A Message in a Virtual Bottle

Yesterday I got a notification from WordPress—a “trophy,” actually—commemorating my sixth anniversary as a blogger. Apparently I registered my blog with them on 23 April 2008 (Shakespeare’s birthday, serendipitously enough), though I didn’t make my first actual post until a month later. At the time, we were preparing to move to Greg’s family’s farm, three hundred miles from the area where we’d lived for twenty years. I started the blog mainly as an online journal of our lives on the farm; I figured it would be a nice record of events and might also be of interest to any friends who wanted to keep up with us. Over time my focus shifted from accounts of our doings on the farm to personal essays about the Bible, literature, movies, and other topics. My early posts, in which I narrated the events of the day and explained plans for construction, fencing, livestock, and whatnot, look very odd to me now.

Online publishing is an innovation comparable in the sheer scale of its effects to the printing press. Before Gutenberg’s invention, written materials were usually reproduced by hand. In the Western world this was done mostly by monks, whose exacting standards of craftsmanship and artistry made the process even more time-intensive than if they’d just slapped the words down on the vellum and called it good.

monk scriptorium 2

The operator of a printing press could make multiple copies of a work in less time than a scribe could make one. Suddenly printed materials were easier to produce and cheaper to obtain than ever before. The age of mass communication had begun, bringing a huge increase in literacy rates, facilitating the free circulation of ideas, and ending the educational monopoly of the elite.

printing press

Online publishing has changed the game just as dramatically by expanding the medium from the physical to the virtual. Today’s traditional books, magazines, and newspapers aren’t laboriously handcrafted by conscientious monks, but they’re still physical products made with finite resources, so whoever’s footing the bill to produce them is motivated to be selective. Online publishing, on the other hand, is free to anyone who has internet access. It doesn’t use paper or take up space, and it can be distributed instantly all around the globe.

Like any innovation that gives people more freedom, this one has had good and bad consequences. The limitations of traditional publishing act as screening agents. If I have a physical book or a column in a newspaper, you can assume that some quasi-legitimate somebody considers me a decent writer. Even if my book is self-published, you can at least reason that I’m dedicated and serious enough about my writing to make some financial outlay. With online publishing we have no such assurance. Any yahoo with a modicum of computer skills can now put written work of any quality out there for public consumption. A lot of it is just awful. Some is decent, but lacks the polish that a standard editorial process would have provided. And some is truly good. Traditional publishing venues are often hidebound, top-heavy conglomerates, and it can be next to impossible for works with quirky formats or niche appeal to find a place with them. Online publishing provides a work-around that enables the plucky underdog to bypass a stupid system, and I’m always in favor of that.

So starting a blog easy—but writing is still something of a risk. The time, effort, and self-respect I venture in writing could be spent instead on productive activities with tangible results, or on recreation or rest. Right now I could be baking muffins, or watching Firefly, or napping, rather than tapping out words on a keyboard and looking up images for monks and printing presses.

Stephen King once said that writing a novel is like crossing the Atlantic in a bathtub—a huge, time-consuming, inherently lonely task. Blogging is more like tossing out a message in a bottle every so often into a vast and indifferent sea. Once I hit “Publish” and the post goes up, I have no particular reason to suppose that anyone will ever read it or care. It’s kind of a hubristic act, when you think about it. Nobody asked for my blog; nobody has to read it.

message in bottle

When someone does read it, I feel I’ve been given a gift. Someone out there on another shore has picked up the bottle and read the message inside. Often this person is a stranger from another country. My blog’s stats page is both fascinating and mystifying. Why is the post I wrote comparing my children to orangutans so enduringly popular? Why the sudden spike in interest on my extremely lengthy posts about Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Much Ado About Nothing? I don’t know. But I’m grateful to every reader who has gifted me with time and attention—to you, right now. You could be doing something else too, but here you are. Thank you.

Survival: A New Story Published on Smashwords

Yesterday my suspense novella, Survival, was published on Smashwords, a platform for multi-format ebooks. I started this story about three years ago, shortly after we moved south. We were living at the time in a drafty little WWII-era house smack-dab in the middle of hundreds of isolated acres, surrounded by mesquite scrub that flowed on and on like a sea of choking thorns. In this part of Texas, even the plant life can be hostile, and it takes a special sort of toughness to survive or thrive. This story is about people who manage to do that–some with honor and courage and decency, others with barefaced malice and savagery–and about what happens when their worlds collide.

You can find Survival here, where you can sample the first 20% for free. I also have a personal Smashwords author’s page.

My other ebook, a short story entitled “The Home Place,” was published last year by NoTreeBooks. It’s still available here.

You don’t have to own a Kindle or other e-reading device to download my stories. I actually don’t have an e-reader myself yet, simply because I haven’t made up my mind which one would best suit my needs. What I do have is Kindle for PC, a free app available from Amazon. It installed in mere seconds on my laptop and enables me to view ebooks on my computer screen. Amazon also has Kindle apps for Mac, iPhone, BlackBerry, Android, and others. Links to these apps should be accessible from the Amazon page for “The Home Place.”

I’d appreciate it if you could take a few minutes to check out my work and also spread the word. Thanks for your support!

Brandi’s Cardinal Rules of Romance Writing

These have worked pretty well for me over the course of twenty or so published short stories.

1. Men are cute when they’re vulnerable.

2. But not needy! No one likes a needy man.

3. Chicks dig guys who bring them coffee. Baristas rock as romantic heroes.

4. Tool belts are sexy.

5. So are work boots.

6. In fact, hard work and the tools and evidence thereof are pretty sexy all around.

7. You can always find a reason to have the hero take off his shirt. Stab wounds, a rip in the sleeve, a pick-up game of shirts-and-skins football, a soda dumped over the head by an obnoxious stranger, whatever.

8. But it doesn’t have to go farther than that, or even as far, to pack an effective punch. There is more genuine sexual tension to be found in a Louisa May Alcott novel than in many a bodice-ripper.

9. A lot of people think passion should be irresistible at all times, but that’s just not true. Self-control is terribly attractive.

10. What people leave conspicuously unsaid is as important as what they say.

11. Handsome is as handsome does. Seriously.

Of Houses, and Dreams, and the Chambered Nautilus

I have a recurring dream in which I discover new rooms in my house–not the house I actually live in, but some other house which belongs to me in the dream.  I turn a corner, open a door; and there is a room I have never seen before!  Inevitably I think, Now I can have a writing room.

I love this dream.  It is a message of hope, I think, of untapped reserves waiting to be explored, of possibilities previously unimagined.  It fills me with a sense of energy, freshness, discovery, and renewal, even more than dreams in which I can suddenly breathe underwater or fly.  Doorways and corridors open up where none were before, revealing chamber after chamber of lovely usable space–an inner space, secret and mysterious, like the compartments in the shell of the chambered nautilus, a sea creature which I understand is very good at math.  This clever cephalopod builds its own environment, adding new chambers to accommodate its growth, spiraling its shell to the tune of some fancy irrational number known as Phi, which is the ratio of two consecutive Fibonacci numbers.  (Go figure.)

nautilus alive

Personal environment, a sense of place, is important to me.  My taste in architecture favors old houses with window-seats, dormers, and odd little nooks and add-ons.  I have never lived in a house like this.  Our current house is 1620 square feet of very open floor plan.  There is little wasted space:  no foyer, almost no hallway, certainly no writing room.  Here I have lived for nine years with a husband, three children, two dogs, up to two cats at a time, and assorted rodentia (domesticated).  The rooms are spacious and full of light.  Even the surrounding countryside is spacious:  a flat, wind-swept prairie, with a wide prospect all around.  Quite simply, there is no place to hide.  We have homeschooled from the beginning (the children are sixteen, thirteen, and twelve), so we are all here together much of the time, knocking around the house, competing for space and hot water and computer time.

All this is funny, because I love seclusion, and hidey-holes, and woods, and hills, and hollows.  As an artist, I confess I sometimes feel, though I really know better, that I have a birthright to solitude and private spaces.  (Didn’t Virginia Woolf have something to say about this?)  Yet I deliberately chose this location and this house plan.  (Greg had quite a bit to say about it too.)  It was the right choice.  At the wise age of thirty-eight, I understand that if throughout my adult life I’d had license to indulge in all the privacy and quietude I thought I needed, I probably would have grown into a confirmed nutball, with little of interest to write about.

What privacy and quiet time I get usually come early in the morning, or (ironically) in a crowded Starbucks, tucked into a corner with my laptop and noise-canceling headphones (and ceramic mug from home and lumbar pillow, and a shawl to take the edge off arctic-blast air conditioning).  And it has been enough.  Indeed, God has blessed me abundantly with a beautiful family, meaningful work, and the drive and wherewithal to put words to the page or screen.

If the Lord wills and the creek riseth not, we will soon leave this house for an even smaller one:  two small bedrooms, one bath, tiny kitchen.  Do I feel any sense of constriction at the prospect?  Not at all.  I feel the world opening up before me like a newly discovered chamber.  This move is part of a change of lifestyle that we have dreamed of for years.  We are returning to the land where Greg grew up, in order to become professional farmers.

The plan is that Emilie and I will move down first, in order to clean the house and get it comfortably habitable.  Meanwhile, Greg, Daniel, and Anna will stay in our current house, finishing some home repairs, mowing the grass, and generally keeping the place presentable for prospective buyers.  At first we thought both girls would make the move south with me, but when I considered what sort of diet the guys were likely to subsist on in such a case, I suggested that Anna stay and cook.  At thirteen, she is already very capable in the kitchen, and I believe the experience of planning and executing meals for three people will test her mettle, and prove it.

Emilie and I may move as soon as early June, with a dog and a rodent or two.  After years of dreaming and planning, we are about to get a foot in the door.

And that door, I think, will open to a spacious chamber, with room for us all.