Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why does social commentary frequently bring out mob mentality?

A few years ago, my work involved analyzing social media. This was in the early days of social media, when new social platforms (Facebook, Twitter et al) were seemingly springing up overnight. The very common, almost throwaway criticism of social media--usually made by people who spent little to no time on social media--was that it was all so nasty, all that flaming and trolling, so much negativity. As a researcher, that was all part of the environment and I didn't think much about it (or tried not to) anymore  than a zoologist notices the rotten banana peels on the ape house floor.

Then I also became a novelist, my first novel coming out in 2011, when social media and the book publishing business were just getting to know each other and working that relationship hotly. In short order, I got to see what it was like when anyone and everyone had an opinion about your work and the ability to voice it. Ouch.

But after a short while, I learned to ignore it, to stop reading the reviews. You thank people when you find out they've said something nice about you but you learn not to click on links that will only take you to someplace you don't want to go.

Because I've trained myself not to look at the comments that follow a blog post or to dig into forums, I was a bit taken aback by this article in ELLE DECOR, "The Ugly Side of Beautiful Rooms: Design in the Age of Internet Comments". The sub-title says it all: "You'd never walk into someone's home and say 'vomit'. So why is this happening so often online?"

To be honest, my first reaction was deja vu. If you think "vomit" is a harsh reaction from a stranger to someone's hard work (in this case, interior design), try reading some book blogs. Try being pilloried by a reader who has obviously skimmed your novel at best and seems to be channeling another review (a phenomenon that was even mentioned in David Mitchell's latest novel, The Bone Clocks, in which one of his characters, a novelist, sniffs that reviewers in the internet age just seem to google what others have written about a book and sample liberally. If you don't think this happens, you aren't paying close attention. Talk about mob mentality.)

My second, more measured reaction, was surprise. Yes, surprise to hear that there are still people who practice widespread negativity in online forums. That's not naivete on my part; there have been several recent studies on how hopeful, cheerful, optimistic items are circulated more on social media than negative ones. People don't tend to share, retweet or otherwise spread negative items with their social networks, and from a commercial (non-personal) perspective, that's the whole point of social networking. People tend to drop or shy away from someone's vitriol-spewing diatribe. The picture that gets shared a million times on Facebook is not of someone stoving in another person's head with a shovel.

What's the point of this post? I'm afraid it's fairly pointless because you can't say anything definitive about online behaviors. Ten years (roughly) into social media and people are still pointlessly vicious to each other while at the same time 'liking' and sharing simple-minded photos of kittens smiling or babies dressed up as flowers. You'd think these can't be the same people doing both these things and you'd be right and wrong. In the end, social media is about human behavior. It's remarkable in that it makes observing that behavior easier and readily countable. But it doesn't appear to change human behavior, at least not yet.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

"My Writing Process" blog tour

I was asked by my friend, author Alia Yunis, to participate in a blog tour of authors sharing their writing processes. I'm honored to a part of this tour. At any live event I've done people--whether aspiring writers themselves or avid readers--seem most curious about the writing process (how do you get your ideas? how to you go from concept to a full-blown novel?) If this describes you, I hope you'll take a look at the posts by all the writers participating in the blog tour. I'm sure we'll all pick up some valuable tips along the way. (And you can start here and follow the links: Alia's post; Myfanwy Collins' post; and Patricia Dunn's post.)

I met Alia at the Squaw Valley Conference of Writers. The conference organizers invite alumni to come back to the conference to do a reading after they've been published. Alia and I attended Squaw during different years but we did our debut reading the same summer and this is where I got to meet her. When I first arrived, everyone kept mistaking me for Alia. Okay, our first names are similar and we're both women, and we're both on the short side and have dark hair. But that's where the similarities end. She is younger and prettier than I am and has a bubbly, fun and wildly creative personality. I honestly can't imagine how anyone who knew Alia would mistake her for me. She is enormous fun to be around especially if you are a creative person. We were roommates, too, which gave me time to get to know her. I love getting to spend time with Alia but since she lives in the UAE, where she teaches at university, those times are all too rare.

Okay, let's get to the questions . . .

What are you working on?

I handed in a manuscript to my agent recently and so am shifting between ideas, trying to decide which will be the next project, while knowing that once notes come back from the agent I'll probably spend a few months (at least) tied up with that. I'm thinking about a rewrite of a book I was working on before the one I just handed in, a historical fantasy that has some knotty problems to be worked out. But I also had an idea for something new and I'm working on the outline and writing some scenes to try it on for size. Since I much prefer creating fresh to rewriting, I find I'm being drawn to the new project . . .

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I'm going to give an oblique answer to this question. I was a music journalist many years ago and noticed that bands (especially new, young bands) used to hate it when I asked them about their genre. "Don't label me," they seemed to be saying; judge us on our own merits. Which is all well and good--we all want to think as artists that we're doing something fresh and unique--but at the same time, it's really important for people to be able to quickly grasp what you're about so they can determine whether it's something they think they'll like. So being part of a genre is not a bad thing.

When my first book came out I bristled at the question of genre because I felt my book was different from most of the books it typically got compared to. Now I see that this resisting categorization hurt me.  So now I embrace my genre, though I think it's a pretty broad genre. (I'd put Diana Gabaldon in there as well as Audrey Niffenegger, and Anne Rice, too, though lots of people probably wouldn't think of those three writers in the same breath). So, how are my books different? I think all our books are different in some way. The Taker Trilogy put the reader very close to the narrator; "so much emotion" was how one reader described it or, as another reader put it, "All the feels!" I think the next book will be a little different from the Taker books in that it might not take the reader on such an emotional rollercoaster ride.

Why do you write what you do?

It's the way my brain works, I'm afraid. The book I just handed in is a historical, no fantasy, and I have to say that in some ways it was a much easier book to write. More straightforward. But since then, the stories I've been able to think of all have fantastical elements in them. I must be trying to escape from the constraints of life.

How does your writing process work?

Usually, I come up with the premise and broad outline for a story quickly and start throwing down chapters, broad brush, in sequence.  At this stage, it's like a strawman. It might not even have much personality. The true nature of the characters and all the deepening and enriching comes in when I go back and expand those chapters. Anyway, that's how it usually happens but the book I'm working on now is being written out of sequence. I like to mix things up for the fun of it, and to keep my writing fresh.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Ebooks on your desktop

The vast majority of you are not going to need this post. I'm writing it because every time an author (ahem, like me) lets her readers know that the ebook version of one of her books is on sale, there are always a few number of people who will write that they'd like to take advantage of the sale but that they don't have an ereader. 

The fact is, you don't need an ereader to read ebooks.

So for that tiny minority who think apps are restricted to smart phones and tablets, I'm going to post instructions on how you can read ebooks on your computer:

You download the desktop app of an ereader program (if there is one) to your computer and then you can use the ereader's store to purchase books and open the application on your computer to read them. For instance, here is a screen shot of the page where you go to download the Kobo desktop app:


Click here for Kindle desktop apps (for Windows and Mac)
From the Kindle app page: psst, links are down here, under the devices!

Click here for NOOK for Mac and NOOK for Windows

What about iBooks? Well, it doesn't look as though Apple has come through with a ereader app for Macs though it said it would last year. There are other apps you can buy to make reading books in the most popular ereading formats on your Mac, though, and here's a good article on the subject. Similarly, there are apps to let you read ebook formats on your Windows machine. (And where are they? That's what Google is for :-)

This just solves the problem of "how do I physically read the ebook". I understand there are people who are politically opposed to reading a book if it isn't printed on paper. That's fine, though you should know that some independent bookstores sell ebooks, too. Then, once you decide to go ahead and read ebooks, you have another political decision as to which vendor you're going to support. Just remember that you probably want to stay with one ebook provider so you don't have books shelved electronically all over town.

There! So you really have no excuse not to buy that tantalizing novel when you see the ebook version is on sale.






Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Win a Vial necklace - AS SEEN IN TRUE BLOOD

If you're like me, you're hanging on every episode of TRUE BLOOD as it airs on Sunday evenings, even as you're mourning the fact that it will all be over soon. 

So you can imagine how happy I was to learn that one of the characters in this season, Mr. Gus (portrayed by Will Yun Lee, whom you've seen in movies like Wolverine) has been wearing the necklace as his character's signature piece.

In honor of this fact, I'm giving away a Vial necklace! To win, all you have to do is email me at contest@almakatsu.com. The deadline to enter is August 19th at midnight ET. The winner will be chosen at random. (Please note: the contest is open to the US only. See complete rules below.)


The necklace was designed by Janet Cadsawan, who is the official designer for lots of literary works such as Diana Gabaldon's Outlander, EL James' Fifty Shades of Grey and Deborah Harkness' Discovery of Witches trilogy. It's been an honor being represented by Cadsawan Jewelry, being among such great literary company. In case you can't wait to see if you win, you can order a necklace or bracelet from Janet right here

For those of you who are unfamiliar with The Taker Trilogy, the books for which the necklace was designed, please do me a favor and take a minute to read a little bit about them here. Charlaine Harris herself had some nice things to say: "I was really grabbed by the narrative voice, and I was fascinated by the story--what a story!"

CONTEST RULES:  One entry per person. Contest is open to US only: the prize must be sent to a valid US mailing address. Not responsible for items lost or stolen in shipping. Contest ends at midnight ET on August 19th and winner will be chosen via random number generator. Winner will be notified by email within 24 hours of the end of contest and has 72 hours to respond to claim prize. If the winner does not respond within 72 hours a new winner will be chosen, and the same rules will apply. 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A world of one's own

Game of Thrones' new season starts tomorrow. I can't say that specifically gave me the idea for today's post, but it's in keeping. I've been watching more television than I usually have for the past few years. I tell myself it's so I can study how television screenwriters do story but really it's so I can have some together time with my husband. We tend to watch shows that we can both live with. Lately it's Justified, the story about a federal marshall who sometimes steps over the line in trying to bring justice to a wild part of Kentucky (terrific writing, amazing characters) and Vikings. I'm not sure how we got into Vikings. It's visually striking--the landscapes, the costumes and architecture--but not as rich a story and, of course, pretty gory. We just started watching Deadwood, the old HBO Western that starred Timothy Oliphant (of Justified), though it's too soon to tell if it will become a favorite.

Which brings us to the point of the post today. I was thinking of Justified and how it's about to wrap up this season and as we type, the show's producers are working on next season (which will also be the last season). Which is the real world of the show: the world of the viewers or the producers? Are they living in the future or are we living in the past? The producers and directors, actors and set designers, all working away in secrecy for others to enjoy a year later. By the time the audience gets to see it, it's a memory for all the people who worked on the show. It's almost impossible for them to have the same experience of the show.

This came to me because I'm working on a new book. A new book is a really personal thing: it's really just you, the author. You may tell some of your friends about it or share chapters with other writers for their opinion of a passage. But mostly it's just you moving through that world all alone. Like paddling a boat down a river while the river world unfurls around you. You try to capture the unfurling and to bring it back to tell others, but mostly you're alone in this lush, rich new world. 

The new world is Georgian England, around 1780. The country is highly divided between rich and poor. Although the war with the colonies is stretching the country pretty think both economically and politically, England has for years been steadily growing richer; more people have more money, although there are still a lot of poor. On top of that, there is are not many instruments of authority. Crime is rampant with no organized police forces yet, except in London and it is still experimental. Many men try their hand at highway banditry: robbing travelers but at the peril of their life if caught. Two of the main characters of the new book are brothers, twins, who have decided to seek their fortune as highwaymen. Into their lives stumbles a young woman, a servant just turned out by the family that employed her, left to make her own way. The three strike up a very unusual arrangement and set out to see if they can define their own place in the world.

Only time will tell if the book ends up bring published, which seems to me analogous to the moment when a television series goes on the air, the time when the vision of its creators is shared with the rest of the world. In the meantime, it's just me whittling and polishing my private world, hoping to make it luminous enough to draw other people to its light.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

How do you tell a story in tweets?

Twitter is holding its second Fiction Festival in a few days, March 12 - 16, and I'm happy to say that I'm one of the featured authors.

People have been toying around with Twitter as a platform for fiction. As far back as 2008--when Twitter was just starting to get really big--"twitter novels" were starting to become popular in Japan, for instance, but didn't gain much traction here. Over the years, people have continued to try different approaches, everything from flash fiction on Twitter to six-word sentences, to long form told out in hundreds of 140-character tweets.

If you go to the Twitter Fiction Festival website, you'll see the story ideas from a couple dozen writers of all genres that will play out over the next few days on Twitter. The first Fiction Festival was perhaps a bit more international, whereas this year's features mostly well known writers (myself excluded, of course) from all genres, from poetry and playwriting and non-fiction, to literary fiction, mystery, science fiction and young adult. I am amazed at the creativity of my fellow participants. That's one of the nice things about participating in an experiment like this: you get to get out of the ordinary. Get out of your rut. When I first thought about it, I was more than a little nervous. The constraints of writing on Twitter mean that you can't write the kind of fiction that you're used to as a novelist (or can you?). No exposition. You can't go waxing poetically about the setting or scenery--you can't go waxing long about anything, not in a tweet. What about dialogue? And if you're telling a story from a particular character's point of view, does that mean you set up a Twitter account for that character from which to tweet the story? As you can see, there are a lot of considerations and restrictions.

On the other hand, you can put in things that you can't normally have in a novel, like images, and this is what sparked my imagination. I decided that I would tell a story with images and I wanted the images to be strongly linked to place. It made sense to make Washington DC the place since, this is where I live (okay, technically I live in northern Virginia) and after 30 years here, I think I have a good sense of the character of the people who live here (or a subset at least, the army of employees of the federal government who live here).

After coming up with a rough idea of what the story would be about, I drafted my husband into chauffeuring me around the city so I could take the pictures that would be sprinkled through the tweeting. This is a bigger deal than you might think because even on a Sunday afternoon, (a) traffic in DC is terrible and (b) parking is even worse. I spent a day deciding which sites we'd visit and plotting out the most economical route possible. In the end, we left out about a third of the sites because it took even longer than we thought to make our way across the city. I'd wanted to photograph some lesser-known, not your usual DC tourist type places for the story, so you won't see monuments or the Capitol building. Unfortunately, some of the quirkier spots ending up getting cut because of the dang traffic.

I hope you'll join the Twitter Fiction Festival. If you're a reader, I think you'll be treated to some inventive storytelling that you won't see anywhere else. And if you're a writer, I think you might see storytelling in a whole new--and maybe liberating--light. I'm in the process of finishing up my story--over a hundred tweets so far, and growing--and have been amazed at how liberating it is to put a story together in a completely different way.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What is a descent myth?


If you've read anything about The Descent, you know that it's about Lanny, the heroine of the trilogy, going to the underworld to beg for the return of Jonathan, the man she had wronged by drawing him into her eternal punishment. I knew from the very beginning, from when I was just starting to piece the story together, that it would end this way. Her dilemma is made all the richer by because the only way she can get to the afterlife is with the help of Adair, the man she fears (and loves) the most, the only one with the ability to access the magical world.

Underworld myths abound throughout all the cultures of the world. These myths are meant to teach us several lessons, foremost being the finality of death. At the same time, these myths are often highly romantic, sending a hero or heroine into the underworld on an impossible quest: to bring someone you love back to the land of the living. We're probably all familiar with the story of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, Greek goddess of the harvest. The story that sparked my imagination was actually about the wife of a general (Roman, I think) who went to the underworld to beg for the return of her husband, who was being kept by the goddess of the dead. Or something like that: I'd heard it a long time ago in a class at Johns Hopkins from a poetry professor and by the time I decided to use it in the trilogy, many years had passed. I didn't know the exact story the professor had cited and he seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth. I was able to find a few myths that fit the general story but was not able to trace it back to the exact story. 

If you're unfamiliar with underworld myths, here are the two most famous ones to get you started:

   
Persephone’s story is the most famous of all the underworld tales and one that is full of love: love of the dark lonely god Hades for Persephone, the love of a mother for her daughter. Demeter’s daughter Persephone was abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld, so that she would be his bride. Demeter petitioned Zeus on her daughter’s behalf, and Zeus determined that Persephone could return as long as she had not eaten the food of the dead. While Persephone had refused to eat for most of her time in the underworld, she slipped up once, eating six pomegranate seeds. Zeus makes a King Solomon-like decision by allowing Persephone to split her time between the world above and the underworld. Every time Persephone is in the underworld with Hades, the mourning Demeter covers the earth in cold and snow, explaining the changing of the seasons.

·       The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is the inspiration for my book The Descent. When Eurydice, wife of the famed Greek minstrel Orpheus, dies, Orpheus goes into the Underworld to convince Hades and Persephone to let his wife return to him. His songs move them to grant his wish, with a catch: during their trip to the surface, Orpheus cannot look back at his wife. If he does, she must remain in the Underworld. You know what happens next: at the last minute, Orpheus’ curiosity wins out (can you blame him? The Greek gods are a notoriously tricky bunch) and he turns around, only to see his wife's shade disappear.