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Archive for January, 2009

Writing almost seems like the easy part.  The hard part is the way waiting sucks your will to live, and writing involves a great deal of waiting.

Get a group of writers together and that’s the dirge we will sing in four-part harmony.  The waiting is a killer.

It all starts small and diffusely.  You’re waiting for one of dozens of agents to respond to your query.  Then it snowballs and intensifies.  You’re waiting for a handful of agents to read your manuscript and offer representation.

Once you have an agent, you’re waiting for revision notes.  You’re waiting for the book to be submitted to publishers.  Then you’re waiting for an editor to decide whether they want to buy your book.   And you’re waiting and you’re waiting.

If you should be so fortunate as to get through those hoops, you’re waiting again.  For the publisher to send corrections, for the galley proofs, for someone to decide on cover art and title.  Then you’re waiting for your ARCs and for the book to be released and for reviews and sales numbers and book signings and tours and your appearance on Oprah.  (Don’t lie, you’re totally waiting for that.)

Even if all of that goes smoothly (and how often do things go smoothly?), you may well end up right back at the beginning of the waiting game.  Waiting to finish the next book, to see if your agent can sell it, or even if your agent will represent it.

It’s a strange game and one that only a masochist would indulge in.  A kind of literary mumblety-peg.  Even if you win, it doesn’t mean you get to go home without a limp.

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I know I’ll be sorry, because those people who believe deeply, truly, sincerely in the value of self-publication, they’re going to come to my blog and torment me.  Fine.  I just can’t help but write this post after the self-publishing laugh/cry fest I recently witnessed in the form of a promotional website for a soon-to-be-released self-published novel.

Sadly, I will not name names nor link links.  I’m willing to hurt and piss off self-publishers in general, but I won’t poke any one self-published individual, no matter how ridiculous and sad I find his promotional website or indeed, his prose.

I readily admit that there are writers in specific situations who are better off going the self-publication route.  For example, I have a passing acquaintance with someone who writes Christian Nudist Humor.  As surprising as it seems, there is not a huge market for Christian Nudist Humor.  Why?  Being neither a Christian nor a nudist, and only occasionally funny, I won’t hazard a guess.  So, to preclude anyone bailing into me on that front, I acknowledge that there are niche markets best served by self-publication and self-promotion.

typo_muchBeyond that, however, self-publishing seems to be the last resort of the uninformed, the desperate, the stubborn,  the delusional, and the…gosh, I was hoping I’d think of something neutral to put in here that would allow the self-publishing believers who don’t think of themselves as any of the above to walk away from this blog post without wanting to kill me.  Fail.  Um, the easily satisfied?

At any rate, from my occasional encounters with people who believe in self-publishing, I perceive the rhetoric of self-publication to be that the publishing industry is inept, corrupt, sheep-like, narrow-minded, or some other epithet that explains why traditional publishers don’t want to publish a particular book much beloved by its writer.  The rest of the rhetoric goes like this: I know some self-published books are really bad, but mine is really well written but too controversial or innovative or just too darn good!

So let me just say, the current rate of disappointing books to good books among the traditionally published books I’ve bought or checked out of the library runs at about 3 in 10.  Seriously, of every ten books I buy or check out, I find only 7 of them both readable and enjoyable.  Two of the other three tend to be not to my taste, but typically at least one of the three is poorly written or indifferently edited.

As for self-published books, the rate of disappointing books to good books runs at about 9 in 10.  Don’t think I’m making that up.  I didn’t pull that ratio out of my ass.  I have some experience reading self-published books, some of it quite by chance and some it a product of my own perverse curiosity.

When my husband was stationed in Classifiedistan with the Marines, he was tormented by a lack of reading material.  Being a bit of a scammer, he contacted Alibris, the used book seller, and asked about creating a program to get books to Marines and soldiers in Classifiedistan.  Alibris agreed and asked Hubby for a list of books, which he provided.  Shortly thereafter, Alibris customers began buying books off the list to be shipped overseas.

It got big.  Really big.  Think pallets of books.  This was in 2001 and everyone was eager to “support the troops.”

When Hubby returned home, some of the books followed him, because they came addressed to him personally.  Over the next several months, we received many boxes of books, including several that contained multiple copies of self-published books.  It was clear in those cases that the authors had purchased and shipped the books themselves.  Never mind that those books weren’t on Hubby’s request list, making the whole thing smack of a sleazy sort of self-promotion to a captive audience, the books were uniformly bad.  Bad.  Laughably bad.  If I’d been asked to critique or edit those books, I would have returned them filled with notes and corrections.  I didn’t even know these people and I was embarrassed for them having published those books under their real names–I assumed.

That first brush with the self-publishing world created my morbid curiosity.  I found myself at library donation sales and used book stores and garage sales, sifting through boxes of books for the self-published ones.  In an interesting turn of events, I learned that my boss had published a book.  My co-workers talked about it as something very important and special.  She’d written a whole suspense novel and had it published!  Then I looked the book up and learned it was self-published.  It was also available used from amazon.com, for a penny plus postage.

I bought it, of course, and learned two things.  1.) Someone who knew my boss well enough to get the book signed had later sold it to a used book dealer.  2.) My boss could put together a grammatically correct sentence, but her dialog and description were death-dealingly boring.  I tried to read the book and foundered after a mere 30 pages.  I later passed it surreptitiously to another unindoctrinated co-worker who experienced the same level of proxy-embarrassment.

After that I went through a few months of buying a variety of self-published books for a penny plus postage.  I suppose I was searching for that elusive thing: the self-published book that was truly too good, too controversial, too innovative for traditional publishing.  I haven’t found it yet, but more than that I haven’t found even one self-published book that left me thinking positive things about the author’s decision to publish.  (Excepting the niche market element I cited earlier, which represents my 1 in 10 that I consider readable.)

I have winced, giggled, and sighed over these books, but I’ve concluded that the traditional publishing process does have something to offer.  It’s something more than a filtration system to keep out “bad” writers as some people have suggested.  Rather, I suspect it’s that the process produces better writing.  Having other people evaluating your writing with an eye to improving it can never be a bad thing.  Certainly, it’s possible to ruin a book by forcing revisions by committee, but far more often the revision process required by the traditional publishing system produces better writing.

Maybe it’s a sign that I lack confidence in my own writing, but the thought of being the last arbiter of editorial decisions for a book I wrote…it skeeves me out.  I want someone else who has something on the line to say, “Yes, this book is ready to go to print.”

Now, before you bail into me, two things:

1.) If you are considering self-publication, but haven’t done it yet…wait.  Wait to bail into me until you’ve actually published the book.  For that matter, wait a while before you publish the book.

2.) If you have self-pubbed your book and you’re experiencing righteous indignation at my attitude toward it, e-mail me.  Don’t e-mail me insults, just e-mail me to let me know you’d like to send me a free copy of your fabulous book.  (Don’t e-mail and offer to send me a copy of some historical example.  The times, they have already changed.)  I swear, I’ll send you my address, I’ll look at your book, and if it is indeed the exception to my sweeping generalities, I’ll send you a check for the cost of the book AND I’ll document the whole thing right here.  Promise.  It’ll have to be more than merely adequate or serviceable.  It’ll have to be good.  A book that is as skillfully written and edited as the average book published through traditional routes.  If it’s outside my preferred reading areas, I don’t demand that I enjoy it, but simply that the writing reveal quality workmanship.

3.) Okay, three things.  Again, niche market writers, don’t get huffy with me.  I’m not talking about you.

ETA: Time just ran an article about how publishing is changing, and that self-publishing is the wave of the future.  They base this on a few radical exceptions–people who first self-published and later sold the rights to major publishing houses.  All of which seems to prove only that the more things change the more they stay the same.  Yes, some writers have successfully used self-publication as a kind of grand sales pitch to…traditional publishers.  The success comes not from the “selling books out of your trunk,” but from getting a six-figure advance from a big publishing house.  If I hear about a bunch of writers making six figures from selling their books out of their trunk (or off their website), then I’ll consider the possibility that traditional publishing is dead.

Also, it all smacks of entrepreneurism, to which I say, “Are you kidding me?”  If I wanted to be an entrepreneur, I’d already have started my own business.  I’m a writer.  I like sitting around by myself writing, not going out and selling myself to people.  Eeek!

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It’s not unusual to come across the kind of discussion I found on Absolute Write the other day, in which well-meaning writers try to hash out a safe path through the minefield of racial identities.  If you’re a white writer, is the “racial default” in character descriptions necessarily white?  How do you describe characters who are outside that racial default setting without being racist?  Can you write outside your racial default without being racist?  Can you write outside your racial default and still be authentic?  What happens when you step outside the lines that are supposed to define your racial identity?

I’ll admit, it was very late in the game of writing my most recent project that I even contemplated this question.  Maybe I’m a little dense, but it really didn’t occur to me to ask: can a white girl write convincingly in the voice of a black man?  The overriding feeling I had and the one I still have above all others is that the narrator, Axyl, is an Okie like me.  He was born and grew up not thirty miles from where I grew up.  He was raised by the same kind of working class family I was raised by.  He has the same cadence to his speech and the same uncertainty about how far he’s willing to embrace his redneck upbringing.

I don’t pretend that I have a clue what it’s like to be a black man in redneck America, but I have lived as an outsider in a community that should have embraced me, if inclusion were only a matter of race.  I was kicked out of Sunday school and harassed for being an atheist.  Everyone in town knew about my father’s criminal habits and his lengthy stints in prison, and people talked about it, not always behind my back.

Years later, living in rural Japan, I had a taste of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of racial bias.  Dozens of times people got up and moved, when I sat next to them on the bus or train.  I learned to cut my own hair, because I couldn’t find a single barber or hairstylist who was willing to cut gaijin hair.  There were restaurants in my town where I couldn’t be served and stores where the shopkeepers put up the closed sign if they saw me coming.

These feelings are in my narrator’s experience.  After all, isn’t that the job of a writer: to borrow from our own experiences to inhabit the lives of people who don’t exist?  It’s an odd task and one that can’t require the exactness of journalism.  Approximation is all anyone can provide.

The strangest part in all of this is that after a dozen or more people had read the manuscript and offered critiques, the question of my race vs. my narrator’s race came up many times.  The question of my gender vs. my narrator’s gender came up a few times, but oddly enough no one asked me whether I felt comfortable writing as a multiple murderer.  I’ve never killed anyone, but apparently that discrepancy between my life experience and my narrator’s life experience seemed unimportant next to the question of skin color.

I wonder, too, exactly how long the lines between races will stay sharp.  They’re blurring already, and writers and readers are both trying to figure out how that affects their perceptions of characters.  For an interesting observation on the failure of race to color inside the lines, see sci fi writer Tobias Bucknell’s great post on his experience as a “Caribbean writer.”

President ObamaI think about this today, because of all the hubbub in the news about our new president.  Many commentators have remarked that “a black family in the White House changes everything.”   On certain levels, I have no doubt that they’re right.  The Obamas represent a sea change for racial minorities in America.  Barack Obama even gets mentioned in my book, as some successful counterpart to my narrator.  The son of a white woman and a black (and largely absent) father, my narrator is in the same awkward gap Obama has described being in: too black to fit in with white people or too white to fit in with black people.  Neither one nor the other.  Neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm?

As I contemplate the process of querying this book, I am in uncertain waters.  The book, though it has elements of the fantastical in it, doesn’t truly fit with the “urban fantasy” genre.  I have called it “literary fiction with magical realism,” but perhaps it has too much action to suit literary tastes.  It’s perhaps too raw and ugly to consider itself  “commercial fiction with magical realism.”  I find myself looking at agents who represent “multi-cultural” novels, but I always end up with the same question: Am I out of the running for multi-culti because I am so pasty white?  Will my skin color become an issue more than the contents of the book?

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The thing about the internet and internet communities: instant gratification.  If you’re awake at 3 am, unable to sleep and pondering some mystery of life, writing, politics, whatever, you can find someone online who is also interested in pondering these things.  The problem arises when your preferred route to instant gratification dries up.

I’m addicted to the Absolute Write forums.  Hooked like an ignorant college co-ed who thought she’d try crack just the once.  You never realize the depth of your addiction until you  can’t get your fix, and Absolute Write has been down for hours, my people. Since yesterday afternoon. I’m having that same twitchy desperate feeling I had after I left Tampa and couldn’t get any Cuban coffee.

You’d think that this would open up possibilities.  Former smokers report having dramatically more free time once they stop sucking down their life 8-minutes at a time through a cigarette filter.  Except I already had plenty of free time in which I was writing.  AW was my reward, my down time, my breathing space.  Now I’m just sitting here trying not be too productive, because frankly I am one of those people who works too quickly anyway.  I can do most of my job in under 10 hours a week.  I can clean the whole house in two hours. Left to my own devices, I will write ten thousand words a day.  I tear through things like a spider monkey on trucker speed.  The internet has helped me waste enough time to give the appearance that I am a normal person instead of a freak.  Without AW, the threat of writing another novel in a week looms over me.

I’ve already tried alternatives.  Spent a few restless minutes on Facebook, checking things out, chatting with people, updating my status.  It’s like being a coke addict and trying to tide yourself over with baking powder.  Facebook.

At least I have a list of chores and errands to do today, so I won’t spend too much time writing and clicking Reload to see if AW is back up.

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I’ve been tagged.  At least I didn’t wake up with a big, unfashionable GPS-locator collar around my neck.  Those are soooo last season.

Oh, crap, I’m such a slow, lumbering beast that I’ve now been tagged twice.  Gretchen and Karen both tagged me to list six things that make me happy.

1.) Driving in the country at night and looking at the lights in houses far away, or riding my bike through small town streets after almost everyone has gone to bed.  There is something so still and peaceful about moving through darkness with the stars overhead, and breathing in night air, which is magical in a way daytime air can’t be.  That feeling is good all by itself, but then add to it the sight of those small household lights, beacons of civilization trying to cast back chaos and uncertainty.

A porch light left on for someone coming home late.  A bare bulb in a barn, providing just enough light to do the last of the chores.  The light over the kitchen sink, illuminating someone doing dishes or getting up from bed for a drink of water.  My grandfather once quietly suggested that I ought to prefer the pleasure of being inside those circles of light at night, instead of looking in at them, but he never refused to take me driving when I asked.

2.)  Remembering completely ridiculous family stories with my sisters.  Like the time my dad convinced us to go rafting through the storm drainage system*.  Or family vacations where everything went wonderfully wrong–collapsed tents, my mother wedged into a too-small sleeping berth, shoes sucked off my sister’s foot by a mud pool at Yellowstone.  Or the way my grandmother punished my grandfather by making him rearrange the furniture every week.  He only ever had two responses: “Goddamnit, June!” and “Yes, dear.”

3.)  Animals.  Cats, dogs, cardinals, lizards, squirrels, rabbits.  It doesn’t have to be an exotic animal for me to be willing to watch it for hours.  My cats in particular make me happy.  Flanny yodels.  Even when she wants nothing, needs nothing, she likes to sit around and yowl for her own amusement.  Sippy is engaged in hydrological experiments.  To keep her occupied all you have to do is turn on a faucet or take a shower.

4.) Friday Lunch with my two best friends.  Moving to live in the same town as them has been wonderful and the best perk is Friday Lunch, which is a bit of a ritual now.  We go to our favorite little cafe, have coffee and our “usual.”  We go there so often we have a usual, so that the waiters are surprised if we order something different.  Some weeks, when I’m depressed or stressed, Friday Lunch is the only thing that gets me through the week.

5.)  The way a good, familiar book is like a friend.  You can rely on it to say the same thing every time, even if you come to it with a different state of mind.  For example, when I feel lonely, I reread Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan, to remind myself what loneliness is.  When I have the flu or other death-dealing illness, I like to reread Stephen King’s The Stand.  (Perverse, I know.)  When I feel disconnected from the world, I reread Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, and sigh with relief for Paul and Hetta, and break my heart again for little unloved Marie Melmotte, who was willing to suffer anything for love.  Damn you, Felix!  Damn you!

6.)  Feedback on my writing.  I’ve spent so much of my writing life engaged in furtive scribbling that any and all feedback makes me happy.  Even if someone dislikes a story at least I know they’ve read it and reacted to it.  To have a sense of dialog, rather than a feeling of speaking to an empty room, that always makes me happy.

Oh noes!  And now I’m supposed to tag some other people, but who?  Okay, how about Lisa, Dana, and Elizabeth.  I’m so lazy!

*How could bring I this up without describing it?  I couldn’t.

My dad is a trouble-maker.  Yes, he really convinced us to raft down the storm drains.  This was in the summer, when I was maybe 11, and my other sisters were 10, 12, and 14.  (Our oldest sister was 16 and too cool for it.)  We’d had a HUGE rainstorm, the kind of thing that happens in southwest Kansas, where average rainfall is maybe 10 inches.  It’s not rare for 5 of that to fall all at once, and the land is so flat there’s no natural drainage, so our hometown had big storm drains to deal with it.  After the storm they were probably running 4 feet deep.  Dad came home over lunch and said, “Hey, girlies, I’ve got an idea…”

He got out the rubber raft, helped us air it up, and went back to work.  We went in pairs, rafting through about three miles of storm drains and then out of town into the county pond.  The other pair drove our crappy Subaru out to the pond to pick the rafters up.  Then we drove back–holding the raft to the roof of the car with our arms out the car windows–to the beginning and swapped.

When Mom came home and found out…she was furious.  She made us get tetanus shots.  And my oldest sister was furious, because I’d worn her junky lawn-mowing shoes to raft in.  On the second trip to the pond, we’d driven into a rut and torn the muffler on the Subie loose.  The only recourse: I crawled under the car and used her shoelaces to tie the muffler back on.

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slumdog_millionaireAfter my disappointing Cinemas, I finally got to see Slumdog Millionaire on Saturday.  It did not disappoint.  I’m a fan of Danny Boyle and you can’t help but be impressed by his ability to pull this film together into something extraordinary.  The movement among the different time lines of the story is deft and poignant.  Just as important, the pathos of tragedy never descends into bathos,  perhaps because the film makes clear that this is one more tragedy in a sea of millions of sad, desperate, impoverished lives.

In short, I liked the film and I recommend it, but …  You knew there was a but, didn’t you?

Boyle takes on the real Mumbai and carefully shows us both sides of modern India: call centers full of cleancut technologically savvy young Indians and the grinding, killing poverty that still rules so much of the world.  This is shocking to American audiences, but Boyle softens the blow by making his main characters beautiful.  He has to, because no matter how far Mumbai may be from Hollywood, it is Hollywood that still controls the purse strings, and beauty sells.

I have nothing against watching beautiful people on theater screens, but I try to remember  it’s fiction.  Spending two hours with lovely, tall Dev Patel with his mega-watt smile is a pleasure, but it’s  clear he wasn’t born and raised in a Mumbai slum, eking out an existence against a backdrop of neglect, abuse, hunger, and desperation.

indian_beggarSo watch the film and enjoy it, but keep in the back of your mind that this is not the face of India’s poor.  There are likely some children who are purposely crippled and disfigured to improve their ability to beg, but vast numbers more are crippled and disfigured by malnutrition and lack of medical care.  And those children need help, because they’re not ever going to win at Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Go see the movie, but consider skipping the popcorn and donating that money to Oxfam or some other worthwhile agency.

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As I  discovered when I started writing my novel about a death row inmate, it’s not possible to write an apolitical story that involves capital punishment.  Either my character was destined to remain unsympathetic, or I was going to make my readers sympathize with a murderer.  I chose the latter and in making my protagonist sympathetic, I found I’d inadvertently crafted an argument against the death penalty.  Perhaps there are people who can simultaneously sympathize with a person and nod approvingly at his execution, but I’m not one of them.  Yes, he’s crass and mostly without remorse and willing to kill again if it suits his purposes, but he is still human.  Painfully human.  Capable of being hurt.  Capable of being healed.  He’s not a monster, as inconvenient as that is.  Many death penalty supporters would like to believe that all murderers are monsters.  That would make killing them easier.  It would relieve us of our ambivalence and our uncertainty.

Having written that failed-to-be-apolitical novel, I find that the topic of the death penalty catches my eye in the news in a way it never did before.  The same is true for my friends and critique group members who read the early drafts.  I receive all kinds of emailed links on death penalty stories.

Associated Press photo of Andre Thomas

Associated Press photo of Andre Thomas

At the Polunsky Unit in Texas, one of the most notorious death rows in America, an inmate plucked out his right eye and ate it.  Under ordinary circumstances, I might cite this story as an example of the degradation of mental health that frequently occurs among segregated death row inmates.  One small detail of this news item forces me to file it under another heading: the frequency with which the mentally ill are convicted of capital crimes.  You see, this isn’t the first time Andre Thomas has done something like this.  In 2004, shortly after he was arrested for killing his wife, his son, and his wife’s infant daughter, he pulled out his other eye, but he did not eat it.  At the time, he was declared to be mentally competent to stand trial.  Now that he’s blinded himself and eaten his own eye, the Texas DOC is reconsidering its stance on whether he’s sane.

While the US is only fifth in the world for number of executions, Texas leads the pack at home, with 26 in 2007.  The other 49 states account for a mere 16 in the same time period.  For a while, it seemed like more states were backing away from the death penalty, but in December, after nearly half a century of rational, sane judicial rulings, New Hampshire has its first death row inmate.

Similarly, in little St. Kitts, they’ve performed their first execution–a hanging–in a decade.

Jamaica, which has had a 20-year hiatus from executions, is currently trying to clear the way to begin performing them again.  More importantly, they are trying to overthrow the Privy Council’s requirement that anyone convicted in a capital case be executed within five years or have their sentences commuted to life.  Essentially, Jamaica would like to go to the double punishment system currently at work in the US.

It doesn’t surprise me.  We are in the midst of a global recession, and for myriad reasons, as people run short of cash they also tend to run short of compassion.  People in poverty can’t afford mercy and as tycoons and swindlers make off with ill-gotten gains, the little people are desperate for even an ephemeral proof of justice.

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