Saturday, July 31, 2010
January of this year marked the thirtieth anniversary of the first time six would-be writers in Minneapolis got together and formed a critique group. Within five years, all seven of the eventual members sold, and six are still publishing (the seventh went back to his first love, music and songwriting). You may have heard of us: the Scribblies, aka the Interstate Writer's Workshop. Me, Steven Brust, Pamela Dean, Kara Dalkey, Will Shetterly, Emma Bull, and Nate Bucklin.
Ever since, I occasionally get asked what we did so right. Why were the Scribblies so successful?
I've had a lot of chances to observe other writing groups since we all got started, and I've been in a few of them myself, and I think a large part of the answer to that question is, we were lucky, and I don't mean lucky about our writing or our submissions. I mean lucky in the people we ended up with in the group. Because we didn't ask each other any questions about what we wanted before we got started (except of course "Do you want to join a writing group?"). We just jumped right in. And the first and biggest reason I've seen why some writing groups stick together and others fall apart (after the sort of personality conflicts that can occur in any sort of group) is a mismatch in the expectations and needs of the various members.
It seems to me that there are three basic things that writing groups do: they provide a social group of people who have similar interests, they provide a support group of people who understand the hard parts of the job, and they provide serious comment and criticism that's hard to get anywhere else these days. Most groups perform all three functions to some extent, but most also end up focusing primarily on one of the three.
The problem comes when someone who really needs a support group ends up in one where most of the other people want serious criticism, or someone who really wants lots of good criticism ends up in a mostly-social group. If people don't recognize that some folks need and want a different mix, the best outcome is that some of the members will quietly leave. The worst outcome involves blowups and shouting and friendships that may never recover.
I've been a visitor at meetings where it was simply taken for granted that nobody would say "anything mean" – meaning, you weren't expected to say anything negative at all, not so much as pointing out typos. When they got to me and the group leader said, "Now, we're going to get some of that real Scribblies criticism!" I had to tell them that no, they weren't. Because while we certainly included positive comments, "real Scribblies criticism" very much involved saying negative things. We pointed out everything from weak characterization to plot inconsistencies, pacing problems, slithery viewpoint, and awkward or ambiguous sentences, and we weren't nice or hesitant about it, either. We didn't have the time.
Because that's the other reason I think we were so successful: We all took both our writing and the group very, very seriously. We had six members to begin with; seven, eventually, and at the beginning there was rarely a meeting where we didn't have material from at least four people to go over (and it wasn't always the same four). Once we hit our stride, we generally had at least six people with material every month, and we had to go to two-to-three-week intervals in order to keep from having ten-hour marathon critique sessions. Very occasionally, someone wouldn't have time to read and critique everything before the meeting; even more rarely, life would intervene and someone would miss a meeting, but neither happened very often.
The Scribblies were a critique group with occasional support and social functions. We photocopied our pages and passed them out to other members a week or so before each meeting, so everyone would have time to read them and scribble comments in the margins before the meeting. At the meeting we went over each project (usually a chapter or three of a novel, but sometimes a short story, and on a few memorable occasions, complete novels that the author had been storing up to dump on us in one fell swoop) page by page, with everyone making whatever points they had and arguing about them.
The author wasn't prohibited from joining the discussion, but he or she didn't get any more floor time than anyone else, and had the ultimate right to cut off discussion by saying "Thank you, I will think about that." Once in a while, the author would say "OK, what I was trying to do here was X, and obviously it didn't work" and we'd discuss why it didn't and what could be done instead, but mostly, as I remember it, we didn't make suggestions unless the author asked for them. We just pointed out things we thought were problems and things we really liked, and let the author decide what to change and how during revision.
Meetings were all very chaotic, with lots of arm-waving, occasional eye-rolling, and quarts of coffee and tea. We took breaks now and again (you really can't go for ten hours straight without snacks or pizza or take-out or something), but we kept them short. We never had a leader; we never needed one.
I learned an enormous amount from the Scribblies, as much of it from doing the critique of other people's work as from having my own done. Still, I don't recommend crit groups for everyone. Some people are hermits, or just can't accept comments, or need a writing group that provides more support or socializing. If it's not for you, don't force yourself. For those who are interested, though, it can be a great experience and very, very good for your writing.
Friday, July 30, 2010
Of course: I drove. . . Ten hours. . . With three kids. . . After a half day of running errands and scrambling to tie up loose ends. Still, respite, yes.
Somewhere amid the midnight darkness of I-55, while my rental car stereo (we forgot the CDs!) was desperately scanning for palatable music, we landed on John Mayer. "I just found out there's no such thing as the real world -- just a lie you've got to rise above." My college-aged son sat in the passenger seat beside me, both of us belting out the lyrics, my mind nodding fiercely in agreement with that simple truth: No such thing.
Fitting then, that I am vacationing at home. Not the house I grew up in -- my parents divorced many years ago, live in states far apart from each other with the new spouses, and other unknown people inhabit the eat/sleep/play place of my youth.
Still, this is home. My father and one sibling remain in suburban St. Louis. Cousins, old friends, and all of life's early memories that have hung on this long remain here. Home, then, is spirit. It's the connection to the faith that these are the people who love me and mine, that they will fight for my well-being, that they love me best in blue jeans, sandals and a ponytail. I love them, too.
Yet, how hard I fought in my youth to get away from home! Oh, I couldn't wait to run off to college and then immediately afterward I disappeared into the young adult struggles of finding self, job, housing, mate -- "a life."
All these years later, I realize that at some point I came full circle. Going home was no concession to weakness. It's the place that gave me the spunk, wherewithal and tools I needed to become who I wanted to be. And these are the innards that make me a better fiction writer.
While readers opt for escapism when they choose to read our made-up stories, those novels that fail to connect with the basic emotions of hurdling life and its challenges get chucked as unrealistic, hard to believe, bad books. Ironic, yes? But I guess it just goes to prove what John Mayer voiced in song, "there's no such thing as the real world." It's just a lie we have to write above.
Thursday, July 29, 2010
I have often wondered just how much weight a title carries in a novel's success or failure, for that matter?
Should the title be a window into the soul of the plot? Or have that "wow" factor that can compel a reader and potential buyer to take notice of the book? Perhaps both, I suspect.
On the other hand, might the author's name and reputation carry far more weight into a novel's success than any title one could come up with? Or more likely, the plot itself, carefully promoted, trumps the title every day of the week in determining whether or not the novel will have legs?
Lastly, it is routine for publishers to change an author's title for another deemed better or more appropriate to the line or market. Unfortunately, this can never be proven or disproven, especially as it relates to sales since there is only the one title in play, along with other variables in determining the novel's success or failure. As such, might an author's self title for a novel actually prove to be no worse or necessarily better than a publisher or editor generated title in terms of the book's ability to be a success, if not bestseller?
About half of my novels carry my own original titles and the other half, titles preferred by the publisher. Of course, like all authors, I love my own book titles and carefully chose them to fit the theme and characters and standout at local and online bookstores and in promotional materials. In this respect, I have always fought to keep my titles that were put on the chopping block. Most of these times I lost the battle, but still won the war as I got used to the new titles and even found myself loving most of them as they became a part of the history of the novels, readers identified with them, and I happily took credit for at the end of the day. But still, I do wonder every now and then what if my own original titles had been on those covers. Might that have been the icing on every cake with my novel inside?
As for my published novels with my created titles, they have all been successful enough that I can presume that the titles did their job in the scheme of things, making me believe the same may well have been true had the original titles stood in my other novels with publisher generated titles. But again, I have no way or knowing that for certain, one way or the other. Moreover, for all I know, had these novels been given new titles by editors, the results in terms of brand, sales, and success may well have been exactly the same, or better.
In the final analysis, I have come to accept that a great novel by any title can still be a great novel with great sales if the main plot has strong promotion, there is author recognition, a loyal fan base, and other intangibles work in favor of the author. The differences from one title to the next may be negligible when all is said and done. Of course, the pride in seeing your own created title across the front and side covers of a novel is a different story altogether...
What are your thoughts on the relative value of a novel's title? How many of your titles are your own and how many did the publisher create? Did you give in easily or offer some resistance to parting with your original title?
What process do you undertake in deciding what title to give your novel?
How important is the title of a book when you are in search of one to purchase?
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
This stumbling block makes writing a very laborious process since, having written the words, I must then transcribe my scrawls into an electronic form so that they can easily be edited and shared. Being a techie, I have done some research in an attempt to make this process a little less painful.
I am very interested in hearing if I am in a minority in terms of writing on paper and also, how others are using technology to enhance the creative writing experience.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
After a couple of weeks of long hours at the keyboard, I took a day off writing. So what did I do? Other than reading, I spent a few hours hanging out on Goodreads reviewing books I’d previously read.
What can I say? I love books. From the moment I learned to read I devoured every piece of text I could get my hands on. And the writer-to-be showed up because I couldn’t keep from “rewriting” in my head the things I read. I couldn’t keep from putting myself into the story. I consumed Walter Farley’s horse books and imagined thundering down the track on a fast stallion somewhere between Black and Flame. I read the dog stories of Jim Kjelgaard and Jack London and ran arid lands and ice floes with Desert Dog and White Fang and others of my own invention. I read sports stories, space stories, and westerns, and I dreamed myself into every one of them.
Even today I’m fully as much of a reader as I am a writer. I generally read at least three books at a time, and there’s no telling what genre those might be in. Right now I’m reading a poetry collection from a famous naturalist, a mystery from an old friend, a classic western, and a graphic novel about Mars and swords. I’m enjoying every one of them.
They say a writer has to write, and I agree. But I also think a writer has to read. I know I have to. If I go more than a few days without writing I start to get uneasy. But I don’t think I’ve gone more than one day without reading at least a few pages for years. I don’t even know how it would feel to go a week without reading. I don’t want to know.
I read. I write. The two feed off each other and enrich my life.
So how about you. What are you reading today that has captured your imagination? What are you reading that has enriched your life?
Monday, July 26, 2010
2. Promotions; and
3. Writing the next book while looking for the next contract is just a small portion of the work waiting for an author.
Eleven books into publishing and the wise advice of a fellow author remains in my head. "Writing is a business. Treat it that way." It involves selling books, making money, and marketing yourself.
Rarely do authors sit behind a desk and let the money roll in. We promote our works; invest our time in book signings and all forms of promotions. With the Internet becoming one big ball of advertisement, authors find themselves involved with social networking, maintaining a website, staying in the loop with Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, and blogs. I'm sure I've left out some. How do you balance all of this against finding time to write while completing the next book.
Time management is the key.
1. Writing a book is only the beginning;
2. Set goals for writing. For example, I'm going to write three (3) pages each day and edit ten (10); and
3. Remember the Internet can be addictive and seductive.
4. Don't allow it to eat up your writing time.
5. Section out the amount of time you spend on any one aspect of writing.
Always keep in mind that writing is a business, just like Ford, GM, and Chrysler are companies who build cars. Every aspect of the writing business needs your attention. An agent can make life easier. At the end of the day, an author must produce another book.
What do you think? E-mail me with your thoughts, firstname.lastname@example.org or click on the comment link.
Remember, don't be a stranger.
Sunday, July 25, 2010
It’s only since trying to develop what was a hobby into a potential career that I’ve come to fully appreciate the title. A year ago I published my first novel. With it came not only legitimacy to my writing and a possibility of a career as an author, but also the expectation that I would publish more. Since then I have a certain urgency to publish my other work, so of course I have a WIP.
Well I’ve been working on my WIP since the beginning of this year. Unlike authors whose primary career is being an author, I have a day job. Add to that a husband, a seven-year-old, a two-year-old, and a nine-month-old, and there is little time for writing. Yes I have made lots of vows to write at least a few pages each night, but many times I cannot even get one sentence written. So of course my WIP is taking long to complete despite having it totally written in my mind. The problem is, until I can key it into the computer, that’s where it stays... in my mind.
I can’t wait to finish the story. I can’t wait to type that last paragraph, that last sentence, that last word. Many authors, even on this blog, have compared writing a novel to giving birth. Well with this WIP I feel like I’m pregnant. I feel like I’m in the last trimester, my belly is hanging ready to drop, my feet are swollen and I am just anxiously waiting for those contractions to start. I can hardly wait to meet my new baby (the completed manuscript). But of course I have to wait and patiently finish the manuscript. Just as premature babies are not usually fully developed so is a premature manuscript.
Now, I finally understand what Heather meant by the title “ Pregnant These Last Twenty Years.”
So how do you deal with anxiety to reach to the end of your WIP?
Saturday, July 24, 2010
We were talking about honey and its relative price. Here in Malaysia, we get honey from Australia, New Zealand, China and some local producers. It seems a pretty innocuous subject, right? We spoke about the taste of it and whether the Chinese honey, so much cheaper than the others, is real honey or synthesised.
"You can synthesise honey?" I asked.
"Oh sure. Used to happen in Poland a lot," my husband replied. "Mix some syrup with a bit of colour, add in some real honey and pour it into a jar. There were always little tricks sellers would get up to, especially those from the villages and smaller towns. They'd load up their carriages and come into the cities. Of course, looking at them, horse, carriage, the whole bit, you'd assume everything was fresh from the farm or hive. But that wasn't always the case."
Agog, I listened to him as he told me the things to watch out for when buying from honey-peddlers. How sellers would mix generic, store-bought cheap honey with the strong, throat-roughening stuff from their own hives (the real deal, in other words) and dilute it down.
It's easy to get around that trick, you might say. Just taste the honey. Ah, but there are tricks there too. Like tasting, then buying, honey from large clear glass jars rather than coloured glass. That's to get around the "layering" trick where the top of the bottle (where you get a quick taste) contains real honey and the rest of the bottle contains synthesised or poorer-quality product.
"My grandmother had a special spoon she'd use when the peddlers came around with barrels of honey instead of jars," J continued. "There'd be a tap at the bottom where they'd pour out the honey and you'd buy it by weight. A lot of people would taste the honey from the top, but my grandmother had a spoon with a very long handle and she'd sink it till it was right at the bottom, then pull it up and taste it. Just so she'd be sure of what she was buying. But of course she used to buy a kilogram of honey at a time, not just one little jar, so she thought she had the right to taste it in such a fashion."
I have been married to my husband for more than a decade, yet this was the first time I'd heard such fascinating stories about the kind of life his grandparents led. This is part of my children's heritage, I thought. Wouldn't it be a shame to lose stories of such experiences?
And, because I can't think of a science-fiction story to slot this kind of experience into, I thought I'd put it down here to share with a wider audience. How many history-laden stories does your family contain? Wouldn't it be great to dust them off and bring them out every now and then, just to tickle and delight the younger (or marriage-related) family members?
Somebody should write these down, you're thinking. Well, why can't it be you? Wouldn't that be something wonderful to add to the collective family memories?
I'll be encouraging J to come out with more such stories. They are so different to what I experienced, growing up in south-east Asia then Australia. And, hopefully, the kids will enjoy them too.... And maybe generations after that. You never know.
Honey peddlers. Who knew?
Friday, July 23, 2010
I know differently. The raw material for writing comes from real life, and by real life I mean the life of the writer. We don't 'imagine' it all. Heather Sellers in Page After Page refers to this raw material as compost. Some go so far as to say the label 'fiction' is a misnomer because everything that writers write is taken from their real or vicarious experience.
Sometimes I sit at the computer and chase after ideas. Brainstorming, it's called. What I usually end up with is a drizzle of possibilities, none of which glow and beckon, and they certainly don't storm.
Ideas get me instead. Seemingly from nowhere, but actually from my subconscious as it continually processes the raw material - the compost - of my life, an idea appears, and it is so delectable I have to write it down. These ideas occur in the most unlikely of places: the shower, a management meeting where I really should be paying better attention, in a taxi, and sometimes while I sleep.
By the time anyone emerges from childhood he or she already has a sizeable compost pile that continues to swell and teem as the years pass. Some of it is new, raw and smelly, and we don't want to touch it. Part is quietly rotting down, transforming itself into the rich material of future ideas for stories. And right at the bottom, deep in the subconscious, is the good stuff. We can search for it, or it can announce itself 'out of the blue' - actually through deep associations we barely understand and seldom recognise.
Call it imagination. Call it the subconscious, or the akashic record. Call it whatever you will, but that's where our stories begin. We find them, or they find us, and we cultivate them - painstakingly, painfully at times, lovingly - into those brand new releases that give us so much joy. All we need to do is keep enriching that compost heap of life with new experiences and lots and lots of reading.
Thursday, July 22, 2010
I had an experience the other day that left me filled with so many contradictory emotions that I feel the need to write about it. My writing has always been where I’ve gone when I need clarity. As I explain in print what I’m feeling, I often understand better what it is that I’m actually going through.
My adolescence and even my adult life is littered with lengthy, heartfelt, meticulously typed letters to lovers, friends and family detailing how I felt after fights -- explaining in the overly articulate detail of aftermath why I really won or why I was apologizing -- or as a way to release inner thoughts, positive or negative, that I had trouble expressing in person. There’s even a stack of old journals written to myself from the eighties that I’m almost afraid to re-read, remembering the highs and the lows of those years. Words have the power to bring back both the pleasure and the pain of the past, sometimes more vividly than is comfortable.
This particular event occurred at my local Chase bank, as I entered with my battered bike to get twenty dollars from my account to buy some vegetables at a local farmer’s market to make a salad. The day before I’d grilled some salmon I’d bought on sale, cooked enough for two meals, and realized that I could add it to a cold salad on a hot day, if I just steeled myself for one brief exposure to the heat and humidity to get the fixings.
I was in a good mood. The day was a classically hot and muggy New York summer Sunday, but the idea of eating a cold salad in front of the fan, in front of the computer, pleased me no end and made it worth venturing out.
A black man my age, maybe a little younger, but with a harder history, opened the door with the broad smile of someone who wanted something.
“Come on in, brother!” he said, and ushered me inside, adding that any help to him on my way out would be appreciated. I’m one of those people who will always buy a meal for anyone on the street who says they’re hungry and asks to be fed. I’d like to think I’d clothe the naked as well. But I stopped handing out cash in the nineties, as it got harder to earn and as more people, younger and in better shape than I, were asking me for it, with increasing belligerence, as if somehow it was my duty.
He had a plastic cooler next to him, and as I got my solitary twenty from the cash machine, all I could afford to take out that day, a white woman who‘d walked out as I entered came back to the door and sheepishly handed him a dollar for one of the tiny bottles of water he had on ice for sale, her eyes downcast in guilt. I finished my transaction, and turned to go.
As I approached the door, he began his spiel again, rapidly going from a fake cheerful, “Gonna help a brother out?” to snide derision as it became clear I had no intention of doing so. By the time I hit the door, he was accusing me of letting down the black race by not giving him money, and I felt a flush of embarrassment rise as I exited. Not content, he followed me out the door, and continued his tirade.
I got mad and started responding, yelled back that he was no great representative, and that I had done more for black people than he could imagine, and in return was told, “You don’t even sound black!” spat out as if it was the worst thing he could think of to say. And it was. I launched into a rant that I cut off only because I was heading across a street with my bike and didn’t want to be smeared across Fifth Avenue by traffic.
He stepped back inside the air-conditioned ATM to peddle his wares and his line. I biked down to the Farmer’s Market, angry and ashamed, without knowing why I was reacting so strongly. I understand now, of course, after taking time to process it and talking to several friends of assorted ethnicities about the encounter.
But as I fumed then and came up with all the things I could have said to put him in his place, I came back to one thing. He was a hustler and he’d hustled me. Guilt is the panhandler’s first line of offense, and he’d just clicked into a mode that had worked for him in the past with articulate middle class black folk who may feel some residual guilt that they’re doing better than their less successful fellows.
It wasn’t any great insight he was exercising, or even a truth he was revealing. It was an animal survival reflex. Tearing into him, showing off the high verbal skills he’d mocked, wouldn’t make me the winner, or make me feel any better, even if I made it past his emotional armor to get in a dig.
I was left confronting my real issue. Why do I feel guilty about being educated, being a professional black writer who owns his own home (though still broke at times between jobs), has travelled the world, written and produced hours of television seen across the planet, with two published novels? And why should I?
Of course the obvious answer is that I shouldn’t, but all my life I’ve had to deal with people, both black and white, who have tried, as so many did with Barack Obama, to define my blackness. In my Catholic high school, where my Harlem-raised mother sent me to get a grounded education she felt would be better than public school, I had an argument with two white friends who insisted that, in their words, “You’re not black. You talk like us, you like the things we do. You’re the same as us.”
To them, my manner and cultural tastes were enough to exempt me from blackness, and they meant it as a compliment in their own weird way. In their minds they were accepting me as one of them, despite my skin color, when I wanted to be accepted along with my skin color, not as a faux Caucasian, but as an articulate educated black man like the ones I grew up around.
On a family vacation trip to the Pegleg Bates Resort in the Catskills where there was no one my age to hang with, a group of younger black kids gathered around me one day, going on and on in thick southern accents that I “talked funny. You sound like that Get Smart guy!”
Neither confrontation was meant to be malign. Both were just expressions of astonishment that someone who looked one way should sound and act so differently from others they’d seen that looked like me.
I’ve never wanted to be white -- not that there’s anything wrong with it. If anything, I bemoaned the melting pot past that gave me thin lips and what I saw in profile as a ski jump nose, wanting to be have the full rounded features and dark unblemished sheen of my best friend David from down the street when I lived in Cincinnati. Most of my life I’d grown up on Air Force bases, surrounded by all races, but mostly white. I sounded like very other kid who did the same. We all grew up without a regional accent. “The newscaster voice,” we used to call it as kids. We sounded like the TV shows we watched no matter where we lived, a flat, neutral, slightly nasal accent, like a British actor impersonating an American.
Honey, I can “code switch” with the best of them in a room of black folks at ease, dropping the professional veneer many of us affect at work to be taken seriously. But my default is that nasal Get Smart guy, and on the phone, I’ve had more than one misunderstanding because of the way I sound -- a blessing and a curse, as they say, that has worked both to my advantage and disadvantage. I know I am not alone in any of this, and that we’re all susceptible to having that button pushed. Which brings me to my realization.
Why have we allowed ourselves to culturally support the idea that educated black people are somehow losing their heritage if they rise up the economic ladder into the middle class and above, when for generations we were told to do exactly that by the best and the brightest among us? There’s no reason I should feel guilty for living up to guidelines laid down by Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. DuBois, Zora neale Hurston, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Martin Luther King and a host of others.
My emotional reaction, the flash of shame and guilt that the panhandler’s hurled abuse raised in me isn’t his fault -- it isn’t the fault of everyone who’s ever told a black kid that doing well in school is somehow a disgrace, that speaking “proper English” well enough to get a good job is turning your back on your people.
It’s my fault for listening, for letting myself diminish the years I spent staying up and studying to get passing grades (not always by as wide a margin as I would have liked), the years I spent working when I could have been partying (not that I didn’t party at all -- oh, I did!), the time I spent becoming the person I am today, a guy I finally appreciate.
That guy is black -- not African-American. My gene pool is far too diffuse for me to claim any one branch of my family tree as my sole origin. Like most of us, I am a Black-American mutt, a wonderful genetic soup cooked up from the races, cultures and widespread geographies that combined to make me. I carry them all proudly, the good and the bad, as we all do in this gumbo called the United States, as divisive as we are.
Short of recent immigrants, no one here is pure anything. That is the chemistry that drives this nation forward -- a distillation process that reduces everything and everyone down to a common goal -- the pursuit of happiness -- without diluting the ingredients it took to make it.
I am resolved not to be embarrassed ever again by who or what I am, or how I am perceived by others. I am a proud black gay man who took decades to find his ethnic identity and self-image in a world and time that offered few choices I could embrace, forcing me to forge my own path. I know my politics, and they are left and liberal. I know my own mind and it is rich and full of ideas that no one has had before, as are all our heads.
That is what the encounter at the ATM has given me -- the right to be me, as I’m finally able to allow everyone else the right to be who they are, as they please, as long as it doesn’t harm others.
To do no harm -- the essence of the Hippocratic Oath -- the heart of any good religion worth believing in and of any good God. I don’t have to hurt the haters. In the end they only hurt themselves by hating. After a lifetime of Catholic education I’m learning again to turn the other cheek, to feel empathy for the man who basically spat on who and what I am, only because I wouldn’t give him what he wanted for doing something I didn’t want done.
In the end we are all only as good as we can be. How well we do is for someone or something greater than us to judge, if we need to be judged at all. I’m just trying to put down my own gavel, and accept the world for what it is, others for who they are, and maybe, just maybe, if anything, trying to leave things here just a little better than they were when I arrived.
If getting from shame and anger to that quiet comfortable place is where writing can take me, then I’m happy to keep doing it. More than anything, that’s why my writing is so important in my life, why I make time for it, and why I open my mind to where it takes me. It tells me who I am.
And if I see that guy in the Chase bank again, I’ll probably give him a dollar this time, without worrying about what he’ll do with it, or passing judgment conjecturing on what brought him there. As far as tuition payments go, it’s pretty reasonable, and I’ve paid far more for lessons far less valuable.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Probably good thinking if you're a street cat.
Some writers see the market for books in the same way as these cats see handouts. These writers believe that there are only so many slots for new stories and books. They see success by another writer, then, as taking away a spot their own work could have filled.
They're right in some sense. There are a finite number of people in the world and a finite number of hours in the day for them to read books. There must be some upper limit to the number of books that can be published.
I prefer to believe that we're nowhere near that ceiling, for several reasons.
First, that state of mind is not a happy one. Viewing other authors as competitors in a large race with in which only a privileged few will reach the finish line can lead to jealousy, paranoia, and loneliness, as well as to bad habits such as badmouthing and backstabbing other writers. I'd rather be wrong and feel good about myself and other writers.
Second, I believe books can create their own markets. No one knew they wanted to read about boy wizards until J.K. Rowling gave us Harry Potter. That series turned many book haters into book lovers. Who would have guessed twenty years ago that they would ever buy romance novels with vampires, or five years ago that they would ever buy romance novels with zombies?
Obviously, genres and subgenres grow and shrink. The explosion of historical novels about Tudors seems to have come at the cost of fewer historical novels set in other time periods. Traditional fantasy has been eclipsed by dark urban fantasy. But one rule remains the same: When someone enjoys a book, they want to read more books. Reading can generate a strong positive-feedback loop and become addictive. (Some of you out there know what I'm talking about.)
I see the market as full of opportunities. Maybe Tudors rule now, but perhaps Like Mayflies in a Stream will lead to a flood of books about ancient Mesopotamia. Maybe your next book will spawn a new genre. Let's dream together and make the dream come true.
Am I a realist or a hopeless optimist? Let me know what you think.
I'll be blogging at Novel Spaces again on August 5 and hope to see you then!
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
A July 9, 2010 New York Times article stated that according to a "survey" of 7,561 book buyers, only 0.2% of the book-buying respondents discovered their last book through a video book trailer. I say it isn’t that cut and dry. I’ve recently learned it depends on how that book video, marketing tool, is used.
One success story is a 2008 memoir called Middle Peace by Kelly Corrigan, regarding a cancer patient and caregiving, that was narrated by the author in a video piece. Her publisher's employees all emailed the clip to thirty people each. It ended up going viral. To date, the trailer has had more than 5 million views, and 300k hardcover copies sold.
New York Times bestselling author Mary B. Morrison is about to release her fifteenth book, tying her Soulmates series and her Honey Diaries series together, and releasing Darius Jones on 7/27/10. Not only is she slowly unveiling the book cover, but her publisher, Kensington Books, with their own YouTube Channel featuring their author's book videos, will release five videos for Mary's title, each starring a different female character in Darius Jones' life, including his mother, all answering the question, “Who is the real Darius Jones?” Brilliant.
I suppose as my mother always said, “It's not what you do, but the way you do it!"
So "survey" says, be creative and do all you can to promote your works. I know . . . budgets are a big factor and publishers may or may not support an author's promotion, so I understand that having that backing and/or the finances is major. I still say be creative, as these examples have shown.
We know that as authors we need to promote our works with the same energy - self-published or not. And recently it seems the prices of book video packages have dropped, some even under $100, whereas a while back they ranged from $300 - 500, and much more. I’m not supporting book videos and recommending any particular company, all I’ll say is, whatever you do to market your book, put the tool not only to good use, but to great use.
Do you think book videos work to attract readers? Would you invest in a book trailer?
Monday, July 19, 2010
Arrived home from work on Friday to find a box from Simon & Schuster on my doorstep. Inside were ten copies of Star Trek Corps of Engineers: Out of the Cocoon -- an omnibus of former e-books that includes my own Honor. I know from my experience with Orphans in Grand Designs that even though Honor has been on the market for half a decade, more people will read it now that it's part of a "real" book than bought the digital version. I anticipate a deluge of one, maybe even two, emails and nearly a dozen first-time visitors to my Livejournal (which is not about writing as much as I meant for it to be).
The book itself is beautiful (though I confess for me the most attractive thing about a book cover is my name) and all pages seem present. I am particularly satisfied to be sharing this volume with three of my favorite compatriots from my brief tour in the Star Trek writing stable. Phaedra Weldon has been a good – though long distance – friend for something like a decade. We met in Trek, and at the Oregon Coast Writers' Workshops, and wandered into BattleTech together. She has gone on to write very successful urban fantasies and keeps threatening to build a young adult urban fantasy series around a trio of psychic sleuths that includes two of my children. William Leisner and I were in Strange New Worlds #s IV and V together. But for me his greatest claim to fame is that he was once willing to collaborate with me on pitching a Star Trek novel to Pocket Books. (As I recall it was a DS9/Powerpuff Girls crossover.) We didn't get the contract, but I enjoyed brainstorming our way through the plot and outline together. Though I've never met him in person, Bob Jeschonek and I used to correspond fairly regularly. He has one of the most interesting minds I've met; his "Whatever You Do, Don't Read This Story" (in Strange New Worlds III) remains one of my top-10 favorites of all time – in any genre.
I will never forget the first time I saw the anthology containing "Personal Log," my first professional sale. It was May of 2001, and I was rounding an endcap in Barnes & Noble, en route to the science fiction section, when I unexpectedly found myself nose-to-nose with Strange New Worlds IV. I let out a falsetto yelp (followed by a big show of looking around as though I could not imagine where the sound had come from) then snatched the book from the shelf. I read my story standing in the aisle, then bought the book so I could take it home to show my wife Valerie.
One thing I noticed then, something that's been a constant every time I've first held one of my books: There is a particular thrill to holding a book you have written – or have had a part in writing – in your hand. Most singular is the fact the volume has no weight; it seems to hold your hand up by the sheer energy of its existence. And that thrill has not diminished. Though I no longer yelp, I still experience a frission at first contact with the physical reality that has sprung, concrete and irrefutable, from weeks and months of thought and effort and creative discipline. Though this spark is not what drives me forward as a writer, as a reward for work well done, it's more than cool.
I cannot imagine ever growing tired of that moment.
So now I have ten – make that nine, since my youngest has appropriated one – copies of Out of the Cocoon. One of them will be awarded randomly to a person who tells me she or he would like it in their comment.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
Santa (also known as The UPS Man) brought author copies of my August release Operation Prince Charming!
It’s a huge thrill to get a call from an NYC editor saying, “I want to buy your book.” Holding it in your hands for the first time, after countless hours of writing, editing, revising and reading it over and over (again and again), is an even bigger one.
With all three of my releases, I immediately flipped through to make sure all the pages were there and in the right order. Then I tried not to get the books wet with happy tears.
Your turn, published authors. What’s the first thing you do when you finally see your book? If you’re a pre-published writer, what’s the first thing you expect to do when you hold your book in your hands?
Operation Prince Charming is already in-stock and shipping from both Amazon and Barnes and Noble’s websites! It hits bookstores July 27th!
Saturday, July 17, 2010
Let’s be honest. The tide in publishing has been shifting for quite sometime now regarding eBooks and their impact on the market. However, this year has brought a tsunami of changes and it seems to me as if many in the publishing industry were knocked off their feet by the swift surge in the consumption of eBooks.
The introduction of Apple’s iPad made a lot of people stand up and take notice. However, I personally believe the recent price wars between Barnes & Noble’s nook and Amazon’s Kindle eReaders has had the biggest impact this year. The drastically reduced cost of the devices has made eBook reading an affordable option for readers.
Well, except for one thing: the cost of the books.
There has been a huge debate among some of my friends regarding the pricing of eBooks. For the most part, new releases have the same retail price as a paper copy. For Sony eReaders, the price is actually a bit more. This sticks in the craw of many readers who have paid $150-plus for the device, and now have to pay either the same or even more for the actual books. After all, one of the advantages of eBooks is that they are supposed to cost less money to produce. One would think that those savings would be passed onto the readers, right? Apparently, that hasn’t been the case so far. When I looked at my contract, I noticed that I get the same royalty rate for both paper and eBooks, so the profits from those savings aren’t being passed onto the author either--at least not this author.
I know there is still a debate about whether there is a huge savings in producing eBooks versus paper books, but when one considers the reduction in printing, distribution cost, and storage, it seems as if eBooks cost less. Of course, we must remember that there are standard costs that will be incurred in producing a book (writing, editing, marketing), no matter what the format.
I know this issue isn’t as black and white as I’m painting it, but I must admit that I am still ignorant of a number of things regarding electronic books. I want--need--to learn more about it, which is why I’m asking the questions here at Novel Spaces. Hopefully, I can glean some knowledge from others who may know more.
So, the question is, what do we do about the cost of eBooks? Does anyone foresee a common pricing structure being developed between publishers and eBook retailers? What are your thoughts on the pricing of eBooks, royalties paid to authors, etc?
Thursday, July 15, 2010
At long last, I have fallen in love. It was a gradual thing, quite unexpected for me because I have found myself more than a little protective of my heart. Probably growing up in Brooklyn has something to do with it. Brooklyn girls (women) are not known for our softness. We are pretty tough. My formative years were spent in East New York during the 60’s and 70’s. Each day I had to pass by boarded up buildings to get to middle school. I learned to growl before I smiled. Crazy people lived on our block. One lady walked all day long and would stop to pull my dress down and tell me I wouldn’t be so developed if I quit touching myself. And she would walk to the next person, wig askew, paper sack at her side and give some other encouraging or dampening words.
The only way I survived was to dream. There had to be some place different, better, sweeter. I lived in my head. Later, I started to put down on paper what I thought about, who I thought about and why. There was a lot of anger in what I wrote. And sometimes, even now, there still is anger. I can’t imagine my heart, my being remaining untouched, given where I came from and how difficult it was being there. But, these days I am past asking “why.” I mean, I guess the true question is “why not?”
So, when I created the perfect man in my head, the first perfect man I’d ever created, I wept with relief. Brooklyn women don’t normally believe in perfection in men. We just don’t. Something about the water, about life, about being let down by so many people that perfection does not ring true. But I had set this one down on paper myself and since art imitates life, I knew that this man existed, somewhere. I just had to turn around and create his world, his life, his woman as a backdrop and see where this man’s perfection would lead me.
At my desk I labored and thought I have captured the essence of this man and he is one of my lead characters and I don’t want to let him go. He is the epitome of Dudley Do Right. But I’m worried – he is handsome in the way of all good, dark chocolate men, he is well spoken, well dressed, honest, caring, witty, urbane, likable, etc., etc., -- so tell me, what the hell am I going to do with him? I mean really, what do you do with a perfect character? Mate him with an imperfect girlfriend – who carries around all the angst of the 2000’s, (i.e. she diets while alternately binging, purging and doing a little coke). Or, perhaps, to make it more interesting, should I give him a woman to deal with who is his opposite, like Cruella DaVille, Erica Cane or the dreaded Ohmarosa? Surely he wouldn’t fall for a nice steady, earthy woman who knows how to cook and make him smile. Good paired with dull makes a short story without substance. If he’s good, she has to be very bad. Only I baulked at this acceptable mating of opposites. In real life does that ever happen? I mean, do good men really love, love trashy women? Maybe. But I, myself, am too in love with this guy to risk his inevitable heartache. I’ve got a stake in the outcome. I want Mr. Wonderful to be happy. I do.
I’ve gotten to the point where my characters talk back to me when I let them and sometimes even when I ask them to be quiet. I see them sit on a stumped tree in my head and proceed to lecture me about what needs to happen with them. My characters smoke, drink and do all the borderline things that I wish I could get away with. But, my perfect paper man has remained silent, letting me take the lead on his development. For some reason I find his silence at odds with what I intend him to be -- forceful. The women I’ve created have not been this shy. In fact, they are rather a talkative lot, asking me to pose them this way and that, asking why they needed to endure the hardships I’ve tossed their way with so few words and even fewer tears. I’ve explained to them my theory about Brooklyn and how my upbringing probably made me stronger, harder than I would have been if I had been born somewhere else at some other time. And how this, of course, affects how I portray them. When I told this to Birdie, one of my characters from Going Down South, she cursed me and got up from her lecture stump and left me bone dry for two days.
At one point, I thought I wanted Paper Perfect Man to have an adventurous woman who might wake him up to all that life has to offer, including good sex and better food. I guess. But I wasn’t sure. So, I decided to deconstruct him. Change Mr. PM into someone livable, someone more lovable because perfection is not such a lovable trait. I mean, I love him just the way he is but most women won’t. They’ll ask questions – how did he get to be educated? How is he so Johnny Walker Black when most men are not premium blend, and definitely not top shelf. I’ll have to make excuses for his perfection but, on the other hand, if he is imperfect, everyone will understand.
There are subtle things that I can do that will still keep me loving my paper man and yet make him more amenable to readers. But subtle changes might not be what I want either. He needs a few glaring hang-ups that will piss people off but I can’t find it within myself to give him vile habits. I don’t want him leaving dribbles of pee on the toilet seat or the bathroom floor. Gross. He simply cannot belch loudly after dinner or heaven forbid, fart, in a scene. I’ve done that to other characters, I can’t do it to PPM. Nothing vulgar or crass. But maybe he can be a tad bit cruel, perhaps he has never learned to share with others or has a temper that leads him to say things that are mean to the good woman and act nice to the bad one. Maybe, he doesn’t particularly like kids. Geez. That would be a deal breaker for me. But I’m not the girlfriend, right? I’m just a creator. And really, PPM has whatever I give him coming his way because he just sits on his damn stump giving me no direction.
Here is my failsafe: if worse comes to worse, I can (and will) kill him. I’m strong enough for that and it might be a good solution for my guy. Kill him and let the bad guys win for a change, the perfect anti-hero story. But I don’t like my villains enough for them to win, they’ve got impressive baggage whereas PPM has none. Or I could write one of those love story like plots and instead of a bad guy, I can use some bad disease. Good guy with wonderful traits, who sometimes loses his temper, marries a dull woman who cooks, has his children, and then he dies under tragic circumstances. Something to consider.
In the end I’ll think of something. Writers always do. It’s our job to weave the magic. And we take into account so many things. Our own backgrounds, the cards we were dealt at birth, luck, love, lust, human nature, all of it. I’ll probably never write a book about a weak woman. The women from Brooklyn that I know are not weak. And the men are never 100% feckless nor are they ever 100% perfect. I may write about a man losing his way but perhaps he’ll find it again. With the help of a good woman. Doesn’t that happen in real life? And doesn’t art imitate real life?
So tell me – what are your characters saying to you as they sit on their stump waiting to get some page time like my paper perfect man?
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
"The other consequence that we're starting to understand now is that when we're sitting for prolonged times such as, you know, in front of the television or long hours in front of the computer screen at a desk, there's an absence of muscle contractions. And there's extensive evidence that indicates that muscle contractions are so essential for many of the body's regulatory processes - for example, the breaking down and using of glucose. So when we're remaining idle for prolonged periods, we're disrupting those body's typical regulatory processes.”
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
I am making my debut as the latest novelist to join Novel Spaces. Should be fun interacting with fellow members and those who love to read or simply like to check out interesting blogs.
Seems the big news of this past week was the "event" departure of LeBron James from Cleveland in favor of the swaying palm trees and sunshine of Miami. I wish James the best of luck in trying to bring Miami another championship with his new star teammates, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh.
Sorry for Cleveland, which will have to regroup and show that they can still remain competitive even without their superstar. At least the city has Betty White to put the spotlight on with some humor in the TV series, Hot in Cleveland.
The Cleveland saga made me think about one of my biggest dilemmas as a writer -- that is trying to decide where my novels should take place (or in some cases, the multiple settings). I often find myself vacillating between creating fictional settings and using real ones. There are pros and cons both ways.
The pros in using a real city or town: it's a place many readers will presumably be able to relate to--especially if a big city, such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Atlanta, etc. Even if the town is small or not as well known, if it is real, people can look up on the Internet and try to mix and match with your novel in terms of landmarks, streets, style of housing, and even the people. This makes it easier using what is already there to build your plot and characters around. As I like to include a sense of place in my stories, having real locations can take me and the characters there to enjoy.
The main con for using a real place is that unless you actually live there and have a firm grasp of the setting, the people, and such, you run the risk of being off center in your depictions that residents or those knowledgeable of the setting will catch every time. This is why I like to thoroughly research my real settings , which can be anywhere in the world, so I am as close to hitting the mark as possible. Also, it gives me and my wife a great excuse to travel close and far away from home and see all there is to see that I can then use in bringing the location and my characters to life.
The pros in using a fictional city or town: I can create a place from the ground up, so to speak, molding to fit my storyline, characters, their idiosyncrasies, and even the location's history. It can be fun to place your fictional city smack dab in the middle of a state where no such place exists. Or even near a real city, such as Detroit or Portland, where I may have my protagonists visit in blending real with fictional and giving my readers the experience of both.
The cons of creating my own setting for a novel are that it takes more time and forethought than simply going with a place that is ready from the start for my characters to go about their lives; also I lose the edge of having a real setting that readers can immediately identify with, even if having never been there. But these concerns are balanced by the three-dimensional characters themselves and their ability to reach out to and hook readers irrespective of their location from one moment to the next.
As it is, I tend to use real and fictional settings in my novels, depending on the plot itself, the characters, and how they work together. There have been times where I started one way and decided later to go in another direction in terms of fictional or real spaces and places.
Having never used Cleveland as a setting in any of my novels, I just may have to give it a go now as the city's gotten my attention; which means a new place to pencil in for me and my wife to visit.
Does it matter to you if a setting is real or fictional? If so, which do you prefer?
Or will any location suffice, so long as the plot and pacing are there along with a compelling storyline and a satisfactory resolution to the conflicts?
Monday, July 12, 2010
I am a self-published author. This was not my first choice. I write children's books based in the Caribbean and so my largest audience is in the Caribbean. When I made the decision to write a book, I approached every publishing house in the Caribbean to no avail. I was rejected; not because my idea was not feasible, or because my writing was horrible. I did not even get an audience, none would even consider a manuscript. With one voice, they announced that they were only interested in textbooks and scholarly works and since I had the gall to write a book just for fun, they were not interested.
I decided not to let that stop me. I had a story that I felt Caribbean children needed to read and that I needed to write, so I decided to self-publish.
Does self-publishing make me less of an author?
There are many days when I ask myself that question. On those days I blush when I have to admit to potential readers that I was not snatched up by a big name publishing house. I can see disappointment cross their faces - 'how good could my books be if I had to pay to get them printed?' KeVin alluded to this sentiment in his novel spaces post just last week.
The thing is that, although anyone can self-publish, the process is self-limiting. If I had not got the great response that I had to the first of my two children's books, if I had not broken even, I would not have moved forward to the second.
Of course, it is possible that readers don't tell you the truth. Look at all of the singers who enter talent shows without a shred of singing talent. They probably had 'friends' egging them on and complimenting their singing ability. But my audience is comprised mainly of young children and they generally don't lie unless they are provoked. When I walk through the halls of my children's elementary school and their friends stop me and say spontaneously "Auntie ..." (I live in a part of the world where children still address adults respectfully) "Auntie, I loved your book" and very often "Auntie, when can I read the next one," then I believe that I am making a worthwhile contribution after all.
Maybe one day I will write more mainstream books, perhaps one day I will be successful in my attempts to attract a publisher, but until then, I will continue to put my money where my mouth is and put out books until my audience tells me it's time to go.
What are your thoughts on the issue? Are you less likely to purchase a book once you find out that it is self-published?
Sunday, July 11, 2010
So, what to talk about in post number 1? How about: “what writing isn’t, and what writing is?” Here’s some of my thoughts on those subjects.
1. Writing isn’t magic. Most people have the language skills to do it. It doesn’t require some secret talent that only the lucky few are born with. It’s not a gift from the gods.
2. Writing isn’t easy. It’s not something you can decide to toss off during an occasional afternoon. It takes time and commitment; it takes work. This is why, though many could do it, most don’t.
3. Writing is not a quick way to riches. Stephen King got rich. Anne Rice did. Dan Brown did. You probably won’t. Though if you do, take me with you to the top. I’d like some money, too, and goodness knows I haven’t seen much of it yet.
4. Writing isn’t glamorous. It’s closer to being a farmer than a movie star. It’s closest, perhaps, to being a school teacher or a librarian. (I’ve been all of these except movie star, by the way, but I’m sure my Hollywood breakthrough is coming any day now.) If you’re expecting to become famous and glamorous enough to have the paparazzi stake out your house, well then you certainly have the imagination needed to be a writer. (See my note about my Hollywood breakthrough.)
5 Writing is one of the best ways to amuse yourself. I’m never bored except when I’m at the mercy of someone else, as when I’m trapped in a meeting, for example. Even then I can almost always come up with an amusing story to pass the time. Sometimes it’s about the bored folks sitting around me in the meeting.
6. Writing is habit forming. If I go more than a day or two without writing, I start to feel incomplete. I feel like I’ve forgotten something. I feel like I better get my butt into my chair and do what I’m supposed to do.
7. Writing is important. It’s not the most important job in the world but it has many rolls to play in promoting human welfare. It can educate and entertain. It helps heal emotional wounds and inspires movements toward freedom and justice. Most of all, it helps us recognize our common humanity in the face of an inhuman universe.
Those are some of my opinions. What are yours?
Saturday, July 10, 2010
Consider the following when you begin your search for representation:
1) Do your homework. Gather information about the agent you would like to represent you;
2) Don't sign with anyone until you have explored their philosophy and ideas about the writing business and how those ideas fit with your writing career; and
3) If you already have an agent and find that he or she is not working out for you, don't be afraid to cut the ties between you and that person.
I understand the excitement of being accepted by an agent. An agent validates you and your work. I also have learned how detrimental the wrong agent can be for your writing career. If the agent doesn't understand you or your work, they can cause more harm then good.
Discuss the following before signing with an agent:
1) What are the agent's goals for your writing career?;
2) Do you want a career?;
3) Where do you want your writing career to go?; and
4) Does this agent have connections and clients in the area you want to pursue?.
It's so easy to get swept up in the excitement of signing with an agent. But like so many things related to the publishing business, an author needs to come to the table with a calm, level head. This is a business.
What do you think? I'd love to hear from you. E-mail me at email@example.com or click on the comment link.
Remember, don't be a stranger.
Friday, July 9, 2010
Saturday evening, one day before my scheduled return, I met a relative who hosts a local radio talk show on Tuesday mornings. He invited me to do an interview me on his radio show. With great regret I had to decline knowing I was leaving the following day.
Sunday, after preparing ourselves mentally and physically (I hate packing) to leave this lovely island, we dragged ourselves to the airport, only to find out our flight was canceled. When we tried to get a later flight we learned that there were no flights available that day. After a long wait the lady at the counter finally announced our new travel arrangements. My husband, the toddler and the infants would leave on Monday traveling through Puerto Rico. My sister would travel through Miami on Tuesday, and I and my oldest daughter had no travel arrangements.
Eventually, we realized the only way we could travel as a group, was to take the next direct flight to New York, the next Wednesday. Of course we were disappointed (well not that much). My kids were hoping to reach in time to catch the 4th of July fireworks. My husband and I had to go back to work on Tuesday.
But then I realized every disappointment is for a good. I had three more days with no planned activities. I immediately called my cousin with the radio show and arranged that interview. It went well and aired on WinFM 98.9 radio with video streaming on the internet. After that my cousin introduced me to another relative who was a newspaper journalist. She interviewed me about my books and wrote an article for SKNvibes, the premier internet news provider for St. Kitts. I was able to meet a longtime friend who was about to migrate to a different Caribbean island. I was able to purchase local crafts and snacks like coconut fudge, sugar cake, and guava cheese that I had no time to purchase before. And of course I got to spend another full day at the lovely golden sand beach. I would say in those two to three extra days, I accomplished more in terms of book promotion than all two weeks before.
So, as the saying goes: “Every disappointment is for a good.”
Thursday, July 8, 2010
(Sideways rant: the sale of herbs in their little pots is a complete racket in this country. You can buy them in supermarkets, curiously in -- or next to -- the fresh fruit and vegetable section. But unless you read closely, you won't notice that the bloody things were grown in Genting Highlands. The average temperature @ Genting is 24 degrees C; the average temperature in the rest of the bloody country is 33 degrees C.
What do you think happens to a plant when it's taken out of a chilled environment and let loose under the equatorial sun? R-i-g-h-t. The herbs I do have required great coaxing to achieve even a limited amount of new growth. It's too hot, not enough sun in the shade, too much rain. When I think of the extensive herb garden I had in Melbourne, and compare it to the pathetic little pots I have here, I want to scream.)
"I need a small pot," he says.
"Okay." I go get him one of my old herb containers, a white bowl with a Chinese pattern of a blue fish on it and matching saucer, in melamine. (It was actually a noodle soup bowl, but I drilled some holes in the bottom and voila! window-sill herb pot!)
The next day, he says he also needs some seeds. "But my teacher says to make sure they are for plants that can grow in our climate."
I remember a packet of vegetable seeds in the pantry. Okay. "Anything else?"
Maybe my voice is a bit dry, because he grins. "No, nothing else."
Until yesterday. "Oh, I need soil as well."
"Run out of it in the school grounds have you?" The cats have tipped over my lovely large glazed pot of Thai basil seedlings (furry little bastards), breaking it and scattering potting mix and little green shoots everywhere. I sigh, gather a plastic bag and shovel some mix together for him.
"So," I say, "you're supposed to be learning how to grow things and have had to supply your own pots, seeds and soil. What about water?"
The Wast laughs. "Oh, the teacher will definitely supply that."
I packed a bag for his gardening supplies today...and included a jam jar of water. Wonder if the teacher will detect my sarcasm.
* Kaz Augustin is a very sarcastic writer. You can find her website at http://www.ksaugustin.com She blogs three times a week, more or less, at http://blog.ksaugustin.com and also has a food blog at http://food.ksaugustin.com If all that isn't enough, she's also on Facebook and Twitter. Just look for "ksaugustin".
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
"If you wait for inspiration, you're not a writer, but a waiter."
Creative people need to be stimulated to reach beyond the humdrum immediate concerns of their lives and get into the 'zone' - the state where the creative subconscious mind expands and begins to make the elusive connections that are the beginnings of any work of creation. Inspiration is not something we can count on to 'happen' while we wait, however; we must actively seek it out.
Every now and then there's a power outage in the valley where I live; the immediate reaction of most people, including myself, is a howl of annoyance. But once the candles have been lit and the urgency to continue doing whatever interrupted life-and-death activity, such as staring blankly at a TV sitcom, has vanished, the positive aspects of the outage become apparent: the quiet (who knew the refrigerator roared like that?), the closeness, the conversation, the tuning in to the world and tuning in to ourselves. If the outage occurs at night, I invariably wander outdoors and look up at the stars that suddenly seem so huge and numerous they crowd the sky. I'm sensitized to the sounds and scents of the night, the coolness of the breeze, and feel a connection with all of creation, and with the creative energy of the universe.
What's the point of all this preamble? Simply that when I'm connected to nature, when the creative thrust of the earth is all around me, my own creativity swells up and there I am in the 'zone'.This is one of the reasons I seek out nature - admittedly not very hard to do when you live in a forested valley on a tropical island with unspoilt streams, tiny pools and waterfalls within walking distance. But wherever you are, even sitting in front of a computer screen as you are right now, you can seek out quiet and natural surroundings to calm your mind, refresh your spirit, and allow your creativity to flourish.
We were all born to be creative. Our restless brain continually recreates and rearranges itself in response to the world around it. As writers, with the goal of communicating in the special ways that only we can, we must give ourselves the quiet, solitude and natural space in which inspiration rains and creativity takes root.
Photos are of poui trees in bloom on the grounds of a high school in Trinidad where my son studied and I taught for a short while. Photographer is V. Stanford.
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
I recently watched one of many ancient astronaut shows on the History Channel. It was one of those lazy Saturdays that had me drifting into my day slowly, leaving the TV on longer than I should after checking the morning news. I heard speaker after speaker asserting that the only way we could have built an assortment of complex stone structures in ancient days was if some external possibly alien force intervened to help us cut stone so exactly and carry massive weights such great distances.
There were a few counter arguments to keep the network from looking like they’d completely discarded any credibility to suck up to a popular pop culture market. They offered opinions by contrary scientists and experts almost apologetically, as if afraid that pointing out the obvious might get them a barrage of angry letters or protests. I’ve heard it all before. I grew up with it, and remember my grandmother’s collection of UFO books, still in my library, and the Von Danikan books, on and on, but never quite bought into it.
I feel compelled to finally reveal my own theory.
We’re stupid and we get stupider with every generation.
Our parents were right -- we are dumber than them, and they’re dumber than their parents, on and on, until we reach a golden age of humanity, Alexander conquering the world by 30, back to babies capable of levitating stones with their minds to build the pyramids for fun, like building blocks. I see a past world of wonders built by the architects of democratic systems that later generations couldn’t sustain, of graceful economic systems that dumbasses like us screw up until they crash.
We can’t figure out how they did it because we’ve lost it. Whatever it was we started with -- the ability to fly, to see in the dark so we didn’t need lights, telepathy, a world of plenty where enough food was here for everyone, human populations balanced with an area’s ability to sustain them, where cancer didn’t exist because of exposure to new materials we never needed before.
As we get dumber we need GPS, computers, calculators to fill in the gap, TV and the Internet to tell us what to do, how and where, everything automated into single finger Apps so we don’t have to use our dwindling intelligence for anything but basic survival. Earning enough money to buy the next machine that will save us.
Don't get me wrong. I am no exception, working hard to sustain the machines that keep me organized. E-Mail and my digital calendar make me enormously productive despite what may be familial ADHD. As things occur to me I can send an e-mail or schedule an activity in my calendar and go back to writing -- instead of stopping and going out to buy a light bulb because it’ll be dark in an hour and the lamp burned out yesterday, and do I have clean clothes, maybe I should do laundry, and where did I put that soap, do I need soap? Did I eat? Am I hungry?
Instead I schedule shopping, finish writing pages, go to the store with a list so I don’t make four trips, print out maps of where I am going to keep me focused so I don’t get lost and wander down side streets that looks interesting on the way.
Am I alone? I think not. I fear we’re getting dumber than we've ever been and in twenty generations we'll be drooling Eloi, fed on by H.G. Wells’ Morlocks, the technology that got us there forgotten, turned into religion. Why bring it up? Maybe if we realize it now, maybe we can do something about it. Improve our schools. Start listening to the last generation instead of repeating their mistakes in ignorance. Read about the last Great Depression and how we recovered from it instead of acting like Wall Street needs no regulation or controls, that it’ll find its own path to giving us all prosperity if we just leave it alone...but it looks like we won’t. Because we’re dumb. But…we can wise up again, with work.
At least I hope so.