Alex Haley, Scottish Roots, and Genealogy as Story

Alex Haley, author of Roots, is Scottish! So am I, and maybe we’re related. Maybe it’s no surprise I’m embarking on a writing career—perhaps we share the same Scottish writing genes, somewhere a few generations back.

 

Of course, I’m not serious about Alex Haley and I being related. I have no clue if we are, and it would be an amazing coincidence. But I am deeply into genealogy, and I am currently immersed in my Scottish history. I’m quickly becoming an expert in Scottish history. I find my family history fascinating, and can lose myself in the research for hours. Ask my husband—he has spent many a Saturday watching me cruise the Internet on the genealogy websites. I also ask him to order strange books from the inter-library loan system. “Honey, this book was printed in 1713, I wonder if they can find it for me?” He is quick to tell the librarians that these are for his wife.

 

What I love about genealogy is the people. I’m not satisfied with the bare facts of their existence. I like to explore where they lived, and the era they lived in. I love seeing family traits that pop up from generation to generation. My cousins are carpenters, and my brother also is good with his hands. My great-grandfather was a carpenter and shipwright. My aunt is musically talented, as are many of my paternal relatives. My great-grandmother was a musician and composer. My mother is very good with languages, and one of her ancestors back in 1500 is known to have spoken eight languages. I’m a writer, and my great-grandmother also was a writer—which I did not know until long after she was gone.

 

The other great thing about genealogy, from a writer’s point of view, is the stories that come out of these people’s lives. My great-grandmother was 97 when she died. She had been born in 1899. Think of all she lived through! The harrowing tales of early immigrants make for great drama. The noble lineages provide political intrigue and wars. The Celtic clans bring their share of blood feuds and revenge. There is great fodder for books.

 

In fact, I have already outlined a book based on what I have learned from some of my research – The Cypher King.

 

Genealogy rocks!

Facebook, Kindle, and Intellectual Property

 

Intellectual property rights are hot topics right now. While we writers have always been interested in protecting these types of rights, it came to the public eye because of Facebook’s attempted policy change to “We own all your stuff forever.” As we all know, Facebook has backed down. Score one for intellectual property rights!

 

A similar, although less publicly known issue, is the Kindle’s ability to read a book aloud. Some people have reacted to this ability indignantly, claiming it infringes on their audio book rights. I’m a writer, not a lawyer, so I can’t say legally if this is so. Morally, at the moment, I am standing with Neil Gaiman on the issue: Once you buy the book, you have the right to have it read out loud to you. 
 

What is the difference between a mom reading a book to her child, or the Kindle reading to that same child? Well, other than the emotional bonding and psychological weirdness of a child lying in bed snuggled up to a Kindle. Are we going to start suing librarians who read storybooks to children’s groups? They, presumably, do a much better job of reading it than the synthesized Kindle voice, and would therefore be a much stronger threat to audio books. Reading books aloud happens. It goes with the territory.

 

I understand that audio book makers are threatened, but until synthesized voice technology catches up with real human vocal ability, and the computer brain can interpret the words on a screen in an emotional way, there need be no conflict. My GPS unit still does not know how to pronounce the street “Woodland.” It speaks some form of gobblety-gook instead. If a computer can’t figure out such a simple word, then we are a long, long way from a Kindle reader outstripping a voice actor.

 

We are, as I mentioned in an earlier post, living in an age of media convergence. It is inevitable. We don’t have any objection to people sharing our work with each other in any way they can—we all know this drives sales. We just want to get paid a fair market value for it. These types of “conflicts” are going to arise more and more frequently, and rather than scream that we want technology to remain static, we need to find new ways to protect our rights and create a new vision of what authorship is.

No Sleep, but Still Can Dream

Sleep deprivation, as we know, is a form of torture. But it can also be a well for great creativity. There have always been highly creative people who sleep very little, at least for bursts of time. Of course, many of them were also mentally ill, but we won’t go there!

 

Sleep deprivation is on my mind because I had a terrible bout of insomnia the other day. Virtually no sleep at all. And although it made my normal functioning difficult, I found that my creative functioning was easy. My brain put two and two together and made five, but somehow, it all made sense. I made connections between the oddest things, yet they were real connections that I had never seen before. For instance, I was speaking to Jerry Waxler about the craving for “story” that people have in their lives, and I suddenly started to wonder if part of Obama’s appeal to people was his ability to weave “story” into his speeches.

 

I can only theorize that my sleep-deprived brain had moved into a state of semi-dreaming. Who among us hasn’t been half-asleep in bed and come up with a crazy idea? Or juxtaposed two things in their half-sleep that they never would have done when fully awake? The subconscious mind comes to the surface, and solves problems in creative ways we never expected. It is phenomenal, what the mind can do when our logic will leave it alone!

 

Now, I do not recommend long-term sleep deprivation, as that is seriously detrimental to your health. Just ask any new parents out there how “creative” they feel after a few days! But on days when nature has thrown you a curve, and you’re functioning on less than ideal amounts of sleep, be open to your brain, and let the strange ideas come forward.

 

Enjoy your day of waking dreams.

Meetings of the Minds

Whew! A very long day of writing-related meetings has left my head spinning, but my inspiration pumped! There is nothing quite so super-charging as sharing ideas with a group of writers who share your passion. Who else could understand your chagrin at searching for the word “just” in your manuscript and finding it several hundred times?

 

The first meeting was three hours of the Writer’s Coffeehouse at Saxby’s in Doylestown, PA. Led by Jonathan Maberry, there was a wide-ranging discussion about all things publishing, but mostly focusing on self-publishing and POD (print on demand). We discussed the differences between self-publishing and POD, as well as when using those services could enhance your career or harm it. There was speculation that POD especially will become more “legitimized” as previously-conventionally-published authors who have been dropped by their publishers use PODs as an outlet for their work.

 

Then onto another marathon workshop, this one in Warrington, PA, also with the ubiquitous Jonathan Maberry, called Revise & Sell. Today we focused more on the revision process, our writing process, where ideas come from, and how we get into the heads of characters who are completely different from ourselves. That is part of the fascination (and scariness!) of being a writer. I am not an alien despot who thinks it is perfectly okay to enslave humans, but there is one in the science fiction book I’m shopping (The Forgotten Planet), so…

 

Days like today are exhausting (it also includes almost 2 hours of driving for me), but electric, as well. I always leave these workshops fired up and ready to write!

XML and the nature of books in the future

I’m hearing a lot about XML technology, and how it will revolutionize what a “book” is. They talk about the massive amounts of flexibility that it will give to the content of the book. It will provide links from the text to other places on the web, it will allow changes in format of the book, it will allow instant language translation, and so much more. I’m no expert on XML, but apparently it is THE NEXT BIG THING.
 

 

What this means is that publishing is going beyond the printed book—which we all knew. What some of us never considered was having NO printed book, a phenomenon explained well on PersonaNonData.

 

 

So, the real question publishers, agents, and authors need to grapple with is: How does all of this flexibility hit our rights? If you have a technology that can translate it into any language, what does that do to foreign rights? If you can change the format to large print or comic book from the standard print, where does that leave those rights? We are already seeing a dust-up over the Kindle’s voice feature infringing on audio book rights.

 

We are living and writing in an age of convergence—the lines between various media are blurring. Heck, they’re disappearing. The book—the ebook—is becoming a multi-media animal. Reading a book about 1922 Philadelphia, and want to see photos from that era. Just click. Want to hear the music playing in the speakeasy? Just click. Want to read a newspaper article from 1922 mentioned in the book? Just click. It can make for a vastly richer experience for the reader, if they choose to explore.

 

Which brings us to another question. As books become more flexible, how will that change the way authors write? Or will it?

Alfred A. Knopf, Jr.

Alfred A. Knopf, Jr., died Saturday, at age 90, of complications from a fall, according to the Associated Press. Son of the iconic publishers who founded Alfred A. Knopf Inc., he had his own vision, and carried it to a new publishing company, Atheneum Publishers, that he co-founded. He published a number of classic works, including Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

 

In this time when major publishers are cutting entire divisions, and bloody Wednesday is still sending shock waves through the industry, it is perhaps a little bizarre to lose such a figurehead of the publishing world. Does this foretell of further darkness to come? I leave each of you to interpret the harbinger as you will.

 

Godspeed to Mr. Knopf, and heartfelt sympathy to his family.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/16/books/16knopf.html

Strange Questions

I find myself asking strange questions when I write. How long did it take a steam ship to cross the Atlantic in the 1920s? How long did early flashlight batteries last? When did they invent Christmas tree lights?

 

One characteristic of most writers I know is their insatiable curiosity. (Do laser beams ricochet?) I think that’s one of the greatest draws for me—constantly learning something new. I am currently learning how to pick locks, play Chinese checkers, and do some basic martial arts. When you’re writing a historical novel, like my middle grade adventure The Egyptian Enigma (set in 1922 Philadelphia), the learning curve is steep. (Did Philadelphia have any traffic signals then? Did police use photographs in their crime scene investigations?) But it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

 

I’ll admit, I was the kid in college who loved to hear that we had a research paper as part of a class. Digging into information, finding the facts I needed, putting together pieces of the puzzle—it was great fun for me. My husband will tell you, I can’t walk away from an unfinished puzzle. It’s an addiction.

 

I’ve always said I would love to be a perpetual student, and I find that, as a writer, I actually am. There’s always another question to answer, another avenue to explore, another fact to track down, all in the name of world-building.

 

Now, when did they “invent” chunky peanut butter?

I am a writer

I am a writer.

 

That is a powerful statement. The brevity of the words “I am” belies their definitive power. “I am” cuts to the essence of who and what you are as a person. A strong statement, “I am.”

 

I am a writer.

 

The force of that statement first hit home when Jonathan Maberry spoke about it in one of his workshops. We students had all shared what we “were.” Most of their statements were similar to mine: “I’m a video editor who has always loved to write, and wish I could write for a living.” After we were done, Jonathan told us that if we were serious about writing for a living, the first thing we had to do was define ourselves as writers. We had to start thinking of ourselves and introducing ourselves to others saying, “I am a writer.” He claimed that thinking this way would place writing as a high priority in our lives, that we (and others) would begin to take our writing seriously, and that it was only then that we could become successful as writers.

 

Jonathan was right. I began thinking of myself as a writer first. Very soon, I was no longer a video editor who writes, but a writer whose day job was video editing. Then (due to my wonderful, supportive husband!), I got the opportunity to quit the day job and pursue writing full-time. I make some money editing (words, not video), but the majority of my time is spent pursuing my craft and my dream. For the first time in my life, I wake up every day eager to get to work!

 

I am a writer!

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