Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Getting that Book Into Print

I've had a lot of fun the last few years -- fifteen books, a bunch of writers' conferences, many book signings and...most important...many new reading and writing friends.

Indianapolis Barnes & Noble. Yea BN!
At a Sisters in Crime Booksigning at an Indianapolis Barnes and Noble in December, another author asked how I had published so many books in just a few years. I love this question, because the answer is simple. Write every day, or as close to that as life permits.

The question prompted me to write (in three weeks) Writing in Retirement: Putting Your New Year's Resolutions to Work. I was told the title might limit sales. However, the point is that those of us of a certain age have lots of experience and hopefully more free time than in our thirties and forties.

Writing in Retirement takes you through the "do I want to do this" thought process, discusses types of writing, lets you know how to put your books for sale at online retailers, and provides guidance on marketing your books. While geared to self-publishing, the ideas apply to those who want to get a publisher.  

Writing can be fun. I enjoy it, but I also treat it as a part-time job. The ideas come fairly easily. Getting them into decent shape for a book, which I'm asking readers to pay for, take a lot of time. And a couple of cuss words now and then. I try not to have too many of those make it into books.

Writing to sell is a major commitment. I don't say that to scare people. The nice thing about semi-retirement is that our deadlines are largely our own. If a sick child or grandchild needs attention or some volunteer work
 becomes more pressing, those are important. Once those obligations clear, writing can be prominent again.

If we wait for the perfect time to write, the so-called large block of time, there won't be too many finished projects. Writing is a lot like learning a foreign language. You need to spend a consistent amount of time regularly, and you can't worry about doing it badly before you do it well.

In case you say you don't know where to start, I can recommend another of my books: Words to Write By: Putting Your Thoughts on Paper. The premise is that we have done many things well, so we may not want to tackle something (writing) that seems daunting. The book offers an approach.

Just take it in pieces, and start with something you know. Or begin with something you want to learn about. That's even more fun. Just get started Writing in Retirement.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Writing in Spite of Technology

Sometimes technology gets the better of me so much that I have to laugh. Mostly because it beats crying.

Here are my system failures, so to speak, of the last couple of months. Most are in the last two to three weeks.

1)   Laser and ink jet printers die almost simultaneously. I figure one was mourning the other. Problem solved by buying two new ones, with a dent in the wallet where bills used to be.
2)      Hard drive died on the laptop. I don’t own a PC, though I have one of the original Acer notebooks with one gig of RAM (honest). After much help from Office Max staff, I decided to buy a new hard drive. Reasonable price (on sale, even labor!), but the wallet is again lighter.
3)      Cell phone (which also gives access to email, though not a smart phone) won’t retain a charge. Find a battery for $5 online (because of course no local store has it). Yea! Battery does not help. Turns out when a phone is dying, it won’t hold a charge. Boo!
4)      Buy a new phone, not a smart phone. (Like I could really learn to use GPS on one.)  The voice part of my new touch phone transfers immediately. Not so data in any form—text or email. Spend more than two hours on live chat. (I did like that direct access.) After many resets and “is it working now?” exchanges, two technicians decide I have a dud and they will replace it. At least the old phone can be turned back on. It works when plugged in and for 15 minutes on battery.
5)      Return envelope arrives to send back nonworking new phone. Ask me if the replacement phone is here yet, after ten days. Nope.
6)      Buy another new phone, this time online so it’s just like my old phone (which is kind of like a Blackberry). It’s coming via FedEx today. I figure it will arrive too late for me to go run errands. Odds are the original replacement new phone will arrive in two weeks. No acceptance signature for that one!
7)      In the midst of phone fun…remember that new hard drive? The computer dies.
I’m talking no booting, RIP, time for burial. (See hammer, which I would like to use on the laptop.)
8)      Good luck here. It’s the day before Thanksgiving (yes, that’s good luck, no 
computers used during dinner). That means sales afterwards, and I get an HP Laptop for a really, really cheap price. And no one got trampled. Wallet is now very light.
9)      Gee, computers need software. I’m 900 miles from home and don’t have any of mine with me to load, so try the free 30-day Microsoft Office 365 trial. It lets me work but – and this may be the biggest advantage to the computer meltdown – I don’t like it at all. So, good old Office 2010 awaits me upon return home.
10)   Are you laughing yet?
11)   Take RIP computer to Office Max. Ask them to migrate my many gigabytes of files to a 32 gigabyte flash drive – for no charge. They agree, and will also study the dead computer—likewise for free.
12)   Just had a call from the Office Max staffer who installed the new hard drive. Computer is fine. Hard drive came loose. He has added more screws. (No, I did not say screw you, he’s young and has been very patient in explaining many things to me over the last couple of months.)

Is there a moral here? A couple of people have suggested yellow pads and pencils, but I compose at more than 100 words per minute on a keyboard.

The moral is: email yourself important files. I had all the fiction I was working on stored in my yahoo email account. Yes, one can use Google Drive or some other online storage system. Ask me how. Go ahead, ask.

I have no clue. I’m sticking with email (and flash drives) because my mind is so tired of learning new technology.

When the Fed Ex truck comes with the second new phone, I’m going to pick up my now-fixed computer. All wagers on the next breakdown will be accepted. Prize is a dead phone.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Learning to Tell the Difference

I’m appalled at what happened in Paris and Mali—and continues to happen in Syria.

My mother once described her reaction on December 7, 1941. She was sitting in a Redskins football game and said she and friends wondered why so many members of the military were getting paged. Later, she felt sad, but also guilty that she was enjoying herself when so many people were dying. My father and uncles were part of the Greatest Generation who fought in that war. We didn’t suffer through bombings and watch siblings get blown to bits as Europeans did, but we helped win that war against hate.

However, our reluctance to accept refugees meant far more people died in Hitler’s camps than might have otherwise. Look at history books. You’ll see references in diplomatic cables to the U.S. having its own “Jewish problem” and not wanting more. I admit, my initial exposure to the horrific rejections (that led directly to death camps in some cases) was largely through Leon Uris novels. And supplemented by Erik Larsen’s “In the Garden of the Beasts,” though it’s mostly about how we coddled Hitler before 1941 because we wanted war reparations from World War I. We KNEW what Hitler was doing in his camps.

I looked today for articles that cited the U.S. policies during WWII and found a new one in the “Times of Israel.” It notes how similar our reactions today are to those in the 1930s and 1940s.

“No historical parallel is perfect, obviously,” says Allan Lichtman, co-author of “FDR and the Jews” and a professor of history at American University. But U.S. limits on refugees during World War II, influenced by anti-Semitism, were fed by fears the Nazis “would plant agents, spies and saboteurs among the Jewish refugees and that they would pressure the Jews, particularly those whose families were still in Germany, to act as agents on behalf of the Third Reich,” Lichtman said.

So what about refugees today? It takes fully TWO YEARS to be vetted before you can become a refugee to the United States. Refugees stay in overseas camps or other dire circumstances while they go through the process. They meet with the FBI and other security officials.

You want to worry about terrorists (other than people like Oklahoma City bomber Terry McVeigh or the Connecticut man who shot up Sandy Hook Elementary School), worry about tourist visas. Worry about someone who walks across the border without one after overstaying a visa in Canada (where it would be easier to blend in than Mexico). Worry about the loner who’s stockpiling guns in the basement of the home where he lives with his mother because he has no social skills and can’t keep a job. Worry about the conspiracy theorists who say the Sandy Hook shooting never happened, it was made up by gun control advocates.

Should we be concerned about terrorists who say they act on behalf of Allah? Of course. They aren’t a large portion of the Muslim population and are despised by most Muslims. I know many people of that faith, have for decades. To say that all Muslims are terrorists is like saying that because some German Christians fought for Hitler it means all German Christians at that time were evil. (Hitler was not a Christian, but many who fought for him were. And the Catholic Church? Read about how often the church in Rome refused to help many Jews.)

What started this post was reading that Cedar Rapids, Iowa--home to Syrians for many decades, some of them refugees—may be less welcoming in the future. There are three mosques in Cedar Rapids. Christians helped the Muslims rebuild one after the 2008 floods. Muslims are part of the fabric of that city.

How can this hate be happening in our country? Why do good people stay silent while others profess that an entire religion is bad because of some horrible fanatics who act in its name? I’ve been to several countries with Muslim populations, most notably Morocco. It’s the only place (among about 30 countries I’ve been to) where someone invited me (a stranger) to their home for tea.

I get it. We're scared. Bravery takes many forms. Speaking up may be one of them.

I was at a prayer breakfast in my town in Illinois this week. A child from each faith gave a brief talk and prayer (Christian, Jews, Muslims, and more). I complimented several of them.

Here’s something to think about. We white folks often think ‘they’ all look alike, whatever the ‘they.’ While I waited to talk to the kids, I asked one woman if she was the mom of the girl of Hindi heritage who spoke. Nope. She was the aunt of the Muslim boy. Who, by the way, sat next to the Jewish boy. That’s America.

Refugees are not the enemy. The terrorists who create them are. We need to remember that.

I implore good people not to be still and let the discussion in our country be dominated by people who cannot tell the difference or want to use terrorism to score political points.

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Why is a discussion about U.S. fear of refugees on a blog that mostly deals about writing? Because I feel very strongly that not to speak up about this means letting the fear-mongerers take charge. That's scarier than letting in people who have been terrorized by ISIS.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

In Honor of Reviewers

Reviewers are high on my list of good people, but I review few of the books I read. I'm selfish, but trying to do better.

Largely it's a time issue, but I also blame my mother. (I mean, why not?) She stressed being uncritical in personal relationships, and what is more personal than the connections with the books we read?

Not that my opinions are negative--usually quite the opposite. I finish a book by Sue Grafton, Terence Faherty, or Anne Tyler and think, "Why am I bothering to write?" It's sort of like visiting an art museum. You realize you are a speck on the planet's pallet.

But, why be maudlin?

The biggest benefit of reviews is not for the writer. Reviews help readers decide what to pick up next. We all have authors whose books we grab as soon as they are out (Robert Harris, Erik Larson), but given we are busy people, we may want to know what others think about books they've read.

There are common places to look, such as sites that sell books (Amazon, BN, Kobo, itunes). If you want to read reviews and talk about books with other readers, there is Goodreads. Join a group. I belong to several that talk about cozy mysteries.

You can also look at the lists of paperback giveaways. Goodreads must approve every giveaway offer, so you know it's not a way for some rogue website to get your email address. I have  used the Goodreads Giveaway program for my last few books. It's a neat way to garner interest while doing something for readers, too.

Here are some good sites to check for book reviews. Some let you sign up to review books.

Complete Review  Links to reviews (in English) in major publication, not all in the U.S.
More Than Review Good rankings on violence or sex, in addition to a general review.
Best Book Review Sites  Links to major sites, such as Kirkus and NY Review of Books.
New York Times Book Review   Have to be a subscriber to see the full paper, but you can get an email with the link to reviews.
Self Publishing Reviews  Good site for looks at indie books.
Goodreads lists of reviewers  Many blog authors note they will review books, and you can link to the blogs.

If you want easy access to best seller lists, check out the online version of Publishers Weekly. (It's a fee-based site, but there is a lot you can see without subscribing.)  Some sites, such as Kirkus and Self Publishing Review require that authors pay for a review. They don't guarantee a good review.

Finally, where is the best place to learn about good books? Your local library. Most have librarian favorite lists, and they nearly all have subscriptions to the book review magazines.

Next step? Start a good book.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

What the Age of Narcissism Means for Reading

Until recently, I've thought of the constant Facebook selfies and YouTube videos as occasionally amusing, more often simply posts to scroll through. Don't get me wrong. I think my nephew's puppy is maturing handsomely, and it goes without saying that any child of family or friends could be voted cutest kid on the Internet (especially my grandniece).

I don't understand posting about daily activities (why would someone care if it rained as you drove to work?), or sticking out your tongue for the camera. (Hello! Who wants their photo to bring to mind Miley Cyrus? Yuck.)

There are security advantages to all the cameras in society. Criminals are apprehended or abuses uncovered because people grab their mobile phone cameras. Criminal mischief aside, people are free to behave as they want. Go ahead, post photos of  yourself looking into a fish bowl. No doubt some of my Facebook friends are tired of seeing pictures of my book signings.

But what has been the impact, especially for children, of knowing a camera could lurk in any wing? Perhaps they become more conscious of their appearance, expect to look up with a smile when Uncle Godfrey comes into the room to sneak a photo. Smiling is good, especially when we're pleased or happy. Fake smiles, or the newer oval expression, don't convey much except you know there's a camera pointed in your direction. Still, no harm done.

However, it appears to me that the constant awareness of how we look to others and the need to present our everyday activities eight times is expanding the Age of Narcissism, which largely began with the dawn of television and ease of home photos. (Wait, some are saying. There used to not be television? What do you mean Granddad burned his fingers on a flash bulb?)

So, who cares? Why am I thinking about this?

I think narcissism inhibits imagination -- imagination beyond how we might look in a photo if staged a certain way. Why read a book to envision Middle Earth in The Hobbit when we can pull down an Internet photo and insert our picture in the Shire?

Children have always believed fiction to be real, placed themselves in it. I looked for the House at Pooh Corner in a nearby area of mature trees, and even expected to meet Nancy Drew to help her solve crimes. (I may have spent too much time in imaginary worlds.) But, it was more about the story than me.

I think children today are less likely to travel to places in their minds in part because they cannot be part of the action. There is no camera viewer to check to see how they looked in the shot.

Have I any proof? No. It's also hard to conduct research in a field with no possible control groups. Plus, the impact of the "look at me" environment goes beyond selfies.

Maybe the enhanced focus on self and looks doesn't affect reading, or maybe I'm too 'mature' to envision how taking and displaying hundreds of your own photos every month can draw you into reading paper or digital books.

Do your own research. Sit near a group of kids in a shopping mall or playground. You'll generally see them playing video games to see who can get the top score--and then crowing about it on Instagram. Nary a book in sight.

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Usually I post photos or other graphics with blog posts. Somehow, that didn't seem appropriate here.
Elaine L. Orr

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Writing Across Genres

Stories have been bubbling in my brain for decades. Like honey in a bee hive, they leak out, but not in consistent forms.

I began writing plays and screenplays, with the occasional short story. After a few years of doing this, with a demanding day job, I decided that screenplay production was a pipe dream. I liked my stories, but they probably weren't cutting edge enough to get Hollywood's attention. What was I thinking?

That left books, which had been friends since my Mother first read me Robert Louis Stevenson's Child's Garden of Verses. True, these were poems, but they told stories will brilliant pictures.

After two years writing what could be classified as a calm thriller (not exactly a marketable genre), I learned that I liked problem resolution too much to write books with constant, severe threats to the main characters. (Or, write good ones.) That discovery led to writing mysteries that focused more on the characters. It took years to write the first two books, but I was comfortable with what are called traditional or cozy mysteries.

Guess what aspects of my books are often complimented? The dialogue. Hmm.

I think a lot, often looking for common denominators within complex problems. That's probably why my day jobs usually involved analytical reviews of programs. Now, I think about why people argue so much about differences when humans are mostly alike. I can't fix that other than to contribute to equinimity by trying to treat everyone alike. But, I can write about it.

Common Ground is a play in one act, with four scenes. Three very different couples sit in three kitchens discussing plans to relocate. Some people are pleased, others don't want change, and one wants to ignore a very big problem. The first three scenes lead to a picnic, which includes the couples' adult children, some of whom are puzzled at their parents' choices. And amused. Since I've been writing mysteries for years, there has to be a twist at the end. That makes the story hard to describe -- giving away the ending would cut down on reader enjoyment.

Readers? People watch plays. Yes, but potential theater groups read the scripts first. I love the script format. When I lived in the Washington DC area, I would go to a library in the Kennedy Center to read scripts of plays I'd seen. I wanted to figure out how the writers built the story.

The Common Ground ebook is formatted to be read, and the paperback (out in a few days) is in traditional script format. The play can be produced royalty-free, the only cost to schools or theater groups being that of the scripts, which are not expensive.

Perhaps I'll get emails saying to stick to books, but that idea doesn't bother me. Common Ground is a fun story with snappy dialogue. With an ending that will bring a smile, I hope to lessen our differences.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Why Write about Family History?

Some of us know a lot about where our families came from and what our great-grandparents did to keep food on the table during the Great Depression. Others have a Great Aunt Minnie wants to tell stories about what her parents did when the shoe factory in Massachusetts closed or the Ford plant in Detroit laid off one thousand people. But, we're busy, so we may nod politely or make sure the holiday eggnog is in a different room so we don't have to listen. Her stories would be a lot to miss.

Growing up, I heard about my father's family of nine siblings and his mother's indomitable spirit as a widow whose youngest was an infant. Spread across the country, the nine of them stayed in regular touch in the days of snail mail, and periodically even the far-flung families met at an aunt's farm in Mount Vernon, Missouri. I knew which uncle was in which branch of the service during World War II, and was happy that my mother went from Kansas to DC to work during the war. If not, she would not have roomed with my father's sister and met my dad.

Built on Orr land, Ozark Prairie Presbyterian Church
I thought I knew a lot. I knew next to nothing. In the early 1990s, business trips took me to the Midwest, so I (who, with my sister, stayed home with our mom who had MS rather than take trips to Missouri in our teens) spent time with elderly aunts and uncles in Mount Vernon. The stories about how my dad refused to go to school at age six, beating his mother home three days in a row, were funny. Even better was learning why my ancestors ended up in the state in the 1830s and what they did to build a church community and town.

A group of extended family has met annually since 1937, the 100th anniversary of the first arrival of Paul Orr and Isabelle Boyd's descendants in southwest Missouri. The initial families had gone to Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Missouri. Several forward-thinking ancestors (Lettie Hickman Wilkes, assisted by Jessie Stemmons and Harold Campbell) had compiled stories and a list of known descendants in 1954. That year marked the 100th anniversary of the church the Missouri family helped found, Ozark Prairie Presbyterian Church.

Several of the family stalwarts were quite elderly, and within a short time of attending
Family tree roll-out. We add new births annually.
reunions, I was secretary-historian of the OrrReunion Association of Mount Vernon. With the job came a lot of articles, letters, and photos that predecessors, such as Eleanor Coffield of Carthage and Mary Frances (Orr) Schnake, had stored.

Since I knew nothing (and have more than an inclination toward OCD), it became important to sort and organize the materials and identify people in--literally--one hundred years of photos. It would not have been possible without the keen memory of Mary Isabel (Hill) Matteson and encouragement from a cousin's daughter, Kathy Seneker Fairchild, who had already written much about local Missouri history. Just this year, we received decades of files from the late Mary Beth (Hickman) Barger. In many families, a carload of photos and files would end up in the local landfill. Because of the Orr Reunion, her daughter, Barbara, had a place to take them. The sorting will take a while, but we'll all be enriched.

Why name all these people? Why not get to this article's purpose of why writing about family history is important? Because you can't write about it now unless earlier generations have collected the stories. Sure, you can look at Census data or find wills in county courthouses. You'll learn ancestors' occupations and assets, but not a lot more.

Family history is significant because you know how your family fits into a country's history. Why did so many Orrs go from Missouri to Oklahoma in the late 1800s? Because land was available -- largely to white people, at the expense of Native Americans. We also know that William J. Orr and wife Ella Cochran moved across the Oologah River at Sander's Ford. Ella was a teacher and taught the officers' children at Fort Gibson. She took her own children there to teach. Plus, several people married Native Americans, so now the Irish Orrs are kin to this nation's earliest settlers.

Writing about family history lets others link to their ancestors. While I've prepared (with much input, especially from Mary Ann Vincent, a Shirley descendant) a book on the Orr family of Aghadowey, Northern Ireland, and the U.S., it's the postings on that reach the most people. I look at who downloads the material and can often tell where they live -- they are all over the North American map, some are from Australia, a few are from Ireland. There have been many notes from people saying that a photo that made its way from reunion files to the Internet has given them the first image of ancestors. More important, relatives who never heard of the Orr Reunion of Mount Vernon have learned of us and attended.

At past reunions, I've given talks on the family's immigration patterns, the many who operated grist mills, and the extent to which members worked in coal mines in the east and strip mines in the Midwest. This year, the project is military history. Longtime secretary Grace Shepherd compiled an Honor Roll of the fifty-seven men who served during World War II in U.S. or U.K. branches of the military. Some ancestors served as early as the Civil War, others were in World War I, Korea, or Vietnam, and some still serve. We also have at least one who performed service during World War II as a conscientious objector.

We'll seek input from the hundreds of relatives we know, and perhaps find more to ask. We'll also look for the roles women played in the past. Some were in the Red Cross or worked at munitions plants. My own mother (H. Rita Rooney Orr) worked as a 'spotter' one night a week at Andrews AFB near DC. The women who did this were looking for enemy planes that might attack Washington.

There is always more to write. It is getting harder to store the material. So we don't lose it, we're scanning a lot. Who knows, maybe a library will find us sufficiently interesting to keep some of it. It's probably time to look for one.