Three Questions Readers Ask

When you set out on the journey of reading a novel, you hope you’ll enjoy the ride all the way to the end. Sure, you may have to forgive a few bumps along the way. But sometimes you encounter a read that you simply can’t finish. Why?

When he was a member of Novel in Progress Austin, the late Hub Ratliff used to quote some unknown source who said readers ask three questions: Huh? Oh, Yeah? and So What? That spoke to me as both a writer and reader. I’ve always thought of the questions as a handy sniff test and, at one time, had them taped on my computer.

Huh?

Quite simply, the writing must be sufficiently clear that I don’t stumble over clumsy phrases or have to re-read passages to get the point. I also don’t like ostentatious language and foreign phrases that suggest the writer is a lot smarter than I am.

Oh, Yeah?

It has to be believable. Characters must not act “out of character” unless the writer has planted clues to this behavior or is able to show later what motivated it.

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman, tells the amusing and poignant story of an insufferable miser and curmudgeon, “. . .a man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s flashlight.” When his wife turns up the radiators to warm their chilly house, he turns them down. The author failed to convince me that a) Ove’s sweet wife was ever attracted to him, and b) she truly loved him.

I think nothing trips my gag reflex faster than too much coincidence. I’m not OK with more than one coincidence per novel, and I really hate it when the climax hinges on it. Say the mysterious man Julie admired on the elevator at work shows up at her dog park, and the next day her dog finds a wallet that belongs to him, and she looks at the driver’s license and realizes he was her boyfriend in third grade, etc., etc.

So What?

Often this question pertains to characterization. Do I care if Hilda–gets the job–gets the man–gets over psoriasis? Even if I like, or at least respect, Hilda, if I feel the stakes aren’t high enough, I just want to tell her to get over it.

Do you have other turn-offs or examples? Leave a comment.

Indie Author Fringe

Mark your calendars for Indie Author Fringe, 24 hours of free publishing advice from ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors) beginning Oct. 14th.

Quotable

I ransack public libraries and find them full of sunk treasure.

–Virginia Woolf

 

Show? Tell? Summarize?

Somewhere between “showing and telling” lies “summarizing,” as in this excerpt from “The Magic Barrel,” by Bernard Malamud, in Major American Short Stories, A. Walton Litz, Ed.

Excerpt: . . . .All day he ran around in the woods, missed an important appointment, forgot to give out his laundry, walked out of a Broadway cafeteria without paying and had to run back with the ticket in his hand; had even not recognized his landlady in the street when she passed with a friend and courteously called out, “A good evening to you, Doctor Finkle.” By nightfall, however, he had regained sufficient calm to sink his nose into a book and there found peace from his thoughts.

 My Take-away: Malamud’s summary offers a satisfying middle ground between telling the reader that the character was scattered all day vs. showing each of the character’s distracted behaviors. I think the strength of this summary comes from piling lapse upon lapse. Presenting one or two of these lapses wouldn’t capture the state of his mind nearly as well. It also doesn’t hurt the imagery that “all day he ran around in the woods.”

Announcement

San Marcos Public Library will hold its indie author day on Sat., Sept. 30th, 2-4 p.m.

Btw

I follow K.M. Weiland’s writing blog. Today’s post, “6 Lifestyle Changes You Can Make To Protect Creativity” was exceptional.

Quotable

I’m playing with placing quotes over images. Probably need to keep working at it.

“Label Jars, Not People”

Out of the need to raise awareness about the dignity of all people came the slogan a few years back “Label Jars, Not People.” Referring to people as “the mentally ill” or “the blind” or “the homeless” marginalizes individuals and limits how they are perceived.

While I fully agree with this enlightened view, I’m appropriating the slogan for my own purpose which is to point out that labels are bad for writers, too. Why? Because they are a shorthand that robs the reader of the experience. If I write that my character suffers from “imposter syndrome,” you get the idea instantly, maybe you even personalize it, but you don’t feel it in your gut. What if I write:

“Without taking time to remove her stage make-up, Catherine sneaked out the theater’s service delivery door, but a fan accosted her: ‘You were marvelous tonight.’ Her throat tightened, and her breaths came in gasps. Hadn’t he noticed when she slipped out of character or when she slurred the word brewery?  She squeaked out a barely audible “Thank you.”

Another example: Writing about a character diagnosed with bi-polar disorder? Show the reader the behavior long before revealing the diagnosis. That gives the reader a full experience, after which comes the opportunity to think, “Aha, I knew it.”

Labels come to us easily. If I call a character “cute,” I know what I have in mind (not that I can picture it, because I don’t see pictures in my head–the subject of a previous post.) Better to provide a word picture or to give the reader an idea of what other characters notice about this person.

Btw, I want to thank Stephanie Hoogstad for her recent post “Imposter Syndrome–or I’m Not a Real Writer” in her blog The Writer’s Scrap Bin.  A good post that got me thinking about labels.

Your thoughts on labels? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Author Ian McLean posted this on Twitter:

 

Links for Writers v1.1

This is so much fun. This post was inspired by Cory Richardson, an aspiring writer related to my husband, Tim. She lives in a very small town and is eager to learn about writing resources on the internet.

With so much available, a Google search can be daunting. So I’m listing some links as a starting point. The cool thing about having a few resources is using them as a springboard to even more good stuff.

First of all, take a look at my posts in the “Writing Craft” category, especially Links for Writers v1.0 in which I refer to posts on character development and pacing, and Writing the Perfect Scene.

Get the juices flowing with writing prompts, for example the 365 Creative Writing Prompts from ThinkWritten.  

Since Cory wants to write science fiction, I Googled “science fiction writing prompts” which turned up several, including “58 Science Fiction Writing Prompts” from the blog of Mandy Wallace.

For plot development, I like Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. 

Readers, can you help? Getting feedback on your writing is so important. My writing education has come mainly from the critique group Novel in Progress Austin. But I know now everyone has the luxury of a live group, and there are online groups and places online where you can find a reading buddy to exchange material with. I just don’t know where they are.

It’s almost time for NaNoWriMo.  Join the nearly half a million people who will take the challenge to write a 50,000-word novel between November 1st to the 30th. I’ve never done it, but I know people who have, and it’s a great immersion experience. One reason I like the concept is that in order to write about 1,00 words per day, you have to allow yourself to write crap. And really, that’s what a first draft is and should be. It’s the time to let the creative juices flow and turn off the editing Nazi. And there’s help and camaraderie as you and others bounce off ideas in the interactive NaNoWriMo Forums, such as the Character Cafe and Worldbuilding.

There you have it for starters, Rory. Have fun.

Quotable

I do not over-intellectualize the production process. I try to keep it simple. Tell the damned story.

–Tom Clancy

 

 

 

 

Janet Fitch’s Rules for Writers


As I’ve said before, White Oleander, by Janet Fitch, is a book I look to again and again to study writing style.  I’m happy to see that Fitch has a new novel coming out November 7th, entitled The Revolution of Marina M. It’s called “a sweeping saga of the Russian Revolution as seen through the eyes of one young woman.” (Just wish she hadn’t chosen the chopped-off head look so in vogue for covers today.)

A while back, Fitch, who teaches writing, shared her advice for writers with a blog of the Los Angeles Times.

Janet Fitch’s 10 Rules for Writers is worth taking a look at. Not wanting to reprint it in full without permission, I’ve taken just a sampling:

 Write the sentence, not just the story 

Long ago I got a rejection from the editor of the Santa Monica Review, Jim Krusoe. It said: “Good enough story, but what’s unique about your sentences?” That was the best advice I ever got. Learn to look at your sentences, play with them, make sure there’s music, lots of edges and corners to the sounds. Read your work aloud. Read poetry aloud and try to heighten in every way your sensitivity to the sound and rhythm and shape of sentences. The music of words. I like Dylan Thomas best for this–the Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait. I also like Sexton, Eliot, and Brodsky for the poets and Durrell and Les Plesko for prose. A terrific exercise is to take a paragraph of someone’s writing who has a really strong style, and using their structure, substitute your own words for theirs, and see how they achieved their effects.

My Take-away: I find reading Fitch’s rules heartening. I like to picture her laboring over craft just like I do.

Glimpse of the Past

I was recently talking with a friend about my former career as a newspaper reporter. This was before computers so stories were typed. We made small revisions following a copywriting guide, so, for example, if you crossed out a phrase and later decided to keep, it you wrote “stet” and circled it.

For big revisions, we had scissors and rubber cement. Need to move a paragraph? Cut it off and paste it where it belongs. Hence, “cut-and-paste.”

Quotable

The truth is libraries are raucous clubhouses for free speech, controversy, and community. 

–Paula Poundstone 

 

 

Get That Word off the Tip of Your Tongue

You know the feeling. A word poised on the tip of your tongue, and no matter how hard you try, it just stays there. Well, don’t give up. There are a couple of sources that might help.

OneLook Reverse Dictionary and Thesaurus

I decided to test drive OneLook Reverse Dictionary and Thesaurus. I plugged in a search term: “horse breed with spots” and hit “Enter.” Here are the first four answers in a list of 100: “appaloosa, dalmatian, pointer, Holstein.: The word I had in mind was “pinto” which came in at #52. So I guess this search is most helpful when you know exactly what you’re looking for. That could be problematic if you’re a foreign spy,. Saying “dalmatian” when you should say “dapple” could get you outed.

Being a thesaurus, the site is also good for finding synonyms. An added bonus is that you can find crossword puzzle answers when all you know are a couple of letters (which hardly seems sporting).

Descriptionary: A Thematic Dictionary

The idea behind Descriptionary: A Thematic Dictionary (4th edition), by Marc McCutcheon is to pin down the right word by looking at a category and sometimes its subcategory. As the author says in the book’s introduction, “Consult Descriptionary whenever you are tempted to use words such as whatchamacallit, thingamajig, or doohickey . . .”

For example,  say you want to find WWII slang for food, you’d go to World War II Slang in the Military category. There you’d find terms like shimmy pudding for Jell-O, kennel rations for hash or meat loaf, and tin titty for canned milk. (The mess hall–or ptomaine alley–isn’t necessarily known for polite conversation.)

My advice is find the terms you want, then take time to browse because you’re almost certain to turn up other gems.

The 711-page fourth edition has some new categories, including Brain, Rocks and Gems, and Torture and Punishment.

Is It Ever Finished?

I published Compromise With Sin on June 1st, but it won’t leave me alone. During the night I woke up with the queasy feeling that I’d said pony when I should have said ponies. It could easily have happened, as I originally had one pony pulling a cart, then decided two would be better. Of course, I had to check it out, and fortunately the ponies are plural.

Quotable

Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.

–P.J. O’Rourke

 

How To Read a Novel MOOC

I told you a few weeks ago that I’d signed up for a free MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) called “How To Read a Novel,” offered by the University of Edinburgh and FutureLearn. Well, I’m woefully behind and probably won’t get caught up. But I can tell you after the first couple of weeks that it’s very well done.

The course blends video lecture, illustrated excerpts from novels, reading assignments, and participant comments. I particularly enjoy the comments. Week 2 was an in-depth look at characterization, and one participant noted that she’s mistaken “having read a lot of books with being well-read.” She plans to re-read a number of books.

Compromise With Sin News

On Saturday I’ll participate in an indie authors event at the San Marcos (TX) Public Library. Called “Going Rogue: Self-Publishing 101,” the event is an opportunity for the public to learn “the various aspects of writing, branding, marketing, and generating sales from an interesting panel discussion.” In addition, I and other authors will display and sell books and talk with visitors.

And next Monday, I’ll visit the book club at Brookdale Gaines Ranch in Austin.

Quotable

To unspool a story is to inhabit a different space altogether. You have to let the world in your head grow until it becomes more important than the world you inhabit.

–Christina Baker Kline

Links for Readers, v1.1 August 2017

More links for the well-connected reader:

Book Goodies

Book Goodies is a web site with the tag line: “Find Great Books, Bargains, and Freebies.” And it lives up to its name. You’ll find book reviews, interviews with authors, podcasts, KDP Countdown deals, free books, and more. (I recently did an interview on Book Goodies.)

You can also sign up for the “Deals and Steals” newsletter, delivered to your inbox daily.

Midwest Book Review

While the New York Times and other big hitters primarily review books from the mega-publishers, Midwest Book Review focuses on small press publishers, self-published authors, and academic presses.

Established in 1976, Midwest Book Review is committed to “literacy, library usage, and small press publishing,” accepts no advertising, and relies on  volunteer reviewers. Interested? Here’s more info. 

Both readers and writers will find a wealth of information on the site, but be prepared to wander about, especially when it comes to pinning down actual book reviews. Enjoy the stroll.

Free Kindle for PC, Mac,  iPad, and Android 

Did you know that you don’t need to own a Kindle device in order to buy and read Kindle books? There’s a free app you can download from Amazon so you can read books on your computer, iPad or even your phone.

I have an early Kindle, the kind that you have to wind up, so I’m really enjoying reading books on my new little Lenovo computer. With its eleven-inch screen, it’s almost as handy as the Kindle. And because I own the device, my Kindle library shows up on my computer.

Go here to download the app.

Quotable

Reading is a conversation. All books talk. But a good book listens as well.

–Mark Haddon

Writer Skillfully Employs Meteor Shower

In the overnight hours of August 12th and 13th, I hope to catch the Perseid meteor shower. I’ve watched for the meteors several times but caught them just once. On that memorable occasion, friends and I had driven into the foothills of Denver to get away from light pollution. After staring up at the night sky for some time, we decided to lie down on the side of the road. Kids, don’t try this, OK?

It’s easy for writers to employ cosmic events in trite ways, but I’m reminded of a passage from Janet Fitch’s White Oleander. Astrid is standing with Ray and others watching for the Quatrandid meteor shower:

Excerpt: I could hear the mud sucking at his boots as he shifted his weight. I was glad it was dark, that he couldn’t see the flush of pleasure on my face as he drew closer, looking up at the sky as if he cared about the Quatrandids, as if that’s why he’d come out. . . . He was standing right next to me. If I shifted just an inch to my left, I could brush him with my sleeve. I felt the radiant heat of him across the narrow gap between us in the darkness. We had never stood so close.

My Take-away: The first line puts us right in the moment, hardly a romantic one, but it lets us know how acutely aware Astrid is of Ray’s presence. The rest of the paragraph reveals the growing mutual attractio without Fitch ever saying so directly.

Let me add that if I had only one book to emulate in terms of writing style, I’d choose White Oleander.

 

Compromise With Sin Available for Pre-order

The Kindle edition of Compromise With Sin will be published on August 19th. It’s available now for pre-order at $3.99.

Quotable

I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life. If you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it full speed. Embrace it with both arms. Hug it. Love it, and above all, become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good.

–Roald Dahl

Compromise With Sin Earns Kirkus Star

I discovered today that Compromise With Sin , my debut novel, had earned a Star from Kirkus Reviews. I had to do a bit of sleuthing to see what that meant.

Now you may not be familiar with Kirkus Reviews, revered in the publishing industry since the 1930s. Booksellers and libraries and, to a lesser extent, readers rely on Kirkus for top-quality, independent reviews of traditionally published and indie published books.

The Kirkus Star is awarded to about ten percent of the books Kirkus reviews. The Star means I’m a nominee for the 2017 Kirkus Prize in Fiction. The winner will receive $50,000.

I’m still in shock.