Category Archives: Writing

Boeing, Boring: Boeing Boeing at the Lucille Ball Little Theatre, Jamestown, NY

Oh, reviewing pen, it’s been a while. Mostly because I haven’t been able to sit for the length of an entire play for a while, but also because the only play I’ve seen since Cabaret in NYC was a local production of Spamalot. But tonight, I dug my reviewing pen out and headed to Jamestown, NY to see the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown’s presentation of Marc Camoletti’s Boeing Boeing.

I’m almost sure I’ve seen this play before, but I’m not sure where – London, Edinburgh, New York, Buffalo – and other than broad strokes (a playboy trying to keep three flight-attendant-fiances in his orbit) I didn’t remember much about the plot. It falls into the strange realm of what I think of as “French living-room plays.” Like Art and Carnage. Which is weird, because neither of those are farces, and they’re both by the same playwright.

Boeing Boeing is a farce, though. It’s a farce set in the 1960s, at the dawn of newer, faster plane technology. One expects the play to have a certain “snap,” so to speak. Noel Coward with more ennui. Then one looks up the play’s running time. Two and a half hours.

Um.

There’s a line in Boeing Boeing that goes, “No panic, no problem.” But this is exactly the problem. While the actresses playing the fiances – Amanda Melquist (Gloria), Carla Kayes (Gabriella) and particularly Holly L.J. Weston (Gretchen, the passionate German) – inject their scene with dimension and energy, both male leads (Vince Liuzzo as the playboy Bernard and his older brother Carl Luizzo as Robert) seem far too comfortable, too lackadaisical. Occasionally, their back-and-forth rises to a fever pitch, but for the most part it’s the women who set the pacing for each scene – which would be fine, if not for the fact that Bernard is the protagonist. There’s a hint of this early on, when Betsy Trusel’s Berthe brings character-acted comic relief as Bernard’s frustrated domestic servant. Slick and charming, Bernard only becomes “real” in contrast to his demanding cook and cooing (but surprisingly steely) fiances. Other than occasional fluster when two of the women might interact, in which cases each Liuzzo takes their character from 0 to 60 in the blink of an eye, the characters contribute to the show’s biggest problem: pacing.

Often times, I watch plays and wish the writer’s words had been given more room to breathe. In this production, I spent more time wishing someone would deliver CPR to the script. Weston had a lock on the urgency of her character’s lines, and Kayes hit all the right beats with her domineering and frustrated Italian, but more often than not, Luizzo, Luizz and Trusel seemed to linger over lines that would have benefited from a dash of Basil Fawlty.

Costumes and set, both credited to large teams in the program, were spot-on for this naturalistic play. In a moment that took me by complete surprise, Berthe actually lights a real cigarette on stage. (Some history: while I was reviewing in Edinburgh with The British Theatre Guide, laws were passed to ban smoking from the stage – even herbal cigarettes. Thinking back, I don’t recall a single time when I saw a real cigarette being smoked on stage But Berthe’s ciggy was definitely made of real tobacco.)

I wish the production left a more positive impression on me, but its by-the-book approach to a classic text paired with timing that never quite worked up to the pacing necessary to really give me a good chuckle. While much of the audience seemed entertained, laughing on cue, when the interval finally arrived I had to take the state of my back into account, and leave the second half of the show unwatched. I simply didn’t receive enough meaty enjoyment from act one to make the literal pain in my lower back worth staying for act two.

Note: Tickets were purchased for this performance.

 

Using Canva to Design Your Own Book Covers

Some time ago, Hugh Howey wrote about canva.com, a tool authors could use to create book covers for their Kindle and other e-book releases. (The site offers plenty of templates for other online uses, as well.)

If you’ve been reading here for a while, you already know: cover art is the big hold-up on pretty much all of my e-books (not to mention the print versions). And if you’ve tried creating a cover on your own, you know the complications go far beyond coming up with an image to represent your story – there’s also sizing, resolution, thumbnails and more to consider.

Canva eliminates about 95% of these worries. Work with their premade templates for font placement and selection ideas, drop in your cover art (easily created with Pixlr and a few copyright-free art searches) and click “download.” You’ll be stunned at what you can create. For example. see the comparisons below: the covers I originally posted for PIC, Mousewings and POST, compared to their Canva-created replacements. (Click on each thumbnail for a full image; if you want to make a purchase, use the links on the right-hand side of the blog)

Evidenced by the above, even the least graphically gifted among us can create something worth showing of with Canva. Think you’ll give it a try? Leave a link to your designs in the comments!

Cleaning Up A Sweepstakes Mess

The first point where I knew something had gone wrong was when I signed into my email and saw a note from the winner of my Short Frictions/Think Geek giveaway.

After a brief sweepstakes entry period, I’d Rafflecoptered for a winner and sent a $15 gift code to a reader who’d faithfully liked, shared, tweeted and retweeted a brief message about the book almost every day. Now, she wrote, she was having trouble redeeming the code. The Think Geek site was telling her it had already been used. Which it hadn’t, because she’d been saving it to shop for the holidays.

My heart sank. I logged into Think Geek and checked the code, and sent it to her again to confirm there hadn’t been a typo, but she was right – the balance on the code was showing up as zero. I really didn’t know what had happened, especially since another code I’d sent out the same day had been redeemed without a problem.

Finally, I decided to check in with the Think Geek team. I’m always hesitant to start talking to customer service. I find it incredibly stressful and frustrating, particularly after some of the experiences I’ve had with other companies this year, but without getting in touch with them there was no way to figure out what had happened.

It took two tries to get a customer service rep to respond on the Think Geek site. I’m not sure what happened the first time, but I spent several minutes typing in an explanation of what had happened and waiting for a response that never came. I logged out, logged back in, and tried again. This time, after five or so minutes, a rep came online and asked me to describe my problem. After confirming she could read and reply to my messages, I explained, and she started to investigate.

My hope was to confirm with Think Geek when the gift card balance had been used, in case there had been some kind of technical glitch; I wasn’t sure if they’d tell me the date and amount of whatever purchase tracked back to the giveaway gift code, but I figured the best idea was to get as much information as I could before I sent the sweepstakes winner an update.

After five or ten more minutes, the customer rep sent a message that far surpassed my expectations: she had added the credit back onto the gift code. I’m not sure if she found a glitch in the sale or if there was some kind of error, or if Think Geek just decided that such a small amount wasn’t worth haggling over (which I’d already decided was going to be my approach if it turned out they couldn’t reinstate the credit, because the giveaway winner had put a lot of effort into spreading word of Short Frictions on social media). But I was relieved that the matter was resolved so easily.

Once I had confirmation from the customer service team, I emailed the winner and let her know that everything should be up and running and she could make her purchases; I haven’t heard from her since, so am assuming everything went well.

From start to finish, resolving the situation took about half an hour, but I was shocked at how stressful I found it.  As self-published authors, being in charge of marketing and PR is a huge part of what we do – and when something goes wrong, there’s no PR rep to hide behind, no publishing house to help defray the cost of issues like lost prizes and credits. Plus, it’s our name out there on the line. This contest winner was extremely understanding and patient as I worked to resolve the gift code issue, but just as easily could have been someone far less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt.

I’m lucky enough, currently, to be in a position where I could have afforded to replace the prize if need be – but what if I wasn’t? What if the prize was something bigger, or Think Geek had turned replacing the credit into more of a production?

When you self-publish, you’re taking control and ownership of every aspect of sharing your work. The buck stops with you. Making sure you’re mentally and financially prepared (not to mention knowing you have enough time on your hands) to represent your work to the best of your ability is an important part of being a self-published author. And it’s not something to take on lightly.

Thankfully, in this case, the mess that had to be cleaned up wasn’t a big one. Hopefully (knock on wood) it never will be. If and when future issues arise, no matter what area of self-publishing they might be in, I’ll handle them as quickly and smoothly as possible, and hope for the best.

Cleaning up when something goes wrong is something every self-publishing author has to be prepared for, whether the hitch happens in writing, editing, publishing, art directing or publicity. Be prepared, keep your cool, and think your options through, and hopefully your next hitch won’t throw you for a loop.

 

 

Buy your own copy of Short Frictions on Amazon or Smashwords.

“Jagannath” by Karen Tidbeck

Twitter friend @johannthors1120140705 recently went on a “diet” of all-female authors, and one of the books he discussed on his blog was JAGANNATH, by Karen Tidbeck, featuring moody, Scandanavian stories of the fantastic. Since I had a day full of flights a week or so ago,  and my phone at hand, I decided to write a few thoughts on each short story in the collection.

The first story, BEATRICE, would be at home in the magically surreal worlds constructed by China Mieville. Eerie and infused with steampunk flavor, the piece tells the tale of two love affairs. The first is between a doctor and an airship; the second between a clerk and her steam-powered stove. The conclusion reminded more a little of themes I touched on in my own short story, SWEETHEART, namely the idea of relationships that exist between creatures of unequal power.

The second tale is an epistolary story, SOME LETTERS FOR OVE LINDSTROM. From a daughter to her alcoholic father, these letters paint a picture of their life after the disappearance of the daughter’s mother. This absent maternal figure reminds me a little of a Kelpie, although the creature referred to here is a vittra. I didn’t find this story as compelling as BEATRICE, but I’m willing to give it a second reading to see if there’s anything I missed.

MISS NYBERG AND I is an utterly charming tale that starts with a balcony full of poisonous plants and ends with a tiny creature taking up residence in a young woman’s apartment. Told from the point of view of a writer friend, the story explores how authors fictionalized their lives and the lives of those around them, asking questions about how we represent the lives and adventures of those we love. While plenty of authors joke about including people and events from their lives in their fictions, Tidbeck capture the particular ethical dilemma of creating a future for someone you know in real life.

Next up is REBECKA, and here things get dark. The story of an abused woman who can’t escape the pain her tormentors caused her, who tries to get God’s attention after repeated, failed suicide attempts. Tidbeck’s sparse prose does a service to this stark, fatalistic tale, drawing out the titular character’s anguish and desire to end her own pain in the wake of trauma. Why does God let bad things happen to people, the story asks, and does He ever answer their prayers for solace? In REBECKA, the answer is more disturbing than reassuring. If God doesn’t step in unless it’s to punish, what must one do to catch enough of His attention to be relieved of life’s pains?

HERR CEDERBERG is another miss for me, about a man who builds a flying machine. There’s something here that ties into a metaphor using bumble bees, but I’m not sure of the overarching meaning of the story. Worth a second reading, and hopefully that will uncover hidden depths. One of the frustrating things about reading books by authors in other cultures is that at times one feels as if one may have missed something through a lack of cultural literacy, and this story does give me that feeling.

Recalling both METAMORPHOSIS and a few other Kafka tales whose titles I can’t quite put my finger on, WHO IS ARVID PEKON? gives the reader a glimpse inside a rather unorthodox call center. The titular character fields a number of odd calls, but had one client in particular whose inquiries grow increasingly bizarre. Anyone who’s felt themselves disappearing into a job will recognize the deadliness of corporate culture in this short piece.

(It’s worth noting, by the way, that so far most of the stories are only a few pages long, and the mood of each piece flows well from one story to the next.)

Stories about writing are always tricky, and my feeling was that NYBERG captures the dilemmas of process more aptly than BRITA’S HOLIDAY VILLAGE, about a writer who retreats from the world to finish a couple of projects (sound familiar, anyone?) and instead cross paths with distant family. This is one of the longer stories so far, and part of me wishes there were more depth and detail about the family members. Since I’m reading this on a plane, I can’t look up what a ‘pupa’ is, but I have the feeling it may be integral to the plot.

Mental illness gets a closer look in REINDEER MOUNTAIN, about two sisters and their mother cleaning out a family home. Here, another absent matriarch – in this case, the family’s great grandmother – appeared as if from nowhere with a sense of being touched by the fairy world. The story talks about mental illness, nerves, anxiety and depression – and worse – being passed down through generations of a family, and how desperately the family tries to ignore the signs when one of their own begins a faster slide into depression and delusion. Called ‘uncanny’ in the book’s introduction, there’s certainly an air of the unusual, here. Taking on the mythic feeling of Nordic folklore, one truly feels the encroaching darkness in this unsettling tale. Family heritage is tied directly to mental illness by an old piece of clothing; it’s ultimately kept as a souvenir of the fantastical occurrence at the story’s climax.

CLOUDBERRY JAM is a fast, fey tale that once again touches on the pregnancy theme Tidbeck brought up in BEATRICE, that of women having unconventional, fantastic pregnancies that lead to odd, not quite human children. Here, the protagonist creates a child for herself, loving and nurturing it until it begins to grow in its own direction. It’s at this point in reading that the mismatched jigsaw of familial puzzle pieces starts to emerge as significant throughout the collection: human oddities, connected by blood and mythology.

With PYRET, Tidbeck strides straight into otherworldly horror. Structured as a report on a mythological creature, this story pressed all the buttons necessary to make the hair on my neck stand on end. The story ends more abruptly than one might prefer, but the lurch it leaves the reader in helps feed a gnawing sense of umease. The imagery Tidbeck creates here is truly chilling.

Next up is AUGUSTA PRIMA, an odd little Alice-in-Wonderland style tale (or maybe i just think that because of the croquet) about beings living in a world without time, and what happens when one of them finds a watch. It feels like the allegory/concept may have gotten a little ahead of the story; more development of the idea would have given the story greater impact. The characters don’t feel as sharply drawn as in some of the collection’s other stories, though the conceit of playing an endless game of croquet in the garden of memory is an alluring one.

With AUNTS, we return to themes of childbearing, family and unnatural pregnancies. Consumption, too, plays a role in this story, where we watch the ritual of three ‘aunts’ who seem to exist simply to eat and procreate in a seemingly endless cycle. Over and over they consume themselves, finally bursting open full of new life, only for the cycle to be repeated again. Attended by three ‘neices,’ in a secret garden, what do the aunts symbolize – if anything? This story seems to take place on the fringes of the world created in AUGUSTA PRIME – an added wrinkle of complexity that makes me want to go back and look for other connections to other stories.

With JAGANNATH, the final story in the collection, Tidbeck’s theme of unnatural reproduction is turned inward. Now we see from the perspective of a great mother’s offspring as they watch their caretaker, a “mother creature” that protects them from an unspecified disaster out in the real world, run down – along with their entire way of life. Dystopian and claustrophobic, JAGANNATH takes place in an isolated and self-contained environment that would be at home in Margaret Atwood’s MADDADAM.

I’m not typically a fan of author’s notes and afterwards, but in this case reading Tilbeck’s final notes was highly illuminating. She discusses her process in terms of the language she uses, the curious mash-up of British and American English, and how she chooses which phrases to translate from Swedish and which words must remain in her native tongue. As someone who struggles with speech patterns thanks to five years spent living abroad, it was fascinating to read how another writer deals with the challenge of locating her stories in a place where a hodgepodge of languages and dialects create their own distinct flavor of storytelling.

JAGANNATH isn’t a hard read, or a long one, clocking in at 134 pages. It took me two airplane rides to finish it, including writing these thoughts on my phone. It’s atmospheric and linguistically engaging, and the writing itself shows an artfulness.that often feels missing in newer works. By the end of the book, the stories do feel as if they often don’t quite end, instead lingering, like the concept of liminal sun mentioned in Elizabeth Hand’s introduction.

Moody and dark, the stories nonetheless hold hope for those who want to believe in an onionskin otherworld. Tidbeck has a novel coming out soon, and it will be interesting to see what she does with the longer form.

Some authors you might also enjoy:
Julian Barnes
Margaret Atwood
China Mieville
Franz Kafka
Charles de Lint

 

PS – now that the holiday shopping season is here, would you like to check out my collection of short stories, SHORT FRICTIONS? It’s currently available on Kindle and other e-readers.

Stretching Your Writing Limits

This is going to be a bit of a ramble. I hope you don’t mind, and would appreciate your thoughts at the end via comment.

For the last year or do, I’ve been working on an ambitious project: a series of novels spanning epic concepts of philosophy, religion and mythology, with my friend @sareliz. Both of us wrote first drafts of two chunks of narrative last November as part of NaNoWriMo, then earlier this spring I knocked out a 50K first draft of a third book. As I’ve chipped away at rewrites, however, I’ve become more and more aware of one simple fact: in order to be true to the reality of my protagonist’s world, things are going to have to get a lot darker and more brutal than I ever anticipated, which is going to require a metric f*ckton more research than I’ve done so far.

The book isn’t supposed to be gritty or hard-hitting in a way that features depictions of extreme violence or torture, so there’s also going to have to be a balance stuck between realism and the fantasy world of the series. The more I research, the more I question: can I do this? Have my ambitions gotten ahead of my ability?

This story story, currently planned as the first novel in the series, involves a reporter who travels to a corrupt county to look for a friend and colleague who’s gone missing. As part of my research I’ve been reading about reporters in war zones and oppressive regimes (which plays into another aspect of the series’ overall plot), and with each article I read I realize that the draft i have so far actually features what could be called “danger-lite.” Terrifying things happen to journalists who travel abroad to investigate corruption. They are beheaded, jailed, tortured, ‘disappeared’ and more. The citizens of the countries they investigate are far from immune to brutal treatment, too: look at the kidnapped/murdered Mexican teachers, girls kidnapped and sold into “forced marriages” by Boko Haram, and activists murdered by drug cartels. Even in America, police Senn able to act with near impunity when out comes to summarily executing American citizens in the street.

While there are certainly overlaps in how oppressive regimes the world over treat their citizens and their media figures, (Pakistan and Myanmar are currently in the spotlight on this issue) specificity is key in writing what you don’t know, perhaps top an even greater degree than when writing what you do know. After all, I might take poetic license if I’m writing about a bar in Buffalo or a subway route in New York City, but that’s an informed choice. Blundering the details in a novel about another country or another culture just comes across as lazy ignorance.

Even the small chunks of reading I’ve done so far have highlighted my own ignorance while at the same time pouting my research in stark contrast to lived experience. Reading books like THE BRIEF WONDEROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz, being immersed in a world where a revolutionary leader reigns over the lives of citizens with sadistic whim, is nothing like living under such a regime. ‘They’ say to write what you know, but what chance do I have (thank goodness) to understand the lifestyles of people in those circumstances with any degree of accuracy in fiction? How does someone like me write inclusive, relevant, diverse novels on topics like this without fucking it up royally?

The only answer I have is research.

So I’m trying. Really hard. I’m reading what I can, trying to get a feel for both the human, day to day lives of people living under the repressive circumstances the story needs to portray, but also trying to gain more knowledge of the truly horrifying acts oppressive governments can subject their citizens to. At the same time, Itry to find a way to retain the ability to see the monsters responsible for these reprehensible acts as humans, with motivations that made sense to their own internal logic, because it’s a rare human being who sees themselves as a villain, no matter how vile they might be. I try to think of ways i can portray the horror of human suffering at the hands of others while being honest but while avoiding graphic depictions of circumstances that don’t fit the tone of a series of fantasy novels. And then I question myself and start to feel paralyzed. And then i remind myself I’m still working on a draft. There’s always time for another rewrite.

There are bright spots in my research. My trip to St. Martin last year and the one i just took to St. Thomas both informed me on climates, terrain and cultures that will also figure in to the stories my cowriter and i will be telling. And I keep reminding myself of the importance of this, whole trying not to get to bogged down in the details. But when a simple hike through a national park demonstrates that you’ve completely miscategorized your story’s setting, how can you ever know when you’ve researched enough to get on with the writing? And even writing  this, I cringe, because I feel like I’m wading into waters where it would be so easy to give offense.

They say to write what you know, but it’s also critical that writers be willing to learn what we don’t know so we’re can write accurate, diversity populated fiction in terms of our characters, settings and cultures. Whether it takes the form of readings, conversations or traveling, the only answer to this conundrum is research.

Oh, and asking for recommendations. Anybody got any suggestions on trying material or media I can consume? Please leave them in the comments. Your thoughts would be very much appreciated.

To Use or Not To Use a Pen Name

I have never used a pen name.

There have been a variety of reasons for this. At first, as a teenager, it just didn’t occur to me. After all, I was a writer. Why would I want to make it harder for people to find what I’d written?

Much later, I learned that Joanne Rowling had been advised to use initials – J.K. – to obscure her gender, because “boys don’t read books by women writers.” Using my full name on my plays and published stories became tinged by a feeling of feminism, although (obviously) I sometimes use my initials and last name for the sake of brevity (for example, the URL of this website).

In the last few months, however, I’ve started thinking about writing non-fiction, and that’s made me start to consider the use of an alternative name – either a variation of my own name, maybe the initials, or more likely a different name altogether – because the topics I’d write about are sensitive ones and not necessarily work I’d want to publish under my full name. Since I’m not making enough money to live off my creative writing (yet) and I still need a day job, not revealing details of my personal life while connecting them to my name might be an unfortunate but practical decision.

Writing under multiple names isn’t new (for example, Nora Roberts writes under her own name in romance, but as J.D. Robb when she’s penning a mystery, and Stephen King flopped as Richard Bachman – not to mention Rowling’s own forays into assumed names), but I feel like the practice carries pluses and minuses.

One plus would be the anonymity it affords; one minus would be that it would require setting up and maintaining an entire separate platform as a “second” author. A plus would be that it allows for easy separation by readers – someone doesn’t download a title thinking they’re going to get the genres I write in creatively, and instead wind up with a how-to book on putting up a shelf. A minus would be that that makes it harder for readers who like my work and might want to put up a shelf to discover that yes, I have indeed written a how-to book on exactly that.  (And please note, this is just an example; I’ve never put up a shelf in my life)

I’m curious about how other writers make the decision to work under a pen name. Why do you use it? Or why don’t you? Or why do you do both? Are there reasons in favor or against either option that I might not have thought of? If you’re not a writer, what do you think about authors writing under more than one name? Do you prefer the simplicity of looking for one author, no matter what genre they write in, or would you rather be able to compartmentalize the writings of your favorite authors?

Looking forward to your answers in the comments.

SHORT FRICTIONS, Coming Up Shortly!

A robot I met some time ago, on the Upper East Side. Not in any of my stories. But doesn't he look dapper?

A robot I met some time ago, on the Upper East Side. Not in any of my stories. But doesn’t he look dapper?

For the last month or so, I’ve been receiving helpful comments from wonderful people who’ve taken time out of their lives to prepare for advance reviewing of SHORT FRICTIONS – my upcoming collection of short stories. Their assistance has been invaluable, and the book you’ll eventually read has already been made leagues better thanks to their thoughts and comments.

So when do you get to check out this fabulous new collection of stories about vampires, robots, evil corporations and more?

One thing’s for sure: it won’t be long, now!

I’ve met with the designer – the stylish Sarah Hartley (who was responsible for the gorgeous cover of HOT MESS) and she’s working on some frankly brilliant ideas for the SHORT FRICTIONS cover. I hope you’ll like it. I know I love what she’s thought up so far.

I really can’t wait to share this collection of shorts – and a play! – with all of you. Most have been written in the last few years, with one outlier that dates back to my college days. Some, you may have seen in other places in the past. Others are fresh and new and clean and excited to be allowed out into the world.

The e-version will likely debut in August on several platforms, shortly ahead of the print one, and don’t worry – I’ll keep you updated. Just enter your info into the subscription widget – upper right hand side of this blog entry to make sure you don’t miss the new release. Or give me your email address (I’ll never sell or share it), below: