It was the spring of 1989. I was sixteen years old, a junior in high school and an honors student. I had what every teenager wants: a stable family, a nice home in the suburbs, a great group of friends, big plans for my future, and no reason to believe that any of that would ever change.
Then came my mother’s psychosis.
I experienced first-hand the terror of watching someone I loved transform into a monster, the terror of discovering that I was to be her primary victim. For years I’ve lived with the sadness of knowing that she, too, was a helpless victim – a victim of a terrible disease that consumed and destroyed the strong and caring woman I had once called Mom.
My mother’s illness took everything. My family, my home, my friends, my future. A year and a half later I would be living alone on the street on the other side of the country, wondering whether I could even survive on my own.
But I did. That was how my mother – my real mother – raised me. To survive.
She, too, was a survivor. It wasn’t until last year that I learned that she had died – in 2007. No one will ever know her side of the story now. But perhaps, at last, it’s time for me to tell mine.
I’ll admit I had basically given up on entering writing contests. I entered a whole bunch back when I was writing a lot of short fiction and was even a finalist in two of them, but never a winner. Once I had accumulated a large pile of other writing credits, however, the potential benefits of winning a contest no longer seemed to outweigh the money and effort involved in submitting to them, and I wasn’t too terribly sad to scrape that time-consuming and onerous task off of my always-full plate. But, unlike literary contests, where the only people who are likely to see that you’ve won one are the obscure readers of even more obscure literary journals, having an award like this can actually really help with book sales, especially if you’re an indie author trying to prove your book’s worth to always-skeptical potential customers. So I sighed and dug out my spreadsheets and wallet and sent my book off to five or six such competitions on the oft-spoken lottery theory that you can’t win if you don’t play. At least it seemed reasonable to hope that the odds would be better than at a Reno roulette table.
Evidently they were, because here I am, now able to proclaim myself an award-winning author! I still don’t know whether, practically speaking, I’m going to get much out of this in terms of my writing career. But it sure is nice to enjoy one very bright spot in an otherwise rather dim-looking 2015.
And for those of you who might be inspired by my experience to submit your books to a contest, you might want to check out this list of book awards for self-published authors by The Book Designer, Joel Friedlander:
On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened: A Daughter’s Memoir of Mental Illness is featured on both Free Kindle Books and Tips and Bargain Booksy today as part of my $0.99 promotion. If you get a chance, I would appreciate it if you could go in and “Like” the related Facebook posts. Evidently it helps with the algorithm or something – you know how that stuff works ;)
On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened: A Daughter’s Memoir of Mental Illness is on sale for just $0.99 for Kindle through February 17th. I’m happy to report that the promotions I scheduled seem to be working:
I’ve also temporarily reduced the price of the paperback to $5.99. What a steal! ;)
It is in one of the in-between times, when Mom has decided to let me out for a while. Perhaps she has grown fearful of Social Services. Perhaps she intends to inspect the house from roots to rafters and wants me out of the way. Perhaps she’s simply sick of watching me all day and all night. I don’t know. I know better than to question it.
My friends and I are at a hotel for a school function of some sort. I don’t remember exactly why. Band, or perhaps Key Club? It doesn’t matter. I have reached a point where nothing seems very real anymore.
I am wearing an orange dress my mother bought me. It’s hideous, but I don’t realize that until later. Jesse is with me. He is holding me. I am grateful for that.
We are on one of the upper floors. We are beside a railing. It overlooks the center of the hotel. We are talking. I don’t know what about.
I can see us standing there together. Me in that ugly orange dress with my hair cut short, my face buried in his shoulder. Him with his arms wrapped in a circle around me. I can see it, see it as if I’m above it and not inside it, and in my mind I’ve gotten up onto the railing and I’m teetering there, on the verge of going over, and I don’t know how to stop it; don’t know if I even care anymore about trying to stop it.
“Lori,” Jesse whispers, clutching me tighter. “Lori, I think you’re going insane.”
Stunned and happy and heartbroken. To see that moment, captured forever on film, somehow makes it all the more devastating, all the more real. The picture can’t tell what we were saying or thinking. Yet somehow it does. Somehow, it does.
As some of you saw, last week I posted my first book trailer for On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened (I’ve included it again at the end of this post if you missed it). After I posted it, I got a request from one of my followers to explain how I went about making it. Terrific idea, I thought – I’m totally stealing it!
Let me start off by saying that I did not want to do a typical book trailer. Most of the ones that I’ve seen I think are too long or too dull, spending image after image detailing plot points or posing questions the book purports to answer. At the other extreme, you also see Hollywood-style trailers, which are usually very well-done cinematically, but often make me want to see the movie rather than read the book!
The second most influential factor for me was the realization that trailers, like other forms of visual marketing, are very expensive to have made. It’s not the kind of thing a writer will generally want to do for him or herself because it simply isn’t in their realm of expertise. In my case, however, cash proved to be king. I wanted a trailer and I wanted one now – later on, I reasoned, if it seemed worth the expense, I could have one professionally done.
However, given that my knowledge in this area is severely limited, and my experience with digital media slight, I cast aside some of the early daydreams I had had of gorgeous cinematography, professional graphics, and a custom soundtrack to fit the action. Over-shooting my own skill level, I feared, would only result in an inferior product. I might mess up a sausage soufflé – and why attempt one when I know I can make a mean breakfast burrito? It would be better to make a trailer that was technically simpler, but hopefully equally as meaningful.
The second problem was this – I had no idea what the trailer was going to be about. I wanted a trailer that would evoke the mood of my story without attempting to tell it, which meant emphasizing feel over plotline. I also wanted it to be short, yet the moments from my book that I had considered utilizing required camera work that I just wasn’t sure I could effectively accomplish. I began ruminating over the idea of maybe including some images from my hometown – the problem being, of course, that I don’t have any. So I contacted those few high school friends with whom I’ve stayed loosely in touch and asked around to see if anyone had any pictures or videos that might be suitable for me.
My hopes in this quest were very, very low. First there was the issue of quality, because naturally pictures from twenty-some odd years ago were generally not in digital format. Secondly, unless the images were of me specifically – which, in my mind, was not necessarily a selling point! – I would be unable to use any that contained recognizable people because I wouldn’t have model releases for them.
My friend John Lin responded with a handful of photos from his graduation, which was the year before mine. Most of them were, as I suspected, unusable, as they were mostly of him and his family, and the quality, too, left much to be desired. And in any case, I still didn’t know what I would do with them. They weren’t even my pictures. This was not my graduation.
And that’s when it hit me – this was not my graduation.
I have almost no memories of my high school graduation. Most of what I remember about that day was the thrill of knowing that I would be free once it was over. My happiness over unexpectedly meeting my boyfriend after the ceremony, who had graduated a year ahead of me and whom I hadn’t expected to see again before I left for good. The tension of knowing that the car I had bought without my mother knowing was waiting for me on the street behind our house, waiting for me to pack up and leave. I don’t remember anything like what John no doubt remembers – receiving his diploma, being with his friends and family, throwing his cap in the air. Those things were utterly irrelevant to me. Same type of day, entirely different experience.
I flipped through his photos again, saddened somehow by what they had revealed. There was one in particular that showed students streaming down the lawn from our high school building down to the field with a TV crew filming. The photo was blurry – but how perfect for me, because you couldn’t make out any of the students’ faces. It was someone else’s high school graduation. But in another life, it might have been mine.
I went to freestockphotos.biz and began searching for photos. I wanted typical things, people and objects of which most kids would keep pictures. Their homes, their friends, their pets – maybe even their parents.
It took maybe two hours. Again, there was the issue of model releases, which prevented me from using some of the images I might have liked for me and my mother. And since I preferred free photos over paid ones, I had to dig a little deeper into my well of creativity, as I simply couldn’t find suitable photos for some of my initial ideas.
Once I had assembled the photos, the text was easy. And once I found a site that features royalty-free music, the soundtrack was easy, too. I won’t cover the technical aspects of assembling the project here, as this post is long enough already, but I am going to put together a video that will walk those of you who are interested through the whole process from start to finish. The technicalities of this type of sequence aren’t terribly difficult to master, although there are certainly some tricks that can make it easier.
But the big thing for me was coming up with the idea. Once I had the idea, the rest of it fell into place. So if you’re considering making your own trailer, my advice is to ask yourself these three questions:
1) What do you want to express in the trailer? A story, a mood, a character, a state of mind, an event?
2) What style do you want for your trailer? Will that style effectively convey whatever you said you wanted to achieve in your answer to Question 1?
3) Are you technically capable of achieving your vision for your trailer? Does it need to be flashy, or will simple suit you better? Will your fancy trailer look stupid if you can’t pull it off, or will your plain trailer be too dull even if you assemble it well?
One last important thing to consider is where you will be promoting your trailer. For me, my main outlets are WordPress and Twitter, both of which consist of audiences that are fairly forgiving. There’s a certain amount of leniency people are willing to grant if your ceramic ashtray is homemade – and for some that may even increase its charm. But if you’re looking to win competitions or be featured on fancy promotional websites, then you might want to consider making an investment in a professional product. Don’t, however, get stuck on the idea that many writers seem to, which is thinking that you can only have one trailer. For the amount of time and money they take to put together, you can make as many as you like, of whatever styles and lengths you like. You are limited only by the size of your own imagination.
Well, I’ve finally done it! I’ve finished editing the audiobook of On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened. I confess it was a much more laborious process than I had originally anticipated, and even now I’m not sure I’m quite going to meet ACX’s specifications. I suspect that I may have to do a bit more digital manipulation and possibly even some re-recording before they give it the go-ahead, but with only three days remaining until my book release, I’m thrilled just to move it to one of my two dozen back burners for a while.
I’ll admit that I was surprised to learn that my book cover would have to be reformatted for the audiobook. I mean, I understand why they want a square cover – presumably to mimic the look of a CD, laserdisc, or vinyl record – but in the current digital age, it doesn’t really seem as if it should matter, particularly when the cover is for browsing purposes only and no one is actually going to receive a physical product. Evidently technology moves faster than consumer preferences over what their book covers, whether audio or eBook, ought to look like. Anyway, here is the adjusted cover. As you can see, although the execution differs, the “empty chair” theme remains:
But more on the audiobook production and publishing process later. For now, here’s the five-minute sample recording I submitted along with the rest of my files. I would really appreciate any feedback you could give me on this, because I’ve just noticed something very strange – when I play it back on the desktop computer on which I did the editing, it sounds pretty clean, but on my laptop there are quite a few annoying clicks and pops, and it also seems a lot quieter. I thought you weren’t even supposed to get degradation on a transfer of a digital recording, so maybe it’s my crappy laptop speakers or my even crappier internet connection.
So what do you think? Could you listen to me read for two and a half hours? At this point, believe me – better you than me!
Byron Edgington (http://www.byronedgington.com/), author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying and Life, has posted his review of On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened on Goodreads. I read it yesterday, and his remarks about the book are so kind that I’m still blushing – in fact, his only complaint is that the book is too short (see my comments following the review):
“Here we have an extended essay/memoir on surviving a parent’s psychosis, inventing a life and then learning of the death of the long-forgotten parent many years after her passing. It’s much too easy to compare such works as Ms Schafer’s to other neglected childhood fare: Jeannette Walls ‘Glass Castle,’ Christina Crawford’s ‘Mommy Dearest’ etc. Too easy, because the parents in those memoirs cannot be easily forgiven; they can only be easily explained. Their cruelty stems from ambition, neglect, the depredations of poor parenting skills. Ms Schafer’s mother, on the other hand, offers a much more subtle, we might say inexplicable source of her wanton neglect and cruel treatment: mental illness and its untreated ravages.
Lori Schafer is an accomplished writer at the apex of her craft. Her images and reflections shimmer on the page: “grilled cheese and tomato…butter-brown bread…’ including good alliteration and excellent use of sentence length variation, she keeps readers moving forward. “The sidewalks were empty. I was empty.” Beautiful stuff.
Transitions are well done, despite many flashbacks and oblique references. Only one time, at an end chapter, and a reference to ‘Lila’ did this reviewer lose the thread, but then it picked up again.
Schafer’s use of a fictional device inside her memoir is very well done. She writes as ‘Gloria,’ to explain the horrors of a childhood in crisis, while giving herself a bit of remove as the writer. It’s an excellent device, and it works very well. It’s also entirely understandable. Much like any child will have an invisible friend, or a security blanket, Schafer has Gloria.
The writer’s voice stays consistent throughout, shifting with subtlety between the teenage, angst-ridden Lori and the determined older Lori living in a car in Berkeley and making her own way. “I was learning,” she writes, scraping for bottles and cans in Berkeley “…like the poor man’s Santa Claus.”
There are a few loose threads: We’re never told what happened to ‘Sandra Johnson.’ Indeed, none of the siblings’ lives are explained. There’s a reference to Schafer’s own concern about being poisoned, a thinly-veiled worry that she might have acquired her mother’s mental illness, but this is not addressed or enlarged. We don’t hear about mom’s own family history, or what may have contributed to her instability, only that ‘Judy Green-Hair’ is a serial marrier. Just open a vein, as they say; readers want more details.
Indeed, one critique of this memoir may be that it’s too darned short, that readers want to know much more about who this writer is: how did that young woman survive all she did? What resources did she uncover in herself? How’s she doing now? Has she finally found ‘a safe place?’
Wordsworth wrote, ‘…the child is father to the man,’ and we must assume he meant mother to the woman as well. If so, at the end of her fine memoir, Lori Schafer pays tribute to that young mother of herself. This is a good, fulfilling memoir. I just wish it was longer, darn it. Four stars, only because it’s too short.”
Although it’s not an unqualified five star review, I’m really very pleased with it because Byron’s feedback actually gave me a great idea. It’s true that there are certain parts of the story into which I do not delve, in particular, regarding my mother’s family history, or what ever happened to my sister. I can’t provide answers to those questions simply because I myself don’t know the answers. My mother’s parents died when I was too young to know them; I don’t remember her sister and was merely acquainted with my uncle. I know very little about my mother’s life before me, and virtually nothing about the rest of her family. Likewise, my sister and I fell out of touch even before I left home, and as to Sandra Johnson, she’s a mystery that will forever remain unsolved.
But at no point do I ever make any of this clear to the reader. Most people, I think, see “family” as constituting a group of people; a set of relations with whom one shares varying levels of affection or bonding. For me, “family” meant Mom. She was it; there really wasn’t anyone else to fall under that heading. So it frankly never occurred to me that I might need to explain why I wasn’t talking about those larger family issues. But, of course, Byron is absolutely right; readers will be curious about those aspects of the story, and even if I have no real answers to give them, I like the idea of explaining why.
And this, of course, is one of the beauties of independent publishing. I’m not bound to someone else’s contract, or to a print run of thousands of copies that are already stacked and waiting in warehouses. So why not add another chapter? Even with my current crazy schedule, I can probably even get that done before the release date, and start fresh with an improved version of the story. A good idea is a good idea – even if it wasn’t my idea!
So thank you, Byron, for taking the time to detail what you thought was missing from my book. Your feedback is greatly appreciated, and I hope you’ll be glad to know that someone is listening.