Can’t Put That Book Down?

OK, readers, I know some of you get so caught up in a novel that you can’t put it down.  It would be fun to hear your real-life examples.  How would you complete  this sentence: “I was so riveted by (name of novel) that I (blank.)”

I thought of this recently when one of the writing blogs I follow (sorry, I’d link to it if I could remember which one) featured an article that encouraged writers by asking them to imagine how they’d like to have their book reviewed.

Well that got the old adjective factory spinning our of control. “Gripping, mesmerizing, shocking, sensational . . .” I could go on.

Then I took it to the next level. Here’s my favorite imagined review: “This important historical novel speaks to our times and held me spellbound. When the tornado sirens sounded I stuck fast to my favorite reading chair instead of taking shelter. Talk about riveting. I’m writing this from heaven.”

Please leave a comment, even if it’s to tell me I should get back on my meds.

 

 

Emotions That Touch Readers–or Not

In Sweetwater Creek, by Anne Rivers Siddons, Buddy, Emily’s soul mate brother, has died. Her other brothers say the puppy she’s chosen is just a hound dog.

Excerpt: So she named him Elvis, and took the puppy to her room, and fell as irretrievably in love as she ever would in her life. Girl and dog were two halves of a whole, two chambers of one heart. The swirling black abyss that Buddy had left was almost filled. But only almost. 

My Take-away:  Writing about grief and love is difficult. I think this passage is simply and beautifully evocative. (It helps if you’re a dog lover.)  My friend Gaylon Greer suggested a long time ago that I read Siddons as a guide to expressing emotion. One thing I don’t care for in this passage, however, is that it reveals the future, as in the clause ‘as she ever would in her life.’ Not something I’d emulate.

Excerpt: Oh, Buddy. The words felt as if they were etched in acid on the surface of the iceberg inside her. Oh, Buddy.

 My Take-away: Yikes! Sounds like a thirteen-year-old wannabe writer straining for a poetic line.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Vonnegut’s 1952 Novel Strikes a Nerve Today

I may have to re-read Player Piano, the late Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, published in 1952. Contemplating a dystopian post-WWIiI future, he envisioned a class-divided America in which meaningful work is almost non-existent. Here’s the opening:

 

Excerpt: Ilium, New York, is divided into three parts.

In the northwest are the managers and engineers and civil servants and a few professional people; in the northeast are the machines and in the south, across the Iroquois River, is the area known locally as Homestead, where almost all of the people live.

If the bridge across the Iroquois were dynamited, few daily routines would be disturbed. Not many people on either side have reasons other than curiosity for crossing.

During the war, in thousands of Iliums over America, managers and engineers learned to get along without their men and women who went to fight. It was the miracle that won the war–production with almost no manpower. In the patois of the north side of the river, it was the know-how that won the war. Democracy owed its life to know-how.

My Take-away: How disturbing or frightening were these words in 1952? Apparently not disturbing enough for society to reorganize itself in the face of inevitable loss of jobs and denigration of work.

I recall about three years ago visiting Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream plant in Vermont. A fun tour, but what stays with me is that looking through a glass window at the production floor below, I saw just two human beings.

In a July 1973 Playboy magazine interview, Vonnegut explained the inspiration for the novel. While working for General Electric in 1949 he watched a computerized milling machine cutting out rotors for jet engines and gas turbines. “Player Piano was my response to having everything run by little boxes. The idea of doing that, you know, made sense, perfect sense. To have a little clicking box make all the decisions wasn’t a vicious thing to do. But it was too bad for the human beings who got their dignity from their jobs.”

Quote du Jour

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

Stephen King wrote this in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Love the thought, which I could apply to exercise, writing, reading, so many aspects of my life. Too bad it’s so long. I suppose a tattoo is out of the question. (Thanks to Brad Whittington and Darrell Bryant for this quote.)

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Writer Offers Glimpse Into a Soldier’s Heart

If today’s soldiers feel forgotten, it’s understandable. Most of us civilians have become conditioned to expect that if we’re really at war we’ll see it every night on TV in our home or favorite sports bar. I was reminded the other day that we are indeed at war when General Tony Thomas, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, said, “Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we are a nation at war.”

That led me to think about a great short story by Philip Roth. Set during WWII, the story is “Defender of the Faith,” which can be found in Major American Short Stories, edited by A. Walton Litz:

This excerpt appears at the end of the opening paragraph, and Grossbart, who has served in the military for two years, is leaving Germany with his Ninth Army company and expecting to be sent east to the front :
Excerpt:
. . . eastward until we’d circled the globe, marching through villages along whose twisting, cobbled streets crowds of the enemy would watch us take possession of what, up till then, they’d considered their own. I had changed enough in two years not to mind the trembling of the old people, the crying of the very young, the uncertainty and fear in the eyes of the once arrogant. I had been fortunate enough to develop an infantryman’s heart, which, like his feet, first aches and swells, but finally grows horny enough for him to travel the weirdest paths without feeling a thing.

My Take-away: This description feels to me like the essence of what it is to become a soldier. I can’t know this, of course, and I recognize that Roth is describing one particular soldier.

Comparing Grossbart’s heart to his feet is such an apt metaphor.  (I wish instead of “horny” he had said “calloused.”)

It’s a mark of some fine writing when you feel you’ve glimpsed how experience can alter someone’s view of the world. Makes me think about the influence of experience on my own view.

What’s your take-away? Please leave a comment.

 

Indie Author Gets a Book Cover Designed

Eight months ago I had the cover designed for my as-yet-unpublished novel, Compromise With Sin. As an indie author it was my responsibility, not that of an editor and publishing house, to produce a cover. The upside is I got a cover I want. The downside is I paid for it, but it was well worth it.

For starters, I did a Google search for historical novel book covers and selected the “Images” tab. One of the first things I noticed was a trend to feature a woman’s body without the head, not something I wanted to emulate.

By looking at pages of thumbnails, I could tell which covers and titles stood out. I’ve seen too many covers with unreadable titles on Amazon.

Another Google search, this one for book designers, led me to 99Designs. Here’s where I entered a whole new world. 99designs has a worldwide stable of graphic designers who vie for jobs in what are called “Contests.” I signed up at the $300 Bronze level (the lowest). I was guaranteed a cover I’d like or it wouldn’t cost me anything.

Writer friend Brad Whittington advised me to be very clear about describing what I wanted, so I wrote up instructions with photographs: Cover Concept submit to 99Designs

Nineteen graphic designers submitted drafts at the start of my seven-day contest. I was able to write messages to the group or individuals. A few dropped out. Most submitted revisions. One message I sent to the group said, “You’re a talented designer, so surprise me,” but no one did. They stuck to my concept. The process of tweaking continued. At one point I was so over-stimulated I couldn’t sleep.

Once I narrowed the field to six, I held a Poll, inviting about 20 friends to weigh in. As it turned out, the cover I selected was not the most popular one. I made my choice for two reasons: 1) I was having problems due to a language barrier between me and the designer of the popular image, and 2) I decided I liked the portrayal of a woman who looked like she could be trouble.

My chosen designer was Kristin Bryant. We did some tweaking after I selected her design. I wanted the woman’s jaw and eyebrows softened.

One thing that amazed me is the designers’ ability to achieve a painted effect with stock photos. Kristin did add a few original elements, including the people in  the car.

Since the contest ended she has continued to work with me on details, such as adding my author photo to the back cover.

Before getting the cover designed, I saw my story in terms of a manuscript. The cover brought it closer to becoming a real book.

Novelist Takes on Publisher Over Deal With Hate-Monger

“I guess I’m putting my money where my mouth is,” a feminist novelist told BuzzFeed. Roxann Gay withdrew her latest novel from publication by Simon & Schuster after the publisher signed a six-figure deal with Breitbart editor and hate-monger Milo Yiannopoulos.

Saying she was taking a stand against normalizing racism, Gay said, “. . . this isn’t about censorship. . . . Milo has every right to say what he wants . . . I’m not interested in doing business with a publisher who gives him that privilege [of publication].”

Read more on NPR. 

 

 

Don’t Read This Book Like a Writer

I recently read a novel that challenges some of the important lessons I’ve learned about writing. I wanted to dislike the book because it is so flawed. But the fact is I’ll probably read it again because the author 1) pairs two unforgettable characters in an improbable relationship, & 2) tells a darn good story.

The novel is Paulette Jiles’ News of the World, a National Book Award finalist. Here are my problems, which I’ll describe in mostly general terms so as not to include spoilers:

  • The author writes dialogue without quotation marks. Most of the time it was clear who was speaking, but there were times I had to back up and re-read a passage. In John Gardner’s book On Becoming a Novelist, he extolls “the fictive dream,” a state that writers like me labor to achieve so that the reader gets so caught up in the story as to suspend disbelief. Writing that causes the reader to check back for clarification breaks that fictive dream.
  • More troubling for me is the jerkiness that occurs when Jiles “moves the camera,” so to speak, i.e., we’re seeing something through the eyes of the Captain & then she describes the expression on his face, something he cannot see. Even more egregious is a gunfight presumably viewed through the Captain’s eyes. His adversary is approaching from two hundred yards when the Captain fires after which we see his adversary’s forehead looking “as if his head had been suddenly printed with hyphens.” This & other occurances of improbable camera movement jerked me out of the fictive dream during one of the best scenes in the novel.
  • Another problem writers usually try to avoid is shifting point of view (POV) in a scene. In most novels, one or several characters have POV so that the reader gets to know their internal thoughts, opinions, feelings, etc. As a rule, in any given scene the writer gives POV to just one character, the person who has the most at stake. This keeps the reader engaged with that character. POV shifts are to be avoided, but not in Jiles’ world. And to tell you the truth, it doesn’t bother me much. I’ve long suspected that readers don’t care that much about shifting POV. (I’ll hear about this in my writing group.) Continue reading Don’t Read This Book Like a Writer

What’s the True Meaning of “America First?”

In light of Trump’s latest assault on innocent human beings & on values decent Americans hold dear, I’m departing from my planned post & posting a day early. “America First” is hardly a new idea, as this 1941 political cartoon by Dr. Seuss illustrates. It was an ugly sentiment then, & it’s ugly now.

Dr. Seuss, PM Magazine, October 1, 1941

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Not Become a Beta Reader?

Woman Reading in Garden, 1912, unidentified photographer

Ever been reading a novel & wished the author had asked for your input prior to publication? In the world of indie publishing, many authors seek critiques from readers. In my own experience, after having my as-yet-unpublished novel, Compromise With Sin, professionally edited, I submitted it to three beta readers seeking their feedback on a variety of issues, such as:

  • “Note any place where you’d stop reading to go floss your teeth.” Happily no one found places where the story stalled to that extent.
  • “Note any inconsistencies or contradictions.” Several things were mentioned. One reader found that dates on a tombstone didn’t jibe with the text.
  • “Are there instances in which you want to see more or less of Louise’s emotional response?” I got a great deal of help here.
  • “I welcome any other observations.” I discovered that sometimes what I thought I was communicating wasn’t what the reader was getting.

Become a Beta Reader

Whatever your taste in reading–thrillers, romance, mainstream, etc.–there are plenty of opportunities to become a beta reader. Here’s my advice:

  • Shop carefully & find a book you’ll enjoy before signing up to read.
  • Don’t like books loaded with F-bombs? Inquire as to levels of profanity, sex or violence if these are issues for you.
  • Ask to see the first chapter before you commit. You can always say, “Thank you for the opportunity, but this project just isn’t right for me.”
  • The author should provide you with a list of things he or she wants you to provide feedback on.
  • Decide on the format you’d like. Email attachment? eBook? Hard copy?
  • You should get a polished manuscript, one that’s been edited & proofread & nearly ready for publication, not an early draft. If you come across an occasional misspelling or typo, note it. The author will be grateful.
  • At the very least, you should be listed in the book’s Acknowledgments. You might get a signed print copy as well.

Find Authors Seeking Beta Readers

I recommend joining the Goodreads Beta Reader Group where you’ll find posts by authors who need your help. Typically an author’s post will state the genre & provide a blurb, & if you’re interested you can make contact.

What Do You Like or Dislike in a Book Blurb?

I’m a student of blurbs these days, those teasers that appear on the book jacket or on Amazon. I listened to a useful podcast, “How To Write Your Book Sales Description,” in which Joanna Penn interviewed Byron Cohen. (The full transcript is available on the site.) He makes the point that 99% of authors provide a synopsis in their blurbs & says, “That won’t sell.” He then puts forth the elements of a successful blurb.

I’ve started collecting blurbs from Amazon, mostly for historical novels. They range from the very lean blurb for Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, to those that virtually give away the story, as in The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd, & News of the World, by Paulette Jiles. I hate that. (Guess I shouldn’t click on “Read more.”)

My favorite blurb is for Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen:

Blurb: Jacob Janowski’s luck had run out—orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It was the Great Depression and for Jacob the circus was both his salvation and a living hell. There he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but brutal animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this group of misfits was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.

My Take-away:
This description says enough to pique my interest, although to call Jacob “orphaned” is misleading because it suggests he’s a boy or teen.

I’ve struggled with the writing of a blurb for my not-yet-published novel Compromise With Sin. Here’s draft #144. OK maybe I exaggerate.

Compromise With Sin blurb: 

She stops at nothing to maintain a veneer of Victorian respectability, but the consequences of infidelity prove far worse than mere exposure. 

After straying into the arms of Doc Foster and becoming pregnant, small-town civic leader Louise Morrissey faces ruin if anyone─especially her husband─finds out. 

When infection steals the eyesight of her newborn baby, Louise knows it is punishment for her infidelity. What she doesn’t know is that the web of deceit she weaves to safeguard her marriage and reputation will eventually ensnare her husband and daughter with tragic consequences.

Guilt-ridden and seeking redemption, Louise risks revelation of her secrets as she joins Helen Keller in a grassroots movement to end the blinding scourge known as “babies’ sore eyes.”

In a confessional moment, Louise signs in Helen’s hand: “When you wrote ‘they enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin,’ you were writing about me.”

A fictional version of real events, the story pits Louise, Helen, and others against society’s taboos as they champion what would become one of the greatest public health triumphs of the 20th century.

I’d welcome your feedback on my blurb or any opinion you have about blurbs. Leave a comment.

Banished Words List–What Would You Add?

Photo source: Weird Tales
Get your dandruff up?

We all have them: words & phrases that make us wince or groan whenever we hear them. Mine include “snuck,” “anyways,” & “on a daily (hourly, weekly, whatever) basis.” Isn’t it almost a bonding experience when you discover someone shares your bias?

 

Enter the Banished Words List. The 2017 list, released on  New Year’s Day, includes these words along with comments by the committee that selected them from thousands of nominations:

  • “Get your dandruff up”–The Committee is not sure why this malapropism got nominators’ dander up in 2016.
  • Frankenfruit–another food group co-opted by “frankenfood.” Not to be confused with other forms of genetically modified language.
  • Dadbod–The flabby opposite of a chiseled body male ideal. Should not empower dads to pursue a sedentary lifestyle.
  • 831–A texting encryption of I love you: 8 letters, 3 words, 1 meaning. Never encrypt or abbreviate one’s love.

I can’t say I’ve heard of any of these words, but the list is enlightening.

The Banished Words List began as a publicity gimmick on New Year’s Day 1976. The late W. T. “Bill” Rabe, then publicity director for Lake Superior State University in Michigan, thought the list would help put the little-known school on the map. New Year’s Day made sense as a time to reflect on the past year. Besides it was typically a slow news day.

Of course banishing words is an exercise in futility. Take a look at lists for bygone years, e.g., 2010, which included

  • app
  • sexting
  • tweet
  • friend, as a verb

So what words would you like to add to the Banished Words List? Leave a comment.

 

Photo source: Weird Tales magazine, September 1941. Photo is adapted from an ad for a Listerine dandruff treatment.