Writer’s block at the signing table

by Tess Gerritsen

When I'm sitting in a bookstore, autographing a book for a customer, I dread hearing these words:

"You're the author. Why don't you sign it and write something clever?"  

There's nothing that kills my creativity faster than having a fan staring over my shoulder, waiting for me to spontaneously write "something clever" on the title page.  I've heard that many men are unable to pee in public restrooms while other people are around.  They stand at the urinal and strain and strain, but just can't get things flowing.  I have the literary equivalent of shy bladder syndrome.  I just can't seem to produce the expected stream of clever words while anyone else is watching. 

In the privacy of my own office, I do a lot of hair-pulling and pacing and muttering and grimacing when I write. It is not a pretty thing to see.  In fact, I think writing is sometimes a grotesque affair, and one that should remain out of sight of the public. But when you're sitting at a signing table in a bookstore, you're performing in public, and you're expected to smile, not grimace, while you try to come up with something clever to write in every book.  It's always a relief when a customer says,"Just sign and date it, please."  

I've learned to come prepared with stock phrases to accompany my autographs.  On my first book tour, for HARVEST, I wrote "thrills and chills" on just about every book I signed.  It was my fallback phrase, pithy and appropriate and somewhat clever.  It allowed me to face a line of customers without panicking that my brain would suddenly go blank.  

On later tours, I began to vary it a little, just so I wouldn't write the same thing for every customer standing in line.  I wrote "Enjoy the thrills!"  Or: "Many thrills!"  or "Great to meet you!"  If the book was for a special occasion — say, a birthday — I"d write :"Happy Birthday!  May it be thrilling."  But I still fall back on tried and true phrases that don't require me to wrack my brain for something spontaneously clever.  

Every so often, a customer will ask me to write something specific, and will even have the words written out on a sticky. I'm usually delighted to comply because it means I don't have to think up something myself.  A few have asked me to simply quote a sentence from the book.  

Then there was the naughty man who asked me to write "Thanks for the great night!" And I did.

Over the years, I've paid attention to how other writers sign their books.  Most, like me, seem to fall back on the tried and true: "Warmest wishes," or "Enjoy!", or "Happy reading!"  Every so often, I hear about one that's a little different, and memorable.  One reader told me how delighted she was when Dave Barry signed a book to her, and wrote, "This one is for you."  Now, I suspect that he probably wrote that phrase many times, to many customers.  But for that particular reader, those words seemed directly personal, and she was thrilled.

A media escort told me about a signature phrase that's one of the sweetest I've ever heard about. I'm sorry I can't remember which author came up with it.  Whoever it was, I hope you don't mind that I've "borrowed" it a few times:

"Every reader is an author's best friend."

I'd love to hear what other authors have used to accompany their autographs.  What's the cleverest phrase you've ever written?  (And can I borrow it?) 




23 thoughts on “Writer’s block at the signing table

  1. Charlotte Phillips

    I’m afraid I haven’t come up with anything clever. At first I wrote a few sentences – easy when your at a fair in Timbuktu and sign 6 books in 6 hours. Not such a great idea at a bookstore. I’m afraid I’ve resorted to “Enjoy!” and “Enjoy the adventure.”

    Nevada Barr once signed one of her books to me with “You’ve got a wonderful fiance!” because I told her Mark had introduced me to her books. I borrowed from this at Christmas signings. If someone said “This is a gift for my aunt,” I wrote something like, “You’re neice is a treasure. I enjoyed meeting her.”

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I resemble this post. I bet most of us do. So many times you have to sign after you speak so you have the handicap of the adrenaline crash going on as you scramble for clever things to say.

    I’ve written “Deal? or no deal?” for THE PRICE, and “What would you do?”. Readers do ask for a line from books so that’s a good thing to keep in mind for each book. I’ve signed naughty things to numerous people and that’s my favorite thing to do if a reader is up for it. The easiest signing is to an aspiring writer or teenager because I can honestly wish them the greatest of luck, and be personal about it.

    But I love, love, love ” A reader is an author’s best friend.” That really says it all.

  3. Dana

    Since I’m not yet published, this has not been a problem for me. I can sympathize, though.

    I have a reputation for having a good sense of humor. Once, about ten years ago, I pulled a classic “I was in the neighborhood” stop at a friend’s house, unaware she had company. First words out of her mouth to the assorted guests: “Say something funny, King.”

    She still gets grief for that.

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tess

    I, too, have suffered from instant brain-dump at signings, and being asked to add the first line from the book made me realise what a good idea it was to have a short, snappy opening sentence!

    If asked to personalise a book, I always try and write something that *is* quite personal, if I can, and hope that when someone picks the book off their shelf years later, it still makes them smile.

    Occasionally, like Alex, I’ve written somewhat rude or risque things in the front of people’s books, but you have to be a bit careful. I’m still not sure Don Bruns has quite forgiven me for that one …

    And I do have a copy of Barry Eisler’s KILLING RAIN in which he thanked me and Andy for an unforgettable threesome at one B’con. I can’t even remember *which* B’con, never mind anything else about it … ;-]

  5. J.D. Rhoades

    I usually fall back on “Thanks for coming to see me”. Sometimes I try to personalize it, and I always end up cringing at how lame I sound.

    My hint is: always always always ask how the name is spelled, even if you think you know. What sounds like “Mary” could be spelled “Maire” or “Mairi” (I’ve seen both). I did get a weird look from an “Ed” one time, but I wasn’t taking any chances on him spelling it “Edd.”

    For the record, I LIKE “life is short, buy the shoes.”

  6. Mark Terry

    I rarely can come up with something clever. I usually stick with, “Hope you enjoy!” or something along those lines.

    Joe Konrath signed one to me saying, “Never read and drive at the same time.” I’m sure I’m not the only one he’s signed that way, but it has the advantage of being odd enough to seem unique.

  7. ArkansasCyndi

    When I went to a booksigning by General Wesley Clark, he had notecards passed out to those waiting (although a piece of paper from a sticky pad would work). We were asked to write out what we wanted Wes to write in our book. Didn’t matter what or how much. That worked well.

    Zoe – I laughed at Eisler’s inscription to you.

    I have quite a few autographed books. Most are “Enjoy!” or something in that area. Wish I had better advice!

  8. Jeff Abbott

    Because most of my titles are short, I’ve tried to use them in inscriptions when I can.

    For Panic I often wrote “Never Panic–except in these pages.”For Fear I wrote “Have No Fear–except in these pages.”You get the idea. It didn’t quite work for Collision (the US title) but it worked great for Run (the UK title), where I could write “Run for your life” or something similar. My next book is Trust Me (same title in both countries), and I think I’ll be able to use that in inscriptions quite a bit. (Assuming anyone is still buying books by the time it’s out.)

    A lot of readers seems perfectly pleased if I write “It’s great to meet you”, because it’s true, I am thrilled to meet them.

  9. Brett Battles

    I can SO relate. I’ve used: Best Wishes, Hope you enjoy, and Thanks for coming to see me.

    But I also try to come up with one or two book appropriate phrases. For my first book I’ve often wrote: Never let them know where the bodies are! And for my second: What would you do for a friend?

    I also agree with Stephen that the worst is when you know the person you are signing for. You want to do something personal, and sometimes it just ends up sounding stupid.

    Rob…Life is short, buy the shoes…that’s actually funny. Might have to use that one.

  10. NS Foster

    I got a simple ‘All best’ from Guy Gavriel Kay when he signed my book. I assume he meant ‘All *the* best’, however his mother distracted him to say goodbye in the very moment he signed my tome 🙂 A generic signature made me no less happy to have it, though!

  11. Louise Ure

    I’ve used “All Ure’s,” which is probably one you won’t be borrowing, Tess.

    And yes, readers do ask us to write our favorite line from the book. Lee Child’s response was to write “$24.95” and sign his name.

    My weirdest, however, was the good looking guy in San Francisco who asked me to write: “To the best kisser I’ve ever met.” Wish I’d gotten his name.

  12. Pati Nagle

    I use “All best.” It’s a bit archaic, perhaps, but not incorrect.

    In my historicals, especially when signing in towns featured in the books, I’d often write “Well met at (place name).”

  13. pari

    I’ve signed many things, but my old standby is: “With gratitude.”

    It’s not fancy or clever, but it is heartfelt.

    I’m always grateful that someone wants to read and own one of my books.

  14. Cornelia Read

    Sometimes I think it’s like signing yearbooks, back in the day. I remember the first time a writer pal of mine got a book published. I went to his signing and he said, “I have no idea what to write in your copy… help me!” So I said when we were asked to write in the yearbook of someone we didn’t know well back in middle school in California, we’d just write “Have a bitchin’ summer.”

    So I am now the proud owner of a first-edition copy of Michael Guinzburg’s “Beam Me Up, Scotty,” inscribed, “Have a bitchin’ summer.”

  15. Kathrin

    Now, I’m no writer, but I sure can sympathize with writer’s block at the signing table… I am known for brain freezes in all kinds of situations with people around me!

    While reading the comments, I wondered what Louise Ure would do if the good looking guy from SF would read her comment and get in touch?

  16. Diane Whiddon-Brown

    This is simply awesome. So many of these are hysterical. I also like “Life is short. Buy the shoes.” And “Every reader is an author’s best friend” is wonderful. I’d love having that in any autographed book.

    And although I’m not published, I’m afraid that if someone told me, “You’re the author. Write something clever.” I’d do exactly that. “Something clever” followed by my name.

  17. Allison Brennan

    I always get stuck. I have my one phrase that I’ve used on bookmarks and signing: “Read with the lights on” which most people get, but every once in awhile I’ll get someone confused. “How else would I read?” Hmmm, it’s a joke. But then again, I’m not funny so maybe that’s why some get confused.

    I like “Every reader is an author’s best friend.” I hope I can steal it, too.

    (Jeff, I like your tags! They’re perfect.)


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