Saturday, August 15, 2015

Humming: now we know the cause and there is no cure. Sob.

The hum of the earth has not gone away. It's still driving people crazy and inspiring scientists to search for a scientific explanation.

The latest research blames monster waves, deep deep down under the ocean. A lot goes on down below the surface, including waves we can barely see, waves that travel up and over undersea mountain ranges, waves that collide with each other. Microseismic signals result, not felt by most humans.
"I think our result is an important step in the transformation of a mysterious noise into an understood signal," said Fabrice Ardhuin of Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Brest, France.
Alas, this news comes too late for Ivan, the tragical-comical hero of my novel Humming. He is bursting with theories about the source of the Hum, from whale-song stuck in the sand to the voice of God, speaking very very slowly. I suspect he prefers ignorance so that he can generate ever more crazy hypotheses, don't you?
Anyway, knowing the reason is not enough. Scientific certainty is no relief to those whose bodies throb with the earth's relentless hum. No amount of artistic athleticism and silver foil can stop the penetration of the hum.
When you're in love with your own magical hypotheses, it's inclined to end badly. Still, Ivan finds his own kind of prickly peace which almost satisfies this cheerful melancholic.
But hey! what am I doing?

How to make millions as a novelist like Danielle Steele

Is that your dream? To sell 650 million books, have 2000+ 5–star reviews on Amazon, earn £64 million in British sales alone, write 90 bestsellers ...? 

I can tell you how, but there's a hitch: first you have to be Danielle Steel. Let me share a few clues from her website. Notice the talent, persistence, hard work, enterprise and altruism?

  • bi-lingual, French/English, also speaks Spanish and Italian
  • has worked as teacher,  translator and advertising copywriter 
  • has eight children
  • worked on the streets with the homeless for 11 years after her son died
  • at one time held down three jobs and wrote at night
  • wrote a successful novel at 19, then wrote five books that were never published
  • established two foundations, one to help the mentally ill, and the other to help the homeless 
  • curates a contemporary art show once a year for a gallery in San Francisco.

Naturally, you will need everything that every popular novel needs in abundance: a riveting plot, strong characters, straightforward dialogue, ruthless structure, and an easy-to-read style.

Easy? I tested the first paragraph of her latest novel, The Prodigal Son, for readability. On the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease test, the score was 82.3, which means that 82.3% of English-speaking adults can probably read and understand it easily. This is exceptionally easy to read, I assure you.

Finally, when reading The Prodigal Son I noticed one quirk that is not what I'm used to. Steel reiterated certain points of character over and over and over again. In particular, I guess she told me 15 times how everyone in town thought the good twin, Michael the beloved small town doctor, was a saint. OK, I get it. I got it the first time. But let's not dismiss this as bad writing: I dare say this technique helps to make her novels so spectacularly popular. Popular means everybody gets her meaning.

A history of publishing through one author and 36 books

January 11, 2015

It's 2015, in case you didn't notice. That means I've been a so-called published author for 40 years: I'm a walking, talking, piece of history. My publishing record is a black-and-white snapshot of the industry over the last 40 years. You could draw a graph of international publishing patterns and it would look like a portrait of me. The history of publishing, c'est moi.
Let's stick to my poetry, fiction and non-fiction books.
Poetry books: From 1975–1988 six poetry books were published first by small-press poetry specialists, then by a mainstream publisher. However, in 1980 I self-published House Poems for the sheer pleasure. Peter Ridder, a book designer, educated me in the process from editing to marketing. I loved having control of all decisions — page and cover design, binding, paper. I even drew the illustrations, and it's still one of my favourite books. House Poems became my benchmark for self-publishing: I could do it, I loved it, It was quick, and I made money from it.
A turning point came in 1993, with Tourist in Kyoto. A mainstream publisher messed me around and I thought, "Why should I wait another 6 months? Why suffer this process all over again?" So I self-published that book and was thoroughly satisfied.
Fiction: My novels were published by Penguin (NZ) in 1986, 1987, 1990, and by a smaller mainstream publisher in 2005. Then in 2010 I self-published a book of short stories, Scarlet Heels. The process was easy and fun and the book looked good. And although my publicity machine was pathetic, the book still made money. 
Ten non-fiction books were published by mainstream publishers between 1980 and 1999. Since then I've published (and reprinted) four through CC Press.
To summarise: from 1975 to 2005 I had most of my books published on paper by conventional print publishers, and I also self-published two little books for fun. And since 2005, all my books are self-published. So of my 36 books (many of which I hasten to say are very small), 9 are self-published. I see the same pattern the world over: don't you?
Now you may be thinking, "Obviously the quality of Rachel's writing deteriorated at the turn of the century and she became unpublishable." Indeed, that's what publishers imply sometimes. More often (after waiting for months) you may be told, "Sorry, your book doesn't fit with our marketing plan." Subtext: "We can only publish a handful of books each year and we can't afford to take a gamble. The marketing department runs this publishing house."
My attitude? Never say never, but I'm happy to self publish forever more. It's fun, it's empowering and it's profitable. I do enjoy making physical books, but for fiction, nothing beats ebooks. So now I'm picking the best of my backlist, just a handful of titles, and I'll publish them as ebooks. That's an amazing feeling, to rescue your favourites and say "Hey, world! Check this one out!"

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Anne Karpf on aging: you're doing it now, and it's fine

I read "How to age" by Anne Karpf on my Kindle, and reviewed it for Amazon. I totally agree with Karpf's attitude towards aging — embrace aging, start young, it's continuous, it's interesting, it's growth, it's part of life. But alas, this is not easy in a culture that hates and fears old people and all they symbolise.

Some people may be disappointed in the book because of the title, which is misleading — and that's a shame. (And oh the agony of choosing a title...) Also, what a strange, depressing book cover! Title and cover don't do this important book justice.

My review

Anne Karpf reveals the extent of gerontophobia in the west — with all its cruelty, daftness and implicit self-sabotage — and the high price we pay for it.

Don’t be misled by the title: this is not a how-to book, but a long, eloquent essay reflecting on a big topic. It’s not easy to overhaul your attitude towards aging from a dreaded disability to an essential, valuable, lifelong process. However, at the end, we see how “Gina” incorporates the author’s attitudes towards aging into her own life. She started her personal how-to programme after her grandmother’s funeral by resolving:
“1. Never again to say of someone ‘she must have been beautiful’, as though age were some necrotizing organism that eats away at beauty.
“2. Whenever she felt anxious about her own encroaching wrinkles, to imagine herself fifteen years older so that, in comparison, she looked positively peachy. She thought of this as a reverse facelift.
“3. To remember that Betty, until the very end, thought that life was an adventure: she was always seizing new opportunities, conversing with strangers and reading new books.”
I recommend this book. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How to talk about travel (morning thought)

Going places! Marrakech train station.

After a trip to an exotic place, you are obliged to talk about it. Friends ask you about Your Trip (especially in New Zealand, where every country except Australia and home is considered exotic). Or you have an urge to talk about it anyway.

But how? Travel talk can be such a pleasure, but it can also go seriously wrong. Half your audience has already been to the same destination, and the other half has been there in spirit thanks to TripAdvisor and Facebook.

Is there a taxonomy of travel talk? I have been watching how others do it, and I hope to learn from their triumphs and mistakes.

A. Travel talk that I enjoy hearing
  1. Personal experiences combined with insights into broader topics.
  2. The person who respects your knowledge and adds to it.
  3. A story steeped in joy or excitement or delight or drama or fear: strong frank personal feelings.
  4. People who travel with a specific purpose: how did things pan out?
  5. A story about people.
  6. An amazing fact that I have never heard before.
  7. Stories that grow and grow in response to the listener's questions.

B. Travel talkers who drive me nuts 
I wish you all the best, but I do not want to be you.
  1. The bore who tells you 1,000 (dubious, random, context-less) "facts" about a place.
  2. The know-it-all who believes spending 5 minutes in a place gives their every opinion the ring of authority.
  3. The full-time cruise traveller who compares tours, not places. 
  4. The relentless super-generaliser.
  5. Mr and Mrs Cost-a-Lot, Mr and Mrs They-Can't-Make-Chips, and their friends.
I'd better get an executive summary ready so that I don't lapse into category B.

And by the way: jotting down morning thoughts is more demanding than I expected. On a train and planes, I did not jot. Now I'm home, there's a little problem of time. Well, that's just for the record: it's all good.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Applying the hero's journey structure to a 25-minute speech. Or a novel.

The heroic figure above, if you can see it, is from the DARE Conference 2014 web site.  I wonder what feelings it evokes in you? I love it. Yes, we can fly to the stars: imperfect, comical, human though we are, we can have an adventure and reach new heights.

I'm going to be one of the speakers at this very special conference, whose tag line is "People Skills for Digital Workers."

They do everything differently at DARE. All speakers craft their talks into the standard hero's journey structure, based on Joseph Campbell's classic. This structure is almost obligatory for film scripts, and is also extremely useful for novels. 

We do this work in small groups, meeting on Skype every few weeks. 

You might think these meetings are a hybrid of writers' group and therapy session.  But what a privilege to have companionship, guidance and support as we work our way through a particular creative process.

We started by hammering a short talk into a 12-step structure, each step introducing a new twist or crisis. So far I have gained at least five benefits.
  1. I have enjoyed quality time with some brilliant people.
  2. My talk has a stronger theme and shape.
  3. I have gained a greater understanding of the hero's journey literary structure. 
  4. I have made a new narrative for my life. (Of course there are many possible records, but the needle is inclined to get stuck.)
  5. I am stumbling towards a deeper understanding of myself and my life. No really! It's true! 
Lucky me. I'm very much looking forward to the DARE conference as a culmination and reward. Step 13? 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Mindfulness and meditation for beginners

Meditate for health and strength and relaxation and creativity. Meditate because it feels nice. Whatever. But if you meditate with the explicit goal of spiritual transformation, you lay yourself open to certain risks. Failure. Disappointment. Self deception.

Of course you may experience spiritual transformation while meditating. Sometimes you may drift into a delicious, quasi-mystical state. You certainly may find emotions welling up unexpectedly.

But if that's not your cup of tea, be aware that Just Doing It always works.

Be kind to yourself: your meditation is fine fine fine, just the way it is. Simply sitting still in one place for 10–15 minutes brings about a certain calmness and other physiological changes. If your mind keeps straying, so what? Noticing your thoughts and letting them go is a big part of meditation. There's no such thing as bad meditation!

6 misconceptions about meditation and mindfulness
  1. Meditation is hard to learn: no way. I learned in a half-hour session with a visiting guru, after which I just did it. Later refresher courses were interesting and pleasant but not necessary.
  2. It takes a lifetime to learn. Rubbish. You can learn how to meditate by doing a short course, which might take a weekend or six 1-hour sessions.
  3. You have to meditate for 45 minutes twice a day. Says who? 
  4. It's a deep and meaningful experience. Well, it may be, sometimes, yes. But usually it's just a practical habit with short- and long-term benefits, like brushing your teeth.
  5. You can't go it alone. You need to commit to a guru, whether Buddhist, Hindu or California New Age. Ah yes, they would say that, wouldn't they?
  6. Some types of meditation are better or stronger or richer or deeper or morally higher than others. Sure, there are many ways to meditate — breathing, focus, body scanning, mantras...  so experiment. Find a method or methods that you like: they're the best ones for you. 
Look around for courses and books that teach rather than evangelise. You may find them within the medical profession or online or locally.

The Five Minute Meditator: the best beginner's book I know. I give it away in handfuls and recommend it left right and centre. Even the title is calming and encouraging. Eric Harrison's other books give depth and perspective to the history and practice of mindfulness and meditation — but no dogma. His latest book, Mindfulness 101, welcomes the arrival of mindfulness as a new world-wide mainstream craze, because it strips the conventional monk's robe off this practical, useful tool.

The Perth Meditation Centre sells Eric Harrison's books online
Mindfulness Works: secular meditation and mindfulness courses in New Zealand
Guided Mindfulness Meditation Practices with Jon Kabat-Zinn