

That first day of school, our new teacher led us in the National Anthem—“Ohhhh, say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d …” I did what I use to do at home—I sang an octave higher and as loudly as a smelter shift whistle.

My first grade teacher was a very sweet lady, but I will never forget the look of shock and dismay that passed across her face. And I realized right away that I had screwed up—big time.

“No, no, dear. That’s very nice, but why don’t you sing like the others?”

There are moments—seemingly insignificant—that make you what you are. From this experience, I learned to fit in—in a hurry.

But I had a good voice. And an ego like a beach ball—no matter how much you push that sucker under the water, it still pops up at the most inopportune moments. So in high school, when people discovered I had a good voice, I came in for a lot of praise. Naturally, I jumped right in with both feet. Now I could really fit in!

Until I had to sing a solo. All of a sudden I stuck out again, and not in a good way. I developed stage fright pretty quickly. It doesn’t take much. It’s like training a puppy. Give it a couple of mixed signals early on, and you’ve got pee all over the floor. Sentient beings and self-fulfilling prophecies are a perfect fit.

Eventually, I realized I was swimming against the tide and went back to what I really wanted to do: write books. I wanted to hole up in the desert and write. But a funny thing happened in the intervening years. It’s like everything else these days; you can’t just be a writer. You have to be a showman. You have to get out there and talk up your book. And my stage fright, insidious as it was, followed me—morphing as it went. No longer was I afraid of singing in front of an audience; now I was afraid of talking to three people in a conference room.

It’s changed for everybody, in pretty much every field. You can’t just be a writer or an painter or a sculptor anymore. You’ve got to be a performer, too.

I admit to having a weakness for country music videos. I can’t help but notice, though, that that all of the female vocal artists in those videos have been buffed, lipoed, coiffed and botoxed—and very few of them are over forty. Oh, they have good voices, but you have to wonder who gets left at the recording studio door. Patsy Cline packed a little extra weight around the hips and despite the frilly shirts, she looked like a housewife. Would she have made the cut? Would her voice have mattered, or would some PR flack from the record label dismiss her with the assessment, “No way she’s gonna look good with a cubic zirconium in her navel”.

Fortunately, mystery writers don’t have to look too hot. Yet. That’s because a lot of mystery readers don’t look too hot. Bless them.

Doesn’t matter, though, whether you are a svelte beauty or you have three eyes. You have to don an eyepatch on that third eye and get your ass on the plane. You have to take it on the road like a performing monkey.

How do you reconcile the two parts of this business? Do you love booksignings, panels, workshops, and book tours, or do you dread them? Do you have two personalities: one for home and one for away?


  1. Karin

    First of all, thanks for stopping by, Jake. Love the post. I’m pretty much who I am wherever I go. Admittedly I turn things up a notch in the public eye, but I don’t pretend. I am who I am. I genuinely like people, so the signings, workshops and panels are easy, but I could see getting burned out. I do not however care to travel.

  2. Hubby

    While coaching on the field is a very easy thing for me to do, the promoting of our camp can be drudgery. We set up a booth at sports/coaching clinics around the west coast and speak with hundred’s of football coaches. While you are hoping to sell books, I am hoping to sell coaches and players on coming to camp. The salesmanship must kick in and regardless of what is being said, the smile must remain in place. I think the same is true with writing and self promoting in order to gain readers. You have to suck it up while not trading your true self.

  3. Carol Davis Luce

    Great post, Jake! Like you, I freeze at the initial thought of putting my face out there. Of course I’m flattered by the interest, so I used to say “Sure, love to”– and then I’d stress for weeks or months until it was over. I like people and I love to chat with them, so booksignings and casual appearances in a group setting appeal to me the most. Panels are okay too, but conducting a workshop or solo speaking throws sheer terror into me. What’s ironic is that once those first several incoherent sentences have passed through my lips–words that I have no idea what they mean, and I can’t hear them because of the roaring in my ears–then I’m off and running. At that point it takes the “hook” to get me off the stage. 🙂

  4. J. Carson Black

    It’s part of the business, and getting to be a bigger part of the business all the time. I think I fear Joe Konrath’s schedule the most.

    I find there are two parts to me (kind of like you, Carol): the introvert and the extrovert. Two distinct personalities. I prefer being alone, outside with my laptop writing. I could happily not see another person for days. But when I go on the road, I have to switch into that other mode, and it is fun, once I start. But like you, Carol, I dread it. I particularly dread speaking on my own for an hour!

    Panels are much better.

  5. Karin

    lol, about it taking a hook to get you off stage, Carol.

  6. J. Carson Black

    Once she gets going, it’s almost impossible to stop her. I’ve seen it! 🙂

  7. Karin

    lol, I’m visualizing the hook coming out from stage right, and Carol skipping over to stage left, not missing a beat.

  8. Amanda

    To my amazement, I love public speaking now…once I get started, so I don’t know why I can’t remember that BEFORE I get started. Before hand I’m a mess. Then I start talking and I’m fine. WHY can’t I remember that???

  9. Tracey

    Fantastic post Jake. Ohhh how it brought back the memory of my first public appearance though.

    I was six at the time and I’d been picked to give a speech or introduce the class or something, I can’t even remember what it was. All I remember is was in front of the whole school and parents too “” we had from year 1 to year 10 in the same school.

    Anyway ““ for the weeks and days leading up to the event I was so excited. I practiced what I was going to say at every opportunity and the night before I was so full of anticipation, I could hardly sleep.

    The big day came. I put on my pretty dress. Mum put a ribbon in my hair. I felt good. I walked out onto the stage, all alone, all by my self. I walked to the centre, just like I’d been told too, and turned to face the audience….

    There were a million faces staring back at me (I exaggerate, but that’s how it felt). I couldn’t remember a word I was supposed to say, I was frozen. Then I turned to my right and ran off the stage, the tears started as I took the first step.

    The teacher tried to get me to go back out there. She said I had to do it, everyone was waiting “” that’s when I threw up on her shoe. The look of horror on her face, I’ll never forget it (obviously). God bless my Mum who said it was okay and gave me a hug. They finally got another kid to do what I was supposed to do.

    I never felt comfortable in a crowd again. I let my sister take on the centre of attention. I became a shy kid.

    I can’t answer how handle book signings, panels etc because I’m not published (yet). I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

  10. J. Carson Black

    Tracey, your story sent shivers up my spine. I know exactly how that feels. Fight or flight kicks in and it can be paralyzing. With me, as a singer, my throat would dry up and sometimes my first not would be a croak. (Not often, but it happened.) The feeling is one of the worst in the world. In fact, the greatest fear most people have is of public speaking – more than death.

    Booksignings, though, where people come up and hand you a book to sign, and you talk to them as people – that’s relatively easy. It’s a great way to get attention, without having to put out. So when you get published, aim for that one step and see where that takes you. 😉

    Also, I guess Toastmasters reallly works. I might have to join that, myself.

  11. Karin

    OMG! Tracey, I would be scared for life. I was fairly shy as a child. Not sure what happened along the way. But you’ll do fine at signings.
    Amanda you have totally blossomed. 🙂

    Jake, try Toastmasters. I’m going to look one up around here.

  12. Carol Davis Luce

    Karin wrote: lol, I’m visualizing the hook coming out from stage right, and Carol skipping over to stage left, not missing a beat.

    Karin, that’s how I learned to dance. I have some pretty fancy moves on stage, dodging that hook.

  13. Karin

    not ignoring you there, hubby. 🙂 I wish I had half of your stage presence and eloquence. I love listening to you give your players those great motivational speeches and words of wisdom.
    And you could sell an old lady liver spots.

  14. Tracey

    I was scarred for life. I avoided people, went to the library as a kid during lunch – read heaps – learned to love books and now I write stories. So something good came of it. These are the things that make us, nothing is ever wasted.

  15. J. Carson Black

    Tracey, I notice you’re from Australia. I have relatives in Perth. Not to mention tons of rellies in New Zealand.

    I’m assuming Officer Friendly can talk the hind leg off a donkey. Eloquently, of course! 😉

  16. Edie Ramer

    Tracey, I feel for you. Because I’m an introvert, I’ve taken a speech class and I’ve done things that have forced me to speak in public. Even something small like leading my area RWA chapter was a stretch for me. I’m preparing myself for when I sell and have to get up in front of a large group of people. God, I hope it works. And that a large group of people will want to listen to me. 😆

  17. Karin

    grr,my computer ate my comment!

    Tracey, start practicing for public displays, you will sell soon enough. Leave the scarring behind.

    Jake you have no idea just how good Offcier Friendly is. But rumor has it Mrs. Friendly wins all of the arguments. OF is, after all a very smart man.

    Edie, I would never peg you as shy. The key to getting a large group to listen to you is having something to say they want to hear.

  18. J. Carson Black

    OF is a very smart man!

    Thanks, Karin, for having me come by. It was fun!


  19. Karin

    Jake, thank you for stopping by! You know you are always always always welcome here!!!!

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