Shinny's Girls

Good show!

#book prizes

The latest broadcast of "Writers and Company," the long-running CBC radio show about writers and books, featured a discussion about book prizes. Irish Kevin Barry, British Justin Cartwright, American Meg Wolitzer and Canadian Charlotte Gray talked about their experiences as winners and as jury members and it was all pretty fascinating. The founding host of Writers and Co, the brilliant Eleanor Wachtel, has to have interviewed every prominent and not so prominent writer in the world and knows the right questions to ask.

Part of the conversation concerned the value of prizes to a young writer's career. Coincidentally, earlier that day I had walked on the beach with a friend who recently published her first novel, Lucky, itself the winner of a provincial prize. Now that the launch is over, the book available in bookstores and on line, she feels the only way it will garner attention is if it makes it onto the short list for another prize.

On Writers and Company,  the panelists agreed was that the "prize" mentality makes it harder for a writer to make a career. If a work is worthy of publication, a publisher will take a chance on it, but if it is not noticed by any prize juries and doesn't gain enough attention otherwise, therefore does not sell big, the new writer gets, perhaps, a second chance, and that's it. Eleanor remarked that prizes have taken the place of a strong reviewing community, at least in Canada, something Canadian writers, including me, lament.

My first book, Suburbs of the Arctic Circle, was selected for a small, national award, and the second, Shinny's Girls and Other Stories,  received the greatest promotional efforts from my publisher, therefore, attracted most attention. To me those books were just the beginning of what I planned to be, what has been and continues to be, a long and rich writing life, with each book a new challenge, an opportunity to develop. Yet, perhaps because my work has never made a big commercial splash or been nominated for one of the really big prizes, it has been hard to gain the critical attention that might draw more readers to my work. That later books are more thematically ambitious and better written is something only random faithful readers, many of them library patrons, may ever notice. Thank you to them.

As Kevin Barry said, however, the only way a writer can really fail is to stop writing, and lifers such as myself never consider such a thing.  

Writers and Company offered an immediate prize to those who had not yet heard it, and those who had but never find it old, a selection from the recording of William Faulkner delivering his Nobel acceptance speech:

"Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands."

Mentors, interns.. HELP WANTED!

#literary fiction

I remember reading Raymond Carver's homage to John Gardner, in the introduction to On Becoming a Novelist. It does not take much searching to find stories of more great mentor-novice pairs, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, Boudin and Monet, plus uncounted others, relationships between experienced writers and artists less well known, and younger writers and artists they not only inspired but often helped in practical ways, by, for example, recommending their work to publishers or galleries.

I think it is time for the energy flow to reverse, for young writers and artists, who are generally savvy about complex internet pathways, to offer to guide their elders through the vast web of possibilities for making useful connections.

My dear friend Geoffrey Smedley, for example, is trying to spread the word about his brilliant book Dissections. In his late 80's, still energetic if not AS energetic as he used to be, and having just recently surfaced from a work that absorbed much of the last 20 years, an ingenious four-part electrical mechanical sculpture, or metaphorical machine, as he calls it, that spoofs Descartes' view of man as a collection of mechanical parts, Geoffrey's direct approaches, and those made by supporters have too often found silence at the other end of the line; this seems to be the new, in my opinion, discourteous, way many traditional media outlets (perhaps also gallery owners, certainly publishers) deal with the great unsolicited. Just ignore them. It is not that people who see his work fail to respond; a critic who reviewed his exhibit at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal described Geoffrey's piece as one of the best and most mind expanding exhibitions he had seen this year.

The challenge  is GETTING anyone to look at it or read about it. In the new world of epublishing, the problem is called discoverability, and it is exactly the same thing I face as a novelist. Responses from people who actually find and read my book Shinny's Girls, the Trilogy are generally enthusiastic, but...Promotion has never been a snap. As a publicist I once worked with told me, it's easiest to promote things people already know about. But at least there were ways of doing it that were familiar, journals, newspapers, well established radio shows.

I suggested to Geoffrey that he call on old colleagues in the academic world to put the word out to potential interns. Students who would like the experience of making known  to the world the work of a fine artist in late career. Because everyone connects through the internet, I told him.  This "conversation" all took place via email, something even we mature writers/artists appreciate, adore. So I didn't hear but only imagined the sigh. With the future fast dwindling, with what has to be a limited amount of time to finish one's life work, does it really make sense to let oneself be swallowed by the bright brassy world of internet promotion? Half in and half out of its gorge, I holler (on behalf of all veteran artists and writers in this position), Help!

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 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!

Shinny's Girls (the novella), re-revisited

I missed many things on the first edit (including whole pages) of the scanned in novella. Now, on my desktop computer I am seeing errors more easily and feeling that I might not write that book today, not in the same way. Yet, I am attached to the character. To be true to my original idea of re-publishing originals, I have to look at it as a historical novel to some extent. Writing style, content. The history of me as a writer and the history of my characters in the late 80's. Cannot resist making improvements, however. As my friend and e-mentor Steve has reminded me, an ebook remains a live document. The writer can make changes any time. Whew! The eternal writing process?

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

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 - - 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.