Archive for the ‘“Book-Writing Blog”’ Category

[The following post appeared June 1, 2011, on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – From the slumber of their winter hibernation, I’ve pulled our bicycles from the depths of our cartoonishly overstuffed hall closet.

Dad’s self-appointed task: wipe down the dust and cobwebs, pump some life into those tires. Sure, I’ve suffered minor injuries, like a bruised shin, but I get no sympathy from this crowd.

There’s another cost, too. When you go so many months between riding a bicycle, as we did from fall to spring, certain muscles grow dormant. Guess what? They begin to atrophy. At least at my age, they do.

In the wake of that initial sojourn, then, I know I’ll feel a little achiness in the buttocks, knees and calves. So much so, I’ve begun blurting out a new slogan to anyone who’ll listen: I ain’t gettin’ any younger.

Yet, the muscle memory is there, retained. That maiden voyage flips the switch and re-activates the muscles. Soon enough, your confidence soars until even biking with little kids feels oh so natural.

Well, writing is just the same. Neglect certain skills, watch them wither.

I was thinking about this as I sat down to write another article for Harvard’s Nieman Reports. Sorting through hand-written notes, jotted in a notepad, becomes something of a chore. I find myself procrastinating. But of course I must go through these damn notes.


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[Below is the blurb of a book to which I contributed two chapters. The first on the lack of sex education among Bulgarian Roma; the second about early-teen marriage among Kalderash Roma in Romania. This book may be purchased from Amazon.]

Gypsy Sexuality: Romani and Outsider Perspectives on Intimacy

Editor: Jud Nirenberg

Authors: Anne Marie Codur, Carol Miller, Jud Nirenberg, Claude Cahn, Maria Serban-Temisan, Bill Bila, Michael J. Jordan, Fernanda Amaral, Istvan Forgacs et al

Roma (Gypsy) communities are not all the same. Everywhere, however, Roma are the objects of some mixture of distrust and exoticism. This collection of essays offers rare and candid voices of Roma and non-Roma women and men on sexuality, gender and inter-racial relations. The collection explores the myths about the romantic and alluring Gypsies and some of the most controversial realities. From teen marriage to prostitution to some governments’ coercive sterilization of Romani women and with memoirs covering topics from inter-ethnic love affairs to rape, Gypsy Sexuality collects the words of poor Roma in slums alongside the writing of the community’s political and women’s rights leaders.  The reader will never think about Gypsies the same way.

Available now on Kindle. Coming in paperback in April 2011 to Amazon and selected independent booksellers in Europe and the United States.

“One needs to read this attentively…This book shows the reality of Romani life…I believe that more books like this are needed.”

Asmet Elezovski, Secretary General, European Roma and Travelers’ Forum

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[The following post appeared Jan. 20 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – It’s not the daily grind. More like a monthly juggle.

Juggling projects, that is. When I “penned” the first two entries of this soul-baring, me-as-guinea-pig blog last spring (here and here), I was writing about a different book. Which I hold off on publicizing, to spare myself the shame. It’s been shoved to the back-burner, along with other half-baked projects. And ideas for projects.

Instead, teaching in Hong Kong leapt to the front-burner. It meant a golden opportunity to return to mainland China and launch the book project I hatched in Fall 2009, the first time I taught in Hong Kong. Since Slovakia is a long way from China, I knew I couldn’t visit my subjects too often. It made sense to join forces with an HK-based colleague.

So, with the support of my long-suffering wife, I pull cash from our savings and pay for a one-week reporting trip to the mainland, prior to my HK teaching stint. A train trip, two flights, nights in a hotel. Now that’s what we call in the freelance biz an investment. Will there be a return? Damn straight.

But that was just the cash. Then came the time and effort. From the time I returned home to my family in Bratislava, end of October, it took me almost two full months to complete an introduction and sample chapter. For me, a staggering 12,000 words. At 250 per page, that’s about 48 pages.

Had to do it, though. One cardinal rule of journalism, and of life itself: to convince readers, or any audience for that matter, it’s better to show, not tell. I’m only an Aspiring First-Time Author. (A snazzy title I may soon print on my business cards.) I have little to stand on, beyond those thousand-plus newspaper and magazine articles.


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[For introduction of the “Book-Writing Blog,” please see post below.]

BRATISLAVA – Where to start writing my book, but the Foreword. (Which, um, I embarrassingly first typed onto the page as Forward. Get me re-write!)

I dove right in, from the top. Oh, what zeal! My fingers were fluttering. Until I got a few hundred words down. Then, I began “spaghettiing.” Yes, spaghetti as a verb. I first saw the term used by Jon Franklin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction writer, in his how-to guide, “Writing for Story.”

As Franklin wrote, “Writing also involves the processing and integration of large masses of individually trivial bits of data. If you begin your story without knowing precisely where you’re going, any mistakes you make at first, any small omissions, take on added significance as you proceed. As length grows linearly, complexity expands exponentially … A story is not a line of dominoes, it is a web, and tugging on any filament causes the whole thing to vibrate.”

He’s right, of course. After 20 years in journalism, I’d committed a rookie error. It’s something I even exhort my students to do: start with an outline. Early in my career, I myself stubbornly resisted. Then, mysteriously, I’d struggle with the writing. I didn’t appreciate how an outline helps organize your material, especially to organize your thoughts – even my rather disorganized mind.

That said, I do have an outline of how this entire book will look. One thing I learned last year in approaching a few publishers is that they insist on a chapter-by-chapter description. This is too serious an industry to take the word of an “aspiring first-time author” like me: Don’t worry, I have enough for a book.

What I gleaned was this: think the whole thing through first, then show them you’ve thought it all the way through. What I failed to consider last week, though, was the necessity to outline each chapter, too.

Frustrated with my first day, I griped to my wife. She tried to help, thinking the hurdle was the Foreward itself. How to summarize a book until you’ve written it? Why not hold off with it until the end, and start now with Chapter One?

A reasonable suggestion. But I knew better. The Foreward is where my story begins. I always find it easier – and more logical – to start a story from the top. Instead, I needed to outline the Foreward: a skeleton of the beginning, the middle, the end … and how to get from one point to the next.

My fingers were again a-flutter. Now 13 pages in – and counting.

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BRATISLAVA – Last week, I began writing a book. My first book.

Since I’ve diagnosed myself as suffering the “Narcissism of Blog-Love” [see May 27 post], I can’t help but blog about my entire book-writing journey.

OK, it’s more than narcissism. When I teach journalism, I try to de-mystify the process for others, to make it more accessible. This blog may do the same for book-writing, for the millions of folks who day-dream about writing a book of their own. Yet, like me, have no sense for what it really takes.

I don’t have a literary agent. Nor a publisher. But I have a book idea, one I think is pretty good. I pitched it to a few places last year, but no nibbles. So, in this tough book-publishing climate, I put my money where my mouth is: I start writing. A few chapters to begin with, something meatier for potential agents and publishers to sink their teeth into. Most important: my wife’s on board.

I won’t divulge the topic, yet. Let me make a serious dent first. Why? I may be paranoid, but I’m not so naïve to just throw my non-fiction idea out there, assuming it won’t be swiped. Rationally, I know it’d be tough for anyone to replicate my passion for this project, or the energy it’ll require to see it through. But still! Better safe than sorry.

Moreover, for this blog, the idea is secondary to the process itself.

I love those guinea-pig columns, where a writer volunteers to sample, say, various teeth-whiteners or anti-smoking patches, then describes which is most effective, which wastes your money.

Consider me the book-writing guinea pig. In occasional Book-Writing Blog (or “the BWB“) posts, I’ll document the good, the bad, the ugly. Or, as ABC Sports once rhapsodized, “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.”

Learn from my mistakes! Learn from my successes!

Finally, I admit this blog was inspired by the film “Julie & Julia,” the true story of a woman who plows through 500 Julie Child recipes, then blogs about each experience. The blog was discovered, her tale turned into a Hollywood film.

Will I be discovered? Stay tuned. But if so, I see Ben Stiller as the romantic lead.

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BRATISLAVA — Rather than settle back into my exact routine from the old days, pre-Hong Kong, I’m creating a new one: as a more involved parent.

About two months into my HK stint, my long-suffering wife – who was still working full-time and raising three kids, alone – told me: “When you come home, things will have to change.” Bum-ba-dum-bum-BUM! “You’ll have to take 10 hours that you usually give yourself for work, and give that to the kids – especially, to take over weekly chauffeuring duties.

She was right, of course. Work is one thing, but parenting is another. In the process, I’ve re-learned one less of child-rearing: you get out of it, what you put into it. The daily aggravation of this or that is then outweighed by the greater affection you receive.

So, no complaint on that front. On the other hand, I’ve struggled to regain my productivity. I think the kinks will straighten out, with my new routine humming, within a month or so. At least I cranked out another piece for Nieman Reports, thanks to the editor’s deadline this week.

While plowing through the Hong Kong edits, I also prepare for my Monday flight to Bucharest. In Romania, my Romani reporting partner, Petru, and I will chase two or three stories. It’ll depend on how effectively we gather material from three cities: Bucharest, Targu Jiu and (picturesque) Sibiu.

While I look forward to a return to Romania and another Balkan adventure, I’m torn about leaving the family again, even for just a week. When I did the same in Prague last month, my younger son said, “Aw, you’re leaving again?” Besides, winter in Romania sounds even grayer than winter here.

After that, though, it’s back to the kids and that book project.

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