Friday, July 24, 2015

Free Speech Versus Cheap Advertising

Signs are speech, but sometimes signs are just cheap advertising.

Communities dealing with appearance issues face this very dilemma, and now the little suburb of Downers Grove in Illinois is coming to grips with the way things look. One businessman who wants to hang on to his cheap advertisement does not see things in the same light, and he's ready to go to court.
Not suitable for Downers Grove

He's likely to lose.

As local shops compete with big box retailers or large malls for consumer traffic, the town starts to look at the general appearance of the buildings that house those shops. A lot of garish signage does not attract shoppers, and so ordinances must be put in place to regulate how much is enough. It's a question of esthetics, which can be rather subjective. One man's art is another's eyesore, as they say.

In Downers Grove, the elected officials looked around and saw some hand-painted signs on the sides of buildings, and decreed that such signage was ugly. Big block letters, no artwork to delight the eye. No, just the name of the place, what they were selling, and the phone number, and all of that splattered on a big brick wall.

It's the sort of sign you'd see in the inner city, and the last thing a business district wants is for potential shoppers to associate it with cheap goods. No one is going to stop if they assume they'll find nothing but cheap knock-offs made in China when they want Ralph Lauren. Any town that allows such amateurish artwork is not a town where those with money wish to stop. Not Our Kind, Dear.

Mr. Bob Peterson thinks his sign is fine because it's been there for decades and it's maintained. No peeling paint. No extraneous graffiti. He says he needs the sign to draw in business, but that's the same reason given by every other business man who finds an inexpensive way to advertise and doesn't want to relinquish it in favor of other methods that are more expensive and much more attractive. It's a question of money. Some will send around flyers or coupons. Others slap their name up on an available wall, relieved that they don't have to pay a printer or a distributor to get the word out.

He is suing the city for the right to keep his existing sign. He says it is free speech, and he has a right.

No one is stopping him from advertising his business, however. It's the way he's doing it.

He can advertise all he likes, but the people of Downers Grove also have a right to not have to look at eyesores. Courts typically grant cities some leeway in regulating signs for esthetic purposes, just like they allow regulations on facades and architectural design elements. As Mr. Peterson will discover, he's free to advertise his business, but he can't choose the cheapest form because he doesn't want to spend the money. An ugly sign is not about free speech, it's about looks, and the people who elected those who designed the new sign ordinances don't want to look at ugly signs.

Make it attractive. Say what you like within the bounds of good taste, advertise away, but First Amendment rights don't extend to the right to advertise on the cheap.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Let's Go Back In Time

For those who remember the good old days, this will be a trip down memory lane. There are those who long for those good old days of the Catholic Church, when nuns wore costumes that reflected a notion of excessive modesty. The religious walked around like a bunch of Muslims, covered from head to toe, not a single hair showing. They could have strolled through Tehran and not drawn the ire of the modesty police.

You went to Mass and if you had not studied Latin you had no idea what was being said. Instead, you repeated sounds you had learned at school. It was part of a ritual, with all the mystery inherent in a service offered up in a dead language. Did it matter what the priest was saying up there on the altar, with his back to you? You mouthed noise at key times, and you felt good about the whole thing. Ignorance is bliss, isn't it?

Jean Marie Roger Kozik wanted to go back in time, to those glory days before the Vatican made changes to bring the Catholic Church into the modern world. Things were simpler then. People were happier then. They went to Mass regularly, and obeyed their priests and bishops, and there was no shortage of religious to serve the community.

He founded the Fraternite Notre Dame, and invited fellow travelers to go back in time with him. Back to the days when pray, pay and obey was the order of the day. Except that he did it without getting approval from the Vatican, which runs the whole Catholic show. The religious group is not officially recognized by the Catholic Church, and as such is operating independently.

No matter to those who think the Church erred by modernizing. They donated to the group anyway, and the little community grew. A branch was set up in the Chicago area to serve the poor, and the nuns went about their typical fundraising activity of bake sales at local farmer's markets to generate the capital needed to maintain themselves, with a little left over to buy a piece of land out in the country.

That little piece of land where they built their chapel and housing is now being promoted as the perfect place to go back even further in time. The Fraternite Notre Dame wants to go all medieval, and rejuvenate the monastery model. They want permission to build a brewery and wine-making facility so they can be like the monks of old, who brewed beer and fermented grapes and sold the product as a way to be self-sustaining.

Would that be the order of religious who cried poor when their boiler broke down this past winter? Yes, indeed, that is the same group that tugged heartstrings until those hearts donated over $200,000, while the Fraternite can boast of millions of dollars of assets.

Not exactly the way to generate trust, is it?

So it is not surprising that those who live near the rural outpost of the Fraternite are less than supportive of the group's plan to expand their mission and become more like the monasteries of history. A big concern involves paying for such a massive project, when the nuns have little income beyond farmer's market stalls and an outpost in a shopping mall.

It's all well and good for a recognized order of religious, who have to answer to the local bishop, who has to answer to his parishioners, to set up shop in a community. The Fraternite is a free agent, operating on the fringes of Catholicism, and seen as a cult by some. They are not exactly welcome.

The nuns cry religious persecution and the neighbors call foul. The land is not zoned for the use the nuns wish to make of it, and the people living in the area want the area to stay the way it is, which is undeveloped.

If only Bishop Kozick could take everyone back in time, to the days when no one dared to question a bishop. He'd have his monastery up and running by now.

There just aren't enough fellow travelers who want to return. They don't see the good old days as particularly good, let alone worthy of a return visit.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The First Draft Of The First Novel

The modern publishng era is awash in Masters of Fine Arts, who never actually sit down to write a first novel. No, they spend their university years in writing bits of this and that, learning how to construct a novel before actually doing it. The idea of just writing in one's spare time, sacrficing a social life for the sake of words, is a foreign concept in academia where the writers come from.

So the discovery of Harper Lee's first draft of her first novel is treated like the discovery of a brand-new work.

GO SET A WATCHMAN is the first draft of the first novel that the writer who did not study writing ever wrote.

Most first novels, at least those penned by someone with a spark of creativity and a deep desire to say something, tend to be bad on some level. The tone may be too preachy. The action may veer into melodrama. The narration may be chunky or awkward in that initial effort.

The first time that Harper Lee thought to use her life's experiences to compose a novel that said something about the way we live, she put it together based on her current living situation at the time. She was a bit older and had left the small Alabama town of her childhood for the bright lights of New York City. She went home to visit, and found that her perspective was a bit skewed by new experiences as an adult living on her own, in a very different place.

The first draft of the first novel reflected that feeling of going back and seeing through fresh eyes. The first novel is told from the point of view of the female character who comes back to her home town, just like Nelle Harper Lee once did. She created characters who were a bit more harsh, like the father who is a racist. The original version of Atticus Finch is probably more accurate and representative of the people Ms. Lee grew up with. She had something, with that first draft, but it was not quite right.

Back in the old days, a writer with talent could attract the attention of a publisher who would be willing to work with that author to hone the craft. Such development takes money, but there was a time when publishers thought it worth the investment. Ms. Lee was telling a story deserving of publication, but she was not telling it in a way that was ready for print.

An editor would have come on board, to find what was good and what needed to be cut. At some point, that clever editor might have suggested a little change, say, to lose the flashbacks and have the girl tell the story as the child in the original flashbacks. Instead of chopping up the narrative, let it flow. It meant re-writing the book, but that's how it is with first drafts. The rawness must be cooked out, and sometimes it involves a full overhaul.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is the result of a talented writer working with an editor to polish prose and rearrange the pieces so that a readable, sell-able novel is pulled from the first draft. And once an author starts revising, all sorts of things start to change. The father figure evolves into a champion instead of a racist, but when you tell a story in a new way, the characters develop in different ways.

The first draft of the first novel was tucked away because it was not the best version of a tale out of the racist south.

There is money to be made, unfortunately, and so the first draft is now marketed as a brilliant new novel, previously undiscovered until Ms. Lee's sister and protector died. The story of how the manuscript was discovered, involving a lawyer who came into the picture after Ms. Lee's sister and protector died, grows shadier by the day.

If you get this feeling that people are taking advantage of an old, infirm lady, you have plenty of company. While some extol the glories of Ms. Lee's brilliant prose, there are plenty who see the book's publication as elder abuse. Not that her literary agent beat her about the head, but a pushy salesman, like your average literary agent, could make a persuasive argument to get their hands on that 15% commission of a best seller.

GO SET A WATCHMAN is worth reading if you are interested in writing. By studying the first draft as compared to the final version, you can see how a book comes to life. It will help you conquer your fear of making major revisions to your own first effort, as you learn how very much a narrative can be changed without losing the heart of the story.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Under The Dock Leaves In The Ground

O would, beloved, that you lay
Under the dock-leaves in the ground,
While lights were paling one by one.

Thus spoke the great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, who would die in France in 1939. He lived during a tumultuous time in Ireland's history, and recorded his impressions of the Easter Rising of 1916 in poetry that lives on.

He was highly acclaimed in his day, and asked his wife to plant him in French soil for a year or so, until all the buzz died down about his passing. Then she was to dig him up and bring him home to Sligo, where he could rest in peace and have a peaceful burial as well.

When you're dying, it's no easy task to hold off the inevitable end, even if the world is plunging into war and your last request is going to have to be delayed. Hitler started doing his invading and by 1940, there was no disinterring dead Irish poets for transport out of France. The French had plenty of other things to worry about, and Mr. Yeats' desire to have his final resting place in his homeland was not a priority.

After the war, Mrs. Yeats thought that she would honor her late husband's wish, but nine years post-mortem, there would be nothing but dust and bones to be dug up. She wanted it done just the same, and the orders came down from the authorities.
W. B. Yeats et al.
Except, you see, there was this demand for burial space in the French cemetery. So many young men to be interred, to say nothing of the normal contingent of corpses, and room must always be made for the next batch. It is not uncommon for bones of the deceased to be dug up and stored in an ossuary, a sort of warehouse for the last bits. A final resting place in Europe is not always final, unless you are wealthy or very important. No one is emptying the sarcophagi in The Pantheon, now, are they, but some Irish poet underground? Make room for the next one, out you go William Butler.

But Mrs. Yeats was not to be deterred, so the French in charge asked the local coroner to put together a skeleton with whatever parts he might find that could have come from W. B. Yeats. The man had a large head, so a big skull was selected. He wore a truss due to a hernia, so they found some hip bones that were entangled in a medical device. Close enough, right, and a nice box of bones was shipped back to Sligo.

No one said a word about the lack of authenticity. Ireland wanted to bury one of its heroes, and that was all that mattered. Just because some of the bones might have belonged to a British gentleman who was buried next to Mr. Yeats did not matter, except to that gentleman's family. A flurry of letters followed, the heated exchange kept largely from the public because, well, Ireland in 1948.....

So who is buried in Yeats' tomb in Sligo?

Not Mr. Yeats. Perhaps pieces of him, but the rest of the bones are a miscellaneous gathering of body parts. Papers recently turned over to Ireland by France explain the whole sordid mess, and the cover-up that followed. What makes the matter particularly pertinent is the fact that Prince Charles and his consort Camilla paid their respects at Yeats' grave recently, so it would appear that they paid their respects to the remains of several others, all of whom shared the communal grave with the famous poet.

Once you're dead, though, does it really matter where your bones are lodged? You'd be more concerned with where your soul is heading.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

I'm Too Sexy For My Book, Too Sexy....

Tart with a cart
Too sexy for my cockles and mussels, alive, alive-o, I might add.

Molly Malone has been selling her seafood in the heart of Dublin for an age, but those who decide what is fit to post on Facebook are obviously quite unaware of the statue.

She represents the pretty girls of Dublin's fair city, and artist Jeanne Rynhart created the iconic sculpture to express in bronze what a lyricist put into song. Ask an ordinary Dubliner and they're likely to refer to the statue as the tart with a cart, so yes, the sexiness of Molly Malone is generally recognized.

But no one in conservative Ireland is roaring about removing the buxom wench, either, so it can't be all that offensive.

Except to Facebook.

Too sexy for a book on Facebook
Frank Whelan thought that Molly would make for a nice image on the cover of his book. Once the cover was designed, he needed to promote his prose and he thought of posting the information on Facebook. It's free, it's marginally effective, but it's a way to get the word out that you're selling your book so your friends and family can make the required purchase to keep the peace.

Whoever monitors morality over at Facebook took one look at Mr. Whelan's cover and found it shocking. Not in the artistic quality of the thing, or the curious composition.

No indeed.

Facebook's authority on good taste thought that Molly's bosom was heaving a wee bit too much for a post on a family-friendly website.

According to news reports, Facebook thought Mr. Whelan was actually advertising a dating site. Right, don't ask. It makes no sense whatsoever, even in Ireland where women were locked up in slave labor camps for the crime of being too pretty and tempting to the male eye.

Facebook would not allow the image to be posted, and Mr. Whelan was quick to point out that the lady on the cover is just a statue that's been in Dublin since the 1980s, right there out on the street in the public view, and you can hardly walk past the thing for the tourists snapping photos. With their children, in fact.

Facebook has thus far refused to budge, not unlike the parish priest whose word was once law in the back of beyond. The website would look doubly foolish to backtrack after learning the facts, right? So the ruling must stand and Mr. Whelan cannot promote his book cover, which makes it rather difficult to promote the book.

So let that be a warning to all you authors who think you can include noted statuary on your book covers.

Can you imagine the uproar if Michelangelo's 'David' was to grace some novel about Renaissance Italy? At least Molly here has a dress on to cover her more than the average bit of carved marble that you'll find just about everywhere art is housed.

Keep your models covered. Photoshop in some critically placed fig leaves or risk the censure of Facebook.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Last Bus To Wisdom: A Book Review

As told through the eyes of 11-year-old Donal Cameron, life can be quite an adventure, and so LAST BUS TO WISDOM makes for a fascinating read.

The orphan protagonist is shipped off, alone, across the country when his grandmother must put him in the care of his great-aunt. A Montana boy accustomed to the wide open spaces meets a great-uncle who is obsessed with America's West, as learned through the pages of fiction. When boy and man decide that there is no living with "the Kate", they set off to discover what lies on the far side of the Mississippi.

Herman the German becomes Donal's sidekick as they ride the bus from sleepy Wisconsin towards the sunset, so that Herman can see what the West really looks like. Along the way, Donal collects autographs for his memory book, thinking that he'll compile an impressive collection that would earn him a mention in Ripley's Believe It Or Not. His naivete forms part of the charm of the novel, the innocent viewing the world through eyes not yet clouded by experiences.

The novel is a delight, a beautifully crafted bit of yarn spinning that takes in a remarkable number of threads and weaves them into a book that cannot be put down. The cast of characters that Donal and his great-uncle Herman the German encounter are true characters that feel real, as if you'd see such riders on a cross-country bus if you took a trip yourself. 

The people who populate the novel are ordinary folk, the commoners who know a thing or two about hand-to-mouth existence and how to survive in a harsh world when you don't have much money. It is a pleasure to spend some time with those who are not obsessed with Manhattan real estate valuations or the latest fashion trends. Those who scrape for a living tend to be more interesting people, and Ivan Doig's characters are all quite interesting.

Over the course of the novel, as life hands them setbacks and assistance, Donal discovers what it is to love and be loved as the kindess of strangers helps him escape from one harrowing escapade after another. This is, of course, the wisdom that he acquires on his travels as he progresses from boy to (almost) man.

The ending is happy, the premise nearly improbable, but the writing so sparkling that you are happy to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride. This was one of the best books I have read in a very long time.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Hitting The Best Seller List: A Strategy

Truth in sales figures questioned by the New York Times
What more do you need to get your book on the New York Times best-seller list than book sales? It's rather obvious, right? If your book sells many copies, more than all the other books, it is by definition a best seller.

So your strategy to achieve this lofty goal is to sell books. Or, if you cannot find enough readers willing to pay money for your prose, you will have to buy the books yourself. They make lovely gifts at Christmas, after all, and it's never too early to shop for the holidays.

That particular attempt to game the system is not foolproof, apparently.

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz wrote himself a biography, which seems to be the thing to do when one is running for the office of President. His colleagues Rand Paul and Marco Rubio have also penned books, and let us not forget the success that Barack Obama found in writing his memoirs. Twice.

By the numbers, his book was a best-seller. He went out, like any clever author, and signed books in book stores where readers could buy the book to be signed. As you would expect, sales of his tome would have peaked on the day he appeared. The same would hold true of the next stop on the tour, with sales peaking in coincidence with his appearance.

Sales figures showed that the book reached the #3 position, a level that should have earned inclusion on the storied list, but such is not the case.

HarperCollins was informed by the New York Times that they were not including Mr. Cruz's book on their list because they had reason to believe he had manipulated the numbers. It wasn't just general public interest that drove sales. No, the New York Times determined that the big numbers were due to "strategic bulk purchases."

Apparently the New York Times can analyze sales and determine how many books were sold where at a given time, and their analysis demonstrated some questionable purchases. No one is providing any details, but you would have to guess that Mr. Cruz may have snapped up cases of his own book to make the numbers look good, or his political campaign cleared out the shelves at every Barnes and Noble for miles around. 11,000 copies sold in one week? Not to 11,000 individuals, according to the newspaper's investigation.

The lesson is simple. If you are going to manipulate your sales figures to push yourself ahead of the queue, don't buy cases of books yourself from one location.

Go online and hit up the independents. You can order from almost all of them through a single website. Spread the wealth around, and scatter the sales locations at the same time. You can still give out cash to family and friends to buy multiple copies locally, but don't get greedy and have them buy dozens at a time.

The system can be manipulated, but it takes some effort. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well, isn't it?