Poetry Feed

The Woman Behind My Book Covers: Monika Younger

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This week on the blog I've interviewed Monika Younger. Monika designed the book covers for all three of the Dreamslippers Series novels and the poetry collection Broom of Anger. She's a joy to work with, and I've loved every single one of her designs. A professional book-cover designer with more than ten years of experience designing for the major North American publisher Harlequin, she also designs covers for indie authors. 

Lisa: You've designed covers for Harlequin, including their mystery line. How did you get started with that, and what's it like to design for that publisher in particular? Also, please share one of your favorite cover designs for Harlequin.

Monika: The mystery line I design for is called Worldwide Mystery. Worldwide Mystery is an imprint owned by Harlequin (now Harlequin/Harper Collins). I started with the publisher in 2003 when I was hired as a full-time designer in their art department. I worked for Harlequin in-house for two years designing covers for their series books (Harlequin Romance, Harlequin Presents, Intrigue, etc.) and single-title books (MIRA, HQN). In 2005 I started freelancing and retained Harlequin as my client. I work with several art directors there, and they are all amazing people to work with. Freelancing work with Harlequin is now mainly focused on Carina Press (their digital line, which covers several genres) and Worldwide Mystery. 

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One of my favorite recent mysteries (which I designed) is Brooklyn Bones. For this title, I was given more flexibility to experiment with a new look for the author. It was a fun project to work on, which took me away from the usual photographic style.
 
Lisa: Tell me how you approach working with authors. You send us a questionnaire before you begin designing our covers. Why is that an important step?
 
Monika: To represent a story meaningfully and accurately on the cover, I need to be very familiar with it. And since I cannot read all the books I design covers for (I would be reading more than designing), I have to get as much information from the author as possible--a summary of the novel, character descriptions, setting descriptions, important visual elements, themes and meanings, etc. All this helps me to figure out what is the best approach for the cover design. Once I get as much information as I feel I need, I come up with two or three cover layout options to present to the author. Usually one of the selections is approved with or without further revisions. After the front cover is approved, I design the back cover and spine to complete the book jacket. 
 
Lisa: I get compliments on the covers you designed for the Dreamslippers Series all the time. What was your goal in designing these covers? Do you have a favorite of the three? Or is Broom of Anger your favorite? How was that project different for you?
 
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Monika: Thank you. I think Bound to the Truth is my favorite. The symbolism on that cover is very powerful to me. I absolutely love it.  
 
Broom of Anger was one of my all-time favorite projects. It was my first non-fiction (poetry) cover, and I had a lot of fun with it. As you know, there were many versions considered before the final was selected, and they were all fun to do. I don’t know how else to describe it but “fun.” I enjoy designing covers--playing around with graphic elements, photography, typography--and having it all come together on the screen is sometimes still magic to me.
 
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Lisa: What other work do you do? What's your background?
 
Monika: In the last couple of years, I have been focusing on book-cover design, as it is my favorite area of design, but my training/education is in graphic design, so I can design anything from business cards to billboards and logos. I studied Graphic Design at Conestoga College. Previous to Harlequin, I worked full-time for a greeting card company and a full-service marketing firm in Mississauga.
 
Lisa: What do you enjoy about book cover design? What makes it special?
 
Monika: Books/novels/stories are interesting, compelling, and inspiring--and the cover has to reflect those elements. I love coming up with ideas and answering the question, "How can this story be represented visually so it will compel the audience to select it/engage with it?" It's a fun puzzle to solve. I love combing through stock photography web sites, font web sites, dissecting and altering images in Photoshop--I enjoy everything about it.
 
Learn more about Monika Younger's work at www.youngerbookdesign.com.
 

Dreamslippers Trilogy

 

What's the Motive? Lily Iona Mackenzie

FLING

Readers of my Dreamslippers Series will undoubtedly recognize kindred spirits of Amazing Grace in Fling! Author Lily Iona Mackenzie talks about the real-life inspiration for her eccentric characters in today's What's the Motive post.

Lily Iona Mackenzie:

I began writing Fling! because I was curious about my mother’s mother, someone I had never met. Early in the 20th century, my grandfather, a former schoolmaster in Scotland’s highlands, immigrated to Calgary, Canada, hoping to find a better life there for himself and his family. Meanwhile, WWI broke out. A passenger ship was torpedoed, preventing his wife and five kids from joining him for seven years. When they did, my grandmother couldn’t adjust to the brutal winters or to her husband’s behavior. 

After being in Calgary for a year, my grandmother moved out, refusing to put up with my grandfather’s verbal and physical abuse. She found work as a housekeeper for a wealthy family. Soon, she and her boss became lovers, and he took her to Mexico City with him. When he returned, she didn’t. Some time later, my grandfather received a letter from a Mexican priest that she had died there.

Though I never met my grandmother, she was a strong, ghostly presence throughout my childhood. Who was this woman whose genes I shared? How had she found the courage in the early ‘20s to flee a difficult situation? And what did she do during those years in Mexico City? What motivated her to leave her kids and travel to Mexico, a country very different from what she had experienced in largely protestant Canada and Scotland? And what effect did her behavior have on those left behind, in particular her daughter and granddaughter?

These were the questions that sent me off on my quest to uncover this mysterious woman. I wanted to recreate what life might have been like for her once she left Canada. That impulse brought in a number of other characters that inhabit the novel. So while 90-year-old Bubbles and 57-year-old Feather are the main focus initially, very loosely based on my mother and myself, it’s Heather, my imagined grandmother, who is at the novel’s heart. 

When I started out, I planned to write a lyrical family saga. But Feather, an aging hippie, and her fun-loving mother Bubbles soon took over the narrative and brought their own distinctive humor with them, with plenty of hilarious moments as members of this family reunite in Mexico. 

Feather and Bubbles’ journey begins when Bubbles receives mail from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left there seventy years earlier and only now surfacing. A woman with a mission, and still vigorous, Bubbles convinces a reluctant Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial. Both women have recently shed husbands and have a secondary agenda: they’d like a little action. And they get it.

But they also make unexpected discoveries in Mexico, the land where reality and magic co-exist. Feather gains a sense of who her mother really was. The Indian villagers mistake Bubbles for a well-known, ancient rain goddess, praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, eventually realizes what she’s overlooked.

Unlike most women her age, fun-loving Bubbles takes risks, believing she’s immortal. She doesn’t hold back in any way, eating heartily, lusting after strangers, her youthful spirit and innocence convincing readers that they’ve found the fountain of youth themselves in her. At ninety, she comes into her own, coming to age, proving it’s never too late to fulfill one’s dreams, one of the things I discovered from writing this novel.

For me, Fling! turned out to be a meditation on mothers, daughters, and art. It suggests that the fountain of youth is the imagination, and this is what all the characters discover in Mexico. It’s what Bubbles wants to bottle, but she doesn’t need to. She embodies it. The whole family does. And I’m hoping that my actual grandmother partook of it, too.

Review Fling! on Amazon and Goodreads.

Follow Lily Iona Mackenzie on Facebook or through her blog.

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Lily Iona MacKenzie has published poetry, short fiction, and essays in over 150 Canadian and American publications. Her poetry collection All This was published in October 2011. Her novel Fling! was published in July 2015. Bone Songs, another novel, will be published in 2017. Freefall: A Divine Comedy, will be released in 2018.


Call for Reviews!

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 In honor of the new year, I'm offering a free book to anyone who posts an online review of one of mine on the web sites where the books are sold or discussed (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the App Store, Goodreads, etc.). So if you're new to me, this is a great time to pick up a copy of Cat in the Flock. It's the first book in the Dreamslippers Series, which has been praised by Kirkus Reviews and a whole lot of other trustworthy critics. First post your review online, send me a link to it, and then I'll send you a copy of the second book in the series for free.

 This is the standard industry courtesy granted to professional book reviewers, by the way. But today's marketplace equalizes the critics, so that a review you post online can have just as much impact as any pro's, whether you're a blogger in your spare time or just someone who loves books. A free review copy is hence not in violation of any retailer's review policy.

 Once you've posted the review, send me an email linking to it, and I'll send you a coupon code for any book of your choice from my catalog. Be sure to let me know in the email which book you want.  If you've already read book #1, or even the whole Dreamslippers Series, look over this list of my other published work, and pick whatever title suits your fancy.  

 Super-special Lewis County deal: If you're in my geographic area and we can meet in person, I'll give you a free print copy of either book #1 or #2 in the Dreamslippers Series or the poetry collection, Broom of Anger. Otherwise, due to print and shipping costs, it'll be an ebook. As an indie, I don't receive any free copies from a publisher to use for promotion. All of my books come with a cost.

 Some readers feel intimidated about writing reviews, but it's really very easy. First, if you don't like the book, feel free to send me your thoughts instead of posting them. I personally don't post reviews for any book I can't give at least 3 stars. Second, all you need to do is pick a star rating and write just one or two sentences to give your impression. Be yourself. Say what you'd say to a friend. Here's a recent review I posted of Martha Crites' novel Grave Disturbance, by way of example.

 A word of warning: Amazon recently deleted a review I posted for another author, James Desborough (read the details here). There's no way for me to know whether or not any of the reviews readers have posted about my own books have been deleted, but based on what I've heard from other writers, it's very likely. Reviews are deleted in a seemingly arbitrary, haphazard fashion.

 So there is a possibility that if we're connected online in any way, maybe even simply including your subscription to my email newsletter, Amazon's bots will remove your review. This is egregiously wrong, and it unfairly penalizes indie writers who rely more heavily on social media to get the word out about their books. Traditionally published authors have the advantage of expensive resources such as Net Galley and the like that are cost prohibitive for those of us who foot the bill ourselves. This all makes your support--as a reviewer, word-of-mouth advertiser, and social media sharer--all the more crucial.

 But hopefully, you'll be able to post your review with no problems. ;) I hope you enjoy my quirky characters and unique settings. As always, I'd love to hear from you.

 Happy New Year, and Happy Reading!


The Big, Fat Book Tour!

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 It's rare that authors are treated to headlining book tours these days, if there ever was a day when that happened. Especially as an indie, my marketing budget comes out of my own (very small) pocket. So there was no book tour for the first installment in the Dreamslippers Series, and for the second book, the tour was almost entirely virtual, meaning online-only.

 While this is all well and good economically speaking, I craved the opportunity to connect with readers in-person. We writers live a solitary existence, going through our days mainly alone, talking only to the cat. So when it's time to turn our book babies out into the world, it's only natural we'd want to interact with others.  

By the time I was ready to release the third book in the series, I'd built up enough momentum that in-person opportunities just showed up. Here's a run-down of what became my big, fat book tour for the release of Bound to the Truth.

Nia Jam to Benefit Standing Rock

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 I dance at a local studio, Embody, which has not only given me a beautiful new practice in Nia but a supportive community as well. Nia features prominently in Bound to the Truth, so when I found out there would be a Nia Jam and fundraiser, I donated five copies of the book, which were awarded at the event by raffle. Separate from the studio itself and hosted entirely by Nia teachers who gave generously of their time and talent, the jam raised more than $1300 for Standing Rock. We danced for two hours straight that night. I couldn't imagine a better way to celebrate the book's release date. It's exactly what Granny Grace would do.

Book 'n' Brush Author Event

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 Honestly, I can't say enough about how terrifically supportive the community here in Lewis County is. As an indie, I completely struck out trying to get my books into Seattle bookstores, even ones in my own neighborhood I'd frequented for a decade. But the owner and manager at Book 'n' Brush here in Chehalis have been enthusiastic supporters. They carry the whole Dreamslippers Series as well as the poetry collection, and in turn, I drive customers to the store whenever possible. It's a win-win. I felt honored to be included in their recent author event, along with others I've come to know, some of whom also have new books out.

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 Authors Julie McDonald Zander, Texie Gregory, Kyle Pratt (who wasn't part of the event but stopped in to buy books), and me.

 Book 'n' Brush is a gem of a store, anchoring downtown Chehalis. As the name suggests, they sell both art supplies and books, for a perfect mashup of creative pursuits. We had a great write-up in the local paper about the event, and The Chronicle also covered my book's release.

Human Response Network Masquerade Ball

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 My husband and I, incognito for a cause.

 A good amount of what you might call spiritual, humanitarian intention went into the Dreamslippers Series. I've written female-centered narratives peopled with a diverse spectrum of characters. I've tackled homophobia and tried to explore organized religion with humanity and compassion. I shed light on corruption in the art world and illuminated a corner of darkness that is the illegal child pornography industry. And finally, I celebrated sexual liberation and told the stories of those harmed by sexual abuse and repression. All while honoring the importance of plot and pacing, and I hope, without ever coming across as preachy. Everything I write is in service to the story.

 I always want to do more than this. I tied sales of Cat in the Flock to a donation to Jubilee Women's Center, a highly effective organization in Seattle that helps women transition out of homelessness and into independence. Here in Chehalis, I support the Human Response Network, which provides advocates for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The Masquerade Ball was the organization's first major fundraiser, done in an attempt to ramp up service in response to an overwhelming increase in requests for help.

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Copies of the books on auction.

Seattle University Talk 

 I've presented at Seattle University twice before, and it's always a pleasure to meet creative writing students there. This time, I discussed what it takes to get credits and bylines in three different arenas: books, games, and journalism. I related tales from the trenches in all three and managed not to bore them. While it feels odd to call myself a master of anything, the below slide did garner a few smiles.

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 The students asked great questions and seemed encouraged by my career transitions from one arena to another, AKA the survivor mentality that has kept me consistently employed. Props to the university bookstore for carrying the Dreamslippers Series in connection with the event, and to the creative writing program for their incredible hospitality.

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 Seattle U souvenirs: Reflections picked up for free in the campus chapel, and the student lit mag, Fragments.

 An Evening with the Authors at the Lewis County Historical Museum

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 The last in-person event on my schedule for this book launch was the only repeat for me, as I'd attended the same last year. Located in a former train depot, the museum features local history displays and a gift shop. The authors event is a great party and opportunity to meet other writers as well as new readers. Poetry seems to resonate best with this crowd.

 So there you have it: This is how we do things in indie land. My family and I hosted Thanksgiving at our house in the midst of this, so I'm hoping December is a bit less eventful? Or not. I really did enjoy myself. Welcome to all the new readers who stopped by my tables, came to the talk, or danced by my side. I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.


What's the Motive? Nancy Slavin

Moorings

Today fiction author and poet Nancy Slavin talks about how she finds motive in words themselves, both their beauty and their pain. "The first step towards violence," she says, "often is words that make people, well, less than people: into objects, or animals, or body parts."

Just a quick warning: In order to illustrate this, she uses a few examples of hurtful words below.

Nancy Slavin:

The subject of today’s post is about motive--what motivates this individual writer to write a certain book. I feel the need to state and expound on the obvious: words motivate me. Sound, rhymes, sentences, metaphors, stories; all the magic that can ensue just because of twenty-six English letters. If I wasn’t a writer, I’d be a linguist. I’d learn more letters and languages. My favorite part of motherhood was when my child was learning to speak; my second favorite has been watching her learn to read. I’m still amazed that little dark marks on a white page can communicate whole ideas, conjure galaxies, and create the possibility of freedom and justice. 

My original writing training is in poetry; the fine tuning of words and sounds is deep in my heart. I happen to come from a family of mostly artists--a mother who paints, a photographer sister, and a father who is a graphic designer and a potter. I have a brother, too. He flies planes. For me, the artistic medium is words. So that’s the first motive, and I hope, if you’re a writer, that’s your first motive, too. Otherwise, perhaps, consider another medium, like paints or planes.

Because I love words, I am also fascinated by how poorly they get used and how often, especially in relationships (and really, all human interaction is in relationship, hello “friends” on Facebook). Poorly-used words was too often the experience in my childhood, as it is for lots of kids. The long-term witnessing of belittling, mean words, name-calling, and the silent treatment (the tense, tense absence of words), motivated me to work in the field of domestic and sexual violence. 

In my work for more than twenty years, I was a violence-prevention educator--I taught other people, mostly youth, but many adults too, how to use words to communicate feelings and needs in healthy rather than hurtful ways, words that created connection rather than division and wreckage. In my trainings, I facilitated a lot of exercises that asked people to consider their words--words that were cruel but often minimized as no big deal, and/or words that categorized another person into an “other” based on their gender, race, religion, class, sexual identification or orientation. I said some dreaded words out loud and wrote them on boards, and I discussed their origins: words like bitch, fag, nigger, and redneck. I did this work so students could learn the histories and weight of words they might casually say or hear or write on the back of a desk. Depending on if they were on the receiving or giving end, they might respond to those words with an upped ante of violence, towards another, or inwards at themselves. The first step towards violence often is words that make people, well, less than people: into objects, or animals, or body parts.

As a domestic violence worker, I heard all kinds of stories about abuse that left literal scars on people. But I tell you, many, many people also disclosed quite often how the words hurt the most--the words of being told they were no good, not worthy, deserved the abuse, that the abuse was their fault, and many versions on that theme. The words, they told me, were the hardest to shake. They kept hearing those words in their head, reverberating.

All of the above lays the foundation for the main question I explore in my creative work: how do we heal from violence? How do we stop hurtful words from reverberating in our minds? Ultimately, that question led me to create a character in my first novel, Moorings. She was a woman who’d escaped terrible domestic violence, but she’d become mean herself, even in safety. I was curious what continued healing might look like for her. And I also explore the question in my second novel, which is based on and written for many of the youth with whom I worked, who’d been told twelve ways to Sunday they were unlovable and unloved. How does a person stop hearing those words and start believing a new story about who he or she is? 

There are many novels that have explored domestic violence and the rewriting of your own story, or writing your way into a new one. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, Black and Blue by Anna Quindlan, and for youth dealing with family violence, Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison and The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy all come to mind. Although it's poetry, Maya Angelou’s book Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing, and the poem “Caged Bird” that appears in that collection and stems from her important memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was a formative poem for me. I’m also a fan of the play Trifles, by Susan Glaspell. And since I’m working on my YA novel, my next book up to read is Speak, by contemporary author, Laurie Halse Anderson, which confronts the reality of sexual assault. 

I am motivated in my personal life to be a healthier person. I have come a long way in some areas, and, in other ways, I still have a long way to go. I use words to tell myself some fascinating stuff sometimes. But listening to the words I say out loud, and then writing the words down to revise my own story, is my path toward health and healing. See? The letters “h-e-a-l” are the first four letters of “health.” How cool is that? 

For an important talk on the power of words in relationship to violence, I recommend Jackson Katz’s TED talk on domestic violence and words and language.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Check out which communities near you have planned to raise awareness through the National Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

Review on Goodreads and Amazon.

Follow Nancy Slavin on Twitter.

  Nancy Slavin

Nancy Slavin has been a longtime English literature and writing instructor for a community college as well as a violence-prevention educator. She’s authored a collection of poems, Oregon Pacific (2015), and a novel, Moorings, (2013). More of her work can be found in Rain MagazineBarrelhousehip mama, Literary Mama, and Oregon Humanities Magazine. Her website is www.nancyslavin.com

Looking for other "What's the Motive?" articles? Here you are.

 


One Hot Little Reading

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On Sunday I hoofed it down to Gladstone, OR, to take part in The Other Side Reading Series, hosted by Nancy Slavin, a past guest poet on the blog. I had the pleasure of sharing the mic with Julia Laxer, whose poems have appeared in So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art, Small Po[r]tions and The Nervous Breakdown. The theme was "heat," and Julia and I sizzled... literally. We were outside, the sun blazed down, and the mercury rose to around 90 degrees.

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To further prove my in-synch-ness with the theme, I had my pick of tie-ins, from the opening fire scene in Framed and Burning, to the blaze of anger Mick Travers exhibits in that book, to the heat of passion in a couple of love poems tucked into Broom of Anger.

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The talented Julia Laxer read about the seedy, lusty world of strip clubs, as well as traipsing through San Francisco in hot pursuit of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. She has a gift for the telling detail, and I can't wait to see what she does next. Her first book is sure to be a scorcher.

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Organizer Nancy Slavin lusted after my hot shoes.

All thanks to Nancy Slavin for putting the heat on, Happy Rock Coffee for hosting, and to the Clackamas Review for this great event write-up. Gladstone's just a stone's throw from Portland, so if you're in the area for the next reading in the series on September 11, stop on by. You'll be glad. 

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Photos by Nancy Slavin, Julia Laxer, and me.

 


Something Mysterious: August Reading Roundup

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Here are a few of the books on my to-read list this summer, and I hope to bring you some of these writers as guests on the blog in the coming months, too. 

But first, a quick PSA. Reviews are a writer's life blood - and they're an easy gift to give. Just pick a star rating and write one or two sentences to provide other readers a quick impression, or feel free to write more if you like. I've provided links below so you can follow these folks and review their books.

In the Clearing by Robert Dugoni

In the Clearing

Detective Tracy Crosswhite has a skill, and a soft spot, for tackling unsolved crimes. Having lost her own sister to murder at a young age, Tracy has dedicated her career to bringing justice and closure to the families and friends of victims of crime.

So when Jenny, a former police academy classmate and protégé, asks Tracy to help solve a cold case that involves the suspicious suicide of a Native American high school girl forty years earlier, Tracy agrees. Following up on evidence Jenny’s detective father collected when he was the investigating deputy, Tracy probes one small town’s memory and finds dark, well-concealed secrets hidden within the community’s fabric. Can Tracy uphold the promise she’s made to the dead girl’s family and deliver the truth of what happened to their daughter? Or will she become the next victim?

Review on Goodreads and Amazon.

Follow Robert Dugoni on Facebook and Twitter.  

Damascus House by Corrina Wycoff

Damascus House

Amy Rotolo's announcement to her family that she is a lesbian sets off a series of events that threaten to unravel the tight-knit members of Pastor Lou Bianchi's fundamentalist Christian church in Riverview, New Jersey. The resulting drama escalates to irrevocably affect Amy's parents, her "perfect" childhood friend Rachel, Rachel's husband Alan, Rachel's high school boyfriend Paul, and his wife, Lee.

Damascus House is a psychological novel written from the perspective of six different characters. Wycoff told the Puyallup Post, "It's not an indictment against the religious community. It asks how we make sense of faith and circumstance. What does it mean to figure out what to believe when you’ve been told what to believe all of your life?"

I reviewed Wycoff's short story collection O Street on the blog previously. She is a friend and former colleague of mine from Pierce College.

Review on Amazon and buy directly from the small press publisher.

Check out Corrina Wycoff's Wikipedia page.

Poems of Inspector Chen by Qiu Xiaolong 

Inspector Chen poems

Fans of Inspector Chen--the poet in inspector's clothing--will love this compilation of his poetry.

The poems in the present collection are compiled chronologically. Some of them have appeared—either entirely or partially—in the Chen novels, but with his writing in a hurry under the stress of the job, he usually takes time later to revise them, so the poems here may show difference, sometimes substantial, from the original versions. And some of them, either written in his pre-inspector days, or conceived in fragments only in his mind, now appear for the first time in the collection here. 

I reviewed Xiaolong's novels Shanghai Redemption and A Case of Two Cities on the blog previously. He is a friend and former colleague of mine from St. Louis Community College.

Review on Amazon and Goodreads. Visit Qui Xiaolong's web site for more information.

 In the Dark by Chris Patchell

IntheDark

Marissa Rooney stands in her daughter’s empty dorm room, a half-used vial of insulin clutched in her trembling hand. Brooke has been missing for days. Her roommate hasn’t seen her since that night in the bar. And if Marissa has Brooke’s insulin, it means that Brooke does not.

But Marissa isn’t alone in her terror. A phantom from her past is lurking in the shadows, waiting in the night, and holding her family captive…

In the dark.

Review on Amazon and Goodreads

Follow Chris Patchell on Facebook and Twitter.

More from MWA

As I wrote this roundup, an email from the Mystery Writers of America hit my inbox, so here's a whole other list to peruse, all the new books by members for August. You're welcome. 

 


Upcoming Event: The Other Side Reading Salon

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Next month, I'll be featured with several other writers at a reading salon near Portland, OR. The theme is "heat." So of course I'll be reading from Framed and Burning. Or maybe I'll share some in-progress bits from Dreamslippers Book Three, offering a different kind of heat altogether!

It's at Happyrock Coffee Roasting Co. in Gladstone. I've never been before, but I'm told it's a lovely place, and one should make a day of it and have lunch first in Oregon City overlooking the river. Our host is Nancy Slavin, author of the poetry collection Oregon Pacific and a past guest here on the blog.

For more details and to RSVP, see the event's Facebook page


Measures of Success: Where I Am in This Publishing Experiment

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Lately I've heard from people who assume I'm earning piles of money from my books. They tell me I make the whole publishing thing look easy, and that it makes them want to jump in.

This is a really good example of why I try never to make assumptions. 

It's funny, because I've been pretty up-front about the whole thing from the beginning, as you can read in this post on my decision to self-publish as well as this post about what it took to hit the bestseller spot in two categories on Amazon. If you don't want to read those two posts, here they are in a nutshell: 1) My decision to self-publish was borne from a cold-eyed practicality that showed me getting an agent and a solid traditional publishing contract would be as likely as winning the lottery and 2) Hitting the bestseller lists on Amazon came after 25 years of toil, and I still had to make the book free.

But I guess my previous posts weren't enough. People see "bestseller" and the fact that I'm up for a couple of major awards, and they automatically assume I'm making piles of money. And maybe it's my own fault for trumpeting the bestseller achievement, which is a big win, don't get me wrong. But because publishing today is totally broken, it doesn't mean I'm making piles of money, or even enough to call this my new day job, neither of which I have actually claimed, but people seem to assume. There's a lot of hope and fantasy-making when it comes to the life of a writer. We still want to believe we can all be J.K. Rowling, and that getting there is easy. 

Here it is for the record: My husband/business partner and I are still in the red on these books. 

And here's why:

  1. Discoverability. By at least one estimate, there's a new book posted to Amazon every five minutes. Simply getting eyes on your product remains the biggest obstacle in all of entertainment. At the video-game company were I used to work, it was of chief consideration. We did the best when we had our own portal to funnel new games to players who'd played our previous games, but the Apple store made this more of a challenge. So if I could design a Lisa Brunette portal within Amazon that sent my book promos to readers who'd purchased my books before, or similar books, I'd be in business. But that's not possible.
  2. Have you bought my books? If you did, thank you. I hope you enjoyed them. But was it the print or audiobook version (which earn me just a few cents to a few dollars in royalties), the ebook version (which earns me even fewer cents to a couple of dollars in royalties), or the free version (which earns me next to nothing in royalties)?
  3. Sales of Cat in the Flock to-date are clocking in at just under 5,000 copies, most of those free, and sales of Framed and Burning are lower because it's been $3.99 since launch with no promos and no KDP enrollment (what this is). As for my other books, there's a reason I continually refer to poetry as a "labor of love." Ditto short stories.
  4. Most of the people who downloaded the free copy during the promotion that catapulted Cat in the Flock to bestseller status haven't yet read the book, which affects my royalties via Amazon's "normalized pages read" count, and they did not buy the second book in the series. This is a well-known result for bestsellers on Amazon these days, so writers and marketers generally hope the lift will boost sales a few times as others see the book in the ranking, which did happen for a time...or I don't know what else, and neither do they.
  5. I am no pro at promotion. It's funny because I keep getting notes of admiration/offers to hire me from other authors who think I do it well, and I tell them I'm just bumbling around here, but since authors on the whole tend to be really terrible at this, I guess I look good by comparison. I am still learning how to do the book sales and promo thing, so stay tuned. Hopefully I'll get even better!
  6. Most of the friends and family to whom I've given free copies of my books haven't read them. I try not to get too tripped up about this, as it seems to be a writer phenomenon: Those closest to us tend to be the least likely to read and discuss the book (with the exclusion of my husband/business partner, who's my biggest fan; he also has a stake in the game). But it's probably because reading the words of someone you know very well can be jarring. As my sister (who is actually very supportive) said, "I hear your voice in my head as I'm reading, and it's weird." This recently happened to me with an old friend who wrote a thriller set in a fundamentalist religious sect after she blurbed my thriller set in a fundamentalist religious sect. I freaked out reading the first chapter and haven't been able to pick it up since. It wasn't just the voice; it was the inevitable comparison in subject matter. People you know look for themselves in your books; they can't help it.
  7. I've been very fortunate to have amazing supporters and fans who share my content, but I haven't had the time to grow my list the way I should. It's a business that is definitely more-than-full-time, like a start-up or your new local restaurant, but I have not yet had the luxury to focus on it 24/7 because I have to attend to my other sources of income. We spent this entire last weekend working on republishing both Dreamslippers books, for example, so we feel like we now need a weekend to recover from our working weekend.

We're not yet in the black, but we partners of Sky Harbor LLC invested more into the business than most indie authors, so we have more to make back. We saw this as a long-term strategy, and it's way too early to call since I've only published two books so far. The models I have for how this works didn't begin to make a living until they were into books three or four, and this goes for both the indies and the traditionally published authors. One traditional author tells me the only way he lives off his writing is through his foreign sales. His foreign publishers are also the ones who pay for his few book tours, as his U.S. publisher won't pay for any.

My approach is to be much more diversified, too. I'm currently working as a game writer, speaker, and journalist in addition to the fiction I write. I believe this is a healthier mix for these volatile economic times. But that means I'm trying to keep up with four different industry spaces, growing my contacts and experience in all of them at once. Some days, it feels like managing four different start-ups.

Overall, I'm flattered that people think I'm making a living at this, and I am thrilled with the success I've had with my fiction. With just two books under my belt, I've won one book award and am a finalist for two others. My first book hit the no. 1 spot not in some quirky niche but in two major categories on Amazon: paranormal mystery and private investigators, which, if you think about a book being published every five minutes, is a huge achievement. It's trending at 4.5 stars on 52 reviews, and the second book is close behind. I've been approached by a Hollywood director about TV rights (but don't get too excited--Hollywood is notoriously fickle). Enough readers and influencers have given their independent, non-paid praise of the books such that I know if I can surmount the hefty obstacles, I will begin to see some financial success. I've proved I am a serious career author with the speaking, marketing, and most of all, writing chops to go the distance. It's only a matter of time before the right people--and/or an army of readers--take notice. 

And if they never do, I will at least know that I gave it my all, heart and soul. Plus, look at the enviable experience I'll have to offer in my next day job...

  


My Stepson, the Rapper

Zar

We thought the kid would turn into a nerd like his parents, but he's following his own path. So I'm the proud but somewhat bewildered stepmother of a rapper.

He goes by the handle Zar, and as you can witness here at his SoundCloud page, he's got chops. I'm thrilled with his clever rhymes and smart poetics, like this:

But these flakes are

hurtin' me

ignorance from certainty

Let's face it

that's racist

fin to cop a bassist

Your girl be like basic

My aggressors are Asics

Get some cash and save it

Take a shot and chase it

--From "See Me"

I also like the way he's referencing and paying tribute to other rappers a few bars down:

My flow is raw though

Close to Diablo

It's like close to Picasso

Layered like tacos

His "flow" is his style, which is made up of his rhyme scheme and intonation. The last two lines reference a band called Nacho Picasso.

By the way, his passion for language and facility for lyrical rhyme gave him a love of Shakespeare, so I'm doubly happy. Zar knows the Bard was the rap star of his time. Rap is a real art form, and if you don't believe me, here's a great breakdown of rap innovations and progression over the past thirty years.

 

But yeah, as you can imagine, his passion for rap has raised some issues. He's (painfully) aware that, unlike many of the rap stars he idolizes, he's a white kid from the Seattle north side, with all the privilege that entails. All of his parents have had ongoing conversations with him about the sexist representations of women and glorification of drug culture and street life that are the genre's tropes, as well as the charges of cultural appropriation he might incur as a white rapper. 

I'm pretty happy to see him highlighting what distinguishes rappers from others in terms of stereotypes:

ZarTwitter

As for the drug stuff, yeah, that's been harder than you can imagine for us to stomach. For the record, the kid's totally clean, so his actual experiences of some of the things he raps about are strictly textbook. We're sort of at the mercy of the legalization of marijuana in Washington state on this one. Our beloved "Zar" will be a senior in high school this fall. Of course all the high school kids are obsessed with the whole phenomenon, even though they are not of legal age to partake, a point Zar's parents and grandparents have practically emblazoned on signs throughout our houses. It doesn't help that in Seattle the almighty weed is everywhere. When I was still working onsite for the company, I once saw a coworker light up a joint right after work, as soon as he got to our bus stop across the street. Dude, you couldn't even wait till you got home?

It's also common with creatives when first starting out that we often adopt the style of those we look up to, as the first stage toward developing our own voice. If you don't believe me, I'll show you my wanna-be Virginia Woolf journals from undergrad, with their stream-of-consciousness musings and overuse of the semicolon. Every male writer I knew back then tried to write his own version of Ulysses. When it wasn't Woolf for me it was Toni Morrison and Jamaica Kincaid. Like Zar looks to today's urban gods, I mimicked my own heroes. I keep telling myself--and my stepson--that his raps will progress into something else, maybe history or social issues! But you never know. Hip hop culture is what it is, and I'm no expert.

We try to give him some leeway. And all that said, it's incredibly exciting to see him grow and develop his talent. If you can get past all of the above, they're quite good. If you're into the music, and even if you think you're not, give Zar's tracks a listen. There are six here, some done in collaboration with others.


This Poet Sent Me Her Book, and It's Not Even National Poetry Month Anymore

This lovely poet sent me her book

Elizabeth Tornes' award-winning chapbook.

I had just made a commitment to myself to scale back on activities (such as this and this) that don't have a chance of producing at least some kind of income. At the top of the list is poetry, which actually manages to cost me money and gets ignored when I post about it across social media (this should surprise exactly no one). Poetry had to go, or at the very least, I can only indulge in poetry during April, for National Poetry Month.

And then two things happened.

First, a woman I barely know here in town took it upon herself to a) buy a print copy of my poetry collection from our local bookstore and read it, b) give it to her daughter to read c) rave to me the next time she saw me in our dance class and d) post a review of the book on Amazon.

"Her language is perfect as it is," she writes in her review. "Each poem a wide eyed tribute to the bits that make up our lives."

Readers tend to respond to Broom of Anger in a very personal way, and I have to say these reactions have been some of the most gratifying of my career.

The other thing that happened is this: My cousin gifted my book to a poet friend of his in Wisconsin, and she liked it so much she gave him a copy of her poetry book to send to me. In the inscription, she wrote, "With admiration for your work!"

The book, Between the Dog and the Wolf, pictured above, was published by Five Oaks Press as the winner of their 2015 "Say Elves" Contest. For one of her other books (she has three), Elizabeth Tornes won first prize in the 2012 Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets Chapbook Contest.

It's a lovely collection that time-warps me instantly to the Northwoods of Wisconsin, where my people are from. The link of spirituality and nature also resonates with me. Here's a sample:

 The Elders

They are still with us, 

waving as oak leaves, roaring

wind through the pines. They echo

as woodpeckers hammering

hollow trees. They insist

that we remember, remember, 

remember their stories

and their long-lived lives.

Remember the hand

they gave us when we slipped,

the kind looks and words,

a balm for soothing a heartache.

 

I miss the grandmothers

who gentled me, who taught me

how to speak, and give to others.

How to go beyond the self

to hear the pulse of the barred owls

signifying wisdom,

the high-pitched songs of frogs

that lift the swamp

in the early evening,

the loon's tremulous call--

the voice of the Creator,

if we would only listen.

*

Mmm. So wonderful.

So there you have it. Poetry won't buy me groceries, but good words and a free book are great poetic karma.

One more thing: Hat-tip to my cousin Jay Halminiak for fostering poetic relationships! :)

And one ONE more thing: Happy Mother's Day!


Making the Dream Job Work: Poetry Bookstore Owner #NationalPoetryMonth

Open_books

John Marshall and Christine Deavel, owners of Open Books, in 2008.

In case you missed it, Seattle's Open Books is up for sale. The owners of the poetry-only bookstore located in Wallingford are offering "its stock, its name, and perhaps a reasonable lease," as reported in the Seattle Review of Books.

My connection with this bookstore spans a decade and encompasses articles in three different publications. Besides my passion for poetry, I was fascinated by their business model and by the fact that both owners are also poets themselves. 

I'd first discovered Open Books when I wrote about independent bookstores for Seattle Woman in 2007. Out of the 12 bookstores profiled in this piece, three have since permanently closed (Abraxus, Cinema Books, and Epilogue), and two others are fighting for survival through crowdfunding campaigns (Seattle Mystery Bookshop and Wide World Books and Maps). At the time, I reported that Open Books was one of only two poetry-only bookstores in the U.S. At least two more have since opened, in Boulder, Colorado, and in New York City, making Open Books still a rarity, especially in this digital age.

Here's what Marshall had to say back then:

“We wish there were more of us, but that’s not up to us,” says co-owner John W. Marshall. “In our darker days, we think of poetry as culturally vestigial,” he says of himself and partner Christine Deavel. “It’s something that may fall off through evolution.”

At that point, the bookstore had consistently turned a profit, and according to the email that went out a month ago, that is still the case. "This transition need not happen quickly; the decision was not based on economics or health," Marshall wrote. 

Marshall and Deavel have long been sponsors of the Seattle Arts & Lecture series, and that's part of the Open Books business model, too. In my interview with Marshall for Poets & Writers in 2008, he explained:

The Seattle Arts and Lectures work is great for us, but it's economically great for us. While that's supporting the community, it's supporting the bookstore. Anything that supports the bookstore to some degree supports the community. At least it means that people can come here and find a relatively obscure book and find people willing to talk about aspects of poetry when it's difficult to find people who will do that outside the academy, or even inside the academy in some cases.

I wonder if the SAL sponsorship is somehow part of the torch being passed here, or just how that will shake out when the present owners are no longer selling books. Marshall has said he wants to stay involved with Open Books in some capacity.

The bigger question is that part of what works for Marshall and Deavel is that they own the building that houses the bookstore. As I reported in Crosscut in 2008:

The two admit that what really makes a difference to their bottom line, however, is the fact that they own the building that houses their shop. Purchased in 1993 for less than $150,000, it’s an old Craftsman-style house on busy 45th Street, a few blocks from the Wallingford neighborhood main drag. The shop is in what used to be a single-car garage facing the street. The house above they’ve always rented out to tenants; there once was a wine bar and cafe upstairs. Now Deavel and Marshall are renovating the house and preparing to move in.

So, with these factors noted, it might surprise you to know that the response to the call was pretty overwhelming, with more than 30 offers to purchase the store in the owners' hands within a day and a half of their announcement. As Paul Constant reports, the owners are currently in talks with an unnamed prospective buyer, someone who's very passionate about poetry and is a regular customer but who also apparently has the resources to take on the business, which was not the case with most of them. As Marshall told the Seattle Review of Books, “Most were well-meaning and thoroughly ill-thought out, and that’s fine. People’s hearts are very large organs, but their bank accounts may not be."


Guest Poet: Nancy Slavin, Author of Oregon Pacific #FridayPoetry

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Nancy Slavin, Author of Oregon Pacific

Today I'm thrilled to have a guest poet on the blog, Nancy Slavin, who indie-published her collection last year under the Bay City Books label. She's detailed her decision on this, including the costs to print the books herself, in the post "What You Love Has Value." It's a story that resonated with me since my own poetry publication is 100% a labor of love. Reading the exquisite poems in Oregon Pacific, I can't help but wonder at the voices we lose with so few opportunities for poets like Nancy. Working with traditional forms such as the sonnet, sestina, and ode, she calls to mind both the subtle and dramatic rhythms of the Northwest coast, a place where "the foghorn alone has discipline."

Here's a sample poem from the collection.

Fireweed 

– for Angela 

You are a new soul 

sprouted like a seedling 

that for eons wind has blown 

on white fluffy wings. 

Abandoned on earth 

bereft of your home, 

left only the hurt 

of blood-red rhizomes 

rooting in plots 

of industrial waste. 

You wonder if this lot 

is a perennial mistake. 

For the ache of your body 

stretched toward the sun 

with primroses budding 

positively burns. 

But all around, each hour, 

more are being captured. 

Bright pink flowers 

swell into capsules 

which, in spite of fear, 

by the light on which they feed 

open to the air 

millions of angelic seeds.

Oregon Pacific front cvr.no spine

You can purchase a print copy of Oregon Pacific through Nancy's Web site, and she will send you a signed book if you do.

Nancy and I met in an online writing community and have been each other's editing coaches for the past few months. I value her feedback on my early drafts and pitches. In addition to Oregon Pacific, she's also authored a novel, Moorings, which won the first place prize for the Nina Mae Kellogg Award for Graduate Fiction at Portland State University. She is an English teacher and violence prevention educator who lived on the Oregon coast for twenty-plus years.


All It Takes Is a Red Door

Reddoor

On Saturday I went down to Salem, OR, for a book event with the Red Door Community. This informal network was founded in part by my husband's mother, A. Grace, who died several years ago. The members of the Red Door engage in spiritual retreats and activities together, volunteer in their community, and support each other in times of need. They were there to help Grace through the difficult process of dying, a constant, comforting presence and a source for the divine rituals she wanted at that time.

The gathering on Saturday was gracious and giving. I read from all three books, a particularly emotional activity in this case since my character Granny Grace was inspired by the woman they knew and loved. My books aren't autobiography, and the real A. Grace and Granny Grace aren't one and the same--but I think they would have been great friends. Granny Grace would surely have been an honorary member of the Red Door.

I'd asked those in attendance to bring stories about the outstanding women in their lives. I read to them this profile of Cheryl Sesnon, the latest winner of the Amazing Grace Award for Outstanding Women Over 40, who is the executive director of an organization that helps women transition out of homelessness. A few shared stories of great women, included their own Grace. But one woman brought up an excellent point: That sometimes the most outstanding thing a person can do is simply endure.

Her words struck a chord in me, as just that morning, I'd been thinking the same thing in relation to my own mother. She has not spearheaded organizations or won awards or been interviewed by the press. It's unfair to compare any two women anywhere, but I can see the greater challenges in my mother's life and honor the strength and perseverance she's had to endure so much. While our society is built to pour accolades on those who accomplish things in the measurable world, it's those who survive tough circumstances who often deserve the most recognition.

So this goes out to my mother, who pulls herself out of darkness time and again through her own faith and mettle. That deserves its own award.

 


I'm Speaking at U of Florida's Digital Worlds Institute

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I was invited to participate in this summit on digital entrepreneurship, which is pretty damn cool. That week I'll be a guest lecturer in a digital design class (I've done this once before, remotely), a speaker at the summit itself, and a judge of student work at the salon. Here are the summit details:

International Digital Entrepreneurship Association Summit (IDEAS)

Presented at the University of Florida Digital Worlds Institute’s Research, Education and Visualization Environment (REVE) - March 25th, 2016, 9:30AM-5:00PM

Come join us for an amazing day of exploration & innovation with premiere guest speakers from around the world.

IDEAS is an inspirational event offering a day of learning how to succeed in the digital media business landscape. This one-day summit promotes the confluence of traditional entrepreneurship and new technologies, with an emphasis on new business forms and the opportunities created by these technologies. Guest panelists — academic and real-world practitioners — will link theory and practice, in a dialogue with participants, as they share their innovative stories, techniques, and ideas that have established them as leaders in their respective fields and industries.

Event page:  https://www.facebook.com/events/973184246099902/
Contact info:  
marko@digitalworlds.ufl.edu

The event is free but RSVP’s are required: rsvp@digitalworlds.ufl.edu

Event schedule, March 25th:

  • 9:30AM to 10:00AM – Coffee and registration
  • 10:00AM to 10:50AM – Key note (Ofer Zinger)
  • 11:00AM to 11:50AM – Panel discussion 
  • 12:00PM to 12:50PM - Guest speaker presentation (Nestor Gil)
  • 1:00PM to 2:00PM – Lunch
  • 2:00PM to 2:50PM – Guest speaker presentation (Lisa Brunette)
  • 3:00PM to 3:50PM - Guest speaker presentation (D.A. Jackson)
  • 4:00PM to 4:50PM- Guest speaker presentation (Taqi Shaheen)

Guest Speakers:

Ofer Zinger, Entrepreneurship - Hands-On

Being an entrepreneur is exciting, however, extremely risky;  more than 90% of the startups fail.  As a serial entrepreneur in the digital space, Mr. Zinger will cover the common pitfalls as well as the shortcuts to startup success that are often missing from standard textbooks, using real life hands-on examples.

Ofer Zinger has founded several companies in the digital space such as TLV Media, Dynamic Yield, Cedato, Ilivid (Acquired), Bundlore (Acquired) and others. Consultative to the Israeli Intelligence (8200), IAF, Iron dome project, and various companies in homeland security and medical devices sectors. Ofer Zinger is currently the Chairman of Feature Forward, a programmatic video advertising platform.  (https://www.linkedin.com/in/oferzinger

Lisa Brunette, Crafting Games for a Mainstream Audience
The current market is flooded with mid-core games targeted toward a male audience aged 18-35, while the audiences outside that demographic remain underserved. Learn how to craft game stories for women, older players of all gender identifications, and children in this talk from a recognized expert in premium casual storytelling.

Lisa Brunette has story design and writing credits in hundreds of bestselling video games, including the Mystery Case Files, Mystery Trackers, and Dark Tales series for Big Fish and AAA games for Nintendo and Microsoft platforms. She is featured in Boy’s Toys, a documentary about women in games. She earned an MFA in Fiction from University of Miami, and she is the past recipient of the AWP Intro Journals Project Award, a grant from the Tacoma Arts Commission, and the William Stafford Award. (www.catintheflock.com)

Nestor Armando Gil, Labor Under Alternative Economies
Social practice art takes as its starting point relationships and dialogue, two elements crucial to a successful entrepreneurial enterprise.  By producing research, commodities, and performances in a social context, Nestor Gil addresses memory as a series of negotiations that are personal, cultural, and political. 

Nestor Armando Gil was born in Florida in 1971.  He received the Masters in Fine Art degree in 2009 from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  His performances and visual work have been exhibited throughout the United States and internationally in Spain, and the United Kingdom.

D. A. Jackson, Making Something Out of Nothing:  Independent Filmmaking in the Digital Age
Award winning director D.A. Jackson discusses the ins and outs of film production in the 21st Century.  Topics covered will be, how to use available resources, budgeting, directing, writing scripts, producing, VFX, and distribution.

D.A. Jackson has been working in the film industry for the past 18 years.  During his career, he has worked as a director, stuntman, fight choreographer, actor, and producer.  He has directed commercials, music videos, television shows for SPIKE,  and won numerous awards  for his independent feature films and shorts . His passion for storytelling  and unique approach to filmmaking has led him to be an often requested speaker at colleges and film festivals.

Taqi Shaheen, Being Digital: The Chinese Way

Born in Pakistan, and currently lecturing in Shanghai, China, Taqi is uniquely positioned to present the complex system of entrepreneurship as it exists in Asia today. From art works, to information technology and video games, Asia has been a hotbed of production and innovation. 

Taqi Shaheen is a filmmaker, visual artist and art educator whose work crosses mediums and defies genre distinctions to fashion witty and curious observations of contemporary Asian cultures and their urban landscapes. He graduated from the National College of Arts, Lahore, and uses hybrid digital video and film formats to research and construct non-fictional narratives collaborating with various visual artists, musicians and performers.) (http://www.taqishaheen.com/)

IDEAS is sponsored by UF Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Warrington College of Business Administration, supported by the UF Division of Sponsored Research, presented by the UF Digital Worlds Institute, and organized by Prof. Marko Suvajdzic.

Prof. Suvajdzic is a diverse thinker with 17+ years of achievement in academia and the creative digital research and production space. Marko’s experience includes a wide range of digital startups and educational projects. He has lectured internationally at schools and conferences in: U.S.A., U.K., India, Serbia, Norway, and China.


Upcoming Events: Red Door and More

Booksigning2015_2

I'm excited to tell you about two big events in March that will drag me out of my writing cave.

The first is a book event in Salem, OR. You might remember that Cat in the Flock is dedicated to my husband's late mother, the real-life A. Grace who in part inspired the character Amazing Grace in my Dreamslippers Series. She helped found a community in Salem called the Red Door. They support one another's causes, spiritual quests, and times of need and are a great model for how to build community separate from a church or other institution. These fine folk are hosting me for a reading and discussion, and I'm really looking forward to it.

The second is a major event in the field of digital gaming. I've accepted an invitation to be guest speaker at the University of Florida's Digital Worlds Institute. This is for IDEAS, the International Digital Entrepreneurship Association Summit. I'll be presenting a couple of times--on the topics of game-play/story integration and crafting stories for a mainstream audience--as well as serving on a panel. It should be an interesting event with game industry people from all over the world there to talk and share with students and faculty. I've served as a guest lecturer for a game design class there once before, and I can tell you they are a sharp bunch. I'm especially looking forward to the Digital Salon of student work, which I'll have a hand in judging.

Wish me luck, and if you have an idea for an event you'd like me to participate in, please get in touch!


What I'm Reading: Shanghai Redemption

Shanghai RedemptionShanghai Redemption by Qiu Xiaolong
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and the author is a former colleague. I've read two other books in the Inspector Chen series and gave a manuscript critique/edit on Xiaolong's debut, Death of a Red Heroine. This is a wonderful continuation of Inspector Chen's career arc, providing a deeper, darker dive into China's Communist Party politics. The plot is subtle, complex, and as always, suffused with lovely, poetic moments. These come when the Inspector and his allies quote actual poetry, and they also occur in the author's gorgeous descriptive prose. I highly recommend this series as a unique and powerful intersection of contemporary Chinese politics, English and Chinese literature, and police procedural.

View all my reviews


#FridayPoetry: Moving Away

Broom of Anger

Moving Away

 

I am moving away but now stand still,

searching these trees for a sign that I am well.

A flicker in the low-angled light—

a red-armpitted, ermine-robed woodpecker

bouncing slender branches 

of the white lilac tree.

 

I am used to the one-footed Stellar’s jay, 

who ambles from one feeder to the next,

and visits only when the starlings and chickadees are away

as if his pride makes him solitary.

 

I often imagine the space where his bone ends in air,

wonder if birds feel phantom limb.

To touch that place, to append him with my own flesh—

My environmental erotics.

 

Chickadees flock the feeders year-round,

black-capped like my pen. I somersault with them,

my mouth and nose a beak, feel them preen my skin under feathers.

 

The house finches warble and take turns. 

Sometimes, they pinch the vines of my hanging baskets,

but the vines aren’t for nest-building. It’s a game:

They grab slender vines between beaks and flick. 

They seem to laugh, a joke only house finches get.

 

Today, searching trees for a sign that I am well,

the foot-high, red-shafted northern flicker

rubbed his long black beak on the bark,

and yelled at the sky, 

as if it set him down in the wrong place.

 

The bird guide says, Very common.

 

This poem appears in my collection, Broom of Anger.

 

 


#FridayPoetry: August

Broom of Anger

 August

 

This summer,

the hottest day of the year,

I met my neighbor on the sidewalk.

The scarf on her head hid no hair.

She told me my errant cat

climbed through the dog door

to sit with her through long days.

We talked of tulip bulbs 

and chemo.

I had just returned 

from a cold movie theater.

When we hugged,

my hands on her hot skin felt cool. 

The heat of the day made us part,

she to her living room A/C.

 

I have not seen her in months.

Her house sits on a hill,

the windows an empty stage.

A Mylar balloon has pledged 

Get Well for weeks,

the message now deflated.

 

The front garden has gone to seed,

the dandelions triumphant,

a bag of mulch unopened.

What was she going to do 

with the empty whiskey barrel, 

turned now on its side?

There’s no one left

to keep the weeds at bay.

 

This poem appears in my collection, Broom of Anger.

 

 


#FridayPoetry: The Open Door

BROOM OF ANGER thumb

 

The Open Door

 

You collect the dead bees 

in my studio, pinching delicate wings 

between thumb and forefinger, 

placing each still pantomime 

on the window ledge. 

 

They come in through the open door 

on warm days 

but stubbornly nudge fuzzy heads 

against the skylight glass, 

pressing, probing for a way out, 

finding none.

 

They don’t see that freedom is easy:

Just fly back through the open door. 

 

One died clinging to the curtain. 

It looked alive; you jumped 

when it fell at your touch. 

A honeybee, pockets of golden pollen 

saddlebagged at its sides. 

You set it next to the yellow jacket 

whose antennae have already dried 

in curls around its head. 

 

We find them buzzing

against the glass, 

wild blue yonder 

just out of reach. 

 

I pop screens, 

coax them through the window. 

You scoop them with a water glass, 

carry them through the open door.

 

This poem appears in my collection, Broom of Anger