Sunday, May 26, 2019

Technology, How I Hate Thee

If you are an unknown writer like I am, then you shoulder all the burden of the "trappings" of the modern day writer. You cannot sit your cottage in the Cotswold or the Lake District, away from the drudgery of life, penning your fantasies. You struggle with technology, screaming at your keyboard, and Googling how to do the simplest of mundane tasks because, well, technology owns you whether you want it to or not.

I work on a computer day and night. Literally. My day job requires that, aside from feeding my meter so that it forces me to get up from my chair in two-hour increments, I sit at a computer 99% of the time. Given this, my hands are now toast, with marked weakness in my dominant (right) hand. Picking up a pen and writing for any length of time is impossible, so writing longhand on a notepad is a pipe dream. It's a vicious cycle. I've screwed up my hands because I spend so much time on the computer that I can't hold a pen, which would alleviate the stress on my hands from working on a computer. I spend all day on a computer and if I want to write, I have to do it on a computer.

Technology is not natural to me or would, I say, many in my generation. I learn what I have to learn, but I have no intuition about it, and I often have to revisit what I thought I'd mastered two months earlier because it just doesn't stick in my head. That I was able to set up this blog I consider a minor miracle.

Over the years, I have produced books for myself and also for other people okay. I can dabble in Photoshop to a minor degree, which lets me keep my job. I did set up my own website, which doesn't look great, but it's okay, but am now fighting with numerous entities as to why my website is not working, right at the time when I am trying to shop my latest book my website is dead. I have no idea why. I am at the point of pinging the "chat" function of my host and begging for mercy.

And yet this is what you have to do if you don't have the money to pay others to do it for you. Which I don't. There is only so much money you can throw at this writing business before you start to feel guilty about using marital funds. At least I feel guilty. I don't see these as "sunk" costs, but when your last royalty check was $14.23 (no, that isn't a typo), then you try to absorb as much of the "freight" associated with writing as you can. Or at least I am doing that. I am lucky in the sense that my job forced me to learn basic formatting skills, basic Photoshop stuff, basic web design stuff, basic Dreamweaver stuff, etc. A lot of people use WordPress, but I find its limitations frustrating, so I put on my technology hip waders and slop through the Adobe swamp, hoping for success. Apparently, not very successfully, as my current website nightmare attests.

Next week, I will talk about the minimum costs you must absorb as a writer, and where I feel you must dump some $$$ and where you shouldn't if you're operating on a shoestring.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Sunday and Food and Talk

I went to college in my home town. As soon as I could, I moved out, not because I hated my parents, but because it is almost impossible to meet people if you don't live in situ. And I went home for dinner on Wednesday and Sunday nights week after week for four years because of the lure of table.

My mother was still working then, so we weren't eating elaborate meals. The menu was pretty much the same. Big Sunday dinner: roast beef with potatoes, Yorkshire pud, two veg, and sweet of some sort for dessert. My mother was a haphazard cook. Her desserts always looked sloppy, cake tiers always slightly askew and pie crusts with a very rustic look, but it all tasted delicious. Monday was cold meat, mash, and frozen peas (a reason why I never went home on Monday nights for dinner). Tuesday was pork or lamb chops. Wednesday was often quiche (which I was responsible for making). Thursday was spaghetti night, and Friday was something like shrimp curry because although my mother wasn't Catholic anymore, old habits die hard. When I was a kid we had fish sticks. I love fish sticks. If my mother wasn't working on call, on Saturdays she often made something a little more labor intensive like steak and kidney pie. My sister and I would pick out the kidneys and with a practiced stealth feed them to the various dogs. No, it wasn't a culinary extravaganza that drew me home twice a week. It was the people.

As they say, your mileage may differ. I know many people who found dinner with their parents to be nothing short of an ordeal, but our house was different. Table was where we talked about stuff while we handed round the veg. The political and social upheavals of the day were dissected and pondered over, and everyone's opinion was valid. To a point. History was the silent diner at our table. Yes, history is often written by the victors, and even historians have their own personal biases, but at least if you had a historian backing up your opinions, your argument would be coming from a position of strength rather than ignorance. If your opinion wasn't backed by facts, you weren't ridiculed nor were you told you were stupid. I think the best way to describe it is that you were considered young and slightly misguided. Youth wasn't a curse; you were just young and didn't know a hell of a lot even though you were going to Berkeley. And your opinion was valued nevertheless. You had a voice at that table. You were heard.

I also learned to be a listener. My stepfather grew up in England during the era when you were apprenticed out at fourteen. He went to work with his father at the railroad because that's what fourteen-year-old boys did then. Then he went to war and was captured by the Japanese in Java during World War II, and he spent five years in a Japanese prison camp. Of course, the stories that he told were the stuff of novels and movies, but my mother's stories of growing up in Ireland in the 1930s during the depression were equally interesting and moving.

What I'm saying is talk to each other. Value your table. Share your stories with others. Get off your phone. Boil some spaghetti noodles, use a jar of Newman's own tomato sauce to top your noodles (I'd add a teaspoon more dried basil and oregano and a few pinches of salt), buy a small tub of grated Parmesan cheese, dress some greens, buy some ice cream and chocolate sauce, and spend some money on a decent bottle of red wine. Sit down. Unfurl your napkin. Toast each other. And talk.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

My First Mother's Day without My Mother

I had a wonderful mother. Note the word "had." As I've said before, she wasn't perfect. She wasn't the sort to hold grudges but she could form instant dislikes and that was that. There was no redemption. She was also the most generous person I've ever met. After my stepfather died, I'd buy small things for her house, fun things for her kitchen (the heartbeat in her life), only to find she'd given them away. Oh, so and so needed that. So and so needed this. Finally, I had to tell her, I spent a fortune on that decent wine opener. Do NOT give this one away.

Anyway, today is hard for me. My sister and I were talking about how both of us were surprised at how well we've been dealing with her death. I've been saying for years that I'd be a weepy mess when faced with her death because I loved her so much. But that didn't happen. I think of her every day and sometimes I fool myself (or forget) that she hasn't died, but I forge on with only a few sad sighs. I think it's because we had so little baggage with her. Again, she wasn't perfect but her honesty and forthright approach to life, and her acknowledgment that we were people and deserved respect doesn't leave one with a whole lot of resentment to carry around. She was two weeks shy of her eighty-eighth birthday, died in her sleep, didn't suffer, had her marbles until the day she died. I mean, really, what more can one ask for?

Still today is hard.

Because we never relinquish that part of us who is our mother's child. It might grow smaller over the years, and, indeed, my mother and I switched roles quite a long time ago, with me being the primary caregiver and watching over her. But every now and then she'd say to me, "You look tired. Is everything okay?" essentially reasserting her role as a mother, a caregiver. And by that I mean one who cares and gives what they can. I don't mean it purely in the clinical sense of making sure one brushes one's teeth. I mean it as someone who cares. A role she never relinquished. One whose shining lights in a world that had lots of dark, dark days--where even a candle would have been appreciated--were her kids. There was NOTHING more precious to her than her children. And my sister and I knew and know that.

That tiny part of the child in me misses that today. Will always miss it. Of course, I am surrounded by people who care and love me, and who could and do fulfill that role, but it's not the same. It's not my mommy with a furrowed brow worried about her little wee one. That sense of mommy will make it right. No one else has that power and now she's gone. I can no longer bury my sadness in my mother's metaphorical lap.

Mom, I hope that in the afterlife ether, you're on some beach reading a book, no macular degeneration slowly robbing you of your sight, all that shit is gone, and you've got a mai tai in your hand, with your beloved Ken next to you, who is also reading a book and sipping a mai tai, in the background is the sound of waves hitting a calm beach and the occasional breeze teasing your hair, which you've finally stopped dying because you held onto hair dye years longer than you should have. Just sayin'.

This is what I wish for you for on mother's day.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

So What Happens Part III

I am manning the booth at the Bay Area Book Festival this Sunday. It’s held every year in Berkeley near the high school. How wonderful to be in a sea of people who care about books.

So let’s return to the reality of not being published. First, you will not get second chances in this new publishing paradigm, so work on your grammar skills. I’m serious. The Blue Book is a good reference, with nifty little exercises/tests. Their website also has tests you can take. I love wee little exams like this. Anyway, I’m talking about honing your basic grammar skills. I refresh my knowledge every year, and I’ve been known to read books on grammar as part of my bedtime reading. I moved around a lot as a kid, and I have wide gaps in my knowledge base. I blame this on my total inability to do math (anything beyond adding and subtracting is hell), but also on a weird tendency to put together words in a combination that isn’t quite correct. I’ve cobbled together my language skills from a host of different sources, and like with math, I never got the whole picture. So I have to keep revisiting the basic tenets of grammar so I don’t fall back into my illogical and just plain wrong language patterns.

In this day and age, it’s easy to get sloppy about this, and you think, well, I have this great idea, so of course the weird, misplaced comma won’t matter. Or is it “i” before “e” or “e” before “i”. Hmmm. Yes, it matters. If an agent gets one hundred books a day to vet, and he/she is reading a book whose first ten pages is great but is pitted with some basic spelling and grammar mistakes, and it’s followed by another great submission whose spelling and grammar are perfect, then who is going to get the nod? You know who. It doesn’t matter that forty pages down the road the second book falls apart with a major plot bust, and your book with its sloppy approach to spelling and grammar is really kicking ass by page forty. Your book has already received a form email thanking you for your submission, but, sorry, your manuscript doesn’t have a place in our stable and good luck with your future endeavors.

Put your best foot forward. That you have control over. The things you do have control over you have to maximize their effectiveness, because the reality is that you only control 10% of this crap shoot. As for the other 90%? Welcome to my world.