Saturday, December 4, 2010

Six Rules for Success

Mystery writing conferences are a great opportunity for those of use who work at our craft in isolation most of the time to get together and renew our enthusiasm. This year’s Crime Bake was one of the best, and I came away with lots of things to think about and new books to read. The panels brought a lot of new names and topics, but through it all, writers came back to a few main points about writing and the life of a writer. These are worth keeping in mind no matter who the writer is—the author of a bestseller, of a first book, or of half a dozen mysteries that sell modestly. So here they are, the qualities of a successful writer as reiterated by a number of writers who have achieved a range of success.

First, be persistent. Writing the novel takes time, selling it to a publisher takes time, producing it takes time, and selling it to the book-buying public takes time. It can take twenty years to become an overnight sensation, so keep working year after year after year, and you will continue to learn and grow and eventually get there.

Second, continue to study your craft no matter how many stories or books you have published. There is always more to learn, always something you can do better. Do you struggle with dialogue? Listen to how people talk, transcribe conversations, practice set pieces with two people encountering each other in a cafĂ© or on the street. Write things outside your comfort zone—write a thriller short story if you’re used to writing traditional stories, practice a fight scene, describe a place you don’t expect to use in a story and how your character moves through it. Read, write, learn.

Third, write with your whole self. This usually comes out as write from the heart, or write what you love to read, or write what you want to read. But however you phrase it, you as the writer must be fully involved in the task of writing the story; if you’re not involved, your reader won’t be either. This also means, write without thinking about who will publish it. Forget what happens when you’re finished—just write the story.

Fourth, forget about following trends. By the time you finish your book, the trend will be petering out and the editors will have moved on to something else. Even worse, if you’re writing to a trend you’re liable to be writing poorly, writing something that you don’t truly care about, and it will show.

Fifth, don’t complain about how hard this business is. If it were easy, every single person you know would be a writer and everyone would be successful (how that would work out mathematically for book sales I don’t really know). Don’t complain about the agents or editors or reviewers; they’re not going to change for you or anyone else, and they are, for the most part, doing a great job in a difficult business. Their life isn’t any easier than yours. Your job is to write, and leave the rest of it to others.

Sixth, accept the fact that luck will play a role somewhere along the line, so be ready. Write that book, send it out, and show up at events and conferences. You want to be ready when Lady Luck decides to smile on you.

There may be more core rules than these six, but I think these are pretty sound. As I listened to the other writers talk and share stories, I could hear these rules underlying their commitment to their writing.

Friday, November 5, 2010

End-of-Book Rituals

I would be the first to admit that I have a few quirks, but I like to think that most of them are harmless. One that I have learned to live with is my end-of-book ritual simply because this is a compulsion I can’t control.

Whenever I finish a book, as I just have, I know that it is really done because I throw myself into this ritual. I no longer want to read the manuscript over again and again, find something to fix, improve, change for the sake of changing. Instead, I have an uncontrollable need to clean up my office, and this means going through drawers, files, shelves in the closet, to pull out old notes and articles and whatever other paper I can find to recycle. I’m not happy until I have at least one paper bag stuffed full of paper, and I usually need at least two bags to feel I’ve done my duty and satisfied this demonic drive.

If you were to ask me (and please don’t), I’d have to say that I have no idea where all this paper comes from. (And we’re going to be a paperless society? But that’s another topic.) But I sure have a lot of it, and some of it is years old. How did I miss it the last time I did this? I finish a book at least every two years, but the paper keeps piling up—reviews of books I mean to read, recipes I want to try, articles I’m sure I can’t live without or promised to send to a friend, old research notes and cryptic notes to myself.

I wish I could say I was at least methodical about this, but I’m not. I just start rifling through the first pile of paper I come to, perhaps the one crushing the basket where I keep the mail (yes, that’s another story), or the one underneath my notebook on the current mystery novel, or the one on the windowsill that’s been great insulation against the drafty sash during the winter months. Sometimes I start going through my desk drawers, and that of course leads to old manuscripts I set aside when I became convinced the story wasn’t working (and then that leads to . . . and that’s yet another story).

My ritual is harmless, good for the environment, and probably good for my soul. Other writers have other rituals—going out for a celebratory drink that might last for days, emerging from the writing room to meet children who have grown six inches, eating that rotten apple hidden in the desk drawer. I have a friend who didn’t pay bills for three months, and whose desk was such a mess that she had to take bills and checkbook to a restaurant to find a table to work on in order to pay everything.

My writing rituals are as important to me as any of those created to mark the major turning points in a person’s life—birth, marriage, death, and all the other significant steps along the way. The rituals of beginning, stages of the work, and the ending tell me that I’m moving along, and sometimes are expressed in an instinctive way before I realize consciously, fully, where I am, or that I’ve reached the next stage. At the halfway point in a book I suddenly feel like I’m leaning over a precipice and go through an automatic review of where my characters are, as though they too are hanging off a precipice (as indeed some of them are).

I know these moments are coming, wait for them, expect them, and move through them because they tell me that the book is moving along as it should—they are the current of the ocean I sail on. And because such stages can’t be forced, nor can my feelings about them be concealed or denied, I know the book is progressing the way it should. The ritual is the manifestation of my deeper feeling of the life of the story.

Right now, a large paper bag stuffed with all sorts of paper is sitting out on the sidewalk waiting for the recycling pickup, and I am free to contemplate my next writing project, knowing that the initiating ritual will overtake me before I have made a conscious decision to begin. But that’s another story.

Final Payment, the next book in the Mellingham series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva, is now sitting on an editor’s desk, waiting for a yea or nay.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Ruminations on Choices

Over the last several months I’ve come across three writers who set out to write one book and were nudged into another direction by an agent or editor. All three ended up with a successful book, but one that bore little resemblance to the one they began, and each one has had a different reaction to the entire experience. I’ve listened and sympathized and tried to imagine how I’d feel if I faced the same dilemma—accept the editor’s guidance and produce a successful book, or hew tenaciously, even stubbornly, to my original intent and produce something more satisfying to me but probably less successful.

I’ve had plenty of experience writing for hire, and have gladly used my skills to produce textbook chapters and whole books on topics that hold little personal interest for me. Writing is a skill I have, and I’m glad to apply it to whatever comes along—and pays reasonably well. But I haven’t been put in the position of having to change my original intent in a book or essay that I developed.

This is where many of us, myself included, are ready to think, and say, that we’d hold out and produce the book that was true to our vision. We’re idealists, or we like to think we are, willing to stick to our principles. We believe we know what the best book on this topic is, or the best one we can produce, and we want to see that one make it into print. Or, perhaps we’d go in the other direction and say, yes, of course, we’d do whatever the editor wanted without a second thought. We’re professional writers and we write to deadline, producing what the client wants—a speech for a conference, a grant for several thousand dollars, a book review, an article on laws protecting animals. Writing is writing, and the advance tells us we’re expected to produce something that will sell. Or, maybe we’re born negotiators and we size up the “opposition” to our idea and try to find the middle ground, something we can still commit ourselves to passionately while incorporating the editor’s or agent’s suggestions. The real experiences of my colleagues haven’t been quite like this.

One writer, an accomplished academic, told me that it took her over a year to figure out what was going on. During the entire writing process, she’d thought the editor was obtuse, difficult, and perverse in her suggestions. After months of this tug of war the editor signed off on the final manuscript and said to the writer, “You were so hard to work with—you were deaf to our instructions. Your book proposal was just a way to find out if you could write—we didn’t really want that book. We wanted someone who could write. We knew what the market wanted. You sure made it hard.” At the end of the whole thing my friend felt like giving up writing.

Another writer came to believe that she can’t finish her book without the help of an editor, or book doctor, as they are now less flatteringly called. She submitted her manuscript to one person after another, getting advice, some hands-on writing, and approval after approval. The final manuscript feels a bit homogenous, bland, but definitely polished. This is the result of the school of thought that holds if it is well written, the story or narrative will emerge—somehow. I suppose that gives away my view—there’s more to a good story than a polished sentence, and the writer should have buckled down and written her own book.

A third writer started out with one narrative and followed the agent’s suggestions to produce another, something different from anything she’s written in the past. I watched the book develop and even I’m not sure when it changed course and became a completely different book. Even a proposal for a crime fiction series is likely to elicit suggestions from the editor on the direction the series should take—types of protagonists, settings, plots.

The experiences of these writers seem to announce the demotion of writers, but they are balanced by the new opportunities, reflecting the kinds of changes that are taking place—writers have less and less control over their work, and writers have more and more opportunity to control their work. There’s more work-for-hire writing, less support from traditional publishers, and more opportunities to self-publish and actually sell our own work via Internet and even traditional avenues.

When I started writing fiction in college, the goal was to write well, yes, but also to write truly, authentically. Now, to even say that seems self-conscious and pretentious, and yet the vision of this kind of work lingers.

My three friends have books they’re somewhat satisfied with, and certainly are pleased with the success they’re having. But when I listen to them talk, I hear in at least two of them that bittersweet sense that somehow their book got away from them and became something else, something they like but something that is not quite theirs.

For anyone who writes the underlying goal has to be to write something that only that person could write, taking advice as it comes, keeping the sensible and abandoning the rest, using it to help make the work stronger. I don’t know if we really are beset with more challenges to producing a book according to the writer’s own vision than writers in earlier decades or centuries, or if the challenges are the norm for working in a commercial world, but at least they make me think deeply about what I want any particular work to be, and that always makes for a better book.

The world of the writer today makes me think of the advice that people in social services often hear—change is the constant, attitude is the variable. This is what I keep in mind whenever I start any new project--I let it go, follow it, and learn as much as possible from the whole experience.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Writers and PR Photos

Writers are called upon to do a lot of different things beyond writing—teaching workshops or large classes, organizing and running conferences, serving on awards committees, soliciting donations from other writers for worthy causes, marketing books, and more. Many of these require the dreaded PR materials—a bio and a photograph. (It seems a mean irony that the joy of the solitary profession of writing now comes with the dreaded publicity tour.)

I have figured out a number of bios, but the PR photograph is something I avoid as much as possible, which is why most people think I’m ten years younger than I am. But this month I had to come up with something new, so I have studied publicity photographs to get a sense of what my options are and what I should try for. If I had known this exercise was going to leave me so depressed, I wouldn’t have bothered—I’d have substituted a gray blank with a little circle drawn in.

Publicity photos of writers come in a variety of types. First, there is the serious look—face front, eyes studying the photographer, not a flicker of humor anywhere, an expression almost of accusation for anyone wanting the author to engage in such frivolity. Some of these even come with an uplifted eyebrow, a furrowed brow, a down-turned mouth to emphasize the somber nature of the personality of the creator. These are the authors of serious books—about revenge, dark mystery, rogues of the business world, and worse. I suppose writers (and others) go for the serious look because it makes one look weighty and implies that anything this person is associated with must be significant. Just look how somber they are! We are meant to take these writers seriously—and I do—but alas, when I try to look like that, the photographer tells me I look unwell and would I like to sit down? When I say I’m fine, I’m usually told to relax, don’t look so grim.

The same frontal look with a smile reveals the sexy, the polished, the makeup artist, the good friend, the man or woman with a great sense of humor. For me, I just look like I have a double chin.

Then there’s the pose with props, including glasses or hands—the hand on the face, below the chin, resting on a shoulder, clasped behind the head, on the throat. My all-time favorite is the hand and fingers splayed across the face so you can barely identify the person behind.

Lots of photographs come with other props, usually a pet—a cat but also dogs, horses, and other moving breathing creatures—but also items indicative of the topic of the book. For books about cooking, the author standing over a big brass pot or a tray of food always works. And the most obvious one—books—is sometimes the least workable for me because my bookshelves are stuffed with books and pottery and stacks of paper and old artwork and CDs.

And of course, there’s the setting—with a city in the background for anyone who travels or writes about exotic places. This one would work for me if I could remember to get a photograph of myself when I’m traveling, which I can’t seem to do. The background is a great idea, as long as it supports the theme of the book and, in my mind, reduces the image of the writer. Part of setting is the clothing—a suit for a business book or a person in a yoga outfit for a fitness book.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be comfortable having my photograph taken, but while I was working out what might work, I looked over a lot of photographs of other writers and came away with the unexpected feeling that there really are an awful lot of nice people in this business, if their photographs are any guide. A few faces smiling back at me were sometimes artificial and posed, and obviously so, but many more of them had expressions of delight and curiosity and wonder and friendliness. I could imagine more than one saying, Omigod, that really is my book you’re looking at! I really did it! I wrote a book! The warmth and enthusiasm in the other women who must have fretted about double chins and lank hair and dull wardrobes and all the other unimportant things in a life put an end to my fussing. For heaven’s sakes, it’s only a photograph.

So I stopped procrastinating and finally got a photograph of me in front of my bookshelves—books and me, half hidden behind a hand, looking pinkish with no makeup, but at least recognizably me. And now, thank you to all the other writers who have gone through this cheerfully, leaving your portraits to encourage me.

(If you want to see the final selection, check out my website.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Future of the Book

Last week I enjoyed one of the treats of being a published writer. My local bookstore, which I have patronized since it opened in 1967, held a reading and signing for me. Even though it was a small group, I still felt some anxiety about what to read and how to discuss my newest book, Under the Eye of Kali, but deeply pleased that I had a new book and could talk about it to others.

Near the end of the evening, two other writers and I got into a discussion of publishing on Kindle and self-publishing (not the same thing, but easy to conflate). I haven’t tried Kindle yet, and sometimes I think about it for my earlier books that are out of print, but I am very reluctant to resort to self-publishing in any format, especially in Kindle or the like, for any of my several mss sitting rejected on my closet shelf. But I am increasingly in the minority.

This is not a lament about the end of publishing as we know it, or the problem with a marketplace packed with self-published books that no one has vetted and are probably for the most part unreadable. No, all that may be true, but right now I prefer to see the opportunity in this dismal situation—dismal for traditional writers, anyway.

It occurred to me recently that those of us who have over our working years redirected our retirement savings into keeping afloat the local bookstore have a unique future ahead of us. A friend who is moving got me thinking about this when he explained that he and his wife had hired a “stager,” a woman who works with a real estate agent to prepare a home for showing to prospective buyers. The stager walked through and told them how to rearrange the furniture, which pieces of artwork to remove or re-hang, and, unequivocally, to get rid of the books. “No one reads anymore,” she said. And they removed the books.

A private high school library recently threw out all its printed books, in order to become an online resource center—no more books, not even packed into bookshelves against outer walls as “good insulation,” as my father-in-law often said.

With the Kindle and a generation of people like the “stager” and the headmaster of a certain prep school, books will become rare and unusual and hard to find. Children will grow up not knowing what a book is, what it looks like, how it weighs down the hand or a backpack, how it is used page by page. This is the opportunity.

People like me, who have shelves and shelves of books, old ones and new ones, falling apart ones and carefully protected ones, good ones and nastily critiqued ones, will in essence have a treasure for a museum. We will open our doors to the curious, to show them the BOOK, not to read, of course, but to observe and study, like a vase or a statue. Little children will cry, “But what does it do?” “Does it move?” “Can you change the color?” Parents will shrug and pull out their Blackberries and tweet their children’s cute comments to their grandparents, who will be sunning themselves in tropical New Jersey.

The museum will also be the site of psychological testing. For those who want to graduate to a higher level of functionality in the world, they will have to visit a museum and prove that they can read an entire book, from beginning to end, in a reasonable period of time and remain focused on the topic. And one part of the test will be recognizing that there is a single topic being developed. This person will be awarded a Certificate of Consciousness.

There won’t be nearly as many museums as you think in this future. Alas, to my surprise, I often visit friends, people I’ve always thought of as intelligent and interesting and well read, and discovered not a single book in their home. But there will be enough museums scattered across the country to ensure that everyone has at least a reasonable chance to see one book in his or her lifetime, not to read, but to see, like visiting a Da Vinci (a real one, in oils) or Van Gogh.

None of this means that there will be fewer books written. Alas, no. But they will be written entirely on little phones and other such devices, and instantly erased if they don’t live up to the standards of the software evaluating spelling, punctuation, grammar, and thought (defined by vocabulary and sentence structure). If nothing else, the number of mss floating through cyberspace from agent to agent will decline, but the number on Kindle and other such formats will explode. But by then the length of an average novel will be reduced from 100,000 words to 10,000 or fewer, to make it easier to read at traffic lights or while waiting in line for coffee.

Drinking coffee will not be allowed in Museums, except by the owners.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Level Best Books at the Crossroads

Early in June the three editors of Level Best Books got together to talk about the future of our project. We had read most of the 70 plus stories and were looking at our schedules. This would be our eighth anthology.

Level Best Books grew out of a desire to publish a collection of short crime fiction by The Larcom Press, for which I was a co-founder. When we closed down the press, along with all of our projects in the pipeline, I felt especially sad about the anthology. In 2003 I approached Kate Flora and Skye Alexander, and over lunch in Gloucester, Level Best Books was born. I had started out only with the idea of finishing the anthology started by Larcom, but the idea took hold, and so began our series of anthologies. Together we published three, but then Skye moved to Texas, and thus outside the New England writing community. Ruth McCarty joined me and Kate in a seamless transition.

The Level Best Books anthologies have been a pleasure from beginning to end, but also a lot of work. We set as our launch date the weekend of Crime Bake, so that we could introduce our book, Undertow, and new writers, and sell books to the ideal audience. The pattern was set, and with the second anthology, Riptide, the cover and interior design was too.

Each year we tried out different names, drawing up lists of weather and New England related terms, poring over possible cover photographs, and reading dozens of stories. We enthusiastically commented on the growth of individual writers over the years, the expanding list of contributors (and sometimes of the definition of New England, but, alas, we are traditionalists—just the six states for us), the consistently good reviews. This project had no downside except time.

And that was the issue. We put in our own money and made it back every year plus a little more (very little more); we loved the stories; we loved the covers; we loved the writers. But we still had only 24 hours in any one day, and 7 days in a week. There was no flexibility in producing the book because our deadline, Crime Bake, was the only way to get the books the publicity they needed to make back our costs. I had the job of editing, laying out, proofing, working with the printer, to get the book done on time. We printed 1,200 books every year, and Kate had the job of delivering books to bookstores, libraries, and individuals who purchased the book. She handled most returns and invoicing. She and Ruth set up events and nudged writers to set up more.

In case I failed to make the point—this is work. And all three of us have other responsibilities, and they were starting to close in on the little free time we had. As we sat down in early June, each one of us knew this year could be tough. We thought about taking a year off, or trying to push through just one more year, but in the end, the problem was now—not enough time to do the kind of job we have done for the last seven years.

Seven years is a long time, and seven anthologies are something to be proud of. So, this is where we stop, on a high note, proud of what we’ve done, glad we did it, and mindful that other opportunities will come along, for us and for all the other writers we worked with.

But there’s more. I wrote the above valediction in early June, before we knew there might be a second act for Level Best Books. The cooperative will not come to an end, though our involvement in it will. Four writers, all known to us and much admired, have stepped forward, and will continue the work of publishing the annual anthology of crime fiction by New England writers. So, to Mark Ammons, Kat Fast, Barbara Ross, and Leslie Wheeler, welcome and good luck and congratulations. I eagerly look forward to the next anthology, only a few months away.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Reviewing Ruminations

Some months ago I came across a book about studying Hindi in India, and I immediately snatched it from the shelf in my local bookstore. This was my cup of tea—living and studying in India and loving every challenging minute of it. I kept the book on a table near my desk until I could settle down and devote an uninterrupted stretch of time to it. This title looked so good I was willing to wait. I liked seeing it there and anticipating the pleasure I would have when I could begin reading it properly—on a quiet Sunday afternoon without interruption. Soon thereafter I came across a review of it in one of the larger newspapers. And it wasn’t good.

The review cast a pall over my enthusiasm, and I remember in particular the reviewer’s intense dislike of a particular scene in the book that seemed, for him, to summarize all the negative points of the story and its author. The shimmering green of the cover seemed to fade, and now its placement at the top of my TBR pile (to be read) seemed a reproach rather than a promise. I put off reading it and went on to other things.

But I am a Yankee born and raised and I had spent good money on that book. It was time to read it and, if nothing else, get my money’s worth. Dutifully, I picked it up and began. And I am so glad I did. Katherine Russell Rich has written an entrancing and enchanting book about moving to India to learn Hindi. Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language is everything I look for in books about India, one of the great loves of my life, and I’m glad to recommend it to anyone interested in India, learning a second language, how the mind works with languages, writing a memoir, and any number of other topics. But here I want to focus on another lesson—that of the responsible reviewer.

As I became more and more engrossed in the memoir, I occasionally wondered when I’d come across the scene that had so upset the reviewer, and was curious to know if my take would be so very different. I read on, forgot about it, remembered it, read on. When I began to think I had mixed up the review from another book with this one, I finally came to the scene that had earned the reviewer’s scorn—somewhere near the very end of the story. And it wasn’t a scene at all; it was a brief comment about an incident that happened after the main narrative of the book. That made me pause.

The negative review that almost kept me from reading this book, and might well have kept me from purchasing it if I had read it before I discovered the title in the bookstore, bore no resemblance to the narrative I enjoyed so thoroughly. This is exactly the kind of review that brings reviewers as a group and reviewing as a professional a bad rep. It also prevents readers from finding books they will love and learn from.

This isn’t an essay on the ten characteristics of the responsible reviewer. It is a reminder to all of us who review books to stick to the book as a whole, keep the big picture in the forefront of our imaginations as we write, and make sure our review bears a close resemblance to the book we’ve just read. Take note of your jealousies (yes, I wish I’d written this book), ignorances (the information on language learning was an eye-opener for me), and all the other ways we hobble ourselves. And if you really don’t like a book, don’t review it.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Finding the Voice—Anita’s Debut

Author copies of my new book, Under the Eye of Kali, arrived the day before I left for a week’s vacation a couple of weeks ago. When I looked at the box I felt momentarily frozen. She had actually arrived. I suppose this sounds odd because it sounds like I’ve anthropomorphized a book, but I was really thinking about Anita, the protagonist of my new series set in India.

Some years back I tried writing a novel about Anita Ray but it just didn’t come together—there was something wrong in the voice of the character and the way she operated, moved through the landscape of people and the country. I had tried several times to capture Anita’s essence—and I was sure it was there, just beyond me, drifting toward me like a fragrant breeze but not quite reaching me. I was dissatisfied and I couldn’t resolve the feeling. I knew something was wrong, and in some of the reactions of outside readers I knew at the time, I thought I sensed the same lukewarm response to Anita.

Frustrated with these less than successful attempts at a novel featuring Anita, I tried writing a scene that could be the beginning of a short story. My idea was to give her exactly what she has to deal with, no distractions, no elaborations, no subplots. I did and it worked. Anita emerged at once with her irreverence, insouciance, and independence. I had her.

Without realizing it, I was using a technique that I often recommend to students when beginning a story. If you’re not sure about the protagonist, or about whose story this is, try writing the opening paragraph from different points of view—first, third, close and omniscient, the main character, a peripheral character who tells the story of another, more important figure. Each opening paragraph will be different, but one will resonate with you the moment you hear it being written or read. You have found the voice.

F. Scott Fitzgerald would have written a very different novel in The Great Gatsby if he had used a different narrator instead of the young man slightly in awe of the character of the title. And the pleasure of Sue Grafton’s series is experiencing the world with Kinsey Milhone. Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe could hardly have any other voice and be the same.

Anita’s voice sounded true the minute I heard it, but there was more. I loved the way the short story form revealed her. She reacted to the people around her but also edged past them to find her way through the crime. She pushed the other characters, defining them and their behavior. And through her I got to talk about a traditional culture in India that I admire and also deeply care about. I wrote one story and then another and another and another. The stories were fun to write and fun to read. I loved them. And, fortunately for me, Linda Landrigan at Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine loved them too.

After a while I realized this wasn’t going to be enough. Anita needed a novel, but I had tried so many times I wasn’t sure I wanted to fail again. I spent about half a nanosecond on that thought and jumped into thinking up a larger story line. I am something of a compulsive writer—I just keep at it, even if it isn’t going well, until I collapse exhausted or finished. So, I set out again.

I had tried a character, female and living in India and more or less part of the landscape and culture, in different voices—first person, close third, omniscient—none of which had worked. I had long ago forgotten about them, and concluded back then that I had tried too hard to shape her personality, but the person who emerged in the short story lived vividly every time I started writing. Would she translate into the longer form?

She did.

Anita is her own person, and when I pick up the hardcover with its perfectly thought-out cover design (I wish I could take credit for that too, but no) I feel the weight of her as a separate person, someone who can’t be forced to follow any plotline or story arc or anything else I might require of a character. I’m just as curious now to find out what she’s going to do next as would any other reader be.

So, yes, she has arrived, in more ways than one.

Under the Eye of Kali, by Susan Oleksiw (Five Star/Gale/Cengage, 2010).

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What is a story?

A friend recently passed along a collection of stories to me, unpublished but edited, and asked me what I thought about them. I settled down to read through the mss, but at the end of the first story, I knew what I was going to find all the way through. Still, the request came from a friend, so I kept reading, and at the end of 250 pages, I felt the same way as I had at the beginning—this was not a collection of stories. Only one entry could actually be called a story.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened to me. I am often asked to read mss by unpublished writers—it’s a fact of life for almost every published writer, especially one who has published both short stories and novels. I say no in almost every case, partly because of the time involved in reading and partly because I don’t want to be drawn into editing and teaching a new writer I don’t know when I have my own work to do. But reading this collection got me thinking. Why is it so hard for some writers to grasp the essence of a short story? What is a short story?

It’s easier to say what a story is not. A short story is not an anecdote, a curious incident, a sequence of events. It’s not a description, a slice of life (though such a work was popular in previous decades), a character sketch, a funny or sad moment.

Most of us who write fiction struggle to come up with a workable definition because we’ve been called on, at conferences and on library panels, to offer something definitive to the audience. We do our best, but at the next event, we’ll come up with some other way to define the short story. Having said that, let me take a stab at it.

A short story has shape, and it focuses on a significant moment or event in a character’s life. The reader begins at the moment that a life or situation is about to change—we begin with the norm and immediately feel the redirection of life, and this is what we watch as the story moves forward. As we come to the end, the change bears fruit, or climaxes, or however you want to put it, and we see the character moving forward in a new direction, a new way. Life is different, and we can feel it. A fellow writer once put it this way. Something happens. People change. Mysteries remain.

The ending of a short story is like the final couplet in a sonnet. All the preceding lines lead up to the last two lines, and are lifted higher by them. Without that closing couplet, the sonnet would fall flat, sound hollow and pointless; the reader would come to a halt wondering about the point of the journey. The short story must bring us to that point when a character is different in a deeply significant way, and we have seen and felt it happen, felt it growing along with the character. We close the book and know, as Hemingway urged, that we have read something true and honest.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Writers' Groups, Part II

Writers’ Groups, Part II

During the last twenty years I’ve participated in seven writers’ groups, but most of them have been organized into one of four categories. All of them were interesting and have played a role in my life as a writer, but some were a better fit than others. I look back on all of them fondly and sometimes with amusement at our disjointed efforts to move forward.

First is the support group whose members are writers. The group usually meets in the evening on a weekday or a Saturday morning on a weekly basis and focuses on anything about writing, encouraging its members to complete work and send it out. Members share resources for research and names of journals to send work to, commiserate on rejection letters, and generally encourage each other to keep writing. Discussions tend to wander, and not everyone is a practicing writer.

Second is the group that comprises writers who have published something and are focused on continuing to get work into print. They arrive at the meeting with coffee and perhaps a snack to stave off hunger, or a late lunch (or early dinner). They read their work, listen to general comments, and report on efforts to publish.

Third is the group that expects a certain amount of work from its members. Each writer brings copies for others to read along with as he or she reads the story or chapter or scene from the current work. Comments are expected to be substantial and helpful, but not of the order of how to recast the entire story (a temptation we all fall into when enthusiasm exceeds judgment). The reader asks questions and discusses the comments. Everyone feels a certain investment in the work and expects regular updates on progress of other publishing efforts. This is not the place for writers who can’t seem to finish anything, never take a risk, or are waiting for inspiration.

Fourth and last is the group for those with a tough hide. These groups are usually small because they require more work than the other groups and devote one session to each member. The writer sends copies of the chapter to be discussed to the group members in advance, giving the members time to read and analyze, and prepare for an in-depth discussion. At the meeting, the writer whose work is being discussed sits on the sidelines and listens to the discussion, not allowed to comment, interject explanations, challenge or correct misinterpretations, or add anything to the discussion. After about two hours of this (if the writer is still in the room), he or she is allowed about half an hour to comment on the discussion. This kind of group has no room for anyone who is not writing regularly and not advanced enough to produce substantial work.

I’ve participated in groups in every category, two that served wine and food, one that adjourned for a meal after every session, one that never served anything edible and didn’t expect anyone to bring anything edible, and one that felt like a picnic. But all of them included writers who were dead serious about their work, who listened attentively and thoughtfully, and contributed what they could, and many who went on to publish books and stories and articles.

Even if some of the earlier groups I participated in seem a little frivolous or disorganized when I look back on them, it is clear to me that I learned from the others in the group, drew inspiration from them, and kept going because they were there every week or every month encouraging me. You can’t ask for more than that.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Writers' Groups, Part I

Writers’ Groups, Part 1

Earlier this week I visited a writers’ group I used to participate in regularly. The group meets weekly in the home of a fellow writer, and we observe certain rituals and practices developed tacitly in the first few weeks. This is the seventh group I’ve participated in since about 1990, which suggests a certain fickleness on my part.

Writers’ groups differ according to the personalities and needs of the members. Because most of the groups I’ve been in have been dominated by women, there is always the danger that we’ll become a support group rather than a critique group, but there’s nothing wrong with that. The first group I joined met in someone’s backyard in early August and comprised a mix of writers—fiction and nonfiction, new and well established. We had no plan, no format, no sense of where we were going, and as I listened to the others talk about what they wanted to accomplish I felt somewhat lost. I had no idea where I was going. I left and joined another group that focused on writing fiction, where I remained until it was disbanded one evening. During the several years I attended, we arrived at five o’clock, sometimes with coffee and something to nibble on but always with something to read. We were serious business. Only on special occasions did anyone bring food to share with the group, as a form of celebration.

After the group ended, two members got together and restarted it but I never rejoined, though I remained friends with many of the members. Instead I joined a group an hour’s drive away, and on the way to my first meeting was hit by a car, whose front end was demolished. It was raining and windy, and the driver was a young man on his way to a job interview. I wince when I think about it—he was unfailingly polite and heart-sick. His front end would cost him at least a couple thousand dollars to repair. I still think of him and his car. That too was a mixed group and all business—no food, no chitchat.

For many years I gave up on groups until someone persuaded me to try one in the next town but one. I did, and they were interesting but very unfocused, and one member asked me if I’d be interested in running for public office. I have no idea why except that she was political and I could write. I quit and drifted into another group with two men and two other women, who seemed to want a counterweight. Each meeting ended with a jointly prepared meal—a unique perk. My participation in that group lasted for a few months and I drifted off again. The last group I was in has been reconstituted at least once and its original members have dispersed throughout the country. This group had its own rituals—wine and munchies and catching up for the first half hour.

Most of the members of these groups have gone on to have some success in publishing. I come across their names on title pages of books, magazine articles, short stories. The title often brings back a discussion about a particularly knotty passage or challenging research, and I’m glad to see the writer made it through to the end.

Each group has been different, but they all had the same purpose—to give each of us the kind of moral support we need to get over the hump of our own self-doubts and excessive modesty. There is, after all, something arrogant about thinking that I have something to say and the rest of the world should hear it. That kind of thinking goes against all my socialization and upbringing. But the drive to write, to get it down on paper, to push it out into the world is stronger than any brainwashing or training. So my books are out there, in part thanks to the many writers who have listened thoughtfully to my work and offered comments and suggestions, but most of all thanks to the tacit support and approval for the mere act of doing the work.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Opportunities Old and New

I was expecting to use the month of February to get things ready for the launch of my new book, Under the Eye of Kali, in May; the official date is May 19, but I haven’t scheduled any events for the book until June, to give the publisher time to get books out and into libraries and stores. That sounds very rational, but my month has come to a close and I have a stack of things yet to do. This is where I should start whining about how much work writers now do to get a book notice and succeeding in the market, and then maybe a little whining about how it gets harder the older I get. But as I rifled through the notes I’ve been making for myself over the last several weeks, I realized that I’m overwhelmed with work for a good reason.

When I began writing I was a teenager, and the choices for a book were hardcover or paperback. As the editor of the college humor magazine, I typed up my copy, took it to the printer, and a few days later walked over to the printer’s office and picked up a scroll of uncut pages to proof, made changes in pencil in my dorm room that night, and took the pages back the next day. That’s called writing and editing. I hand delivered stacks of finished magazines to various locations on campus. That’s called sales and distribution. Life was simple.

Any writer starting out today faces an array of choices that simply were not available when I began writing, and keeping up with the new opportunities is both a challenge and a thrill. My new book will appear in hardcover, but I hope to sell other rights as the year moves forward. This is what a writer can consider.

Paperback rights can be sold to publishers who sell on the mass market or to a smaller subscription group such as book clubs.

Trade paperback rights lead to a better-quality paperback that can compete with hardcovers in quality and distribution.

In addition a writer can look at large-print books, audio books, and eBooks. The last one is in its great growth period and in a few years will be a venue for publishing that is equal to standard publishing now. Serious nonfiction began coming out in new formats thirty years ago, when academics with important scholarly work that would sell no more than a few hundred copies saw their books published on microfiche.

All of these formats are available to me through established publishers, but writers can go it alone now and have exactly the same options. For most of my writing life the assumption was that anyone who self-published did so because a legitimate publisher wouldn’t take the mss. There was a reason it was called vanity publishing, and the product usually wasn’t very good. Virginia Woolf notwithstanding, most self-published books until recently were dull, poorly written and edited, and not worth the paper they were printed on. That is no longer true. The Lace Reader is the most recent proof of that.

Writers who have had solid careers in producing novels and stories year after year are being brushed aside by publishers who are hoping a new face with a new series gimmick will hit the mega-seller list. But instead of drifting off into another career, selling insurance maybe, these writers have other options. The growth of eBooks means that a new audience will see their work, and for those who still want to hold a book of paper in their hands, new technologies make it possible and affordable. POD (print on demand) books are popping up everywhere, and they keep old books in print and open doors for other writers shut out.

Keeping up with all of this and getting my books on the market in the best formats has changed over the years, requiring far more time than ever. But the opportunities mean new readers and new ways to reach them.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Google and . . .

Most of the time when I think about my writing life, I’m thinking about the writing part—how the story will develop, the way characters are starting to act out, the problems with certain clues. Once I start, I am lost in the story until it finishes. But this month has been about other facets of the jewel of my life—sales and marketing.

I’m not talking now about how to set up programs with libraries, signings at bookstores, or talks to university groups. January 28, 2010, was the deadline for writers to opt out of the newest (and probably final) settlement with Google. The Authors Guild has been staunchly behind the settlement, declaring it a good thing for writers. The National Writers Union has been just as staunchly opposed to it. The last several months have brought me a steady stream of emails about the settlement and opportunities to review the terms on phone seminars. I read the settlement papers sent by one group and sat in on a phone seminar from another. I won’t go over the details here, but I will say that the statement by two lawyers (not both in favor) during the seminar decided me. I opted out of the settlement.

Hard on the heels of that deadline, on January 29, 2010, Macmillan was shut out of Amazon’s Kindle sales and then had all of its books pulled from Amazon, over the issue of pricing. Macmillan is huge and most of us buy books published by one of its imprints some time during the year without even realizing it. The day I signed my contract with G.K. Hall for my first book in 1985, A Reader’s Guide to the Classic British Mystery, the editor sighed and told me, “That’s the last contract we were allowed to sign. Macmillan shut everything down when they bought us out and put everything on hold. The writers are going crazy waiting to find out what’s going to happen.” I know what happened to some of them.

Amazon is now doing to Macmillan a bit of what Google is trying to do to writers—take over “the product” and make all decisions, regardless of official ownership and other rights.

This is not a good time for writers, but when I think about other writers, from Chaucer, who had enough day jobs to populate a small village, up to the number of writers in recent years who were also physicians or businessmen or teachers, I realize there is no time that is good for writers. I don’t know if it matters who wins in the Google settlement or in the Macmillan/Amazon dispute. I only know that the business is changing and the only way to maintain any integrity in my work is to hold on to it as much as possible. When I go on line and find copies of my books for sale in India (India!) and in Europe in formats never part of any contract, I wonder if it’s possible to hold the line, but I’m not ready to give in just yet.

In the 1960s the average starting salary for a social worker was $5,000. A writer who sold a short story to a major magazine, Redbook or Saturday Review, was paid $5,000. The advance for a novel was generally $5,000 into the 1990s and 2000s. And now? Can you imagine any unknown writer selling a story for $30,000? Or getting an advance of $30,000 for each book in a series of midlist crime novels?

Google and Amazon are not the problem—they’re just symptoms of a larger problem, and not one that I can solve, but at least I can resist it as the opportunity arises. And for now I will sit on the sidelines and watch the big guys duke it out while I work on selling my crime fiction through the usual outlets—bookstores and libraries—and work to find perhaps a few new ones.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Vacation That Wasn't

This is the time of year when I head off to India for three weeks of sunshine, spicy food, and sleeping late. I have been doing this off and on for over ten years, and before that I lived in India for a year at a time, returning to the States to complete graduate school and for work. India is in my blood and my psyche. So when events transpired to keep me here this January, I thought I could cope by planning my trip for next year. But I was wrong. I’m not exactly in mourning, but I have been doing the kinds of things that lovesick souls do—mooning over substitutes and thinking of “what might have been.” And this has led to what has turned out to be “the vacation that wasn’t.”

During the first week of January I watched Malayali movies every night—often the same one over and over again. I love Indian movie music—it has a lilt and a lightness that just makes me want to swing and dance and percolate joy. One of the movies is set in Trivandrum, the city where I used to live, and the shots are of places I know well—the Secretariat, parts of Statue Road (since renamed), one of the colleges, and several side streets.

I love the autorickshaws, and even though I supposedly graduated to taxis because of my adult and employment status, I still prefer the little three-wheeled autorickshaws. They’re easy to get in and out of when taking photographs, let the passenger enjoy the breeze, are reasonably priced, pass down narrow lanes and alleyways, and can be found everywhere. Any movie with autos is fun for me to watch. After the movies I page through an Indian cookbook, thinking about what I might make, and then settle down with a Malayalam lesson book. When I went to India to study Sanskrit, I took along a grammar book for Malayalam and picked up a little of the language. I have continued to try to pick up more and more of it, but that’s a challenge in the US. Still, I have a first grade reader and a few other books and I make a pretense of studying them every once in a while.

This is where I start to get restless. The first book-length story featuring Indian-American Anita Ray, set in my beloved Kerala, will appear in May 2010, and I have a second one ready to go if the first one does well (as I hope it will). But I already have several ideas for the third in the series, and I know the main idea is a good one because it keeps popping up after the first time it came to me about three years ago. One of the tests of a good idea for me is if it comes to me, seems exciting, and then after I put it aside to think about something else, it keeps coming back. When this happens, I know it has staying power and can be developed into a novel. This idea for the next Anita Ray novel has been showing up and showing up and showing up regularly, but I’m not yet ready to begin writing. I know that once I begin, I will have to stay with it for months. Writing a novel is a commitment—a long-term one that I cannot set aside because something else comes along or I’m crushed for time or I’m tired and want to get to bed early or any other reason that seems a good excuse for avoiding the work of writing. When I begin writing a novel, I have to stay with it.

The result of this vacation is that I can now feel myself settling into another book—or perhaps being taken over by it. It’s like looking into a well, listening for the sound of a pebble hitting the water or the muddy bottom, waiting for an echo to come back to me. Instead of leaning over and waiting, I’m falling—down and down and down. I am down in the well, and the only way out is to wrestle my way up the sides, stone by stone, scene by scene, working my fingers into crevices and holding on while my nails crack and my skin tears, pushing up and up and up until the book is written, and I again have time on my bloodied hands.

And the bigger problem is that I have several ideas for books, but when an idea for a novel comes along, it takes me over and the other ideas subside and wait quietly for their own day in the sun. But this time I’m going to write about them too, in another blog—and maybe the demons that fight for my writing energy, drawing me into the well, will sit still and listen to the entire menu of ideas before dragging me off again. Staying at home with time on my hands is becoming far too dangerous. I don’t dare spend a vacation at home anymore.