Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Bouncing Toward Writing: A Beginning

Getting started with writing can be elusive. We believe we want to write. We have ideas for stories. We find a phrase turning over and over in our minds. But somehow, we don’t start. Or we do, and it seems to go nowhere. 

This is where the professionals have us. They have habit. They write regularly. Often every day. That habit not only strings words together, but it makes it easy to sit down and capture ideas. For the pros, their expectations are lower than for the rest of us mortals. They don’t expect the perfect draft immediately. They know that the writing will twist and turn away from the anticipated destination. They are confident that some of today’s writing will be thrown away. 

They are confident.

That’s the big thing. They know that by returning to their craft day after day they will amass, revise, refine, and ultimately, after much work, have a text they are willing to share with readers—be they friends or editors or the paying public.

The rest of us have dreams, ephemeral dreams that we worry will disappear in the light of day. And so they do. Because we don’t have habit and we lack confidence and so we let our worst nightmares take over and we don’t sit down and string words together. The feeling of failure grows within and we say, feeling like frauds: “I’d like to write.” “I can’t find time to write.” “Someday I’ll write the great American novel.”

To do that, we must start. One word in front of another, steps across the page. In the best of circumstances, when the phrase gets caught in my head I sit down not just to write those seven words, but to follow where they lead for 20 minutes or so. Most of the time, I don’t even have that much inspiration so I trick myself into beginning. I read a favorite passage from a writer I admire. I google a bit of research on an idea I heard on the radio. I write an email to someone about something I want to write. Each of these tricks moves me toward beginning without calling it that, without putting the fear of failure front and center. 

I also say, “This won’t be part of the story, I’m just getting down some notes.” It’s a little lie, but an effective one. Without the fear, notes can turn into something if I stay with them awhile. 

I’m also not averse to opening multiple documents for multiple beginnings. That act starts a revision process. It signals I’m not looking for perfection, I’m looking for an opening, one that will take me through the door, the door to the other side of consciousness where I let my intuition create and I stop trying to be in control. On that side is a bouncy house like they have for kids’ parties. 
I jump around in pure joy. I sometimes crack my head on someone else’s knee, but only slightly injured I bounce up again and try another tack for where my character might go next. 

Even without the professional habit of writing every day (how we all long for that!), I can establish habits that let me go through the door, habits that let me start bouncing, start writing, without a consuming fear that incapacitates me. 

Or I can wait for tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow. And while the petty pace of life beats on, I will not be the writer I dream of, only the nightmarish ghoul I fear. 

When an idea strikes, write it and more. When you find that 15 or 20 minutes and you wonder what to do. Write—or do the acts that lead there—read and research. Lie to yourself that this isn’t writing as you sit at the keyboard and begin: you’re not writing your masterpiece, you’re just writing…one word…after…another.


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Breaking the Rules

Readers are always assuming I'm a germaphobe. Because my first novel, Isolation, revolves around the dangers of bacterial infection and the possibility that simply touching your own face can cause death, it seems like a no brainer. But it's not the case. I laugh and try not to divulge that my hand-washing habits have not increased one iota as a result of my research and writing. I'm not the person squirting hand-sanitizer every time I shake someone's hand. My intellect rationalizes that I want a healthy immune system which means building up resistance over time and killing all of the germs I come in contact with would counteract the build-up of such stealth forces. While true, I think it's much more the case that habits learned early are habits for life. It's not that my household growing up wasn't clean, nor that my mother didn't teach me good hygiene, she did. It's probably that I was a bit lazy. Or perhaps, though I think of myself as "the good girl," it may be that I was a rule-breaker from the start.

I'm writing today because I found myself pulling a "Trevor." He's the antagonist in my novel. He can't stand rule-breakers. There's a moment in Isolation when he is sitting aboard an airplane. A passenger next to him continues to text beyond the announcements to cease and desist. He tries to get the perpetrator to stop, but when she won't, he rings his call button. Just now, the guy next to me was talking on his cell, even as the flight attendants demonstrated, yet again, the way to attach a seat belt. I'd heard my seat-mate tell the person on the other end that he wouldn't hang up until forced. When the flight attendant walked by, I pointed at the cell phone. The attendant tapped his shoulder, waited for him to end the call, then continued to ensure seat backs and tray tables were in their full upright and locked positions. I thought, "OMG, I've become Trevor!" 

Trevor is not a character I associate with. It's not so much that he's a rule-follower (evidently I share some of that sensibility), it's more that he's an unquestioning one. Most dystopian characters are, unquestioning that is. But some rise beyond the simple routines of daily life and demonstrate that being a lemming can get you perks if you do it very, very well. That's Trevor. He's Winston in 1984, at the beginning, before Winston buys the journal and begins his covert note-taking. Trevor would never covertly record his world, nor do anything else outside the purview of authority. Trevor's ability to follow the rules, to follow the government, to report all infractions, is finely honed. He is hired by Homeland Security for his prowess. He is promoted for his vigilance and adaptability. Rules change more and more frequently as bacterial contagion grows out of control in Isolation and Trevor keeps up, even if the populace at large can't possibly. Trevor enforces rules; he prides himself on being a good citizen. 

And since citizenry comes from the following of a government, he is in fact, a very good citizen. But a good person? Doubtful many would say so. Even when his high school principal agrees to provide a recommendation, which he does with some trepidation, realizing, educated man that he is, that Trevor will be so good at the job of enforcing rules that others don't stand a chance, even as the principal imagines Trevor is a danger, he doesn't allow that to prevent the recommendation, even the principal doesn't question authority. The principal demonstrates perfectly that even those in high positions demonstrate that for a dystopia to work, lemming-like behavior is required. 

The question is: does following rules make you good or bad? 

Or is it that simple? Clearly, it's not. At least not in the mind of this dystopian. Following rules is what we've taught our children. It's the legacy of an industrial society whose assembly lines and educational systems matured together. Now a service economy, rule-following is still a primary value for our masses. But it doesn't build a strong democracy, one that thinks deeply, let alone questions or makes individuated decisions. It's not that I want anarchy, don't leap to the opposite end of the spectrum. It's more that I value a thinking populace. I'm not sure our purpose if we're not thinking. Without thought, we're resource users like any animal. The unquestioned life is common enough, but is that what we seek? Is it our best hope? Does it make of the world a better place?

I think not. I spend my working life encouraging college students to learn to think for themselves, to be critical thinkers as we call it today. That means I teach them to question. Or I try. It's not easy when they've spent 20 years or more following rules. It's not surprising they don't question. Not only education, but their parents have taught them not to. After those early years of asking "why, why why" and being told to go play or worse, being physically or metaphorically slapped down for exhibiting curiosity, most American children stop wondering, stop asking. 

Again, don't go to extremes. Not everything needs to be questioned, not even all authority. After all, some things just need doing. In the midst of a fire there's rarely a reason to stop and ask if it should be put out. (Though ask a resource management specialist about the need for fire in the life cycle of forests, and you'll see that even there, we might have wanted to question occasionally.) But when I'm told that genetically modified organisms (GMO's) are safe, I might want to question the details about what those modifications are, whether they prolong shelf-life or whether they insert toxins into my corn. When I'm told that using 99% bacterial killing hand-sanitizers will keep me safe, I might want to question whether or not regular soap and hot water will do an adequate job most of the time and specifically when it won't. When I'm told to trust the government that it's not colluding with Monsanto in the patenting of life so that seeds are no longer reusable by farmers, I might question what it means to patent life, or why farmers can't reuse seeds, or who profits--always a good question. (Follow the money.)

These are only some of the questions I ask with some frequency and questions tucked into the folds of Isolation. They are premises from our current lives that I question, but mostly the  characters in the novel don't. These are far from the only questions available to thinking people. I'm drawn to questions of food and health. Others may be drawn to questions of growing financial inequalities, or questions of globalization, or questions of climate change. There are smaller questions of course, and they too are valuable: Should I be afraid of swimming alone without a lifeguard present? Will video games or cell phones cause increased arthritis in hands in the future? Is WiFi dangerous at a subatomic level?

It matters not to me what we question. It matters that we question. And that we research and talk and write and explore. It matters that we see ourselves as agents of change, that we not only believe we make a difference, but that we do. Questions leads to action. Not inevitably perhaps, but often. It's hard to know things could be better, more truthful, more interesting and not work to make that happen. 

I don't want the plane to crash because cell phone signals
interfere with navigation, so I will point to the guy with the phone. But I'll also wonder if there's any scientific cause for concern or if it's just habit I'm accustomed to? Can it interfere? What would happen? Others asked such questions because we can now leave our small devices powered up during take-off, but we couldn't for years.
Somebody asked the question, did the research, reported out, and got procedures changed. And I'm happier because of it. I like being able to read on my iPad during take-off rather than having to carry a physical book along with my iPad. Speaking of which, time for landing. Not that I'm going to power down. Thankfully, for now, that question has been answered! 

Monday, September 1, 2014

It’s All a Blur

He couldn’t get close enough to wolves in the wild to film their social activity, so with a deadline looming, he rented domesticated wolves.” This promo on NPR about the making of animal documentaries caught my attention. I’d heard exposes about Animal Planet earlier in the summer—depicting film crews who bated animals before filming. The stories don’t surprise me. And yet, today as I listened to the phrase “he rented domesticated wolves,” I thought, in this new century, is there a line between fiction and reality, and if so, what is it?

This all sounds a bit like Jayson Blair who was caught both plagiarizing and fabricating stories for the New York Times back in 2003 before he resigned. He wasn’t the first journalist to perpetrate such lies on the news reading public, but he was a spectacular example that fiction can easily masquerade as fact.

Another story on NPR earlier in the week about the latest war tourism somehow worried me more. They recounted the story of former Army Pvt. Eric Harroun, one American among many, who have gone on their own to fight in Syria. Harroun documented his pursuit of the enemy on camera and posted it on Facebook and YouTube with his narration. It sounded like a bad movie or a video game. A listener could hear him lock and load his weapon, no doubt an automatic one. It was eerie and strange. Was it real or memorex? 

What happened? It’s a chaotic scene in Syria with a variety of forces fighting one another. He was arrested for treason when he returned to the US and spent 6 months in solitary. Eventually the charge was changed to providing weapons to the enemy and released for time served.

I lived in Michigan during the early days of the Michigan Militia, which according to their website held an event this weekend, so I’m not unfamiliar with the idea that Americans would take up arms to protect themselves at home and abroad. As much as that may trouble me, what caught my attention this time was the making of the documentaries. While life and death were clearly at stake, the imitation of a fictive storyline with all of the elements, save an underscore of music, made this somehow more about self and fun than about duty or country.

Why does this blurring of fact and fiction matter to me? I write fiction. I’m a scholar. The two meld. In writing Isolation I did a great deal of research. My goal: make my fiction seem real. I don’t think that’s new. Even when writers aren’t academics or researchers, they’re readers and observers. I think writers of fiction have always wanted to tell a true story. Not true in the sense of it happened, but true to life. Believable. 

And in promoting my novel I try again to connect my fiction to current news. A recent tweet: 

“They stopped and put on masks before touching him again.” It wasn’t Ebola, but it could have been. 

If the quotation marks seem odd, it’s because the first sentence comes from my novel and appears within the larger context of the story of Tom├ís on a site called Bublish. The second sentence connects the quote to the news of the day. Was it successful? I’m too new at social marketing to be sure, but I will say it got more views than most of my tweets. Why? Again, I can’t possibly know, but I suspect that which leads to trending, popular culture’s interplay with news. 

If that particular mix of fact and fiction is comfortable for me, why do I find renting domestic wolves or war tourists who record their travails to be problematic? In a word, propaganda. So commonly associated with war that I immediately think of Hitler and his Minister of Propaganda—Goebbels.   The audiences of Nazi propaganda were multiple: the SS, Hitler Youth, the Allies. Triumph of Will is a gorgeous demonstration of fiction presented as fact, to speak nothing of the use of cinematography to capture an emotional response as well. 

From our current vantage point, the fictionalization of such a piece is amazingly evident, but in the midst of the war that was far from the viewers’ perspective. If we turn our attention to 1984 and the slogan “War is Peace,” we can see propaganda at work from the standpoint of fiction. Oceania, the society of Orwell’s novel, has been duped into believing many party slogans which appear so ludicrous on the surface as to be oxymoronic. 

And of course, no reader wants to be Winston. It is clear that even as free individuals, free readers, we would not choose the slavery of the characters in 1984. We watch as Winston, among others, creates the propaganda by re-writing history before our reading eyes. Ration numbers change, heroes become villains, no fact is safe from the Ministry of Truth. 

As a dystopian reader and writer, this is what I fear most: a government which hides the truth, whether in subtle ways or right out in the open. It’s not just animal documentaries that hide the truth about rented wolves in the fine print of the credits or war tourism which provides a lens onto the battlefield while masquerading as clear and just fighting, it’s also the labeling practices of the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association which are funding the anti-GMO-labeling initiatives cropping up in state after state. 

But it’s not just my inability to know what products contain what kinds of GMO’s that has me scared to eat food sold in US supermarkets, it’s also the FDA’s lack of standards when it comes to additives in general. That which is “Generally Recognized As Safe” or “GRAS” might be a fine standard if it weren’t for the corporate monetary incentive to rush to market rather than protect consumers. 

Of course, the conspiracy theorist in me would point to the number of former Monsanto execs who have ended up in government offices to show the collusion between Agri-Business, the FDA, and the EPA, but I’ll let you be the judge: check out the websites from Monsanto and one of many opponents.

For me there’s no question, the public lines between fact and fiction are blurred. In 2014 it’s hard to know what to believe. Maybe this doesn’t matter to you. Maybe it shouldn’t matter to me. I lived through 1984 in reality, but I don’t want to live through its fiction. After many years of thinking I should eat organic, I’m trying to actually do that—at least at home. I donate money to support GMO-labeling. War is not Peace; Freedom is not Slavery; this is not 1984.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Inspiration for Isolation

In my youth I was an idealist. Maybe that’s not that uncommon, but I lived out my idealism as an activist. When the United Farm Workers sought better conditions, I boycotted grapes. When I was in college, I wrote letters to Congress in church-related efforts to feed the hungry. When a friend ran away from an abusive home, I began volunteering at a women’s shelter. In the 80s, when the US and USSR were poised for anhiliation, I organized peace protests against nuclear weapons. Then I went to grad school and found I needed to focus my limited time. I didn’t stop caring, but I read little news, wrote few letters, rarely stood in protest. My values didn’t change, even though I wasn’t acting on them outwardly.

The germs of my novel Isolation came from the fear of a swine flu epidemic in the fall of 2009, changes in behavior that swept through the country, my concerns about the overuse of 99% bacterial killing soaps and sanitizers, and a line that came into my head: “laying a finger aside of his nose.”

The flu that year went pandemic, around the world, but not epidemic; it didn’t wipe out humanity. Though it killed tens of thousands world-wide, that’s a tiny, tiny fraction of the population. The fear, however, was palpable. The Centers for Disease Control in the US and the World Health Organization, among others, mounted campaigns to reduce the spread of the virus by teaching us to sleeve the sneeze and catch the cough. They produced posters about the importance of hand-washing which were bright yellow and still adorn the classroom walls on my campus.

Simultaneously, access to hand sanitizers became ubiquitous in many public places, like grocery stores. Though I’m not a scientist, I worried that we didn’t want to kill all of our bacteria because I knew that we needed it for digestion and to build a healthy immune system. Personally I wondered if we should use all of the 99% bacteria-killing soaps. But I was clearly in the minority.

One day while walking, I heard the line “laying a finger aside his nose” from the “Night Before Christmas” echoing in my head. I imagined a boy who found the children’s story in a box of old things from his mother’s childhood. Seeing Santa touch his nose, the boy recognized the book as contraband, since face-touching was not allowed in his world. He secreted the page under his mattress like the pornography it was until he could show it to a friend. Suddenly I was thinking about a world in which face-touching was prohibited; that reality didn’t seem far off.

Along the way I realized how much our food supply had already been contaminated by sudden and frequent outbreaks of E. Coli and other dangerous bacteria. I worried about the dangers of GMOs, though I knew little of the science. Given that I’d never lost sight of the farm workers I’d supported in my youth and given that I’d been a vegetarian more than once over the years due to concerns about Alar in apples, the way chicken is processed, or the dangers of raw spinach, it wasn’t a difficult leap to make Agri-Biz into the evil backdrop to the dystopia I imagined.

These ideas stayed with me for a couple of years. I read news about the various threads and occasionally wrote short vignettes that I shared with my writing group, but I didn’t imagine I was preparing for a novel until I had the opportunity for a sabbatical.

And even then, I was intent on not saying a novel was my goal. It was too frightening. As a writing center director I created a project which required me to write more than 100 pages of fiction. The intent was to recreate for myself the conditions college students face when they have to write a longer paper than they experience writing in a genre or discipline they have little experience in.

At that point, the stage was set for me to write Isolation. Though at the time, I kept emphasizing that I wasn’t writing a novel, just a long piece of fiction. Secretly I hoped for a novel, but I denied it to everyone outwardly. I didn’t want to fail.

Oh, and the activism of my youth, oddly, writing this dystopian novel has led me back to it—a bit. Promoting my book through social media has led me to follow several bacteria-related entities as well as anti-GMO and food safety advocates. They’re a good source of news as well as marketing opportunities—how life changes.

Originally posted as part of Isolation's Blog Tour on Always a Book Lover.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Dystopia: The World Falling Apart*

Notice my title says the world, not a world. For me, dystopias work best when they are recognizably the world we live in now, altered to become the future that’s imaginable yet objectionable, frightening. It’s the world we don’t want to occupy.

There are always other options for our actual future and that is another reason for loving dystopias—they call us to look at the world we live in and to reconsider the ways we live, the values we hold, the choices and consequences of those choices.

I love dystopias and have read many of them, so it’s not surprising that my first novel, Isolation, is dystopic. In case dystopias aren’t your usual read, let me offer an example of how dystopias work. In Farenheit 451, a favorite since my childhood, the world of ideas has become so threatening to those in power that all books must be destroyed. The government spoon feeds the population its rhetoric as entertainment. People are dumbed down by the parlor walls (think big screen TV).

Written in 1953, televisions gaining in popularity, a cold medium luring the masses to sit around and watch in silence rather than discuss the world of ideas. After WWII, with the U.S. leaving Korea and moving into Vietnam, from the quietude of the suburban 50s toward the uprisings of the 60s, civil rights, women’s rights, a peace movement that wouldn’t be still. But let’s not talk about any of that.

In ’53 the horizon was filled with ominous changes which would be averted if every woman was the quintasential housewife watching soap operas and eating bonbons. Every man the worker who did his job without question, even if that job were to be a fireman, one who did not quell fires, but started them, by torching books. Both of these roles are fulfilled brilliantly in Farenheit 451 by Mildred and Guy Montag. She’s depressed; he begins to question the state of things, fearing he’ll be caught in possession of the book he irrationally saves from flames.

Dystopia, the world falling apart.

In 2009 as the swine flu threatened epidemics of Black Plague proportions, the CDC and World Health Organization spread fear, changing behaviors overnight, getting people to sleeve the sneeze, and use hand sanitizers frequently. It was then I began to imagine the world of Isolation, a world in which the government, there’s always a powerful government backdrop in dystopias, banned citizens from touching their own faces, for human safety, of course.

From that premise, characters emerge, fighting one bacterial infection or another. Agri-Biz plays its role in creating anti-bacterial resistance through large livestock operations. Big Pharma keeps its hand in by developing anti-bacterial products one after another after another, lining their pockets while fleecing Homelanders and building anti-biotic resistance.

The stories in Isolation are driven by an illusive safety which everyone seeks, but no one achieves. The world falls apart—in California, West Virginia, Alaska, Michigan, Hawaii. The world falls apart and readers watches in horror, realizing how close this fiction is to the current world they live in.

Fast Forward—May 2014: E. Coli causes product recalls for hummus in Idaho and ground beef nationwide, as well as the need to boil water in Portland. Anti-biotic resistance is growing at a pace which threatens a near post-antibiotic future where bacteria will return to being a major cause of death, as was true pre-WWII.

The thinking person, the one who pays attention, reads a dystopia like Isolation realizing that this could be the future. The world could fall apart in just this way.

I love a good dystopia.

*This post first appeared as a guest post initiating Isolation's blog tour at So Many Precious Books, So Little Time.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Blog Tour: A Modern Day Book Signing

When I mention I've arranged a blog tour, most people ask what that is. I explain it's a social-media-based opportunity for indie-authors to go on tour the way traditionally published authors sometimes appear in local bookstores to give readings and sign books. However, this way, I don't leave the comfort of my own home, nor do those interested in my dystopian novel, Isolation

So what does happen in a blog tour? There are reviews of the novel, written interviews, guest blog posts by me on others' websites, and giveaways. Who doesn't love a chance at a free copy of a great read.  

Sometimes people coordinate this themselves. In my case, this is one of the many gifts of having run a Kickstarter. (Many thanks to those who sponsored me!) I used some of the money raised to hire someone to set up a set number of tour sites. However, I had no idea the variety of sites that would sign on for my novel, nor the wonderful diversity of ways in which they would promote it. Thanks to each and every blogger listed below! I'm very excited to go on tour.

Here's the list of days and types of activity if you want to follow the tour, or just sign up to win an eBook or print copy of Isolation:

Teddy Rose Book Reviews Plus June 16 Excerpt & Giveaway
Library Educated June 17 Review
Creating Serenity June 18 Review
Room With Books June 18 Interview & Giveaway
Reviews From The Heart June 19 Review & Giveaway
Always a Book Lover June 25 Review & Guest Post
Lightning Chronicles June 27 Review
Deal Sharing Aunt July 2 Review
Deal Sharing Aunt July 3 Interview  & Giveaway
Books & Quilts July 9 Review
Mary’s Cup of Tea July 10 Review & Giveaway
TreeHouse July 12 Giveaway
Book Talk With Alana July 14 Review & Interview
Nerdophiles July 15 Review
Nerdophiles July 16 Interview & Giveaway
She Treads Softly July 17 Review
Kritters Ramblings July 18 Review
fuonlyknew July 21 Review, Guest Post, & Giveaway
Open Book Society July 23 Review & Giveaway
Cassandra M’s Place July 24 Review & Giveaway
Giveaways and Glitter July 25 Review
Two Children & a Migraine July 28 Review, Guest Post  & Giveaway
JeanzBookReadNReview July 30 Interview

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Naming a Press; Becoming a Business

If you self-publish, you need a name for your press. Kind of obvious, right? But what you don’t realize is that like most naming decisions (excluding children, perhaps), the need for the name happens suddenly.

It’s not like you weren’t aware you’d need it. It’s not like you hadn’t been thinking about it. Well, perhaps not concretely, but abstractly, like, I’ll need a name as the publisher. And I need more yogurt and a nice pen and a new car lease.

For me, the moment of decision happened like this. I was working through my Kickstarter layout. I’d drafted the basics, the rewards, the story. And then suddenly I was at the account portion. Account? Oh, sure, yeah, they’ll have to have a way to funnel the money to me that all my friends, and even people I don’t know, are spending to sponsor my novel publication.

I fill out all the easy stuff—name, address, etc. Then there’s a section for the business name, address, etc. I skip that and continue down the page. I hit "save" and a long list of red sentences pop up across half the screen. Turns out even though I don’t own a business, currently have no business license, was using Kickstarter because business makes me uncomfortable, even though all of that is true, I must fill out the business section of the form. And there it was, I had to have a business, to own one, to be an entrepreneur. 

See how I can’t even decide on business language, let alone make the decisions. No business, no account. No account, no Kickstarter. It had to be done.

I sat there befuddled. Then it hit me. I’d needed a press name when I created my letterpress triangle book. I wasn’t sure what I’d chosen. I’d done it when I was laying out the lead and needed to put in a press name, much as I did now. But the point was, I’d done it then and could reuse it now. Thus, DRS Press, was solidified. 
logo designed by rayane sholy
It was born at Penland in North Carolina. But it became my Press Name, my business name, the day I drafted my Kickstarter. That meant that when I filled out a business license, ordered checks, contracted with a printer—I knew who I was. Or is that what I was? Is that why business makes me uncomfortable? Does it turn me from a person to an entity? A thing? A what rather than a who?

Let’s hope not and move on.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Why Self-Publish?

In 2013 when I finished my novel, I searched for an agent who would then find me a publisher. I didn’t want to deal with the business end. And I think I wanted the glamour. I researched agents, wrote varied lengths of synopses, wrote and sent query letters. Waited. Tried to keep track of when I might hear from which agent.

But every time I talked to anyone, whether it was a class of students I was reading for or a friend who was asking how the novel was coming, I was always asked if I was going to self-publish. In the old days, and still today if you’re a traditionalist, it wasn’t called self-publishing. Self-published was said to come from a Vanity Press, as if the person was so vain he decided to publish himself after being rejected by legitimate publishers.

Now we all call it self-publishing, but it’s quickly becoming indie-publishing, moving more and more away from the pejorative to the attractive. The “real” publishers are starting to pick up self-published books that have made a big splash, like Hugh Howey. Why take a risk? They can capitalize on the success demonstrated by strong sales among the self-published. 

The paradigm has already shifted, but not everyone knows it yet. Paradigm shifts are like that; the majority don’t see the shift for awhile. Publishing is a huge industry, and it won’t go away over night. It’s a bit like what happened to music when Napster made song downloads available free or iTunes began selling individual songs—the music industry changed, not overnight, but quickly. Lots of other changes interceded as well, but in the process, new artists gained more access to the marketplace. 

Nonetheless, I still don’t want to deal with the business end of it all. I have to as a self-publisher and self-marketer. I’m wondering when I get to step away from the business of self-publishing so I can write again, especially as reviewers begin calling for my next work. (That's a treat, self-published or not!) In the midst of a full-time job, I rarely take the time to write. 

And yet, in a way, this is forcing me to write—if not fiction, blog posts and marketing materials and interview responses, especially as my blog tour nears. It’s a lot of writing. It keeps my hand in.

Indie-publishing has also meant a tremendous amount of learning. If I ever thought I wasn’t an autodidact, I was wrong. I keep propelling myself through the next area I need to learn about to get my book in print, in electrons, in the social media eye. It’s not all fun and games, but it’s all engaging and most of it is rewarding. 

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Cutting Out Fish—A Process

Intercut vignettes weave my texts into a whole. For me, it was a common device, long before my novel. I even wrote about it in my dissertation. I’m certain other writers must go through similar processes, and yet I’ve never read about it. So here’s a brief attempt to describe what I do.
I write story after story. Sometimes they are parts of a single monologue, sometimes parts of a novel, sometimes parts of an academic argument I am making. But I start with parts. I don’t plot or outline. I write. With fiction, from the writing emerges the characters. I get to know them, go for walks with them, take them to lunch. I discover what makes them tick.
At some point, I have the body of the work drafted, and I start figuring out what goes where. This is where we get to cutting out fish. I can do all kinds of editing on the computer screen–large and small order. I sometimes have several documents open at one time and cut and paste among them to revise.
But when a text is truly composed of independent pieces which I want to intercut–meaning cut each apart and then paste them back together with part of story A followed by the beginning of story B followed by the middle of story A and then the opening of C, etc.–then I have to print them out and physically cut them into chunks.
I start that process by reading each vignette and selecting possible cut locations. When I’m smart, I do this on the computer before printing so that I have space to cut stories apart or even so that I have to cut fewer individual lines from one sheet of paper to tape to another. Though I often have to do that because I can’t always focus on the computer at this stage. It becomes visceral and I need to hold the pieces, to lay them out across the counter, to scan across quickly rather than read closely.
Once I have the cuts identified and completed, then I number them in a way to keep track of which piece came from which story. So I might have story A pieces 1, 2 and 3 or A1, A2 and A3. Though typically I label them with a word or name that makes sense to me rather than A, like Hawaii or Cho and Hosuk (a story location and the characters from that story in my novel, Isolation). Hawaii 2 makes more sense in the middle of assembly than A2 does.
To assemble the pieces, I read the beginnings and endings of chunks of text (the numbered aspect) to look for connections. The connections are not direct. I’m not looking for one character to talk about eating E. Coli-laden spinach and the chunk next to it to also mention spinach, though that sometimes happens fortuitously. I look for a connection–content is possible but so is mood, language, or activity. This is more intuitive than conscious.
To be honest, while I call this connection, it creates a kind of dissonance for a reader. With the spinach example, a reader might anticipate that she is still reading about the same character and situation because spinach is mentioned, but in fact, it’s a different character and place. The combination of connection and disconnection builds readerly engagement.
I don’t want readers to struggle with this too much or they could get frustrated. So once I have all of the texts cut up and ordered, I read the beginnings and endings again and ensure that I signal where the reader is after each break. I usually do this by mentioning a character by name in the first sentence or two though rather than character, it could be setting or really anything that situates a reader clearly in the particular story and not the former one.
At several places in this process I read the entire section of text I’m working with–all of the combined stories being cut apart. To be more accurate, I read until I stumble upon something I don’t like. Then I either stop and revise a bit of text or reorder again. This might happen repeatedly, or I might put them all together in a readable order the first time. Though even then, if stories change, I might need to redo the entire process–which is why this happens late in the process.
For example, I’d been “done” with Isolation for nearly a year, giving readings, seeking a publisher, sending out shorts to contests and literary magazines. In the process of getting it ready for self-publishing, I received feedback which suggested a massive cutting was in order. In the first section of the novel nearly 50% was cut. Needless to say, I had to re-order the cut pieces which now often started and ended differently than they had in the earlier version.
As I hit the end of page two of this blog entry, I think, wow, this must be complicated. But it’s really not. And it’s lots of fun. As humans, much of the meaning we make in the world comes from juxtaposition. You know the saying: "It’s all context"? Well, that means that the juxtaposition of “things” whether they’re stories or the contents of your refrigerator or the objects on your desk create meaning. Well, the things' juxtapostions don’t really create the meaning, we do—as we look, contemplate, rearrange, reconsider. For me, it's the essence of writing, the essence of creativity.
Somehow, the print I made several years ago “Cutting Out Fish,” which accompanies this article, provides a visual for this writing practice. Rock, paper, scissors. With more than two choices, randomness enters the equation. From the way I see it, that means we all win! Play with cutting up and reordering text. See what happens. And let me know.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Hard Choices

You'd think that choosing character names and plot lines and ways to kill off characters would be the hard choices. They were. Once.

Currently the hard choices are about whether to read through the manuscript one more time, even though other writers have read it searching for error. Even though it's been professionally proofed. The hard choices are where to spend my marketing dollars and what to do myself.

Hard choices move around. They often have time lines. Consequences.

In writing, funding, and publishing Isolation, I've found hard choices at each stage. In writing, most of the hard choices were at the starting gate. In setting up and running a successful Kickstarter, what was hard wasn't so much the choices as the amount of emotional energy needed each and every day. In publishing, the hard choices have been surprisingly frequent. In fact, almost every choice seems hard. Maybe that's because there is no immediate reward. And though I pride myself on my love of delayed gratification, perhaps things are harder when there is no perceivable positive in the moment of (in)decision.

As I move into marketing, the hard choices just keep coming. Spend money online? Traditional routes? Perform social media tasks myself or hire someone? Do a little? Do a lot? 

Maybe it's a matter of perception. Everyone around seems to think I should be overjoyed: I'm publishing my novel. I am. Happy. But there are seemingly endless hard choices, and I let those feel heavy. I languish amid them. I become enervated. (Yes, passive voice. It's not a choice. I don't boldly get enervated. Obvious once I write it, right?)

"Habits learned early are habits for life." At least the characters of my novel find this cultural imperative begs repeating. 

It's not early for me, but it's time for a new habit of perception: choices are energizing. Good things come to those who make choices! I love questions, but it's time for exclamation points!!

Balancing Act

When I was on sabbatical, I wrote every day. It was easy. I was on sabbatical. It was my focus. Isolation. It was what I was doing. Every day.
After returning to work, writing every day fell away as other tasks replaced it. Then the Kickstarter emerged and everyday I promoted the KS campaign. I was charged. Dollar values went up when I marketed. It was visible. Exhausting.
Now I need to market again. I need habit. Energy.
I must balance.

I must not let the ball roll off the pile. But how to do that? How to write material? How to post material—to FaceBook, LinkedIn, GoodReads, Twitter? Regularly. Daily.
All of this and work too. Friends. Family. Eating. Exercise.
I think I can, I think I can…return to childhood. Play at it. I think I can…be confident. I think I can…

It Really is All About Size

I'm from Iowa, State Fair home of the Butter Cow. Every year a new one. Every year news. Butter cows are life-sized and thereby newsworthy. 

My favorite butter is at the other end of the size spectrum. It's the tiny gold-wrapped pat of butter you get in any mid-range restaurant in America. It's a single serving, or at least a single ounce of butter. Sometimes it smooshes as you open it, liquifying butter oozing out. Other times it's cold and hard and smooshes your bread. 

But when it's perfect, when the foil-lined paper pulls back easily and a third of the pat slices cleanly away from the rest and then spreads smoothly onto the slice of baguette, I delight in that butter. The delight is not only the sweet, salty, richness, but also the apportionment. It's not that I'm attentive to having only one serving. Rarely is it that. Rather, I like taking a little at a time and knowing there's more. It's something I've done since childhood. It's not an OCD thing. I don't have to do it. But there's some weird pleasure I derive from eating a favored food in small bits. 

Now that I've revealed more than I ever should have about my inner workings, let me point out that the smallest of details is a key to believable characters. It's not that they must teeter on the edge of pathology, though the intriguing ones sometimes do, especially the antagonists. No, it's that the attention to human detail is crucial to creating characters that aren't cardboard cutouts serving a plot. 

It's possible to observe such detail in ourselves or in others. In private or in public. It's possible to do this with intention, collecting tidbits of lives lived to place in fiction.

For me, it's been an accumulation. I've been observing as long as I can remember. And evidently, remember I do. I've never kept these observations in a notebook. I haven't catalogued them or arranged which ones would go together. But when I'm writing, I find that the character appears not just in actions, but in the delight of a pat of butter, or the delicate balance of a favored wine glass, or even in the preference not to wash organic spinach.

It could be that the person who takes a photo through a glass window of the butter cow is just such an observer/collector. The web is filled with these photos, some with a member of the photographer's family, some with the sculptor of the butter, some with a protest painted on the window. But that's not been my method. I always stand unobtrusively off to the side, the voyeur observing those so fascinated they needed a souvenir.

I have no such photos. Only memories. And characters who emerge from those memories, like so much butter, cooled to just the right temperature for sculpting.