reading, world-building, writing technique

Problems, Problems.

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Hmmm. None of the available images look too hot. I guess they do that on purpose.

This still is from the movie Camelot, in case you haven’t guessed.

 

On top of the push and shove of every day, we here have taken it on ourselves to try to write. To try to write something that matters. Something that goes somewhere. Something that will be read. Well, you can see what kind of mood I’m in. Sounds like a few of you are in the dumps also.

I’m struggling on many fronts. I’m pushing my way through chapters six and seven of Sly. (Used to be chapters five and six. Another chapter has magically appeared.) This story is a game of whack-a-mole. That’s problem number one.

My house is a mess, per usual. Work is slow, I’m short bunches of hours and it’s eating into my vacation time. It’s not yet May and my garden is already out of control. What else can go wrong? Oh yeah, my husband had a stroke. (A little stroke humor there, he’s doing very well.)

I should be counting my blessings. I need an attitude adjustment big-time.

This is the first year, after five years of trying, that my damn orange phlox has taken hold and looks like it might survive. My fifty dollars worth of an unusual yellow allium, planted last fall, seems to be coming up. I’ve been holding my breath all winter. You never know. Why did I sink fifty dollars into a plant I’ve never tried? That’s a big no-no in my book. I lusted after them, and the mail-order nursery wouldn’t let me place an order for less than fifty bucks. OK, this isn’t really what I wanted to talk about. I’m working up to it. I want to talk about Ursula Le Guin. She’s a problem for me also. Because I really expected she would be right up my alley.

I’m reading Worlds of Exile and Illusion, three short(ish) stories in one book. The blurb in the front says, “Le Guin is the ideal science fiction writer for readers who ordinarily dislike science fiction.” That’s me, all right. I like character-based stories, and that’s not sci-fi, in my experience.

So I’m reading Ursula and, guess what? I don’t like this much either.

Oh, I like her style. Literary. Poetic. Too poetic. Flowery as hell. A little of this for flavor, fine. But it’s on every page, and it’s wearing me down:

“. . . Yahan stood up with a lyre of bronze with silver strings, and sang. He sang of Durholde of Hallan who set free the prisioners of Korhalat, in the days of the Red Lord, by the marshes of Born; and when he had sung the lineage of every warrior in that battle and every stroke he struck, he sang straight on the freeing of the Tolenfolk and the burning of the Plenot Tower, of the Wanderer’s torch blazing through a rain of arrows, of the great stroke struck by Mogien Hall’s heir, the lance cast across the wind finding its mark like the unerring lance of Hendin in the days of old.”

“. . . in the pallid fog that surrounded them in a dome of blindness.”

“. . . the cold, ruinous, resplendent fortress of their race.”

The dialogue is too . . . I don’t know, too epic. Nobody talks like that. The charm wears off real fast. Try this on for size:

“I am Olhor, the Wanderer. I come from the north and from the sea, from the land behind the sun . . . I go south. Let no man stop me.” Okay, he’s speaking to hostile strangers in an unfamiliar language. But a little of this goes a long, long way.

I’m having trouble keeping my species straight. Some peoples are at the bronze-age level, some zip across the galaxy in induced comas, and return home barely older than when they left, though their loved ones are on the brink of death from decrepitude. Some read minds, communicate that way, some hunker around campfires in filthy rags and grunt at each other. These are not branches on a family tree. Where did these tribes come from?

And, this overload of information is not the information I would love to hear. Where are the stray thoughts that we all have, that I scatter through my own thing like the weeds poking up in my garden? (Those weeds are out there, doing their cake-walk through my beds, singing their heads off: It’s May! It’s May! The lusty month of May!)

Le Guin’s often medieval-sounding description is kind of like my tons of fake history, that has enough real embedded in it for one back on Book Country to tell me, “I can’t take any more of this. I didn’t know I was going to be plunged into a history class.”

Is this typical of her? I thought at first that I could learn from her, how to overdo on the detail (’cause it’s so much damn fun) but keep it from getting mind-numbing. Nope! I’m thrown back on my own devices. Which means, generally, lots of playful intrusion, to jolt you awake, in case you’ve zoned out. That’s my answer.

I’m stealing some neat words here. So that’s good. Byre, what’s a byre? Has something to do with cattle. Ah! A cow barn/cow shed. I can use that for Sly, for flavor. I’m all for flavor, but I don’t want to drown in it.

Now you all can explain to me how/why I’ve just made an idiot of myself. Le Guin is, after all, in the writer pantheon. She’s the one with the awards, and the legions of fans, not me. But this sort of heroic/epic quest/event-driven storytelling is simply not my style.

The tone feels Arthurian to me. Mystical. There are run-down castles and, instead of elves, various tribes of little people. We have a touch of magic in the mind-reading, and in legend-based premonitions. The framework is that this fairly primitive planet is brutally invaded. A hidden base has been established from which to launch a counter attack against distant forces. But that’s the least part of the story, coming in very near the end. The hero doesn’t reach the base until page one-hundred of a one-hundred-twelve page story. Most of the tale chronicles the lengthy trek across challenging terrain and, for me, it gets tedious, beautiful imagery notwithstanding. Maybe I’ll come to appreciate Le Guin more as I read on.

Her powers of imagination are incredible. I am mesmerized, if not necessarily delighted, by her dense description. I write little physical detail myself and am very conscious of that lack. I’ve been trying to rejigger my way of thinking in that direction for a while now, so far with very modest success. I have to see if I can incorporate some of this approach into my own style.

______________________________________________

My husband has just read Rocannon’s World and says it’s one of the best pieces of science fiction he’s ever read. I had to explain to him who Ursula Le Guin is, he’s never heard of her. (He has not read sci-fi for decades. He’s into history, politics, science, nonfiction generally.) He is very impressed with her world building, and thinks the plot being almost incidental is no big deal.

I will read her next story with that outlook. Maybe when you read her you have to park your expectations.

God knows I can relate to that.

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About Writers, reading, writing technique

Orson Welles With His Mouth Full of Crackers

The other day, someone on Facebook posted this challenge: “Quick, without thinking about it too hard, what’s the first, most memorable piece of character description that comes to your mind?”

I didn’t think about it too hard. What popped into my mind was: “He had a voice like Orson Welles with a mouthful of crackers.”

I knew it was from Raymond Chandler. It pretty much had to be. After a little digging through the dusty paperbacks, I found it: The Little Sister, Chapter 15.

If you’ve never read The Little Sister, I envy you a little. (Also, why the hell not?) It was Chandler’s fifth novel, and he was at the peak of his form. It may not have been his most elegantly written or most cleverly plotted, but that thing is bursting with gonzo energy.

It is, in modern parlance, cray.

It was Chandler’s Hollywood novel—swimming pools, movie stars, a guy running around sticking icepicks into people. Typical stuff. But this is Chandler. What matters is the writing, specifically the dialogue. Most specifically, the dialogue between Phillip Marlowe and Orfamay Quest, the prim, mousy girl from Manhattan, Kansas, who has come to Los Angeles to find her brother, Orrin. Everything about the case seems wrong to Marlowe, but he doesn’t have anything else to do. After much back and forth, he manages to pry a 20-dollar retainer from her tight little fist and sets off to find her brother.

I don’t want to give you any more of the story than that. Instead, I want to look at one chapter, number 15 to be exact. I could just say “go here and read it” but that wouldn’t make much of a post. For no other goddamned good reason other than my own self-indulgence, I present the entire chapter (Canadian Public Domain version) only slightly annotated. I hope you enjoy it:

Chapter Fifteen
She came in briskly enough this time. Her motions were small and quick and determined. There was one of those thin little, bright little smiles on her face. She put her bag down firmly, settled herself in the customer’s chair and went on smiling.

(I love the energy of this description. We’ve met Orfamay already, way back in Chapter One, but we don’t know what to make of her yet. The tumble of adjectives—small, quick, determined—and especially the wonderful cluster “thin little, bright little”—puts us on our guard. They are sharp and bristly. Orfamay is not to be trifled with, no matter how innocuous and innocent she may pretend to be.)

“It’s nice of you to wait for me,” she said. “I bet you haven’t had your dinner yet, either.”

“Wrong,” I said. “I have had my dinner. I am now drinking whiskey. You don’t approve of whiskey-drinking do you?” (Marlowe is ready to spar.)

“I certainly do not.” (So is she.)

“That’s just dandy,” I said. “I hoped you hadn’t changed your mind.” I put the bottle up on the desk and poured myself another slug. I drank a little of it and gave her a leer above the glass. (There is a game going on. It is not the game Orfamay thinks it is. Ultimately, it isn’t quite what Marlowe thinks it is either.)

“If you keep on with that you won’t be in any condition to listen to what I have to say,” she snapped.

“About this murder,” I said. “Anybody I know? I can see you’re not murdered—yet.”

“Please don’t be unnecessarily horrid. It’s not my fault. You doubted me over the telephone so I had to convince you. Orrin did call me up. But he wouldn’t tell me where he was or what he was doing. I don’t know why.”

“He wanted you to find out for yourself,” I said. “He’s building your character.”

“That’s not funny. It’s not even smart.”

“But you’ve got to admit it’s nasty,” I said. “Who was murdered? Or is that a secret too?”

She fiddled a little with her bag, not enough to overcome her embarrassment, because she wasn’t embarrassed. But enough to needle me into taking another drink. (The nimbleness of Chandler’s prose is awe-inspiring. He establishes character with such quick strokes.)

“That horrid man in the rooming house was murdered. Mr.—Mr.—I forget his name.”

“Let’s both forget it,” I said. “Let’s do something together for once.” I dropped the whiskey bottle into the desk drawer and stood up. “Look, Orfamay, I’m not asking you how you know all this. Or rather how Orrin knows it all. Or if he does know it. You’ve found him. That’s what you wanted me to do. Or he’s found you, which comes to the same thing.”

“It’s not the same thing,” she cried. “I haven’t really found him. He wouldn’t tell me where he was living.” (This is important to the bigger plot. Orfamay has presented herself as the caring sister, tracking down the wild brother who really needs to just come back to Kansas and be nurtured in the bosom of his loving family. Nothing could be further from the truth. Her insistence that “he wouldn’t tell me anything,” hints deftly at her real reason for being there.)

“Well if it is anything like the last place, I don’t blame him.”

She set her lips in a firm line of distaste. “He wouldn’t tell me anything really.”

“Just about murders,” I said. “Trifles like that.”

She laughed bubblingly. “I just said that to scare you. I don’t really mean anybody was murdered, Mr. Marlowe. You sounded so cold and distant. I thought you wouldn’t help me any more. And—well, I just made it up.” (A nice feint from Orfamay, but Marlowe isn’t buying.)

I took a couple of deep breaths and looked down at my hands. I straightened out the fingers slowly. Then I stood up. I didn’t say anything. (The drama of the sentences is understated and yet perfectly clear. No explication. No internal monologue.)

“Are you mad at me?” she asked timidly, making a little circle on the desk with the point of a finger. (Still dancing.)

“I ought to slap your face off,” I said. “And quit acting innocent. Or it mightn’t be your face I’d slap.”

Her breath caught with a jerk. “Why, how dare you!” (Her favorite counter-punch, but even she knows it’s a not a haymaker. She’s just playing for time.)

“You used that line,” I said. “You used it too often. Shut up and get the hell out of here. Do you think I enjoy being dared to death? Oh—there’s this.” I yanked a drawer open, got out her twenty dollars and threw them down in front of her. “Take this money away. Endow a hospital or a research laboratory with it. It makes me nervous having it around.” (Love that bit.  Even in 1940, twenty bucks wasn’t a real retainer, certainly not for the amount of time he’s already put into the case. But the dirty secrets of the Quest family have everything to do with money, and Marlowe’s hip to that already.)

Her hand reached automatically for the money. Her eyes behind the cheaters were round and wondering. “Goodness,” she said, assembling her handbag with a nice dignity.  (Assembling. Nice.)  “I’m sure I didn’t know you scared that easy. I thought you were tough.”

“That’s just an act,” I growled, moving around the desk. She leaned back in her chair away from me. “I’m only tough with little girls like you that don’t let their fingernails grow too long. I’m all mush inside.” I took hold of her arm and yanked her to her feet. Her head went back. Her lips parted. I was hell with the women that day. (Classic Chandler.)

“But you will find Orrin for me, won’t you?” she whispered. “It was all a lie. Everything I’ve told you was a lie. He didn’t call me up. I—I don’t know anything.” (Even when she’s leveling with him, she’s still playing him.)

“Perfume,” I said sniffing. “Why, you little darling. You put perfume behind your ears—and all for me!”

She nodded her little chin half an inch. Her eyes were melting. “Take my glasses off,” she whispered, “Philip. I don’t mind if you take a little whiskey once in a while. Really I don’t.”

Our faces were about six inches apart. I was afraid to take her glasses off. I might have socked her on the nose.  (Fantastic. Marlowe was such a perfect confusion of tough, cynical veneer and soft, almost prudish, interior. Humanity tends to disappoint him, but he’s too much of a romantic to ever truly give up on it.)

“Yes,” I said in a voice that sounded like Orson Welles with his mouth full of crackers. “I’ll find him for you, honey, if he’s still alive. And for free. Not a dime of expense involved. I only ask one thing.”

“What, Philip?” she asked softly and opened her lips a little wider.

“Who was the black sheep in your family?” (Finally. Marlowe is not the know-it-all, smart guy, love-em-and leave-em detective. He’s actually is a nice guy. We’ve know him for four novels now. If he’s sparring with Orfamay, it’s because he knows that she’s more dangerous than she appears. Not that there isn’t some genuine feeling when she says “Take my glasses off… I don’t mind if you take a little whiskey once in a while.” In some ways, she really is the innocent, at least about matters of the heart. She really does want Marlowe to kiss her. But she’s also running a different game, and Marlowe knows it. He’s just not sure what it is.)
She jerked away from me like a startled fawn might, if I had a startled fawn and it jerked away from me. (Also a classic Chandlerism.) She stared at me stony-faced.

“You said Orrin wasn’t the black sheep in your family. Remember? With a very peculiar emphasis. And when you mentioned your sister Leila, you sort of passed on quickly as if the subject was distasteful.”

“I—I don’t remember saying anything like that,” she said very slowly.

“So I was wondering,” I said. “What name does your sister Leila use in pictures?”

“Pictures?” she sounded vague. “Oh you mean motion pictures? Why I never said she was in pictures. I never said anything about her like that.”

I gave her my big homely lopsided grin. She suddenly flew into a rage.

“Mind your own business about my sister Leila,” she spit at me. “You leave my sister Leila out of your dirty remarks.”

“What dirty remarks?” I asked. “Or should I try to guess?”

“All you think about is liquor and women,” she screamed. “I hate you!” She rushed to the door and yanked it open and went out. She practically ran down the hall.

I went back around my desk and slumped into the chair. A very strange little girl. Very strange indeed. (That’s an understatement. In spite of everything, Orfamay intrigues him. He’s even a little touched by her. He’s in shopworn Galahad mode again, only this time around, the damsel isn’t really in distress.)

After a while the phone started ringing again, as it would. On the fourth ring I leaned my head on my hand and groped for it, fumbled it to my face.  (Love that.)

“Utter McKinley Funeral Parlors,” I said.

A female voice said: “Wha-a-t?” and went off into a shriek of laughter. That one was a riot at the police smoker in 1921. What a wit. Like a hummingbird’s beak. I put the lights out and went home.

(I always thought this was just a nonsense joke but Utter McKinley Mortuaries still exist, a fair number of them, around the Southern California area.)

And THAT is the entire chapter. I urge you to go read the whole book. You won’t be sorry you did.

Meanwhile, what’s the first, most memorable piece of character description that comes to your mind?

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About Writers, book reviews, reading, writing technique

The Wonderful World of Susanna Clarke

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I had read a portion of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell very quickly, to get a feel for the work, to see if I was ready to devote myself to eight-hundred pages. I am! I am rereading more carefully, and I have watched a few episodes of the Netflix series, to see how it translates to the screen.

I have to say that the thing that I most enjoy about the story is not the plot itself. I am hooked on the execution. It is fleshed out with wonderfully dense historical tidbits, faux references to this storied magician or that one, notations of their books, publishers, and publishers’ addresses, background on various factions of magic, a ballad even, all set forth in scholarly-looking footnotes. All of this delights me no end.

I enjoy the atmosphere of the piece, the intricate description, stately phrasing of a gravitas wholly in keeping with the theme of Magic Restored To Its Proper Place In England. For me, the true magic of the book is the narrative style. There is a great deal of very impressive telling:

“Excellent reasons which had seemed so substantial a moment ago were turning to mist and nothingness in his mouth, his tongue and teeth could not catch hold of even one of them to frame it into a rational English sentence.” Such a stylish encapsulation cannot be conveyed on film, and what a pity.

“… and as our narrative progresses, I will allow the reader to judge the justice of this portrait.” Clarke intrudes fairly often, another lovely period touch. The enormous footnotes may not range as far afield as mine do in Sly, but they are entertaining and I will eventually read them all.

The Netflix movie is absolutely gorgeous, but it does not capture the spirit of the book. It is the artistry of the narrative that has made it a classic. A world has been created on these pages, that drags us to a time and place in a way that the film does not. Who has read Jonathan Strange? Do you agree? Or does the lyrical phrasing and overload of tangential information (that I eat up) put you off?

The Netflix series lacks distance from the here and now, that all the walking through mirrors doesn’t remedy. It lacks the flavor of the print piece. This (gently) mannered prose is a mesmerizing step back from reality, and it plays a large part in the enormous pleasure I get from the story.

The film is beautifully done. The sets are stunning. The casting is wonderful. The story is faithfully told as far as the bones of it go. But the filmed version lacks the magic of the book. The book is a breathtaking example of total-immersion world-building. I am enthralled. I am taking notes right and left on matters small and large.

You may expect a new bit on Sly practicing (working with his tabby markings) to affect a disdainful raised eyebrow, in my updated chapter one. Thanks for the seed idea, Susanna Clarke. Many phrases have sparked spin-off business of my own. For me, this book is a treasure trove of possibilities, particularly in relation to Sly’s bookishness, which is always fun to contemplate.

What rare world-building can you recommend? I’m into it!

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Apothegms of Wince: The Masses Speak of Things Bookish & Grammatical

For over three decades now I’ve been recording in a series of journals the most astonishing utterances one could ever hope to hear as one goes about the daily business of surviving on planet Mayhem. Some of these were said directly to my face, most were overheard as I eavesdropped on the conversation of others. I have winnowed down thousands of quotes from young and old, educated and miseducated, the intelligent and, err . . . somewhat less intelligent in order to focus on 100 jaw-droppers primarily concerned with writing, reading and literature. If you think most people hold these subjects in high regard, well . . . all I can say is that you haven’t been listening very closely to your fellow man or woman.

Although not notated as such please understand that every brain stem utterance, non-sequitur, reality-wrenching misstatement, microburst of ignorance and/or illogic reproduced here is to be understood as being end-capped thusly: [sic]

And if some of these ring familiar (see especially those utterances coming from the mouths of novice writers), all I can say is that the complexity and uniqueness of human experience apparently only goes so far: certain patterns repeat, so it would seem—everywhere.

In no particular order, then:

………………………………

  1. “Reading?! I’ve no time to read; I’m in college.”
  2. “I decided to be impressive and use a semi-colon.”
  3. “I hate any book that has more than 300 pages in it; it’s so unnecessary.”
  4. “If you really want to call attention to a word or phrase tilt it.”
  5. “Unless your name is Virgil or Julius Caesar you shouldn’t be writing in Roman.”
  6. “Reading is so gay.”
  7. “The problem with most contemptible bourgeois literature is that it shamelessly propagandizes for autocratic hetero-normative values.”
  8. “I never read books written before I was born; people were so stupid then.”
  9. “I’m suspicious of science fiction; it keeps coming true.”
  10. “You know the symbol I mean: the ‘a’ with its tail wrapped around itself, like a dead possum?”
  11. “I like gun violence in the books I read; shrapnel is so random.”
  12. “The Canterbury tales weren’t written in modern English; they were written in Old English–which is French.”
  13. “I can’t read books by women; their names on the cover stop me.”
  14. “Of course women now comprise 70% of the book-buying public. Why is this so surprising? Video games do a much better job of scratching the male itch once catered to by Conan comics and Mickey Spillane paperbacks.”
  15. “The greatest writer in the world is Stephen King.”
  16. “The worst writer in the world is Stephen King.”
  17. “I can’t read fantasy; it’s so unreal.”
  18. “The thing about a good western is that all the right people die in it.”
  19. “All characters ever do in Shakespeare is talk, talk, talk.”
  20. “Greek mythology is perverted; no wonder they died out to the Mongols.”
  21. “Reading ruins your eyes and everything else.”
  22. “I only read books I can’t understand. I believe in improving myself.”
  23. “You think you’re a writer just because you use words?”
  24. “You can’t call it a mystery if you’ve finished the book.”
  25. “Libraries are arrogance centers.”
  26. “The Bible is the only book anyone needs. The correct version, of course; the _____ version.”
  27. “The only punctuation I use is the period, comma and question mark. Oh and those two little talking slashes.”
  28. “I don’t like to be shouted at by exclamation marks.”
  29. “My boss was mad at me because he thought I was mad at him: I typed in all capital letters. I told him I knew his eyes were bad.”
  30. “I couldn’t finish the book; my mother stole it.”
  31. “I caught my boyfriend reading my romance novel. He said he was jealous and wanted to know what I was up to.”
  32. “Did you read those Anne Rice s&m novels? There was so much bisexuality in them! I didn’t.”
  33. “Boldface is helpful if you want to move beyond subtlety.”
  34. “They call it literature because teachers like it. If kids like it they call the principal.”
  35. “Books are a blunt instrument; there are much faster ways of inducing clinical depression.”
  36. “I thought I would like Poe but then he Frenched me.”
  37. Moby Dick is boring! Boring, stupid and boring! I wish I was dead.”
  38. “My dad says I’ll appreciate books like that once I’ve lived long enough to understand what the author is trying to say. I said why doesn’t he just fucking say it?”
  39. “I don’t like authors who use flowery words. Like containment.”
  40. “I don’t understand a thing about poetry. Or why it’s called poetry.”
  41. “Norman Mailer’s not so tough. He’s dead, isn’t he?”
  42. “Your story needs a rape scene.”
  43. “The book exploded my brain.”
  44. “I’m going to write a bestseller next summer when I start writing. Like Tom Clancy.”
  45. “I guarantee you this story idea will make you rich; all you have to do is write it–then give me half the money you make. I’ll need you to sign a contract, of course.”
  46. “Say something in writing.”
  47. “You’re a very good writer. I didn’t read your story.”
  48. “I don’t have time to worry about lining up every dot and letter; that’s what editors are for.”
  49. “She criticized me by helping.”
  50. “What’s the fastest way to get an agent if you don’t need one?”
  51. “Will you read this and tell me what you think? It’s great! My first story. And it’s all true!”
  52. “Is the book fiction or nonfiction? Hmm . . . Neither sounds right. I think it’s that other category; they’re reading it in school. History?”
  53. “She marked my paper up to belittle-ize me.”
  54. “It’s a word that sounds like another word: a hama-nuh-nah-muh-moon.”
  55. “I couldn’t stop reading the book so I put it in the freezer.”
  56. “My dog hates that book.”
  57. “The teacher was very clear on this—if you have a parenthetical thought, forget it.”
  58. “I never read footnotes; they’re Aunt Celery to the text.”
  59. “Dictionaries are full of something, alright.”
  60. “Smug people buy thesauruses.”
  61. “This book shouldn’t be on your shelves; it’s offensive. Call the manager.”
  62. “The thing I’ll never get about writers is why they keep writing. Don’t they understand they’re irritating people?”
  63. “It’s a very good book; you’ll like it. The words are so normal you don’t even notice you’re reading!”
  64. “The whole thing ends with sharks eating the goddamn fish and I was so disgusted I started sobbing.”
  65. “The elves in Tolkien are meant to symbolize the Irish.”
  66. “A good Lovecraft tale ends in a dead professor and a muttering elder god.”
  67. “I think Andre Norton is a woman. I’m serious.”
  68. “Steinbeck’s Of Mice & Men is the greatest book I ever read. It was so short; I really appreciated that.”
  69. “A novella is a book that ran out of steam.”
  70. “Sure you can read a book and not be a dork—it’s called sports or mechanical.”
  71. “He insulted me with words I’m going to look up.”
  72. “I started reading and woke up on the floor. You see what happens?”
  73. “And the ironic thing about Dante’s Inferno is that you get to the center of hell and you’re just glad it’s over.”
  74. “Yeah, but if Huckleberry Finn had kept going into Mexico, Mark Twain would have more Hispanic readers, that’s all I’m saying.”
  75. “You know what they say: use a bookmark, not a small rock.”
  76. “I never read the author bio before I start reading the text; I’ll lose respect for the book.”
  77. “Novelists think they’re so clever.”
  78. “The title The Red Badge of Courage should be re-appropriated for a YA feminist novel of menstruation.”
  79. “Every time I see the words The Naked and the Dead I think about zombie orgies.”
  80. “I don’t waste my time on short stories; the author didn’t.”
  81. “She’s like, _________ and I’m all _________. I know, right?!” [Repeat this sentence structure five times in a row.]
  82. “John Gardner was a brilliant writer who crashed into a tree.”
  83. “When someone writes a screenplay it’s called a movie. When they turn a movie into a book it’s called desperate.”
  84. “It’s amazing! They’re just letters on the page, but when the letters turn into words and the words attack you . . .”
  85. “I never remember what I read. So why read? Waste of time.”
  86. “I abhor sexist language like his, her, policeman, cock.”
  87. “How did a crucified Jewish messiah wind up with a Greek name and a Roman Empire? God’s will.”
  88. “Emily Dickinson hid in an attic because she didn’t know what her poetry was talking about.”
  89. “It’s an oxymoron, like Burger World.”
  90. “What’s that word for a sentence that reads the same backward or forward? Hippodrome? Emperor Palpatine?”
  91. “I turned all the books in his library around so that the titles faced the back of the shelf.”
  92. “You never read anything by Rudyard Kipling? You’ve seen The Wizard of Oz, right?”
  93. “The essay is a form better left unwritten.”
  94. “I don’t call it cheating; I consider it rapid studying under pressure.”
  95. “I don’t need to read the book to know what I think about it; I’m educated.”
  96. “The book is called—what’s that title with three words in it?”
  97. “The problem with Shakespeare is that he wrote in Elizabeth Town dialect.”
  98. “It’s supposed to be a dirty book but it’s all cultural. I sweated buying it for nothing.”
  99. “She insisted I read the book. We’re not talking now.”
  100. “They said the book would change your life. So I read it. Same ‘ole life.”
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About Writers, reading, writing technique

The bestseller recipe

chef

If you want to write a bestseller, what will you choose as your main ingredient? Sex? Murder? Action? Suspense? They probably won’t do your chances any harm, but according to Jodie Archer, a former publisher, and Matthew Lockers of Stanford University, you’d be better off choosing ‘human closeness’. They stress that ‘this doesn’t mean romance – it could be talking with someone you are intimate with or shopping with a parent.’ In other words (as I see it) the depth and believability of relationships: antagonism mixing it with affection, tension alternating with tranquillity.

How do they know? They scanned 20,000 books, built an algorithm, and were able to predict with 80% accuracy those that made the bestseller lists. Of course, there’s a precondition, which their algorithm took for granted: the book first has to be published and noticed. But once that little obstacle is cleared, you’re all set.

Don’t overdo it, though. Human closeness for 30% of the book is enough. Then 30% on a different topic (technology, climate change, whatever) and the rest a sprinkling of miscellaneous details. There you go. Easy, eh?

That’s my simplified summary of an article in the Guardian, The secret DNA behind bestsellers. Hardly secret, I thought when I read it. Human closeness arouses our emotions. Aristotle wrote about that a while ago. But still, it’s worth thinking about when we create our characters. And getting it right, as always, is easier said than done.

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book promotion, reading

What’s Your Plan?

I am riled by (the info in) Atthys’ latest post: readership is down (we knew that), and self publishing is way up. A lot of folks who would formerly have been reading are too busy, having been inspired by Hugh Howey and Amanda Hocking to try their hand at it.

He’s right about writers, to a certain extent. I have many books I want to dig into. I nibble, here, there. It takes something really special to lock me in. It doesn’t mean I don’t admire a piece, but I have things I feel I need (as opposed to want) to read. Much of this is research. I confess, I am one of the recalcitrant readers.

But there are still plenty of not-booked-up book lovers around. How do we reach them? How do we convince them that our book, in the vast array of choices, is the one they want to read? How do we get ourselves noticed in the first place?

We need a marketing plan. A robust marketing plan. Putting your thing up on Amazon, doing an interview on someone’s blog, planting an announcement here or there, buying an ad on Google, we see from testimony given here, this doesn’t begin to suffice.

Number one, you need a website. I’m working on one, as most of you know. Curtis wonders why it has to be so elaborate. Why can’t I just post my novella, hand out my bumper stickers, and get back writing?

I consider graphic style to be a hook as important as a dynamite first paragraph. (Well, natch. I’m a designer.) Everyone I manage to herd to my site who doesn’t have his/her socks knocked off one way or another, I’ve had my shot with them and blown it. I aim to tantalize with fun graphics and patter, holding their interest long enough to get them to read a bit of story, hoping they decide that my squirrely thing is for them.

Only days ago I inserted Mr. Peabody into the mix. The Mr. Peabody. He performs a specific mechanical function for me, but I’m sure I’ll find other use for him. He is, you’ll recall, a history buff, possessed of a rare breadth and depth of information. (How can I pass up this astonishing opportunity?) He’s spent the past forty years earning his Ph.D. Like my ex-sister-in-law did, changing schools and/or fields multiple times, because she could. She ran through a large inheritance in the process. She’s now forced to sell land that’s been in her family for generations. Dr. P has depleted his own money (from his hit show) and, broke, the poor guy lacking a considerable remnant of once massive farmland to surrender, he’s coming to work for me. I believe I’ll give him an advice column on my site, poor baby.

I may call it Ask Dr. P. Will people think I’ve got Dr. Phil on board? Phil-style babble, references to a TV show, they may. Should I exploit that somehow? Something to think about. I’m beginning to wonder if Peabody wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Dr. Phil show, and they accepted it to get him out the damn door.

When I’m all tuned up, ready to roll, I’ll promote my web presence aggressively:

This is a bit out-there, but I may try it: In a bookstore, poke your business card into books in your genre, way in the middle. Readers will most likely not find the Rogue plug for some time. If they’ve bought used, they’ll think it was left behind by the previous owner.

We have several small second hand bookstores in our area, and one rather renowned independent, the Hickory Stick in Washington Depot, CT. Might they let a local author put up a poster? The area is full of weekenders up from Manhattan. Who knows what eye I might catch.

Kent is a movers-and-shakers summer haven. I will set up on the main street on a big summer weekend. (In summer, all weekends are big, but some are extra big.) I’ll grab a prime parking spot early in the day and publicize Sly out of my car.

That’s for someday. Back to now: I pick up valuable information in the several writer/web design groups on Facebook. Here’s a tip I found just today: Google has a new search algorithm that gives priority to mobile-ready sites. I have debated making my .com site a pared down mobile-friendly portal to a full site. (As opposed to a supplemental thing.) After reading this, I am convinced a simplified feeder to the big bass drum (Booth led boldly with his big bass drum, that line sticks with me from tenth grade, fifty-five years ago) seems to be the better way.

More street level shenanigans: Can you get yourself profiled in your local paper? My cousin Jim Meirose has had several pieces done on him. He’s made himself a name, at least in Central Jersey. Have you thought about posting a flyer in laundromats? I’ve perused many a bulletin board, waiting for my duds to dry.

I’m wondering, seeing all the political frou-frou on my way to work, how about yard signs? I’m considering knocking on doors, offering twenty-five bucks a month for permission to spear a placard into someone’s turf. Near a stop sign, where drivers sit in line.

That thin flexible vinyl bumper stickers are made of? I wonder if I could get an over-the-shoulders front/back billboard, turn myself into a walking advertisement. My husband might want to pretend he’s not with me but I can deal with that.

For all of this, you need an on-line home, where you: Talk up your book(s). Collect email addresses. Offer premiums. Post dates and locales of personal appearances. (Craft shows, etc., especially if you have hard copies to sell. I’m thinking here of my eventual paperdoll.) On Facebook you can place a link in any number of groups. Some percentage of viewers will take you up on it. I investigate sites all the time, to see how others handle them.

A website is your best tool. Create a hybrid, op-ed content in addition to the show-and-tell for your story so that, having coaxed folks on, you might keep them coming back.

Tell me your plan. Could be you have great ideas I’ve overlooked. I would love to hear them.

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book sales, reading, Stories

Writing – A Team Sport?

anthology

As a writer, my quest to become an overnight success began nine years ago. Since that time, I have written numerous short stories, flash fictions, blog serials, novellas, novels, and a tome rivaling in word count the Icelandic Sagas. My undeniably clever, witty, yet strangely unsuccessful query letters are probably well known to vexed agents and publishers alike. Soon, however, I may achieve a modicum of success, depending on how you define the term. The overnight part? Let’s move on.

How am I doing this?

One word: Anthologies. You know, anthologies: those collections of stories, poems, vignettes, and what have you from one author or many, and often self-published. These collective works traditionally receive an instant rejection from most literary agents, the high and mighty gate-keepers to the hallowed halls of literary fame and fortune. However, I have found a path to success through anthologies and without the help of an agent. But before you label me an industry neophyte, order another pumpkin spiced espresso martini and let me ‘splain.

Gone are the days of waking up at 907 Whitehead Street, dropping a Spanish onion into a glass of chilled gin with the requisite splash of vermouth, putting paper into the typewriter and cranking out an iconic piece of literature as a seven-toed cat wanders between your legs. Not anymore. Today’s writer must do it all: write something worth reading, sell it to an agent or publisher, create a business model and social media platform, market your work and you, sell again, this time to the consumer, and then deal with insurance and taxes.

Now you know why publishing houses have so many employees. Faced with such a daunting task, how can you alone break into the business and rise above the din without having written the next Harry Potter?

Yes, you got it. Anthologies.

When I researched agents, none represented anthologies. Too difficult to manage the legal and financial issues of multiple authors on one project. Didn’t fit the paradigm. Publishers were of the same mold. If the anthology contained only your works? No different. We don’t accept poetry, picture books, screenplays, or anthologies. I’ve seen that statement on many websites.

That was then. This is now. We are in a different world today. I pay three bucks for a fifty-cent cup of coffee. My phone has more computing power than Apollo 11 had in their command module. Agents still shy away from anthologies, but...and this is my point: publishers are now embracing them.

What kind of sorcery is this?

I’m not saying literary agents no longer have value. Far from it. Get one. Everyone else has one. All the cool kids have one. Agents bring a lot to the table. But an agent isn’t an absolute necessity for you to get a start as a professional writer.

Anthologies can give you that first bit of street cred. My first short story, The Crucible, was accepted for the premier volume of The World Unknown Review (WUR), edited by L.S. Engler. Was the story good? I thought so; still do. Was the anthology a runaway bestseller? No, for a variety of reasons. But friends bought it. I think it is still on Amazon if you are curious. Did my story gain me anything? No Pushcart nomination, perhaps, but this solidified in my family and friends’ minds that I was a writer and not a retired guy with a hobby. And L.S. paid me with a $20 Starbucks card.

WUR used a vetting process – some works were accepted, others not. Mine made the cut. Success. And what about L.S.? She created and sold the anthology into a series which is now collecting stories for a third volume. Her effort created enough credibility that, when coupled with her excellent writing, she has become a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post. And to think I knew her when. To push my point home some more: L.S.s first book was an anthology of her own stories. Check out Bowl Full of Bunnies. It’s actually a very good read.

My story being in the first volume of WUR provided a nice bit of filler for my query letters. You are always asked to mention your previous success as a writer. Sure, it was just an anthology, but it proved I was serious about my writing. Effort goes a long way, even for writers.

My second (and current) anthology project has me intertwined with a cohort of 17 other writers. Many of these writers were in a local mystery writers club that had produced four anthologies earlier. The most recent book sold over 10,000 units, which for a regional book is amazing. I asked one of them how they went about creating the project, and seeing my interest, they asked me to submit a story for their fifth book.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

My story, Wyld Women and Wine, will be in their next anthology, titled 50 Shades of Cabernet. The regional publisher, Koehler Books, is taking on the project based on the success of the club’s previous efforts. They also admit the anthology having 18 sales agents, I mean writers, helps boost sales. As I said, today’s writer must do it all – including sell. This should not be a secret to anyone by now.

Before I committed to the anthology, I did my usual stalking, make that due diligence, and checked out the Koehler website. Turned out they had just put a notice up saying they were accepting unagented manuscripts. What the heck – what did I have to lose?

I sent in my manuscript, then received an email reply a few days later. I was to meet with Koehler’s chief editor, who called my writing quick paced, interesting, and very clean – meaning the text was in better shape than what he had seen from most first time novelists. After another phone call, this time from Mr. Koehler, I received an offer for publication next year. This deal comes with a content editor, copy editor, cover artist and book designer, and bonus: a marketing team. Haven’t signed yet, but we have the details pretty much carved in wood.

All this happened because of an anthology.

Will this happen to you? Maybe. Maybe not. Providence played a part in my success, I am sure. But like they say in the lottery business, you can’t win if you don’t play.  So go find yourself an anthology, get that street cred, get those personal connections, learn more of the business of writing, and maybe, just maybe, your short story will lead to something else.

Where to find anthologies? I Googled Anthology Accepting Submissions and found 420,000 entries. Mystery writers can check out MWA – they have started a yearly anthology. Sci-fi writers have one, too. Even Carina Press has a call out for romantic/erotic stories for their new anthology. I found these with less than a minute on the Internet. If all else fails, start your own. L.S. Engler did and her career is taking off. In fact, if you have something now, her World Unknown Review is still accepting stories for volume three.

Anthologies. Give ‘em a try. You can’t win if you don’t play.

Safety tips when considering participating in an anthology:

Check out the other authors – and the editor. You can have a great story, but if the rest of the book is amateurish, you lose. Guilt by association as the old saying goes.

Get the money figured out. And written into a contract. Are you paid a flat fee for the use of the story? Are you going to receive royalties? Was there an advance on royalties? Who received it? How does it impact your royalties?

Know your rights. How restrictive is the agreement when it comes to control of your story? Never sign away the copyright (I don’t think any editor or publisher would even ask this.) Does the anthology have an exclusive on your story for a certain amount of time? What about other rights? Can you concurrently shop your story to Hollywood or Bollywood? My goodness, what about licensing action figures?

My experience: L.S. paid outright for the use of my story for one year while I maintained copyright ownership and all other rights. 50 Shades of Cabernet? My story is exclusive to the anthology for two years. I retain all other rights. Royalties are 50-50 between the cohort and the publisher. I get 1/18th of that 50%. That works out to about 50 cents per book sold. Doesn’t sound like a ton of money, but remember – their last anthology sold over 10,000 units. Five grand buys me and my wife a nice trip to the Bahamas. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

And finally, be prepared to make a few decisions by consensus. Be ready to have some decisions handed down to you by the editor. And expect to make other decisions on your own. In the business world this is called managing uncertainty.

Maybe that’s why the writing business is best described as a business.

Good luck. And keep writing!

http://www.douglaslutz.com/

 

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