Give Thanks Like A Character

Last summer, I bought an apron. It’s pink and yellow and brown floral and it is a smock-like design. I bought it from an antique dealer in Ithaca, New York, who picked it up from an estate sale. I was wandering the antique store looking for something I could bring home that would be a symbol of the character I had been writing — a widow living in Ithaca who loved to cook. I wear the apron when I cook sometimes now and it feels almost like acting, a physical embodying of the character.

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. I live north of the 49th parallel so we celebrated six weeks ago when the leaves were brilliant on the trees and the harvest was just gathered in but I don’t think there’s anything at all wrong in me giving thanks more than once, even if I’m having salmon for supper instead of turkey. I was thinking about writing a post that detailed things I’m thankful for — a discipline I’d like to practice far more regularly — but then I started imagining a list of things my character from Seeker of Stars was thankful for.

And that’s when it started to get interesting.

Because my own list would include the apron and the salmon, the publication of my book — the things that make me glad. But if I think about what Melchior would be thankful for, he would actually include disability and losses, being slighted, accidental discoveries, opportunities lost and found.

Why is it easier for me to imagine my character being thankful for difficulties than being thankful for them in my own life — because surely it is. I can genuinely imagine that he would be thankful for things that would make me despair. Is that what makes him a wise man and me just me?

Maybe, but I think there’s more to it than that. Part of it is that when I think of his story, I know what happens. I know how the tragedies of his life fit into the whole picture.  Some of Melchior’s blessings, the things he can be grateful for, are things he’s taken for granted, things that have been right under his nose for years. Others, though, are more severe mercies — things that could never have happened without the pain and loss. We don’t know that in our own lives. A friend recently said of raising teens that if she knew how it was going to turn out, she might be able to relax more and worry less.

The Bible says to give thanks in all circumstances (I Thessalonians 5:18). I think of a psalm that potentially could make your eyes glaze over, Psalm 136. The reason I say this is that after every line, there is a refrain, the very same refrain: His love endures forever. It’s repeated 26 times. The psalm begins, “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his love endures forever.” So far, so good. And many of the verses list things like “to him alone who does great wonders, for his love endures forever.” But, you also see things like, “to him who led his people through the wilderness….who killed great kings….remembered us in our low estate…for his love endures forever.” Read between those lines and there are 40 years in the wilderness, oppression by great kings and times when people are truly down and out. The reason for being able to thank God is that in the very midst of these things, his love endures forever.

John Lennon once said, “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” The Bible offers a reason for that kind of hope, the kind that allows us to give thanks in all circumstances.

I put on my character’s apron and I see a bit more clearly through her eyes but I try on a character’s reasons for thanksgiving and I see much more clearly how to be thankful no matter what.

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Preparing for the Season of Preparation

This Sunday marks the beginning of the liturgical year with the first Sunday of Advent. Not all Christians follow this calendar — some remember the birth and resurrection of Jesus on a regular basis and find the idea of such a calendar stifling, while Eastern Christians have been in Advent for a week or so already. Increasingly, however, many people are expressing a sense of meaningfulness in recognizing the traditional Christian calendar dates.

What I find challenging about Advent — much more than Lent — is that what it requires of us is very different from the other seasonal pulls that happen at the same time of the year. Advent invites us to be still, to wait, to long, to reflect, to be quiet in anticipation. At the same time, we’re making a list and checking it twice. We’re baking cookies, decorating trees, decking the halls, dashing through the snow to school concerts and office parties, traveling to see family and friends, stuffing turkeys, doublechecking those lists…aren’t you tired just thinking about it?

So what is a person to do? Does Advent only add more pressure — must slow down! must reflect! — to the to-do lists?

This has long been a real question for me, and I wrote an essay about it which is going to be available for free download starting this Sunday on dccebooks.com. It’s called The Christmas Clementine. I hope you will download it and let me know what you think. Let me know how Advent and CHRISTMAS! co-exist in your life in the month of December. 

Are you in a book club?

I am presuming that most book clubs have their December book already chosen but if your book club hasn’t picked a title for January, might I suggest Seeker of Stars.

Here are ten reasons I suggest it:

1. I wrote it and I’m biased.
2. It’s not a terribly long book so people who read it during a busy season will not be bogged down with a doorstop of a tome.
3. It’s seasonal without ending at Christmas. In fact, tradition says the wise men arrived in Bethlehem on the twelfth day of Christmas, which is January 6.
4. I have Book Club Questions available for your club, to get you started. (See below)
5. I am willing to Skype into your book club to talk about the book, free of charge. Message me if you are interested in this.
6. You can either buy a paper copy of the book or download it and be reading it within minutes.
7. Did I mention I’m biased?
8. People are saying nice things about the book. People I don’t even know. “Destined to become a classic,” “a Christmas Must!”  ” It’s what we dream of our whole lives, without even realizing it.”
9. You could win a free copy in our GoodReads contest that opens today and closes on Monday, thus saving money at Christmas.
10. It’s a story that appeals to men and women of all ages.

 

Here are the book club questions for you:

Seeker of Stars has been called a “memoir of one of the magi.” How would you describe this book, its main character and what you take away from reading the novel?

Dreams play an important role in Seeker of Stars.

–          How are dreams understood in Seeker of Stars?

–          How do we interpret dreams today? Do you think God speaking to people in dreams?

–          What is the relationship between dreams we call wishes and sleeping dreams?

Melchior’s journey to Bethlehem is an opportunity for him to explore his relationships.

–     Friendship plays an important role in Melchior’s life. What are the effects of Melchior’s various friendships?

–     Melchior “printed” Balzar as a role model for fatherhood, and talked about his wedding night imprinting a pattern for his marriage. How does he move beyond old, broken patterns of relating to freshness and intimacy?

–          What irritated you most about Melchior’s relationships? What inspired you?

–          If you were to write a letter to someone to “allow all to be revealed and received”, who would you write to and what would you say?

 

In Seeker of Stars, how does providence override fate?

Vocation has been defined as the place where our passion meets the world’s great need

–          In what ways is vocation determined ? In what ways can we choose?

–          How does Melchior respond to a sense of vocation? What impairs him? What makes him believe in his passion against all odds?

 Melchior’s accident renders his hand useless for many years – until he is healed.

–          Melchior does not ask to be healed and yet his hand is restored. What is the relationship between desire and healing? What is healing in this novel? What role does willingness play? What role may faith play?

How did the book enhance your view of the magi and the original Christmas story?

In what ways did you imagine the magi differently? What do you imagine might happen next for Melchior?

Word of Mouth

Some people have asked why a publisher would give away copies of a newly released book rather than sell it. Surely, they say, there must be some people who would buy it. Friends and family would be happy to buy it.

While that is true, there is a method to this giveaway madness, particularly when it comes to books available online. If you have ever ordered a book from Amazon, you will get a small list at the bottom of the page that says, “People who bought this book also bought..” and then a list of several titles. In Amazon’s algorithms, even free books are considered “bought” (just bought for $0) and so the theory goes that the more books you sell, the more often your book will appear on “also bought” lists. Common sense theory also adds that the more you offer books for free, the more people will “purchase” the book as the risk of the book being a dud is far less costly.

And so, last week, we gave away 9100 copies of the book in total.

The other part of the plan is more meaningful. If someone tells you what they are selling is fabulous, you take it with a grain of salt and rightly so. They have a lot invested in the success of their product. But, if someone else tells you about a great or terrible customer experience or product, you pay attention. If the product is made by their cousin, you apply that salt once again, but if they have no reason to bias their review, you pay attention and it can influence your behavior.

Simple example: yesterday, I was talking with a friend who is crowdfunding a project; I told him about the best crowdfunded project I knew, connected to a website I follow, one that is followed by more than a million people. “I’m going to check that out,” he said. That’s word of mouth coupled with numbers.

So that is the second part of the giveaway strategy. Our hope (hint, hint) is that people will read the book and will review it on Amazon or GoodWords or their own book review blogs — or even tell their real life friends about it.

Later this week, I’m going to give away a hard copy of Seeker of Stars through GoodReads. Head over there — https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18808482-seeker-of-stars?from_search=true– on Thursday and check the contest out. Maybe even tell your friends about it.

Brave New World

Eight years ago, my book was released into the wild in Canada on a small scale. Publication day meant that smooth-covered books arrived at my house. They had my name on them and they smelled and felt like Real Books. It was intoxicating.

This week, Seeker of Stars was released into a bigger ocean but no books arrived on my doorstep or yours. There will be print versions available, but the book was initially released as an e-book, and is currently only available online. The intoxication this time was that, almost in real time, I could see the ranking of the book rise as more and more people downloaded the book. Where last time it took weeks to understand where the book had gone, this time I could see within hours.

I don’t know about you but the changes in the publishing world are challenging for me. Truth be told, most change is challenging for me. I don’t tend to be an early adopter of technology (I don’t have a smart phone of any stripe, for instance.) I am inordinately fond of the sensory pleasures of a book — the fonts, the binding, raised lettering on a cover; what a book smells like can make or break a purchase for me. I’m also a passionate supporter of our beloved local bookstore (WordsWorth Books).

And now I’m an e-book author.

Last Christmas, I took my first, Luddite-y steps into this brave new world when I snagged a small e-reader at a Christmas gift exchange. (OK, I stole it from my mother — but that was allowed within the rules of the Christmas game.) Over the next month, I spent a fair bit of time in hospitals with very sick friends and relations. Sometimes I had to be there on the spur of the moment. Sometimes I had to sit around for long, long, stressful periods of time. To distract myself on such occasions, I tend to clean out my purse, organize receipts, read through my (paper) calendar, etc. This time, however, I pulled out my little ereader and escaped into fictional worlds.

Would I ever look back? Yes. I still enjoy the pleasure of a real book, often. I buy those books from the brilliant curators at my local bookstore. But I also look ahead and I enjoy the pleasures of an e-book: when I was sick and had exhausted all of a favourite author’s books available in the local library, I downloaded several of her books from the privacy of my own tissue-ridden bed and was able to be reading within minutes.

I don’t want to see good bookstores disappear; booksellers indeed play a vital role in communities and in literature. Nor do I want to see physical books disappear. I don’t believe they are likely to. But publishing seems to be a difficult industry these days and ebooks present both a challenge to publishers and a solution.

I often tell fledgling writers that it is incredibly hard to find a publisher because publishing is a risky business: what will sell? what will languish in the warehouse? I tell them to think of the books they see on the racks in airports, the well-known authors. Those are the low-risk, high-return authors. Someone like me? Much higher risk. Because maybe my writing is good, but how do you, as a reader know that? Will you take that risk? Maybe. And maybe a publisher and you will be more likely to take that risk if the book is an ebook and neither of you has to pay for the paper and the shipping and all the costs of a physical book.

Whether it is exciting or difficult for us, change happens. Often we can’t see what the results of change will be. So to this emerging book form and its ripple effects on reading, commerce and community. But here is what I am unequivocally glad about: at long last, people are able to read and enjoy what I’ve written. As I said in my last blog post, I’m not entirely convinced that a book is a book until it is read. If ebooks enable a book to reach more eyes, I’m in. How about you?

 

 

So Much Fun

There’s a much-quoted statement about the writing process: Writing is easy; you just open a vein and bleed. And it is true, there are many days where writing is hard work and painful. But that is also not the whole story. I don’t subscribe to the thought that writers or most artists are some sort of mystical creatures, but more often that not, I think that to have the vocation for writing is to count oneself among the blessed on the earth.

Having been around the writing block (and writer’s block!) a few times, I can tell you what brings the most pleasure and the most fun:

Discovering the Story

Right now, I am embarking on a new novel. It isn’t going well yet. I haven’t found the voice in which to tell it. I don’t know what my main character looks like exactly. I keep calling her by the name of my last main character. But I persist, in part, because I know how worthwhile it is, how pleasurable it is once I get into a story and the characters start doing their thing, disrupting my plans and ideas, taking on a life of their own, revealing things I am sure I myself never knew. I can’t  tell you how pleasurable this is. When I get well enough into a story, my own physical limitations — sleep, using the toilet, family, food — are often annoyances. I emerge from a writing jag fairly disoriented, needing to remind myself where I am and what time of year it is.

People Getting It

The writing process is not done when the writer writes The End. Writing is a collaboration between the writer, the written word and the reader. I’m not certain a book is a book until it’s read. How amazing it is that one person can scratch symbols on a page and another can decipher them and recreate them in some even vaguely similar way. I think of how longtime readers of the Tolkien canon agreed that the films fit their collective imaginations, or how there is now a Harry Potter theme park in Florida. When the writer and reader meet in the written word, something amazing happens. In my own limited experience, I’ve loved reading aloud from my writing and sensing the audience engaging with it, hearing them hold their collective breath, laugh (hopefully at the right moments) and wipe a tear. That is a wonderful shared feeling.

Books Coming to Life

The main character of the novel I’ve just written is a soup maker. She’s a widow in her mid50s whose one constant in life is that she feeds people soup. As I write this, there’s borscht simmering on my stove– because I’m in the process of figuring out her recipes so I can share them with readers once the book comes out. My writers group’s annual Christmas feast has evolved into a Cook Like Your Characters meal, where we each bring a dish that somehow connects with the book we’ve been writing that year. Writers are always chided to show rather than tell, and doing things like this adds literal flavor and colour and smells and tastes that enrich the writing and reading process.

Watching the Amazon Rankings

I just finished reading Dave Eggers’ book The Circle, which challenges our reliance on social media, our ability and compulsion to constantly tinker with rankings and visibility. It’s a really good thing that I read this cautionary tale when I did because — if you haven’t heard already — my novel Seeker of Stars came out two days ago. And it’s available as a free download until midnight tonight (www.dccebooks.com). A friend of mine said that there’s a lot of dopamine in the addiction to refreshing the Amazon page to see how your book is ranked. I first checked yesterday afternoon and the book was #151 among all free downloadable books. By supper time, it was #125. I was in the bath when my son made me “guess where it is now?” It had jumped to #39. By this morning it was ranked at #23.  The excitement is a bit like being part of an auction (only with the numbers going in the opposite direction) but really what is most satisfying in the process takes me back to my second point: that this means more people will have the opportunity to read and hopefully enjoy the book.

I think that’s why rejection is hard on us writers: because what we want is to share the things we’ve discovered and enjoyed with other people. We want others to get it and to enjoy it. And so, it might be dopamine, borscht or some other brain chemical coursing through my veins today, but that is my hope and my pleasure: that you will find enjoyment in reading my book or some good book too.

Countdown is On

This Sunday — November 10 — Seeker of Stars will be released by David C Cook (http://www.dccebooks.com/products/seeker-of-stars ). On Monday and Tuesday, the book will be available for FREE download. You will also be able to order print copies of the book through this site.

Here’s what some nice people have said about Seeker of Stars:

“With a design as durable as a Persian rug and equally as intricate, Susan Fish has woven a profound and tender story that is both contemporary and as ancient as the stars. Very moving, beautifully told.  There are threads of mystery and yet we know the outcome; it’s a journey story yet we are at home.  This is a tale that will be told again and again and each time, when the star seeker reaches, we’ll reach too and be forever changed. ‘Destined to become a classic’ is an overused phrase but I think it’s true here. ”  
Jane Kirkpatrick, Award-winning author

“Fascinating, timely and challenging. We need such a work at such a time.”
Michael Coren, Radio/Television Broadcaster, Author

“I really liked this book. It made me laugh and cry–and think. Susan Fish has a clear and winsome voice, and she tells her story in a way that is fresh as sunrise, fluid as quicksilver, and evocative as an old tapestry. She sketches scenes and characters with a deft touch, never wasting words,always leaving space for the reader’s imagination. And the ending is pure gold. As a result, I know that the impression made by Seeker of Stars is going to stay with me for a long time
John Bowen, author

“Susan Fish invites us into a beautiful and well-told fictional story -which leads us into the greatest and truest story of all.”
Brian McLaren, Author

Please do let your friends know about this book and especially about next week’s special free promotion. Thanks!

Pomegranates

A friend posted a video on Facebook this morning, with a nifty trick for deseeding a pomegranate in 10 seconds. (Here’s the link: http://lifehacker.com/5895852/deseed-a-pomegranate-in-10-seconds-using-a-wooden-spoon?fb_action_ids=10201806583901516&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_source=other_multiline&action_object_map=%7B%2210201806583901516%22%3A10150693076022356%7D&action_type_map=%7B%2210201806583901516%22%3A%22og.likes%22%7D&action_ref_map=%5B%5D) I’ve also read that freezing a pomegranate makes the arils (or seeds) easier to separate from the pith.

But sometimes maybe it’s worth taking the time to slowly peel a pomegranate.

Pomegranates come into the story of Seeker of Stars as a delicious fruit but also as a metaphor. Pomegranates are native to Persia (today’s Iran) but have been cultivated around the world since ancient times, including in all the possible places where the magi may have come from. Here’s where they come into the story: 

Daria excused herself and returned with a pomegranate from the tree outside. “Eat this,” she commanded. I shook my head, but she insisted. “They’re very good this year. Try one.”

Obediently I stripped the pomegranate of its leaves, cracked the outer casing with my teeth, and peeled the fruit and pith from its shell. I filled a small bowl with water and cracked the pieces of pith underwater. Tiny rubies fell to the bottom of the bowl and I fingered them out from under the floating casing and put several in my mouth, feeling them explode with tart sweetness. I smiled as I savored the bite. “There are no pomegranates like the ones at our oasis!”

Daria goes on to liken the pomegranate to one of the characters who is “rich in spirit and mind and heart, but she keeps herself hidden away, just as the fruit of the pomegranate is hidden behind layers of hard casing.” She then encourages the narrator to take the time to get to know the depths of the character who is like a pomegranate.

Pomegranates are in season right now and they are delicious. I like the fun techniques for being able to eat them more readily, but I also want to remember that pomegranates — and people — are worth the work they take. 

 

We Three Kings

(My apologies for posting a day late. It was quite a day yesterday and blogging had to be postponed a day.)

Earlier this week I had the privilege of volunteering at Ten Thousand Villages (tenthousandvillages.ca), a fairtrade store, helping staff decorate Christmas trees. While I like keeping things seasonal and not starting anything — even Christmas — too early, I understand the wisdom of this particular store decorating early. Many of its customers are people who share the store’s international connections and who, if they are going to send gifts early, need to plan ahead.

Likewise, this year, me. There are only ten days until Seeker of Stars is released into the wild, so I’m thinking a bit more Christmas than I usually do on November 1st. But not Santa Claus and snow Christmas. Hot desert Christmas. Astronomers. Treachery. Trust. While Seeker of Stars is a “Christmas book”, it’s also one that isn’t only a seasonal book.

But it is a book about we three kings: the magi.

To be one of the magi meant that you had knowledge not commonly known to most people. Magi were men who advised the king of a country. They were scholars of a wide variety of knowledge, and were also used as ambassadors. Their learning included a blend of what we now call astronomy and astrology, among other subjects, such as time keeping, tides, stars, medicine, alchemy, and religion.

All these subjects were studied in order to give the king an edge. Some of the magi specialized in healing or natural sciences, but being able to interpret omens was an important part of their function.

Astronomy was practised by use of water clocks and measuring sticks, with careful records being kept and compared for hundreds of years. Deviations in regular patterns were understood as signaling an omen, a sign from the heavens.

Where the magi of the Christmas story were from is a matter of conjecture. The three leading candidates are Arabia, Babylon, or  Persia. The early Christian church apparently believed the magi were from Persia, or modern day Iraq. Some of the biblical prophecies of a Messiah said that kings would come from Sheba (Arabia) bearing gold. Many today believe that the magi were from Babylon whose astronomers were unmatched in the ancient world; many exiled Jews remained living in Babylon, which lends further credibility to this theory. Interestingly there is no record of ancient beliefs that the magi were from Babylon.

In my book, I keep the mystery of the magi’s origin open. Names were chosen from a variety of eastern cultures. I break with Christmas card tradition by playing with the numbers of the magi. In the Bible, there are three gifts, but the number of magi is never stated.