Monday, December 28, 2009

Divine Misdemeanors

Over my long Christmas weekend I read two books just for fun. Not because I know the authors, am planning to review them for anything, or think I might learn something. Not because they are market research, are in a genre I've ever written in, or were chosen by one of my book clubs.

I did not write. I did not blog. I did not use my cell phone or pull my laptop out of its satchel. I hung out with my family, played Nintendo, went to see a movie, and read.

Both novels I completed were the latest in long-running fantasy series. Besides that similarity, the two books differed greatly.

And I found myself thinking: at which stage in an author's career does the editor stop editing? Is it deadline pressure - the market demand for a book every six or twelve months pushing novels to the printer before they've had the appropriate amount of development? Or is it authorial pressure - I've become way too important for you to touch my beautiful prose? Or is it something else entirely?

I've always enjoyed Laurell K. Hamilton's story telling. She creates fantastic worlds and then teases me with just enough of a glimpse that I want more more more. But I frequently want more of some bits and less of others. The stories themselves are fabulous and compelling fantasies. But the writing does get in the way sometimes.

Early on in the Anita Blake series, the reader was subjected to lengthy examinations of the need to match the swoosh on one's black Nikes to one's t-shirts. And in one novel every single character used the phrase "ass deep in alligators" so frequently I thought it might make a dangerous drinking game.

But the books move quickly and the first person point of view - even though the narrator frequently frustrates me - puts me front and center in scenes that feel all too real. I just wish the characters would stop bickering so much. Some dialogue can remain internal. And quite a lot of internal dialog can be excised altogether without losing substance or voice. (Yes, I get the need for the characters to argue. But how often in real life do people really ask the police to step aside and put their investigations on hold so witnesses can have lengthy discussions about their personal lives, feelings, and relationships?)

So. The new Merry book. There's some of the writing style stuff that always takes me out of the story - the constant bickering, overly sensitive characters, and too-frequent pauses in the plot for exposition.

But there's also a compelling mystery and intriguing developments in the over-arching series plot. I finished the book feeling like I was just getting started. I wanted the rest of the story, the one that was picking up steam as the novel ended. So of course I'll buy the next book, and the author's strategy works very well.

I just wish there'd been less "telling" throughout, especially in dialogue - both internal and external. (This particular narrator tends to talk directly to the reader and over-explain her world to us.)

But additional editing could have smoothed over some of the rougher bits and reduced quite a bit of the repetition. (You've already explained that "thank you" is a deadly insult to the fey twice in this novel. I think readers get it without a third full explanation.)

In the end, I buy the books. In hardcover. And I'm only one of many who does so. So what the author's doing is working; each of her novels is an instant New York Times Bestseller. But in the interest of making the best book possible, it would be nice if there was a little more editorial oversight. (I'd like to point out here that Hamilton is FAR from the only successful author whose down-series titles seem to suffer from a lack of editorial guidance.)

For instance, did I really have to learn that the main character would like to go wash her face and brush her teeth, planned to go wash her face and brush her teeth, did go wash her face and brush her teeth, and HOW she washed her face and brushed her teeth four times in less than a page? Perhaps not. (Sadly, this is a real example.) Perhaps that could have been cut altogether and the author could have given me a little more information about the new faery sithen in Los Angeles.

Or perhaps it's a sign of a good story-teller that I - a mere reader and fan - am so engrossed in the story that I want to control its direction.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

On First Drafts

I've written four novels in the last three years. Wow, that sounds cool when I add it all up. Especially when I stop to think that I'm getting better and faster at writing fiction all the time.

But I didn't set out to write four "practice" novels before I started polishing even one for submission to agents.

It makes sense, that I'd have to practice, learn, improve before being ready to create something worth publishing.

But I can't think about that and still write.

When I put everything on hold one November to draft my first novel, I refused to let myself edit or revise. I set aside all my fears and my internal editor. I told myself - as I typed furiously - that my prose sang. I told myself that I was writing The Great American Novel. I told myself that it would sell immediately after I finished it, before the end of the year, certainly. I told myself I'd be on Oprah and The Today Show and I'd make buckets of money faster than I could spend them.

That's what I had to do in order to get the story down.

Later there was plenty of time for doubt. Too much time, probably. I grew afraid to go back and reread. What if it's really really bad? And, of course, some of it is. But some of it is not!

Every step of the way, I have doubts. Is this the right direction for this story to take? Have I chosen the right perspective, style, character to tell the story? Would anybody want to actually read this? I know what's going to happen next; is it obvious to everyone? Does this suck?

One of my critique partners has a very different writing style from mine, and a different taste in reading materials to go along with it.

Earlier this week she told me, "I really like your story, your plot, your characters. I just think you need to work on your prose." She can't stand my pacing, my descriptions, my sentence length patterns, my sentence structures.

Maybe she's right, or maybe we just have different tastes. Either way, it's a bit disheartening to hear that your story and characters are good, if only you could just write.

Best not to think about that during a first draft. During the first draft, every time your fingers hit the keyboard, magic happens. Genius is transcribed. Something is created from nothing.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Mario Brothers Are Back


Sure, I've said that I don't sleep. I've said I'm busy. But I've also suggested that all work and no play makes Sarahlynn a sad, dull girl. So I play, too!

When dinner's in the oven and the girls spontaneously go downstairs to play for a few minutes, I break out the Wiimotes. When the girls go to bed on time and I want to goof around before picking up my freelance project, I break out the wiimotes.

Paul and I are playing the new Super Mario Brothers for Wii. We got it on vacation over Thanksgiving and our first experiences were with four person cooperative play with Paul's sister and her husband. Chaos! Impossible! Also, hilarious. My throat began to hurt from laughing so hard.

Since we've been home, Paul and I are questing together. This is both good and bad. In the hard stretches, it's really nice to be able to rely on someone else. If your character dies, your partner can pop your little safety bubble and bring you back into active play. And when you feel like you can't stand to fight through a stupid dungeon one more time, maybe your partner will stomp the monster and complete it for you.

On the other hand, I tend to play worse in cooperative play because I know I'm not fully responsible.  And with the way the game's set up, your partner tends to kill you a lot.  Inadvertantly, of course.  But say I'm jumping up through a series of sliding ledges.  If I stop or slow, I'll fall off.  But if my partner isn't keeping up and he falls off the bottom of the screen as it scrolls upwards with me?  He dies.

Paul (aka Luigi) also tends to jump on my head and shove me off cliffs a lot.  This problem happens much less frequently now that we've acknowledged that he simply must lead.  I don't mind following a lot of the time.  And here we are back at my review for The Surrendered Wife!

Seriously, I think it's great for couples to play together, whether it's tennis or board games or Nintendo.   And home-based games are fabulous once schedules are tied to wee ones.  (That was a tiny wiittle pun.)  Maybe this is WHY my freelance project is dragging on so long and WHY it takes me forever to finish editing a completed novel.

Or maybe it's what keeps me sane so that I can continue working.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Is it the weekend?

No, I'm not complaining about a long Monday. Quite the opposite. I feel like it must be the weekend soon. I have that fabulous Thursday night feeling.

Thursday nights are great because there's only one work day between you and the promise of unstructured, fabulous weekend. (By Friday night I'm sometimes too exhausted to experience the excitement fully. And let's not face the fact that weekends are simply not as unstructured and carefree in reality as each looms in my fantasies.)

But back to tonight and my Thursday night/weekend feeling. Yesterday I was exhausted and depleted. I'm no more caught up on sleep tonight, and I'm still tired but I'm rejuvenated. What's the difference?

Book club.

I had dinner one-on-one with a fabulous friend tonight. Then we walked next door to my favorite coffee shop for our book club. A group of wonderful women sitting on couches, talking about a book, sipping hot drinks.

I hadn't even read this particular book (though I will!). It didn't matter. I feel . . . better.

Last week I found myself in an unpleasant conversation with a woman who Does Too Much. We all know this woman, I believe, or perhaps we know her brother. This woman feels guilty if she sits down to watch TV with her husband in the evening because she's not doing something productive. She does a lot of good and useful things in her community. But she's also frazzled, burned out, resentful, and negative.

A few of us were trying to explain the importance of taking care of oneself, saying "yes" to volunteer gigs that rejuvenate but setting down burdens that we're tired of carrying.

"Your group of younger moms is better at that, which is why so much falls on the rest of us," she replied.

Yowch. In this case, her criticism was poorly aimed. (She was talking to a group of very active and involved volunteers.) And I know that her problem is internal rather than external: being unable to say no, taking on too much, carrying others' burdens needlessly at times, and not taking time to replenish her reservoirs.

So tonight I'd like to thank my loving husband for encouraging me to do the things that make me feel whole, and thank my friends who help me relax, refill, restore. I am grateful, and I am well.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Surrendered Wife by Laura Doyle


This month for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club, I'm discussing The Surrendered Wife by Laura Doyle.  When I decided to tackle this project, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

It happened so simply.  I was clicking around on the web and stumbled upon a link to the author's website.  "I remember when that book came out," I thought.  "It sounded absolutely crazy and got tons of negative attention. I wonder what ever happened with all that."  Feeling in the mood to gawk, I clicked over.

The first thing I noticed was that the author considers herself a feminist and says the approach is about surrendering inappropriate control over one's husband (and others) rather than returning to the 50's or rebelling against feminism. Huh. That didn't sound so bad.  But why didn't she just say that, then?  The title of the book must really be misleading.  ("I adopted the world 'surrender' as my mantra, because it was shorter and more to the point than saying, 'stop trying to control everything.'" P. 19.)

I decided to read the book and review it.  I went into it with an open mind, reassured by what I'd discovered online.  What I discovered within the pages of the book was that the negative reviews I'd read were justified, the charges I'd discounted were true, and the approach really is about surrendering to your husband.

But also.  There's a TON of great stuff in here.  I've never read a book that gets so much wrong and so much right at the same time.  In the same chapter.  On the same page.  I'll be reading along, thinking, "Yes, right, good point, that's a good reminder, I really could be doing better at that."  Then, all of a sudden, KAPOW!  Did she really just say that?  Oh, yes, she did!  And since the book is extremely repetitive, there's no chance of quickly skimming over or pretending that you just misread the crazy extreme to which Doyle takes her advice.

 So I'm reading along, reading about the principles of a surrendered wife:
  • Relinquishes inappropriate control of her husband
  • Respects her husband's thinking
  • Receives his gifts graciously and expresses gratitude for him
  • Expresses what she wants without trying to control him
  • Relies on him to handle household finances
  • Focuses on her own self-care and fulfillment.
Right, good, OK, yeah, uh-huh, wait. Back up a minute.  Yes, the husband must ALWAYS control the money.  Completely.  The wife should not participate in household budgeting, check bank statements, determine how her bonus check will be spent, carry a credit card, etc.  She should tell her husband what she wants to pay for groceries, gas, going out with girlfriends, massages, etc.  He gives her what he decides is appropriate in cash.  Repeat process monthly.  He manages the accounts and pays the bills, even if they are a two-income family.  Finances are never discussed.  She just expresses her wants and he gives her the money or he doesn't.

Now, Paul and I have managed our finances various ways with various degrees of success.  (Separate post on this later.)  For us, by far the healthiest method - meaning that it works the best and makes BOTH of us happiest - is when we have a financial plan that we create and maintain together.  Not so, says Doyle.  We're sacrificing intimacy (?!) and missing out on the best part of surrendering by my participation in household finances.  As long as a husband is not physically abusive (if he's emotionally abusive he will stop once his wife starts "surrendering") or struggling with an active addiction, he must handle all the money.

In Doyle's case, she was a competent professional woman who managed the family finances with financial planning software.  Her husband, on the other hand, doesn't plan ahead for how each paycheck will be spent.  He pays bills as they come due . . . most of the time.  (Once their electricity was shut off because he didn't get around to paying the bill for a while.)  He snapped at her when she commented about retirement.  Later, he admitted that he snapped because he was feeling guilty that he hadn't contributed anything to their retirement account "in a long time."  Doyle explains that this is a very good thing!  He opened up to her and shared his vulnerability!  Yay!  Surely that's worth more than, say, a plan for financial security.  I was never able to determine why she was certain that a couple can't have both, just because it didn't work for her.

Back to the benefits of surrendering financially.  One is perpetual dating.  A wife expresses her "wants" and allows her husband to please her by addressing her desires as he sees fit.  This allows for them to go out for dinner or take vacations without her worrying about whether or not they can afford it.  It also allows her to be pampered and taken care of.

There's a lot about that in the book, all the gracious receiving of sweet, beautiful, luxurious things.  A wife NEVER offers advice (or her own opinion about anything to do with him, his job, his decision to move the family, his buying a new car, etc.) even if asked.  She never asks how her husband is feeling.  She is given an allowance.  She is taken care of and given gifts.  She focuses on her own needs and fullfillment.  Any problem or issue she doesn't want to deal with herself she turns over to him.  In many but not all ways she sounds like . . . a child.  This impression was driven home for me in one of the sample exercises at the end of the book.  The wife should write a list of things she is grateful for about her husband and give it to him as a gift (great idea!).  She should write one item from her list on each page of a small notebook and then decorate the pages with crayons.  I'm sure Daddy will appreciate that thoughtful touch!  (For a more adult version, I've hidden notes with things I appreciate about my husband in his computer bag or suitcase. He appreciates and enjoys this, especially when I include chocolate.)  


This review is already too long and still barely scratches the surface.  (For example, Doyle acknowledges that husbands frequently will not be excited by taking over all these responsibilities, and she offers strategies to ignore his objections.)  I will say that I've gotten a lot out of the book and am using some of what I've learned, to good effect.  But not all of it. 

Yes, it's important to relax in the car and stop gasping, suggesting alternate routes, and slamming your foot down on the imaginary right-side brake all the time.  But not mentioning it when you know your husband has gotten on the interstate headed the wrong direction even if he doesn't notice his mistake until you've gone a hundred miles out of your way?  That's not just crazy, it's disrespectful, like NOT pointing out the spinach in a good friend's teeth and letting her walk around like that all night.

In addition to an incredible amount of repitition and some seriously wacky advice, Doyle also does a ton of generalization.  Men are like X, Women are like Y, for true intimacy to develop relationships need a huge difference between X and Y, if you do this then he WILL do that, etc.  This type of lazy pseudo-psychology drives me batty, but apparently it sells books.  It also makes people who don't fit these so-called norms feel like something's wrong with them.

Doyle's husband apparently hates to talk about his feelings.  So, according to her, ALL men hate to talk about how they're feeling and we should never ask how they're feeling since we're not their mothers or their therapists.  Of course some men don't like to talk about their feelings.  Some women don't either.  And probably most people dislike being grilled and interrogated the way she reports talking to her husband before "surrendering" to him.  And of course it is possible to ask someone how they're feeling in a caring and nonjudgmental way that doesn't make you seem like their mother or their therapist.  The problem isn't with the topic, it's with the approach and underlying intent.

In conclusion (finally!) I found this book a good read.  I'm glad I read it.  I plan to keep referring to it.  But all the wacky and offensive things in it made the good things harder to trust and accept.  Perhaps in revision Doyle could write a mainstream version that leaves out some of her more extreme ideas about how in order for a marriage to succeed, one must lead ALL the time and the other must follow in EVERYTHING.  Or maybe someone else should write that book.



Click icon for more
book review blogs
@Barrie Summy

Monday, November 30, 2009

The NaNoWriMo Song

Here's a link to The NaNoWriMo Song video on YouTube.


Woo hoo!


Special congrats to my husband and youngest sister, both of whom also won NaNoWriMo . . . and beat me to the finish line!

Friday, November 13, 2009

New Adult Fiction

St. Martin's Press is holding a contest for submissions in New Adult Fiction. I am very excited by this. Especially because BLUE SCREEN OF DEATH fits the demographic nicely!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Glossary

Have you ever wondered what all those publishing-specific terms mean? You know the ones - otherwise familiar words used by your editor or agent in a context that doesn't seem to make sense in regular English?

Here's the key!

As a taste, here are the first and last entries:

ADVANCE: A secret code signaling to the marketing department whether or not to promote a title.

WRONG FONT: Comic Sans.

Now you're in the know.

(Full disclosure. I fixed a typo in one of the above definitions. I couldn't help it!)

Monday, November 9, 2009

What's Sexy?

What's sexy? Sharing NaNoWriMo with a writing spouse. Taking a break to watch our favorite TV show. Writing some more.

What's not sexy? Snotty noses. Toenails long and sharp enough to draw blood.

But I still love you, honey. From a slight distance, but I still love you.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

An Apple Pie for Dinner

This month, for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club, I'm writing about An Apple Pie for Dinner retold by Susan Vanhecke and illustrated by Carol Baicker-McKee.

This is my first "sponsored" review, by which I mean that the publisher sent me a copy of the book to review. At first I was excited! Then I was worried. What if I didn't like the book? Worse, what if my kids didn't like it?

They're sort of "off" new things, lately. And they each definitely have favorite books they like to read. Over. And over. And over. We have three bookcases, each with 3-4 shelves, stuffed full of children's picture books and board books. Additional children's books are stashed on bedside tables, busy bags in the car, and beside nearly every chair in the house. (Adult books are largely confined to the floor-to-ceiling bookcases in the basement and one small bookcase in Paul's and my bedroom.) We are readers. But we are very opinionated readers.

So I introduced An Apple Pie for Dinner with some trepidation.

Our first time through the new book, Ada (age 2-1/2) and Ellie (age 6) listened quietly then requested Where the Wild Things Are.

The second day, I included An Apple Pie for Dinner in my stack of suggested books for naptime (Ada) and bedtime (Ellie). They both picked it first. And we've read it at least once a day all week.

This is a rousing endorsement, indeed! But what do they actually like about the book? Is it the illustrations? The story itself? The idea of the quest? I asked Ellie, who walked away shaking her head.

I asked Ada, who also looked at me like I was crazy. "Apple pie. For dinner."

Oh, that.

So let me tell you why I like the book, instead.

The illustrations caught me first. "This is a fabulous graphics program," I thought. "I had no idea you could make this sort of thing with computers. I wonder how it's done. It looks so real! But no way did the illustrator create textured diorama/mural art pieces for every single page." Oh, but she did. From the endpages:

Carol Baiker-McKee created three-dimensional, mixed-media bas-reliefs to illustrate this book. Carol explains: "Mixed media is just a fancy way of saying that I created the artwork from lots of things, including fabric scraps sewn into clothing, embroidery, baked polymer clay, pipe cleaners, pieces of wood, and interesting things rescued from the trash and bought at rummage sales."


The art makes the book worthwhile, all by itself.

But the story is great, too. It's based on an old English folktale (The Apple Dumpling) which might be why the plot seemed slightly familiar to me. But I'd never heard the story told quite this way.

Granny Smith wanted to make apple pie, and she had everything she needed, except apples. She did, however, have plums. So she packed a basket full of plums and set off to find someone who wanted plums and had apples. Instead, she found a woman who wanted plums but had feathers. And so it went until Granny finally found a man with an apple orchard who just happened to need what she had in her basket at the time.

I don't want to spoil the ending, but the story winds up with every character in the story eating apple pie for dinner at old Granny Smith's house.

Click on over to the author's website to see some of the artwork and decide if a journey through the book isn't worthwhile, even knowing that there's a Happily Ever After ending.

I'm still having fun after twice daily readings for a week. Our current challenge is to find all the hidden ladybugs. Because a good children's book entertains the reader as well as the listener and this one does that.





Click icon for more
book review blogs
@Barrie Summy

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Balls in the Air

I'm a deadline person. As a due date approaches it draws my full attention like a beacon and I focus until I've met my goal. This process has worked well for me for 35 years, but I'm currently finding myself with quite a lot of beacons causing light pollution in my brain.

First and foremost, I'm a mother, now. And not just a mother, but a mother of children who have activities and responsibilities. School, classes, meetings, conferences, therapies, sports, commitments, stuff, junk, and above all, PAPERWORK. Keeping on top of all that could easily be a full-time job.

But it's not because there's no time for it to be!

There's the need to exercise. And eat right. I find focusing on those two activities much easier when I can let other things go. Like housework, which I can't let slide too far because it seems I'm having people over a lot lately. So there's hosting/event organizing for the list, too.

And editing my work in progress. And freelancing to pay the bills. And, oh, look at the date! November is National Novel Writing Month and I'm nearly 2000 words into my new novel.

Plus we have this influenza A/H1N1/swine flu joy, which hobbles us all. (Ellie's the one who's sickest at this point, but she's on Tamiflu and she's doing OK. I'm trying to embrace the required quarantine and see it as an excuse to loosen the schedule a bit.)

Despite all the more immediate activities, I can't forget that Christmas is coming and homemade gifts don't make themselves the week of December 20th.

So forget fun things like reading novels and watching television and playing Nintendo. Perhaps I'll work them back into the rotation in January!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

It's Hallopalooza!

Welcome to Hallopalooza, the fabulous Halloween scavenger hunt from The Stiletto Gang!

The clues will be posted early Friday morning, so pop over to The Stiletto Gang for the first clue and find your way to my not-so-secret personal blog along the way.

Join the Hunt!
Follow the Clues!
Solve the Mystery!
Win Great Prizes!

Rushing

I need to take back my autumns! Why is my favorite season also my busiest?

Of particular panic-worthiness right now is my freelance project schedule.

That is the REASON, though not the EXCUSE for why I haven't been doing much blogging lately.

And NaNoWriMo starts on Sunday!

It makes no sense for me to compete again this year, but I'm doing it anyway.

To heck with responsibilities and paychecks!

Well, maybe I should say: to mild delays for responsibilities and paychecks! instead.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

SinC Into Great Writing

I'm off! Early in the morning I'm heading for Indianapolis for a writing workshop:

SinC into Great Writing!

This event is FULL
Sisters in Crime is pleased to present "SinC Into Great Writing!" on Wednesday, October 14, 2009, at the Hyatt Regency Indianapolis, featuring New York literary agent Donald Maass and dinner keynote speaker Nancy Pickard along with seminars by Hallie Ephron and Chris Roerden. The program runs from 1:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Presenters: New York literary agent Donald Maass is the author of Writing the Breakout Novel, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, and The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great.

Hallie Ephron is an author, writing teacher, and award-winning Boston Globe book reviewer. Her latest psychological suspense novel, Never Tell a Lie, received a starred review in PW and was an Indie NEXT pick for 1/09. She is also the author of Edgar-nominated Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'Em Dead with Style.

Nancy Pickard, four-time Edgar Nominee and winner of Agatha, Anthony, Shamus, and Macavity awards, is the author of 17 novels and dozens of short stories. She is a founding member and former national president of Sisters In Crime.

Chris Roerden is the Agatha-winning, Macavity- and Anthony-nominated author of Don't Murder Your Mystery and its all-genre version, Don't Sabotage Your Submission. She edits authors published by St. Martin's, Berkley Prime Crime, Midnight Ink, and more.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Loomy

Operation Homemade Gifts is off to a mixed start.

I began simply, with knit hats for a newborn and a one-year-old, both boys. There's some concern that one of the hats isn't "butch" enough for its recipient. (Not my judgment. I picked the yarn thinking it was fine.) Thoughts?



Many thanks to my pumpkin models. I will soon show my appreciation by making you into tasty bread.

Gift number three, well, wasn't quite as homemade as the others. But someday I'll be giving homemade books!



Currently in progress: a tiny teddy bear. Hopefully it will turn out slightly less creepy than my last attempt:

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Medieval Helpdesk

In lieu of a review for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club this month, I have instead a video that made me laugh:

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hardball

After quite a while of talking about everything else but: a writing update.

Current project status. I have a few short stories I want to polish, refine, edit, and get out on submission. But I feel like I can't stop work on the novel. I'm still editing and the pace is GLACIAL. I crave momentum.

A few days ago I sat down in a cafe with no wifi and no distractions. I edited furiously for two hours. No pauses, no daydreaming, just caffeine and editing. I was pleased with my work when I was done. But I only got through 3000 words, ten pages. Ten pages! I should have been able to write that much from scratch in two hours! And that was a good work day!

So: glacial. And I'm losing faith in the novel itself. It's a mystery. But it doesn't follow all the necessary/conventional tropes. I modeled it on a classic Christie novel, by which I mean that the whodunit is similar, though the how, why, what, and where are very different. I also borrowed Christie's pacing and cast size.

But Christie didn't always have a body in the first chapter. Nor does my novel. And I keep hearing how you can't sell a genre mystery like that anymore.

There's a barrage of suggestions for mystery writers: more dialogue! More action! More physical danger! Be economical with your description and character development!

And it's just . . . not what I write. I like read books like this, certainly, and it's a wonderful stretch for me to try to work in this genre, but . . . it's not what comes naturally to me.

I just finished reading Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union and I thought: YES!!! Not for the mystery side of it, because, for me, the mystery was way secondary to the conceit, the style, the writing.

The conceit, the style the writing!

I thought you weren't supposed to be able to do it like that! I thought that you just can't sell books like that right now. THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION breaks all the rules!

But it's really really good.

And therein lies the rub. I am no Chabon. I'm just a girl who wants to be a writer and is still learning and practicing and working and hoping and dreaming and trying to figure out the next step.

Speaking of which, tonight I went to see Sara Paretsky at a Left Bank Books sponsored reading at The Ethical Society. She was fabulous, of course. Having seen Paretsky in person, I love her even more than I do on the page.

And she's yet another brilliant writer who talks about how hard it is. How she gets distracted by any little thing, how she treats herself with chocolate or motivates herself with chocolate if she hasn't earned a treat. She's fabulous. And motivating.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Go Ask Alice by Anonymous


This month, for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club, I'm writing about Go Ask Alice by "Anonymous."

September 26−October 3, 2009 is the American Library Association's Banned Books Week. I'm not a big fan of public book banning, so I decided to choose a banned book and review it this week.

I read Go Ask Alice only once, way back when I was in Junior High. Since then, I don't think I've ever really talked about it with anybody but I still think about this novel frequently.






Amazon Product Description:

It started when she was served a soft drink laced with LSD in a dangerous party game. Within months, she was hooked, trapped in a downward spiral that took her from her comfortable home and loving family to the mean streets of an unforgiving city. It was a journey that would rob her of her innocence, her youth -- and ultimately her life.

Read her diary.

Enter her world.

You will never forget her.

For thirty-five years, the acclaimed, bestselling first-person account of a teenage girl's harrowing decent into the nightmarish world of drugs has left an indelible mark on generations of teen readers. As powerful -- and as timely -- today as ever, Go Ask Alice remains the definitive book on the horrors of addiction.


Look, I know it turns out the book was written by an adult anti-drug activist rather than an actual teenage girl (but who really thought this was a memoir?!) and perhaps some of the message is a bit heavy handed. But I didn't notice that when I read the book as a kid.

I have never tried drugs. Most people I know have done a little (or a lot) of experimenting. And many, though not all, of them enjoyed themselves and survived unscathed. But I haven't ever experimented, and I credit much of that to my reading this book at just the right time in my life. What if what if what if . . . everything goes wrong?

There's so little we can control in this life, I feel like I need to measure every significant risk. What can I gain? What can I lose? Maybe I'd have a really great time stoned out of my mind. But my mind isn't such a terrible place to be. And maybe I'd end up like Alice.

How ironic that parents refuse to let their teens read this book because it's so graphic. That's the point! It wouldn't be very scary or convincing if it depicted drugs as a relatively harmless diversion, or, worse, didn't mention drugs at all.

There are monsters under the bed, and while we need to protect our children's innocence when they're very young, we also need to prepare our children for the world in which they live.

*

With materials accused of being pornography censors have to decide if the content is intended primarily to titillate or if it serves a larger artistic aesthetic. So too it is with these books, each of which depicts something unpleasant. Should we only publish books about pleasant topics where nothing ugly happens? Fie. What greater sin than white-washing the past? We can't and shouldn't try to revise history. Nor should we attempt to make all the world's tumors into lumps of peanut butter chocolate chip cookie dough.

The ugliness in these novels is informative, educational, and artistic. It is not intended to shock and titillate as much as to illustrate and illuminate. Revealing warts-and-all is how these books teach.

A few recently banned books that struck me:

Anonymous. GO ASK ALICE. Avon; Prentice-Hall. Challenged as a reading assignment at Hanahan Middle School in Berkeley County, S.C. (2008) because of blatant, explicit language using street terms for sex, talk of worms eating body parts, and blasphemy. The anonymously written 1971 book is about a fifteen-year-old girl who gets caught up in a life of drugs and sex before dying from an overdose. Its explicit references to drugs and sex have been controversial since it was first published. Source: May 2008, pp. 98-99.

Hosseini, Khaled. THE KITE RUNNER. Bloomsbury. Challenged as appropriate study in tenth-grade honors English class at Freedom High School in Morganton, N.C. (2008) because the novel depicts a sodomy rape in graphic detail and uses vulgar language. Source: May 2008, pp. 97-98.

Lee, Harper. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Lippincott/Harper; Popular Library. Retained in the English curriculum by the Cherry Hill, N.J. Board of Education (2007). A resident had objected to the novel's depiction of how blacks are treated by members of a racist white community in an Alabama town during the Depression. The resident feared the book would upset black children reading it. Source: Mar. 2008, p. 80; May 2008, pp. 117-18.

Twain, Mark [Samuel L. Clemens]. THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN. Bantam; Bobbs-Merrill; Grosset; Harper; Holt; Houghton; Longman; Macmillan; NAL; Norton; Penguin; Pocket Bks. Challenged, but retained in the Lakeville, Minn. High School (2007) and St. Louis Park High School in Minneapolis, Minn. (2007) as required reading for sophomores. The district will conduct staff training about race issues and revise the way it weighs requests for curriculum changes. The district will also let its staff offer alternative assignments on racially sensitive issues in ways which “students do not feel ostracized because they have opted out of the assignment." Challenged at Richland High School in North Richland Hills, Tex. (2007) because of racial epithets. Challenged at the Manchester, Conn. High School (2007) "because the 'N' word is used in the book 212 times." Source: May 2007, p. 99; July 2007.



Click icon for more
book review blogs
@Barrie Summy

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Easily Distracted

Have you ever had one of those nights when you intend to get things done - like perhaps jotting down a short essay explaining your child-rearing philosophy - but instead you spend an hour researching the various options for solid and liquid rocket fuel? Fascinating stuff. Drew me right in. Have a few chemistry questions for my sister-in-law next time we're together.

NASA scrubbed tonight's launch attempt because of a faulty valve. (After weather prevented an attempt last night.) They hope to try again "early Friday morning" (Thursday night).

Did you know they don't use fossil fuels? Commercial/private space flight probably will.

Back tomorrow.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Love Anagrams?

Me either. But this is still fun!

Internet Anagram Server. Or, I, Rearrangement Servant.

An anagram for Paul's full name: Aroma Bull Pee

See? I told you this was fun. Here's me:

Enthralls Yearns

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Excuses

Blogging temporarily delayed by . . . my eldest child starting Kindergarten!


AHHHHHHRGH!

All better, now.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mystery Fest

Midwest MysteryFest 2009: Anatomy of a Mystery

Enjoy an intense and satisfying conference filled with practical advice on mystery writing for all levels. Pitch your novel in a one-on-one session with an agent (sign up during Registration Saturday morning for a specific time slot), chat with a mystery author while eating lunch, and learn forensics details that will make your work speak Authenticity. Three tracks of presentations, three outstanding featured speakers and a 4-hour workshop 1-5 p.m. Friday afternoon given by Hollywood screenwriter Esther Luttrell (Screen Writing Techniques That Enliven Your Novel) will make this day memorable. Attend the author/speaker dinner Friday evening (6 pm cocktails, 7 pm dinner - an optional, additional charge not included in the event fee) at Miss Aimee B's tearoom where you can get acquainted with the featured presenters.

Friday, September 25, 1-5 PM
Saturday, September 26, 2009, 8 AM.-5 PM
at St. Charles Community College

Sponsored by Sisters in Crime - St. Louis Chapter

Local mystery writer? Don't miss this!

Local writer, but not of mysteries? Come check out the "Craft of Writing" track or the "Business of Writing" track. And the agent pitch sessions!

Not a writer? Come anyway and check out the "Forensics" track:
  • Latent fingerprint examiner/forensic artist
  • ‘The Missouri Miracle’: The Shawn Hornbeck/Ben Ownby Kidnapping Case
  • Solution! Outsider’s View vs. Insider’s Knowledge
  • Know Your Gun Before You Write: Firearms Explained


I'll be there. I'm just figuring out how to experience all three tracks at the same time.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Shack by Wm. Paul Young

This month, for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club, I'm writing about The Shack: where tragedy confronts eternity by William Paul Young.

Why do we read the books we read?

For me, the answer is "it depends." I'm in two book clubs and a couple of writer's groups, so I read books selected by or written by people I know. I've read books by authors I've met and liked, chosen books based on reviews on NPR or various blogs. And sometimes . . . it's just buzz. That was the case for me with The Shack. Well, that plus the fact that someone handed it to me and said, "read this."

I'd heard of The Shack. I had no idea what the book was about, but people over at the PCUSA Blog were talking about it and I had the impression it was a sort of Christian book. But that some conservative theologians had problems with it. I didn't even know if it was fiction or nonfiction; I just knew a lot of people were talking about it. And I was mildly interested but not planning on reading it, until a friend handed it to me.

I decided against doing any research and dove right in.

A few pages later I stopped and went to Wikipedia, where I verified what I'd already figured out: it's self-published. (Also, it's fiction.)

The story goes that Young wrote the book for his kids and kept hearing that he should publish it. So he tried and tried, but no publisher - not Christian, not mainstream, not literary or commercial - would take it. So, along with a couple of business partners, he self-published.

And it's obvious. As you might have guessed, my review is going to focus on the writing and the story, rather than the spiritual lessons.

Via industry blogs I hear over and over again about how hard it is to break into publishing. If you've not got a fabulous platform (fame or notoriety, strong history of past book sales, stunning academic credentials) then your book better be spit-polished and perfect when you send it to agents and editors.

This book makes some elementary mistakes.

1) Telling. A truly chilling story is set against a backdrop of a personal travel diary. They turned here, then here, then here and this road did this and that. Some of the geographical and cryptographical specifics are what they surely intend to be - detail to add richness to the story - but a lot of them read like the way you might describe your trip to someone wanting to retrace your steps exactly, combined with occasional nonfiction dumps of background information about various historical areas. A few well-chosen details make a story come alive, but big chunks of minutia just slow things down.

Another sign of the telling-not-showing problem in this novel is all the passive voice. Not only does use of the passive voice distance the reader from the story, it slows the pace way down. ("The water bottle was passed," instead of "Joe took a big swig, his adam's apple bobbing up and down as he swallowed, then handed off the weeping bottle to Tim.")

In fact, the first part of this book - the thriller part - reads at times like the summary of a story rather than the story itself. This is probably intentional to some extent - the meat of the story is the time at The Shack, not the tragedy leading up to it - but we need to be really hooked on Mack and his story well before we get there to make it through part two.

2) Adverbs. I have a problem with adverbs myself and often wonder why my critique partners mark them in my manuscripts. "But that one's important!" I think. "I couldn't possibly cut it without ruining everything! That was before I read this book and choked on quite a few adverbs on every page, frequently more than one per sentence. P. 209 is half a page of text (it's a chapter opener) and has immediately, directly, hurriedly, smoothly, and precisely. This clutters up the prose and is a bit lazier than showing action through character words and gestures.

After a (short) while, I started to feel like this book kept telling me how to read it, rather than just letting me read it. Instead of telling me a story, it also told me exactly how to interpret the story. Much less fun.

3) Pedantic. I don't know how Young could have avoided this pitfall, and he didn't. Part two is - sorry if this is a bit of a spoiler; I sure saw it coming a mile away - Mack alone in The Shack with God. There's some action here - Mack and God garden and hike and eat - but mostly it's a series of conversations about the nature of the Trinity, God, religion, humanity, life, forgiveness, etc.

There's a lot to unpack here, and I found it well worth my time, but parts were forced and awkward. The conversations were necessarily Mack asking short questions and getting long answers. How else should a conversation with God go? I'd feel like I blew my chance to learn some stuff if I were in Mack's position and didn't let God do most of the talking.

There's some really good stuff in this book, but the writing feels somewhat amateurish. So why do so many people want to read it, anyway? Buzz begets buzz, and people will forgive a lot for a tense story about a lurid tragedy.

This begs the question: does good writing really matter, if millions of people are willing to overlook the lack of it? Are agents and editors using the wrong criteria to select which books to publish?

Who could have anticipated that this book would be such a huge commercial success? It's not the first or best story about something bad happening to a child. It's not the first or best book to take on the theological implications of why bad things happen to innocent people or how to develop a relationship with God. And it's not spectacularly well-written. So what does it have?

Buzz. Dozens of megachurches discussing it en masse. People passing it hand to hand (as happened to me).

And more than that. Everywhere I went with the book, people stopped me. "That book changed my life."

It didn't change my life, but I'm glad I read it.

I got something out of it, both spiritually and professionally. I learned a lot about writing from reading this book. It's one thing to hear: show, don't tell; lose the adverbs; story first, message much later. It's another to see a 248 page case study of why writing teachers say those things.

Imagine how powerful this book might have been if it had been picked up by a publishing house and lucked into a passionate and talented editor. Wow. I'd read it all over again.

Poll: is this a mixed metaphor or a lovely bit of prose: Mack inhaled the visual symphony (P. 144)?



Click icon for more
book review blogs
@Barrie Summy

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Truth about Writers

The Truth about Writers

Snips from this excellent article:

We don't spend much time writing. There. It's out. Writers, by and large, do not do a great deal of writing. We may devote a large number of hours per day to writing, yes, but very little of that time is spent typing the words of a poem, essay or story into a computer or scribbling them onto a piece of paper.
...
To allow our loved ones to know that we are working when we are supposed to be engaged in the responsibilities of ordinary life would mark us as the narcissists and social misfits we are.

...
Indeed, even writers who don't write fiction are engaged in the larger fiction of imitating normal humans whose professional activities are organized into discrete blocks of time.

The article is really very funny and worth a read, especially if you write or love someone who does.

Signed,
--a professional minivan driver

(cartoon credit here)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Title?

Long ago, I had an idea for a funny mystery, sort of Susan Isaacs-like but with a younger, married protagonist. Before I had anything like a plot, I had a title. That idea never went anywhere, and the title became the name of my other blog.

Later on, I had an idea for an entire series of mysteries with a young, married mom protagonist. Each of these stories would share the title of a hymn. The Common Hymns Mysteries! Sure, not everyone goes to my church. But many hymns are classics with titles that are familiar well outside of the Sunday Morning organist-accompanied cultures in which they are frequently sung. And it's nice to have a marketable hook like that. Excuse, me, do you work here? I'm looking for a new mystery by that author whose books are always called after nursery rhymes/numbers/birds/flowers/cocktails/HYMNS. Right?

So I wrote the book, and I think it's pretty decent.

But it turned out to be about computer gamers. This didn't trouble me as I wrote it. See, I figured each mystery in the series would share little more than protagonist, setting, and voice. Sure, a few good friends would repeat as appropriate, but one novel might be about a scavenger hunt, the next a group vacation, yet another a dance competition, and so forth. Flipping quickly through a hymnal gave me dozens of excellent ideas for sequels.

But the gaming thing really took over this novel.

So much so that it doesn't really fit with the hymn theme anymore. I love love love my title but it just doesn't really fit with the very modern, youthful, gamer-geek-culture novel I wrote.

So now I'm in search of a new series hook and naming convention, preferably one that suggests an infinite supply of titles and mysteries. All the error messages I get from Microsoft? Things I scream at my flickering monitor in frustration?

(I do still plan to write those hymn novels one day. I just don't know if this book is the right way to start the series.)

Suggestions welcome!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld



I really wanted to hate this book. First of all, I wasn't interested in reading a thinly veiled fictionalized version of a famous person's life, especially not a currently living famous person. Second, I was not interested in a sympathetic portrayal of George W. or Laura Bush. And, third, the book was written by Curtis Sittenfeld.

I really love Sittenfeld's writing. But.

In high school, I was enchanted by the idea of boarding schools. She applied for scholarships and went to one. All my life, I've wanted to be a writer. She started selling her stories when I was still thinking vaguely about what I'd want to write someday. I love NPR. She writes for This American Life. I wasn't a feminist until I read her essay "Your Life as a Girl" in college and realized that she even writes my own life experiences better than I do. We're about the same age, but she's done everything both first and better than me. She's like a slightly younger, much smarter, hipper, and more talented big sister. Feh.

So I didn't want to like American Wife. And of course it was fabulous. Sigh.

I even identified with the main character. For heaven's sake, she was modeled on Laura Bush! Blast and tarnation.

One of my book clubs discussed this book tonight and we all liked it. My complaint: Part 4 was less powerful than the rest of the novel. I think this was partially because it was written in the present tense and partially because it was based on current events that we all know much more about and the politics got a little ahead of the story. I didn't feel the intense emotional connection with Alice Blackwell's character that I felt in the earlier sections. In fact, I found myself picturing Laura Bush's face as the narrator talked about dealing with fame. These criticisms do not outweigh the wonderfulness of the rest of the book.

It's a good book. Read it and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

This month, for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club, I'm writing about Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

My first thought was: I have no idea what to say about this book. And then hundreds of words suddenly poured forth from my fingers.

I'll start with this. I didn't want this book to end when it did. I was "in" the book for days after I finished reading it, even after I'd gone on to other books. This is, to me, the mark of a really good book. Ishiguro, the English author of Remains of the Day, created a world that felt terribly real to me, enough so that I felt betrayed when the book ended.

It ended rather abruptly.

And that left me frustrated. Ishiguro is good. He was so close so close so close to a great book with this one.

I don't know how much to say about the plot, as it's intentionally left mysterious throughout the novel. The main characters are leading an unconventional life, and only gradually do they realize it themselves. At no time is there an obvious ah-hah moment for the characters or the readers, just gradual confirmation of various assumptions. That part is very very well done.


Praises
  1. Fascinating conceit.
  2. Beautiful description.
  3. Realistic: perfect pitch relating awkward situations between people, subtle interactions that I’ve experienced but never even tried to describe to myself, let alone write down.

Questions (spoilers herein!)
  1. Why didn’t they ever consider just leaving? Any of them?
  2. What were they really donating, specifically? Was there a set order? Did they take multiple organs at once? Why just 4 times? Why not eyes? Why did they keep dying after 2 or 3 times? What’s up with the “messy” surgeries?
  3. And these are just donations for the common good, not, as I at first assumed, clones of individual wealthy people as personal body farms? Who were the initial cell donors, then? And the incubating mothers?
  4. Is it the same elsewhere as in England?
  5. How was it ensured that they could not have children?
  6. How did they keep from mixing more with the culture at large as adults?

Annoyances:
  1. Stilted dialogue, especially in the early years at Hailsham, that took me out of the story. Way too many uses of names. “Kathy, blah blah blah.” “I don’t know, Tommy.” “But Kathy,” etc.
  2. Sex. Kathy’s attitude about it didn’t seem particularly normal to me, and I really expected that to play a larger role in the story. Maybe some people are like that, maybe some women. But in my experience it’s a far from universal experience for women of sex, though that’s how Ruth presents their shared experience to Kathy in a significant scene.
  3. SPOILER The never questioning, never disobeying, never doing anything risky, never pushing limits too far, never getting truly involved in the world, all that really bugged me. What were the rumors about Hailsham escapees and Tommy’s temper meant to suggest? All that seemed like foreshadowing something big. I expected him to walk away or commit suicide, just so that he’d know for sure.

And, also, what they said.

Initial reaction: pissed and cheated. Could have been so good, missed.

Weeks later: There's still far more I wanted to know. Perhaps I should seek out interviews with the author, his working notes, something like that. The world was a little . . . incompletely drawn in places. But one of my biggest frustrations - the way the characters simply accepted what happened to them and were observers rather than initiators of significant action - really was the point and was, therefore, while frustrating, perfectly rendered.

I think everyone should read this book, if only so that I can talk to all of you about it.


Check out the other reviews this month over at Barrie Summy's!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Pitch Perfect - Part 2

How to Put It Together Into One Neat Tweet.

Here are a couple I had before:

1) Seek Ye First is an amateur sleuth mystery featuring a group of twentysomethings that takes place partially within a virtual gaming environment like a mystery-themed Second Life.

But who is the main character? What is the mystery? Why should we care?

2) It’s the eve of the year’s most hotly anticipated video game release, and someone’s trying to permanently delete the game’s reclusive lead designer. . . .

Is the designer the main character? If not, that's a problem with this pitch.
Now on to experiment with the new method.

3) When someone tries to kill a secretive computer game designer, her coffee drinking, baby-sling-wearing friend tries to figure out who's trying to kill her friend . . . and stop him.

Eh. This is awkward and it's hard to tell which is the main character.

4) When someone threatens her computer geek friend, a coffee drinking, baby-sling-wearing, distracted new mom dives into a virtual world to try to figure out who's behind the threats - and violence.

This is a little better, though it still needs work. And it doesn't really describe my book very well.

I already know some of the weak points of this novel, and seeing the results of the worksheet below highlights some of them.

Feel free to share your log lines here, or just comment on mine!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Pitch Perfect - Part 1

Log Line Pitches, or, How to Tweet Your Novel

What a fun idea! Let's give it a try.

Part I: The Homework (preparation/worksheet)

The protagonist: Coffee drinking, baby-sling-wearing, distracted new mom Clara McGregor.

The goal/reward: Figure out who's trying to kill her friend . . . and stop him.

The obstacle(s): Clara doesn't want to believe that the would-be killer is a good friend of hers.

The antagonist: Very, very clever person. Details redacted. :)

Consequence of failure: Clara's friend dies. And she might just be the first victim.

Motive: I know this. But I'm not telling!

Challenge to self-image: Until she had a baby, Clara used to think she had the happiest, most solid marriage in the world.

Inciting Event: Clara's friend is preparing for the launch of her new computer game, but she's distracted by increasingly disturbing threats.

Ticking Clock: See above re: increasingly disturbing threats. And then: violence!

Important steps taken: Keep a close eye on her friend, go to her friend's apartment and into her computer to look for traces of the bad guy, get all her friends together to figure out which of them is guilty.

Final reversal : Ack! Someone dies!

Outcome: Sadly, Clara was right. One of her friends is guilty as sin. Alas.

Now it's your turn! Any takers? For those of you who aren't currently writing a novel, don't you have that one great idea in you that you plan to write . . . someday . . . when you have the time . . . ?

Monday, June 8, 2009

So, What's Your Method?

Whenever I walk past my computer, I'm compelled to sit for just a moment, and when I do, words pour forth beautifully and effortlessly from my fingers. I frequently find myself laughing aloud with joy at this enchanting experience. My characters amuse and amaze me so; writing is much like reading along, for me. The story has a mind of its own and simply tells itself!

Did I oversell it?

Writing is not like that for me at all.

I enjoy the movies based on Nick Hornby's books (High Fidelity, About a Boy) and have been meaning to read the novels. His British sense of humor is very much my cup of tea. (Sorry for that one.) So I was excited to read Barrie Summy's review of A Long Way Down on her blog last week, and was thrilled by her quote about Hornby's writing process:

From the author's website, here's a description of a typical day: 'I have an office round the corner from my home. I arrive there between 9:30 and 10 a.m., smoke a lot, write in horrible little two-and-three sentence bursts, with five-minute breaks in between. Check for emails during each break, and get irritated if there aren't any. Go home for lunch. If I'm picking up my son I leave at 3:30. If not, I stay till six. It's all pretty grim! And so dull!'


Yay! Vindication of my method! OK, so I don't smoke. But I do drink coffee instead.

It's not fashionable to talk about writing being hard. It's all about how lucky one is to be able to do something so fun for a living. Writing is supposed to be like . . . play! One just sits at the computer as the muse takes over!

I believe that it's like that for some people. But clearly, not for everyone.

Hearing that it's hard, sometimes boring work for other writers feels really good to me. It's vindication. My struggles at the keyboard don't mean I'm not cut out to be a writer.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Soup Opera by Jim Gill

"This is a drama about a man and a bowl of soup. A drama that is set to music is an opera, so this is . . . A SOUP OPERA."

This month, for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club, I'm reviewing a children's picture book by musician and author Jim Gill: A Soup Opera.

"A man walked into one of the finest restaurants in the city and was seated at the very best table."

It's not the start of a joke. Or, rather, it sort of is. But it's not the humor that makes the story. Or maybe it is.

See, a guy orders a bowl of soup, complains that he can't eat it, and escalates the problem all the way up to . . . the President of the United States. The whole thing culminates with a zinger that some parents saw coming from the very first note. (My husband, not so much.)

The story is told in a book packaged with a CD-ROM for family read-along fun. But it's even more fun to try to sing the opera yourself. Over and over and over. There's a narrator who sets the scene and makes transitions, while the dialogue is sung opera style. This is more accessible than you might imagine, as all the lines are short and frequently repeated.

"What did you say?"

"I can't eat the soup!"

My 5-year-old became fond of this book at preschool story time, and we got it for her as a "graduation" present last Friday.

Since then we've listened to it about 250 times.

Sometimes we just set the CD on track repeat and let her indulge herself. It's amazing how much she loves it. You should see her throwing out her arms and just belting out the lines.

"What seems to be the problem here?"

"I can't eat the soup!"

I'll probably have this thing stuck in my head for the rest of my life. Fortunately, it's really fun.

Plus, I'm introducing my child to CULTURE. Do I get some sort of parenting extra credit for that?



Amazon.com Editorial Reviews:
A Soup Opera is more than just a children's picturebook - it's a sing-along opera!....Enhanced with majestic, slightly cartoony illustrations that capture the essence of stage opera, red curtains and all, A Soup Opera is silly musical fun for the whole family. --Midwest Book Review

Product Description
A Soup Opera is a richly illustrated story about a man, a bowl of soup, and the man's comically frustrating quest to eat that soup. Characters in the cast of the opera include a waiter, a police officer and the President of the United States! Each book is packaged with a fully orchestrated CD that includes the narration, dialogue and instrumentation for the comic opera. The CD includes additional tracks created for teachers and others to use in dramatizing the book with children.



Click icon for more
book review blogs @ Barrie Summy

Monday, June 1, 2009

Today Was About a Week Long

I'm pretty sure I had a dozen half-baked posts floating around in my head at some point. But then today happened and now I have buzzing where my brain should be.

Tomorrow is the monthly Barrie Summy Book Review Club, and I'm torn between reviewing Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Toilet Training in Less Than A Day by Azrin and Foxx.

I would really rather review the former, but I still need to finish it, and the latter keeps getting in the way for messily obvious reasons!

Monday, May 18, 2009

AutoCrit

Yesterday I briefly mentioned the AutoCrit Editing Software. Here's how that works. You upload a chunk of your manuscript, then run up to 14 reports on it. Reports include: Overused Words, Repeated Phrases, Sentence Length Variation, Repeated Words, Dialogue Tags, First Words, Names and Pronouns, Repeated Phrases Summary, Combination View of Overused & Repeated Words, Cliché Finder, Redundancy Finder, Homonym Highlighter, Readability Suite, and Pacing Monitor.

Here's what AutoCrit found in 4 random pages of manuscript, comparing my writing to word usage averages across "dozens of samples of published fiction":
feel/feeling/felt: 3, 0.1 %EXCEEDED
generic descriptions: 2, 0.1 %EXCEEDED
initial conjunction: 7, 0.5 %EXCEEDED
just/then: 8, 0.4 %EXCEEDED
maybe: 2, 0.1 %EXCEEDED
that: 15, 0.6 %EXCEEDED
was/were: 16, 1.4 %EXCEEDED

I have a little problem with "was." I'm a little too fond of the word, and AutoCrit points out instances for me, since my eyes skip over them. But sometimes it also points out things I've done intentionally, like repeated phrases for effect. Still, this program provides a good place to start looking.

[EDITED TO ADD: When I uploaded an entire chapter, most of these overages disappeared. I think the larger the sample size, the more accurate result.]

Sometimes the Wizard points out things I missed. Sometimes it just reassures me that I caught everything I should have. It's a fresh set of eyes when mine are tired, if nothing else. Perhaps I won't need this crutch after a few more years of practice. But for now? I'm loving it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Quiz

I am too tired to create original content tonight. (And my internal editor is fried too, even with the support of AutoCrit.)

So, a plug!
I love Brenda Novak's 5th Annual On-line Auction for Diabetes Research. Want a computer? Vacation? Stack of autographed books? Critique of your manuscript? Click on over!

Also, a quiz!
(or two)
I took What Kind of Blogger Are You? and What's Your Blogging Personality?
I got You Are a Pundit Blogger and Your Blogging Type Is Artistic and Passionate, respectively.
Yeah? Apparently not.



You Are a Pundit Blogger!



Your blog is smart, insightful, and always a quality read.

You're up on the latest news, and you have an interesting spin on things.

Of all the blogging types, you put the most thought and effort into your blog.

Truly appreciated by many, surpassed by only a few




Your Blogging Type is Artistic and Passionate



You see your blog as the ultimate personal expression - and work hard to make it great.

One moment you may be working on a new dramatic design for your blog...

And the next, you're passionately writing about your pet causes.

Your blog is very important - and you're careful about who you share it with.



How about you?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Feminist Romance


Part I

I've complained about romance novels before, so today I thought I'd backpedal a little.

I'll start by picking on another genre and mentioning something that drives me crazy about mysteries. I love mysteries, especially clever ones that I have a hard time figuring out then have this big, wonderful "click" moment at the end where it all falls into place and I see how it was set up from page 1. But I hate it when someone dies in a book and everyone around them gasps, then either goes on like it's no big deal or treats it as a purely intellectual puzzle. In my experience, most people - and communities - are emotionally stricken by such events, and the residual effects don't wear off in a day or two.

Back to romance. I've already clarified that I don't hate all romance novels, though there are common genre tropes that annoy and frustrate me. Now I'll go a step further.

In a romance novel, the main story arc is usually . . . the romance. You know, the guy and the girl getting together. I am resistant to any story when I feel like I know how it ends. I didn't see Titanic until it had been on DVD for a couple of years, and then only under duress. (I liked it OK, but didn't wish I'd made it to the theater.) I went to see Apollo 13 at my husband's request and enjoyed it very much, though I was reluctant to see it because it was a true story and I knew how it turned out. And I get annoyed when shows give away too much in the previews, so I spend the whole episode waiting for a scene that turns out to be a big deal at the end. (Looking at you, season finale of Private Practice!)

I'm also resistant to seeing musicals, though I might enjoy them when I finally concede. I still haven't seen Chicago or Moulin Rouge, which I understand is akin to blasphemy.

What about you? What drives you crazy in fiction - be it written, acted, or sung? And what blind prejudices do you have?

Part II

The Eroticization of Equality and Social Justice (Hillary Retig)

This article is a very interesting read, but I'm not sure I am seduced by the premise. (joke credit: Retig)

1) "What do conservatives . . . have against romance?"
Just because conservatives are against something doesn't make it progressive. (And it's hard to argue that conservatives are against romance, anyway, just certain aspects of what broadly falls into that category.)

2) "[R]omance itself is a fundamentally progressive activity."
Not necessarily. For example, there are genre publishers, imprints, etc. that commonly require women to be like X and men to by like Y (e.g. "alpha"). In other words, romance fiction might very well codify and reinforce tired gender stereotypes.

3) I'm also not convinced that the idea of progressiveness = love for humankind is best exemplified by romance fiction, in which one character is seemingly destined for one other character, usually to the exclusion of all others. It's very individually focused and not typically spun outwards into a community experience.

4) "it's also commonly acknowledged in the field that if you were ever to meet one of those Byronic alpha-male romance heroes in real life, he would likely be a real jerk."
I'm not so quick to excuse perpetuating the romanticization of this type of character. In fact, doing so consciously might be worse.

5) "egalitarian partnerships tend to be the happiest, but also tend to lack sexual spark."
Huh.

But the article is very smart and thought-provoking, and I loved chunks of it. For example:
"More and more, romance fiction is incorporating the ideals and values of progressivism, not just by becoming more diverse in its characterizations and relationship constructions, but by replacing a one-up, competitive model of power, in which I derive my power from your relative weakness, with a between-equals, cooperative model in which power is shared and distributed to the benefit of all. The more it does this, the closer it will come to providing models of ecstatic, loving, romantic, sexual relationships that work in real life - a huge public benefit and radical act."

Why do I spend so much time writing and thinking about romance novels? Because of statistics like this:
"More than a quarter of all books sold in the U.S. are romance fiction, and more than 64 million Americans read at least one romance novel each year (source: Romance Writers of America, RWA). Romance fiction is an enormous part of American culture, and an important transmitter of values."
Romance fiction is obviously hugely popular, and I think it only makes sense to pay attention to something so influential.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Weekend Update


I have had a lovely Mother's Day. I have a bit of a cold, which is annoying, so I took some Tylenol Cold PM after my pre-Mother's Day treat last night and passed out. I completely missed the morning rush (that stuff is effective) and didn't wake up until Paul and the girls brought me breakfast in bed. After snuggle time, Paul got the girls ready for church.

Today was our last Sunday School class before summer break, and our friends surprised us with a nice thank you gift for leading the group this year. After church we had sandwiches at home (my special request was NO MOTHER'S DAY BRUNCH - too crowded, too stressful). Then naptimes, a video for the girls, family dinner, and Paul took the girls to the park while I talked to my sister and did a few things around the house. We had storytime together as a family, put the girls down to sleep, and the rest of the evening will be free time once Ellie deigns to stay abed.

In fact, the whole weekend has been lovely. Paul and I had a date night on Friday (we enjoyed the X-Men movie and a seafood dinner), I had lunch with a friend on Saturday, and we went out to dinner and Ted Drewes with other friends Saturday night. Terribly indulgent, totally fun weekend.

Over the past several days, I have also been reading my draft of Seek Ye First whenever I have a few minutes to spare. Paul printed it out in book format for me, which is rather fun. Now that I'm done with the first read-through, I'm pleased with the second half but think the first chapters need more tension. I need to go through the ms once to make the changes I noted when I was reading, run the Auto-Crit software to get rid of remaining annoyances, then expand the story inserts and drop them in.

The first 2 chapters should be ready to go out to my critique group for next month's meeting! I also need to put together a list of questions and prepare to send the ms off to early readers. It's fun to be in a new stage. Now that the solid draft is completed, things are moving much more quickly and I crave feedback. Maybe it sucks. Maybe it's good. Who knows? Either way, it's a completed novel and I learned from it. The next one will be even better.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Book Review Club - May

This month I'm reviewing Angie Fox's paranormal romance The Dangerous Book for Demon Slayers for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club.

Have you heard of the sophomore slump? For writers, this is what happens when you spend years working on your first novel: learning, preparing, plotting, drafting, revising, and workshopping. You submit it, it sells, and wham! you have a two book contract. Now what? You have to write the second novel in a matter of months. You've never done anything like that before; you've poured everything you had into that first, wonderful novel.

Yeah, Angie Fox did not suffer from the dreaded sophomore slump with The Dangerous Book for Demon Slayers, which published last week, only nine months after Angie's debut novel (and New York Times best-seller) The Accidental Demon Slayer.

Everything that was good in The Accidental Demon Slayer was still good in The Dangerous Book for Demon Slayers, and the rest was even better.

Fox is just so creative and original. Her voice is fresh, and, hey - geriatric biker witches, roadkill magic, a straight-laced preschool teacher turned demon slayer - what's not to love?

Maybe just two small things. Like the first novel in the series, this one is tight and fast. Sometimes it's so tight and fast that it feels a bit rushed and I wonder - hey, what just happened? How did we get here? I think I missed something. But certainly tight and fast is better than sloppy and dragging, so I'll take it.

My other little complaint is with the romance angle. Don't get me wrong, I'm all about sexy Greek griffins. But Lizzie was a preschool teacher just a couple of weeks ago. She'd never heard of demons or magic, she'd never met her Grandma or smokin' hot Dimitri. Since then, life has been a whirlwind of trying to get up to speed . . . and stay alive.

I get that Lizzie and Dimitri have shared some intense experiences (read the first book to explore that understatement!) but Lizzie's transition to acceptance - and love - was awfully fast. She kept talking about "the old Dimitri," "this new man," and "the real Dimitri" (P. 106). But after only knowing a guy for a couple of weeks, how could she really be sure what the "old Dimitri" was like all of the time?

I'm thinking she couldn't, since Dimitri behaves very unreliably in this novel: disappearing, lying, keeping huge secrets, being undependable . . . and feeding on her without asking for permission. Lizzie sleeps with him anyway, and thinks about love when they mostly seem to connect through sex throughout the beginning and middle of this story. It gets a lot better at the end, don't worry. That's good, because for a while I was thinking that this seemed like a very unhealthy relationship and I was rooting for Lizzie to dump the griffin!

But mostly The Dangerous Book for Demon Slayers is great: a clever, funny, creative, surprising, fast read. So let's wrap up with a few more positives, shall we?

Fox did a really nice job of catching up new readers - no easy task in a paranormal - without boring return customers like me. And she has some wonderful turns of phrase throughout this book. I'll close with a wee little quote from the first scene.

"Pardon," I mumbled as I braced one hand on a rust-flecked cigarette machine and eased a black boot up and over the very hairy man who seemed to be using the selection knobs for a pillow. His mouth slacked open and a snore rumbled in his throat. Of course he wouldn't have noticed if I'd tap-danced across his whatnots, but I was raised as a good Southern girl and, well, old habits die hard.


Check out the other reviews this month over at Barrie Summy's!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dressing the Room

Let's say you've got a lovely thing. A stamped concrete patio, perhaps, or a hand knit afghan, or a wall painted with an attractive faux finish. It looks nice all by itself, but maybe it could be better. Maybe it's even lovelier if it's got a border around it in a complimentary color. And maybe the whole takes on layers of added interest when that same color is repeated in a simple pattern across the piece.

I've got this book. I've been "almost finished" with Seek Ye First for months. All I had left were the Tying it All Together and In Which All Is Revealed bits. The hardest bits (surprisingly, since I knew all that I needed to reveal and tie together). Work was proceeding at a glacial pace. This week I worked hard, very hard, and FINISHED the doggone thing.

I'll pause for your wild cheers.

And now it's revisions time. I'm looking forward to de-adverbing and getting rid of passive tense and other awkward constructions. I'm looking forward to adding tension and cleaning up language. I'm really looking forward to rereading to see if it's any good.

But first I have a decision to make, about the frame, the border, the pattern. Seek Ye First involves a group of friends, some of whom are geeks, as they run around town on a scavenger hunt. One of the friends is a computer game designer, and her game is referenced throughout the novel as a significant part of the story, providing a potential motive for a crime.

Before the first chapter, after the last chapter, and between chapters throughout the book are insets from within the game. I originally envisioned these as fantasies, role-playing by two pseudo-anonymous characters from the main story arc. Two characters flirting and coming together within the game as a prelude to doing so in real life: modern geek love.

But after talking to agents about the book, I'm wondering if I shouldn't take these insets in a different direction. Instead of using the gaming scenes as escapism from the plot, maybe they should fuel the main plot. Maybe the suspense of the mystery should carry over into the game world, heightening the tension rather than serving as an escape from it.

The agents to whom I pitched the story liked the idea of the mystery bleeding over into the game. But the early readers who workshopped the first 8000 words or so of the novel loved the escapism bits as they were originally written. Neither group has the whole picture.

I just don't know. I've been trying to decide for months. And it's not like you can tell me; you haven't read the thing!

This is one of the hardest parts of writing, for me. This could happen, or this could happen, or this. But at some point, I have to choose a direction, go with it, and quit second-guessing.

(A friend who read the early chapters as they were first written concurs with the agents: add tension, not release with the insets. So that's the direction I'm headed as I revise. We'll see how it goes!)