L.R. Burt

Telling Stories

The Best Medicine

March27

When Mr. Burt and I married eight years ago this June, we never imagined that the part of our vows about in sickness might include viral videos.

Six months ago, Mr. Burt posted the above video to YouTube. We’d already shared it on Facebook with our families and friends, so there wasn’t much point to posting on YouTube, though in light of the reception it got on Facebook from the people who love us and love the Burt Squirt, we joked–as you do–about the video going viral. Like Charlie Bit My Finger.

Okay, possibly not like Charlie Bit My Finger. After all, Charlie Bit My Finger has over 430 million hits. Maybe more like Baby Laughing Hysterically at Ripping Paper, which sits at a scant 39 million. Aim low and you’ll never be disappointed and all that.

But I did say joke, and joke was certainly right when Mr. Burt linked our vid on Reddit and, between September 10, 2011 to March 15 of this year, it racked up a staggering 1,000 hits.

~*~

Mr. Burt and I also like to joke about the fact that any time he posts a video, pictures, or even a status update on Facebook, no one comments or likes it, while if I post the very same thing, I get dozens of comments and likes. We share friends, so it’s not that I just have girlier chattier friends; people who could comment or like on Mr. Burt’s posts ignore them when he posts them but pay attention to mine.

Apparently this phenomenon doesn’t just occur when I post Mr. Burt’s content. On March 16, he was reading the top headlines on Reddit and saw that some completely random person had linked to our vid. And the Reddit post was getting up-voted, which meant that a lot of people were looking at our vid, and our hit count was going up.

Not by the hundreds.

Not even by the thousands.

By the tens of thousands.

In two days we went from 1,000 hits to 33,000.

Maybe we were going viral after all, we joked.

~*~

Except that it wasn’t a joke.

Shortly after we uttered the word viral, we received an email from Good Morning America asking if they could feature the video in a segment about current web trends. (They haven’t. Yet.)

Before we could recover down from that shock, Viral Spiral Group dealt us another. They’re the company that manages the licensing of the most famous viral videos–yes, including Charlie Bit My Finger and Baby Laughing Hysterically at Ripping Paper–and they wanted to represent Baby Liam Laughing Down the Stairs, too. (And as if this story isn’t freakishly coincidental enough, a friend of mine is friends with the family of the latter and put us in touch with them before we signed with Viral Spiral.)

A few short hours after we agreed to work with Viral Spiral, a third email came, from the Today show, who wanted the Burt Squirt to be part of their Thursday “Webtastic” segment. (We actually signed an agreement for Today to air Baby Liam Laughing Down the Stairs last week, but, alas! It got pulled. In favor of a video of a dog going down a slide. To which I’m not linking, for obvious reasons. Even though it still doesn’t have as many hits as Liam’s.)

~*~

Today we were on TV. Today, as in March 27, not the Today show. Maybe it’s just one of the symptoms of the virus, but over the weekend, I got proactive. I emailed a couple of the local news programs and told them we had a viral video and asked if they’d be interested in the story. Good Morning Texas was, and invited us–the whole family, live, not just the video–to be a part of today’s show. Where we were happy to announce that in just twelve days, Baby Liam Laughing Down the Stairs has received more than 207,000 hits.

It’s not the hundreds of millions.

Or the tens of millions.

Or the millions.

Or even half a million.

Though it’ll soon be a quarter of a million.

If we don’t get one more hit, that’s still a couple hundred thousand people around the world (only 1/4 of our hits have been from the US, in fact) who have laughed with Liam.

And they do say laughter is the best medicine.

A little more love

April29

Apparently two billion people tuned in to watch the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton this morning. I was one of them (if they count the re-broadcast on TLC), mostly because I was recovering from a nasty stomach bug and didn’t feel like much besides guilty pleasure TV-viewing, and also because I thought it would be weird that I got up at the crack of dawn to watch Princess Diana’s funeral for a glimpse of William but didn’t watch him get married. My affections for the dashing Prince have obviously waned considerably since I was willing to settle for the prerecorded version of the nuptials instead of watching His Royal Highness in real time. Maybe I get back a few points for proceeding to watch all-day news coverage of the wedding, including Oprah’s Royal Wedding Party?

(Erm, possibly not for the Oprah thing; after all, she did describe some aspect of the wedding as being “on spot,” while her British correspondent nodded and smiled in a very British way that seemed polite but clearly said Oprah is a gigantic poser.)

On the subject of the incredible amount of media attention given to the wedding, a lot of people have griped or just goggled about why Americans, in particular, care so much about some other country’s future king’s wedding. We did, after all, fight a long war for independence from said country because we weren’t too keen on their monarch.  I snarked on Facebook about the ridiculous wedding merchandise marketed to Americans, notably, a positively ghastly Kate Middleton figurine collection, but other than that the media glut didn’t really bother me. In fact, I thought speculation about Kate’s gown was a rather pleasant distraction from recent headlines of wars, economic recession, earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, and tornadoes. Others, understandably, including Brian Williams and the NBC Nightly News, thought it was inappropriate to give so much attention to something as frivolous as a royal wedding when there’s so much trouble in the world right now.

But as the wedding unfolded and the media voices fell silent, I became absorbed in the magnificence of Westminster Abbey and the transcendent songs of the choir and the solemn tradition of the ceremony itself and wondered if two billion people weren’t drawn to this for a reason that runs much deeper than a bit of pleasant distraction.

My favorite scene in the Harry Potter books takes place in the Hogwarts infirmary after the Death Eaters break into Hogwarts and–SPOILER ALERT!–Snape kills Dumbledore . The Order of the Phoenix are gathered around the bedside of Bill Weasley, whose face got eaten by a werewolf during the battle, and everyone expects Bill’s seemingly shallow fiancée Fleur Delacour to call off the wedding because of his disfigurement. Only Fleur surprises everybody by saying she loves Bill more than ever now, which prompts an outburst from Nymphadora Tonks who has, apparently, been involved in a tumultuous relationship with Remus Lupin who won’t marry her because he’s a werewolf and that makes him “too old, too poor…too dangerous” for her. But Tonks disagrees, and wants to hash it out with Remus right then and there. He responds, “This is…not the moment to discuss it. Dumbledore is dead…” And then, surprise of all surprises, Professor McGonagall dresses him down: “Dumbledore would have been happier than anybody to think that there was a little more love in the world.”

Because isn’t love what it’s all about? The root of everything we fight against, everything we fight for–nature, politics, evil–is love. Family. Marriage. Without that, the human race can’t survive. And not just in a reproductive sense, though that’s certainly part of the biological drive to love. But our emotional survival is just as crucial, and humans aren’t solitary creatures. We need someone to love and to cherish, to have and to hold, for better or for worse, for rich or for poor, in sickness and in health till death do us part.

That’s why, when the world is burning up and blowing away all around us, two billion of us turn our televisions to watch some other country’s future king’s wedding. Because we need a little more love in the world.

(And also very beautiful dresses and very bad hats.)

posted under Simply LR | View Comments

Public Indecency

April19

If it had happened at Walmart, I could have made People of Walmart.

But it didn’t happen in Walmart, it happened in JC Penney.

So many mistakes were made that if I could have a do-over, I’m not even sure which would be the most important to do-over first. Of course the situation would have been avoided entirely had I not attempted to shop for clothes without assistance, but in lieu of that, the next smartest thing would have been not to let the Burt Squirt out of his stroller so he could run amok in the fitting room while I tried on clothes. Smarter still would have been to check before undressing that I was in a fitting room that actually locked, or, at the very least, to make sure that the door latched shut properly so that the Burt Squirt couldn’t push it open and dart out into the Juniors department.

Which is precisely what happened.

While I was clad only in a pair of khaki shorts and a flesh-toned strapless bra, looking, at a glance, quite naked.

It was one of those moments in which you feel suspended in time as the world moves on around you. There I stood, in the wide open doorway of the fitting room, fully exposed to anyone who happened by, watching the Burt Squirt’s short, chubby legs increase the distance across which I would have to streak. He stumbled a little over the toe of his slightly too-long sandal as he looked back over his shoulder to mock me with the gap-toothed grin that should not have been at all adorable under the circumstance, while I stood there, ineffectively calling him to come back to me and wondering whether I was going to have to chase after him, barely clothed as I was, or if I could scramble into a shirt before I lost him in the racks of clothes or worse.

I took my chances and opted to get dressed first. I may be willing to be that mom, who attracts a number of head wags and eye rolls because shecan’t get her toddler to ride in his stroller without him pitching a shrieking temper tantrum, but I’m not quite ready to be that mom, who chases her toddler naked through JC Penney. I still have a shred of dignity left–

–the shred that makes me willing to blog about almost chasing my toddler naked through JC Penney.

posted under Mommy Blog | View Comments

Interview with an Editor

March31

Recently I had the opportunity to get some perspective on a novel project from an honest-to-goodness editor who’s recently launched her own freelance business, Story-Driven Editorial.

Jessica Barnes brings years of experience to the table, knows the publishing industry, has an instinct for storytelling, and has a great bedside manner as she dissects authors’ work. In addiction to providing me with invaluable feedback about how to improve my book and make it more marketable, she generously gave more of her time so I could interview her about the ins and outs of editing fiction. I hope you’ll find her responses as informative as I did.

LR: First off, do you do any writing yourself?

Jessica: I dabble a bit, and I do enjoy writing, but I realized a couple years ago that I’m a much better editor than I am a writer. As a famous fiction editor named Ellen Seligman once said, “What I am is the ideal reader, not the ideal imaginer.” That describes me to a T. So yes, I do write. Just not with what you’d call purpose.

LR: Why did you decide to become an editor?

Jessica: I’ve always been a reader, a lover of fiction. I wanted to be involved in the making of stories, because story and fiction is so important to culture and society–there’s a reason morality and wisdom has been passed down through storytelling since the beginning of civilization.

Wow. That sounded really pretentious. Mostly, I just love books and wanted to work with books. Editor seemed to be the way to go.

LR: How did you become one?

Jessica: I was an English major in college, and I had this vague idea that editing books would be a cool job, but I didn’t really know how one went about it or what it involved.I took creative writing classes, where I learned about good writing and how to put a story together, and then after college I went to this mini-grad school / summer course called the Denver Publishing Institute. There, in a month, you learn about all the different aspects of publishing, try your hand at some editing and marketing, and meet a lot of industry people. I somehow managed to land a job at a publishing company as an assistant after that, and it turned out all my reading and my writing courses had given me an instinct for good story and good writing.

LR: So you can get a job with an English major. Good to know! ;)

Was an English or writing major required for the Denver Publishing Institute? Are there other such programs available to would-be editors?

Jessica: No, you didn’t have to be an English major to apply for the Publishing Institute. There were people there from other countries, people making career changes, people in related fields that wanted some background in publishing, and, of course, a ton of college students dying to get into the publishing field. The Denver Publishing Institute at Denver University and the Summer Publishing Institute at New York University are the only two summer publishing courses that I know of, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t more.

LR: What’s your typical editing process?

Jessica: Editing is an incredibly subjective, gut-instinct kind of process. It’s reading a book, saying “I don’t like this” about an element, figuring out what isn’t working and then how to fix it. There are some black-and-white rules, but in writing, the rules get broken just as often as they get followed, so you can’t rely on them. It’s more about evaluating the experience of the book, making sure it’s as strong and has as great an impact on the reader as possible.

Generally when working with a manuscript, I start big and work my way down to the details. I usually read the manuscript all the way through first, perhaps making some notes on my initial impressions about plot elements or character interactions. Then I read it through again, more slowly and carefully, looking at the plot and structure of the book as a whole, identifying the weak spots, and brainstorming ways to make them stronger. At that point, usually, I give the author my notes and suggestions so they can make some revisions to the book, strengthen those weak spots. Then, on my third pass, I look at the nitty-gritty details and the actual writing. This is the stage where the manuscript gets marked up so that it “bleeds red”–trimming unnecessary words, rephrasing passive voice or clunky passages, making sure all the details are consistent. The author gets it back, goes over my changes, makes any changes they’d like, and then the manuscript is ready for the copy editors!

LR: And how does the copy editing process differ from what you do?

Jessica: Copy editing is the nitty-gritty detailed editing work–punctuation, spelling, formatting, those obscure grammar rules that most of us don’t even know exist. They check facts, making sure everything is accurate and correct. They catch consistency mistakes, they question details that might not, under scrutiny, make sense. Copy editors are amazing and undervalued. They make the author (and the editor) look good, and they rarely ever get credit for their efforts.

LR: How do publishers assign editors to authors?

Jessica: Every publishing house does this a little differently, but in most of them, an editor acquires their own authors. They read the author’s proposal, liked it, bought the book, and take it from there. So in a sense, the editors assign themselves to authors.

LR: So are editors the people who actually field book proposals from agents and read and accept manuscripts for a publisher?

Jessica: Usually, at least in the houses I’m familiar with. The agents communicate directly with the editors on what they’re looking for and pass them proposals. Sometimes these might go through the editorial assistants, but the assistants are more usually digging through the “slush pile” of unsolicitied submissions. But because the editors and agents have a relationship, they work directly with each other. Editors read the submissions from agents and decide which proposals they like enough to take to the acquisition committee, where the rest of the company editors along with some sales and marketing folks evaluate proposals and decide which ones to buy and publish, based on quality, marketability, and how many copies they think they can sell.

LR: How different is a manuscript after you’ve worked on it? Do authors have much input on the editing process?

Jessica: How different a manuscript is after I’m done with it compared to when it came in really depends on the project. I’ve had books on which I did very little–just polished it up, mostly–and I’ve had books in which I gave the author an entire new outline for the latter half of their  book. Most of the time, it falls somewhere in the middle. Maybe 25% of the book changes significantly.

For me, editing is a very collaborative process. I’m very aware, as I work, that this is not MY book. It’s the author’s. The author is trusting me to look at it objectively and make suggestions for how to make it better. Most authors understand this as well, so it’s a very rewarding experience, working hand-in-hand with someone to shape their vision into the best possible version. I love brainstorming with authors, trying to figure out a sticky point in the plot or a way to rewrite this scene so that it accomplishes everything it needs to. In the end, however, the book is the author’s work, and they have the final word. (Doesn’t mean I won’t argue with them a little, but in the end, it’s their call.)

LR: How do authors typically respond to your feedback? Have you ever encountered a really stubborn author who refused your advice and then reception of the book suffered for it?

Jessica: Most of the authors I’ve worked with are favorable to editorial feedback, because they understand I’m helping them, not attacking them. I’ve been lucky that the situation in which a book suffers because an author and I couldn’t work together hasn’t happened to me. Though I’m sure other editors would have a different story for you.

posted under Author Blog | View Comments

A Boy and His Cat

March22

The inevitable has happened.

And then, of course, the companionable moment was broken when the Burt Squirt tried to take things too fast, too soon.

Poor Dorrie was forced to take refuge in the litter box, but even there found no respite; the Burt Squirt sent a spatula in after her.

posted under Cat Tales | View Comments
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Storytelling is second nature to me. When I was three, I told stories about Rainbow Brite. Now I’m quite a bit older than three, and I tell stories about people I make up. And about people I don’t make up. And especially about myself and my (mis)adventures as a writer, wife, mommy, and Walmart shopper. Because life is just a collection of stories. Sometimes, it’s far stranger than fiction…

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