March 26, 2019: SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living

SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living. Edited by Manjula Martin. NY: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. 2017.

I recommend this book to anyone working in the arts, not just writers. Creatives can see how it relates to other artistic fields.

It’s especially relevant, since the WGA and the ATA are negotiating their new agreement. You can read both sides of their argument here.

The book is a mixture of essays and interviews about various writers and their relationship with earning money from their art and craft. Cheryl Strayed, Susan Orlean, Jennifer Weiner, Alexander Chee, Leslie Jamison, Emily Gould, and more.

These pieces talk about how society tries to manipulate us into not believing our work is worth being paid a living, comfortable wage. How the “starving artist” concept is part of institutionalized economic segregation and oppression. For minorities, that layers onto the other oppressions they already face.

It reinforced what irritates me every time I hear an unpublished or self-published writer say, “Oh, I don’t care about making money I just want this out in people’s hands.”

That hurts every writer who works hard to earn a living writing. It falls into the same category of “writers” willing to work for $1 an article or clicks for content mills, who hurt all the other freelancers out there.

J. Robert Lennon’s essay “Write to Suffer, Publish to Starve” talks about the relationship between art and commerce, and how “commerce” is often about more than money. Jennifer Weiner builds on that as she talks about self-questioning the worth of the writing when it’s not getting respect from other professionals, even when it pays well.

Emily Gould’s essay “Likeability” sets out the constant demands made on women authors to be accessible and likeable. One of her sentences, in particular, resonated: “Being an extremely social, sociable, accessible person should not be the price of being a professional writer, but for women it almost inevitably is.” (p. 147).

I find myself fighting this constantly. My writing ability has nothing, NOTHING to do with what I look like or whether or not I’m willing to have my own work interrupted constantly to be “accessible” so potential customers (most of whom don’t buy books anyway) won’t threaten to boycott my work or give me 1-star reviews because I was tired or on deadline or didn’t fawn over them when they decided I should.

Men are considered literary lights if they get drunk and behave badly at events. Women are dismissed as “unlikeable.”

One of the exceptions to the above, Jonathan Franzen, who has faced his share of criticism, talks about the need for journalists covering a regular beat rather than crowfunding everything, and the need for writers to go deep within for creation, away from constant electronic interaction. Something he states also resonated strongly: “I think we need to put an end to the expectation that stuff be free.” (p.268). It was part of his response on the need to pay journalists, with which I agree. We pay lawyers, doctors, plumbers, pay for our utilities, the groceries — why do so many balk at paying for words, when they must be in constant state of creation and arrangement in order for society to function?

Cari Luna talks about her agent firing her after five years. Colin Dickey points out the flaw in the demand that writing for free gains the writer something, how a “circulation economy” must work in both directions. Kiese Laymon reveals the pressure to soften the racial themes in his novel in order to make it economically appealing to white readers in order to have it published.

Manjula Martin’s essay about day jobs and contacts, along with Leslie Jamison’s MFA vs. NYC models, got me thinking about how writers sometimes ghettoize each other in their definitions of what a “real” writer is, or what a “day job” is. Even within some of the essays, I saw delineations with which I strongly, strongly disagree.

Susie Cagle’s essay “Economics 101” where she talks about the Grift Economy, the Gift Economy, the Gig Economy, the Guild Economy, and the Big Economy articulated many of the frustrations so many artists face trying to make a living.

Essays made me laugh or wince; nod my head or talk out loud back at the page in disagreement. Some of them challenged assumptions I’ve mistakenly made about others’ writing and make me want to do better in the future. But every single one evoked a strong, emotional response.

Which is the point of good writing.

Every piece in this book is damn good writing.

We live in a society that demands money, but that does not want to pay artists for creating something they need and use every day of their lives. Words are an imperative to communication, business, social exchange. The engaging creation of those necessary words deserves as fair a pay as any other profession. The rise of the Cult of the Stupid and the Glorification of the Ignorant in the past few years, especially in politics, makes it even more difficult to get both the respect for the work and the fair payment.

Does this book have all the answers? No. But it has personal experience layered over socio-economic reality, mixed in with emotion and great writing. It will make you take a more nuanced look at the questions, and give you some ideas for creating your own answers.

So buy this book. Support the artists who are willing to discuss what we are often shamed into keeping silent. Denial of fair payment is too often what is demanded of us because we chose, we are talented enough, and we work hard enough to create a life in the arts.

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Reader Expansion Challenge: Book by A Woman Whose Work You Haven’t Yet Read: Until You by Jeannie Moon

 

This month, the challenge was to read a book by a woman writer whose work we had not previously read.

I got some wonderful recommendations. I looked at several books; I have a huge TBR pile from those recommendations that is very exciting. Some of them are big books that will probably change my life.

Then, I saw a RT on Twitter (can’t remember from whom, but it must have been a fellow writer). It was about a writer I had never yet read named Jeannie Moon, who writes romance. A younger writer criticized her because her female protagonist is ten years older than the male love interest.

Say what?

As an unmarried woman who’s older than I ever expected to be, that offends me.

I’ve dated older; I’ve dated younger. I joke a lot about how my cut-off in dating is that don’t date a man to whom I could have technically given birth.

That’s not always true. I’ve sometimes dated men younger than that.

But, as I said, I’m older than I ever thought I’d be.

I don’t date them very young, because I don’t date boys, I date men.

Of course, there are plenty of males who are chronologically men but emotionally boys. I try to steer clear of them, too.

I hurt on behalf of Jeannie Moon, and I was offended FOR her. She gets to write whatever she wants. She writes romance. That means her characters find their Happily Ever After.

In my Gwen Finnegan series, Gwen is twelve years older than Justin. Does it cause problems? Hell, yes. Do they have great sex anyway? HELL, yes! Do they genuinely love each other? Hell, hell, HELL yes!

Granted, the Gwen Finnegan books are paranormal mysteries with romantic elements, not romance novels. But I believe everyone deserves a happy ending. A real one, not a nudge, nudge, wink, wink kind that’s paid for by old white men in Florida “spas.”

I looked over Jeannie Moon’s published books and decided to read UNTIL YOU for this month’s challenge. First, that was the book criticized. Second, the male protagonist was a professional hockey player.

I’m a huge hockey fan. I’ve written about hockey, both in fiction and by covering the sport. I even spent eight months with a minor league team (where, even then, I was already older than some of their mothers). No, I didn’t date any of them. I wasn’t even tempted, and I set strong boundaries. But I wrote about quite a few hockey players over a period of years who started out as talented boys and grew into terrific men. I’m proud of them.

I didn’t date any of them after they’d all grown up, either.

An aside: I once brought a date to one of the games. We went to the bar where we all hung out after the games. My date and I sat on our own, but I brought him over to introduce him to the players. As we walked away, I looked back at the table, and a handful of the guys with whom I was closest looked horrified and shook their heads. When I went to the rink the next day, they sat me down and gave me a serious talking to about how this guy was entirely wrong for me, and they were worried.

I’d already figured that out. But I thought they were adorable to care.

Back to Jeannie Moon’s book.

I really liked it. It was charming and funny. She’d done her research. She got the hockey right and the teamwork right and some of the not-so-nice aspects right. She got various settings right and they sang, supporting the story.

There was one plot development where I thought the book would lose me, because I am sick and tired of that choice being the endgame in too many books, especially romance novels. But then, it took a sad and poignant twist. The way the characters dealt with it was beautiful and true to their core integrity, and made me care about them even more.

The antagonists were drawn a bit too broadly sometimes, and I got ahead of them. I didn’t need scenes in their POVs. The scenes were fine–the writing was good, we got insight. But I didn’t need those scenes.

But the other characters and the way they grew and loved and laughed and cried and lived and fought and supported each other — it was beautiful.

I had a smile on my face by the end of the book. I look forward to reading more of her work.

I’m sorry Jeannie Moon was attacked for writing lovely, vibrant people who genuinely love each other; but I might not have found her work otherwise. She’s definitely worth reading.

So what’s next month’s challenge?

April’s challenge is to read in a favorite genre by a new-to-you author. We reconvene to share on Tuesday, April 16th.

Please share in this post’s comments what you read this month. I’d love to add them to my TBR pile!

Yes, these posts are more essays on my emotional responses to a book than a review. That is my choice. A review serves a different purpose. The point of the Reader Expansion Challenge is to get us reading in new directions and respond emotionally as much as intellectually. These posts are not reviews. They’re discussions of reading experiences.

Reader Expansion Challenge: Outside Genre

Reader Expansion Challenge: Read out of preferred genre

For this first month of the Reader’s Expansion Challenge, I decided to read something in the horror genre. I don’t read horror often. The world is scary enough right now, horrifying enough right now. I also don’t get that cathartic release from horror that so many other people do.

But the whole point of this challenge is to expand.

So I read horror.

About a dozen books in the genre were recommended to me. I chose WE SOLD OUR SOULS by Grady Hendrix, set against the backdrop of the music industry. The design of the book is beautiful, both interior and exterior. Doogie Horner and Quirk Books did a wonderful job.

I started in the entertainment industry working on road crews for rock ‘n roll, and, when I lived in Seattle, that’s when bands like Sound Garden were just starting out. The band in the book is committed to metal. I figured I’d relate to a lot in that book.

The writing is good, the pace is terrific, the protagonist is wonderful. Her ability to think on her feet is terrific. Her passion and trust in the music set her apart from any other character I’ve read in fiction. The different styles used within the book — excerpts from interviews, song lyrics — and the way they weave into the action and drive the narrative are masterful.

I was worried that the book would derail at one point — an unattributed Aleister Crowley quote is given to one of the other major characters. That choice caused the worry that this was actually a right-wing hatchet job posing as a genre novel, and it would go down the evangelical path, meaning I’d have to throw it across the room, for hypocrisy, and taking a cheap way out.

Fortunately, it doesn’t do that.

Instead, the novel goes deeper and even more horrific, almost being too realistic at times, as it raced to the climactic sequence. It weaves current events and treads into a slightly alt future that doesn’t seem too far-fetched, considering our current daily news cycles. I found the ending both satisfying, while still unsettling. (Not cathartic, but that’s me).

Much to my surprise, I really liked the book. I liked it well enough to recommend it, in a general sense, and to a musician pal who I think would enjoy it. I liked it well enough so that I plan to read more by this author.

Yes, there is violence. There is gore. There is both physical and psychological horror (the latter scarier than the former, in my opinion). But it’s a well-crafted story, and my experience with this book makes it more likely I’ll read more horror in the future.

That was my expansion. Please tell me about yours in the comments.

The next Reader Expansion Challenge will be on Tuesday, March 19. The challenge is to read a book written by a woman whose work you’ve never before read.

I thought that would be easy — there are plenty of books written by women whose work I’ve never read out there. But every time I think I’ve come up with one I want to read — turns out I’ve already read something of hers. I just have to keep digging.

Please share what you’ve read and share the challenge with other readers. You can get the entire schedule here, and use the hashtag ReaderExpansionChallenge on social media.

Enjoy!

 

Gifts for Writers — the 2018 Edition

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Got a writer in your life? Make them feel special!

One of the best ways to honor the writers in your life is to buy their books for others on your gift list! That’s a gift that gives in multiple directions.

But here are some other ideas for the writer(s) in your life:

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Blank Journals or Notebooks
Whether it is for a personal journal or developing an idea, notebooks and journals play a huge part. Not every writer does everything electronically! Writing by hand makes a big difference.

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Pens
They’re great for  drafts in longhand.  cards and letters by hand, and, of course, signings. Beautiful pens make the whole experience special.

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Socks
That sounds ridiculous, and many people make fun of the socks-for-the-holidays thing. But it can get cold when you sit there writing, so socks are great.

When I worked backstage on Broadway, and in other theatres, I had to dress all in black. My exception was socks. I started wearing novelty socks as a joke, and then it became a signature trait. I still get a kick out of funny socks.

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Books
Sure, a gift card lets the recipient choose their own, but if you give me a book that you love, it’s a great way to share an experience. I love sharing books I love that I think others will like (if I don’t think they’ll like it, I find something else; I take their preferences into account). I also love it when people share their favorite books with me.

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Coffee (or Tea or Hot Chocolate)
A drink beside the desk helps fuel the work.  Find out your writer’s preferred fuel; it always makes a great gift.

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Wine
A glass of wine at the end of a long day is a great way to decompress from a day spent making characters’ lives hell. . A bottle of wine is always appreciated. Or,for beer drinkers, beer.

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Whisky
Want to spend a little more and impress your writer? As a single malt lover, the way to my heart can be cleared with a good whisky.

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Candles
Scented or not, candles add atmosphere to a room. They can also be used to help writers start and end their sessions, ritualizing the work space.

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Anything handmade or from the heart
The love behind the gift matters.

Odd Literary Gifts
There are plenty of fun places that offer odd literary gifts.
Some favorite sites:
The Literary Gift Company
The Unemployed Philosophers Guild
The Literary Emporium

Time
That sounds like a bizarre request, but it’s not. Writers are always stealing time for their work. What can you do to make your writer’s life easier? Run some errands? Cook a few meals that person can heat up? Take the kids for a play date, to give the writer a few hours of uninterrupted work time? Help with yard work? Or even, go all out with a gift certificate to a hotel or someplace like Kripalu.. Time is a precious gift, even if it’s honoring quiet time your writer needs for work. Respect the need for time, quiet, solitude.

Use your imagination, and give from the heart! It’s not about the amount spent, it’s the love and thought behind the gift.

Oct. 30 Release Date: Relics & Requiem (Coventina Circle #3)

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Amanda Breck’s complicated life gets more convoluted when she finds the body of Lena Morgan in Central Park, identical to Amanda’s dream. Detective Phineas Regan is one case away from retirement; the last thing he needs is a murder case tinged by the occult. The seeds of their attraction were planted months ago, when Phineas investigated an attack on Amanda’s friend Morag. Now, fate is determined to draw them close. But can they work together to stop a wily, vicious killer, or will the murderer destroy them both?
$3.99 on Digital Channels here.

I’m very excited about the release of the third Coventina Circle novel, RELICS & REQUIEM, which focuses on Amanda and Phineas. I answered a few questions about it:
Question: Tell us how Relics & Requiem was inspired, and how it evolved.

Devon Ellington: When I wrote Assumption of Right, which became Playing the Angles, I planned it to be a one-off. Initially, Phineas was supposed to come into the scene where Simon shoots Morag’s attacker, and that was that. Minor supporting character with strength, intelligence, dignity, and humor. Good at his job and gives a damn, as are the bulk of NYPD detectives, at least the ones I’ve encountered over the years.

Only, he kept showing up. And he and Simon became friends. As Amanda became more important in the story, supporting Morag, I got the distinct impression that Phineas and Amanda were destined for each other. But it would have been a tangent in Angles, which focused on Morag and Simon. So that was that.

Then, it was clear that Bonnie’s story was next (The Spirit Repository), so, with the initial publisher, I figured I’d weave it into that book. But the publisher and I parted ways, Assumption went out of print, and the books were set aside.

A couple of years ago, when my team (doesn’t that sound pretentious? I don’t mean it to) and I sat around figuring out how we wanted to re-envision the next few years of my career, I started playing with the idea again of re-releasing Assumption of Right (or, as I used to describe it, Attack of the Bad Title) as Playing the Angles and make a series of the entire Coventina Circle.

The series is paranormal romantic suspense — it’s not a spoiler that the central couple gets their HEA, or at least HFN. But I wanted to feature each member of the Coventina Circle central to a book. Then, I felt that Hartley Crain, a good guy who gets a raw deal throughout the series, should get his own near the end, and, since Jake Renton has become so important to the series, he may get his own book, too. And then I’ll wrap it up with either another theatre book, where Morag is prominent, but not the protagonist, or do a paranormal Agatha Christie mash-up with all of the couples in some remote location. Not sure yet, and we have to see how the other books sell before we can go that far.

At the same time, I entered discussions with my current publisher and agreed to be part of their soft launch, as they put their long-term pieces into play. Because some of their major partners are based in Canada, with the current trade/political situation, that’s gotten more complicated than we imagined, but we’re dealing.

They wanted to commit to the series.

Which meant that Amanda and Phineas got to have their own book.

I wrote thumbnails of the books in the series, and as I write each book, I’m making notes in the outline documents of future books, so that each book can stand alone for its central couple, but the entire series shows character growth amongst all the members of the circle.

Q: That’s how you came to the characters and to write their book. But how did you come up with the plot?

DE: Cabinets of curiosities and Victorian-style museums have always fascinated me. They turn up in all kinds of books. So I wanted to have an artifact be the paranormal catalyst for the book. A relic. The idea of it being the museum founded by a Victorian-era, Gilded Age mogul made me think of Victorian mourning practices. When I worked for an art book publisher a Very Long Time Ago, one of the books we did was on mourning jewelry. And the Metropolitan Museum of Art had a stunning exhibit on Victorian mourning a few years ago. That made me think of “requiem” and it sounded good together. The Victorians traveled and brought back al kinds of oddities, so it fit.

But what kind of relic? Egyptian relics have been done so often. I felt I had nothing new to add to that canon.

I was doing some research for something else, and meant to research “bone-handled dagger” but, Auto-Incorrect being what it is, it cut out the handle and sent me to bone daggers, which is where the information on the Papuan New Guinea daggers made out of human femur bones and the bones of large birds came up.

That fit perfectly. And we were off.

Q: Then you have the drug-testing subplot. Talk about that.

DE: Phineas’s niece being at a party where an actor died of an overdose wasn’t part of the original outline, but it raised the stakes for him, and I decided to kept it in. As I worked that thread of the book, originally it was going to be much more of a date rape drug, based on the old “Spanish fly” which was just going out of fashion as I grew up.

However, the more I worked on that plotline, the more I realized that, in the time frame and this particular book, I could not portray it responsibly. I didn’t want it to be exploitative. I needed months more research, especially into the psychological after effects of someone being drugged without their permission, some becoming predators and some remaining prey. It needs months, perhaps years of research and discussion with specialists in the field to explore different case scenarios, the traumatic after-effects, and how truly wily predators could use it as an excuse for their own ends by playing the victim. With everything going on right now, the SCOTUS hearings, etc., not doing the research and not portraying the different layers authentically would be irresponsible and wrong. It wouldn’t serve the book (Amanda, Phineas, the circle), and it certainly wouldn’t serve the conversations that need to happen about non-consensual situations. It became clear that has to be a different book, a few years down the road, a stand-alone thriller that handles the material responsibly, not as a subplot.

So the drug became a stamina-enhancer gone wrong, originally targeted for the military and athletes. It still lowered inhibitions and gave a feeling of being unconquerable and euphoria, before the deadly side effects kicked in. But it is not designed to be a sexual enhancement drug. Although one of the characters makes it clear that some people may have that side effect, and there’s money to be made.

It also allowed me to keep the element that Amanda points out — the first thing women learn when they start going out — never leave your drink unattended in a public place. Women have to be vigilant all the time, on guard against predators, and it’s only gotten worse since 2016.

My research into patent medicines also allowed me to tie the two plot lines together.
I’ve got a list of interesting and often disturbing books to add to the Recommended Reading page on the Coventina Circle website.

Q: Once again, you have interesting historical stories behind the actual story of the book: Grover and Sterling’s voyage to the Pacific, Edgar and Cristina experimenting with patent medicines. I wanted more!

DE: I’m glad about that, but more would have been a tangent in this book. It’s already longer than I expected, even after I cut! 😉 As I mentioned in interviews about other Coventina Circle books, if there’s enough interest, once I finish this series, I may go back and write historicals based on some of the stories that set the foundation for the books in the series: the stories that ended up as the ghost stories in the Candesco Theatre, the revolutionary war prison ship, Edgar and Cristina, or the voyage. Any of those will need several months’ full time or years part-time of research to do properly.

Q: You’ve got your crossover again, with Harry Delacourte, and the esoteric library, that appeared in the previous Coventina Circle book, The Spirit Repository, and in the Gwen Finnegan novella, Myth & Interpretation. Harry is an important supporting character in this book.

DE: Yes, he is. The Delacourtes are getting pretty bossy, all the way around. Harry’s in the book, as are a trio of his cousins, and his great-grandmother, the family matriarch.

Q: Does that mean they’ll get their own book?

DE: Not as part of the Coventina Circle series, although now Harry’s pretty embedded with the series, and I have a feeling Tobias is going to show up a few more times, too. Tobias entered the outline of Diana’s story already, and I have to make sure he remains peripheral. There are two more Delacourte cousins we have yet to meet, Rafe and Zelda, who are important to Jake’s timeline. I may need to promise the Delacourtes some of their own books, so they stop invading this series!

Q: Jared’s pretty hot, too.

DE: Don’t worry, he’ll stick around. He has an important role to play in the next few books.

Q: We got to know Kayla and Lerrien better, too, and had a little (but not enough at The Dragon’s Lair).

DE: They’ll continue to be a part of the series, although not central to it.

Q: The structure of each book leading into the next book, while standing alone is interesting. Bonnie and Amanda were introduced in Morag’s book. We heard about Lesley, and briefly met Sylvie and Diana in Morag’s book. Amanda had a bigger role in Bonnie’s book, which then led into her book, with more of Lesley and Sylvie, but especially Lesley, leading into her book. When did you plan that?

DE: It happened organically in Morag’s book and Bonnie’s book. I was more aware of it in Amanda’s book, and then intentionally crafted the last section to be a lead-in to Lesley’s. It will be more of a plan in the remaining books.

Q: The affection and connection between the women is so lovely, the way they support each other, even while recognizing each others’ flaws, and are aware when they fall short of their own expectations.

DE: They’re all growing together. Each book focuses on a particular pair of protagonists, but all members of the circle grow in each book. It has to happen in a circle, or the circle can’t continue. But people grow at different rates, or grow away from each other. That happens, too. People say how hard it is to make friends in New York, and how isolating it is. My own experience is that connections forged in New York are much stronger and more resilient through growth and change than a lot of relationships made elsewhere.

Q: The age differences in the circle are interesting, too.

DE: Yes, there’s a range from Sylvie, the youngest at twenty-eight, and hitting her first Saturn return, to Diana, the high priestess and oldest, at fifty-six, in her second Saturn return. Her book, in particular, will deal with age issues and race issues. Coventina follows a Western European magical tradition, and its members are white. While their circle of friends is fairly diverse, and always growing more so, there are certain things they don’t have to deal with because they are white women, and that contrast will be explored more as the series continues, especially since there’s more diversity in Diana’s teaching circle, Myst. Their religion choices make them “other” in the eyes of many, but their skin color still offers them some protection that some of their friends and colleagues lack. It’s something they have to deal with, and become more aware of, and decide how to utilize in aid of those who face more danger, as the series progresses.

Q: The first three books came out quickly, each within six months of the one before. But now there’s a year before Lesley’s book, Grave Reach. I don’t want to wait that long!

DE: That’s always gratifying! But the schedule was killing me. Juggling Coventina and The Nautical Namaste Mysteries (as Ava Dunne) and The Gwen Finnegan Mysteries is difficult. Even with outlines. Add to that, the Jain Lazarus series just moved publishers. In addition to Hex Breaker and Old-Fashioned Detective Work re-releasing next spring, the third book in that series, Crave the Hunt is back on the schedule. Plus, the first six books of a contemporary, almost soap opera series on the conflicts between love and creativity are supposed to release next year, although we’re still working on solid dates. AND I’m writing a play about gun violence. AND trying to get a few other projects back on the schedule. I couldn’t properly do two Coventina Circle books a year right now. Not without my head exploding and my typing fingers falling off! 😉 It’s a good kind of busy, and I’m grateful, but I also have to be realistic. I’m getting older — Diana and I are contemporaries. I can’t pull a series of all nighters any more than Phineas can at this point! But I love doing the work. I’m a writer who loves writing, not just “having written.” So I keep at it.

Excerpt:

Susanna answered the door, smiling. Her black pencil skirt and plum cashmere sweater made Amanda feel awkward and underdressed in her black jeans and oversized black sweater. “Thanks so much for coming,” Susanna said.
“You’re welcome.” Amanda stepped into the hallway, papered with dark green flocking on a lighter green. A carved wooden staircase led to the next floor. “Wow.”
“This place is pretty cool,” said Susanna. “I’ll give you the tour after you see the artifact. It’s down here, in what used to be the parlor.”
She led the way to a graceful, high-ceilinged room that looked more like a set for a Masterpiece Theatre Mystery than a New York City apartment.
“The cabinet is here,” she said, pointing to a glass-fronted cabinet with a series of drawers underneath. “Oh, hello, Dean,” she added, as a young man wearing wire-rimmed glasses joined them. “This is my intern, Dean. Dean, this is Amanda Breck.”
“Hi,” he mumbled.
“Hey,” said Amanda. She looked at the cabinet, full of oddities including skills, strange carved knives, a handful of ishbatis, some scarabs, a metal bowl with Celtic symbols on it, a drinking vessel made out of horn with runes on it, and plenty of things she couldn’t identify. The whole cabinet felt exhausted and resentful.
I’d be pretty pissed too, if I was torn from home and put on display, she thought.
She felt a brush against her neck, like a cool touch. She didn’t need to turn; she knew, from the reflection in the glass, that no one corporeal was behind her.
“This is it.” Susanna opened the top drawer and pulled out a white cloth. She unwrapped an ecru-colored object that had been whittled down to a point on one end.
I hope I’m wrong. Amanda frowned. “What is it?”
“A dagger,” said Dean. “Made out of a human femur bone.”

RELICS AND REQUIEM, $3.99 on multiple digital channels here.
Visit the Coventina Circle website here.

China Sings To Me – Andrew Singer

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I met Andrew at my very first Cape Cod Writers Center Conference I attended, when I moved here. We’ve been friends ever since. We’ve talked about his book, his process, and his readings during the process have been a delight. I’m thrilled the book is finally out.

On top of that, Andrew is one of the Authors Al Fresco at the Provincetown Books Festival, on Saturday, September 15 from 11:30 – 4:00 in Provincetown Mass. (Note: I’ll be in the Curated Reading between 10-11:30 AM at the Provincetown Library on that same day — come to the festival, see us both).

China Sings to Me: A Journey into the Middle Kingdom and Myself
Andrew Singer, Station Square Media, 2018

The Story Behind My Story
A friend recently commented that everyone on Cape Cod has a book in them. I am one of the fortunate few who have now seen that book reach the light of day. I am a published author.

My story has percolated inside me since 1987. That is the year I returned from a college year in China. I wanted to tell others what happened while I was there. What I saw. What I experienced. It was a time of great change, the possibility of new beginnings after the end of the Cultural Revolution and the early years of a re-established relationship with America. I had two overflowing journals, hundreds of photographs, and vivid memories.

Time, though, is a precious commodity, and one of which I did not have an abundance of excess as I operated a business and we raised a family for the next two decades. Finally, I had a draft. I know I can write, but could I tell the story? The two are not the same.

I sought help, comradery, a community, to help me answer this fundamental question. I joined the Cape Cod Writer’s Center. I participated in a writers group. I studied the craft of writing memoir. I explored the world of publishing. I made friends, writing colleagues. I kept seeking to learn more. I learned that I needed to do more, a lot more.

It took me many years and a lot of perspective before I realized something important. Part of the reason why crafting China Sings To Me took so long was not just due to a lack of time. It was also because I needed to grow personally–to reach a place inside myself where I became capable of telling the story as it needed to be shared.

My book slowly morphed over the years into a coming-of-age story. I most definitely followed the advice of writers group friends and beta readers who kept asking where the “me” was in my journey. The tale became personal–about me, my family, my life, and also that of China. I am a private person. Sharing as I have now shared did not come naturally, but I was driven to make the telling relatable and readable.

Initially, I had interesting travelogue vignettes, but there was no overarching plot, no defined arc, no web that captured the readers and brought them along on the journey. My dialogue was stilted. My emotions kept in check. This all had to change if I wanted to make my story come alive.

I spent years working on this, crafting and revising and further revising over and over again. My original passion for China and things Chinese that called me to travel abroad now also became a passion (or was it an obsession?) to share that journey with a wider audience. Yet after days, months, weeks, and years of reading and reading my own words, I lost perspective and objectivity. There were times when I would sit back after reading a passage or a chapter and say “this is something; I have a story to tell.” Then, there were other times when I would sit back, think of the entire book and say “no one will want to read this drivel.” I bounced between extremes.

When I reached a plateau, I made a game-changing decision. I hired an editor who believed in the story and eventually also became my publisher. She prodded me to emphasize arc, pinpoint characters and dialogue, drill down to those scenes that advanced the storyline and kept the reader’s interest. Learning that a first book should ideally be between 75,000-85,000 words was eye opening since my manuscript at that point was north of 112,000 words. People often talk about the need to “kill your darlings”. I was looking at a massacre. It was not easy, but I ultimately succeeded in reducing and tightening to just under the upper limit of the advisable size.

I made hard choices, never gave up, and discovered the emotional openness to make my book a true coming-of-age story, not only of me, but I hope of China too. It is an adventure story, a love story, a cross-cultural exploration, and an honest tale of growing up.

Book Excerpt
(From Chapter 14, Romance in Chengde) — The raison d’etre of Chengde is the lush mountain resort of the emperors north of the city. This walled compound encloses an expansive imperial palace and gardens that were designed by the same hands that created Yuanmingyuan, the Old Summer Palace, in the Beijing suburbs near Beida. The imperial family came here when even Yuanmingyuan sweltered in the summer heat and humidity. To welcome their subjects, showcase their Buddhist bona fides, and make this far-off retreat a showcase of their rule, the Qing emperors recreated eight famous palaces and temples from around their empire spread among the surrounding hills beyond the mountain resort. Chengde is a veritable museum of ancient Chinese architecture, and I cannot get enough of it.

We rent bicycles for a palace hunt. The bikes are big and ungainly, but once we figure out their quirks and personalities, they take us where we want to go. We ride east-northeast out of downtown, cross the railroad tracks, and arrive first at Pulesi, Pule Temple. This temple resembles one of my favorites, Beijing’s Temple of Heaven. The cobalt blues, reds, and golden flared roofs on large worship halls and smaller study chambers sparkle. Crenelated block walls open into inner and outer courtyards. The view out from the upper platform, the round main hall to our backs, spreads from the plains to the distant mountains, today shrouded in haze. More than two hundred years of history saturates the wispy blue sky and fresh air hovering over the temple.

Across the expanse looking north and northwest sit several of the remaining outer temples, including our destination in the far distance, rising layered up a mountain side: Putuo Zongsheng Temple, the Chengde model of Tibet’s Potala Palace.

We have a problem. The Chengde Potala is located on the other side of a river and the bridge is not close. Beth and I ask the man at the Temple of Heaven if there is another way across. He points us to a shortcut, and we soon find ourselves riding our bicycles on a dirt path following close behind a tractor pulling a trailer filled with huge, squealing pigs. I sense their anxiety. They know their destiny. The plaintive squeals are heart wrenching. I want to glance at Beth to see if she feels the same, but cannot because I need to concentrate on the rustic path in front of us.

We come upon the “bridge.” It is all of three feet wide, about twenty feet long, and constructed of mud, hay, a few large wood planks, and a whole lot of wishful thinking. The porcine tractor pull veers off and begins crawling down the riverbank and into the water. Holding our collective breathes, we timidly venture out onto the bridge. So far so good. It does not give way. Becoming braver, and without any alternative, we then quickly scoot across. We pass the tractor climbing up through the mud and are soon peddling across peasant farmland. Beth and I are by ourselves in a part of China that time has passed by. It is hard to imagine being farther from Cape Cod than I do at this moment.

Andrew Singer
Biography
Andrew Singer is a traveler, history lover, and collector of books and Chinese snuff bottles who supports his family and interests working as a land use and environmental permitting lawyer on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. To learn more of Andrew’s travels and interests, please visit http://www.AndrewSingerAuthor.com. China Sings To Me is available online in paperback and ebook editions (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/099937270X/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0, https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/china-sings-to-me-andrew-singer/1129205721?ean=9780999372708, and other sites) and in local bookstores.

Donna & Meg: The Joy of the Meg Langslow Series

Toucan Keep A Secret

One of the joys of this past, very difficult summer was finally getting to read the Meg Langslow series by Donna Andrews.

I’d picked up the first, third, and fifth book at a bookstore months ago, but between reading in three genres for a contest and reading for the review site I work for and reading for the research on my own books, they kept getting bumped to the bottom of the line.

But then, this summer, I needed something fun. And this series was recommended to me by several people whose reading tastes I trust as fun.

They were right.

Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I laughed a lot. When I first found out Michael was an actor, I was worried that it would be yet another of those clichés by someone who never bothered to research what real actors and real productions go through.

I needn’t have worried. Donna knows what she writes about. Except for the parrots and the monkeys, the convention in WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE PARROTS is far too familiar to me, and I recommended it to several colleagues who felt the same way.

Meg is fun, funny, resourceful, and gives a damn. She’s both exasperated by and protective of her family. She steps up – but what makes the series work so well is that they do, too. They might dump a lot of chaos on her, but they don’t walk away. They roll up their sleeves and dig in. The family might be eccentric, but they function by always pitching in for each other, and always giving each other room.

Meg is sensible, even though she’s not perfect. The characters even joke about the “Too Stupid To Live” syndrome in many books, where the character takes stupid chances that anyone with a brain can see will put them in peril. Meg calculates her risks. She does what she needs to do, but she doesn’t do it out of stupidity. Which makes her a character you can trust, like, and want to take a journey that is now twenty-three books.

I regularly put down books where the character is annoying, doesn’t learn from mistakes, and is so dumb I want her to be the next victim. It’s often marketed as comic and the character as “wacky” or “eccentric” when, in reality, the character is stupid.

On the flip side, I’ve had editors tell me to dumb down a character because she’s “too smart and too independent. Readers don’t want a character smarter than they are. They want to feel superior to the protagonist.”

Not in my case. I want the protagonist to be smarter and more resourceful. Donna and Meg both deliver. Andrews respects her readers.

Yes, she gets into funny, outrageous situations and comes up with equally outrageous solutions. But everything is so well grounded, that when the books take off (to use the bird puns used in the titles), the reader is willing to make the leap.

Meg also is in actual peril in the climactic sequence of the books. SHE is the one who faces down the murderer and saves herself, even with the police and her family coming to the rescue. SHE saves herself. She doesn’t wait around for someone else (or she’d be dead, and fall into the Too Stupid to Live category). Even when she’s in dire straits and knows her best bet is to keep the murderer talking or otherwise distracted until help gets there, she’s never passive about it.

Which makes her even more endearing.

In the past few years, I’ve noted more and more, especially in cozies, that climactic action takes place off the page. The protagonist is never in any real danger. The stakes aren’t life-and-death. Or, if they are, the reader doesn’t get to experience it with the character. It’s tossed off in a narrative paragraph later on. I always feel cheated.

Having Meg central to every solution and giving the reader odd, over-the-top, funny, but STILL DANGEROUS climactic sequences means that the reader gets to take the entire ride with the character and is there for the payoff. It’s satisfying.

And then there’s the breath after it, the resolution, that ends on an upbeat note.

Which leads the reader into the next book, while each book stands solidly alone.

I worry that Meg too often pushes her own blacksmithing work to the side and doesn’t draw boundaries with her family and now her community. I jumped up and down cheering when she finally said, “No.” I don’t have my reading log with me as I write this, but I made a note of it in the writing log! (I think it’s SWAN FOR THE MONEY).

I didn’t get to read the books in order, so it was sometimes like putting together a fun puzzle. But it was a joy. It was such a pleasure to read book after book, to visit Meg’s world at the end of a tough day, and feel rewarded by spending time with people who were smart, funny, and gave a damn.  Now I’m going to buy the twenty-three books I don’t own in the series, and then sit down and read them all again – in order!