Friday, June 27, 2014

The cellars of my computer

It has been months since I actually found the time (or the inclination) to sit down and do some real writing.

Sure, I've written any number of blog posts on my various blogs. Yes, I've done a heck of a lot of writing in the course of my job.

And, okay, I've been working on other projects associated with my writing: recording, editing and burning podcast CDs, preparing for an appearance on Canada Day, stuff like that.

But no writing. The comic novel, its first chapter completed, lies dormant in the cellars of my computer.

That's not good. It's frustrating. And it has to change.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Our relationship with books...

Is it possible to be a great, or even a good, writer without also being an avid reader?

Is it possible to write books without loving books?

I know, these are two entirely separate questions.

Most people would agree (I believe) that reading widely helps a writer learn the craft of writing. The better read you are, the better able you are to write well.

And how you write is influenced by what you read. Over your lifetime and in the moment. I can remember spending a summer, for example, reading everything James Joyce ever wrote in anticipation of a course I was taking that fall at University. I was immersed in Joyce for four full months (if you've ever tried to read Finnegan's Wake, you'll understand how it took me four months!) and my own writing from that summer shows clear signs of the Irish master, in its structure, its characters, its language and rhythm.

Joyce's influence, of course, has faded over time but he is still there when I write. More subtly, less directly. But there.

The second question cannot be so clearly answered. In fact, I would think that a great many writers probably don't really like books in and of themselves. They like their own books, to be sure, and they probably have favourite authors whose works line their shelves. They may even have a much-loved autographed first edition of a particularly influential book in their possession.

But do they love books as physical entities?

I do and that's why I was so particularly struck by this passage from The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, Allison Hoover Bartlett's 2009 docudrama about a book thief:
Walking by a booth with an impressive selection of dust jacket art [at a rare book fair], I heard a dealer say to a passerby, "Don't judge a book by its content!" I had read enough about book collectors before the fair to get the joke: Many collectors don't actually read their books. At first, I was surprised, but having given it some thought, it's not so shocking. After all, much of the fondness avid readers, and certainly collectors, have for their books is related to the books' physical bodies. As much as they are vessels for stories (and poetry, reference information, etc.), books are historical artifacts and repositories for memories...
I love the feeling of a book in my hand. I love to think about the history of the particular volume as I hold it, thinking about who its former owners might have been, when and where they acquired it, when and where they read it, what they thought about it, how it affected their lives.

I picked up a collection of poems by Milton several years ago at a "boot sale" in England. I paid the equivalent of about $10 for this small, leather-bound volume that was printed in 1674. Imagine that. This book was printed 340 years ago, at the time of Charles II in England. It is older than Canada, than the U.S., then any person alive.

Imagine all the people who have owned this book, who have read it, who have cherished it, who have carried it around with them as they lived out their lives 100, 200 even 300 years ago!

And if that doesn't grab you, think about this little story.

In 2005, I found out that the young daughter of a friend of mine had gotten heavily into the Nancy Drew mysteries. I already knew this girl to be a talented young writer and something of a bibliophile so it didn't surprise me that she loved the Nancy Drew books but only in their earlier hard-cover editions. She didn't want the new, modern paperback books. She wanted the originals or at least the older versions.

Now, my entire family grew up reading the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew stories and my first memory of owning books involves these old blue- and yellow-covered volumes in the 1960s and early 1970s.

So I decided to go to a local used book store to buy as many of the old hard-cover Nancy Drews as I could find as a gift for this young girl's birthday.

I bought, I think, five and was as delighted to give them to her as she was to receive them.

Imagine my surprise when she came up to me shortly after the gift-giving moment, a delighted grin on her face. Without saying a word, she pushed one of the Nancy Drew books into my hands and opened up the front cover.

There, at the top of the first inside page, the one with the wall-paper print of scenes from Nancy Drew stories, was a name of a previous owner. My sister.

Somehow that book had made its way from my sister, back in the 1960s, through perhaps dozens of owners, to this girl, the daughter of my close friends.

I wish I could find a way to trace the 40-year route it took from my sister's hands to this girl's hands, just to see the way a book can flow through our community.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

I'm a writer, not a...

I'm trying not to get too frustrated. It's hard but I am trying to control my temper.

I have just spent the past two hours recording the fourth Abigail story in podcast format. I am using my iMac and the podcast program that comes with it, Garageband. It's working really well. For the most part, I am happy with the ease with which the program works and the quality both of my reading and the recordings themselves.

When I play my recorded stories back on the computer, in the Garageband program, they sound really good.

But the problems arise when I try to burn the files onto an audio CD. First of all, it turned out that the file for the four stories together were too big for the normal 700 MB burnable CD. Crap. These files are huge in their raw format, much larger than the average CD file.

OK. So I go back to the Garageband program and I try the "Save As" function to check out what options I have. Well, this seems promising. I can save the files in their raw version or in "small" format "for easier sharing".

Sounds good. The files are suddenly about 1/5 their original size. I could fit all twelve of the original stories (one I've recorded the rest, of course) on one CD in this format. That's good.

Except none of my CD players will actually play the resulting disc. They find the files but don't find anything inside the files.

Crap number two.

And this is where my frustration arises. I'm a writer, for crying out loud. I'm not a sound engineer. I'm not a computer tech. I don't know what to do now. I need the files to be smaller in size but still readable on normal stereo systems.

And I have no clue how to accomplish that.

When you're a writer of middling success, with no publishing house behind you, you have to wear a lot of hats, mine the talents of a lot of friends and family members, and, when push comes to shove, learn learn learn.

So that's what is in store for me. I've got to go back to school (on the internet, of course) to figure out how to convert the raw Garageband files into a format that is smaller but still readable.

Wish me luck. (Or a publishing contract!).

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Writer's Digest: no beeps, blips or bleatings

I know that, for a lot of people, reading is now an electronic experience. They get their news from the web; they read books on their e-reader; they even read magazine articles online.

I'm pushing 50 and I don't think I will ever fully abandon my devotion to reading the old-fashioned way: ink on paper, with pages to turn and textures to enjoy.

Even as I stand at my computer, writing this blog entry, I have a book open on the desk in front of me. I doubt I will ever change, at least not completely.

So I still feel a distinct rush when I get home from work at the end of the day and find the latest edition of Writer's Digest waiting for me, among the bills and adverts that come with the daily mail.

I like the way it looks. I like the way it feels in my hands. I like the fact that it is a little bundle dedicated entirely to the craft of writing. There will be no pop-ups, no annoying video adverts sneaking into its margins, no distracting beeps, blips or bleatings.

I even like the way the paper starts to curl after I've flipped through it a couple of times.

And I like "flipping through" it too. You can't flip through an online magazine. At best, you have to "click through", don't you?

Not my cup of tea.

Now, I have to admit, this edition of Writer's Digest doesn't seem to have as much of interest to me as the last one. I doubt I'll read every page of it with the same keeness and avidity that marked my enjoyment three months ago.

But I will still enjoy it, as much for its physicality as for its contents.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The many hats of an independent author

I'm not sure if it's exciting or a pain in the backside but, when you have no publisher, you end up doing a lot of things for which you have no training, no skills and little interest, to support your books.

I spent much of this past weekend not on writing my next great novel but on trying to figure out how to design and produce such promotional materials as posters, CD "envelopes" and point-of-sale displays.

You read that correctly: point-of-sale displays.

I didn't even know what a point-of-sale (POS) display was until I started trying to think of ways to attract more attention to my Abigail books in the McAdam Railway Station's gift shop. The three beautifully designed story books sit there on their shelves, quiet and unassuming. I'm not complaining, to be honest, but I just thought there must be some way to tell the tourists who wandered through the shop that my books are something different, something for kids, something fun.

And that, apparently, is the job of POS displays.

So I decided to try to figure out how to make a POS display cheaply. Because, you know, when you have no big publisher behind you, everything you do comes out of your own wallet.

I researched and shopped online, trying to work out what I would need to create an interesting, three-dimensional, eye-catching showcase for the books and how much it would cost.

I even went so far as engineering and creating a cardboard contraption to display the different Abigail books.

Cool cool cool.

Then, fortunately for me, I checked in with my sister Lynn, who is a graphic designer, works in the large-scale advertising printing business and is my creative partner on the Abigail project. She got a good chuckle out of my efforts.

"Why are you re-inventing the wheel?" she laughed. "We do those kinds of POS displays all the time. We have templates. It's simple."

In my defense, I did have a great time doing all that research work so it wasn't a total loss. But I am excited that she can create a POS for me simply and cheaply.

Lynn also told me to forget about using plastic CD cases to sell my "Books on CD" versions of the stories. "No one uses those anymore," she said. "They're rigid, hard to mail and easy to break. Besides, they're a disaster for the environment."

Instead, she told me her company has a number of templates for cardboard CD sleeves that she can use to create appropriate cases for my audio creations. Cool cool cool once again.

Problem two solved.

And the posters, well, they're a cinch and always have been. She'll have those done in no time.

Three for three.

And that's when I realise just how fortunate I am. Yes, as an independent author I have to think about these things. I have to come up with promotional strategies and new ways to market my work (like the Books-on-CD/Podcast approach) and I have absolutely no background in marketing. I write. I read. I don't know much about promotions.

But at least I have a sister with the incredible skills Lynn has, who has access to the equipment and materials we need to put our ideas into action.

I can't imagine what my life would be like if I had to be a writer, reader, promoter, designer, and manufacturer.

That seems like a lot to ask of anyone. So I feel a great deal of empathy for independent authors who don't have access to a creative partner like my sister Lynn. And I feel grateful that I do.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Public appearances bring excitement... and fear

Public appearances can be both a blessing and a curse for a writer, especially one of minor to middling success.

First, it is a huge honour just to be invited to come out, meet the public and sign some books. Yes, you recognize that the people who invite you to appear in their venue hope to benefit as much from the event as you will but, still, just the idea that your presence in their building might actually attract customers is a pretty nice compliment.

And, let's face it, it is a huge ego boost to sit at a table and have people actually come out to meet you, talk to you and maybe buy a book or two. When you aren't published by a big publisher and you have no publicist and you're never reviewed in papers and on websites, public book signings like these are often the only time you get any real feedback on your work.

That's the blessing.

The curse is the almost immediate clenching of your gut when the thought occurs to you that, well, it's possible no one will actually come out to your book signing.

We've all seen those poor writers, sitting in our local book store behind a table stacked with copies of their latest novel, all alone and lonely. You feel so badly for them when you see them there, a look of hope mingled with despair on their faces, that you either go up and buy a book you would never in a million years have thought of buying, just to give them a bit of a boost, or you go out of your way to avoid having to interact with them at all.

The stomach clench when you receive the invitation is the recognition that, this time, that poor sap might actually be you.

In some ways, I'm lucky on that count. The books I'm promoting were written as fund-raisers for a local historical landmark and the book signings are planned to coincide with other, larger events at the landmark so I'm pretty much guaranteed at least a little bit of traffic at my table.

But, and I hate to admit this, I know that, when the day comes, I will find myself keeping a watch out for that person who sees the table and immediately turns away, or gazes at me with pity in their eyes.