Saturday, March 31, 2012

First day in London

For months, I had been obsessively planning out family trip to England and France. I read novels and memoirs, watched movies in my slavish preparations. I am sure that some of my detailed planning was an avoidance of the every day, but escapism is good for the soul. At last the day arrived.
We landed in London today. Leaving the airport, customs, and negotiating the tube proved to be smooth transactions. Our hotel, St. Ermine's, near Westminster Abbey was a good choice.
The room is beautiful. We have two beds and a day bed, which Jonah claimed. We also have two bathrooms which is a great perk with two teenagers. As luck would have it, our room was available at noon. We unloaded and went right back out into the world.
Our first stop was Borough Market for some food. I had already scoped out good food choices online. Had I not done that, we all would have been overwhelmed by our choices. First we went to Neal's Yard Dairy to taste and buy cheeses. The place had that dank smell of mystery, animals, grass, and dark caves. Choosing two cheeses to buy was an adventure, especially since it was our first time using British money. Exactly how good a deal is £42/kg? And how many grams should I ask for? I managed to get two kinds of cheese that I thought would be universally enjoyed by all family members. As I came out though, Mark told me to try a bleu cheese. He thought it was particularly good. I love bleu cheese, but I had refrained from even thinking about it because of him. I must be rubbing off on him.
Next, the men stood in line for spicy chorizo sausage sandwich-- one for Jonah and one for Mark and me to split. Meanwhile, Maren and I went off in search of fish and chips. Cod for her and haddock--once again for Mark and me to split. Both were delicious- which may have had something to do with having only a small pastry and OJ on the plane as breakfast. The market itself was a carnival of sights, smells, sounds, and people. We loved hearing all the different British accents as well as the foreign speech. I was most in awe of the pans of paella as big as truck tires. Other curries were also made in huge pans like this. If I had to do over, I might add paella in the lunch menu, but I don't know what I would have eliminated. The sausage sandwich came on this great crusty homemade bread with roasted red peppers and arugula. Even Jonah ate the vegetables-- though he did say it wasn't the best sausage sandwich he ever eaten.
We all took lots of pictures. Jonah has command over the Canon Rebel. Maren operates the small red pocket Canon, while Mark and I use our phone cameras. The problem is that all of us are taking the same pictures. I am going to have all our pictures times 4 to sort through when we return. But there were great pictures to be had. It is just amazing the ways people do things in foreign countries. There is a whole different aesthetic.

From Borough Market, we tried to locate London Bridge to start the South Bank audio tour I downloaded. I don't know what was wrong with Mark and me. Our phone app maps were misleading, and we were both navigationally impaired in this instance. We walked at least a mile out of our way until we finally located the Thames River. How hard can it be to find a river?? We were all fatigued by the time we started the walking tour, but everyone was a trooper. Nobody complained. We saw Southwark Cathedral and were treated to information on pubs, boat racing, a replica of the Golden Hind --Sir Francis's Drake's boat on which he circumnavigated the earth, castle ruins and prisons.
Then we got to the site of the original Globe theater. All of us are Shakespeare buffs, so this was fun. Around the corner was the actual theater-- along with the Rose Theater. We didn't tour the Globe; it is a reproduction that was only completed in the 1990's. But we did stop to look at the gift shop and have a bathroom break. In the courtyard of the Globe, we saw two Big Green Egg grills. We thought that was funny. Who would have thought to combine our love of grilling with Shakespeare? Also interesting was the wedding reception that was going on there.
Next door to the theater is the Tate Modern which is housed in an old electrical plant. The museum is free so we went inside and explored one floor--the third. I was not impressed with the artwork nor the way it was displayed. I found a few pieces I liked, and took pictures. Interestingly enough, the pieces I liked were done by women (Dorothea Tanning, Joan Mitchell and Germaine Richier. ) You don't see enough artwork done by women in museums, so I took down their names for further investigation. On this floor was a room of reclining nudes done in painting and sculpture. You know it is time to move on when you see this subject and all you can think about is a nap. We did stop for a quick look in the gift shop. I wish I would have bought the Tate Modern timeline, which was a small accordion folded card that detailed the modern art movements to present. I've often wanted to take another college art history class on Modern Art, since the last class I had was in 1988. My knowledge no longer feels
"modern". Perhaps I need to look for an online class to take. As we left, we noticed lots of people sleeping on the leather couches that lined the stairwells. It almost seemed like an art installation in an of itself.
The rest of our tour took us past many buildings that had to do with the arts, including television and film. We passed the National Theater which is an ugly modern building. The audio guide used the phrase Brutal Period of architecture, which I had never heard before. The day was cold, windy, and grey. As we walked toward the London Eye, we saw all kinds of street performers: many human statues, a unicyclist, and a man who arranged children into poses and then posed himself to create a scene. I wondered where these performers came from. We took pictures of the London Eye, but did not go up. Visibility was low, and we had already decided to forgo the experience. We gratefully walked across the Westminster bridge, past Parliament and Westminster Abbey to our hotel which we reached about 5pm.
We were all tired. One by one we each plopped on our beds with a groan. But we couldn't stay there, at risk of inertia, so we got ourselves moving again.
We decided to take the tube to Harrod's Department Store. The Tube was packed. Sardines. We threw ourselves in the door and hoped it would close with us on the inside. We are becoming quite expert at using the tube and our Oyster passes.
At Harrod's we quickly figured that we were not the target consumer. Very posh, but fun to browse. What they did have that we could enjoy is a huge food court with all kinds of goodies. Think high end farmer's market. Like the old Achenbach stand at Watt & Shand only on a larger scale and with more venders. We bought two kinds of sliced salami (one was wild boar), one large and very delicious pear, and a demi baguette to go with the specialty goat and cheddar cheeses I bought at Borough Market. They had a specialty wine shop. We bought a French wine for dinner. Knowing we also had an early day tomorrow, we also bought pastries (variations on the croissant) for our breakfast.
We took it all back to our hotel room, where I set up a buffet. We had brought along plastic travel cutlery and an airplane allowable corkscrew. We had no plates but used the wax paper that the meats and cheeses came in as plates. A very delicious meal.
Though we were all exhausted, we took showers and hand washed our clothes. We brought minimal wardrobes so we wouldn't have to check luggage. One funny thing: Jonah was supposed to bring the small vials of laundry soap. But he didn't have them in his allowed quart size plastic bag. I had packed all the liquids and had distributed them among the 4 of us. Jonah, however, had packed the one he used for Florida. Upon further investigation, we discovered that Jonah had packed two quart-size bags of liquids. The airport security hadn't caught it. So we were able to wash our clothes and hang them on the travel lines we brought with us. Kids fell immediately to sleep. Mark followed quickly. I stayed up about an hour more to journal. I went to bed at ten.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Honors English

A couple of decades before the Twilight series, teens had a great void. We had to read adult books or kids books. I was a voracious reader as a girl, but when I hit 8th grade, I had a hard time finding things to read. One day at SSR a friend gave me a romance novel. I tried hard to like it, but there was something weird and creepy about it. The men were these hard types who didn't show their feelings. They were usually nearing 40 as opposed to the female protagonist who was barely out of her teens. But the books themselves were quick to read, readily available, and I was a young girl ready to enter a life of romance.
When I got to high school, I started taking honors English classes. The books we were reading were a far cry from the romance novel. I was frustrated. I loved Newbery Award winning books, which were considered the best of children's lit, but if these books we were supposed to read in high school were any indication of quality literature, I would stick to trashy novels. Bring on V.C. Andrews and Danielle Steele.
It wasn't until my freshman year of college when I had a Women's Studies course that I discovered real literature again. I still remember the three novels we discussed: Chopin's The Awakening, Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. I could not believe that I was reading these books as an assignment. And the discussion points--they blew me out of the water because I could suddenly identify with what I was reading. This was no Lord Jim or The Red Badge of Courage! At this point I realized that of all the novels I read in 11th-12th grade honors English, only Wharton's Ethan Frome (my favorite book of both classes) was written by a woman.
I began trolling the Women's Studies section of textbooks at the college store for my casual reading. I pretended to be registered for the classes, buying the required reading. It was through this deceptive practice that I discovered Toni Morrison, Isabel Allende, Marge Piercy, Alice Walker, and Marilyn French to name a few. Then I would start to read everything by these authors. I found the poets Adrienne Rich and Maya Angelou. These women changed my life.
I was saddened to learn of Adrienne Rich's recent death. It brought me right back to my college questing days. These writers leave such a legacy. I am forever in their debt.
What are your kids reading in high school? Is it a good balance of male and female writers? It should be if half the people in the room are female. Are people of color represented? Ask to see your student's English curriculum. Write letters to the school board asking for diversity in their materials. Girls and boys alike need to experience the female voice--not as a side bar, not as a movie version. The Twilight Series is over. (Yes, I read them.) Give us the breadth and depth of creation. Here is my assignment for you: start by finding a poem by Adrienne Rich.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Movie Version

My kids and I are going to see the Hunger Games today. We all read the book. Over the years we have seen many of our favorite novels (either ones I read to them or ones we all read) turned into film. I wonder when it was that authors started thinking of film as the final destination of their imaginations? To have your book published is a wonderful experience, but can you really hold the finished product in your hand without giving some thought as to who will play the lead? At that time, I remember thinking that Katie Holmes would be a good casting choice for BJ, but now I have some other thoughts. Kristen Bell? Emily Blunt?
Recently, Diana Gabaldon did some fan Facebook casting of her characters from the Outlander series. I spent much of 2011 in her imaginary worlds, so it was fun to see the options people came up with. Why HBO hasn't snatched this up to become a cable series is beyond my comprehension.

In the near future, my family and I will be going to London. One of the stops on our trip is to see the newly opened Warner Brother film sets from the Harry Potter movies. I read every single one of the books out loud to my kids, and we saw all the movies together. This is an activity for us. In 2004, we drove to Boston on my son's birthday to see the Lord of the Rings Movie art exhibit at the Museum of Science. It isn't enough to read. We need to see the costumes and the props.

And then there is the Harry Potter World theme park I visited this February with my son. We donned butterbeer mustaches and rode the castle ride with our hologram character guides. Okay, maybe having your own theme park based on your books is the final destination.

One of the book series I read to my kids when they were younger was Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. In this series, a man has the ability to bring fictional characters into reality simply by reading books aloud. Eventually, the main characters find a way to plant themselves inside the stories they have been reading.

This is what readers want as their ultimate destination: to be on the inside of a book looking out. As a writer, this is where I begin the process. I spend many days (weeks, months, years) immersed in the story. The only way I can leave is to write my way out. It is an exorcism, an escape, and a ascension all in one. Why do we get writer's blocks? Sometimes we don't want to write ourselves out of the tale. We like our mind prisons. Imaginary worlds are a fun place to be—especially during an election year.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Speed of things

Back in the day, I used to be fast. Not set records fast, but get a few medals and get your name in the paper fast. The years past. The pounds came on. I still have one speed that it is above a walk that I use when I go to the track, but slow is that only way to describe it.
Such a slowdown is not the same for the publishing industry. After I wrote Summers At Blue Lake, it took me two years to find an agent. It took my agent two years to find a publisher. It took the publisher two years to publish the book. Writing novels is not for the sprinter. I often thought that I'd be so much better at rejection if I were a song writer. But who wants rejection in a process that is so long and so time-consuming. (And that isn't even counting the time it takes to write the thing.) Fear of rejection has frozen my pen. I just don't have the heart to go to the page even though the ideas still do mad laps around my brain. You would think they would have tired themselves out by now.
Two weeks ago, I received a letter from my agent's assistant. My book rights have reverted back to me from the publisher, and she wanted to know if I was interested in pursuing ebook publication. Well, the book was already written; I might as well capitalize on it. I called her that day, and she asked me to write a few bullets of an e-marketing plan to submit with a pitch to one of the big ebook companies. I spent a frenzied weekend researching e-marketing for e-books. I turned in my plan for which I got kudos and was told that I would need a new cover if this went through. (My publisher held the rights to the old cover.) Being an artist and a perfectionist, I thought I could try my hand and doing my own cover. Off to do more research. That process was fast and fun. I learned a lot in the 22 revisions that I did for the final product. That process probably took me a week. And in that time, I had an answer: Nook accepted my ebook for their Nook First program.
Beginning May 28, my ebook will be featured on Nook's main page. It will run exclusively for a month on Nook before becoming available in other markets. My head is spinning. I must go back to the Internet to research how to execute the points I outlined in my marketing plan. It is thrilling to say the least.
Now that I have this outlet that moves at the speed of light, I see hope again for my work. I want to write. I have stories to tell. I want to arrange words in a way that only I can.
I work as a substitute teacher. It is seasonal work that begins to dry up toward the end of a school year. Very soon, I will have time to work.

Writer, take your mark.
Get set.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Being an Artist in a Capitalistic Society

Yesterday, I was interviewed by a college student who was taking a Sociology of the Arts course. Fascinating stuff—not my answers, but the class in general. They talk about how art is formed by society and the ideals we hold. What are the arts like in a capitalistic society versus a communist society? Who decides the trends in arts? Who decides what art is? What is the role of a critic? What is the role of a patron? What roles do government and economics play in art? It made me want to take the class, especially after having recently seen the movie Exit through the Gift Shop, a movie about the commercialization of street art.

One of the questions I was asked was what advice I would give younger artists. One of the things I said is that you have to be a jack-of-all-trades. We live in a competitive society in which the artist must compete for patronage and favorable criticism. This isn't a simple road race; it is a decathlon. And you do a heck of a lot of training before compete. I do my work with the realization that it may be years before I am paid for that work—if I get paid at all. As you can imagine, I don't have many people who work under me. I have learned to do things for myself. I built my own website, sent a press release, designed and sent promotional cards, and wrote query letters. I am still working on doing the numbers. As an artist you frame your work, take photographs of your work, write blogs, address technology, write marketing plans, and network.  None of these skills came prepackaged in my college degree. You learn to fake it until you figure it out. Today, for instance, I am working on the cover art for my book and learning to design custom frames/borders for promotional postcards. Tomorrow, I am working on taxes. At some point, I must figure out how to connect my Twitter account to my blog and vice versa—and to get the links on my website. Did Picasso do all this?
Is this what it means to be an artist in this society? It is my experience. I wish I could be a fly on the wall when the sociology class participants give their reports on the interviews they conducted. What do our collective answers and actions say about our society? I'll leave you with one more of the questions I was asked. (I am paraphrasing.)
When did you first begin to tell people you were an artist/writer? My answer? I didn't feel comfortable telling people I was an artist/writer until I was getting paid for the work I did (even though the work I was getting paid for was done years previously).

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

My Bad Techno-romance

A lot has changed in my life since my book came out. I started substitute teaching. My running time has slowed to something just above a walk. (I continue to call it running because I am breathing hard.) Three years ago, I created a Facebook page-- ostensibly to help create some momentum for the Lancaster Literary Guild web page. In reality, the Facebook page, along with the iPhone I got around the same time, has reshaped my daily life. Whereas previously, I could not even remember to take my cell phone with me-- I now keep a death-grip on the thing. My electronic self and physical self are Siamese Twins. Of course, I had to buy an iPad. My new obsession only larger. For my ADD mind, these devices are both saint and demon. They help me with the tasks I need to plow through, but I believe that they have also rewired my brain so that I have an even greater difficulty focusing and being present. When it comes to details, I am slipping. I had a great memory for details, but now my husband says I am unreliable if we are talking about anything in the last 3 years. I am still allowed to win arguments when the facts in the case date prior to 2009.

More recently, I have begun to see technology as a Hydra monster. As soon as I master one branch of it, nine new offshoots take its place. Helping my son through his college search, planning a family vacation to Europe. I can find any information I want, but ultimately that information leads me down five other paths until I have a hard time finding my way out. Enter into this a new mission to make my author self a force in the digital world. I am overwhelmed. It isn't enough to have Twitter and Facebook and a web page; they must all be linked. I need to create creative, dynamic content. I recently talked (who am I kidding?—we conversed on Facebook inbox.) to an author friend of mine. She said that she spends more time on social media than actual writing. That thought almost sent me to live under my covers. It isn't that I don't like Facebook. I do. I am thinking of having the post office forward my mail there. But the thought that the world of writing has evolved into this computer game where you rack up points for followers and only have so many lives to keep in the game is scary and unappealing.

I finished reading A Moveable Feast by Hemingway. I was reading it because we are getting ready to journey to Paris. When I think about the romance of Paris, it will forever include images of writers sitting in cafes with their cafe crèmes and their notebooks with a few sharp pencils and their own words for company. That is something to long for. This longing for stillness, for knowing our own minds and finding out our own identities under this madness of technology, is a theme in the novel I am writing. If the world keeps spinning the way it is, I think it will wind up in the fantasy section.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Resuscitation, Revival, Renewal

In Pennsylvania, spring has come early. Rotatillers, openly displayed pedicures, and eating outside on the deck--all of those before the month of March hit is teens. Spring has always been about renewal for me. Our family is taking a big trip this spring, so I have to admit that I didn't have my sights set on specific acts renewal this year. No new exercise regiments, and I have yet to crack open a gardening catalog. I am, however, revelling in this weather and the spurt of energy that has come with it.
Into this early spring, a letter arrived from my agent. With no fully formed efforts to show, I have been hiding from my agent. But the letter announced good news: SUMMERS AT BLUE LAKE has been released from my publisher so that I am free to pursue other avenues of publication. More specifically, I am free to pursue my novel's publication as an e-book. E-books were around when SUMMERS was published, but Nook, Kindle, iPads had yet to be the go-to gift at the holidays.
Now, in anticipation of pitching my book to one of the biggies, I must explore an online marking strategy. Twitter, Facebook, Linked In as the holy trinity, with my website/blog keeping pace. As much as technology can be daunting with its sparkle and speed, I am welcoming this chance to revitalize my career. E-books? It seems less threatening than a printed books somehow. Don't get me wrong; I love the printed page. But if I blunder about in my attempt for another novel, I won't be killing off any trees or picturing skids of books abandoned in a warehouse somewhere.
And so, I will keep this first entry of my revived blog on the short side. I have some other writing to do and a career to resusitate.