Thursday, March 05, 2015

More true tales from the glamorous life of a writer

notes, notes, and more notes

Life has been a little hectic recently. I spent a week playing medical advocate for my elderly father who lives in Florida. It was wonderful spending a week with him and frustrating that the week was mainly at the hospital where my greatest asset was my ability to rattle cages while smiling politely.

It doesn't hurt that I have a long history of working in the health care system. And let me tell you, it's a mess. But that's another blog post for another day.

The best news is my dad is now in a rehabilitation hospital, gaining strength so he can go back to his home and his community. And, since I had none of my usual distractions while I was there, I got a ton of writing done on ITHAKA RISING, the sequel in progress to DERELICT. The projected story length is about 80K or so. I'm just shy of 52K with a solid roadmap of the next big chunk of the narrative. Those notes are part of my 'now what' brainstorming sessions.

The past 2 weeks have netted me over 20,000 words for this novel. I'm proud of that work.

I've begun to believe that half (or more!) of writing a novel is not getting distracted. But the flip side of that is the tendency to hyper-focus on the writing to the detriment of everything else in life. (Bills, phone calls, laundry, etc). So a big part of my internal work is searching for balance. I have not been very good at finding it lately. But this morning, I completed the FAFSA for my son's college financial aid and made a bunch of phone calls that I had been avoiding. And tomorrow I'm making time to go to the ceramics studio.

One of the biggest problems of being a writer is the isolation. Writing is a solo sport. It requires focus and introspection. And it can be lonely, despite the 'company' of our characters. I struggle with the need for external validation and support so I don't feel as if I'm working in a vacuum. When I'm lonely, or frustrated with the writing, it's so simple to click over to a browser window and hang out on twitter/fb/google plus. There is a steady stream of conversation happening. It's a kind of anesthetic for the mind and makes me feel like I'm not so isolated. However, what I've been realizing lately, is that it also has a very negative side effect.

I read everyone's reports of their best selves, best accomplishments, most witty presentations on social media, and I feel terrible. I fall into self-pity, self-loathing, and envy. And let me tell you, those emotions do not fuel the creative process in any sort of healthy way.

It creates a black hole that sucks away joy and the ability to be playful and take risks, all of which are necessary to creativity. I know things are bad when I start to do the "why not me" routine. There's the insidious believe that I deserve to be successful, sell books, garner fans. This way lies madness.

Here's the thing: No one owes me anything.

I am not owed readers or fans or patrons or supporters. Would I like all those things? Sure. And a JK Rowling-sum of money would be great, too.  But just because I create, write, publish, doesn't mean I deserve a cookie for it.

So I wrote this to remind myself that it's about the work. The need to spin a story is what drives me to fill out notebooks, to research translations of Greek poetry, rare isotopes, and the symptoms of traumatic brain injury, and to return, again and again to the writing.

No, it's not glamorous. I'm not likely to have a zillion twitter followers who hang on my every word. I'm not likely to have my manuscripts go to auction and have publishers tripping over themselves to be the buyer. But I have written and published novels that I am proud of. Some of them have found their true readers, readers who have found something that came from my strange and murky imagination to be moving and meaningful.

And that's the true glamour.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Google Translate and the Challenge of Poetry

Photo from NASA, in the public domain

These are the places writing a book will take you.

I'm working on the sequel to my 2104 SF novel, DERELICT. It takes place in the near to mid future, where the discovery of AIs, stable wormholes, and cheap power have enabled a galactic diaspora. The books take place about forty years after a war of independence which the outer colonies lost to the central Commonwealth.

For whatever reason, in the first book, my subconscious started naming the AIs from Greek mythology: Daedalus, Hephaestus, Halcyone, SIREN (the acronym for the AI source code), etc. In the sequel, I took the hint from my writer brain and ran with it. There are elements of the Odyssey and from the story of Orpheus in this book. And a 'hidden' planet named Ithaka - which is where Odysseus was from.

I remembered reading a translation of a Greek poem from the early 1900's of that name and went to find it.

The poem is called "Ithaka" and it was written by CP Cavafy in 1910. There are multiple translations of it.

Here is a link to one.

But first, I don't really love any of the translations I've seen, and second, I need to use the text of the poem in the novel, and the translations are all under copyright. But not the original in Greek.

So I used google translate to get a literal transliteration of the language, and my knowledge of poetry to craft my own arrangement, recreating in English the loose, unrhyming iambic pentameter Cavafy favored in Greek. The result is below, a poem I have been working on for several months.

Translation of anything can be a tricky beast; poetry trickier still. Poetry over 100 years old? Yeah, even harder. Because culture and language changes over time. Both denotations AND connotations shift and wander. And since I don't speak Greek, I'm relying on the best guess translation from a computer algorithm to give me a sense of overall meaning.

Fortunately, there are also dozens of translation of this poem into English, some written decades ago, some more recent. I studied those, as well, to help me get a sense of the gestalt. What I discovered is some writers work closer to the literal translations than others. I took greater liberties than some and I hope readers who know this piece (especially in its native Greek) will forgive me.

As you set out for Ithaka, hope your voyage
is long, full of adventure, full of learning.
The Lestrygonians, the Cyclopes,
angry Poseidon are not yours to fear.
You will never meet such dangers on your path
if your thoughts stay clear, if your spirit and your body
are filled with true purpose. You will never

meet the Lestrygonians, the Cyclopes,
fierce Poseidon, unless you carry them with you,
unless you raise them up before you. Pray
that your road winds through endless
summer mornings, let joy escort you
to sun-drenched harbors where new sights await.
Stop at Phoenician markets. Purchase

their fine wares; mother of pearl, coral,
amber, ebony. Breathe in the heady air.
Buy sensual perfumes to remind yourself of pleasure.
Visit Egyptian cities, open your soul
to the learned and the wise.  Always

let Ithaka live inside your heart.
She is your destiny, your home, the end
of wandering. But do not seek to shorten
your voyage, better to let it last long years;
only anchor at your isle when you are old,
rich with all you have gathered on the way.

Never expect Ithaka to give you riches.

She granted you your perfect voyage.
Without her you would not have traveled far;
she has nothing more to give. And if

you find in her a poor and meager land,
Ithaka has not cheated you. Instead,
she has let you become wise, so filled
with vast experience, that now, finally
you understand what all your Ithakas mean.

Original poem in Greek by CP Cavify (1910)

Translation via Google translate
Arrangement by LJ Cohen (2015)

Oh, and the sequel? Its working title is ITHAKA RISING

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The game of publishing: or why all writers are driven off the deep end

(Original photo by Barry Skeates, used under a creative commons licence; CC BY 2.0)

Pardon the pun.

I released my fourth novel into the world one week ago to very little fanfare. [crickets]*

*via urban dictionary: "To have a joke or comment followed by a silence substantial enough to make the chirping of crickets audible."

And the rules of cricket are well neigh incomprehensible to anyone outside the cricket world.
This is also the case with publishing. Except even the players don't really know the rules.
This is part of what drives the anxiety of writers - all the parts of the writing and publishing process we have control of are complete by the time publication day arrives. All the rest of it - how and if the book gets into the hands of readers - is, for the most part, not up to us.

I've had releases that sink quietly into the void.

I've had releases that steadily rise like a big, red, helium balloon.

The funny thing is (in the odd-funny rather than the humorous-funny), I don't believe I've done anything radically different for the former versus the latter.

It's similar to my memories of my early motherhood days. I had two sons, born almost 3 years apart. Spawn #1 slept through the night at three months old. I must have been the perfect mother. Did everything right. Got rewarded. Then I had spawn #2. Parented him in the same way. He didn't sleep through the night until he was well over two years old.

What allows one child to be an effortless sleeper and one to struggle is the stuff of thousands of parenting books.

What allows one book to rocket up the charts and another to be passed over is the stuff of thousands of publishing books.

So much of the business of publishing is random and capricious. DERELICT did great, right out of the gate. Within 5 days of its publication, it was selling in the upper hundreds of copies a day. TIME AND TITHE? Baby steps. Selling a handful of copies.

But here's the thing: I think it's written at least as well as its more successful sibling. I could probably list a host of reasons why this launch was not as promising, and some of them might even be accurate. With as many variables as there are in this business, I may never really know.

I come to writing after a long career as a physical therapist, where there was a large emphasis of science, outcomes, and data. Much (though certainly not all) of what we could offer for treatment had, at least, some objective support in the literature and we could expect to reach (often, not universally) predictable outcomes.

It's not like that in publishing. There are too many variables. Too few data points. While there are experts who will try to tell you otherwise (and sell you their services), no one has the answer.

What I am able to control, I control to the best of my ability. That includes writing the best manuscript I know how, then working as hard as I can to make it better. That includes beta readers and revisions. That includes hiring professional editors, professional artists, formatting and typesetting, and blogging and networking.

At the end of this process, I know TIME AND TITHE is a solid book. But that may not be enough. Some books never find their readership. Some books do. It has little to do with objective metrics. After all, who is qualified to be tastemaker for all readers? It is my hope that this newest of my novels will find its way into the hands of readers.

Only time will tell.

And while I'm waiting, I can be found at my desk working on the next story.


TIME AND TITHE is the sequel to THE BETWEEN, but can be read independently. You can find links to all purchase venues here.

Lydia's victory over the Fae came with a bitter price - her baby sister, Taylor, grew up without her, aging more than a decade in the mere weeks that have passed in Faerie. When Aeon's madness threatens both realms, the sisters, now nearly strangers to one another, are forced to fight the powerful Fae who was once friend to each of them.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Here comes the fear again. . .

Here comes the rain again
Raining in my head like a tragedy
Tearing me apart like a new emotion
--From "Here comes the rain again" by the Eurythmics

Apologies to Annie Lenox - today this is running through my head with a slight change. . . Here comes the fear again.

Tomorrow I have a book release. I have done everything within my power to make TIME AND TITHE a strong book: multiple drafts, beta readers, revisions, professional editing, professional cover art, careful formatting and typography. I am proud of this story.

I am proud of this story.

I am proud of the publishing imprint I created and the professional product I am able to produce.

I am excited to have this book find its readers.

And I am afraid that it won't.

This is part and parcel of being an artist. Fear lives side by side with the ecstasy of creation. 

I've hardly ever begun a year with a gloomier aspect, in a gloomier mood, and I do not expect any future of success, but a future of strife.

In the same way, in the matter of art, the problem, “Am I an artist or am I not?” must not induce us not to draw or not to paint. Many things defy definition, and I consider it wrong to fritter one's time away on them. Certainly when one's work does not go smoothly and one is checked by difficulties, one gets bogged in the morass of such thoughts and insoluble problems. And because one feels sorely troubled by it, the best thing to do is to conquer the cause of the distraction by acquiring a new insight into the practical part of the work.
From the letters of Van Gogh

I am a writer. I have always know this; it just took me until my 40s to understand that no matter what else I did in my life, that was my 'true north.' Years ago, when I was struggling to find an agent, a friend asked me if I would continue to write even if no one read my books. It was a question I had to give a lot of thought to. Would I write? Yes. After all, I have kept a journal and written poetry since I was a child with little to no expectation that those words would be shared. Would I write novels? Maybe not.

There is a difference between pure self-expression and creating art. For me, art is a constructivist process; it is not complete until it is received, until the reader (in the case of stories) makes a very personal connection to the work and finds their own meaning in it.

So, for me, a book that is not read has failed in its mission.

Which brings me back to the fear. What if no one reads TIME AND TITHE? What if it quietly sinks into obscurity like so many books that are published to a handful of sales and then nothing? Of the three (soon to be four) novels I have published, one has become successful - that is, it found a large readership of passionate readers, so I know the thrill of closing that loop between artist and audience. It's like a drug high. And I desperately want it again. I want my stories and my characters to matter to people. I want to share the ecstasy of creation, as readers discover something that speaks to them in what I have written.

The fear that it won't is a terrible companion. 

Part of writing this post was an exercise in banishing those demons - shining light on them and naming them in a way to rob them of their power.

And as an act of defiance, I will write today. I will write tomorrow. And the next day. 

TIME AND TITHE is available now for pre-order and will be available for purchase on Tuesday, February 10th.