fatal or fatalism

Odd things going on today in my head. Some of that has to do with Book Six (why oh why did I think I could write a sixth novel in this series? and why did nobody STOP me from signing the contract?); some of it has to do with the trade paperback release of Tied to the Tracks

(tuesday)

and the sinking feeling I’ve got that there will be no marketing for this book other than what I can cobble together in my amateurish way. Which is not unexpected — every other midlist author out there is in the same boat — but it’s still discouraging.

When Homestead came out in hardcover with a teeny tiny little press, I fully expected it to sink quietly into oblivion. A novel in an unusual format about women in rural Austria a hundred years ago, doom and gloom on every page… no surprise if it didn’t even make a blip on the radar. I was still proud of it, but I didn’t have any expectations.

But in the odd way the universe has of screwing with expectations, Homestead won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. I found myself flying places to talk about it. I was standing near Margaret Atwood at the Orange Prize ceremony because we both had books shortlisted. Never, ever would I have imagined such a thing happening when Homestead sold to Delphinium Press.

There was no marketing budget for Homestead. Somehow it was in the right place at the right time, the indies took it under wing, and it began to roll downhill.

A lot more energy was put into Into the Wilderness by Bantam, and it did better than I expected. It is still in print. I don’t know about the sales figures because I just refuse to look at them. I know my own weaknesses, and obsessing about numbers I can’t control is a big one. I do know one thing: it paid out the advance. I don’t know if that’s true for the other books in the series.

I think it’s fair to say that I’m standing at a kind of crossroads in my career as a novelist. Pajama Girls is in production; I’m working on Book Six. Beyond that I have no contracts. Nor am I actively looking for any at this point, because on paper I don’t look like a great bet. TTTT did modestly in hardcover. If it does better in trade paper (please dog), and if Pajama Girls does well, at that point I’d have some bargaining power — or better said, my agent would.

At this moment it could go either way. In a year’s time I might be looking at going back to the traditional workforce and writing in my spare time.

Please note: THIS IS NOT A COMPLAINT.

If you look back at the early entries in the original weblog you’ll see that I have always been keenly aware that this ride could end before I was ready to get off. I’m doing what I can to promote the work so that it has a chance of finding a readership, but there are hundreds of novelists out there doing the exact same things I am. Some of them have written better novels, or novels with a more popular theme. Some of them will do something in terms of marketing that goes viral, and then the lack of publisher support won’t be as important.

At the end of the day, I can look at the novels I’ve got out there and be satisfied. Some of them I like more than others, but I’m proud of all of them. Maybe things will start to roll and ten years from now I’ll still be going strong. Maybe not. In either case, I have no regrets.

in which I find I have more ego than I thought

Today, in between packing and running around, I checked over at Wikipedia to see if they had banished me yet, and had a look at the ‘discussion’ page. One king kind person made an argument for my notability; another scolded her soundly. Obviously, she said, finger wagging, you don’t understand the meaning of the word notability. A few publications do not notability make. We need secondary sources.

I mentioned this to a close friend who looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. Secondary sources? Secondary sources? What about the article in People Magazine? What about the mention in Entertainment Weekly? What about the New York Times Book Reviews review, and the Washington Post book review, and the articles in the English papers when you were short listed for the Orange Prize?

For a minute I was very disoriented, and then I did remember those things. But you know what? I never kept records. All I remember about the little article in People is: 1) really awful photo; 2) lukewarm praise; 3) I first saw it on a ferry on my way to Vancouver Island and I laughed out loud, so that everybody moved away from me. All I remember about Entertainment Weekly: they quoted the first sentence of Into the Wilderness, which was nice. I can’t even remember if either of these short pieces mentioned my real name, or if it was just Sara Donati.

But do I have those citations? Clippings? Anything. Nope. I do have the citations for the big book reviews and some of the Orange Prize and PEN/Hemingway award stuff. I put it here for posterity, in case my forgetfulness creeps up and grabs this stuff out of my head sooner than expected:

“Orange Prize special report” Guardian Unlimited (London),
Wednesday June 6, 2001

*this special report was notable for two things: another terrible photo, and the odds against my winning were pretty bad. Like, third from the bottom (of seven finalists). However, somebody with worse odds than me won, so I have no idea what that means. I do know that two of the five judges told me afterwards that I had been a very, very close second, and that they had fought for me and almost won. And that was comfort enough for me. Although the fifty thousand pounds would have been nice, too.

“The Orange Prize Challenge”The Independent (London), May 24, 2001

*I have no distinct memories of this article at all.

The Orange Prize (Britain)
2001 shortlist: Homestead by Rosina Lippi reviewed by Dylan Evans

Homestead (review) by Brigitte Frase The New York Times Book Review May 9, 1999

“PEN/Hemingway Award 1999” The Hemingway Review, Vol. 19, 1999: 155

“Shaped by Time, Place and Family: Fictions About Farthest Austria”
Review of Homestead by Carolyn See. The Washington Post May 29, 1998

So there. Even if Wikipedia doesn’t find me notable, I do have a career.

PS: I have a longer list of book reviews some place, dog knows where; that list includes all the academic stuff as well.

a little perspective would be nice

I like most of Margaret Atwood’s work; The Handmaid’s Tale is on my list of 100 favorite novels. When I met her a few years ago (backstage at the Orange Prize ceremony in London) I liked her too. She was funny and engaging. So I’m wondering why this bit of news about her is so irritating to me.


The Raw Feed reports
that Atwood has invented a robotic hand called the Long Arm. This invention will sign her name. So imagine this: you get in the car, on a train or bus and travel to some bookstore or event specifically because you’d like to get your copy of [insert title] signed. You wait in line. When you reach the front of the line you find a mechanical hand, and a video screen. She’s sitting at home in Canada watching her Long Arm sign her name for you. A face in a box, a mechanical hand.

I know the woman writes sci-fi, but this just strikes me as silly. I do like to get my books signed by the author when possible, sure. Having a book signed by a hunk of metal just isn’t the same thing. And why go to all this trouble? The reasons to do this that come to mind are not complimentary.

omniscient point of view

POV is one of those things that beginning students of creative writing find hard to understand. The simplest way to determine POV (the one that I use when I’m confused in my own writing) is this: who’s got the camera? We’re seeing and experiencing this scene through somebody’s eyes — who is it?

For a long time it’s been fashionable to write in limited third person POV, which means simply that only one character at a time is holding the camera. You’re inside Joe’s head, watching a car accelerate toward a brick wall; then you’re in Jane’s. The contrast between how two characters experience the same event is one of the ways to use contrast to build tension. Mostly my work is in limited third person POV. Here’s Albany in 1794 seen through Elizabeth’s eyes:

The roads were crowded with housemaids swinging baskets on red-chapped arms; peddlers hawking sticky peaches, sugar-sweet melons, wilted kale; young women in watered silks with feathered parasols tilted against the sun; River Indians dressed in fringed buckskin and top hats; slaves hauling bales of rags and herding goats. It was not so dirty and crowded as New York had been, that was true. There was a pleasing tidiness to the brick houses with their steeply tiled roofs and bright curtains, but still the humid air reeked of sewage, burning refuse, pig slurry and horse dung. Elizabeth swallowed hard and put her handkerchief to her nose and mouth, wondering to herself that she had forgotten what cities were like in such a short time. Three months in the wilderness had changed her, stolen her patience for the realities of a crowded life.

And now from Nathaniel’s POV

Because they did not have any other molds, Run-from-Bears had melted down about twenty pounds of the Tory gold in a makeshift forge and cast a fortune in bullets. These Nathaniel had been carrying in double-sewn leather pouches next to his skin since they left Paradise, ten pounds on each side. In Johnstown this unusual currency would have caused a stir, but Albany was a town built on some two hundred years of high intrigue and trading shenanigans. Comfortable Dutch and British merchants had made large fortunes running illegal furs from Canada, reselling silver spoons stolen in Indian raids on New England families much like their own, and bartering second grade wampum and watered rum for all the ginseng root the native women could dig up, which they then traded to the Orient at an outrageous profit. A sack of golden bullets would raise nothing more in an Albany merchant than his blood pressure.

It used to be that authors wrote almost exclusively in first person POV (David Copperfield, for example) or in omniscient third. Jane Austen is a good example of the latter case: the author sees all, knows all, and tells all. She sees simultaneously into the heart and mind of of Jane, Darcy, and Miss Bingley and understands each of them perfectly. She is, in other words, their god. Along with what they are thinking and doing, Austen gives us a running editorial (and a sharp-edged one) on the greater society in which this is all happening.

I have wondered if I’m even capable of writing a whole story or book in omniscient POV, and I think the answer is that it would be a great deal of hard work. Like learning to write with my left hand, almost. There are a few writers now who are moving back toward omniscient POV; take a look at Ann Patchett’s most recent novel, Bel Canto (which won the Orange Prize and a lot of other critical awards last year), or the novels of Patrick O’Brien or Gabriel García Márquez.

 

An 1833 engraving of a scene from Chapter 59 o...

Here’s a lovely passage from Pride and Prejudice, which serves as an example of Austen’s perfect pitch in matters of dialog. It’s also in omniscient POV:

 

“How very ill Eliza Bennet looks this morning, Mr. Darcy,” she cried; “I never in my life saw any one so much altered as she is since the winter. She is grown so brown and coarse! Louisa and I were agreeing that we should not have known her again.”

However little Mr. Darcy might have liked such an address, he contented himself with coolly replying that he perceived no other alteration than her being rather tanned — no miraculous consequence of travelling in the summer.

“For my own part,” she rejoined, “I must confess that I never could see any beauty in her. Her face is too thin; her complexion has no brilliancy; and her features are not at all handsome. Her nose wants character; there is nothing marked in its lines. Her teeth are tolerable, but not out of the common way; and as for her eyes, which have sometimes been called so fine, I never could perceive any thing extraordinary in them. They have a sharp, shrewish look, which I do not like at all; and in her air altogether, there is a self-sufficiency without fashion which is intolerable.”

Persuaded as Miss Bingley was that Darcy admired Elizabeth, this was not the best method of recommending herself; but angry people are not always wise; and in seeing him at last look somewhat nettled, she had all the success she expected. He was resolutely silent however; and, from a determination of making him speak she continued,

“I remember, when we first knew her in Hertfordshire, how amazed we all were to find that she was a reputed beauty; and I particularly recollect your saying one night, after they had been dining at Netherfield, ‘She a beauty! — I should as soon call her mother a wit.’ But afterwards she seemed to improve on you, and I believe you thought her rather pretty at one time.”

“Yes,” replied Darcy, who could contain himself no longer, “but that was only when I first knew her, for it is many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance.”

He then went away, and Miss Bingley was left to all the satisfaction of having forced him to say what gave no one any pain but herself.

The editorial comments (highlighted) come from the omniscient narrator — Austen herself. The tone is indeed a little bit sharp, but Austen was sharp and in this particular instance, she gives her readers what they want (because, of course she has made them want it) — the officious, pretentious, cruel Miss Bingley finally talks herself into a scolding, and a particularly painful one at that.

The other thing to point out here is the masterful balance between direct and indirect dialog; some of what Darcy says is summarized, because it’s Miss Bingley we need to hear just then, without distraction. When he speaks up finally, he is given the floor with devastating effectiveness.

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