Where the conversations never stop…

My promotion for A Deconstructed Heart wraps up in a few hours. It has been a fun and eventful week; heavily promoting my book brought me into a round of delightful conversations with readers and fellow authors. Many of my favorite moments were on Twitter: I received a gracious tweet from a sculptor and fellow author in England who thanked me for sharing the book and told me how much she was enjoying it. I had a meaningful exchange with an author about writing about England and deciding, as readers, at what point we give up on a book that has not made a connection with us. I had a lot of fun with the lively ladies at the Thirty Mommy blog, who had chosen A Deconstructed Heart for their book club of the month. It was fun to chat with them in real-time, having cross conversations with multiple people from various cultures. We discussed the role my character Amal plays with regards to being a caretaker for her uncle, Mirza, and how many of us have taken on unexpected family responsibilities in our lives.

I come away from this week with two thoughts: firstly, how art created in isolation ultimately calls for a shared experience, a human connection at the most fundamental level, and is a panacea for the ills of disconnection in modern life. You may not like the art, you may disagree with it, but hopefully, at the very least it has been thought-provoking and engaged you on some level. The only manner in which art can fail is when it has not succeeded in forming a connection with the reader/viewer/beholder.

Secondly, I was struck this week by how the internet, Twitter in particular, reminded me of what I loved about Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: in his book, every child born at midnight at the time of India’s Partition is given two magical gifts, the first is unique to that child: it might be strength, or the ability to become invisible… the second is the ability to connect telepathically with all other children born at that moment in history… to meet in the rooms of each others’ minds and hang out together. Twitter was that room for me this week.

Here’s to many more conversations about the human experience sparked by a book, a painting, a sculpture, a piece of music. We need that connection because we need one another. As Desmond Tutu said: “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.

A Deconstructed Heart is free for the Kindle, 2/27-3/31

A Deconstructed Heart cover

I’m sending my baby out into the wide world again, but this time with a new marketing strategy. The free promotion is over the next five days, which I plan to follow up with a placement as a Hot Title at the World Literary Cafe. On April 10, I go big with an ad at the Frugal EReader. I’m interested to see how this layered marketing approach works.

In the meantime, I’m pleased to see that A Deconstructed Heart has garnered some fantastic reviews from The Kindle Book Review and eBook Review Gal.

Here’s a choice excerpt from the latter’s website, which Susan Barton also kindly placed on my Amazon site:

“Let me start by saying that I loved A Deconstructed Heart! It was a sweetly poetic, easy read. Shaheen Ashraf-Ahmed’s writing style has a soothing, melodic quality that invites readers to be drawn into her stories easily. I was hooked from the beginning and immediately found myself looking forward to what would happen next. I would highly recommend A Deconstructed Heart be put on anyone’s must read list.”

If you get a chance to read A Deconstructed Heart, please add your own reviews. I look forward to hearing from you.

 

The Kindle Book Review: a review of A Deconstructed Heart that brought tears to my eyes…

Every now and then a reviewer totally ‘gets’ it. This is evidenced, not by a five star review or a thumbs up from the cheering section populated by friends and family, but by a deep and thoughtful analysis from an individual who is knowledgeable about the genre in which you write. When you write literary fiction, these reviewers are like pearls and their words validate your stubborn conviction to write what you believe in.

I was honored to get one such thoughtful review by Leila Smith from The Kindle Book Review (Top 1000 Reviewer) on Amazon US and UK and at her blog, www.literaryleila.wordpress.com.

If you have read A Deconstructed Heart and agree with her, please like her review on Amazon. If you haven’t read the book… well, what are you waiting for? I know I could not come up with a better argument to persuade you.

Discoverability for the new author…

English: Ancient Volpaia map

English: Ancient Volpaia map (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I took a webinar the other day about marketing new books and the one takeaway for me was the idea that the tablet will eventually be the most popular medium for reading ebooks. Not the e-reader. I thought that made perfect sense, since so much of what we do these days is on our smart phones/tablets. As much as I love my Kindle, I realized it was time to branch out. I took two of my works out of Kindle Select (after the three-month exclusion period was up) and published them on Smashwords. It’s another new learning experience for me, figuring out how to format for a different publishing platform, but this self-publishing business has definitely sharpened my ability to take the initiative. That is certainly a valuable gift. I hope I am always open to learning something new.

I’m not sure what the move to Smashwords will do for my sales; right now, it feels as if I’ve dropped my books like stones into a lake. However, another great piece of advice I got from a marketing expert was to try something new every day. Publishing on another platform is just another way of realizing my goal to reach more readers: today, I sent a stack of print books of A Deconstructed Heart to a book review party in Connecticut and I reached out to five literary review blogs in the hopes of spreading the word; one reviewer has already replied to say I’m in his queue.

I think in about three years I’ll be a whole lot smarter and have this process down. Stick around with me, and you’ll be able to say that you saw it happen.

For now, you can see The Well-Tended Garden and The Dust Beneath Her Feet at Smashwords:

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/295826

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/296919

The Well-Tended Garden: the story that wrote its own ending

Image

I have taken a hiatus from social media for the past ten days to knuckle down to publishing my next story from The Purana Qila Stories series. I had delayed it for reasons that were not clear to myself until today, when I realized what was missing. I revised my ending and restructured the story, impelled by a logic that I could not even articulate to myself, but which just felt right.

When I wrote the last sentence, there was a sense of relief that comes with a story that has righted itself, like that moment of ease you get riding a bike, when gravity, motion, weight and direction work together to get you where you want to go, and that infernal front wheel stops wobbling. It is undoubtedly odd that the creative process is mystifying even to the writer. It has always made me feel slightly sheepish, as if I cannot fully take credit for my own writing (I have felt this as a child), because it comes from I know not where; this can also be nerve-wracking, because if I don’t understand fully where it came from in the first place, there is always that fear that I will not be able to summon it again. But then, I sit down to write, and the words take over. It is as if my subconscious is merrily conversing with the world, and leaving my conscious being out of it, as if to say “You wouldn’t understand, just stay out of the way.”

I think this is an explanation as to why there have been many times I have not been able to admire the artist, but have loved his/her work, as if the creative self has a whole different personality that speaks to me, when its owner may be a boor. I’m thinking of some early 20th century chauvinistic British poets, in particular, who were cads to their wives and drank themselves into the grave but wrote poetry that could make you weep.

The creative process and the fundamental schism at its heart are eternally glorified by Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: The Creation of Adam. One Being (God) is passing the spark of life/inspiration into the other (Adam), but it is worth noting that their outstretched fingers do not touch. There is a vast, insurmountable distance between Creator and created captured in that small blank space.

What inspires you, and what surprises you about your own writing/art creation? Do you feel in control at all times, or does the creative process lead you? Do you fully live your art, or is it something you nurture in the hidden depths of you, that people who know you rarely glimpse? Do you like who you are when you write? Do you like who you are when you don’t?

“My Mother’s Sari” guest post

I was invited to guest post at Rachelle’s Window and I wrote a piece about my mother, the first storyteller in my life, and how memories of her childhood inspired my writing. When my mother talks about those early days of hardship, she radiates so much happiness, that I always had the impression that there was something magical about those times. I feel the sense of community she had in those days, and the joy that could be found in the small things. These were times of poverty and tragedy in India, both on a national and personal level, but my mother taught me about facing adversity cheerfully. I can’t always emulate her, but I recognize the value of the gift she has given. I also learned how education and survival were inextricably linked in her life, another lesson I have taken to heart and tried to share with my own children.

I hope you will stop by and read “My Mother’s Sari.” When I first started my blog, I wrote about why I had called it “Coins in the Well” (you can find that post in the archives). My mother is a practical kind of person and not given to rhetorical flights of fancy–she would probably giggle with embarrassment if she were reading this–but she is a well of inspiration to me.

A Deconstructed Heart reviewed at Books Are Cool

I’m honored that Stephanie over at Booksarecool.com posted a great review of my book at her blog. Please check it out if you have a moment. Stephanie is an editor, so I was particularly chuffed that she thought A Deconstructed Heart is “a very professional product.” All that tearing my hair out over fixing typos and reformatting did not go unnoticed!

Judging a cover by its book…

 

The Well-Tended Garden Cover

The old adage is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. An author must judge the rightness of a cover by the book they have crafted. It must resonate with the story, have visual appeal in large and thumbnail sizes and carry text with aplomb.

I have written about the trials of coming up with a succinct title for the next story in my Purana Qila Stories series. Finding the right artwork was no bed of roses either… until I found the essence of my story and a title that captured that truth: The Well-Tended Garden.

With that title in mind, there was one image that jumped out at me. The photograph speaks volumes about a beautifully cultivated, but hidden love — in the case of my story, it is a modest, restrained middle-aged love; one that can only be spied through the window of a crumbling facade (the figurative is suggested by the fabulously textured wall of the Qutb Minar in Delhi). My daughter used her incredible graphic designer’s eye to make it work as a book cover.

The Well-Tended Garden will be released before the end of this month, moving forward fourteen years from Safiyah’s journey to Lahore at the time of Partition (The Dust Beneath Her Feet) and a few years after Imran has returned from working as a doctor in England (A Change in the Weather).

Safiyah has returned from Lahore without her husband and made a life as a servant at Purana Qila, while her daughters pursue their education for the chance of a better life. There is a wedding in the house: Imran is finally getting married and Safiyah and her daughters are enlisted in the preparations, unaware that their own lives will be changed irrevocably soon. Safiyah is given a second chance of love with a man who has long admired her in silence, but she is a mother first. What is the best decision for a family that has known suffering and loss? And how will that decision affect Safiyah’s daughters, Henna and Laila, who have also been vulnerable to the unspoken longings of the heart?

The Well-Tended Garden will be released in March 2013.

Whadyacallit? Coming up with a title for your work.

I was having a Twitter chat yesterday with a fellow writer about how difficult we were finding it to think of the right title for our work in progress. It was a serendipitous moment when I saw her Tweet go skittering past in my timeline; it helped me shrug off the lonely frustration of coming up with something pertinent, memorable and pithy (140 characters get eaten up really fast when you are promoting your work on Twitter, and at great cost to your grammatical principles).

I had been struggling with an appropriate title for the next story in The Purana Qila Stories series. The titles of my other two short stories had fallen into my lap, one a variation on a line from a Dylan Thomas poem, A Change in the Weather, the other from a small moment in my story, The Dust Beneath Her Feet.

A good title has to say it all: it has to pique interest for the uninvested person browsing the bookstore, internet or library for his or her next reading options; it has to hit just the right notes for readers of your genre; it has to sum up your book in a way that is not deceptive; it has to marry well with your cover artwork. There is a lot riding on your title — it announces your brand to the world.

I remember watching a documentary about Robert Ludlum, years ago, I must have been about nine or ten and I never forgot this: his male literary agent had been arguing with him, in tears, because he had considered naming his next work with something other than one of his signature three-word book titles. Think of the impact that is had by three well-chosen words: The Bourne Identity. The Matarese Circle. The Icarus Agenda. They speak confidence and clarity. In his 22-title bibliography and a storied career, Robert Ludlum wrote only three books that break the mold.

I was all over the shop with my next story and I finally came to peace when I found some clarity of my own. I had to ask myself, what is the central conflict here? What is at stake and for whom? At the same time, I had a selection of cover artwork, each with an image that I liked, but there was only one that told the story I was trying to tell. It did not matter how hard I was trying to make some of the others work, like Cinderella’s sisters trying to jam their size 12’s in her shoe, they would not fit. Perhaps the other images will inspire stories of their own, but I ready to throw my lot in with my next story title and its accompanying image: The Well-Tended Garden. It is an analogy for the relationship between my central characters, something they have nurtured and cultivated in modesty.

I still have a way to go before it is finished, however. As a writer, I have learned that I am only somewhat in charge: it will be complete, I suspect, when it is done with me, and not the other way around. I’m sure there will be many more dilemmas by then, but I have put my finger on the pulse of my story now and have given it a name. This blog post is the birth announcement, and only just a little premature: The Well-Tended Garden: 4 words and 22 characters. If I smoked, it would be time to break out the cigars. I’ll settle for some Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut.

Keeping it short and sweet

Magnifying Glass

Magnifying Glass (Photo credit: Auntie P)

I’ve been thinking about why the short story form really appeals to me lately, particularly after reading a piece at Salon today about how the form has failed to catch on in this era of digital publishing. It’s a little surprising, given that the short story is a greater respecter of time in what has become a hectic, multi-tasking and distracted world. I suppose the article restores my faith in the attention span of humans: we apparently prefer to read long books on our ereaders, perhaps only in snippets at a time. What is more surprising to me is that a full 41% of readers are actually perusing full-length fiction on their phones. Bravo to the patient and near-sighted reader who can make it through Infinite Jest on a smart phone. Extra points for reading the footnotes that way.

I got to thinking about the full-length novel vs the short story. The full-length novel in print form declares your love of reading unambiguously. I love a doorstep-sized book as much as the next reader: they make a great paper weight, look impressive under your arm, and once in a while they spin a tale that keeps you happily trapped for weeks in the thickets of an intricate story. Vanity Fair. War and Peace. A Suitable Boy. The weightier the tome, the more respect they seem to confer upon the reader, as if your IQ can be measured in page numbers.

But I also love a well-told short story, and I have to believe in the value of this medium, because that is what I write. I started The Purana Qila Stories series, because while a novel must hold your hand between the events of separate plot lines, answering questions faithfully and guiding the reader carefully, a series of interconnected but nonlinear short stories says, “Wake up! Watch where you step! There are floorboards missing.” They challenge you to weave back and forth, to recall what you previously read about a minor character and a small action that may have significant repercussions when magnified by the passing of time or change in geography. They are a reminder that neither reader nor author is omniscient, that there may be a gap in our knowledge of a character, a mystery that is not revealed, and that life goes on in between the stories. They are prose poems, giving us just enough information to capture the essence of a moment, a feeling or a fictional person, without meeting the reader’s every expectation.

The short story is an indulgence, allowing me to dip into some alternative universes, while respecting my time. Some are arresting: Kafka‘s The Metamorphosis, which my elementary school teacher read to my class when we were seven or eight. Some haunting: Jhumpa Lahiri‘s story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies. Or delightful: The Just-So Stories by Kipling.

The written short story is a fairly modern concept, just a blink of an eye in human history. I researched its origins and found a fascinating article in Prospect Magazine by William Boyd about the origins of the short story in print. (Of course, short stories have been passed down in oral traditions since humans first spoke, and illustrated versions have been known to decorate a cave or two.) However, the rise of a literate class with disposable income in the 19th century propelled the rise of magazines and periodicals and drove the demand for short fiction.

Perhaps there is another format that is uniquely suited to the digital age, and perhaps I’m just a 19th century kind of girl. I would to hear about your favorites and what it was about the short story format that made the telling so effective. Do you often wish a good short story was turned into a novel? Or is there a novel that you think would have been better told as a short story?

Lastly, are you glad I went with a respectable title for this post, instead of the first one that came to mind: “We love short shorts”?

Got that awful song in my head now, gah.