Monday, June 25, 2012

Romancing the Word


Beginning a new novel is like preparing for a first date. The excitement of the unknown beckons, spiced with dashes of fear. Could this book be Mr. Right, which for a novel means a story that writes itself, with fascinating characters, a plot with the right number of twists and turns, a deep and compelling theme, settings that come alive on the page? Or am I looking at Mr. Wrong, the book that stutters along for months before flopping into an ungraceful heap on the floor, begging me to put it out of its misery?

Most novels—indeed, most books—fall into neither camp. They act more like marriages, starting out slow as the spouses circle each other, testing for strengths and weaknesses, alternating between periods of strife and wild reconciliations, maturing over time into deep, rewarding partnerships. I experience profound satisfaction as I watch my characters come alive, develop backgrounds and preferences, move and speak and interact with one another, live their own lives in their own way as adult children must. On good days, I become less a writer than a recorder, typing whatever I see and hear. Only later do I decide that I need to rein in Character X or redirect Character Y (although some characters put up a fight!), to edit for structure and style.

So here I sit, at the beginning of a brand-new journey, with a plot at best roughly sketched in and characters little better than stereotypes, their motivations hazy and their unique approaches and speech patterns dimly glimpsed through the fog of convention. Where will they take me, I wonder, and what will I learn on the way?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Google/GoDaddy Rhumba


Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Blog*

So I wrote a book and published it. So far, so good. I know that in the Internet Age I have to promote the book myself. Unless I can somehow become the next James Patterson or Nora Roberts, no publisher will offer me mammoth advances or fly me around the country for appearances; I am on my own. But I also know my main job is to write, so I can't do everything. Twitter, for example, is beyond me. I  procrastinate enough with Facebook and Pinterest. The last thing I need is another social network (although I did join Goodreads, which turned out to be a story of its own). But I figure I can handle a blog. I should have the tech savvy to set it up, especially through Google Apps, which has suitably low expectations most of the time, and to update it once a week or so. Computers have become much more user-friendly since I got my first PC, so I expected the setup to be a breeze. The hard part, I thought, would be coming up with a steady stream of ideas.

Boy, was I wrong. My first effort failed when I realized that Google’s Announcements template, described as "like a blog," would not allow people to add comments unless they also had the right to edit the site itself. Huh? To let someone comment on a post, I had to give him/her the right to change the site however s/he saw fit? No.

I needed a better solution. Through my control panel (which requires a separate login, naturally), I found Blogger, added it, set up a blog in no time flat. I couldn’t get Blogger to follow its own directions for accepting my profile picture, but other than that, life looked good. Still, I didn’t really want my blog living off on its own on Blogspot. The point was to link the posts to my site. I searched the settings and found one that would let me redirect my Blogspot address to Google Apps. But when I clicked on that option, Blogger informed me that I had to adjust my DNS settings with GoDaddy, the site that issued my domain name in the first place.

Uh-oh. I heard the thud of dinosaur feet on the plains. I’ve tried to adjust DNS settings before, and it has never been pretty. I have to go through Google, enter a string of weird numbers and letters that GoDaddy rarely accepts, then stare a screen written by techs for techs. But after three or four tries and minimal wailing, I found the magic combination, logged in—and encountered a screen that looked nothing like the instructions on the Blogger page, which I still had open in a separate window while I nurtured the vain hope that Blogger would tell me what to do next. I clicked on one option after another. DS Settings? No. DS is not the same as DNS: what was I thinking? CNAME records? Maybe, but what is a CNAME? According to GoDaddy, it is an alias for a subdomain beneath the main domain name, which you can indicate with @. Yes, no kidding. Makes perfect sense, right? That's what I thought. Time to call in the big guns.

By a stroke of good fortune, my son—who not only graduated from a university guaranteed to make a Tiger Mother drool but has spent the last few years building websites from scratch—was in the house. Surely he could figure this one out. So I called him. It sounded more like a whimper, but he responded right away. Once in my office, he looked at the page. He looked at the instructions. He noted that they did not match. I agreed. He clicked around and announced that I must be on the wrong site. I said I didn't think so, since my only access to GoDaddy went through Google Apps, and Google Apps had dumped me here. We discussed the options, while I interjected, "Don't log me out! I'll never get back in," and he assured me he hadn't touched a thing. After a while, he had to leave—problem still unsolved. I thanked him, wondering who writes a set of instructions so complicated that even someone who designs his own websites cannot untangle them, let alone how the writer of such instructions imagines that people like me can follow them.

By then, I was feeling like the proverbial chimp who might produce a Shakespeare play by randomly tapping on the keys. If I altered the DNS settings, would my website explode? Lock me out permanently? Collapse into some Internet black hole, become dust on the information superhighway?

Well, to cut a long story short, through pure dumb luck and a quirky memory, I eventually stumbled over the right adjustment to the CNAME record. Five minutes later, I had redirected my blog to display on my website and had even posted the right link to my author page on Amazon.com. I switched to focusing on trying to persuade Blogger to show a comment box so that people who visit my blog can post—the reason I started using Blogger in the first place. That took another two hours and the help of another author to test it out (thank you, Courtney!). But I still have only the vaguest sense of what I did to make it work. There has to be a better way.

So this post ends on a high note. Maybe I’ll even find out what Blogger expects from my profile picture someday....

*A paraphrase of the subtitle to Dr. Strangelove.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Summer Reading

I live near a college town, and every June the local newspaper sends out a request for lists of the five best books people have read in the last year and the books (up to five) they plan to read during the summer. The lists themselves are a study in sociology: prepared in advance, carefully crafted. Some people insist they spent the year reading James Joyce’s Ulysses with a chaser of War and Peace. (It’s a college town, so maybe they’re telling the truth, but most academics I know—and I know quite a few—keep the heavy stuff for work and read detective novels in their spare time.) Some of the lists proclaim political correctness: every title speaks to a disadvantaged ethnic group or gender. Some focus on authors and titles, with no sense of what made the books special. Others give capsule descriptions that read like mini-reviews. A few go for the obvious: Harry Potter, the Hunger Games. Most don’t.

I’ve never submitted a list, but this year, with a brand-new novel to promote, I decided this was my chance to alert the town to the book’s existence. Still, I didn’t want to go overboard, so I had to make some decisions. First off, I needed real books. I like the mini-review style and don’t like the obvious, so even though I read all three of the Hunger Game series and loved the first two, I left them for others to praise.

Here is my list (F stands for fiction; NF for nonfiction). I’m wondering what yours would be.

Read

Daphne Kalotay, Russian Winter (F)
A Russian ballerina, now elderly and paralyzed and living in New York, decides to sell her world-renowned jewel collection to benefit charity. The sale attracts the attention of a local scholar with a long-time interest in her career, and the story gradually reveals the dancer’s troubled past in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Kalotay juggles present and past with great skill, and her writing is beautiful.

Tasha Alexander, A Crimson Warning (F)
The most recent of a series of Victorian mystery novels featuring Lady Emily Ashton that began with And Only to Deceive. I really enjoyed the first few, but the series began to stutter with Tears of Pearl. Alexander is back on her game here, though: a resentful unknown with inside information paints the town red (literally) in his/her attempts to force enemies to admit their past misdeeds while Lady Emily and her husband work to unmask the miscreant and high society trembles, wondering whose scandal will break next.

Two of the best books I read this year were actually re-reads:
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (F), which I picked up on sale in the Kindle Store during the height of the Santorum campaign. Its dystopian vision of a future in which right-wing fundamentalists strip women of their jobs and economic assets and confine them to the home seemed eerily prescient in the midst of the flap over Rush Limbaugh’s attack on the Georgetown student Sandra Fluke.

Connie Willis, The Doomsday Book (F)
As a specialist in sixteenth-century Russia, I have always loved this novel about a time-traveling historian who, due to a programming mistake, ends up in the middle of the Black Death. Willis’s grasp of the difference between the medieval world and our own is dead-on. A lighter excursion in the same series is her To Say Nothing of the Dog, set in late nineteenth-century (and World War II and sometime in the future) England.

But the book I read most often and which I certainly hope will make some people’s “best” lists next year was my own: C. P. Lesley, The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel (F), published in June 2012 and available now via Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble (e-book). Another group of time-traveling historians, except that this lot don’t go into the real past but instead visit their favorite novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel, by immersing themselves in a computer game. They are graduate students competing to work with the “hot” professor in their field, French revolutionary studies, and their contest not only pits them against one another but causes them to rewrite the plot of the novel. A light-hearted look at a fantasy many book lovers share: to relive the novel they love most.

Planned for Summer

Jason Goodwin, The Janissary Tree (F), a mystery set in 1830s Istanbul
Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (NF)
Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium. An Englishman’s World (NF)—research, but the entertaining kind.
And maybe I’ll manage to finish Anne Perry’s The Sheen on the Silk (F), about Byzantine court intrigue and papal politics a generation after the Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204.

Confessions of a Befuddled Author

Having just published my first novel, although not my first book, I am struggling to understand the new Internet Age of marketing and social networks. My first book, produced in 1994, seems so easy in retrospect: I delivered a manuscript (the hard part); the publisher saw it to print, wrote a description of the book in its catalogue, distributed it via conferences and bookstores and the usual academic networks. The topic was unique, and the book sold remarkably well for a university press book. It's still in print—and it still sells.

I suspect life wasn't that neat for fiction writers even then. Many books produced, not enough space in the stores—small fry like me probably got shoved spine out on a shelf somewhere, and with Amazon.com in its infancy, remaindered or pulped before we had much chance to build an audience. Yes, they had bookstores then (try to find one nearby now, unless you live in a city). But Facebook? Goodreads? Pinterest? Blogs like this one? Nope.

So here I am, years later, with a brand-new novel, trying to figure out how to let people know it exists. I have a Facebook account, and I post regularly on Pinterest. I've started this blog. My publisher has a site and a Facebook page. I signed up for Goodreads, although Goodreads seems to have lost track of that fact, so I can't log in to check the status of the board I joined. Even this blog is my second attempt (my first, through Google Apps, let me post comments but no one else).

And I have no clue whether any of this is working. Have I sold a single book to someone who doesn't know me personally? If I link this page to my author page on Amazon.com, will anyone read it? Or is everyone promoting and no one buying?

If you have ideas or suggestions, please post a comment!