Thursday, April 21, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from the Red Baron

This week, on April 21st, we celebrate the 93rd anniversary of the death of famed World War I ace Manfred von Richtofen, aka the Red Baron.

On of the trends in children's publishing is the shifting of responsibility for book promotions from the publisher to the often slender shoulders of the author. We are encouraged to get out there and sell via Facebook and Twitter and blogs, with fancy book launches, book birthdays, and trailers. You can't open an SCBWI Bulletin or other trade publication for kidlit authors these days without seeing some advice on book promotions, whether online or via more traditionbal avenues, and we are constantly admonished that promoting is no longer optional. It is expected. Predictably, most authors are terified at the thought of having their baby sink into oblivion. So we join the big noisy parade, whether we feel fully prepared for it or not.

Now, publishers don't get all riled. I know dollars are tight in this economy. And I know that no one can give a book a push like its author. I also know some authors who are incredibly imaginative at this, and excel at getting--and keeping--their book in the spotlight.

But for a lot of us, the reason we write is because we love writing, not because we like promoting. We are not fully comfortable with the whole idea of the spotlight and feel as if we are shouting, "Hey, look at me! I wrote a book!" (Never a good idea, by the way.)

We could learn a thing or two from the Red Baron.

Now, I read The Right Stuff, and I know that fighter pilots of any generation are not by nature modest. But this guy makes other fighter pilots look like shrinking violets. Richtofen was a master at aerial combat, and made sure everyone knew it. After downing his first enemy plane, he ordered a small silver cup made to commemorate the event, and had it engraved with the date of his victory. After that, he had a new cup made for each new victory. By one report, he amassed a total of sixty such silver cups. The only thing stopping him from continuing the practice was that Germany, which was blockaded at the time, began to run short of silver. No wonder!

He received his famous nickname, of course, from his practice of having his airplane painted bright red. His aim was clearly to be noticed. It was the only way he could be sure he would be distinguished from other fliers from the ground. Nothing stands out agianst a blue sky like a bright red plane. Combined with his skill as a tactician and his mounting tally of kills, the effect was to instill fear and respect in enemy fliers. His legend was born.

So I guess I should be more fearless when promoting my next book. I should not be afraid to stand out, to stand, yes, in the spotlight. Maybe a bright red book cover wouldn't hurt either.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned From The Thirteen

This week, on April 8, we celebrate the 122nd anniversary of the birth of pioneer aviator Blanche Stuart Scott.

In 1910, at age 21, Blanche became the first woman in the United States to fly an airplane. Later she was the first professional woman pilot, performing stunts at airshows. She made the first woman’s long distance flight. She was the first female test pilot and the first American woman to ride in a jet.

The lady knew her way around the sky.

She also knew about discrimination. Her first flying instructor, a man, at first refused to teach her beause she was a woman. When she insisted, he rigged her plane to keep her from taking off. (She figured out the problem and flew anyway.) She would have been right at home with the women I've been reading about in Tanya Lee Stone's wonderful Almost Astronauts: Thirteen Women Who Dared to Dream.

In direct, pull-no-punches prose, Stone relates the story of thirteen women who dared to dream of becoming astonauts. In the early 1960's, twenty years before NASA accepted women into its astronaut program, they became the "Mercury Thirteen." They were thirteen women, all acomplished pilots, who underwent the same rigorous physical, psychological, and piloting tests as the seven male Mercury astronauts. They knew full well, as Blanche did, what they were up against. They knew that to be taken half as seriously as the men, they had to be twice as good. They passed every test, jumped every hurdle but one--the blind sexism of nearly everyone around them. Their unyielding determination and courage shine in Stone's telling.

So does the arrogance of discrimination. Again and again, Stone offers up examples of the condescension the thirteen suffered. From the patronizing nicknames the thirteen were given ("Fly Gals," "Astronettes") to the smug, smirky attitudes of reporters ("A pretty girl like you must have thought about marriage....") Stone leaves the reader feeling furious at what these tough women had to endure.

Of course, Blanche would have recognized those same attitudes. Maybe that is what makes me most furious: that so little had changed between her time and the thirteens'.