Archive for the ‘publishing’ Category

#WeNeedDiverseBooksIt’s been a while since I’ve done a Friday round-up, but I’m eager to restart, and this week has been one of plentiful material on the various topics I tend to follow. And I like to share.

Books:
All lists are subjective and incomplete, and often omit entries one feels should be included, but here’s a list of books to add to your To Be Read pile, from the Washington Post’s list of “top 50 books for 2014.”

The cyber-waves were all a flutter over the past couple of days, for good reason, about Daniel Handler’s (a.k.a Lemony Snicket) racist gaffe in his speech at the National Book Award ceremony, wherein he made a crack about Jaqueline Woodson, author of Brown Girl Dreaming, being allergic to watermelons. (Yoinks! Who says such things? I guess we know who.) To his credit, Handler apologized for his comment (which of course he says he meant as a joke) in a very real way: not just words, but a pledge to contribute $10,000 to the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and to match donations for 24 hours up to $100,000. That, folks, is a meaningful apology, although of course it does not erase or excuse the shameful behavior. I hurried over to make a donation.

On the topic of racism, Toni Morrison (swoon) says it like it is, with her trademark perceptiveness and gentle tone, on the Stephen Colbert show. If you don’t already love the woman and her writing, this will convert you. Makes me want to read Beloved all over again. (Thanks to Anjali Enjeti for calling this to my attention. The world should have more Anjalis, methinks.)

And in other Fabulous Author news, Ursula K. Le Guin makes a moving tribute to “writers of the imagination” and to books as art. Do take a look/listen.

Meantime, I just finished Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors, a very powerful book set during the decades long war between Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. Raw and devastating, it is also sweet and loving. A slim volume, an engrossing read.

Kids’ book club:

The fact that I run a children’s book club has garnered more attention than I ever anticipated. Attention was never what I was seeking. However, I’m glad to have been featured a few months ago in the Boston Globe, to have a piece on Parenting.com on the dos and don’ts of kids’ book clubs, and just today I had fun being interviewed by Barbara Dooley of the Barbara Dooley Show based out of Athens, GA. She wanted to know all about my motivation to start the club, and any advice I have for those wanting to do the same. This month, we are reading Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor, which is proving to be a somewhat wacky, incredibly creative and altogether enjoyable read set in Nigeria. How can this urban planner not love a young adult book that mentions, on the first page, the Lagos electricity company?

Urban planning:

Take a peek at Le Corbusier’s legacy in India via this series of photos by Paris-based photographer Manuel Bougot in Chandigarh. A different side of India.

Indian dance:

Here is a heart-warming and powerful story about a young woman with Down Syndrome who put in years of focused study to achieve what is a rite of passage for may Indian girls: the bharatanatyam “arangetram,” a solo performance. “Her father tells the crowd that [Hema] Ramaswamy’s arangetram was more than a dance graduation; it was the day she became, in the eyes of the world, a full individual.” This young woman’s strength and determination are inspiring. Additional photography by Preston Merchant.

Parenting:

This article needs very little description. It’s a spot on, non-blaming, humorously written description of what it means to be the “default” parent—the one who knows the kids’ shoe sizes, the dates of friends’ birthday parties, the location of the favorite barrette (on the floor of the living room behind the arm chair, mental note made at some point in anticipation a getting-ready-for-school meltdown). If you are the default parent, every single line will resonate with you. If you are not, you’ll gain new appreciation for the one who is.

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Path to the Market Place

Path to the Market Place. Photo by Pauline Eccles, via Wikimedia Commons

 

(Based on a presentation delivered at Grub Street Writers‘ recent conference, The Muse and the Marketplace.)

Writers looking to publish their book-length work currently face a vast and confusing array of choices regarding how to usher their book into the market. The fact that there even exists a choice is, to use a word of the times, empowering, but the extreme variations within and among the options with regard to quality, integrity, amount of work involved, cost, and other factors make this choice, for some, a very challenging one. There is traditional publishing, and self-publishing (also referred to as “independent” publishing), and various options in between, including “hybrid” publishing, “partner publishing,” “self-directed publishing,” and more. Brooke Warner at She Writes Press has some informational posts elucidating the differences among these here and here, among others. She’s a vocal evangelist for what she terms the “third way.”

So what is a writer to do, how is she to decide which route to pursue? Having recently gone through this process rather blindly, learning as I go, absorbing a lot of information about the publishing industry, having to make important decisions almost on the spot, feeling carried forward in the frothy, low-visibility crest of a wave that I believe is gathering significant momentum, I realize I wish I had understood at the start just how much truth and value there is in Polonius’ admonishment to Laertes in Hamlet:

“This above all—to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

After a lot of fumbling around trying to find a path that made me feel like I was, am, being true to myself and to my book, I’ve settled on a hybrid approach which, had I had the clarity of thought to realize this earlier, is what makes absolute sense for me. Everything about my life has been hybrid, from my mixed-race genetic make-up to my bilingualism to my childhood straddling three continents to my choice of multidisciplinary undergraduate studies (international development studies) and graduate studies (urban planning) to my ensuing multifaceted career. How could I have felt comfortable in a single publishing silo?

So here is a compilation of questions I urge you to answer for yourself if you are trying to get published. Some of them are very practical, others are more touch-feely and might make you decide you really need to go run some errands rather than think about them, but I do believe they are all important.

1.    What are your goals?

  • For your book:

Why did you write it? To get it off your chest? To feel like a writer? To spread a message as broadly as possible? To change someone’s life?
Who did you write it for? Who is your target audience? How do they hear about books? How do they read them? Will they care how yours is published?
Do you want to see it in the New York Times? Do you want it to be eligible for prizes?
Do you care about subsidiary rights? (Translations, movies, audio books, etc.)

  • For yourself:

Whose validation/recognition do you need, if any?
Are you trying to build a career? Will you be writing other books?
Are you hoping to make a living by writing? To change your career?

 2.    What is your level of self-confidence?

  • How good are you at speaking up?
  • How confident are you in your decisions, in your judgment? (Would you benefit from having the opinions of others such as an agent, an editor, a publisher?)

 3.    How do you feel about collaboration? How much control do you need or want to have in the process?

 4.    What is your risk profile?

  • Are you willing to experiment?
  • How do you deal with change and new things?
  • How do you deal with the unexpected?

5.    What types of activities/interactions give you energy? What sucks it away?

Do you enjoy being alone? Do you prefer your day (when you’re not writing) to be full of interactions with other human beings? With cats? Does the thought of calling up someone you don’t know to ask for something make your blood run cold? Do you dread promotion? Or thrive on it?  (Hmm, maybe that last one would not be a good sign.)

6.    How do you define success?

Does success mean meeting all your goals? Feeling happy? Wanting to do it all again? Catching the attention of a particular person? Being on national TV? Having time to write? Quitting your day job? Being accepted by your family? Selling 100,000 copies of your book? Receiving invitations for speaking engagements? Being reviewed in the NY Times?

7.    What is your budget?

How much money can you invest upfront? Consider that with partner publishing, expenses might include an initial fee, developmental editing, a publicist, advance reader copies, etc.

8.    How much time do you have?

  • What’s your time frame for this project? Do you need to see your book out there within a few months? A year? Can you wait two years (or more)?
  • How much time do you have in your schedule on a daily/weekly basis to devote to getting your book published?

9.    What are your organizational skills like?

Can you keep track of a lot of details, dates, to-do lists? Do you want to?

10.    Are you curious to learn about the publishing industry? Or does your brain already feel overly strained?

Bonus question: What is your support network like? Do you have helpful and supportive friends? Family members? Are you a part of networks (writer network, alumni network, professional industry network, etc) that can provide you with contacts?

Going through all these questions, you can zero in on what matters to you and what you can imagine yourself happily doing, and thus make a publishing choice that rings true to you, and will ultimately be satisfying and successful. And I’m sure there are many other helpful questions–please chime in with some.

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muse2014poster

(Originally posted on 4/30/13 with reference to Muse 2013)

In just over a week, on May 2nd, begins one of my favorite weekends of the year: that of the Muse and the Marketplace writing conference in Boston. Among the best in the country in caliber and professionalism, it attracts writers, editors, agents, PR specialists and many others connected to the craft and business of writing. (#Muse2014 for those of you active in social media.) After six years of attending this conference religiously–holding the weekend sacred and putting aside all other responsibilities of parenthood, teaching and freelancing–I have a few tips for anyone attending this, or any other, writing conference. (And this year, I will be presenting at it: a session on “partner publishing” with my agent, April Eberhardt.)

Wear something interesting. The dress code is casual but professional. No jeans, cut-offs, etc. But within that, be creative! You want to stand out, be noticed in a positive way. Everyone will be meeting hundreds of people. Don’t you want to be easily remembered? Keep your clothing appropriate, of course, but don’t be afraid to accessorize, or wear something that helps spark conversation. Even better if it relates to the type of writing you do. My historical novel is set in India, and I own some salwar kameez, the loose pants and tunic outfits that many women in India wear. Aside from the fact that they are remarkably comfortable, these colorful outfits invariably stand out from the sea of slacks and jackets, and often attract comments, which then naturally segue into a conversation about my writing.

Dress in layers. Writing conferences, like many types of conferences, often take place in large hotels. There are invariably fluctuations in the HVAC system that are beyond the control of conference organizers. One year, there was an Arctic gale blowing through some of the session rooms. Another year, some floors of the hotel were sweltering and oppressive. Dress in layers that can be removed or added as necessary.

Bring plenty of business cards. Like 30 or so for each day of the conference. These can be your “regular” business card that relates to your other, non-writerly (gasp!) life, if you have one, or cards made specifically for your writer avatar. (I use Zazzle.com for the latter.) Either way, have plenty on hand, and make sure that the information is up to date, and contains the URL of your web site or blog if you have one. Then, don’t be shy about handing out your card, although always do so in a respectful and understated manner.

Keep a pen on hand. Even if you are planning to take notes on a laptop or other electronic device, keep a pen handy, if only to jot down, on the back of each business card you receive, a few key words about the person whose card it is. After 2-3 days of conference-going, you will be glad for the reminder of who was who.

Follow up with the people you meet. Wait a day or two for people to travel back home and unwind from the conference, and then drop them a note to tell them how you enjoyed meeting them. Include some kind of reminder of who you are–a reference to your conversation, or something that will jog their memory.

Engage with fellow writers, not just editors and agents. Even if you are on a quest to snag an agent or land a book deal, do not neglect the vast and supportive and resource-full community of writers around you. Other writers are your allies, your support network, your source of encouragement, your creative sounding boards. I met every member of my writing group through Grub Street, and have made many additional friendships through the Muse.

When engaging with editors or agents, be mindful of their schedules. At these conferences, agents and editors have responsibilities beyond simply being at the conference. They may be leading sessions, or participating in manuscript consultations, and their free-to-mill-about time might not always coincide with that of writers. If you spot your dream agent at the bathroom sink two minutes before the start of a session, that is not the time to launch into your pitch, even if you’ve honed it down to a dazzling 30 seconds. Smile, perhaps make some remark that is appropriate or might make the agent laugh, and wait for another chance, when he or she will then notice and remember you for being someone likeable.

Do plenty of research in advance. Look up the bios and web sites of presenters and others before the conference (and bear in mind that this takes a good bit of time). I use an old-fashioned method of index cards, jotting down some key facts about the people I would like to speak with if I get a chance, and keeping the cards on me at the conference.

Begin conversations with topics other than your book. If you are in the lunch line behind an editor you’d like to connect with, begin a conversation about something from that person’s bio, or something relating to the conference, or even relating to the food. If you are engaging and pleasant, conversation will naturally lead to your writing. And if it doesn’t, you can then actively steer it that way, in an artful manner, of course.

If you have a web site or blog, make sure it is updated. People you meet with invariably look you up online. Everyone can be forgiven, of course, for having a somewhat outdated site, but it definitely makes you look more interesting and on top of things if your last post is not three months old.

Sit toward the front. I have never understood why people will shell out hundreds of dollars to attend writing conferences and get the chance to learn from and speak with accomplished authors, editors and agents, and then sit in the way back of the room. Go ahead and sit up front. I tend to favor the second row. The first can be a bit awkward, and there is nothing in front of you to hide your feet if you need to slip off your uncomfortable shoe for a minute (although–why are you wearing uncomfortable shoes?) or hide your phone if you need to check it to make sure there is not word from your sitter about a crisis at home. But in the second row, you are close enough to be seen by the speaker and make eye contact, and you can be among the first to go up to him or her to speak in person.

Reach out to people who look lost or shy. Attending a conference with 700 other people can be overwhelming, especially for some writers who are used to their solitary pursuit and may be singularly introverted. You can make a big difference in someone’s experience, and create a lasting impression, just by inviting him or her to join your lunch table, or simply smiling and being approachable. And you may end up making a connection that is meaningful for you as well.

Practice your elevator pitch. It is essential that you be able to summarize your writing, especially book-length writing, in a succinct and engaging 2-3 sentences. You will be asked many, many times a variation on “So, tell me about your writing” and you need to be ready with a 30 second reply. Memorize it, and then practice how to say it without it sounding memorized. Perhaps have a couple of different versions, so you have multiple ideas in your mind, and you will be less likely to freeze if you forget a specific word. I worked on a book for ten years and still worry that I’ll sound like a bumbling idiot and won’t be able to tell an editor what it is about.

Did I miss anything crucial? Please chime in!

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(Third 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 and here.)

Ten months to go:

(I’ll be covering 2 months at a time for a couple of months in order to catch up with the reality of my actual launch.)

 

Woman Writing in an Interior, painting by Félix Emile-Jean Vallotton. Via Google Art Project.

Woman Writing in an Interior, painting by Félix Emile-Jean Vallotton. Via Google Art Project.

Final edits:
With the contract signed and the initial euphoria tempered with a good dose of trepidation, the time has come to send the final manuscript to the publisher. Don’t rush this stage, as tempting as it may well be to send the darn thing off and dust your hands of it. This is the last chance to make any significant edits. Beyond this, edits will be limited to proof-reading and small fixes as the manuscript begins its transformation into a book. In my case, the manuscript had already been through both a developmental edit and a line edit by a professional freelance editor.

I recommend doing a thorough re-read, out loud if you can stand it. Don’t be tempted to make any substantial changes, unless urged to do so by an editor. Changes you embark on due to some inner voice of yours will only cause you to wonder if you then need to go back and re-change other things to line up with the new changes, etc. It’s a horrible, churning vortex that you already managed to escape at least once. Why go there again?

Hit “send”. Push that baby out of the nest. Breathe. Have a drink.

Nine months to go:

Now that the manuscript is out of your hands, a torrent of tasks begins. Here’s what I tackled at this point. Bear in mind that each of these topics is worthy of a lengthy post of its own. My purpose here is simply to bring to light the things to be thinking about at this point.

  • Publicists: You probably want to give your book the best chance possible amid the ocean of other books out there, but figuring out what type of publicist to hire, how much to spend without any guarantee of sales, what elements to focus on (Blog tour? Radio interviews? Print reviews? Events? Local? National?) can spur some deep soul searching. It took me over two months to come to a decision. If you are thinking of hiring a publicist, this site provides a great list of publicists who will work directly with the author. Bear in mind that a publicist will likely come on board about 4-6 months before your launch. That means that they are planning out their work load at least a couple of months before THAT. So now is a good time to start the selection process.
  • Social media: There’s a lot of advice online on whether and how and where to hone your social media presence. I can’t claim any expertise here. But I do know that 9 months prior to the book launch is NOT too early to be thinking about these things. I purchased the URL with my book title, as well as this one with my own name, four years ago. Whatever stage you are at with your book, I recommend doing these things right away. Whether or not to blog, to Tweet, to have a Facebook author page, these are all things to be thinking about.
  • Endorsements: This is an awkward, humbling, painful process. You are asking for an endorsement, or “blurb,” from an established writer you most likely don’t know in person. This means coming straight out and asking a perfect stranger who is terribly busy with her own writing, promoting, possible other career, family, and more to take hours of her time to read a random book about which she knows nothing, and then either say something nice about it, or feel terrible for letting you know she doesn’t feel comfortable endorsing it. Putting yourself through this can mean receiving some wonderful quotes from writers you admire, bringing you to tears of gratitude, but it takes time. I recommend allowing a week for the author to get back to you via email, a week to send a hard copy of your manuscript to him, at least six weeks to allow him time to read it, and two additional weeks as a possible extension, all this before your galleys, or Advance Reader Copies, will be ready for printing, which itself can be five months before the actual launch date. So, starting this process at launch-minus-9-months is a good idea. Here’s some solid advice on asking for blurbs.
  • Cover design: At this point, the graphic artist and I got into the nitty gritty of the cover design. She started drawing up different ideas. I provided her with images which I sourced from various sites, including iStock and Shutterstock, two of the go-to sites for royalty-free images. I have been fortunate to be able to be significantly involved in this process, and I’m thrilled with the result. My earlier post provides some links to working smoothly with a graphic designer. (I also began work with an artist who drew me a wonderful map of the area in Rajasthan, India, where my story takes place.)

  • Events: Now is also a good time to start a list of events to attend once your book is out. These might be writing conferences, professional industry events in a field related to the topic of your book, cultural festivals, etc. Plan whether you will travel and where, what events are likely to provide you with the biggest reward (for example, can you speak on a panel? Sell your books?), what your budget is, etc. Some events require submissions of proposed sessions a full year in advance. I recommend creating a calendar of events that includes these deadlines. I’m excited to be speaking with my agent on “partner publishing” next month at Grub Street Writer’s annual conference in Boston.

muse2014poster

 

Okay. I suspect these activities will fill up any free time during months ten and nine. Please comment with any additional suggestions, and come visit on May 20th for more detail on publicists, as well as TIP sheets, galleys, how to stay organized, and more.

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Photo by Venkat2336 via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Venkat2336 via Wikimedia Commons

With FAINT PROMISE OF RAIN coming out in October 2014, last November marked Publication-minus-11-months. After signing the contract the previous month, I began November by dancing a jig, and promptly losing all the momentum I had finally managed to gain on the draft of my next book. I’d actually jumped on the NaNoWriMo bandwagon, albeit more for the camaraderie than anything else, and with the modified (and modest) goal of 15K words in the month. I had started out the month with a bang, putting down on paper a good 5000 words in the first week. But then my mind became split. I started allowing myself to think concretely about many of the marketing and promotion ideas I’d been collecting in a mishmash of a spreadsheet for over two years. I realized I would need to re-read my manuscript again, carefully, making any final edits before handing it over to the publisher. I understood that I would need to postpone the research trip to Lucknow that I had been on the brink of booking for January. In short, I re-adjusted my expectations and my plans.

Then came some requests from the publisher: an author bio, an author photo, a book cover memo, and my preferred month of publication between August and November 2014. Yes, I did get to choose. October. No point to August, it’s a dead month in terms of business, people have already bought their summer reads and realizing they’ve only made it through three of the ten books they’d lined up, folks are spending precious moments out of doors (I hope) and not trawling the Internet for book ideas. September is too crazy for most people, including me. Back to school and the start of all activities for children and parents alike. New schedules, readjustment to getting up even earlier, email to catch up on, etc. October is good. The dust has settled a bit. There’s time for a bit of buzz to build before people are doing their holiday shopping. People are more focused. So I went with that.

Author bio. A simple paragraph was cause for much revision and consultation with family, agent, writing pals and others. Where would this bio appear? On the book jacket? Inside? On the publisher’s web site? On Amazon? Then: What to put in, what to omit? What could read like a good, albeit short, story? What is relevant, what is compelling, and what is both? Neither?

In my case, the questions included whether I would use the word “dancer” along with “writer.” Do I consider myself a dancer, even as I teach kathak to young children? Then there was the question of whether to mention my own children. It’s irrelevant, really, from a professional standpoint. But I want to be accessible, human, not a photograph with a resume. Personally, I like seeing, in an author bio, a smidge of something personal. I can relate to someone who has children, or grew up in another country, or speaks French, or had another career in a previous life. I like an author with many dimensions. So the mention of children stayed in.

Author photo. Due to the aforementioned children, I’m usually the one behind the camera, not in front. Nothing in our massive folder of photos could come close to being an “author photo.” (I do have a fabulous shot of myself being kissed by a sea lion. I’m going to have to find a way to use that somehow. It’s just too good.) I asked a friend who has studied photography on the side and likes to experiment if she’d be willing to take some shots. (In exchange for a dinner that I realize I still owe her.) She was great. She set aside four hours, and at first I thought that was ridiculous, but we used pretty much the whole time. We chatted, tried various outfits, different settings in her studio. She made me laugh. It was relaxed and fun, and curiously satisfying to spend a little time doing something that was all about me. I could list out some bits of advice, but Randy Susan Meyers does it so well already, and with humor, that I suggest you just check out this post of hers. You’ll also want to think about whether the final photo should be in color or in black and white. Probably a good idea to have both options. My one mistake: I asked my mother what she thought of the picture I selected. Her response: I like it from the nose up. She went on to say something about neck wrinkles. *fingers in ears* La la la I can’t hear you!

Book cover memo. This is where one lists out one’s (possibly lengthy) thoughts on a book cover. This is a biggie. As we all know and have been guilty of, people of course do judge books by their covers. Different publishers will allow for different levels of participation and input on the part of the author. I’ll leave it at that. Thankfully, my publisher listened to me, while also providing input from the business side for which I was grateful. While I had strong feelings about what to avoid, I realized I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to see on there. I included in my memo a bunch of covers that served as examples of the clichés and uninspired designs I’ve seen on some book covers, and then several covers that I found compelling. I happened to be acquainted already with my cover designer who read the full manuscript, has traveled to the region in which it is set, and is familiar with kathak dance. These things were important to me. The tricky thing is this: knowing when to stand firm for what you truly feel and believe, and knowing when to bow to the opinions of those whose business and expertise it is to communicate through design (the graphic artist) and to sell books (the publisher, and possibly the agent as well). Listen to the designer; this is what they do. It can be hard, because no doubt you’ve been living with your book and imagining its cover for… dare I say it? Years. But this is one of the first steps in letting others take over. I hope I struck the right balance. One thing I do know is that I am very, very pleased with the final design for FPR. But it took work, a lot of collaboration, a very patient designer, and many iterations.

Writer Unboxed ran a great 2-part post on working smoothly with a graphic artist. Part 1 covers knowing what you want, finding the right graphic artist (which your publisher might do for you), understanding the basic graphics design process and other things to keep in mind as you get going. Part 2 covers budget, fee strategies, ownership, and other money matters.

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I’ve signed a book contract for FAINT PROMISE OF RAIN. This is a fabulous, dance-a-jig worthy event for me, after years (and years) of work. And yet, there is also a part of me that has gone into a panic. A panic about actually sending the book out into the world for people–real, live people–to read. And possibly not like. And possibly post devastating reviews about. I remind myself of all the wonderful and complimentary comments I’ve received on the manuscript by well-established editors (who nonetheless declined to publish it), but still.

It has been a decades-long and enriching journey to get to this point of showing my work, my writing, to others. But it remains, nonetheless, terrifying.

Imagine this scene: 9th grade, English class. Our teacher, Mrs. Fournier, gave us a writing assignment. It was a single word: Solitude. In classic French fashion (for this was taking place in France) she told us to take that one word, and fill 4-6 pages. I remember the feeling that came over me as I wrote it. I was giddy with joy at the assignment, and worried that someone would notice. The assignment took very little conscious thought. The words flowed, I loved the feeling of the fountain pen sliding on the smooth paper. I turned it in, feeling confident I had done solid work. But I was not expecting what came next.

The teacher handed back the papers, but not mine. I wondered if it had gotten lost. Then she said that one student’s writing had stood out, and she wanted to read it aloud. All eyes turned toward me, and I wondered how they knew. I felt my cheeks flush. It was the proverbial want-the-floor-to-open-and-swallow-me moment. She read the piece, and as the words came out of her mouth I pictured the story again, the old man in his dim home, at the Formica table stained with coffee rings, the memories of his wife lurking in the corner with the dust bunnies. It was more Loneliness than Solitude, but it worked. The line between the two is blurry. At the end, Mrs. Fournier put the paper down, and there was silence. A roomful of fourteen year olds was silent. Then she said: “Very few 9th graders can write like this.” I felt proud, embarrassed, unworthy all at once. And also awed by the effect that words could have on people, and that I could put these words together myself.

Solitude_Essay
It was a long time before my writing was shared again with anyone other than teachers. I preferred it that way. Besides, I didn’t actually do much creative writing. Some poetry, written in my journal, in my room, then stashed away under layers of clothing in a drawer. That type of thing. I wrote, of course, for college courses, an honors thesis, my work in economic development consulting, my graduate studies in urban planning, my Master’s thesis, and people said lovely things about my writing, but I left it at that.

Then, at the age of 30, moved by my recent travels to Rajasthan, India, and by my classes in kathak dance, I started scribbling again. An image that I found in, of all places, a travel guidebook, sparked it. I researched the background of the image, began recreating a place and time. The faintest outlines of a story started taking shape. It was months before I realized I was writing a book.

I had three chapters drafted when I found out I was expecting a child. I knew I needed to get more on the page so that the body of work accomplished would be large enough, important enough, to call me back once I had given birth to the baby and ensured that she was healthy and thriving. I also knew I needed to acknowledge out loud, to my family and my friends, that I was writing a book, in order to make it real. Not real for them, but real for me.

The baby, K, was born. I worked during her naps. The manuscript crawled along. Finally, I had a full draft. It was summer, the child was three, I headed to France with her to visit my parents, and I left a copy of the manuscript with my husband, J, for him to read for the first time. I couldn’t bear to be around while he was reading it, so I asked him to do it before he joined us in France. He read it on the flight, and on the train down to La Ciotat in the South.

It was a sparkling sunny day on the Mediterranean coast. K and I wore flouncy skirts that danced around our legs as we waited for the high speed train on the quay. It arrived, slowed, stopped. The doors opened in unison, and I scanned the flow of passengers disembarking, blinking at the bright sun, clutching their suitcases. J appeared and we ran toward him, but something made me stop short. He bore a strange expression. We hugged, but he felt distant. What’s wrong, I asked. I was reading your book, he said. My chest tightened. He hated it. My book was awful. I had wasted hours and hours, years. He was disappointed in me. “No, it’s really good,” he said. “It’s just, I was at that really intense and kind of disturbing part.” And I smiled. There it was again. What I’d written had altered someone, at least temporarily. As it had in that 9th grade classroom. “Come,” I said, taking his free hand. “My father’s opened the rosé for lunch.”

Later that summer, I enrolled in a 10-week workshop, Novel in Progress, at Grub Street Writers. It was my first time sharing my writing with strangers, with people who knew nothing about me, probably little about India (where my book is set), even less about sixteenth century northern India. Presumably, they would be candid, unconcerned about hurting my feelings. I was exhilarated, and tremendously nervous. There were twelve of us, adults working on our (for the most part) first novels. On the first day, three students were to read out loud from their work. I was one of those first three. I was happy to get it over with at the beginning, but wished I could hear a few of my fellow students’ work first to know what I was up against. Not that it was a competition, of course.

One person went before me. I recall being generally impressed with the writing without being bowled over. This was good, promising. I felt I was in good company. (And in fact, I was.) These other writers were solid, dedicated. When my turn came, my lips went dry, my voice felt wobbly. I read for my allotted five minutes, acutely aware of how unpracticed I was at reading out loud, wishing I’d thought to put a cup of water in front of me. When I finished, the room was quiet. I avoided everyone’s eyes. Part of me feared they were all simply trying to mask their horror, to think of something kind to say. But part of me knew that was not true. Finally, one of them spoke. “Wow.” That one word broke the ice, and others started commenting as well.

For me, that one word told me that I would be alright. Over the course of the 10 weeks, and then over the course of the years of revisions and rewrites, the dozens of rejections from agents and then from editors, the moments of self-doubt, the times my friends, my writing group and others told me that things weren’t working, that the voice was too distant, the plot twist unbelievable, the character arc missing, I held onto that moment when I got goosebumps reading my own few pages, when a roomful of strangers was reduced to a single “wow.” That is why I write, for those moments, however few and far between. And they cannot happen if I do not show my work.

 

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Mocking_Bird_Argument

Mocking bird kerfuffle. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

The kerfuffle

By now, if you vaguely follow news of the writing world, and perhaps even if you don’t, you will have become aware of the kerfuffle around Jonathan Franzen’s latest curmudgeonly diatribe, published in The Guardian last week, in which he waxes eloquent, in 39 paragraphs, no less, on much that is wrong with modern life, especially the plethora of phenomena (such as Twitter), companies (such as Apple) and people (such as Jeff Bezos) who in his view exemplify the general shallowness of society.

Nestled in his commentary, there are some nuggets of what many will recognize as truth. It is too bad that they are dissimulated in an overwhelming salvo of irritation and general grumpiness regarding “yakkers and Tweeters and braggers” and the likes of Jeff Bezos of Amazon who “may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen.” (For an amusing read on the horror of agreeing with Franzen, read this.) On the very same day that the Guardian piece came out, there was a response which some viewed as spot on, while others, including a very well-spoken commenter using the handle “Ivan,” pointed to as precisely embodying Franzen’s critique. “Ivan” comments that “Franzen writes the type of unabashedly old-school creative literary/cultural critique that many of today’s smart folks ‘don’t have the time’ to read anymore because they’re too busy backstroking through the shallow pleasures of, you know, blogs. Wrapping his argument in a thoughtful historical comparison, he maligns the speed, form, instant gratification, and coolness embodied by our technoconsumerism– a germane topic.” One could argue with the part about “the shallow pleasures of, you know, blogs,” but Ivan goes on to ask quite validly whether the article’s writer has “even had time to process, or if is he “actually being paid to be pithy, sardonic, digestible and prolific at the expense of being thoughtful, astute and fair.”

Scathing denunciations

But enough already about Franzen. He is of course not the first “literary” writer (we’ll get back to the reason for those quotation marks later) to issue scathing denunciations of technology or social media (which of course were wildly propagated to thousands, if not millions, of people–or should I say users?– among those selfsame media). Author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford, in his tremendously popular blog, wrote in Feb 2012 a post titled “Why are so many literary writers technophobic?” in response to a spate of articles and interviews on this topic. In this post, he mentions, among others:

Jonathan_FranzenJonathan Franzen’s (I guess not enough of Franzen quite yet) statement that ebooks are damaging society and that “serious” readers read print.

(Photo by David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons.)

 

 

 

Jennifer_EganPulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan complaining about social networking “Who cares that we can connect? What’s the big deal? I think Facebook is colossally dull. I think it’s like everyone coming to live in a huge Soviet apartment block, [in] which everyone’s cell looks exactly the same.” (Interestingly, or perhaps not, Jennifer Egan has a Twitter account, with over 8,000 followers despite only 8 Tweets.)

(Photo by David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons)

 

Zadie_SmithZadie Smith writing of Facebook: “When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.” (Photo by David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons)

 

Ray_BradburyRay Bradbury’s 2009 response to the suggestion of an ebook version of Fahrenheit 451: “To Hell with you and to Hell with the Internet.” (And lo! Two years later, the ebook came out. One could argue about whether Ray Bradbury is a “literary” writer or not, but he’s certainly part of The Canon.

(Photo by Alan Light, Wikimedia Commons)

 

Each of these outbursts prompted much discussion, commentary and writing. The most beautiful of which (at least among the pieces I encountered) was Alexis Madrigal’s response to Zadie Smith, delving deeply into the intersection of technology, communication and relationships. If there is one link you click on with the intent of reading it fully, make it this one.

These statements, while they spark interesting debate and prompt many to exercise their writing muscle, do a disservice to today’s new “literary” writers.

(Now I address the use of quotation marks, before getting rid of them. There is a massive and ongoing debate regarding what “literary” actual means. The debate is thought-provoking, fascinating, exhausting and, I think, essentially pointless. Some say the word “literary” denotes a lack of plot, that it is writing for the sake of beautiful words strung together. Some say it is idea-driven, not character-driven. It is “serious” writing. It is undefinable, but you’ll know it when you see it. Etc. To me, it is simply writing that makes one think, writing where the choice of words matters, writing that has an aesthetic value beyond the story itself, but that nonetheless can–and often does–have a wonderful story, memorable characters, a surprising yet inevitable arc. The writer April Line aptly points out that what one thinks about the literary fiction world is where one sits in relation to it.)

Here is a fact: Literary writers in the 25-45 year age bracket have come of age, at least career-wise, in a new era, when opportunities for seeing one’s work published by “traditional” publishers (and getting paid for it) have slimmed to almost nothingness, and when the dollars put forward by publishers for marketing and promotion of one’s work, even with a publishing contract, have dwindled drastically. An anonymous comment on Nathan Bransford’s post hits the nail on the head: “I love Franzen, but he writes a book a decade and laughs all the way to the bank. Who on earth has that kind of a sweet deal? If I were him, or John Iriving, or any other of those authors who’ve found a great thing and have milked it for years, I’d be against technology, too.” (I don’t think the term “milked it” here is fair, given the true greatness of these authors’  writing. Franzen is a wizard with words. I may not have liked any of the characters in The Corrections, but every single sentence in that book sings. It’s writing at a very, very high level. Nonetheless, I agree with the commenter’s general sentiment. Such opportunities are far from available for the vast majority of good, strong, worthy writing that is produced now.)

The aloof, disconnected literary writer

The pontifications or blustery explosions of established literary writers, no matter how well-written and based on kernels of hard truth, solidify the image of such writers as aloof and disconnected from the general population, from the realities of day to day life of the general population (which is ironic given that much of their work focuses on the very human experiences of the average person.) They propagate the notion that literary writers craft their Great Work–full of gorgeous writing, searing imagery, stunning insight into the human condition, true art–from up above in an isolated ivory tower, that they are ethereal, evanescent, a collection of ideas. And therefore they risk solidifying the publishing industry’s prejudice against unknown or debut literary writers because they illustrate the lack of “platform” or “reader engagement” which these days, whether one likes it or not, are two of the things that publishers look for to drive book sales for new authors. To the publishing industry, then, “literary” becomes equivalent to “un-sellable.” At least, I clarify again, in the case of new authors.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

 

So what are upcoming literary writers to make of all this?

Those who have come of age, at least with regard to their literary development, at a time of intense proliferation of social media, when many if not most of their friends are active on a minimum of two or three platforms. An age in which blogs offer a means to get one’s work “out there” without depending on the one-in-ten-thousand chance that their essays might end up being purchased (yes, for money) by an established publication with a wide readership. Would such writers discredit themselves by having a social media presence and (gulp!) engaging with people through blog posts, Twitter, Facebook and Google+? Are they then not truly literary? Will they never be accepted by the circle of authors who routinely review each other’s works in the New York Times Book Review? Are they wasting precious time that could be spent on our own Great Work?

Here is what I fear: that because literary writers are not on social media, the assumption will be that any writer on social media is not literary.

A friend of mine whom I met when our older children were tiny is a well-reviewed literary writer. She is lovely, smart, funny. She and I have had conversations, while the children smooshed Play Doh together, during which we laughed, saw eye to eye on many topics, generally “connected” well. She is someone who would no doubt post interesting links, have thoughtful observations and commentary to share on social media. Except she is not there. Even her web site is outdated. She has two published books. I don’t. Coincidence? It does make a girl wonder.

In this, as in many things, I am a hybrid. Several agents and editors have termed my first novel “literary.” And yet, I confess: I enjoy social media. I see where it has value. I use Facebook to maintain a connection with friends around the globe, and I use Twitter both to keep abreast of topics of interest to me, and to connect with others doing the same. For me it is about community, and finding a comfortable place in it. I find great satisfaction in conversations with strangers about topics close to my heart. It gives me energy to hap upon someone–a person out there in the great wild world, someone I would otherwise never encounter–who makes me laugh, or sees something the same way I do, or points me to a beautiful piece of writing or an artist’s photography. I like to write occasionally in a conversational style, or to write about un-literary, mundane things such as food or children, things that resonate on a simple level with many people. I like to post photographs. I embrace the term “literary” but refuse to be bound to it or by it.

Perhaps we are turning a corner, one in which there can be a happy medium, in which one can be a hybrid, a writer of literary fiction who is also known and liked as a person, who has an active online presence and whose writing has a far reach. Not that he is a shining example of an author who is well liked as a person, but Salman Rushdie’s response to Franzen’s “disappointment when a novelist who [he believes] ought to have known better, Salman Rushdie, succumbs to Twitter” was encouraging. Rushdie tweeted “Dear #Franzen: @MargaretAtwood @JoyceCarolOates @nycnovel @NathanEnglander @Shteyngart and I are fine with Twitter. Enjoy your ivory tower.” But I am not sure we are there yet. Rushdie names a handful of literary writers, and there are some others (Erica Jong, Sherman Alexie, Teju Cole) who engage in social media. Teju Cole, in fact, has a wonderful “small fates” series that he posts on Twitter, using the constraint of 140 characters to storytelling advantage. (Click here for a useful piece on why Twitter is good for writers, which lists several reasons without even going into the whole connect-with-your-readers bit.) However, these are established writers of literary fiction, who can afford to engage minimally with people via social media, who can have 48,000 followers but only follow 50 people. (I suspect they might just not have time for more, being busy teaching, giving keynote addresses and of course writing.)

Making art and feeling fine

What gives me hope for myself is that there appears to be a new wave of literary writers who are very active in social media. The writer Cathy Day points to it in the course of an interesting discussion on April Line’s post: “The independent literary community is BOOMING with energy, seriousness-of-purpose, and plenty of entrepreneurship–and it thrives and is sustained almost completely BECAUSE of social media. These literary writers need no support group. Over the last few years, I’ve taken my cues from them: Roxane Gay, Sean Lovelace, Dan Wickett and the folks at Dzanc Books, Matt Bell, Amelia Gray, Kyle Minor, Chad Simpson, Amber Sparks, Bryan Furuness, Chris Newgent. And Kelly Link, who runs her own press, is in this community, too. (…) The indie community is decidedly and proudly literary, often experimental, but until there’s more room for them at the tippy-top of the literary pyramid, they are happily ensconced somewhere in the middle, making art and feeling fine.

Have you heard of any of them? Perhaps, perhaps not. They all have books out, they all write thoughtfully, they are all committed to their craft. They’re feeling fine, and I’ll take my cue from them, too. But it sure would help if some of those at the helm of the literary writing world didn’t issue disparaging statements regarding the practices of those who are still trying to make it.

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Ancient Jain temple inside Jaisalmer. Photo by Sangeeta Dhanuka (Wikimedia Commons)

Ancient Jain temple inside Jaisalmer. Photo by Sangeeta Dhanuka (Wikimedia Commons)

In Rajasthan, a five year old child is likely never to have seen rain. For centuries, the monsoons have been elusive, and it was no different when I was young. So it is understandable that when I was born during the first rainstorm in so long, some considered me special. In the royal palace of the citadel not far from our home, the walls of children’s rooms were, and are still, trimmed with black and blue cloud designs, so when the gods finally did send rain, the little ones would not be afraid. But for others such as my brothers and sister, who grew up looking at thatched roofs and endlessly blue skies, the day of their first rain can mean an intensity of both fear and hope.

I have no doubt that I now possess an unusual gift, but it came late in my life. I began as all children do, accepting of my lot for it was the only one I knew, and living by the decisions my father made for me. When I was old enough, I began to understand that I could shape my own path. And although I struggled greatly along the way, the gods must have approved of what I chose to do with it, for many, many years later they gave me this gift. I am not sure why they acted as they did, or how they chose what knowledge to grant me and what to keep concealed. Was it a moment of selfishness on their part? Was it for our dance? For humankind? Or, possibly, just for me? Whatever the reason, knowing now the minds and hearts of some of those close to me when I was a child allows me to tell this story. It is not the story of me alone, but mine alone to tell.

www.faintpromiseofrain.com

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A notice came home a few weeks ago: “This year, all third, fourth and fifth graders will become published authors!” My first, and admittedly petty, thought: Oh, great, rub it in, why don’t you? My second thought: What? They want the parents to type out the 8-page stories? But underneath it all, I found the idea sweet, and fun, and creative. The children are to write at least 8 pages (in Word, the notice to parents pointed out rather pointedly) and submit an accompanying 8 pages of illustrations. The books will be printed and bound, many copies made, and there will be an author party. Well, I guess if I can’t quite plan my own yet, I should enjoy my daughter’s!

I’ve watched K agonize over this project for over five weeks now. I supposed “watched” is misleadingly passive a word for what I’ve done. Until today, I tried to limit my involvement to just making sure she paces her work, prodding her a few times a week to work on a page of writing or a drawing. Each time she’s groaned, sighed, reluctantly schlumped or stomped up the stairs after trying to find various lame excuses which don’t fly with a mother who would leap at the suggestion that she hole herself up in her room and work on her story.

The project is due in a few days, and I’ve set an earlier deadline—three days earlier, to be precise—for her to turn over her handwritten pages to me so that I’m not stuck typing them up at the eleventh hour. Some might say I’m projecting my own odd characteristics on my child, forcing her to complete her work faster than required by her teacher. I was, after all, the exceedingly odd college student who turned in her Master’s thesis a full week early so that it wouldn’t ruin my Spring break. Maybe I am projecting, but since I’m the parent overseeing this project, and since it requires my involvement at the end, I believe this is my prerogative.

Yesterday, she seemed to enjoy her writing time, and returned from her room smiling. I decided it was safe to poke a bit. What type of story is it? She looked at me blankly. You know, I continued, you were telling me about different types of books: historical fiction, informational, fantasy, all those categories. What is yours? She shrugged. I dunno. Just a story. Ok, I thought, that’s fine. Spurn categorization. Good for you. It’s all just a marketing gimmick to figure out where on the shelves—assuming there are still shelves– to place your book. I decided against asking if she’d thought about the plot ahead of time, outlined the scenes, developed her characters. Is she an outliner or a pantser? Good grief, I said to myself, she’s 8 years old! Just let her write whatever.

But then today, as she was sitting next to me working on a detailed drawing that involved jellyfish, octopuses and bookshelves, I suggested she hand me the first few page so I could start typing. She did so happily, and I started the transcription.

A fish’s new friend

Once upon a time there was a fish. Her name was Splish. She was blue and she had black fins. She was a very lonely fish. She did not have any friends or siblings.

One day, she went for a little swim. She went to the fish playground. She saw another fish about her age. “Can I play with you?” But the fish ignored her. So she played by herself. When she went home she had a very boring lunch.

 

The story goes on in this manner. Prominently featured are dinners, snack times and breakfasts, with dutiful clearing of the table by the fish. A potential new dolphin friend. Then there is “open circle” and a discussion, in this underwater class, of “calm bubbling.” There is reading comprehension and math workshop, and another snack, and several recesses, and play dates between the fish and her dolphin friend, and so on, through the week, until we get to Saturday.

K has about two more pages to go, and she’s stuck. “How about introducing a problem?” “Huh?” she asks, with that blank look and way that some third graders have, I’ve discovered, of seemingly turning off their brain. “Well, you know, something that makes the reader think oh no, what’s going to happen?” She informs me that she doesn’t like “books like that.” I say that those are the types of books many people like to read, and besides, I’ve seen her read lots of mysteries, and aren’t there problems and clues and foreshadowing in books like that? “Well, I’m not good at writing,” she says. “I’m not a writer.” “You’re writing, aren’t you?” I say. Helpful, no? She shrugs. “But it’s not my job to be a writer. Like you are.” I stifle the urge to point out that it’s not my job, either, and that I don’t yet earn money from my writing. Because I do like to think of her thinking that it IS my job.

What I do respond is that I don’t want to hear her saying “I’m not good at” something. So you want me to lie? She asks. Sigh. They’re so literal at this age. I said no, I just want you to try to believe it. Well, I don’t, she said, and jabbed her marker at a pink fish. The problem with that attitude, I said as gently as I could, is that you need to believe in yourself so that others believe in you. “You believe in me,” she said. Again with the irrefutable logic. “Yes, of course I do. Because I know you well. I know what you are capable of.”

We had veered off course. I left it at that. I’m back to just trying to make sure she gets the assignment done, to make sure I’m not typing it up at 11 pm the night before it’s due. I don’t want to open that can of worms any wider. Belief in oneself as a writer, and how much it affects others’ belief in us. Giving oneself permission to not do a good job, to write something that is not perfect (as Janet Burroway so artfully expresses in the first chapter of her book Writing Fiction which appears, inexplicably, to be out of print).  An eight year old need not trouble herself with these questions. An eight year old should just write her story about a friendship between a fish named Splish and a dolphin named Splash, and their non-adventures in ocean school in between mealtimes and snack times. At least they know to clear the table when they are done.

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What kind of sales should I expect of my debut novel if I go the indie route? This is what I am asking myself these days, today in particular as I draw up a balance sheet of estimated expenses and revenues, to help me decide whether or not to launch into independently publishing Faint Promise of Rain. Of course, part of me feels like it would be the natural thing to do, in keeping with the whole being-the-people thing, but I still need to understand the nitty gritty of it all.

With enough poking around, I was able to obtain some concrete numbers on the expenses side such as the per copy cost of printing if I do a short-print run, the shipping costs for online sales, the standard retailer wholesale discount (which I was shocked to learn is 55%) and other such data points. For other expenses, the Internet is providing me with enough examples for me to make some informed guesses, such as how much to spend on a publicist, and what editorial services should cost for a manuscript which, my agent tells me, is in good shape.

But when it came to what to expect for revenue, the Internet became my enemy . Not only because I cannot find much in the way of concrete examples of debut literary fiction sales figures, but because I am finding posting after posting filled with depressing predictions. Apparently, if I am to believe what the doom-and-gloom folks out there are saying under the guise of bracing indie hopefuls such as myself for misery, I would be lucky to sell 5,000 copies of my book. In total. Not in one year. Not in five years. EVER.

And this is where turning to the Internet can be so destructive. It’s like allowing yourself to drown in a sea of information regarding an illness, and all its possible horrible ramifications, and how it could, it just might, ruin your life, and how in some cases it will cripple you, and how there are support groups to help you cope because otherwise you might just want to end it all now. You read the discussion forums of those who are suffering and while your heart goes out the them, you quake at the prospect of ending up like them. Ok, perhaps this is an exaggeration, but I see it this way: I could choose to throw in the towel and declare that there’s no point for just 5,000 copies, or I could stand tall and say: 5,000 is nothing to sneeze at, and in any case, I can easily beat that. (And the illness metaphor is not totally gratuitous, as I’ve had some experience in that realm.) The darn thing is, I do believe I can beat that. Five thousand copies? That seems like nothing to me! I think of the connections I have in the dance world, in the Indian community, all the people I know who revel in literary fiction, the fact that India is, for good reason, a popular setting and topic in fiction, I think of all the people who have told me my manuscript is beautiful (thank you!), the fun ideas I have for promotion, and 5,000 seems more than feasible.

And yet. Those glum predictions hang over my head, because now that I have read them, I can’t un-read them. Despite feeling confident in my manuscript and my marketing ideas, there is a voice in the back of my head asking me why I have the hubris to dismiss the cautions of people who purport to know more than I do about the ins and outs of publishing. But then, in the nick of time, the Internet comes to my rescue. Because therein is the beauty of the Internet: it can, in one day, in one hour, mete out despair and hope in equal measure. One of my go-to sites for realistic, supportive advice and ideas regarding publishing, Grub Street, posted this entry just today by Terri Giuliano Long entitled “Indie success: hold on to your dreams.” In it this writer takes us back to when she was, essentially, in my shoes, believing 5,000 copies would be her ideal, through her indie publishing experience, and her sales of 120,000 copies in the past twelve months. And that is when I knew to stop trawling the web for information. I’d found what I wanted.

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