What Are You Reading?

I love the emails I get from Amazon that, based on what I’ve bought in the past, suggest books I might like in the future. So far I haven’t clicked through to the check-out lane on any of them. Maybe it’s because of my background as an advertising copywriter, I know what it takes to write sales copy and I know when I’m being “sold.” Sometimes I get a mental image of the copywriter knocking out copy for the day before lunch: “Hey, Beth, we need some sexy copy for these five new thrillers.” “Great. Are they any good?” “Who knows? Just give us a couple of lines.”
Exactly.
Last summer, I had a conversation with my brother that set me on a literary journey that lasted—without a whole lot of time for housecleaning, eating, drinking or sleeping—a full five months. He clued me in to George RR Martin’s “Game of Thrones” series. My ensuing summer was a bloody cornucopia of slaughter, haints and “shape-changers.”

Great rip-roaring tale to help guarantee you get nothing done until you finish the whole series. (Not unlike The Hunger Games in this way.)

During my extended time in Westeros, I would occasionally notice a book flit by on the New York Times Bestseller’s list—or in one of the above-mentioned Amazon emails—and mentally earmark it for when my time with Mr. Martin was done. But honestly, without an honest-to-God recommendation from someone you trust to know a good story, what good is a pretty cover and a snappy title? I’ve read plenty of cover blurb promises which the content within did NOT deliver. When I’d finished reading the “Game of Throne” series, a Facebook friend of mine was in the process of adoring “The Help.” It was nice that she actually talked about it while she was reading it. Mind you, I had heard of “The Help” before she mentioned it. Everyone in North America had heard of it. It had received an amazing publicity splash that was relentless that year. And yet? Somehow I got the idea that “The Help” was a self-help book along the lines of “The Secret.” Every time I saw the bright yellow book cover, I mentally tuned it out because I’d already decided

I was a one-woman word-of-mouth machine for this book!

I wasn’t interested in that kind of self-improvement.
When my friend gushed all over the place about it, I picked it up (or loaded it down, whatever) and loved it, and turned around and Amazon-gifted it to three other friends I knew would love it, too.
Recently, I’ve been reading Indie books to try to support the movement but it does take forever to find something good on the Internet. Not that authors aren’t doing a fairly good job of pushing their books in my face—at nearly every juncture on Facebook or Twitter—but like I said before, sales copy and I are intimately related. I know what bullshit looks like. I wrote it for years.
The size and shape of the literary world is changing out there, not just for writers but for readers, too. So how do you find the books you like to read? Do you count on word-of-mouth or is there a book review publication you depend on?

 

Be Brave and Keep Going

What profession besides writing can you think of that requires the kind of incredible bravery (or is it masochism?) that writers must muster every day of their writing lives? Okay, firemen, cops and fighter pilots. But besides them? I’m not even making the distinction between Indie and Trad writers for this one because one thing is true across the board for every writer and that is that it takes guts to write your heart out—reveal the depths of who you are and what you value—and then drag it up the flagpole and invite people to rate it. And while you’re hoisting your precious dearest baby up the flagpole, you can see out of the corner of your eye, a few people are already loading up their bows and cocking their guns. No matter how great you think it is or your editor has assured you it is, you know there are always going to be readers out there who won’t like it. And it doesn’t matter that it “wasn’t their cup of tea,” or that it wasn’t the genre they usually read, or that they admit your main character reminded them of their ex-husband in a nasty divorce—they’ll still come at you with both barrels loaded and one in the chamber.
And yet.
Knowing this—and there’s not a published writer out there who hasn’t felt the sting of a bad review—we still do it. We not only do it, we do it everyday, we do it like we can’t not do it, we do it like we’re being paid to do it.
Weird, huh?
What possible other passion could be so fraught with the possibility of humiliating rejection? I suppose actors might be one but since the days of slinging tomatoes and rotten fruit at the stage are over (at least, mostly) perhaps not. Even publishing a couple crappy reviews about a play or a gallery opening can’t compare with hundreds (or more) of average readers with an opinion. A newspaper reviewer may be negative but Average Joe who feels you wasted his $2.99 on your e-book can be personally hostile. We writers constantly work the online e-channels for marketing purposes (since that’s where our books live, on cyber shelves) and which makes them—and us—static targets for all kinds of  whack jobs who are easily distracted by a big-ass bullseye.
Who knew when you signed on to be disrespected by your family, belittled by your coworkers and pitied by any and everybody who knew you were writing a book that, on top of it all, you’d have to deal with hate mail from  Sri Lanka when you finally finished the damn thing? And then? You sat down and began the whole process all over again. In fact, you couldn’t stop yourself from sitting down and beginning it all over again. (Honestly, is there any other reason why we keep writing other than we can’t not?) Most of my writer friends accept the second-class citizenship status of a novelist in today’s world—especially a self-published one—and they accept the possibility of the public slings and arrows of annoyed, unhappy readers too. Their advice is: grow a thicker skin or stop reading your reviews. Of course, that means you have to stop reading the good ones, too, and while I don’t exactly live for the good ones, they definitely add a cherry on top of my day and I’d hate to create a hard and fast rule requiring me not to look at them. I think it makes more sense to read the reviews with an ear for learning something that might make your book better, or to detect if possibly the reader is a lunatic (all caps are often a give-away), but not to take it too seriously. The last thing you want to do is approach your keyboard for the next book afraid you’re about to write something someone won’t like. Trust me, that’s guaranteed. Let. It. Go. And of course, the absolute best advice I’ve heard about bad reviews however you process them emotionally: don’t respond. I don’t care if they misunderstood what you were doing in the book (you should have been clearer) or if they skipped over the bits that would’ve clarified the problem (you should’ve make it more interesting so they didn’t skip). Just let them have their say and hope to bury the review under fifty positive ones. It’s all you can do. Oh, yeah. And maybe have learned something. That’s always nice.

Because Avocadoes Need Plenty of Sunshine, That’s Why

Like many people from my generation I have a few personal heroes to whom I look to for inspiration. I know everyone is flawed and everyone screws up here and there and the hero I want to highlight in this post absolutely did, (for one, she ditched her only child in order to go off and have her amazing life) but, while I couldn’t do it myself, in a hard-to-describe-way that just made her dossier that much more fascinating to me.

Whenever I talk about Beryl Markham—and I do it not infrequently—I always mention the Avocado Farm. In some ways, this seemingly insignificant and certainly boring chapter in the famous aviatrix’s life engages and intrigues me more than any other.

First a little background: Beryl Markham was a British citizen born in 1902 and moved to Kenya as a toddler. Her childhood, depicted briefly in the film “Out of Africa” as the wild-child “Felicity” tearing up the countryside on the outskirts of Isak’s Dinesen’s farm was singular in many ways, not the least of which was the fact that she spent most of her time with the Nandi natives training to be a young male warrior. Her mother, horrified at what she considered primitive conditions in 1904 Kenya, fled back to England, but little Beryl wouldn’t budge. She was beautiful as all great heroines must be, strong-minded and smart. A natural with horses, she became the first licensed female horse trainer in Kenya. Her lovers included Bror Blixen, Dinesen’s husband, Denys Finch-Hatton, Dinesen’s lover, and Prince Henry, brother of King George VI. She learned to fly with Tom Campbell Black (both Finch-Hatton and Black died in plane crashes) and was the first person to fly the Atlantic east to west in a solo non-stop flight which she did in spite of prevailing Atlantic winds, fog and almost total darkness.

On top of all that, she wrote a book. An amazing book. “West with the Night.” To give you an idea of her ability as a writer—up to this point undiscovered—here is a comment on the book in 1942 from Earnest Hemingway—notoriously sparse with literary praise:

 “I knew (Markham) fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer’s log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and some times making an okay pigpen. But this girl who is, to my knowledge, very unpleasant…can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people’s stories, are absolutely true. So, you have to take as truth the early stuff about when she was a child which is absolutely superb… I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody, wonderful book.”

So I hope I’ve set the stage for you to see what an astonishingly incredible person Markham was. A super nova in every sense of the word. Which is why the Avocado Farm stage always intrigues me to the point that I cannot let it go. I keep mulling it over and trying to make it fit into her biography—and maybe my own?

You see, after Beryl had done all these amazing things and was a mega-celebrity on all continents worth mentioning, she married Raoul Schumacher and moved to California where the pair ran an avocado ranch. Mary S. Lovell’s book “Straight On Till Morning” says that she and Raoul spent their days drinking and watching the avocados grow. After years of intense  international celebrity, of partying hard with the famous and the infamous and filling world headlines with her world-firsts accomplishments, she spent what we might consider today to be her peak years drinking herself to sleep every night and staring into space for nearly ten full years. She didn’t party or socialize. She didn’t do anything except fight with her third husband and drink.

And then.

In 1952 she left the avocados and the third husband and returned to Kenya. She started raising and training horses, and from 1958 to 1972 she was the most successful trainer in Kenya, winning all of the major racing prizes. Before she died in 1986 at the age of 84, West with the Night was republished and became an instant best-seller.  

So, okay. Back to the Avocado Farm. What was that? Do we all have a period in our lives where we’re growing avocados before we get back to being amazing? Or, as I suspect with my own biography, are our whole lives one big avocado farm with a few interrupting glimmers of awesomeness peeking through here and there?