One of the drawbacks of not having a big publishing house behind you is that you have to do your own author photos and cover designs. Mary T. Wagner shares how her cover shoot elevated the “do-it-yourself” experience to the realm of high comedy.
by Mary T. Wagner
There are a lot of up sides to being what I call a “DIY” author, one of the zillions of writers out there lately who have decided to pass on reaching for the brass ring of a traditional publisher and just gone ahead and pushed “print” ourselves. The folks at Amazon have made it so easy!!!
As I figured out when I chose that route for my first book several years ago, “Running with Stilettos,” it meant that I could actually see my words in print about a year and a half earlier. As for the other intangibles, I wrote a long essay on that very subject, and the highlight reel includes a feather boa, bagpipes, and tropical drinks in an Adirondack chair under an ocean breeze.
HOWEVER…one of the drawbacks of not having a big (or even a small) publishing house behind you is that you don’t have…minions, for want of a better word…arranging such things for you as proof reading and author photos and cover designs.
This shortage of minions was challenging enough recently when I took it upon myself to shoot a few “author selfies” in my backyard. With my new book “When the Shoe Fits…Essays of Love, Life and Second Chances” set to debut on Amazon around August 1, it seemed like a good time to get a headshot that wasn’t cropped from a vacation photo.
Using my digital camera, a tripod, actual eye shadow and a good drenching with bug repellant. I managed to finally get several usable shots over three separate evenings. The best shot came on the night that my eighty-pound dog Lucky nearly knocked me over chasing a gopher that streaked past my ankles in a blur of brown. At moments like that, mindful that Lucky once gave me whiplash while crashing into me from behind, I just let my knees go limp, surrender to fate and hope for the best.
But it was the cover shoot a few months earlier that elevated the “do-it-yourself” experience to the realm of high comedy.
All of my earlier books—“Running with Stilettos,” “Heck on Heels,” and “Fabulous in Flats”—had two things in common. They were all collections of my slice-of-life web essays, and they all featured my shoes on the covers. Spike heels on the beach, spike heels by a volcano, flats on…okay so I photo-shopped the flats into a moonlit beach stock photo.
I had rounded up my favorite and reader favorite essays from all three books into a “best of” collection for the new book, and figured it was time to finally start looking through professional photo services for an image I liked for the cover. After days of searching, I finally found a photo that I thought worked perfectly—a woman with great legs in cute flats and a floral skirt shot from the waist down, surrounded by an assortment of other shoes. It was bright! It was colorful! It cost four hundred and fifty dollars!!
OMG. Have I mentioned that I’m frugal by nature and necessity? That was about $400 more than I’d planned to spend.
I summoned my dozing entrepreneurial spirit once more and started searching my closets for shoes and a skirt. Shoes, I have by the dozens. (Go figure). The skirt was more problematic. I didn’t have anything as dramatically and flamboyantly colorful as the one in the expensive photo, but polka dots can spice up a scene, and I have three polka dot dresses.
I reached out to a friend who owned an Italian restaurant with gorgeous, sponge painted walls the colors of sun-drenched Tuscany, and set up a time to bring over my camera and the shoes. Then I also won the good graces of a new and local art museum noted for its stunningly spare and airy white design.
And then I got to work. Set up my itty bitty camera on the tripod in my bedroom, and shot various shoe combos against the wall as a test run. Then I tried on the polka dot dresses. With apologies to Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the first dress was too long (and the polka dots were too small!). The second dress was too…fluffy. The third dress was just right…except that I couldn’t zip it shut.
I’d bought the dress in a spirit of optimism a couple of years earlier, while searching for a dress to wear to my son’s wedding. I’d found the perfect dress for the occasion, but while I was looking I also fell in love with this one, all layered chiffon with a deep V-neck. The only dress left on the rack was in a size 2 (I am most decidedly NOT a size 2), and so I searched for it on line, and ordered a size I guessed would fit. When it arrived, I found I’d guessed wrong…but hey, my diet plan for the wedding was working and I’d surely end up in the dress eventually! The best laid plans… Two years later I’d packed most of the the pounds back on and the dress still hung in the closet, unworn and forlorn.
Still…working with a 10-second timer on the camera and holding the dress together with my hands, I reasoned, this dress could work for the cover. An audience might die laughing, though.
The day of the photo shoot arrived. In a stroke of good fortune, my circus aerialist/performance artist daughter had just flown in late the night before from an art gallery opening in California. When the museum called to reschedule our shooting time from morning to later in the afternoon, I sensed an opportunity. I had, on occasion, been Sarah’s unofficial photographer for some of her art projects—our last adventure involved her dangling in pearls and a dark blue sweater from a tree branch in a cemetery—and she had often offered to repay the favor. And her legs were better than mine. And after spending a few in California, she even had a bit of a tan!
When the artist awoke, I loaded two cameras and the tripod, my basket of shoes and boots into the car, and drove over to my ex-husband’s house to pick her up, stopping at the grocery store for a few long-stemmed roses. Still groggy, my daughter asked “do I have time to shave my legs?” Nope. While she finished up writing an article on deadline about someone in Finland that she had interviewed recently, I stepped out to the porch and watched squirrels cavort in the sunlight. Then my ex’s wife (who is also my daughter-in-law’s mom) cheerfully pitched in a pair of her bright red patent leather stilettos to add to the assortment, and Sarah grabbed a perky pair of black gladiator sandals belonging to the ex’s wife’s daughter, and we were off!
We trundled into the museum lugging the cameras, the basket of shoes, my tall riding boots and a set of snow shoes, and found a bend in a stairwell where beams of light from a wall of glass splayed across the floor. And then we got busy, taking care not to crash into a glass sculpture on a pedestal just a few feet away. The museum’s development director hung out with us as we worked. I think she was probably keeping a closer eye on the glass sculpture than on us!
I had a particular vision for the cover, which basically mimicked the professional photo that I was too cheap to buy. And so we swapped shoes and boots in and out of the scene, shooting with and without flash, juxtaposing work boots and leopard-print sling backs and the riding boots standing with the roses in them like a vase. Sarah dutifully jumped in and out of the shots as required, occasionally rooting through the basket of shoes for another pair and posing in sandals and flats and spike heels, gloriously clad in my polka-dotted dress making its maiden voyage.
At some point, as I dug to the bottom of the shoe pile, Sarah strolled a few feet out of the frame, and I sensed a quixotic opportunity. “Hold that pose a second, honey!” I said, and I snapped three photos of just her alone. And then we got back into harness, lining up the shoes and boots against the wall and shooting away. Then we bundled up all our gear and did it all over again at my friend’s Italian restaurant, posing shoes and daughter and polka-dotted chiffon against those beautiful sponge-painted walls.
But life—and art—rarely go according to plan! Of all those dozens of photos that we shot at restaurant…I took them out of the running when the restaurant changed hands just a few weeks later, taking us all by surprise. And of the dozens of photos that we shot at the Museum of Wisconsin Art…you guessed it, the perfect one turned out to be one of the three “just for fun” pictures I took in between the “real” work. Ha ha ha!!
As for the dress…well I still don’t quite fit into it yet! But I’m making slow progress in that direction. And when I look at the new book cover, I can almost imagine that it’s me standing there!
When the Shoe Fits…Essays of Love, Life, and Second Chances is now LIVE in the Amazon store, with some lovely reviews and a Discussion Guide for book clubs in the back of the book.
When a hard fall from a tall horse landed Wagner—then a freelance writer and a soccer mom with four young children—in a body cast for three months, she didn’t take it as a sign to ease back on the throttle. Instead, she changed careers, went to law school, took a job as a criminal prosecutor, and bought her first pair of spike heels. And THEN she started writing again. Wagner’s first three collections of her slice-of-life essays—“Running with Stilettos,” “Heck on Heels” and “Fabulous in Flats”—earned numerous national and regional awards, including an Indie Excellence Award and a silver IPPY. Both “Heck on Heels” and “Fabulous in Flats” were finalists in ForeWord Review’s BOTY Awards. Her legal experience has been similarly eclectic, ranging from handling speeding tickets to arguing cases before the Wisconsin Supreme Court…sometimes in the same week!
In essays here ranging widely from “Turbo Dating—the Year in Review” to “Riding Pillion,” “The Limoncello Diaries” and “Angels in the Snow,” Wagner’s signature writing style combines humor, insight, and grace under pressure. Whether reflecting on subjects as diverse as motherhood, the view from the back of a Harley, the impending loss of a parent or the therapeutic effects of a post-divorce bonfire, Wagner’s inspiring and empowering essays resonate with universal experiences of love, life and reinvention. A must-read for any woman who’s asked herself “is there at least one more goal I can shoot for?”… and then answered “YES!!”
About the Author:
Award-winning Wisconsin author and photographer Mary T. Wagner has been described as “the Midwest’s answer to Carrie Bradshaw” and favorably compared to humorist Erma Bombeck…but “in sexier shoes.” A native of Chicago, Wagner is a former newspaper and magazine journalist who changed careers at forty by going to law school and becoming a criminal prosecutor. A mother of four, she lives in rural Wisconsin, where she draws much inspiration for writing from daily walks in the countryside with her dog, Lucky, and the cat who thinks he’s a dog…Meatball.