On My Mind…

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Greetings from the Swiss Alps where I’ve been on Winter Sports Break with my family! Snow has been falling heavily for the past few days and visibility is poor. My husband and son can handle those challenging ski conditions, but I prefer to stay inside by the fire with a mug of hot chocolate and a book. I’m currently engrossed in Real Life by Brandon Taylor, a debut novel that has received much praise.

Regarding my own book project, I’m halfway-done to a finished first draft. Although I felt guilty putting the manuscript aside this week, the invigorating mountain air and expansive views have stimulated many ideas and I can’t wait to pick up where I left off when I get back to Stockholm. March will be an intensive writing month since I have an April 1st deadline for submission to a developmental editor. As an indie author, it’s particularly important to ensure that the plot makes sense, the characters are well-developed, and the grammar and spelling are correct.

However, as much as I’ve been trying to stay laser-focused on my writing, it’s been impossible to ignore the recent controversy embroiling the literary world. It centers around a novel released last month, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, the story of a Mexican mother and her son whose family has been massacred by a drug cartel. They are forced to flee, instantly becoming migrants, and embark on a precarious journey north to the American border. It was chosen as an Oprah’s Book Club pick, sparking controversy over the exploitation of migrant stories by non-Mexican and non-migrant writers. In addition, American Dirt has brought the lack of racial diversity in the publishing industry, along with issues of representation surrounding the books that get published and marketed, to the forefront.

I have not read American Dirt and will not delve into that specific debate, but it did make me think about my own publishing journey and the difficulty I had attracting agents and publishers for my first novel, Uptown & Down.  One the one hand, some said they couldn’t envision a broad audience for the story while others told me it wasn’t “black enough.” You can only imagine my confusion! Thankfully, I found one agent willing to take  a chance on the story and she, in turn, found an editor at Penguin/NAL who “got it.” I will be forever grateful to both of them. Ten years later, I experienced many of the same issues with Lagging Indicators and that frustration led me to publish independently.

Cummins’s novel has also renewed the discussion about cultural appropriation and writing outside of your race, culture or experiences. I passionately oppose limiting the world or characters a writer can imagine. Of course, if we go outside of ourselves, we should do our homework and approach it with sensitivity, but self-censoring our imagination is a dangerous proposition creatively. My novels have always contained a diverse cast of characters, both for depth and to reflect the multicultural world we live in.

Which brings me to my new book, a mother/daughter story set in the Swedish archipelago. The narrative is told from two points of view and my main characters are a white Swedish mother and her bi-racial daughter. I am neither–does that mean I don’t have the right to write from their perspectives? Should I scrap this story because I might open myself up to criticism? Although I feel I can justify my creative choices based on my years living among Swedes, I’m still very much aware that I’m writing outside my cultural and racial identity. But when crafting the characters of Linn and her daughter Zoë, I’ve tried to inhabit their emotions, inner conflicts, and motivations, hoping our outward differences will transform into something more universal. To be continued…

REFLECTING ON THE 2000s

I remember ringing in the new millennium at a private, black-tie party in Gamla Stan, the old town section of Stockholm. Our friend had booked a space with a prime view of Skeppsbron, the waterfront boulevard, and we feasted on caviar, lobster and filet mignon, tallying the minutes until 2000, and watching the Swedish rock band, Europe, sing their signature hit, “The Final Countdown,” across the water. I had gotten married six weeks earlier, so the 21st Century—a mythical denomination that had long captured the popular imagination—felt like a new beginning for me too. The conversation that New Year’s Eve centered on the Y2K bug projected to wreak havoc on global computers. Would the apocalypse come when the clock struck midnight? Luckily, we were spared, but the world awaiting us would scarcely resemble the one we had grown up in.

Personally speaking, the 2000s brought infinite blessings and great joy: the birth of my daughter (2001), the arrival of my son (2004), and the publication of my first novel, Uptown & Down (2005). However, it also carried immense tragedy and sorrow: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the death of my beloved mother in 2004. When I look back at that first decade, it passed by in a bit of a blur as I juggled family life with my writing aspirations. However, the candidacy of Barack Obama energized me, rekindling my own political engagement, and I will always remember the night of November 4, 2008, when he was elected the 44th President of the United States.

After that historic event, defining moments seemed to happen at breakneck speed and reality became stranger than fiction, providing ripe material for storytelling. For example, the 2008 financial crisis inspired my second novel, Lagging Indicators. I spent a lot of free time in the 2010s wired to my phone or computer, checking in on news sites, social media, blogs and anything else that could inform and inspire. I think that’s been the biggest revelation for me these past twenty years: how technology has infiltrated our everyday lives and enabled us to stay connected in real-time. I love the convenience of smartphones, Google and Uber but there are pitfalls to always being “logged on.” The constant distractions, increased anxiety, and rise of a toxic internet culture have overshadowed many of the benefits technology promised. The 2020s may finally be the time for us to get off the grid and fully experience being “in the moment.”

I feel as though I’m at another crossroad–not unlike the one at the turn of the century. Our growing children will eventually flee the nest, prompting me and my husband to contemplate the next phase of our lives. It will be a bittersweet transition, but rather than dwelling on how quickly the years have passed, I’m excited to see where the new road will take us.

My main emotion entering this new decade is one of gratitude—for family, friends, good health, readers, and the sense of perspective I have gained. I’m more grounded and “don’t sweat the small stuff” as much. I also have more clarity about what makes me happy and what I would like to achieve in life. The decision to become an indie author was an important step in my mid-life journey towards personal, creative and professional growth.

My goals for the 2020s are not as lofty as they might have been twenty years ago. I’ve witnessed how fragile life is, how quickly one’s situation can change, and how certain factors are simply beyond our control. I think this is a humbling and healthy realization. There’s no doubt we live in an uncertain, unpredictable age, yet I was encouraged by a recent Op-Ed piece Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times. Kristof points out that while there are significant causes for alarm—and still much work to be done—humanity is at a better place now than ever before. With that in mind, I enter this new decade with hope; saying thank you for the years gone by and wishing you all a healthy, happy and peaceful New Year!

BOOK LOVERS & BEYOND HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE: 2019

 

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Although there are only six hours of daylight this time of year and darkness blankets Stockholm around 3:00 pm, I’m so excited for the holidays. Glimmering lights and sparkly decorations cast a festive glow around the city, helping everyone get in the Yuletide spirit. My daughter will be home from college in a few weeks and we are counting the days until the four of us can gather in the countryside for a very Swedish Christmas. Per custom, the celebration begins on December 24th and we will eat a smorgasbord of traditional delicacies, watch classic television shows, and then open presents. I’m in the midst of choosing gifts for family and friends but have been keeping an eye out for things that would interest book lovers–writers, readers, and enthusiasts alike. However, I do think these goodies could appeal to anyone, so please check them out and tell me what you think!

Tech items consistently top wish lists and the new iPhone is on mine. It’s pricey but I’ve begrudgingly accepted these devices also function as cameras, computers, e-book readers, and video screens, so maybe, in the end, I’m getting more bang for the buck? If an iPhone is not in the cards, how about a monogrammed AirPods case? I think it would make a great stocking stuffer. There are so many cool gadgets available and my favorites are high-tech with a retro look. Click on pictures for more details.

I love coffee table books and these colorful tomes from Assouline, featuring some of the most glamorous vacation spots in the world, would definitely cure the winter blues!

Comfort is key when writing or reading. Cozy slippers keep your toes warm and Ugg has some of the best on the market. With soft cashmere socks and a snuggly throw, no one will want to leave the house. And why not spoil somebody with silk feathery pajamas? They’re just as elegant in bed or at a party.

 

Tequila Mockingbird is one of the cleverest books out there; the names of the drinks alone are enough to make a writer drunk with envy.  It’s a good thing The Writer’s Toolbox will get them back on track.

 

I disagree with the notion that giving candles for the holidays is overdone. Who wouldn’t love a scented jewel like this one from Diptyque? Mood enhancing and decadent when lit by these book-themed matches. Candles are always perfect to give and get!

 

Warm drinks in the wintertime are a balm for the soul. Keep coffee warm with this temperature-controlled mug from Ember and boil water for tea in a stylish Smeg kettle. A true bibliophile would appreciate the old-school library card mug and coasters from Out of Print.

The New York Public Library Shop is a treasure trove of items and gift ideas, especially for children. The library card socks and Little Golden Books tote would be ideal for a baby and the pop-up edition of The Nutcracker is a work of art. I’d give my daughter the Knowledge is Power desk plate and my son the library stamp tee-shirt. This NYPL thousand-piece puzzle is also a fun present, especially as a challenging project to do between Christmas and New Year’s.

Gifts for the home are always a good idea for a host/hostess, colleague or friend. The Skultuna mini brass vase would sit prettily atop A Book Lover’s Guide to New York for a chic shelfie. Anything from the Museum of Modern Art Design Store makes a statement and these bookends boast a timeless modern touch.

Either of these Christmas-themed novels by Sophie Kinsella and Jasmine Guillory would be a lovely Secret Santa gift at a girls’ luncheon. Add this leather bookmark for extra flair.

Prince was a musical genius and icon. My husband is a huge fan, so he’ll be getting this memoir Prince began writing before his tragic death. Debbie Harry aka Blondie is a living legend and I’m intrigued by her recollections on the New York music, cultural and social scene in the 70s and 80s. Both would be appreciated by music aficionados.

Goodbye, 2019! We’re headed into a new decade and what better way to celebrate than with a trivia game testing one’s knowledge of the 2000s and 2010s? This is an excellent gift for a couple or family and I promise you things will get heated! You can also download a free quiz by Trivia Champ and get into the competitive spirit yourself over a glass of champagne or mug of hot chocolate.

In essence, the holidays are really about slowing down and spending time with loved ones. Gifts don’t matter–but it is fun to go virtual shopping :). Wishing everyone a healthy, happy and peaceful festive season!

Confessions of a NaNoWriMo Novice

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I spent November participating in National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo, an annual writing marathon of banging out 50,000 words in thirty days, which breaks down to roughly 1,667 words per day. The primary goal of NaNoWriMo is to generate a messy first draft, but the deeper purpose is to develop a writing habit and unleash your creativity. Discipline and silencing your inner critic are crucial to getting the most out of this challenge. Since it took me ten years to write my second book, I needed this boot camp like nobody’s business. Completing half a novel in a month? Sign me up!

But as a NaNoWriMo novice, I can humbly confess–drumroll, please–that I was among the 85% who did not reach 50,000 words. I wrote nearly every day for hours on end but discovered I’m one of those people who can’t write with abandon and put thoughts and words on a page without editing as I go along. Working towards a daily word count was nerve-racking and there were many times I—and my manuscript—felt like a hot mess. In my defense, I had to rethink main character names (a seemingly simple yet complicated task!) and reconstruct a critical detail in the fictionalized world I’m building. I was stuck; mentally incapable of moving forward until I had sorted out those two problems.

Despite a less than stellar outcome, I don’t regret the time and effort I spent on NaNoWriMo. It’s a fantastic initiative and enabled me to connect with a virtual community of writers. After months of running around and feeling scattered, I established a daily writing routine and am much farther along than I would have been without NaNoWriMo. Most importantly, I never wanted to give up. Even though I fell behind–and it would be cosmically impossible for me to get back on track–I never considered throwing in the towel.

But to maintain this momentum, I have to put my writing at the top of my to-do list. Participating in this 30-day challenge required prioritizing it over everything that wasn’t essential. I define “essential” as my family and author-related work, so trying a new exercise class, coffee mornings, and other interesting activities that fuel my imagination had to take a back seat to even contemplate reaching that 1,667 daily word count. My biennial mammogram? Essential. Checking out a new restaurant? Not so much. Once-in-a-lifetime events like my 20th Wedding Anniversary and birthdays were celebrated, but there was no room for extraneous pursuits. NaNoWriMo provides a checklist on how to prep and suggests ways your family and friends can help you reach the 50,000 words goal. My husband and kids were super-supportive and pepped me up when I was losing steam.

Even with an outline and strict time management, I still fell short of 50K and didn’t win my NaNoWriMo badge. My husband joked that whatever the deadline is, just double it! The most frustrating part of this challenge was sitting for eight hours to only write 500 words. NaNoWriMo has motivated me to find strategies to accelerate my thought process and improve my writing flow. Moving forward, I need to focus on a rough first draft and throw perfection to the wind.

I would definitely take part in NaNoWriMo again and thank the organization for creating such an inspiring writing platform and laying out a program for success. It was liberating to hunker down and concentrate exclusively on my new book. It rejiggered my mindset and expanded my creative bandwidth. It also confirmed that I need structure and space to gather my thoughts. In the spirit of NaNoWriMo, my current goal is one chapter a week. It’s a good number for my approach to writing and I’ll apply the NaNoWriMo mentality to stay the course. In the mean time, maybe NaNoWriMo would consider giving me an honorable mention…

READER’S BLOCK RESCUE

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As a child, I was a voracious reader. I made weekly trips to the library, checked out as many books I could, and consumed them like a junkie. My fifth-grade teacher worried whenever I stayed indoors for recess, nose buried in one of Judy Blume’s masterpieces, and didn’t join the other kids out on the playground. I was confused: how could being a bookworm be a negative? I ignored her concerns and kept reading. My habit continued through adulthood. I read on subways and airplanes and always packed a half-dozen novels whenever I went on vacation. I even perfected balancing a book while nursing my children.

The intensity of my reading varied over the years, depending on whether I was working on my own manuscripts. I never wanted to be unintentionally influenced by someone else’s work—particularly if it was in a similar genre—and would take self-imposed reading breaks. These breaks stretched on and on and when I finally had the time and space to pick up a book again, I had difficulty getting into it. Coupled with the prevalence of smartphones, with their easy access to articles, blogs, and social media, and the allure of high-quality TV-series, my reading stalled. Quite simply, my attention span couldn’t handle a full-length novel. Scrolling rather than deep reading had become my default form of consumption. I’d start something and then give up if it didn’t catch my interest in the first twenty or thirty pages. This was highly unusual for me. As a writer and avid reader, I know all too well styles differ. Many novels are a slow burn and it can take several chapters for a story to reveal itself.

I still purchased books but my lack of commitment to actually read them symbolized my descent into literary No Man’s Land. How could I call myself a writer, if I had developed such a complicated relationship with reading? It’s been well-documented that reading is good for our intellect and mental well-being. It’s an active process, requiring us to employ several different parts of the brain at the same time, unlike television which is typically consumed in a passive manner. Developing a reading habit increases our vocabulary, improves our spelling, expands our knowledge, and reduces the risk of memory loss. We become smarter, more engaged individuals by reading. Reading is a proven stress reducer. It demands we slow down and escape into a quiet space internally, blocking the influence of fast-paced stimuli like the noise and images from buzzing screens. Reading also exposes us to a variety of experiences and broadens our perspectives. It nurtures our imagination, creativity, and sense of empathy.

However, with two children and a laundry list of responsibilities, my patience to pick up a book and stick with it was tested. Things culminated a couple of years ago when I realized I had only read a handful of books over a twelve-month period. What had happened to Book Junkie Jenn? The young girl whose idea of bliss was escaping into imaginary worlds and reading 2-4 books a week? As a writer, I’d certainly experienced writer’s block. But reader’s block? That was sacrilege! Plus, my vocation would surely go out of business if more people developed this condition. Turns out I wasn’t alone. Other writers have also revealed they’ve experienced this phenomenon. British author Lisa Jewell (whose thrillers I’ve been devouring of late) confessed to a reading block in an Instagram post. I felt her pain! But all is not lost. Here are five of my tips to rescue you from this ailment:

  1. Start with less challenging books. We all have fantasies of finishing War and Peace, but unless you’re a student or stranded on a deserted island with no interruptions, it may be difficult to get through 1,225 pages in the real world of jobs, kids, and mental fatigue. Sometimes in order to reconnect with reading, one has to choose something on the menu that’s more easily digested. Read whatever interests you. I’m not a book snob. Pay no attention to whether it’s considered high or low brow. As long as you’re reading and want to keep turning the pages, you’ve already scored a victory.
  2. Read a book in a different format. The growing popularity of audiobooks is proof that the reading audience is hungry for a good story but in a different medium. In our busy world, we don’t always have the luxury to hunker down with a physical book. Audiobooks allow us to listen to novels–often narrated by the authors themselves or by award-winning voices–while we exercise, commute, or do chores. I don’t think it diminishes the experience since one must still concentrate on the words and mood being conveyed. Our imagination must still paint a picture of the story. I’ve also become a big fan of e-books for their user-friendliness and lower price point. I downloaded the Kindle app on my smartphone last year and wonder why it had taken me so long. Instead of reading blogs or articles, I can now swipe through an e-book as I stand in line or sit in my car waiting for my son at soccer practice. Downloading e-books assures that I will always have reading material close at hand.
  3. Mix it up. If you’re experiencing reading fatigue, it may be because you’re reading books that are too similar to each other, which may also explain why you no longer feel that sense of wonder and satisfaction. Instead of taking a reading break, try something in a different genre. For example, I used to only read fiction, but in recent years, I’ve added more non-fiction and memoirs to my repertoire and many of those narratives have left a more powerful impression on me.
  4. Schedule time for reading just as you would pencil in time for working out or coffee with a friend. Better yet, have a weekly date with a book, preferably outside of your house. It goes without saying that a reading ritual necessitates a tech-timeout. Immerse yourself in the simple pleasure of reading; just you and the book.
  5. Binge read a book like you would a Netflix series says novelist Ben Dolnick. Get into the zone, the same way you did for The Crown, Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards. Clear your calendar, settle in on your couch, and dig in. If you approach reading as entertainment rather than a high-brow burden, I promise you will enjoy it as much as the latest program on Netflix!

What are some of your tips for beating the reader’s block blues?

 

 

 

CHANGING COURSE

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Something strange happened over the summer: I got a new story idea. As a novelist who had experienced “writer’s block” for many years, the prospect of two narratives spinning in my head was nothing short of miraculous. Rather than jump for joy, I stiffened in hesitation. I had already done considerable research and interviews for Story Idea #1, sketched out characters, and created a plot outline. I had even written three chapters! However, a force beyond my control took over when we moved to our summer cottage by the sea. Other voices and visions began taking hold, urging me forward.

Nevertheless, I proceeded with caution and made a list of why I was drawn to Story Idea #2.  Did I feel overwhelmed by #1? Was it those sticky plot points I hadn’t completely figured out yet? Was I struggling to depict the conflicts? The answer to all three questions was YES, but they weren’t sufficient reasons to discard the original idea. I had covered unfamiliar terrain in Lagging Indicators and believed I could do it again. What I couldn’t ignore was the emotional attachment I had begun to develop with Idea #2, its cast of characters, and themes. I was undoubtedly influenced by personal events (daughter going off to college) and wanted to use that backdrop to explore questions of family and identity.

While inspiration can be magically inexplicable, I recognized that without a clear plan, I would be abandoning an existing, developing story for a simmering, underdeveloped one. As an exercise, I gathered research material for #2; created thumbnail descriptions of the main characters, including names; imagined a setting with a distinctive feature; and crafted a working title. My final criterion was whether I could write the back cover copy. If I can summarize the essence of the story in a catchy way, I feel much more confident about its potential. Once I had accomplished this, Story Idea #2 began to unfold in a tangible form.

However, I haven’t abandoned my first story idea. I’m still conducting informal interviews and taking notes, but I feel a stronger visceral connection to #2 at the moment. What have I learned from this unforeseen turn of events? Although it may sound counterintuitive, spending time and effort on a project may actually lead you to THE project, the one that flows organically from your creative center and brings you closer to your truth. It’s imperative to listen to your inner voice! I’m prone to feeling guilty for not completing a task and had to grant myself “permission” to put that first story on hold. Even though I’m the driver of this writing enterprise, I still had to rationalize changing course, as though I had broken some cardinal rule on writing a novel! While I don’t recommend flitting from one idea to the next without a roadmap, I do think it’s worthwhile to seize those impulses flooding your mind with scenes, characters, and dialogue.

Many writers work on multiple books at the same time and have developed strategies for keeping their stories distinct. I will take them to heart and look forward to developing both of my ideas further—one novel at a time!

 

 

Summer Bucket List

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The Swedish Midsummer celebration, with its crazy dances around the maypole, ushered in the easy, breezy season! After a long, darkish winter, I’m so excited about this bright and, hopefully, warm time of year.  My family and I follow a ritual practiced by many Swedes in this sprawling country: we flee the city and escape to a cottage by the water.  Our place is in the Stockholm archipelago, which is a cluster of 30,000 islands, skerries and rocks.  We’re usually there from the beginning of July until mid-August, but this year calls for adjustments since we’ll be sending our daughter off to college in New York and our son has an intensive soccer schedule.  We’d like to make the most of this summer together since it feels like we’re entering a new phase in our household.  The long-held tradition, with the four us ensconced in our home for weeks on end, no longer applies.  Kids grow up and have their own plans and, sadly, we parents have to adapt.  I can’t think of a better place to process the changes in our family dynamic than on an island, surrounded by nature and a view of the Baltic Sea.

Let me start off by saying that I love the contrast of being at the seaside and creating a cozy, color-filled environment; preparing lots of food; and welcoming guests.  However, my ambition level exceeds my capacity to deliver and I’ve often found myself exhausted and grumpy–disappointed that I didn’t take time out to enjoy the outdoors or read a book or play Scrabble or watch a movie.  I’ve made a conscious decision to avoid wallowing in regret this year, pining for a summer that didn’t meet my personal expectations.  So, I’ve given a lot of thought to what makes me feel fulfilled and how I’d like this summer to play out.

It’s been easy for me to get bogged down in domestic chores and claim that I don’t have time to do something active.  With all the Rosé and ice cream that’s consumed, I end up feeling bloated and lazy.  In order to combat that, I’ve vowed to do some kind of movement every day.  A power-walk in the forest, a promenade on the beach, tennis, and kayaking top my list.  I also have a backlog of podcasts I can listen to while I navigate the trails.

Reading for me is relaxation and, if the conditions are right, I can pore over two novels a week.  Here are some recent and upcoming releases that will be clambering for a spot on my bedside table!

My daughter going off to college has made me very sentimental and nostalgic.  I found the old photo album below when I was in New York last month.  Transferring pictures from this tattered scrapbook into a new one is a priority this summer–along with talking to my kids about the people and places from my youth. I’ve been rushing through the present and preparing so much for the future, the past has gotten short-changed.  I want to rectify this situation before it’s too late.  My husband also has a bunch of photos to arrange and I think this could be a great family activity, especially on a rainy day.

This photo album was a precious item in my childhood home. Before digital cameras, every picture was taken with care and valued.  I love the photograph of my parents from the Seventies!

I’d also like to start each morning by writing my thoughts, impressions, and feelings in a journal.  Being in the archipelago really clears my head. I often feel my most creative and coherent.  Unfortunately, my ideas and reflections disappear if I don’t record them.  Keeping a journal will exercise my writing muscles and keep me in the right mindset to tackle my new book, either by going through research material or writing a few more chapters.  However, I’ve learned that even the most prolific, successful authors have been known to take the summer off, so I shouldn’t feel too guilty if I don’t make significant headway ;).

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Reduce my screen time!  I won’t reveal how much I average per day, but I think I’ve reached the point of diminishing returns.  A Digital Detox will open up dormant areas of my being–both mentally and physically.  I want to focus on wellness and self-care and know that a tech timeout is a key to that.  Although Instagram and Snapchat are filled with sumptuous holiday pics and adventures, I’ll have to put on the brakes and not fall too deep down the rabbit hole!  All things in moderation…

Getting together with family and friends in the archipelago is my definition of summertime bliss.  Setting a seasonal, thematic table and grilling is my favorite way to entertain.  This year I want to move away from the ubiquitous Rosé and Aperol Spritz and try different cocktails.  I’ve heard great things about the Hugo and Suze Tonic.  I also want to add new salads and meatless dishes to my repertoire.  Above all, I want to master the art of “effortless entertaining” and spend less time in the kitchen so I can enjoy my guests!

With my love of books, I’ve amassed quite a collection which I’d like to make available to others on the island.  I love the idea of the Little Free Library and have plans to build my own with one of these kits from Etsy.  I hope I can make it stable enough to stand upright!  But if all else fails, I’ll donate books to the village hotel and local grocery store.  I want to spread the read/share/exchange/enjoy concept!

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I get very attached to our place and am reluctant to leave for excursions on neighboring islands.  I shouldn’t get so complacent though; the Stockholm archipelago is filled with wonderful small bays, beaches, and restaurants.  You can even go on a seal safari not too far from where we are!  I want to be more “adventurous” and do some day trips when the weather is nice.  I might even take a dip in the Baltic Sea.  But don’t listen to the Swedes: The water is not warm at 15C/60F!

What’s on your summer bucket list?

 

Festival Fever – #SWF19

IMG_4037I have long wanted to attend a writer’s conference, retreat, or festival, but scheduling conflicts and family obligations have always gotten in the way.  Little did I know there was already such an event in my own city!  In 2017, the Stockholm Writer’s Festival (SWF) was established as a non-profit organization to help writers hone their craft, provide them with the tools necessary to navigate the world of publishing, and foster a sense of community.  Catherine Petterson, SWF’s founder, describes it as a way for writers to find “their path to published.”  The event launched in 2018 and was a huge success, proving there was a need for a forum of this kind to educate, inspire, and network.

I was so excited when Catherine and her colleague, Sandra Carpenter, asked me to participate in SWF19 as a faculty member.  I had caught their attention through a mutual friend’s Facebook post about my Book Club Sneak Peek for Lagging Indicators.  They became curious about my move from traditional to indie publishing and wanted me to discuss why I had made the transition.  Not only had I never been to a writer’s gathering before–and it would be nerve-racking enough communicating with these savvy wordsmiths–I was now going to co-lead a panel about my indie experience with Jessica Lourey.  Luckily, I would have several months to think about what I wanted to say!

The unofficial start of SWF19 kicked off with an informal cocktail mingle for contributors and participants at a hotel near the festival location.  Nibbling on cheese and crackers, we chatted about our expat lives (if applicable) and writing interests.  I met so many nice people, many of whom are part of the Stockholm Writers Group.

I got up bright and early the next day to make it to Finlandshuset, the large and fully-equipped SWF19 venue.  It buzzed with the activity of introductions, registration, and a bubbling creative energy and anticipation.  I was a bit nervous since I was all by myself, but once I entered the packed Sibelius Room, I saw many familiar faces, including an old friend who had signed up for SWF because of my Instagram posts. The crowd was very diverse in terms of age and gender.  Many had completed manuscripts and were curious about next steps.  We were all at SWF for the same purpose and it was easy to connect.

Jane Friedman’s workshops were extremely illuminating.  Friedman is an expert on the publishing industry and on the reality for us writers in a rapidly changing landscape.  She broke down the Big 5 publishing houses; explained what a writer’s expectations from an agent should be; compared advances vs. royalties; advised on crafting query letters, non-fiction proposals, book blurbs, and backcover copy; addressed the topic of manageable book length (80,000-100,000 words); analyzed different forms of self-publishing (a service vs. DIY); and weighed in on artistic patronage in the modern age (Patreon).

Although I had made an informed decision when deciding to pursue the indie publishing route, Friedman’s presentation significantly increased my knowledge about the business and confirmed some of my theories.  For example, having a platform and built-in audience helps a prospect get noticed and bolsters the chances of a book deal.  Publishing houses offer very little support for most authors in marketing and promotions.  Rarely does a self-published work become traditionally published.  Friedman also spent time on the “business” of writing and the benefits of employing a business mindset to the post-publication process (marketing, promotions, events).  In spite of pressure to be well-versed on both the commercial and creative sides, Friedman stressed that the quality of the writing and story still matter!

Being surrounded by so many passionate writers was incredibly inspiring.  I applauded the winners of the First Pages Prizes and listened intently as they read the opening sentences of their work.  It took a lot of guts to share those lines with a room full of people!

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My nervousness grew as the day for my panel discussion approached.  Jessica Lourey is a teacher, prolific writer, and accomplished speaker; I was an amateur in comparison.  I wanted to make the session worthwhile for the participants and didn’t want them to feel disappointed.  My best defense against performance anxiety has always been intense preparation, so I skipped the Saturday night mingle and stayed home to polish and study my notes.

My first session on Sunday was a 3 x 10 minute speed dating exercise where 4-5 participants asked me specific questions about the mechanics of publishing independently.  I was very frank about cost, the importance of putting out the most professional product within one’s budget, and the advantages of utilizing an indie publishing service. I then did a breakout session with Lourey that attracted 30 people.  I started by reading from my index cards, but soon found the confidence to let the words flow naturally.  I described the highs of getting a traditional book deal for Uptown & Down in 2004, and then the lows of trying to find my way back into the publishing world after a ten-year hiatus.  I was very open about my disappointment and sense of powerlessness–until I decided to become an indie author.  My goal was to demystify and democratize the publishing process.  There are so many good stories waiting to see the light of day.  They shouldn’t die for lack of a traditional publishing deal.

What did I learn from my first writer’s festival?

SWF19 reinforced that I’m in the right profession. I loved being surrounded by other enthusiasts and was hungry to absorb as much information as I could.  I did have moments when I wondered: Are people in this room more talented and productive than I am?  Who will get a book deal or be the next big-name author?  Can I write another book?  Depending on the speaker, I alternated from a sense of empowerment (workshop on indie publishing) to discouragement (panel with literary agents).  On the practical side, I discovered the broad reach of platforms such as BookBub, Facebook ads, giveaways, and audio books.  The feedback from my indie publishing sessions was very positive.  I enjoyed pepping writers and giving out tips.  As a result, I experienced a burning motivation to focus on my next project.  I also sold a dozen more copies of Lagging Indicators which wasn’t too bad either!

I was very honored and grateful to be included as a faculty member at SWF19 and took pride in the appropriateness of such an event happening in Sweden, a country with a long literay tradition and the Nobel Prize in Literature.  I want to commend and thank the organizers and volunteers for the amazing job they did.  Most of all, SWF19 exposed me to a thriving writer community and I have no doubt we will continue to boost and support each other!

 

 

 

 

 

 

SWEDE-ish

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Kungliga Djurgården/Royal Djurgården

I first came to Stockholm as a bright-eyed, nineteen-year-old New Yorker with my Swedish boyfriend.  We married nine years later and I’ve lived here since 1997, minus a 5-year spell when we were back in the US for my husband’s job.  Living this expat life has been exciting, interesting, and inspiring–as well as frustrating, confusing, and conflicting.  However, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else and am so grateful my husband coaxed me out of my comfort zone.  As the daughter of Haitian immigrants, I’m familiar with the challenges of combining two different cultures and have built up a strong reservoir of resilience and adaptability.  I choose to focus on the positives and the potential for growth in every situation.  That’s not to say I don’t have issues; my husband and kids can certainly attest to my Swedish pet peeves and #shakingmyhead moments!

Nevertheless, I’ve been reluctant to explore the expat experience in my own fiction.  I think this stems from my preferred strategy of staying positive, both as a coping mechanism and an awareness my life as a foreigner in Sweden is removed from a great deal of the stresses and stigmas many newcomers face.  However, I can still relate.  Half a century ago, my Haitian parents endured prejudice in America and my upbringing was tainted by racist incidents and the burden of constantly having to prove myself.  Thanks to their hard work and sacrifices, I came to Sweden with an American passport, a college degree, and the facility for learning a new language.  My Swedish fiancé had already paved the road and my arrival was greeted with acceptance, not suspicion.

I feel a sense of loyalty towards Sweden out of love for my husband, respect for the country where he was born and raised, and an obligation to the place where we have chosen to bring up our dual-nationality, bi-racial, multi-cultural kids.  Stockholm has been too close to home, both physically and psychologically.  But I’ve come to wonder if this approach prevents critical thinking and objectivity?  Sweden–like a character in any book–should be multi-dimensional, imbued with virtues and flaws.  A blemished character is much more complex and realistic than a spotless one.  Denying that complexity is disingenuous and minimizes the impact.  Many Swedish friends have urged me to write about my observations and interactions.  However, I’ve always feared borrowing too heavily from real-life would be predictable and might unintentionally offend. A roman à clef has never been my style and I doubt I can write one as skillfully–and scandalously–as Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada or Truman Capote’s unfinished Answered Prayers.

My daughter will start college in the US this fall and I’ve been thinking back to my journey from New York to Stockholm.  Those first few years were tough: the long, dark winters; short, dicey summers; sporadic loneliness; professional malaise; homesickness… Yet, I persevered and built a supportive network of close friends.  I’ve also tried to raise my kids with the American, Haitian, and Swedish values I hold dear.  Through it, my husband’s love and encouragement have been steadfast.  He backed my desire to write whole-heartedly and is my biggest cheerleader.

Being an expat has occasionally forced me to turn inwards as a strategy to handle bouts of alienation and reboot after adversity.  I was uncomfortable revisiting those struggles in my writing.  But after 20+ years, I’ve finally gained a hard-earned perspective and inner strength; I feel ready to make Sweden the backdrop for my next book.  I’m hoping to weave the expat framework in an intriguing way while still touching on the intersectionality of being an American woman-of-color in a European country.  I read Nella Larsen’s Quicksand in college and connected with the novel’s cross-cultural and interracial themes, along with Larsen’s courage for writing so close to her own life as the offspring of a Danish mother and African-American father.  My next book is NOT semi-autobiographical, but contemplating the characters and scenes has triggered many memories.

Spring has finally arrived in Stockholm; city parks and streets are abloom with cherry blossoms and magnolias.  Restaurants and cafés are full of outdoor patrons enjoying the season’s first glass of rosé.  The sun shines high in the sky as the hours edge towards Midsummer when it will never fully set.  Stockholm is buzzing and the drawn-out, gloomy winter has become a distant memory.  I think that’s the secret to living in Sweden: the possibility of a bright day makes up for all the gray ones.

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Brainstorming a New Novel

shutterstock_192195917Photo Source: Shutterstock

When Lagging Indicators came out on July 2, 2018, I was creatively drained.  I only wanted to focus on launching and promoting the novel.  I didn’t even think about new story ideas for the next book. Fast forward eight months later: the flurry of activity has settled down and I find myself analyzing everything as a potential storyline.

Since there were thirteen years between the release of my first novel, Uptown & Down (2005), and Lagging Indicators (2018), I understand that I may have missed a key window to build my career as a novelist. Yet, I’m so energized by the opportunities becoming an indie author has afforded me and take nothing for granted.  So, it’s time to get back to writing!  The beauty of publishing independently is that I retain creative control and can set my own publication date rather than follow a traditional publisher’s schedule, which can range from 12-18 months from manuscript submission.  If all goes according to plan, a new novel will hit the cybershelves by August or September 2020.  However, one crucial element remains ambiguous: What will the new book be about?

I underwent a creative drought for about five years after Uptown & Down was published and chalked it up to “writer’s block.”  I do believe a writer can struggle with producing new work and have an artistic slowdown but in my case, the real culprit was procrastination.  Aside from taking care of my family, I preferred doing everything except write: volunteering, cleaning, organizing, driving around, working out, traveling, shopping, decorating, lunching with friends… Quite simply, I wasn’t willing to invest the time and effort it takes to write.

Arguably, many of those experiences and encounters informed Lagging Indicators, but I think I missed out on that book-in-between because I was a little bit lazy and a lot afraid.  I feared my next book wouldn’t achieve the high standards of depth and resonance I had set for myself.  I’m a perfectionist and was terrified of a “sophomore slump.”  Writing is often about timing and the 2008 financial crisis finally triggered thoughts that eventually led to Lagging Indicators.  I had a premise and constantly asked “What if?” in order to create drama and suspense.

After studying other writers’ processes, I finally understand that you can summon the muse.  You can find a story idea, outline those chapters, and craft that scene if you’re not afraid to make mistakes.  Striving for perfection from the outset can be debilitating.  Allowing yourself to go in all sorts of directions is paramount to unleashing creativity.  Revisions will help you polish that story, but you need the raw material first.

For Book #3, I began by asking: What do I want to write about?  I knew that I wanted the story to take place in my adopted country of Sweden, but how would I incorporate that into an interesting plot?  Next, I wondered:  What kind of books do I enjoy?  What do I know?  How do I want to challenge myself the next time around?  Once I had rough answers to those questions, an idea began to take shape, but I didn’t love it. It felt a bit uninspiring, but I figured I could make it work.  Nevertheless, something nagged at me and the storyline didn’t generate the same passion as I’d had with my first two novels.  I stayed awake thinking about it one night when–out of the blue–a new tale appeared in my mind.  It was as though it had been waiting in the shadows, daring me to pay attention.  I got so excited that I wrote the backcover copy the next morning as a starting point.

As of this writing, I’ve completed the pivotal Chapter One, or about 5,000 words, with approximately 80,000 more to go.  I’ve also done preliminary character sketches and an outline.  However, so many scenes and dialogue popped up while outlining that I decided to just write and get that first draft up and running.  I’m cautiously optimistic about where this story will go.  I think it has potential, but who knows?  Most importantly, I’m fired up and that’s a wonderful place to be.

While it felt like an epiphany when the new novel idea surfaced, I did follow a few conscious steps to get my creative juices flowing.  I think it’s important to be in the right mindset and let go of self-imposed limitations.  Here are some methods I used to free my inner muse:

Reading:

When I can’t write, I read.  Each book, whether literary or commercial fiction, teaches me something important about pacing, character development, etc.  I reread Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945) with my son last week and was floored by how intuitive and relevant that book still is today. The straightforward writing style and satirical narrative were a refreshing break from the works of popular fiction I’ve been reading lately.

Podcasts:

My favorites are author interviews and I enjoy the in-depth profiles of Author Stories with Hank Garner; Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books with Zibby Owens; and The Literary Life with Mitchell Kaplan.  Hearing about new books, how writers got their big break, and the creative process motivates and inspires!

Writer Blogs:

Jane Friedman is so helpful when it comes to writing tips and navigating the publishing world.  I’m so excited that she’ll be a faculty member at the Stockholm Writers Festival in May, where I will also be on a discussion panel about transitioning from traditional to indie publishing.  Julia Cameron and her Morning Pages are a great way to start the day and release unihibited thoughts.  Since I’m focused on a current story at the moment, I haven’t been following this method religiously but I appreciate her inspirational quotes and teachings.  I subscribe to Writer’s Digest and while they tend to bombard my Inbox with special offers for classes, there are at least 1-2 emails per week that tackle an element of craft that is relevant to what I’m working on.  

Exercise & Yoga:

In addition to my cardio and weight training, I’ve finally succumbed to the yoga bug. After sitting in front of the computer for hours on end, my shoulders and back ached so much, the only relief was stretching my stiff limbs.  I also wanted to feel more centered and present.  I’ve taken a couple of yinyoga classes and holding positions for several minutes challenges me to breath deeply and focus.  Eventually, my mind begins to clear and I’m less anxious.  I expand and release whatever’s been holding me back.

That sounds a lot like writing.