Tuesday, January 31, 2012

January 2012 recap

I mentioned that I might do a recap post, and no one howled in protest, so here it is. January 2012, in review:

Book reviews
Road Rage by Richard Matheson, Stephen King, and Joe Hill (3/5 stars, read on audio) — thriller/horror; two novellas about terror on the highway
The Stepsister Scheme by Jim Hines (4/5 stars) — fantasy; another take on fairy tales that has the heroines heading out to rescue the prince
Discord's Apple by Carrie Vaughn (4/5 stars, read on audio) — urban fantasy; a young woman inherits a legacy of protecting objects of lore
Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore (4/5 stars, read on audio) — humor/urban fantasy/weird; a whale researcher gets in way over his head, but gets his answer
Grave Surprise by Charlaine Harris (Harper Connelly #2)(3/5 stars, read on audio) — horror/mystery; a woman with the ability to locate the dead finds a grave with two bodies buried in it
11/22/63 by Stephen King (5/5 stars, read as part of a readalong) — time travel thriller; a man finds a portal to 1958, and goes through to prevent the assassination of JFK
Sunglasses After Dark by Nancy A. Collins (4/5 stars) — horror/urban fantasy; invokes the root of vampires-as-monster, while establishing the whole vampire hunter genre so prevalent today
Dexter by Design by Jeff Lindsay (Dexter #4)(4/5 stars, read on audio) — horror/mystery/thriller; serial killer killer Dexter is nearly unmasked
Plum Lovin' by Janet Evanovich (3/5 stars, read on audio) — humor/mystery; Stephanie Plum plays matchmaker
Also, because people keep reading these reviews:
Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood (3/5 stars, read on audio) — literary fiction; two women and a husband deal with the aftermath of the wife's lover's suicide
Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones by Brandon Sanderson (Alcatraz #2)(4/5 stars) — YA/urban fantasy/humor/weird; Alcatraz goes to the Library of Alexandria hunting a clue about his father

Most popular posts in January
Readalong post #1, covering parts 1 - 3 of 11/22/63 by Stephen King
Antici-, where I build suspense for my stories about taking authors to dinner by talking about building suspense. Raise your hand if you figured that out before I told you.
Libraries, about the closest I can get to Heaven without dying
Responding to reviews, about the Writer's Big Mistake and the steps I vow to take if and when it becomes relevant to me
Rules to review by, about the standards I hold my book reviews to
Dinner with a fantasy writing icon, about the time I nearly giggle-shrieked aloud in a very crowded place
Writing by the seat of your pants, being one of my oldest posts, still gets a decent rate of hits. Apparently people still want to know what the heck a pantster is.
Bad grammar makes me [sic], about how one grows up to be a member of the grammar police

Coming next month: a readalong of Feed by Mira Grant (I've already read it, and will be sharing my second-time-around observations), SWANoWriMo, more book reviews, and a post about repetition, foreshadowing, or repetition.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Vanity Presses, or throwing your money and words down a hole

Yog's Law (as coined by James D. Macdonald): "Money should flow toward the author."
I hope everyone reading this has heard, and understands, the above quote. When an author signs a contract, that author doesn't pay the agent, publisher, editors, or publicist. Instead, that author should expect to be paid for the intellectual copyright, for the time and energy it took the words to get onto the page.

No, publishing isn't the most lucrative of operations, especially for writers just starting out (with a few notable exceptions). But there will be income. There may be an advance (though I understand those are falling by the wayside these days). There will be royalties, once the advance is paid out. There will be royalties from sales of the back catalogue, which a lot of writers experience a surge of with each subsequent book.

If the money is flowing in the opposite direction, you're dealing with what is politely called a vanity press. Less politely, they're a scam.

I'll take a moment to separate out vanity press and self-publishing. There's a difference, and an important one. The vanity press will sound like a legitimate publisher. They'll make it sound like paying them to publish your book is the way the business works, and that those evil gatekeepers at the traditional publishers won't touch your book until after you have some publishing credits under your belt. They prey on a would-be author's vanity. Hence, the name.

Self-publishers, on the other hand, are honest and up-front about their intentions. They serve an important function. Without self-publishers, a lot of local- or limited-interest books wouldn't be put together in a nice hardcover (or paperback) package with editing and legal graphics and the like. A lot of ebooks you see flooding the market these days are self-published under these honest and open guidelines, making it perfectly clear the writer is in charge of marketing and distribution, and the writer is pleased simply to have the book out there for people to read. Those who achieve success without going straight to a traditional publisher don't go through a vanity press, first.

I honestly don't think this information can be too readily available. If vanity presses didn't make any money, they wouldn't be in business. And they make money the same way as any other scam: people fall for it. All of those who know better have an obligation, then, to shield those who don't know enough about the publishing industry to avoid vanity presses. Otherwise, a Google search for a publisher will have them stumbling across one of the vanity presses, and it'll all sound so reasonable. A few dollars there, a small fee for editing there, and they're in bookstores? Where do they sign up?

Vanity presses deliberately make it sound like they're the best avenue for success, when they're the exact opposite. A writer listing a publication under a vanity press will be regarded as naive, at best. In one case of spectacular author fail (I alluded to it in this post), the vanity press's promises led to the author feeling a sense of entitlement where her dreck was concerned, and she lashed out at anyone who dared question her right to hear only wonderful things about her terrible book.

If you're a writer just starting out and you don't know anything about publishing yet, beware the vanity presses. Beware anyone asking for money up-front, and promising more than they can deliver. Beware anything that sounds too good to be true. As my husband writes, writing is hard. Anything that shortcuts that process he discusses in his post should be regarded warily.

And if none of this is news to you, please, find a newbie writer to warn away from these leeches.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Finding time to write

I've already written about making the most of your writing time, but I haven't posted so much on where you find that time to begin with. At most of the writing workshops and conferences and panels I've been to, about half the time, someone asks, "But where do you find time to write?" What follows is a long list of obligations that take up their time, then, a helpless shrug.

You don't find time to write. There isn't a bank of free time out there that, if you chant, "I'm going to be a real writer" while you're staring at a blank page in your word processing program, magically opens. Writers have the same 24 hours in their day as you or I. The difference is how they choose to spend it.

I don't know about you, but when I think I'll have time to write, I'm in trouble. I might take some days off with the intention of spending those 8 hours I'd normally be working instead working on my writing. Instead of that, though, I clean, I run errands, I spend time with friends, and I catch up on sleep. Planning to cram all my writing into my weekend is an exercise in distraction. When I'm at my most productive, I'm cramming a few minutes of writing in before I go to bed, even though I should've been in bed an hour ago.

It's frustrating, I know. You want to have an uninterrupted spate of time to get it all down, to get to the good part, to not be distracted. If you want that time, though, you'll have to take it from other things you're spending your allotted 24 hours on.

If you want to go about it in an organized way, use a day planner to track what you're doing every hour, or 15 minutes, or however often you can track without making yourself crazy. At the end of the week, divide out your time by what you spent it on. I picked this up by reading a business column based on this book, which I haven't read. But I did absorb the idea that I'm wasting more time than I realize, and that I was stealing this time from myself. Every minute I spend picking at my split ends is one less minute I have to write, which can add up to a lot of minutes by the end of the week. Every minute I spend with commercials screaming at me is another minute I could be editing or typing. Every minute I spend going back to twitter to check if someone's @-replied me is another wasted opportunity.

That isn't to say I never waste my time anymore, and I'm definitely not saying you should never go online (because then you couldn't read my blog), but I am saying to be aware of it. Maybe you need to set a timer to limit yourself to surfing and checking twitter, like some people in my writing group advocate. Maybe you need to actively block the internet for an hour or two to get rid of the temptation.

Or, maybe you need to cut other activities out of your life to find the time. Being active and involved is important, and exercise is usually good for letting ideas churn around in your head. But if something takes you a half an hour to drive to and from, and then an hour or two of meeting time, that's time you could be writing. Sure, it's fun and enriching, but is it more important than getting to work on that story idea you're finally ready to put down on paper?

I can't answer that question for you. Maybe something is more important. But, if you've looked at your time expenditures, and you've poked at your activities, and found nothing that can be sacrificed so you'll have the time to write, it's time to stop kidding yourself. If writing is the least important thing to you, why do you want to do it at all?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Review: Plum Lovin'

Plum Lovin'
Plum Lovin' by Janet Evanovich

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I listened to this on audio. It was meant to be a fluffy palate-cleansing sort of read, and it most certainly accomplished that. I wouldn't say it accomplished anything more.

The story was much shorter and less complicated than the numbered volumes. In this, Diesel returns to inform Stephanie that she has to take over for matchmaker Annie Hart, who Stephanie has been trying to track down with no luck. Along the way, she meets skeezy pawn brokers, aged mob bosses, and the usual cast of nutty characters, who lose some of their charm for being crammed into this light piece.

I noted in a review of one of the earlier books that I thought Stephanie's strength was in her willingness to help out and fix the situations that got people bonded out in the first place. I'd been growing impatient with how this is often used as a liability in more recent books. I was glad to see that it became an asset in this book, and that she got to really shine. None of her matchmaking quests went as she expected (though I saw the pairing-off as cliche and inevitable from the start), but they all ended well.

Unfortunately, a lot of the things that irritate me about the Stephanie Plum books were in this, as well. There was the parade of weirdos marching through Stephanie's life for no purpose except comic relief, there was the sexy guy inexplicably attracted to Stephanie and hitting on her relentlessly, and there were a lot of incidents where logic took a back seat. There's a wedding by a justice of the peace in this book, and, though the justice witnesses the guy's being threatened with being zapped by a stun gun and the guy never says, "I do," apparently the wedding is legal. I guess it wouldn't have been as funny if he had, or something. And I could've done without Lula's weight having a number attached. Her characterization is insulting enough without the knowledge her BMI is lower than mine.

I'm just going to pretend that Stephanie had an allergic reaction, overdosed on Benadryl, and dreamed this whole book to explain all the weird changes she found when she woke up. It's less weird for me that way.

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Readalong: 11/22/63 Parts 4 - 6

Everything below the jump is going to contain spoilers. If you haven't already read the book and you don't want to know how it ends, please don't click to read further. (Spoilers begin after the fourth paragraph, if you clicked to get to this post directly.)

What a ride! Stephen King knows his stuff. He knows how to string along a reader so that we keep coming back for more. He knows how to write a time travel tale (rather difficult to pull off, most writers acknowledge) in his own, fresh way, while being respectful to those who've come before. (He sprinkles a few suggested titles into the narrative.) He knows how to give us hints about what's going on and what'll happen, while still surprising us at the end. I know he has writing chops, but he still surprised me with what an enjoyable book this was.

Without the readalong, this would have been a different experience. There's something to be said for reading, discussing, and enjoying a book together. Others in the group noticed details I'd skipped over or deemed not important enough to pay attention to, and that awareness increased my enjoyment. Matt made me wonder, as I read, what 11/22/63 looks like to someone who hasn't read much Stephen King. Britt brought my focus on the Yellow Card Man, which pays off significantly before the book is done, and not in the way I thought. Grace talked about the style, how the book is essentially addressed to the reader. Rachelkiwi questioned the logic of going back in time to save things, especially when changes wreaked early on ended poorly.  Jennifer's post brought to my attention how much King kept upping the stakes, which is both necessary and difficult in a first-person narrative.

Stopping to think about a book before plunging on also made me notice a lot of the literary aspects. There's foreshadowing galore, and this is a well-constructed tale. With one exception, the things I wondered in my write-up of Parts 1 - 3 were answered.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Your writing soundtrack

Listening to music isn't directly related to writing. Authors have produced classics in relative silence since the advent of the novel. Some authors in the '70s and '80s admitted that they listened to the radio while they wrote, but that was nothing on the distractions of the modern age. Most computers have a built-in CD player, and anyone can import music into the computer to carry around their entire music library, accessible at a click. There are also music services like Pandora and Spotify where you can listen to just about any songs online (and I've discovered a ton of new music through both). Go to any coffee shop, and you'll see most people plugged in with earphones, some of them bopping their heads to the beat while they type away.

I'm listening to music right now, in fact, and I don't get far in my writing without music playing in the background. TV, conversations, and unexpected noise are a distraction. Music is part of the writing process for me.

Not the editing process, though. I find I'm more willing to read over awkward phrasing or typos with music playing, even when the volume is low. Music's rhythm encourages me to keep moving, so it's not conducive to pausing at something I need to fix.

I'm not the only one who writes with music. At write-ins, everyone else in the writing group pops in headphones as soon as we're getting down to it, and any interruption involves taking one out to hear what someone is saying. It's to keep us focused, to show others that we're busy and not up for conversation, and to keep up the momentum.

I've heard some published authors talk about the music they listen to while they write. One clever YA author made an index of of the songs she listened to while she was writing the book, which helped me connect with the words on a whole different level.

It seems that writers approach this as different as any other technique or tip, though. They adapt it to their own needs. I can't listen to anything slow or droning when I'm writing, or I start writing maudlin treatises on why the characters' lives suck. So I have a playlist I call "Motivation" of peppy, upbeat, high-energy songs. I also listen closely to the lyrics when I'm not writing, to see if a character whose head I'm having difficulty getting into might relate to the song. If I find that to be true, I'll play that song or the group who played it until I've figured out the character's motivation.

Others in the writing group separate out their music into moods, or types of scenes, and play the music for inspiration. That doesn't work for me, but to each one's own.

Recently, Lifehacker posted an article about using timed playlists to increase one's productivity. (Giving credit where it's due, my husband Josh was the one who linked it to the writing group's email list.) I could quickly be mired in the time-consuming process of crafting well-balanced playlists, so I'm giving that a pass.

Other writers choose not to listen to music at all because it distracts them, or choose to only listen to certain genres, or to listen to one song on repeat until they've finished a particular scene.

Like a lot of writing techniques, there is no absolute right or wrong way to use music. It's what works for you. The only advice I'll give you is to be aware of the effect music has on your writing. See if it distracts you, or if you produce more words when you're listening to a particular type. Even if you don't particularly like an artist or a genre, you might find that listening to it in the background so that you can barely hear it keeps the distractible part of your brain from acting out. It's worth a try, isn't it?

Review: Dexter by Design

Dexter by Design
Dexter by Design by Jeff Lindsay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the fourth installment in the Dexter series, and I'm glad to see it's back in its stride. While the supernatural elements that bothered me so much about the last one aren't entirely gone, they're pushed back into the realm of subtlety, leaving more room for the story and our charming-but-murderous narrator.

In this one, the mystery begins with bizarre tableaux of dead Miami tourists, and things are ramped up when Dexter's sister, Deborah, is stabbed. She's hospitalized and in a coma. Dexter's sense of helplessness about whether she'll live leads him to make several sloppy mistakes that put him into the sights of a madman who wants to show the world what Dexter is. With Deb out of commission, he has to rely on some unusual allies to stop the killer.

This book has a lot of the elements I liked about the other books. Dexter's trademark dark humor is put to good use, with several one-liners that made me laugh. One has to have a certain sense of humor to find him funny, but it does help that the narrator (I listened to this on audio, as I did the others) knows Dexter well by now, and is able to deliver these darkly funny lines with a good sense of comic timing.

Though a lot of the plot relies on Dexter making several sloppy, amateur mistakes, the book makes it easy to understand why he does without Dexter ever admitting as much. He makes multiple claims that he's without emotion, but it's clear he's unaware that he's lying. It takes some skill to use an unreliable narrator and still get the message across clearly, but Jeff Lindsay has a good handle on irony.

The book makes good use of side characters, too. I never felt like they were getting a walk-on role to make sure they came up, unlike some series I'm also reading. Every character who appears has an important role to play, beyond mere comic relief.

I will definitely be reading the fifth book, and, one of these days, I really need to make time to watch the series.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012


I just got back from picking up a book I requested from the library, so I thought I'd use today to discuss the institution of the public library.

Where I live now, the library isn't much to look at. It's a one-story building, and the library takes up the same space as your average store in a mall. It's organized well with good lighting, but there's a clear space crunch. They simply don't have the room for rows upon rows of every genre.

What they do have, though, is access to the Upper Hudson Library System, which is extensive and well-stocked. I can request a book through any member library, and it will be delivered to my local library, usually within a week. That's why, if you browse my book reviews, you'll find a number of them on audio. I couldn't possibly afford to buy that many audio books, but the library has a ton. If it's available on audio, chances are good the library has it. They even have recorded audio performances of Shakespeare's plays, which I will have to go through if I start running low on modern works.

Libraries are useful for so much more than just taking books out, though they are very useful for that, as well. Most bibliophiles I know (and anyone who loves books has a good chance I'll glom onto them) can't walk into a library without finding a stack to take home. Books are irresistible, and books you can take home for free have a way of grabbing hold of the imagination and folding time in one's head. This is why I request books; I can't find more if I stick by the desk where they put the requests and keep from wandering. My to-read pile is plenty high already.

Libraries are also where people used to start their research before the internet took over. The library was where you'd look for tidbits of writing advice, where you'd check to find out in what year the Walkman became  ubiquitous, or where you'd look up the capital of Estonia (Tallinn, which I didn't have to look up, because I've been there).

I've heard recent remarks that libraries are obsolete, that no one uses them in the digital age, that people don't need outmoded ways of looking things up now that we have the internet. When I'm being nice, I call such people naive.

Librarians are still the best friend to have if you want to know something. They don't know it all, but they do have access to most modern opinions and a lot of classical ones on almost any subject. They have information that's been peer-reviewed, substantiated, argued, and tested. They have multiple sources you can trust. They have magazines where all the latest research is published, or where the newest ideas are tried out. And most librarians know how to integrate all the shiny new tech with older ways of finding information to give you the best possible range of data. They're also a human element to point you in the right direction when a Google search might latch onto a keyword and get distracted.

And libraries are constantly updating their technology, albeit more slowly than in the private sector, because they're grossly underfunded. In my library system, I can, in theory, take out ebooks. I haven't, because it's clunky and I have plenty to read (see above), but the option is there. They have several online databases I can access through their computers, which contain information beyond your average Wikipedia search. And there are hundreds of people looking for jobs just in my county who wouldn't be able to do so without the computer access libraries provide.

When I was a young, strange child, I would forget to wear snow boots to school. This meant that I couldn't play out in the snow, and therefore had to stay inside. There was no teacher to be spared to watch me, so I got to keep the librarian company. She put me to work neatening up, stamping due date cards, finding books that were shelved wrong, and generally being useful. It had been one thing to find refuge in books, but, to me, that place was more than a refuge. It was heaven.

As I've grown up, most things in life have lost their magic, or the shine's been rubbed off. Libraries, however, have endured. Libraries, to me, will always be my paradise.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Grammar peeves: subject to ridicule

I don't see this in published works, luckily, but I do think it's an important grammar rule to have down. I didn't even learn about verb conjugation until I took French, so I think some people may need a remedial course in subject/verb agreement.

Basically, a verb changes based on what it's modifying. For the verb "to write," the conjugation looks like

I write                       We write
You write                  You (plural) write
He/She/It writes        They write

In the English language, it doesn't usually follow a neat, predictable pattern, and the conjugation changes from one verb to the next, which is why you can often tell someone isn't a native speaker by how they write verbs. Also, homonyms and silent letters and odd letter combinations are apt to trip them up. Don't judge them; we have a weird language, okay?

Where most native English speakers run into problems are when you're talking about a group. Though there are many members of a group, as a collective, they're treated as a singular entity. So, say you're talking about a high school football team. You might say, "The players write their papers on the bus whenever they have an away game." Talking about the whole team, though, you'd say, "The coach makes sure the team [it] writes its own homework."

It gets even more confusing when you have a word you're not modifying next to the verb. You'll usually find this to be the case in a prepositional phrase (one that begins with "with," "of," "from," or any of the words on this list.) As an example, let's see another sentence about the football team: "Every member of the team writes his own papers." The verb is modifying "every member," not "the team."

I also want to call your attention to the second half of that sentence, where I wrote, "his." You already know the subject is singular. I used "his" because I'm talking about an all-guy football team. Were this a coed team, though, I'd have to allow for the possibility of the female pronoun. I might write "his or her," which makes the sentence clunkier and more unwieldy.

Grammar rules say I can use "their," which I hate to do. English teachers and grammar experts alike are teaching people that it stands in as a gender-neutral singular pronoun when needed.

I refuse. I will rewrite the first part of the sentence to make it plural before I'll substitute "they" for a single person. I will use the unwieldy "his or her" or even "his/her" before I break out "they" to refer to a single person. I'll also use the already-singular, gender-neutral "one" or "one's," snotty as it makes me sound.

I hope someone finds this useful. High school and college English teachers, feel free to point your students this way.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Who do you write for?

I don't write to an audience. Even when I'm typing up this blog and specifically addressing the nebulous "you," I'm writing something that amuses me. I've tried writing in just such a way that many, many people will be impressed, but what came out was bland and uninspired, and it was no fun to put together.

I may ask you for feedback, and I might tweak the site or blog based on suggestions, but I wouldn't alter my content or style based on it. I try to mesh what I'm interested in with what other people might like to read, but, every time I've tried to be deliberately provocative or posted some kind of pageview magnet, it hasn't been worth it. Any bump I might receive from such tactics is temporary at best. While I like it when people read my blogs, all that makes me different from the million other writing blogs out there is my voice.

Hopefully my attempts weren't too transparent. It's not like I get anything out of page views or links or comments. You'd think I do, with how often I check the site stats. (And I thought I was addicted to caffeine . . .)

How does this relate to the wider world of writing and publication? I'm glad you asked, because I could've been off on that tangent for a while.

I think this relates to most writers, especially where trends are concerned. Not writing to trends gets down to a matter of time. By the time a book is written, submitted, edited, formatted for publication, and printed (18 months is a really quick turnaround), most trends have already trickled away, and the book is just a pale imitation.

There are, of course, trends that evolve and stick around. I don't think vampires are going anywhere, but one does have to inject some kind of creativity into the concept.

It seems to me that trends are formed around well-written books about something people haven't read enough of yet. The best way to write to a trend, then, is to be the next one.

Similarly to my discovery about trying to write my blog posts a certain way, too, one can't change one's style or voice to shoehorn it into what you think readers want. When I pick up a book off the shelf, it's that author's voice that captures my interest, that establishes the kind of communication that happens between a reader and author. If that author muffles that voice, tries to bend it to sound like someone else, then there's a barrier there. The real voice is going to leak through eventually, and meanwhile, it sounds inauthentic. Imagine Pavarotti trying to sing like Lady Gaga, and you know what it sounds like when someone's trying too hard to sound like someone else.

In short: be yourself. Sound like yourself. Write what amuses you. Life is too short to be someone else. What will turn readers off can always be fixed in an edit.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Review: Sunglasses After Dark

Sunglasses After Dark
Sunglasses After Dark by Nancy A. Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes, context is everything. Nancy A. Collins wrote this book in the 1980's, after the rise of Anne Rice's pretty-boy, drinking-blood-as-a-metaphor-for-sex vampires. She went against that tide by making Sonja Blue the monstrous killer of older vampire stories, but forged a new path by giving her the tools and motivation to kill other monsters.

The book starts out in an insane asylum, which sets the tone pretty well. The story is told partially through the point of view of the overnight orderly who witnesses her escape. After he's badly beaten by the people who captured Sonja in the first place, she rescues/kidnaps him, and we finally learn what makes the monster tick. She's aware of her human background without feeling attached to it, and she wants to kill the monster who raped her into existence.

There is a lot of rape and gory violence in this book, which made the YA-looking packaging of this novel puzzling. I wouldn't say a teenager shouldn't read this book, but they're not the target demographic. Sonja Blue is not someone people should hope to grow up to be.

Collins manages to make Sonja sympathetic despite her monstrosity mostly through blaming the worst of the violence on an Other deep inside her who begs to be let free to rampage as she pleases. The Other is remorseless, bloodthirsty, and without pity. Sonja, herself, is an amalgam of Denise Thorne, the pretty millionaire heiress who vanished from London in the late 1960's, and the creature forged of rape, near-death, and blood. So by default, Sonja isn't someone you want to snuggle up with.

Collins does not, however, discard the "sexy vampire" thing. Sonja makes men hard when she drains them of blood, and she spends a lot of her first few years as a vampire sleeping with men for money. Through Claude, the orderly's, eyes, we see that she's both fascinating and repellent, and he want to escape her as much as he wants to sleep with her.

An awful lot of this book is spent explaining the background and character motivation. Once I got through that and a rocky start, the rest of the story flew. It seems like Collins needed the first 50 or so pages to figure out just how weird and heady she wanted the story.

Once I got over that bump, though, I did enjoy this book. It was a nice escape from the modern vampires who sneer and pose and don't actually kill anyone. In its day, this book and its sequels served as a bridge between the vampire-as-monster mythos, and the more modern, sympathetic creature of night. If one is looking for a badass lady Blade, one could do a lot worse than to spend some time with Sonja Blue.

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

11/22/6311/22/63 by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The ending to 11/22/63 was perfectly telegraphed from the beginning of the story, and yet I still found my heart pounding 150 pages from the end as I flipped pages, worrying what would happen. It sucked me in, and, though it took me almost two weeks to finish, it felt like it was over too soon.

There are a lot of things that I like about Stephen King. I like his conversational style, like he's sitting there next to your reading chair telling you this fantastic tale. I like that he uses the story-as-myth world-building to make all of his stories seem like another piece in puzzle that makes up the alternate dimension his brain unlocks. I love his creativity, from which are born narratives that are cogent and that come full circle without ever falling into the rut of predictability. I love that he makes one look at the everyday in an entirely different way. It's rarely something that's already frightening that becomes sinister, and rarely something shining and magical that becomes the key to the supernatural element.

I found references in 11/22/63 to It, Christine, "The Mangler" (a short story found in Night Shift), and, of course, the Dark Tower world. A person could get distracted tracking down all the instances of "19" or numbers that add up to 19 in 11/22/63 (and 1+9+6+3=19). I preferred not to slow down my reading to find them all.

I was surprised at how many of my questions were answered, how much of this bizarre world Stephen King was able to explain. I was gratified at how satisfying and appropriate the ending was. And, not that there's a lot of time travel fiction to set a precedent, but Stephen King very much made it his own in this book, with his own mythos and surrounding logic.

I also liked that King shied away from easy answers. Lee Harvey Oswald wasn't merely a soulless monster; King injected humanity into him, and chalked up the FBI's failure to peg him as a potential assassin to Oswald's charm, rather than incompetence. Even time's obduracy makes sense, by the end of the narrative.

In short, I liked it a lot.

I read this as part of a readalong on Feeding My Book Addiction, but I would've read it, anyway. My thoughts on parts 1 - 3 are here.

View all my reviews

Friday, January 20, 2012

Dinner with the Princess of the Kingdom of Poison and Flame

As promised, here is part 2 of the dinner with authors series. Part one is here. And, this link will explain my title better than I can.

Last year, my husband and I learned that we would have the opportunity to meet Seanan McGuire, a new author whose blog we both read and contribute to, whose books we both like, and who we both wanted very much to meet in person. She was attending Arisia as a special guest. Boston is not only relatively close, but is also the setting of the trilogy I'm writing, so I was happy to have the excuse to visit.

We approached after her first panel, which I'll note only worked because Arisia is not a giant convention; had we been competing with tens of thousands of others, we wouldn't have been able to get close. As it was, several of her fans and blog followers wanted to say hi, and I, as usual, hung back to give this Person I Admire space. When Josh and I introduced ourselves, she jumped to her feet, looked in dismay at the table between us, and said she couldn't hug us yet.

We got our hugs, and she readily accepted the offer of dinner. We decided to eat in one of the host hotel places, because the convention was in January and Boston in January is brisk. Unfortunately, many others felt the same way, so the eating arrangement was a bit crowded. We managed.

The wait for dinner gave us a chance for my husband to share his story of dinner with Stephen King (I'll let him blog about that one), and for us to hear Seanan's stories of meeting famous people. It put me very much at ease to hear of someone I was in awe of being star-struck. It also helped that I felt I knew her from the blog, though I quickly learned that a blog can't capture a person's full personality. Seanan McGuire is a lot more than words on a page, whether printed or electronic, and my post here is only going to capture some aspects.

Despite my conversational fumbles, things took off once we had warm food in our bellies, and it kept going. Because the restaurant was so crowded, we left for quieter ground, and found a small area set aside with tables and chairs where we could sit and talk.  And, we did. We talked about her books (she didn't give any spoilers, but she talked about the characters in ways that confirmed what I thought I'd already picked up), and then we talked about other people's books, music, ebooks, fan interactions, and politics. (I know I said not to discuss politics, but the conversation naturally progressed that way, and no feelings were hurt. Don't try this at home.)

Before I knew it, I'd spent hours chatting with this incredible woman who I felt enriched for having gotten the chance to spend time with. She was gracious, always waving people over if they smiled or waved at her. She wouldn't ignore us while she talked to her other friends, though; she'd introduce us, and include us in whatever new conversation her friend sparked. She was funny, though the conversation did take some brief, serious turns. She was (and still is) extremely intelligent and well-informed, and I remarked to my husband long after that I didn't think she said a single thing she hadn't been able to back up with data and evidence. (At a panel later, someone questioned her about something we'd discussed, and she had lots more information where that came from.)

Later on, during a panel, she and her fellow panelists got to talking about Mary Sues. She said that she'd taken the Mary Sue Litmus Test, and she'd scored as a Mary Sue, so she was dubious about the term being thrown around about strong female characters. I didn't have the test in front of me, but I ticked off just some of the things I'd observed during our interaction: she can write so well I had an attack of, "I will never be this good" while I read her most recent book. She can sing and write music; some of her songs from "Wicked Girls" are on constant rotation on my iPod. People love her, as evinced by all the people who came up to talk to her. She's doing what she loves, and other people are reading and positively reviewing her work. She got to go to Australia, where poisonous deadly creepy crawlies live (one of the areas of interest I don't particularly share), and was given a tiara there. (To you laypersons, this is called winning the Campbell Award for the best new SF/F writer in 2010.)

Best of all (okay, maybe not ALL) was that she gave us a mention in her blog. We were a highlight of a convention! I squealed and texted all the friends I thought would care, emailed my husband, and squealed some more. Any awesome person writing that paragraph about me and publishing it for her many, many fans to see would've made me happy, but for it to be from someone I so admire just made my month, and the warm fuzzies carried me through a very long, cold winter.

So that's why I advise that people approach authors they like, but do so politely, respectfully, and in a way that acknowledges their humanity. Think of all the experiences you're denying yourself if you don't.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Dinner with a fantasy writing icon

This is the first of two tales about taking authors to dinner. Part two is here.

The first year I attended Dragon*Con, Peter S. Beagle was in attendance. Not only had The Last Unicorn been one of my favorite movies, ever, when I was young, but I'd read the book when I was temporarily homeless because of an arson fire. It had done much to restore my faith in humanity. Since then, I'd looked up several more of his novels. I really liked Innkeeper's Song, which is currently out of print, and the short stories based in that world, Giant Bones, were sublime. The local library also had a copy of A Dance for Emilia, which made me cry in the best way.

I had to say hi. The trouble was, I am terribly, crushingly shy. To this day, I have to hang back and feel out a situation before I'm comfortable approaching. It's partly introversion, and partly a lot of bad experiences with putting myself out there. It's also that making myself look stupid in front of someone I admired seemed like the worst thing that could ever happen to me.

With my lovely husband's support, I was able to get up the nerve to approach. I mostly ended up talking to Peter's publicist, Connor Cochran, because I moved aside every time someone else wanted to talk to Peter. Connor is one of those gregarious, cheerful types who'll pull me out of my shell before I've realized I'm not being shy anymore, and I left that convention feeling pretty good about my taking risks.

Over the following year, my husband and I discussed strategies for the possibility Peter Beagle was returning to Dragon*Con. We decided that we could budget to buy dinner, and so we'd invite him out for a meal, on us. We asked at the hotel for a restaurant they'd recommend, and they pointed us in the right direction, to Ray's in the City. It was peaceful, but they had enough room to accommodate the whole bunch of us who were going to dinner. The food was also excellent.

I got to tell Peter S. Beagle how he'd inspired me, possibly saved my life from plunging into a downward spiral. We talked about cats, and I got to hear all kinds of fascinating stories about a life very different from my New England upbringing. We talked about baseball; he grew up in NYC, while I'm a member of Red Sox Nation. We didn't come to blows over our rivalry; in fact the history he filled me in on gave me reason to feel proud of my "hometown" team.

I was so glad for the opportunity to speak to someone whose words had inspired me. It was gratifying in the extreme to find that the person who'd written those words was kind, gracious, and fascinating to talk to. My esteem for Connor grew, too; he has a talent for keeping people involved in a conversation and feeling singularly valued.

The following year, when we asked Peter and Connor to dinner again, they accepted. My friend Mandy was there that time, and can attest to what an awesome experience it was. After that second dinner, they pronounced us friends, and gave us cell phone numbers and personal emails to get in contact with them. I didn't stop grinning about that for over a month, and bragging to co-workers who had no idea what there was to be so giddy about.

The year after that, we were able once again to have dinner together. This time, we were able to witness another's discovery of what a wonderful experience it is to meet Peter Beagle. She'd been too shy to approach him at a signing, and was enjoying her birthday dinner several tables over, which our waitress relayed. He went over, unhesitating, to say hello and thank her for being a reader. The girl was so overjoyed she burst into tears.

Sadly, the following year, Peter and Connor weren't invited to Dragon*Con, and the convention seemed lonely without them. My husband and I opted to stay home last year for that very reason, and don't intend on returning to Dragon*Con. As fun as it is to spend a long weekend with 60,000 other people who share the same geeky interests, it's not the same without dinner to look forward to.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Review: Grave Surprise

Grave Surprise
Grave Surprise by Charlaine Harris

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Harper Connelly books aren't my favorite of Charlaine Harris's series. I'm "reading" them (on audio, which isn't quite the same) while I wait for the installments of the series I am looking forward to. And, while it's entertaining enough, the parts I didn't like about the first book stand out even more when it's being read to me.

Grave Surprise starts with Harper Connelly, the woman struck by lightning who can sense dead bodies and tell how they died (but not by who), doing readings in a graveyard to prove she can do what she's often hired to do. She's up against a skeptical college professor and his class, and they're convinced when she finds a second dead body in a grave. The unexpected body turns out to belong to a girl Harper had been hired to find 18 months before.

In Grave Sight, I remember being at least somewhat convinced that Harper had a reason to stick around and solve the mystery. In Grave Surprise, that question kept cropping up in my mind, of what she was doing poking around at the mystery. Her motive seemed to be "sheer boredom," which fails to make for a riveting read.

I found myself tuning out large swaths of the narrative, too, because the pertinent parts were going to be repeated, either by Harper's incessant navel gazing, or when she relayed the conversation to Tolliver.

The gender essentialism in the book also grated. Harper has a very black-and-white view of how women and men interact, and she's unable to meet another female character without entering jealousy and verbal sniping into the equation. The man who is so hawt women fall at his feet, except for Harper, who's curiously immune and therefore suspicious, made me roll my eyes. And I had a hard time following Harper's logic of finding one male character equally charming and frightening.

It's possible I'm judging this book harshly because Harper spends most of the book prattling on about how much she cares about her brother (who's not related to her by blood, but still!), and the last quarter or so sad because it's finally sunk in that she's in love with him. I'm not sure if I'm more annoyed that she lacks that much self-awareness, or that this series seems to be Going There. No, their romance would not be illegal in any way, shape or form. It still bothers me; they were raised as brother and sister.

I do have to give Harris credit for diversifying her cast in this book. The Morgans, the family grieving over a dead daughter, are Jewish, there are two gay male characters, and the young man with enough hardware in his face to set off metal detectors a block away is a good guy. I also like the world-building. Though it's not that far a stretch from our own version of reality, in Harper's world, sensing dead people and seeing the future are inexact enough to cause skepticism, but reliable enough to make a living on guilt-free. Slipping in supernatural elements as they occur seems like a smart move, though I'm wary of the world getting overstuffed and overwhelming Harper's ability.

I intend to pick up the next book, but I really hope it doesn't have the same problems as this one.

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I know, I said I'll post my cool stories about going to dinner with authors. Not yet. Today I want to talk about the need for narrative tension, often manifested as suspense, mystery, or, "Is the next book out, yet?" As a reader, it's one of my favorites, when it's done well. When it's done poorly, either the book is boring, or, on the other extreme, I want to chuck it into a wall for being so frustrating.

There are several ways of building tension and making a reader keep flipping pages. Like everything, though, it's a balance. Too many mysteries without enough answers, and most readers will throw up their hands and walk away. For instance, if you ask a lot of viewers who never finished watching Lost why they stopped watching, it was because there were too many mysteries and not enough answers, for their tastes. Not enough tension or readers aren't invested, and you've just as effectively lost their desire to find out what happens next. Ask any high school student forced to read something that plods by modern standards, and you'll see lots of eye-rolling, that they don't care what happens, and complaints that it's boring.

How does a writer strike a balance? Well, here's what I focus on:

The characters have something to lose. A deadly challenge is the most extreme example, but there are ways characters can suffer without dying. Often the main character will fear losing someone or something precious, being stripped of power, discovery, exile, or poverty. These are most common in first-person narratives, where we're assured by virtue of the person surviving long enough to tell the tale that the main character survives. Failure of the task plunked down by the narrative often isn't enough, which leads me to:

The characters are personally invested. Whatever's at stake must be established as something important. Obviously, if you're talking about putting a person's life at stake in the narrative, it won't be much of a stretch for the reader to understand why the character wants to keep it.  But why should the reader care that this fictional person survives? This leads directly into:

The reader is invested in the character. The reader must be able to relate, in some way, to the character's (or characters') motive for success, and avoidance of failure. I've already talked about relating to characters, so I'll just add that tension sags if you don't relate to anyone in the narrative, and that readers are more invested if they're cheering for someone, instead of passively watching the story go by.

Information is withheld. I like it when I ask a question of the narrative that isn't answered until the second-to-last page (or, in a series, in the final book). I like rereading books where I've had an "A-ha!" moment, so I can see where the writer dropped hints. I like wondering, speculating, and discovering new things about the book. Little can keep me reading more avidly than that I have to know if a question is answered by the end. Little will satisfy me more about a read than that my obscure observation paid off.

I love writing that stuff in, too. I cackle like a mad scientist over what I know that the reader won't, and imagine reactions as they get to the payoff. My characters are a tight-lipped bunch who take the "show, don't tell" rule seriously, and so I get to hint and dance around reveals until my characters get around to discovering them. It's as much fun as I have in rewrites. That sounds sadder than it is, I swear.

Writing foreshadowing is a post for another time, I think.

So, what have I forgotten in the above? What do you notice in the books that keep you turning pages? How do you write tension in your works? Feel free to weigh in.

Oh yeah, and: pation.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Care and feeding of authors

I want to share a couple of stories of authors I've had some excellent interactions with, but first, I need to lead up to it. I don't want to give the impression that I'm advocating you harass, stalk, or feel entitled to an author's time. Some authors are friendly, and will welcome your approach no matter how inept. Others are introverted, tired, or socially awkward.

If there's one thing I want you to walk away from this post with, it's that authors are human, too. Being published doesn't make someone automatically better, smarter, or prettier than you. It also doesn't revoke their humanity or right to basic human decency. Being in the public eye doesn't mean that all attention is welcome.

You may be scoffing at the above statement because it's so blindingly obvious. You, clearly, have never witnessed some of the behavior I have.

In any case, assuming you're looking for pointers about how to get a good interaction out of your favorite author, or you need some confidence to work up the nerve to approach your writing idol, the below is my advice consisting of what worked for me.

Approach when the author is going to have free time. Conventions or other places where your favorite author is going to be plunked down a while are the best avenue for this approach; if the author's running off to another signing or to catch a plane, your potential interaction is doomed to failure. No matter how polite you are, if someone doesn't know you, he won't change his plans for you.

Have no agenda in mind. If all you want is an autograph, go to a signing. If all you want is to hear the person speak or you have a particular question, go to a lecture, a convention panel, or send an email. You'll do much better if it's clear you're not asking in order to get something. Your reward, if it works, is an awesome story and having basked in the presence of someone you admire.

Offer to treat to a meal. Authors, astoundingly enough, eat. There's a reason most people meet by going somewhere to eat together. It's an excellent environment to take the pressure off for conversation, while giving plenty of time to talk. All of my interactions I'm going to tell you about in another post started over dinner. I recommend researching restaurants ahead of time, especially if you don't live in the area, so you'll find a place with the right menu and atmosphere. Have a few choices ready, so you don't wind up inviting a vegan to a steakhouse.

Be aware of the author's comfort zone. Don't isolate authors from people they know. Don't stand too close, or extend the invitation more than once. Accept "no" for an answer, and make it clear you value their comfort and safety. That may entail inviting people you don't know, and sharing your authorial experience with strangers. It also means not suggesting anywhere secluded, dimly lit, or that corners the author. Whatever your intent, it will come off as creepy if you're not aware of how your invitation might look to someone who may have been stalked, threatened, harassed, or otherwise received unwanted attention. Because authors talk to one another, word will get around that you're "the creepy one."

Pick some things to talk about.  The best conversation topics are the spontaneous ones, but you should have some conversational gambits that don't revolve around the person's writing. Many authors do like to talk about it, but writing is their job. Would you want to talk about your job all through dinner? Don't talk politics, religion, or Picard vs. Kirk, because chances are good the author doesn't agree with you, and someone's feelings will get hurt.

Above all, be respectful. Say nice things because they're nice, and true. Listen. Assume the words out of the author's mouth are truthful. Don't take things personally if it doesn't go as well as my interactions. Don't get belligerent when the author doesn't match your expectations; take that as a cool bonus.

Obviously, your results will vary, depending on who you want to interact with. You're probably not going to have the chance to invite Neil Gaiman or Stephen King to dinner, unless you know someone he knows.

Part 1 - Dinner with a fantasy writing icon
Part 2 - Dinner with the Princess of the Kingdom of Poison and Flame

Monday, January 16, 2012

Feedback request

I've been tweaking the color scheme, setup and layout of my blog, and I think I have it the way I like it. The text was way too light for a while, and I figured out how to get a greater contrast so your eyes wouldn't hurt reading my posts. Because that's a bad way to cultivate readers.

The blog is pretty and just the way I like it, but what does everyone else think? You're the ones reading it, and I can't see that pretty background while I'm typing out blog posts, so please, let me know if it's readable, too cluttered, too wide or skinny, or what.

Also, you may have figured out, my blog isn't very focused. That works for me, because it means I don't have to put a lot of planning or work into it, except to write blog posts and proofread them before clicking, "Publish Post." Also, it fits the theme. I don't have any particular days devoted to any particular topic, so any day you stop by, you could be getting a review, a rant about grammar, something meta, or my thoughts on writing. Do you want that more organized? Or does the random aspect work for you?

I'm thinking about instituting a mid-month blog review, so that you can find posts you might have missed, and peruse my recent reviews. Helpful, or just lazy?

I like the small but apparently loyal following I have now, and I want you to keep coming back to read my posts. Without you, my readers, I'm just a voice lost in the noise of the internet. And so, I want to keep writing posts that you want to read. I can check my blog stats obsessively (and believe me, I will) to see what people are reading and what search terms they find me with, but I don't really know what people are looking for or would best enjoy unless I ask.

And so, I'm asking. I make no promises that I'll conform my blog to exactly what you want, because I'm contrary like that, but I would like to know what you think.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Progress post: Book 2, draft 3, edits, etc.

I finally set aside some time to work on book 2. Mostly, I typed up my handwritten pages, and finished up the chapter.  It's currently at 24544 words long, and I've just started chapter 8. My writing goal was to type my handwritten pages and get to a certain point in my mental plotting that will happen in chapter 9 or 10, so I'm on track. I can't get any more specific than that, because I never know exactly how it'll go until it's written. Thus is life as a pantster.

I've also been working steadily at the paid editing, and I've been better about reducing distractions and getting down to it. I've just finished the seventh manuscript, and I'm about to start on the eighth. I'm averaging about 75 pages of editing a night, though I'm doing two read-throughs to make sure I catch everything. There's an awful lot of weird spelling I have to check for consistency, and the more tired I get, the more my eyes are willing to read something as correct when it's not. That's why I'm also trying to get more sleep, and that is totally a writing goal.

In the smallest writing change ever, I've been working on not double-spacing after periods. Have you any idea how hard a habit that is to break?

I've also found some ways to check myself when I'm distracted. One of the women in the writing group read my gchat status ("If you see me online, ask why I'm not doing something productive") and did just that, which was very effective. I've found small signals to remind myself to reduce distraction, some of which are going to have my writing group making fun of me during write-ins.

But, if it works, it's worth it. I've been letting distractions get the better of me for too long.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Pet peeves: "What are you wearing?"

It's been a long week.  Therefore, today I'm taking a break from my usual effort to be upbeat.

Nothing kills momentum in a book better than a great big chunk of description.  Start describing the scenery in an epic fantasy, and I groan and grit my teeth until something happens.  Pause the narration to catalogue a character's physical features and I sigh impatiently.  Contrive a book of descriptive passages with little dialogue or action to break it up, and I lose interest.

Description is necessary in stories, but there is such a thing as too much.  In books, it's rarely about what you do once that makes something badly-written.  Generally, it's repetition that turns a decent book into a bad read.

The worst descriptive mistake, though, is when the narration is repeatedly interrupted to describe what a character is wearing.

There are certainly times when we need to know what someone is wearing.  If her clothes have been transformed, or if he's trying to make a statement with his outfit, or if it's a character quirk that so-and-so wears funny t-shirts, I want to know that.  I'm talking about taking a paragraph or two, every time the character changes clothes, to describe them down to the label.

Not only do I not care, it feels creepy.  It feels like I'm listening in on an obscene phone call.  Whether a character is wearing practical shoes is appropriate to the narrative.  Establishing that someone wears t-shirts and jeans or business casual all the time may be important.  Describing every wardrobe change is piddling along instead of telling the dang story.

I've heard several different takes on describing physical appearance, as well, and I think this can be overdone.  Some readers like to have a perfect picture in their minds of what characters look like, but I prefer a blank canvas I can project an image onto based on a couple of reference points.  I prefer if only a couple of the most noticeable features are given in a narrative, and that's the approach I've heard advocated most often.

Reading is an act of imagination.  I like to use my own, instead of authors forcing theirs into my head.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Rules to review by

I didn't want to mix this in with my post about the mistake of responding to reviews, because I wanted to avoid the implication that reviewers behaving badly brought it upon themselves.  No reviewer should ever expect to be flamed, called names, sworn at, or harassed in the pursuit of telling people about books she's read, no matter that reviewer's approach.  Just as people have different tastes in books, people have different approaches to reviewing.  There's no right or wrong way.

When I write a review, these are the general standards I hold myself to:

Review the work, not the author.
I try not to make any personal comments about authors, guesses about his or her private life or sweeping statements about an author's entire body of work based on one book, or even a small sampling.  I may refer to other works as a basis for comparison, but not to condemn everything an author has ever written.  If I generalize that everything this person wrote sucks, I'm lying, because I don't give an author that many chances to waste my time.

What's it about?
If it's a well-known book or the synopsis is better than anything I could come up with, I won't bother with a plot summary. But often, I'll put at least a sentence or two about the basic plot.

No spoilers.
I've gone back and forth on this point, and finally decided that I'm writing to people who haven't read the book yet.  I'm always annoyed when major plot points are given away before I've read or seen something, so I don't put it out there in my reviews.  If I must, I'll find a place clearly marked as, "Spoilers ahead! Keep out!" and talk spoilers there.

Try to find something nice to say.
If it's a published book, obviously some publisher somewhere saw something about it that was supposed to appeal to readers.  The least I can do, even if I hated the book, is pass along what kept me reading (or listening) until the end.  Maybe what I hated is something other readers like, and the one thing I liked is enough to make them want to read it.  I'm not doing the book justice if I'm tearing it apart.  If I couldn't even finish the book because of how little I liked it, I don't review it.

Be open about biases.
If I'm reviewing a romance novel, I have to be up-front about my aversion to the alpha male trope (seriously, it's why I don't usually read romance novels), because lots and lots and lots of readers enjoy that in a romance novel. If I adore a particular author, I mention that in the review, because it'll skew my review toward the positive.  People need to know on what basis I'm judging a book.

Are there any standards to which you hold your book reviews? What are they?

Review: Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings

Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings
Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the last of Christopher Moore's published books I hadn't gotten around to reading (though he has another coming out this year). You'd think, by now, that I'd be used to not knowing what to expect of Moore's books. He's written about vampires, Coyote the trickster god, Christ's childhood pal, a funny take on King Lear, and inheriting Death's mantle accidentally.

In Fluke, he writes about a whale researcher who's been studying the songs of humpback whales for years. Nathan Quinn thinks he's made a breakthrough in his research, when it turns out he's come too close to finding out a strange truth within the ocean's depths.

The humor in Fluke is mostly through wrapping one's mind around very strange and bizarre circumstances. There are also a lot of quick turns of phrase that had me laughing aloud. Mostly, though, this book is weird. I don't think I can prepare future readers for how weird it is, because, every time I thought it couldn't get weirder, it proved me wrong.

I don't know how well the whale science stacks up, but Moore admits in his afterword that he mostly relied on fantastic elements and making things up. He doesn't make a lot of bold claims, though, beyond the answer, in the end, of why whales sing. But then, in a world where a giant, gooey organism lives in the sea, he's earned himself a little wiggle room on the truth.

I listened to the audio version of the book, and the performance was overall good. The narrator did tend to speak some lines in a low voice, though, and shout others, in keeping with textual clues. It made some words and lines inaudible, and some parts painfully loud. I wish audio book publishers would better modulate the volume so I don't have to keep adjusting it after missing some, or getting my ears shouted in.

Overall, though, I found this an entertaining and weird book, and I'm glad I picked it up. I would've rated this 3 stars, but for the addition of the afterword, which left me grinning.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

11/22/63 by Stephen King readalong parts 1 - 3

I've been reading a lot of good things about 11/22/63, and it came highly recommended. It was, therefore, the only book I made sure to specifically ask for as a Christmas present, so I could participate in the readalong. I could've put myself on the library waiting list, but lots of other people have also heard what a good book this is.

I know very little of the JFK assassination, other than that my parents were old enough to remember exactly where they were when they heard about it. I've taken American history courses and listened to some politics, so I know the event and some of its ramifications, but it's not what I'd call an area of interest.

King quickly establishes, though, why the reader should care that the main character, Mr. Jake Epping of Lisbon Falls, Maine, succeeds at his task. Without ever dropping into “as you know, Bob” dialogue, we're given an explanation of all the things Kennedy's survival might have meant for history, in a way us non-history-buffs can appreciate, and hopefully in a way that history buffs don't feel whacked over the head.

The time travel premise and the motivation of saving JFK from Lee Harvey Oswald's bullet is given early in the story, and very little of the narrative is wasted on a modern day with which readers are familiar. Instead, King jumps into the wonder reminiscent of Marty McFly's when confronted with a cleaner, more polite, more innocent society.

The sinister elements are low-key, for King. They're personified initially in the Yellow Card Man, a drunk who recognizes that there's something odd about the appearance of a person from the future, and who seems affected by future events, somehow. When Jake (going by George Amberson) gets to Derry, Maine, those elements are dialed up significantly, because he's in the Derry that just survived It. He meets two of the children who had a hand in banishing the evil, however temporarily. His visit sheds light on the nature of Derry, contrasting it with a world much kinder and more trusting.

The reader is relieved when George escapes Derry, then plunged into uncertainty when his arrival to Dallas reveals that it has a similar feel of creeping evil. Perhaps it's conjured only by time's resistance to change, but George makes a strong case that they're both infested with something that makes them evil.

There are a lot of the things that I like about Stephen King's writing. I love that his works are often tied together, revealing a deeper appreciation for his avid readers. In addition to Derry, the number 19, established in the Dark Tower books as significant, shows up frequently.  Even more, though, I love the sense that his stories are simply a matter of tapping into something deeper than himself. George sometimes speaks to the reader during his narration, explaining that the book we hold consists of the words he wrote, and he's in the middle of writing another book, The Murder Place, which is about Derry with the serial numbers filed off. It has a killer clown, and children die horribly, just as in It, implying that he actually wrote It.

So far, I'm finding this a tight, suspenseful read, with plenty of mystery to keep me reading. I care about whether George/Jake succeeds in saving JFK's life, but I also care about what happens along the way, and whether some early questions are even answered. For instance, I want to know why the Yellow Card Man was affected the way he was. I want to know why the time portal always sends a person back to an exact moment in 1958. I want to know how time will try to stop George from changing a watershed moment in history. I want to know how he'll get past those obstacles, and whether he'll return to modern day. I want to know if he saved Harry Dunning, the janitor at the heart of his reasons for agreeing to go back in the first place. I want to know if we get any other of Stephen King's stories intersecting with this one.

I'm on page 353 of the hardcover version right now; in most books, I'd be finished by now. It's just another of the things I love about Stephen King's writing – he makes long reads go fast.

Further reading from the readalong crew:

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Responding to reviews

Lately, there have been a few a lot of cases cropping up of the Author's Big Mistake, which is when an author steps up to defend his or her work online.  Leigh Fallon apparently wrote an email asking people to vote down the negative reviews, and upvote the positives, to reverse the possible stigma of a detailed and specific negative review.  According to online sources, the author confessed after the email was forwarded to the reviewer.  Julie Halpern posted a blog entry responding to a specific review.  She realized the mistake later, and deleted the post; though it can still be found by Google cache. A post on Goodreads by Jamie McGuire also got some criticism for skating awfully close to the Big Mistake line (it has also been edited over, and named no reviewers in particular).  These are not the biggest nor most spectacular examples of the Author's Big Mistake, but they are some of the most recent. [Editing to add 1/14/12] And, in an example that this is an ongoing problem and that people don't learn from others' mistakes, we have this review response (comment #270) from agent Elana Roth (who should know better!) and author Kiera Cass. There is also a good run-down of some other incidents here.

I'm not the first to have noticed one shouldn't respond to negative reviews, so my point is far from original (some links contain strong language)[Edit 1/19/12: And Publisher's Weekly has an article up now, too. The topic that keeps on giving . . .].  All I can give you to substantiate this piece of advice is the personal experience of a friend who was attacked for the review she posted on Goodreads. It happened years ago, but I'm being deliberately vague to keep from stirring things up again.  While it seems to have gone away, it cropped up briefly about 18 months after things had initially settled down.  My friend was attacked, harassed, and insulted for having posted a review which the writer thought would hurt her sales.  What hurt her sales, in the end, was the temper tantrum that assured she would never be picked up by a legitimate publisher, the book having been published by a vanity press in the first place.

Vanity presses, by the way, are a post for another time.

I've picked up on a few reasons why, as a prospective author, I should squelch the urge to ever post responses to reviews, should the subject ever come up:
  1. If it's online, it never goes away. Witness above where an author deleted her blog.  It's still accessible through Google cache, and screen-capped on several websites and blogs that document what is popularly called author wank.  People amused by online fights love author wank.  They think it's hilarious.
  2. It's unprofessional. A person receiving a performance review at work doesn't respond, unless the format allows it. Most write-up procedures allow for a review process, but employees aren't allowed to argue with the rules and standards.  Yelling at one's boss doesn't generally go over well. Telling a reviewer he or she is wrong is akin to jumping onto a boss's desk and declaring the rules too stupid to follow.
  3. Reviews are not for the author. Reviews are written so that other people who are thinking about picking the book up do, or don't. Sometimes it's to bond over what people liked about books, or what they didn't.  But reviews are, generally, for the readers, not for the people who wrote the book.
  4. It's all about perspective.  One person's negative review is another's glowing recommendation.  The reason why I hated one book I read last year was the exact reason why a lot of other readers adored it. Grace may post a review of a book she didn't like, and I may add it to my to-read list based on her review, because our tastes don't always mesh.  Failure to acknowledge that some reviews are about taste, and no one's reading tastes are wrong, is a foolish and immature mistake to make.  The world is a boring place when everyone around you shares the same tastes.
This is all moot for me, of course.  I have to submit for publication before I can even start to worry about reviews.  When that time comes, though, I think I'll have to ban myself from reading reviews entirely.  Considering a critique from my kind and gentle writing group friends leaves me a nervous wreck, I don't think I'd fare well against the temptation to post, "I'll do better next time!" to every critical comment.  It doesn't seem like a far stretch to go from that to, with a little boost of writing confidence, "Reading comprehension, much?"

I have some theories about the recent proliferation of wank, but they're just untested theories, and I don't think they add anything to the discussion.  All I know is, responding to negative reviews rarely reflects well on an author, and isn't a mistake I want to repeat.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Work ethic, rewarded

I got some good news yesterday.  I got a call from the head of the small press I've been doing editing work for, and he asked if I'd be available to edit some rougher work.  It would, "Of course," pay more.

More pay to do something I like?  Somehow, I managed not to squeal in his ear, and I think I even sounded professional and mature, maybe.

I've been flying high ever since on the rush of being appreciated, knowing that I must be doing a good job, and on the anticipation of more editing to come.  Of course, there is a small, minuscule part of me that wonders how I'm ever going to find time to write, if I'm always working for other people in my free time after work.  But, like I said in a comment last night, either I can use my free time to get work done on something with tangible rewards, or I can keep churning away at something that'll probably require yet more edits before it'll ever see a printed form, and whether it will is a big, fat if.

There is the knowledge, though, that I'm not incredibly efficient with my time.  I still check Twitter far more often than I should.  I still stare at pages hoping they'll magically refresh with some seed of brilliance that I would've missed if I hadn't been sitting right there.  I play with my hair.  I stay up far later than I should, trying hopelessly to squeeze some productivity out of 2 AM.

I can arrange my time more efficiently.  I can gain more self-control.  I can spend enough time on edits, and still have time for my own work.  In fact, some time studies have shown that switching between two productive tasks could prove FAR more efficient than switching between editing and internet browsing.

It's all about what I give myself permission to do and what standard I hold myself to.  I choose to hold myself to a standard where work comes before play, and where I prioritize what I've always wanted to do over what I've been doing to pass the time.