muse2014poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did I miss anything crucial? Please chime in!

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

Ten months to go:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Nine months to go:

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

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

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

muse2014poster

 

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

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.

Train on Wiesener Viadukt, Switzerland. Photo by David Gubler (www.bahnbilder.ch) via Wikimedia Commons

Train on Wiesener Viadukt, Switzerland. Photo by David Gubler (www.bahnbilder.ch) via Wikimedia Commons

(Rather conveniently, as you’ll see below, this was the Photo of the Day on Wikimedia Commons today.)

I’ve been away (on the exquisite shores of Curaçao, in the Dutch Antilles), but in the few days since my return, a few good nuggets have caught my attention:

India and film/photography

First and foremost, this gorgeously shot and completely fascinating film on the Aghori sadhus (holy men) of Varanasi, India. Very timely, as yesterday was the Maha Shivaratri festival celebrating Lord Shiva. Three young men–photographers and filmmakers–spent weeks on the banks of the Ganges among these holy men whose closeness to death, skulls and human ashes makes them both controversial and revered. Put life on hold and do watch this, then also check out these accompanying photos. Thanks to Farhana Huq for calling my attention to these.

Books and photographs

On the subject of photographs, here is another set, with very different subjects. This is what a librarian looks like. Any surprises?

The business of books

I found these statistics, on newspaper book reviews, reviewers and gender, thought provoking. Are female book reviewers likely to skew their reviewing toward women authors? What do you expect?

And while we’re talking of book reviews:
Do we really need negative book reviews? What is the value of criticism that is “unable or unwilling to criticize?” Should one go by the old adage, if you have nothing nice to say…? (via Randy Susan Meyers)

Writing

The world of writers was abuzz last week with Amtrak’s announcement that it is putting together a program of free or low-cost rides for writers wanting to use them as a writing retreat. As both a writer and an infrastructure planner (in a previous life), I was immediately deluged by vivid memories of train rides throughout my life, slicing through European countryside nibbling on butter cookies (edges and corners first) with my parents and brother, stopping in the middle of the night for the passport control in the Alps between France and Switzerland, piling onto the French TGV with classmates and mounds of duffel bags for an eighth grade school trip to the Mediterranean coast, peeing into the hole in the bathroom of the first class car of a train cutting through the dusty middle of India and watching the clankety tracks whizz by underneath, spilling apple juice all over my copy of Watership Down at the age of 11 as a train leaned into a curve, climbing up into the hills north of Tokyo among the cherry blossoms and mineral-green waterfalls in the Shikansen with my three year old’s head, heavy with sleep, cutting off the circulation in my thigh.

Needless to say, trains conjure up memories, descriptions, feelings of excitement, new ideas. What better location to sit and write? I’ll be following Amtrak’s program with much interest.

India and infrastructure

Google Maps has announced the availability of Street View and See Inside in India. There’s a slight creepiness to the fact that one can clearly see the people who happened to be at those spots when the pictures were taken, but at least a reasonable effort has been made to blur their faces. From a research standpoint, this ability to view specific locations is very useful. One can get an accurate sense, for example, of how far one can see from the rooftop of the Jaisalmer fort (click on the little yellow figure on the bottom right for the dots to appear that represent areas you can explore). Or how the shadows lengthen across a certain courtyard at sunset.

And now I want to get on a train and leave frigid Massachusetts and its dirt-encrusted snow for Rajasthan.

Signatures on tiles, nothing to do with contracts, but fun use of signatures. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Signatures on tiles, nothing to do with contracts, but fun use of signatures. Via Wikimedia Commons.

As I prepare for a book launch in October 2014, I find myself doing a significant amount of thinking, researching and planning for it. Even more than I’d anticipated. And as those in my family can tell you, I anticipate a lot. My oldest daughter says I’m a “just in case” person. As in, put a sweater in your bag just in case the movie theater is over air-conditioned. Which it will be.

For those who know they will have, or hope to have, a book published in the near future, I’ll be running a series of posts on the month-to-month lead up to publication. There’s no way yet to say whether my methods and actions will be successful, of course, but I try my best, and why not share the information? What to think about, what to research, what I hadn’t expected, what questions to ask oneself, that kind of thing.

To begin: Twelve months out from publication (which for me was this past October)

This is the month it all began. The main focus here was the contract. I’d been in discussion with the publisher already for several weeks. In October, they sent me their contract template, and we had some friendly back and forth during the course of the month to negotiate some changes and some additions.

I am fortunate to have a family member who is an attorney specializing in intellectual property, so I had some very experienced eyes look at the contract. I highly, highly recommend finding an attorney to look over your contract. There are literary attorneys who will do this for an hourly fee. If you have an agent, that’s a good place to start. But even an agent is not (usually) an attorney. I’m amazed at how often people sign things without fully understanding them. Of course we all click on “Agree” on those lengthy terms of use pop-up windows when we sign up for various services, but a book contract is of major importance and can come in the way of any future plans you might have for your book and its derivative products (translations, foreign editions, audio versions, etc.)

Some sites I found useful for learning about what to look for in a contract were the following:

This blog post by J.A. Konrath on “some of the more one-sided, onerous terms of a standard publishing contract.” (Note that he is very pro self-publishing, and very outspoken.)

These negotiation tips provided by the Author’s Guild.

This checklist of deal terms by intellectual property attorney Howard Zaharoff.

I’ve also heard great things about Mark Levine’s book, Negotiating a Book Contract: a Guide for Authors, Agents and Lawyers.

Some of the issues I was forced to think about were:

What rights I wanted to grant the publisher, and which ones I wanted to keep for myself. (Depending on the publisher, there will be more or less flexibility here.) Worldwide? North America? Print only? (Not often an option.) Translations? Film? Audio? Stage adaptations? Merchandising? Sales to book clubs? Abridgments in anthologies?

Publication date. Is there any time of year that makes the most sense for publication? Is my book a summer read? A more intellectual, fall-ish type of read? Could I tie its launch with a specific event? A holiday? Do I want people buying it as Christmas gifts?

Copyright. For example: Who owns the rights to the cover?

Liability and indemnification. In most contracts, it seems, this clause is highly skewed in favor of the publisher, and difficult to get changed. You as the author may need to accept that you will hold the publisher harmless blah blah blah, essentially shouldering the risk of having to pay for a lawsuit, legitimate or not, filed by some out in the great blue yonder who takes issue with something you wrote, claims your cover design was his or her idea, etc. There are a number of sites out there that summarize the concerns and things for which to be on the lookout. (For example here, here, and also here.) It was very useful to me to peruse them, and establish for myself what I was comfortable with, and what was a deal-breaker.

It took a certain amount of good natured back and forth to negotiate a contract that satisfied both sides, but we succeeded, and I’m glad for the process.

If you’ve been through this process yourself, do you have any thoughts to add?

Geological notebook, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Geological notebook, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Literature

What makes a book a classic? Italo Calvino suggests “a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” Lovely. Perhaps he has a similarly compelling way of defining a book that is “literary?” I’d welcome that. This Salon article explores some angles of the debate. Should the author be dead? Should the work be widely studied? Should it change lives? And what does that mean, anyway?

And:

This woman read one book from every country of the world. This type of goal strikes me as gimmicky–I’ll do this thing for one year and blog about it and develop a following–but it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t interest me as well. My recent attempt to find well-reviewed translations of middle grade literature (for the fourth grade book club) set in different regions of the world and NOT written by a westerner has been frustrating. The lack of translated work in the US in general is disappointing. So it is with interest that I look at this article and this woman’s list.

So on a related note: Asia and Children’s Lit

I’ve known about author Mitali Perkins for a while, especially as she resides in the same state as I do, and I was delighted to discover, through her blog, the web site of the South Asia Book Award (for children’s literature). I used it to pick out some selections for next month’s reading options, including Padma Venkatraman’s Island’s End.

Education and learning

Do you take notes on paper or on screen? I grew up in France where classes were given lecture-style as early as middle school. French children learn to take notes efficiently, filling notebooks which they then use to study for the baccalauréat exams at the end of their senior year. (At least, this is how it was 2-3 decades ago. I guess I might be in for a surprise were I to venture into a French collège today.) From this experience I’ve retained a penchant for pen and paper note-taking, even when surrounded by people tapping away on laptops and other devices. This article, therefore, is satisfying to me. Learning, it would seem, is deeper and more lasting when transmitted to the brain via longhand note-taking.

Craft of writing

One writer’s fundamentals. Writer Laura Harrington reminds us with clarity and simplicity of what it is easy to lose sight of when one is in the depths of creative writing. Excellent tidbits to post here and there in your writing space.

Mithila painters. Photo by Abhishek Singh, via Wikimedia Commons

Mithila painters. Photo by Abhishek Singh, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m adding in some categories that weren’t here last week, mixing it up a bit, although many are related and overlapping. Happy perusing this weekend.

Storytelling

This one is hard to categorize, but I’ll use “storytelling” because it will suck you in. A beautiful and astonishing piece on exorcising the “hungry ghosts” after the 2011 tsunami in Japan. (Via author Ruth Ozeki who, I have to point out since I’ve been scrutinizing author photos recently, has a fantastic photo of herself on her site.)

Writing. But also filmmaking, and women.

Picking up on Dodai Stewart’s declaration on Jezebel that 2013 was “a great year for women over 40” in film and television, Bloom contributor Vicraj Gill continues with some great links about the negative impact that age can have on a writer’s prospects (and the advantages of ebooks and social media in that respect), the reasons for which publication shouldn’t be the sole differentiation between “writer” and “non-writer”, and more.

Writing–craft and business

Grub Street Writers has posted a preview of its offerings this year’s The Muse & the Marketplace conference, taking place in Boston May 1st through 3rd. I highly, highly recommend attending this conference. The caliber of the workshops, the quality of the services, the camaraderie, the opportunities for networking have all served me greatly over the past seven years since I first attended. (And this year, I get to be one of the presenters!)

India

Professor Veena Talwar Oldenberg, author of one of my bibles of research for my work in progress, narrates this entertaining story relating to mass sterilization efforts in India in the 70s. (Men might want to skip the minimally graphic yet still squirm-inducing drawing of a vasectomy at the start of the article.) And yes, the story is entertaining for the humor with which it is told. But a lot of people were far from entertained. Let’s not forget that.

Art, and South Asia

At the end of February, Syracuse University is presenting a symposium devoted to South Asian folk art traditions around the world. Watch a compelling video about Rani Jha, master painter and teacher at the Mithila Art Institute in Madhubani, whose inner fire is apparent under her calm and thoughtful demeanor.

A year of third grade and fourth grade reading

A year of third grade and fourth grade reading

February marks a full year of what started out as a 3rd grade book club, and is clearly on its way to becoming a 5th grade one. I began this out of frustration and dismay at some of the books K was bringing home, sometimes at the suggestion (insistence?) of the school librarian, endless series of books about school life where “weird” and “gross” make appearances on nearly every page, where teachers exist merely as objects of derision, where all the characters are white and usually suburban. I knew from having seen K and her friends reading more substantial books, if they happened upon them and the mood struck them, that they were capable of much deeper thought, that in fact their brains were hungry for a greater challenge, for being expanded. I knew, and they knew, that they could handle and enjoy much, much more. (One girl was hesitant to join, saying she only liked to read books with mice that wore clothes. We managed to change that.)

We began with The Secret Garden, the classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The first meeting left me giddy with delight, as I recount here. I went all out, decorated with vases of roses, served cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off. A minute before the eight girls arrived, I panicked. What if they thought this was silly? What if they wanted to make fun of me like some of their books made fun of teachers? My fears couldn’t have been more misplaced.

Over the past year, with a break in July/August, we tackled:

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, by Judy Blue
The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, by Julie Andrews Edwards
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert O’Brien
One Crazy Summer, by Rita Garcia Williams (which gave K’s father an excuse to put together a fantastic soundtrack from 1968)
Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech (which made for the most animated discussion)
Rules, by Cynthia Lord (“too easy,” the girls said)
Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper
Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson

Every meeting starts with ten minutes of chatter while everyone arrives and gets settled, a 30-45 minute discussion, a snack related to the book in question, a related activity, and a vote on the book for the meeting after next (so that I have time to order it, distribute it, read it and plan the meeting). The children have been surprisingly enthusiastic about how the snack matches the book. They pounced on the corn kernels and shredded cheese I put out for Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH with squeals of delight. Their parents shook their heads in a mix of wonder and amusement when they came to retrieve their children.

I’ve been very impressed with the depth of thinking and the level of analysis these girls have demonstrated, and the caliber of the discussions we’ve had.

The topics we’ve discussed include:

Oppression, the Black Panther movement, the power of imagination, self-consciousness, the death of a parent, sibling relationships, autism, story arc, character arc, running away from home, storytelling techniques, what defines a “classic,” the ethics of scientific research with animals, loneliness, finding happiness, the meaning of “civilization,” sacrifice, civil disobedience, peer pressure, prejudice, unwritten rules, sadness, point of view, film adaptations, responsibility, cerebral palsy, book cover design, devotion to art, pacing, what made a book “good” a century ago versus today versus what makes a book just plain “good” all the time.

I’m planning out the selections for the next year. Now that I have the girls’ attention, now that they are invested, I’m going to mix it up a bit more, and designate a category for each month: poetry, biography, mystery, fantasy, adventure, Africa, Asia (not enough months to break down into smaller categories, but there’s always the following year), Europe, Latin America, Pacific Islands/Australia, Middle East, and probably different regions/historical periods in North America. I could get lost for hours in noodling around the various options.

 

The walls of old Delhi

The walls of old Delhi. Via Wikimedia Commons

 

New year, new feature: the Friday Round-up. Below are some features that I found noteworthy over the past week of so (although not necessarily dated within the past week). Filed under some of the rubrics that tend to garner my attention. Morsels for the mind and soul.

Art (Photography)

A while ago I discovered Tasveer Journal, an online magazine for photography in India and elsewhere, and I was struck by many of the collections and articles it features. For example: spend some time with Renunciation. These photographs that Pooja Jain has taken of the world of Jain nuns in Rajasthan will transport you to another time and place, not only of this planet but perhaps of your mind as well.

And in a completely different direction: the pictures that Elena Shumilova takes of her children and animals on her farm are magical. They will make your heart sing, if it doesn’t melt first. The noble, shaggy creature in the first few reminds me of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In fact, many of these look taken out of a fairy tale. The comment stream is interesting, if not particularly eloquent, because of the debate regarding photoshopping and other means of altering an image. Is it the photographer’s natural skill with a camera that matters most, or the final image?

India

This article in The Atlantic, and its accompanying videos, depicts a certain side of the Indian capital: what is left today of Delhi as a sanctuary. (This is not the Delhi that has been so infamously featured in the news of late.) Over the last eight centuries, wave upon wave of immigrants have washed into Delhi, seeking refuge. By conservative estimates, there are now about 30,000 refugees in the city, says the article. Video interviews put a human face to their experiences: an Afghan man who has yet, after 26 years, to feel a sense of accomplishment; a Burmese doctor offering free health care; a musician who found an opportunity which never existed for him at home.

Meanwhile, photographer Stephanie Sinclair, who has dedicated herself to documenting the harmful repercussions of child marriage, shares these pictures of young children in Rajasthan who have taken a stand against their own parents and refused to be married. Cynics may point to the fact that this is yet another western woman going into the dark recesses of Indian society and pulling out horror stories, but the mission is undeniably important, and these snapshots are compelling.

Food

This series has been going around for a while, but it never grows old, and it certainly bears looking at several times: what a week of groceries looks like around the world. As they say in France, sans commentaire.

Journalism

“This is Danny Pearl’s final story.” Intense, and very well told. A decade after journalist Daniel Pearl is beheaded on video (the story and images are haunting), his close friend and colleague Asra Nomani comes face to face with his killer at Guantánamo.

The craft of writing

“The what of the story … doesn’t matter one whit if you’re missing the why.” Read this piece by Ann Bauer who brings home the importance of focusing on reader-based writing, not writer-based writing.

The business of writing

“Should Women’s Fiction Have its Own Category?” Don’t get me started. Just about anyone who writes, and probably anyone who purchases books, is likely to have an opinion about this. The idea of categorization is on my mind these days as my publisher needs to provide the distributor with three categories in which to place my book. Here’s one take on the subject, by Yael Goldstein Love: that category needs to go. (via Lisa Borders.)

Writing and India

The Code of Writing: Vikram Chandra’s quest to recover his Indian self.” On computer programming, Sanskrit, storytelling and the culturally split self, among other things. Lengthy, but a good read, especially if you have read at least part of Vikram Chandra’s body of work. (I highly recommend Love and Longing in Bombay.)

Urban history & development

The historical soundscape of New York City. Here is a fun reconstruction of the sounds of the city in the Roaring Twenties.

Art (Dance)

Returning to the stage at 55, and with an artificial hip, Alvin Ailey dancer Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrish has some beautiful reflections and video footage here. “When you’re younger, you have everything — you have the flexibility, you have no fear. But you don’t savor every step, every movement of every fingertip, every beat of the music. I feel like I’m tasting food for the first time.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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