Don’t imitate. Interpret. Today’s writing tip comes from Peter Beston, an East Quoque, New York-based artist I had the pleasure of meeting during a recent taping for The Writer’s Dream. “Don’t imitate. Interpret.” It’s the advice Peter gives to aspiring painters, but of course his words can apply to any creative artist. When you imitate, you aim to replicate what another person has done; you essential take yourself out of the creative process. When you interpret, you embed your own viewpoint into your creation — you make sense of, add to, depict, question. When I think of “imitating,” I think of an assembly line, the mindless act of placing images on a canvas or sentences into a Word document — an act of the body rather than of the mind. When I think of “intepreting,” I think of a collaboration, a synergy between the mind and body. Although I’m sure there are those who believe that the act of trying to imitate alone will yield an interpretation, my feeling is that if the intention is only to duplicate what is already there, then the artist is not utilizing her most important asset: her point of view. And a well-developed point of view is what separates a beautiful work from a singular work.
My 15-year-old son said to me—as he, his brother, his sister and I were huddled under blankets last week during Hurricane Sandy and her aftermath which ravaged much of Long Island, New York City and New Jersey: “People do crazy things because of the blackout.”
Our power had gone out, and we had been listening to a battery-powered radio which—amid news reports of devastation, of flooding New York City tunnels and homes burning in Queens, New York—was warning of people who, desperate for gasoline, were cutting gas lines and starting fistfights, of local looting, and of men posing as utility workers and burglarizing homes when electricity-starved residents let them in with open arms.
“I think crises bring out the best or worst in people,” I said, stunned a bit by his statement, and many others that have come from my oldest son over the years. “If you’re a good person at heart, a crisis will bring out the best in you. If you’re not, I guess it can bring out the worst.” (A magnifier, as my husband calls it.)
For four nights, I sat in the dark with my three children—who, without the circular glow of one of our two camping lanterns, were not discernible at all sitting only inches away from me—wondering if every snap of a branch or creak of a gate outside was a potential threat to our safety. I had forgotten how dark darkness really was until the lights went out and how much of our lives relied upon a current through a wire or a signal in the air. During that time, my children and I clung to our smart phones and tablets, our only lifelines to the outside world, our connection to our neighbors and our old life.
That first morning after the hurricane, after the winds had died down and the sun peeked out from behind low-lying gray clouds, I awoke, happy to see my children asleep around me in the lower-level den, where we had all spent the night in order to be safe from falling trees. I slipped on my shoes, a baseball cap and a jacket and ventured outside to survey the damage to the neighborhood. It was a strange feeling not knowing what to expect when I opened the front door, kind of like Dorothy opening the door to Oz: What would I see outside? How much damage would there be? Was our home intact?
Last night, I had my first book signing for Baby Grand at Book Revue in Huntington, N.Y. — the go-to place for book signings on Long Island (Nelson DeMille will be there tonight, Valerie Bertinelli tomorrow night). More than 100 people came out to support me, braving the rain and the parking. I was completely overwhelmed. A truly great evening. For photos from the event, you can visit the Making ‘Baby Grand’ Facebook page. And here is a video snippet of my presentation where I talk about the inspiration behind Don Bailino, the villain of Baby Grand.
I met today’s featured debut author Charlene Knadle at the book signing of a mutual friend, Jeb Ladouceur, at the wonderful independent bookstore, Book Revue, in Huntington, New York. I’ll be back at Book Revue this coming Monday, October 15—this time for my own book signing! I’ll be speaking, Q&Aing and signing copies of my debut novel, Baby Grand. Yippee!
Name of book: Paper Lovers
Book genre: Suspense/Mystery/Romance
Date published: June 2005
What is your day job? I teach at Suffolk County Community College.
What is your book about? Dana Ritz, a.k.a. Charlotte Ruth, who writes romance novels, attends a banquet where writers exchange books. She meets a man who writes romances under a female pseudonym, Roberta Rhodes; she’s been curious about him and has read his earlier books. She goes with him to his car where he has copies of his latest. He throws her into the car and takes off. At his residence are four other women—some of whom she recognizes. Unlike herself, they are happy to be under his domination. Her presence inadvertently disrupts the peace; troubles ensue. With difficulty, she devises a means for escape. There is a trial, at which surprising events and revelations occur.
Why did you want to write this book? I liked the idea of combining the genres of suspense, mystery, and romance, but the trigger for the book was a dream that gripped me.In the book, it is only a half-page scene, but it was the seed for the whole drama.
What would you say is the most challenging part of writing a book? That’s really hard to say; there are so many challenges. For one thing, there’s the old cliché that “life interferes.” But once you begin writing and know in a general sense what your story is and who the characters are, it isn’t hard at all. Each bit of writing suggests the next. Then you have to stop to deal with other responsibilities. It’s important to find on-going time to write.
As is the tradition of this blog, on Tuesdays I usually feature first-time authors as part of my Debut Author Q&A series. This week, I thought perhaps I’d share my own interview on The Writer’s Dream, a public access television show taped on Long Island on which authors discuss the writing, publishing and marketing of their books. Some of you may know that I am the original moderator of this program — and still appear as such from time to time — but for this episode, which was taped in late July, I hand over the moderator seat to executive producer Linda Frank who interviews me about the road to publication for Baby Grand.
Last month, I did my first reading for Baby Grand as part of the Summer Gazebo Series in Oceanside, New York.
And when I was deciding what excerpt I would choose for the event, I just thought I’d start from the beginning and read Chapter 1 — seemed like a logical place, right?
But I began watching some YouTube videos of authors who had been featured at the Gazebo over the years and realized that Chapter 1 was going to be a poor choice. Why? Well, even though Baby Grand is a thriller, there’s really not much action right off the bat, and my main characters don’t appear until Chapter 2 and beyond. Yes, Chapter 1 is a wonderful beginning to the novel, but, by itself, is by no means suitable as a representation of the entire work. As writer-friend Roz Morris wrote in a recent post about how she went about selecting an excerpt for a reading, beginnings are “for settling down with, not standing up.” I needed an excerpt that not only featured a few of my major players but one that had a little more suspense, something that grabbed listeners and made them want to know more, without giving too much away, of course.
Profanity was also an issue. There are characters in Baby Grand who have a penchant for the F word, so those scenes were out, because I had been instructed to select an excerpt that was more basic cable than premium channel.
What to choose? What to choose? I mean, there are 62 chapters in Baby Grand!
I began to narrow down the possibilities. The excerpt had to be a chapter that was early on in the novel or else too much of the plot could be given away. But it couldn’t be too early, because I needed things to be set in motion to make it more interesting for the listener. There was the profanity issue, yes, and I also had to think about timing — I had been given a ten-minute slot to fill and was told I could not go over, because there would be four other readers (two poets, a fellow fiction writer and a nonfiction writer) there that night as well.
Somehow in my freelance writing frenzy – and it HAS been quite the frenzy over the past few weeks – I managed to forget it was Tuesday yesterday until late in the evening – when I was too tired to restart my laptop, which explains today’s appearance of this week’s Debut Author Q&A. Hmmm… Me thinks a nest of vampires might find their way to Long Island if today’s featured author, Martin Tracey, a horror writer, has his way. :)
Name of book: Beneath the Floodlights
Book genre: Horror
Date published: July, 11 2011
What is your day job? Performance and Analysis Manager
What is your book about? The book features around a nest of vampires and a Birmingham soccer team who are relegated from the English Premier League. The team are seemingly rescued by a mysterious new manager from Transylvania, Professor Cezar Prodanescu, and his stable of young superstars – who also happen to be the nest of vampires! Once darkness falls and the floodlights glow, their powers enable the team to win games by incredible margins. Buried nearby is the world’s first vampire, and Cezar’s plan is to resurrect a clone from the extracted DNA of his ancient bones. But Cezar did not legislate for falling in love with human girl, Lily, or for acquiring such admiration for team captain and local hero, Johnny Knox, and the soccer team’s other human players. But as Cezar struggles with his emotions and attempts to shield his identity as a master vampire, his finest example, star striker Andrei, is eager to keep things on course.
Why did you want to write this book? Like most English boys, I have always been interested in football (soccer) since a very young age. I also have a deep interest in the supernatural, so when I decided to write a novel I wished to combine these two worlds as I have an avid interest in each, which fortunately resulted in a unique combination and original twist on the traditional vampire tale as we know it. In almost all vampire tales vampires seem to possess supernatural powers when darkness falls so it made sense that the vampires in my story would make great soccer players “Beneath the Floodlights.” Being a native of Birmingham, UK, I wanted to set the book around the area that I know and love so well.
Write neatly. Last week, my 14-year-old son Griffin came to the rescue with a terrific writing tip. This week, my mind is on the copy-edited manuscript of Baby Grand, which was given to me on Thursday to go through, so as I sat down to write today’s tip, drawing a blank, I thought I’d solicit ideas from my two oldest children, who had the unfortunate position of sitting with me at the dining room table. Without missing a beat, my 13-year-old daughter Helena suggested I tell writers to try a new genre. Great idea, but I covered this already with Writing Tip #47. Griffin, with a mouthful of cereal, suggested I tell writers not to be afraid to cut or edit their manuscript. Already discussed in Writing Tip #24.
Then my teenagers lost interest in me and left the table before I could pester them any more. But, lo and behold, my 9-year-old son Jack came barreling down the stairs, so I asked him what he thought I should write for today’s tip. He thought a moment and said, “Make sure your writing is neat.” God, he is adorable!
But, you know, he’s right. This is a problem that I have. I’m one of those writers who likes to pull off the road to jot down ideas, and I can’t tell you how many times I haven’t been able to read whatever it was that I had jotted down in such a frenzy, because my handwriting was too sloppy. Several writers in the Long Island Writers Group lamented the same thing when we met this month. I can only imagine how difficult it is for all you novel writers who still draft on yellow legal pads or notepaper. I don’t know how you do it.
What I do now instead is type those ideas into my phone, instead of using pen and paper. I find I have a better chance of deciphering what it was I was trying to remember. But, yes, there are those times when my phone isn’t handy, so I go back to the tried-and-true pen and paper — or crayon and napkin, whatever’s available. But, as Jack said, that only works if you can remember to write neatly enough. So I try to.
Where do you jot down story ideas? Do you use pen and paper or an electronic device?
Today’s featured debut author (our first of the new year!) is Jennifer Cusumano, a freelancer, consultant and professor whose book Angels Around Her was published in September 2011. Welcome, Jennifer!
Name: Jennifer Cusumano
Name of book: Angels Around Her
Book genre: Romance/spiritual
Date published: September 2011
Publisher: Inkwater Press
What is your day job? I teach communications and media at several Long Island colleges as an adjunct, and I continue to consult with corporations and write freelance.
What is your book about? I think it is a book about our understanding of love as we age and the decisions we make. Of course, time and experience are great teachers. Sometimes, however, by the time we learn the lessons and come to understand ourselves better, we are either too comfortable or too afraid, or simply just not in a position to make a really big change. This book lets that happen for our heroine in a very magical, supernatural way.
Why did you want to write this book? My sister and I had this idea over 12 to 13 years ago. We wanted to write a book for people who could identify with the theme of creating a more authentic life for yourself, whether that be finding the right partner, or a new career, or children. After we wrote it, it sat in the closet for over ten years. Then, in the wake of all the upheaval of the last few years, the economic crisis, war, negative media… I just felt the time was right to get a happy, hopeful message out there.
What would you say is the most challenging part of writing a book? Working out the story and how the characters’ actions all affect the progression of the plot. We actually had several outlines and datelines we had to follow because the book keeps transitioning from the present to the past; it spans 25 years, so there was a lot of back story to tell.
Did you conduct any kind of research in order to write this book? We already had some knowledge about our Long Island, Manhattan and Paris settings, but we had to research so much more as landscapes and venues change so much over time. Actually, the research was some of the most fun we had with the book.
What motivates you to write? I’m a sporadic writer. I wish I could say I was one of those people who writes all the time, but I’m not. I really feel like I have to have something meaningful to say. Because I write for a living, by assignment, I’m often writing for other people or for academic pursuits. It’s rare that I get the time to just write for myself. I have to get better at making the time to do that. If it were not for my sister’s idea and nudging me to do this initially, I probably would not have written this book. Even then, it sat for 10 years after I finished it. Then, a couple of years ago, I decided to dust it off, reinvent it, re-edit it, and really aggressively started to market it. I’ve had so much positive feedback from people, I’m glad I did it.
Did you experience writer’s block? Well, it took three years to write, part-time, because I was working full-time. And then another two years recently to re-write and edit it. So I didn’t experience writer’s block so much as writer’s interference! Life just gets in the way sometimes, but it gave me the time to re-examine the story and the dialogue.
How did you go about finding a publisher? Why did you decide on Inkwater Press? After some initial rejections from traditional publishers, I went to BEA. I thought I’d find an agent or publisher, but instead what I found were all these indie authors who inspired me to either self-publish or look into author subsidized publications. I didn’t want a vanity press who would publish anything for money. Inkwater struck just the right chord with me. They publish beautiful books. They only take on a few projects a year so they really have to believe the book is of some quality and will sell. They offered me a fair contract and I chose to work with them.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about writing a book? Hmm… I think there are probably many, but I would have to say that it will be a profitable venture. Just because you write a book, doesn’t mean it will be well received or profitable. I didn’t go into this with that intention. In fact, I assumed it would not make money. If it does, that will be a pleasant surprise!
What was your favorite aspect of the writing process for this book? Writing for a variety of voices. Getting into the minds of each character and then trying to get the vernacular right for each character… that was a lot of fun. I hope I did a good job of that.
What tools/methods have you employed to promote your book? What advice would you give to writers regarding promotion? I do a lot of in-person appearances at book clubs and local shows, fairs. I also have some retail book sellers carrying the book. But I would have to say social media, by far, is the biggest and most important tool today. It’s very, very time consuming, and there’s a lot of strategizing I still have to learn. If you can afford it, hire a social media expert in PR and promotion.
How has life changed for you since the publication of your book? It hasn’t; it’s just busier because now I have to spend every free minute that I’m not teaching or freelancing promoting the book, or going to events, or researching new venues to sell the book. Phew! I’m exhausted!
Do you find yourself obsessively checking sales stats? Never.
Is there a second book in the works? There may be. I’m actually working on a movie script I’ve had on the backburner for a while and would like to give that some attention. But I did create a blog associated with the book where I have posed a question associated with the main theme of the book. I was hoping to collect people’s stories, if they wanted to share them, but so far, I think people have been reluctant to post a story. I thought the material might spur a second book, but we’ll see…
My favorite last question: Oprah once famously said that there is no such thing as luck, without preparation and a moment of opportunity. Would you agree or disagree with regard to your own success as a writer? Well, I agree with Oprah’s statement, but I can’t say I’ve experienced much success yet as a writer yet! The book’s only been out since September. When I hit the 5,000 sales mark, or a big agent wants me or I get a movie deal… then maybe I can speak to the notion of success as a writer. But, seriously, it depends how you define success. Am I successful if my work is published, but isn’t selling? What if it sells like blazes, but the work itself is trash? Are those writers “successful” or just savvy marketers? I think society mostly defines success in terms of financial success, but I would consider myself successful as a writer if my book touched some people, covered my initial investment, and maybe generated at least some income so I could embark on another project.
I attended a reading and book signing on Wednesday by Long Island thriller writer Jeb Ladouceur, who appeared at the Book Revue in Huntington. Jeb spoke about the writing process, read an except from his forthcoming book, Inked!, which will be published in 2012, and also signed copies of his latest book, The Oba Project.
I had the pleasure of meeting Jeb earlier this year when he appeared on my show, The Writer’s Dream, during which we had a lovely and informative chat about the writer’s life:
It was nice to see a sizable group of people turn out for Jeb’s reading. I’ve gone to quite a few of these things over the years, and I’m sad to say that attendance is typically low — with the exception of readings by celebrities or other high-profile folks which usually draw a crowd (my library recently had one of the “real housewives” come chat about her new cookbook and from what I hear it was standing room only).
As a writer, I think it’s important not only to support fellow writers, but to learn about other writers’ processes — sometimes what you hear can jumpstart or help you work through a particular block you may have in your writing or perhaps just broaden your understanding of writing in general. For instance, I found it interesting that Jeb never visited the towns or cities he wrote about in his books. He didn’t want the realities of those places to stifle his creativity in any way. I, on the other hand, took a road trip to Albany, New York, the setting for much of Baby Grand, while in I was in the throes of writing my first draft in order to get a feel for the place and make my descriptions more authentic.
Congratulations to Jeb for a successful event. I look forward to attending many, many more.