Archive for the ‘Writing Wednesday’ Category

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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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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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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Writing Retreat Sun Porch

Writing Retreat Sun Porch, photo by Crystal King

I spent last weekend in the company of my three writing group partners, in a rambling old house on the coast of Maine. It was 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 was 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 were 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 were even a couple of functioning rotary phones, a mysterious Back Stair, and an Ice-O-Mat affixed to the pantry wall. It was, in a word, perfect.



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.)

Fabulous Writing Group Partners

Fabulous Writing Group Partners, photo by Crystal King

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, wanted to change the point of view in her existing chapters and pound out at least one more chapter. Someone else wanted to revise an entire section of her novel. Another wanted to get herself to within spitting distance of querying agents. I wanted to plough through a writing block and write a new chapter as well as develop a new character. We 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 would pass me on the way to the kitchen for a piece of fruit, chocolate, or a cup of coffee. There would be a quick exchange of smiles, in silence as each acknowledged the importance of not disturbing the other’s writing state of mind. We repeated 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 took 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 took the evenings off, exploring the area a bit and eating out. Our group always meets around food, so it was natural one night for us to head to Fore Street in Portland for a fabulous farm-to-table meal.

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

In our giddy enthusiasm, we over-packed in the snacks and drinks (as in boozy drinks) department. We’ll know better for next time. But it was 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. And the gin-and-tonics didn’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 found 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, including how we came across the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks and other wonders, head over the Crystal King’s blog.

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Kanazawa street at sunset

Kanazawa street at sunset

(All photos by my husband. My hands were busy pushing a stroller.)

I returned recently from two weeks in Tokyo, Takayama, Kanazawa and Kyoto. The trip was sublime, even with a not-quite-three year old in tow. It is an experience that is remaining with me, impressions and images vivid in my mind even as I have been fully sucked back into the whirlwind and mundane aspects of regular life. And I can tell these will stay with me for a long time, with my self as an observer of the world, as a student of an art form, as a parent and as a writer.

Three things resonated with me the most, the first of which was the attention to detail, the thought put into the smallest of things. Everywhere were umbrellas available for borrowing, and bins for drippy ones post use. All restaurants we frequented, no matter how un-childish, immediately set out plastic utensils and bowls for the little one. All toilet seats were pre-warmed. (Well, that’s a whole other topic–the intricacies of the toilets or “washlets” and the many functions they can perform.) Every room we stayed in was equipped with a Zojirushi hot water maker, ready on demand with water for tea (with different settings for green and black). There is a focus on service, even outside the service industry. People came up to us to offer help, to give up their subway seats for the children. And I could wax rapturous about the ekiben, the bento box lunches made and sold specifically for train trips.

All this spoke to me of a people aware of their surroundings. A week after our return, I sat at the Muse & the Marketplace writing conference in Boston listening to acclaimed literary critic James Wood give a keynote talk in which he focused on the notion of the writer’s ability and mandate to “seriously notice” the world around her, and I thought about how much more the Japanese seem to seriously notice their surroundings, and care about them, than Americans overall. (Pardon the generalization, but I trust you understand what I mean.)

Takayama cherry blossoms

Takayama cherry blossoms

Which leads me to the second strongest impression I had in Japan: aesthetics reign. The emphasis on presentation–of spaces, of food, of nature, of objects, of oneself–and the importance of doing things right and getting to their essence was a delight. And I realized how much I value this. I may never have articulated as much to myself, but I understand now that a focus on aesthetics is something I have always appreciated, for better or for worse. From the way I used to set the table in my childhood home, folding the napkins into fans and arranging the tomatoes and cucumbers into designs on the lettuce, to the way I fear sharing some of my writing, even before writing it, because it won’t be sufficiently well-crafted. Sometimes I wonder in frustration why one should bother to make an extra effort, but now, having been to Japan, I see how such an effort, on a larger scale, can be transformative. The small, ten foot square gardens in front of the most modest of homes, with their thoughtfully arranged stones and moss and maple tree, are delightful enough, but then look at the Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa, and how everywhere the eye turns it is met with magnificent compositions, and one is almost overwhelmed by the magical aesthetics of it all.

Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa

Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa

The timing of this trip, along with these realizations, has segued most serendipitously into an exercise: crafting a writer’s mission statement. With a juggle of responsibilities and minimal time to write–the plight of most writers–I want to ensure that I deploy my resources on those activities that will get me closer to what I truly want to achieve as a writer, and that necessitates, unfortunately, that I figure it out and articulate that goal to myself. (Admittedly, this provides a good opportunity to put off actual work on one’s manuscript, under the guise of an otherwise productive and useful endeavor.) As soon as I was over the incapacitating jet lag of our trip, I sat down to think about what really drives me to write fiction, and adhering to a strong sense of aesthetics figures strongly there. The Kenroku-en garden is like an ideal to strive for, a magical place that engages the senses, where the sum of individual and carefully crafted parts adds up to a wholly immersive experience.

Garden at Denpo-in, Tokyo

Garden at Denpo-in, Tokyo

With current writing projects focused on India, people in unique societal positions, history and art, this third aspect of Japan grabbed at me and won’t let go: the very aliveness of and respect for history and tradition without any compromise to the advances of modernity. In the midst of high rises and neon (arguably not really advances) will be nestled a gorgeous shrine, set about with lovingly shaped trees, swinging lanterns, and incense sticks whose spirals of blue smoke are a testament to the attentions of living souls. In the bustling streets, in front of a convenience store, will be a trio of kimono-clad women going about their business of simply living. In the traditional townhouse, or machiya, that we rented in Kyoto, stunning in its simplicity, was a wooden soaking tub, a mainstay of Japanese cleansing rituals.

Kimonos in Kanazawa

Kimonos in Kanazawa

Kyoto machiya

Soaking tub, Kyoto 

Kyoto machiya

Last night, as I was singing to the little one before bed and after her own bath, I overheard a conversation between eight year old K and her father. After the usual prodding, K was going through the routine of cleaning up her belongings in the common areas–sweater flung across the armchair, sneakers tossed in the general direction of the closet, Scotch tape and paper scraps from her craft project involving a stuffed baby kangaroo on the counter–before retiring to her lair, I mean, bedroom.

K: Why do I always have to go around cleaning up every single little thing?
Father: Remember when we were in Japan, and things were so neat and simple and organized, and how much we all enjoyed that?
K: Yeah. (Her intonation rises, implying the unsaid: What’s your point?)
Father: Well, wouldn’t it be nice to bring a little bit of that into our own home?
K: But we’re in America!

I wonder if she meant that as in “We’re not in Japan” or whether it was more of an observation about America itself. Regardless, isn’t that why we travel? To experience and assimilate new ideas, new aesthetics, new perspectives? What experiences in other locales have had a long-lasting impact on your life or work?




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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.

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Every time my oldest comes home with a book club flyer from school, my heart sinks. I understand and fully support the motto of “building confidence in young readers,” but does that have to mean that each flyer must be a compendium of mostly the following:

  1. Books pertaining to underwear and bodily functions;
  2. Endless series of vapid characters in interchangeable stories;
  3. Books packaged with items such as zombie glasses, glow-in-the-dark slime or Ninjago figurines;
  4. History and science presented in terribly uninspiring and reeks-of-school titles;
  5. Books derived from cartoons or other TV characters?

Lost among all these are a few gems: Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, Eleanor Este’s Ginger Pye, Charlotte’s Web. But those are not the ones the child clamors to buy (but look, Mom, it’s only $3.99 and it comes with a cupcake charm!)

For a while, I went with the whatever-she-reads-is-great attitude, because I just wanted her to discover the joy of reading. But now that she’ll happily curl up on the couch with a book, I find myself very discouraged with the books she’s exposed to through the library at school, or the book fair, or the abovementioned flyers. Sure, she can read all the Captain Underpants books and giggle with her friends about how often the word “fart” shows up in Diary of a Wimpy Kid (I’ll hand it to those authors that they’ve nailed their audience on the head), but I feel compelled to help her dip her toes into the vast, rich, magical world of wonderful children’s literature – the kind that transports you, haunts you, affects your very soul and stays in your memory forever – that exists out there. The one that sustained me, nourished me, when I was a young child.

And thus is born our book club, for her and up to seven of her friends from school. We held our first, organizational meeting this past weekend. There were snacks, coffee and tea for the parents, several girls piled onto each arm chair, and lots of pink-and-purple-socked feet waving around. We discussed ground rules, respecting opinions, what to do if you don’t like the book (read at least 25 pages and come prepared to explain why you didn’t like it), what the name of the club should be (there were evocations of bookworms, pandas, panda worms – ew – without any consensus), and of course what the selections would be. I handed each girl a booklet with a list of titles and authors, a picture of each cover, and a description, and asked each one to nominate three from among the 22 or so on the list.

The first vote was almost unanimous for Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Remember that one? I thought so. I can’t wait to see what the discussion of the book will yield. The book was written one hundred years ago (I don’t think the girls know this yet), takes place for the most part in Yorkshire, England (after Mary’s parents die of cholera in India) and is quite unlike anything these girls have read yet. It’s a far cry from the school-based series revolving around someone’s best friend moving out of state, or a weird substitute bringing the class on an adventure, or a band of classmates solving the mystery of the disappearing lunchboxes. I wonder how much of their decision was based on my use of this particular cover? (On a very abridged, Scholastic version from 1993.)

The Secret Garden


I’ve written before about the drastic variation in covers on editions of old classics, and how that predisposes today’ children to shy away from some of these gems. What if I had used this cover image instead? (Simon & Brown, Dec 2012)

The Secret Garden

Or this one? (Random House abridged version from 1987)

The Secret Garden

And here’s the list of book options that I have compiled so far. Other suggestions welcome!

  • Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Judy Blume
  • From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by e. l. konigsburg
  • The Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia
  • A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
  • The Complete Verse and Other Nonsense, by Edward Lear
  • Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech
  • The Story of Doctor Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting
  • Sideways Stories from Wayside School, by Louis Sachar and Julie Brinkloe
  • Rickshaw Girl, by Mitali Perkins
  • The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate
  • The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, by Julie Andrews Edwards
  • My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George
  • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brian
  • Frindle, by Andrew Clements
  • Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin
  • Poetry for Young People: William Carlos Williams
  • Wonder, by R. J. Palacio
  • The Double Life of Pocahontas, by Jean Fritz

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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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