Book Launched

On Saturday a gaggle of friends and fellow writers helped me officially launch Invisible Juan. I talked a little bit about the inception of the book–it’s been lounging on the shelf far too long and needs to get out and earn its keep–and I read an excerpt, about fifteen to twenty minutes. Then signing books, I was winging it all the way. Because I knew these people well, it wasn’t hard to make each book unique.

An event like this one is definitely not a one-woman show. My heartiest thanks to Caribou Coffee on W. 120th in Westminster CO. The baristas were welcoming and efficient and the coffee, as always, delicious. Another grand thank you to my friend and writing partner Carolann Walters. She is my “handler” in these situations. By which I mean that she provided snacks and took care of book sales, even packed up my box when it was all done but the shouting.

Now a shout out to readers: the book is available on Amazon. The gift of a book is a wonderful thing. If you are not yet aware of Juan’s problems and adventures, I have a page on this website, Bookstore, where you’ll find a synopsis. And any writer these days is thankful forreviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Life Gets Busy, You Know?

I try to keep a schedule for the blog posts but some weeks it just doesn’t fit comfortably. And comfort becomes important as I juggle two writing projects. (Not to mention planning a launch party for the third novel.) One of the current projects is genealogy. It’s been years in the making, documenting the lives of my great grandparents, researching the times and places in which they lived, the ways in which they traveled. Not that it’s all fact. That’s not possible. I have to make it clear in the text where I draw my own conclusions. Otherwise, I can and will note my research sources, admit my suppositions, do my honest best to memorialize these people whom I’ve never met.

The other work in project is fiction and it grows daily. I hadn’t planned it, am surprised that all these words demand my attention. Or maybe it’s the characters who want me to recognize them, let them live on the page. Problem is, I don’t know where we’re going or where they’ve been. Fictional characters don’t leave a paper trail. And because I don’t plot early on in fiction, the characters do what they want. In less than 10,000 words so far, I have three strong characters and another two about to emerge. If the plot goes where I think it might, there will be others. It’s out of my hands despite my fingers on the keys.

In both of these projects, rewards spring up when I least expect them. A character whom I imagined as passive sticks out her hand, welcomes in a stranger, takes charge of the scene. Instead of a petite white woman, she’s a stately black woman. Who knew? Ancestors rarely show their faces but I find their lives in census records, city directories, immigration lists. Truth and fiction are not so different this week. It’s hard work keeping up with all these people, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Imperfect Gifts

One of my favorite books is The Gift, by Lewis Hyde. It’s about passing along the gifts of creativity–writing, visual art, music, etc. It came up again this past week with a group of writers. But what if the gifts I give are less than perfect, not even close? After all, would I give someone a bald tire, a torn shirt, half a jar of peanut butter? I wouldn’t give stale bread to a starving child.

And what constitutes a real gift, as opposed to a gift to my own ego? “Look at the wonderful poem/book/photograph I’ve made.” Gifts are meant to signal generosity, not grandiosity. I remember a segment of the TV show Friends, in which Phoebe tried to give a gift that did not in any way serve her. She found that it was impossible, because she felt good about giving, thus the gift was never pure.

Gifts from writers are never pure either. The writing is never perfect and the writer’s pleasure in sharing affects the giving. But we still must move the work on. It’s a bit like raising a child and sending that kid out in the hope that he or she will be a friend to someone, a loving spouse, a hard worker. Poems, essays, and stories are our offspring, and sending them out is an act of faith, however flickering that faith may be. We cannot give without receiving, and maybe that’s the best gift of all.

Endings and Bananas

In the Sept/Oct 1917 issue of Poets & Writers, Joyce Maynard, in her essay “Patience and Memoir,” writes that for years she wrote a syndicated newspaper column, Domestic Affairs, in which she always felt the need to find “some kind of conclusion” even if there was none. I see that as one of my issues, the desire to tidy up the mess, leave the reader satisfied, provide dessert after a nourishing meal.

Endings challenge me. Right now, as I type this blog, I am avoiding a needed revision for a novel that ends, as mine often do, abruptly. Why truncate a story after laboring to deliver it fully formed? For one thing, I fear boring the reader, not taking up more of their precious time. Well, that’s not a healthy attitude. And better folk than I have said in various ways to “Stay in the room,” (Judy Reeves, A Writer’s Book of Days); BICHOK–butt in chair, hands on keyboard (Dan Manzanares, Lighthouse Writers Workshop); “Write beyond the last line” (Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, poet). My own four-word mantra begins with Commit (and includes Discover, Create, Connect). So I’ve committed to a fuller ending for that novel, despite my insecurities.

Writing is like marriage or parenthood. Some days you need to buy bananas but you long to drive past the supermarket, just keep going till the gas gauge hits E. But you don’t. You stop for coffee or a walk in the park. You clean up the mess on the page and bandage your aching ego. And by you, I mean me too.

Esoteric Joy

Full disclosure: I am a detail junky, a fact addict. I keep a fat black notebook full of potentially useless information. Like if you plant an orange seed you may grow a lemon tree. That the okapi–a mammal that looks like a cross between a giraffe and a horse–is a six million year old species. That the last passenger pigeon died in 1914. That the USS Maine sank in Havana Harbor, Cuba, on February 15, 1898. I graze like a goat in the flower beds and pick up all sorts of weird information, some of which I cannot possibly digest. Like knowing that a thing called CRISPR-Cas 9 is a sort of “molecular scissors” that can help modify genes.

Of what use can I make of these facts? Writers need a diet that includes tiny bits of information, like the body needs to ingest minute amounts of some minerals. You never can tell when a datum will go from frivolous to rich fodder. When I was writing Providence, I read a lot about water, tides, surge lines and such. I learned more than I needed to build a plausible story, but I learned what I needed. Marge Piercy, in writing her bestselling novel Gone to Soldiers, had her local library borrow on interlibrary loan “well over a thousand books.” She had to rely on technology to keep track of all that data. Now, while technology annoys and distracts me (Yeah, I look at cute cats on FB.) it also serves up a vast menu of data and prevents my local library staff from dying from exhaustion.

What we know and what we need to know is not always obvious. Far better, in my view, to store up extra knowledge. And then engage in what might be called “alien phenomenology.” This is an “[attempt] to understand the experience and interiority of objects, no matter how incomprehensible or speculative an act this may be” (M. R. O’Connor, Resurrection Science, 225). Hmm, and all along I thought that was called creative writing. See, you never know what’s out there to nibble on.

Why I Write

In the middle (I almost wrote muddle and that would work also.) of designing a marketing plan for my new novel, I’ve been consumed with lists of things to do to promote the work, to get it in front of readers. Note that I did not say to sell the book. It would be nice to recoup the expenses of self publishing, but deep down and high up, my goal is for the book to arrive in the hands of people who will read it.

Edward Abbey, outspoken guy that he was, writes in Postcards from Ed, that he “expect[s] the novelist to aspire to improve the world” (145). That’s a big expectation. He has challenged me to write from belief rather than ambition. Providence is about people caught up in the potential effects of climate change. The previous novel, Accidental Child, also grew from a what-if that had me musing about the disasters we face if we don’t curb our destructive use of natural resources.

People ask me how the book is selling, and they are puzzled when I say that I don’t know. Sales are only one indication of who might read the book and care about the characters about their lives and our future. Maybe pass it on to another reader. In the current political climate, I see little attention to issues that are drowning in the hubris and rancor that fill the news outlets. We still have racism, climate abuse, poverty, war and illness. I vote for a more reasoned, balanced awareness of what we should be concerned about. I write to remind myself, and you, that the world is complex, the people are sad, and the future needs our attention.

Read for Equality

Wright, Richard. Black Boy (American Hunger).

Ready to Rewrite

Most people call this season spring; for me it’s critique season. The beta readers for Providence (sequel to Accidental Child) are hard at work and I’m working hard at being patient. I know I’ll have plenty to do on the rewrite, but my generous readers will guide me. Obviously, the final decisions are mine and the book will live or die on my watch.

Given nine readers, I had to devise a way to collate their observations and advice. I’m not interested in shuffling paper or computer files repeatedly and maybe losing some important remark in the process. So I’ve adapted a story board idea to handle this input.

I have a large piece of foam board, hanging on the closet door in my office by a string and a wreath hanger. Across the top horizontal edge I’ve put sticky labels with the names of the major characters. I’m a character-driven writer for fiction, so this is my approach. Another writer might prefer categories like setting, action, point of view or dialog–whatever seems most useful.

Down the left hand vertically, I’ll list the chapters. As I come across suggestions from my readers, I’ll post a sticky note at the intersection of the character and the chapter in question. Stickies can be stacked, so I think I’ll have enough room, but I might need a second board to accommodate all thirty-four chapters. I’ll decide that when I’ve gone through the comments and see just where I need to concentrate my rewriting energy.

Not only does this plan help me stay on track, but also it’s a visual reminder that I have this work to do, daily if I’m any good. Originally, I had imagined a spring release for this novel, but reality suggests fall. I do have a busy life outside of Providence, and it’s best to take the time I need to write a good book. I’ve spoken briefly to an editor and once I’ve done the rewrite, I’ll ask her to look at it. Then on to the book design and publication. It’s a huge project to write and self-publish a novel, and there’s no point in doing a sloppy job. So, I’m ready to rewrite. Wish me luck–nah! Luck has less to do with writing than determination. And I am determined.