Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Taking a Summer (or Fall or Winter or Spring) Course

For the last two weeks I have been logging onto my computer every morning to read my assignment for
the day. As if I don't have enough to do, I signed up for an online SinCNE (Sisters in Crime New England chapter) course taught by Ramona Defelice Long. This meant, of course, that I didn't turn to my current work in progress until later in the morning, but I thought it would be worth it to learn something new.

The course is called Necessary Parts, and covers the four texts that writers dread--the log line (for the subject line on an email), a query paragraph (and letter), a one-page summary, and a two to three page synopsis (the worst of all). I have yet to meet a writer who likes writing a synopsis, and it's easy to understand why.

The first question anyone who knows me might ask is this: "Susan, why are you taking this course? You've published ten novels and two nonfiction books with four publishers." And indeed, one of the other participants commented on how surprised she was to see my name on the list of students. But, to everyone's surprise, except Ramona's, I've never had to submit a synopsis to sell a book.

When I submitted my first mystery novel to Scribner's in 1992, my agent sent in the entire ms, and we waited. When I switched to Five Star, a division then of Thorndike Press, again I sent in the entire ms. For my first book, a bibliography for G.K. Hall, in Boston, I wrote a proposal, which was accepted. Twelve books and not a single synopsis. It was time to face the nightmare and learn how to write one.

When I finished graduate school and took my degree, I was glad to be done. But I have always loved workshops, taking courses on a variety of subjects, exploring new ideas, and learning to see things from a different perspective. Even as the executive director of a small nonprofit, I knew there was plenty to learn and signed up for all sorts of special trainings.

No matter how many books I've written, or anyone else has for that matter, I believe there is always
something more to learn. And of all the workshops, courses, lectures, and trainings I've attended over the last several years, Ramona's online course Necessary Parts has been the best. If you have a chance to take this, I highly recommend it. There's nothing like finding out that the great fear (of writing a synopsis or anything else) is nothing but a matter of arranging words on a page. Thanks, Ramona.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Tomatoes and the Writer

I think of myself as a writer, not a gardener, but sometimes the two overlap. When this happens, as it did for me this month, I'm in trouble. The same question posed to the gardener and the writer can elicit very different responses. The cause of this problem is tomatoes.

We have six quite large tomato plants, and we have waited impatiently for a couple of months for the first fruits. The green ones have grown and turned pinkish and now red. The plants are happily prolific, but unfortunately, that means they're producing a lot more tomatoes than we can eat. As my Indian maidservant used to say, Very great problem, Memsahib.

And that it is. Those of us with vegetable gardens face the question of what to do with too many summer squash or tomatoes or beans. Later it will be too many apples, but I digress. My first thought is to give the produce away, but that is where I run into problems, the result strictly of being a writer.

My first thought is to give a few or several to my neighbors. Most of them have children of various sizes, and they tend to eat a lot. But what if my neighbors misconstrue this as the beginning of an unwanted obligation to give something in return? What if they see these large (and I do mean large) ripe, nearly perfect specimens and expect to be charged? Or, suppose they're allergic to tomatoes. I've never heard of anyone being allergic to this fruit (despite what the Supreme Court calls it), but it's possible. Okay, we'll skip the neighbors with children.

What about the neighbors with no children? Will they too suspect the tomatoes carry an implicit obligation to be collected on in future? And if they're not growing their own though they have time and space, do they dislike them? If they do, then the tomatoes will be wasted, or foisted onto someone else.

I could give them to vendors I deal with regularly. My favorite dry cleaning establishment has changed hands a few times, changed the name twice, and changed locations at least once. The women on the counter change every other year. I could give the dry cleaning cashier tomatoes. Is it safe from unexpected consequences?

Some cultures have a longstanding custom of giving a gift in return for anything received. It doesn't have to be of equal value or special or even something purchased. This year I have visions of leaving the dry cleaners with a stack of wire hangers in exchange for my tomatoes.

The corner store is now owned by a very nice couple from Korea, and the wife is an excellent gardener from the looks of her window boxes. If I gave her tomatoes, would she think they were an implicit criticism of the tomatoes in the deli section and take offense? Would I have to explain that I wouldn't be offended if they used them in their sandwiches and sold them, slice by slice?

Suppose I give all my tomatoes away and learn--too late, of course--that I've forgotten someone, a neighbor or friend who has been waiting, hopefully, for fresh, home-grown tomatoes. Would this non-recipient be angry, or hurt, or resentful? How would I find out? I shiver at the thought.

When I was still working I used to take the extra produce into the office. I lined up my tomatoes next to another staff member's cucumbers, someone else's squash, and, of course, a bowl of green beans.

I could become the stealth tomato bomber, leaving them in the dark of night on people's doorsteps. I could set out at midnight, when some people walk their dogs, and deposit one or two on every porch, a gesture of good will and neighborliness. Of course, if the police or anyone else saw me, I could be arrested for vandalism. You see my dilemma?

What does this have to do with writing? I cannot imagine anyone, someone I know or don't know, receiving a bag of large, ripe, luscious tomatoes without having some feeling about it, and those feelings are the stuff of character. And character is story.

I imagine the characters behind the outstretched welcoming hands, or the early morning door opening onto the red surprise sitting next to the morning newspaper, and it's all I can do to stick to the question at hand--disposing of more tomatoes than we can use in a month.

It is a cliche to say that the problems of this world stem not from a lack of material goods but from poor distribution. I would add to that timing. If only tomatoes could grow throughout the year, I would be a happy part-time gardener.

But now, as it is, I have dozens of tomatoes and a new story to write, stocked with characters pondering fruit.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Writer's Life . . . Now and Then

A recent discussion on the Five Star chat list and on Maine Crime Writers (http://mainecrimewriters.com) tapped into a general frustration with how hard it is to make a living as a writer these days. We have all had these moments of doubt and frustration, and I agree with everything that's been said, and I thank both Brenda Hill and Kate Flora for taking on the task of opening the discussions to others. These discussions are part of an important conversation about our expectations and roles as writers. It took me a few years before I realized that my expectations were based on the realities of the 1950s.

The path for an aspiring writer up to the 1950s and 1960s was clearly marked. Get an education, possibly an MFA in creative writing though not required, write short fiction and submit it to literary journals, publish a few stories, and work on a novel. In the summer, attend a few writers' workshops, such as the Bread Loaf Writers Conference (the original one), and meet a few editors and agents. The point was to keep writing until someone liked what you did or you gave up and got a full-time job. No one admits to giving up but there are far more first novels published than second novels.

Since all the mainstream magazines carried short stories every month in those years, a beginning or established writer could make a living selling stories while finishing a novel. Redbook, for example, paid $5,000 for a short story, and often published two a month into the 1980s. In the mid 1960s $5,000 was the starting salary for a social worker and a number of other positions. Well, those days are gone.

If you were lucky enough to sell your novel, you received an advance against royalties. You set about writing your second book while your publisher announced your first book to booksellers, conducted modest promotion, and forwarded reviews by mail. If your book was doing well, you might get a telephone call from your editor. If your sales were reasonable, which you knew from quarterly royalty reports, you had a chance to sell your second novel, assuming you could find something to write about. And yes, those days are gone.

Even in 1993, when I published my first mystery with Scribner, the drill for the beginning writer was the same--get a newspaper and radio interview, set up a few signings wherever you could, and send out a lot of flyers, newsletters, or postcards, anything to introduce your book to readers. In 1993 I sent a postcard to every library in Massachusetts, with a handwritten note on each. I sent another thousand postcards to a select group of libraries throughout the country. Those days are gone too.

Today, writers are expected to have begun promotional efforts even before the book appears. And this
is possible today only because of the Internet and the mind-numbing array of sites where writers and readers can discover each other and books. It is tempting to think that online activity is the way to sell books because that means I can sit at my desk and wear my gardening or painting clothes (which should not be seen in public) and never think about putting on stockings or high heels or do anything else that makes me miserable. But that isn't the case.

The real complaint isn't about how little we make or how much marketing we have to do as writers today but about how little original creative work is valued. Our expectations are based on another time when it seemed such work was appreciated and its producers admired. But our expectations as writers are based on life thirty or forty or more years ago, and the expectations of readers are based on life today. And life today is different. We have reduced the world to the cheapest, the fastest, the easiest. That might be all right for hamburgers but it's not all right for books.

Every one of us knows that it takes time to think through an idea, to understand human behavior and appreciate the myriad ways a single event can be interpreted. We took history in college to help with this sort of problem. But we live in a world when no one wants to take the time to explore facets of an experience, world-changing ideas must be reduced to sound bites or be ignored, and our politicians are an embarrassment to anyone with any self-respect.

When I pull back from my frustration with the low pay, the shrinking advances, the neglect of readers to try a different kind of story, I have only my own reasons for writing left to consider. I did not give up writing when I had a chance to spend all of my waking hours on a better paid job, and I did not take up writing the kinds of books that would ensure a devoted if non-thinking audience. If these things are true, then I am writing for reasons other than money and prestige.

I could end here with a sly comment--"And when I find out what those reasons are I'll let you know"--but I have come this far and will see the idea to the end.

I write because it is something in me that demands to be done. I write because I see characters and hear their voices and I want to tell their stories, to myself as well as others. Some stories feel like a physical mass inside me pushing to get out. I write because I get an idea about a character or incident and I think it's something other people should know about. I write fiction because I think it is one of the best ways to draw people into a larger world where they can learn and grow without the pain that would come from the same experiences in real life. We read to get outside of ourselves and be part of something bigger than ourselves. I write to be part of that.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

My Life as a Beckett Play, or, A Lesson in Perseverance

My current work in progress is a revision of an earlier manuscript that failed to find a home with my current publisher. I considered publishing it myself, but decided instead to revise it. In the process I have pulled out one short story about sailing and am now rewriting the novel.

At first the prospect seemed daunting, but, as often happens, it put me in mind of an earlier challenge. Some years ago I had a problem with a project and wandered out back to run an idea by my husband. Husband was digging a hole in the ground. My in-laws did this often, so I didn't think much of it. I continued to describe my problem, got the appropriate grunts and hmms to indicate some attention from Husband, and returned to my desk.

My first problem was solved but another one came along. I went out back to speak to Husband, who was now deeper into his hole. Curious about why the driveway drain was in the spot it was in, he had decided to dig down and see what was there. My problem also seemed to be growing, so I found a folding chair in the garage and sat down in the driveway to describe my dilemma while he continued to dig. This intermittent digging and consulting in the driveway went on throughout the summer. The hole got deeper and my problems more complicated.

But the hole also produced some surprises. Like a good first draft, the hole was more than a hole.
Apparently Husband had found the old cesspool, abandoned when the city laid town sewer services, and the old service had been made of fine New England granite. When he was into his hole up to his waist, he threw out the first stone. I admired it and went on describing my current problem.

Throughout that summer, almost twenty years ago, Husband dug and Wife talked while sitting in the shade along the driveway. Stones large and small flew out of the hole as Husband disappeared up to his shoulders. When his head was no longer visible, the rocks were noticeably heavier and some, too big to toss, had to be shoved onto the nearby lawn. But they kept coming.

As Wife came to the end of her first draft and related problems, Husband was no longer in sight, and the pile of rocks on the lawn was large enough to give one pause. What on earth were we going to do with them? They weren't exactly like an extra character that could be killed off in a story.

The last rock was gigantic and its extraction required mechanical assistance. Husband hitched up his little sports car and we pulled the last rock from the hole. We still didn't know what to do with them. Husband and Wife are practical sorts, and one of us said, We could build a stone wall. Now, Wife was not familiar with this sort of labor, but then, neither was Husband. We set about manhandling the rocks of all sizes into some sort of order, which seemed preferable to leaving them spread all over the back lawn. The end result was as much of a surprise as the initial discovery, but much nicer.


This is where I expected to extol the virtues of perseverance, but perhaps better would be to point out the importance of curiosity. We have a lovely stone wall, the envy of a few of our neighbors who have paid dearly for theirs, and all the result of my husband's curiosity about an old drain in the driveway.

And my manuscript? That was the summer when Anita Ray came to light, to appear several years later as an Indian American photographer living at her aunt's tourist hotel, light of her life and bane of her existence.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

BlogHop :: International Authors' Day

I rarely get an opportunity to showcase some of the less well known writers I enjoy, but as part of International Authors Day (which is actually four days), arranged by Debdatta Dasgupta Sahay, I'll share some of the authors I've found during my visits to South India. Several of these writers are known in the United States, but I found the books noted here first in India.

As a member of the Nehru family, Nayantara Sahgal was expected to succeed in whatever she chose to do in life. She chose to write, and has produced a number of novels and memoirs. My favorite is a short novel titled MISTAKEN IDENTITY, set in 1929 about the son of a minor raja caught up in the Quit India movement, arrested and carted off to prison.

The struggle for dignity and independence is explored by another writer, Sarah Thomas. In DAIVAMAKKAL, or Children of God, a dalit woman is determined to claim a better life for her son through education. "Children of God" is the name Mahatma Gandhi gave to the Untouchables of India, and Thomas succeeds in bringing the struggles and achievements of this community to life through the story of Kunjikannan.

Sarah Joseph explores questions of faith in OTHAPPU, or The Scent of the Other Side. The novel is a critique of Christianity and what the author regards as the distorted forms it has taken in South India.

Thrity Umrigar captures the chasms that open between women of different castes, no matter how closely intertwined their lives, in THE SPACE BETWEEN US. In the rarefied world of the Bombay upper classes, Sera leans on her maidservant, Bhima, a woman of no power who can do little to protect her own family when the time comes.

Not nearly as well known in the United States as she should be is Anita Nair. Her recent mystery, CUT LIKE WOUND, suggests a new direction in her work. Inspector Borei Gowda is faced with the confounding deaths of a number of young male prostitutes. Taking place in Bangalore over little more than a month, the novel plays on all the tropes of crime fiction with a few Indian twists added to the form. Nair's novel MISTRESS tells a love story through the nine basic emotions of the traditional dance-drama art form called Kathakali.

Another favorite writer for me and many others is Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Perhaps best known for her novel HEAT AND DUST and as a screenwriter in a team with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, Jhabvala wrote dozens of books, essays, reviews, screenplays, and stories. I came across a collection in India, A LOVESONG FOR INDIA: TALES FROM EAST AND WEST, with illustrations by her architect husband C.S.H. Jhabvala. These stories have such perfect detail and delicacy that I was convinced they were memoirs.

As part of the BlogHop for International Authors' Day I'm giving away a paperback of the first novel in the Anita Ray series, UNDER THE EYE OF KALI, to someone who comments, chosen at random.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Summer on the New England Seacoast

Last night I left the public library after an enjoyable and productive meeting, on my way to an after-meeting dinner. When I left the building, I found my colleagues gathered in the parking lot, fretting over the fate of a young gull that had fallen from its nest. Residents of nearby apartments stopped to offer comments, and passers-by also contributed to the conversation.

This is July on Cape Ann, where gulls are squawking protectively over their nests and dive-bombing any human or other prospective predator who might come near. The problem here, however, is that the fledgling, even too young to be a fledgling, has fallen out of the protective nest. But this fledgling is only one of several that we and others will encounter on sidewalks, back yards, tops of cars, and parking lots.

We humans gathered and fretted and discussed, and this is what we came up with. Do not touch the bird. (We already knew that.) Unfortunately, a little girl didn't know this and a few days earlier picked one up, put it in her purse, and took it home. The bird will die. A neighbor who came out to offer advice pointed out that fledglings, and even younger ones, will survive this danger of being ground-bound as long as the parents can feed it and drive off predators. Considering the location, the brick walk by a library, in a city with a leash law and bird-rescue volunteers, the young bird could very well survive.

Reluctant, but with increasing confidence, we scattered to our cars and headed out. On my way home after supper the stranded baby gull got me thinking of the various birds I've encountered in India, and, of course, one thought led to another, and I now have a burgeoning story about Anita Ray and a fortune-telling parrot.

I also have a clearer conscience because I emailed a bird rehabber about the gull, and if anything can be done, she will do it. Stories and their inspiration came from all sorts of experiences. The key is to be ready for them.