Sunday, July 27, 2014

Damn Love by Jasmine Beach-Ferrara

Damn Love is an interesting collection of nine stories. They are linked by place—they are mostly set in San Francisco and Durham, North Carolina—and by characters. A minor character in one story will be the protagonist in another. Each story, however, stands alone and can be read in random order. You don't need to know, for example, that Weasel, the drug addict protagonist in the eighth story, is a patient of Ruth, the doctor protagonist in the first story. But because characters turn up in different roles in different stories, the book gains in richness and resonance.

This is Jasmine Beach-Ferrara's first book. She has an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers, but does not suffer from what I consider the MFA-disease: glorious sentences in stories that have no content (or about young people in dead-end jobs and dead-end romances). She is a minister in the United Church of Christ and the executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, which promotes LGBT rights in the South. On the evidence of Damn Love she has already had a full and interesting life.

The main characters, male and female, are lesbian and gay. The stories evoke the ecstasy and pain of love—love unrequited, love requited, love lost, damn love. They involve love between two women, between two men, between parents and children, and between siblings. And it's never easy. Here's how one story begins:

"In early May, Doctors Reddi and Lombardo shocked each other by confessing that they had fallen in love with the same woman. That Reddi and Lombardo were best friends and that this woman, Erin Champion, had been married to another woman for six years meant that it would be a difficult season for all of them. They knew this, and yet they could not help themselves."

In some stories, the main character tells her or his own story. In others, Beach-Ferrara uses the third person point of view. In all the stories, the characters struggle with what they want, what they can get, and what they have to settle for—just like real life.

One of the stories I found especially strong in a strong collection is "Love the Soldier." Keisha, who is gay, is a cop and a member of the National Guard about to be deployed to Iraq with her MP unit. She and her partner are trying to finally put away a Durham drug dealer and when Keisha is off duty she is trying to deal with her parents. Her mother doesn't want her to go, and if she has to, to get office duty. Her father is a preacher who opposes the war. Toward the end of the story, Keisha and her mother (and 1,000 parishioners) attend a Sunday service in which her father preaches about the war and his daughter's involvement in it. The lesson: As one should hate the sin but love the sinner, hate the war but love the soldier. Powerful, persuasive, and moving.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

This is an extraordinary novel for several reasons. First, as a physical object. The publisher, the Other Press, has produced a work that is a pleasure to hold and read—paperback two volumes in a boxed set on fine paper with an attractive typeface and a number of full-page black-and-white photographs of scenes in and around the place in Japan where the novel is set. It includes a map and a family trees of the two key families so that Western readers can keep the name and relationship straight.

Second, the translation from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter is lively and engaging. It does not read like a translation. (Occasionally in other books, it is possible to recognize where the translator nodded.) The author, Minae Mizumura, was born in Tokyo, moved with her family to Long Island when she was twelve. She studied French Literature at Yale College and after finishing her M.Phil. program, returned to Japan to devote herself to writing. She's taught modern Japanese literature at Princeton, the University of Michigan, and Stanford, and was a resident novelist in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

Finally, the novel itself is wonderful. A True Novel, as Mizumura acknowledges in the first section of the book, is a retelling of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights in postwar Japan, featuring a half-Chinese, half-Japanese Heathcliff, Taro Asama. We have a Japanese Catherine, Yoko Utagawa, and a "Nelly" Dean: Fumiko, a maid who tells most of the story. But while there are superficial resemblances to Bronte, which added to my pleasure in the book, A True Novel is its own story, told in its own time (roughly 1945 - 2005) with its own characters and its own setting.

The book begins as the narrator, who shares all of Mizumura's history, tells us about the rise of a young Japanese man, Taro Asama, she knew in New York as a child. Taro shows up in New York as an immigrant in the late 1950s and finds work as a chauffeur. He learns English, progresses from driver to camera repairman to medical equipment salesman to, eventually, venture capitalist.

167 pages into the first volume, a young Japanese man tells the novelist about his experiences on vacation in Karuizawa, town that's been a resort area for Westerners and wealthy Japanese since the 19th Century. While the young man was in Karuizawa, he heard the story of a wealthy family from a middle-aged woman, Fumiko, who had been the family's maid and seen Taro Asama and Yoko Utagawa play together and grow up together as children. On  page 307 of Volume I, Fumico begins to tell her story, the entire history of the children, their parents, siblings, and interactions.

Because of the novel's sweep, we see characters grow up, grow old, and (some of them) die. And we see it against the background of Japan's changes since The Great Pacific War. Rustic Karuizawa is turned into supermarkets, convenience stores, and summer homes for corporate executives. And through it all is the impossible but irresistible love of Taro for Yoko.

The two volumes are 854 pages. Once I was caught up, I didn't want it to end.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

How many books to print?

I recently had an interesting exchange with a member of the LinkedIn Books and Writers group who asked the question above. He pointed out that the answer depends. "There are two factors that should be considered when deciding upon the optimum inventory level: projected volume and velocity of book sales."

I responded by asking why a self-publishing writer would print any books at all. Why not use a print-on-domand (POD) service?

He said there are many reasons for a small initial print run. "First, you can reduce the printing cost significantly so you become more profitable. Serious publishers need books to send for reviews, samples, and to have on hand to fill small orders quickly. In addition, most retailers won't take on POD books, nor will most reviewers review them."

I asked him if his original question should therefore be one for a publisher. It's not a question for self-published writers. After all, no commercial publisher is going to consult with the writer about the initial print run. If you are an individual writer pretending to be an independent publisher and having your books printed and bound by a job printer, I can see the point of the question. But how many retailers and reviewers today are fooled by that charade? So, again, why not use a POD publisher and order enough copies to send out reviews, samples, and to fill small orders quickly?

Part of the problem he pointed out is that we were talking about different things. "I think the confusion is in the definition of POD publishing and digital printing—they are not the same thing. POD is a means to publish that may use digital printing. My point is addressed to the more serious author/publisher who uses digital or offset printing and not POD. That author has a much better chance of selling books more profitably (without any charade) than one with a POD publisher. Those currently using a POD publisher could use your strategy—it is not wrong, just not as profitable. There is no one way to market books, and the author is always the promoter, regardless of what publisher is used"

I asked about the difference in profitability. As an example, if an author can buy 50 copies of a 350-page, perfect-bound, paperback with a four-color full bleed cover for $257 from a POD publisher, what would the same number of copies of such a book cost from a digital or offset printer?

His answer was unusually helpful: "Your unit cost is $5.14—if your book is $14.95 and you sell through a distributor (trade or non-bookstore) they will take 60 - 65%. If they take 60% ($5.98) you make $ .84 per book. If you print 1000 (a reasonable minimum quantity) the unit cost is $3.85, so you make $2.13 per book. If you sell 120 books you have made more than the $257. Or, look at it differently. If you sell 1000 books and print them your way, 50 at a time, your cost is $5140 and your profit is $840. Print 1000 at a time for $3850 and your profit is $2130. Which do you prefer?"

There seems to be some confusion here between revenue and profit (what's left after you've paid for the books) but I pointed out that the unknown in this example is how many of those 1,000 copies the author will be able to sell through a distributor, website, personal appearances, etc. Using his figures, it looks as if the author would have to sell 644 copies just to break even ($5.98 x 644 = $3851).

The example also ignores all other costs of buying 1,000 copies of a book: the cost of the money tied up in inventory, the value of the time spent fulfilling orders, the cost of storage if nothing free is available. And every book never sold pushes up the total cost. (I'm ignoring the costs of marketing, promotion, shipping, which of course you can't.)

So yes, selling 1,000 copies of a book earns that nets $2.13 a copy is more profitable than selling 1,000 copies of a book that nets 84¢ a copy. But how many self-published authors sell as many as 644 copies of their book? The figure that's thrown around—and I would love to see something more authoritative—is that the average self-published book sells fewer than 150 copies. I've never met a self-published author who's sold out a 1,000-copy print run but I've met any number who have cartons of unsold books in the garage.

We parted amiably: "We have both stated our positions—if others are following this thread they can use our calculations as they apply to their circumstances and make their choices. But a serious self-publisher with good content and quality, aggressive marketing and sales to non-bookstore buyers can easily sell 644 books. If you don't think you can do that, then your model works fine."

I think many (most?) writers thinking of self-publishing their books are blinded by hope. They do think they can easily sell 644 books ... 1,000 books ... 10,000 books. Virtually all of them are wrong.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

What about beta readers?

An acquaintance asks, "How valuable are beta readers? Who should they be? Do you send them a manuscript or an e-mail attachment? Should your work be formatted and professionally edited?"

My opinion: It depends. I am part of a writer's group that meets once a month. They have been reading and critiquing my current novel chapter by chapter which is in manuscript format (double spaced, Times New Roman, etc.).

Once they and I have finished working and reworking the chapters, an editor goes through the entire MS looking for problems the writer's group missed. Once I've dealt with those problems, I format the book into what are essential proof pages, have Staples print and bind three copies, two-sided pages, and ask three beta readers read it as if it were a book--looking for anything/everything that needs attention: typos, bad breaks, widows, missing little words (of, an, in, at), plus the story as a whole experience.

My theory is that the cleaner these pages are, the more they look like the pages that will be printed, the easier it is for beta readers to spot problems. 

I think beta readers should be people you trust (a recurring fear among amateur writers is that someone is going to steal their work), who are regular book readers, who can read closely, and who are secure enough to tell you when you're running off the tracks. My beta readers are invaluable.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Toscanelli's Ray by Wallis Wilde-Menozzi

Let's start with some information about the author taken from the back of her novel. Wallis Wilde-Mendozzi grew up in Wisconsin, lives in Parma, Italy, "where she has participated in Italian life for more than thirty years." She's published memoirs: Mother Tongue: An American Life in Italy and The Other Side of the Tiber: Reflections on Time in Italy; a collections of essays: L'Oceano รจ dentro di noi ("The Ocean is Within Us); and poetry: Heron Songs. Toscanelli's Ray is her first novel.

The title refers to a solar clock. Around 1468 an Italian mathematician and astronomer Toscanelli devised a way to mark the solstice to the half second by allowing a ray of sunlight through the Florence Cathedral's dome and touch circular white marble slab in the floor. Today, thanks to slight changes in Earth's movement, it is no longer accurate. Nonetheless, crowds gather to see the spectacle, and the novel's action takes place during that day one day.

The characters include an Italian professor; his much-younger, pregnant assistant; an American sandtherapist; a Nigerian prostitute and her child; a Bulgarian prostitute; a Florentine peasant and his wife, and more. We have access to their thoughts, their feelings, and—for the most part—their histories. The stories shift from character to character within the chapters, and, although people speak, the book has no quotation marks. It doesn't need them; it's clear what is speech and what is not, but I'm impressed that a publisher (Cadmus Editions, San Francisco) would publish it.

Because Wilde-Menozzi is clearly writing from within her experience, Toscanelli's Ray is an enormously rich with its scenes of contemporary Italian life, both high and low. Each of the characters has a story and the stories touch and resonate. The American ex-pat translates at the Nigerian whore's court appearance. The whore's pimp decides to sell her child, and to save her the Bulgarian takes her to a convent for safety, which seems like hell to the little girl. The professor had been married to the American sandtherapist who, in digging on her property, may have discovered an Etruscan tomb, which agitates her Italian neighbors.

Because Wilde-Menozzi is such an accomplished writer, her novel is rich and interesting in character and information: "There were many things to consider, professor Milandri thought as he held a slide of Santa Croce up to the light in the Chapel of the Cross. And popped it in the machine. Its travertine green and white marble never disappointed. How many did he need to show to make clear that the great cathedrals had the same east-west orientation? Santa Maria del Fiore. Santo Spirito. They faced outward toward the city itself as a social pact but they all lined up on an axis that was sun determined. From that point he could move on to the bifurcation that occurred between astrology and astronomy in the world of Copernicus and Galileo..."

One more quick sample, this from the therapist's perspective: "As Susan looked down at the sand, the emptiness around her, especially in the red chair where she usually sat, drew closer. No one with benevolent eyes was keeping her company as she kept her patients company. No one was listening, attentive, studying the silences, the facial movements, the crouching shoulders, the jerking legs, participating in the patient's investigation changed by the interaction, as she so often was changed, as the one who kept watch. With the leaded windows closed, the library was rather cool."

I recommend Toscanelli's Ray if you've been to Florence. I recommend it if you would like to go to Florence. And I recommend it if you are interested in what a interesting writer can do with words.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Is historical fiction the new darling in literary genres?

a professor at the University of North Florida, asked this question on a LinkedIn group. He pointed out that historical fiction is hardly new. "Recently, though, Madison Smart Bell and others seem to be making a new name for themselves in writing historical novels. My question is this: Do you think writing historical novels would be the best advice for emerging writers? I honestly would like to see what you have to say on this fast becoming the new darling in literary genres."

I think that trying to write for "the new darling in literary genres" is a fool's errand. 

I think that writing an historical novel because you love the period, know the culture and the customs, believe you can create living, breathing characters can be satisfying and rewarding. 

I believe that anyone who advises emerging writers to chase after the market, whatever it is—paranormal, romance, chick-lit, historical fiction—is irresponsible at best and toxic at worst. 

Write the story you must write. Write the story you want to read that no one else has written. Make it as engaging as you (and your agent, editor, writers group, first readers) can make it and perhaps you'll create a new literary genre for which fools will try to write.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Stateline by Dave Stanton

Stateline is Dave Stanton's first Dan Reno mystery. Reno is a divorced, alcoholic, San Jose private investigator. When the action begins, Reno is in Stateline, Nevada, on Lake Tahoe, attending the wedding of a wealthy young executive. The guy is brutally murdered the night before the wedding, and his lumber tycoon father, who is unimpressed by the local cops, hires Reno to find the killer before the police, and agrees to a $100,000 fee if Reno does so.

As a PI of course, Reno does not have some of the advantages the cops have—forensic evidence, arrest records, and more. As cop tells Reno, "You know, I love you PIs. You're mostly drunk, one step up from a minimum-wage security guard, but you love to treat the police like we're a bunch of bumbling bureaucrats . . . ."

On the other hand, Reno's not restricted by official bureaucracy and a punctilious need to follow the law. As a result, Reno dives into the dark underbelly of American life with drugs, whores, and official corruption. One of the many appeals of the book is that while the action starts in Stateline, Reno travels to Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Salina, Utah. Reno is hot on the trail of the murderer when we learn that not everyone wants the crime solved. In fact, someone wants Reno dead.

Stanton has a BA in journalism, and his writing is a lot of fun: "I was getting the impression that Osterlund was a son only a mother could love, and maybe even that was a stretch. I mentally ticked off what I knew about him: drug problems, reckless driving, falsified handicapped parking permit, sexually perverted, violent tendencies, and bankrupt. His life sounded like ten pounds of shit stuffed into a five-pound bag." And, "Osterlund's a prime suspect in Sylvester Bascom's murder. He's also got more problems than a math book. . . ."

Stanton can also sketch a character in a few vivid lines: "A guy in his twenties was on the phone in the small office, and he motioned for me to sit. His foot was up on the edge of the desk, and he was wearing a very hip and funky white satin V-neck shirt. There were two small silver hoop earrings in his right ear, a stud below his lip, and two more hoops in his left eyebrow."

My one reservation—and it may be a personal idiosyncrasy—is Stanton's shift from first person point-of-view to third person POV in two relatively small places. I know why he did so; he wanted to give some background to a character and there was no easy way for Reno to know about it (this is one of the problems with the first-person POV). But now I've read the book, I don't believe the background was necessary and I found the shift in POV jarring.

Nevertheless, Stateline is a noir romp. The puzzle is interesting and Reno is a resourceful and sympathetic, if flawed, character. Readers who enjoy hardboiled mysteries with the violence that comes with them will have a good time with this.