• books,  culture,  writing

    Where Do You Buy E-books?

    When I moved in to my neighborhood seven years ago, there were three independent book stores, which fell like dominoes that year.  Then Borders Books & Music by my office turned into a bank, while my beloved Strand Annex notified its loyal customers that it was combining with its parent store uptown. The loss of the Strand Annex really hurt, because I was in the habit of spending my lunch hours browsing through stack after stack of stories.  Some of my most memorable books came off the dollar pile there — short story collections from the 50s, post-apocalyptic survival novels, books recording art exhibitions long since forgotten.

    Browsing seems like a lost art now, since it is difficult for me to drop into a nearby book store, even though I live in one of the most populated places on the planet. Every New Yorker knows that the song goes “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” so I admit a great anxiety for the future of book stores everywhere.

    Just yesterday, I got into the old discussion about paper books versus e-books.  I read both, depending on what’s at hand, but increasingly, it is digital books that available.  I do still order books to be shipped to me, from time to time, when the book is something special, or illustrations are an important part of the text.  But with shipping fees being what they are and the nearest book store is an out of the way forty-minute drive,  digital books are accessible books.

    And yet, I’m invested in publishing and writing remaining a profitable industry.  While Amazon is notoriously exploitative of writers and publishers, I bought into their system for convenience when I bought my first Kindle. But I’ve finally reached the moment where my conscience won’t allow for it any more.  I decided I wanted to support a real book store, a place where people can go and look and feel and touch books. Some of my best memories as a teenager happened while browsing the shelves of Barnes & Noble in a mall that is now closed and gone, and I want the next generation to have that experience too.

    I finally gave into my want-not-need longing for a modern e-reader.  I bought a Nook, thinking that at least my new book purchases would support Barnes & Noble — an actual brick and mortar book store as well as a company that has fairer practices for publishers.  Then I discovered that you cannot download ebooks that you purchase through their store; they will deliver them to your Nook, but you cannot download them anywhere else, including your computer. If you later decide that you wish to use a Kindle or a laptop or a tablet that is not from Barnes & Noble to read your purchases, then you’re out of luck.  If Barnes & Noble stops selling the Nook, again, you’re out of luck. This is not purchasing books — this is borrowing them at full price.

    Although my profession makes me think more about technological disaster than most people, it’s not crazy to be suspicious of the perils of allowing your bookseller to store all your books for you. While painstakingly downloading my library from Amazon (book by book, as Amazon provides no other method), I’ve repeatedly hit the message that the title I want to download isn’t available.  Once, while on a downloading frenzy, I was even logged out of my account.  I’m sure that was accidental…or am I?

    I’m not looking to pirate my books.  I’m simply interested in being able to transfer my property between any e-reader that I choose.  I want all of my books, no matter where I buy them, to work on the same device.  I finally got this worked out with my current set of e-books after fiddling with removing DRM for a few days so that I could put my Amazon purchased e-books on my Nook.   (This method has worked well for me.)

    I am admittedly the sort of person who, repeatedly and willingly, makes her life more difficult for the nebulous sake of principles. I want authors and publishing houses to be paid fairly. I want to support book sellers. I want to also own the books that I buy. This doesn’t seem like such a strange desire.   So, what to do?  How do I buy e-books?

    After doing a lot of reading, I’ve settled on a combination of direct purchases from publishers that offer DRM-free books and using Kobo to purchase books that are not offered in a DRM-free format.  Buying DRM-free books directly from the publisher has its obvious advantages, while Kobo is an online marketplace that facilitates e-book sales for independent book stores. If you’re inclined the way I am, you’ll do your shopping through your favorite book store and, presuming they’re a Kobo affiliate, follow their links for your purchase so that some of your money goes back to the little guys.  You can find a list of Kobo affiliated book stores here.

    Kobo delivers its books in .epub format, which can be read in Adobe Digital Editions.  As a Linux user, I’ve set it up Calibre to scan for .epub books and automatically remove the DRM.  I have to manually transfer new books to my Nook (which Calibre makes simple), but I get a a DRM-free copy for my efforts.  If I ever decide to buy a different e-reader after the Nook, all of my purchases will transfer to it without hassle.  Its a little more work, but let’s me sleep a little better at night.

    I think what we will see as the e-book market matures are more marketplaces like Amazon Kindle Unlimited, where book are rented like DVDs. But what will that mean for authors? Will they see royalties for every rental? Or will it become even harder to make a living as a writer?  With the death of brick-and-mortar book stores and decreasing funding for local libraries, how will the next generation learn to love books the way that we do?

  • writing

    On Being a Real Writer

    writingThere are days where I spend my time marvelling at the coincidences of the universe.  As I’ve struggled to turn away from my news feeds, to stop reading story after story of human beings being awful, to try to convince myself that art has value in a world filled with such suffering, I received a notice that one of my stories has been accepted for publication.

    Just  like that, I will go from being an aspiring writer to a published one.

    The brain is a funny thing.  I read the email with the understanding that it would be a rejection, because it was only my second response out of the submissions that I made last month.  When I saw that it was an acceptance, the achievement suddenly became so much less worthy than when it was out of reach.  It must be a terrible magazine, I thought, if they’re taking *that* storyThey must accept just anyone.

    But they are not a terrible magazine.  It is not a terrible story.  The magazine did not somehow adopt lower standards just because they want to publish my work.  I worked hard for that 1,000 words of fiction, honing it and whittling it down into something much better than what I started with.  I did the legwork and figured out a few appropriate markets, then worked to format it appropriately and submit.  (Lesson learned: if your story is on the verge of being flash fiction, make it so.)  There was quite a bit of discovery, which required new approaches and hard work.  That alone is a reason to be proud.

    Artists are, of course, famous for their struggles with self-doubt.  What we do is so subjective that perfectly good pieces of work can be undervalued for centuries before they find the right audience.  Likewise, we’ve all seen art with astonishingly poor craftsmanship become bafflingly popular.  With the advent of social media, it’s certainly obvious that success in the publishing industry often is as much about having a magic number of followers than any inherent artistic merit.  With the accessibility of self-publishing and the many online web magazines, it also feels like there is just so much more of everything already out there.  If you go looking for books written around a certain person or topic, there’s likely to be five or more, published in the same year.   I’ve often wondered if it’s even worth publishing, as much as I like to dream about a life where all my financial worries are taken care of by my writing.  Is publishing just adding another voice to the already shouting crowd?  Where does my voice fit in?  How will I know if it’s any good, when popularity matters more than artistry?

    Yet, I want to write as well as I can.  I want to give back stories to the world, because I have enjoyed so many.  The kindest thing that a stranger has ever done for me has been to create a three-hundred-page world where I can lose myself for a few hours.  I want to pay that forward.  I know that to get to that point, I need to start sharing my work with larger audiences, so that I get the feedback that I need to keep improving my storytelling.

    This first publication is just a start, a small story in a small magazine, with a small payment.  (More details to follow, when the work is actually in print.)  But it’s more than that too — it’s a validation that my writing can be more than a hobby, that there are professionals out there that think it has merit.  This is a tremendous thing.  Later, I’ll worry about that dream of the luxurious house in the woods, where I sit in the loft in front of the huge bay window and write my stories, which naturally flow effortlessly into a perfectly complex first draft.  It’s a beautiful daydream, but it is just dreaming.  Getting my work out there, networking with other writers, keeping a blog — this is the reality of where I need to be right now.

    The next steps are in progress.  I’m already working on the rewriting of the next story that I’ll send out into the world.  On Sunday, I’m meeting with a new writing group that focuses on literary fiction, which is usually code for, “No vampires or ghosts here, thank you.” (Will they love or hate my magic realism?  I don’t know!)  The meeting place is very nearby — my current favorite writing cafe, as it happens — and the group is new, so I am hopeful that it will become a regular resource for me.  Certainly, it will be helpful for me to have the deadlines imposed by meeting with other writers, since finding time to write new fiction has been very challenging since Baba came along.  And yet, it feels like years of work are finally coming together for me, as my daily life becomes so much more writerly.

    And how will I celebrate my first publication?  Well, I sure hope it’s by getting published again, very soon.

  • introspection,  photography,  politics,  work,  writing

    A Syrian Crisis

    I was thrown into a whirlwind of self-doubt last week, after seeing a single photograph.  If you’ve paid attention to the news at all, you already know the one — a drowned toddler, clothed in vibrant primary colors, washed up on a beach.  You probably know the story, too; another migrant family, desperate to escape the civil war in Syria, put their trust (and their savings) in the wrong boat captain.  Half the family drowned and, because of the death of a child, the world is suddenly paying attention.  This is the power of photography – to capture human suffering with a strength that makes people pause their lives and actually do something.

    Suddenly, the world has been afire with criticism for the European reactions to the millions of Syrian refugees.  Perhaps it is because I am now a mother, but that image has haunted me in a way that I can’t remember another photograph doing.  Every child, no matter their nationality or language or ethnicity, has become mine.  It is only chance that my Baba is safe in her crib, while so many Syrian children are still in danger.  To be a parent is to be so aware of how vulnerable you are to great loss, at any time.  It is to know that your heart walks around outside your body — and to fear what will happen to you if you live long enough to see tragedy strike.  This child, Alan Kurdi, was born during the civil war that has torn Syria apart.  He never experienced the safety that I have been able to give to Baba, simply because she was born here and not there.

    It is an awful thought. My heart breaks for his family — for all of the families that have had to make such desperate choices.

    One of the members in an online mothering group that I belong to posted about having a feeling of gratitude that Alan Kurdi’s mother also drowned.  At least she was spared the pain of living, after the drowning of her sons.  It’s an awful sentiment, a terrible thing to say out loud, but also a feeling that I fully understood.  If I were unable to keep Baba safe, but I survived….living would be the harder course, by far.

    When he was interviewed by the press, the words of Alan Kurdi’s father really struck me.  My wife, he said, my wife was everything to me.  How do I go on?  How does he, after the death of his life partner and two of his children?

    How do you go on in the face of such loss?  Your children, your wife, your community, your home.  What do you do when your entire world has become a place of danger, a place of loss?

    It puts the trivialities of my daily trials into a certain perspective.

    What can I do from here?  I can donate money.  That’s easily done.  But what can I do?  Do my daily efforts contribute to making the world a safer place, a place where “the refugee problem” is solved not by finding refugees new homes in new countries, but creating a place where we don’t make refugees in the first place?  In my job, I build a communications network, but that seems feeble.  My writing…well, I have had an artistic crisis, as every trivial scene I’ve ever written feels empty and hollow.  I haven’t written a word all week, because what could possibly be the point of it all?

    I’ve read that there are more people on the move in Europe since the end of World War II.  Armies of people are sitting in camps and at checkpoints on national borders.  Vivid photographs of their marches through fields and along highways have made it across the world.  It’s touching — and frightening — to see just how many people have had to give up their lives.  My heart goes out to them.  It makes everything I do to get through the day seem meaningless.  What does a clever story matter, when there are people who have lost so much, suffered so much, through no fault of their own?

    What am I doing with my life that really means something, when there are such problems in the world?  It’s a question that has lingered with me, ever since I saw a single photograph.

    How to Donate:

    Neil Gaiman and the UHCR’s Efforts for Syrian Refugee Relief
    Unicef’s Syrian Campaign
    International Rescue Committee

  • human moments,  writing

    Human Moments, No. 4

    “That’s a raven.”

    The crow-like bird hops along a wall built high on top of a mountain, craning its head toward us, the curved, black beak opening and closing hopefully.

    “No way. Ravens are huge.  That bird is small,” I say, clearly demonstrating my expertise in all things avian.

    My Beloved laughs.  “They’re little!  Like that one.”

    “Don’t you know about the ones at the Tower of London?  Huge.  At least three feet tall.  But not as big as that eagle I saw when I was running on the beach in Washington.  That one was at certainly four feet tall.”

    “Four feet!  No way. They don’t come that big.  That would be a gigantic bird.”

    “It was gigantic. I was afraid it was going to eat me.  It’s one of the scariest things that’s ever happened to me.”

    “Four feet.” He laughs again.  “Was it standing on its tippy-talons or something?”

    “I swear it was at least four feet tall.”. I pull out my phone, determined to prove my point immediately.

    His baritone giggle ripples out of his chest, filling the cavern of the car.  “Tippy-talons,” he says.  “That’s a good one.  Tippy-talons!”

  • writing

    Toothbrush Inspiration

    The other day, I woke to my alarm for the first time in months.  By some miracle, it was 5:30 a.m., but Baba was still asleep in her crib, contently dreaming about whatever it is that babies dream about.  I stumbled to the bathroom to start my morning rituals with the sweet luxury of not having to rush.

    Then, about the time that my toothbrush swirled around my bottom left molars, I realized that my mind was in medieval Iceland, with the characters of my first novel.  It was as dark there as it was outside my window, but the scene was more desperate.  It was one of the pivotal nights of my protagonist’s life and I could feel, from my toothbrush down to my elbow, the angry energy in her arm.

    Aha!  I thought.  Now I can go on with that.

    Perhaps it is just my curse that I always want to work on the project that I’m not currently working on.  Writing is a practice; the more that I do it, the more my creative ideas flow. Working on any project inevitably spurs ideas for the projects I have on the backburner, which makes focus difficult.  Inspiration hits wherever and whenever it will.  Holding onto the ideas that it generates until you have time to actually do something about it is the harder part.

    I am traditionally a seat-of-pantser, but that hasn’t worked out well for me on novel-length works, because I tend to write myself into  corners that don’t resolve neatly (or, in the case of this novel, at all).  I paused in the writing of my Iceland novel, nearly two years ago, to go off and study more formally, in the hopes that I could come back to it with the skills I needed to let me take the project where I want it to go.  Now that I’ve added another degree to my file cabinet, I want to put those new lessons into practice.

    So for now, I am working out more details the plot, and enjoying visiting with the characters that have lived in my brain for such a long time. My main focus is still on revision and submission of my short fiction portfolio, which is teaching me about the literary journal and web magazine market.  (My favorite discovery so far: publications that want you to give away your work and tip the editors for the privilege of reading — and likely rejecting — your stories.  I apparently do not want to be published that badly.)  I had a goal of submitting two different stories to five different publications by the end of August, which I am right on track for meeting.  And yet, my fingers itch to go back to Iceland and continue seat-of-pantsing.  There will be a full drafted outline before I let myself go there again, because the  last thing I want to do is write another 150,000 words of character development.

    And yet, it couldn’t hurt to write just one scene, could it?  Just one?

  • human moments,  writing

    Human Moments, No. 3

    The Japanese sumac in the yard of the house by the train station is tossing violently, as gusts of rain hit it with the force of a god’s eternal frustration. Across the tracks stands a plastic enclave that provides an illusion of shelter, its yellowed plastic walls holding back the force of the storm, while puddles in the parking lot turn into small, racing rivers.

    A trio of women arrives, emerging from their umbrellas and dark rain coats. They circle together and chat about the normal topics: length of storm, effect on hair, efficacy of their clothing choices. The blonde, her hair carefully curled, her voice shrill, laughs nervously after every comment she makes.

    We press closer and closer to the walls to avoid each other as more people arrive. At last the train comes, honking in an angry whine, hurling itself into the station like the force of the wind. Carefully we board, pulling down our umbrellas and hoods and making new stories with our damp bodies.

  • amusement,  introspection,  writing

    This is My Substitute for Pistol and Ball

    Sully Pilot Whale
    Sully Pilot Whale

    Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

    Herman Melville, Moby Dick

    I’ve had the passage above stuck in my head for most of the day.  It has been a challenging week at work, which, combined with the discomfort of late summer, its constant social obligations, and a baby that stopped sleeping through the night, has put me into an asocial mood.

    Last night, our neighborhood church threw a fabulous foam and water balloon party for charity.  As our windows continued to rattle from the DJ’s bass through our dinner, dessert and bedtime, I turned to my Beloved and asked him when we became the kind of people that hated a party.

    “Since we had a baby,” he said sensibly.

    “I wouldn’t mind*,” I whined, “but on a Wednesday? Who hires a DJ for a Wednesday?”

    * this is a lie

    When I woke this morning, after two overnight interruptions, I found that I walked with Ishmael. When one of my neighbors gestured angrily at me to back up my car so that he could pull a completely illegal u-turn in front of me, I considered pulling forward.  When the train was crowded, I considered leaving my bags on the seat to discourage a neighbor.  When I needed to buy some breakfast — having rushed out the door this morning without any — I considered skipping it because the idea of a polite interaction with a cashier seemed far too difficult to manage.

    Just call me Ishmael.

    I think Melville could have rewritten the opening of Moby Dick for writers; Ishamel writes about going to sea to solve his funk, but I turn to writing.  I suspect Melville did too.  When I find myself exasperated by the crowds of people that I wade through each day and fantasizing about moving to an isolated mountain top — possibly without my family — I know that it has been too long since I’ve done something that’s creatively satisfying.

    And it’s true.  I haven’t written any new fiction since May, and I can feel the tension of my ideas building up in my neck and stuffing themselves down into my trapezius muscles.   I haven’t neglected my writing, but my efforts have been focused here on the blog and in revising my portfolio of short fiction.  The drafts that I wrote over two years of graduate work have been read and revised and revised and read again until I can barely stand to see the same paragraphs even once more.  At the same time, I feel the pounding in the back of my brain of the story that I want to write for Baba, the pressure of the novel that’s screaming for an ending.  I am bursting with creative energy, but trying to be responsible and finish what I’ve already begun before giving in to the urge to burn everything to the ground and start again.

    I stretch my neck to try and relieve the tension that grows there every day, but there’s really nothing to be done for it other than to finish revision, send out my portfolio and go back to inventing the ornate lies that soothe my soul and make me a reasonable person again.

    Balance is hard.  Throw in my job and the responsibilities of motherhood that limit my writing and I feel like I am going to burst out of my skin.  Add in all the other people and mundane  errands that are demanding my time and attention and I can well understand why Ishmael wants to knock off people’s hats.  This is my substitute for pistol and ball, he says.

    I know exactly what he means.

  • human moments,  writing

    Human Moments, No. 2

    There is a line around the corner for the world’s smallest Dunkin Donuts. The people in it are 9-5ers quietly engaged in their own world of iPhones and Kindles while they wait their turn for lattes and muffins.

    Across a narrow side walk, a man with long gray dreadlocks sits on a piece of cardboard, resting his head against the faded blue fire hydrant.  A tall, thick man, dressed in khakis and a butt on down shirt for his day in the office, speaks to him, as an iced coffee sweats in his hand.

    “Man,” he says with a deep laugh.  “It’s been a long time since I’ve been as drunk as you are right now.”

    The man on the ground smiles and claps his hands in joy.

  • human moments,  writing

    Human Moments, No. 1

    The waiting room at the   train station is colored somewhere between off-white and taupe, with a east facing window that is letting in weakened sunbeams that streak against the dirty tile floor.  In winter, it is crammed with black-clad commuters that are barely visible under their winter coats, scarves, riding boots and gloves.  Today, the mild summer morning has it is empty, except for a man sitting on one of the wall-side partitioned benches.

    I choose my favorite seat, the one in the corner, farthest from the door, because it is a respectable distance from this stranger.  The train is due in another seven minutes, which gives me four minutes to rest here and enjoy the cool air before I need to make my way to the far end of the platform.  I dig through my big leather bag, past my various technologies and wires and pull out my headphones and plug in.

    When the analog clock on the wall moves to 7:30, I pack up my things and rise.  The man, who I’ve barely noticed, follows my lead, so when I  open the door on to the tracks, I wait for him so that I can hand him the door.  He takes longer than I expect, so I turn and look back into the room.  For the first time, I see that he has beautiful blue eyes and a fine head of silky white hair brushed back from a pleasantly pink face.  He smiles, his eyes lighting up.

    “Thank you!”  He says as he holds his hand out to catch the door.

    “My pleasure,” I say.  And mean it.

  • writing

    Bon Courage

    For the last two years, I’ve made a practice of keeping a Bullet Journal.  At the beginning of every month,  I update it with a list of the things that I plan on doing by the month’s end.   These goals have in the past been something that I easily lose sight of by the second week.   By the third,  I sometimes have forgotten that they exist entirely,  other than the dull feeling at the back of my head that there’s something I was supposed to be doing.

    This month, I decided to do things a little differently.  I thought about the goals and only wrote down the ones that I had serious intention of meeting.  I dropped the rest.  This is supposed to be the point of the Bullet Journal, rather than blindly copying forward all of the unfinished things.  It forces you to identify what’s still important every thirty days or so and realign your goals over time.

    This is my second year keeping one, because it worked out really well for work the first year.  This year I’m trying to incorporate in more of my writing life and personal life into it.  This is to say that I am setting some tough deadlines on myself.  The first July goal was to blog regularly, to make myself write faster for an audience.  I begin blog posts all the time, but I take a very long time to edit things, because I have a hesitancy to put anything in print forever.  The Internet isn’t quite that, but it’s close, and I get overwhelmed by making my words meaningful enough that other people should care about them.  It’s not an easy objective in a world with an increasingly short attention span.

    So, after I wrote down that I would actually hit publish here more frequently, I set myself the goal of sending some of my short fiction out into the world.  This is a step that I have procrastinated for years, not out of a fear of rejection, but out of a fear of success.  From my unpublished vantage point, it feels that once your fiction is out in the world that it is out there forever.  Then, there are so many outlets for publication, which are fighting for smaller audiences than ever.  Who am I to try to contribute to that, to fill up space that is being fought over by writers far more talented than I am?  What if I look back at the work I’m doing now with mortification in a few years, as I continue to grow as a writer?

    On the other hand, I have this portfolio of work that I’ve really polished over the last two years of graduate school and I know that my next step for growth as a writer is to share it publicly.  My writing has always been well received in a classroom setting.  I’ve won school writing contests and even earned a few shillings.  But those were all relatively private venues, with a small audience that has certainly forgotten me already.  The risks are smaller.

    Change is a frightening thing.  All the same, I was serious when I wrote my intentions at the beginning of the month.  I’ve narrowed down my target publications and picked my stories.  I haven’t spent the time this month that I wanted to in doing my final edits — there’s still a really problematic paragraph that I’ve been grappling with for over a week that needs to be solved — but I have made some serious forward movement.

    This is where, in Bullet Journal land, you draw an arrow through your goal for July, then write it down again in your goal list for August.  It is a goal that you still find worthy, a goal that is still worth meeting — a goal that’s going to get the attention that it deserves in the coming month.

    I’d say wish me luck, but I’d rather you wish me bon courage.