Friday, December 9, 2011

Ruminations on the Back Burner

The sign that I'm finishing up the novel I'm working on is the way ideas start flowing for new books. Sometimes it's another crime novel, so I let the story grow, noting some of the details that are emerging, but otherwise I just ignore the whole thing until I'm finished with the one I'm working on. But sometimes it's a book idea that is unexpected. I have a number of these and I'm not sure what to do with them.

Graham Greene wrote a number of essays in addition to his novels and "entertainments," and in one collection he included short summaries of novels he never got around to writing--story ideas that felt full enough to capture his imagination just enough to inspire him to write them down. When I read these short treatments, I could feel the energy in them that would have been the narrative drive moving the story along. These were story ideas that worked. He doesn't say why he didn't write them, just that he didn't.

I have a list of ongoing projects, but some of them have been ongoing for years. A couple of them are actually complete--story collections, including one for Anita Ray stories, a novella set in India, a memoir about my years in India including a reminiscence of Lakshmee Amma, who died this fall in her eighties, and another book on the family farm (both real and imagined and also ideal) that dominated my family's life in one way or another for over a hundred years. I'm not sure these books will ever be written, but they hang around in my imagination like a task that I've been saving because it's more fun than work--gardening, making a special dish, hunting down research materials.

It would be terrific if I could just say, I have enough ideas to last me for a lifetime, which is true, but there's something more to this. When I read Graham Greene's summaries of his unwritten books, I could sense they were real and possible to him at that time. When I write summaries of my ideas, they also feel real and possible as I write them. But when I return months, even years later, I sense how I felt when I wrote the summary but I no longer feel the same way. Perhaps I could get back into the frame of mind that brought the ideas to the page, but maybe not. Perhaps those ideas have their time, and when the time is passed, it's best to move on.

I'll keep adding to my list, reviewing it, and think about reviving one or more of the projects, but when I feel an idea demanding to be worked on now, that's what I'll do. The others will wait, right where I left them, sitting on my desktop.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Making Room

For the past few months I've been weeding books out of my library. I do this every few years (and should probably do it more often). I hate parting with these books, but I know I'm not going to read them again and I tell myself that it's time to let someone else enjoy them.

The books I remove say a lot about where I am in my book journey. A few years ago I came across a second-hand bookstore that dealt in scholarly books. Wow, I thought. Someone who might actually want all of those books on India that I'm no longer going to use. I pulled out a couple hundred books (and it took that many to free up space that I could actually notice) and carted them into Somerville. I got a fair price and left happy. I made a few trips in, browsing and buying at least one book to take home with me. But that store has closed, and my eagerness to weed out books has waned. If I pull out another one or two hundred, what will I do with them.

I have a couple of outlets for my old books. Libraries and their books sales are an obvious one. But some of my books are probably not going to find a new home even through library sales. I know a couple of second hand bookstores that occasionally want something I have, and I'm glad to sell them. But I still have a stack of older novels, general interest nonfiction books (some picked up a thrift shops or yard sales), and a few outdated reference books. For now these sit in paper bags cluttering up my library because I cannot bring myself to throw them away. I am convinced that all books can be recycled. I may be wrong, but I'm not yet ready to give in to the inevitable.

I'll keep looking for outlets for used books and asking others what they do. Until then, my village of paper bags stuffed with books continues to grow. And, alas, I continue to buy books, new and used, and pass around some of my favorites.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Building a Better Blog

For the last few evenings I've settled down in front of my computer to try to learn how to build a blog that will do what I've tried to get my website to do. A good friend and even better writer has managed my site, but this is something that nags at me. I should figure this out. So I have. But make no mistake, my site does look like I created it. It does not look like I paid anyone to do this.

Having an amateurish touch on a blog is fine. Having that same appearance in a book is not. We are becoming very used to being able to have everything we want when we want it--websites, books, blogs, vacations, new clothes. I'm still not used to ordering something on the Internet at eleven thirty at night, but I do it.

Writing and publishing a book will probably never be easy in my lifetime. Writers will still have to sit at a desk (or stand or slouch on a sofa) and compose words on a page or a computer or for a voice recorder (notice I didn't say tape recorder) and then review and edit those words. It will take time and physical effort. Shepherding a manuscript through the press will also take time because many of us will want to see our books printed and bound, and many readers will want books to hold in their hands. I'm one of them. I enjoy blogs and learn from them, but I want to hold that book, feel the paper between my fingers, smell the ink and glue and, yes, sometimes even cloth. Even an eBook takes time, for preparing the manuscript, developing a cover, composing the copy that sells the book to the person browsing around looking for something interesting to read.

We can learn to do lots of things. This blog is one example. But I learned to do this by looking at a lot of other blogs, trying out simple ideas, and revising and fixing. It is a very modest effort. And I'm fine with that. But I would not want my books to be on quite this level. For the books I write I want to rely on other professionals to do the job they know how to do, the job I don't know how to do.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Another Reason for Writing Crime Fiction

The writers I know write a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction but most of us have had some of the standard experiences of writers. We get the usual questions: Where do you get your ideas (a magazine, the daily newspaper, overheard conversations, random thoughts, or who knows)? Have you ever published anything? Are you famous? And, my all-time favorite: Would you like to write this great idea I have and split the royalties?

But what we don't tell our interlocutors is the tactile pleasure of writing crime fiction. For those who think this is one of those cerebral pastimes, akin to lounging with a box of Godiva chocolates, I offer the image of working a clay sculpture. I can't speak for other writers but I derive a deep satisfaction from working out the various physical aspects of a crime novel--the specific details of a landscape and how that will affect the protagonist (can she jump a fence, get through heavy underbrush without getting gored by thorns, walk the bank of a swollen river), the timing of activities she only learns about afterwards.

I write crime fiction without an outline, but I write it as though I were living the experience of it. For me writing crime fiction is one step from the real physical experience, and working out some of the details on paper is like working a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, with little slips of paper holding clues that have to be arranged just so on my desk.

So when that pesky student in a creative writing program is describing the wisdom of the writer and superiority of certain publishers, I'm finding that scarf tied around her neck a convenient device for a short story about strangling someone between the salad and the main course.

A friend once pointed out to me (which was pointed out to her by her son the doctor), there is no such thing as the life of the mind. We are all just cells--physical, percolating cells making it all up as we go along. (Well, he was more elegant than that but you get the idea.) And I like making it up on paper.