Thursday, December 31, 2009

Last Call.

Last day of a bad year/decade. It's pretty impressive when an entire decade sucks. I haven't experienced that before. But it was basically a write-off from beginning to end. Except for my sister's new family, of course. They are the bright stars of the Uh-Ohs.

And off to the Tweens and Teens! The exclamation mark was just to cover up how completely exhausting the idea is. Ten more years? I think I may start rooting for the Mayans. Because the Georgian calendar keeps ending and nothing happens. Bummer.

In writing news from the penultimate time zone, I restarted work on my new book. I should note that the last change date on the file was October 27, 2008, so there is a bit of catching up to do. Oddly, the one thing that eerily interfered with the writing the last time flared up again and ended my work day today. No point in explaining what that thing is, but I'm impressed by the irrational link. Not a health matter, but a large object with a life of its own.

More work tomorrow. Hope the interfering object does not get hit by an asteroid. Too bummed to think of champagne. Perhaps an early bedtime and end to 2009.

To the Uh-Ohs. You could not suck enough.

Monday, December 28, 2009

New Adult? (From an Old Adult).

Looks like we have a new genre on our hands: New Adult. Presumably it is an offshoot of the fantastically successful Young Adult. New Adult seems to come after YA and before, well, A. The problem is, what does it mean?

There was no YA in my day (that's a good story, Grandma!). We were shunted directly from the children's section into adult fiction. Some of us got no farther than Science Fiction for some years, but most were left to wander the wide world of fiction in a Joycean peregrination. If we could get past the librarian (no small feat), we could take home anything that caught our semiliterate fancy.

Not so much, these days. The library where I volunteer has a Teen Room where the YA is kept. What happens to teens who make it to twenty? They are left to face all of fiction. Or were, but now we have NA...

Who are New Adults? Twentysomethings? Just those in college? Or is it just for vampires in college? Does my library have to build a new room for them? Very confusing. In any event, there would be no NA if some marketer somewhere didn't think he or she could reach potential readers and sell to them. That is the name of the game. Unless someone, somewhere believes a genre or book will sell to readers, that genre won't exist and that book won't be published. So we'll see where NA goes.

Bonus Answer: Know why there are very few books and movies set in the college years, compared to the years before and after? Because storytelling focuses on people in situations where they feel trapped. Readers and audiences want to watch people struggle to overcome their problems and strive for freedom. Think a high school student or employed person raising a family will feel sorry for a college student's problems? Yeah, nope.

Remember this reaction: "Wow, that person's really in trouble. I wonder how he or she will get out of it." Let that inform your writing. And your query letter.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Big Writing Suggestion.

Here's an idea: Never, ever, never ever ever, start a piece of writing with a character waking up in the morning. We've all done it. We've all seen it done. Many, many times.

Start anywhere else. Be fascinating: skip to the morning trip to the toilet. Nobody goes to the toilet in fiction.

Maybe that's why it's fiction.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Well That's Evil.

PublishAmerica has a series of new goofball lures to try to entice their writers to buy their own books. Get this claim: if a PA writer buys X number of their own overpriced paperbacks, PA says they will send copies to:

1. Walmart.
2. Oprah.
3. Soldiers in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. For Christmas.

Shall we say I doubt the veracity of these claims? I don't much care about the extra effort involved for the staffs of Walmart and Harpo to carry such books to the dumpster. I'm sure that's a regular part of the gig. Honestly, folks, do you believe that either enterprise selects books that arrive in the mail? Did you ever think that there might be folks who buy books for Walmart (and Costco, Target, etc.) as a career? Nobody knows how Oprah picks out her melodramas, but it's not like this.

And sending books to soldiers for Christmas? Lovely idea. I've sent books (not my own) to soldiers in Afghanistan. The deadline this year was December fourth. So PA is what, fibbing? Or are they just uninformed? Shocking! Or is there just possibly a chance that PA is not printing and sending these extra books anywhere? That the whole thing is a fabrication? If they're going where PA says they're going, I want pics.

In short, folks, if you want to know how something works, whether it's publishing of selecting books for Walmart, at least Google it. If more people would just do that, I might not have a PA to rail against.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Weird Theory.

Anyone who has read this blog for a while (hi, Mom!) will know that I have a bit of a hobby-horse going on the subject of self-publishing. I love the blog Self-Publishing Review (, and its rule that the reviewer will only read a book until he or she encounters fifteen errors. In most self-published books that does not take many pages.

Self-published writers tend to be defensive about their printed errors. Indeed, in self-publishing forums I read, I hear a common refrain:

"There are lots of mistakes in commercially-published books, too!"

Maybe I'm reading the wrong books, but no, there are not. I'll confess that I rarely read genre fiction. For the most part, I read literary fiction. So maybe times are tough in the genres. Maybe there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst the editorial staffs in romance, horror, and science fiction as mistakes slip past their overworked blue pencils. But somehow I don't think so.

How's this for a theory? Writers who are driven into the questionable embrace of self-publishing, writers who produce the books with the requisite fifteen errors in three pages, just perhaps those writers are seeing errors that aren't there. Books that I would read and find no errors, these folks would read and find many. Because, and follow me closely here, they're wrong.

Startling, ain't it?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Looking for a Hard-Headed Novel.

This is a point-of-view post at its heart. I wanted to say that up front not only to make it clear where we're going, but also to remind myself. Because I've been reading a few novels of late that are challenging. The good ones, because of violence. The bad ones, because of show-don't-tell issues. What I've discovered is that they're giving me the same sort of trouble, and it's POV trouble.

Let's look at show-don't-tell first, and why it's a POV issue. Here we are, the happy reader reading a scene, and let's say our character is painting a fence. We're told how hot the day feels, etc., etc., and then we're told our character has a smudge of paint on his cheek. Well, the way this was handled in this particular scene, the character had no idea. The writer just told us. I wasn't in the character's head anymore; I was in the writer's head. POV. Lazy writing.

Now for the violence. Every reader has different tolerances, and if you read enough good fiction you should rub up against your rev limiter once in a while. If nothing is ever too violent for you, perhaps a long vacation in a country far away from me? Okie-dokie.

Violence can cause another kind of POV problem, because rather than being ejected from the character's head into the writer's head (where I'd rather not go in these cases), I'm being flung back into my head. For most violence I can go along with the character, no problem, especially if he or she is reacting in a way I understand. But there is a line where the violence is so egregious or the character's reaction so unusual that I'll pull back out of mental self-defense.

There's the challenge with writing violence. First, it can't be arbitrary. Second, it needs to make sense in the context of the story. And third, I need to be able to get into the head of the POV character, whether that person is the one inflicting the violence, the victim, a witness, or an investigator. Somebody needs to react to the violence in a way I can understand, or I'm sitting back in my living room trying to figure out how I would handle that situation. That is true of all writing, which is why show-don't-tell is so important, but violence has such a high visceral charge that it is more critical. You can easily blast a reader out of your writing.

Just give me a head I can get in and stay in, and I'll stay with you through all manner of extremity.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Where Was I?

A funny thing happened on the way to The End of my current work. I stopped. Now, there are about fifteen major Real Life reasons that the writing, it ended. And about fifteen reasons related to the novel itself. I've solved a few of the latter and none of the former. But I have found a reason to get back to writing.

I had tried luring myself with the idea of a hoped-for next book tour. I know writers complain about them, but my parents went with me for the Northern California dates, and we had more fun than you'd believe. We might go back with no book at all!

What was the hang-up? There was the existential problem of what is the point, exactly, to writing novels? Beyond the fact that they are not a critical item in human existence. No, really, they're not. Not like food and water and football. Then there is the fact that in a few billion years the Sun will swell up, consume the Earth, and even the best novel will have only the quality of flammability.

And then something odd happened. I've mentioned before that I rail against a number of vanity-press-in-disguise companies, most singularly PublishAmerica. Want to see pain? Hear from a writer who has just figured out that they have sold their book to a phony publisher for one dollar. And I've had occasion to speak to such writers on many occasions.

That is what happened. A writer got in touch who had discovered the PA scam too late. This person hurt. A lot. They also, and forgive me, but it is the truth, had very poor English usage. In every respect. When asked, no, they don't read much.

That's when it came to me: why I need to keep going. Craft. Because I do read, and do try to use language well, and it means something to me. Because I can do it well.

And so I shall.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Nobel Time Again.

Success! Someone managed to translate, print, and sell last year's Nobel Lit Laureate's "best known" work in time for me to read it before this year's Nobel Lit Laureate was announced. About 2oo8's winner, J.M.G. Le Clézio's Desert:

I quite enjoyed it. I have long been interested in the Tuareg, and the nomadic peoples of North Africa in general. I found the translation from the French to be quite good, to the point that I would like to buy the novel in the original, to admire the language. The whole was nice enough that I was willing to overlook the Big Interesting Missing Part in the middle. The whole Person From Remote Village Arriving in Big European City part. The elision did raise the risky question of what part of a literary work cannot be removed. This is a major issue, because the answer seems to be no part at all.

On to this year's winner. First, congratulations. Second, I don't expect to be looking for the most famous works in the original German. Sorry, German, you're just not so sexy as French. Those poor verbs. I shall wait the months until the best-known novel appears in English.

As for the prizes themselves, not to deride the winners, but you are becoming, shall we say, Balkanized? Best European Author Award? Shall we start voting for next year? Nearly Demolished Former Yugoslavian? Abused French Muslim? Repressed Gay Spaniard? I'm hoping for a Transsexual Basque, writing in a dialect that cannot be translated into American English.

We're such a bunch of illiterate, unworthy slobs, after all.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

My Bad Attitude.

This is how writers come up with stories:

I was reading a food blog today. I can't cook, but I do like to watch. Someone had posted pictures of a diner in a small Utah town. The menu included several Spam-based items. Insert Monty Python song here. Someone responding to the post questioned the presence of so much Spam. I opined that it was because of the large numbers of Mormon missionaries sent to Hawaii. I said we send them back with Spam and chlamydia.

Here's the idea. If you were going to invent an religion, how would you sell it? The goal is to convince people that your version of the supernatural is a New and Improved approach to reality. That if somebody follows this story, their life will be Much Much Better!

So what do you need to do? Perhaps shunt off anybody who is prone to break with the herd. Like the young people, who are full of hormones and questions. So why not give them a year to go off and proselytize? And by proselytize I of course mean get drunk and fall down with strangers. In between those weekends standing on people's porches in sweaty polyester suits.

And eating Spam, of course.

p.s. - If I've offended anyone, I don't care. I like Spam.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Small and August Group.

Yes, you can have an august group in September. Because I say so, that's why. The group in question is Audiobooks I Have Shut Off. I've listened to many zillions of audiobooks, and have only shut off three. Today, Allen Steele's Spindrift joined the group. I put up with the science errors, the character deficiencies, the excruciatingly slow pace, the fact that it read like a book from fifty years ago, and the bland writing. I even made it through the half hour spent describing a hatch, the crawling conclusions about what the alien that built the hatch must look like, and the alleged space explorers saying "ewww" at the idea like a bunch of eight-year-olds.

What finally made me bail, not far from the moment when, even in such a hideously slow-moving book, we must, must be about to encounter the aliens? The moment when a scientist, allegedly having spent his entire life waiting for this moment, and stating himself to be an atheist, moves into the realm of the expected aliens, and starts praying. Sorry, folks, I can take only so many clichés and so little understanding of humans. Screw the aliens.


Friday, August 28, 2009


For anyone picking up Allen Steele's Spindrift. Skip to Part Two and start there. I'm listening to the audiobook, and Part Two stars about a quarter of the way through. Here's a precis of Part One:

Narrator who won't be part of the body of the action picks up miscreant scientist from prison on the Moon (yes, on the Moon). Alien signal/craft has been detected, a ship prepared, and a crew readied to intercept same. Miscreant scientist unexpectedly (okay, not really) included on the mission. Ship departs.

Number of meetings to discuss mission/deliver information to the reader: 2
Incompetent ship's Captain, who must die or be redeemed: 1
Overlooked overqualified officer who will either take charge or sacrifice self: 1
Earnest female officer sleeping with overqualified officer: 1
Science errors thus far: One Bajillion

The problem with audiobooks is that you can't skim ahead to the aliens.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009


There are those who say studying screenwriting is a complete waste of time, leaves you with no marketable skills, and in a future era would do nothing more for you than to earn you a berth on Douglas Adams' space ark of middlemen. Note that said ark was carrying an under-appreciated population of telephone sanitizers. Nobody missed the screenwriters. I assume they were aboard.

While I won't argue that the merits of a screenwriting education are few, I can speak for one. It leaves you with a bulletproof sense of structure. It can be a bit eerie to be listening to a long, long audiobook and know the moment you've arrived at the end of act one, or the midpoint, etc. But it works. No matter the book, the genre, or the pace of the story, a screenwriter will never miss a landmark.

Once in a while, this gets weird. It did recently for me, and I was right in the middle of a big strange book. The landmark I had heard go by wasn't the midpoint-- it was the top of the third act. Yep, I was twelve hours into a twenty-four-hour-long audiobook, and the final battle was starting.

Where was I? I was halfway through China Miéville's Perdido Street Station. This book is an imagination explosion. It's a sequel, so even if I wanted to explain the world in which it takes place I couldn't-- I haven't read book number one. I have read his novel The City and the City, which is a stunner. Want to read a mystery with an outstanding and unique premise? Go get it.

Back to Perdido Street and the structural problem. Because it started ending too early. As the final battle began, I thought it had to be a ruse-- a cover story that would end, and then the real conflict would emerge. You'll see that in erotic thrillers. The poor schlub main character thinks the plot is about killing the femme fatale's evil husband. Once that is accomplished he discovers it is about something very different.

But here the battle kept going. And I came to realize that it would last for twelve hours. Not by being complex, but by slowing... down....

This is a problem. The final battle was a complex action sequence. But the pace was so slow, the writing so fine-grained, that it barely seemed to move. What killed the pace most were description and point of view. Description because absolutely everything was described. I mean everything. If there were two or three descriptions for one object or event, they all made the cut. Point of view because everyone got one. Not a problem usually; I do the same. Different scene, different POV. But here we got multiple points of view in most scenes. We even got the point of view of some giant slavering insects. Head hopping everywhere.

All this drags the pace down. Even the internal sense of urgency seemed to vanish. At one point the main character stumbles and lands with his injured palms on a sheet of metal. It is described as being as hot as a kettle on a stove. Does he scramble away? Well, not right off. He hesitates. Then he moves. Gaaah!

There are a few other curiosities here, like a kidnapped girlfriend who isn't thought about for a hundred pages or so. And a main character who seems oddly passive at the worst times. A secondary character who acquires a first-person point of view. Verbs that arrive replete with "began to"s far too often.

I'll be back for the next if this becomes a trilogy, and I'll get the first book. Miéville has an imagination that could power Western Europe. I'm just going to hope that, in the next book, act three begins 75% of the way through the book.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Order is In.

I have ordered ink cartridges. Yes, the kind that cost more than the printer, once you add shipping to Hawaii. Two-day Fedex only, if you please. I will be able to print out the plans for the woodworking project my father thinks I should try next, and I will be able to print out the new book.

The new book is only halfway done, and has been for a loooong time. I have allowed myself to indulge in the magical notion that when I work on this book Bad Things Happen. So I shall try to change my luck by printing it out. Sometimes I wait to do this until I have a rough draft, but printing now might change the mojo.

I meet a lot of writers these days who don't print out their work. I try to convince them that it's worth the $87.08 to Epson and FedEx. Reading your work in print is a very different experience than reading it on a screen. Editing on paper is much more successful because it seems more permanent and serious. And reading your work aloud? Yikes, you might think yourself a moron.

Soon I shall print, and edit, and then possibly write again. I hope this is not a Portent of Doom.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Observation on Gaiman.

I was browsing, my supplier of audiobooks, and searched for Neil Gaiman's latest. Up came a list of many Gaiman productions. And they had one similarity: they were nearly all half as long as most of the novels I buy. A fact hidden between the covers by font size and formatting, but rather harder to conceal in an audiobook.

I'm buying his latest, but I now understand his rapid production. And no, there's no discount for a miniature book.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Tana French.

Or, two really, really good books. I had to check because I couldn't believe I hadn't mentioned these two yet. In the Woods and its sequel, The Likeness. Really fantastic. Why, you might ask? There are reasons, I might answer:

1. Excellent writing. This is everything from the mechanics to the diction to the voice. Do the Irish keep their language centers and music centers in the same part of the brain? Do they just use words better than everyone else? I particularly noticed the voice in The Likeness. How many sophomore novels are actually stronger than the freshman? Here's one, and Tana French had already reached a lofty height with In the Woods.

2. Excellent mystery, and plenty of it. These books are layered with mysteries. The mystery that drives the plot, and the mysteries that drive the characters. It's not just the one straight line through the book. There are complexities.

3. Mystery survives! These novels do not end with everything solved neatly, boxed, and tied up with string. Mysteries go on. There is more to know. Do not think for a moment that this is unsatisfying; instead it makes me hope that Tana French is a fast writer. I'm ready for #3.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Ask a Weird Question...

One of my favorite agent blogs featured a poll this week: Does listening to an audiobook qualify as reading? This struck me as a dumb question. Lets see, I listen to all the words in a book, in order, and the words stick in my head. Afterward, I know the story and could pass a quiz about the book. But the answers were startling. Half the people questioned said no, if you listen to an audiobook, you have not read the book.

The Big Reveal: I go through a lot of audiobooks. Unabridged, thank you very much. I take a three mile walk every morning, and I listen to audiobooks. Here is the difference between listening on my walk and reading on my couch: when I listen, I do not skim. I do not get up and go to the refrigerator every three pages. I do not check my email. I do not fall asleep.

Audiobooks also tame the wild punctuation of a writer like Faulkner, because the poor narrator has to breathe. And sometimes you get a really great narrator. The Sound and the Fury read by a southerner. Ulysses read by an Irishman. And recently, Beat the Reaper read by someone who had to have been the main character.

So to all those folks who said no, audiobooks don't count as reading? Get your pencils out and get ready for the quiz.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


So what causes a blog to lie fallow for more than half a year? Blogger, mostly. I have tried off and on to sign in through the months, and look, it finally worked! I hope I really remain logged in.

In the mean time, go read Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell. It's fantastic. I hope he writes fast.