A monthly column of wit, insight, irreverance and inspiration by a published author and veteran of the publishing trenches.

The Ink-Stained Wretch: "The Bug-Eyed Man Speaks"

Don Whittington

March, 1999

One of the weirder aspects of the writing life is that once you've proven to the world your gifts lie with the written word, everyone invites you to speak.

But you think, "Hey, I'm a bright, attractive, sexy, wise author. I can do this thing." So you recall all those quaint anecdotes about your adventures getting started and you write them down on 3X5 index cards like Mrs. Pope taught you back in high school, and you go prepared to knock 'em dead with your forty-five minutes of material. Once at the event you meet a funny little man with bug eyes and a bad coat who offers his hand. You shake it absent-mindedly while looking over his head for the people running the event. You see one, excuse yourself and go announce your arrival.

They send you to a table where someone gives you a pre-printed name tag no more than three consonants and one vowel away from your real name. But you don't bitch because it's a "special" name tag showing that you are a published author and a speaker. Wow!

Next you meet a lady who's walked 1500 miles in her bare feet just to meet the bug-eyed man across the room that you snubbed on your way in. Turns out he is a famous author as opposed to a mere published author, and now you feel like a prize chump.

You recover as best you can and wait for your turn to speak by listening to the other speakers, all of whom are telling witty anecdotes about getting started. Two of them go too long and you get bumped in favor of lunch and the keynote speaker, who turns out to be the bug-eyed man. The bug-eyed man is a cross between Mel Brooks and Billy Graham and gives a speech that thrills everyone in the audience including you. He makes it seem effortless. What a gift!

That afternoon you serve on a panel where the only person that asks you a single question is the bug-eyed man. He says, "Could you pass me the water?" At the signing tables the only people who bring you your book to sign are three little old ladies who apparently own the book communally. Every other writer in the room is signing like mad and the bug-eyed man has ET's standing by to deliver emergency writer's cramp care.

The final insult comes when you see some authors being handed envelopes and you realize they are being paid for attending. You, of course, never thought to ask about money. You'd have paid to go, for crying out loud. In some cases, perhaps you did. You leave feeling miserable.

"As God is my witness, I'll never do this again," you shout, clutching your East Waldrop Literary Association tote bag above your head as the music sweeps to crescendo.

You hear a chuckle. You turn and the bug-eyed man is watching you. "Come on," he says. "Let's go have a drink. And there in the bar, he gives you the lessons you will heed from this day forth:

1— There is nothing wrong with comping a worthy cause, but you are a professional. If you are invited to speak then the folks running the event think you will entice people to pay to attend. You are entitled to compensation for your expenses as well as an honorarium. If the organizers don't mention it, ask. And if they say there is none then say no, unless you are feeling exceptionally generous.

2—Public speaking sells books, and therefore it is worth learning to do it well. You should devote as much labor to a speech as you would a good short story, maybe more. Perhaps no one knows you at this first event, but they will be looking forward to you at the next one.

3— Never, ever begrudge the event if it doesn't go like you planned. This is another reason to insist on payment. You're less likely to get bumped when you cost them cash. A good rule of thumb for figuring your price is: consider how much you don't want to go, and put a price on that. Now double it. If they're willing to pay you that much, you made out okay regardless of what happens.

4— Be nice to people. Shake hands, meet everybody. It's amazing how much you can learn, how many business contacts you can make, and how much more fun you will have.

5— Be realistic about your status. If you are sitting on a panel with much more successful authors, chances are those are the folks people came to listen to. Smile and be quiet. You'll get your shot.

With that the bug-eyed man slides a folded slip of paper across the table. "This last is the most important piece of advice. Wait until you are alone to read it." Then he excuses himself to visit the men's room. When he's out of sight, you open the paper and read, "Never let the bug-eyed man pay for drinks." You sigh, signal the waitress, and pull out your Visa card thinking of all you have learned.

And the bug-eyed man slips out the back.