Dreams of Ronnie Lane

I see your wheels are rusting in the backyard
I know that we’re not going anywhere
We used to roam so freely,
It’s been so long.
I take my dreams to bed now,
Where they belong.
—Ronnie Lane, “April Fool”

Although “April Fool” is a song of middle-age resignation, Ronnie Lane was only 31 years old when he recorded it. Then again, he was already past the midpoint of his life when it appeared on Rough Mix, the album he recorded with Pete Townsend, which was released in 1977. Born on 1 April 1946, he died on 4 June 1997, just 51 years old, from complications due to multiple sclerosis.

By the time Plonk recorded “April Fool,” he’d already been diagnosed with MS. He'd also already toured the world as a member of two seminal bands: the Small Faces and the Faces. And he’d already burned through considerable cash he’d earned from those bands, in large part by touring the UK with the Passing Show, in which his solo band, Slim Chance, was supported by a costly and impractical carnival. The tour was a dream of his, a response to the years of impersonal stadium concerts, but from a pragmatic, pounds-and-pence point of view, it was one that definitely belonged in the realm of bedtimes and lullabies. 

I first heard of Lane thanks to the ARMS benefit concerts of 1983. A gaggle of his better-known colleagues—Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page among them—banded together, literally, to perform a few shows to raise money for MS research and treatment. I traveled from Philly to New York to see one of the concerts at Madison Square Garden. And even all the way from my seat one row shy of the ozone layer, I felt the camaraderie, the warmth, the love, and the magnetism that radiated from the stage, like the waves of heat that shimmer from the pavement on the hottest days of the year, when Ronnie was helped to a mike by two towering, burly men so that he could lead the ensemble in “Good-Night, Irene.”

That night my obsession with Ronnie Lane began. Thanks to my then-husband, who worked in radio and was a rock-music maven, I came into possession of one of Lane’s few solo albums. On a trip to Montreal we met a record-store owner who made me tapes of his other solo albums. When several years later I had surgery to remove a spinal tumor, surgery that I was told could leave me paralyzed, I listened to those albums almost continuously during my recovery. I titled my third novel One for the Road after Lane’s album and song of the same name.

In 1989 or 1990, Lane played a gig at New York’s Lone Star Café. It was a tiny venue, and maybe a dozen of us were in the audience. Before showtime, Lane’s wife wheeled him into the back of the club—he was in a wheelchair by then—and left him alone for a few minutes. After another attendee made his way to the back to have Lane sign an album, I summoned up the nerve to pay court as well. 

He was a scrawny figure, almost dwarfed by the square metal frame of the wheelchair. When I stammered my thanks for all the pleasure and inspiration his music gave me, he said, “Why, thank you, darlin’.” His voice was as cracked and creviced as an old asphalt driveway after an especially harsh winter, but his nearly black eyes twinkled, and his entire face beamed. It was almost as if my remarks meant as much to him as his music had meant to me.

Ten years after he died, I moved from the States to England, a move I’d dreamed of since I was 10 years old. When I wrote my final editor’s letter for the magazine I edited at the time, I quoted a song Lane had written while still with the Faces: “Can you show me a dream, can you show me one that’s better than mine?” Three years later, when I had to return to the States, I played “April Fool” over and over again.

I’m now just about the age Ronnie Lane was when he died. Often I wonder whether I should be taking my dreams—of living once again in England, of having my novels published—to bed as well.

But then I think of Ronnie Lane at the ARMS concert, singing with all the gusto and heart he could, surrounded by his friends. I think of how he continued to write and perform, to carry on with his mates,  even while weakened and withered from the MS, and of what other music he might have produced, what moments of happiness he might have brought to his family and friends, if he hadn’t been cut down so young. Because all it takes, sometimes, is one or two moments of pure joy to make everything else worthwhile.

And then I remember a few such moments of pure joy from an early 1970s performance of his Faces song “Richmond” on Top of the Pops.  

Happy birthday, Ronnie Lane, and thank you.

Love My Dog, Love My Protagonist

My daughter had just turned eight when we moved to England several years ago, and while she made a few good friends right away, she had difficulty penetrating the cliques that are a part of grade school. When I heard that she was spending lunchtimes not in the schoolyard playing with her classmates but inside with one of the teachers, I was indignant, probably more so than she. How could the other girls and boys not want to play with her? How could they not appreciate how fun she is, how funny, how athletic, how smart? 

I wasn’t filled with the anger that accompanied the one time she was taunted (a boy called her pancake face, which is apparently a disparaging term for an Asian; my daughter was the only non-Indian Asian—not to mention the only American and the only Jew—in the entire school; she and the boy eventually became, if not friends, friendly). Instead I ached with a quiet mournfulness.

Now that I’m submitting my latest manuscript to agents, I ache in the same way for my character Steve.

Steve is one of the two narrators of 100 Days, the novel I’m shopping around. He is also one of the two narrators of the novel I wrote before Beyond Billicombe (which, by the way, is available as a paperback and a Kindle ebook). That I wrote a second novel about Steve without managing to get representation for the first one shows how much I love the character. (Or it shows how absolutely pig-headed and impractical I am—your call.)

Steve is a young man from Devon who suffers from undifferentiated schizophrenia. The first book tells of his budding friendship with a visiting writer and his move to London. 100 Days picks up five years later, as he is hospitalized for a suicide attempt and a psychotic break following his first romantic relationship.

Of course, I don’t love Steve as fiercely as I do my daughter. But I think it’s fair to say that I adore him as much as I do my dog, a statement that may sound odd to those who don’t have a pet but one that surely makes sense to those who do. Just as I want everyone who meets my dog (that's him in the photo above) to acknowledge how cute, how sweet, how irresistible he is, I want everyone who reads about Steve to admire his self-deprecating wit, his gutsiness, his determination.

So it hurts me when agents read the first few pages of 100 Days and reply along the lines of, It’s well written, but it’s not for us; I just don’t love it enough to represent it.

How can you not love Steve?

So in keeping with the fiction writer’s mantra of “show, don’t tell,” I’m including the first chapter of 100 Days below. Would anyone like to read more? 

Chapter 1

This time I’m going to do it right. No half-arsed slicing and dicing with a butter knife in a public toilet. No overdose of pills that makes you wish you were dead without actually doing the trick. No noose around a clothes rack that’s too rickety to support the weight and comes crashing down before you even have the chance to kick the chair away.
            First, I lock the bedroom door. Next, barricade it with my nightstand. Then the pills, every one of them I have, except the ones for my high blood pressure and that. They wouldn’t be much good, would they? I wash them down, two and four at a time, with straight vodka. Like I said, I’m not taking any chances this time.
            It feels good to focus. To have something to focus on. For the past few weeks, since getting out of hospital, or even since landing back in hospital before then, everything’s been blurred. Like those paintings that look like a landscape when you’re standing a meter away but when you get up close are nothing but dots. Sometimes I can barely make out where I am, what’s surrounding me. What all the colors are supposed to be. What all the shadows are from. But now everything is clearer than it’s ever been. The lettering on some of my pills. The grain of the wood on the floor planks, each lazy curve. Each tiny point of the knife along its edge, winking at me. A friendly wink.
            By the fifth or seventh mouthful, I’m having a tough time forcing the pills down, even with the vodka easing the way. Last time I didn't take the pills in one fell swoop. Just shoveled down a few here and there when I remembered. Though last time I don’t think I was trying to kill myself. I didn’t have my shit together enough to have a goal, really, other than to shut up the mumbles and stop thinking. About Diandra, and everything else.
Harder and harder to swallow. Even though after all these years I’m a dab hand at pill-taking. Just about the only skill I have, isn’t it? Though as Cat would say, that and fifty cents will get you a cup of coffee—not even, she adds whenever she uses that expression.
            Woozy. Filmy. Hope to hell I don’t sick the pills up. Grit your teeth, hiss the mumbles. Swallow, you arsewipe, swallow. For fuck’s sake, surely you can do this right. I thought I’d drowned the mumbles once and for all back in December, during the bender that landed me in hospital and now here. But they’re back. Or maybe it’s their ghosts.
            Now, the steak knife. I swiped it from the kitchen. The knives are supposed to be in one of the locked drawers, so only the staff can get to them. But you know what care staff are like. You can’t blame them for getting sloppy. They’re paid, what, eight quid an hour? Besides, it’s been so quiet here in the house, at least in the weeks since I arrived. No real fights. Most everyone agreeing to take their meds when they’re supposed to, coming to group more or less on time, all but one or two showering regularly. Julia’s the most troublesome of us, and she’s half-catatonic five days out of seven, so the main issue with her is getting her to actually eat and to use the toilet instead of pissing and shitting herself.
            So I’ve got the steak knife, and I’m tying around my arm a scrap of an old T-shirt I’d ripped up last night. Tying it above the elbow. Like they do before taking blood, so that the veins on the inside of my left arm pop right up to the surface. Nurses have a hard time taking blood from me, seeing as I’ve got so much scarring on my wrists and arms. I don’t want to have a hard time cutting myself open. Especially not the way my fingers are growing thicker and harder to manipulate. That’s a good word, manipulate. Cat buys me these word-a-day calendars every year, which is where I picked up that one.
            Fuck Cat, snarl the mumbles. The mumbles, so the doctors say, aren’t coming from anywhere but instead my head. Most times I agree with them, the doctors, I mean. But when the mumbles start chanting Fuck Cat, fuck the bitch, I have to doubt what the doctors say. Because while I may have a lot of crazy thoughts, I’d never think something like Fuck Cat. She’s pretty much all I’ve got.
Though I don’t really even have her.
            I press the serrated edge of the knife against my wrist. I can’t feel it. Can’t even feel the knife in the grip of my hands, my fingers curled around its handle. Not until I’ve been watching a gorgeous pure red, gleaming rivulet of blood trickle down my arm, in no hurry as it glides toward my elbow, do I realize I’ve actually cut through.
            It’s so wet, the blood, so bright. So clean. The way it pulses so slowly, it really is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
            And right now it’s pretty much all I can see. Everything around it has constricted. I’m not even sure if I’m still slicing away.
            I finally know what it’s like to be completely happy. No worries, nothing to fear. My eyelids close, but I can still see the blood. Nothing but blood. Not even my arm anymore. I’m floating on the blood, and it’s floating me away.

Features and Benefits, Telling and Showing

It’s not often that catalog copy blows me away—and let’s face it, it’s not supposed to. It’s supposed to persuade you to pull out your credit card and make a purchase. But the copy for the latest Lands’ End catalog impressed me by exemplifying how effectively and easily copy can balance features and benefits.

Most catalog and online copy seems to emphasize product features: The dress has an empire waist; the table is made of kiln-dried wood; the drill has 195 inch-pounds of torque. That’s certainly important information. And if the consumer is somewhat knowledgeable about the product category, that along with the imagery may be enough info to close the sale.

But let’s say the consumer doesn't know whether an empire waistline best suits her figure, or that kiln-dried wood is less likely to warp and shrink than other wood, or just how much torque she needs for the projects she has in mind (clearly I have no idea about how much torque is the right amount of torque, which is why I’m being so vague here).

This is where the copy needs to focus on the benefits. Instead of simply stating “This dress has an empire waist,” you could show the benefit of said feature by writing something like “The flattering empire waist helps elongate the figure.” Ah, says the 5'2" shopper to herself, that dress will make me look taller and thinner—I’m sold.

Just as important, the 5'11" shopper says to herself, That schmatte will make me look like a beanpole; now I know to avoid empire waists altogether. Thank you, Ms. Copywriter. Why is preventing this sale just as important as closing the previous sale? Because it saves your company from having to accept a return for a product the shopper ordered and hated or, worse, losing that customer altogether because of her disappointment with the product.

(And yes, I’m aware no one in the history of humanity has ever thought or uttered the phrase “Thank you, Ms. Copywriter,” but a copywriter can dream, can’t she?)

Here are a few examples of how Lands’ End explains benefits in the context of features to drive a sale:

Princess seams sweep from the bodice into diagonal welt pockets that add a slimming element to the skirt. And the ponté fabric is structured yet soft. So it even smooths lumps and bumps. (Not that you have any.) I couldn’t tell you what a princess seam is, but who cares: It'll help me look slimmer, which is what I really need to know.

[The tee-shirts’] all-cotton knit fabric has ultra-fine ribs. Barely visible to the naked eye, those ribs give these tees exactly the right amount of body and shape. So they’re never clingy, never sheer, never skimpy. So a ribbed shirt will hold its shape and won't cling to my bra straps or nipples? Well, that’s definitely worth shelling out a few bucks more for.

And that’s just the sku/product copy. The Lands’ End catalog also judiciously uses callouts that even more explicitly connect the feature to the benefit. For instance: What makes piqué cool? The fabric has thousands of tiny vents. Which makes our Piqué Polo sort of like wearable air conditioning. As someone who breaks into a sweat as soon as the temps climb into the 60s (sadly, I’m not exaggerating), I’m dog-earring every page of the catalog with items made of piqué.

Granted, with products that are nonessential or purely decorative, it can be tougher to isolate the benefits. But every product has ’em. 

Take a 12" blue glass vase. Because it’s glass, it would make a great weapon for clobbering a burglar should your life come to resemble a Chuck Jones cartoon. But most retailers, alas, would shy away from that sort of benefit. So for this sort of product I might write that it will add color and height to a tablescape, for instance, or will brighten a room even when flowers are in short supply.

Okay, it’s not brilliant. But it’s better than one of my pet peeves, which I come across all the time: the loading up of adjectives in lieu of substance. Don’t tell me that the vase is “striking, eye-catching, and lovely”—there’s a photo, and I’ll be the judge of whether the vase in it is indeed any or all of those things.

Novice fiction writers are constantly admonished to “show, not tell.” You could say that emphasizing features is telling, while explaining benefits is showing. Contrary to what those writing teachers say, you can’t avoid telling altogether in a work of fiction; sometimes you have to move things along with a simple "For two months the fugitives remained absent" (Wuthering Heights) or "she said." But you do often need to show as a way to get the reader/consumer to buy what you’re telling and selling, whether it’s the prowess of a protagonist or the suitability of a vase. 

A New Post from the CEO

Wow, the CEO of Aéropostale emailed little ol’ me a New Year’s message! And so did the president/CEO of Yankee Candle! Gosh, they really care about me! I’ll never shop from another teen apparel merchant or scented-candle purveyor again!

I assume that’s the response these companies were going for when they planned these particular email campaigns. They must have figured mentioning the CEO in the subject line (Aéropostale: “Happy New Year from Tom Johnson, CEO”; Yankee Candle: “A heartfelt ‘Thanks’ from our CEO”—and no, I don’t know why “Thanks” is in quotation marks) would encourage opens and instill warm-and-fuzzies in recipients.

But these messages instilled only cynicism in my suspicious, cold little soul. I did like that the message from Aéropostale’s Tom (I figure we’re on a first-name basis now) included his email address: “…if you ever have a question or suggestion, I hope you don’t hesitate to share it with me…”  The letter also emphasized the company’s commitment to quality and community in a straightforward manner.

The Yankee Candle message was, like most of its fragrances, too cloying for my tastes: “Home is where our most cherished memories are made. Where the stories of our lives are fashioned and held close. As a reflection of our dreams and aspirations, home is the most personal of places. So I feel very privileged, as we approach a new year, that you have invited us into yours…” 

Of course, if Harlan M. Kent, Yankee Candle president and CEO, felt so privileged, he could have at least included an email address so that I could touch base with him, the way I can with my new buddy Aéropostale Tom.

These messages come across as hokey (at least to me) because they’re so out of character for these companies. I’ve never received anything but the usual promotional email messages from them before.

Conversely, I received several emails from Karmaloop founder and CEO Greg Silkoe during the holidays. Granted, most were part of a reactivation campaign. But it’s not unheard of for Greg (who included not only his email address in several of the messages but his mobile number too) to communicate via email to customers throughout the year. What’s more, Greg’s emails, in keeping with the hip, fun, trendy Karmaloop brand, are disarmingly informal:
“It's me, your fearless CEO and Sushi Chef Greg Selkoe @Selkoe. I want to tell you about a bunch of exciting things coming up in the loop they call Karma over the next few weeks! 
“But first... since we love you so damn much:
“30% OFF & FREE SHIPPING NEXT 24 HOURS!! It's this simple Buy Any NEW or REGULAR PRODUCT (excluding sale stuff).  SHOP NOW!
“What? wait... did I just read this correctly? How do you guys work the magic you do? Nobody knows, roll with it!”

The emails from Karmaloop Greg come across as part and parcel of the Karmaloop brand. The lone emails from Aéropostale Tom and Harlan M. Kent seemed like patches sewn onto the fabric of their brands at the last minute.

At least the Aéropostale email provided recipients with an outlet for feedback (Tom’s email address). Assuming Tom or one of his minions actually responds in a timely, personal manner to any messages sent to that address, Aéropostale’s New Year message could be seen as an effective means of establishing a genuine relationship of sorts with subscribers.  

As for the Yankee Candle email… well, maybe the Real Housewives of South Boston would have appreciated the message.

(Yes, this is my first email-related post for quite some time. Most of my 2012 posts were related to writing, editing, and marketing my novel Beyond Billicombe, which was published in September. Beyond Billicombe has nothing to do with email marketing, but I think you might like it anyway; you can check it out here.)