Interviewing for Writers – Part II:

MARK_TWAIN(1883)_p490_-_THE_INTERVIEW

Interviewing for Writers – Part II

In the last few weeks, I’ve posted about ‘Interviewing for Writers’ (see my posts ‘Channeling your Inner Columbo’ and ‘Interviewing for Writers – Part I).

In those posts, I encouraged you, my fellow writers, to leave your dark and dingy garrets, take a big breath of fresh spring air and get out there in the field and find some ‘experts’ to interview in hopes of bringing a more informed and authentic tone to your writing.

Many of you wrote to say how much you appreciated this gentle reminder and also appreciated some of the tips I’d discovered over the years. Tips aimed at getting the most out of any interview. Well, I’ve got a new one:  ‘how to know when to just shut up and listen’.

You see, in preparing for these posts, I had the opportunity to interview someone I’d hoped to talk to for a very long time. My wonderful friend and tennis teammate Liane, who just happens to be a retired deputy sheriff.

Cool! I thought.

Guns, pepper spray, tasers, handcuffs! Here was my chance for an inside glimpse at some real life police procedural issues and crime scene investigation techniques.

My pulse raced. My heart fluttered. My curiosity galloped unchecked.

What wonderful nuggets I’d mine for future stories. What wealth of little known technical details I’d unearth.

In truth, my actual interview turned out to be so much more interesting and unexpected than I dreamed. Partially because, early on, I decided to throw out the ‘rule book’ and just shut up and listen.

In the end, my ‘interview with the Sheriff’ proved a powerful reminder to this writer that strong characters drive plot. And interviews.

Some Background:

Liane lives in a home not unlike mine, in a peaceful gated community in California. Her home is surrounded by a courtyard pool and lush garden fringed with palm trees. The back terrace overlooks golfers scooting up the fairway in their electric carts as they whack their way up the 8th fairway.

But Liane’s life wasn’t always like this, as she explained in our interview.

The excerpts that follow are taken almost verbatim from our interview with some understandable changes of names and locations to protect my subject’s privacy. Before we commenced, I explained to Liane only that I was doing this for a blog post for fellow writers and that my topic was ‘interviewing for writers’. As a retired peace officer, Liane knows a thing or two about ‘interviewing’ and I think appreciated the idea that writers would actually get ‘out there’ in the field and interview people for their stories.

I also explained to Liane that on a personal level, I was also interested in her experience as one of California’s pioneering female deputy sheriffs and, in particular, what factors in her life motivated her to take that career path. 

Liane spoke, I typed. I type fast and she proved extraordinarily generous in sharing her story with this writer. 

I tried to take down her words with a minimum of interruption (hard for me), but I think you will appreciate the ‘flow’ of the interview and seeing it in this form may help you with your own interviews.

As friends and confidants, occasionally we digressed into areas not strictly about ‘the interview’ (most of which I have have omitted here, as occasionally we got a little bit sidetracked).

You can decide for yourself where my questions worked, and where they missed. In the end, I’m delighted with the result and hope you will be too.

Liane’s Story:

Paula: I’m interested in your early life and what caused you to join the sheriff’s office?

 (Here, my hope was to start with a fairly open-ended type question). 

Liane: I grew up in California. Dad was in the military, in a mobile construction battalion. He was a carpenter by trade. They built things. They repaired things for the military all over the world. CEEBEEs – for construction battalion, but they were known as the “SEABEE’s.

Paula: I know, I saw the movie with John Wayne, Right? The Fighting SeaBees.

What about your mother?

Liane: My Mom was raised in Long Beach, her mother and father had come to California from Plymouth, England where my grandfather worked in the shipyards. His company moved him from England to Long Beach and my mom was born in Long Beach.

Paula: Did she work outside the home?

(Here, I asked this question solely because it was in the back of my mind that perhaps Liane’s mother had been a strong role model. That perhaps she had influenced Liane to seek what, at the time, was a very unconventional career for a woman).

Liane: (Pausing) My mom contracted polio when I was 2 years old. You may remember that there were big epidemics and scares all across the nation in the 1940’s. When Mom fell ill she was confined to Rancho Los Amigos, the long term care facility for polio in Southern California. She was in an iron lung for a while then eventually learned to walk with two crutches. Then one crutch. She could scoot across a room and smack your butt faster than you could blink. But really, they had nothing in the way of rehabilitation like they’d have today.

I remember she had several different surgeries. She had falls and was unsteady on her feet. Broken knees. She went through a lot, physically. She had four girls and I was the oldest, only my mother’s family came from England, so Mom always said, ‘you are the ‘eldest’ instead of ‘oldest’.

Paula: Did she have an English accent?

Liane: Mother did not have an English accent, but my grandmother did.

Paula: What happened when your mother got ill?

Liane: During the war, my Dad was overseas on the US Indianapolis; deployed in the Pacific. I don’t know… he may not even have been notified she was ill.

I know we lived with my mother’s family, – her parents and her sisters. She –my Mom– had a support group in Long Beach. We lived with her older sister because the polio hospital at Rancho Las Amigos was near Long Beach, and that is where she had to go.

Do you know how they discovered whether you had polio? They’d ask you to put you chin on your chest, and she could not. And that is when they diagnosed her and she found out she had polio.

When Mom got ill, I stayed with my mother’s family. I had my aunt and my grandmother, – we stayed with both of them at various times. My aunt– she was my mother’s oldest sister, –my mother was the baby. But her oldest sister, the one that I stayed with was like (Liane pauses) like the ‘Matriarch’ Very English, married to a lovely man. Uncle Lloyd. He built model railroads.

(You have no idea here how I had to resist asking about the model railroads, but even I realize you need to stay on track at times, so instead I asked):

Paula: So you were the eldest? Did the other children live with you too?

Liane: My mother ended up having four children: me before polio, one during polio, and two after she had recovered. After she’d spent a lot of time in rehab. But she still walked on crutches.

(Here, I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that my expression was not exactly neutral, since next Liane commented:

Liane: Even as a young person, a little girl, I remember thinking, “What were you thinking?” I knew where this was going. I was the eldest. Mom can’t work. Dad’s overseas. Guess who is taking care of everyone?

I wasn’t even a teenager yet when I thought this. My second sister was born when I was just two, about the time Mom’s polio was discovered. Then two more girls after that. My mother’s sisters also had girls, so I had all girl cousins, except for one of her siblings who had a girl and a boy. He was the only boy.

By the time I was six, all my sisters were born. A four year old, a two year old and a baby. And me, “the Eldest”.

Four little girls, six and under. But we did have lots of support from the family.

I remember that by the time I was 7 or 8, I did lots of fetching and carrying; cooking and cleaning, under Mom’s supervision. She could walk with one crutch and she cooked in the kitchen while I mostly did the dishes and cleaned the house and also did the chores around the yard, because remember my Dad was also not there. Sometimes, we were on military bases where the yard and outside areas were taken care of by the base, but mostly not.

Note: It was at this point in the interview that I totally abandoned any notion of interviewing Liane about her life as a peace officer. I recognized early on that this was an extraordinary story of an extraordinary person.

A story worth telling. I decided to just run with it, and see what I discovered. Sometimes, you just need to recognize when to rip up the ‘playbook’ and this was one of those moments. My ‘sheriff interview’, I decided, would just have to wait for another day. Instead, I jumped on the chance to discover something about ‘character’.

Paula: Did you always live in California?

Liane: Mostly California, but sometimes my Dad would go where the construction battalion’s were building. The only time we got to go along was when he was sent to the Aleutians, up in Alaska. They shipped up private tutors for our education. The Island was called Adak. It wasn’t that far north. The Aleutians go way down and we were at the Southern tip. I remember we got snow but it wasn’t bad. Mostly I remember it as a great adventure with these fabulous private tutors for our school. A school with only four kids in my class.

Paula: Was there one teacher in particular that inspired you?

Liane: The name of the teacher I liked so much… I can’t remember her name! I can see her…

When I was in high school in Alaska, I had more than one teacher. I remember three different ones for different subjects: math, literature, and general education. Mr. Nicholls was the male teacher and there was a Ms. Sutter or Sutton, — she was one of the women teachers.

(Liane’s voice intensifies with enthusiasm).

I remember it was really academically stimulating. So much more so than my public high school in California. I loved being at school. I loved education. It was an escape for me, being away from all those baby girls. Being responsible for just myself. My learning. My homework.

Paula: How old were you when you went to Alaska?

Liane: 14 when we went to Alaska. For some reason, when I first started school, I started in the 1st grade. It ended up that I was always a year younger than anyone else. So when I graduated I was only 17, when everyone else was 18.

Paula: Did you graduate in Alaska?

Liane: That was one of my great sorrows. I loved Alaska. I got to do a lot of things. Had privileges and freedom and education. I remember it was almost like being in a small private school. Then suddenly, two months before I was supposed to graduate, we were moving.

Paula: Just like that, with no warning?

Liane: I recall we knew a little in advance. My family was trying to plan so the kids didn’t have to move. But my Dad’s battalion moved and he couldn’t be excluded, so back to Oxnard, and back to Oxnard High. I had friends… I knew some of the military kids. (Liane shrugs). I went from being privately tutored in Alaska back to a great, big class.

I didn’t like it at all.

Paula: And then what happened? (Here, I am trying to get back to my goal of asking open ended questions, just let ‘Liane’ tell me what she thinks is important’.

Liane: I graduated, I wanted to become a nurse, so I was taking community college courses, the basics, and I needed to work, so I went to work at Camarillo State Mental Institution.

I’d just turned 18.

 

Paula: What was that like?

Liane: They had some wonderful training, specialized training, to be a psychiatric technician (like a nurses’ aide). I learned a lot about mental illness. We had dorms for the patients, with private areas for the more unbalanced, those that were severely mentally ill and violent. But for the rest of the population, almost like ‘dorms’ or wards in a regular hospital.
Most of the patients wore state issued nightgowns and things, we went through some very advanced training – classroom training and training with people on the ward – learning physical restraint techniques and how to be non-confrontational.
(Liane pauses and looks at me).

It always is amazing to me they would hire younger people, like me at just 18, to do this kind of work. I got paid something like $300 a month. I thought I was doing quite well.

Anyway, I stayed at the Camarillo State Hospital at least a year and I found the work interesting – we were drudges. We cleaned… did all sorts of things, not just working with patients. They were happy to have us scrub the floors. I still remember using one of these giant industrialized buffers.

(How is that for a striking visual image?

A seventeen-year-old girl, rolling down the hallways of the state mental hospital, with a giant buffing machine).

I could hardly remember the thing.

But we’d go through 6 to 9 weeks of training and learned all about mental illness (book learning) then some training about how people act when they have mental illness, how you react and fit in… what your roll is supposed to be. And then you get there and find you are scrubbing floors. I guess we had some naïve notion we would be working, helping these people. But instead, there I was, scrubbing floors.

I was young, very young, they later changed the rules. Later, they (the State) could still hire them that young, but later they could only work in particular areas of the hospital.

Paula: Did you experience much violence?

Liane: Sometimes they (the patients) would flip out. Would want to hit someone or grab someone’s hair. We didn’t work alone. We had pagers. But most of the violent people were segregated. They called them dorms but they were really cell blocks.

We wouldn’t get the more violent people, they had specific staff for those inmates. But we sometimes supported them.
But this was a state run hospital and the pay, the benefits… sick leave… all pretty good.

Paula: Did you have any friends that went to work there or how did you know to apply there (at the State Mental Hospital).

 

Liane: I was looking for work that would allow me to get away from living with Mom and my sisters. I took both the County and State exams and this was the first one that came open.

My next youngest sister, – she was angry when I left. The younger ones spent a lot of times with various aunts and uncles. I guess you’d call it a gypsy kind of life.

Paula: Was your mom angry when you left home?

Liane: Mom grew up the baby of a family. They were well-to-do. She was naive when I was growing up, I think when she met my Dad, she was 18 and he was 19 and her family were appalled and did not like him at all. He was just a kid from the mid-west. His people were farm people. They did not know his family, where was he from. Nothing for them to connect with. Not what they’d planned for her.

I had a one-sided view of that all my life.

Always from my Mom’s family.

Never Dad’s family.

We only once went to Indiana where my Dad was from. I’m not sure why it didn’t work out. We went out to the farm and then soon we were back in California.

When Dad got out of the military, he worked at various construction jobs. We were very poor. He was a carpenter, so always dependent on who was hiring and whether he could get work.

He eventually went back into the service, they had benefits and pay and that’s how he got back in (to the military) at an older age.

Liane: Anyway, when I worked at Camarillo, I got my own apartment at the beach. I met my first husband at a military base function.

(Liane shakes her head, almost in disbelief).

 

We were such babies.

So, anyway, we got married, because you couldn’t have sex if you didn’t get married and we wanted to have sex of course.

So we’d been married a couple of months and we talked about going to where he was from, going to Pennsylvania. His plan is to live with his Mom and his Stepdad until he got organized and a job. His mother was the whole mean step mother thing. very Irish, – she had such plans for him, and in her eyes, he’d married this California tramp who ruined his life.

In Pennsylvania, everything was like being in a foreign country to me.

They were Catholic. I converted. We’d always gone to the Protestant ‘church-of-the-day’, but I became a Catholic convert in the days when there was no birth control. In hindsight, it was horrible living with his parents – they had two girls and a boy, (my husband) and his mother was an Irish Catholic mother and he was the only son. He was going to rule the world and be president of the US. She was passive aggressive in front of her son, then outright nasty to me when he wasn’t around.

But his sisters were nice. One of them lived three houses down, the other a few blocks away, and they were married to very nice men, so I had some good support.

In Pennsylvania, we got our own apartment, but my husband, he could not find a job outside of the military. So we moved back to California. Where my parents were. He (my husband) went back into the military, and was re-stationed, and I went to live with my parents until we got our own place.

Our first child, our son was born in 1961. But then a couple of years later I had an ectopic pregnancy and had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance. I passed out, but they had to operate and do a partial hysterectomy. It was four more years after that before I got pregnant again, – I had only one working fallopian tube and ovary. I didn’t think I could get pregnant, but then later I had a girl.

 

(Here, Liane is jumping around a bit here, but I don’t want to interrupt the narrative, because I can tell she is thinking back and remembering these very emotional events).            

Anyway, back to when we were first moved back to California. I had our son, and I didn’t… I was very Catholic, I knew things weren’t working, I made a huge decision to get a divorce. We were kids. He was running around, having affairs. I was maybe 19 or 20. I was so young; I didn’t know what to do. Looking back though, I was quite mature for 19 or 20. I knew (the way things were with my husband) it wasn’t right for my son.

The priest said… (Liane pauses) the priest didn’t say I would be ex-communicated. He said I would be a sinner in the eyes of the church. I said then: “well, forgive me father for I have sinned.”

I still went to church for a long time. I remember they had a special room, — off to one side of the alter,–for the moms and children.

(Again, as the interviewer, I know that Liane is reminiscing, wandering a bit as she remembers, which is only natural, but I don’t want to interrupt the narrative flow, as almost everything she tells me is a surprise to me and I am impressed by her courage and character and want to learn more).

So, by this time, I’m separated, living with my parents back in Oxnard, then I got a place of my own, had babysitters who could take care of the baby and I went back to work, back to the Camarillo State Hospital.

I worked all the time, went home to the baby. I didn’t go out. I had friends from work, some of the older women, maybe in their thirties? They sort of took me under their wing. I remember the ones who were so wonderful to me were the middle-aged Mexican women, because I think they had sympathy for me. Part of their culture was to get married young; have babies young. They were wonderful.

The Church may not have recognized divorce, but they sure knew.

I went back to my first husband.

Part the Church, part because life was hard, part because I was still in love with him. I can truthfully look both my children in the eye and say they were ‘love’ children, at least on my part. I didn’t even think I could get pregnant, then my daughter (Liane smiles) she was my miracle.

When the second baby was born, we were still in the Oxnard area. We stayed together for about years, off and on. We did not get divorced at that time after all. By then, we were in the height of the Vietnam war, and he was in the military.

Then, when he got out, he joined the Sherriff’s department.

Paula: He did? (I’m surprised, because this is Liane’s story of becoming a Sheriff, and this is the first I’ve heard of her first husband having been one too).

Liane: Yes, he got out of the military, joined the Sherriff’s department. We had the two kids and I worked here and there at little dime store jobs once in awhile but I missed working. Yet, at the same time, I felt it was really important to be home for the kids. But then, we separated again.

I remember I was looking for jobs that offered benefits: sick benefits, vacation benefits, and they had a competition for civilian jobs for the county of LA and my fist work position was at one of the jails and that is how I got into the Sheriff’s department.

I was only there a week and already so many were saying “you are so much more capable than this.” I was making $300 a month, yet the deputies were making $600 a month.

I remember saying: “I couldn’t do a job like that.”

But they talked me into taking the test, so I did.

Paula: And what was that like?

 

Liane: There were blocks of tests, physical, mental… agility.

Paula: What did your husband think about this?

Liane: By then we’d separated. He thought it was less support for him to pay. I didn’t want his support, I told him to take his support and what to do with it.

(Liane smiles).

And it was wonderful, I applied and I got a phone call that I got in! I remember very mixed feelings. Relief, fear, panic. What have I done? And happiness. Man, I’m going to make this money, I’m going to support myself, I’m not going to have to worry about how I was going to look after the kids.

I was 24 years old.

Within a year, I bought my first house in Garden Grove, California.

Here, I look at my watch.

 

I’ve been at Liane’s for almost two hours.

 

I know that I’ve stayed longer than I’d planned. I’m fascinated by ‘her story’, a story of courage and determination, born of circumstance and necessity. I know I haven’t asked all the questions I’d planned to ask about her pioneering work as one of California’s first female deputy sheriff’s.

 

But I’m not going away empty handed. Liane’s story reminds me that in our writing, if our characters are to be believable and heroic, we must craft for them a ‘backstory’ as compelling as Liane’s story.

 

 

We must find our protagonist’s motivation; their inner hopes and fears; that which drives not just your characters, but also your plot. Ultimately, you must find that which drives your story, forward and keeps your readers wanting to ‘read on’, just as, in my interview, I wanted to keep Liane talking, to find out ‘what happened next’.

 

 

I still have a million questions for Liane. My writer’s curiosity is unsatiated.

 

I still want to ask her about what it was like at the Academy.

 

Where she was assigned when she completed her training and started in the field.

 

What those early experiences were like and whether she was lonely and frightened?

 

Whether she was ‘accepted’ by her male colleagues or met with resistance and prejudice?

 

Whether she reads crime fiction and, if so, what she thinks about the way peace officers, (particularly women police officers), are portrayed?

 

Oh yeah, and I still want to ask Liane about the handcuffs and the pepper spray and the tasars.

 

Sure, I can ask my writing buddy (Vancouver police officer Sean Sommerville, who writes under the pen name, Sean Slater) about these things. But I’d like a woman’s perspective, too. But all this will wait for another day.

 

Liane and I have tennis team practice this afternoon and it is time to wind thing up. But today, I know my “writer’s time” was time well spent.

Some photos I looked up afterwards, because I was curious:

1. Iron Lung Ward, Los Amigos Hospital:

Rancho Las Amigos Iron Lung Ward 

A very interesting video on the history of Camarillo State Mental Hospital

camarillo_state_hospital

Adak, Alaska

Adak - GE screen shot ialeuta001p4

The memorable value of writing about your personal adventures.

Karalee’s Post #110

Well, Joe’s post about Travel Writing – Why do it? and Helga’s post about Branding for Writers AND the fact that Star Wars: Episode Vll – The Force Awakens is coming this December, I feel I need to talk about my real life experience being in the exact setting where history was made in Star Wars episodes II and IV.

How did my family and I get there? And where is there?

In 2001 our family set out on an adventure.  Both my husband and I had sold our businesses and we decided to take the family overseas for one year that extended into two. We rented our house, bought a sailboat in the south of France and circumnavigated the Mediterranean Sea spanning the time of 9/11 in 2001 and the American invasion in Iraq in 2003.

The sights we saw were amazing, the experiences even more, and being the distance education “teachers” for our children was both more difficult and more awarding than ever anticipated.

photo by David Greer

photo by David Greer

 

Like the time when our daughter in Grade 7 was learning about Roman history and her textbook referred to  an aquaduct in Tarragona. Karma was aligned with that day as our boat was moored near Tarragona and we simply took the bus to the aqueduct and were allowed to walk across it!

 

 

 

Many educational opportunities arose daily, but a very memorable trip was going to the Sahara Desert in Tunisia.

photo by David Greer

photo by David Greer

 

To Matmata.

A city branded by Star Wars.

A city where tourists still visit in numbers to see where Star Wars was filmed.

 

 

Our family had a wonderful couple of days here. Even though our children weren’t Star Wars fans at the time, they had fun in the very unique and strange environment.

photo by David Greer

photo by David Greer

 

 

Like staying in a Troglodyte hotel. Our room was on the far left. Even though it was December and very cold at night, the thermal effect from the earth kept us nice and warm without the addition of any other heat source.

 

 

 

It was exciting to visit the area, hear the camels make similar noises heard in the Star Wars movies and see people walking around wearing similar clothing too! (We know where those details came from now, which makes re-watching the movies more interesting!)

photo by David Greer

photo by David Greer

 

And it was very cool to visit the Star Wars bar in the Sidi Driss Hotel! We stopped to have a drink, our minds wandering  and wondering what it was like with all the Star Wars characters walking around in there.

 

 

My husband, David Greer, did an awesome job writing and keeping record of our trip. Even twelve years later it is entertaining to reread about our adventure.

So thank-you Joe and Helga for helping me remember about our travels and how brands play a strong part in entertainment!

Now I need to watch all the old Star Wars movies before December. What a nice thing to look forward to.

_______________________________________

Writing Progress: (blank for a reason)

Books I’m reading: The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson.

Family Happenings: 

  • A celebration dinner for 30 at our house this Saturday to celebrate our middle son’s graduation from UBC.
  • continued preparation for our daughter’s wedding in July
  • planned weekend to watch our youngest son play in Ultimate Frisbee tournament in Walla Walla, Washington.
  • planning trip to help my mother and a friend plant their gardens.

Perspective Photos:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Writing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travel Writing – Why Do It?

Joe’s Post #137

Travel Writing – Why do it?

DSC00216It’s funny how much writing we actually do that we don’t count as real writing. We focus on novels, short stories, page counts, when the coffee shop opens… you know, what we call the important stuff.

But so many people take time out of their valuable trip to record their experiences. Not many think, oh gosh, I’m going to publish my adventures and make millions and get to meet Ellen. But many do think that what they’re experiencing is worth writing about. For themselves. For their friends. For therapy. Whatever. Bottom line is, they sit down and write.

shakespeareFor me, I began by writing everything down by hand way, way back in the 80’s. If you’d have asked me why, I’m sure I could have told you. It was my first big trip out of my small town to England, a place full of history, a place that had spawned Dickens and Shakespeare and Churchill, a place in which so many stories had been set.

How could you not want to go there?

How could you not want to write about what you saw, what you ate, what you did?

And I did just that. With my little notebook and a pen, I’d write in the morning while others ate. I’d write in the pub or in a lineup while waiting to see a museum. I’d write before going to sleep and when I woke up.

Looking back, I’m amazed I did so much work, that I was able to carve out time to get writing done.

But I felt it was important. It was a way to process my experiences. It was a way to remember details I knew I’d forget.

tower of londonHowever, for that trip and years afterwards, I only wrote about stuff. Like, “I saw the tower of London today. It opened at 8am. It cost 15pounds. I thought that was a lot.” Sometimes I managed a detail like what a placed smelled like or how the coffee tasted or how funny people talked. Or I even tagged why a place might be important like.

Then one day, while sitting in the shade in Sienna, Italy, I realized I’d been doing it all wrong. I realized travel writing was more about the emotions and the experiences. Not so much what I saw as what I saw and felt about it.

It transformed my travel writing.

And transformed it in more ways than one. Not only did I try make others feel like they were with me in my adventures, I spent a TON more time writing about them. Soon, I was even including things like hooks in and out, themes and, gosh oh golly, humorous observations.

It’s a lot more work, but it’s far better than what was on the first floor of the British museum. If you want to check out those blogs, go here, here or here.

And as I read more travel writing blogs or books, I see that they, too, do their best to relay the experiences, not just the facts.

brysonIn that vein, if you want one of the greatest funny travel books ever, read Bill Bryson. If you want a few blogs to check out, go no further than Alison and Don’s.

So, when you travel, do you write about it?

If so, what makes you want to write about traveling?

*****

Best show last week – Ok, put down your laptop, stop watching any reality shows, it’s Game of Thrones time, a show so amazing, that I even watch all the credits.

Book that I’m reading at the moment –  Reading Sean Sommerville’s latest book. The Unforgiven. Man that guy can write.

Pages written on new book  3 weeks in, have hit my goal of 10 pages a week. I’m finding more time and, more importantly, finding my groove, again.

Social media update – If you like anything  on my step-dad site, or this blog, please follow or share on FB. Pretty please!

Best thing last week  Writing more, reading more, and Game of Thrones is on, so life is very, very good.

Worst thing  More doctor’s appointments. Nothing in our medical system moves quickly.

Fear pt 2 – Guest Blogger Sheila Watson

The 2nd part of Sheila Watson’s Blog about Fear. I think this will strike some chords with us all.

Fear – Part Two

We have (I hope) acknowledged that we are afraid when it comes to our “real” writing and that fear prevents us from writing.

This week I want to talk about why I think that is and what we can do about it.

We (writers) have two beings living inside us.  The first is our creative self and the other is our critical self.  These two sides of self are incompatible.  They don’t get along and they can’t both drive the bus.

Think of your creative side as a child on a playground.  Imagine the biggest, most elaborate, most amazing playground ever invented (whatever that looks like to you).  Your creative side wants to jump and climb and run and tumble and dig and swim and fly.

Then your critical self comes along like a prudish English nanny and starts to try to protect you from getting hurt.  Your critical self demands that you stop jumping and climbing and running and tumbling and flying.  She worries that you might fall, or get dirty or skin your knees or look foolish.  She tells you that playing is dangerous.  The nanny’s job is to make you afraid of what might happen if you play.   She makes you believe that the fear is real and that something really awful is going to happen if you play.

And it gets worse.  Your nanny — your critical self — does not know how to tell good stories.  She sucks at it.  I mean, she really, really sucks.  Just imagine the nanny trying to walk across the top of the monkey bars.  Not.  Going.  To.  Happen.

We need to lock nanny out of the playground.  At least until we get our playtime in.  We have to be able to play fearlessly.  We have to be able to write fearlessly.

So how do we do that?  How do we trick nanny into staying outside the playground gates?  Here are some ideas.  Let me know in the comments if you have any more.

Do fifteen minutes of “practice” at the beginning of each writing session.  Just write your story for fifteen minutes. Consider it a warm up; a practice run; playtime.  Then throw it away.   (Yes, really.)

Set the timer on your phone for one minute.  Write two sentences under that time pressure.  Repeat.  Then try four sentences in two minutes.  Eight in four.  Ten in five.  Ten in ten.

Set your ink color to white.  Just write.  Change the color and edit it later.  For now, just write.

Half and half.  Decide how much time you are going to devote to writing this day.  Write and play for half that time.  Then go back and fix it during the second half of your time.  Creative side first.  Critical side later.  Never on the playground at the same time.

Whatever it is you do to trick your nanny into staying out of the playground – remember that writing is the doing.  Do.  Write.  Write more.  Write fearlessly.

*****

Bio: Sheila Watson is a wife, a mom, a self-defense instructor, a 2nd degree black belt in Taekwon-do, a wanna-be chef, a dog companion and a writer of tall tales, fanciful stories, occasionally useful commentary and rather wordy status updates.

If you liked the blog, please follow us or share on FB (or any other form of social media-type thingees.)

What you never knew about bestsellers

bestsellers

Silk’s Post #126 — Okay, okay … this post really should be titled “What I never knew about bestsellers.” Maybe you’re even more of a book trivia geek than I am, and all this is old hat to you, but look at it this way: I got you to read this far on the slightly dubious claim of my title’s hook.

That should be your first clue that the hallowed term “bestseller” is a bit of a trickster.

Poking around the net for blog fodder today, I had one of those “I wonder” moments that often turn into deep wormholes of hypnotic surfing. What exactly is a bestseller? Surely there are some sort of defined metrics, like gold or platinum records in the heyday of the music business.

After all, there are a lot of books on the shelf that are labelled “bestseller” right there on the cover. They must have qualified for that claim somehow, right? Sold a certain number of copies … or flew off the shelves at some measurable rate of speed … or sold more copies than some defined group of other books.

I mean, you can’t just call your book a bestseller without something to back up your claim. Can you? The truth-in-advertising squad would drag you off to the hoosegow. The book police would revoke your license to write, and possibly speak harshly to your publisher. You’d be outed online as the heinous fraud that you are, and Amazon would drop your title like a bag full of snakes.

Yes, I know. I’m a hopeless dreamer when it comes to thinking words actually mean something.

The whole topic of “bestsellers” is filled with fascinating mystique, myths and interesting surprises. In fact the term itself, according to our old friend Wikipedia, is quite modern:

“‘Bestseller’ is a relatively recent term, first recorded in print in 1889 in the Kansas City newspaper The Kansas Times & Star, but the phenomenon of immediate popularity goes back to the early days of mass production of printed books. For earlier books, when the maximum number of copies that would be printed was relatively small, a count of editions is the best way to assess sales.”

But in the days when copyright laws barely existed, publishing was something of a free-for-all, apparently, and piracy was rampant. (As late as the mid-1800’s, America was still essentially an open domain in which even popular authors like Mark Twain couldn’t rely on royalties as a source of income). In such an open marketplace, it’s doubtful that anyone effectively kept track of who printed, sold or bought how many of what books.

Today, of course, things are different. We live in a world of bean counters and computers. Surely somebody must know the sales numbers behind modern bestsellers.

Yes, well. It seems to be a matter of perspective. And lists.

Many, many lists.

Fiction lists, non-fiction lists, genre lists, lists of children’s books, hardcover lists, paperback lists, trade paperback lists, indie lists, consolidated lists, Amazon lists, Publishers Weekly lists, and the granddaddy of lists, The New York Times bestseller list.

Many of these lists use their own particular, even proprietary, methods of ranking bestsellers based on a variety of sources. Some use both wholesale and retail sales. Some use sales only from certain kinds of outlets, such as independent bookstores. Amazon has created its own closed universe, which ranks books hourly based solely on sales on their own website. The New York Times method for bestseller rankings is apparently as closely guarded a secret as the Coca Cola formula.

So, yes. Everything these days is tracked and measured, but it seems ranking bestsellers is often as much an art as a science. And of course, there’s also the promotion factor. Show me a ranking list of anything and I’ll show you 100 interested parties whose job it is to get their “property” further up the list – whether it be an athlete, a political candidate, a car, a liveable city, a recording, or a bestselling book. Did I say 100 promoters? I meant 1,000.

But in all this swirl of rankings, there must be some magic quantity of books you have to sell to be called a “bestseller” – some numerical threshold. A million? A hundred thousand? Surely not fewer than that. After all, not one of the seven Harry Potter books sold less than 50 million copies. Even Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time sold 10 million copies. And that’s a science book, for crying out loud!

Still, my inner skeptic is suspicious about the sheer number of books that claim bestseller status. Either the sales threshold is lower than might be expected, or there’s an astronomical number of books being consumed these days. Or perhaps the “bestseller” designation on many books is, well, a bit of a stretch to be taken with a grain of salt.

A little digging yielded scant, but surprising results. Here in Canada the numbers are famously depressing, or elating, depending on whether you’re a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty person. Reportedly, if you sell a total of 5,000 copies of your book you can call it a bestseller!

In the US, the stakes are higher, and typically factor in both number of books sold and the speed at which they’re moving. By some accounts, you need to sell 9,000 copies of your book in the first week of its release to hit the New York Times bestseller list. However, the blogosphere is full of discussions about such sales thresholds, with some claiming that it’s possible to achieve the Nirvana of NYT bestsellerdom with sales of just 5,000 books per week. This set bestselling author and blogger Tess Gerritsen to wondering whether anyone in America is reading books these days. “When a mere 5,000 book buyers determine the top sellers in a country of 300 million people, the industry is in trouble,” she wrote.

Bestselling author and entrepreneur Danielle LaPorte, whose blog reaches 200,000 readers, decodes The NYT list with an insider’s eye. Her introduction is as revealing as it is entertaining:

“Powerful. Elusive. Mysterious. Coveted. Nonsensical. Magical. Antiquated. Leading edge. This sums up most opinions of The New York Times bestseller list. It’s an ever-evolving system of measurement and reward that publishers and authors toil to understand and optimize. Writing an amazing book is a very small part of achieving a ‘bestseller’.”

On Amazon, the bestseller numbers are, if such a thing is possible, even more obscure. This monster outlet – acknowledged to be the largest bookseller in America – is now thought be responsible for about 30% of all print book sales, with some estimating that an average of about 300 copies sold per day will get you on Amazon’s top five list.

Award-winning author Kailin Gow, who has learned the art of tracking her own bestsellers on the lists, tried to explain it all in a piece for Fast Company, titled “What Being a ‘Bestselling Author’ Really Means.”

I confess that everything I read merely confirmed what I already deeply suspected: the entire business of “bestseller” rankings is opaque to mere mortals. And maybe deliberately so.

Because there’s dark side to all this.

If you can scratch up the investment money to do it, you can buy your way onto a bestseller list. Seriously. It doesn’t come cheap, because the basic strategy is simply to buy up a sh*tload of your own books. Fast. Enough to spike the sales per day or sales per week figure into bestseller territory. There are even book promotion consultants who’ll engineer it for you, for a fee. Sound far-fetched, even creepy? It’s happening, baby.

But let me end on a high note: a list of the bestselling books of all time – books that have sold at least 50 million copies. FIFTY MILLION! This list is full of surprises too. But be forewarned: such a list is pretty hard to verify, and it no doubt comes with some major skews. For instance, published lists I found never included books of a religious nature, whose distribution is difficult to track (the Bible is usually thought to be the best selling book of all time, with estimates of over 5 billion copies).

I wonder if any of these authors went out and bought a few million copies of their own books just to become known as mega-bestsellers?

  • A Tale of Two CitiesCharles Dickens (1859) – 200 million (estimated)
  • Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien (1954-1955) – 150 million
  • The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943) – 140 million
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling (1997) – 107 million
  • And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie (1939) – 100 million
  • Dream of the Red Chamber, Cao Xueqin (1754-1791) – 100 million
  • The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien (1937) – 100 million
  • She: A History of Adventure, H. Rider Haggard (1857) – 100 million
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis (1950) – 85 million
  • The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown (2003) – 80 million
  • Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill (1937) – 70 million
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling (2005) – 65 million
  • The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951) – 65 million
  • The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho (1988) – 65 million
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling (1998) – 60 million
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling (1998) – 55 million
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling (2000) – 55 million
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling (2003) – 55 million
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling (2007) – 50 million
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Garbriel Garcia Marquez (1967) – 50 million
  • Lolita, Vladimir Navokov (1955) – 50 million
  • Heidi, Johanna Spyri (1880) – 50 million
  • The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, Dr. Benjamin Spock (1946) – 50 million
  • Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908) – 50 million
  • Black Beauty, Anna Sewell (1877) – 50 million
  • The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco (1980) – 50 million
  • The Eagle Has Landed, Jack Higgins (1975) – 50 million
  • Watership Down, Richard Adams (1972) – 50 million
  • The Hite Report, Shere Hite (1976) – 50 million
  • Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White (1952) – 50 million
  • The Ginger Man, J.P. Donleavy (1955) – 50 million
  • The Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller (1992) – 50 million
  • Ben-Hur, Lew Wallace (1880) – 50 million
  • The Mark of Zorro, Johnston McCulley (1924) – 50 million

 

 

 

Branding for writers

IMG_1540Helga’s Post #109: April 10 has turned out to be a rather interesting day. This year – more on that later – as well as ninety years ago. That’s the day F. Scott Fitzgerald published “The Great Gatsby”. A few notes below in honor of the book’s anniversary.

Fitzgerald struggled mightily with the book’s title. The one he was last documented to have desired was “Under the Red, White, and Blue” (A good thing his publisher won out). The novel is widely considered to be a literary classic and a close contender for the 20th century’s best American novel. (It’s neck to neck with To Kill a Mockingbird and Grapes of Wrath, depending on who is judging). Not everyone agrees. Regardless, what makes the book a classic is how Fitzgerald educates his readers about the garish society of the Roaring Twenties by placing a timeless, relatable plotline within the historical context of the era. In contrast to the theme of the book, Fitzgerald was not among the highest-paid writers of his time; his novels earned comparatively little, and most of his income came from 160 magazine stories. Scott and his wife Zelda did spend money faster than he earned it; the author who wrote so eloquently about the effects of money on character was unable to manage his own finances.

But this post is not entirely about “The Great Gatsby”. I just found some of the background of Scott Fitzgerald noteworthy. In a roundabout weird connection (that only writers can fabricate and spin), my own April 10 was sort of an experience of the opposite of Fitzgerald’s garish society. Perhaps opposite is too strong a word, too dramatic, but it was at least an extremely toned-down version of American garish society.

And what a great experience my 10th of April was. (Unfortunately though I didn’t get any writing done except for this post).

The day started with discussing that we are going home to Canada in three weeks. We really should pack in some unusual experiences while we are still here in the California desert. My husband’s love for eclectic music and venues combined with my hunger to explore the unknown got us searching how to combine our foibles.

We went about our research independently and agreed to draw straws in the end. I have no idea whether it was serendipity, or being married for more than 30 years, or maybe, just maybe, due to a subconscious desire to please the other, that we both chose the same place. Or perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence at all, considering we both watched an intriguing Anthony Bourdain documentary about the place some time ago. Long before we decided to become snowbirds.IMG_1559

Whatever, karma or logic, we agreed on Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, a place high in the Mojave Desert. This unique place was a living movie set once, but today people come for the music and mesquite BBQ. It’s a simple place. Some might call it a run-down shack.Pioneertown_pappys I think it’s romantic. Because of the people who visit and especially those who work there.

It’s got an interesting history. In 1946, a group of Hollywood investors founded Pioneertown with dreams of creating a living movie set — an 1870′s frontier town with facades for filming and interiors open to the public. On the outside were stables, saloons, and jails, and on the inside were ice cream parlors, bowling alleys, and motels. Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Russell Hayden, and the Sons of the Pioneers (for whom the town was named) were some of the original investors and personalities who helped build and invent Pioneertown. More than 50 films and several television shows were filmed in Pioneertown throughout the 1940′s and 1950′s. In 1946, where Pappy & Harriet’s stands today, was a facade used as a “cantina” set for numerous western films well into the 1950s.

IMG_1539Should you ever be in the area and want to visit, you can put it into your GPS as 53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown, CA. I would urge you to do so if you are a writer in need of visual inspiration or have a penchant for any of the following:

  • A drive through scenery so awesome you’ll forget to breathe
  • Some very, very ‘interesting’ tattoos (all genders)
  • A stage that continues to be graced with some of the most talented and eccentric bands and musicians anywhere to be found
  • The best and biggest ribs you will eat in your life
  • Margaritas and beer served in Mason jars
  • The friendliest, kookiest (in a positive sense) servers on the planet
  • Washroom graffiti that makes you pause long enough for your ribs and Mac and cheese to get cold
  • Did I mention the bar?
  • Totally casual, all ages and walks of life
  • And the people. Especially the people

A writer can ask for little more.IMG_1551

Now I just have to find a way to get a few scenes into my novel where I can use those images that are branded on my mind.

Wishing you rich and colorful images to draw on in your own writing.

Emotions are a writer’s best friend

Karalee’s Post #109

Lately I feel pulled and stretched in many directions. This year has started off at a sprint and not slowed down.

It’s good really. Fourteen years ago I left private practice when I sold my physiotherapy clinic. At that time my youngest was five years old and I’ve dedicated my time and energy since in raising my three children.

The experience has been amazing, but the baton has been passed and all three are now legally adults. Now it is me time.

Except my daughter is getting married this summer.

Except my middle son is graduating from university.

I want to celebrate all these special times with the family, continue to write, and oh, did I mention I’ve decided to join with a company and start a home-based business? I never thought I would go back into business of any kind. I’ve been pulled in that direction though because I believe in the product and I have a strong need to stretch beyond my office and computer, and the house and garden, and MEET NEW PEOPLE. Even if they are my neighbors down the street or around the block or anywhere in the city or where I travel!

Writing can be lonely. My writing group has spread out across the continent. My children are grown.

I can start anew, try new stuff.

Sometimes new stuff is still at home learning new technologies such as digitizing photos and sorting and saving thousands of them. I’m doing this to preserve our family photographs in a form that the family can look at them and share them. Of course the wedding and graduation have spurred me to take on this vast task.

The photos themselves have brought back memories and emotions. I’m utterly surprised at the compressed timeline of the five of us growing and changing together. All aspects have shifted, from clothing styles, hair styles, cars, furniture, and the city view of Vancouver and other places we have traveled to.

img567Then there are relationship changes between mother and baby, brothers and sister, grandparents, parents and teenagers, and everything in-between.

There’s people that I’d forgotten about, relatives and friends that are no longer with us.

Lots of smiles. Lots of tears.

Family gatherings.img489

It’s been an emotional trip for me and I’ve scanned less than half of the photographs we’ve had stored away for decades. Memories can be powerful, bringing the past right back to the present.

Photos can be frustrating too, when I don’t remember the event even happening, but the proof is right there. Undeniable!

I’ve started to worry that something horrible like dementia is creeping in!

Emotions though, are writer’s best friend.

Experiencing deep emotions like sadness, joy, fear, anxiety, worry, etc. can do nothing BUT enhance the depth of one’s writing.

Do you agree?

__________________________________________

Writing Progress: More business writing lately with my new venture. I’ve got on top of it, so can get back to fiction writing too.

Books I’m reading: lots of procedural stuff with my new business.

Treats eaten: Pumpkin pie slices (many) over the Easter holiday. Technically pumpkin is good for you. So is cinnamon.

Perspective Photos:

between houses

 

 

 

 

 

 

bridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy writing!

Guest post by Sheila Watson: Fear

Joe’s Post #136

Actually, I’m not sure I can call this my post as I’m going to give the blog over to a guest blogger. I hope that other people will also be interested in blogging on our site, so please send us a note if you are. In the meantime, Sheila Watson was fortunate enough to take a workshop on something we’ve all been struggling with over the last few months. FEAR!

So, here it is. It has some great insights.

Part 1 (the 2nd part will be next week)

FEAR ˈfir/    noun

  1. 1. an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.

The key word in the above definition is “belief”.  Fear, as it relates to writing, is not real.  There is no danger or threat in telling a story and no disaster will ever befall you because you write a novel.

Those of us who are writers can’t help but write.  If we are not writing a novel, we are writing a blog or crafting status updates on Facebook or responding to discussions on forums or emailing and texting our friends and family.  There are hundreds of ways of writing daily.  And we manage to do all of them – except the writing that matters most.  Because we are afraid.

Why aren’t we afraid to write a blog?  Why is it that we set a goal to write a blog every week and we manage to get it done and published?  Every single week.  But when we say we are going to commit to writing a novel a year – a snail’s pace of merely 275 words a day – we can’t get it done?  Why aren’t we afraid of writing a blog?

Because there is nothing dangerous or threatening about writing a blog.  What’s the worst thing that could happen if you wrote a blog and put it out in the world?  Someone might not like it?  Someone might disagree with it?  No one will read it?  Maybe someone will write about the same idea and be better at it?

So what?  Is that what you are thinking?  So what if no one reads it?  So what if someone disagrees or doesn’t like it?  So what if someone writes better than I do?  It doesn’t matter.

That same idea – that feeling – needs to translate into the writing of your “real” stuff.  It’s the same.  You are just another person putting stories out into the world and seeing what resonates.  Some people won’t read it.  Some people won’t like it.  Some people will write it better than you.

So what?

You are already facing and managing this fear when you write a blog, or an email or a forum post or a witty Facebook status.  You just have to bring that to your “real” writing.

How much could you write if you were not afraid?  If you could sit down at the laptop with no beliefs of danger or threat or pain clouding your thoughts and you could just tell a story?

Do you know?

I didn’t. Not until this weekend. This weekend I set about writing a story for my teenaged children.

They still request an Easter Egg Hunt every year and we are long past hiding chocolate eggs behind the curtains.  So each year, this mom devises an increasingly difficult hunt.  This year, I decided to write a “choose your own adventure” for them.  The idea being that they read a story and at certain points in the story they have to decide between option 1 or option 2 (and sometimes options 3 and 4).  Seemed like a good idea.  But it required a story.  I started writing on Friday night.  And I wrote more than 11,000 words by Sunday morning.

11,000 words. In a day and a half.  Because I was not afraid.

*****

Bio: Sheila Watson is a wife, a mom, a self-defense instructor, a 2nd degree black belt in Taekwon-do, a wanna-be chef, a dog companion and a writer of tall tales, fanciful stories, occasionally useful commentary and rather wordy status updates.

Stay tuned, she has a second part coming next week!

As always, if you like the post, please follow us or share on FB or get your 8 year old daughter to do something with it on instasnap or chatlink or whatever’s new.

 

Interviewing for writers – part 1

DSC04765-B

Paula’s Post #103

If you read my post of last week (Channeling your inner Columbo) you’ll know that my post this week is about interviewing for writers. You’ll also know that I’ve promised a few surprises for my series ‘The Sheriff’.

(Note: to be strictly correct, one more accurately refers to such law enforcement professionals as ‘Deputy Sheriff’ or ‘Retired Deputy Sheriff’, since, technically, there is almost always only one Sheriff in office and those who work below are referred to as ‘Deputies’. But having put that out there, in the interests of readability, I’m just going to use the term ‘Sheriff’ if that’s okay with you).

So… let’s backtrack a bit. My advice to my writing group: if you are going to be a writer, you must learn to interview.

No ifs, ands or buts.

Why?

Because, if nothing else, it is unwise, arrogant, asinine, cowardly, awkward and/or just plain stupid to just ‘make stuff up’ instead of conducting actual field research in the subject matter of your novel.

Is that blunt enough?

I’m not telling you what to write. As far as I’m concerned, you can decide to ‘vary’ from what is ‘correct’ and ‘accurate’ as much as you wish (which you’ll probably want to do if you are writing a dystopian fantasy, like Divergent). But how can you deviate from the norm if you don’t know what that is in the first place?

And what if you are writing a police procedural, a thriller or even a cozy? How do you deviate from the norm if you don’t know what that is in the first place?

Open any “foreword” (or more commonly “afterword”) to a novel and read the acknowledgements. Somewhere, tucked amidst the many ‘thank yous’ to loving and supportive spouses, children and unwalked dogs, I bet you also discover some very special ‘thank yous’ to those experts kind enough to provide insight, technical expertise, background information and assistance to a legion of grateful, struggling authors: scientists, physicians, priests, physicists, musicians and morticians… all have contributed their skill and knowledge to the literary arts.

Who amongst you can point to a single mystery writer who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to interview a cop?

Unless, of course you just happen to be an active or retired law enforcement professional in your own right, such as Joseph Wambaugh or Sean Slater. But even then, I bet even police officer-novelists relish the opportunity to chat with colleagues from different jurisdiction or specialties.

How about you?

Wouldn’t you like to get the details right for your next crime novel?

In this regard, I’m fortunate. As a former prosecutor (Canadian Crown Counsel) I know some pretty good police officers, including the aforementioned Sean Slater, super hero and one of our founding critique group members.

Still, most of my contacts are in Canada. Since I’ve been down in the sunny California desert for the past several weeks, I’ve been cut off from ‘the usual sources’. Besides, I know enough to know field operations, investigative techniques and local conditions may well be quite different here in California than in beautiful British Columbia.

So I was excited when my tennis friend, a retired Deputy Sheriff from a large metropolitan area in California, kindly agreed to sit for an interview for this series of posts.

Step one for me? Brush up on Interviewing Do’s and Don’ts:

1) Etiquette: Emily Post has this one covered:

What does etiquette mean to you? To us, it means treating people with consideration, respect, and honesty. It means being aware of how our actions affect those around us. Why? To help us build successful relationships.

Show up, be on time, be polite. Be mindful of how much time you are taking out of someone’s busy schedule. Be appreciative of the ‘gift of time’. I’m sure you learned all of this in Kindergarten.

2. Preparation: You are literate, skilled, intuitive and informed. You are a warrior writer. You have the ability to prepare fully for your interview by first learning as much as possible from publicly available source material on the internet and elsewhere (thank you Wikipedia, if for no other reason than allowing us to be disabused of any misconceptions and inaccuracies, later). Be realistic here: You don’t need to have learned Dutch or memorized the manual for an X26 Taser, but a basic understanding of what’s on a police officer’s utility belt is certainly helpful.

220px-Police_Duty_Belt

3. Format: Familiarize yourself with basic interviewing techniques, including the difference between the use of ‘open-ended’ and ‘close-ended’ questions. More on this later, but trust me, understanding this distinction is crucial to becoming an effective interviewer.

4. Goals: What question(s) must you absolutely ensure are answered? What is important to you? Plan and you will not leave disappointed and empty handed. Prepare a list and some memory aids.

5. Record your interview: I write fast. I take notes. Lots of notes. I type fast, too, (as you likely do too, if you are a writer). If you do not, ask your subject if they would mind if you recorded the conversation (yes, this makes some people nervous). It will be up to you to explain what your intentions are and why failing memory and hearing make recording helpful. If you have concerns about accuracy, ask if your subject will agree to later read your notes (or better yet passages of your book) to ensure factual accuracy.

5. Special subjects: Interviewing a cop may sound ‘unnerving’ (though perhaps not as much so as the other way around). But if you count a couple of police officers amongst your circle of acquaintances, you’ll know they’re not quite as strange and exotic as one might think. Certainly no more so than a Platypus or Tasmanian She-Devil. Set aside prejudices and pre-conceived notions and I think you’ll be surprised to find out how much they are just like you or me. And here, of course, I’m not just talking about police officers. Try to stay open-minded and flexible you may be surprised where the conversation takes you.

So, how do you picture a deputy sheriff when you hear those words? Go on, don’t be shy. Someone like this, perhaps?

Sheriff

Well, perhaps now is the time for some surprises of my own:

1) My friend “the Sheriff” is female;

2) My friend “the Sheriff” is a grandmother;

3) My friend “the Sheriff” has an amazing story to tell.

Check back for the next week’s instalment of:

“Interviewing for writers – part 2″

to find out more.

The dirt on Clean Reader

censorship

Silk’s Post #125 — Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, excoriated it on her blog on March 23rd. Chuck Wendig flung ferocious profanities at it on his Terrible Minds blog on March 25th. Cory Doctorow called it “stupid” on March 30th but defended readers’ rights on his blog boingboing, the same day that Jonathon Sturgeon worried about its contribution to the dystopian future of reading on Flavorwire. Even Margaret Atwood and Ian Rankin tweeted their objections to it.

It has been the rage for a couple of weeks across the blogosphere, in the twitterverse, and on the book pages of the great newspapers that care about literature.

clean-reader“It” is Clean Reader, for the few of you out there who may not yet be aware of the furor. Clean Reader is a new app for e-books that automatically scrubs out all the offensive words to the specifications of the reader. “Read books, not profanity,” its slogan urges. You can set it for “clean”, “cleaner”, or the totally sanitized “squeaky clean”. It swaps out “bad” words and substitutes innocuous ones, sometimes with unintentionally hilarious results.

Some of the most quoted examples are “freak” for “fuck”, “witch” for “bitch”, “heck” for “hell”, “chest” for “breast”,  “groin” for “penis”, “pleasure” for “blow job”, and (quite confusingly) “bottom” for the whole array of undifferentiated lady parts down there.

Can you imagine trying to write a love scene where the only words available to describe the erogenous zones of the female body were “chest” and “bottom”?

“Jesus Christ” is also automatically expurgated, which seems wildly counterintuitive. The assumption that his name is likely to be used in stories for blasphemous reasons (rather than for devotional reasons) earns the Son of God a place on the “bad word” list. Does anybody besides me find that paradox just plain weird?

Clean Reader was developed by a Christian couple from Idaho whose young daughter was disturbed by some “bad words” in a book she was otherwise enjoying. Apparently, they had an epiphany: why not find a way to expurgate all the words in e-books that right-minded people (presumably Christians) would disapprove of, and (bonus!) make some good coin from it?

(I confess to having a somewhat jaded view of their publicity story about Clean Reader’s genesis. It’s my observation that usually kids only get disturbed when they come upon “bad words” if they’ve been taught shame by their elders, and they know they’ll get holy “heck” if they’re caught. My recollection of my now-distant childhood is that kids were more likely to actively seek out the raciest books available for the express purpose of mining the pages for “bad word” gems. Maybe that’s why I turned out the way I did.)

Be all of that as it may, Clean Reader instantly created what would be described as a “crap storm” in its own euphemistic language. Writers revolted. They removed their titles from the clutches of Clean Reader’s expurgation machine. The rhetoric went nuclear. The most obvious, and loudest, objections were focused on censorship, free speech and violation of copyright. The collective fist of writerdom was shaken in outrage.

How dare you “freak” with our words, Clean Reader!

Amazingly, the writers won. Clean Reader was more or less forced to shut down its online book-selling operation. “Hooray!” the writers cheered. Joanne Harris called it “a small victory for the world of dirt.”

So. Problem fixed. Story over. Tempest in a teapot, right?

Wrong.

It’s waaaay more complicated than that. Not the morality of it – that’s the simple part, at least according to me.

The complicated part – the terrifying slippery slope – is a two-headed dragon.

The first dragon’s head is called The Law. Not everyone believes Clean Reader actually violated any laws by providing its profanity-scrubbing “service”, including, of course, the parents of Clean Reader. And their lawyers. Oh, yes, they anticipated all this (which, incidentally, makes their professed shock at writers’ outrage seem pretty phoney). In consultation with their legal advisors, they developed and sold this product in a manner designed to sneak through the cracks in the laws that are supposed to protect free speech and copyright, and prevent censorship.

The scheme is convoluted, but the centrepiece of the app is technology designed to mask over the “bad words” with substitutes, while leaving the original words within the original e-book file. The author’s actual words are invisible, but they’re still “there”, hiding in shame beneath cyber fig leaves. Thus, Clean Reader’s inventors claim, they actually haven’t censored anything. It’s the perfect crime – a way to violate the spirit of the law while staying within the letter of it.

But The Law is a strange beast that never walks in a simple, straight line. Cyber guru and activist Cory Doctorow, has suggested that outlawing what Clean Reader does violates the rights of readers, who should be able to choose what they consume. The right to free speech, he says, includes the right not to listen. Although he disapproves of Clean Reader’s aims as “offensive”, he cites the many ways we use computers to filter what we receive and claims it’s the readers’ right to change what they want to put in front of their own eyeballs.

This is where it gets even more complicated.

If a reader chooses to take a censorship marker to a printed book that they’ve bought for their own use, that’s presumably not illegal (or at least enforceably so) – it’s just stupid. (Fortunately, stupid isn’t illegal yet, or most of us would find ourselves in jail at some point in our lives).

But is the use of Clean Reader really the same thing?

While it probably would need to be tested in court, this proposition is “iffy” at best. The Society of Authors has stated, “… the app contradicts two aspects of the author’s moral rights, namely the right of integrity and the right of false attribution.” Moral rights include the right of an author to object to derogatory treatment of a work. Note that the Society’s statement places the blame on the app, not the reader who uses it.

And there lies the twist. Apparently, at least some people interpret Clean Reader – which was, up until March 26th, also retailing e-books on its website, as well as giving away free downloads of its app – as a real censor, even if virtual. According to reports, e-book distribution channels such as Inktera (a subsidiary of Page Foundry) and Smashwords pulled their titles off the Clean Reader website, citing terms of book selling agreements that do not give retailers permission to alter the works. Ultimately it was this marketplace reaction that caused Clean Reader to shut down its e-bookstore.

At the moment, the tap has been turned off on Clean Reader’s big profit centre. They’ll now have to somehow change their technology and/or their business proposition to meet the standards for moral rights demanded by writers and the broader book publishing and distribution industry … or else look forward to a potentially expensive test of their product’s legality from the challenges sure to come.

So the marketplace works! This should bring joy to the hearts of all capitalists! We can all rest easy now, right?

Wrong.

There’s that other dragon’s head, and it’s called Cyberspace. In cyberspace, we can do many wonderful and terrible things that were never possible in regular space, a.k.a. the real world. It’s an incredible new universe: a free-for-all frontier, full of promise and peril. And we’re really only at the dawn of figuring out the rules in this everything’s-possible universe.

Cyberspace challenges the order of everything. It gives power to the powerless, which is both wonderful and horrible, depending on what the newly empowered do with it. Cyberspace is a great leveller, where the small can become big, and the big can become small, in an instant. Cyberspace brings the world to us – and us to the world – with virtually no restrictions. In doing so, it explodes the boundaries of privacy and rights.

One of the first casualties of the Cyberspace dragon was the very nature of ownership of intellectual property, and the moral and economic rights of its creators. Artists, musicians, photographers, writers … every member of the creative community is working in a completely new world, where the old regulations are struggling to keep up with the new technologies.

The focus of this upheaval in the arts has mostly been economic. Whole industries, including publishing, have been turned on their heads. Creatives are having to find new ways of making a living from their work, forging new pathways as the old solid ground crumbles beneath their feet. And a huge part of that “solid ground” had to do with ownership and rights – not just the right to be paid for original work, but the right to protect it from censorship, misuse and corruption.

In The Guardian, a couple of days after Clean Reader closed its online book store and retreated to the drawing board, Sam Leith wrote a piece titled, “Clean Reader is a freaking silly idea, but in the end you can’t stop your audience being philistines.” Maybe. It’s certainly tempting to ridicule the inanity of replacing the word “vagina” with the word “bottom” and thinking you’ve somehow made the world a cleaner, better place.

But I’m afraid we can’t make light of the bigger issues Clean Reader raises. Cyberspace is a universe without boundaries, a place that may prove to be ungovernable altogether. That’s where we’re now sending our words – the books and stories and blogs we pour our hearts into and stay up all night writing. We hit “send” or “publish” and blast them off into this new frontier.

If it’s up to anyone, it’s up to us what happens to them after that.

The rights we have – or think we have – as writers may not survive long if we don’t defend them.