Why this writer is sad at the shutdown of a drumming school

Drum Connection BuildingI got word today that the DrumConnection, New England’s premier hand-drumming school, based in Arlington, Massachusetts, will soon be shutting its doors. The DrumConnection offers excellent djembe and dunun instruction in private classes, workshops, and performances. The DrumConnection also sponsors trips to Guinea, West Africa, for study with master drummers. The retail store sells an array of drums, drum kits, cymbals, and accessories. I consider my relationship with the DrumConnection unique. I took classes there and attended workshops not to become proficient at drumming, but to breathe life into the characters of my novel.

The classes helped me shape the personality of one of my main characters, a drummer from Senegal.  The Talking Drum is set for publication by a feminist press in the fall of 2019. Observing the Group drummingpersonality of master drummer Mamady Keita as he worked with all of us to perfect our hand-drumming technique during a drumming workshop held at Medford City Hall chambers several years ago, helped me flesh out the personality of my fictional drummer. Spending time in classes practicing for hours the correct way to perform the slap, tone, bass technique on the djembe helped me describe, through another one of my characters who had never played the drums before, how the instrument felt against her palms. I don’t know why director Alan Tauber is shutting down The DrumConnection. Most likely economics are playing a role. He’s having a big going out of business sale, slashing the prices on his drums. But even though the brick and mortar store will soon be gone, I’m sure that the community that the DrumConnection has cultivated over the years will continue on in the drumming circles, trips abroad, and other avenues. I hope that my fictional characters can be part of the legacy reminding people of the importance of the DrumConnection and African drumming’s important place in the artistic world.

Five things I learned at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Washington, D.C.

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With bestselling author Walter Mosley

Last week I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, better known as AWP. It is the largest literary conference in North America. This year it was held at the convention center in Washington, D.C., and hosted 550 events, 2,000 presenters and more than 800 presses, literary journals, and literary organizations from around the world at the book fair.

This was my third time attending the conference. I learn new things each time. Here are 5 things I learned this year.

  1. It’s a good idea to put your photo on your business card.

During a panel discussion titled, “Agents and Editors and Publishers, Oh My! Demistifying the Business Side of Writing and Publishing,” an agent pointed out that she meets hundreds of eager writers at conferences who hand her business cards, but when she gets back home, she may not be able to match the business card with the person she met. A photo business card will likely jog her memory.

  1. It makes sense to smuggle your own food into the conference.

At a food stand set up in the center of the book expo in the convention center, I paid $10.00 for a medium-sized bowl of pineapple chicken and another $5.00 for a large bottle of diet coke. Talk about sticker shock! I got smart quickly. Since I was staying with my sister, who lives in the D.C. area, I was able to raid her refrigerator and pack a ham and cheese sandwich, some fruit, snacks and my own beverage. This cost me nothing and sis was happy that I helped to empty out her fridge.

  1. If you didn’t win the writing contest you entered, you can always apply again.

I’ve applied for several first-time author contests. None have named me the winner so far. Several of those independent presses and associations that sponsor the contests were represented by the publishers and editors at the AWP Book Fair. They told me to feel free to apply again because they use different judges every contest cycle. One press also told me that sometimes people apply the following year and win.

  1. If you’re not paying attention, you could miss a hidden treasure.

I was walking through the book fair near the back of the room where a small African American publisher I had talked to earlier in the day was located. The publisher remembered me and beckoned me over. He pointed to a man dressed in black, seated at the exhibit table, hunched over, checking his smart phone. It was the bestselling novelist and crime fiction writer, Walter Mosley. I’ve seen the movie starring Denzel Washington, based on his novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, and read one of his novels with members of my book club. It was thrilling to meet him. I asked him if he would take a picture with me and he said in his charming way, “Only if you’ll put your arm around me. Of course, I obliged.

  1. If you’re looking for an independent press to publish your manuscript, the book fair is the place to be.

I was eager to see the books of an independent press I was considering sending my manuscript to. I was horrified when I saw that the books are designed in square dimensions, not rectangular dimensions like most books. Stopping by the table of another press, I was able to quiz the representative about their efforts to market their books. I was able to hold the books and see the quality of the paper, design, and binding. Coincidentally, one of the authors was at the table, autographing copies of his novel, when I walked up. He told me all about his publishing experience with that press. I was impressed with their operation and walked away pleased.

Next year’s conference will be in Tampa, Florida. I’m not sure yet if I’ll attend, but if I do, I’m sure there’ll be lots of tips to pick up there too!

Why Hidden Figures” inspires me in my effort to get my novel published

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I recently went to the Showcase Cinema to see Hidden Figures, the phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space. In addition to the women’s empowerment theme that I was looking forward to, I was interested in seeing the setting because the story took place in the city where I went to college, Hampton, Virginia.

The movie featured actress Taraji P. Henson as Katherine G. Johnson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson. Known as “human computers,” they were among the brightest minds of their generation.

They were teaching math in the segregated south when they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II when America’s aeronautics industry washidden-figures-2nd-picture in dire need of expertise. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills. Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts. They were kept in the Langley Air Force Base all-black “West Computing” Group, and relegated to “colored only” bathrooms and couldn’t even pour themselves a cup of coffee from the same coffee pot, etc.. Yet, they had confidence and were assertive, playing critical roles in the space program.

I left the theater walking a little taller than when I entered and thinking about the challenges these women faced. The treatment they got from their peers and supervisors was sanctioned by society and the law. Since seeing the movie and reading the book, I’ve been sending out a revised version of my manuscript to literary agents.  At times it’s discouraging. Not that I am in anyway comparing the magnitude of the challenges they faced with mine, but I do I ask myself, “what would Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary do?” They would surely persevere. They wouldn’t give up. They would push on past the rejections, until they got the novel published.

 

 

Holiday bazaars are a wonderful venue for writers

booksDuring the weekend, I was a vendor at the holiday bazaar at my church. I rented a table and sold copies of anthologies I’ve been published in: Finding Mr. Right, More Christmas Moments, Inspire Forgiveness, and a few other volumes that fall into the inspirational category.

The wife of the retired pastor came by my table and was surprised when I told her that I was selling the books for $10 apiece. She thought I’d charge much more.

But I didn’t want to sell them to make a profit. By selling them for the amount I had to pay to purchase them, I was able to keep the price reasonable and get my words of inspiration into the hands of more people. That was my primary interest, through my writing, giving hope to people who are facing challenges.

A secondary benefit was that participating as a vendor helped me build an audience. me-and-booksEven though I’ve been a member of that church for more than 12 years, at least half a dozen people walked up to me and expressed surprise, saying they didn’t know I was a writer. When I told them about my novel, several asked when it would be coming out. Whenever I do get it published, I’ll have a group of supporters ready to purchase it.

In addition, some of the shoppers told me about opportunities to be a vendor at other events, which could serve as a vehicle for getting a whole new audience interested in my work.

So, writers, the next time the holidays come around, look into becoming a vendor. It could raise your profile in ways you didn’t imagine.

Panelists at mystery novel conference explain why a Smart phone can put them in a panic

I find it ironic that writers whose job it is to frighten their readers or at least make their pulses quicken with their plot twists and suspenseful moments sometimes find themselves facing the same emotional and physiological moments when dealing with crafting their mysteries and crime fiction.

dead-crow-logoWhile attending panel discussions at Mysterium: The Mystery Novel Conference, held recently on the campus of Wesleyan University, I was surprised to discover that some writers experience anxiety over technology. They are so afraid to deal with technology that they either avoid it by setting their novels in the pre-1985 era or they have whatever gadget the main character is using sabotaged by the end of the first page.

One crime novelist said that’s why it’s not unheard of for a main character who’s standing in an alley, looking down at a lifeless body to drop his or her cell phone in a puddle and then have the cell phone end up in a dumpster. “Because if you can Google everything,” she said, “the investigation can easily be solved.”

chris-with-the-dogThis got me wondering how mystery and thriller author Chris Knopf felt. He’s best known for his Sam Acquillo series. At the conference I attended his talk, titled “Writing Mysteries in the Age of Google.” He suggested that authors use technology in their stories as they would in real life. “If you’re going to be realistic, it has to be a seamless and a natural part of your story,” he said. “Don’t use a particular brand. Otherwise your books will only last a couple of years.” He said that Google is not something to be avoided, but embraced in degrees. “You have to deal with Google when the character is chris-knopf-book-coverresearching. I use Google for the basics and then I go talk to people. The same goes for my characters.” Knopf said that voicemail can be used as a device central to your plot. “I integrate voicemail into the story,” he said. “The dead man’s last words in a voicemail trigger the story.”

And I’m sure I’m not the only writer who thinks she can pick up hints on writing crime and law enforcement scenes from watching television. However, Knopf said, “Don’t rely on it. It doesn’t translate. I have a forensic analyst I consult. Everybody has to have a geek these days.”

And, of course, social media is too big to ignore, as are drones. “You don’t have to have a drone creep up to a house in a rural area,” he said. “New York can send a drone. They can be as tiny as a bug. They can fire weapons, shoot you with poison. There’s a lot of drama possible with drones.”

26 Amazing Writing Residencies You Can Apply for

I dream of a quiet place completely free from distraction where I can take nature walks, rest, and work on my novel, essays, and other writings. One day I’ll get there, when I can take the time off from work and cover the cost. Meanwhile, here’s a list of writing residencies you may find of interest. Pictured above is a photo from the Breadloaf Writers Conference in Vermont, one that I hope to attend in the future.

If only I had one of those wireless activity wristbands for my writing routine

I’ve been into fitness for a long time. Over the years I’ve taken aerobics—both conventional and step—kickbox karate, indoor cycling, earned my diploma in ice skating from the Bay State Skating School, and played tennis and racquetball. So when my co-workers encouraged me to try the Fitbit® wireless activity band, I didn’t hesitate.

The Fitbit is a high-performance wristband that gives automatic, continuous heart Fitbit Charge Imagerate and activity tracking right on your wrist. You can see your heart rate all day and during workouts to get more accurate calorie burn, reach target workout intensity and maximize training time. It tracks steps, distance, floors climbed and sleep quality and syncs to a smartphone and computer so you can monitor your trends and get the motivation you need to push yourself further—every step, every beat, every day.

I have found that by merely wearing the Fitbit, I make more of an effort to reach my 10,000 steps a day, walking further at work to the copy machine and coffee break room. I now take the stairs when I could easily hop in the elevator.

If I had a Fitbit for writing, I could track my word count per day. Let’s say I established the goal of writing 750 words. I could check my Fitbit toward the end of the day and if I’m falling short of my goal, I could set aside time before going to bed to get my words in, similar to how I walk the corridors of my condo complex some late evenings to squeeze in more steps.

My co-workers and I participate in something called “Workweek Hustle.” We Trophysynchronize our Fitbits and participate in a contest to see who completes the most steps by the end of the week. The winner is bestowed a trophy (I’ve won it several times so far and have proudly pictured it here!). It’s a good-natured competition. No one takes it too seriously. (Did I mention that I’ve won it several times?) But it is a reminder that we are all in this together and if I want to surge ahead of my opponents and be the winner, then I need to push myself a little more.

In the “Fitbit for Writers” the Workweek Hustle would take the form of a writing group. A half dozen of us writers would sync our Fitbits, sharing our disappointments when our manuscripts are rejected, and cheering each other on when we have publishing successes. The “Fitbit for Writers” could encourage a friendly competition with my peers over daily word count, completion of stories, and number of manuscript submissions made to literary agents, literary presses, anthologies, and journals.

Fitbit has helped improve my workout routine and if the company decides to one day retool its product and create a writer’s version, it could help me get my unpublished manuscript on the bookstore shelves with the other novels. Meanwhile, I’m thinking that I need to push myself away from the computer and walk a couple of laps around the condo complex. My Fitbit is telling me that co-worker Karen is on my heels, only 450 steps behind me. And Amanda is about to pull into first place. We’ve been neck and neck for days. I’d better get to stepping!

Book Review: What to Do Before Your Book Launch

I’ve never had a book direct me to put it down and take care of an important matter  before continuing to read. That is, until I came across What to Do Before Your Book Launch. The guidebook for traditionally published authors was written by M.J. Rose, an internationally bestselling author of dozens of novels and internationally bestselling novelist Randy Susan Meyers, who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting on a couple of occasions.

Seriously, I was reading the book and was told to put the book down THAT INSTANTBook Image and secure my domain name. I already had LisaBraxton.com—that’ the domain for this website—but I didn’t have “dot org” or the domain name that is the working title of my manuscript. I did what the book said, stopped what I was doing, and secured the other domain names.

The authors of What to Do outlined a number of other things writer need to take care of or at least be involved in because of changes going on in the publishing world.

They point out that 10,000 novels hit the shelves each year. The price of books has gone up 20%, while review space has declined 20-50%. Fewer magazines and television shows feature authors. Publishers can only support a very small percentage of the books they publish and more than half of debut authors never publish a second novel.

So what does an author do in light of these changes and shifts in the business of books and media? Take an active role in publicity and marketing of the book.

What to Do tells you how to build websites, gives pointers on taking a publicity shot and offers the pros and cons of blogging, producing a book trailer, and a newsletter.

What to Do Before Your Book Launch is a “must-read” for any writer looking to get a book published. It’s a quick read—only 88 pages—that can be referred to over and over again during the publication process.

Writing a novel calls for total immersion, sometimes with fruitful results

When I was a journalist in both newspapers and television, I embraced “immersion journalism,” reporting on a story by participating in it, immersing myself in the situations and the people involved.

As a result, I once climbed into firefighter turnout gear and crawled around on my stomach in a “smoky” building to search for victims using a thermal imaging camera, floated around in an icy pond until first responders threw me a rope and pulled me out, rode around with a state trooper stopping motorists for DWI one New Year’s Eve, and strapped on roller skates and took a few whirls for a story about a roller rink that had been in a community since the 1930s and was closing down.

I believe that immersion techniques also work well with novel writing. Author Heather Sellers writes about this in her book, Chapter after Chapter: Discover the Dedication and Focus you Need to Write the Book of Your Dreams. “If you don’t surround yourself with your book, you risk it creeping away from you—or you unintentionally creep away from it,” she says.

grilled_chicken240To avoid the drift that Sellers refers to and bring authenticity to my story, I recently borrowed from the library a copy of Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal, a cookbook written by restaurateur and Senegalese native Pierre Thiam. I was particularly interested in the recipe for Yassa Ginaar, grilled chicken with lime-onion sauce.

My unpublished novel features a Senegalese restaurant owner who makes delicious meals for the customers in the immigrant community where he lives. One of his specialties happens to be Yassa Ginaar. I thought it would be neat to prepare the recipe, just as my character would.

The recipe calls for juicing 10 limes and grating the zest from three of them. I never knew how hard it would be to peel limes. Their skin is very thin, far different from lemons. Also I had to cut up five onions, julienne style, something I had never done before.  I also had to get my hands on a habenero pepper, a tiny pepper that I had never seen before in the supermarket, but apparently has been there for quite some time.

After rubbing in the ingredients into the chicken I had to let it marinade for a few hours. Once I had my husband try it. I could tell by the look on his face that something was wrong. The taste of lime was overpowering. I had miscalculated the proportions. The meal was a disaster. I tried to save it by soaking the food in cooked white rice (my husband’s idea) but the next day the dish was as sour as it was the first. However, the effort wasn’t a total loss. I gained an appreciation for what goes into Senegalese cooking, particularly in Yaasa Ginaar. I gained more of an appreciation for the restaurateur in my novel and the effort he takes to create savory meals or the public. I kept this in mind as I revised the scene in which he prepares this (usually) tasty dish.

Lessons from an American Idol contestant

I’m at the hair salon and a young woman walks in who has just returned from Hollywood. She says she had a tryout on American Idol and got on the show. However, she didn’t get as far as she had hoped.

As she’s waiting for the manicurist to start her appointment, the salon owner congratulates her and asks if LOGO MICshe was disappointed. She says, “No. I learned a lot being on the show. Now I know where I need to improve.”

I liked the upbeat attitude of this young singer. She felt she’d had a victory in spite of not winning.

This same philosophy can be adopted by writers when getting feedback on their work. I recently joined a writing group that I found through meetup.com. The members include a screenwriter, horror fiction writer, poets, writers of period dramas, and bloggers.

Each week I get feedback from them on excerpts of my novel. As I check my email account on a regular basis for responses from publishers to my novel—which has included rejections or no response at all—I can feel good that the feedback I’m getting from the group will make the manuscript stronger and a more viable work for publication.

 

I Need a Support Group (and Maybe You Do Too!)

I was scanning the inbox of my Hotmail account the other day, sMusical Noteped down the ‘subject’ lines of my emails and made an abrupt stop when I saw the words I’d been waiting months to see: “2016 Nicholas Schaffner Award.” My pulse quickened. My palms got clammy. I steeled myself.

Months earlier, I’d submitted my manuscript to the Schaffner Award for Music and Literature. The contest rules specify that the award would be given to the writer of an unpublished manuscript who submits a literary work in the English language–fiction, poetry, nonfiction–that deals with the subject of music. I thought my unpublished novel, which features an African drummer and has him performing in the story, would no doubt bubble to the top of the entries.

Last month, I got an electronic newsletter from the publisher, Tim Schaffner, stating that entries came in from 22 states in all genres–poetry, short fiction, novels, memoirs. “Due to the last-minute deluge of manuscripts, we will need to extend our award winner announcement until the end of February,” the newsletter read. Twenty-two states? I tried to do a quick calculation on how many entries that would be, how many manuscripts I’d have to beat out to win.

But then I got the email the other day. I thought it was a little early to hear from the contest again since the end of February was still weeks away. I soon found out why it was early. I took a deep breath and opened the email. It didn’t have the announcement of the winner of the contest. It had the names of the six finalists and MY NAME WAS NOT AMONG THEM!!!Retreat Manuscript

After I read the email, my husband found me in bed, which is uncharacteristic for me since it was only about 6:30 p.m. After my 9 to 5 I’m usually off to the gym for boxing class or indoor cycling with a little treadmill action and free weights topped off with 10-minutes on the rowing machine.

My husband sat down next to me on the bed. Our cat, Savannah, hopped on the bed too Cat blogand took a seat. We are her entertainment.

“I’m so sorry about this, Lisa. I know it’s disappointing,” Alex said. What can I do to help?”

I had an idea. I bolted upright. “I know,” I said. “You can read my manuscript again. Maybe there’s something in the writing that I missed. Maybe one of the characters needs to be tweaked.”

He said nothing. But I was fairly sure one of his eyelids was beginning to twitch. He read all 345 pages of my novel a few months ago. Maybe he wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of spending a few more weeks with my characters all over again. Maybe he was thinking about all of the heated “discussions” we’d had about the point of view I had chosen, the colloquialisms I employed, or the voice of the male characters.

“Maybe you can join a writer’s group,” he said finally. “That way you can talk to people who are going through the same things you’re going through. It’ll kind of be like a support group.”

So here I am at the main branch library waiting for the start of a writer’s group I found on meetup.com. I’ve gotten some support already. One member of the group emailed me the name of a book designed to help writers not give up hope in the face of rejection. I’ve never been part of a writing group. I’ll let you know what I think in an upcoming blog post.

Top 7 Holiday Gift Ideas for Writers

Planning to shop for the writers on your holiday list? Are you a writer putting together your wish list? Here is my list of the top 7 gifts for writers:

Literary Action Figures–Writers can sit at their desk under the watchful Jane Austeneye of William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Sherlock Holmes, Oscar Wilde, or any of the other literary action figures on the market. My favorite is Jane Austen, one of the greatest English novelists. Despite living a largely sheltered life, she skillfully captured the subtleties of human interaction and her works are more popular than ever.

Noise-canceling Headphones–They can block up to 90 percent of outside Noise canceling headphonesnoise. They have a comfortable over-ear design and sliding headband to fit any head size. They can block out barking dogs, howling cats, annoying spouses, and anyone and anything else that can break a writer’s concentration.

Weekend Hotel Stay–Okay. The Bellagio may be out of reach or the Bellagioubiquitous slot machines too distracting, but a weekend stay at a hotel can give a writer the space and tranquility needed to increase that daily word count. And when the writer needs a breather, there’s always the hotel pool or gym.

Electric Pencil Sharpener–For old school writers like me, who rely on the Ticonderoga No. 2 and a legal pad to work on that first draft, an electric pencil sharpener is an ideal gift. These days, they can be operated by battery and/or electricity. Either way, they sharpen pencils to a fine point.

Booklight–There’s nothing worse than when I’m visiting family or friendsBooklight for an extended stay and their lighting is not set up with the writer in mind. When I get the urge to write on these occasions, the dim lighting in the guest bedroom leads to frustration. I sometimes end up writing in the guest bathroom, which, for some reason, people tend to light more brightly. The rechargeable booklight takes care of this issue. It attaches to almost anything, and provides bright, white light.

Massage therapy–Hunkered over a laptop, notebook, or desk for hours on Massageend can leave a writer’s back muscles tired. What better way to relieve the tension than with the gift of a massage. Day spas provide gift cards for a menu of massages, including deep tissue and heated stone.

Coffee House Gift Cards–A Coffee house is a favorite hangout for a writer.Coffeehouse The writer gets out of the house to craft that story, all the while tapping into the energy of the coffee house patrons and inhaling the full-bodied aroma of a cup of java.

How about you? What gifts for the writer would you add to this list?