Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Friday, December 14, 2012
Today my guest is Edith Maxwell. I've known Edith the early 1990s when she joined a writers' group in my home. I loved learning about her varied interests, and now I get to read about some of them in her novels. Her first book appeared this year, and brings together several of her interests.
I’m so pleased to be a guest on Susan’s blog today.
Sunday, December 2, 2012
Yesterday six writers showed up for their panel, and we waited for everyone to get settled. By the time we began--I was moderating--over 40 people were in the audience. That number grew to over 60 people. What happened in the last two and a half years? The word about self-publishing spread and people began to understand what was possible. So many companies have jumped into this world with various levels of service that it would be hard for anyone not to find a resource for publishing their own work--in paper, in audio, in eBook format.
The writers on the panel had a wide range of experiences and were willing to share generously. They talked about their first efforts, and the high costs of not knowing the "system," and then talked about their most recent efforts and the almost nonexistent costs after learning how to do much by themselves. Another talked about the doors that opened to advocate for important causes, and another talked about the opportunity to put a personal experience into print. One writer wowed the audience with her own success--30,000 copies of one title sold in the last year (and her new car, paid for with cash). Another talked about her several books that reflected a life of both tragedy and triumph in working for justice for others. The last panelist described a new profession that allows him to work at home on others' writing projects while creating his own books. The panelists were varied and interesting and enthusiastic and generous.
There were so many questions from the audience that I, as moderator, could not keep up. Every time one question was answered, another ten hands went up. We could have stayed there for another four hours answering questions. People came with lists of questions about the process in general and their own works in particular; some came with their own self-published books and suggestions about what companies to work with. Most people were clear about learning quickly from any missteps and moving on to the next project.
When asked about the advantages, every writer--on the panel or in the audience--echoed the idea of control and time. Writers wanted to control their own work and they didn't want to wait months and years to see a book make it into print.
No one said he or she wouldn't do it again, and no one discouraged anyone else from giving it a try. We talked about the challenges in publishing something without assistance such as proofreading, publishing color drawings with text, copyright, business choices such as iUniverse or CreateSpace, POD and eBook formats. It was one of the most stimulating and hands-on panels I have ever participated in.
The big question for some of us was, how did so many people who were interested in this new world of publishing find out about the panel? The panelists did their job before Saturday. Every one of them posted the announcement somewhere--Facebook, a local website (Good Morning Gloucester), blogs; and it was twice in our local newspaper.
Yes, it is indeed a new world. And, to my surprise, I'm not the last one to enter it. Last month (which was only last week) I posted my new Mellinghan/Joe Silva mystery for Kindle. Last Call for Justice is on sale now.
The panelists are a group of Cape Ann writers and I hope you'll take the time to look at their work. You have lots of good reading ahead of you if you do.
Thursday, November 29, 2012
I've had six novels and one nonfiction book published by traditional publishers as well as numerous articles and short stories, but I've also written some books that no one is interested in despite agents' best efforts. So what do I do with them? In past decades the writer would have put them back on the shelf (and it was indeed a shelf, long before computers) and moved on to the next writing project. But today we can do something about all those manuscripts languishing unread. We can send them out into the world on our own. We can be our own publishers. We don't have to get permission or approval from anyone else. This may not be a good thing (every writer has been spared embarrassment by a careful editor) but it is now the reality.
On Saturday afternoon, December 1, I'm going to facilitate an afternoon discussion about self-publishing with six writers, some of whom have been wildly successful. Many writers are happy with the attention of a small publisher who promises to sell two thousand copies. How would you feel about a writer who sells that many books in a month on her own? I'm going to find out on Saturday.
This is also an unplanned opportunity for me to announce that I too have taken the plunge. On this past weekend I posted my sixth Joe Silva as an eBook, a book that I never expected to do anything with when I began writing a mystery series set in India. I've published two books featuring Anita Ray, but I haven't forgotten Joe.
The sixth Joe Silva was hard to put aside because I finally take Joe (and Gwen) to visit his family. During a family reunion his ailing and aged father has put together, Joe comes face to face with an unrecognized crime from his younger days, and a new crime triggered by that confrontation.
I've learned how to post the mss, how to get a good cover (buy it from a good designer), and now I'm going to learn how to promote and sell the book.
And yes, I'm planning on taking notes and will share them.
Saturday, November 24, 2012
I sent off a mss to an editor a couple of weeks ago, and now all I can do is wait. All writers go through this, and hard as it is, it is also a great opportunity. This is the time when we are free to daydream all the time, when we begin work on our next project, long or short, fiction or nonfiction. For me that project is another novel but I'm also using the rest period to participate in a holiday art exhibit with the Rocky Neck Art Colony. This is such a great change of pace for me that I have come to treasure the time when I can look at the topics that interest me--India, people, streetscapes--with an entirely different perspective.
The Winter Show 2012 will also include a number of opportunities for artists and others to get together and talk about their work, among many topics, and enjoy the season. The show is being held at the Cultural Center on Wonson Street, Gloucester. If you're in the area, drop by and let all those cliches about the holiday season fade away.
Sunday, September 23, 2012
Sunday, September 16, 2012
Pets teach us many things--unconditional love is the one people usually cite. But Rob taught me something about myself. He didn't want treatment, and I had trouble catching on to that. He only wanted to lie on the grass in the backyard and watch the squirrels and rabbits and birds pass by. That's another lesson to remember.
Sunday, September 9, 2012
Friday, August 17, 2012
Friday, June 1, 2012
Friday, May 11, 2012
Sunday, March 18, 2012
Once in a while I come across an idea that I think would make a good photo exhibit, something that lets me add a brief narrative. Right now I’m working on an exhibit about Pongala, an annual festival held in South India, honoring Bhagavati, and drawing three million women to the city of Trivandrum, in Kerala, to make their offerings to the deity. This may not seem like it has much to do with writing, other than a few captions, but at the end of every exhibit, I realize that I’ve worked on the same challenges I face as a writer.
The most obvious challenge is to select from the dozens, sometimes hundreds, of photographs to tell the story of Pongala. This should be easy—picking the ones that seem the best, whatever that is. At least that’s what I think when I start out. Am I looking for texture, design, drama? Or the ones I like the best? When I find myself with four photographs of the same scene, taken from different angles, I know it’s time to start over. And the first question is, what’s the point of the exhibit?
The point of the exhibit is to tell the story of Pongala and the women who participate in it. After that is settled in my mind, the rest of the task is easier. I look for photographs that each tell a part of the festival, the ninth day when Pongala itself is offered to Bhagavati and how this happens. I begin with the signs of the festival approaching, when piles and piles of clay pots appear on the city streets, waiting for buyers, along with the stacks of bricks and firewood the city puts out, at no charge, for the devotees.
The women arrive in droves on special buses and trains on the eighth day, and take over the city for the night. Most don’t stay in hotel rooms. They doss down on the sidewalk where they’ve set up their bricks and pot, or on the bare ground of a courtyard where a family has opened its gates to the visitors. For twenty-four hours, there are women everywhere.
On the morning of the ninth day, women are provided a free breakfast and later a midday meal of rice and vegetables, but the morning is taken over with cooking the offering. A lot more goes into this than I can say here, but the process of thinking about the Pongala as a narrative guides me in pulling out photographs that will tell a part of the story.
Building a novel is similar. The main question—what is the point?—has to be asked and answered. What is the main idea behind the story? What are the characters really up to in their lives? And then I choose the scenes, the select few that will carry the reader through these strangers’ lives. Some scenes might be wonderful to write, lots of fun to read, but not helpful in telling the larger story; I have to omit them. Just like a striking photograph that doesn’t elucidate Pongala and so is omitted, a scene must contribute to the story being told. No digressions allowed.
I’ve used the Pongala photo exhibit as a metaphor for constructing a novel, but perhaps it’s the other way around. Perhaps if I were less of a mystery writer I would see the exhibit differently. But I prefer narrative. I have a passion for seeing things move forward, take shape, and deliver a discovery—whether it’s a photo exhibit, a novel, a song. I like to begin in one place and end up in another.
Friday, February 24, 2012
A professor once told me, People with a lot of rituals in their lives get more out of life. I didn’t agree with him then because I was young, a graduate student, and longing for spontaneity. But I’m older now (much older) and I’m more receptive to his comment.
Writers have lots of rituals. We tend to be a superstitious bunch and we call our superstitions rituals or ways of organizing time, but, really, these are superstitions. Most writers know about the rabbit’s foot Hemingway carried in his pocket, or John Cheever’s daily ritual of dressing in a suit and going to the office with the other businessmen. But I only recently learned that Jack Kerouac lit a candle every day. A.S. Byatt writes surrounded by her special collections of paper weights, snail shells, and other things; and Isabel Allende begins each book on the same day, January 8, because that’s when she began her incredibly successful first novel The House of Spirits. Edith Sitwell began her writing day by lying in a coffin, and Carson McCullers donned her lucky sweater whenever she wrote. Friedrich Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk drawer. Alexander Dumas pere used different colored paper depending on the genre—blue for fiction, pink for nonfiction, and yellow for poetry. (I don’t know about the yellow, but I think he’s right about the colors for fiction and nonfiction, and I know there’s scientific backup for this—somewhere.)
I am not immune to this need to trick the Universe into being the wind at my back. I like to clear my desk before I begin a new work of fiction or nonfiction—tidy things up, file papers, finish lingering correspondence, pay all the bills I can find. I rearrange (by half an inch or so) the artifacts from India I keep on shelves nearby.
Part of this is procrastination, part is liking to see a clear path ahead for at least a few days, and part is trying to convince the universe that I’m here and I’m ready. At the end of a project I like to do a general cleaning of desk and drawers and files, even if they have nothing to do with the writing project. (You’d think my little home would be tidy and excessively neat, but you’d be wrong.) I think this is a way of getting rid of those dark spirits that hang around a story just waiting to see it go off a cliff. Add to this the need to write with only certain kinds of pens, the need to use only certain notebooks when I’m traveling and taking notes, and the need to structure time for other tasks in certain ways and you begin to wonder how I or any other writer can ever get anything done.
Do you have tools that seem to make your work flow better? Are there rituals or practices you rely on to get your words on paper? Let me know and I’ll add them to my growing list of what writers need to do their work.
Friday, February 17, 2012
Robert Frost wrote in the introduction to his Collected Poems (1939), “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” This doesn’t mean writers should be producing tear-jerkers. I take it to mean that the writer must know her characters, and this is the hardest part of writing for many.
Some writers rely on the standard character’s biography, creating an entire back story of education, family structure, coming of age experiences, and more. Some of this is very useful, but for me this kind of writing doesn’t get at who this character really is.
One of the most successful approaches for me is asking the character how he or she feels about a current social situation or crisis. How does she feel about it, and why? This is where I just start writing and wait to see what comes out. If I’m trying to discover a character who completed school some years ago, I might find myself writing about where she chose to sit in the classroom and why. Was she a good student but shy, so she stayed away from the front row, or was he someone who’d had a run-in with the professor and felt an ethical revulsion for him, so sat in the back of the room. Letting the character ruminate on these experiences tells me far more than a biography, no matter how long.
I also like to know why my characters do things. If one character has a hobby and practices it regularly, I want to know why. What is the character thinking while working on knitting or cooking or gardening or anything else? We are drawn to different things, and I like to hear the reasons for our passions. If someone is willing to spend hours every week on something for which he or she may or may not be paid, I want to know why. Our reasons run deeper than many of us realize, and this is where a character ruminating can generate fascinating revelations that deepen a story and even shape it.
In the quote above, Robert Frost was talking about the essential point. We care about those we know and understand. And that means more than height, marital status, number of siblings, the way we drink our coffee. It means all those things we know about our oldest and dearest friends from listening and sharing over the years. Only for writers, we have to get to all that listening and sharing in a matter of weeks. We have to let our characters talk, and then we and the readers will know them and care what happens in their stories.
Friday, February 10, 2012
(This post was originally published on Author Expressions on February 3, but I felt it was important enough for what I have been writing lately to reprint it here with a couple of photos taken in 1976. In the photo on the left, Lakshmee has set up her images in her family temple in her compound; she gave me the larger oil lamp and the water pot, both older pieces. In the photo at right, Lakshmee stands in front of her front door.)
Three weeks in India is barely enough time for me to get settled, unpack and get in touch with friends, but that was all I had. It was easy for me to do nothing but read, write, visit with friends, and think about where to have lunch or dinner. But I had one other task to attend to.
For over thirty-years I had the friendship of a woman who worked for me and my husband when we first lived there, and in her later years we became her main support, since she was by now a widow as well as childless. Being old and poor in India is not a good prospect, and although Lakshmee worked into her eighties in various capacities (selling wood which she stored in her house), she clearly was in decline. She died in September after an operation for a badly broken leg.
I knew this through emails, and sent money when asked and followed her medical care as well as one can from the other side of the world. When I arrived in India, I went to see one of her former employers who had been helping in her care and passing along information to me. To my surprise, Lakshmee had left something for me with one of her doctors.
The Triveni Nursing Home is an ayurvedic hospital where Lakshmee often went when she felt unwell, or, in my view, lonely and sad, and they always took her in, even if she showed no signs of having any money. I had told them I would cover her costs and they never seemed to worry about it. When I went to visit them in January, Lakshmee’s doctor informed me that she had left her puja items for me. I promised to return to pick them up the following week because the doctor’s maidservant was cleaning them (those wails of pain you hear are antiques dealers groaning across the country).
When I first met Lakshmee she was a complete surprise—someone who opened up doors to another world, a world that a colleague once told me was often unavailable to others. And at the end she was a surprise too. The puja items weren’t the usual ones I had seen her use—the steel water pots, the little lamps, the wooden incense holders. These were heavy bronze pieces that must have belonged to her parents—a heavy oil lamp and a water pot, and a small incense holder and oil votive lamp. A friend looked them over and told me which ones were the oldest and how I could tell.
I brought them back and they now sit in my library. I don’t recall ever seeing Lakshmee use them, and it may be that at one point she realized they were too valuable to have around for anyone to see; she had only a padlock on her front door, and had been robbed at least once. She was cautious with things that mattered to her, and she put away her puja items. And now I have them, an unexpected gift from someone who gave me so many over the years.
Lakshmee was, in the slang of the moment, the real deal, a traditional Nayar lady for whom the traditional culture was still more real that the modern world, and certainly made more sense. She had a clear and strong personality, and not surprisingly she shows up in some of my favorite and most vivid characters in the Anita Ray series. You’ll meet her in the next Anita Ray, coming in June 2012. If you want to know what Lakshmee was like, look for Gauri in The Wrath of Shiva. She turns the plot upside down, and then rescues it.