If you have ever seen Dan Piraro’s critically acclaimed comic Bizarro (and you have: it is published daily in over 360 papers), you know that he doesn’t see the world like the rest of us do. His single panel gems are a unique concoction of surrealistic imagery, social commentary, and witty plays on words. Indeed, if Salvador Dali, Garry Trudeau and Oscar Wilde had an illegitimate child, that child would be Dan Piraro.
I recently received a very interesting email from Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, who brought to light the US book embargo against Cuba. Cubans earn the equivalent of only about $20 USD per month, whether they’re a doctor or a janitor. They don’t have a lot of money to invest in publishing.
Imagine if we could make our free ebook publishing and distribution services available to their writers? Imagine if Cuban readers could gain greater access to the nearly 400,000 low cost ebooks at Smashwords and other ebook retailers including over 60,000 free ebooks at Smashwords?
The petition will help abolish the embargo and free up our rich literary history to the Cuban people. Outer Banks Publishing Group supports Mark and this worthy cause and I am hoping you will, too. Please help and sign the petition.
Last month, I joined a publishing industry delegation to Cuba to meet with Cuban writers, publishers and government representatives from their ministry of culture and book institute.
The goal of the meetings was to build bridges of understanding and explore opportunities for greater cultural and economic collaboration between the Cuban publishing community and the American publishing community.
I was struck by what I learned.
First, the good news.
Cuban writers and publishers are excited about the warming political relations between Cuba and the United States.
Cuba has an adult literacy rate of nearly 100%, about 20 points higher than the US.
Cuba boasts a rich literary culture.
I visited the Havana Book Fair, which was attended by hundreds of thousands of Cubans. I’d estimate 90% of attendees were millennials. These young readers are smart, educated and optimistic. They want greater access to books. They’re the future of Cuba.
Here’s the bad news
The US embargo against Cuba has been enormously harmful to the Cuban people, and it’s been especially harmful to their book market. Cuban publishers have difficulty acquiring even the basic raw materials of bookmaking like paper and ink.
Because so much of the infrastructure of global book publishing passes through the United States, the embargo makes it difficult for Cuban authors and publishers to reach a broader audience.
Cuban readers don’t have easy access to books published by American authors and publishers.
Cubans earn the equivalent of only about $20 USD per month, whether they’re a doctor or a janitor. They don’t have a lot of money to invest in publishing.
Imagine if we could make our free ebook publishing and distribution services available to their writers? Imagine if Cuban readers could gain greater access to the nearly 400,000 low cost ebooks at Smashwords, including over 60,000 free ebooks? I want to help them today but I can’t because of the embargo.
I founded Smashwords to break down barriers like this. To give every writer the freedom to publish, and every reader the freedom to read what they choose.
According to a Pew poll in 2015, fully 72% of the American public wants the embargo lifted.
The US stands virtually alone in this embargo which has now persisted over 50 years.
I realize the politics around this are heated. I realize many Americans — especially Cuban-Americans who emigrated in the ’60s — have strong feelings about the current political regime in Cuba. I respect these feelings. I want to take the politics out of this and focus on the Cuban people.
Would it be so bad to let the books flow freely in both directions? Might books help heal the wounds on both sides?
President Obama has taken steps over the last year to normalize relations with Cuba and set the stage for the end of the embargo.
But change can’t come soon enough. Given the current political dysfunction in the US, it’s unlikely the US congress will vote to end the embargo even though 59% of Republicans want it ended, according to that same Pew poll above.
The embargo is composed of a spaghetti mess of presidential edicts, Treasury department statutes and Congressional actions.
Despite the political gridlock, President Obama has some latitude to make modifications around the edges. He’s already relaxed travel restrictions and allowed American telecommunications companies to invest in Cuba so they can make Internet access more ubiquitous in Cuba.
President Obama says he wants to do more to expose Cubans to American culture and more global information. Books are the solution!
As we say in the petition, books promote greater cross-cultural understanding, economic development and free expression.
On the eve of President Obama’s March 21-22 trip to Cuba, I’d like to ask your support. Let’s encourage President Obama to lift the embargo against books and educational materials. It would be a good first step.
THREE THINGS YOU CAN DO TODAY TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
Compose friendly Tweets directed at the White House (@WhiteHouse) and President Obama(@BarackObama), urging the Obama administration to end the book embargo. In your Tweets, include the link to the petition. For example, earlier I tweeted this:
End the Cuba book embargo https://petitions.whitehouse. gov//petition/end-book- embargo-against-cuba @WhiteHouse @BarackObama
Books help cross-cultural understanding and economic development. You can retweet it at https://twitter.com/markcoker or feel free to copy and paste it into your own tweet, or compose an original tweet.
Visit the many news stories and blog posts that have been written about our campaign and use their social media buttons to share on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere. Or join the discussions in their comment threads.
The timing today is critical. Next Thursday, March 17, 2016, the Obama administration will announce modifications to the embargo that will likely loosen some restrictions on the embargo. Let’s encourage him to add books to his list!
Thank you for your consideration and support. At the bottom of this email I’ve pasted in the full text of the petition.
On the eve of his historic visit to Cuba March 21-22, we call on President Obama to utilize executive powers to immediately lift the economic embargo against Cuba as it pertains to books and educational materials.
As a basic human right, readers everywhere deserve greater access to books and literature.
Books promote cross-cultural understanding, economic development, free expression and positive social change.
The book embargo runs counter to American ideals of free expression.
Cuba’s adult literacy rate – at nearly 100% – is among the highest in the world.
Cuba boasts a rich literary heritage.
End the embargo to make the works of American and Cuban writers more accessible to readers in each country.
72% of Americans support an end to the trade embargo against Cuba (Pew, 2015).”
Mark also orchestrated another petition which will appear next week on the cover of Publishers Weekly. Unlike the petition above which is for the general public, the other petition was signed by nearly 50 CEOs of publishing companies and writers associations (RWA, Authors Guild and more). You can read about both petitions in the news stories above.
Adult Coloring Books dominated sales in 2015 and will continue…
Video provided by Fox
Nine of the 20 books on Amazon’s current bestseller list contain few words and belong to a genre that didn’t exist two years ago. Welcome to the biggest publishing craze of the year: coloring books for adults, writes Susannah Cahalan in the New York Post.
More than 2,000 have hit stands since 2013 and the genre’s two biggest bestsellers, “Secret Garden” and “Enchanted Forest,” have sold a combined 13.5 million copies in 50 countries, she wrote.
“Adult coloring books are key factors in three of the top four adult nonfiction categories,” according to Kristen McLean, director of new business development for Nielsen Book.
“They make up 14 out of the top 20 for games/hobby/activity, including the top three slots. They are 40 out of the top 50 in art/design. There are even three in the top 20 in self-help,” she was quoted an article in the ABA Winter Institute’s look at 2016 bookselling trends from Publishers Weekly.
So what is the attraction to coloring books? People consider it therapeutic, stress-relieving and calming. Adrienne Raphel in her piece in The New Yorker called the trend, the “Peter Pan Market” as adults turn to coloring to relive the joys of their childhood.
Starre Vartan wrote in Mother Nature Network (MNN) that MNN’s own Robin Shreeves is a fan, “I enjoy them because when I’m doing them, I don’t think about anything but colors. They take me away from life’s problems without a lot of effort. So do many other creative endeavors, but with the coloring book, I can do it for 10 minutes instead of the time it would take me to do some other things. I don’t do it often, but I pick it up from time to time and get lost for a bit,” Shreeves wrote.
“Coloring fulfills a creative urge and is also soothing and calming,” wrote Jan Hornbeck Chapman, an Ohio-based youth librarian in her 60s, according to Vartan.
Vartan also quoted Sophie Hessekiel, a college student at Vassar in Poughkeepsie, New York, echoes Chapman, even though she’s at a completely different stage of life. “Coloring lets you think about nothing for a little while, and the feel of a marker on paper is very soothing,” she wrote.
This tip is my favorite because if you wait for your “muse” your whole life will pass before you.
The Master of Horror – Stephen King
“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think it’s fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid-night oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.” – Stephen King
People are addicted to a lot of different things; Im addicted to writing.
In fact, Im so addicted, that I spent my entire career as a writer and newspaper reporter, and later, an editor.
How addicted was I?
So addicted, that when I retired five years ago, I kept right on writing: stories, essays, memoir, and poetry. Once an addict
Some people keep their addictions down to a reasonable level after all, if you only indulge a few times a week, or once or twice a month, whos going to notice?
But Im not that laid back; I write almost every day. Ive tried all the usual things, even going cold turkey, but no matter what I do, I always go back to my addiction.
I have one major piece of advice for my fellow addicts; give in. Admit youre an addict. As the old saying goes, when they give you lemons, make lemonade. For example, heres a poem I wrote recently about my addiction:
Writers write: Right?
Ive learned some wise words that I heed
On how a writer can succeed.
Work hard; the formula will prove
The way to get you in the groove.
Distractions woo us from all sides;
Excuses roll in like the tides.
For best results, heres what I say:
Do some writing every day.
Sit right down and write a sonnet;
Good or bad, dont dwell upon it.
The lazy man will take a fall,
But enterprise can conquer all.
Or, start a novel, fictions fun,
Your words will flow while writing one.
The true joys in the work itself,
Not just some book upon a shelf.
Its lonely staring at a page
Thats white and empty at first stage,
But think how happy you will feel
When your own words are down for real.
One caution, though, and youll agree;
Life gives you choices; nothings free.
Ideas may sparkle, shine, and gleam,
But work alone, fulfills your dream.
If youve finally surrendered to your addiction, and you plan to use it for positive outcomes, here are a few practical tips about starting:
A quiet place with an uncluttered desk helps the creativity flow.
First, find a quiet place to work; successful writers thrive in solitude, away from the distractions of family, the day job and noise, including music. Silence is a friend to ideas, and their development through writing.
Use the best technology available, making sure that you have a comfortable chair, and plenty of light; sore butts and tired eyes are the enemies of creativity. You can write anything, anywhere and any place, but why set up obstacles for yourself?
Its time to get serious: Topics
All right, you say; so far, so good, but what should you write about? Where do you find your subject?
Write about what you know. If you teach, you know about the satisfactions and disappointments of your profession. Your personal history is filled with people, and events. If you are a sales person, you know all about selling yourself, to sell your product; if youve been looking for a job, write about that.
What youve learned in life can be a source of inspiration for all sorts of fiction, from detective novels to fantasy. If you decide to write poetry, the gamut of emotions and events youve experienced will serve you well.
And dont be put off by comparing your efforts to those of successfully-published writers. Remember, they started from scratch, just like you. They learned how to deal with rejection letters from publishers, and became successful in spite of rejections; in fact, the experience only made them redouble their efforts; it strengthened their determination.
Once youve settled on a topic (Lets say, for example, you decide to write a short story about your five-year-olds first day at kindergarten), Stay on topic!
Many new writers get distracted by side issues. Youre writing about your kid; what happened, what he did, what he felt. Dont start inserting your opinions about the state of education in the United States, or go off on a rant about the relative virtues of home schooling, or go completely nuts, and start writing about a totally unrelated subject.
Dozens of style guides are available, and many of them give conflicting advice. New writers are often confused and discouraged after reading some of them.
Heres my advice, based on decades of experience:
Keep it simple. That means, use short, declarative sentences and the simplest words you can find to adequately describe a scene or situation. Where possible, stick to nouns and verbs; nothing messes up a narrative more than strings of adjectives and adverbs.
The whole point of writing is communication. Whether you are writing fiction, or reporting a news event, the aim is to let the reader know what he needs to know, as economically as possible. If you adhere to this, the story will almost tell itself.
A lot has been written about voice; has the writer found it, does he have a genuine one, what are the nuances of his voice, what is his voice trying to convey? Does it succeed?
Pundits on all things literary, like to freight voice with semi-mystical qualities, and use it to rank writers to make pronouncements about their chances of immortality.
Ill let you in on a little secret; everyone has a voice. Some are pleasant, some not; some, gentle; some sharp. A writers voice is nothing more, or less, than the way he or she puts words on the page; if the voice is clear, youll understand what he or she is saying, and enjoy the way he or she says it.
Its a job
One reason why new writers fail is their misunderstanding of what they are trying to do. If you approach writing as a hobby, something you spare half an hour for when youre not mowing the lawn, or catching a football game on TV, youll fail.
No matter how creative you are, no matter how well you write, always keep one thing in mind; like anything else in life thats worth doing, successful writing takes hard work, and requires commitment.
Set up a routine
Every writer worth his salt has a routine which he follows religiously. It doesnt matter how you arrive at that routine; without it, youll just be wasting your time, and anything you produce will show it.
Carve out a block of time each day when youre most rested and alert. If youve paid attention to me so far, youve already set up a place to work, and have the tools you need ready at hand.
Before I forget: Solitude is the writers best friend; turn off the TV; Shut off the music; have your partner take the kids to the playground; let the robot answer the phone; ignore the doorbell.
When is enough, enough?
Once youve established your routine, you have to decide how many hours to devote to your writing. The maximum time to stay focused on a task varies from individual to individual. Youll have to experiment to discover what that time is for you.
Nothing is more crazy-making than forcing yourself to stay at a job past your ability to perform it well. Thats why airplane pilots, who perform potentially life-endangering jobs, have limits placed on the number of hours theyre allowed to fly.
How will you know when youve reached your limit? When you start to squirm in your chair, when your mind starts to wander, when your neck starts to hurt, its time to stop and do something else.
Go in the kitchen and make some coffee; take the dog for a walk around the block; or, if you need more than a fifteen minute break, shut off the computer and walk away. When you return to your desk later, or even better, the next day, youll be refreshed and ready to go again.
And one more thing: writing is a job that requires work, but work is supposed to be rewarding. Work is not a synonym for torture or drudgery. If you equate writing with those words, then its not for you, but if you find pleasure in telling a story well; if you love words, and their power, than sit right down and start to write.
What are you waiting for?
Marc Leavitt is a retired newspaper reporter and editor. These days, he writes poetry on, Marc Leavitts Blog, at: