Photo by Ed Ralph via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Ed Ralph via Wikimedia Commons

It is perhaps ironic that after writing a novel set in the desert of northern India, I now liken the research process to learning to swim. But here it is: moving through the ocean of information with mastery is like being a scuba diver, aware of your depth and your air supply and the location of the shore, accepting the power of the water and the currents, but having the confidence to immerse yourself in observation, to follow an intriguing trail of bubbles to an unexpected coral head. There, in that fine balance of mastery and deference, of the planned and the unexpected, lies the pure joy of researching your setting. But from standing safely on the shore contemplating the allure of the water to reaching this almost magical moment of gliding with control involves many stages, some of them very difficult, all of them necessary.

After taking the plunge, you realize the power of the water, the immensity of the ocean, and your own insignificance. You flail, assailed with doubts. Even once you manage to tread water and keep your head clear you realize you are expending a lot of energy and going nowhere. This is the crucial moment. You can give up, holler for someone to haul you out, or you can give it your all. Once you manage an inelegant doggy paddle, propelling yourself with purpose, hope and self-confidence emerge and you can look forward to refining your stroke and, eventually, diving for details with the knowledge that you can and will resurface, perhaps not exactly where or when you expected, but always enriched by the experience.

Here are the stages, and recognizing them each can be helpful.

Contemplating the allure of the water from the safety of land: Little bits of a story idea, of a different world, have landed on you, like droplets of water, on a summer day, leaving you wanting more. The water shimmers, entices. It is hot out, prickly hot, and the surface calls to you. The clouds are reflected in it, undulating slightly; it doesn’t look that deep. How refreshing it would be to take a dip, to immerse yourself in this other world. You’ve heard there is a whole universe under there: coral and colorful fish and strange anemones with scarlet tentacles. A pelican dives in, head first, and emerges with a fish. Other people make it look so easy, gliding through, cutting the surface with their arms. And fun! Splashing around, laughing. Standing on their heads, their feet waving, and then toppling. Some of them wear snorkel masks, and you wonder what they see. You want to see it, too.

Realizing the power of the water: You take the plunge. You launch yourself into, say, nineteenth century India. Immediately, you are overwhelmed. There is such a vast immensity of information available. Gasping, coughing, you gulp some of it down. You reach out and try to grab at anything you can hold onto. You read everything, or try to. You jot down a lot of facts, many of which you know you’ll never use, but you don’t yet know which ones those are, and you suspect the ones you don’t bother to record are the ones that will be critical to your story. History, politics, journals and diaries, newspaper articles, novels, academic papers, books on daily life, architecture, food and customs, sweeping summaries and minute details alike. They all swirl around you. You enter search terms willy-nilly into Google and Google Books, Amazon, Wikipedia, local library catalogs. You feel hopeless, yet determined. You flail. The more you read, the less you feel you are qualified, authorized, to write this story. But you have to fight the pull of the current. This is a test. Will you give up, be knocked about by the waves, and emerge bruised and dejected, or will you find a foothold and prevail, strengthened by the understanding that you are not in full control?

Treading water: After a while, you get the hang of keeping your head above water. You maintain the shoreline in sight, remember what this is all about. You manage to control your arm and leg movements. Vague story elements start to form. Not just India, but the city of Lucknow. The courtesan and merchant quarters. Not just the nineteenth century, but the years just before and just after the Great Rebellion. You manage to look down into the water and catch sight of identifiable shapes: a clump of rock, a tuft of sea grass. Some of your characters start to come into focus, and this helps dictate the specific settings for your story. You don’t yet see the details, but you begin to imagine them. You go from “he’s an artist” to “he’s a musician” to “he’s a sarangi player.” You are able to eliminate some of the sources for being irrelevant, and to replace them with others, which you now know will be highly relevant. You organize the resources and the research and you make lists. Many lists.

Doggy paddle: Now you are actually making forward progress. The plot starts to form. Getting from Point A to Point B. This is the exciting part, where you realize you are not only staying afloat, but you are swimming! It may be a basic form of locomotion, low on the totem pole of swim strokes, with a silly name, but it is a bona fide style. And now the development of the story feeds the research, and vice versa. You have direction. Instead of researching all festivals and religious celebrations of the time and place, you zero in on the specific one that will feature in your story, the one during which the betrayal, or the discovery, or the moment of forgiveness will happen. Instead of researching all forms of architecture and buildings, you picture and describe the specific ones your characters inhabit. You study maps, learn the layout of the setting. Now you know that it would take a good thirty minutes to walk from your main character’s home to La Martinière, the boys’ school across the river. Now you know that the shore is not that far away, and that you can keep up this doggy paddle thing for quite a while.

Front crawl: You hit your stride. You control when you come up for air. You cut through the water with purpose. You outline your scenes, and start writing some. Now you get into serious specifics. Someone is growing flowers on the roof. You look up exactly the types of flowers likely to be growing there, and the birds that will peck at the seeds. You imagine a specific meal, the food on the dishes, how it smells. You picture what your characters are wearing, feel the fabric, choose the colors. You go from “some European shopkeepers in Lucknow took orders for frivolous objects for their customers” to “Monsieur Carnonge insisted that a cucumber slicer be acquired for him from the latest shipment of European goods that had arrived that morning from Cawnpore by hackery.”

Scuba diving: This is it. You have your tank of air strapped onto your back, and you immerse yourself in this new world. You are no longer overwhelmed by its vast immensity, by the multitudes of lives teeming below you. You know how to navigate it. Now you can take your time, float a while, seek out nuggets of fact or possibility that others unfamiliar with the terrain would miss. There, in that clump of rocks, there is a crevice that you now know is likely to hide an octopus. (What? An octopus in Lucknow?!) You dive down and hover, peering in, slowing your fins, controlling your bubbles, watching, and you are rewarded by a pulpy display of tentative tentacles. Hello, you say in your head, and you smile—insofar as you can do so with your lips stretched around the regulator—delighted with your discovery. Momentary euphoria.

Until you have your first draft critiqued.

Yours truly diving off Harbour Island, Bahamas

It’s been a rough start to 2015, hasn’t it? I hope that wherever you are, in whatever corner of this beautiful, complex and devastating world, you are safe and well. In light of the events in Paris, the senseless violence, it feels trite to post about the other musings and reflections that caught my attention this past week. However, as always, they focus on art and writing, and while it may be difficult to believe this week that the pen is mightier than the sword, it’s important, necessary even, that we uphold this belief to be true. Because the alternative is just too terrifying.

Kathak dance

Chitresh Das

Pandit Chitresh Das. Photo by Marty Sohl.

On Sunday, January 4th, Pandit Chitresh Das, guru (in the true meaning of the word) to my own kathak dance teacher, passed away suddenly. He represented an increasingly rare combination of talent, dedication, vision and energy. That he should pass away with such suddenness, like a flame snuffed out, is a shock to all, and yet, somehow, the only fitting way, just much, much too soon. He would not have abided by a drawn-out farewell. And now, that flame burns on in the hundreds of students he has taught, in his own disciples, amazing artists in their own right, in whom he cultivated the strength and vision to continue his legacy.

Here is a collection of clips of him and of his incredible dance company performing and practicing. Do take a look, you’ll be enriched. For a brief glimpse into his history, read this lovely remembrance. Dancers from my own dance organization, Chhandika, closely affiliated with Pandit Das’ school in California, share their reactions here. And writer Sandip Roy pulls together a good audio clip here.

Indian literature: the Murty Classical Library

Harvard University Press sets about to make the vast and diverse classical literature of India accessible to the general reader. This means some 500 books over the course of the next century (imagine starting a 100-year project!) in over a dozen languages. The series “debunks the myth of a Hindu orthodoxy as being the only classicism we have,” said Arshia Sattar, an independent scholar and translator in Bangalore. (Thanks to Michael Warres for bringing this to my attention.)

Meanwhile, Columbia professor John H. McWhorter predicts that in a hundred years, “it is possible that only 600 languages will be left on the planet as opposed to today’s 6,000.”

Literary podcasts

Friend and fellow author Nayomi Munaweera, whose book, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, is a beautiful, devastating and necessary read, recently put out a call for literary podcast suggestions. The answers came pouring in, and I look forward to exploring them. They included:

OtherPpl with Brad Listi (via Neelanjana Banerjee)
Bookworm (also via Neelanjana)
A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment with Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter (via Andrea Gutierrez @AndreaGtrrz)
Rachel Cruz’s The Blood-Jet Radio (via Melissa Rae Sipin-Gabon)
New Yorker Fiction (via Miriam Leah Medow)
Selected Shorts (also via Miriam)

To which I add the BookRiot podcast, The Readers, and Books On the Nightstand. Now if only I had a little commute during which to listen to such things.

Writing and women: Why do Women Have to Abandon Their Lives to Find Themselves? In defense of civilized self-discovery.

Freelance writer Elissa Strauss wrote about her ambivalence about “Wild,” the book by Cheryl Strayed that was recently made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. It’s a thought provoking read, and the comment string on the Facebook page of a group to which I belong was long, respectful, engaged, analytical and well written. The type of online discussion that rekindles my faith in humanity. It raised issues of “finding oneself,” of the privilege of trying to do so, of women feeling they need to leave everything behind, of groundedness in nature versus “civilization,” of whether women should or do expect to find their reflections in the stories of others, of finding one’s way “through” versus “out,” and more.

 

#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.

In the lead up to the book launch, I’ve had the opportunity to write some pieces for various sites. Some are long interviews, some shorter, such as this one in Shelf Awareness, others are essays (yet to be released) and still others are little snippets, such as this one on From Left to Write. They’ve been fun to draft.

Faint Promise of Rain at Harvard Bookstore

Faint Promise of Rain at Harvard Bookstore

In the meantime, the book itself seems to have jumped the gun. Although Amazon still shows its publication date as October 7, friends who have ordered it report that it has been delivered. And, best of all, an acquaintance sent an excited email to my husband over a week ago saying she’d spotted the book on prominent display at the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, MA. I hurried over there the very next day, and will admit to feeling misty-eyed as I came across my little baby sitting there on the shelf, next to a collection of O. Henry prize stories. It was holding its own, looking colorful and so real, absolutely sure of its place. I lingered for a while, casting glances at the other people browsing, hoping someone would pick it up, wondering if I’d speak up and say anything. “I recommend that book. It’s wonderful.” But no one did, not right then.

Finally, I picked one up and brought it to the check-out counter. The young woman at the cash register made a motion to ring up the purchase, asking the perfunctory “Are you all set?” And I exclaimed, perhaps a bit too loudly, “No!” She was taken aback. I softened my manner and smiled. “I wrote this, and I’d like to sign it.” She broke into smiles herself. “Oh, wonderful.” Next thing I knew, she’d brought out the whole stock, and offered me a “nice pen.” But I had a nicer one, because I have a whole drawer of special pens, and I’d selected a bronze Sharpie to match the color scheme of the cover and the story. What fun to scrawl my name on the title page!

 

 

 

kriti-logoI’ll be at the Kriti Festival, run by Desilit, this weekend in Chicago. Looks like there’s a fabulous array of speakers and topics prepared. Here’s where I’ll be–perhaps I’ll see some of you?

(NOTE: Kriti is co-sponsored by the English Department, the Asian Studies Program, and the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and will be held on campus, at 750 S. Halsted, Chicago.)

Thursday, September 25th:

4:00 – 6:00:  Opening reception, photographic diasporic history art exhibit, and rapid-fire reading, in collaboration with SAAPRI, the Asian American Resource and Cultural Center, Campus Programs, and UIC’s students, faculty and staff. (Ward Gallery, Student Center East, 750 S. Halsted St.) This event is free and open to the public. Speakers include featured photographer Preston Merchant. Readers: Fatimah Asghar, Sonali Dev, Anjali Mitter Duva, Syed Afzal Haider, Soniah Kamal, Parul Kaushik, Mina Khan, Neha Misra, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Rajdeep Paulus, Shakuntala Rajagopal, Phiroozeh Romer, Ankur Thakkar, Deepak Unnikrishnan, Vidhu Aggarwal, and Bishakh Som.

 

Friday, September 26th:

Friday 12 – 12:50

Paths to Publication (brown bag lunch)

What are today’s alternatives to “traditional” publishing, and how do you decide if one of them is good fit for you? The publishing industry has undergone, and continues to undergo, massive and rapid change. The array of publishing options now runs the gamut from traditional publishing to self-publishing, each with its own characteristics. What is happening in the middle of the spectrum? How is a writer to decide what path to follow? What are the relative pros and cons, and what are the questions to ask oneself in order to ensure a positive publishing experience?  This panel will address small press publishing, self-publishing, crowdfunding, social media, and more. As it occurs over lunchtime, please feel free to bring a brown bag lunch. (Anjali Mitter Duva, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Rajdeep Paulus)

 

Friday 4:00 – 4:50

Dirty Laundry

There is a clear market in the West for a certain kind of expose/pathos story from South Asia: child prostitutes, wife beating, widows in Brindhavan, untouchables, street kids, etc. When does exposing an evil move over into exploitation? What responsibilities does the writer have (if any)? (Tanaz Bhathena, Nayomi Munaweera, Anjali Mitter Duva, Soniah Kamal)

 

Saturday, September 27th:

Saturday 10 – 10:50

Blowing Your Own Horn: Marketing Yourself as a Writer

With so many new writers emerging, it can be difficult setting yourself apart from the crowd. Writers discuss various methods for marketing themselves and their work, from setting up a web page to hiring publicists and beyond. (Anjali Mitter Duva, Ankur Thakkar, Gotham Mamik)

 

Saturday 12:00 – 12:50

Vocal performance and reading

(Tara Swaminathan / Anjali Mitter Duva) (20 min each)

 

BookClubCardRosemaryA couple of weeks ago, Boston Globe reporter Beth Teitell wrote a feature on the book club that I run for my oldest daughter and eight of her friends. I’ve written about this book club before, about the impetus for it, and how impressed I am with the level of thought and discourse among this group of nine year olds, and how gratifying the whole experience is. (See here and below for the most heart-melting cards I received from them.) So it was with delight that we all welcomed the reporter to one of our meetings. Please do check out the feature, and photos, here.

Several people have contacted me for the full list of books we have tackled. We began in February 2013 when the girls were mid-way through third grade, and read all these:

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, by Judy Blume
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. konigsburg
One Crazy Summer, by Rita García-Williams
The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, by Julie Andrews Edwards
Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert O’Brien
Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech
Rules, by Cynthia Lord
Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper
Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson
Island’s End, by Padma Venkatraman
The Candy Shop War, by Brandon Mull
Esperanza Rising, by Pam Muñoz Ryan
The Alchemyst, by Michael Scott

Once we resume in September at the start of fifth grade, we’ll be integrating more non-fiction and, I hope, poetry.

BookClubCardOli  BookClubCardSasha

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

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

Ice-O-Mat
Ice-O-Mat

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

1. Choose your company well.

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

The Salt + Radish Writers

2. If possible, select a setting amid nature.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Nook
Writing Nook

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

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

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

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

Photo by Ed Ralph via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Ed Ralph via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

I know, complicated weekend for me to be away.

 

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

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

 

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

What is the dance recital timing?

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Okay, now that I’ve had some coffee…

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Mmmm…. coffeeeee

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

Logistics overload.

 

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

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

 

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

July?? July doesn’t exist.

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

Seven to eight months to go: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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