Flashing Yellow

Love Scenes

In a perfectly wrought short story, the elements are integrated to create artistic unity: the writer has chosen nothing randomly. Place can say as much about character as how she looks, what he says.

There is a scene in the Merchant-Ivory film "Mr and Mrs Bridge," in which the title characters, played by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, express their love for one another in the vault of a bank. Mr. B, as played by beautiful blue-eyed Paul, is so conservative it seemed to me a brilliant choice on the part of author Evan S. Connell, from whose novel the script was adapted, and Ruth Prawar Jabala, who won an Oscar for best screenplay, to soften this uptight man in a safe place piled with money.

In fact, that sequence inspired a love scene in my novel Flashing Yellow, where a middle-aged couple come together in the storeroom of the hardware store where the woman works. Above them is a shelf of goods waiting to be returned to the manufacturer. The only soft place to lie down is a plastic-wrapped bolt of insulation material.

This time it's a temple, both real and imagined, and the couple is younger, perhaps thirty. Actually the temple is on the third floor and the kitchen on the main floor Across from the lotus pond, there is a porch where she sat with her laptop open, checking email. Maybe contemplating a single line message from a friend, So how's it going? Innocent as that. She doesn't know what to say. The Master she and her partner follow is away in Asia, and instead of following they are more or less leading, holding the place together until he comes back to the remote rocky land from which the building rises high enough to offer a view of the sea. Seldom many people here, the majority from the Master's own Asian country, but a few anglos, like these two, both tall, both dressed in black, him with loose pants that flare, her in a flowing skirt and draping shawl. Clothes that play with the air around them when they move, brushing it, whipping it, collecting the scents of herbs that grow wild among the yellowing grass, gathering burrs. He sounds the wooden clackers that begin the meditation session, she remains in the kitchen to cook the traditional post-meditation lunch, to which the handful of meditators descend when she rings the large bell. She dismisses the compliments on the meal she has prepared from whatever food has been donated, but his apparently humorous comment about her cooking skills sets her off. While the diminutive guests from across the great water chopstick into their mouths food she cooked and keep their eyes on their metal bowls on the long table in the dining room, the young couple meets in the kitchen, which is dark.

Lightning flashes in her big eyes when he reaches for her; he shrinks more deeply into his black clothes.  Furious whispering precedes her skirt swinging exit. Chopsticks murmur against the bottom of the metal bowls.

The insistence of their young bodies, the stress of wanting to detach if they are to live the Zen ideal. Yet denial produces frustration which, in her, leads to anger, which is why she came here in the first place, to deal with that cloud that bursts from her instinctively, though she doesn't wish it to. Desire on top of desire, can she ever really free herself from it?  He has shaved his head; he has become the Master's acolyte and learned the rituals. Something has to give. Is this the end, the beginning of a new phase?

Everyone awaits the Master's return.

Lessons from an indie musician

On a recent trip to New Orleans, I chanced on a performance by Helen Gillet and her band at the Three Muses.
I was looking for what I described to the doorman as interesting jazz, and he recommended I come back for the 9 o'clock show. Helen, a cellist, and her group, which consisted that night of a sousaphone, a clarinet and ... (I forget the fourth instrument), delivered a set that charmed me with its rhythms, playfulness, and the novel combination of sounds. On the way out, I ran into Helen, taking a break, and thanked her and she recommended that I come to Bacchanal where she performs regularly on Monday nights. So I did, and when she announced that she was going to be touring the northwest,  and was willing to do house concerts, I wrote down my email and invited her to stop in my town, a ferry ride north of Vancouver.

Short version is that in middle of February she started out from Louis Armstrong airport with a roadie and her equipment in a rented car, and drove across Highway 10 to Joshua Tree, south of San Diego, then headed north, stopping at various venues along the way and eventually arriving in Vancouver for a show at the The China Cloud on March 1.
The next day she sailed over, and that night performed for a petite but wildly enthusiastic audience at Boomers Burger Bar. The Boomers group may have been her smallest audience, maybe not, but it didn't matter to the quality of her work. She played with all the passion and inventiveness I admired when I first saw her on Frenchman Street, and the next day, after a walk on the beach, she packed up to continue onto Denver and Kansas City, and finally back to New Orleans, where she had a date around St. Patrick's day.

I admire her not only for her musical chops, but also for her go-for-it spirit, the way she maintains contacts, works hard to organize a tour and then drives herself all over the continent to play for most any audience of most any size. She feels comfortable as an indie musician, managing herself, promoting her work, producing cd's she describes as self-released.

That's like self-publishing, really, but self-releasers are better accepted - even considered cool - in the established music world. In the literary world there lingers that stigma of vanity publishing, and I can't say that I have been able to entirely shake it, despite joining the leagues of self-publishers with my latest novel You Again. Maybe I'm the wrong generation. I hear about committed, adamant and successful self-publishers (Cory Doctorow) and read rah-rah self-publishers on the various sites I peruse each week. I agree with the principle of being an independent, and, now, having set up a couple of dates to introduce the print version, I'm working to feel just as confident about presenting You Again as I did about the previous two novels in the trilogy, Shinny Girls and Flashing Yellow, which were published the conventional way. Here goes!

Self-publishing = self-awareness

Having come to the print-on-demand stage of my first self-publishing project, I understand all the reasons I like conventional publishers. For one thing, they make up for my weaknesses, my tendency to overlook small details; my shortcomings in the formatting department; my reluctance to sell myself; my urgency to move onto new projects.

Not that conventional publishers don't have their own weaknesses. When I was going over the  already paper-published first novel, Shinny's Girls, of my trilogy, I noticed copy editing errors, things I had depended on someone else to point out. The already published-in-paper Flashing Yellow, the second in the trilogy, was cleaner but went virtually unpromoted. When I added the third novel, You Again, not yet published conventionally, to complete my eccentric family saga for epublication,  those responsibilities suddenly fell on me. So I paid a copy editor to go over the entire trilogy, including You Again, relied on Kindle and Lulu to guide me through formatting, got cover art from a talented and resoundingly generous artist friend, uploaded, waited, tried a few feeble things like sending out emails or FB or G+ posts advertising sales, i.e." Now reduced to only 6.99!" I've given a few talks and will give more, I will try to think of other ways of letting people know that the Trilogy is available, and that You Again is even available separately as an ebook and soon in paper.

Meantime I'm steeling myself to go back to the ecopies of two editions, Kindle and epub, and search for any inadvertent mistakes. Inadvertent, well what else would they be? I almost let a big error slip into the text for the print on demand edition. Lucky that my designer, a friend who is a graphic artist and a novelist herself, has a sharp eye. Because with all the file switching around for different versions, between two computers with different word processing programs, I had lost the italics required for certain titles, and to delineate correspondence between the characters. Soon I will have to think of copy for the back cover and then how to introduce and promote the new print book. What will I do?

It's much easier to leave these jobs to people who have the skills to do them. I'm a writer, not a publisher, with all that entails, and even when I get my "team" to support my work by supplying services, often gratis, I have to be the boss. If a conventional publisher had been willing to take on this project, in an expedient fashion, which was beginning to seem unlikely - especially the expedient part - I probably would not have self-published. While it is faster and I can earn more money in royalties, I have not yet earned enough to cover costs, and I wonder, considering my befuddlement or reluctance regarding promotion, if I ever will. I'm writing social realism when many readers find social realism, maybe reality itself, depressing. Literary fiction is a hard sell in any format and hard to describe. It's literary, but accessible; simple on the surface, but with themes I feel are important, such as identity, what makes us who we are. I consider myself a serious writer, serious about the craft, I mean; the actual novels have been described as fast-paced and funny, though the readers who want stories in which everything turns out well might not agree.

As far as publishing goes, I have learned skills I never expected to want to learn. I doubt I have mastered them, but I have also learned a lot about myself, about how far I am prepared to go, about why I do it in the first place. If  I have a book that is ready to present and there are no other options for making it available to readers,  no matter how many or few there may be, I can't say I won't self-publish again, because as John Cheever famously said, "I can't write without a reader. It's precisely like a kiss - you can't do it alone."

We'll see.

Contents Under Pressure

A relatively new e-reader, I am learning the advantages of  Tables of Contents. You want to know what's ahead  in the pages you can't see until you touch and touch and touch your screen and eventually get to them. But as a writer of short stories, novellas and novels, I have had different ideas about chapter divisions, and thus the necessity of including a Table of Contents at the beginning of my books. I loved writing short stories. I thought a short story had more potential to be perfect than a long sprawling novel. Then I read John Gardner, in fact I read and re-read John Gardner, and I remember his thoughts about the  novella, how it traced a single emotional line (or something to that effect). Then I wanted to write a perfect novella. In fact my first "novel" Centre/Center is really three linked novellas. It qualifies as a novel in terms of the breadth of material, number of characters, time covered, complexity of theme, etc, but I divided it into three sections that focussed on three different but related characters. The breaks between the novellas are equivalent to chapter breaks.

When a friend read my recently published novel You Again on her IPad, she felt lost without a detailed Table of Contents. She is a disciplined person and likes to read to the end of a chapter before she falls asleep at night, and she prefers to know what she is getting in for. Having been reading on my Kobo, first The Great Gatsby, and most recently, Confederates in the Attic, I now understand what she means (though I find guides such as Tables more useful in non-fiction, like Confederates). So I relented, and created a fairly thorough Table of Contents for You Again, still not chapters, however. Instead, as in Flashing Yellow, I have big chunks I call "Parts," and, in You Again, month divisions. Within each month, though, the narrative moves from one character's point of view to another's, and those are separated by simple lines. For me it's a matter of rhythm, breath. I wonder how it is for other authors?  My friend  quickly surveyed the novels she was reading and found different ways of handling contents that lead to Tables. She liked Kate Atkinson's very precise Table, but found less detailed Tables in Colum McCann and Achebe.
If necessity really is the mother of invention, perhaps my habits will change as I write texts that will be published electronically. I had to think about it again when I updated my Shinny's Girls Trilogy for epub, because I want the Trilogy to be available to libraries, where I find most of my readers. Epub seems to require only that divisions are clear within the text, then goes ahead and makes the Table of Contents automatically. Much easier than doing it myself, with Kindle, even though the instructional video I followed for Mac users featured an Englishwoman with a lovely, patient voice.
In this eworld of books, TOC's seem to be an aid for readers. That requirement is prompting me to consider how organize my contents and, more importantly, why I do so. Is it the instinctive rhythm, the stopping for breath I feel, and changes in narrative voice as points of view shift from character to character,  or a greater logic I have not yet considered?

("Contents Under Pressure" is the title of one of my friend David King's comedies for theatre.Thanks, Dave.)

Daunted, haunted

In this still new territory of epublishing, I raise a finger to the wind and have to work to keep myself standing in a hurricane of possibilities: best blog sites, how to market your book, the most successful this, the most effective that. Websites, social media advice, instructional youtube videos. Numbers, numbers. The literary fiction sites that seem not to include actual literary fiction. Of course there are also quite informative blogs and sites. I like the sites for readers, the online book clubs, such as Goodreads and others less well known. Reassuring for a writer to know that so many people like to read. Interesting to read their opinions of various books.

Meantime, I'm travelling the old routes of promotion, preparing a talk to deliver at libraries across the country, beginning with our local library later this month. Haunted by memories of beginning the Shinny story, in that little trailer where I escaped to work, writing in long hand and on a portable typewriter, using yellow newsprint. The roaring White Salmon river. Since the mid to late 80's, when I started thinking about the character who became Shinny,  single mothers are no longer considered sluts and welfare cheats. Banks give loans to single mothers, employers don't consider them a bad risk. Many women choose to have children but not to marry.

 I have matured as a writer, too, become more ambitious in theme and design. That began with the second novel, Flashing Yellow. This weekend I found some old tractor feed paper from the time I was writing FY, with handwritten notes on sonatas and string quartets, in the drawer of a small desk I seldom use. Flashing Yellow has four themes, love, death, truth and money, and is divided into four parts. I aimed towards the reflection of a musical form. In my notes on the sonata, I see that it is so like the arc of a story, the beginning exposition, the transition, the recapitulation of the first part, but with changed harmonies.
From yellow newsprint to tractor feed to books delivered by whispernet. From the threat of an obscene caller, to a poison oak infection, to Shinny's suspicion that her boss might be involved with terrorists. Discordance resolves as conditions and characters change.

"Perfection means hitting exactly what you are aiming at and not touching by a hair what you are not." John Gardner

Back to the book

I am a lifelong writer who has entered the world of digital publishing. In some ways it feels like leaving home, saying goodbye to Mom and Dad, the publishers who managed the jobs I am doing now, and striking out on my own. As with any big move, there is much to think about.

My book Shinny's Girls, the Trilogy has been available on Amazon for almost a month. I was excited to let friends and associates know about it and pleased to receive many notes of congratulations. I liked hearing that some readers were getting caught up in the story. But I had signed onto the Kindle Select program, which means that until the end of September the book will be available only to Kindle users and users of Ipads and Iphones, and in the case of the latter two, the print is still appearing in bold italics, which one reader/friend says she does not mind; but it is not supposed to be that way. Ah, doubts. Maybe I should have stayed home, if they would have had me; Mom and Dad, that is.

There is also the lingering stigma attached to self-publishing, the echo of vanity presses and the fact that anyone can publish almost anything electronically now. We traditionalists wonder how quality can be maintained, yet non-traditionalists are less worried. No one has to read a bad book. The gatekeepers, publishers, what did they know anyway? And were they any better at finding readers that I can/will be? One positive is that, like a grown-up, I am not waiting for approval from the gate keepers but have enough confidence to present my work myself. Really, this route is not so new. Even Dostoyevsky self-published, through his press the Dostoyevsky Publishing Company.

More issues arise. My friend Julie wants chapter breaks. She is a serious, traditional reader who enjoys ereading, but prefers ebooks that are more like physical books, with page numbers to show her where she is in the book, and chapter headings to divide up a long read. To me, clear chapters are a stylistic choice; at present I have a running narrative with only lines and spaces dividing the voices of different characters, different scenes. I have four sections in Flashing Yellow, three sections in the lengthier You Again. In the next iteration, I will put these on the Contents page, with links, so that readers can encounter the novels that way. Maybe it is something that digital publishing demands.

And then of course there is promotion. How will browsers on Amazon ever find Shinny's Girls, the Trilogy among the hundreds of thousands of offerings? I can notify friends and ask that they notify their friends. I can especially target other writers and people in the book business, book club members. I should be practical about the necessity of promotion, but after a lifetime in which one of the worst things a person could be accused of was doing something just to get attention (the voices of brothers and sisters clamour in memory), I have to find the right way to balance my private self with the public self required to do these things. My godson Jimmy says it doesn't matter. People tweet their hearts out knowing that recipients will just forget what they read in the flood of other tweets, posts, emails, texts.

My blurb

 ...as follows:

    In the spirit of John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom novels, Shinny’s Girls, the Trilogy reveals a social history of our times by presenting the life of what critics have called “an uncommon common woman” and her family of three daughters over two decades, with each linked novelShinny’s Girls, Flashing Yellow and You Again - covering a single year. Through the threat of an obscene caller in the first novel, to the revelation of a long kept secret in the third, the girls gradually leave home in Vancouver for Milan, New York and a goat farm in the redwoods of Northern California, and Shinny’s world opens to experiences she would never have foreseen, including a white water rafting adventure that sparks a mid-life love affair; an email correspondence with a soldier stationed in Afghanistan, and her unintentional complicity with an identity thief who happens to be her grandson.

     Described as “fast paced and funny, and a pleasure to read,” the late CBC radio icon Peter Gzowski admitted that Shinny had hooked him. “I stayed up until the wee hours to finish it (the original novella). You get a real sense of the reality of the lives of these people.”
            Books in Canada: “A superb novella, Shinny's Girls demonstrates a large, robust talent, nicely matured.”
            Calgary Herald: “compelling and memorable.”
            Toronto Star: “…a strong collection by a considerable talent.”

Almost finished now. This ebook should be ready to upload to Amazon Select within a week!

Reaching an audience

Notes from a talk to Le Groupe Esperanza, Le Cercle de la Garnison (Garrison Club), Quebec City, 2/12/13

(After describing how my work borrows from experience while not being autobiographical, I introduced my new project:

"Meantime, since my first book was published in 1986, the world has changed. As most of you know, the publishing world is not what it was. Fewer books are being published in the conventional way, more as e-books. A friend and colleague convinced me that I should embrace this new culture, and so, with his help, I am preparing the Shinny's Girls trilogy for ebook publication this summer. It was a very interesting process of scanning in the text from the two previously published novels, and revising old work. I found that I wanted to rewrite parts of the first, to improve the quality of the writing, for though it was my best selling book, it was not as well written as Flashing Yellow; but I made some changes to the text of that novel, too.
We are about midway through the process of preparing the trilogy for publication, with several aspects to explore. But the popular Canadian/British writer Cory Doctorow has provided a wonderful template regarding distribution, where he offers his books at different price points, from free-downloadable, to print on demand, to traditional hardcover, high-quality – a real work of art for a significantly higher price. Finally, stories that are custom written. He has pioneered in literature what has been happening to the way people consume news, for example, or entertainment such as videos. Instead of everyone tuning into CBC's The National at the same time each day, people customize their news consumption. Perhaps watch the National on TV; perhaps download it to watch when they want; perhaps seek other sources of news, Al Jazeera or BBC via the internet. It is no longer so much the case that the entire country is riveted on a single TV series, such as Dallas... who shot J galvanizing water cooler talk. I might order a TV series from Netflix, you might order another. What we watch and listen to, and read is becoming more finely tuned to individual tastes, through the Internet.
And so, in this new world, readers who have read my trilogy, may request that I continue the story about one or more characters. Someone may want to know what happened to Shinny, or Elfie, or Matthew, or Annette and her goats, and for a considerable sum, I would write that story for them."

For better or worse: rediscovering older work

The long process towards re-publishing two novels (Shinny's Girls, 1989 and Flashing Yellow, 2001), but electronically this time: I think the conversion went well, except that the converter seems not to have liked one of my characters, Elfie, whose name was consistently left out from the scanned in versions of both the first and second novels, not even pronoun references. b became h's... punctuation miscues, i.e. exclamation marks where l's should be. r's for t's c's for e's, Morn for Mom capital W for small W very often, maybe because so many Why's begin sentences? Is this like autocorrect, the program trying to decide for itself? Finally, at the end, Elfie is converted as Ellie. Then Elrie. Finally, Elfie... 25 pages before the end of Flashing Yellow.I think of the program, struggling to figure it out..Does the computer prefer standard useage, common names? Then, as if tired, it left out whole phrases near the end. Started to reproduce Flashing as \flax/jing. Yet, on the whole rather miraculous to be able to do this. to scan actual pages from published books, upload to Google docs, download as Word documents. Over 90% correct, I would say.

This opportunity to revisit work I wrote over 20 years ago showed me that I intentionally constrained language in an effort to be true to the level of my character's education in the original Shinny's Girls. (I talked about the project on artchatpodcast 49) I have changed since then, become more confident as a writer. To create a character of whatever type,  it is not necessary to try to achieve a dumbed-down narrative. Hmm. I have grown as a writer, too, thank God. In the original Shinny's Girls I used so many passive sentences, weak verbs, imprecise sentences, so much word repetition. They drank so many cups of tea! Flashing Yellow is much better written and the story holds up, in my view.

Allthough I need to go over the work again, to proofread carefully (which has never been my strong point), I sent the first two-thirds of what will be the trilogy called Shinny's Girls to my friend, associate, e-mentor Steve Harlow, who will create the cover art.

It's happening!

Ten published pages...

..per day, both sides. Flashing Yellow is a book of 250 pages. I have scanned in 128. Scan one side, scan the other. Upload to Google docs, download to Word. Select all, make typestyle and spacing consistent. Whew! On the road to making an e-book. My goal is to finish Flashing Yellow by the end of the summer, but if I am disciplined, I will have it completed by the end of July, or the first week of August. While I am in Quebec I will edit that and Shinny's Girls, then Steve and I can make them into one volume, with a new cover: Shinny's Girls should be the title. Good practice à ici et maintenant. When I avoid distractions, the input time shrinks to 50, even close to 45 minutes. Scanning Text Into Google Docs' OCR http://goo.gl/fq1P5

Chatting about the new world

Another artchat podcast this morning, with Steve, Emory, JimmythePeach, Ruth, and, this week, David. Steve and Ruth, and Peach too, lead we old time writers, musicians, painters into the new world of media or the world of new media, and what they say is confirmed by most people who are thinking about it, that it is the individual's responsibility to reach an audience, readers, listeners, viewers. The dialogue includes e-publishing versus traditional publishing and Steve referred us to a talk by Seth Godin on that subject. I love Steve's enthusiasm for the artistic possibilities of Twitter, for example, but I lack his ease with the medium and I resist spending time on it. Work, yes, and more hours at the computer, but I will persevere. Next step is to convert the pdf files into editable text. My goal is to create a volume consisting of Shinny's Girls and Flashing Yellow. I would still like to see You Again published traditionally before I publish it online, but since the first publisher backed away, I haven't found another to take it. Still looking.

Meantime, robins are expressing the beauty of this perfect spring day.

angling towards e-publishing

In the latest of a series of Skype conversations - http://artchatpodcast.com/art-chat-podcast-21-cover-songs-cover-paintin - about e-publishing, I asked my encouraging friend and e-mentor, Steve, how one promotes a book via social networks when one does not have much of a social network. Steve proposed that I make process a news story. For example, the fact that I wrote to a former publisher four months ago, regarding my wish to e-publish an updated version of a book he published in 1989, and that he still has not replied.. that's news, says Steve. Well, the fact that publishers of literary fiction take notoriously long to reply is not news to those of us who have dealt with them over the years. In my view, there is no reason why I should not republish, in e-form, my second and fifth books. The paper copies have not been selling. The publisher has nothing to lose, and, de mon côté it will be an opportunity to revisit and polish old work, and make it available to those who want to read the first two books of the trilogy I have recently completed with You Again. I bought a scanner so that I can scan in the text of Shinny's Girls and Flashing Yellow. I have to figure out how to use it and then proceed with Steve on making the e-book, then, at least, attach it to this site.

The art chat podcast discussion this week featured our thoughts on making money via web publishing. I said, perhaps hastily, that I would rather people read my work then get paid, but it isn't as if I object to earning money from my writing. I have earned a living as a writer and a teacher since about 1972. Who would not want to earn more? It's just that I have rarely earned enough solely from writing to support myself. Unless things change, money will continue to be an undependable reward. That doesn't mean I can stop writing books and plays, or will stop. I write stories and plays to entertain people, not for myself alone, so making them available is the least I want to do.

Jimmy the Peach recounted what he read about haiku, that it is not finished until it is read.