Books for the Road

Jonathan and I jumped on the train last weekend for a mini-vacation in Chicago. Our Fitbits and sore feet told us we covered a lot of miles visiting the Field Museum, the Navy Pier, and the Museum of Science and Industry, not to mention the restaurants and markets.

We love the train for many reasons, but among my top ones is the time I get to spend reading during the journey. My reading material on this trip was the last of the alphabet mysteries by the late and much missed Sue Grafton, the last book with professional sleuth, Kinsey Milhone. I wanted to savor Y is for Yesterday (yes, the alphabet ends with Y now), but found I couldn’t stop reading, and the book ended much too soon. Now I’ll go back and re-read them all one more time. I have heard that Ms. Grafton was struggling to come up with a final book. With her death, that is no longer an issue. She refused to allow these books to become movies or television programs, so the only way you can meet Kinsey is in the pages of these great novels. I’ll admit, some are better than others, but all feature an unforgettable, funny, and likable central character.

Casting about for my next book for the leg home, I found on my Nook a gift from my friend, Chris. She has a habit of stocking up my book supply whenever she gets a chance and tends to include great books on writing. In this trove I discovered The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker.

You all know (or should know) about The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. My problem with this classic is it’s dated and in some cases not accurate. Pinker’s book does a creditable job of filling the space long held by Elements and with humor and an good understanding of how language is used these days. I would recommend it to anyone who maintains a stockpile of writing references. Besides, it’s great entertainment on a long journey. Hopefully your traveling companions won’t mind when, as you’re reading, you laugh out loud from time to time.

Image: Yorkshire steam train. By Jonathan Hutchins.

Number Two Nearly Done!

My second novel is nearly finished and currently is being read by one last reviewer (who may require massive rewrites, but I’m up for that). My first book took about 30 years to finish while this one has taken months. I have to say, that shocks me. I was expecting to take forever, but that’s not how it worked out. To my dismay, this book is demanding a sequel (how very rude!) Problem is, there are other books I want to write, but they will either have to wait, or I’ll have to work on books simultaneously. I suppose that beats not having any ideas at all, but I’m impatient to get on with writing. My husband pointed out that one of his favorite authors writes several books a year (and they’re all good, dammit). I think I may have to stop having a life and just lock myself in my house and never emerge except to do book promotion stuff. Wouldn’t that be lovely?

In truth, this is the third “second” book I’ve started because I was having a little trouble settling on what to write next. Everyone will tell you to follow a genre fiction book with one of the same or similar genre. I researched and worked on one fan fic sort of thing and one historical novel. I set both aside in hopes I could manage something paranormal and romantic with suspense similar to the first book. While I was casting about, I remembered once upon a time I had an idea for a story about a shop run by a couple who dealt with paranormal issues. “What if,” I asked myself, “they aren’t a couple yet?” It sort of grew a life of its own from there.

The book went quickly and has been easy to adjust as I get feedback (thank you to the wonderful people who help me with reality checks and typos). Now, the hardest part for me is coming up with the blurb–the synopsis that shows up on the back cover and on the Amazon description. How do I boil down my novel into something that will grab people and make them want to read it? Honestly, it’s harder than writing the story in the first place. How much to tell, what to leave out, how many subplots to touch on…the book is a mystery so there are subplots, all interwoven, and this book has a much bigger cast of characters. Once all that is done, it’s off to the publisher, more reviewers, a cover design to approve, galleys to read, and on and on. I hope it will be out before Christmas, but I’m not holding my breath.

My reviewers are saying it’s a much better book than Beloved Lives. That pleases me, and I agree. It means I’m learning how to write and write better. But one reviewer insists there is going to have to be a third book–a spin off with some of the side characters. I’m starting to get a bad feeling about this….

Image: Yes, the next book is a mystery. Me at Scotland Yard, 2002. By Jonathan Hutchins.

Back to the Garden (With Apologies to Joni Mitchell)

Enough about the joys of writing. Let’s talk about my garden. My garden that I have loved and nurtured since last fall. My garden that I gave raised beds and mountains of aged manure and rich, dark garden dirt and love and attention and vast quantities of seed and water. Yeah, that garden. The one that is breaking my heart.

First, the weather was too hot too soon, then too cold. Then, too little rain fell for too long. Then, who knows what the heck. I’ve planted chard three times and have one plant. The bugs are happily chewing its leaves into lace. The carrots, after weeks and weeks, finally came up (I used expensive seed tape to get the spacing right). They made little green fronds and almost no root. For Pete’s sake, I planed by the moon! The roots should be the size of my thigh!

The radish roots went woody then the plants bolted. The lettuce and other greens struggled to even present themselves, finally, angrily bolting into triffids that threatened to take over the neighborhood. Thank goodness, Howard Keel and Nicole Maurey were visiting a neighbor, or it could have gotten ugly.

But do not cry for me, Blogosphere. Some potatoes in my pantry were getting weird and insistent, so I threw them into the dirt. They produced some of the ugliest plants I’ve ever seen (I think they have a fungus), but many lovely little red potatoes grew among the roots. They taste wonderful, and I am filled with happiness and potato salad.

I have planted leeks twice–nada; cantaloupes–again, nothing; red onion sets from which I got pathetic little bulbs that can be seen with a scanning electron microscope; and finally, dill. After three tries, I got dill to grow in a pot, but it is growing even more luxuriously in the cracks between the patio bricks. What does it say about my gardening skills when my best success is with volunteers?

That leaves us with bed number three. First, I killed my heirloom tomato plants by not hardening them off properly. My bad. In desperation, I purchased eggplant, tomato, and cucumber plants. I bought lots of plants. At the attrition rate I was seeing, I hoped one or two would survive. Something ate the eggplants down to sticks. What eats eggplants? They are a member of the nightshade family and ought to be poisonous. I take some cold comfort in hoping a squirrel or bunny got at least a tummy ache.

By now you may have guessed, all the tomato and cucumber plants survived. I have them trellised, but they are so dense I can hardly see the fruits. And yes, they are producing. I’ve already made pickles (I do not recommend my family recipe–I’m going back the the Ball book). I have so many green tomatoes I might be able to wrestle some ripe ones out of the greedy little paws of the squirrels. If not, there is a green tomato pie (tastes like apple) and green tomato salsa in my future.

I finally got the strawberry plants to grow in pots (on the second try), and they are spreading. The secret is to put rocks in the pots to keep the squirrels from digging them up. I’ve splint the banana tree into three trees and all are surviving nicely, but I doubt I will ever see a banana. I got a few raspberries before the birds discovered them. Whatever was climbing the chokecherry (probably a squirrel) and breaking its branches has stopped. I get about one blueberry every three days.

Gardening is not for sissies. If I had to live on what I’ve grown so far this year, I would be nicely aromatic (my herbs seldom fail) and weirdly malnourished. But I love gardening. At least, I think I do. Or maybe I just refuse to let the squirrels win.

Image: My sad and lonely chard plant. By Marilyn J. Evans.

A Little Help From My Friends

Not long ago, you may recall, I was ready to shove my latest novel off a cliff and hie myself to a commune or convent or some other place that begins with a “c”. Instead, I put down the computer and stepped away from the writing. Then, I handed off the draft to my long-suffering friends to read, critique, or shove off a cliff. Bless them, they not only slogged their way through the novel, they provided feedback, suggestions for improving it, and praise!

I’m a social sort of creature. I like camping with a few hundred sweaty people once or twice a year. I like going to other people’s readings and publicly reading my own work. I like sharing the voice that got into my head and made me write what I wrote. I like helping out other writers with what I’ve learned so far, not that I’m any kind of expert, but, as they say, in the land of the blind, a one-eyed dude can be helpful. I like praise and positive feedback, because, who doesn’t? But more than all that, I like honest opinions that will make my work better.

I have the great luck to know some good writers and dedicated readers who can spot a fatal flaw in a novel. These folks are worth their weight in gold, booze, pet sitting, or nearly anything else they ask of me. Without these friends, I could consult editors (some for hire) who can yank me back from the edge of the cliff my novel and I are about to dive over.

Stephen King tells the story that his first novel, Carrie, was rescued from the trash can by his wife, Tabitha. She thought it wasn’t so very bad. I know how Mr. King felt when he chucked his novel. I’m glad he had the sense to listen to his wife and glad she saved that story.

My friends were able to spot the pretty decent story buried in the work I had gotten too close to, and they are helping me fix it. I think in the end, it’s going to be a good, possibly great, story, but that wouldn’t have happened without a little help from my friends. Thanks, guys.

Image: Me (in there somewhere) with a few of my friends at Lynn and Susan’s hand fasting. Photographer unknown.

ConQuest Report

I don’t know if kids still have to do those “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” essays, but here’s mine.

Over Memorial Day weekend, I went to the 49th ConQuest Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention, where I had the great honor and joy of serving on some panels.

I confess I was apprehensive about the sci-fi and fantasy charades, but since I was one of the judges, I didn’t have to publicly humiliate myself (I have no pride or restraint when it comes to things like charades). As it happens, I remembered a lot of the rules and was able to help the contestants with the clues like “sounds like”, how many words or syllables, the sign for plural, and so forth. The fun thing was, everyone was so familiar with the titles that guessing was a lot easier than I thought it would be. One of the participants was head and shoulders above everyone else, so we had a clear winner. If you haven’t played charades in a while, by all means, give it a go. If you invite me, I’ll come and make a fool of myself.

Other panels I served on were “Consent, Coercion, and Everything In-Between”, “The End of the World As We Know It”, and “Edgar Allan Poe”. There were lively discussions for all of them, but of course, the EAP panel was my favorite. In addition, I moderated the author speed dating. This was an opportunity for readers and authors to meet face to face for a few minutes and talk about the authors’ new books. I think everyone had a really good time with this, and I hope it will be a regular feature at future cons. Finally, I did a reading of Beloved Lives and a bit of Wasting Water.

Of the panels I attended, my favorite was “Solar Punk: A Brighter Future”, presented by Tyrell Gephardt. This was a look at a genre so new there are not yet any novels for it, only anthologies of short stories. I found it fascinating–the future with hope and eco-innovation. Tyrell did a great job researching the rise of new genres and presenting the trajectory of each. By all means, look for solar punk to add to your reading list.

I also enjoyed “For Your Listening Pleasure” about sound tracks for various movies (I have a sound track station on my Pandora account), the great vendor area, a few other panels I was able to catch bits of before having to get to something else, and the opening ceremony (I had a commitment that kept me from staying for the closing ceremony). But one of the things I hadn’t done so much in the past and made an effort to do this year was to go to as many readings as possible.

I was delighted by the quality of many of the readers’ work, with my special favorites being Sean Demory and Jack Campbell, Jr., although there were a lot of other great authors.

ConQuest is a small but dense convention with heavy emphasis on the written word. If you love to read sci-fi and fantasy, consider making a pilgrimage to it next year. Hopefully the Tattoo Convention will once again be happening at the same time just next door to provide interesting eye candy.

Image: Me in the party room at ConQuest (actually, that’s Venus at Pompeii. By Marilyn Evans)

Reading at The Writer’s Place

On Friday, August 17th, starting at 7 p.m., I will be joining a couple of other writer’s to do readings from our current and future works. I’m looking forward to this because The Writer’s Place has done so much to support writer’s in the K.C. area.

The Writer’s Place, 3607 Pennsylvania, Kansas City, MO 64111

www.writersplace.org

 

Put Down the Computer, Step Away From the Novel

One of the hardest things for me to do is to stop editing. I want to mess with the book and mess with it and mess with it until everything is despair and woe. At some point, I’ve got to put down the computer and step away from the novel. When I put distance between me and the story, I can see it objectively and recognize what the heck is wrong–sometimes. If I’m lucky, I’ve got weeks to do other things before I have to pick it up again and view it through fresh eyes. At that point, all the typos, plot confusion, really bad turns of phrase, and so forth jump right out and assault me so I can defend myself in a fit of justifiable murder. In an even better world, my readers can review the story and share with me what I have completely botched.

I’m not one of those writers who believes every word I type is golden. I can usually tell when what’s on the screen is crap, but sometimes I just can’t figure out how to uncrap it. Bless my readers, they usually can, or at least they can point me in the general direction of improvement. When I’m all smug and sure what I’ve written is as good as I can possibly make it, a few weeks cooling off time and a re-read or a sheaf of suggestions from friends are all I need to show me I have a long way to go.

So what to do while waiting for my brain to reset? I’ve got a garden and the ongoing war with the squirrels to keep me occupied, as well as the mystery of what can possibly be eating the eggplant bushes (they are in the nightshade family–why aren’t there poisoned culprits littering the yard?) I’ve got other books to mess about with, some coming along nicely, and some disasters that will in their turn get sent to the story ICU. There is my late uncle’s estate that is a bit of a confused mess and requiring some attention. There are the various book promotion activities to keep me busy and out of trouble including a recent reading at Aquarius in Westport and the upcoming ConQuest sci-fi/fantasy convention.

I’m quite looking forward to ConQuest, not only because I get to do a reading of Beloved Lives, but also because I’m on some panels. One is about Edgar Allan Poe, whom I adore and admire; it should be fantastic. Another panel is about post apocalyptic fiction–one of my favorites. I’ll be doing some other fun stuff as well as and getting to see all kinds of good folk.

If you find yourself at loose ends Friday, Saturday, or Sunday (May 25-27), mosey on down to the Sheraton Hotel at Crown Center in Kansas City, and join me. I’m pretty sure you’ll have a good time. And say, “Hi” of you see me.

Home

Image: Where I’ll be doing my reading at ConQuest (just kidding–that’s the theater at Pompeii). By Marilyn Evans

 

Reading and Writing

I went to the library recently to grab a few audio books to amuse me while I made a long car trip. While I was there, a saw a woman teaching another woman how to read. The progress was slow and painful, but it was happening. I thought what a wonderful thing that was, both on the part of the teacher and of the learner, to give the gift of reading to someone who doesn’t have it, and to learn to read and experience all the worlds that reading opens.

When I mentioned this incident on Facebook, a friend quipped, if you have audio books why bother to learn to read? Of course, not being able to read closes so many doors, but having audio books is a pretty wonderful thing, too–I can “read” without having to take my eyes off the highway, learn something interesting as I travel, be entertained instead of bored, pass the time in good company, and get through books I might not have time to otherwise.

My love affair with reading started when I was on a camping trip when I was about five years old. Before turning out the lantern, my dad was settling down in his sleeping bag to read as he did every night, at home or away. My brother, Paul, was reading his preferred literature, a comic book. I had nothing. I borrowed a comic book from Paul so I could read, too (even though I couldn’t read yet), and I was hooked for life. I still try to read every night before I go to sleep, and as often as I can manage in between.

Like so many people, I love that image of the man standing on top of a ladder in a library, books under his arms and one between his knees, completely engrossed in yet another book. This picture captures what reading is like for me and others like me–we know what it is to be hijacked by a book. For some of us, reading is a passion, but also a practice for our craft. Stephen King has said that those who don’t have time to read will have neither the time nor the tools to write. I suppose a great many people who read imagine they can write, but reading and writing are very different things. Still, it would be hard to write and write well if one didn’t read, and if you weren’t just a little bit in love with the written word.

When I got where I was going on that long car trip, I handed out a couple of my cards that have information about my book. This often happens when I’m asked, “What are you doing now that you’re retired?” One of the people I gave a card to, a relative, is a librarian, and said he would like to order a copy for his library. I said if he did, I would come and sign it. I wondered as I drove home what would be appropriate to write in the book to be shared in a library in a small town. I thought about all the wonders of reading and how much I have loved it, especially when I lived in a small town. I decided a good inscription might be, “Read every day, and you will always have adventure.”

Image: Captain Jack and Molydinum Wu helping us read. By Jonathan Hutchins.

 

 

Criticism: Love It, Hate It

Most people don’t know that Edgar Allan Poe was best known during his lifetime as a literary critic. Fellow critic, James Russell Lowell, described Poe as a “discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic” who could be quite caustic. The poetry of Longfellow was a favorite target, Poe predicting that his style wouldn’t last, and Poe was right.

When it comes to critiquing of a writer’s work, the pre-critic critics, if you will, writer’s tend think they want honest criticism and recommendations, but I have found a lot of them really don’t. They want someone to tell them “I like this”, not what’s not working or needs to be improved. But without honest and constructive criticism, the work does not get better.

Criticism isn’t easy. Anyone can say, “This sucks.” But what sucks? Is it the pace? Are the characters one dimensional? Is the description too sparse? Are there typos, grammar errors, punctuation issues, misused words? Is the plot hard to follow? Some people can constructively criticize, others can’t. “I don’t like it” isn’t criticism.

The Kansas City Star, our local newspaper, used to have Robert W. Butler, their movie critic, review all the new releases. The problem was, while Mr. Butler is an excellent critic, he does not care for genre films. If he liked a movie, I would probably like it, but if he hated a movie, there was a chance I might not hate it. There was no value in having him tell me, “This is a science fiction film or a horror film, and it was terrible.” The Star finally figured out that genre films should be reviewed by people who can tell a good one from a bad one, someone who can tell if the target audience will like the film or not. The right critic makes a difference for both the material being reviewed and the person who will base their decision to see the movie or read the book on that review.

I currently have two problems with my new novel. The first is that it sucks. It needs a lot of work, and there are a lot of problems with it. I need to fix most of those before I send it to the poor, benighted martyrs who have agreed to read it in its unfinished form and give me constructive feedback, my first line reviewers and critics. The second problem is I am missing some important demographic representatives in my reviewing population. If everyone reading the book has the same background and ideas, I can’t know whether or not the book will appeal to or be understood by the folks who have different backgrounds and ideas.

If you happen to know of a Christian or Jewish male who likes reading and reviewing manuscripts, let me know. Extra points if he’s in law enforcement. In the mean time, I’m going to go fix this sucky book.

Image: Chihuahuan raven; by Quinn Dombrowski from Chicago, USA

Research: The Root of the Matter

I was going to dash off a blog post about doing research for writing because I’ve been doing a fair bit of that lately, but I discovered as I started the post, I have more opinions (some of them conflicting) than I expected. I had to sit down and think about it for a day or two. You see, I spent forty years or so looking at the world through the eyes of a scientist, so data, facts, research are kind of important to me. But what kinds of research should I be doing for my fiction? How much is enough? And how much is too much?

In an interview on NPR, Richard Powers admits to knowing very little about trees most of his life, but his book, Overstory, indicates he did vast research before writing his novel. Andy Weir, in his wonderful book, The Martian, included so much detail and accuracy that, when the film based on the movie was given a Hugo, honest-to-goodness astronauts were on hand to present the award.

When I’m reading a story, nothing pulls me up short faster than stumbling over a something I know isn’t true. On the other hand, facts can be stranger than fiction. There are things in the news that no one would ever believe in a novel. On the other, other hand, some people hold popular opinions that are, in fact, wrong. It can be frustrating to be challenged by someone who has more opinions than facts, especially after I’ve gone to the trouble of finding out what is real.

Some would say you can never do too much research, but is that really true? I have a dear friend that loves falling down research rabbit holes, getting lost in the twining threads of topics until she sometimes loses track of what the original question was. That, I suspect, is too much research, especially if the results never end up on paper. Though, all knowledge is good knowledge, and if you live long enough, you’re bound to use it sooner or later. Or distort the memory over time. Or forget entirely.

Good and dutiful soul that I am, when I found my story required a missing-person investigation, I contacted the local police’s public relations officer and asked for help. She graciously supplied me with the department’s SOP. I was happy to discover that I had included pretty much everything that was in their procedure. I’m not saying it wasn’t good to have verification, but that step might not have been necessary. As a reasonable person, I could deduce what the police are likely to do if someone goes missing, and so my readers would probably accept my assumptions. Or not. A cop might by some odd chance read my story or maybe even someone who has requested a missing person investigation. They’ll notice if I get it wrong.

I’m not sure I have a conclusion. So far, if I find I have no personal experience of something that is necessary to my story, I try to read up, ask someone, go do something, or visit somewhere. Mind you, I don’t plan to kill anyone in order to write a murder mystery, and I’m not likely to ever make it off planet to research a space opera. And, honestly, I’m a bit too old to spend ten painstaking years researching my magnum opus. In the end, I guess the answer is, enough research and the right research is whatever serves the story. Within reason. Still conflicted. Still thinking about it.

Image: Trees near Avebury stone circle, Wiltshire, England. By Marilyn Evans.