By Nancy Means Wright

One will do anything,  it seems, to market a book. Anything, I’d heard, from running into the street to stop traffic to wrapping up in Saran Wrap, waving a romance novel. I wouldn’t have the nerve for that, but I had a new book coming out and wanted to do something exciting to promote it.  Something, perhaps, with marionettes.

The book was Broken Strings, featuring Fay Hubbard, a failed actress turned puppeteer who appears in two of my earlier Vermont mysteries. She’s a well meaning woman with a plethora of human failings–failings and foibles that marionettes, those universal mimics, might bring to life.  For even a finger puppet can make someone laugh, or cry–or alter that person’s thinking.

I decided to launch the novel through a Burlington, Vt bookstore with a performance by my son’s Very Merry Theatre. Never mind that his players, aged 9-15, had never operated puppets, and some were barely tall enough to hold up the 18-inch marionettes my spouse’s puppeteer mother had made some fifty years ago.

I wrote a semi-humorous, semi-sweet adaptation of Sleeping Beauty–the play that poisons a character at the start of my mystery–called it “The Witch, the Wheel and the Sleepy Princess,” and we were off, with eight kids in the roles, and on a June 13 date dictated by the bookstore.

But after three rehearsals, parents reminded us that June 13 was graduation day for three sixth graders. And one homeschooler’s parents discovered on Amazon that my novel was a “murder mystery,” and withdrew his boy. So we postponed the show until September when my son Donald would be starting up his fall theatre groups. Don was dubious about using the marionettes, but the bookstore proprietor said “Marionettes are key.”

Eighteen kids signed up for the production and my son said he hoped I wouldn’t mind writing in parts for all of them. At full count, I had eight marionettes and one hand puppet frog.  So I added a pirate girl, three witch’s slaves, an apprentice I called Poison Ivy, a chorus of birds, and twin queens–in separate scenes that we might use the same queen puppet. Llyn, my spouse, had already turned two used American girl dolls into rod puppets by running a stick up their torsos, then adding strings. But after assigning parts, Don realized the two queens didn’t have enough lines, so could I add a scene for just those two?  Oh dear.

Luckily I found a Red Riding Hood hand puppet in a musty box, and turned her into a queen–not a twin, but a cousin. And since both need royal gowns, I hired a friend to make them. I bought another female hand puppet, along with a raven, bee, and butterfly, whom I labelled Blue Fury Fly, as the witch’s slaves.

An email popped up: “Mom,  could you write three songs for the play?” So I wrote a love song, a pirate song, and a “I love bugs and poop” songs for the bad guys. A follow-up email announced: “Mom, rehearsals start tomorrow night. We’ll need you and Llyn there to train the kids for the puppets. Okay?”

Okay. And the kids were thrilled with the puppets. The younger ones went wild, bouncing and swinging them about. The frog lost a leg in the first ten minutes, and a queen’s head came loose–Llyn dutifully sewed, and screwed them back on.  Crowns, buttons and hats popped off, strings tangled, snarled, and broke. We had to attend every three-hour rehearsal so he could do repairs and I could adjust costumes and tongue-twister lines.

A week later an emergency e-mail arrived from the bookstore publicist. Would we mind performing a week earlier than expected due to a major mix-up in the bookstore’s event schedule? And in the next sentence: we’d be pleased to know that the store would film us for local TV!  (the exclamation point was the publicist’s, not mine.)

With four days to go, the lead princess, an exuberant young actress with a lovely singing voice, didn’t know a single line. Others were just as shaky. The dress rehearsal was a disaster. As prompter, I worried I’d be the one to speak half the parts–did I want to be on TV croaking like a frog or witch? My blood pressure soared.

My heart was pumping fast the day of the show as spectators jammed the bookstore, with standing room only (eighteen kids bring a captive audience). It was the first time the players had use of the space and makeshift stage, so the blocking would be skewed. The store manager had put out a donation box and a pile of my latest kid novels, Walking into the Wild (aptly named in this instance)–but forgot to mention them. Copies of my mystery, Broken Strings, which had inspired this whole venture, were tucked away, unobserved, on the bookstore shelves.

But the kids surprised us. The princess sang out every line (learned in just 24 hours)–or ad-libbed those she didn’t know. The boy handling the frog got a chortle each time he spoke; the sewn leg only dropped a few threads. The audience laughed at lines I’d feared would be lost as the players, in black, squinted down to work their marionettes. When the backdrop ‘set’ jarred loose, a parent scuttled backstage to hold it up through the rest of the performance. Wooden heads clunked at the end as the prince smooched his slightly battered bride, and mothers sighed.

And no  broken strings! Well, hardly any.  The kids sang and played their hearts out, parents were proud, my son was delighted, and so was I. And then dear reader, my man and I drove home, packed up the weary marionettes, gulped a couple of gin and tonics–and went straight to bed.

“Enough,” I said, as I hit the pillow.



32 Responses

  1. Oh, great story, Nancy! But one question–did you sell any books?

  2. Wow, what an effort and a creative production! You should talk about it on the Murder Must Advertise group. I loved your mystery novel and I’m certain the children’s show was great. Marketing books is really tough, but having them on display in the bookstore should create long term sales.

    • Well, ultimately, Jacquie, there will probably be sales at that bookstore. The manager was too overwhelmed by all the spectators and the exuberant show to remember to mention or set out books. I think I’ve had it with marionettes for a while, though.

  3. That story has all my Things Gone Wrong wrapped into one! What a good sport you are. I wonder when the turning point was in writers’ lives, where we have to console ourselves that, well, at least someone was entertained.

    • I guess that’s it, Camille. At least someone was entertained! And that is a consoling thought. I think the consolation comes later in one’s career, like mine, now, when I’m grateful for a small wink and smile and someone, at least, reading my book.

  4. LOL! it’s a great story! Too bad the store didn’t think to get your books out. Holy cow. The things we do to sell books. O.O

    • Thanks, Pauline. I was actually downplaying the murder mystery because it’s for adults, not kids. But I’d hoped at least they’d have played up my kids’ historical, since I’d also written it into a play for my son’s theatre group! But, oh, well. As Camille noted, the audience was entertained and the kids had a grand old time.

  5. Nancy, that story has to win the funniest marketing story of the year although I’m not sure that’s what was crossing your mind at the time. And I thought baking “dead body” cookies was a pain. Off to share this great post!

    • Thanks, Cindy, it was wild, yes, and I’ve learned my lesson–I think. And no, it was not funny at the time! But at least it gave me inspiration for a blog.I guess this is what we writers do. Recycle to compensate.

  6. Puppet Publicity, eh? A fun story, Nancy, and thanks for sharing it.

  7. Nancy:
    What a charming story!

  8. Write a book about that adventure and it will surely be a best seller. Great story.

  9. Thank you for sharing your story. Sounds like one of those – good memories after the dust settles – kind of experiences.

  10. Creativity has its limits. But what a fun story. I’m sure your next book’s marketing technique will be a bit simpler, no?

  11. Nancy, I hope every single one of those kids’ families bought at least four books each! How creative you are. Sounds like a masterpiece–book and event.

    • So lovely of you to read this, Jenny. Well, unfortunately no sales that day because the books were forgotten in the heat of the moment. But later, yes This is the same bookstore you signed at with your first book and I couldn’t join you, remember?

  12. This may not have been a good book selling tactic, but what an experience for all the kids involved! They’ll never forget that. And now you have credit for a new play and three new songs. I’ll bet you’ll make this an annual event (not!).

    • True, Kaye. I’d do anything again just to see the joy on the kids’ faces as they took their final bows. I’ve actually done three other plays for Very Merry Theatre kids–but without marionettes or my books involved. Better, I realize now, to separate the two!

  13. Nancy, what a great story! Thanks for sharing it with us. I hope everyone in your town, in the your state, buys a copy of Broken Strings.
    L. A. Starks

    • Wouldn’t that be nice? We writers, as you yourself know, L.A. are great dreamers. But these were kids, and in the end, it was undoubtedly best not to feature a “murder mystery.”

  14. Hands down (so to speak, considering it’s marionnettes), the best blog we’ve ever had!

  15. Well, Sara, you’re being too kind. But writing it has been a sort of therapy (or exorcism?).

  16. What an adventure. I laughed out loud. This is something those kids will remember with joy and without knowing the trials of the master puppeteer behind it.

  17. I love this story, but feel for you! Have had the experience (although not so involved as yours!) of putting out way more effort than the gain. Made a great blog, though!

    • As I said in my blog, Tempa, we writers will do anything to try to market a book!
      And the kids really were great–in the end, that is.

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