Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Heartland stories and celebrities

I will write the evangel-poem of comrades and of love.
--Walt Whitman
Globally, we’re a celebrity-driven culture. In America, personalities like Anna Nicole Smith and Britney Spears get way more ink than is justified by their contributions. Other countries have their own celeb circuits. Otherwise, bin Ladin wouldn’t be a household name and Bollywood favorite Hrithik Roshan wouldn’t be in hot water after making harmless remarks about two other celebrities’ height.

My favorite stories to write are what I call “heartland stories.” I like to write about the woman or man who lives a life outside the spotlight, but whose contribution is significant just the same. One such story at the moment belongs to Gilmer Hernandez. At my Covering Florida blog, there’s an update to the Family Security Matters story I wrote. Last night, as I did phone interviews for the update, a friend of Hernandez told me the national media isn’t picking his story up.

That’s a sad state of affairs. Issues over illegal immigration have both major political parties muddled, and many of us are muddled as well. For me, the issue has nothing to do with those legally entering the country. It has to do with the fact we’re fighting a war abroad to protect our freedoms, but a significant vulnerability, one that will surely be exploited at some point, exists close to home. It has to do with the fact that politicians and statesmen in many nations are doing nothing to improve the lives of their people, despite resources available to them.

Another cause that governs what I write is freedom of speech. I learned about the plight of blogger Kareem Amer, an Egyptian facing four years in prison for writing critical remarks about Islam and President Hosni Mubarak. There’s an update today at Free Kareem!. Amer’s lawyers are appealing his sentence but only in hopes of decreasing the length of it. Amer’s advocates have opened a store to raise money for his efforts.

A centerpiece in my new nonfiction book tells the story of a Florida man, Taylor Wells, convicted of felony murder in 1994. He was 18 years old, several weeks shy of graduating high school. In the real world, he harmed no one. In the legal world, he was judged guilty enough to receive a life sentence. Others who were instrumental in the 1993 crime have already been released from prison. The difference between these actors in the crime: their attorneys. Taylor’s public defender was at a distinct disadvantage for a number of reasons.

A goal I’ve had since beginning my career involves what I call “lastingness.” I like to write for publications that have been around for a long time, where my work will remain archived. Among these pubs are Christian Science Monitor and The Writer. And of course one reason I write poetry is the lasting quality. It has a good shelf life. I recently wrote a poem about a young homeless man I talk to when we go to our favorite restaurant. I asked myself who else would tell his story.

As a writer, I can sometimes strengthen the voice of the disenfranchised or the non-elite. I figure it’s a small way to contribute something to a world that has returned so much to me, despite a rough patch at the beginning.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Media alert: Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer gets four years

This morning the Washington Post reports Egyptian blogger Abdel Kareem Nabil, who writes under the pen name Kareem Amer, has been convicted of “insulting Islam and President Hosni Mubarak.” Nabil has been sentenced to four years in prison.

An advocacy blog,Free Kareem!, vows to continue to fight for the 22-year-old who attended Egypt's Al-Azhar University, an Islamic school. The blog says Nabil’s lawyers will launch an appeal on Saturday with hopes of at least shortening his sentence. The blog lists rallies to be held at Egyptian embassies around the world on Nabil’s behalf.

There’s a June, 2006, article, ‘SOS from an Egyptian blogger’ at Christian Science Monitor, explaining the perils bloggers face in Egypt. The article’s author goes by the pen name Sandmonkey to avoid the very circumstances confronting Nabil.

Sandmonkey says in the month before his article appeared in CSM, the American government criticized Egypt several times for “its treatment of protestors.”

Nothing strikes the core of a journalist more than seeing a fellow writer go to prison for expressing beliefs that harm no one. If Egypt continues to oppress those who are critical of Islam and the government, I hope our own media does what the U.S. State Department did.

We need to protest so loudly and so defiantly that Egypt takes notice: Free Kareem!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Couldn't put it down: The Alexandria Link

Steve Berry’s latest book is, in my opinion, his best.

The Alexandria Link builds a story around the lost library of Alexandria. Berry is a history buff, and so am I. He always engages my interest because he does his research carefully and he prods the story along with lots of action. He’s widely traveled, so the descriptions of locale always feel authentic.

What’s riveting about this book relates to a real theory put forth by a Lebanese scholar, Kamal Salibi. Salibi theorized, in a series of books, that many Biblical locations are mapped incorrectly—that the traditional land of Israel is in fact in West Arabia. Further intrigue revolves around the Saudi leveling of a neighborhood in that very area after Salibi’s works were published.

The novel's plot sends Berry’s main character Cotton Malone, a seller of rare books, retired from a U.S. intelligence agency, on a fantastic chase to track down the library by way of clues. Berry puts Middle East politics and American politics on the front burner, but this doesn’t impede the reader’s pleasure. Salibi's premise of Biblical locations mapped incorrectly contributes an air of intrigue and makes the reader think about something most of us never even considered. Berry skillfully weaves the real-life premises into his fiction.

This is easily his best book. I’ve read each of his novels, and he is just really coming into his own. He’s much more at ease with the characters, and his prose is very graceful. Berry is a natural-born storyteller.

I’ve met Steve several times at author events where we both were speaking, and he is a very nice fellow. Despite his string of bestsellers, he comes off as a regular fellow. Knowing that makes reading his work even more pleasurable for me.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Are book festivals beneficial to authors?

I was talking to a writer friend last week. She asked me if I planned to be at any book festivals once my new books come out.

I did a dozen or so festivals when the poetry book was released and did a few more when the memoir came out.

I came to the conclusion that some festivals are beneficial; others aren’t. It depends on the type of book you have, and your readers.

I was the first poet to present at Girlfriends’ Weekend two years ago. This festival is put on by Kathy Patrick. Patrick is a book dynamo. The festival was held in Jefferson, Texas that year. My plane landed in nearby Shreveport and tornado watches were being issued. It rained cats and dogs on one of the days. But the gathering was definitely worthwhile; I sold books and had a room full of readers come to hear me. The thing about Patrick is she attracts a diverse sort of reader. I had a ball. She and her Pulpwood Queens are a large network of book clubs; they kicked off Good Morning America’s book club.

State festivals and city festivals don’t impress me very much in terms of benefits, but the exception to that is the Texas Book Festival. I guess they just do everything bigger down there. Last year Amy Sedaris, Gore Vidal and Frank McCourt were there. Not many festivals can lay claim to an assembly like that.

Many state and city festivals have volunteers who select the authors, and those volunteers may or may not be well read. Or they may invite their friends who write books. It’s a luck-of- the-draw kind of thing. I told my writer friend to ask other authors about any festival she plans to be part of. And ask how many books they signed.

More valuable to me were book signings in stores and the many programs I did for groups and schools. I met all sorts of readers who recommended my books to other readers. Plus you want as many sales as possible to go through stores. The Internet also has a big impact on my readership.

It pays to do your homework first. Doing the author tour is tough enough as it is.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Bonsai, Texas deputy Gilmer Hernandez and poetry

Lately the variety in subject matter has kept me on my freelancing toes.

National Poetry Month is just around the corner, and you can read my Poetry Beat column suggesting ways to celebrate and asking how your city celebrates at The Writer magazine online. There are many columns archived there. I did a column with poets who blog, learning how blogging connects writers to readers. There's an interview with New England’s accomplished Powow Poets and a visit with poet Lee Slonimsky whose wife novelist Carol Goodman uses his poetry in her mystery novels. As an aside, I’d like to recommend any of Goodman’s books; she’s mainstream but literary and her works are page-turners. She’s amazing.Her new novel The Sonnet Lover comes out soon. Slonimsky’s poetry is also amazing; he has a new book out Pythagoras in Love.

My column at The Writer is premium content, so it’s for paid subscribers only.

Other recent publications include the Christian Science Monitor. If you’ve never eaten a kumquat, have a look at my essay to see what you’re missing. That's my fully loaded kumquat tree in the photo on this page.

There’s another essay in CSM published last week about the love poem clinic Dorothy Fletcher and I did at Starbucks Coffee Company in Jacksonville’s Lakewood community. For this essay, CSM staffer Scott Wallace did a very clever illustration.

I learned a lot about bonsai while covering a workshop for the Florida Times Union.

There’s an essay at Family Security Matters about the plight of Gilmer Hernandez, a Texas deputy who’s being handed the rawest deal imaginable from the federal government.

I have an article in an anthology, Faces of Freedom, a hardcover book edited by Rebecca Pepin, co-anchor for Tri Cities newscast in Tennessee. All proceeds from that book will go to charity. And another anthology to be issued by the WOMPO group of poets will include a sonnet I wrote.

Soon to come—a story on an environmentally friendly community in St. Augustine, written for a national magazine, another story for The Writer about Jendi Reiter and Adam Cohen’s Winning Writers site, and various essays and news stories. I freelance for UPI, but don’t get a byline for that work.

Meanwhile two book manuscripts stare me down every morning and will soon demand to be released into the world.

If you’re in the Jacksonville, St. Augustine, or Daytona areas, come see me at the events listed in the upper left corner on this page. All events except the Center Academy workshop are open to the public.

Hope you'll read some of my stories and if you do, I hope you enjoy them.

Never ever a dull moment.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Sometimes, getting dumped is a good thing

Dear G.
for 1970

I meant to write you sooner, but our nights
are just as busy as our days. We find
small pleasures, and take them to such heights
the altitude confounds the mind.
This evening we walked along the harbor–lights
that span the bridge are like a strand of pearls
across the greatest river in the world.

I believe there is no place as grand
as my Florida. G., you should know, I met
my husband here. He rummaged through sand
and dug me up, giving birth to this duet
that’s lasted 20 years, and I’ll bet
it’ll go 20 more at least. So, G.,

Since you were the lone assailant of my heart,
for making me an epithet for misery,
for infidelity you sculpted into art,
for walking out, citing your complete ennui,
Thanks. Your deceit sent my true love to me.

--Kay B. Day

--from the book A Poetry Break (Ocean Publishing,2004)

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Glass Castle a page-turner memoir

After learning Jeannette Walls would be keynote speaker for the ASJA conference this year, I picked up her book "The Glass Castle." I put it on top of the pile, planning to read it once I finished Steve Berry’s new book "The Alexandria Link" and Victor Davis Hanson’s "The Soul of Battle." When my husband is out of town, I read a book each night. I’m strolling through Daniel Hoffman’s "Zone of the Interior" and several of his poetry books concurrently because I plan to write about him.

So I selected Walls’s book the other day to occupy my mind while I had lunch. I wasn’t really excited about reading another memoir. There are many of them these days. But she was speaking at the conference and I aimed to be able to put her in context.

I regret starting her book. Because once I did, I didn’t want to put it down. After lunch I hurried through the piles of paper and assignments on my desk, hoping to finish the book before my husband’s plane arrived late last night. I finished "The Glass Castle" about 1:30 a.m. It’s the sort of book that makes you feel a sense of loss when you turn the final page.

Walls makes her memories come alive by means of strong characters. There’s plenty of action, but the unfurling of her family members’ life stories propels the action. Walls had what you might call an “alternative upbringing.” Her parents were brilliant intellectuals, but at times, their parenting skills horrify the reader. Both her parents were wanderers in life, choosing a lifestyle that on the one hand, offered the children a look at art, literature, science, mathematics and philosophy that few can experience. On the other hand, the family experienced hunger, poverty and no small amount of pain.

A particularly wistful moment comes in a college classroom as a professor is talking about homelessness. Walls is afraid to share her own history with the class but she gets across the point her parents chose homelessness, because she learns as an adult her mother owns land worth millions of dollars. The professor asks what Walls could possibly know about homelessness. It’s a priceless moment in the memoir.

Walls’s narrative style is rapid fire, like a series of punches to the gut.

At poetry readings, I often remark my childhood was gloriously dysfunctional. I think Walls would identify with that description.

I’d recommend this book to any reader. It’s an enlightening journey for the reader, and it is never dull. The book sets a benchmark for any memoir I might select in the future. I am definitely looking forward to hearing her speak.
Please visit the links in the left column on this page for information about all aspects of writing and publishing.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

The don't-miss-it conference for writers

Click here for information about the ASJA conference.


More times than I can count, the same question from writers finds its way to my inbox: How can I get published?

I’ve recommended useful sites like those listed in the links on this page. Writers can also turn to nonfiction books and magazines mentioned in previous posts at Bookbeat.

There are seminars, retreats, and conventions. But if you can only go to one gathering, the one I’d recommend is organized by the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

Years ago, if I’d known about the annual conference organized by ASJA, efforts to reach some of my goals would have been much less frustrating.

Here’s why this organization stands above so many others. ASJA members meet rigorous standards in order to join. Once a writer qualifies, you become part of what I believe is the top organization for professional writers in the country. Our work appears in virtually every well-respected magazine, newspaper or Net site you can name. Many ASJA authors’ books are published by top houses.

What didn’t I know before I became a member? I could’ve attended the conference anyway. It’s open to all writers.

This conference won’t send you off on some feel good mission to learn how to be inspired. If you write, you’re already inspired.

What it will do is put you in the middle of a gathering of editors, agents, accomplished authors and veteran independent journalists. Writing may be a solitary endeavor, but succeeding at it depends on networking and staying on top of new developments in our field.

I meet writers at events where I speak or read, and many ask me to recommend a conference or workshop. The ASJA conference is my top recommendation. This year, sessions on attracting an agent, connecting with magazine editors, writing for children’s magazines, trends in travel, food and wine writing, and freelancing for custom publishing markets are just a few of the opportunities for writers of all levels.

Topping off the roster of accomplished guest speakers and panelists is keynoter Jeanette Walls, author of the bestselling memoir The Glass Castle.

The ASJA conference brings writers to the center of the publishing world, enabling a look at how the profession works from the inside out.

So if you’re a writer looking for a worthwhile experience, join us at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City April 21-22. I promise you won’t be disappointed. And do look me up if you decide to come!

Sunday, February 4, 2007

A few words about this site

Like others who are self-employed, I am constantly scrambling to find more time.

I’ve maintained my Book beat blog since early 2005. I’ve also maintained Creative Writer for more than a year. It seemed logical to combine my vision for each site into a single blog.

For one thing, it’s easier to post here than at the archived Creative Writer US site. For another, I tend to go off in directions not exclusively related to books. So Bookbeat also grew into this site.

I plan to keep doing what I’ve done at the previous sites. I’ll write about all aspects of the writing profession. I’ll still do occasional book reviews, especially about books overlooked by mainstream media.

All material previously published at Bookbeat and at Creative Writer US will remain online. Those sites are accessed by links at the top left of the new home page for Creative Writer US.

Please visit me here often, and let me know when you find something useful.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Frustrations of a small press author

The photo at right shows my daughters at my book launch in Jacksonville.

When my book Killing Earl was released by a small Florida press, I felt good for two reasons.

I knew the book might help others. And I felt validated because the press is traditional, so I didn’t have to subsidize publication.

My book tells the story of our younger daughter’s “mystery illness” that turned out to be anything but a mystery. She saw a number of physicians for over a year. She was treated for many different ailments, and her primary physician at one point thought she was depressed and her mother was nuts.

One of the two physical problems finally diagnosed was an ovarian cyst that bled into her abdominal cavity. One of the obvious problems throughout the ordeal involved her physician’s communications skills. Our daughter was 12 years old at the time. Her skills were those of a pre-teen who didn’t really like her doctor.

When I read about the Tulsa woman who’d sought help for 12 years, I recalled the frustration we felt over our child’s medical dilemma. The Tulsa woman was obese.The cyst that caused her problems weighed 93 lbs. Our daughter was lean with nary an ounce of fat on her body. But both share a common affliction. It took many attempts to get a doctor to listen to them and help.

Our daughter is fully recovered. We were lucky. I wrote the book after she asked me to. She told me if I were a single mother living in a trailer, no one would’ve helped her. She’s a very thinkative kid. I interviewed physicians and surgeons. I researched. My introduction was written by one of America’s top doctors.

I did a book tour and marketed to the best of my budget and my ability. But the book was challenged. After all, my publisher is small and the marketplace is glutted.

I’ve received so many letters from people who read it. And many of those letters came from women whose doctors heard them but didn’t listen to what they were saying.

It’s become a mantra for me to tell readers if you have a doctor who doesn’t take your pain seriously, find another doctor. And by all means, research your illness yourself. Knowing more will help you ask better questions. Not everyone finds a cure, but there’s a lot to be said for empowerment.

That’s the reason I wrote the book to start with. In finishing it, I was able to deal with the frustration and sadness we experienced when my daughter was ill.

Unfortunately, when I read stories like the one about the Tulsa woman, frustration rolls right back in.