Book Review: Write the Body–Post Rock Limestone Caryatids by Rachel Creager Ireland

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By Shawn StJean

Surely for not the first time in history, modern feminists proposed, forty years ago, that genuine women’s writing follows patterns that would seem alien to male readers: perhaps circular or spiral–or at least non-linear, non-phallic, and non-formulaic (this lack the greatest source of readerly anxiety: a defeat, though not a disappointment, of expectations).

Beginning with its title, one clearly not designed to enhance marketability (what genre is this?  Sci-Fi? Chick-Lit?  Naturalism?,) Ms. Ireland’s debut novel fits the non-pattern.  Although the setting eases us in–human beings living on the eve of the 22nd century, insulated, born into robotic nurseries and raised into cubicles and having contact only through computerized avatars via sanitized social networking and virtual sex, their bodies slowly falling to atrophy while the world outside slowly recovers from the human virus, in remission.  Meanwhile, privileged children are genetically modded and sponsored into Matrix-like docility/productivity as adults. Fans of political allegory and films like Neill Blomcamp’s Elysium or District 9, or anyone who’s ever simply slaved away in the human ice-cube-tray of an office building, should find plenty to satisfy their sense of satire here.

The plot, however, spreads its legs, so to speak: between a wealthy runaway escaping a controlling father to seek a free birth for her child, and a woman who abandons the cubicle life, following the death of her sister and loss of her infant niece to the state “corporocracy,” to go into the wilderness with an attractive, seductive politico-religious zealot.  One of the defamiliarizing aspects of the book is the consistent splitting of our attention back-and-forth, toward an eventual convergence in the great yonic center of our country, the Kansas prairie, the culmination simultaneously the most common and most miraculous of events.  Écriture féminine, indeed.

Male readers, especially, or any conditioned in the mode of phallogocentric writing, should not expect to find chase-and-gunfire narrative lurches and jerks, progressing hurriedly to an all-too-predictable climax.  As one of the protagonists learns in the company of natural childbirthers, patience, and release of control, form much of non-technological existence.

And the writing, at the paragraph and sentence level, frequently bares its beauty in a range from scatological to sublime, though in the least pretentious of ways.  One could read many passages as the journal of a writer who has herself plumbed both the mysteries and fears of homo sapiens childbirth, and the macro-birthing process of Mother Earth. Ireland could become one of the few legitimate woman naturalists–though this is only one of the book’s several modes–a tradition dominated by males in America since the 1870s.  (A scan through her author’s blog, http://veronicasgarden.wordpress.com/, will confirm this.)  “If Maeve were the only human alive, the only tragedy would be human, that is, that Maeve would be the last to witness to such immense beauty; yet this world would go on being beautiful, to itself, for itself, without suffering any loss.  It was somewhat reassuring to Maeve to know that the world was really that big, that her little human sufferings, meaningful as they might be to her, were really a very small part of the whole.”  Norris or Crane or Dreiser–all appreciative of the ironic scope of androcentrism that defines our species among the animal kingdom, would agree.

Buy it on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Post-Rock-Limestone-Caryatids-ebook/dp/B00AWE6B8O/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1366041370&sr=8-1&keywords=post+rock+limestone+caryatids

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The Double Edge: “Giveaways” As A Bleeding Book Marketing Strategy

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By Shawn StJean

My thinking is evolving on this topic.  Just six months ago, I declared to a fellow author: “I don’t think you can give away too many books.”  We both ran highly successful KDP Select events, and got our work out there to thousands of potential readers—but, today, I’d like to shift emphasis from thousands to potential.

Today, I say: FREE is not necessarily a good thing.  Like many self-published authors, I launched my novel under the Amazon.com Kindle Direct Publishing Select program–which allows one to host five giveaway days in a three-month period–under the assumption that immediate wide distribution was a worthy tradeoff for the lack of short-term profit.  And like many others, I can confirm that giving away XXXX copies will result in a residual spike of one or two days of actual sales, after the price returns to normal (a modest $2.99, at the time.)  Another desirable (short-term) side-effect of these giveaways is that the members of groups like Goodreads and LibraryThing will now have your work in their possession, and have their fingers poised to write reviews.  More on that in a bit.

Some believe that there is no bad publicity.  Lately, I wonder.

Over time, I’ve become convinced that, even if giving books away is one viable means of launching, and gaining a toehold in the marketplace, it is not the proper way to ensure a permanent market share for one’s self-published work.  For years, I’ve known that FREE was the fundamental flaw of Craigslist: most of the abuses (the scams, the spam, the phishing, the no-shows, the tire-kickers) could be done away with by a simple $10 yearly fee, or a $1 per-transaction fee.

Why? It’s human nature: people don’t properly value anything they don’t have to work for.  Think of the last music CD you actually paid for (this would be between $5 and $20 US, probably.)  Of course you’ve replayed the hits over and over again, but eventually you delve beneath the surface, and those tunes that don’t immediately capture airplay have a chance to work their less-quantifiable magic upon you.  You’re a fan.  Now, if you hadn’t paid good money for them, chances are these songs would be lost to obscurity—the b-sides don’t have to pay you back, because you’ve invested nothing in them.

Everyone in publishing understands how vital reviews are.  My book has received, on Amazon, reviews at every level: even though several five-star entries were removed in the infamous sweep, several remain, but I also have four, three, two, and yes, several one-star reviews.

Now, consider for a moment how a reviewer would decide to award a book one star–because even the worst B-movies usually get two.  A book would have to be either plain awful on every level, or very frustrating.  Just trust me, Clotho’s Loom is not for everyone, but by no conceivable standard is it plain awful.   Among my dismissive, one-star reviews, I see two definite trends: 1) the writers are baffled by my writing–either because they couldn’t or wouldn’t read carefully, or beyond the second chapter, or at all–and 2) they got the book for free.

These guys couldn’t be bothered to take a 540-page novel seriously.  They were not my target audience, and I have no one to blame but myself,  putting my best stuff into the hands of someone whose interest lay definitely in “free,” but not so much in “book.”   At least, not my sort of book.  Free is too indiscriminate.  It’s like a sawn-off shotgun.

Easy come, easy go.  Every writer knows that some cliches stick around because they’re true.

We’re living in the age of “free.”  Young people who can’t get jobs do internships, offering free labor in the marketplace.  Rock bands are giving away mp3s of their best material, solely for the exposure.  You can see new movies and TV shows just by typing a few characters into YouTube.  Bulky televisions and microwaves and exercise equipment and computers–much of it perfectly functional–can be had for the taking on suburban curbsides.  And, perhaps most importantly of all, the internet offers trillions of bytes of content, generated by the mainstream media, private bloggers, commercial sites, everybody, for merely the cost of your time, the only limitation being how you choose among it all.  And chances are, if you have a coffee in one hand right now, you’re reading this on free wi-fi.

Now take a look at what the world calls the “successful” people.  The executives, the professionals, the politicians, the lawyers, bankers, even famous authors.  How much are they giving away, really—in proportion to what they’re taking in?  Because they know how the capitalist system works: you trade what you have for other stuff, and you do it at an advantageous rate, not a disadvantageous one.  Certainly not for nothing.

I’m not discouraging the act of promoting a charity, posting flyers for someone’s gig, or volunteering for a bake sale.  We all need to help out someone, somewhere, sometime.  We need to pay forward the help we’ve received, ourselves.  I’m talking about devaluing your own creative talent, time, and more hours of hard work than you could keep track of.  It’s just not smart.  It’s not good business.
Some clown (prince of crime) once said, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”  He may have been crazy, but he was no dummy.

Yes, give away your sample chapter.  Write your guest posts, and return the favor by hosting some.  Tweet your friend’s successes.  Promote someone who will never return the favor directly.  That’s all good karma, and more importantly, it’ll keep literacy alive in our culture.  But don’t give too many books away—give fewer, and to the right people.  Find them on Goodreads, LibraryThing, the coffee shop down the street, on a forum or social network, in your extended family, and among the Moms of your kid’s sports team.  They’ll spread the good word.  At worst, they’ll keep quiet.

Croatian Life Letters by Jodie Toohey: YA Book Review by Shawn StJean

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When I was a boy–30 and more years ago–many bookstores and libraries did not host a collection designated specifically for teens.  Aside from books by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Louis Stevenson (both of whom require a high level of literacy to enjoy, are plot-driven, and definitely meant for boys) the vast majority of what I read was composed for adults.

Clearly, my past does not make me an expert on YA Fiction.  But I feel fortunate to have been randomly assigned to evaluate this short, 130-page work by the IndiePENdents organization, as part of its application of books for its approval seal.

I expect, just as most readers of Seventeen Magazine appear to be ages 12-14, a novel that follows the epistolary exchange of two girls (Ami and Nada,) ages 15 and 14, would probably be of more interest to the pre-teen set than those actually attending high school.   Ami has never been kissed by a boy before, and her innocent “get a boyfriend” scheme may have better amused this 45-year-old man than it would most of the U.S. sophomores out there.

This book has several features to offer teens that raise it above the norm.  First, it is set in 1991, the year Croatia declared itself independent of the Republic of Yugoslavia.  Not only, then, does it offer some instructive European history from the half-decade before most of its target audience was born, but it also unfolds in a world where true pen-pals (paper, ink, and postage stamps) were still viable: no internet or cellular telephones.  When people in your life left, they were, at least for a time and sometimes forever, gone.

The heart of the narrative lies in its juxtaposition of the trials of the girls from two different cultures.  Ami’s parents are recently divorced and she must adjust to the custody schedule, her favorite baby cousin has died, and she’s entertaining thoughts of suicide.  Meanwhile, Orthodox Catholic Nada resides in Rijeka, insulated a bit from the war-torn district of Dubrovnik, but not immune to racial and religious hate crimes.  She lies awake at night thinking of the mailed and telephoned death-threats her parents hide from her, her father has fled to Italy to avoid induction, and her basement is occupied by a pregnant couple desperate to keep their new family together.  As Ami writes to her friend, “I’m grateful my hell is only in my head. . . .You have no control over your hell” (71).

Poignant stuff, when compared to the series-vampire and werewolf fare that monopolizes the shelves–some of it admittedly well-written–but not particularly designed to edify kids preparing to enter a harsh, actual world in the 21st Century.  I was particularly pleased at Toohey’s corrective to the American view that Serbs were the sole aggressors in the Croatian war (and this done in a palatable, non-didactic manner.)  Be the truth of this interpretation as it may, one rejoices to see the spirit of inquiry raised for young people–if they wish to know more, a little outside research can only add to the enjoyment here.

Recommended ****

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Weapons For Writers

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To compare the act of writing to doing battle might seem hyperbolic, but I do think the difference is one of degree, not kind.  It’s amazing, the widely varying and sometimes adverse conditions folks write under–mothers fit it in during nap-time, others dictate in the car, longhanders still do exist, and I even know one fellow who can’t do without the clackety-clack of an ancient, manual typewriter.  My own novel was composed in at least a dozen separate locations.

Yet we authors can be our own worst enemies.  A little planning is worth a lot of execution.  There are a few items–physical gear, and otherwise–I would deem essential for every writer (besides some raw talent, or as the author of Beowulf put it, a well-stocked “word-hoard,”) that will aid in deflecting the incoming flak.  It’s instructive to reflect on how similar the support needs of writers and soldiers often are.

A warm, soft pair of socks–no holes.  There’s a reason someone once equated nervousness with “cold feet.”  Currently, my personal favorites are a pair of thick wool Carhartts–but then again, I live in upstate New York.

Chair.  Not too comfy, but with good back support.  Arms help, but a recliner will put you to sleep (the writer’s curse is to sleep always at the wrong time).

Cold water is best, but a continuous source of hot drinks works.  Choices?  As Giles on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer once stated a request for coffee, “No, tea is soothing. I wish to be tense.” (and if you notice a motif of “heat,” in this list, it probably has to do with poor circulation from all that sitting.  Remember, the blood must be kept flowing to the HEAD.)

A selection of light reading–NOT your own, or even similar–by the bedside, to help battle insomnia, and get rested.

As Virginia Woolf said, a room of one’s own is essential.  But sometimes they beat on the door.  Two or three alternate places to write–hopefully at least one outdoors–and a laptop computer or stack of yellow legal pads, for portability.  As with your body, keep your temperament flexible.

Small notebook or e-device for jotting down inspirational ideas that strike you while stuck on the march.

Not everyone gets writer’s block (symptoms can include tiredness, cabin fever, headache, anxiety) and there’s certainly no cure-all.  For me, a good walking trail or other means of stimulating, physical exercise does wonders, even if you can only manage twice weekly.

Dictionary–online, paperbound, whatever–if you think you don’t need one, you’ve outsmarted yourself.  Or you’re a writer who doesn’t do much writing.

A work ethic–even 1/2 hour per day, every day, will get the job done eventually, and planned days off are a good practice.  Otherwise, hit those keys on a strict, regular schedule you can really keep.

Procrastination and distraction are greater enemies than lack of time in the first place.  So, as damned hard as it might be, at first, notice the “off” switch on your wi-fi, cell phone, TV.  USE THEM.

A sense of humor, patience, and perspective.  Somehow, you already came to the decision to write, to nurture your own soul, rather than swell someone’s purse (your own or someone else’s)–and if you’ve actually begun writing, you’ve overcome the two most fearsome obstacles.  That poem, story, article, or novel may never see wide circulation, or even publication—but cherish the experience, the doing—because you really are enjoying a privilege.  Here I shift the metaphor I began with, because writers don’t destroy, after all; they maintain our culture, and they create it.  And as Robert Pirsig so insightfully phrased it, “The motorcycle you’re working on is yourself.”

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ITunes Picks Up Clotho’s Loom by Shawn StJean

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Which means, of course, IPod, IPad, and IPhone goodness for the novel, and a major alternative to the .epub-based online stores.

LINKIE: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/clothos-loom/id598790348?mt=11

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Stuffs Indie Writers Do, or Ten Eccentric Behaviors of Self-Published Authors

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Feel free to add your own in the comments section!

 

Surpass, in creativity, even your best passages by the means of procrastinating the writing of them.

Check e-mail, with a feeling of hope, 7X in the morning, review venues 3X, sales figures 1X, social media in reverse-proportion to how much drafting/editing you’re actually getting done.

 Keep a tab of dictionary.reference.com constantly open to make sure you just used that word from deep in your vocabulary correctly.

Revere hot beverages as the nectar of the gods, in a vain attempt not to gain weight from so much perching over a desk.

Know by experience which works better on you: aspirin, ibuprofin, acetominofen, or whiskey.  As a famous author once told me, “You don’t have to be an alcoholic to be a good writer–but it certainly seems to help!”

Even though you’re a throwback, you become conversant with software you never thought you’d touch with a ten-foot finger.

Own a keyboard that has survived the crumbs of your entire dietary menu, as well as a few spills, and which therefore openly disgusts everyone but you.

Perseverate over whether that word you “kinda” coined will make it past the editor, even if it’s you.

“Give away” books at a net cost to yourself of minus $xxx, yet still claim “Books sales are getting better.”

 

Meet people and make friends you never would have, in all parts of the world, otherwise.

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Friend: An Indie Author’s Vocabulary Starts and Ends On The Word

Thoughts Inspired on a Super-Bowl Sunday

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Alternatively, the word would be Loyalty.

Am I wrong in declaring that about every independent author or small/self-publisher out there secretly longs to become a breakout success?  Not so secret.  Of course, we’re not all money-grubbing, would-be capitalist dragons dreaming upon treasure hoards.  Most of us are humanists, in one way or another.  But if we were to enjoy commercial fame, sell a lot of books, do the talk-show circuits, get reviewed and lauded in The New York Times, nominated for prestigious awards, and the rest, well. . .rewards vary.  A lot of us would simply like the financial freedom to write, full-time, without the drudgery of either having to support ourselves with a ten-hour-a-day-job, or having to network and promote for the better part of the writing-day.  Others could sure use the dough, to buy better houses, computers, and cars, or to get out of debt for ones already bought.

Whatever the motivation, the plain fact is that. . .most of us are not going there.  Most of us will live our lives continuing to work, write, revise, format, publish, network, and (hopefully) supplement our incomes as a modest, partial reward for daring to share ideas with other human beings, making our voices articulate among a 21st-century sea of overwhelming images, and dreaming well into adulthood, after others have stopped.

Agree with me?  I know, it’s a bittersweet vision.  Read on.

Given this dose of reality, what sense does it make, then, to continue to act like one of the mindless drones who actually subscribe to the slogan of the NYS Lottery: “Hey, it could happen“?  Groan.  This type of rubbish, preying on the hopes of normally sane people, has probably killed more human potential in our culture than War.

If you’ve made the decision to publish independently of the traditional commerical establishment (no matter what it is calling itself at the moment–you work, they take the profit, bottom line,) then Congratulations!  You’ve done a brave thing.  Don’t betray your own courage by then proceeding, out of ignorance, cowardice, or greed, to act as if you were still a slave.

Here’s what I mean: You won’t make it five steps, alone.  You’re going to need pals.  A lot of ’em (though not as many as you might think.  One good one is worth a hundred others.)  You’re going to be saying, “Buy my book” quite often, naturally, but at some point you’re going to have to give some away, and you’re going to have to buy others.  And if you want to get reviews, you need to write reviews for others.  If you want a manuscript critiqued, a blog post shared and tweeted, an endorsement, an introduction, an interview, a guest post, and so on–you’ll be repaying, in kind.  Not that every single event needs to be quid pro quo with every person, but you’ll at least be paying it forward to someone who needs it, the way you once did, before you moved on.

This is the beginning of a crusade well beyond whatever Facebook definition of “friend” your fifteen-year-old has.  Because you’re going to discover, as you go, that there are real, flesh-and-blood people behind those avatars.  This is a good thing–and exactly the reason you retreated from the monolithic, exclusionary moat-and-wall that surrounds the castle of commercial publishing.  You wanted to touch other people.  Well, they’re here on the ground, bleeding shoulder-to-shoulder with you, not up there on the ramparts.  And as you do rub elbows with your brothers and sisters-in-arms, you’re going to see that some of them are worth, as Shakespeare said, “grappling to thy heart with hoops of steel.” And others, not.

Let me offer one concrete example, among a legion.  I always hear about folks buying up domain names (this is like buying insurance on a blackjack bet,) in case you get famous.  Well, you wouldn’t want someone cashing in on your name, right?–and the first thing you’re gonna do, when you hit big time, is ditch that free WordPress host/domain, right?  Amplified groan.  I don’t expect everyone to agree, here, but consider what you’re doing.  Abandoning friends at the first sign of non-trouble. I personally have been running a blog at WordPress for eight months, and they’ve never asked me for a dime.  Never littered my site with ads, never annoyed my visitors with pop-ups.  ‘Cuz that’s what commercial entities do.  You know, there are things I wish WordPress would do better, and I suppose if I do enjoy a lot of traffic one day, I’ll pay them the mite they want for upgrades.  Hell, at this point I would pay without the upgrades, if they said they needed it to stay afloat–because, even though we don’t share text messages and swap cute animal pictures, I know there are still friends of mine, over at WordPress.  They’ve treated me well, and I’m gonna treat them well.  You can go all cynical and say, “Well, StJean, you dummy, they don’t care about you.  They make money off you whether you know it or not.”  If they do, I say, good. They’d better.  But even in business, there is such a thing as loyalty.  This is not The Godfather, in which “business” is a euphemism directly preceding back-stabbing (or garroting).

Now, if I’m not going to turn on an entity like WordPress, which doesn’t even have a human face, I’m damned sure not going to use and discard real people who’ve aided me, or at least wished me well.  (I can hear everyone out there saying “Neither would I!”  But you may not have thought it fully through.)

I’m taking about competition vs. cooperation.  When you compete with someone, you’re by definition trying to take their share for yourself.  No way around it, be it a title, a trophy, a dollar, or a slice of pizza.  And you might say, “we’re all competing,” but that’s not really true.  Only in the sense that every member of an army or sports team competes–some get medals, records, or payment for personal achievement, true, others remain obscure.  But still, a win for one is a win for the team.  When you cooperate, everyone cedes a bit of his personal share for the greater success of the whole–and this can be far greater than the sum of its parts.

Amazon knows this (not to target them gratuitously, but they are a pertinent example.)  They know that every author they sign into KDP Select, no matter how big a hack and how few books they sell, is one more author cooperating with them, by legally agreeing not to compete against them.  However, when that same author goes Kobo, ITunes, Smashwords, Google Play, Barnes and Noble, or some smaller outfit, maybe even just sells on Ebay and from a blog, then that’s one tiny step toward breaking the monopoly.  AND, when these little guys start teaming up, then you have a whole league (which is the way both capitalism and democracy are supposed to work,) of teams, with more-or-less equal viability in the forum/marketplace.  Competition continues, but it’s healthy, because everyone has a real chance.

Somewhere there, I shifted metaphors, away from the medieval and violent.  The cost of competition should not be measured in broken and severed limbs.  So, Sports.  A lot of intellectuals look down on sports fans–not without reason, at times–but even the drunken, body-painted clown standing up and obstructing your view knows one thing, for sure–he’s chosen his team, and he’s loyal to it through thick and thin, whether they win it all, or go winless that season.  ‘Cuz there’s another inning, another quarter, half, game, series, and season coming.  That’s why they play the games–you really never do know what the future holds–and the victories are much sweeter for the adversity that came before, and for the folks you’ve shared it with.

You and your girlfriend may both write Suspense-Thrillers or Romance novels, may both have gotten your M.A.s in the same grad program, have been up for the same scholarships, and are now eyeing the same prizes as surely as that Amazon ranking taunts you both.  But you’ve both been called up to the Show, now.  The big leagues.  Believe me, put your back to hers, and find others with the same colors.  Pros know, they’re going to be coming at you from all sides.

Assemble your team.  Make flags, design logos, sew uniforms if you have to–but much more, research and recruit the players (the best ones are not always the snazziest, loudest-talking, biggest chest-bumping, highest high-fiving either,) hire the coaches (the best ones don’t always already have high-profile jobs,) build the stadium (not always the newest, biggest, or best-located,) and run the game.  And don’t be a fair-weather fan–they need you when it’s raining and snowing, more than ever.  And you definitely need them.ImageImage