Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Nora Newbie

I'm a romance writer. I do read romance, but if pressed will admit I read more suspenses/mysteries/thrillers than straight romances. See, I have a mind that bends towards puzzles and the scientific/logical. I enjoy nothing as much as a great high-tech or financial world thriller--or a gritty suspense, preferably a police procedural or private eye tale--that keeps me guessing till the last.

However, I'm about to admit something here I never have publicly.

I have never read a Nora Roberts book.

You have to understand, this is akin to a libertarian admitting they've never read Ayn Rand.

It's not because I look down on Ms. Roberts in any way. No way! I have the highest respect and affection for the woman as a person. She's bright, she's romance fiction's biggest supporter, and she's not afraid to put her money where her mouth is, especially when it comes to the national organization, Romance Writers of America (RWA). She's a romance writer's--and a romance fiction fan's--best friend. Not to mention the woman writes something like a dozen books a year. I'm doing well if I can finish two!

It's simply that I've just never gotten around to reading her, partly because my TBR (To Be Read) pile is three stories tall.

But I've added a Nora book to the top of the pile: Northern Lights. Alaska is one of my passions, so I figured I would start with a Nora novel set in Alaska.

I may put it in my carry-on bag for Austin.

I'll let all of you know how I like a novel by The Nora.

Sharona

Monday, July 23, 2007

Austin Beckons

Tomorrow the DH and I are off to Austin, the city with the motto, "Keep Austin Weird", the city where Kinky Friedman (country artist who has performed as "Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys") announced his run for governor, the city where Leslie the transvestite ran for mayor.

I mean, you gotta love a place like this. At least, I do. If nothing else, Austin is entertaining. It reminds me of other places I've lived and loved, only without any pesky snow.

Plus, the drivers are actually nice, instead of driving as if they don't care whether they live or die, the way they do in New Jersey. (In New Jersey, they don't much care if they die. They certainly don't care if you die, I promise you.)

Looking forward to seeing my friend April, the singers on Wed. night, houses on Thursday (no, we're not moving there--yet--we're just looking), another writer friend at some point during our stay, and celebrating my birthday (I'm mumble mumble something this year) at The Cheesecake Factory.

If I can, I'll post something from Austin.

Sharona

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Showers of Blessings, Indeed

This blog has received two comments in the past twenty-four hours, informing me of other blogs that discuss shape-note singing at least part of the time. I am pleased to present a list of those blogs and other links under the heading, "Sacred Harp/Shape-Note Links". Look for these links in the right column.

I've also started a separate category for writing links called, appropriately enough, "Writing Links". You can find these links also in the right column.

(Required legal disclaimer: Of course, listing these links does not imply any special endorsement by me of them.)

Speaking of showers of blessings, I am looking forward to singing with the Austin folks this Wednesday at their weekly singing in north Austin! My husband and I are visiting the area for a week. I believe this week's singing is from the blue book (Cooper book). I don't often sing from the Cooper book, so I hope the group will forgive my pitiful lack of knowledge of the songs in the book.

Because we're leaving on Tuesday, this blog may not have any posts for a short while. I'll try to make up for that lack when we return.

Sharona

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Marvelous Web Site for Hearing Shape-Note Singing

Will has shared the site Pilgrim Productions in a comment on this blog. Lots and lots of good music recordings listed here, Sacred Harp and otherwise. Do check it out!

Thanks again, Will.

Sharona

My Glamorous Life--Not

A writer friend of mine recently pointed out on her blog that she tends to laugh hysterically when people comment about how glamorous her life as a writer must be.

The stories you see in the news about writers making millions of dollars are news stories because hardly any writer makes it to that rarified level. Indeed, few make a living wage. Most every published writer I know works a full-time job or has another career (or a spouse) that supports them financially. I think I read somewhere (not certain of the statistic I'm about to quote) that ninety percent of all professional, published writers--lumping together those who write nonfiction and fiction--make less than ten thousand dollars a year.

I'm in that ninety percent. I've been trying to crack five figures for a while now.

So, my life is pretty much like anyone else who doesn't bring in much money to help the family--I shop at el cheapo grocery stories like Aldi's and sometimes at Wal-Mart (the one nearest us is not especially cheap, so I buy little there) and I buy mostly store brands. I am careful with our money, and the budget is tight. My husband worries about losing his job at sixty-two. (In the high-tech world, he's basically unemployable at that age, even with his doctorate. Yes, age discrimination is alive and well.) We both worry about us losing our health insurance should he lose his job and be forced into early retirement.

I'm fortunate that we have enough to squeak by on without my working full-time outside the home any more. (I have taken the occasional part-time job to help out, but a health problem has made full-time work difficult for me since 2001.) And I realize we are very, very fortunate to have enough to eat and a nice place to live and decent health care. I am incredibly thankful for such things. So, this post is not meant to be a "poor me" whine.

What it is, is an eye-opening post. It's not glamorous to be a published writer. It's hard work and deadlines and working when you feel sick and spending free time (and unfree money) on promotion in order to gain more readers and climb a little higher on the ladder of financial success. Not to mention trying not to read reviews, because the bad ones (fortunately, I've only had one) can kill your desire to write faster than the intestinal flu. It's submitting manuscripts and waiting months to hear and sometimes getting rather callous rejection letters. It's working alone at a kitchen table or a desk in a corner and some days feeling sure it won't make a damn bit of difference to the world if you write that day. I have worked hard to become published. Nothing's been handed to me gratis.

In other words, it's a life much like anyone else's, with the same concerns and problems.

Is it tremendous fun? Oh, yes. I love my life! I know it would be extremely difficult for me to return to my career as a tech writer now, partly because of health, partly because I burned out on doing such work. That's a life I would not love.

As a writer, I can work the hours that suit me--no getting up at six AM if I don't need to. No commute. No boss and annoying corporate atmosphere that tells me when I can take a break or eat lunch. Plus, I can write all day in my nightgown (and have) if I want to. No need for a fancy wardrobe. I can take a day off or stop working early if there's a genuine crisis with family without dealing with a boss.

And, best of all, occasionally you hear from a reader who emails you to say, "I love your books! Please don't ever stop writing them." (Paraphrased from an email I received.) I don't receive many emails like that, but I can write for six months on a good compliment (slightly paraphrased, originally said by Mark Twain). Such feedback makes all the rejection worthwhile.

My life is pretty normal, for a woman who hears voices (of characters) in her head, telling her to write their stories. But we'll deal with the, ahem, rich internal life of a writer on another day...

Sharona

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Emotional Honesty

I keep my clock radio tuned to a station that, on Sundays, plays public radio shows about jazz. This morning, I heard a brief discussion in which honesty was mentioned. The context was that you couldn't play jazz and not be an honest musician.

It was clear that "honesty", in the context, did not mean "not stealing". However, it did touch on not lying--not lying to yourself. In other words, to be an honest musician, you have to play the music you hear, you feel. Otherwise, it's not truly your work, so it's not honest.

Artists (and I include visual artists, musicians, writers, etc.) must be emotionally honest to create good works. You have to follow your own vision, whatever that may be. Otherwise, your creative energy will be spent on something derivative, something that didn't arise from the real you--it will be false. Writers can fall into the trap of not writing honestly when they try to chase the market (that is, write whatever appears to be selling well), writing a story solely for the purpose of getting published, and not a story they need to tell.

All workers, of course, are charged to be honest in their work. Not to do the job for which you are paid is dishonest. But many jobs rarely require emotional honesty, the honesty about which I'm writing.

Fasola music has deep emotional honesty. This emotional honesty is, I believe, what appeals to people who didn't grow up in the tradition but who fall in love with the music. The grief is bottomless and keen; the joy is pure and soaring. The words reflect this, of course, but it is the music I fell in love with first. And the very best songs have music that fits the words precisely.

I think of 163b, China, and wish I had a link for you to hear the piece, if you've never heard it. The words are about grief--losing a loved one--and about consolation in Christ. But the music! There's one spot in the song where the harmony to me, is positively unearthly--it keens--and it's that one chord that breaks my heart, every time.

178, Africa, does something similar, only with the emotion of joy. Again, I wish I had a link to the actual music for you to hear. All my links provide are the words.

In the public world, such pure emotions are often not explored or expressed. Grief and sadness embarrass us--what to say to the bereaved? So, too, does joy--what is that person doing, with that silly smile on her face, hugging everyone? We hide our emotions, we don't explore them, so much of the time. We find our humanity discomfiting.

But in the world of Sacred Harp, we can feel emotions and show emotions. I know that I can weep in joy or pain, and it will be all right, that others will understand.

When we gather to sing, just as when we create, we are charged to be emotionally honest. Otherwise, we can't do justice to the music. Indeed, the music demands that we be emotionally honest with ourselves and each other. To render what the composers have written with anything less than full voice, full honesty, and full feeling, would be a lie.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Rant: Spammers Who Should Know Better

First, I'm not talking about people who forward jokes or inspirational material to friends, or even to every person in their address book. It can be annoying at times, but no big deal.

Nor am I talking about the hard-core spammers trying to sell you everything from fake Viagra to a better job. (I don't know how these slugs find enough stupid people to buy their stuff in order to stay in business, but they must, or we'd have less spam.)

I'm talking about those who should know better. I'm talking about publishers or people who claim they met me once (whom I don't remember), and then sending me canned emails about their books and where to buy them. Some people call this "viral marketing," and it's an accurate phrase. The marketing technique is about as welcome as a ten-day course of the flu in January.

Let's get one thing straight: I'm a writer. I sell books to make money. I do promotion. I have a web site and a yahoogroup and I advertise in various ways. For example, when I run a contest through a third party (such as a romance book review site), you have to "pay" for the privilege by supplying an email address. It's clearly stated that the email address will be used once, to offer you membership in my yahoogroup, where I run most of my contests. (You don't belong to my group, you can't win most of the books I give away. That's one carrot I dangle to make group membership attractive.)

So, I send each person one email, and I point out up front where I got their email address, and that they are receiving an invitation that will only be sent once. I will never send them email for anything again. I point out that members of my group can win things, read extra excerpts of upcoming books, and so on. Membership has its privileges, I think American Express once said. That's my message. And I hope they join. A lot do.

But do I send form emails to every single person in my address book, to persons with whom I exchanged maybe one brief email five years ago? People whose faces I can't recall, and know nothing about?

NO. That's spam.

Except for advertising and my private groups, I'll send a form email to a dozen or so friends and family, telling them that I have a new book out. That's it. I don't send notices to every Tom, Delia, and Harriet that I ever met at a conference, just because I have their business card for some unknown, not-remembered reason. Having someone's card or email address doesn't justify sending them a form letter pimping your new book.

Now, if someone I barely knew sent me an email that clearly wasn't a form one, I wouldn't be offended. People lose touch. It's nice to hear from other authors, even if I don't remember at which conference I met them. And, if they mention they have a book out and are so excited about it, well, that's cool, too.

My beef is with people who create form emails solely designed to pump their latest book, and then spew the form emails to every email address they know. Yesterday, a publisher even did this to me--a publisher who is legit, but whom I didn't know. Perhaps once upon a time I visited their site a year ago? Who knows? I visit literally hundreds of web sites in any given month, some for research, some for personal interest.

And then there's the issue of how that publisher got my email address. Simply looking at a site can get your email address "harvested" by some sites--sites that I believe are unethical. They steal your email address--you don't opt in. Stealing is wrong.

A stranger who buys/steals/otherwise obtains your email address, and then uses it to send form emails selling something--THAT'S THE DEFINITION OF SPAM.

I admit I don't suffer fools gladly. I respond to such people in no-nonsense language, threatening to publish their email address on a public forum, such as my blog or on professional writing loops, along with the spam they sent me, and expose them as spammers.

It's not nice. But, hey, reality isn't usually nice. And it works.

So far, all these author/publisher spammers either have had the good sense never to send me any more emails, or they've sent me an apology, explaining where they obtained my address legitimately. If a spammer does either one, I don't carry through on my threat. Therefore, this blog post doesn't have details on the two spam messages I received yesterday for the same silly book from an epublisher, nor does it have details of the author who apparently spammed everyone in her address book with her form email (she responded and apologized and promised never to send me anything else).

But if I receive any other spam from these folks, yes, the details are going up here. Writers and publishers have to recognize that viral marketing is not marketing--it's spamming.

I'll leave for another day the so-called writer friends whose every thought begins or ends with, "Buy my book. Buy my book."

Yeah, we're writers, and we sell books. But being crass about it is simply bad manners.

Sharona

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Gift of Pie

This post appeared on the old incarnation of my blog a little over a year ago. I've modified it a little to make it more topical, but I left in most of the good stuff. Enjoy, along with a nice slice of pie and your favorite accompanying beverage (mine's usually milk or coffee). I have a peach crumble pie in the fridge calling my name as I write.

*******

A year ago May, I visited a friend in Massachusetts who has since moved to Los Angeles. (I hope to combine a visit to see her in Jan '08 with the California Sacred Harp Convention in Poway, but that's a topic for another post.)

We attended a David Hockney exhibition at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, and topped off our trip with a browse through the gift shop. She found a book called "Retro Pies". She bought one copy. I bought two (one was a gift). When we got back to her house, we made lemon custard pie. (2007 Note: we used store-bought crusts, and I have to tell you, the crusts that Oronoque Orchards sells are almost--almost--as good as homemade. Certainly they are an acceptable substitute, especially if your pie crust skills are, like mine, not so hot. You'll find the crusts in the freezer section.)

That lemon custard pie was the best durned lemon pie I've ever eaten. (2007 Note: except for the one I made last weekend. The recipe came from a 2005 issue of Southern Living.)

The next day, my friend and I shopped for groceries and made two more pies, one an apple custard, one a coconut custard (she and I both adore coconut). Both were great, though the coconut pie was my favorite.

Pie tends to be more a southern and midwestern thing, I think. Pies, of course, exist in the northeast, especially apple and pumpkin, but I think the real pie culture centers in more rural areas of our country. I was exposed to pie a lot as a kid, but I never liked it much. More specifically, I never liked the crust. The fillings were okay by me (I used to eat the fillings and leave the crust).

As an adult, however, when first exposed to the fine, homemade pies I encounter at Sacred Harp singings, they struck me as little slices of heaven on earth--much like the singing itself. In fact, I've considered baking the lemon pie and taking it with me the next time I go south to sing, to give to the friends in western Georgia who always let me stay with them when I come down to sing.

How I'd carry it on and off the plane, I'm not sure. Not to mention what might happen at Security.

Security: Ma'am, what's this?

Me: A lemon pie.

S: Why are you bringing a pie with you?

Me: Uh, in case I get hungry? Actually, I plan to give some friends the gift of pie.

S: Step over there. We need to search your pie.

Maybe taking a pie with me's not such a good idea after all.

Sharona

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Words

When I was in high school (back in the Dark Ages), a group called the BeeGees--the pre-"Saturday Night Fever"-disco BeeGees--had a hit entitled "Words". The chorus ran something like this:

"It's only words,
And words are all I have,
To take your heart away."


As someone to whom words meant much (even back then I knew that, someday, I would write for a living), I found the lyrics poignant and personal.*** I still do. Words are everything to me. I live and die by words.

It's natural, I guess, that one of my biggest attractions to Sacred Harp involves its lyrics. Some of the imagery is sheer poetry.

There's "Evening Shade", which uses the metaphor of the oncoming night and the removing of clothing for bed as a foreshadowing of our eventual death. There's "Peace and Joy", which mentions "the light of sacred story"--oh, how I love that line! (I have a degree in New Testament, so I think of the Bible as "sacred story".)

Then there's the poetry of Isaac Watts--in "Granville" (and thank you, Judy Hauff, for writing one of the most haunting tunes in the book), in the soaring "Africa", which never fails to make me smile, and in "Greenwich", a wonderful song to sing if you're seriously angry with someone. And in a dozen other songs I could list.

I could go on further, naming songs whose lyrics were written by Charles Wesley and John Newton (best known for "Amazing Grace", known in fasola circles as "New Britain"), but I'll stop here.

Words. They delight, they inspire, they entertain, they instruct. We use them to express anger, love, fear, joy, hate, fellowship. They can wound almost to the point of death--or send us into ecstacies of emotional bliss.

Of all the creatures on this planet, language is unique to humankind. Perhaps, in the end, words are all we have.

Words are the reason I tell stories--and sing Sacred Harp.

Sharona

***The BeeGees also had a hit entitled, "Massachusetts". I always knew I'd end up there as an adult, even though back then, in high school, I'd never been within 450 miles of the place. I lived in MA from 1975 through 2001, the lion's share of my adult life. So I felt a strong personal connection to that song as well. "I'm goin' back to Massachusetts..."

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The History of the Sacred Harp Songbook

In June, I spent time at both the National Sacred Harp Convention and the annual singing at Hopewell Primitive Baptist Church (near Ephesus, GA).

My time there was one of those sublime vacations where my experience surpassed my wildest expectations. The singing was so good, I had goosebumps much of the time. My friends were happy to see me. And I had possibly the most fun of any trip I've ever made to National.

And now, I'll shamelessly plug a documentary that I bought while down there, about the history of the Sacred Harp songbook: Awake, My Soul. Even if you don't sing, I urge you to visit the web site to watch an excerpt. Not only did it move me to tears, it's also one of the best documentaries I've ever seen. Could Matt and Erica Hinton be the next Ken Burns?

Go. Do it now. You might discover the music you've been searching for your whole life.

Sharona

Monday, July 02, 2007

Risen From the Dead

I welcome you to the new Sharona Nelson blog. I've resuscitated it by deleting all old posts and reorienting its focus.

The new blog will contain posts about my writing and my books, and about the joy of singing Sacred Harp, in roughly equal amounts. Both are strong passions of mine.

I decided to blog about singing as well as writing because I didn't find much in the way of blogs about Sacred Harp. As this fact indicated a void, and nature abhors a vacuum, I am rushing to fill it.

(BTW, redoing her blog is what an author with a deadline does when she is home nursing a bad knee and sulking that she couldn't attend singing camp because of it.)

To learn more about me, please see my web site and my yahoogroup. To learn more about Sacred Harp, please see the official web site and the Awake My Soul web site. You can also join a Google group devoted to singings and singers.

Here's to new beginnings.

Sharona