Archive for June, 2014

Writing Retreat Sun Porch
Writing Retreat Sun Porch, photo by Crystal King

I’m wrapping up a four day stint spent in the company of my three writing group partners, in a rambling old house on the coast of Maine. It is one of those houses that should be the setting for a story, and in fact makes a cameo appearance in one of our members’ works in progress. Doors and corridors open upon room after room, and even more rooms, with extra mattresses squirreled away under beds. There is flowered wall paper and high ceilings and closets full of family history and old books, and views of the craggy rocks, the pebbly beach, and the ocean from most windows. There are plenty of nooks and crannies in which to work, including a massive sun porch, and lots of old roll-top desks with relics of past times still nestled in their cubbies. There are even a couple of functioning rotary phones, a mysterious Back Stair, and an Ice-O-Mat affixed to the pantry wall. It is, in a word, perfect.

Ice-O-Mat
Ice-O-Mat

But even without such an idyllic setting, a writing retreat can be a fantastically invigorating way to remind oneself of those aspects of writing  of which it is all too easy to lose sight, especially if one is also juggling a job, children, and other responsibilities: the commitment to write, one’s reason to do so, one’s capacity for sustained focus over a period of hours. And of course, a writing retreat is an excellent way to make some tangible progress on an existing project. Herewith, 7 tips on how to make this happen.

1. Choose your company well.

It is important to surround yourself with like-minded people, fellow writers or other artists who will abide by the schedule (see tip #4) with seriousness and also provide for stimulating conversation and good laughs during your breaks. The ability to be both silly and serious together is key. (Unless you are the type to favor a solitary retreat. Personally, I balk at the silence and me-ness of a retreat alone, but folks like Joyce Carol Oates would probably revel in it. Since JCO is unlikely to be reading my blog any time soon, I’ll continue with my more social-minded retreat tips.) Our writing group, The Salt & Radish Writers, has been meeting consistently every two weeks for six years. We work well together, and we play well together. We poke affectionate fun at each other’s idiosyncracies. We care about each other. And yes, that sounds all squishy and woo-woo, but it’s important.

The Salt + Radish Writers

2. If possible, select a setting amid nature.

The coast of Maine is rugged, craggy, salted. Striated rocks jut out into the water, wild rose bushes grow in a tumble along scraggly paths. The ocean is take-your-breath-away cold, the air turns crisper just as soon as one passes the state’s Welcome sign on I-95. One can, of course, retreat to any place that is away from the hubbub of one’s regular life, but being out in nature offers, literally, a breath of fresh air. The brain is oxygenated, the eyes can rest on the horizon, or on a vista of trees or flowers. The blood can pump through the body during a run or a hike on a sand or dirt path, and ideas flow more freely.

Biddeford Pool beach, ME
Biddeford Pool beach, ME, photo by Crystal King

3. Articulate a goal beforehand, and share it out loud.

It’s all about accountability. For some, accountability to oneself is all it takes to sit down in the chair and just do it. For most, articulating a goal to others makes the goal more real and more necessary, and therefore more likely to be met. One writer of historical fiction, Crystal King, has been working on edits of her manuscript based on comments from an agent, diligently retyping the whole thing in order to ensure that she pays attention to every word. Another, Kelly Robertson, has been attacking a various plot points and addressing issues raised during her year-long participation in Grub Street’s Novel Incubator program. A third member, Jennifer Dupee, is working on query letters to send to agents. I am enjoying a break from the nitty gritty, task-oriented activities involved in launching my first book and delving back into the first draft of my second book. We’ve all made it to, or acceptably close to, our goals.

4. Set a reasonable schedule, and then adhere to it.

You are here to work. That is the primary purpose. Therefore, you need a schedule that includes a good amount of work time. We set our start time for 9:00 or 9:30 am, allowing for a good night’s sleep and ample time for breakfast, or even for fitting in a morning run. Then 3-4 solid hours of work time, each of us settled in a different corner of the house. I loved the companionable silence, the knowledge that as I worked, three other people were chipping away at their projects as well—musing, pondering, creating. Every now and then, one of them passes me on the way to the kitchen for a piece of fruit, chocolate, or a cup of coffee. There is a quick exchange of smiles, in silence as each acknowledges the importance of not disturbing the other’s writing state of mind. We repeat the experience in the afternoon for another 3-4 hour stint.

5. Take long breaks, eat well, and get some exercise.

Perhaps these should be three separate tips, but in my mind they are intrinsically linked. In addition to the solid wake-up and breakfast time we gave ourselves, we take two hours at lunch time to make and pack a picnic together and bring it down to the rocks at the beach, then go for a stroll on the point. And after the second 3-4 hour writing stint of the afternoon, we take the evenings off, exploring the area a bit and eating out, often discussing our work, and often also just gabbing as friends do. Our group always meets around food, so it is natural one night for us to head to Fore Street in Portland for a fabulous farm-to-table meal. This year, we were lucky to be hosted for drinks by writer Mameve Medwed, in whose delightful company we shared some good storytelling.

6. Bring snacks, mostly healthy but some treats, too. No, not quite that many.

In our giddy enthusiasm, we always over-pack in the snacks and drinks (as in boozy drinks) department. But it is great to have a stash of wasabi chick peas, chocolate, almonds, dried apricots and home-made fig cake in the kitchen, sometimes just as an excuse to get up and walk around and ingest a little sugar. Plus our signature snack: fresh radishes with good, unsalted butter and a dusting of fleur de sel. And the gin-and-tonics don’t hurt, either. (What? It was five o’clock somewhere.)

Writing Nook
Writing Nook

7. Make arrangements for your pets/children/spouses/plants, and then put them out of your mind, or at least in its far reaches.

This is your time. You may have several small children at home. You may have a new puppy or a senile cat. You may have other dependents for whom you are usually the main source of care. But chances are that if you have planned a writing retreat, or even if you are simply seriously considering one, you are willing to make arrangements to cover for their care and feeding while you are away. Do what you can to give yourself peace of mind that everyone is in good hands, and then go Do Your Thing. Those who are helping you out back home are doing it for just that reason.

(Bonus tip #8: Bring music. This might not work for everyone, but our group finds it inspiring to write to the strains of wordless classical music. When I am on my own, I favor Indian classical: Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Bannerjee and L. Subramaniam among others. The rhythms and surges of the music may well come to match the patterns of your writing. Visit The Undercover Soundtrack by Roz Morris for a great blog series on writers who use music as part of their creative process.)

For additional advice and details, head over the Crystal King’s blog.

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Photo by Ed Ralph via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Ed Ralph via Wikimedia Commons

Next week I head to a writing retreat with my writing group. The repetition of the word “writing” is intentional. Writing writing writing. I’m going to write! Hurrah! On the rugged coast of Maine, in a rambling house with nooks and alcoves galore, filled with history and books. The three days beckon to me like one of those pools of astonishingly turquoise water in the midst of dark blue ocean, an atoll where suddenly the filaments of brown sea grass reaching up to entangle you are gone, and the rough, fish-filled coral reef parts, and there is nothing but light, undulating sand beneath clear water. Ahhh.

But there’s still some swimming to do, against the current, to get there. Here’s why, in a verbatim transcript of emails between me, my Next Doors counterpart Kathy, and my husband J, during a two hour span a few days ago. I swear I’m not making this up.

June 2, 2014 at 11:05 am. Email from me to Kathy. Subject: weekend of June 20

Hey, I don’t want to forget to do some planning for when I’m at my writing retreat. No need to read this now, just want to figure it out at some point.

I will leave during the daytime on Thursday the 19th. Will need to figure out how to get K to (and from) piano. (I’d have her miss it but she’s part of a recital that Saturday so could use the lesson.) Will need S pick-up.

Friday, J can do drop off, but there will be pick-up needed. Can K hang with you guys until J is home? Or I can arrange a playdate for her. (There’s no more French class.)

I’m happy to see if Julie or a local teen can help out for any of this. Just let me know what’s feasible on your end, and I’ll fill in any gaps.

S has a birthday party on Saturday morning when J and K are at karate, but Jessie’s babysitter will take her and Jessie. There’s a Chhandika dance recital so he’ll take both girls there on Sunday morning.

I’ll be back mid- to late-afternoon on Sunday. You know, if I decide to come back.

 

June 2, 2014 at 11:09 am. Response from Kathy to me:

Heh?  I can’t even process this.  It’s Monday!

 

June 2, 2014 at 11:10 am. From me to husband J. Subject: writing retreat.

Just want to make sure these dates are in your brain somewhere. I’ll be at writing retreat, leaving Thursday the 19th daytime. I’ll figure out coverage, as always, but could you drop off S on Friday the 20th morning? Please put in your calendar. Now. Thank you.

(Yes, I know this is our anniversary. We need to find an alternate day to go out. How about Saturday the 28th?

K is to be part of a piano recital on Saturday the 21st, but I don’t yet know what time.

Sunday the 22nd there’s an open house/recital thingy at dance.

I know, complicated weekend for me to be away.

 

June 2, 2014 at 11:11 am. From me to Kathy:

I TOLD you there was no need to read this now!

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:10 pm. From husband J to me: 

What is the dance recital timing?

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:17 pm. From me to J: 

Hmm, I don’t know yet. Need to find out. Also that of piano recital.

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:19 pm. From J to me:

OK, I have multiple conflicts the morning of 7/28:  Karate and a seminar I’m attending in Boston.

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:26 pm. From Kathy to me: 

Okay, now that I’ve had some coffee…

Th 6/19: There’s a soccer potluck from 5:30 to 7:00.  Would be happy to take both your kids to this with us.  What time is piano again?  L and I could take K to piano, then pick up little ones and head to potluck.

Fr 6/20: Can pick up all four kids, though if Kung Fu is back on (which is questionable), I will have to take K with us before getting little ones.

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:28 pm. From me to J:

Huh? Do you mean 6/28? June 28 is when you seem to be at a conference, according to calendar. I can take K to karate. Could we still do dinner that evening? Or does your conference include evening?

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:32 pm. From me to Kathy:

Mmmm…. coffeeeee

Th 6/19: Piano is 3:30 to 4:00. Yipes, four kids at potluck? Will M [Mr. Next Doors] be with you?

Fr 6/20: why don’t I just arrange a playdate for K. That will simplify something at least. Adding this to my list.

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:36 pm. From Kathy to me. Subject: Confirming Julie…

…to watch little ones on 6/30 and 7/1 from 9:00 to 3:00?  What about nap time?  Should we just have her stay until 1:30?  Don’t want to push E’s nap later.

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:38. From me to J:

Ok, I found out the piano recital timings. It will be 1:15 to 2:30 on Saturday 6/21. You can pick up S from her friend’s b’day party at 1:00 and head over. (She will have eaten, and will be taken to party by Jessie’s babysitter.) The teacher will put K toward the beginning so that if S gets antsy and needs nap, you’ll be able to leave. The whole thing should end at 2:30, in case she can stick it out for the “awards.”

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:44. From me to Kathy:

Wait, that’s a whole nuther set of plans! We can say 9:00 to 1:30, that’s fine. She can put E down before she leaves, and I can put S down and take the monitor until you get home.

I’ve asked my Julie about 7/2, she’s checking with her employers and will get back to me.

Logistics overload.

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:46 pm. From Kathy to me:

Ha!  I guess I shouldn’t tell you that M will be away for 5 days in July?

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:58 pm. From me to Kathy:

July?? July doesn’t exist.

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(Fourth in a series on month-by-month preparations in the year before a book launch. In this case, the book launch is in October 2014. These are some of the things to think about, questions to ask oneself, issues to research in the course of this complex process which these days involves more and more of the author’s time and savvy. Previous posts are here, here, and here.)

Seven to eight months to go: 

Tip sheet (Title Information Page)
At this point, the publisher asks for some information to populate the sections of the Title Information Page (TIP sheet) that will then go to the sales reps at the distributor. These will be used to sell the book to various accounts–bookstores, libraries, etc. Each publisher will have a slightly different form and requirements. There are some examples here and here. For She Writes Press, the sections included: sales hook, description, key selling points, audience, author bio, author residence, comparative titles, marketing & publicity highlights, and endorsements. Some of this information also gets fed into databases that populate fields on Amazon and other online book retailers.

Toughest here, for me, was coming up with comparative titles. The SWP preference was for titles that came out in the past three years, in the same categories as my book, with a similar audience, and of course with a good sales history. Not easy. For example, I think readers of Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden, would be drawn to my book and enjoy it, but that one came out back in 1997, which in the publishing world was at least two eras ago. But I did include it, along with more recent titles, such as Teatime for the Firefly, Russian Winter, and The Twentieth Wife.

Final cover design
The designer, publisher and I finalized the cover, with which I am delighted. (See the end of this post for working with a designer.) The designer began concepts for the back cover and spine, which we finalized within a couple of weeks. We included the blurbs (see below) that I received.

Publicist
After a lot of soul-searching, budgeting and general reflection, I finalized my choice of a publicist at this point, finding what I believe is a solid choice from among the various proposals I received, and sticking to a contract that is focused on those areas in which I have the least experience/contacts of my own: print and online reviews, radio, and the book blogosphere. I’m handling social media and the setting up of most local events on my own, and might expand to a Phase 2 with the publicist once I begin to travel.

Social Media
I’m lucky to have a social media expert, Crystal King, as one of my good friends and writing partners. Under her guidance, I made a list of social media tasks/goals. There are lots of posts out there on this, and I’m not in a position to wax eloquent, but this I can say: it’s never too early to get going on social media, or at least on figuring out what one wants to put into social media, and what one wants to avoid.

Lists
I’m a list-y type of gal. Have always been. Lists are how I keep everything organized. My oldest child started copying me, making her own “lists,” scribbling on a pad with a pen, before she could actually write. At this point, I started a mega list. It’s in an Excel file with many tabs, including: balance sheet, expenses, master pre-launch to-do list, month-by-month to-do list, media contacts, marketing ideas, endorsement requests, events, web site changes, and more. To some it might seem a thing of beauty, but others it might horrify. Either way, there’s no denying it: there is A LOT to keep track of, and it gets more and more overwhelming as the launch month approaches. I started populating all these tabs about eight months out (actually, I started putting marketing ideas in a mishmash on one tab about two years earlier), and I go back to this list several times a day. I’d be at a complete loss without it.

Blurbs
Having given my potential endorsers a deadline of March 15th, I checked in with them politely at the end of February, sending them a gentle reminder of the deadline but also giving them a potential out (although I really, really hoped they would not take me up on the latter). One required an extension, to which he assiduously adhered, and by March 15th I received the first two (glowing) blurbs, from Marjan Kamali and Bret Anthony Johnston.

First pages
The publisher sent me my “First Pages,” i.e. the interior pages of the manuscript all designed and laid out as they’d appear in the book itself. My first reaction upon opening up the PDF file was sheer joy at seeing the lovely choice of font and designs for chapter headings, section breaks, etc. The second reaction was one of horror as I realized I was expected to re-read the whole thing, again, for the four hundredth time, to catch any errors. I was very tempted to skip that step, but I am glad I did not, as I caught not only some small typographical errors, but also a couple of more substantial ones, such as the fact that one of my characters knelt to be at his brother’s height, except his brother was 15. That would have made the kneeling character a giant. The error was a remnant of an older draft, in which the brother was a little boy, not a 15 year old.

Random bits:
Little, random thoughts started popping into my head at odd moments. I started dropping those into Evernote (as I always have access to the program on my phone), then adding them to my various lists: look into credit card readers for my phone, open a separate bank account (or not? Should I? Need to figure this out!), consider a P.O box to use as an address with a MailChimp account (MailChimp? Constant Contact? iContact? Which one? Need to figure this out!), etc. More and more to add to the lists.

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