Friday, March 29, 2013

Flash Fiction--Tess's Tale

This week's flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig required me to chose five out of ten random words he'd posted, and use them as elements in a story.  I chose library, storm, envelope, chisel, and undertaker, and it seemed obvious this was a tale from Skunk Corners.  And I decided it was time someone besides Al and the Librarian got a word in edgewise.  So here it is:

Tess's Tale

Everyone knows Big Al, the chief storyteller of Skunk Corners.  And Tom himself has had a thing or two to say from time to time, but in my opinion the time has come for some of us common folk of Skunk Corners to have a turn.  So, Tess Noreen here, of Two-Timin' Tess's Tavern, to tell you how it was the day Ninja Tom came to Skunk Corners.  I'll tell you the parts that neither Al nor Tom can or will tell you.

Although we’d been mostly without a functional librarian to my recollection, the library itself was not new when Tom arrived.  Some folks came along, oh, about 30 years ago, and piled up those bricks.  But a library is nothing without a librarian, and we just couldn't seem to find one who could hold his own, by which I mean survive a week.  When the really rough element took over the town, the undertaker took to offering a special to the librarians right when they got off the train--buy your coffin now, and get it half price, rather than paying full price in a few days.  Word about Skunk Corners must've gotten around, because quite a few of those fellows bought.

Well, when our Tom got off the train, the undertaker was off somewhere, so he didn't get the chance to make his offer.  Probably that was just as well, as I’m not sure how Tom would have taken that.  But he had left an envelope with the Mayor, just in case a new librarian came to town while he was away, so as not to lose the chance of a sale.  He was all salesman, that long black clothespin.

Well, even Mr. Mayor Burton had more sense than to deliver that envelope to our strange new Librarian, but it still managed to cause a bit of trouble.  I don't think Al mentioned the big wind storm that tried to blow the town away a day or so after Ninja Tom moved in.  Al's attention was a bit distracted by other developments, and lousy weather’s not so uncommon in Skunk Corners.  Though the wind does keep the scent of skunk down.  But that storm blew a few things out of their rightful homes.  I had to send Johnny to chase our chimney topper into the woods, and when Mayor Burton went to return the envelope to the Undertaker, it blew right out of his hand.  He was too dignified to chase it into the woods--Burton was always good at being dignified, even if he wasn't good at much else.  He just let it go.

And two days later, up shows this old gummer from a farmstead way the heck back in the woods, clutching a muddy envelope and asking for the Undertaker.  Well, looked to Johnny and me like he maybe could use one any minute now, so Johnny, he stepped out from behind the bar and pointed the guy in the right direction.  The Undertaker was out back of Johnson's Mercantile, busy with axe, adze and chisel turning some slabs of fallen tree into headboards for grave sites.  We believe in rough and ready around here, nothing fancy and if the words he chiseled into your board wouldn't last more'n about 20 years, neither would any memory of you, most likely.  Nor are you likely to mind those words being forgotten sooner.

I was watching out the window when the old fellow met up with the Undertaker, and maybe I couldn't hear them with the window shut, but any fool could see that an argument was under way.  The old guy waved the envelope around, no doubt insisting on being given the deal promised therein, and our Undertaker was shaking his head and pointing.  Clear as day I could see that he was saying that offer hadn't been meant for him, but for the Librarian.  The argument went back and forth a fair while, getting louder and louder, so that before they were done I could have followed the whole thing even with the window closed--which by that time I must confess it wasn't.

At the time I couldn't figure why the man was so determined not to give the deal.  For now, it was enough that the Undertaker--he never was one of us, and we never even knew his name, as he considered himself too good to come into the Tavern--grew angry enough to catch up his chisel and wave it threateningly at the poor old fellow.

That was when I got my compensation for missing Tom's opening day at the library (though I'd heard plenty about it later, in the Tavern, from those few people who were free enough of the odor of skunk to be admitted).

Because that dignified white-haired librarian chap they'd sent us from goodness knows where came strolling around the corner, saw the threat to the old and helpless, and took care of it.  A few well-placed blows and one kick, which didn't even dislodge the hat from the Librarian's head, and the Undertaker was out cold.  When word got out that he only offered his special deals to folks he expected to be alive, but beaten up and on the next train out of town, local opinion decided that the Undertaker didn't belong in Skunk Corners.  We’re a sometimes low-down lot, but that’s just cheating and we won’t have it.

We're funny that way.  Go ahead and drink, fight, and even steal outright sometimes, but start trying to cheat us, and we get right peevish.

That long black clothespin was on the evening train, still out cold.  And the old fellow walked back out of town with no promise of a casket and grave, but the richer by a right fine chisel and adze. 

I'd no doubt he could make his own.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Beta Readers, Editors, and Friends with Opinions

If you have a contract with Megapublishing, Inc., they may take care of everything to do with editors.  For the rest of us, some huge issues lurk around the question of finding readers for your MS.  Issues like: when where what why and how.  I certainly don't know the answers to all of those.  In particular, I haven't figured out how, if you need to hire an editor, you go about finding a good one (other than the usual word of mouth advice; if taking that I'd want to a) know the other author pretty well, and b) check out their work to see if the editor succeeded).  But, as always, I have thoughts and opinions.

When: I'm still experimenting with this.  In the past, I have waited to inflict my work on share stories until I've gone pretty far into the editing process.  I'm trying now to share more as I go--not necessarily with an editor (I'm not ready for that until I finish drafting the story, at least) but with a beta-reader, someone who will mostly just enjoy the story (or not) and maybe pass on a bit of a reaction, let me know if I'm completely out in left field.  Also: if you give a reader part of a story, they may help hold you accountable for writing the rest, so as to find out how it comes out.  This is a good thing.  Later, of course, I need a story editor who can help me sort out where I'm going wrong, and finally a line-editor to catch the last of the typos and small errors.  I'm pretty good at this, but no one is perfect, especially when editing her own work.

Where: Okay, I just put that in because it's part of the litany.  But I could make it an answer about where to find a beta-reader.  I find them at work.  Try the PTA meeting.  Your book group (I at one point managed to get my book group to read my MS and offer critiques.  They were very kind, somewhat helpful--and out of that experience I connected with two other writers to form a writing group that is still the basis of my editing exchange).

What: The "what" changes as you work through the project.  As noted above, you might want someone to kind of do a reality check early on, and let you know if you should continue or rethink.  Later, you need the various forms of editing on the finished draft.

Why: If you have to ask this, you probably should keep your day job.  Seriously.

How: This one's the killer for us Indie folks.  We don't expect to make a lot of money from our books, so shelling out the big bucks for a pro editor doesn't seem very feasible.  So here's my take on it: while a pro is probably best, any reasonably competent editor is better than none.  So you find a grad student in the creative writing program or a wanna-be English teacher, and work out a deal.  Maybe they aren't perfect.  But they will, if at all competent, be able to tell you where your story stops making sense, and when you've changed point of view three times in a single paragraph.  Join a writer's group and let them critique the work.  And finally, your proofreader could be anyone who is really good at spelling and details.  Actually, it's not so much about spelling (your spell check will tell you it's "weird" not "wierd") but about knowing the homophones, having a good vocabulary they can gently point out that you meant "ablution" not "ambulation" or that most likely in 1873 they didn't use the expression "put the pedal to the metal."  Ask your Mom or that cousin who always sends back your email with corrections.

Oops, I think my "how" drifted back to "what."  Where's an editor when I need one?

Monday, March 25, 2013

What is "writing"?

This is a question for all us struggling writers who jam it in among our other life commitments, and waste far too much time in guilt over time spent NOT writing.  I'm here to say, anything you have to do for your book is writing.  I mean, I know hunting up a cover artist isn't writing.  But it's part of the job, and if you have only so much time, you need to take time from holding a pen and go do it.

So here's a list of things I have realized need to count, so I stop beating myself up over not doing any "writing" while dealing with them:
--the whole cover thing.  Finding artists, drawing my own, whatever it takes.  It's not a book without a cover, and the job must be done.
--revisions.  We've already discussed this.  Revising IS writing, and if you don't believe me, go back to your freshman comp class and try again.
--formatting.  Like the cover, it has to be done, and done right.  So you have to allow yourself the time.
--blogging.  Duh.  It's not your novel, but it's writing.
--marketing.  See covers and formatting.  It's nice if you can do this without impinging on writing time.  But if it needs doing. . . DO it.
--making coffee.  None of the above happens without coffee.

What doesn't count:
--cruising around
--checking sales
--reading the news
--looking at cute kitten videos
--doing laundry
--grocery shopping
--housework of any sort
--anything (aside from making coffee) that isn't involved with either stringing words together or getting them into a condition to be shared with the world.

Dang.  I'm gonna miss those kittens.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Why do I blog?

A number of discussions I've read recently, as well as my tossing around the idea of tackling the A to Z challenge, have led me to ask myself about this.  What am I doing?  Why am I blogging, and for whom?

In some ways, the answer is easy: I started blogging because "everyone" said you have to blog as an author, to build a "platform" and an audience.  So, since it was free (nearly--I bought my domain name for ten bucks) I wandered into the blogosphere and started bloviating--I mean, blogging.

Another answer, now that I'm doing it, is that it's kind of fun.  I like having a place to "publish" that flash fiction and other short stories that don't really have an outlet otherwise (I'm very fond of "Blackberries" and even had some interest from a couple of magazines, but the format made it take up too much space--the blog gave me a chance to get it out of my desk drawer and share it).

But perhaps the time has come to put some actual thought into what I'm doing and why.  And when it comes right down to it. . . I don't know.  The reasons listed above may be adequate, but the point is, I haven't really thought about it.  I'm just doing it.

So here, after some actual conscious, post-first-cuppa thinking, is my idea: blogging makes me feel like a writer.  It feels like I'm working, and--and this is not to be sneezed at when you are a stay-at-home parent and independent writer--it has deadlines.  Even if the deadlines are self-imposed, setting a a schedule for blog posts feels more hard-and-fast than saying "I'll finish my book by March."  People are waiting for those posts!  (Yeah, right.  But a girl can dream).

And, finally, I blog because I've been blogging.  That's right: habit.  I'm still struggling to discipline myself to work on the novels every day (especially when writing=editing), but I've managed to make a habit of blogging.

And that has to be good.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

PBC Discussion: Save the Cat!

Note: I find myself with TWO 3rd-Wednesday blogging commitments. How does this happen?  Anyway, I've put up my Kid-Lit Blog Hop contribution already, and this one's only a little late.


Time again for the monthly Progressive Book Club discussion.  This month's book was Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need, by Blake Snyder.

For the record, I have no intention of writing screenplays, and some of what he has to say doesn't really apply to my writing.  But I figured a) the club is reading it, so what the heck, and b) good writing is good writing, and I can probably learn something.  Here are some of the things I learned.

Lesson 1: The one-line description.  What he calls the log-line, what we book writers call the pitch, or the description.  Snyder makes a very good point: if you make that log-line sharp, catch the irony and the spirit of the story in one sentence, then the story you write will be much better.  This is an interesting thought since as a writer of books, I tend to write the book and then think about the pitch, whereas he is advocating coming up with the logline before you ever start drafting the script.  But I can see his point: know where you're going before you start.  And now I wonder if I can put more work into those summaries and improve either my books or my sales.

Lesson 2: the old bromide of there being only 7 stories in the world.  Snyder breaks all movies into about 7 archetypes, which is both reductive and instructive.  Some pretty radically different stories of all genres fall into each type.  Worth thinking about, though here I feel that the demands of the movies lead to plot lines that are too simplistic for books.  Still: never hurts to ask yourself what basic story you are telling.

Lesson 3: thank all the gods I write novels, not movies.  Because what he says about having to write the movies for basically a single demographic ("youth-obsessed LA") is probably true for movies, not to mention a whole lot of other restrictions.  But books are for all ages.  The take-away, though, is that you need to keep the audience in mind while writing.  What appeals most to me might not fly so well with the 10-year-olds.

The middle of Snyder's book moves into very movie-specific advice about structure and writing, and (as I have no intention of writing screenplays now or probably ever, since I don't even watch movies much) I started reading faster and skimming bits.  I am, however, contemplating if a greater attention to structure might not be a good thing when writing novels, too.  I dodged that question with The Ninja Librarian  and Return to Skunk Corners,  because they are really just short story collections with a hint of a story arc (okay, more than a hint, especially in the second book).  But my coming projects are more traditional novels and require a rational structure.  Snyder's "beats" and story boards might make the writing process smoother and faster.

I remain glad that there is more flexibility in writing novels than writing movies, though.  On the one hand, the cards-on-a-board plotting system he lays out sounds really great.  Actually, it looks a lot like the way I used to outline and write essays at University.  On the other hand: I'm a seat-of-the-pants kind of person, especially when writing fiction.  I've already discussed my troubled relationship with outlines.  It might be fun to experiment with his approach sometime, though.

Lesson 4: I found still more food for thought in Snyder's discussion of editing the script, and how to pinpoint certain problems.  I'm still not sure if his reductive-feeling approach is quite right for novels, but some parts seem worth considering, including the question about the growth and change of the lead character, and also making sure the hero (protagonist in the world of books) actually leads--rather than having things just sort of come to her (NB: Snyder always says "he" about the hero, and I get the feeling that his heroes may in fact be all male.  As are most in Hollywood.  I hate that).  I'll be taking a look at Murder Stalks the PTA  with some of these things in mind, and probably simplifying the storyline a bit, and getting rid of some stray bits that aren't cleaned up in the end, and double-checking that the heroine, JJ, is actually doing things to make stuff happen (though I'm also thinking about the hapless hero question.  Not  someone who goes out after stuff, but someone who just has to deal with all the unwanted stuff that comes his way).

Lesson 5: A final area where I found his ruminations helpful was a discussion of how to differentiate characters, especially minor characters.  In the movie, it's an easy visual clue, which he shortcuts as "a limp and an eye patch."  But I'm now thinking about how to do that in a novel, as well.  And the issue of being sure each has a unique voice comes up as well--and I may experiment with the exaggerated features he describes using in one script as a means of doing this.

The final chapter is about marketing the script.  All I can say is, I want NOTHING to do with Hollywood.  Never.  And I am really glad that we humble novelists have a venue that doesn't require the luck and/or self-marketing needed to get an agent there, because no way could I do that.  In the end, I take two things away from this book: a small collection of tips that may improve my writing, and a firm decision to stay far away from the film industry.

Now I need to go finish repairing my bicycling, so when the rain stops I can ride.  (Final note: I ended up riding in the rain to go get more parts.  I'm pretty sure that means something.)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Book Review: Three Times Lucky

by Sheila Turnage.  Middle grade fiction, 312 pages.

Tupelo Landing, North Carolina, population about what you can fit in a dinky cafe, including one Mo LoBeau, age 11.  Mo washed into town as a newborn, carried on flood debris from a hurricane.  Now she lives with Miss Lana and the Colonel (he washed up in that same storm, and has no memory of what went before) in what by any standards would be a non-traditional family.  But even though Mo is pretty happy with the way her summer-before-sixth-grade is shaping up, she has never stopped looking for her "Upstream Mother," the one who lost her in that flood.  Then things get difficult.

Though the story is, as near as I can tell, in a contemporary setting, Tupelo Landing has the feel of a town from about 1950, possibly because it pretty much stopped changing 60 years ago.  Turnage captures the slow, dusty summer feel, not to mention the feeling of everyone knowing everyone's business, beautifully.  That the story ends up showing that they may not know each other as well as they thought is no coincidence, I'm sure.

A murder, an old crime, and a kidnapping, and Mo's summer isn't turning out quite the way she expected.  She and her best friend Dale set out to solve it all, with maybe just a little help from Joe Starr, a detective from the big city.  They need to take time, too, to help his big brother with a little financial setback.  The story moves fast, in its leisurely summer way, and captures beautifully the equally pressing importance (to Mo) of things that an adult might consider to be at very different levels of significance.  It all matters to eleven.

In the end, with the help of another  hurricane, all the loose ends are tied up, and Mo makes some surprising discoveries about the meaning of family.

Overall, I found it a good read, fast-moving and with enough suspense to make me stay up too late finishing it.  I did get a little confused at the end about how certain issues untangled themselves, but otherwise have no complaints.  4.5 stars.

I somehow got myself committed to two 3rd-Wednesday posts, and this is the first.  Later today (seconds before midnight?) (okay, or maybe tomorrow.  Sheesh.) I'll post the other, my contribution to the Progressive Book Club's discussion of Save the Cat, a how-to book on screenwriting, which I am reading and discussing as a writer of novels, not movies.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Book Review: The Secret Adversary

A Tommy and Tuppence Adventure, by Agatha Christie.  c. 1922   224 pages.

I have long been familiar, of course, with Agatha Christie's Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, but this pair of "Young Adventurers" was new to me.  If it weren't that there was really no such category in 1922, I think this would be a Young Adult novel, what with the youth of the protagonists (not much past 20) and the mixture of light-heartedness and hair-raising close calls.

About a year after the end of WWI (The War as it is to them), the pair of old friends meet up on the street.  Each has been "demobbed" (demobilized, i.e. let go from the Army/VAD) and, despite being more or less of the upper class, they are stone cold broke and getting nowhere looking for work.  Upshot: they decide to team up and run an ad as the "Young Adventurers" and take on whatever comes their way, for a steep fee, of course.

What comes their way is a complex case that mixes them up with whatever passed at that time for the British Secret Service, a Bolshevist plot (the 1920s were are great time for Bolshevist plots in English literature), a search for a girl of about Tuppence's age who is in grave peril, and above all the desperate race to find and recover some papers that could destroy the Empire if they fell into the wrong (i.e. Bolshevik) hands.

Naturally, they blunder, take up with the wrong folks, and get themselves into no end of life-threatening situations.  Equally naturally, they get out of those situations through a bit of luck and a lot of pluck and occasionally even some clear thinking.  In the end, as we expect, the Empire is saved, and everyone is united with the right partner.

Unlike the Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot mysteries, this book spends little time in "exercising the little grey cells," and a great deal more time in racing from adventure to adventure (another reason it feels more YA than Ms. Christie's other works).  I was pretty certain who the culprit was soon after his/her introduction, but the plot twisted enough to make me doubt my conclusions more than once, so it didn't feel too obvious.

The book fits well with the conventions of its time: black and white moral situations, wonderful stereotypes of American characters, and lots of British phlegm in response to near-death situations.  The writing is clear and coherent, editing as you would expect is top-notch.  In sum, the book is very pleasant brain candy.  If you like this sort of thing (Peter Wimsey and P.G. Wodehouse meet the Hardy Boys) you'll love it.

Oh, dang.  That star thing.  Well, not 5 stars because the villain was too easy to spot.  We'll give it 4, and go find the next in the series.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Flash Fiction yet again

  This week's Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction Challenge involved a random-sentence generator.  I played a few times, and ended up with the sentence, "The novice crawls underneath the doomed mount."  I tweaked it just a bit to make it work.  

User warning: This story is a little grimmer than my usual.

Death of Innocence

When disaster struck, Yonson was a happy-natured novice zergmunt tender, learning to care for the complex beasts from the ground up, as it were.  The disaster, as so often happens, came in the form of human prejudice.  Someone stirred up the people to fear the great, horned, flying creatures, and next thing the zergmunt aerie knew, they were under attack by peasants with pitchforks and torches, denouncing the beasts as demonic invaders.

Within a week, Yonson was handed his riding harness and a bow, and told he was part of the mounted flying corps, ready to pair with a zerg and fight for his new home.  He didn’t mind, since they let him pair with Gorg, the zerg he’d been most drawn to from the beginning.  As a novice, he had tended to the needs of a number of as-yet unpaired zergmunts.  Translated, that meant he’d mucked out the stables.  A vegetarian creature the size of a small cottage produces a lot of by-product, so Yonson had been busy.  But Gorg always acknowledged his presence, and he always took a moment to stroke the zerg’s head.

Rider training usually lasted months as the youngsters learned to harness, fly, and direct the zergs in lifting and hauling.   Then they’d be sent about the country to help build large projects and move freight.  Now Yonson learned as much as he was going to in a week, thanked his stars he already knew how to shoot, and began flying patrols.  The aerie sat atop a high hill, not quite a spire, to give the creatures an edge in launching themselves.  A zerg could launch from flat ground, but it took more effort than most cared to expend.  That one fact had saved them, as the disgruntled peasants couldn’t attack effectively up the near-vertical slopes.  A pair of the alien fliers with armed riders could protect the aerie.  The Zergtenant had sent to the king for help, but no one expected too much.  The unrest seemed to be wide-spread, though no one at the aerie knew who or what had started it.  The king had plenty of problems, bigger than a threat to a minor zerg aerie in a distant province.

So the aerie was safe, but the beasts had to eat.  They had to eat a lot.  And that meant flying to nearby meadows where they could graze, as the villagers would no longer send up hay and oats for them.  Two riders remained in flight to guard while the rest of the herd grazed, their riders lying around in the sun and resting, though still watchful.  Yonson landed Gorg with the rest, and stroked the large, furry head.  Gorg leaned against him a moment, a slight, fleeting pressure that spoke of the unusual bond between them, for the beasts seldom acknowledged their riders when dismounted, though they obeyed willingly in flight.

The zergs had been grazing for some quarter hour when the first one raised its head, gave a mournful gurgle, and toppled over.  Yonson, along with the other riders, stared in horror, then ran to his mount, as the realization came over him: the field had been poisoned, salted with one of the many local plants deadly to the aliens.  Yelling for them all to stop eating, he prayed he was in time, though he believed in no gods.  Gorg had been a little later arriving than the rest.  Surely he had not eaten as much as dead beast had, and would be fine if he could be made to vomit up the poison.

He reached the animal’s side in time to see a half-dozen more zergs topple over, and knew in his heart he was too late.  Still, he tugged at Gorg’s head, reaching an arm fearlessly into the great mouth and down the throat, hoping that zergs, like people, would vomit at that stimulus.  Vomit Gorg did, but it was too late.  One last time Gorg touched his head to Yonson’s shoulder, gave the same gurgle as the others, and sank to his knees.  Before the beast could topple and crush him, the novice rider crawled from beneath his doomed mount and held as much of the head as he could while Gorg died.  By the time the zerg breathed his last, Yonson was a novice no longer.

Slowly he stood and faced the valley.  In their ignorance and superstition, the fools had killed the animals that only served to help them.  Creatures that, for all their size, could not or would not kill.

Yonson was no zerg.  Covered with the vomit of his dying mount, broken with grief, he stood unmoving and made a vow, and as he did so his face hardened and aged.  Those who promoted fear and suspicion of that which was no threat would know the dread and horror of his vengeance.  The death of Gorg had slain the happy-natured boy, and left only a cold, angry man who knew neither love nor mercy.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Lies, -- Lies, and Statistics

We small-time bloggers pay a lot of attention to statistics.  As I approach my 7000th pageview, I'm watching, checking in periodically to see how many hits I've gotten.  I get very excited about a day with 60 or 70 pageviews.  Wow, I must really be hitting the big time, right?!

Alas, the statistics page also includes a reality check.  I look at the sources of most of those hits, and realize a sad truth: there aren't people behind them.  A truly amazing number of my "referring sites" have a .ru extension--Russian computers, doing some kind of weird search.  Are they robots who drop in on every single freaking site on the Web each day?  Whatever for?  The Ninja Librarian has no ambitions involving Russia.  One thing I can be pretty sure of: they aren't avid Russian readers of American children's books dropping in to see what pearls of wisdom will fall from my fingertips today.


We small-time Indie writers live and die by statistics--how many books did I sell?  How many likes on my Facebook page?  How many people added my book on Goodreads?  The Stats page here at Blogger reminds me that Benjamin Disraeli (or maybe Mark Twain) had it right.  Three kinds of lies, and the worst is statistics.

Part of me wishes there was a filter, so I could see how many genuine visitors, not search bots, I have.  But part of me knows that would be depressing in the extreme.  So I'll go ahead and celebrate when (tomorrow?) my view count tops 7000, and I'll plan on doing something special when it hits 10,000.  After all, a little over a year ago when I started this blog, I had one reader, and even the search bots didn't bother to find me.  It must be some kind of progress!

Coming Friday: a real post again at last--another Chuck Wendig flash-fiction challenge!

Monday, March 11, 2013

I hate Mondays

Ironic.  I was thinking that I really don't feel like writing anything, and figured I'd just take a look at my schedule for my planned posts on writing (if I could find it).  And there it was: topic #4, dealing with the doldrums.  Thanks to the switch to Daylight Savings Time, it couldn't be more appropriate.  Today is, in my opinion, the worst Monday of the year.  A day when a little shift in the clock messes with my whole brain and ability to get out of bed, let alone accomplish anything once I'm up.

So when I say "doldrums," I'm not talking about writer's block.  To be honest, I've never really had that.  Only the blahs.  No wind in my sails, no energy to pour onto the page.  My guess is that for most of us, that's the most deadly and insidious enemy of our writing.  Not writer's block, the paralyzing inability to fill the page, leaving us to sit for hours staring at a blank paper (or screen).  Rather, it's the paralyzing inability to get up from the breakfast table, clear away the detritus of getting three guys off to school and work, and go turn on the computer.

And yet, here I am.  How did I do it?  Well, for one thing, I'm here at the blog, not the novel.  Definitely not the novel that's in the middle of a rather depressing round of edits/revision.  And, to be honest, I sort of slithered into it.  I went from turning on the computer and looking at the weather forecast to reading a few blogs to clicking on my own blog and figuring I could at least get a little done there.  That's not so hard, right?

Well, maybe.  That sunny room down the hall with a soft bed is still calling.  Messing with my circadian rhythms is a cruel trick.

But sleep-deprivation isn't the only reason I want to dodge work on any given day, even if it's the cause today.  We all get there sometimes.  Maybe the story isn't going well.  Maybe we feel inadequate as a wife/parent/employee and think we should ditch writing, just today, and clean house/play with the kids/go in early to work.  And I say: don't do it.  If this is your scheduled writing time, keep at it.  Sit there in front of the computer/notebook, and be a writer. I once read  that that if you want to develop a habit, it requires doing the thing 26 (or maybe 30. . . can't remember) times in a row.  So we'll say a month of sitting down at 9 a.m. without fail and acting like a writer, and then you'll do it automatically, the way you pick the kids up at 3:04 p.m. after school or go to the gym for an hour after work every day.  That's the hope, anyway.

And if you sit there and have nothing to say, or no energy to say it?  Do it anyway.  Find a writing prompt and play around.  Write your blog.  I start each day's writing by typing up what I wrote the previous day, and that can be a marvelous jump-starter.

I also count time spent making a cup of coffee as part of my writing time.  After all, some things you just have to do.  And caffeine stimulates the brain, right?

Oh, and that nap?  Yeah, I took it.

Friday, March 8, 2013

What makes good prose?

I'm going to tackle this question a little less from the perspective of the writer, and more from that of the reader.  That will help to keep us really clear about one thing: there are a LOT of different good prose styles out there.  And each of us will hate at least some of them.  Yes, you heard me: people can hate really good prose.  That dense novel that you find way too full of words?  It can still be really well written (and someone else is drooling over it).  And while Hemmingway took spare, undecorated writing to an extreme that just cries out for parody, much of it is nonetheless a model of good writing that wastes no words, and as much as you hated reading The Old Man and the Sea in 8th grade, many people love it.  To complicate matters, styles and fashions change, so that the prose that was seen as artistic, or even easy to read/popular fiction (think Dickens) at one time may seem affected or difficult in another era.

That does NOT mean that all prose is good and it's just a matter of taste.  Some things we can pretty well agree on: good prose at least follows the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation, or violates them consciously and for a good reason.  It is coherent (some texts from the Modernist period, in my opinion, push the limits on this.  They got declared "literature" and far be it from me to argue, but really there are some I won't name who I think are laughing at us all being so serious and trying to understand them).  Good prose, in my opinion, is transparent.  You don't notice it, you don't think about it at all when you are reading.  It doesn't stand in the way of the story.  If the prose is really good, you occasionally come up for air and think, "Gadzooks, that couldn't have been better said if a thousand Pulitzer-prize winners thought about it for a thousand days."

If the prose is to not get in the way of the story, not only must grammar and spelling and punctuation be correct (those things are only noticed when they are wrong, not when right), but it must flow.  You must be able to read it aloud without tripping and stumbling and wondering at the end of the sentence where the beginning went.  It doesn't use the same word five times in a paragraph; it doesn't use twelve words to do the work of three; it doesn't use a string of semi-colons to run together multiple sentences (yes, I did that on purpose).

And how do you write good prose?  For most of us, we start by writing truly awful prose, and then (wait for it!) we revise.  We hunt for words that are overused.  We double-check homonyms. We do searches for our own pet words that we love to use, and then we axe them ruthlessly at nearly every appearance. We do a search for the letter combination "ly" and ask ourselves at each adjective if it strengthens or weakens the writing.  We double-check the meanings of words (and if we have to look it up, we ask ourselves if maybe, just maybe, a simpler word would serve better).  And we read it aloud.  Yes, the whole thing.  Maybe more than once.  If we can, we get others to read and help us find our weaknesses, or locate the sentences that stumble haltingly across the page rather than flowing musically from our tongues.

Oh, yes.  And we read extensively, and make sure that what we are reading is well-written.  Our brains absorb the examples we present them.

And then--and how you do this is up to you, but it must be done--we get an editor.  Ideally, we get two--one to read early on and tell us if the story is working, and where it doesn't.  That's a different issue.  But now the story is great, and we are polishing the prose.  And ultimately, we can't do it alone.  I hear a thousand Indie authors out there protesting that they can't afford an editor.  Fine.  Find an alternative.  Yes, a pro is probably better than your old friend who became a high school English teacher.  But that friend, especially if he'll do it for an acknowledgement in the front of your book, or a couple hours helping him move, is better than no editor.

Because no matter how good we are at the language, awkward sentences we have read thirty times will escape us.  We will never see all our own errors.  No one else will see all of them, either.  But as we used to say in grade school when teased about wearing glasses, four eyes are better than two.  Or two brains better than one.  When your editor returns your MS, think about each recommended change.  Why didn't she like that word/sentence?  What's wrong with this punctuation?  And oh, yeah, I guess I did mean "its" rather than "it's".  Make the corrections and hope that some of what you learned sticks in your brain for the next time.

Repeat the process until you die of old age.  Maybe, if you are lucky and have enough stamina, before you are done you will have written some truly good prose.  If you are doubly lucky, it will have a great story to tell.

Then you will have done what you set out to do. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Book Review: . . . According to Humphrey

 It's time again for the Kid Lit Blog Hop!  Rather than review each of the Humphrey books (Betty G. Birney, early middle grade fiction) separately, I would like to review the series as a whole.

I first met Humphrey the Classroom Hamster five or six years ago when my boys were in maybe third or fourth grade.  In my never-ending quest for books we could read aloud as a family, I dragged home the first book in the series, The World According to Humphrey.  The boys enjoyed the humor and the funny way Humphrey (who is the narrator of all the books) repeats himself when excited ("I love love love carrots!").  We parents enjoyed smooth, readable prose and a sound message that doesn't come across as preachy (always a risk with kids' books).  Humphrey uses daring, ingenuity, and reasoning (often with very little data, as hamsters don't know very much about how the human world works, especially when fresh out of Pet World) to help the children of Room 26 with their problems.

Humphrey never lets the humans know that he can read, write, and understand everything they say--nor that he can escape his cage at will and roam the school at night.  Somehow, the fact that he can't talk, and that he makes so many erroneous assumptions about what people mean when they do and say strange things, keeps him from being too cute and too anthropomorphic to tolerate.  His solutions to problems are creative, and if they are also unrealistically effective, that's in the nature of the books.  I mean, you don't look for total realism in a book written by a hamster.

Writing level is on the easier end for Middle Grade--a third-grader should be able to read the books comfortably, and by about fifth grade they will probably have outgrown it (for my non-U.S. readers, that's ages about 8-10).

I highly recommend the series for boys or girls, for solo reading or read-alouds.

Now hop on over and see who else is reviewing kids' books today!


In other news. . . pop on over to Karen's Different Corners and check out her review of The Ninja Librarian.  Last fall I participated in her "Judging a Book by it's Cover" series of posts looking at different book covers, and she has kindly gone on to read and review my book (rather than being put off by the cover, which is hopefully going to get a revision soon).  Thanks, Karen, for the kind review!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Book Review: Escape from Warsaw (The Silver Sword)

by Ian Serraillier, originally published 1956 in England as The Silver Sword.  Published in the U.S. as Escape from Warsaw.

Escape from Warsaw is a children's war story, and written less than a decade after the end of WWII.  This lends a certain immediacy to the story which is, I think, offset for modern readers by the somewhat distancing style.  We are accustomed nowadays to children's books depicting war, suffering, and despair with the same gritty realism that we (and the kids) see on the evening news.  Oddly, in this period so soon after so many children had lived through events most of us can't even imagine, few writers chose to show the bitter despair, death, and suffering in quite such a cinematic fashion.  I have to state right here that this is neither criticism or praise, merely observation.  Writing styles change, and my recent bout of reading classic children's books gleaned from the pages of 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up has made that abundantly clear to me.  We don't dress like we did in 1956, either (for which I, addicted as I am to blue jeans, t-shirts, and sweats, and very grateful).  In part, I wonder if Serraillier felt no need to describe in detail what too many had so recently lived through.

The story spans the years of the war, being the account of how the war went for the Balicki family of Warsaw.  For most of the book we follow the adventures of the children, Ruth (13 in 1940), Edek (11) and Bronia (3).  But the story opens, not with them, but with several chapters in which their father is taken by the Nazis, locked in a camp, and escapes and makes his way back to Warsaw.  By this time it is 1942, as far as I can make out.

When Joseph Balicki arrives in Warsaw, he finds his home destroyed, his wife taken to labor in Germany, and is told that his children are surely dead, as the Germans blew up the house after taking Mrs. Balicki.  Despite weeks of desperate searching, he is unable to find any trace of them, but refuses to believe they are dead.  In the first of a series of coincidences that admittedly strain credulity, he encounters a young orphan, a boy of perhaps 10 or 11 named Jan, and gives him a token--the silver sword of the original title--and a message for the children, in case he should ever meet them.  The message is that he has gone on to Switzerland, to his wife's family.  One thing that I found jarring here was that he was able to inquire through official channels, despite being an escaped prisoner.  It's not clear who was running the Polish Council for Protection to which he turns (presumably Poles, not Germans), but it is hard to believe it would have been safe.

We then turn to the children, beginning on the night their mother is taken, and move rather quickly through about two years (? dates and the passage of time get a bit fuzzy, which I have to say bothers me--I like to know exactly when, where and how).  The children make a home in the ruins of their city.  Edek, now 12 or 13 or so, supports the girls with small jobs and smuggling, and Ruth starts something of a school among the many, many orphaned/abandoned children.  The hardship of this time is presented matter-of-factly, without harrowing the feelings (unless you stop and think too much about all those homeless children with no one to look after them).  Still more oddly, the fact that Edek is eventually captured and sent to a labor camp, leaving Ruth and Bronia to struggle on until the liberation of Warsaw by the Russians, is rather off-handedly presented.

Roughly the second half of the book is taken up by the reconstruction of the family.  First, Jan becomes part of the family by chance, and only later is the connection discovered.  He and the two girls then set out in search of Edek--and find him, again by chance (this is about the 3rd unbelievable coincidence).  A series of adventures and narrow escapes follows--even though the Germans are defeated, the occupying armies would prefer to put children somewhere safe, and keep refugees out of Switzerland.  In a final coincidence (yet presented in a fashion more believable than some of the others), the family is reunited on the Swiss border, and a happy ending is constructed for all.

I did find it interesting that the author didn't quite stop with the joyful reunion of the family, but includes a wrapping-up chapter that gives them a new home, and describes the challenges each of the four children faced in recovering from the war and re-entering a more normal life.  Each of the older children has significant issues to overcome (can you say PTSD?), but each eventually puts the war behind him or her and goes on to live a normal life--as did so many after the war.  One wonders what illnesses, stresses, and mental disorders it inflicted on them in later life, but that lies beyond the scope of the book.

I found the book an easy read, fairly gripping, and enjoyable.  Stylistically, as noted, it is dated, and may seem strange to today's children, but is not difficult at all.  My largest criticism is of the use of what seem to me unreasonable coincidences to lead to the happy ending.  The note at the beginning of the book states that the "characters are fictional, but the story is based upon fact."  It is not clear exactly what parts are fact--I have to assume it is factual in a rather general way, perhaps pulling the adventures of many refugees together to make for one glorious story.

I give the book 3.5 stars, down from 4 due to the outrageous-coincidence factor.  Still a good read, and a good introduction for young readers to the WWII era, though it would be better with maps.

Friday, March 1, 2013

What gets in the way

I just thought I'd detour here for a moment to talk about what gets between us and writing.  Mostly because right now a nasty headache is making me more than a little disinclined to do actual work.  That includes doing our taxes, writing, or (especially) editing.  And that made me think about all the things that get in the way for writers, especially for writers like me who are doing it as a sideline to two or three other jobs.

For the most part, I've been finding it to be a pretty effective approach to say that I work as a writer from 9-11 every morning (which incidentally works out to 10 hours a week, the same as my part-time job at the library).  The trouble of course comes in two parts, one of which I can control and one I can't.  No control over things like a stinking awful headache or kids who throw up. Just have to do my best to cope when and as they happen, and forgive myself for not being perfect.

Other areas are more fuzzy.  Appointments.  Why not make them some other time?  But it always seems like the only ones available are during the morning hours (probably because everyone else claimed the after-work or after-school times).  Chores.  I try to make them wait until after work (after writing and/or after work at the library).  But what about that commitment to reduce our carbon footprint by hanging the laundry outside?  That means the stuff has to be done in the a.m., or it does no good (I live in a climate that is marginal for drying laundry outdoors, though it is better in winter than summer).  Baking bread.  Gotta do that when I'm home for a longer period.  And those dang taxes.

But here's the thing: none of those things (except maybe appointments and taxes) needs to stop me from working.  I have to get up every 15 minutes or so anyway (I have some issues that make it a good idea not to sit too long).  A five-minute break to work out the bread or ten minutes to hang out the laundry doesn't mean I have to give up.  In fact, a little time to think never hurt anything, when it comes to writing.  It's a little like cheating on your diet.  You don't eat one cookie, decide you've failed at dieting, and go back to swallowing entire boxes of chocolate truffles in one sitting.  Even an appointment isn't a disaster.  I've learned to carry my notebook everywhere, and scribble a page or so while waiting for the doctor or dentist.

Same with writing.  You have a bad day, but get back at it next day.  You spend half an hour of your writing time unclogging the toilet?  Great, you still have 90 minutes.

And as for the headache?  I managed to complete grad school with a headache (my memory says it was pretty much constant.  Given the nature of graduate school, that may well be accurate).  Surely I can write 500 words that way.  They don't even have to be good words.  Anne Lamott said so!
 When in doubt, Stinky says: have another cup of coffee!