Saturday, 24 September 2011

Galapagos! And the Long Road to Publishing

It seems that recently I have been involved with books that have taken over fifteen years either to write or to think about writing. The idea for Golden, my novel about a wild horse, began as an idea in about 1994 and then was kept on the back burner until 2009, when I began writing the manuscript, finally completing it over a year later.  My approach with Galapagos was different in that it began with a journal which I kept during my travels to the archipelago in 1996, and I actually began writing the book almost immediately upon returning to the US in March of that year. But here it is 2011 and the book is only now going into print (and ebook) after having gone through the final revisions in the past few months.  Many times during this lengthy pre-publication phase the irony was not lost on me that it was starting to look like it would take me as long to get my simple Galapagos travels book published as it had taken Darwin to finally publish Origins.

(Map by Wendy Newman)

From the time of the end of his five year voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, Darwin took 24 years--until age 50--before getting around to completing On The Origin of Species in 1859. I used to think that that was an extraordinary and even irresponsible amount of time to take to complete a book.  But then I saw the same thing happening to my work-in-progress as the years ticked by.

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
Charles Darwin 3 years after his long voyage; this portrait was painted about the time he conceived of his theory of evolution, at age 30 or 31.

Many books wind up being published posthumously. That was precisely what I was trying to avoid when I chose the path of self publishing this year. Several times in the past I encouraged my book agent to hustle a bit and try to find a publisher for Galapagos. The most recent excuse I heard from her for lack of success was in 2009, when she said that the publishing market was already saturated with Darwin-related works due to that year being the 150th anniversary of the original release of Origins.  She told me,  "Maybe in a few more years when things calm down."  Two more years rushed by. I finally lost all patience this year and published the book myself through CreateSpace, Smashwords, and Kindle Digital Press (KDP).  These options are available to any writer, for free, and make publishing a fast and streamlined process.  You can have your book up and running in a matter of weeks.

Soon after returning  from the Galapagos in 1996 I took my journal notes and laptop and headed out on to the Arizona desert to put the notes into book form. Using a power inverter connected to my rental car battery by alligator clips, I typed for several hours each morning, until it became too bright outside to read the computer monitor.  I would then go hiking for the day and return to writing after the sun went down in the evening. I kept to this routine for seven days, located in a remote part of the Kofa Mountains just southwest of Quartzite.  I had enough food and water with me for a week and did not see another vehicle or person in all that time. The skies remained clear and I was able to sleep outside without a tent. To me these were ideal working conditions and by the end of the week I had completed a first draft of my book. My working title was initially Galapagos Daze. Later on I took a friend's advice and changed that to In Darwin's Footsteps.
My friend convinced me that using the iconic scientist's name in the title would make the book more marketable.

When I returned to my home in Alaska I mailed the manuscript to my agent in New York.  She suggested changes and strongly recommended that I include photographs in the book.  I resisted that idea, since my goal was to break into the writing world and I felt that utilizing photographs would be a distraction for the reader and go counter to what I was trying to accomplish.

Vermillion Flycatcher on Santa Cruz Island

But as the years rolled rapidly by and the book failed to be picked up by any publisher, my resolve softened
until I was adding photographs left and right to liven up the work and make it more saleable (I hoped). During that period my book agent retired so I switched to a new one.  She suggested many text changes and had me really do a hatchet job on the original manuscript.  The book shrank to one third of it's former length and came to include less of me and more of Darwin and a good number of photos, both my own and historic. Thankfully, the historic photos were all readily available for free from Wikimedia Commons. According to US copyright law, any creative work that was published prior to 1923 is in the public domain (such as the Darwin portrait included in this blog).  There are companies out there trying to tell you otherwise and attempting to sell these historic images, but they are basically scamming and their claims to ownership have no legal basis. Wikimedia Commons is a terrific source of images for any writer who requires photographs to add to his or her manuscript.

Marine Iguanas at Punta Espinosa on Fernandina Island

Earlier this year I learned the process involved in self-publishing with my novel about a wild horse (Golden).  After I had that project completed and the book for sale online at Amazon, it seemed that the next sensible thing to do was to take In Darwin's Footsteps off the back burner and feed the work into the same process. I told my agent what I was up to and she said I didn't need her any more and gave me her blessings.  I then had a good friend do one final proof reading of the book (probably the dozenth by now).   He found the usual assortment of typos which I corrected before emailing the finished work to a wonderful fomatter in Malta named Maureen Cutajar. I had her format for both ebook and print versions (they are two very different formats) according to the exacting specifications required by Smashwords and CreateSpace, respectively. She was busy so it took her about ten days to do the work and email the formatted versions back to me.  Within an hour of receiving the formats I had them uploaded to Smashwords and CreateSpace, as well as to Amazon's KDP. After that the process pretty well runs itself, with all sales being taken care of online through either digital downloads of the ebook or print-on-demand paperback copies of the book being handled by Amazon.

Magnificent frigatebird with gular sac mating display on North Seymour Island

I now have one more backlogged manuscript to pull out of storage and feed into this same publishing whirlwind before beginning work on an entirely new book.  The next book I write will not take fifteen years to publish.

Mark Newman 

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Hawaii: Travels In Paradise

Hawaii's enormous attraction for visitors is based on it's fabulous climate and staggering array of beaches.  I, too, was initially lured to the islands by the promise of endless summer and palm trees swaying in the breeze.
In fact one of my earlier visits was supposed to be for two weeks and I wound up staying for a year and a half. My photographic career was just beginning in those days.  For subject matter I concentrated on beaches, sunrises, sunsets, sailboats, and big surf.  But after a while I became restless with the usual fare and gravitated towards the Big Island and, more specifically, to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Kilauea Volcano started erupting in January 1983 and has remained continually active since that time. The eruption is centered on a vent called pu'u O'o.  The amount of lava coming out of the vent varies greatly, even from day to day, with enough lava sometimes being produced so that the molten basalt flows all the way to the ocean, creating a great cloud of steam as the 2000 degree lava meets the cold sea water.  My first photographic visit to Volcanoes National Park was in 1991 when the pu'u O'o eruption was very robust
and red chunks of lava shot up through the air from various openings as the molten stream flowed slowly downhill.  I could feel the heat when these small glowing pieces of molten rock went flying over my head. 

I made trips to photograph the volcano several times over the next decade and saw a dramatic change in the attitude of the Park Service.  At first the rules were very restrictive and fines were issued for wandering too close to the lava. Rope barriers had been erected in places to keep visitors back.  But over the years people insisted on getting close to the action, fines notwithstanding, so the Park Service decided that if you can't beat em, then join em. They started loaning flashlights to visitors and put up a blinking beacon so hikers would not get lost in the dark.  In order to experience the most dramatic views, it was popular to hike out on to the lava field in the late afternoon and remain there until after dark when the red hot rock glowed most impressively. With the aid of the park service flashlights and the flashing beacon you could find your way back to the parking lot, if it wasn't too foggy. Some people stayed on the lava field until dawn.

On that 1991 visit I was very excited to be around lava for the first time.  I got as close as I dared to the flow and set up my tripod.  The ground was so hot that if I stood in one spot for too long, the soles of my shoes began to melt and it was an effort to lift each foot and break it free of the hot ground. The camera lens became too hot to touch and focusing was a problem in those days before I had an autofocus camera.

I personally never stayed out all night near the lava flow.  But I did get out there first thing at dawn on one occasion and came across the scene above as another visitor strolled past the steam cloud at the water's edge where the lava entered the ocean.  By coincidence, on that same morning I got to see an incredibly bright silvery streak move across part of the sky. It was surreal and I had no idea what I was observing. It wasn't until later in the day that I got to hear an explanation on the radio--Hawaii's governor was complaining to NASA that that agency should have warned state officials that part of a space project would be reentering earth's atmosphere directly over the Hawaiian islands, causing the lengthy flash in the sky.  Without any forewarning many residents had panicked upon seeing the prolonged flash across the sky.

Being around fresh molten lava is a seductive experience. It's hard to tear oneself away.  There's a certain primeval power associated with a volcanic eruption.  That's what accounted for my returning to the Big Island again and again over a ten year period. I was drawn to this tropical paradise mainly by the volcano and not by Hawaii's other charms.  But despite the fact that the Kilauea eruption has been continuous for 28 years, each visit is different. The eruption, although ongoing, is always changing in character. It is not always possible to obtain compelling images of the action. The lava may smolder instead of flow.  There is not always a large steam cloud at the interface with the ocean. And red lava in quantity is often lacking from the scene or is hidden below the surface of old, hardened lava.  As it turns out, my best photographs of the Kilauea eruption were taken on that very first 1991 visit.. Despite various later efforts I was never able to improve upon, or even equal, those initial images.

Mark Newman