About Writers, reading, writing technique

Firsts: Fists, Flirtations and Befuddlement

This could, I hope, become an ongoing series, but not all written by me. Anyone can take a turn, and it will be more interesting for the variety. It springs from Mimi’s recent suggestion that someone should post  some first paragraphs from novels or short stories.  Discussion, consideration, ratings and arguments could follow after in the comments section. It sounded like fun to me.  As an extra-added attraction, I’m not going to name the author or the book. Of course, some you (or some of you) will know instantly. Others may puzzle. They all come from books I enjoy or admire. Some are rather plain, others audaciously unconventional.

The title of the post is just me goofing around.  After all, a good first paragraphs can knock us on our ass.  It can seduce into opening an unknown door.  It can dazzle and baffle in a way that makes going forward our only choice.

Those are, of course, only three possibilities.

 

1:

to wound the autumnal city.

So howled out the world to give him a name.

The in-dark answered with wind.

All you know I know: careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you’ve held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.

(break)

I begin with an unbeginning. Or maybe with an unfinished ending. The confusion of the first three lines could seem to some as mere artsiness for its own sake, just fancy word-flinging, but that’s too easy a dismissal. This massive books creeps in from the mist and the smoke, entering our consciousness like some misshapen beast. During its 800 pages, it will find and lose solid footing in reality a dozen times.  The “All I know, you know” paragraph lays out themes and images that echo throughout the rest of the text. The semantic twists of this obscure list knock us off stride before we even begin, but that is only too appropriate for a novel that will never stop lurching and turning (careening and grinding) all the way through to the

2:

First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try.

HERE IS A SMALL FACT.  You are going to die.

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.

(break)

Another appealingly unconventional beginning. This was actually a very popular novel a few years ago, which only goes to show that you can begin a novel any way at all and still succeed in engaging the reader’s attention, as long as you know and trust your craft.

3:

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.

First, picture a forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

(break)

Such juicy writing!  They say don’t begin with description. This book rarely stops describing things. There’s very little dialogue. The story is told from multiple points of view, but the main character is the one seen here at the beginning—the forest itself. The last sentence could be a motto for the whole novel.

 

4:

See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are know for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him. 

(break)

So quiet. So simple. So ominous.  In very few lines, two characters have already been given weight, contour, and personality.  I particularly like the language, which is at once idiosyncratic, arcane and lovely.

 

5:

I had been sick for a long time. When the day came for me to leave the hospital, I barely knew how to walk anymore, could barely remember who I was supposed to be. Make an effort, the doctor said, and in three of four months you’ll be back in the swing of things. I didn’t believe him, but I followed his advice anyway. They had given me up for dead, and now that I had confounded their predictions and mysteriously failed to die, what choice did I have but to live as though a future life were waiting for me?

(break)

I particularly like the notion of failing to die, almost as if something monstrous had happened.  This was a quirky and troubling little novel. I think the opening does a nice job of setting the reader ill at ease.  (Question: Why “were waiting for me” instead of “was waiting for me”? Some foreshadowing that his future life is somehow plural?)

6:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane
I was the smudge of ashen fluff–and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky,
And from the inside, too, I’d duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I’d let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!

(break)

Yes, this a novel—a novel that happens to begin with 99 lines worth of heroic couplets.  The rest of the novel is several hundred pages of commentary by one of the least reliable narrators you will ever meet. The poem itself is marvelous, playful, and heart rending. The commentary is a whacky tale of political intrigue by a madman who uses an academic exercise as an excuse to tell his own (perhaps) delusional tale.

All right. Enough from me.  Can anyone identify the openings? More to the point, how do these work for you? What thoughts do they inspire?

 

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reading

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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book promotion, book reviews

This Way Madness Lies, But So What?

There is probably no more ill-advised pastime for a writer than to engage with his or her negative critics. Reviews are what they are, and any response on your part will only make you seem thin-skinned and defensive. Not everyone is going to love your books, so get over it and let it go.0

Nevertheless, I’m presented here with a rare opportunity. Friend, fellow writer, and notorious gadfly Mimi Speike found fault with my new book, Whisper Blue. Now this, I promise you, is not an attack on Mimi, who I love and admire. In fact, I appreciate and cherish her honesty. Nor will it, I hope, degenerate into a series of mere ripostes and touchy rejoinders. Mimi and I have already exchanged opinions via email and remain the best of pals. Her criticisms are insightful and thought provoking. Do I agree with them? Well, no, because I have my natural arrogance to fall back on, not to mention a fair number of favorable reviews to take comfort in. So why am I focusing on a bad review? Just naturally a contrarian, I guess.  But dissent will nearly always spark a more interesting discussion than agreement. So, what the heck. Let’s rumble!

Mimi: “Your prose style, as usual, is flawless. (I had to include that bit. -AG) I do have some problems with the plot. The uncomplicated style says to me YA, and I do believe Miles’ rather mumbo-jumbo rationale for the odd business would fit nicely into the mouth of a fascinated-with-psychic/not-overly-critical teen.”

A fair point. I wrote back: “If Miles’ explanation for Whisper’s manifestation seems a little addled, well, he’s a little addled, and it seems like exactly the kind of explanation he would come up with. (He needs an explanation, because he’s a rationalist.) It may not make a lick of sense, but it’s at least a self-consistent construction (really, almost more a science fiction explanation than a ghost story one, which fits Miles’ personality.) In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you or I find it believable, just so long as Miles (nearly) does. It’s a bandaid on the gaping wound that has sundered his reality. The fact that it barely works is, well, just as it should be.”

I didn’t add, but will here, that I think Miles’ explanation is actually pretty good, certainly well in line with some of the norms of paranormal fiction. But therein lies one of the bones of incompatibility betwixt Mimi and myself. She really doesn’t care for paranormals, and I obviously do.

Mimi: “I do not find gut-wrenching emotion, that jumps off the page. You tell us that your characters are stunned, upset, all that, but where is the out-and-out frenzy? (On Marieka’s part. We’ve already written Miles off.) Especially with a first-person telling, it would be so easy to show.”

Yes, and I’m afraid there isn’t a lot to say on this point. My natural tendency is to soft-pedal emotion and to minimize introspection, even in first-person. It’s just a personal preference, which Mimi astutely recognized later in her critique, saying: “But that means interior stuff, and I understand that is not your impulse.” And she’s right. It really isn’t. Too often, the examination and explanation of why-my-characters-are-feeling-what-they-feel only clutters up the landscape, making it more difficult for readers to feel what they feel, which is more what I hope will happen. Some people can do the introspection thing very well and to great effect. Me, not so much. I won’t walk away from a poignant moment, but I prefer them to be few and far between.

As far as me telling rather than showing, well, I don’t actually have a problem with telling. It is part of writing. But as far as me telling rather than showing the emotions of my characters, particularly Marieke, I disagree. For the most part, I think I did as little of either as I could reasonably get away with.

Mimi: “Taylor James says, ‘The story is fast paced.’ I would think that fast paced here is not a desirable thing. I say you need to immerse your kooks in a slow-simmer soup, and let them stew in it but good, with plenty of reflection. Instead we get mysteriously matter-of-fact reportage. Everything moves too fast, for my money.”

Again, we are simply at odds here. I love a slow-simmer, and I expect nothing less from Mimi’s own epic cat-o-many-tales, Sly. But…that isn’t Whisper. I wanted something agile enough to slither and scurry up the lattice of plot and emerge with a “what just happened here?” feeling. So fast-paced pleases me. As does “mysteriously matter-of-fact reportage.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Mimi: “I buy that a once alive girl might be called up from the dead, but a totally made-up one? I wish at least that Miles had found a mention of a child who had actually existed, and had created additions to the story that just happened to be very close to the truth. (Wouldn’t that be way stranger? And it would solve the problem of reporters digging into a lie.) A demand, by a side-branch descendant of the clan, to know how he came by a piece of information that had never been disclosed, a connection he is able to verify, may be what sends him over the edge.”

A fascinating angle, and in a conventional ghost story, a wholly valid point. But Whisper isn’t really a ghost story. And…well, I’ll quote from my own email reply: “The book isn’t about voodoo or mental illness or even about the madness of the internet crowd. It isn’t even about Marieke and Miles and Mama Jay. It is about the relationship between fiction and reality. The central metaphor of the book is that a fictional character can become as real as a flesh-and-blood person. This is an emotional truth, of course. Who hasn’t experienced that? In Whisper, the metaphor is made real (that’s what paranormal and fantasy fiction do, they treat the metaphorical as if it were an actual thing.) In Whisper’s case, even the meta-metaphor is made real. It’s a work of fiction about a work of fiction coming to life. That, really, is what I was interested in. Miles’ fiction—particularly Wisteria’s diary—the reports on the web, even Stokes’ stories about James Randi are all stirring this same pot. For that reason, it’s absolutely essential that Whisper be fiction, not a real girl. That would completely undermine the metaphor.”

Of course, that metaphor didn’t work for Mimi, and I have no one but myself to blame for that. Assuming we really need someone to blame, which is arguable.

Okay, one more point. Mimi: “We never get a satisfying resolution, just a hook-up with the professor. Okay, I guess the gris-gris around her neck is the resolution. Marieka has caved. She is a convert to tinfoil-hat beliefs, is now generating her own delusions. It’s either that or a mass-hypnosis situation. A buy-in is the easiest, neatest option.”

And that, I guess, was a swing and a miss on my part. Marieke’s gris-gris never smacked of tin-foil hat conversion to me, partly because I don’t regard voodoo as any more delusional than most of your standard religions, but also because Marieke’s appropriation of one of its trappings doesn’t necessarily make her a believer. In her own private way, she’s trying to deal with what she has seen and experienced. If I were to sort it out (and no, I never did, because it seemed perfectly natural to me) I’d say she wears it out of respect for Whisper, and maybe for Mama Jay as well. But if that didn’t come across to Mimi, then perhaps I could’ve done better. But people who go to my books looking for satisfying resolutions are probably going to be disappointed. Emotionally satisfying? Well, I hope so. But plot-resolution satisfaction? Not always one of my priorities.

And, perhaps, this just wasn’t going to be Mimi’s cup of tea, no matter how well I prepared and presented it. Near the end of her email she apologized for “being anal about making sense” and that, may be the crux of our failure to connect. There are things about Whisper Blue that don’t make perfect sense. That’s not an accident, it’s a choice. Paranormal fiction appeals to those of us who like floating in that shadow realm between the real and the other. We are drawn to those uncanny lands, where the various layers of reality rub up against other, twining about, until they become, maybe, interchangeable.

I can’t say whether I achieved that with Whisper Blue, but if you want to find out for yourself, it is available at Amazon,  Kobo,  Barnes and Noble, other places as well. I think it’s good, but I’m open to discussion.

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Uncategorized, writing technique

Me and Hemingway

The other day, this blog post appeared in my Facebook feed with the title:  “This Surprising Reading Level Analysis Will Change the Way You Write.”

Once you get past the clickbait title, it’s a pretty good post. The reading level analysis the post is talking about is called the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, a method developed in the 1970s for evaluating the difficulty of a text. Basically, it analyses a text for complexity and assigns it a reading level.

Just for kicks, I fed a brief, randomly-selected chapter from my newest book, Whisper Blue into the analyzer over at ReadabilityScore.com and clicked analyze. My score?  A whopping 4.1. Fourth grade reading level. Ha! Shows what an erudite elitist I am! The analysis of Text Quality said I had:

—5 sentences with 30 or more syllables
—20 with 20 or more syllables
—3 words with 4 or more syllables, and
—no words exceeding 12 letters.

And this, really, is ALL that Flesch-Kincaid analyzes. Long sentences and long words get you a higher grade level score; short words and short sentences get you grammar school scores. A reductive metric if ever I saw one, but Flesch-Kincaid was never meant to be more than a very rough guide. There’s really no judgment involved. It’s simply a crude measure of complexity. And you know who else wrote at a fourth grade level? Ernest Hemingway. How about Cormac McCarthy? Fifth grade. Likewise Jane Austen. Tolstoy? Fitzgerald? Stephen King? Yup. They all, apparently, wrote for middle schoolers.

Obviously, these sorts of grades tell us a lot more about the test then they do about the texts. And the whole thing points out some of the difficulties involved in using any kind of standardized approach to evaluating creative work. For example, the analyzer at Readabilityscore.com also includes a tally of three of the best known No-Nos all writers should avoid: use of the passive voice, adverbs, and clichés. My score was 7 passives, 1 cliché, and a whopping 68 adverbs!

Yoiks! I suck! Only, I don’t really. In the first place, a large amount of the text I selected is dialogue. And normal human speech is riddled with adverbs and passive constructions, not to mention clichés. And in the second place, most of these adverbs weren’t bad adverbs, and most of the passive constructions weren’t even passive.

Example—the site flagged the following phrases as passive:

“maybe I shouldn’t be encouraging him.”

“Everything was going to be all right.”

“One minute I was dismissing the whole thing as mumbo jumbo, the next I was withdrawing a hundred dollars from the ATM, just in case.”

These aren’t passive. Apparently, when the search algorithm sees a construction like “was going” or “was dismissing” or “be encouraging,” it mistakes auxiliary verb constructions (such as continuing action) for a passive constructions.

As far as my copious use of adverbs, here are a few examples (the underlined words were flagged as adverbs):

There you go.”

“That’s probably exactly what happened.”

“That old fake had us jumping around like a couple of citified rubes, but it was all just a show!”

“You are not going anywhere three nights from now!”

Adverbs are not evil. Yes, it’s awful when writers overuse those dreaded -ly constructions, especially in dialogue tags. But adverbs expressing place (there) or time (now) really don’t get my critical dander up. I suppose probably is modifying exactly, (adverbs can modify other adverbs) but then why didn’t they flag exactly, which is an adverb of manner? And I’m not at all sure which verb, adjective or adverb just is supposed to be modifying in the third example.

Needless to say, this isn’t very useful as a writing tool, but there are a lot of sites like readability-score.com out there. Usually they let you try it out for free—paste some text and have them identify the alleged problems. Then, after you’ve used your share of free samples, you can sign up and pay for membership. I’m not sure what readability-score.com charges for membership, but even as a free service, it seems slightly overpriced. And it isn’t simply that it misidentifies the passive voice—I’ve seen human editors do the same.

0The problem is more one of attitude. Grammar and syntax have rules, but there are endless subtleties. Even if the website correctly spotted adverbs and passive constructions, the suggestion that adverbs are always wrong, or that the passive voice is always a weak choice, is simplistic at best. You should be aware of what your are doing, at all times,, and make good choices but following boilerplate suggestions for improving your prose is only going to produce boilerplate prose.  Good writing is clear, evocative, and surprising—and no algorithm is going to make that happen for you.

(By the way, If you’d like to check it out for yourself, my paranormal thriller about voodoo and cyber-ghosts and the mass hysteria of the crowds is available at Amazon, Kobo, and other places. I think you’ll like it. No matter what your reading level is.)

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About Writers, book sales

Study Finds Number of Writers May Soon Exceed Readers

Industry insiders report that the number of downloads from amateur authors now exceeds the number of consumers who are actually interested in reading them.

“Readership has been declining for decades, of course,” said an industry insider who wished to remain anonymous. “What with television and the internet and the proliferation of flash mobs, there are simply too many readily available forms of entertainment out there. Plus, they’re all so much easier than reading. Let’s face it, reading requires a lot more effort than just staring at something.”

Though the trend toward shorter, easier entertainment has been developing for a long time, it is an entirely different trend that now threatens to overwhelm the American book reader: the growth of self publishing. Ever since the advent of ebooks and self-publishing services such as Kindle Direct Press and Smashwords, the number of books being published has ballooned. In 2015, the number of self-published ebooks was anywhere from 600,000 to 8.2 million depending on whose sources you believe. When pressed for an exact number, a representative at Amazon told us, “It’s hard to know for sure. By the time we finish counting, the number’s already obsolete. We can’t keep a handle on it.”

“Writers are usually readers,” our anonymous source added, “and there’s part of your problem. A lot of those folks who would formerly have been reading are now working on their seven-part epic fantasy series or writing Kidnapped by One Direction fan fiction. It’s a real quandary. It’s like with photography, or being a singer-songwriter. Way more people want to produce their own albums than will ever want to buy them.”

Indeed the tsunami of new fiction may well be unstemmable. “In many cases, authors aren’t even asking for money anymore,” according to our anonymous source. “They’re giving the books away for free, just begging people to take them.”

Unfortunately for would-be authors, free may no longer be a sufficient discount.

“Good lord!” one reaimg_5974der told us, “My kindle is stuffed with free books! If I started now, I couldn’t read them all. But there are so many more out there! Everyday, my email gets more mailers with more free stuff, and it’s kind of hard to resist. It’s so frustrating!” She added, shaking her head, “Besides, I’m already hours behind in my Netflix binge-watching. There just aren’t enough hours in the day!”

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About Writers, writing technique

Oh Spark Divine (more or less)

Always, in the process of writing, I am convinced that I am grasping toward greatness. It seems like the most important thing in the world. Even when I’m laboring through an uncooperative first draft and obviously mired in muck that will all have to be cleared away in the second, I feel like what I’m doing is vital and rich and worthwhile.

The final product is never quite what I expected. Don’t get me wrong, I love my own books, but they are all drastically flawed. They inevitably grow up in ways I didn’t really plan or expect. I’m enough of a control freak that this always bothers me a little, but I also know it’s unavoidable. In fact, it’s a good thing. It means your work has life and energy. So you say goodbye to your little book, wish it well, and start your next book, full of the fresh misguided conviction that this time you’ll see it through all the way and it will be perfect and magnificent.

That’s how it is for me, anyway. And probably it’s for the best. Without a deluded sense of self-importance, how would I find the energy to lift pen to paper?

Probably to the reader, a book like Spark seems like a frolic, a trifle. For good reason. It is a frolic. It is, in its own way, trifling. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. My first professional review (all right, it was from Publisher’s Weekly, but it was only a contest, and the book was never published) called my book “sprightly”—it had a “sprightly tone.” At first, I wondered if that wasn’t just a bit belittling. Sprightly isn’t, perhaps, the most dignified adjective to apply to work of literature. But eventually I appreciated it. I even came to embrace it or at least the playful energy it implies. Even in a serious story, prose can frolic a bit. Nabokov could be sprightly. So could Melville, not to mention some of my other personal favorites like Delany and Tiptree. It implies, I think, both facility and agility.

Or maybe I’m just trying to put the best face on it.

Consider Spark. It’s certainly got a light feel to it, but structurally, the novel’s tone is inverted. Even subverted. The apparently serious story with the apocalyptic overtones (the pocket universe, the skulks, the Duchess) is absurd, almost parodic.  And it’s ultimately trivial. It doesn’t amount to anything. Meanwhile, the apparent trivia of day-to-day life—boyfriends and basketball and friendship and loyalty— that is what the story is really about. That, obviously, is what really matters. That is what lasts.

Said another way? (big theme here, watch out):  The great machinery of the universe is inscrutable and inexorable. When we get too close to it, we are often threshed. We, threshed, rise up, dust ourselves off, and start reconnecting the fragmented bits of our reality. ‘Cuz that’s life.

Does this hifalutin bit of analysis mean I think Spark is a Great Book, worthy of term papers and Spark(ahem)Notes? Naw. Of course not. When the great cataclysm approaches, and the Powers That Be prepare the rocket-propelled time capsule, filling it with those Works of the Once Great Human Race that will justify our existence to the unknown civilization that finds the floating space library, Spark will not be onboard.

But this sad truth does nothing to quell or belie the impulse behind the writing. I don’t set out to write immortal books. I mean, who does that? I may hope for greatness, but mostly I think of a story, and if it intrigues me enough, I start writing.

But that process is, all by itself, magical and amazing. It’s amazing that we want to do it. It’s magical that we can. We are homo scribens, the race that writes, the storytelling species. Locking into that impulssvechae means messing around with greatness, with divinity. My goofy novel came from the same place as Lolita, as The Poisonwood Bible, as Moby Dick. In those quiet, passionate moments, when we’re dancing on the third rail of creativity, we catch a lightning glimpse of an immortal face, we hear the nonsensical muttering of the muses.

How can we come away from that experience untouched by greatness?

Those muses, those angels, do have a message you know, a very simple one:  We are here. We are real. And all of our twisting, writhing, passion-filled, agonized creations are nothing but a reflected bit of that seemingly infinite light. A candle flame’s worth. Without even meaning to, without even understanding, we are passing on that message.

They are here. They really are.

 

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book promotion, book reviews

How Genre Dysphoria is Ruining my Writing Career

I hate the dropdown list.

If you’ve ever tried to enlist your book at a book-marketing website or even just self-publish it on Amazon, you’ve seen the dropdown list:

Please select a genre for your book:

  • Fantasy
  • Romance
  • Science Fiction
  • Mystery
  • Horror
  • Thriller
  • Paranormal
  • Literary
  • Young Adult

Of course, many of the lists are more diverse, giving you everything from Urban Fantasy to Paranormal Romance, but you know what? That doesn’t make any difference, because no matter how specific the genre, it still doesn’t fit my books. In fact, making the choices more specific only makes the problem worse. The smaller the pigeon-hole, the worse the fit.

***

There are two golden rules of selling stuff:

1. know what you are selling

and

2. know who you are selling to.

They are the twin maxims of marketing. Write something people want, and then go out and find them. Know thy audience! Then target them. I’ve given almost no thought to who my books are for. It’s not that I’m not interested. I want people to like my books, of course, but I have no control over that.  I haven’t gone to a single bookstore, online or otherwise, trying to find other books that are similar to mine so I can tap into a ready-made audience.

I’m supposed to do that. I’m supposed to go and find that audience.

It’s one of the many things I’ve done wrong. I don’t target my audience. I don’t write high-concept. My books don’t sit comfortably in any particular genre. I can’t even identify an appropriate age group. I classified Spark as Young Adult, but in all the comments by reviewers at Amazon, what was the single most common observation?

The book isn’t really YA:

“…definitely different from your typical young adult novel.”

“I’m not sure it can be classified as Young Adult.”

“I am trying to think of the best genre to which this book belongs.”

“what separates this book from other YA or science fiction-type of books is the attention to detail and language.”

“…not typical of YA books in general.”

“…may be a little misclassified as a YA novel.”

Here’s the thing, though: while everybody mentioned it, nobody called it a bad thing. In some cases, not fitting in was a bonus. Being different can be a good thing.

So while a marketing consultant might leap on my genre dysphoria as the fatal flaw that is preventing the book from catapulting to a wider audience, I don’t think most readers really care all that much. And sure, there are plenty of people out there who only read cozy mysteries or high fantasy or YA dystopian, but those people probably aren’t going to be in my audience anyway. We’ll never be more than just friends.

And if I’m going to be totally honest about it, I like genre bending. I enjoy books that are hard to classify, that defy convention, that live in the spaces between categories. I like reading them. I like writing them. So maybe it isn’t a problem at all.

Except for those damned dropdown lists.

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