All Is Not Lost

Lost on Motorcycle_2

Daya Nang met me at the gate Lal Khethi’s gate, and pointed the way back to the cottage, which sat some 150 feet behind the main house. The drive was long and pitted with holes, and the fields on all sides of it freshly tilled and smelling of earth. A stand of fruit trees buffeted the back of the main house, blocking the cottage from view. When I arrived at it, I switched off Kali, easing the sidestand down. Daya Nang helped me carry my bags into the cottage; he took the smaller tote and left me to struggle under the weight of the saddle bags. My old-faithful boot, a pair of Vasque that I’d worn for years in India as well as the entire journey around it, sunk deep into the dark soil.

From the outside the cottage looked quaint, but as Daya Nang said, ‘Welcome to new home,’ gesturing me inside, I knew I wouldn’t stay. Long and dark, it looked like a storage room with some furniture tossed in, and I felt like a prisoner being shown a cell.

Daya Nang was a friendly man with a round face and welcoming smile. He made me coffee and brought a spicy dhal lunch with several fresh chapatis and a glass of cold water. Pickle lime chutney garnished the edge of my plate.

I’d been warned the electricity could be erratic, and waited for it to come on all day. It didn’t happen. I’d later learn there was absolutely no power between 6 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. When it finally came on late in the day, it lasted about an hour before flickering out again. When it was on, it wasn’t enough to heat the small hot water tank so I could take a shower. In the meantime, a nearby mosque screeched all day long.

Between praying the electricity would come on and cursing the megaphone, I managed to figure out what I thought was the right form to structure my book around. Much like Dervala Murphy’s Full Tilt, I would craft a diary-like text with expanded scenes. Some things needed to be flushed out.

January 29, 1998, I wrote:

“Now more than anything I NEED A START. My own voice is the truest, realist thing. Books need to be from the gut and personal. My journals are surely oh so personal. Go ahead. Take a chance. Make it funny, make it sad, make it tragic, make it stupid,…make it real.”

Nitin Bhardwaj @ flickr.com

False Starts: finding the right writing place

When I returned to New Delhi after five months and nearly 7,000 miles riding Kali around India, I did nothing but recoup for a few weeks. I stayed with Thomas and Louise again, while trying to sort out a place where I could write distraction-free. I called Mr. Lal, the owner of Alyndale, the Himalayan cabin I’d stayed in while studying Hindi before setting out on the journey. It was January, and too cold and snowy to go to the Alyndale, but his farm cottage was available.

Nitin Bhardwaj @ flickr.com

Nitin Bhardwaj @ flickr.com

In my journal dated January 26, 1998 I wrote:

“Yipee! [sic] I got a cottage in the country to work in. Mr. Lal called this afternoon and said had seen the cottage and thinks it will be just fine for me. It’s very green around his farm house and there are mustard fields all around. He was still a bit concerned that it was too far from Delhi for me––1 1/2  hours––and that it was too isolated. But I assured him I was looking for both of these things in a house. I’ll have my Kali with me to go to the market and Delhi if I need too [sic], and his farm manager will be at the farmhouse so I won’t be out totally alone. He told me the cottage is quite nice and he has put in a woodburning [sic] stove.”

My journal goes on to record that I went to Mr. Lal’s home in Golf Links at 11 a.m. the next day to get directions to the Lal Khethi (meaning infant or child in Hindi), and met Mrs. Lal for the first time. She wore Western clothes, a brown sweater and tan slacks, and clasp my hand when she welcomed me, introduced herself, and sat opposite me in one swift swoop.

“‘Sooo Connie. You want to stay at Lal Khethi. Oh, you’ll absolutely love it. I’m sure. I do. I absolutely adore it,’ she said pinching her eyes shut and puckered her [copper-colored] lips and slightly pulling in her cheeks as if she had just tasted the most heavenly food ever.

She told me there were some power shortages at the farm and I felt myself grow a bit concerned. I needed electricity for my computer. She asked how long I had been in India, said I was an old pro, then quickly stood up breathed something about having to dash, made a kissy-smacky noise in the air of my general direction and then skipped out the door like smoke.”

I don’t know what I was wearing, something faded and cheap no doubt, or what I said, probably not much of anything. But in my journal I wrote that when she left the room “I sat there thinking ‘I’m a 12-year-old girl who has just been in the presence of an ADULT.’”

Mr. Lal soon arrive in his morning clothes, explaining he’d been up since 6 a.m. with conference calls to Hong Kong. In the same journal entry I wrote:

“Here’s the deal. The cottage is one long, narrowish room, with a bed, a sofa, a coffee table, bathroom, kitchen, and wood-burning, pot-bellied stove. His farm manager Daya Nang will provide me with sheets, towels, pots & pans, plates, glasses, cutlery and anything else I might need. They will give me a gas cylinder, fridge (?), plus all the fruits and vegetables from their farm I can eat. For all this I will pay only Rs 6000, inclusive of all electricity, water, etc. bills. Pretty good!”

Rs 6,000 at the time was 40 rupees to the dollar, making the rent $150. Since I was concerned about lack of electricity (no electricity = no work), we agreed on a trial run.

“Tomorrow I’ll go to the farm and stay a couple of days. If I find the eratic [sic]electricity is not a problem for me, then I’m all set.”

Thomas loaned me his camping espresso maker with an attachable arm for steaming milk (he and Louise had a La Pavoni I’d become addicted to). The pot along with my camp stove and two pounds of premier coffee I bought in Delhi’s Khan market would keep me in cappuccinos, fueling my writing. I packed my little Powerbook 100 that I’d brought to India, my journals, and headed to Lal Khethi.

1990s Powerbook 100

1990s Powerbook 100

The ride was beautiful. I passed farm fields where mustard plants stood “like millions of tall, thin, green soldiers with bright yellow helmuts [sic]. Thought how beautiful and peaceful it was and would be. I could smell the faint sweat [sic] odor from the mustard fields and felt relaxed. This would be perfect, I told myself. But then….

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The story beings

I drafted the original version of Naked on the Edge in less than two months, while holed up in a cabin in the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains. I didn’t edit or rewrite during that time, just plugged away at getting the story down. I can’t say it was good, but it was done. Spelling and grammar mistakes littered the work. The voice was friendly but the writing was…well, let’s just say I cringe now when I reread it. It was divided into four sections and ran 388 pages.

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Since then, I’ve revised the whole book seven times, and portions of it countless more. The beginning has changed. The structure has changed. The format has changed. The content has changed. And most importantly, the message has changed. Sort of.

While the route I rode is the same, what I chose to include and leave out of the story has varied over the years. I’ve struggled most with voice and finding the right entry into the story. Future blog post will deal with what I’ve gone through over the years in writing Naked. The challenges I faced to get on the page what I envisioned in my head. I’ll share my struggles and fears with you. The agents I solicited, and their response. Did they respond? How long it took. Most importantly, I’ll share my thinking behind the choices I made while writing Naked on the Edge: a motorcycle, a goddess, and a journey around India.

Beverly & Pack:Flickr   http-:www.flickr.com:photos:walkadog:with:4348859217:#photo_4348859217

Fake It Till You Make It

Beverly & Pack:Flickr   http-:www.flickr.com:photos:walkadog:with:4348859217:#photo_4348859217

I don’t know how to write a book, even though that is exactly what I’m doing. I wasn’t trained to write books as an undergraduate in journalism school, but rather to write news and feature articles. The only things those forms have in common with a book is that they contain words arranged in a manner that reveals a story.

As an undergraduate I learned how to interview. I learned how to write a compelling lead. I learned how to answer the five Ws (who, what, when, where, and why) in my stories. I learned the importance of quoting accurately. I also learned to keep myself out of the story.

I worked with these principles for decades, but when I got to graduate school the emphasis shifted to essay writing. There, I learned about voice and pacing. I learned about character and place. I learned about scene setting and timing. I learned to think about the architecture of essays by reading and deconstructing those composed by others. And, I learned that I was part of the story.

Now that I’m writing a memoir, I’m learning to bring the two halves of my scholarship together on the page. My education has taught me some vital element in the story-telling process needed to write a book, but neither my training as a journalist or creative nonfiction writer actually taught me to write a book. (I suspect that is true of most everyone who is writing or has written a book.) Now I’m learning a new path, one that I must grasp alone as a muddle through the process of learning to craft a memoir.

It’s not easy. At times my lack of understanding in this book-writing business leaves me feeling like a failure. I struggle to find the pulse of my story and shape it into a narrative that not only answers questions (as I learned to do in news and feature stores) but also brings character and place alive on the page (as I learned to do when writing essays). Because I don’t know what I’m doing, I feel like a fake at times.

As I struggle to find my way as a memoirist and to craft a story that can be defined as such, I’ve got doubts about my abilities. I suppose these doubts shadow most writers, but when they rise up in my head I remind myself that most of us go through life faking it at times.

So until I find my way into print and on the shelves of book stores, I will keep writing and learning the craft, faking it in my mind until I make it on the page.

(© Steven Depolo:Flickr)

Four Tricks and Tools for Catching Pesky Typos

When I write query and business letters, I have a habit of leaving off the “r” in “your”. So instead of writing “Thank you very much for your interest” it comes out “Thank you very much for you interest”; a mistake that makes me sound like an illiterate hick.

There is some slim chance the error won’t be detected by the reader, since the mind often “sees” what is supposed to be there rather than what is actually there. But it is a risk I’d rather not take. After all, my intent is to leave the reader with the impression that I can write.

19. Card Trick (© Steven Depolo:Flickr)

Typos, however, are inevitable no matter what the written form: letters or novels or anything else. I find them not only in my work but also texts that have been vetted by professionals, published works combed over by teams of top-notch proofers and editors. Yet, the occasional misspelling slips through undetected.

The problem, as I have come to understand it, is very much one of the mind and not the eyes. Just as I said above this might work in my favor, it also works against me. When we write, our minds know what we mean to write even if our fingers don’t get the message. We know it so well we fail to see it when we read over our work with the express purpose of finding the mistakes.

In my practice and when I taught writing to students, I had a variety of methods for catching the inevitable typo, and used them all. But I have since added a new means to the madness. Here are my top three tricks for trapping typos:

Speech Tool: I came across this function sometime back but only recently made it my number-one means of catching tiny typos. Because I’m so used reading my work and relying on my eyes to find the problem, I’ve become immune to them. But with the speech tool I use my ears to hear the mistakes.

On my Mac the tool is located in the computer’s preference system. You can set the control to any setting you wish, and then simply select the material you want read by highlighting it and give the speech command. I use Opt+Command+S.

If you are a PC user the process will be the same but the settings may be different. Either Google it or checkout About.com’s instructions.

Get a Proofer: Ask a friend to read over your work. Their mind and eyes will not be familiar with the text, so they are more likely to stumble over the typos.

Read Work Aloud: This is especially affective in the early draft stages when you have not yet committed the work to memory. You can also ask a friend to read it aloud or read it into a tape recorder.

Read Backwards: If I had to read an entire book backwards I’d go mad. So, I’ve got to disclose this is not a method that works for me. It does, however, prove affective for others. I think it depends on your temperament, and I’m not that patient.

For me, the best method is having my computer read my work aloud. I set the computer’s voice to one that sounds most naturally human to me. The second best method is to have someone proof it for you.

How do you track down typos?

© Moksha Jetley of Back-n-Beyond Travels in India

Babes on Bullets

18. Moksha Jetly on Bullet

Women may have been riding their own motorcycles since the inception of the motorized bike, but they have never really belonged to the boys club as “riders”, rather they are most often been historically relegated to the back seat––despite their equally competitive riding skills. For instance, 18-year-old Clara Wagner rode a four-horsepower motorcycle in a 365-mile endurance race from Chicago to Indianapolis in October 1910. Battling brutal roads and foul weather, Wagner finished with a perfect score, bettering most men in the race. The Federation of American Motorcyclist (today’s American Motorcycle Association’s predecessor), however, refused to acknowledge her perfect score, giving the trophy to a male rider instead.

And what about Effie Hotchkiss and her mother Avis? They became the first women on record in 1915 to ride round-trip, coast-to-coast, by motorcycle. They had a Harley with a sidecar. Or Bessie Stringfield, a young black mother who turned to motorcycling after the deaths of her children, saying, “I’d toss a penny over a map, and wherever it landed, I’d go.” Or stuntwoman Marcia Holly who rode a Kawasaki-based streamliner to set a land-speed record of 229.361 MPH, becoming the first woman to break into Bonneville’s 200 MPH Club.

My point is, women have been breaking barriers when it comes to motorcycling for years, and now a new group of women are taking up the challenge. The women of India have begun to swing their legs over the saddles of Royal Enfield Bullets. I wish I could have meet them when I was living and riding in India.

In a nation where women have lately been portrayed as weak and vulnerable to the attacks of men, these women are not to be messed with.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6zcHSLtwmA

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xnc99UCdIjE

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A12Nz1uUh1U

If you are looking for a motorcycle adventure led by a woman, check out Moksha Jetley. She runs Back-n-Beyond Travels, a motorcycle tour company that takes groups of riders into India’s mysterious mountains. I know her personally, but you can ask her how we met.

Puppy Dog Eyes (© Nina Matthews Photography:Flickr)

Insightful Sources for Writers

16. Puppy Dog Eyes (© Nina Matthews Photography:Flickr)

I do a lot of looking around on the Internet for sources of good information concerning writing. Much of what I find turns out to be not what I’m seeking, since I’m pretty particular how I spend my time on the web. I’d rather stare out the window than be sucked in to some banal BS. I have, however, found a few that I think deliver some good writerly stuff. Here are two of my favorites, plus the pros and cons of each.

The Writer Unboxed (http://writerunboxed.com) This site has been around since 2006, but I only recently stumbled across it. It was founded by two friends Kathleen Bolton and Therese Walsh, aspiring novelists, as a means of exploring complex books and movies to try and understand how they worked. Originally, they wanted to write such essays for other publications, but when that didn’t pan out they decided to venture it alone. Now they have a slew of contributors who pen enlightening essays for THEIR own e-pub.

What I like about it: 

  • Great practical information for writers at all stages of the process.
  • Has a large stable of monthly industry experts writing.
  • The landing page is the blog, so right away I’m into reading the latest post.
  • The design is clean and inviting (although I’m not a fan of the purple background).
  • They are upfront about their affiliations.

What I don’t like about it: 

  • The Blogtopia list needs to be culled and updated. I clicked on a number of links only to find they were defunct, or last updated years ago.
  • Its arrival in my mailbox looks very icky. All the text is crammed together in a way I find very off-putting. The easy solution is to subscribe via the RSS feed.

Jane Friedman: Writing, reading, and publishing in the digital age (http://janefriedman.com) Jane is the current editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, and the former publisher of Writer’s Digest, as well as a past professor of e-media at the University of Cincinnati. She has loads of connections to publishing and presents them well on her site.

What I like about it:

  • Super insider information from someone who has been around.
  • Lots of great guest bloggers.
  • Enormous amounts of industry information.
  • She is upfront about her affiliations.

What I don’t like about it: 

  • The post can be long and dense––an unappealing site for me first thing in the morning. I get around this issue by clicking on the browser.
  • I’m still figuring out the layout. There are lots of short paragraphs embedded with links and pictures that make it seem somewhat complex. I prefer a more direct approach of one thing at a time.

What are your favorite sites for writerly information?

(© epSos.de:Flickr)

Prologue and Preface and Intro––Oh My!

These are some scary words, at least for me, because for as long as I’ve been working on my book I’ve wrestled with what to call the section I’ve put at the front of my book, the bit that begins in medias res of an event that happens later in the book.

15. (© epSos.de:Flickr)

The story opens toward the end of my journey and involves a motorcycle crash, a scene I’ve specifically chosen because it sets up the main themes of the story: danger, India, a woman alone on a motorcycle. I feel (and hope) it works as a means of creating tension and intrigue to hook the reader, and that it does so honestly since the story unfolds along these themes. My problem, however, is what do I call this section: prologue, preface, what?

Cheryl Strayed opens her book Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail with a scene in which she loses her boot over the edge of a mountain. The book then flashes back in chapter one to how she came to be on the trail, eventually catching up to the boot-losing scene. In the table of contents, this opening is listed as a “prologue”. But is that correct?

I’ve read many definitions of a “prologue”; here are two. See what you think:

“A prologue is introductory material set apart in time, space, or viewpoint (or all three) from the main story and creates intrigue for upcoming events. To qualify as a prologue, the information or events must exist outside the framework of the main story.” –– Jessica Page Morrell’s Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us

However, Pat McNees draws his understanding of a prologue from The Chicago Manual of Style and says:

“A prologue starts the action and is PART of the action, though it could take place in the middle of the action — it often focuses on a pivotal moment.”

To me, these two seem out of step with each other, but the second syncs up with what Strayed did in Wild. I would, however, still like to know if this is the correct terminology.

The function and operation of the preface, introduction, and foreward I understand better.

Preface: is penned by the author and explains why and how the book came to be written.

Introduction: is written by the author to explain the contents of the book.

Foreward: is written by someone other than the author, such as an expert in the field being covered in the book, to add credibility to the work. It is part of the book’s marketing package. (By the way, the word “foreward” is one of the most misspelled words in English.)

I confess, I’m still unsure if I’ve labeled my opening correctly. Can you help me? How do you define “prologue”? 

 

© C.L. Stambush

The Bloat of Backstory

When I read The Lifeboat, and found myself at sea with a group of strangers, I wondered about their backstory, when it would appear and how the author Charlotte Rogan would fit it in. I figured she would flashback at some point to life on the ocean liner before it sank, filling me in on the history of not only the characters in the boat but also clue me in on the story surrounding the ship’s demise.

I expected the backstory because I’ve been conditioned for its presence by so many other novels. I like it. It helps me connect with the characters to know something of their lives before my point of entry into their story.

But Rogan sidestepped this familiar storytelling form in The Lifeboat and took another direction instead. One that taught me a little something about the bloat of backstory in an adventure narrative, and helped me see my own story in a new way.

For years I’ve struggled with how much to put in and how much to leave out. As you know from my last post, in my mind my story has no clear beginning or end, but rather is a continuum. Even though I feel it is all connected, however, I know it can’t all be included in one memoir.

 © C.L.Stambush

Rogan chose not to give much backstory up front, including the life of protagonist Grace Winter who is a newlywed onboard with her husband. She focuses instead on the actions and developing the characters in their immediate surroundings. I feel Rogan’s intent was to show not how the characters changed during distress, but rather who they were all along.

In this case it worked, I found the intensity of the characters situation so compelling that I quickly forgot that I didn’t know their backstories. And, in the end I didn’t care. All that mattered was that dinky boat, those utterly human human beings, the ocean swells, the burning sun, the sacrifices, and the despair of being lost. Not only lost at sea but lost as humans.

The backstory of Grace comes at the end of the novel, when Rogan does give readers some insight into Grace’s life through her choice of structure. There, at her trial, readers learn the story of Grace’s relationship with her husband and how it translates to her new home in America with his family.

What I learned from Rogan’s story was that too much backstory gets in the way of a good narrative, something friends and mentors had quietly been telling me for some time. It’s the immediate story readers connect with, and if the tension is tight and the story compelling enough readers won’t miss the backstory.

Put into your work what you think is necessary for the reader to stay connected to the story you are telling, but not so much that they are pulled into “other stories” outside of the one you want to tell.

What are your thoughts on backstory?

© C. L. Stambush

Lessons Learned in Reading “The Lifeboat”

12. boat bow thialand

In a way, I was a drift at sea much like the characters in Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel The Lifeboat. The book begins with a flash-forward scene of Grace Winter’s trial for the murder of fellow lifeboat passengers, before zipping back to plunge readers into the Atlantic Ocean along with 38 survivors crammed into a boat built for far less. After a brief prologue readers than find themselves in 1914, being tossed about on the ocean in a dinghy, desperately trying to navigate away from their sinking ship, least they be sucked down by its vortex.

My problem, my sea, my vortex wasn’t physical as Rogan’s characters faced. No, mine was one that Rogan herself encountered in writing The Lifeboat. That is, picking the perfect moment to plunge readers into the world being created. Rogan chose to start in medias res (on dry “safe” land) near the end of the story, before backing up to moments AFTER the ship went down, teaching me two very important lessons:

  • The right scene is crucial as it sets up the themes of the story.
  • Too much backstory in an adventure narrative is burdensome.

In this post I’ll tackle the first lesson, and in the next post I’ll deal with the second. The two, however, are closely tied together.

Finding the crucial scene to open and set up my themes was my main problem, since my real-life story didn’t begin with me landing in India and buying a motorcycle. It began years earlier with me quitting my job, selling most of all I owned, flipping a coin to determine which country I’d fly to, and taking off.

In reality, my story/journey was gradual, building upon itself, and changing dramatically as I passed from one country to another. It was like a strand of silk in which one color blended into another, and because of that I struggled to find a moment I could isolate from others; a definitive moment that not only started the story but also set it up to focus solely on my motorcycle journey in India.

To accomplishing this I started with failure. For instance, one of my failed attempts included a beautiful scene through Turkish countryside with me riding on a bus longing for freedom and imagining myself on a motorcycle whisking along on country lanes. I loved it. But, it didn’t put the reader in India, and it didn’t put them on a motorcycle.

I came closer in another attempt but still failed because it started too far from the story I wanted to tell. In that case, I opened with me buying my Bullet from a savvy Sikh in Old Delhi. The scene had a motorcycle and it was in India, but it was backstory. There was no action. No road. No danger. Those were the key themes in my story. It wasn’t until I read The Lifeboat that I realized the need to start my story with a dramatic moment that set up these major themes.

Writers know the value of reading and learning from other works. We know that if we are writing a memoir then we read memoirs for structure, voice, framing, and so forth. But, we shouldn’t only look to similar genres for understanding.

Reading The Lifeboat was like being struck by lightening. I got a flash of inspiration from that novel. I settled on an opening scene in medias res of an incident that occurred 2/3s of the way through the ride before cutting back to the road on day one, keeping the reader on the motorcycle and feeling (I hope) the ride.

What book taught you a great lesson in storytelling?