Archive for August, 2012

Here it is. Another one of my rambling posts, and just in time for no one to see it, since most people are leaving the office early for long weekends.

Why do I picture everyone (all nineteen of you) who read my blog reading it in stolen moments at work? Maybe because that’s how I read blogs for so long. I felt guilty some of the time and the rest of the time I figured it counted as my cigarette break/long lunches.

I’ve been part of a couple of conversations lately about how much a writer should read and while I am of the opinion that a writer should read as much as humanly possible I’m also of the opinion that writers can be kind of elitist about reading, myself included. Imagine if people talked about rope-climbing the way we often talk about book-reading.

Average Person: I haven’t climbed a rope since high school gym class.

Roper: What? You don’t know what you’re missing! All the strength flowing into your legs! All the great views from the ceiling of the gym! And it’s so good for your heart! That’s what’s wrong with society. People don’t climb anymore. They’re too busy watching tv or playing video games.

Average Person: You’re kind of a pedantic tool, you know?

I mean, yeah. I love reading to the exclusion of many other activities. I think reading is a superior way to spend your time. But I’m me and that’s how I’m wired. I understand that while many other people don’t think of asparagus, pineapple and Cadbury Eggs as their favourite foods, they also don’t groove on reading. And I no longer think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Yes, they’re missing out. But I know for certain there’s a lot of stuff I’m missing out on–and I’m wholly okay with that. My mom is a travel nut. If she could she’d spend her whole life going places and driving by monuments. I seldom leave the house and don’t mind it a bit. I traveled a lot when I was younger, mostly because of my mother’s insistence that we see the world. I liked it insofar as it broadened my mind but no as I’m older and more limited physically the thought of strange food, strange beds and airports drains me. So I understand how other people can look at a book the way I look at packed suitcase and think “uh…yeah…no.”

Speaking of being home, my husband is too. Here for a disco nap before seeing Mickey Hart…so I better hit Publish and go say hi. Have a grand holiday, the lot of you. I’ll be reading.

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Publishing geeks everywhere are buzzing over the news that people have been paying cash for good reviews on Amazon as a way to “promote” their self-publshed novels.

Of course, I’m not entirely sure how this is too much different than getting on the NYT Bestseller list. Sure, the route that the indie authors are taking is pretty nakedly unethical. Simply put “I’ll give you $15 for a positive review of my book” makes you a cheater. I think that’s obvious to most people.

But then there’s that NYT Bestseller List. Granted, many of the books I’ve read from there have been better than most of the Indie Pub stuff I’ve read. Having copy editors and fact-checkers and not having to worry about the business end of writing as much as an Indie author tends to give you more time to generate a better product. But, really, the books that end up topping the recognised lists do so not necessarily on quality.

The list-makers do pay particular attention to certain bookstores (most certainly not just independents, although most indies report sales to the NYT), so publishers tend to focus promotional efforts on those stores. Which stores are in the mix is unknown to the general public, but I gather that publishers are well aware of which stores count and are counted.

When you have millions of dollars riding on a book’s success, as the Big Houses often do, you are going to make it your business to know how to squeeze the most sales out of the thing. Why do you think the Big Houses have been so generous with frontlist discounts for booksellers for the last decade and a half? Sure, it’s not outright saying “I’ll pay you $15 for a good review”. But it is saying “I will only charge you $10 for this $25 book if you buy enough copies to make sure it ends up in the top 10 bestsellers.”

Yes, the books have to be good enough to sustain the model. There has to be enough demand for the bookstores to know they won’t end up with a million unsold copies of Her Heart Belongs To The Duke Of Transylvania and there has to be enough demand so that when you approach them next quarter with The Pantone Chips Of Sadomasochistic Erotica the bookstores’ buyers take you somewhat seriously. It helps if you dump another few million dollars into magazine ads, big posters and–heaven forfend–the book trailer. And don’t forget to send out a few thousand Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) so that the reviews can already be up on Amazon when the $10 book hits the shelves under the big poster. Those reviews always skew heavily positive if for no other reason than people enjoy feeling like insiders and are predisposed to like a book if they feel favoured by the publisher enough to get an early peek. That’s why the day the book comes out for us plebes you can go to Amazon and read a hundred gushing reviews about how I Am A Teenage Ghost With Cancer is The Book Of The Summer.

So is it somehow less okay for Susy Nobody to cut through all the hedgemazes and just say “here’s $15. Review my book on Amazon positively”? I honestly don’t think I know for sure.

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In the past few years I’ve decided to take my Being A Writer in a different direction. Writing is such a solitary pursuit and my life has been chock full of enforced solitude for eight years or so. And thus I decided that it could be a good thing to interact with other writers, and I followed the rabbit trail from my anchorite world over to places like Mike Duran’s blog, NaNoWriMo and various author forums. I’ve friended a lot of authors on Facebook and while it does “eat into my writing time” it also does a lot to demystify the process. For so long I looked at writing as this thing I could never do because it was so very hallowed and Jo Marchish. Jo was my writing hero, and how was I–sans garrett, sans Civil War, sans sister’s untimely demise–going to be that?

But now I know a lot of writers and I see them write and see them live through query letters, rejection letters, publishing and book tours. It’s been good.

There is one awkward part, and that would be that writers enjoy having their work read. I enjoy reading. So where is the problem? The problem, as you may know having read me before or joined me at a Thai restaurant for conversation or received an email or three dozen, is that I am a picky reader. A VERY picky reader.

And, as Jill Domschot politely says, I’m “direct”. Other people say “blunt” and still other people say “rude”. More than once I’ve been called an assh—e and recently was even promoted to “dick”. (That cracked me up because the people who called me a dick seemed to be overly fond of their own penises and so I really ended up wondering if they meant it as a reverential title.) I’ve been called these things enough to be aware that they point to a real potential failing. So in these years of being reclusive I’ve also worked very hard on tempering my temper and finding ways to be direct–I’ll never not be–while still being considerate of the humanity of the people I’m talking to.

I hope it’s working. It better be working because I am beta-reading about a dozen things right now and I really want to be able to provide good feedback without killing the authors. Authors are fragile and I know better than most how very PERSONAL it is to have someone read what you’ve written. I’d rather walk naked to the mailbox than let someone read my fiction. But when I do let someones read my fiction I WANT them to tell me exactly what they think. Because I want to be good. But I’m still sure that when someone says “please read my book” they don’t want to hear “you suck at this and all the time you’ve spent on it is wasted effort.” That’s why I don’t offer or agree to read some people’s stuff at all. If I agree to read your work it’s because I’ve liked what I’ve seen of your writing skill thus far and I feel like I can honestly assess your fiction without having to break your spirit. At least I hope so.

Anyway, I’m prattling on about this because I just finally read a friend’s YA Fantasy novel and the review is now live on Amazon. I have one copy to lend for Kindle if you’d like to read it.

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I’m not going to pretend like misfortune isn’t out there. I’m not going to pretend that bad things don’t happen to people no matter how hard they have worked. Saints still die from cancer and little old ladies who knit afghans for people in nursing homes still face foreclosure. It is not a world where fairness is commonplace.

Nevertheless…I am finding myself being very irritated with something I read over the weekend. I’ve debated writing about it because while I need to discuss it I also want to make very sure that I’m not dismissing other matters that are equally concerning.

I’m talking about someone who is a minor celebrity once-removed (for lack of a better term) and has now become a vocal member of the Occupy movement. I’ve followed the writings of this person for quite a while now, and immediately prior to Occupy, Pat* was floundering for a new person to scrounge off of.

For years Pat lived rather comfortably off of Pat’s lover, who was a very talented craftsperson. Then Pat’s lover started a business with another talented person who also had that certain extra something that compels some people toward celebrity. Pat left the first lover and moved in on the celebrity. They were together for years and then after the relationship ended Pat walked away with enough cash to live comfortably for a very long time. Eventually that well dried up, though, and Pat became a bit notorious for living off the good graces of those within Pat’s social circle of artists and craftspeople.

Pat’s entire adult life has been about finding ways to charm or cajole living money out of friends and acquaintances.

And now Pat is part of the Occupy movement, lamenting how awful society is and how hard people have it.

And I’m sitting here realising that maybe I have a hole where some of my compassion should be. Because while I will weep salt tears over a person who was fired from their job and lost their home, I can’t bring myself to get worked up over how unfair Pat thinks the world is. Pat is in at least three different books talking about spending two decades dropping acid and living off of the fortunes of celebrity lovers.

I guess it’s the whole ant and grasshopper thing. If an ant loses their anthill, it strikes me as very sad. But for a grasshopper to moan and groan about how there just isn’t any food around and it’s all someone else’s fault…that kinda makes me a little bit angry.

*Pat is not the person’s real name

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Just told someone in an email that I was going to try to write a blog entry that sounded as though it might have come from a sane person.

I have no idea why I told her that because now everything that jumps to mind is…well…it doesn’t sound all sane and put-together and “here is something to PONDER”, the way a good blog entry should. I have a lot of deeper thoughts I want to explore. Things about the way the world is working right now that make me feel as though we are slouching towards Gehenna. But it’s Monday, and Mondays are their own Gehenna so I don’t want to dive right in.

And also, you know, I’m really trying to focus on seeing the beauty in each story. And I’ve lately become convinced of something more and more. We tend to mourn as things die or break or become used up. It strikes me of late, however, that the mourning should come with a reminder that a broken thing is not ruined; it’s simply expanding its story.

A lamp sits on a table. It is a thing with a purpose or two; it lights the room and decorates the room.

A lamp lies broken on the floor. At first glance its purposes are thwarted as it can no longer light the room and it is no longer an adequate decoration. But how did it break? It did not go from where it was to where it is without something intervening. Was there a ball thrown by an enthusiastic toddler? Did the lamp get knocked to the floor when the door was opened and the woman who answered it then jerked her arms in gleeful surprise to see her husband home early from the war? Did it crash in a fall while a man stumbled toward the couch, drunk and depressed from losing his job? The lamp on its own is just a thing, but when it is broken it becomes part of a larger story about the moments in our lives that are our own stories assembling themselves. Broken things are souvenirs of lives being lived.

I’m starting to think that broken things are more special than we want to give them credit for. That’s my new theory anyway.

Sorry, Jess. This wasn’t as sane as I had hoped. But then again…it’s me and it’s Monday.

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I’m letting myself find oulde musicks in the corners of the dark. I think there’s a heaven where some screams have gone…

I spent half the week with that old chuck berry song from pulp fiction in my head, repeating the line about tv dinners and ginger ale until i thought I might die from the madness of the dullness of it all.

Then in the pain–because it’s only the deep pain in my bones that i will follow to this place–i ended up drowning in zevon late last night. i had remembered a dream that followed me home from my nap on thursday afternoon where i was in heaven, or at the entrance to it. some kind of sandwich bar, with countermen and menus. i kept demanding to see him! that he! was waiting for me and knew i was expected. from a back room came a man with shoulder-length hair and beard. and eyeglasses. So. Not Jesus. Warren. Zevon.

“What are you doing here? You aren’t supposed to be back here. Get your ass back home. I’ll call you later.”

That was my heavenly welcome. No saint peter, no giant book. No angels or choirs. Just a which wich style place with old dead poets behind the counter. I can only assume when i’m actually due they’ll make it look like the all the stories.

i am the little old lady who got mutilated last night. The hurt gets worse. Yet my heart gets no harder. They didn’t tell it true about that part, you know.

Why do i play warren’s music when it kills me like this? because it also is where i live the best, i suppose. Someone called Maria’s name. I swear it was my father’s voice.

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Seriously, my titles are usually a de facto thesis statement, and since this entry has no thesis to rally behind I swear I couldn’t think of a title at all. I’ve already used all the metaphors for collections…oh wait. I’ve got a good one. I think maybe I’ll turn these Friday blog entries into a series and call them Fridays With Magpies.

My husband has always said I’m a magpie because of my obsessive love for shiny, useless things. He’s right. I do have an obsessive love for shiny, useless things. Bits of crystal hang in my dining room window–an idea I stole from Pollyanna. Rainbows dance on the wall. How cool is that? Cooler yet is the fact that we’ve finally been able to get to the place where husband can pursue his lifelong dream of making stained glass. I think it’s a preacher’s kid thing. God knows the issues those PKs have with their dad’s boss and so God likes to hide in the beautiful places for them. When they have to look away from the pulpit with all its mixed messages they turn to the windows and see that God has a home not only in words but in craftsmanship and beauty. I don’t know a single PK who doesn’t love coloured glass in some way. Husband makes his stained glass. Aunt B. has a bottle tree.

I’m not a preacher’s kid, but I’m a preacher’s kid in law, I guess. So that’s my excuse. I still want a bottle tree, but we probably won’t have one until the oak is a bit larger. I think bottle trees look best when they’re old growth.

Okay. Oops. Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Because I just now googled “bottle tree” to find a picture to attach, and they just have the ones that are dead trees or manufactured tree forms with bottles stuck over the ends of branches. When I think of the bottle tree I’d like to have, I want one where the blue bottles hang down from the living tree. I know it sounds silly, and probably antithetical to the idea of the bottle tree’s repurposing dead and empty things for beauty. But I like the idea of the bottles as bits of jewelry for the live oak. And few things depress me as much as tree corpses.

Here’s a link to a flickr photo of what I’m talking about: hanging bottle tree

I’m trying very much during this spate of painful depression to focus on the beauty around me and to realise ordinary magic of sunlight. I view these mild depressions that strike from time to time as a sort of tug of war between the darkness of entropy and the brightness of continued striving. So I usually turn to the striving. I make a thing. I write something, colour something, sew something, knit something, cook something. It helps.

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The Bully Box

It used to be called a ballot box, I think. Ages ago, when you’d write your vote on a ballot and slide the important slip of paper inside.

But now it seems we should rechristen–okay, rename (separation of church and state, y’all!)–the thing. I’ve had this conversation a thousand times this year. I’ve had it with my parents, with neighbours and strangers and strange neighbours and stranger friends.

I had it again this morning in the comments of this post by Mike Duran.

Novelist Nicole Petrino-Salter said this, but she’s far from the first person to have done so. I’m just using her words because they’re the most recent:

You can vote for whomever you like, but don’t kid yourself that a third, fourth, fifth, or so on candidate is a worthwhile vote. You don’t have to like the two-party system, but that’s what we have right now. And it isn’t “manipulation” to suggest a vote for any other candidate besides the Dem or Repub in this election is a meaningful vote. It will subtract from one or the other, and Obama has proven he can’t lead anywhere but to desolation.

My response to her there is my response to everyone everywhere who makes this argument. I’ll repeat it here because it’s very important to me, and since this blog is a record of who I am I think this must be a prominent part.

My vote is my voice. My tacit assent for the values and ideals displayed by the candidate for whom I’m voting.

I do not cast my vote lightly. I do not cast my vote out of fear or a sense of gamesmanship. I do not stand up as a free woman, in front of my God and my countryman and say “yes, I support this person as my choice to serve us and lead us” unless I actually think and feel that the name on the ballot I cast is worthy of my approval.

That is not a worthless vote, because I am not a worthless person and my values and ideals are not worthless either.

No, my vote for a third party candidate will not “subtract” from Obama or Romney because my vote does not de facto belong to Obama or Romney. My vote belongs to ME.

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I read a lot of blogs and a lot of Facebook posts. In the last two or three years I’ve added more fellow Christians to my daily reading simply because I found fellow Christians who also like to talk about books and movies and stuff in addition to the Bible. Not that I don’t love talking about the Bible, because I do. But all Bible all the time leaves you stilted and narrow. The Bible can turn into that Bushel you hide your light under, you know? So easily, too.

The one bad thing about reading more Christian blogs is that I’ve encountered more Christians with opinions and many times those opinions make me want to slice open that coffin where my old self is lying dormant and let her out to be violent.

Nothing. Not one thing. No single thing makes me angrier than this. Ever since Christians decided that turning the other cheek like Jesus told us to wasn’t necessary because we are fighting a culture war and that kind of fighting is somehow good and if Jesus knew about the Culture War he’d agree for sure…ever since then there have been a great number of us who have decided that it is our responsibility to God to be rude to other people.

Somehow the directions about loving neighbours and turning cheeks and sharing coats and feeding the hungry just seem so uncool. After all, people say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” and they either kill or love the wrong people. (We want them to love babies and kill gay people, apparently. Not the other way around.) So it’s been deemed fine to pick or prolong these fights.

Time and again I see those who adopt this take-no-converts stance also justify it by quoting Luke 6:22-23.

Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

This is pulled wildly out of context. There are people who hate Jesus and hate Christians. That’s no secret and I’m not going to pretend they aren’t out there. I’m friends with some of them, actually. And it does hurt to have people treat you badly because of your religion, I won’t deny that either.

That does not mean that we have permission to aggravate, harass, bully, and abuse people to the point of getting them to hate us back. If you’re turning the other cheek and forgiving seventy-times-seven and all of those other things we’re supposed to do and people still hate you, then okay. Blessed be you and have a little dance. But if you’re calling people abominations and hacking away at their self-definitions and exploiting their weaknesses to the point where they break and lash out at you? You’re no hero. You’re no martyr of the faith.

You are an ass.

Oh, and one other thing to consider. As an American you do have freedom of speech. That means the government can’t tell you what you can and can’t say.
But as a Christian you do NOT have freedom of speech. You answer to an authority higher and purer and righter than our government. And that authority has made you its ambassador, has called you to be a light on a hill and a salt to bring flavour. That authority has told you to love and not judge. That authority has told you to turn the other cheek.

You don’t have the freedom to beat others down, no matter what a 240-year old piece of paper says.

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…time to get your crayons and your pencils!

The value of illustration to underscore writing is questionable to me. When I see a picture next to a blog entry I set my mind to “magazine” setting, and deal with the piece in the same way I’d deal with something in Entertainment Weekly. It’s automatic, the result of 40 years of conditioning. I just don’t expect as much from the writing in an illustrated piece. On the other hand, when I see a blog entry without pictures my mind tends to treat the writing with a bit more gravitas. The way I’d treat a textbook or a novel. Again, the response is automatic.

I find it very interesting, then, that so many “Build your blog audience” advice pieces tell people to use pictures as a way to draw readers. They say it brings more readers in–how they figure this out I don’t know. It’s certainly not through scientific method. But someone said it once and on the internet that’s as much proof as you need, apparently, and now it’s a “fact”. So blog entries have pictures in them.

The thing is, those pictures are very often copyrighted. On the occasions when I use a picture on here I spend a good chunk of time making sure the copyright situation allows for the picture to be posted on my site. I figure I’d be pretty miffed if a photographer used paragraphs of my writing to make his photography blog more interesting. Sure I’d be flattered initially, but ultimately miffed as hell. My words are my work, my craft. I know that artists feel the same way.

I got into a discussion about this with some other writers (they all have published books–more on that in a minute) and from there hopped to several other discussions. There is an actual belief out there that ‘if you put it on the internet, the picture automatically becomes part of the public domain and is up for grabs.’ Times like this I hate the Internet. This is the same kind of logic that would say it’s okay to steal your neighbours’ ferns off their porch. “If you put it out front on the street where everyone can see it, you’re giving it away. So it’s my fern now.”

Nobody should steal another person’s work, but the published authors who use copyright-protected material are putting themselves in greater jeopardy than the blogger who just writes for her blog. If their blog is used in any way to promote their novels, an attorney can argue that they are indirectly profiting from the blog and–boom! Time to pay up. It’s especially sad that so many of the articles advising on the use of pictures are directed at authors who are just now getting into blogging. They’re being steered down the very wrongest of roads.

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