Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sountracks? For books?!

I’ve noticed two trends in Authorland lately: book trailers and book “soundtracks”. I’m on the fence about book trailers; I like the idea of reaching readers with the same sort of clips they’re used to seeing for movies, but a part of what I enjoy about reading is painting my own mental pictures as the tale unfolds in front of me. Negotiating that shared mental space is a lovely dance between author and reader, and I’m not sure how I feel about something cutting in on that dance.

But a playlist for a book—now that I can get behind wholeheartedly. 

Maybe it’s because I’m a child of the 80's and spent my childhood frolicking through the creative playground of mix tapes, I don’t know. But there’s something about pulling out just the right song to communicate a mood or sentiment that feels like a cool retro scavenger hunt to me. I’ve spent more hours than I can count sorting through stacks of CDs (or nowadays, iTunes playlists) and scouring lyrics to find the perfect blend of music for parties and sweethearts. Why not for a book?

So, I decided to put one together for the book I just finished, Deadly Avatar (Previously called MMORPG); it’s about a serial killer who hunts for his victims online in World of Warcraft. In fact, as I began I realized I already had a head start on my list; there are several songs woven into the book as part of the plot. I added those into Spotify first thing, and I was on my way. 

As I scoured my stash of songs for entries that would represent the different phases of my story, I discovered something very cool. Finding the right song to capture what I’m looking for is a lot like choosing just the right word or phrase to communicate the emotion or mood I’m targeting in my writing. In some instances it’s a case of tapping into a shared cultural vibe; for example, I chose ‘The Heat Is On’ to represent the police investigation in the book, because it comes with a web of instant preset associations. Other selections rely on lyrics that communicate something relevant to my story, or a mood set by the melody. And in most cases, when I chose song X over song Y, I did so because song X conveyed an extra layer of meaning; in some cases, that extra meaning is only clear once you've read the book, and I enjoyed adding in those little insider nods. So in many ways, the act of creating a playlist that conveyed what I wanted it to was an extension of the book itself.  

And that was just plain FUN to puzzle out. 

Here’s what I ended up with, created on Spotify:

If you haven’t tried this out yet, I highly recommend it. What better excuse to pull out a bunch of old tunes and listen to some great music? And nobody can say you’re procrastinating, because it’s all in the name of promoting your book! Therapeutic and productive, all at the same time, you can't beat that! ;-) 

Happy writing,

Monday, July 20, 2015

Is prose the ultimate measure of a book's value?

(Affiliate links)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that a couple of weeks ago, E.L. James (author of the Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy) held a twitter event that took a turn toward the dark side. A number of people sent nasty tweets attacking her skill as a writer and accusing her of damaging women’s causes. I was disturbed by this, not because it happened per se—internet trolls are gonna hate, that’s no surprise—but because it seems to be the apex of a phenomenon I have a very hard time understanding, both as a writer and a reader.

Before I begin, I have two disclaimers. First: in this post I’m talking about the writing issue, not the abusive relationship issue, but I do not mean to imply this is an unimportant question.

Second: on the recommendation of a friend, I started reading the Grey trilogy shortly after it became a phenomenon. I made it halfway into the second book, and stopped; it just wasn’t my thing, and although my friend loved it, I just couldn’t get into it. No big deal—different strokes for different folks (no pun intended). 

I watched the backlash swirl around the books and have heard more than a few people trash the series. I’ve heard all sorts of jokes about how poorly written the series is, how cheesy, etc., etc.; I’ve seen the random generator that allows you to create Grey-like-prose-filled sex scenes. Before that, I heard people say similar things about how bad the Twilight series is, and before that, I heard people criticize the Harry Potter series with comments like ‘Let’s face it, it’s not great literature’ (interesting that such comments about the Harry Potter books have dwindled almost to nothing nowadays—but I'm quite sure J.K. Rowling remembers the early criticism all too well).  

When people snarked about the Harry Potter series, my response has always been: If it gets kids reading, I’m all for it.

When people slammed the Twilight series, my response was (and is): If it gets teenagers reading, I’m all for it

When people trash the Grey series, my response continues to be: if it gets adults to take time out of their busy days to read rather than surfing Facebook, I’m all for it. 

Still, it raises the question in my mind: is perfect, beautiful prose the end-all-be-all of writing a book? Is it the only form of talent and value? Sure, it’s important, and we should all strive for it. But is it the only thing that matters when it comes to telling a great story? Clearly not, if we agree that the novels mentioned above are not examples of transcendent prose. But it’s just as clear that those books have something that makes millions of people read them, some important IT-factor that pulls people in. There are so many other important elements to a great read that should be just as valued: Great story. Great plot. Great dialogue. Humor. Deep, compelling characters. Universally relatable themes. Excellent pacing. Expert world building. 

And, if I’m honest, I know that I’d much rather read a book that has a great plot and blah prose than a book that has a blah plot and great prose.

In fact…I hesitate to say this, but…

I love The Lord of The Rings. I currently own three copies of it, two in hard form and one on my Kindle. But, I find the prose nearly impossible to read without concerted effort. Yes, I hear your collective intake of breath and your declarations of sacrilege, but there it is. I personally find the prose mind-numbing, and in certain places am tempted to stab myself in the thigh with a fork just to stay awake. But I read it anyway, because I love the world that Tolkien created, and the epic battle between good and evil that he plots with such emotion and intrigue. And A Christmas Carol? One of my favorite stories; but that’s despite the prose, not because of it. And these are classics; nobody disputes their status, nor will they. Tastes differ. Styles change. But these books have something that keeps them alive, even for those of us who don’t connect with them stylistically.

Sure, I hear you saying ‘But shouldn’t we try to perfect all of these elements in our writing?’. Of course we should. But we also have to recognize that there is a time and a place for everything. For example, Dickensian prose in the Grey series would be silly and turn off more people than any of the purported transgressions James makes; it would just get in the way of whatever people are connecting with in the books. If the Harry Potter series was written in Steinbeckian prose or in the style of The Great Gatsby, how many six-to-ten-year-old children would have read it or listened to it for more than thirty seconds? We are always faced with these choices. And, all writers have strengths and weaknesses; few if any of us are masters of all aspects of the craft. 

And that, my friends, leads me to another question I struggle with: why do writers feel the need to tear each other down? Most of the harshest criticism I've heard leveled at books like the Twilight series and the Grey series comes from writers. I get that there is an element of professional competition (dare I say sometimes even jealousy?) in most fields. But I find it harder to understand when it comes to writing than with other professions. Clients may have only one general practitioner or one lawyer, may shop religiously at only one deli, but no reader has ever said ‘I only read the works of X’. Especially in this age of binge reading, once a reader is done with the works of one author, they move on to another, usually someone who writes a similar type of book. Because of that, I suspect Stephenie Meyer and E.L. James have done more to drive sales in the paranormal romance and erotica genres than just about any other single element in the past 10 years. So shouldn’t their successes be embraced and celebrated by writers in their respective genres, and across the board? Doesn’t it just give other authors the chance to demonstrate their considerable skill?

At the end of the day, who decides what is acceptable prose and what isn’t? Who decides which factors are most important in making a novel worth reading? Who determines if a book has that magic ‘IT’ that makes them want to keep reading and buy the next book in the series? Is it those of us who write? Is it the academics who study literature?

No. It’s the people plunking down their hard-earned dollars and investing their precious leisure time on the books. And in the cases of J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, E.L. James, and many others, they’ve spoken with resounding eloquence. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Review: Veronica Layne Gets The Scoop!

(Purchased by me; affiliate links)

Summer is in full swing, which means it's time for beach reads! There's nothing like hanging out on the beach or next to the pool or lolling under an oak tree on a beautiful summer day with plenty of time to read, read, read. And I have a fun read to add to your list: Veronika Layne Gets The Scoop, by Julia Park Tracey, the first installment of the Hot Off The Press series. 

Veronika Layne Gets the Scoop
Veronika Layne is a smart, sassy twenty-something trying to build her career as a journalist on a small San Francisco Bay Area island (modeled after Alameda). She’s doing pretty fine for herself until the paper she works for merges with a larger conglomerate (an all-too familiar situation for many of us), and has to face an unpleasant decision: work on cotton-candy feel-good crap, or quit. She decides to suck it up and pay her dues until she can convince her boss she’s been undervalued. So when she stumbles across what looks like the the desecration of Native American burial mounds, she decides to investigate. Predictably, all does not go well; Veronika struggles with the investigation and her very hot rival co-worker, while the reader reaps the rewards.

Veronika is the sort of female protagonist I love; she’s strong, she’s kind, and she’s flawed in ways that are highly relatable. She can take care of herself, thank you very much, and she can save the planet as she’s doing it (green is her watchword) but she’s simultaneously semi-clueless when it comes to men. I don’t know about you, but that sums up my previous dating life pretty darn well, so I find myself face-palming and wanting to hug her all at the same time. The closest comparison I can come up with is to say that if Stephanie Plum had a younger sister who was a little more tattoed, and a little more savvy, and a little more hippy-dippy, she’d be Veronika Layne.

The author herself was a journalist for many years, and her expertise shows. The book approaches the mystery through the mind of an investigative reporter rather than a detective; this gives it a fresh take and a less predictable trajectory. If you’ve ever watched old movies and wondered what it was like to be one of those guys with the press-pass in their fedora, you’ll enjoy taking this journey in Veronika’s shoes. 

This is Chick Lit, so there is romance threading through it, with some sex. Very sexy sex. And all I have to say about that is: Yum.

So if you’re looking for a fun, fast-paced, witty read to savor on a beautiful summer day, I highly recommend you spend some time hanging out with Veronika. Oh, and? The next book in the series (Veronika Layne Has a Nose for News) is scheduled to come out sometime in the next month, so if you fall in love with her, you won’t have to wait long for a second play date. In the meantime, if you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can read this first installment for free on Kindle Unlimited. I love free, I’m not gonna lie. ;-)

Happy reading,


Saturday, July 4, 2015

How not to make an apricot-blueberry pie

I am frugal by nature. So when my mother-in-law sends me a bushel of apricots and apricot products from her mid-summer harvest, I set about to use it.

I also had in my possession a pint or so of ripe, sweet blueberries, so I decided to make an apricot-blueberry pie. I did a google search to see if recipes for such a thing exist, and lo-and-behold, they do. As it was 4th of July morning, I scanned the ingredients to make sure I had them all on hand, and found that I did, with one minor substitution. I did not have the necessary apricot preserves, but decided the homemade apricot syrup my mother-in-law sent would work well for the additional sweetness and flavor. Huzzahs all around, I would have the perfect complement to our celebratory independence day barbeque.

I sliced my apricots. I measured my ingredients. And last of all, I pulled out the apricot syrup to add to the pan of simmering fruit.

Dude. Really? 
I twisted the lid, and the glass sheared off completely, slicing through the flesh of my left hand as it did so.

(This might be a good place to mention that I’m left handed.)

It’s an odd sensation to have a glass jar twist apart in your hand, and as it did I thought ‘Huh. That can’t be good.”

I looked down at the big gash in the webbed area between my thumb and index finger, and confirmed that no, it was not in fact good.

(This might be a good place to mention that I don’t react well to the sight of blood).

My husband was in the backyard firing up the grill for the burgers. I ran toward the back door and yelled “Help!”

Annoyed, he turned toward me and said “Help with what?”

I held up my bloody, dripping hand in response, then sat down on the floor to keep from passing out.

As he got a towel to wrap around the cut so I wouldn't bleed all over the car on the way to the emergency room, an odd barrage of thoughts passed through my head:
At the scene 
(nope, this ain't fiction, folks)

Well, that’s going to need stitches.
Did I sever a tendon?
How do I keep the dog from trying to lick the blood?
What are we going to have for dessert now?
Did he put the burgers on yet?
I really should clean up all this blood before we go to the ER.

While he wrapped the towel around my hand, I relayed the thoughts that seemed relevant, asked him to turn off the stove and the barbeque, and put out the dog so she wouldn't lick up the syrup and the glass. Then I went into my bedroom to put on a different pair of shorts, because, you know, seriously.

And that's when I nearly passed out.

(This might be a good time to mention I’m prone to panic attacks.)

I was cold, my chest was constricting, I could barely breathe, and the world seemed three inches deep. I told myself firmly “This is just a panic attack, you’re fine, just breathe.” I forced myself to take long, careful breaths, and the world stopped closing in around me.

I grabbed a pair of shorts out of the drawer and realized I couldn’t close the top button with only one functioning hand. “That’s okay” I thought, “they tell you to loosen clothes on shock victims anyway.” So unbuttoned it stayed.

Although I don’t actually remember doing it, I apparently also grabbed my kindle. My heart swells with pride to know that even on the verge of unconsciousness, my priorities remain intact.

I walked out to the car and called to my husband to bring a bottle of water. He answered me; although he was only a few feet from me, his voice sounded very far away, like I was listening to him through a tunnel that had water whooshing through it. Despite the white fuzzy spots in my vision, I reached the car—only to realize I didn’t have my keys. I decided it was a good time to sit on the pavement and wait with my head between my knees.

When my husband came out, I got into the car and told him “If I pass out, let them know I was having a panic attack.” You know, because they wouldn’t have been able to figure that out on their own.

I don’t remember much of the drive to the hospital; I was focused on breathing and not throwing up. However, I do remember the moment when I thought he was taking the wrong exit and I yelled ‘NOT KAISER!!’, before I realized we were headed the other way off the off-ramp.

The intake nurse took one look at my pasty, blood-free face and buzzed me in immediately. She took my blood pressure and expressed professional surprise that I was still alive with numbers that low. She put me in a wheel chair and took me directly to a room where they plugged me into a miniature army of technology.

They asked me a bunch of questions that I now understand they are required to ask everyone, but which were very confusing in the moment:

“Do you feel safe at home?”
Yes, I don’t think the jar is going to come after me in my sleep.
“Have you been homeless or incarcerated in the last year?”
How the hell bad do I look? I made sure to change my shorts!
“Any medication?”
Aren't you supposed to make that decision? You’re the professionals.

Then they asked me what happened, and I explained that a jar of apricot syrup broke when I opened it.

“What brand?”

“My mother-in-law made it.”

“Oh, your mother-in-law.” They exchanged knowing glances and laughed. Apparently mother-in-law-induced injuries are not uncommon in the ER. I found this disconcerting, and started to wonder if I was safe at home after all.

They did their thing, very effectively and professionally, with grace and humor and top-notch care. It turned out I’d been extremely lucky; I hadn’t cut any tendons or significant nerves. They stitched me up and I left feeling well-cared for and excessively silly for succumbing to shock-and-or-panic-attack, taking up everybody’s time, and ruining my husband’s 4th of July.

So what’s the moral of the story? I think it’s this:

There’s a reason we have apple pie on the 4th of July.

Book review: The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic: Expert Help for Improving Your Work

(Affiliate links)

If you’re a writer, you’re a reviser, and if you’re like me, the revising is the hard part. I can produce rollicking piles of crappy writing in no time flat, but it’s a hard, laborious process to turn it into something anyone would want to read. And since I’ve spent half my life revising academic papers, at times it takes a concerted switch in mindset to edit my fiction. 

One of the best tools I’ve found for this is The Writer’s Digest Writing Clinic: Expert Help for Improving Your Work, by Kelly Nickell. The bad news up-front is this book is out of print; the good news is you can get ‘used’ new copies without too much problem. I originally found this book at my library and loved it so much I bought a copy for myself.

The contents

The book has divisions for fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, and then moves on to helping you get your writing published with divisions on writing queries, synopses, and proposals. Each division has sections that deal with a topic: opening hook, point of view, narrative voice, dialogue, exposition, etc. At the beginning and the end of the book there are sections to help you find writing groups, and to help you navigate critique groups effectively to get what you need and leave the not-so-great parts behind. 

The approach

For each topic, the book has an introductory explanation of the basic issues involved, and then takes a piece of writing and edits it right in front of you—all the marks an editor would make, along with annotations that explain why the changes were made. 

Then, at the end of each topic, there is a ‘your turn’ section that walks you through checking for this issue in your own writing. For example, '(1) Take a look at your first three scenes. Write ‘PI’ next to the points where your main character’s personal intentions become clear. Do the intentions propel the scenes forward and add insight into your character? Are they consistent with your intended storyline? (2) Now chart your character’s journey. Write ‘j’ next to thoughts and actions that are inspired by your character’s personal intentions. Is your character’s journey apparent in each scene? Do the marked points move the scenes forward?

At at the end of each division (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, etc.) is a general editing checklist for quick reference. 

My take-away

I’m a very show-me sort of person; telling me that too much description is slowing the pace of my scene is one thing, but showing me before-and-after examples makes it far more real for me. And when you’ve got annotations along with those changes, well, now we’re talking. Something about getting a look at something through an editor’s eyes helps the information penetrate my thick skull more effectively.  

I think this is an excellent book whether you're new to revising your own stuff or you've been doing it for a long time--I periodically flip through it to refresh my memory. 

If you're looking for other good books to help you with revision, check out my review of Rock Your Revisions by Cathy Yardley here
Happy revising!