Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Anxiety of Art

Not this art. This is simply spectacular.
Cover art for ITHAKA RISING by Chris Howard

There is a cycle to the creative process. It probably differs for different kinds of artists, but mine goes something like this:

  • New idea : Oooh, shiny, this is so exciting. I feel like I'm filled with champagne bubbles.
  • First road block :  Ugh. This is hard. Why did I choose this idea? This isn't working. 
  • Regroup : Okay. This may work. Focus on getting words down for the draft. Nothing has to be perfect.
  • Second road block : Ugh. This is hard. Why did I choose this idea? This isn't working.
  • Regroup, redux : Okay. Let's try this. This may work better. Focus on getting words down for the draft. Nothing has to be perfect.
  • Third road block . . . 
By now, I think you get the idea. We continue on like this for quite some time, until . . .

  • Finished draft : I never, ever want to look at this sucker again. It's terrible. It's a hot mess. I'm never going to make sense of it.
  • Seek feedback (cue terror and self loathing) : I'm so sick of this project, I can't look at it objectively. Please tell me if there's anything worth salvaging here.
  • Assess feedback : Oh god, I should throw my computer out the window and never write again. . . . Oh, wait, there are some good comments in here. I can work with this. Yeah. I can totally work with this.
  • Revise, revise, revise : repeat feedback stage as needed.
  • Decide you are done : If I change another word, I'm only going to make it worse. It's as good as I am capable of at this moment. 
This is when you choose to send it out to the world.  This could be querying an agent, submitting for publication, or readying for self publishing and sending it to the editor, but the bottom line is, you let it go.

And that's when the anxiety hits me full force. I KNOW I've done everything I could possibly do with the work. I'm just afraid it won't be enough. Or even if it is 'enough' (a mythical standard, anyway), it'll just languish and be ignored.

The thing is, I know this. I know it's a cycle. I've been through it numerous times. And I still get caught up in it. EVERY FREAKING TIME.

Now it's gotten me good - I have two projects that will get released into the wilds nearly at the same time: The audiobook for DERELICT and the print and eBook of its sequel ITHAKA RISING.

I'll just be here in my blanket fort quietly freaking out.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

"I never look back darling. . . "

So, I've been looking back. But it's because I have to. DERELICT is being produced as an audiobook and as part of that process, I need to listen to each chapter and compare it to what is written. I'm checking for missing words, incorrect pronunciations, anything that is not clear. It's inevitable that with 90,000 words to read, there will be errors, just as there are inevitable typos in the written version.

I'm now about 2/3 of the way through the audiobook files.

It's weird listening to someone else read and interpret your story. It's especially weird if you're not a person who tends to listen to audiobooks or doesn't enjoy being read to.

I'm mostly over that discomfort. Part of that is how much I love listening to Bill Burrow's lovely and resonant voice.

The hard part is actually listening to the story and resisting the urge to make changes to it. I started drafting DERELICT in the summer of 2012. I finished it 6 months later. It went through four revision rounds over the following year and a half, to a completed final book that was published in June of 2014.

It was a good story. A solid story. It was ready for publication. And it was the best I could create at the time.

However, between the time I drafted DERELICT and now, I wrote two other novels and revised a third. With each book I write, I learn to be a better writer. That is the nature of artistic work: you change, you grow, you improve.

It is extremely hard not to want to go back and re-write DERELICT. But that way lies madness. I will change obvious typos, but nothing beyond that. I know other writers feel differently, but I believe to make significant changes in what should be a fixed work is unfair to its past readers.

So I work to channel my inner 'Edna' "I never look back, darling, it detracts from the now."

There are small things I would have handled differently in DERELICT if I knew then what I know now - primarily because at the time, I hadn't been planning to write a series. (Note to self: next time, keep better world building notes. Your future-you will thank you for it.) Some things I would change because my ear is now 'tuned' more precisely and there are sentence structures I would smooth out here and there. Other things I would do differently, planning ahead for an audiobook version.

All I can do is take this knowledge and apply it to the next book and the next one after that.

DERELICT is still a good story. I'm proud of it. I can even listen to it without wincing. Many, many readers were moved by it. And soon, it will be an audiobook. Which is very, very cool.

And in a few months, ITHAKA RISING will be its companion. From where I stand now, the sequel is a stronger book. I hope than when I look back in another year or so, I'll wish I could make changes to that one, too.

Because that will mean I'm continuing to grow as a writer.

From the reader's perspective, what do you think of the ability for the author to change a story 'on the fly' as it were?

If you are a writer, would you do so? 


Monday, May 04, 2015

Race, Eldercare, and Irony

"House of the Strange Wheelchair" photo by AndreasS, CC BY 2.0

This is not a post about writing. Thought I should get that out of the way first.

So much of the advice for authors includes recommendations not to speak on political or controversial matters, for fear of offending your potential book buying public. Well, race in America is certainly controversial. And I'm going to talk about it. At least from one narrow window and one point of observation.

You can stay and read, or not, as you prefer.


I am staying in my father's independent living apartment for a few weeks while he is in rehab, as I try to coordinate the absolute chaos of what is complex geriatric medical care. But that is another essay for another time. For the first week of my stay, every TV played riot-fest 2015: all Baltimore, all the time and I can't help but see how vast the difference is between how whites and blacks have experienced this newest cycle of murder and unrest.

You see, this place, like so many others in South Florida, is a study in racial divides. The population of residents (across independent living, assisted living, and skilled nursing) is nearly 100% white, and majority Jewish, from upper middle class suburban lives. The front line staff who care for them are nearly 100% people of color. Represented at the facility where I am staying are Jamaicans, Hatians, and Dominicans, as well as African Americans from all over the South.

The often well-off elderly residents are taken care of by individuals whose skin tone would have kept them out of the manicured golf courses and tennis clubs their charges moved here from. In the course of a single day, a resident will interact, often on a close, physical basis, with more black people than they would have seen in a year, outside of TV, or service positions at their former condo communities.

And before they retired here to Florida, most of those individuals came from primarily white suburbs in communities in and around major cities in the North - NY, Boston, Philadelphia, among others, that by virtue of real estate conventions, were economically and educationally segregated.

And here they are. Being transferred, wheeled around, fed, showered, toileted, and dressed by people who were most certainly the 'them' to their 'us'.


Some of the residents are rude. For some, it's a consequence of mental status changes that leave them dis-inhibited and the rudeness is not personal - rather the caregivers are convenient targets. Some of the residents are nasty - entitled, with more than a smattering of white privilege and out and out racism. I'd like to think that is the smaller population. Most of the residents are polite and simply appreciative of the care they receive.

But in watching the varied reactions to the news coverage of Baltimore over the past week, I noticed a profound difference in response:  Disgust on the part of the residents (white). Despair and frustration on the part of the caregivers (black).

And the comments I overheard from the residents ranged from the overtly racist (including repeated references to "those" people) to the simply tone-deaf ("what was he accused of?"). Nowhere was there actual discussion or dialogue between resident and caregiver. Nowhere did I hear compassion or empathy for the victims of police violence. For those communities who have been victims of systems of inequities for generations, even as this generation of Depression-era and WWII elders benefited from society's institutional largesse.


There is no doubt that I benefited from that largesse and I still continue to benefit from it. White and female and clearly 'western', I am not at risk for being profiled. My looks have never meant 'threat' to someone else. I once got pulled over for speeding on a country road in Maryland, driving my father in law's big BMW. I couldn't find the registration. Or my license (long story - I had moved, surrendered my NY driver's license, but hadn't yet gotten my PA one.) I was given a warning.

I am also conscious that while what is happening across the US will affect me, isn't about me. Yes, I have a voice and by virtue of being a fellow human on this spinning planet, have the obligation to use that voice. In support. In solidarity. As an ally.


I have began to use a number of phrases, pushing back at some of the comments I'm hearing. "Have you seen coverage of the peaceful marches?" "I have friends in Baltimore, and their experience is very different." "I hate how TV news chooses to sensationalize its coverage."

I suspect that very little will change with my remarks, but I must make them anyway, here in this strange place where white elders and black caregivers live such intimately divergent lives.


Friday, April 24, 2015

The 'Just Right' of choosing an audiobook narrator

Illustration from "The Story of the Three Bears" by Leonard Leslie Brooke (archive.org)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the year since DERELICT was published, I've had readers ask me if and when there would be an audiobook version. And I've made polite and non-committal noises about it for a bunch of reasons.

First, because audiobooks aren't really on my radar. I don't listen to them. And second, because I've always hated being read to - even from the time I was a little kid. I think I've listened to exactly one audiobook and that was probably 10 years ago when we were on a family road trip and we got one from the library on about a zillion cassette tapes. 

I'm not sure why I don't like being read to. I do love listening to baseball games on the radio, and when I was young, my dad and I used to listen to radio mystery theater together all the time. But the thought of listening to an entire novel always seemed unpleasant.

But when a friend of mine mentioned that her commute was over an hour each way and that the only thing that saved her sanity driving was audiobooks, I realized that I was letting my own likes and dislikes get in the way of someone else's enjoyment.

So I wandered over to http://www.acx.com/, Amazon's audiobook creation exchange marketplace, and decided to give it a go. The set up was quite simple, since I'm already registered with Amazon KDP and am the rights holder to all my novels.

I know enough about audiobooks/podcasting to know that it's a lot of work. Aside from the basic equipment needed to record, there's work that goes into post production and I wasn't up to learn how to do it. At least not now, when I have several publication projects on my plate. Because of that, I was happy to sign on for a royalty share option. Yes, Amazon takes the lion's share of the proceeds (60%, in this case), and the rights holder then splits the remainder 50/50 with the audiobook producer, but 20% of something is better than 0% of nothing. And there's the very real possibility that having an audiobook will open me up to a new audience for all my books.

Once I entered DERELICT in the system (including a short excerpt from the book for auditions), ACX opened it up to voice actors/producers who then provide the rights holder with a short sample recording. Within a few days, I had almost 10 auditions to listen to.

This was the hard part for me. Since I don't listen to audiobooks, I wasn't sure I'd know what I even wanted in a narrator. So I plugged in my headphones and listened.

It was really weird to hear my story being read to me.

Like super weird.

Some of the voices were overly dramatic, like I was hearing a movie trailer voice over. I knew that was 'too big'.

Some of the voices were too distant, as if they were narrating a documentary. That felt 'too small.'

And then I heard Bill Burrows. He was just right. It didn't feel strange at all to hear him tell my story. It actually felt utterly natural, as if I'd written it for him to voice.

I'm not sure I could tell you why it felt like such a good fit, but I can tell you that when I was listening, I was able to dive into the story and forget that I was being read to. Even forget these were my words. Bill seemed to inhabit the story and gave just the right separation in style and emphasis to the narration versus the dialogue and between each character's voice.

There is a huge element of personal preference in the choosing of a narrator. It's not an exact science and like Goldilocks, I was able to find a just right. 

With Bill's permission, I am sharing the first 15 minutes from the audiobook for DERELICT, currently in production. The audiobook will be available sometime in the early summer. Please feel free to sign up for my occasional newsletter (link on the right sidebar) for notifications.

I hope you enjoy it! (And here's a link to it on the soundcloud site if the embedded audio doesn't work: https://soundcloud.com/ljcohen/derelict-chapter-1 )