Tricks of memory and a beautiful New England autumn

I went away this weekend to visit one of my brothers and his family in Western Massachusetts and deliver some books for appearances I’ll be doing there December 5 at the Greenfield Public Library and in January at World Eye Bookshop. (Greenfield inspired the setting of The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire.) Along the way I stopped in at an old haunt I’m using in my next novel to see if I was capturing it more or less correctly.


I got the ledges themselves right. Here’s how I describe the place. This book is still in rough draft, so I might still change it to be more fictional, since the town it overlooks is going to be a mish-mash of Shelburne Falls, Buckland, Charlemont, and whatever I feel like.

The High Ledges was an Audubon bird sanctuary on a mountainside overlooking Jasper and the Deerfield River. It was notable for Lady Slipper orchids along shady woodland paths and for the rocky ledges with the great view of the valley below. For birds, too, but Dori was no bird watcher. She was not surprised when she drove up to find only one other car in the visitors’ parking lot; it was a place that was tricky to find if you didn’t already know where it was, and the gates would be closing in less than an hour.

The last time I was there I was in my twenties. I remember parking the car and the ledges being a brief stroll away. My first clue was when a gentleman coming down the trail said, “Doing a bit of mountain climbing today?”

“Not any serious mountain climbing,” I said, adding, “I hope.” And no, it was not serious mountain climbing. But it was chilly, damp, and took a good twenty minutes — mostly up hill.

No doubt I’m less fit. (I’m sometimes amazed to contemplate distances I used to cover on an old three-speed bicycle.) I suppose the car parking area might have changed in the interim, too. And I suppose it was still a fairly short walk by hiking standards — not to mention beautiful, with plenty of foliage left to enjoy even if it was a bit past peak.

Thankfully, the view at the ledges was as stunning as I had remembered. This is looking down toward Shelburne Falls and Buckland.

Here’s the view towards Charlemont:


When I visited Peterborough, New Hampshire a couple of years ago I had a similar moment of puzzlement and confusion. I had remembered much of the town correctly, especially the diner, when I was writing The Awful Mess. But the bridge and river running through the center of town were not at all what I remembered.

It was the warmest day since she’d arrived in Lawson, New Hampshire, a sunny day in March of 2003, and the Took River was swollen with melted snow. For the first time since Mary had begun these daily walks, there were other people clustered on the Main Street Bridge to watch the river. Uncomfortably conscious that she knew none of them, she considered hurrying past, but told herself that it would be ridiculous and stopped at her usual spot at the bridge railing.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” a man said, and settled in next to her at the railing.

Here’s the actual Main Street bridge in Peterborough. It doesn’t even have a railing! The river was quite sedate, too, though that could be a seasonal issue.

Contoocook River for FBI like my version a little better, frankly. Good thing I write fiction instead of memoir. Has your memory of a favorite place ever turned out to be unreliable?

Foraging for food — and for good reading

Last week I read a delightful book called “Eating Wildly.” EatingWildlyCoverAva Chin, who used to write a column called “Urban Forager” for the New York Times, tells us about her foraging for wild edibles in Brooklyn. Her adventures in the field are entwined with tales of her Chinese American family and her love life. She not only shares the joy of discovering wild food sources (and love), she shows us how she turns it into yummy meals (and family). The result is a memoir that is charming and instructional at the same time.

One of the issues she runs into: Some Times readers (and the occasional bureaucrat) inform her that foraging in local parks is not cool and/or not allowed (though the National Park Service does allow it). They say this even though the people foraging are usually careful to harvest in a sustainable way — after all, most hope to return and forage again in the future.

applesIt struck a chord with me because for the last few weeks I’ve been foraging off my neighborhood’s bounty. There’s an apparently abandoned apple tree one block over with apples that are just falling and getting piled up with the fallen leaves. They have a few tiny sooty blotches on them, but they taste wonderful. So I’ve often paused in my walks to pick apples from the branches overhanging the road and stuff my pockets.

I also recently stopped and asked another neighbor about her tree full of pears. Was she going to pick them before the freeze this weekend? She invited me to help myself, and we had a conversation about the variety, which I’d never heard of. I was just as excited to make a new gardening friend as to get free pears. (I took her some of my tomatoes and zucchini in return.)

Saturday morning I woke up thinking of apples and pears, then went off to my urban church to help offer free day-old Panera bread to our needy neighbors. (Panera gives all its leftover baked goods to charity at the end of each day.) I suppose that’s a form of urban foraging, too. I probably should have tracked down the owner of the apple tree, and asked if I could do some serious picking for my church’s food ministry. Maybe next year.

This reminds me that at a “community conversation” on hunger I attended recently, a fellow told a full auditorium that he never bought food because he could get everything he needed dumpster diving. I’m not sure anyone saw that as a particularly helpful suggestion, but I don’t doubt that it’s true. An enterprising soul probably could survive pretty well eating out of our city’s dumpsters. Ideally, of course, more could be done with good food before it ends up in dumpsters.

Hunting food in parks and roadsides and yards isn’t necessarily more dignified than staking out dumpsters — or seeking out charity — but what you find actually growing is often really great to eat — fresh and full of flavor, and healthy, too.

Why not forage widely for ideas as well?

We all consume food, but many of us also consume books. We could stick to bookstores or chain stores or the local public library for our book reading, and do quite well. But readers who are especially adventurous also forage out there in the wild — among the indie authors and publishers.

And yes, some of what we find out there might be the equivalent of spoiled food, or poisonous  mushrooms (best not to guess with them — Chin makes that clear), so it pays to examine every new find carefully. But some of it may be great. Some of it may be tarter, sharper, more incisive, or just more our thing than the committee-chosen, market-driven products of traditional publishing.

Of course, whether you forage for food or ideas, you’re going to get some other folks giving you grief about how you’re going to ruin everything for everyone. What if a dog peed on that? The park will be destroyed! There won’t be any day lilies left! Bookstores are dying! You’re ruining literature! And, of course: Ewwww!

But just as some of the weeds we once overlooked have a way of becoming haute cuisine (think ramps, dandelions, lambsquarters), indie publishing gives authors who don’t fit into the conventional mode a chance to find a foothold. A few will “take” and flourish. And yes, a lot of people will survey the landscape and think, “Are you kidding? This is a wasteland!”

But I suggest you look more carefully. There might just be a great meal out there.

Blooming furiously before the frost: the usefulness of deadlines

She climbed into the middle of the front garden and took a deep breath, trying to calm down amid the flowers and the fat, droning bees. The annuals were at their full height and blooming furiously, as if they knew this was their last chance to set seed before the frost — just like her, really.

cosmos bouquet plus living room 003I thought of this passage from “The Awful Mess” this week as I was cutting cosmos to bring inside before what was supposed to be a cold night — though we were spared a frost. I always cut a lot more flowers as frost approaches. It’s because I know they will soon be gone.

The passage from “The Awful Mess” is a reference to infertility, but it applies equally well to writing. I always write more when I am feeling mortal, conscious of a final deadline for saying what I want to say, rather than focused on the more immediate day-to-day responsibilities I have as an author, teacher, homeowner, mother, stepmother, grandmother, daughter, sister, friend, pet owner, parishioner, neighbor, colleague, gardener, taxpayer, or citizen.

The novel in progress just keeps taking second priority, though part of that is me dithering over a key plot point. So I’m taking a risk (at least by my own you’d-think-I-grew-up-in-the-Great-Depression standards) this spring. I’m trying a form of “going pro” by taking next semester off from teaching to get the draft finished and revised. And since I’m buying  myself that time, I have a clear deadline to meet.

It’s a bit of a risk, and it may not ever pay off. But that’s okay. As she sits among the flowers, Mary reassures herself that there will be social services to keep her and the baby she’s bearing from starving. As I contemplate 16 weeks fully devoted to writing, I can reassure myself that writing is, at least, its own reward.

Once in a while I get to see students suddenly “get” that their writing can be a way to make meaning out of their lives — that it can be an act of profound discovery, and not just a chore to be gotten through. It becomes something they take genuine delight in and not just a hurdle they must overcome in order to get a grade, or a paycheck. (And in this publishing climate, it’s probably just as well to think of any given writing project that way.)

Autumn is a good time to put the garden to bed, stock the larder, and buckle down to a long winter of writing (or perhaps an earlier NaNoRiMo for some of you). Whether you expect it to pay off or not, I hope you will enjoy it. May you make many happy discoveries!

When you probably shouldn’t self-publish (and when it might be best)

When is self-publishing going to be more trouble than it’s worth, or downright counter-productive? Here’s when:

#1 You just want a single book to share with friends and family

Everyone tells me I should write a bookLet’s say you’ve written a memoir about your long and interesting life, and you want to be able to share it with people you love. Everyone tells you that you’ve really had a fascinating life, and you really have. But you don’t plan to make a career out of writing, and you don’t want to make a career out of publishing, either.

Unless someone who does have some knowledge of publishing (traditional or self) gets excited about your book and wants to get it out there, you’re going to be better served just getting some books printed up and understanding that this is really vanity publishing. Which is okay. That’s exactly what it exists for.

Yes, you can do vanity publishing cheaply through self-publishing outfits like Createspace or BookBaby, and you may want to take advantage of some of the extra services they offer to help you create a nice book. But since this isn’t going to be your career, it doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t need to research the market. You don’t need to study up on everything, or buy your own ISBN at $125 a pop. You just need a physical book friends and family can read.

For many people in this situation it might make more sense to use a local vanity press. In my area, the folks at Troy Bookmakers know what they are doing and can guide you towards a nice paper book. You’ll pay more than you will going to a big online firm, but you’ll get more personal help along the way. They’ll stock it in the two related independent bookstores, and you can have a signing in one of them. A lot of local bookstores are developing this kind of service.

Unlike some other operations — Author House, iUniverse, etc. — they won’t try to sell you over-priced or fraudulent services or suggest that you could experience great publishing success. (Tip: Any time you’re asked to put significant money into a publishing undertaking, check Preditors and Editors to see if there are complaints about that company or individual, and evaluate other books that entity has published.)

And although most presses and publishing services will make it an option, maybe you shouldn’t create an eBook. Think about it: If you’re someone who doesn’t have any social media marketing savvy and has never even read an eBook yourself, trying to sell one is going to require a tremendous learning curve. Is that something you want to undertake for one book?

#2 Your fantasies include book tours, bookstore signings, or seeing your book on the shelf.

That isn’t going to happen with 99.9% of self-published books, except perhaps in your local bookstore with a kind and supportive bookseller. It doesn’t always happen even with traditionally published books.

So if this is what you really want, your best bet is to slog through the traditional publishing process. Revise and polish that novel (or novels, if required), build your platform, network in your genre, get an agent, get a contract, and work like a demon to promote the book so that you can continue writing and publishing that way.

And no, as Jane Friedman has explained quite well, self-publishing is not a shortcut to traditional publishing. Not an easy one, anyway.

#3 Literary status matters to you.

Untitled design-1Maybe you’re secretly competing with that guy in your writing group who got a three-book deal, or maybe you need publications in order to get that teaching job you want, or maybe you just really, really want some official affirmation of your talent. Self-publishing will not serve your purpose. The stigma associated with self-publishing is not as bad it once was, but it’s still there.

If this matters to you, but you’ve had no luck getting published mainstream after a heroic effort, you might find your goals can be met by a university press or well-regarded regional or small press. You won’t always need an agent to sell to them, either. (Some previous literary publications may be required.) Just be careful out there.

#4 You don’t want to give your precious creation to “those blood-sucking Big Five publishers and agents.”

This is where we find people pointing out that self-publishing pays a higher royalty rate than traditional publishers pay, or asking why they should give an agent 15% of their writing income, or bringing up bad contract clauses.

And some of the people saying these things are published midlist authors and they may have some legitimate complaints, but what you need to remember is that if they were at any time midlist authors they were by definition already doing better than the vast majority of self-published authors will ever do.

Both agents and traditional publishers bring substantial expertise to the publication process. They will usually help you publish a better book than you can publish on your own. An agent will also usually get you better placement and a better advance than you would have gotten on your own.

Second, earning 70% on an eBook is no substitute for a good advance, especially since most self-published eBooks sell fewer than 200 copies. Even with a bad advance, your publisher is better positioned to sell your debut novel successfully than you are. (Remember, advances don’t have to be paid back.)

Publishers make money by putting out a bunch of new books each season, a few of which do very well and keep the lights on, a few more of which do well enough to keep that writer publishing, and a good many of which fail. They try to pick the best bets. It’s a tricky business, with low margins, and the pressure to meet corporate and individual goals doesn’t exactly foster risk-taking. But it’s not, in fact, a conspiracy to defraud authors of all the fruit of their labor (not that this means authors should be willing to put up with some of the more egregious contract terms). Most people go into publishing because they love books.

And only traditional publishers can easily distribute to bookstores, which still drive a lot of the book business. (Bookstores also exist because people love books.)

It’s a no-lose situation, because having a traditionally published book or two to your credit is an advantage if you eventually choose to self-publish. Those traditional titles are a badge that says “This author doesn’t suck.” (Just make sure your contracts don’t bar you from going indie in the future.)

But yes, there are still some GOOD reasons to try self-publishing

Just understand the #1 requirement for all of them:

You are comfortable either doing or supervising every step of the publishing process, from writing to editing, cover design, interior design, proofreading, distribution, sales, promotion, and finance. You have reasonably good knowledge of the genre you are publishing and how readers find and purchase those books online.

Furthermore, if your goal includes making money from it, you must be willing to keep doing it on a steady basis until you have published enough books in the same genre to reach a critical mass and begin to gain some traction in the market place. (This actually applies to traditional publishing, too.)

Beyond that, maybe you fall into these groups:

  • You already have a base of readers who appreciate your work as a consultant or speaker or blogger, and your book will complement that area of expertise and sell alongside it. Ideally, you also already have a nice long list of email subscribers. Furthermore, you couldn’t find a good traditional publisher for this book even with that excellent author platform.
  • You’re passionately writing types of books that traditional publishers have no interest in because the market is too small, or they think it’s too small, but you are certain it could find an audience online. (Think Amish science fiction.)
  • You write for a voracious niche of the eBook market. Furthermore, you write and publish good books fast. Ideally, you write highly addictive series.
  • You have a whole stable of out-of-print traditionally published books you’ve regained control of, and you want to give them a second life as eBooks.
  • You’ve had one or two failed books in traditional publishing and nobody will talk to you anymore, so this is your only option unless you change your name, and you don’t want to change your name.
  • You want to take your time building an audience instead of feeling under pressure to succeed with that first book or two, because you know that if they fail you’re probably done. (Of course, if all your eBooks fail, that won’t help.)
  • You enjoy publishing in itself (I thought this was me, but I no longer fantasize about publishing other people’s work. This is mostly because I’ve discovered I hate accounting. I already put it off until tax time for my own books. That won’t fly if I’m publishing other people.)
  • You don’t have the years that it may take to find an agent, get a sale, and wait for publication. Maybe you’re ninety, or you have a degenerative illness, or your book is extremely topical and truly won’t interest people a year from now. All good reasons to just get it done.
  • You’re more interested in gaining readers than literary status or income, and you won’t fret about your sales rank or compare yourself to other authors. You’re willing to give books away to gain more readers, and even after a bad review or two, you consider it all great fun. (This is what I try for on a daily basis, though I won’t claim to have reached quite this level of Zen contentment yet.)

Your thoughts?