Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Summer of Signatures

The first book I ever had signed by an author was Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint which I bought when it debuted in 1987, but didn’t get signed until June 2007. I was still trying to get The Crown Conspiracy, published and I was curious about the whole book signing tradition. What happened if I did get published and someone asked me to sign a book? How do you do that? What page do you sign on? Do you use pen, pencil, or marker? What color? Does it matter what color? Do you just sign your name?

Ellen Kushner wrote on a blank page before the first title page (there are usually two) and said:
For Michael—best of luck with your own work—you’re always welcome in Riverside!
Then there was this scribble that looked a bit like an EKG printout with three peaks and three valleys followed by the neatly written though enigmatic: 6.07  ALA. I figured out that first part was a nifty way of recording the date, the ALA was likely because she was appearing at the  American Library Association’s Annual Conference, however it could have had something to do with the American Literature Association, or the American Legal Administrators, or a Roman Republic-Era infantry formation, or Ms. Kushner might have been secretly informing me that she was a female demon from Serbian and Bulgarian mythology. I didn’t look at the signature until I got home so I never found out which she meant, but I like to think it was the last one.

I studied this singular example I had of an author’s book signing. The handwriting was sloppy, hurried—part cursive, part printing, and not at all what I expected. I imagined authors were like John Hancock with perfect flowing serifs and looping curls. After all they were writers. I forgot that few authors wrote with pens anymore, much less quills. This was good news because I gave up cursive decades ago. A signature, however, is different.

When I was in seventh grade I scrawled my name with cramped, tight letters as legibly as possible at the top of every assignment. One day I noticed the signature of a fellow student. He was left-handed and an absolute ass, but had a beautiful signature—stunning really, with all the embellishment of a nineteenth century poet. I wanted a signature like that—a little work of art I could rip off with a flourish. After all I might be famous one day and people might ask for my autograph, and did I really want to put my tongue to the left side of my mouth and laboriously force out such a constipated series of letters as I had been thus far? 

I soon became obsessed with signatures. I had a big art pad and I began asking absolutely everyone I knew to sign it. No one knew why, and I never told them. I was twelve, and when you’re twelve you don’t need reasons to do things that, as an adult, would result in a call to the police. Can I have your car keys? What’s your pin-number? Here sign this blank page. In a year the paper was filled with the names of relative (some that died soon after leaving me with a strange piece of them,) friends (some that in the same span of time stopped being friends,) teachers, even strangers. I studied the assortment. Some were perfect. My mother and oldest sister for example wrote their names using the same font as was on the long alphabet strip that ran along the top of the classroom blackboard—creepy in their exacting precision. Older men wrote in stiff firm strokes that you could feel on the back of the page. I liked the masculine look of those, but they were too simple. The ones I was drawn to were the flamboyant scrawls that didn’t understand the bounds of space or common decency. Signatures that screamed and danced. Capital letters exploded as if the writer was having an epileptic fit. Most of them were hard to read, but created an image that—while impossible to be read—suggested the name in a stylishly attractive design. Later I would come to see this as a logo of sorts. I could never create a beautiful and legible signature, so I settled for a design. I forced it at first, then over the years settled into something that felt natural, easy, and even a bit luxurious. I loved the sound of a good signature: scribble—pause—scribble, scribble—pause, sort of like a dance step. Soon it settled into muscle reflex and became permanent. I don’t even know how I do it any more, it just happens.

Why the post on signatures? No I’m not drunk, it’s because I’ve had a lot of time to ponder mine recently.

First Orbit wanted to give out some promotional items to herald the upcoming release of The Crown Tower, coming out the beginning of August, and asked me to sign several hundred bookmarks. I also promised my kickstarter investors signed bookmarks—nearly a thousand of those. Then came the Hollow World posters—another thousand signatures. Finally (not really finally as I still have a number of bookmarks I’m working on,) the Unfettered box arrived.

Shawn Speakman offered a limited edition hard cover version of his anthology that would be signed by all the authors—five hundred copies. I found the box filled with the unbound signature pages waiting on my stoop. Thankfully it wasn’t raining or the whole stack might have been ruined. That would have been bad since the box had already traveled to England and back.

Opening the box I found a stack of pages just about five inches tall. The identical pages were printed with names and signature lines. Only four of the other 21 authors had signed these included: Peter Brett, Naomi Novik, Robert Redick and Mark Lawrence. Given these and other names on the page I was a little nervous. Sure I’d worked on my signature for forty years, but I still felt like that kid in seventh grade looking over at the left-handed ass and his nineteenth century ballpoint calligraphy.  

I’d just bought a pen. Got it on Amazon. Cost $30. I justified the purchase by telling myself I deserved a decent pen because I was an author now, damnit! I felt guilty as soon as I pressed the one-click buy button. You have to understand my mother was a teenager during the Depression, and I grew up on my late father’s veteran’s benefits in a house too poor to afford real cheese. My mother told me cheese-food was just cheaper cheese. I didn’t taste the real thing until I was twenty-two. She lied. First Santa, then the thing about ex-lax being candy just for me, then the cheese. I keep expecting to discover that my little Catholic mother, at ninety-two, has been dealing crystal meth ever since prohibition ended.

Sitting at my desk with my brand new parker ballpoint—yeah a $30 ballpoint! (do you know you can get 60 Bics for $6.43?)—I prepared to start signing. I looked over the other signatures. Peter Brett’s looked like a stamp. Each one was a perfectly replicated, incomprehensible design—a P and a scribble with a line through it that could have been PAM. Mark Lawrence was far simpler and interesting in how it stayed low on the line like it was melting. Both were done in black ballpoint. Robert Redick’s was in blue felt tip. Big bold Rs and generally readable. The clearest was Naomi Novik’s. Every letter was clear. Hers stood out for more than just readability—she wrote in purple ink.

I took a breath and began signing my own craptastic autograph. I was at a book signing once and a reader had two copies of Crown Conspiracy they wanted me to sign. I ripped off my signature flourish that I’d spent ages perfecting for just such a moment. She looked at it, and handing me the second book asked, “Can you sign your name legibly this time?”

I had to face facts, after years of working on it, my signature is awful. I console myself by realizing that it might be terrible, but extremely hard to duplicate, and when it comes to signatures, that’s important too.

The problem was I scrawl the M in my name in an exaggerated sideways Zorro slash which I think looks cool, or at least it did to my twelve-year-old self, and the descenders drops way down below the line. This isn’t normally an issue, but there are 22 other authors sharing the page. My cool slash was going to skewer Eldon Thompson, who had yet to sign below me. Likewise my rocking 6.5 seismograph wave—that I like to call the letter M—threatened to extend into Shawn Speakman’s territory above. I struggled then to rein in my flamboyance as best I could.

A funny thing happens when you sit and sign your name over and over for hours—you’re mind starts thinking about weird stuff. It’s sort of like driving when you’re really tired. You might think, Wow, what if I drift out of my lane into oncoming traffic? Then you think. Why did I just think that? Am I drifting? Panic hits. You jerk the wheel slightly only to realize you’re fine. Same thing with signing your name. Wow, what if I was supposed to sign on the line under my name instead of above it? I panicked. I was some fifty pages in and I realized I never checked which side I should sign on. A quick glance showed I was fine and woke me up. What if I accidently sign on the wrong line? Stop it you’re being ridiculous now.

As I waded into the pile I was freaked when I noticed Naomi Novik changed her pen color from lavender to hot pink. She must have run out of ink in her pen. This got me thinking how many signatures were in a new ballpoint pen. I started hearing the Tootise Pop owl in my head, “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootise Pop? Ah one, ah two…” I didn’t have a refill, and I only had the one $30 pen! What would I do if I ran out of ink? Fifty pages later Naomi switched back to lavender. WTF? Is she just messing with me now? Fifty pages later she was back to pink and then lavender again and on and on. Maybe she was switching pens planning on auctioning them off at some later date as collectables, or she had a pack of really cheap pens that kept running dry (a pack of 60 Bics maybe). Thank God for my I-could-have-bought-my-wife-a-nice-lunch-but-instead-I-bought-a-stupid pen.

A page felt thicker than the others when I flipped it to the discard pile. I investigated and noticed two pages stuck together. Wow, what if I miss a page? How much would that suck? This really bothered me until I realized that in an anthology with Patrick Rothfuss, Brandon Sanderson, and Terry Brooks, no one who bought this was thinking, “Sweet! I’m finally going to get Michael J. Sullivan’s autograph!” 

After a couple hundred pages I noticed my signature was evolving still. I just wasn’t as consistent as Peter Brett—that guy’s a machine. I started imagining him with this giant steampunk contraption that allowed him to sign a hundred pages at once, each one identical. Mine were all over the place. I signed Michael Sullivan even though the print below states Michael J. Sullivan. I never sign the J, because it looks awful and feels awkward. But after a few hundred pages I noticed a J appearing and for about fifty pages I was signing M. J. Sullivan—or the suggestion thereof.

This got me thinking of how Shakespeare spelled his name differently on all six of his known signatures. Shackper, Shakspear, Shakspea, Shackspere, Shakespear, and Shakspere. None of which are what we today consider the correct spelling. Furthermore, he wrote like he was illiterate or drunk. I’m guessing drunk.
Shakespeare Signatures
By the time I got through the first four hundred pages, my back was starting to hurt, my wrist was chaffing on the edge of the stack, and my mind was wandering to the opening credits of The Simpsons where Bart is forced to do lines on a blackboard. For the younger crowd, doing lines on a blackboard is not a reference to cocaine and a powered off iPad. Schools were not that progressive.

I flipped another page and found a hair. I have a shedding dog and a wife and daughter with long hair so we have lots of hair in my house. This one was different. It was curly. Long, auburn, and curling in the exact shape of a stretched out slinky. I know Peter Brett and quickly eliminated him from the list. I’ve seen pictures of Lawrence, and didn’t think Redick was a likely candidate. I did a quick Google image search on Naomi Novik. Ahah! Elementary, my dear $30 pen, elementary. So now I have Naomi’s DNA. Maybe Ellen Kushner’s ALA demon friends can show me how to Wicca some of her talent.

Wow, what if I leave some of my own hair in between the pages? What if Eldon Thomspon finds it and is still pissed because I intruded on his signature space? You don’t want to screw around with fantasy authors. Guys like Tom Clancy who write thrillers know people in the government and military. Fantasy authors know people who can brew polyjuice potions.

Around four hundred and fifty pages in I realized that doing this sober was dumb. On the four hundred and seventy-eighth page I made a mistake in my signature, then thought, can I make a mistake in my signature?

As I neared the bottom of the stack I was getting punchy and I really began to worry about making a mistake. I was so close, what if I screwed up at the very end? What if in my hurry to be done with it I signed on the wrong line? It was at that moment I turned the page and saw something unusual. After nearly five hundred pages you notice any difference. I even saw where Naomi Novik dropped her pen leaving two dots she can’t even deny it—the dots are hot pink. But what I saw on that next page was way beyond the switching pen colors, dots, or hair.

On the upper right was neatly printed a little note—an apology to Jennifer Bosworth. It was from Peter Brett who accidentally started his signature on her line. Like seeing a flipped car in the medium with one tire still spinning, I slowed down after that and very carefully finished the last few pages. Unless I missed a page, I got through it safely if not as perfectly as others, and I feel like I should get an “I survived signing Unfettered” T-shirt.

To reward myself, afterward I took a stack of bookmarks to the pub and continued to sign my name, but this time with a pint. If it was good enough for Shakespeare…Sullian, Sulivan, Sillivan, Sullvain, Sullivane. No I’m just joking—there’s no way you can read the letters in my signature.

Good luck to whoever gets the box next, I at least put the pages in waterproof envelopes, but I can’t guarantee there’s no hair. The short white ones are from my dog.


  1. Enjoyed the post. Made me chuckle a few times. I agree with you leaving the j out. I have never found a way to make an elegant cursive j. Printing it looks like you're not trying. My first name's Jay so the J just ends up looking like an a poor sketch of cellular mitosis at the beginning of my signature.

  2. Signatures are interesting things. I know in mine I always end up leaving out the n in my first name and my last name always looks like a G with a squibble running after it... cause really my last name is just too long.

    Though to tell the truth I know I just about died when I received copies of the Riyria series all signed by THE Michael Sullivan. Don't sell yourself short! I specifically purchased Unfettered for your story. All the rest were just a bonus for me! :D

  3. Jollin,

    And speaking of should be looking forward to the release of The Crown Tower. I just hope you like it.

    1. Oh yes! I am waiting with great anticipation for the release of Crown Tower! Already have it pre-ordered on my kindle!! I read the chapter preview you posted and truly enjoyed it! Christy and Abby won't be able to pry me away from my kindle for a good day or three!

  4. I bought Unfettered after hearing about it here too. Looking forward to reading your story and the others in it soon.

    But I'm commenting just to say that I really enjoyed this signatures post. Very entertaining. I'm glad you survived the signing ordeal and that your pen held out. Well done, Mr. Sullivane! :)

  5. Loved this. Thanks for the laughs. Practicing your signature since you were 12? Wow. It's always good to list date and special event with signatures. Makes them more memorable and worth more as collectors items. So I'm sure that's what Ellen was doing. Great choice for a 1st signature.

    I've changed my name 4 times and now have a pen name. Marriages and divorce are a disaster for women & names in this culture. I've been known to sign documents with the wrong name (including divorce docs), 1st husband instead of current, maiden even though I've been married twice. Now I frequently sign my pen name as that's the name I'm using most frequently but not one I should be signing anything with... Well 2 contracts one with my publisher and one with my cover artist.

    Imagine how embarrassing it is to look at someone and say "my name is Tasha Lennhoff right?" What scares me is how infrequently anyone asks for picture ID. Anyone could be using my credit cards and no one would stop them.

    I once worked at a store that had a problem with employee theft. The auditor told me I had an almost impossible to forge signature. Ever since that day I've had a problem signing anything - he jinxed me. LOL

  6. That was a really entertaining post, I would hate to be the last few people that have to sign, I'd be so worried that something would happen. Also, with all of those names, the last authors might have to be on the lookout for an Oceans 11 type heist. :)

  7. I have "Theft of Swords" copy you signed for me at the LOC talk. Looks fine to me.

    Autographing is an odd thing. Last March at a a convention, I actually had my first request for an autograph. It was for an adventure module I'd written a couple years ago. With all the noise in the hall, I wasn't sure I'd heard the fellow right. I signed it, of course, but I felt ridiculously self-conscious. I kept thinking "What if this a 'candid camera' moment, and one of my 'friends' put this guy up to it?" But he seemed to appreciate it and went away happy. Depsite the ego boost, afterwards I sweated if I'd "done it right" or if my signature wasn't "autography" enough. Brains are weird.

  8. Great post! Absolutely brilliant, I'm literally laughing my head off over here. I'll never think of signatures the same way again! Thanks, it made my day! :-)

  9. I just got my poster and bookmarks for Hollow World (squee! And yes, a 46 year old man is allowed to go "squee" every now and then. In a manly way.) and I was wondering how your hand and signature survived that ordeal. And I find this post. Question answered and then some! Thank you for the chuckles and the scrawls. I know what the epileptic worm skids marks mean and that's all that matters to me. Thank you again!