Lessons learned, for Leap-year day

On this odd day in February that only comes once every four years,  I just wanted to share some of my experiences from the past few months in hope of helping others who might be trying to follow the same path. This is what I would tell a new writer:

–First of all, do self-publish. Do it! I’ve never, ever regretted it. For all the vilification heaped on you by so-called professional writers and reviewers, it may be the only way of getting your work in front of a reader. And you’re never really a failure, when you do this: Self-published books have an infinite shelf life, and sometimes aren’t discovered until years after they’ve been published. Maybe you’ll become famous posthumously. But sooner, I hope…

–Edit, edit, edit. Edit until you’re sick of the damn thing, then hide it away somewhere for a few weeks. Then edit it some more.

–If you have the money, hire a copy editor. And maybe a cover designer, while you’re at it.

–Don’t overdo social media promotion. Your friends will get sick of you promoting your book, even if they won’t tell you to your face.

–Use a galley-sending service, like NetGalley. I did and feel it was well worth the $399 fee: all my best reviews came from that. But do make sure you are submitting the best book possible, because you’re not dealing with ordinary reviewers—most are professionals. And steel yourself for the worst.

–Do use Goodreads’ author program; and do the giveaway. Don’t be afraid to give your book away—yes, it has risks. But how else are people going to hear about it? But limit the giveaway to US readers only; I learned the hard way how exorbitant it can be to send books overseas (there’s no such thing as International Media Mail).

–Don’t release a book over a major holiday such as Christmas. For that matter, don’t release your book in the middle of winter. You’d think it would be a great time to sell a book, reading by the fire and all that, but it seems everyone reads on vacation or at the beach.

–Submit to the dragon: If your book is similar to mine (quiet, literary) and you want to publish it in e-book form, just go right to Amazon KDP. Don’t bother with any of the other platforms. I enrolled my book in Amazon Select, and even though it prevents me from selling on other book sites, let’s face it: Most of your sales will be through Amazon anyway. (You can still sell your print book anywhere) And they do offer potent promotions to help move things along.

–Such as advertising. I decided to try out their ad program, with some trepidation, setting up a modest budget of $200 to start. The program runs for a month or so, and you’re charged every time someone clicks your ad. It’s too early to tell, but I think it’s helping: I’ve had about 40 clicks so far, two weeks in, and I’m starting to see some sales.

And finally, don’t be discouraged. This self-publishing thing is a long game. Just keep at it, don’t take it personally…and begin the next project.

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Late Winter Update

I started this blog back in October 2015 as a way of describing my peculiar version of ‘the writer’s life,’ and more specifically, my efforts to get my fifth novel out into the world. So I think it’s time for an update on my progress. I have to say, it has gone pretty much the way I expected: A smattering of good reviews but little in the way of actual sales. I’m OK with that: When you set low expectations, it’s easy to be satisfied when you meet them! I’m actually pleasantly surprised by the good reviews, since I was really expecting to get hammered, because people are so mean online these days. And I know my book has flaws—you always hope they’re insignificant enough for the reviewer to overlook. As for sales…I shrug. I don’t think it’s just me. People’s Kindles and bookshelves seem overly full right now—I know mine are—and we seem to be in what I hope is a temporary, seasonal downturn as far as book sales are concerned.

I’m using the lull to revise the Kindle version of NM, since something weird happened with the paragraph indents when I uploaded it. I always forget that KDP will stick in extra indents when you upload a Word doc; though not with an ePub, which I should have submitted. I admit to being a total technophobe; it’s amazing I was able to even start this blog. Unfortunately, correcting the matter is very tedious business, going through the entire manuscript paragraph by paragraph, and then having to preview the thing a dozen times or so to make sure it’s just right. But I just know if I do get a bad review, it’ll probably be because of that (“Amateurish formatting dims what might otherwise be a stellar effort…” See, I can write my own reviews!)

And I have decided, in what I can only describe as a stupidly optimistic leap of faith, to begin a new novel. I’ve set aside the screenplay for now—I’ve gotten a bit stalled with it, and don’t quite know why, maybe because I already know how all the action is going to turn out. I’ve literally set it aside, placing it on the bookshelf beside my desk, on top of the dictionary and thesaurus and Chicago Manual of Style, indicating that it is still indeed a work in progress—if I was ditching it, it would go into the big cardboard box beneath my printer stand. (I used to have a file cabinet, but I got rid of it, when I realized stuff was going in, never to see the light of day again.) I didn’t really want to write another novel, and a contemporary, adult novel at that, but I’ve had this persistently annoying little idea that I can’t shake, and all of sudden, while having my breakfast coffee and trying to read the local daily, the characters started to form themselves in my brain. I think it was the Obituary page that triggered it, since I am morbidly fond of reading the obits of complete strangers, whole lives compressed into neat little paragraphs overladen with adjectives. The heart wants what it wants, and my heart wants to write another novel. Go figure.

So this also means I am putting a halt to my plans for a review page here, since I don’t read other people’s fiction while writing my own. But I have read some this winter, and thinking on that…I decided I could do my fellow writers more good by posting the reviews directly on Goodreads and Amazon, where they might actually do some good. So I’ll be doing that…and reserving this space for carrying on about this crazy vocation of ours. I say ‘ours’ because so many of my followers now are writers themselves—gone are the days when only friends and relatives read my blog! And that in itself is a bit of an accomplishment for me.

I’m saving my next post for Leap-Year day, because how many chances do you get to post something on February 29th? I gave my writing students the topic of writing about leap year, and practically got shouted down for assigning such a ‘lame’ topic. I’ll try not to be lame, but I will detail the lessons—both bitter and sweet—I’ve learned from the last six months of writing and publishing.

Influences: Tom

This is my long-overdue post on Thomas Merton and his influence on my writing, the man who taught me to see writing as my true vocation. I know my Catholic friends are bored to death with him, especially after the Pope had go and mention him in his address to Congress last year. But this is for everyone else who might be curious about why I’ve turned into such an oddball kind of novelist, when I could be making a comfortable living writing chick-lit and cozy mysteries. I actually have two invisible writing mentors, Tom and John Gardner, one for each shoulder (Gardner, of course, being the slightly devilish one.) Two vastly talented men killed in freakish accidents…But leaving behind a rich legacy of lessons and encouragement for us struggling writers.

For those of you unfamiliar with Merton—and there are a few of you, including my own grown daughter—he was a talented but drifting, unfocussed sort of young man in the 1920s and 30s, who eventually fell into Catholicism in a big way, tried to join the Franciscans, was rejected due to an amoral past, and then became a Trappist monk, choosing to live an austere life of silence and contemplation. He wrote a mid-twentieth century memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain, which made him very famous (then), and he continued to write prolifically behind the walls of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky pretty much for the rest of his life. Except he had to go to Thailand, and he had to touch that fan…and get electrocuted. When they finally invent that time machine, I’m going to go back and tell him, Don’t do it, Tom!  Don’t turn on that fan. You’re not done living yet! Or writing… He is considered a kind of modern mystic, a spiritual master, although his spiritual path makes me very uneasy. I can’t shake the impression I have that he was looking for a way out, toward the end: Out of the monastery, maybe away from Catholicism, away from the straightjacket of fame and adulation. But he is a superb writer, though regrettably not of fiction; somehow he never quite mastered that genre. But he didn’t need to; his other writings and poetry, speak for themselves.

What I learned from him is that great truths can be cloaked in simple, humorous, even seemingly offhanded ways. Some writers seem arrogant and overbearing just through their sheer prolificacy , but with Merton, his prodigious work seems a kind of boundless generosity, a extraordinary sort of sharing. And he is nothing if not honest. He is the best kind of spiritual writer: Never pious, pretentious, lecturing (well, maybe a little in the beginning), but just real and generous.

Do you remember the film, Six Degrees of Separation? Merton and I are connected by a single extraordinary person that we both knew and experienced: Father Irenaeus Herscher, OFM, who is mentioned in The Seven Storey Mountain—the older editions even have a photograph of him.  He always referred to Merton as simply, ‘Tom.’ He was one of ‘Tom’s’ closest friends when Merton taught at Saint Bonaventure University in the 1940s. And of course you know St. Bonnie’s is my alma mater. I worked at Friedsam Library as a student circulation assistant (I stamped outgoing books at the front desk, and ‘fixed’ my friends’ library fines), when Father Irenaeus was Librarian Emeritus. On Saturday mornings, I had the pleasure of working directly with him, serving as his default receptionist. It was my job to summon him from the depths of his basement office downstairs whenever he had visitors. He was a wonderful man, perhaps about eighty at that time, with his shock of white hair, bright eyes behind wired-rimmed spectacles, a cheerful Alsatian accent, and an irresistibly boyish nature: He actually walked with a kind of bounce. Whenever I buzzed the intercom for him, he would literally come running up the circular iron staircase, his sandals flapping and the rosary beads he wore at his waist jingling—he loved having visitors. He lived for them. And one snow-stormy day, there were no visitors; and he trudged upstairs rather forlornly, and stood on the other side of the desk. “No one is coming?” And I think I shook my head in sympathy: No. So he invited me downstairs, to look at his treasures; and he showed me an old-fashioned sort of schoolkid’s notebook, Merton’s own hand-written manuscript for a work whose title escapes me. A book filled with a blizzard of passionate blue-ink handwriting, the writing so intense it seemed carved into the page—does that seem familiar? I memorialized that day in The Novice Master, when Evan lays his hand on the monk Theophane’s handwritten manuscript. I did the very same thing, and Father Irenaeus did not slap my hand away, I’m happy to report. I touched Merton’s handwriting, and it was like the blessing you might receive from a relic, or on Candlemas day. I think, not to get too grand about it, I was ordained as a writer that day and had my vocation bestowed upon me. Not long after that I read Seven Storey Mountain—on the bus between New York City and Olean, delighted to come across Merton making the exact same journey in his book though by train, not the old Bluebird Special along Route 17. And even now, decades later, I still revisit his work, turn to him for an encouraging word or inspiration when the going gets rough. In April I will visit him in a more visceral way, when I make my retreat at Gethsemani Monastery, where he lived for so many years. I will kneel on his grave, and commune with him for a bit, before continuing up my own literary mountains.

Influences: Ladies of a certain age

 

As I was preparing to launch this post, I saw on the day’s news feed that Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, had passed. How utterly appropriate to include her here, among the lady authors I loved most.  I must confess that in my decades of being a passionate reader, most of the authors I read were female, not male. I hope that doesn’t seem sexist, but it’s absolutely true. And it angers me when (male) academics and others refer in a dismissive way to ‘women’s books.’ As if there is some actual difference in quality! And so here, I would like to pay homage to some of the great ladies of yore whose writing I found so meaningful and engaging, I wanted to emulate them myself.

Younger readers may be dismayed by the preponderance of early and mid-20th century authors on my list, but this is what I grew up with, in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. And in the fiction section of my high school’s library, and also later at my college’s library, that’s all there was. I pulled a book from the stacks, studied the blurbs and mini-reviews on the back cover, trying to figure out if it was a book worth reading. This in the days before Amazon and instant reviews and indeed, computers themselves.

I began with historical fiction, and so discovered the graceful work of Anya Seton, all but forgotten now (At a party at my brother’s house, I did actually meet a cousin of hers, who seemed amazed that I actually knew who she was). My favorite of hers was Avalon. I moved from there to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, which I actually read before seeing the movie. Even though I saw it as an imperfectly constructed book, showing the seams and edges of how it had actually been pieced together,like a literary quilt, by its editors, I liked it so much I read it twice. For all her flaws, Mitchell was a vivid and colorful writer. In college, I tackled Sigrid Undset’s ponderous 12th-century trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter, which I spent half a semester on. It was slow going and utterly glacial in parts, but strangely compelling. The books I borrowed from the campus library were so old, dust and book flakes rose up from them every time I opened them, making me sneeze Miss Undset actually won the Nobel Prize for Literature, though I’m not sure why: She was an interesting writer, but not a great one.

I loved two Dorothys, Parker and Day. Dorothy Parker, who I wanted to be the late 20th-century version of. Her famous wit is beside the point; her stories are insightful and moving and perfectly capture the era she inhabited. And I think Dorothy Day’s book, The Long Loneliness, inspired my leaning toward faith-based fiction.

And then there is the lady whose books filled an entire shelf, and then some. This is the weird, strange, neurotic but very compelling Anais Nin, famed for her voluminous diaries, which chronicle the literary life of the twentieth century, and later, her erotic writing. In reading her diaries as a college student, I sensed a talented but very troubled woman; and when I read the unexpurgated stuff later—whoa! She was brave, if nothing else. Or maybe desperate. Her need for sex and love (seemingly in that order) was almost nymphomaniac, obviously revealing some great ragged hole in her psyche. After her death, it was revealed she was a bigamist: She actually had two husbands, one on each coast, two different lives she struggled to keep separate, until her body betrayed her and developed cancer. Whew! It exhausts me, just thinking of her.

In college, I was also reading the exciting ‘new’ novelists of the time, and these would be Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro (whose short stories I distinctly remember reading behind the Circulation Desk when I was supposed to be working, long before she became famous), Nancy Thayer; and Gail Godwin, who I dearly love, whose quiet, revelation-filled fiction served as an early template for my own work. And so on. When I went on to work for the women’s magazines in New York City, I would become acquainted with many, many more authors, on a more personal basis: I would copy-edit and proofread their offerings (back when magazines still published fiction) and see that famous authors made the same stupid mistakes we fledgling writers did. And since then, I have read so many worthy authors, mostly female, that I can’t really pick out or distinguish a single one now in my near-old-age. But that vast collection of work is lodged firmly in my brain, a secret library (where I hope Dementia or Mr. Alzheimer won’t be a patron) as I often recall phrases or plotlines from long-forgotten books, haunting ideas and notions and issues I too want to explore in my own efforts.

Influences: The Mermaid and other tales

Yes, this post is about fairy tales. And more specifically, Hans Christian Andersen, outlandish as that might seem. I already told you I was a prodigious reader, and by the time I was twelve, I was checking out the adult section of the Hartford Public Library’s neighborhood branch. I don’t remember the first truly adult novel I ever read, but I do remember being shocked at how grim adult fiction seemed, after a steady diet of Beverley Cleary and Nancy Drew. It made me not want to grow up. But one day I was back in the Children’s Department, helping one of my younger siblings select a book, when I came across an august old volume, deep-blue binding with gilt letters: The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. It was illustrated with breathtaking, intricate, turn-of-the-century illustration plates, and when I saw the plate of the Little Mermaid, her beautiful pale body and shimmering fish-scale tail afloat in a night sea, her bosom discreetly hidden with waterfalls of wavy auburn locks, I was hooked.

And if all you know of the Little Mermaid is the Disney movie or the staid statue in Copenhagen’s harbor: Forget about all that! The tale of the Little Mermaid, as laid out by Andersen, is a dark, moody romance not really fit for children, but perfect for the impressionable sensitive pre-adolescent girl who had already decided she might be a writer when she grew up. I drank in all the details, and the graceful language, beginning with the first line: “Far out at sea, the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflowers and as clear as the purest glass…” How is that for the vivid dream? Sometimes it’s not really about the plot or the characters, but the sheer beauty of words. (Here I am indebted to his various translators; although I can speak and read some Danish, I don’t understand enough to appreciate the lyricism contained within Andersen’s tales.)

Now Andersen wrote many other tales, some silly and inconsequential, but other haunting and moving, sticking persistently in the memory like a wad of ancient chewing gum. No one seems to capture the ache and yearn for love (or, in the case of The Little Match Girl, mere warmth) as well as he does, and I suppose biographers could give you reasons for this, from his own strange and often lonely life. He is very Danish, which I can say, being of Danish descent myself (My maiden name is Petersen). Don’t want to fall into stereotypes here, but (judging from my own family, and a summer spent in Denmark years ago, among various relatives) while, yes, Danes in general may not be nice to recent refugees and immigrants, they do have redeeming qualities: Like this strong artistic streak, a driving desire to re-order the world through painting, writing, storytelling, craftworks like lacemaking and wood carving and embroidery. They have this charming concept, hyggelig, a unique and passionate love of one’s home, and sharing that home with others in a convivial way. But there is also that strong, destructive melancholy, which edges dangerously close to clinical depression, a kind of underlying sadness that encompasses longing, anger and resignation all at once. None of this is peculiar to Danish people, but it does seem to take place to a heightened degree in Denmark.

This is no cute ‘Ariel’ story:  Crushed by love, the Mermaid throws herself back into the sea in a suicidal leap,  but within its healing foam becomes a Daughter of the Air, with a chance for immortality though good deeds. In the end, a morality tale but a captivating one; and one I have no doubt nudged me a little closer to the vocation I ultimately chose as an adult.

Influences: John Gardner

If you want to learn something about writing great fiction, this is the book you need: The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner (subtitle: Notes on craft for young writers). This book, which I read several decades ago–and maybe a little out of vogue now–helped me understand the definition of great fiction at a crucial time in my career, as I was floundering about trying to figure out what kind of writer I wanted to be. After I read this, there was no doubt in my mind: I wanted to create the “vivid and continuous” dream, novels that would be little worlds mimicking in an efficient way the odd dream of real life that surrounds us. The novelist Ron Hansen (also a superb novelist worthy of emulation; his book A Stay Against Confusion is a great argument for Catholic fiction) calls him ‘The Wizard’, and that he is, taking the tricky, slippery art of creating a novel or story and helping to make it an accessible skill for the rest of us.

I first heard about John Gardner as a result of his untimely death: It was September of 1982, and I’d been married a year already, working as a women’s magazine editor in New York City and struggling with my fiction on the commuter train home to Jersey. I was taking a fiction-writer’s workshop in Greenwich Village with a semi-well-known poet, a very unpleasant and unsympathetic man who was more than happy to let me know my work was junk without really enlightening me as to why.  Then I read Gardner’s obituary in the New York Times—drawn, of course, by the sad strangeness of his death, from a motorcycle accident on a road in Pennsylvania, in Susquehanna county. The obit described his great contribution to fiction and I thought, Why have I not heard of this man? I immediately headed out to the local library and checked out his books. And I stopped attending the bad workshop on Christopher Street. There was no more reason to do so: I understood, after reading Mr. Gardner, what I needed to do.

And of all the books I’ve read since then, I think this is the one that has had the biggest impact on my fiction. I don’t claim to have followed his tenets completely; I’m sure I’m still committing some of the errors he rails against in Chapter 5, and he might be quite disappointed with my style. (“Odd but interesting” according to my latest review, which dropped in over the weekend.) But his greatest value to me is perhaps more inspirational than instructive: That striving to write great fiction is not an exercise in futility or an occupation limited to an elite group, but available to any moderately talented writer willing to put in the thought and effort.

The Persistent Reader

Writers don’t just pop out of thin air; they are a combination, perhaps, of everyone they’ve ever met, or read. The best authors are those who can leave an indelible mark not only on the hearts and minds of their readers, but also the aspiring writer still trying to shape his or her own vocation. Before I begin reviewing books of new and emerging writers next month, I wanted to reflect, perhaps indulgently, on some of the influences on my own crazy writing—and be warned that the writers I’ve loved and were touched by are a peculiar and idiosyncratic bunch. I am not an academic novelist—my college degree is in journalism, not English–nor have I ever attended any prestigious fiction workshops; I suppose I am a literary fiction autodidact. My education has been purely though other peoples’ books—and I‘ve read perhaps many, many thousands over the decades. I have always been a voracious and omnivorous reader, although as I get older my tastes have narrowed down to the good stuff. I no longer have any patience for bad or sloppy writing. And that perhaps is one of the best preparations for becoming a writer: Reading everything, good and bad, and learning to tell the difference.

My mentor and greatest influence in this respect would have to be my father, himself an ardent reader, the man who introduced me to books as soon as I could put a couple of words together. He is also a writer. I can’t wax nostalgic about him, because he’s still around and kicking, down there on the Florida Gulf Coast; he has a big birthday coming up, so I’ll send him an online bookstore gift card so he can continue to indulge himself. Haven’t sent him The Novice Master yet. I feel a little nervous about that, because he wasn’t crazy about my first novel, which shares its main character with this new one. My father is my harshest, roughest critic: Only because, even at my own advanced age, the slightest hint of criticism causes considerable distress. I always feel like I’m letting him down somehow. Now that I have a few good honest reviews from complete strangers behind me as support, I’m ready: and The Novice Master will go off to Pensacola.

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be discussing and showcasing various authors I’ve felt were a direct influence on my own work. I know these reflective sort of blog posts tend to be my least popular: Don’t care! I can’t write about sex all the time. And let’s make it a dialogue: Fellow writers are warmly invited to add their own favorites, in the comments section. No judging on my part, I promise!