Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Word Perfection

No one is perfect.  Well, except Nadia Comaneci, and Torvill and Dean.

That doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't strive for perfection.

I take a great deal of pride in my grammar, spelling, and proofreading skills.  I know that mine are above average, but I also know that the results of refining those skills are attainable by nearly every writer who dreams of uploading a manuscript to Amazon. 

I finished the actual writing of The Looking-Glass Portrait on 11 July 2016.  Because it was written using Word Perfect, I had to convert the document to Microsoft Word before I could upload it.  There are certain conventions of the two softwares that are not 100% compatible, so I had to go through the entire manuscript and make manual corrections to things like em and en dashes, tabs and ellipses, double breaks and so on. This also gave me the opportunity to look in both versions for marked spelling errors and fix them. 

Spell check tools are wonderful.  They won't catch everything, but they catch a lot.  Anyone who doesn't take advantage of them is just plain foolish.  I've seen too many author-published works on Amazon that have clearly never been run through even the most rudimentary spell-checking program.  This is unforgivable.

After putting my MSWord document through the conversion to HTML and then to mobi, I uploaded it to Kindle Direct Publishing on 18 July.  Yes, just one week.  No one else had read it.  No one else had proofread it.  No one else had edited it.  I knew I was taking a huge risk that I might have missed something major, but I was willing to take that risk and trust at least to my own proofreading skills.

The uploading process contains its own spell check application.  I used it, too, because you never know what the other programs might have missed.  And they had in fact missed one typo that I was able to fix before uploading.  I hit the "publish" button.

By Word Perfect's count, the book is something over 138,000 words long.  After a few readers got back to me, we had identified a grand total of three -- three -- errors that escaped my eagle eyes:  a missing space between two words, a wrong word, and a missing word.  All were easily fixed so the corrected document can be uploaded to Amazon.

Am I bragging?  Yes, I am!  But I'm also saying that this can be done by anyone who is willing to learn the skills or learn to rely on others who have the skills.  Your readers should be able to sit down with your book and read it, not correct it.  Are three errors acceptable?  Well, not by me!  Would I throw a book against a wall for three errors in 400 pages?  No, of course not.  But I wouldn't read past the first page if I found three errors on it.

It's not enough to put your heart and soul, your blood, sweat, and tears into you book.  You have to put your skill into it, too.  Language is the absolutely essential tool you have with which to build your literary world, and if you don't learn to use it with consummate skill, you probably won't be able to tell a story people will be willing to pay good money for.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Getting the word out about getting the words out.

I'm going to indulge in a bit of shameless self promotion here and post the cover to my recently self-published romance novel, The Looking-Glass Portrait.  I am not comfortable doing this, but I also don't want some of the other images presented in this entry to show up when I post a link.

Anyone who has been following me much at all knows that I frequently make reference to the old days of traditional print publication.  I'm going to do that again in this post, so if you're sick and tired of that subject, you can skip this one.  ;-)

Anyone who has been following me much at all also knows I am terrible at self-promotion.  I love talking about writing, expressing my opinions about good and bad writing, chatting up weird crap that happens in my life whether related to writing or not, showing off some of my artsy fartsy crafting.  But even here on my own little blog, I have significant difficulty promoting my own books.  This is nothing new.  I've always been reticent about tooting my own horn.

Part of the reason is that when I began writing with the intention of getting my work published, I was ridiculed and discouraged.  For many, many years, I was told I had no chance to sell my work to a legitimate publisher and that I was foolish -- sometimes the operative word was "stupid" -- to try.  Considering that I began writing adult fiction at about the age of eleven and didn't sell my first novel until I was 36, that was a lot of ridicule and discouragement. At one point, I was fired from a job because my boss didn't believe I was really writing a book and therefore I must be lying and untrustworthy.

Had there been any countering support or encouragement, the outcome might have been different, but there was very, very little.  The overwhelming majority  of reaction was negative, and especially after losing a job over it, I learned the very difficult lesson and kept my mouth shut.

Even after selling that first novel, I didn't always get positive reaction.  In the early 1980s, historical romances were routinely dismissed as "bodice-rippers" or soft porn, and anything described as a romance was often just dismissed as "a Harlequin."  So even though I had achieved publication, the nature of my work did not attract anything like acceptance of success.

Along with the routine dismissal of romance fiction as a genre, there was also an expectation that writers all made lots of money.  Few non-writers understood that royalty rates for the newly published were often just four percent of the retail cover price.  When Legacy of Honor was published in 1985, that meant I earned 16 cents for each copy sold at $3.95.

In a saturated market like romance, certain authors hit it big, but many others didn't.  And it took a combination of many factors to reach the level of sales that allowed a writer to make a career at the craft.  One had to be reasonably prolific; Janet Dailey made a name for herself by writing a new book every month.  As an example of "nothing succeeds like success," Dailey was able to devote herself full-time to her career and leave everything else to her husband.

What few writers understood back in the heyday of romance publishing in the 1980s and 1990s was that publishing was a business and writing was an art.  The overwhelming majority of the writers were women, and the overwhelming majority of them had no experience with or knowledge about the publishing business.  Kathryn Falk's magazine Romantic Times and the organization Romance Writers of America, Inc, both founded in the early 1980s, promoted romance writing as a desirable and lucrative career for women, with Publication(sic) as the brass ring.

RT and RWA also promoted promotion.  Authors were (strongly) encouraged to buy advertising in RT and accompany the ads with personal profiles or articles further promoting their latest titles.  Again, success bred success, as those who either already had sufficient income to afford paid advertising or those who had achieved sufficient sales levels with previous books could buy additional advertising, get their books in front of the reading public, and sell more.

This was a huge departure from traditional publishing promotion, which had been handled by the publishers.  Whether they took out ads in newspapers and magazines, sent their top listed authors on paid book tours, or booked them onto television shows -- Janet Dailey, for instance, appeared on The Phil Donohue Show in 1981 -- the publishers arranged for and in many cases paid for the promotion of their authors and their books.

What happened as a result of RT and RWA was that for romance writers in particular, these new venues for promotion allowed publishers to deftly slide some of the responsibility -- and cost -- for promotion onto the authors.  Did this in turn prompt higher royalty rates?  Of course not!  What are you, crazy?

Indeed, publishers found more and more ways to cut royalties to romance writers.  Bulk sales and direct-mail subscription clubs paying two percent or less became popular ways to add to publisher revenue; these options were less viable for other genres simply because science fiction, mystery, and other types of novels didn't have the market share that romance did.

Do you begin to see how this played out?  Over a period of less than twenty years, much of the burden of promotion had shifted from the publisher to the romance writer while more and more of the profit had shifted from the writer to the publisher.  It was a very convenient spiral, and many of the writers who couldn't afford to pay to play just quit the game or stayed in the lower ranks of midlist and never achieved stardom.

By the time digital self-publishing became a truly viable option for writers, the shift to self-promotion had been fully established in the romance writing community.  To a slightly lesser extent, it had also become a feature in science fiction and fantasy, though through a different route.  Fan conventions had long been a tradition in the science fiction and fantasy community of writers and readers, thus providing various venues for authors as well as publishers to market and promote directly to readers.  Fan fiction was another tradition in sf/f writing and publishing, and as the two top-selling genres began crossing over into each other's turf -- primarily from romance taking on more and more sf/f elements -- the commercial aspects of romance publishing were becoming established for sf/f writers.

Whether the extent of self-promotion that became de rigeur for romance would ever have achieved the same status in sf/f is almost moot.  Digital self-publishing forced it on every writer in every genre, with few exceptions.

Digital self-publishing -- let's call it DSP for convenience -- cut out the commercial publishers entirely.  Writers no longer had to go through the arduous and often discouraging process of sending their manuscripts to publishers and agents who all too often sent the works back with form letter rejections.  Writers now needed only to upload their MSWord document files and presto! they were published authors, often literally overnight.  Instead of four percent or even eight percent royalties, these new DSP authors could brag about collecting 35% to 70% of the digital cover price.

That 16-cents-per-copy that I earned for Legacy of Honor as a $3.95 paperback in 1985 could become (roughly) 30-cents-per-copy for a 99-cent Kindle edition in 2013.

Of course DSP also means the writer has to provide all the services that used to be done by the publisher: editing, formatting, proofreading, cover art, and promotion.

Back in those old days of traditional print publication, the typical reader walked into a bookstore -- new or used doesn't matter -- or library and chose their preferred reading material from a fairly limited supply.  Virtually all of the titles had gone through the same reasonably professional production process from manuscript to printed book, and the reader could be reasonably confident that whatever book she took from the shelf would be readable.  It may not be great by whatever her personal standards might be, and it may not be to her personal taste, but it would be competently produced in terms of a commercial product.

And while the acquiring editors at any given publishing house might screw up and pass on the next best-seller, there was also a pretty good chance that few commercially viable manuscripts fell completely through the cracks.  In other words, to put it simply, if the book was any good, it would find a publisher.

With DSP, virtually everything about publishing changed, though some things changed more than others.

One thing that changed was the profit motive for publishers.  Traditional publishers knew enough about their markets that they chose products they firmly believed would sell and bring a reasonable return on the investment in editing, printing, and promotion.  They had to pay for their staff and overhead, and they also had to show a profit to the stockholders.  They couldn't afford to publish garbage, at least not on a routine basis.

DSP allowed writers to publish garbage and not answer to anyone at all.

DSP erased all the distinctions that used to protect readers from garbage.

While writers might be expected, even in the age of DSP, to have a working knowledge of how publishing used to work, most readers had no interest back then and still don't.  Whether they are browsing the shelves in a big Barnes and Noble media store, digging through the offerings on the Friends of the Library two-for-a-dollar sale table, or scrolling through the Amazon Kindle listings in order low price to high, the readers still see "published" as "published."  And all they really want to do is read good books.

Let me give you an example.

The link is to a novel titled Surrender Ma'Lady by one Willow Fae von Wicken.  I will leave it to you whether you want to look at the text of the book itself, but be warned that the quality of the writing is, well, it's probably best described as below standard.

The story is described, per the listing on Amazon as:

Victoria Whittenberg was shipwrecked and bound by shackles, trapped in the clutches of Enrico Rodriguez, her captor, the man who she witnessed shoot her fiancé. She was left with little choice but to approach a lone rider who had witnessed her demise, and without a word, he rode away, leaving her to the mercy of killers.

Although a publisher is listed, Dymond Publishing appears to be a front for the author-as-publisher.  That prospective readers are unaware of the realities of publishing is evidenced by the following, a review posted on Amazon for this book:

"Worst case of editing that I have ever seen."

Except that the author was (more than likely) the only "editor" the book ever saw.

And this is not a rare phenomenon.  Over the past several years, there have been countless cases of writers whose books have been negatively reviewed who have complained that they can't afford an editor, and/or are waiting until they make enough sales that they can afford an editor, at which time they will re-publish the book and all the readers who slogged through the unedited version can now read it again, edited.  As if they wished to.

Willow Fae von Wicken's book is perma-free at Amazon.  (I don't know how that works, only that it does.)  There are lots and lots of freebies in all genres, and many of them are DSP works that would never have seen print in the old days.  That's what the publishing industry has evolved into.  I'm not passing judgment here, though my loathing for traditional print publishers is no secret.  DSP has given many people opportunities for writing careers that they might never have had in the old days.

However, DSP has thrown readers into an unexpected chaos, and this is why I have tried to champion readers and their rights ahead of writers and their rights, at least in the marketplace.

Promotion is now the name of the game, not publishing.  Anyone can be published, but now it takes promotion to make a career. 

Writing a book and publishing it via DSP costs pretty much nothing.  Of course a writer can pay for professional editing and proofreading and cover art, but none of those expenditures are mandatory, and many unsophisticated writers -- those who turn out works of the quality of Surrender Ma'Lady or just slightly better -- consider such services unnecessary in terms of establishing their careers as authors.  Promotion, however, is another thing entirely.  Promotion that generates visibility for the work is essential, many writers believe, to garnering sales.  Promotion becomes not only the motivating force behind everything the writer does, but also justification for anything she does.

This includes, but is certainly not limited to, traditional promotional tools such as paid ads, distributing free copies of the book for reviews, soliciting endorsements from established writers with recognized followings.

Digital Self Publishing, however, is part of the whole digital universe, and social media in all its forms has become the billboard -- in the original sense of the word -- for the self-publishing author.  Promotion through social media, then, includes but is not limited to:

Spamming her book, its cover, its blurb everywhere she can think of. Every Facebook post, Instagram and Twitter several times a day. joining every discussion group on Goodreads whether it allows promotion or not.  The irresistible urge to spam was what led to Amazon restricting promotional posts to certain forums, because readers and participants in the other forums got sick of the spam.

Purchasing 5-star reviews from "gig" sites such as fiverr.com, to be posted to the book's Amazon and Goodreads' listings in violation of those sites' Terms of Use.  Also purchasing upvotes of favorable reviews (and downvotes of negative reviews), adding the book to Listopias and other promotional tools.  

These paid-for "reviews" are, of course, violations of U.S. Federal Trade Commission regulations, but the feds aren't going to go after either the paid reviewers or the writers.  The FTC  might, however, crackdown on the commercial sites such as Amazon if the level of violation reaches too high.  Regardless, the pressure to achieve visibility is enormous, and many writers will succumb to the temptation.

Sometimes the violation is less odious than buying the reviews.  Having family and friends -- with "friends" encompassing fellow writers who agree to do "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" quid pro quo favorable reviews -- pose as strangers to leave favorable reviews is another way to gain visibility, even though it's just as much in violation of FTC regulations and certain sites' TOUs as the paid reviews.

And sometimes the desperate need for visibility prompts writers to set themselves up as arbiters of moral standards, declaring that only certain kinds of reviews should be allowed, that only certain kinds of readers should be allowed to review, that reviewers have an obligation to the writer rather than to their fellow readers.

These are the writers who have forgotten -- if they ever knew in the first place -- that reviews are for the readers, not for the writers.  Reviews are the observations and comments and opinions of unbiased, independent readers to readers.  Does the foremost book retailer, Amazon.com, violate this standard with their "Top Reviewer" status, often conferred on people who love every book sent to them because that's how they continue to get free books?  Yeah, they do.  Do readers know and understand and qualify or disqualify those reviews?  I'm sure some do, but I'm also sure many don't.

I took a long vacation from the book community because I was sick and tired of the blatant gaming of the system.  I felt I was losing my perspective not only as to what was good writing and what wasn't, but also as to what was legitimate criticism and what wasn't.  Did the books of writers like Willow Fae von Wicken and Raani York, Sharon Desruisseaux and Victor Bertolaccini deserve the scathing reviews I left for them?  Had I made my criticisms too personal, even though I knew nothing about the writers?

I still don't know for sure.

What I do know, however, is that this drive for visibility, and especially for favorable, 5-star visibility, may lie behind the sudden uptick in successful authors drifting onto the dark side of questionable behavior.  Why else would a writer with over 9,000 followers on her Facebook page put out a plea that readers treat her books like her babies, with only the utmost kindness and consideration and no criticism?  Why else would a writer with over 90,000 followers on her Facebook page urge those followers to manipulate one of her negative reviews so she didn't have to see it any more.  

As author Jenny Trout has written about readers, 

They already gave your book the time it took to read it. Why on earth should we be asking for more? And it feels as though the question devalues that reader who doesn’t leave a review. “You don’t count,” we’re saying. “You read the book, but you didn’t leave a review, so you’re not as appreciated as my other readers.”
Sadly, Amazon sends out requests for reviews that the writer has no control over; that's the way Amazon operates, and the writer has to put up with the fallout if the reader gets ticked off.  (And yes, writers also have to put up with the disgruntled readers who leave low rated reviews over issues the writer has no control over.)  And yes, it's a reality that reviews generate visibility and all of us writers want visibility.

But to what level do we need to stoop to get it?  Urging random readers, who may know nothing about effective reviewing, to leave a comment like, "Great book, I loved it.  You should read it"?  Is that what happens when a writer lists her book for free and 4,000 people download it because it's free but only seventeen actually read it?

I probably wouldn't have given all of this much thought except for the fact that I was reading a DSP title the other day in which the author's front material included this:

Please remember to leave a review which greatly helps everyone.

(Heath, Tim. Cherry Picking . Tim Heath Books. Kindle Edition.)
 My thought was, well, I'm not sure it would help Tim Heath if I left a negative review.  It might help other readers who don't want their time wasted on poorly written books.  It certainly, however, would not help me to leave a negative review.  As an author  I am not allowed to leave negative reviews on Amazon, as it could be considered a conflict of interest.  As an author I am allowed to leave positive reviews, because . . . well, because no one considers that it might be a tit-for-tat review, or the author might be a friend of mine.  So the bottom line is, I'm not going to leave a review on Amazon under any circumstances.

But then we go back to the business of reviewers leaving reviews that are "helpful" to the author, meaning the review is critical but offers suggestions that will help the author improve the book in subsequent revisions or improve the next book.  As I have argued time and again, it is never the reader's job to help the writer do anything.  No reader should ever feel obligated to donate her time and expertise to help a writer make more money.  (Many authors do not react kindly to "helpful" reviews anyway, so there is some risk involved in volunteering.  Been there, done that.)

This is especially true, in my never humble opinion, if the reader is also another writer.  Why should any professional writer, one who has taken the time and effort to learn her craft, be pressured into helping her competition?  (Tim Heath is probably not my competition; I don't think we write the same type of novel or target the same audience, but who knows?)

The other side of that  same coin is that many readers may not know enough to provide accurate advice. If a writer's writing skills are substandard and she is looking for readers to help her out, she probably doesn't know enough to tell the difference between good advice and bad advice.

Another comment Jenny Trout made resonated with me because I had just posted about this issue on my own Facebook timeline:

So many writers will tell you that the reason they write is because they enjoy it. It’s too difficult a job to do if your heart isn’t in it. So, if what you need to enjoy it is reviews, and you’re not getting them and your heart is not in it, then maybe it’s time to rethink some priorities. But it’s your job to decide whether or not to continue. Don’t put that responsibility on readers.
I can't not write.  Even when I wasn't writing, I was writing.  Even during that twenty years between Touchstone and The Looking-Glass Portrait, I was writing.  I just wasn't finishing novels.  But I can't not write.  Would I like to be making more money at it?  Sure!  But the money isn't what makes me write.

As a writer, I understand exactly what Jenny Trout is writing about when she continues:
I know that it’s frustrating when you see people racking up fantastic review after fantastic review. I know you want your book to reach the widest possible audience and have two full pages of positive quotes to sell it.
But what no one seems to be saying is, "What if those fantastic reviews are lies?"

It's one thing to risk alienating your readers by begging for a review; I think it's another thing entirely to risk everyone else's readers by encouraging, buying, or posting fake reviews.  We know it has happened; I've posted enough analyses myself of the purchased reviews from fiverr.com.  But what is a DSP writer to do?

I know you're tired of reading all my blathering, and yes, I guess I sort of did take your question of "What time is it?" as an excuse to tell you how to build a clock, but that's the way I am. 

I hate self promotion.  I'm very bad at it.  I don't know how to do it.  And I think the shenanigans of writers like the two who have gone off the rails this week and all the others before and after them have made it more and more difficult for the rest of us.  They're applying pressure to us, the mid-listers and below, to jump into that game of racking up the reviews by fair means or foul.

I make it a practice not to read any reviews of my work.  Even when someone else re-posts them, I avoid reading them.  Reviews are for readers.  Period.  End of discussion.

I'm reasonably accessible online.  If a reader has something they really think I need to know about something they've found in one of my books, such as an error of fact or an internal inconsistency or a TSTL character, I'm not that difficult to contact.  Here on the blog, for instance.  Or on Facebook.  Or on Booklikes.  The worst I'll probably do to a stalker/harasser/troll is block them, unless of course they get really threatening, in which case I'll go to the police.

But if you want to leave a scathing review, be my guest.  I'll even help you.

Ten free Kindle copies of The Looking-Glass Portrait to the first ten people who request them.  I'll know you've read to the end of this atrociously long screed, because this is the only place I'll mention it.  I have the DRM-free mobi file to send via email, which you can then transfer to your Kindle or Kindle app.

Is a review required?  No, of course not, and because I never look, I'll never know anyway.

And then we'll see what happens.  Maybe nothing.  But that's okay.  I can't not write.

Friday, July 22, 2016

When the only words are "How cool is that!"

I don't believe in omens. Seriously, I do not believe in omens. I know I keep saying it, but it's true. I don't believe in omens.

We will forget about all the omens that led me this past April to pick up a book I'd started in 1996 and start writing on it again, a process that resulted in the publication earlier this week of that book, The Looking-Glass Portrait, on Amazon.

I immediately began work on a new book, which I have only the vaguest idea where I'm going with. The opening scene is of the main character, one Iola Fairfield, taking leave of her old life in Indiana and heading out on her own. She gets into her car, starts the engine and . . . . 

"Satisfied that everything looked in order, I put the key in the ignition and turned the car on.  I knew that as soon as I pulled out of the parking lot, I would never look back.  There was nothing here for me at all.  Instead of looking back, I looked at the clock.  Ten minutes after eleven.  I waited another minute before shifting the Suburban into gear.  Eleven had always been a lucky number for me, even though I wasn't particularly superstitious, and it seemed fitting to begin this journey at the auspicious moment of 11:11."

Now, this may seem trivial to you, and in reality it is. There is eventual significance in the novel, but that's not what this post is about.
This post is about baseball.
I am not a fanatic baseball fan, the kind who remembers stats and so on with an encyclopedic memory.  And I'm certainly not a personally athletic person by any means.  But I am a Chicago White Sox fan.
In seventh grade, in Bill Kyger's social studies class at South Junior High School, we studied Illinois and Chicago history.  We had to do "projects," some kind of 3-D construction of something depicting Illinois or Chicago culture.  I'm sure there were the usual models of Fort Dearborn and maybe someone constructed a model of the Water Tower out of sugar cubes.  I made a model of Comiskey Park.

In the spring of that same school year, my buddy Sue S. and I decided we would enter the Chicago Daily News batboy contest.  As I recall, entrants had to write 200 words (or some such) on why they wanted to be the White Sox batboy.  Two boys would be chosen, one for the home team and one for the visitors, but every entrant would receive an official baseball.  And yes, of course, in 1961 this contest was open only to boys.  That didn't matter to me; I was determined to enter anyway, and I thought Sue was, too.  I wrote out my little essay, forged my mother's signature to the entrance form, and sent it off.  Sue chickened out.  But it didn't matter; I was apparently disqualified for being a girl -- or for doing a bad job of forgery? -- and never even got my free baseball.

Girls couldn't play Little League then, and my high school didn't even have girls' softball.  Not that I probably would have made the team anyway, but it would have been nice to know I wasn't automatically excluded.  Oh, well, I could still be a spectator.

Did I have a favorite player?  Oh, of course I did.

One morning in the spring of 1996, the phone rang.  I answered it, and it was my son Kevin calling from Tempe, where he was attending Arizona State University.  

"I'll bet you don't know what day it is," he taunted.

"Of course, I do," I replied without any hesitation whatsoever.  "It's the 29th of April, which means it's Luis Aparicio's birthday."

Aparicio was the star shortstop for the Go-Go White Sox in the late 1950s and 1960s.  Everyone in the family knew he was my favorite player.  His uniform number, as you can see above, was 11.

Then there was the Mother's Day a year or so later when Kevin walked in the house with a gift for me from -- if I remember the name correctly -- The Glass Cage, a sports memorabilia store.  The baseball autographed by Luis Aparicio still sits on top of my piano.

I missed watching the opening game of the 2005 World Series between the White Sox and Houston Astros, when Aparicio threw out the ceremonial first pitch, but I watched the next three games as the Sox swept the Astros to their first championship since 1917.  I remembered the 1959 series and the loss to the Dodgers; 2005 was special.

There's other stuff, tangential stuff, irrelevant stuff, the weird stuff that gets tucked into a writer's head to be pulled out when some bit of weird stuff is needed, whether it's an old house with plastic tulip shade pulls or an auspicious moment for a character to embark on a new life.  So it was that just a couple of days ago, my fictional Iola Fairfield hopped into her car and waited to leave the parking lot until 11:11.

But wait!  There's more!

That same son who teased me about Aparicio's birthday and brought me the autographed baseball is now raising his own son to play baseball.  This week Kevin and Andrew are making a pilgrimage to Cooperstown, New York, to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  This morning, Kevin sent me a picture on Facebook.

How cool!

(And yeah, at this point I was already thinking about that auspicious start to a journey at 11:11 and dismissing it all because I really don't believe in omens.)

Shortly after receiving the Facebook post, I heard the whistle on my cell phone that indicates a text message.  "Ok" he wrote.   "So are you ready for this????"

Followed by


How cool is that???!!!!!!!!!

But I still don't believe in omens.  Really and truly I don't.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Where the words came from

Very, very, VERY long background on the project that has occupied me for the past two months (and four days).

Let me start out by saying once again that I am NOT superstitious and I do NOT believe in "omens." I do think, however, that our brains latch onto things from deep in our subconscious that trigger connections we sort of forgot about until that subconscious throws them in our faces again.

That's what happened back in April with a shared Facebook story about a duplex in Toronto that was basically unchanged from the time it was built in the 1950s or so.

It looks like a typical '50s duplex, very similar to the one my aunt and uncle built shortly after my cousin was born, which was 1956. The three of them lived in the downstairs unit, and my aunt's widowed mother, whom we called Aunt Petie even though her real name was Gertrude, had the upstairs. 
My Uncle Dick is my mother's brother, so Aunt Shirley was only related to me by marriage. Her dad, Cornelius Stryker, was a commercial artist, a career my aunt also followed. She was an only child, and in turn only had one child, my cousin Connie. Connie also went into the arts; she and her husband Paul have a graphic arts and printing business in the Chicago suburbs.

You'll understand all these details . . . . eventually.

We were a very small and geographically close family, so holidays were spent at the in-laws' homes as much as the family's. My dad's family, the Wheelers, also lived in Edison Park not far from the Strykers, and his sister, also Shirley, was friends with Shirley Stryker who married my mother's brother. In fact, the Wheelers' house on Owen Avenue was not more than a few blocks from the Strykers' on Olcott. My dad and both Aunts Shirley went to the same grade school, Ebinger. Thus I was relatively familiar with the Stryker house, where Aunt Petie lived until 1957 or so, when I would have been nine years old. And that's old enough to remember things.

As the oldest of the five cousins born in that time period -- my brother and sister are half a generation younger -- I was eventually granted special privileges when visiting the Stryker house, the biggest of which was to use the upstairs bathroom. It was a marvelous, mysterious blue, totally unlike any other bathroom I had ever seen. The stairway was beautiful polished dark wood, with a large landing in the middle where it turned 180 degrees. On that landing was a glass fronted case containing my aunt's collection of dolls from all over the world, gifts from a family friend. I was also the only one of the children allowed to sit on the landing and look at the dolls.

I loved the house. And over the years, even after Uncle Neil Stryker died and Aunt Petie moved in with my Uncle Dick and Aunt Shirley, certain details of the house remained absolutely crystal clear in my memory, as clear as the crystal knobs on the interior doors in the house. I remembered the very modern chrome and glass end tables in the living room, the dining room, the closed-in back porch where we kids played, the white painted brick fireplace with its never burned white birch logs. The back yard with all the tulips -- the Strykers were Dutch and the yard had hundreds of tulips -- and the kind of creepy basement, too, all stuck in my memory.
There was another creepy thing about the house.

During the Depression, Cornelius Stryker worked as a window dresser for some of the department stores in downtown Chicago, and he supplemented his income by making plaster of Paris figurines which he then painted and sold. I still have a set of five little puppies that my aunt gave me after he had passed away. But one thing that he had made scared the crap out of me. It was a head, maybe of a person or maybe of a frog or maybe of something in between, and it was painted green and it had its mouth wide open. The inside of the mouth was painted red. The whole thing was about as big as the palm of your hand. It was used to hold a pot scrubber, such as an SOS pad or whatever, and it sat on the counter in the kitchen, and I was terrified of it.  Absolutely terrified.  I can still see that thing in my mind's eye, creepy as hell.

I have other memories of the house that may not be quite as clear or may not even be memories so much as they are products of my imagination.

On the other side of the kitchen from the counter where the plaster thing was, I recall a little breakfast nook, pretty much like a booth in a restaurant. The two benches and the table were painted bright red enamel, and there was a window overlooking the back yard and garden. That window faced east, and to block the morning sun at breakfast time, there was an ordinary pull-down window shade. The pull on the shade was a little red plastic charm of tulips growing in a wooden shoe. I have no idea why I was so fascinated by that red plastic shade pull, but I was, and I remembered it with absolute clarity.

As I said, Uncle Neil died in the mid-1950s, and Aunt Petie sold the house in Edison Park and moved in with Uncle Dick and Aunt Shirley and Connie, somewhere around 1957.

Fast forward 40 years or so, to 1997. My career writing historical romances was in the process of dying, but I am a compulsive writer, as you may have noticed, and so I kept on even though I knew I would never publish anything again. I got an idea for a contemporary gothic -- similar to what Barbara Michaels wrote -- involving a house modeled on. but for various reasons not identical to, the Stryker house. As I began to write it, the details I remembered about the actual house came more and more and more into play. I hadn't originally intended to be quite so exact, but it seemed as if my subconscious was writing parts of the story around some of those details.

Unfortunately, there were certain things I didn't remember. I thought I'd just write around them, or make up something, but nothing fit right. So one Saturday, I called my aunt to see if she could refresh my memory. She had, after all, grown up in the house.

This was in the days -- 1997 -- when long distance calls still cost some real cash, so it was quite an investment for me to call from Arizona to Illinois, but we had a long and delightful conversation. She was pretty surprised at how much detail I did remember, especially the crystal door knobs, the evil grinning scrubbie holder, and the plastic shade pull. She offered to draw me a floor plan and send it to me, so I'd have the details of the layout, in particular of the second floor, since I had never been up there very much. (Only the bathroom!) The floor plan diagram arrived a couple weeks later, along with a most truly bizarre extra.

To my surprise, the floor plan did not include the breakfast nook that I remembered so vividly, but, well, I apparently misremembered.  To this day I don't know where that pseudo-memory came from.

I continued to work on the novel, incorporating some of the details she had told me about, but 1997 was a traumatic year for me for a wide variety of reasons. It was also a financially troubling year, more so even than all the other financially troubling years I'd been through. In 1998 I put virtually all my fiction writing aside and made the bizarre decision to return to college; I got my BA in 2000, then stuck around for a master's in 2003. Those five years were filled with more trauma, emotional as well as financial, but I got through it. Just when things should have been leveling off, my husband was diagnosed with lung cancer, and died 10 weeks later in 2005.

I've dabbled with fiction through all this, but haven't really done much. I have gazillions of files on the computer, plus notes and sketches written longhand and filling a fat folder in the file cabinet. Every once in a while I get the folder out and transcribe some of those notes in an attempt to put everything in digital format, but I usually get discouraged and quit.

Several years ago, I picked up that particular novel and thought I'd work on it again. Self-publishing via Amazon's Kindle had given me the opportunity to put some of my historical romances out there again, and I thought it would also allow me to bypass all the trauma of dealing with editors and agents and the attendant bullshit, and I figured what the heck. I hit up good ol' Google to see if I could get some exterior pictures of the real house just for inspiration, and as luck -- or omens? -- would have it, the house happened to be for sale at the time. One of the real estate sites, Trulia or Zillow or whatever, had a whole portfolio of interior pictures as well, and I greedily gobbled them up and tucked them in the digital file folder. One of those photos was of the kitchen counter, exactly as I remembered it except for the grinning mouth figurine. The breakfast nook with its window and shade and plastic tulips was nowhere to be found.

But alas, for whatever reasons I never went any further than collecting the photos. The book itself continued to languish.

Until this past April.

The article about the Toronto house, frozen in time, brought all of that back, for some reason or other. Maybe it wouldn't have except for the fact that my daughter in New Jersey bought a house last summer that in many ways resembles the interior of the Toronto house. There's a lot of pink in Rachel's house, a lot of decor left from the 60s and 70s which the original owner from whom they bought it never changed. Ultimately, though, those subconscious connections all led back to Aunt Petie's house in Edison Park and the gothic novel I had started 20 years ago.

Again, I do not believe in omens, just odd coincidences. But maybe that's what it took to start me writing again, writing on that particular novel, writing until 1:00 a.m. and then dredging up the original text files -- still dated 1997 -- and going back to work on it.

Because there was that little bonus gift, that bizarre little extra in the envelope Aunt Shirley sent me back in 1997.

She told me that the house had been sold again a few years before our conversation, and somehow the new owners had contacted her to try to put everything back the way it was structurally at least when Neil Stryker built it. So the white paint had been removed from the red brick fireplace and the chimney opened to make it functional again, and the two stained glass windows that flanked the chimney had been uncovered. (They were boarded up sometime in the 40s; I never knew they were there.) The original kitchen cabinets had never been changed, though the blue bathroom was gone and there had been other alterations over the years.

As far as I know, she never went in the house again after our conversation, but I don't know that for sure. Still, 1997 was 40 years after her mother had moved out, and insignificant little things don't usually last 40 years.

What she had included as a gift with her drawing of the floor plan was the red plastic shade pull from the kitchen nook window. There was no way she could have known in 1956 or 1957, when the house was sold, that such a tiny thing would have any meaning to me at all. Maybe it did to her as well; I don't know. But why, of all the things in the house, did she still have THAT? And why, of all the things in the house, did I remember THAT??

That first night last April -- it must have been the 25th -- I wrote about 1000 words on the book, and the following evening I compiled all the separate chapter files into one document on the computer. It desperately needed proofreading and there were other details that needed to be fixed. The whole timeline had to be brought forward 20 years, and the technology as well.

But I was amazed as I skimmed through a brief synopsis I'd written that there were certain very creepy details, things that I had planted in the plot of the novel that foreshadowed events in my own real life over the course of the subsequent 20 years. I've wanted to go back to writing -- gee, can you tell? -- for a long time, but life seems always to intervene. I'm not at a point where I can financially devote myself to it fully, but my anger and frustration over certain other things need an outlet.

And the little plastic shade pull with the tulips and wooden shoes was still in the file cabinet, along with the floor plan of the house in Edison Park.

I honestly didn't expect anything to come of it. But night after night, morning after morning, afternoon after afternoon, I continued to add words to it. What began as something like 13 chapters and 44,000 words grew, and grew, and grew. I hit horrible snags in the plot that I thought would put an end to the thing, but somehow they seemed to get worked out. A subplot that I was very fond of couldn't get itself resolved because it meant veering off from the main thread, so I made the painful decision to just do away with it.
The fictional location is not, of course, Edison Park. And I've made some major alterations to the floor plan of Aunt Shirley's house to better fit the story. None of the characters are based on anyone I actually know.

I haven't decided on the title. It has always had a working title, and I happen to like that title very much, but it may be too much of a spoiler, and I'm not sure if it will be commercially viable. There's plenty of time to worry about that, however, while I do the editing and rewriting needed for a project that went on hiatus for 20 years.  And I have to find cover art, one of the tasks a self-publishing author has to take over from the vampire publishers.  (Can you tell I don't like them?)
When I hit 100,000 words, I could hardly believe it. My first complete novel, written when I was 15, ran to about 115,000 so it wasn't the raw number that surprised me. It was that after all these years I had stuck with it that far. I honestly thought I had lost my touch, that I was too old, that my other books had been flukes.

A couple days ago, I hit another snag, one that was looming as insurmountable. I didn't want to take a day off from it, because I literally had written every single day since the bug bit me. Most days I added around 1,000 words, but sometimes it was over 2,000. And it was so much damn fun. So I made myself write, made myself think, made myself create, and the block passed and I got through the insurmountable problem.

By Sunday, 26 June, I was down to the last "action" scene. I had hoped to get through at least half of it that day, maybe finish it the next, then write the mop-up denouement. In the middle of this last scene, my mind went blank. An absolutely crucial detail just plain wasn't there. I was well over 134,000 words by this time and I couldn't believe the final confrontation was going to fall flat.

I've always been one of the writers who plots everything out, writes a detailed outline/synopsis to start, and who doesn't like surprises. This book has been a surprise from the very beginning, or at least from its "new" beginning two months ago. The sketch has always been very clear, but details have seemed to fall into place on their own. So why was this one detail not showing up?

I don't know. I don't know where it was or where it came from, but it finally made an appearance and made everything make sense.

It doesn't have to be perfect, it only has to be finished.

It's far from perfect. In some places it's not even good! And it wasn't really quite finished just because that scene worked out. There were more small revelations to be made, but those were backstory details that had already been worked out. On Monday, 27 June, I finished the last action scene, and on Wednesday, 29 June, I wrote the final lines.  There is still a lot of editing to do, but it's finished.  It's the first novel I've completed since 1995.

And I'm damn fucking proud of myself.

Words of Joy -- Cartwheels, Alan Alda, and me

This blog post was original drafted in February 2015, more than a year ago.  I had completely forgotten about it until I logged in this morning to post some actual writing updates, since this is, after all, a blog about writing.  I will have another post for tomorrow, but I think this one was just sitting here in draft mode waiting for the proper moment.  I'll check the links to make sure they work.

Life gets in the way.  Dreams get put on back burners.  And then something happens.
Something like someone mentioning cartwheels, and my replying that someday I should tell my cartwheel story.  And the very next day the whole thing starts into motion.

It all happened a few weeks ago.  I was getting ready to log off the computer when an email popped up, a notification that my daughter in law in Seattle had posted something to Facebook.  It turned out to be something innocuous, but when I logged in to Facebook, there was this weird picture on the right side of my screen, some paid ad or link or whatever.  The pic was of Alan Alda from 30-40 years ago, fatigues costume from M*A*S*H.  Now, you know how I am about omens, which I don't believe in.  But my first thought was, like, is this some stupid non-omen trying to tell me I need to tell the story of the cartwheels? 

Anyway, here's what happened with the cartwheels, Alan Alda, and me.

Way way way back in October of 1968, I was living in a girls' residential club at 435 W. Surf St. in Chicago.  (The building is still there, now converted to luxury condos.)  A group of four or five of us decided to head downtown one Saturday evening to see a movie.  We picked Finian's Rainbow, with Petula Clark, Fred Astaire, Tommy Steele, etc.  I was wearing a Black Watch plaid kilt (which I still have) and a black V-neck sweater borrowed from my then boyfriend Randy.

On the bus going downtown, we chatted about how uptight people could be, in general, and afraid to let go every once in a while.

Finian's Rainbow is one of those "feel good" movies, so when we came out of the theatre on Randolph Street around 11:00, I was feeling very "up."  The sidewalk was crowded with people coming out of and going into the theatres and other places.  I told the other girls I felt so good after the movie that I could almost do cartwheels down the sidewalk.

Oh, horrors!  They were adamantly against that idea.

"No, no, no, don't do that.  Don't do that!  Don't make a spectacle of yourself!  Don't embarrass us!"

That was all the encouragement I needed.  I set my purse on the sidewalk.  I did three or four cartwheels down to the corner, three or four back to where my purse was.  The other girls were mortified.  The people around us laughed and a few clapped.  On the bus going back up north to Surf St., I wanted to sing songs from the movie.  We were the only passengers on the bus the whole way, except for a woman sitting right behind the bus driver who was probably his wife or mother or some such.  No one else sang.  I did.  The other girls were furious with me, even when I reminded them of our earlier conversation.

Jump forward about ten to 15 years. 

Somewhere back in the late 1970s or early 1980s, when M*A*S*H was consistently wiping up Emmy after Emmy, Alan Alda tried his hand at directing and then at writing.  One year he was nominated for an Emmy for writing the script for an episode.  We happened to be watching -- I rarely watched awards shows but my husband was an addict -- and as I remembered it, though incorrectly, Carol Burnett was presenting the award for comedy writing.  She opened the envelope, scanned the name, and burst into hysterical Carol Burnett laughter.  She was barely able to read "And the winner is . . . Alan Alda."  (In fact, according to YouTube, it was Penny Marshall and Cindy what's her name from Laverne and Shirley who presented.  I think there may have been a later interview or conversation between Burnett and Alda where he said he had told her what he was going to do.)

The camera pans to Alda.  He has this huge shit-eating grin on his face.  He bounces up, stops for a second, and turns a cartwheel, on camera. 

At that point I was half hysterical, and then I had to tell my husband about my Randolph Street/Finian's Rainbow cartwheels.  He just rolled his eyes.

Fast forward again, now to early May 1998.  I was going through some severe emotional crises at the time and had been stabbed in the back by some people I thought were my dearest friends.  My editor at Pocket Books had destroyed my writing career and I was on the verge of total meltdown.  I had gone to a writers' conference -- which in fact I had organized -- where just everything that could go wrong had done so, and in terms of my writing and my career and my personal life, I was getting nothing but horrible advice -- shut up, don't complain, don't stand up for yourself, do whatever it takes to get along even if it means sacrificing ALL your creative integrity.  I was emotionally devastated.  Even being in the Crowne Plaza in NYC and getting all the perks of being the organization's president and conference chair didn't help.

From my journal, at the time:

    Sunday, 3 May 1998  (Morning entry)
    A strange evening last night, and now awake at 5:15 to a foggy Manhattan morning.  I was up here reading through the old letters yesterday evening when T*** called and asked if I wanted to go out to dinner with H***** L****.  It would have been rude to decline even though I couldn't really afford it.  So we went out, to a nice little restaurant a half block from the hotel.  H***** is very much into horse racing, so we had an interesting little talk about Arlington Park and horses and Round Table, of all things.  I indulged myself with an amaretto. After dinner – I loosened up a little, but I'm still very furious at both T*** and K**** – we came back to the hotel and chatted with P** K**, B**** D****, B**** [H****], M******* B*******, C****** K*********, etc.  Somehow the subject came up and I told the little story of my cartwheels down Randolph Street in 1968.  Everyone thought it was funny.  Then someone mentioned tarot, so I came up to the room to get my deck.  While waiting for the elevator, I tried a cartwheel in the hall.  Once downstairs, in the lobby, in red skirt and red silk blouse, sans brassiere, barefoot, I did two very nice cartwheels.

Everyone of course was scandalized and humiliated, though the swanky wedding party going into their reception in one of the ballrooms off the lobby thought it was terrific and applauded.

I continued to turn cartwheels every once in a while, usually in defiance of something or other.  In the lobby at Walmart when I worked there and someone didn't believe I could do them.  In the parking lot at another job in 2005.  At my 40th class reunion in 2006.  I'm not sure if I've done any since then, but I probably could.  It's not like you forget how to do cartwheels.