Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Recap for July 2012

My blog hits continue to grow. Here in the anniversary month of my blog, I just fell short of 3,000 hits. I know a lot of you will chuckle and think, How cute, but for me, it's an accomplishment.

Onto the recap:

Book Reviews
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling (3/5 stars; humorous memoir)—A writer for The Office (American edition) writes about what brought her to her current status. Has its moments in Kaling's self-deprecating, often ironic humor, but lacks a narrative thread or theme to tie it together.

Ashes and Wine by Taryn Elliott (5/5 stars; romance with tragic elements)—That the author is in my writing group has nothing to do with my high rating. She earned all five of those stars with a heart-wrenching tale of love in a time of loss.

The Ultimate David Sedaris Audio Collection by David Sedaris (4/5 stars; humorous memoir; audio)—I reviewed all of the books within the collection separately, because they're a bit much, taken as a whole. Those individual links are all within the above review. David Sedaris is a gay man with OCD, and he recounts vignettes of his life with a darkly humorous twist. Mostly, the laugh is on him. The entire set can be overwhelming for a newbie like me, but I do recommend the various parts.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman (2/5 stars; magical realism; read as part of Twitter's #1book140)—Self-involved high school student goes to an institute of higher learning devoted to magic. Wastes it. Too bogged down in literary trappings to let the wondrous parts of the story breathe.

Succubus Blues by Richelle Mead (4/5 stars; urban fantasy)—Succubus Georgina Kincaid lives in Seattle, meets her favorite author, longs for a normal relationship, and looks into the deaths of local supernaturals, who aren't supposed to be able to die. Surprisingly deep, and very readable.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (4/5 stars; feminist literary fiction; audio)—Iris Chase Griffen recounts her early life, in a story within a story with a story framework. Lovely and touching, yet not my favorite Atwood book.

Fighting Gravity by Leah Petersen (3/5 stars; science fiction M/M romance; received a review copy)—This debut novel shows a lot of promise, but leaves too many questions I felt could've been answered, and grammar editing was shoddy. Interested in seeing what's next for this author.

Aesop's Fables (4/5 stars; classic in the Greek sense of the word)—I'd never read all of the fables, so paging through a collection whenever I was between projects was fun. Surprising how relevant some of the lessons still are.

Most Popular Posts in July
Grammar: Hyphen Use continued to draw a lot of people to my blog.

A post on why I read audio books drew a few readers my way.

Grammar Peeves: Filler was about filler words that waste time in the narrative, and apparently a lot of people wanted to know more.

My progress post that discussed my new project had more than a few curious readers.

Grammar Peeves: Homonyms discussed how words that sound alike can trip up any author, and I included a list, as well as a suggestion of how to deal with them.

I'm skipping over a link for my giveaway, because that ended a month ago. All of the winners should've received their books by now.

I posted about how many characters a story may need, and how to deal with a surplus. That was posted in June, but people didn't discover it until July, evidently.

My review of 11/22/63 went up way back in January, but that's still generating interest. Search inquiries ask about "The Murder Place," the yellow card man, or references to It or Christine. I'm glad people are finding my post, because I do mention those things, if not in the review, then in my posts about the readalong I participated in that month.

Editing: Where to Start is the beginning of a sometimes series, and the fact that it did fairly well in hits encourages me to continue.

My post on fanfic did pretty well for itself.

And I told some secrets about how writers research things to make their writing more real, which several of you wanted to know about.

Next month: more posts on editing, some Austen in August posts (event hosted by Roof Beam Reader), and your regularly-scheduled blathering. Hope your August is awesome, pantsters!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Review: Aesop's Fables; a new translation

Aesop's Fables; a new translation
Aesop's Fables; a new translation by Aesop

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'd heard a lot of Aesop's fables, here and there, but I'd never read them all. There are a lot, it turns out, and most are fewer than 100 words long.

They all have similar elements, but these elements aren't there in all of them. Sometimes animals stand in for human traits (like the fox almost always represents cleverness, the lion danger and strength, the wolf is sneaky and scary, the crow a big dope, the monkey cute and clever), but some of the stories have only human characters. The stories don't even all have explicit lessons at the end; sometimes it's spoken by a character in the fable.

The most interesting part of reading these fables is that the lessons at the end have become clichés in our time (and probably before then, too), and the stories were written in the 7th century BC. Some are timeless, but surely some attitudes have updated since then. I refer to the two that were explicitly sexist, and the many that implied that slavery is a normal, everyday thing.

My favorite fable, which I've never heard before, is about wolves who complain to the sheep that they're not given the chance, because the dogs bark and bite and chase them off when they try to get close. The sheep get rid of the dogs, and are torn to pieces for their stupidity. It reminded me of the tone argument, the precept that one needs to be nice about it when pointing out others' prejudices.

Most of the stories can likely be similarly updated, because the lesson isn't always explicit. It may well have been meant for one situation, but its universal application is what's made it survive this long.

The end of the edition I read contained some biographical information about Aesop, which adds some more context to these tales. It doesn't address any of the controversy about his identity, but presents the story of his probable life at Samos and death at Delphi.

If you think you know the fables, I recommend you read through them, at some point, to get a more full view. If nothing else, they're useful as cultural reference to a place and time when people still feared wolves.

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Review: Fighting Gravity by Leah Petersen

Fighting Gravity
Fighting Gravity by Leah Petersen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a review copy of this book from the author. I'm afraid I'm about to prove that not having to pay for a book doesn't bias me in its favor.

There were some really strong parts of this book. The middle section is a tense page-turner, and I found the characters well-developed. But the first section, before the introduction of the Emperor, and the last couple of chapters, sagged. The worldbuilding was good, except that I had questions about the world I felt could've been answered in the narrative.

The story follows Jacob Dawes, an "unclass" boy from one of the worst slums in Mexico. He's recruited into a prestigious academy in an unprecedented move. Unclass people don't just go to the IIC, apparently, and Jacob pays for it in unjust punishment by his teachers and the head of the academy.

Then he makes a scientific breakthrough, and suddenly everyone respects him. There's an implication his edge is that he has a convenient form of synesthesia, which allows him to see patterns that others are blind to. If that's the case, though, it wasn't fleshed out or consistent enough, leading me to the uncomfortable feeling I was dealing with a Gary Stu.

The book improves after the introduction of the Emperor, but there were more questions. I could never figure out if the Emperor was a mere figurehead, a symbol of a united galaxy. If he was truly needed to run the Empire, he had an awful lot of free time. If he was just a figurehead, he had an awful lot of power.

Then a romantic relationship develops between Jacob and the Emperor. I believed the relationship, and I thought the barriers between them were realistic and well-developed. That was the strongest part of the book, in my view, but it still left me with questions. No one batted an eye at the Emperor's same-sex relationship, unless they were so horrified by the thought of homosexuality that Jake goads a high-ranking Duke by implying he's trying for the same. If this future Empire has a more open-minded view of same-sex relationships, why is it still associated with weakness to the point where an accusation of such would justify hitting someone?

The ease of solving the main conflict actually detracts from the tension in the middle, which was disappointing. The ending is also far more drawn out than it needs to be. I'd gotten the idea we were dealing with a happily ever after long before it's spelled out. There's also a scene towards the end that implies Jacob hasn't learned a thing from everything he's been through.

This book is a romance with science fiction trappings, but the science fiction and future technology elements are often shied away from. They're background. The sexual element, too, while strong in emotion, is scant on explicit detail. That was actually a relief, as it put the focus on the characters' emotions, rather than their physical gratification. This was not a story about people falling in lust; it was about love in an unrecognizable setting. Due to the science-fiction-lite description, I'd be more comfortable calling this a fantasy setting.

I had to look up the publisher before I could write my review, because the editing seemed inadequate. Sentence fragments abound, as do comma splices. Even if the above questions couldn't have been answered, surely a professional publisher should've noticed the grammar issues. To my surprise, the publisher is a well-established one that has discovered several reputable science fiction and fantasy authors.

This is Leah Petersen's debut. The writing mechanics can be fixed. She has the elements of a successful book, here. Hopefully in future novels, she'll also have the presentation down.

View all my reviews

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Writing Vacations

Goodnow Flow in Newcomb, NY. Picture taken by
my cellphone.
It's been almost a year since I posted about getting away from your writing, and I thought I'd revisit it. I just spent a weekend in the Adirondacks, away from cell towers and internet access. I spent most of it reading or talking to the friends I'd gone with.

For me, part of the appeal was in reminding myself of how little I need the internet. I spend a collective couple of hours a week just refreshing my usual sites, when I could be spending that time writing. Going off to do something else, where I'm away from the internet and Twitter updates on my phone, shows me how much more fulfilling my life can be when I'm not sitting around online.

I may well have gotten some writing material this weekend. I'm writing my haunted house story, and there were a number of strange noises in the cabin on the lake. Just the call of a loon late at night is enough to get the imagination going, and there were strange noises all night to keep my adrenaline up. (I did sleep, and rather well, once I distracted myself from generating story ideas for my current project.)

There were a lot of experiences I'd never had before. The little country store had hummingbird feeders, and hummingbirds were swarming. I'd never seen one so close up. During a walk, one of my companions nearly stepped on a little snake who was making its way across the dirt road. I'd never been to the Adirondacks, and I'd never been on a trip for just women. I learned a lot about my friends.

I also had a lot of time to read, which is conducive to improvement in my writing. The more I have to draw on, the more good examples I have to emulate, the more bad examples I have of things to avoid, the more I level up.

If I'd wanted it to be, such an escape could've been an excellent place to get lots of writing done, free from distraction. Instead, I used it to charge up my creative batteries.

I hope your summers bring with them a break, and a chance to experience something new. It might sound contradictory for me to write about time off when I also post about prioritizing your time, but I think what you do in the time you're not writing is just as important as setting aside time in your busy day to write.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Review: The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had to sleep on this one before I could rate it. My initial feeling when I finished listening to it on audio was of overwhelming sadness, and I was tempted to rate it more harshly for upsetting me. But it's a well-crafted tale that can affect one emotionally, so I thought it deserved some stepping back to consider. In the end, I concluded that this isn't my favorite Margaret Atwood book, but it is well-crafted.

The Blind Assassin is a story within a story within a story. The inner layer is a science fiction tale about an alien society in its early barbaric days. A young woman whose tongue was cut out and a young man blinded from his days weaving carpets fall in love, and escape their doomed city. The next layer out is two nameless lovers. The man in the pairing is telling the woman the story of the blind assassin. He's a writer who usually churns out cheesy pulp science fiction, but he's also in hiding for being falsely accused of murder. Then the outermost layer is Iris Chase Griffen, a woman in her 80s who's writing her early life story, most of which falls between WWI and WWII. She moves between a present day she hardly recognizes and a past full of pain. She writes about her sister, Laura, who went off a bridge in Iris's car in 1945.

The story is told out of chronological order, interspersed with news articles pertaining to the narrative, though their relation isn't immediately obvious in all cases. The story especially seems to jump around toward the end, until the last of the story is told and it's all tied together.

I was worried the novel would leave me guessing until the very end about some of the hints it kept dropping, but Iris does spell out her secrets she's so reluctant to disclose. There is one question left at the very end, but answering it would've cheapened the narrative. I like the answer I came up with.

The story is frustrating to listen to in places. Iris has so little power, so little freedom, in her marriage to Richard Griffen. He and his sister, Winifred Griffen Prior, are determined to keep Iris helpless and in the dark. Reading (or listening to it on audio) is an exercise in feeling that loneliness, boredom, restlessness. I felt chills when the narrator read me what Iris did to rebel. Good for her!

This is also a story about sisters. Laura and Iris grow up and mature into adult women, but their relationship dynamic remains a constant. Iris remains exasperated with her sister's enigmatic nature, her own responsibility to look after her, while Laura stays a dreamer who sees no differentiation between herself and her big sister. What's Iris's is Laura's, in Laura's eyes, and she assumes Iris feels the same way. The relationship between the sisters was probably the strongest aspect of the book.

There are also literary elements I don't like. Rich people make themselves miserable, cheat on one another, constantly drink alcohol to excess, and fail to talk about important things. Those felt more logical and necessary in this book than in other literary books with the same elements, but they still felt like clichés.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Margot Dionne. She has a slight accent I couldn't place, but that she plays up for certain characters to set their dialogue apart in the narrative. She speaks very crisply and distinctly, with no change in volume or modulation. I didn't have to keep adjusting my volume to hear murmurs or whispers, only to turn it back down when people shouted. I listened to a fair chunk of the audio book while I was walking, and it certainly made the time pass.

Margaret Atwood has a grounding in poetry, though, so she chooses her words carefully, selecting a lyrical presentation whenever possible. Even the less pleasant sections of the narrative are pretty to listen to.

If, like me, you've had this book recommended from dozens of sources, I highly recommend giving the audio edition a listen. The lyricism of the words really comes to life when spoken aloud.

View all my reviews

Thursday, July 26, 2012

5 Ways Fanfic Can Make You a Better Writer

I posted earlier this week about what I think of fanfic. I promised then that I would talk about the edge fanfic writers have over their literary peers. So, here's my list of 5 ways fanfic can help you be a better author. Please bear in mind, I'm not saying that fanfic writers aren't "real" writers, only that it can lend an edge to those seeking traditional publishing routes.

1. You learn to take criticism. Within the fanfic community, there's a system of receiving and giving feedback. Most are paired up with a beta reader, or they have a whole slew of them. The betas will help make it a better story. Additionally, when you post a fanfic online, people will post their responses. This is good preparation for changing a story in response to editorial comments.

However, the fanfic community also tends to foster more of a positive attitude than the reading public in general. Those coming from a fanfic background may react more strongly to a negative review than one elsewhere, because they've become accustomed to comments directed at them. Some have surmised that the recent backlashes against reviewers has come about from those "graduating" from fanfic. I don't think that's a fair assessment, but I do think that fanfic writers need to remember that not everyone will be as nice as the people leaving comments on your fics.

2. You learn to give constructive criticism. As I mentioned above, fanfic writers are frequently paired with beta readers. That means that they, too, must serve as a beta reader, and give useful feedback without upsetting the person they're critiquing. This is a good skill to have, and often works to make the people offering critique better at spotting problems in their own works.

3. You can experiment. Fanfic writers are working in someone else's world, with someone else's characters. That leaves them free to break any and every other rule, and to see how it works. It might not make for a readable fic, but it does make for a fun diversion for the writer. It also lets them think outside established literary techniques to find something else that works.

4. You get immediate feedback. If a fanfic writer is normally getting a dozen or so comments per installment, and suddenly that writer gets 100, that indicates she's doing something right. If she normally gets hundreds of comments but the response to her latest is only a dozen or so unenthusiastic remarks, clearly there was some misstep. It might not always be logical or obvious, but, if a pattern emerges, that writer can quickly figure out what her weaknesses might be, and work on them.

5. It's fun. Writers will tell you how writing is hard work, it's a slog, and it's not always fun and games. But, if they didn't enjoy some part of it, they wouldn't do it. There are plenty of terrible, joyless, difficult jobs that pay more. Writers write because it's fun. If you're having fun while you're learning the ropes, then you're well ahead of your degree-earning peers, who are slogging their way through classes meant to teach them how hard writing is.

If you're a fanfic writer, you may not benefit from any of these. You may not want to. But, if you are interested in traditional publication on an original work, all of your writing practice may serve you well, for the above reasons.

I would advise against submitting your fanfic for publication, though, for various reasons. Most of the spinoff series you see on the shelves were specifically commissioned by the publisher by authors who were already established as publishable, by their own original works. And don't approach the authors themselves; they'll refuse to look at your fanfic for legal reasons.

Instead, you're best off sharing your fanfic with the fanfic community, and working on your original fiction on the side as you hone your skills. Nothing says you can't borrow elements after you file the serial numbers off, but there is a difference between an element here and there and a recognizable story and characters.

There is one notable exception, and I won't invoke its name. I'm sure you all know what I'm talking about.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Fanfic: What Is It Good For?

During my writing group on Sunday, we talked about various things, some of them only marginally related to writing, some of them not related to writing at all. Two of the members got to talking about how they used fanfic to build up writing momentum. One of them was writing some fanfic now, and sharing it, while another was writing very short real-person fics that she wasn't sharing. I thought I should post about the use of fanfic in learning to write, because it can play a role.
Before I talk about how it can help, though, I want to make sure we're on the same page. If you don't ever write for anything else, I'm not calling you a fake writer. I think the fanfic community is an important piece of fandom. It's often fanfic that keeps up the interest in the series while fans wait for the next installment, and it helps build a sense of community around shared interests. There's no shame in choosing to write only fanfic for the rest of your days.

To those of you who don't know what fanfic is, it's short for fan fiction. It's unauthorized stories written and usually shared online about books, TV shows, movies, comics, even celebrities that spark fans' imaginations. When I first heard the term, most fanfic was of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though the phenomenon goes back to the original Star Trek and Lord of the Rings. If you include published literary work in the definition (and many fans do), you can trace it back to Hans Christian Anderson, the Grimms, and Shakespeare, who all pilfered from other sources.

Publishing houses are generally opposed to fanfic based on the "intellectual property" argument. It's hard to point to any lost revenue, though, as fanfic is exchanged for free and may contribute to a growing fandom in the slump between installments. There are those who credit the Harry Potter franchise's success on fanfic, though I would hesitate to do so, as it's a difficult thing to prove.

Some authors shy away from it, lest they're accused of plagiarizing from a fanfic piece. Others support it, again without setting eyes on it. Still others are horrified by its very existence, and can't stand that other people are playing with their characters. As some fanfic pairs up characters who don't appear on the page (or screen) together, and some depict sexual acts which would never have occurred in what the writer originally depicted (called "canon" by fandom), sometimes, authors are offended by what seems to be fans thinking they know better than the creator.

I used to have a much harsher view toward fanfic, but, as with most things, I've relaxed my opinion. Part of it happened when I was getting myself motivated to write my trilogy, and I wondered aloud what fanfic of it might look like. As my friend proposed more and more ridiculous scenarios and pairings, between my giggles, I remarked that I should be so lucky to have people like it enough to write fanfic about it.

I also learned of several authors who'd gotten their start in fanfic, and I got to thinking about how it might've helped them become stronger writers. That will be my next post, because this one is already running long.

I will not write fanfic, myself, but I do think there are far worse places to start for those who wish to write professionally. I'll outline why in my next post.

Review: Succubus Blues by Richelle Mead

Succubus Blues
Succubus Blues by Richelle Mead

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had some trepidation halfway through this book. The author was using a romance trope I hate, and I didn't yet know if it was being subverted or promoted. A character constantly pushes Georgina's boundaries, ignores her very clear communication, and shows stalker tendencies. I was worried he would turn out to be her love interest, and then I would have to throw the book across the room.

There was no book-throwing. Instead, I enjoyed the conclusion.

Succubus Blues is about Georgina Kincaid, a succubus who's lived a couple thousand years, sucking out men's life energy by seducing them. Her sexual mores would horrify most good Christians. She is what she is, and she's not going to apologize for her need to sleep around with terrible people. It's easier to forgive her for that, knowing it's not the great coup these jerks think they've landed.

In modern day Seattle, Georgina is the assistant manager at a bookstore, where her idol is coming in for a signing. She has some curious notions about writerly fame, which can be forgiven knowing the author is inserting them for humor value. Richelle Mead knows better; Georgina does not.

Then supernatural creatures are suddenly dying and being attacked, and Georgina isn't content to leave it to the local demon and angel authorities. It doesn't help one little bit that the killer starts addressing sick love notes to her.

I liked Georgina's voice in this book. She's an interesting blend of seductive, snarky demon and naivete. I liked her friends, too, and I most certainly want to read more of Seth. I'm wary of the assertion he makes, though, that pairing off the main characters will make readers lose interest. As meta-commentary, it's frustrating to think it might mean he and Georgina will always have more obstacles than snuggling time.

There's a lot to like about the book, which is why I'm puzzled about why I was able to set it down and leave it for three nights in a row. There's a slump a little past midway, when things start feeling repetitive and predictable.

That slump isn't going to keep me from reading later installments, though. I enjoyed this book a lot, and I found the ending satisfying, if on the predictable side.

I didn't read up on the author until I was almost finished with the book, and I learned only then that she's a biblical scholar. That explains a lot; she has a lot of Bible tidbits I hadn't realized nor learned. I felt that added a lot to a book about angels and demons. There was a whole layer of depth I hadn't expected.

If you're looking for some enjoyable urban fantasy with some smut and solid worldbuilding, you should give this book a try.

View all my reviews

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Editing: Give Space

I started posting about the editing process a couple of weeks ago, and I mentioned then that I had a whole series about it. This is the second post in that series.

When you first write a story, you've just poured hours and days and weeks and months into crafting that tale, and getting it right. Even if you know, objectively, that some of the scenes were slapdash, and you left marks within the text to denote where you should expand or truncate or otherwise fix, you're going to feel like you're killing your own flesh and blood if you change any of the words.

As you gain distance from those words, though, the more objective you are about them. If you leave them be for a couple of weeks, you may find places where the writing is uneven, or some of the word choices were wrong. Leave the draft for a few months, though, and, if you're anything like me, you'll be wondering who the heck wrote it when you next pick it up.

Better writers than me have advised putting the manuscript into a drawer, or a trunk, or otherwise putting it away where you can't see it. Nowadays, though, few of us print out our first drafts. We're talking about electronic copy. What I would advise would be to put it in a folder you don't look at every single day, and mark on your calendar when it's safe to look at.

Then, go work on something else. Forget about your first draft for a while. You'll need to do some trial and error before you'll know exactly how long you need, but I started with six months, the first time I took this advice. My trial and error yielded a minimum of two months. There is no maximum; I've picked up things I wrote a decade ago and had no idea what stranger was writing such terrible stories in my voice.

Generally speaking, though, by the time I've finished whatever I picked up to make me forget my last project, I'm ready to face that last project and can handle editing it. If I stop my "distraction" project too soon, though, and pick up the first one too soon, I'll be too attached to what I find, and I won't want to edit or cut anything. Once I've talked myself into letting something stay, it stays, often to the detriment of the manuscript.

You should never bank all of your writing success on one story, and you should never work on one thing to the exclusion of all else. That you'll need time to let go of your first-draft words is part of the reason why.

So, when you think you're ready to edit a first draft, make sure you've given it enough space that you'll be able to.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Grammar Peeves: Filler

I thought I'd posted about all of the grammar sins that bother me, but my published friend retweeted a tweet from her editor that reminded me about another I'd meant to write about.

In a novel, it's rarely the case that every single word counts. You don't have the economy of a short story or poem. And yet, if you establish a pattern in wasting a reader's time throughout your novel, you'll lose them as effectively as if you'd written something offensive. While that usually comes about with long scenes that don't address the plot, it can also happen on a sentence level. Here are a few ways how.

  • Progression—A good sign you're delaying your sentences is if you talk about progressions on a task, rather than the task, itself. "Started to," "in the process of," "finished," "worked on," and similar phrases halt the action, rather than moving it forward.
  • Synonyms and Definitions—This is one I know I'm guilty of. I write something like, "Conciseness, or using just a few words to describe something, is a skill that doesn't come naturally." It wasn't necessary that I define the term, but I did it, anyway. I'll also start to list words that mean the same thing, when one would do.
  • Redundancy—"PIN" is an acronym for "personal identification number." Calling it a "PIN number" grates on my last nerve. "ATM" is "automatic teller machine," so if you call it an "ATM machine" within your text, I will question your intelligence. It's a great phrase to put in your character's mouth to show he's not all there, but, if you don't know any better, I have no sympathy for you. Similarly, empty words that add nothing to the sentence don't belong.
  • Qualifiers—If you've heard adverbs are evil, this is why. "Just," "only," "really," "mostly," "usually," "basically," serves to weaken a sentence, rather than help it. Similarly, if you describe how dialogue is delivered (flippantly, sarcastically, seriously, quietly), your dialogue is failing.
  • Fluffed-up Phrases—"The fact that," "The reality of it was," "The system of," "The mechanism that," "As we all know," indicate that the writer is going about this story the long way around. These phrases and similar have their uses, but overuse makes the story look like a NaNoWriMo gone awry.
It is possible to use any or all of the above without stalling your sentences in the middle. Filler words can contribute to the overall flow of a sentence, and they can be used in dialogue to show the character is a blowhard.

During your editing phase, note any of the above you find in your manuscript. Keep a file of them. If you notice they keep cropping up, start to pick and choose where they belong, and use ctrl+f (cmd f on a Mac) to find instances of filler.

Your writing is stronger when you don't fill it up with unnecessary words. Also, readers appreciate that you didn't make them wade through useless text to get to the good stuff.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Reading, Revisited

Before I begin tonight's regularly-scheduled blog post, I'd like to point out that I'm participating in the Austen in August reading event at Roof Beam Reader. The link contains details, and all you have to do to sign up is comment on that post. I've signed up to read Persuasion, and to reread Mansfield Park. If I have time, I'll also reread Sense and Sensibility. I had the excellent good fortune of being able to discover Jane Austen's works on my own, rather than in school, so I've always enjoyed her books.

Speaking of reading, I just read The Ultimate David Sedaris Audio Collection (well, okay, I listened to it), and I reviewed each collection within it individually. That took about forever and a day to type up, but I did it. I'm pointing you in that direction because I'm in such shock that I went so long without his brand of humor in my life that I must rectify this situation if the same applies to you.

Clearly, tonight I want to post about reading. I've already done so, in the early days of my blog, but I think it deserves a revisit.

I remember remarking more than once that reviewing every book I read has me looking at books differently. I'm paying more attention to what I can learn from each writer, trying actively to guess the endings, and noting things I didn't think the authors did as well as they could. I joked about leveling up as a writer, and I think I can credit a lot of that to picking out elements I like in books, figuring out what I want to emulate or do better than the author, and analyzing what works.

In theory, I already knew I had to do this, but I hadn't been putting it into practice as well as I have been in the last several months. I don't know if it's because of the blog, the writing group, or just some switch I flipped in my brain, but the passive exercise of reading has been far more helpful in my evolution lately than it's ever been.

Knowing you have to do something and doing it isn't always as easy as getting up off your butt, or sitting down at your computer, or closing down the internet. Sometimes things take a long while to take hold, or you have to keep practicing until it sticks.

If I could reverse engineer how I finally made it stick, I'd teach every new writer how to do it. Alas, all I can do is tell you what a revelation it is, and to keep reading and working on it. After all, if you want to be a writer, I assume you already like to read. So, it's not like learning how to read as a writer is a terrible chore. Are you really going to complain if I tell you your homework is to read as many books as you want, and only the ones you want to?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Review: The Ultimate David Sedaris Audio Collection

The Ultimate David Sedaris Audio CollectionThe Ultimate David Sedaris Audio Collection by David Sedaris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a collection of abridged David Sedaris books on audio, read mostly by the author with some contributions from his sister, Amy Sedaris. The collection includes Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, Live at Carnegie Hall, Naked, Holidays on Ice, and Barrel Fever and Other Stories. The only one I haven't reviewed separately is Live at Carnegie Hall, because there were so many repeats, it didn't seem fair to rate it separately.

Taken as a whole, it's sort of overwhelming for someone with no exposure to David Sedaris before, save random mentions on internet comments. This was the only form I could take out Me Talk Pretty One Day from my local library, though, so I figured I'd listen to the rest, while I was at it. I'm not sure I'd recommend it for a beginner, because it is a bit much. But, there's plenty of context within the stories to introduce one to David Sedaris's sense of humor.

The live tracks helped a lot. As I noted in my first review, I realized I was supposed to be laughing at these wry, dark observations, and that I wasn't the only one mean enough to laugh at his pain. Sedaris's sense of humor is both dark and self-deprecating, and his delivery is quite dry.

Having listened to this audio set, I can't believe I made it this far in my life without having read anything by David Sedaris before. This is very much the kind of humor I appreciate.

If you're a fan of David Sedaris, or you're looking for a gift for someone who is, I think you could do a lot worse than keeping this set around for a gloomy day. I don't recommend you dive right in as I did, unless you're prepared for dark humor, delivered dryly. My immersion served me well, but it was a gamble.

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Review: Barrel Fever and Other Stories by David Sedaris

Barrel Fever and Other Stories
Barrel Fever and Other Stories by David Sedaris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was a curious choice, making this the last part of The Ultimate David Sedaris Audio Collection, considering it was his first publication. It felt a bit like going backwards in quality. While I had the explanation for a number of these stories, they weren't as funny nor as sharply honed as his later essays.

The vast majority of Barrel Fever and Other Stories is fictional tales, mostly about really stupid people. The title story, "Barrel Fever" is about a hateful alcoholic whose mother dies and his best friend joins AA. He spends the majority of the story railing about the pointlessness of AA and sneering at those who want to live without booze, until he finds in his mother's New Years Resolutions a promise to "be good."

"The Last You'll Hear from Me" sticks in my mind pretty well, too. It's a suicide note, penned by a deeply manipulative young woman who exhorts her funeral attendees to stone her enemies with memorial paperweights.

"Glen's Homophobia Newsletter Vol. 3, No. 2," meanwhile, is also written as an address to a specific audience, this time arguing against homophobia that may simply be reactions to the fact that Glen is a jerk. I was uncomfortable with the "asking for it" subtext in that one, though.

The nonfiction stories were an improvement, though most seemed more of a series of vignettes than an entire narrative. "Giantess," about his submitting to a porn fetish magazine, was the most tightly constructed of these. Though, I have to admit, "Diary of a Smoker" had some great one-liners.

If you've read everything else by David Sedaris, it certainly couldn't hurt to pick this up, but I don't think it's the best part of the collection. After Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and Me Talk Pretty One Day, this felt like something of a consolation prize.

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Review: Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris

Holidays on Ice
Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this as part of The Ultimate David Sedaris Audio Collection. This lists itself as abridged, but I'm unable to put my finger on any of the stories within this quick collection I might've missed out on.

There are two nonfiction essays in this collection, "SantaLand Diaries" and "Dinah, the Christmas Whore." Both are hilariously funny. "SantaLand Diaries" tells of Sedaris's brief stint as an elf in Macy's SantaLand for one season, and of his various ways of dealing with such a soul-crushing occupation where he has to wear a uniform of crushed velvet and pantaloons. "Dinah, the Christmas Whore" shows him a side of his sister, Lisa, he hadn't known about, and that unexpectedly brightens his Christmas as a teenager. (The story isn't as smutty as my description makes it sound. He and his sisters are simply delighted to welcome a real, live hooker into their kitchen for Christmas.)

The rest of the stories are fiction with a sharp satirical bite. "Season's Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!" is a mock Christmas letter from an upper-middle-class soccer mom (though I suppose that wasn't what she'd be called when the story was originally written) who's had a trying holiday season. "Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol" is a mock review of various school Christmas pageants, judged as if they're supposed to be works of art. "Based on a True Story" is a TV exec's attempt to finagle a true story out of someone to make it into a made-for-TV movie. And "Christmas Means Giving" is about a well-off couple who go to bizarre lengths to outdo their next door neighbors' generosity.

It's odd to listen to these stories with the AC blasting, but I do see myself rereading them come Christmastime. Sedaris captures a lot of my cynicism about Missing the Point and commercialism, without harping on the message. I enjoyed them, though they're not as chuckleworthy as his nonfiction pieces.

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Review: Naked by David Sedaris

Naked by David Sedaris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this as part of The Ultimate David Sedaris Audio Collection, and a glance at the stories included in the originally tells me this was likely the most abridged in the collection. Nearly half of the stories were left out in order to fit them into the collection, which makes me wonder, why include it at all?

Well, if it hadn't been included, I would've missed out on "Ashes," an essay about his sister's wedding in the mountains of North Carolina while his mother is dying of cancer. He doesn't stoop to heart-wrenching sentimentality; that's not Sedaris's way. And yet, his words stay with me, in ways that both make me chuckle aloud, or send me into a melancholic funk.

I also would've missed out on "Next of Kin," when his find of a smutty book changes how he views his family dynamic, as well as the private lives of all of his neighbors and fellow church attendees. It's more of a wry than laugh-out-loud kind of humor in the essay, but it's quite memorable.

And I also wouldn't have been able to hear "A Plague of Tics," where he discusses the various nervous twitches and rituals he does, until he discovers the relaxing effect of smoking. Suddenly, the short-short essay he wrote, where a woman asks, "Do you mind if we make this a non-smoking bench?" makes a lot more sense, as his tics come back when he's not smoking.

There's also a story called "I Like Guys," about Sedaris's growing up gay in Raleigh, North Carolina, and his first sexual experience at summer camp in Greece. As it is, that's rarely an easy time for adolescents, but he really drives home the awkwardness, the guilt, the pure terror of being found out.

The title track of "Naked" is almost an afterthought, after those gems. I wasn't sure I understood why the body-conscious Sedaris would visit a nudist trailer park (as he calls it), but he certainly picks up some funny observations and interesting insights along the way.

This is not the best set of essays in the collection (that honor would go to Me Talk Pretty One Day), but it's not a waste of time, either. I didn't get any insight into Sedaris, himself, as in earlier works, but I did enjoy his essays, based on my previous reads.

As with the others in this collection, Sedaris reads the audio book, with some roles read by Amy Sedaris. While his voice took some getting used to, his sister Amy is a character actor, and easily drops into several different roles. The experience is much enhanced in their voices.

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Review: Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Me Talk Pretty One Day
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this as part of the Ultimate David Sedaris Audio Collection. It was abridged, and a glance over the story listings shows me I've missed more than my last abridged Sedaris book, and that they were out of order. Ah, well. I'll just have to pick it up for a reread sometime.

I found the theme tighter in this than in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. While the idea of language, communication, and the power teachers hold over their students isn't immediately apparent in all of the stories, it's a much stronger thread, and Sedaris seems to have a lot more to say about it. His speech therapist and French teacher take similar glee in how much more they know than he does, and they relish opportunities to show him up. Or, maybe it's just the way he sees it. He describes himself as "the village idiot" in France, and his English translations of his French vocabulary is certainly entertaining.

The most memorable story in this collection, for me, was "Picka Pocketoni," where Sedaris is mistaken by American tourists for a French pickpocket. The conversation he overhears by this couple who assumes he can't understand a word they're saying is amusing, as is his plan for revenge and his flattery at being thought quick-fingered enough to steal for a living. "The City of Light in the Dark" was also interesting for an entirely different reason. He contrasts the moviegoing experience in New York City and in Paris, France, where revivals of old movies are common and the theater is typically silent, with few concessions. While I fear for the day his prediction about moviegoers enjoying steak may come true, I also miss the Cinebarre, where one can be served whole meals seated at a film. I can completely understand taking people to see a movie during their fancy European vacation, though.

Overall, I felt like I got a better feel for Sedaris with this book than with the last one I read, and I think I probably would've liked the previous one better if I'd read this, first. I don't think it will be any chore to go back and reread, though.

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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Research for Writers

I've mentioned before the importance of research in making your writing seem real, and that "write what you know" isn't permission to skimp on research. I also alluded to how to do it when I discussed how difficult it is for introverts to get out there and find things out.

Photo taken by Allen Nelson on 7/14/2012. Please credit if used.
There are, luckily, a lot of different ways to do your research, and not all of them involve the great expense of travel, or the anguish of meeting new people.

To find out about places you've never been, online maps show you a lot about the layout, and most major cities have travel guides that will tell you where your characters might eat, hang out, or go to watch the tourists. (Check your local library for travel guides; they can get pricey.) It also usually helps to have a local as a beta reader, to tell you about any severe missteps.

If you want to know what a job entails, most job search boards will have a description, including what kind of education is necessary and/or preferred. You'll get the most useful information about day-to-day life in a job by asking someone who does it, and most people love to talk about themselves. Ask your friends if they know anyone who does the job you need to know more about, or attend meetings for the local chamber of commerce or trade-related clubs to try to meet people in the field you're looking for.

If it's an earlier time you want to know about, I strongly recommend the Daily Life series by Greenwood Press. They're pricey, too, so check availability at a local library. You could also ask a historian with a specialty in the time period you're writing about, or you could audit a college course.

Auditing college courses, if your local college allows it, is a really good way to round out your knowledge in a subject, and the professor will be happy to answer even your strangest questions. Teaching people who are truly interested in a subject, instead of students who are slumping through for class credit, is a refreshing change for most teachers.

If all else fails, fill in details from your own experiences. If it feels authentic, people aren't going to question whether your fictional small town would really be set up the way it is, with the hero's house on the outskirts. So long as you haven't defied the laws of physics, violated a real map, or contradicted something that really exists, the details aren't terribly important.

The reason I thought of this topic was because my parents went up to visit the house I'm writing a novel about. I asked them to get some pictures of the creepier aspects of the house, so that I can use them as reference. I remembered a lot of the details well, but there were things in the photos my father posted that I didn't remember, often because I hadn't been looking that closely.

My story may well be based on events that I really lived through, but the fictionalized account, if I write it correctly, will strike readers as more believable than what really happened. And that's because I'm doing my homework, and adding a lot of true details, many of which didn't happen to me.

Research is one of the most important things a writer can do. As a pantster, unfortunately, that usually means I'm researching after the first draft is written, and I have to fill things in that require more information. It works out well, though, because the only thing I like less than researching is editing. So I find out a lot of interesting things while I'm procrastinating.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians
The Magicians by Lev Grossman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

While I can understand what literary fiction enthusiasts might like about this book, to me, this book took the worst of both literary fiction and fantasy and wrapped it up in comparisons that made it sound far more appealing than it was.

I liked the concept. You have the Narnia-esque fantasy world of Fillory our hero, Quentin, is obsessed with. (And I do love the name Quentin.) You have the school of magic the average person is perfectly unaware of. I liked the elements, going in, but the follow-through was awful.

If you pull out all the sections where people mope, feel sorry for themselves, or undergo self-destructive activities, this book would be maybe a few dozen pages long. I know a lot of people love watching people go through existential crises, but that's what keeps me away from most literary fiction. I don't sympathize with people who create their own problems. I have a hard time rooting for people who have so much going for them, then throw it away on self-destructive, selfish impulses.

Quentin only grows more and more unlikable as the story goes on. It makes me wish I'd taken my reluctance to pick this up after a couple of nights of reading as a sign, and stopped reading. I guess my thinking was that I wanted to see what the plot was, first.

The plot doesn't show up until over halfway through, and it involves a device to go to the fictional land of Fillory, which actually exists. It's only after the story's climax that we learn what Quentin's four years at Brakebills, the school of magic, had to do with the plot. Call me a literary philistine, but I'm unforgiving of books that make me wade through over 200 pages before introducing the main conflict.

Even after the conflict is introduced, there are far more pages spent on second-guessing and preparation than on doing anything with their newfound access. When the characters start talking about how useless they are, and whining about how long it was taking for anything to happen, maybe I was supposed to chuckle appreciatively, but all I wanted to do was throw the book across the room.

I might have been more forgiving if I'd ever felt like Quentin took responsibility for the terrible choices he makes, but instead he keeps forging on, finding new and more self-destructive ways to forget that there are consequences. I lost all sympathy for him when he cheats on his long-term girlfriend, who he looks down on for not being a drunken party fiend like him. I got actively angry with him when he acted like she was still his girlfriend after that. He blames the girl he slept with, he blames the wine he drank too much of, and he blames the guy she sleeps with afterwards. He never thinks that maybe he needs to reexamine his approach to the relationship and quit taking her for granted or looking down his nose at her for having some personal integrity.

It doesn't help the book one bit when the characters are described as heading to upstate NY, near the Adirondacks. They're correctly described as heading to Albany in one chapter, but then the next chapter has them going to Buffalo, and this is repeated several more times. Buffalo is a five-hour drive from Albany, and a quick glance at a map would've told Grossman or an editor what a glaring error this is. It was distracting, and it told of sloppy writing elsewhere, as well.

Instead of finding this book a delightful fantasy romp, a Harry Potter for grownups, I found that all it did was drag down both literary and fiction genres. If this is how literary fiction snobs see fantasy, no wonder they never pick up any genre works. I wouldn't, either, with this to warn me away.

If you are an exclusively literary fiction reader, don't let this book dissuade you. Fantasy is so much better than this.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

Review: Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read an abridged version of this as part of The Ultimate David Sedaris Audio Collection. It wasn't why I took the collection out of the library, but I thought it couldn't hurt to listen to the whole thing, all the way through.

It took me a while to adjust to Sedaris as a narrator. He has a deadpan delivery that, at first, sounds flat and bored. I was several vignettes in before I caught on to his comedic timing. The inclusion of several live tracks, with the audience laughing in all the right places, helped. A lot of the humor is quite dark, and I kept feeling guilty for laughing where I did.

Once I got past that, though, I enjoyed this collection of humorous essays very much. I don't think I'll ever be able to keep track of all of his sisters' names, no matter how many of his stories I listen to, but it's just as amusing to think of them as interchangeable. At least to me.

My favorite in this collection is "Repeat After Me," where he visits a sister who owns a parrot, mourns for the creature's being reduced to mocking the noise the blender makes, and has some self-reflection about being a character in the stories he tells. The ending is surprisingly touching, and I teared up more each time I listened to it. (I ended up listening to it three times.)

"Nuit of the Living Dead," where Sedaris gives directions to some lost European tourists and likely makes them think they've narrowly escaped a serial killer, is also amusing, and the theme is repeated in "Chicken in the Henhouse," where walking a young boy to his hotel room makes him feel needlessly guilty, because of the assumption gay men will do bad things to children.

Sedaris is gay, and he has OCD, both of which are sprinkled into the narrative. Anyone expecting him to treat either of these facets as a shameful fact to hide don't know David Sedaris very well. "Full House," the fourth story in the collection, discusses his discomfort at a sleepover party, and how he turns the other boys' trust to his young self's advantage. He knows who he is, and he presents that openly to the reader. The humor in this collection is frequently the self-deprecating kind. If you're the type who squirms at others' discomfort, this collection may unsettle you, because Sedaris puts some rather cringe-worthy stories out there for your consideration.

I'm glad I picked up this collection, though I do wonder what I'm missing in my abridged version of the book. I may have to pick up a full audio at some point up the line.

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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Editing: Where to Start

I blog a lot about the writing process, while I allude fairly frequently to the importance of edits. I mentioned several months ago I was thinking about a series on editing, which is arguably a more important skill than writing.

Don't get me wrong; having a finished manuscript is important, and it's an accomplishment. But, if you want to submit for publication, or self-publish a polished story, you'll want to edit. Nothing comes out perfectly in its first draft, no matter whether you're a plotter or pantster, or how perfect it seemed when you were typing madly at 3 AM.

The trouble is, no matter how inspired you felt, you'll always write the fastest when you turn off your inner editor. Sometimes, you have to admit to yourself that what you're writing is less than inspired so you can move on to the next scene, then the next, until you've finished. Permission to suck may be the only way you'll ever get the whole story down.

And that's okay. Like I wrote in that last link, it's when I'm convinced I don't need to fix anything that I'm in trouble. There's always room for improvement, no matter how well you thought you wrote something.

There is no right or wrong way to edit, unless you don't change anything. But I've had a lot of trial and error with how I approach editing, and I've found that the top-down approach works best for me.

Top-down means that I take care of the big things, first, and move down into the smaller and pickier elements with each pass of edits. So, in my initial read-through, I'm looking at the overall plot and character development, noting plot developments that need more foreshadowing, or making note of the passages I really, really want to keep. I also note scenes that might have gone on too long, dialogue that rambled for pages without revealing anything to the reader, or where I might insert description without breaking the flow. I know to look out for these because I know my limits. What you focus on is highly likely to be different from what I look for.

After I've gone through the manuscript and written myself notes, then I go back and actually make changes. It's important to look at the piece as a whole before I start my editing, because an early scene may work just fine with one ending, but completely ruin another story. I'm looking for consistency, resonance, and for the scenes to build toward the ending I decided on. I'm also evaluating characters' roles, figuring out whether I have enough or too many, and if I need to give them more to do.

The first set of edits, then, looks at everything as a whole, and brings it together. The second set is scene-by-scene, figuring out if they need to be cut or expanded or moved around. The third brings it in more, going paragraph by paragraph. I trim redundancy on that level, tighten scenes by removing dead weight, clarify or expand on concepts that are tossed out seemingly at random, give more insight into POV characters' motivations, and rewrite passages that make no sense.

After that is sentence by sentence, or a line edit, as real writers call it. That's where I evaluate each sentence's value, and trim or expand as needed.

Grammar edits are the very last step, and they're the pickiest. They're where I might read backwards to remove the context so I can tell if I used the right spelling of a word, where I'm looking for commas that don't belong or extra semicolons. A grammar and spelling edit is the last step because it doesn't matter if I misspelled a word if it's going to be cut, nor does a sentence's syntax matter if it's part of a scene that has to go.

If there are other methods of editing, I don't know what they are. This is what works for me, as I've discovered thanks to practice and talking to my writing group.

I'll have some more posts about the editing process, but it's always good to know where to start, isn't it?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Making Your Fiction Real

I was talking to one of my co-workers yesterday. She watched The Shawshank Redemption over the weekend, which is based on a short story by Stephen King. She remarked how she felt like it had actually happened, and she wasn't talking about recent copycats in the news. She spoke twice about the dialogue and details that made it seem so real, and marveled at writers' magical abilities to bring things from their imagination to life.

No doubt if you're anything like me, you're imagining, with a smile, people saying something similar about your book, your short story, your precious tale. But how do you take fiction, and turn it into something that's more believable and compelling than the world around you?

It's not simply a matter of suspending disbelief, or not breaking your reader's suspension of disbelief. If that were all you needed, no one would bother with speculative fiction in the first place. Many fantasy and science fiction stories make no effort at veracity, but a lot of urban fantasy suggests it's taking place on a margin of society you haven't found, yet.

Nor is it all about doing your research, and sprinkling it in organically rather than infodumping. That certainly helps, but that isn't the whole picture. You do need to know how the world your story inhabits works, and that means some grounding in reality.

That also means some grounding in senses your reader isn't expecting to be evoked. A reader will lose him- or herself far more readily if it smells, tastes, sounds, feels and looks how they might expect. You needn't pile them on; I recommend one at a time. Andy Dufresne's escape is certainly more memorable for the crawl through the sewer pipe, one last indignity to endure.

Dialogue plays its part, illustrated by my co-worker mentioning twice how real the dialogue sounded to her in the movie. Make characters speak the way they'd sound (without too much reliance on dialect), and it'll seem all the more real, like these are real people moving around your scenery.

Populating the book with good characters is another element. People have to behave realistically and consistently, even if that consistency is only according to an arbitrary set of rules only that character knows. Characters need agency, which is a fancy word for the ability to make choices and see them through. And, whether your readers like your characters or not, they have to care what happens to them.

What it gets down to, though, is the dreaded, "Write what you know." Remember, you're part of the audience. If what you're writing isn't true to you, it won't ring true to the reader, either. Writing what you know is about putting a piece of yourself into your characters. It's about fleshing out your scenes with events you've actually witnessed, causes and effects you've seen played out (and not just in a movie), and what you know to be true of human nature.

The expression, "Truth is stranger than fiction" isn't strange to you if you're a writer. You know about fiction. Fiction has to make sense. It has to have a theme. It has to have a beginning, a middle, and a satisfying ending. It has to resonate. Reality has no such restriction.

And yet, one of the highest compliments we can pay an author is to say his or her work felt real.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Grammar Peeves: Homonyms

A pair of pears
Until I run across something new, this is all I have in the queue for grammar peeves. If there's a grammar issue you struggle with, feel free to post about it in the comments, and I'll post about it at some future date.

Homonyms are more of a spelling issue than grammar, but they're just as distracting as poorly constructed sentences, and they do contribute to writing mechanics issues. Homonyms may also be called homophones. They're when words that sound the same are spelled differently, depending on meaning.

Here are a few commonly confused homonyms:
Affect = Verb, as in to affect the outcome
Effect = Noun, as in to have an effect
Buy = To purchase
By = A preposition, meaning "near"
Bye = Short for "goodbye" 
Cite = To quote
Sight = Vision
Site = A location

Hear = To perceive with the ear
Here = In this location 
Lose = Opposite of win
Loose = Opposite of tight 
Than = Used when comparing two things
Then = Used to indicate a point in time
They're = They are
Their = Belonging to them
There = At a point in space
To = Preposition, meaning "toward"
Too = Additionally
Two = The number 2
Whose = Belonging to who
Who's = Who is
Your = Belonging to you
You're = You are
I've already written about when to use an apostrophe, so, if that's all you need to stop using the wrong word, that post is there for your use. If you'd like a more comprehensive list, this is the longest list of homonyms I've ever seen.

I can't say I've never written the wrong word. Sometimes, I didn't even pick one that sounds similar, leaving me to puzzle over what I possibly might have been aiming for when I go back to edit. So I do know how this happens. You get caught up in how the words sound in your head, and, because your inner editor is off, you're not paying attention to whether they're correct.

In the first draft, that's perfectly normal, and to be expected. But if, in later drafts, you don't catch it, and your editor doesn't, either, you're going to look mighty foolish when the reviews come out.

And, if you don't know to look for these in the first place, you're going to have some difficulty ever leaving the slush pile. If you don't know if you're confusing any homonyms, let a picky friend read a few chapters of your manuscript, and he or she should give you a good idea.

Once you know which homophones to look out for, you can do a Ctrl+F (if you're using Windows—Mac is Cmd F), and check each usage to determine if you wrote the correct one. Taking homonyms out of context, or even reading your manuscript backwards will illuminate a lot of this problem, but only once you're aware of it.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Audio Books

Not too long ago, I didn't consider a book read if I'd listened to it on audio. I didn't include them in my count of books I'd read, and I didn't tell people I'd read them. Unless I took in words with my eyes and forced myself to translate letters into pictures and sounds, it didn't count. This New York Times article from 2005 sums up a lot of my thought process.

If you've read my book reviews, you know that's changed. I gradually came to realize that I was still taking in just as much of the story, whether I read the words with my eyes or absorbed them through my ears. After all, I still remembered the story of The Hobbit quite well when I got around to reading it, and I'd originally encountered it as a bedtime story, read over the course of some weeks by my father. (My dad also has a voice trained for radio, so his bedtime stories are a real treat.)

What changed my mind, mostly, was my job. As part of my work duties, I drive all over Troy, Albany, East Greenbush, and everywhere in between. Some days I'm only in the car for 30 minutes to an hour, but my average day has me spending nearly a third of my clocked time behind the wheel. I don't like the radio, because I hate hearing the same song more than once or twice a day, even if I like it. My own music gets boring after too many repetitions.

As soon as I realized how many hours I'd wasted on listening to the same music again and again when I could've been taking in a new book, I kicked myself. Listening to an audio book and paying attention to the road take up entirely different parts of my brain. If anything, audio books occupy the part of me that gets distracted. I find my attention sharpened, my alertness heightened. That isn't the case for everyone, and some people need to get used to taking in stories aurally before it's safe to listen and drive, so be aware you may need an adjustment period.

I tend to read most of my YA in audio form, because shorter books are easier to take in, and they tend to hire the more dynamic narrators. On the other end of the spectrum, I also prefer longer classics in audio, because I can take the time to appreciate the richness of the language when I don't have to worry about straining my eyes.

Because I get most of my audio books from the library, I'm apt to pick up things I wouldn't normally touch. I would've given up on the Stephanie Plum and Harry Dresden books much sooner. Whether that's a point in their favor or not, I can't say. I also wouldn't have read Kristin Hannah's, Jeff Lindsay's, or Alan Bradley's books, and that would have been a loss.

Some books have been enhanced by the audio experience (Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood, Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows come to mind). Others may have been spoiled by a clipped or lazy reader, though it's hard to say for certain whether it was the book or the narrator that was lacking.

About half of the books I read every year, I take in on audio. I have a queue of books to request from the library for future listening, and a short backlog of books I'm going to listen to next. My husband got me an iPod for Christmas a couple of years ago, and it's quite useful for importing a book, then plugging into my car.

There are some drawbacks to listening to books on audio. I don't know how things are spelled, so I always have to look up character listings and place names before I type up book reviews. I can't quote from the books I read on audio, because my memory isn't that good. And it's really hard to reference an earlier section of an audio book, especially when I'm driving. I can go back to an earlier track if I wasn't paying attention or if a loud noise drowned out the book, but I can't flip back to a certain passage or look something up. Not easily.

Since my commitment to audio books, I've had a number of long car trips made more sane by listening to books, and I've discovered a lot of authors I'd been neglecting. Overall, I'm glad I opened my mind to listening to audio books, and realizing they counted just as much as making my eyes do all the work.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Review: Ashes and Wine by Taryn Elliott

Ashes and Wine
Ashes and Wine by Taryn Elliott

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The improvement from Taryn Elliott's debut, Uncross Your Heart and this book, released just a few short months later, was so stark that I actually DMed the author on Twitter to make sure she wouldn't be offended if I noted it in my review. She replied that she wrote them three years apart, so she truly hoped she'd improved in that time.

Yes, I am apt to rate this book more favorably because I know the author. But I think it's a good book apart from that, too. I read this only because I know Taryn. I liked it because it's great writing.

Ashes and Wine is about Royal Andreas and Tessa Winter, though it's more Royal's story. It's his dying father that keeps Royal from acting on the growing attraction he has for the redheaded bookstore owner he sees once a month. He gives in for one very passionate night, but Tessa, being a smart girl who goes after what she wants, doesn't leave it at that.

The second half of the book has its steamy moments, but it moves to the winery Royal's family runs, where the aforementioned father is spending his last days. The last part of the book is far more touching than titillating, as Tessa and Royal navigate the difficult question of whether a relationship based on support during hard times is worth pursuing in easier ones.

A lesser writer wouldn't have been up to balancing the horror of Royal's father's illness with tender moments between Tessa and Royal, but Taryn nails it. By the time the book wraps up, I had no doubt that these two could make it, and that they deserve to.

If you like romance, I would highly recommend you pick this up. You're missing out on an excellent new voice if you don't. And, if you don't like romance, consider picking it up, anyway. It's missing a lot of the tropes that probably keep you away, and it's a very touching story.

Though, if, in subsequent books, Tessa has nothing more interesting to do than a support role at the winery, I am going to have words with my friend. I understand why the question wasn't addressed in this book, but I am hoping to see glimpses of these two up the line.

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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Progress Post: Starting a New Project

I haven't posted about my progress since May, mostly because there had been very little change since that post. As you may have gathered, I was in something of a slump, and realized I was better off concentrating on mentally plotting, sorting out priorities, and doing fun things until I could start typing without my stomach immediately clenching into a knot. To me, that's important. But then, I can go a couple of weeks without writing a single word, and then pick it back up and write 20,000.

That isn't quite what I've done, but I did finish the work-in-progress (which is what WIP stands for), the tentatively titled "Reincarnation." (Quick lesson on proper citation: if it isn't published, the title goes in quotes. If it's published, it's underlined or in italics. Short stories are also in quotes. Similarly, album titles are underlined or in italics while the songs are in quotes.)

"Reincarnation" clocked in at 131,452 words. I'm going to trim that down closer to 100K, which only sounds intimidating if you haven't seen how padded this draft is. There's a lot to cut.

Then last night, I started in on a horror novel based on personal experience, which I'm calling "Grandmother's House." In college, I lived in a very creepy old farmhouse in Maine, and I had some experiences I still can't explain. My father recently pointed out some pieces of the house's history that I'm glad I didn't know while I lived there.

I'm not interested in telling the story exactly as it happened, because it was anticlimactic. Instead, I'm playing up the events that did happen, adding details of things that scare me, and turning it into a coherent narrative with a satisfying ending.

Unfortunately for me, writing horror involves delving into the things that frighten me. In order to bring out the fear I experienced, I have to imagine myself back in it before I can transcribe the sensations I felt. The scene I wrote last night, of my main character's first moment of creeping dread, involved picturing the first time I peered into the dark cellar of that house, smelled the churned dirt of the floor, felt the cold air gusting up, and realized I had to go down into that dark and windowless place.

It was just one scene, but it left me drained and jittery the rest of the night. It was safer, somehow, having that creeping dread on the page instead of in my head, but that doesn't mean it was easy to invoke.

My writing group advised that I do something different, and this most certainly is. We'll see if getting it out is even feasible, and whether I can do it justice.