Saturday, December 18, 2021

2021 Book Roundup—and more!

As you may know, I usually do a Favorite Books of 2021 list-post about now. My rules are not to review books I have edited (Like the wonderful new Sunshine Chief by Eric Peterson which I highly recommend) and not to talk about books that have gotten talked about plenty, like the caustic, moving, and sobering Maid by Stephanie Land. 

Since I recently did a blog post in August about a handful of great books I read this year (by one of my long-time fave authors, Michael J. Vaughn), I am going to forgo writing another list.

I read 90 books this year, or that is the number that Goodreads has for me; I am sure there were more, and of course I also read two dozen or more manuscripts. If you are curious to see my full Goodreads list, you can find it on a new tab, right here.

If you wonder why almost all of my Goodreads book reviews are 4 stars and above, it is quite simple: I seldom review a books I don't like, and I don't normally like to "damn with faint praise," either.  And sometimes, now that I am in the "twilight of my youth" as Russel would say, I don't even finish a book I am not enjoying or intrigued by.

A great list for books read in 2021 can be found at this link to my favorite weekly newsletter, Spark, written by Elizabeth Marro, which will open in a new tab and which I highly recommend. We all need to find and celebrate joy and wonder as much as possible, and I find that celebration—among other places—weekly in my inbox, courtesy of Spark. Betsy talks about her writing (and non-writing) life, interviews authors (and their dogs!). She also refers me to some very fine books that I would otherwise have missed, like Lyn Kanter's Her Own Vietnam, which I loved, and which opened my eyes as much as Betsy's own Casualties.

Don't forget to buy at least one person a book for the holidays, if you haven't already. If you can't find the perfect title for that loved one, send them a gift card (or electronic ecard) they can use at Verbatim Books or Powell's or whatever your favorite bookstore is. Word to the wise: If you don't support your local independent bookstore, then don't be surprised if one day it is gone when you need it.

I look forward to plenty more reading and writing and editing and blogging and traveling in 2022. I hope you'll continue to join me here, monthly.

Hasta pronto!

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Changing Course and Holding Steady

I’m sitting on my boat at the Corinthian Yacht Club in Tiburon, and it's every bit as nice as it sounds. The views are stunning, the shops handy, and the weather is what everyone promised us for November in SF Bay—perfection.

Yesterday we sailed over from Point Richmond on a calm sea, under sunny skies, and we never even took the Bimini top down, the breeze was so light. But around here, you have to be ready to wheel about or speed up at any moment, due to the maritime traffic—ferries constantly criss-cross the water, a massive tanker is always steaming ponderously across the bay, and a zillion pleasure craft, tugs, fishing vessels and excursion boats fill in every gap in the parade.

We handled it all nicely but were glad to be approaching our destination in the early afternoon. Twilight comes early at this time of the year, and we were looking forward to dinner and drinks with some new friends. The yacht club site had a map that made the approach to their guest dock look pretty straightforward, and we’d been promised a long empty “end tie”, meaning we could simply pull up alongside and tie up. The only problem was, we couldn’t see over the sea wall to confirm that the guest dock was empty, so we had to enter blindly, hoping for the best.

Needless to say, once we’d entered the tiny harbor and saw the dock was full, it was almost too late to get turned around and get out. A power boat was heading out at the same time, making the narrow entrance between the sea wall and the jetty feel even tighter, while a people-packed ferry foamed and smoked at the passenger pier nearby, warning us that it might soon join the fray. 

Of course, Captain Russel was able to back up, spin around and get us clear without any problems, but there was a bit of tension aboard and a few colorful phrases were bandied about. I soon got the harbormaster “on the horn” and he promised to get the other side of the dock cleared for us promptly instead. I changed all the dock lines and bumpers to the starboard side as Russel motored us back in. We landed safely and all was well.

          View of SF and a heron last night from the Corinthian Yacht Club

What does this have to do with writing? Well, we writers often head rather blindly toward an unseen goal in our work, guided by our strong opinions of where we’ll end up. Sometimes, even once we see that the anchorage is untenable, or won’t work nearly as well as other options, we plow stubbornly onward, trying to make this new reality fit our long-cherished preconceived notions.

My advice is to keep navigating toward your destination, but always be ready to change course to avoid unexpected obstacles or to take a new tack due to a sudden shift in the wind. trust me, you will eventually be safely moored with all your loose ends tied up neatly (I couldn’t resist).

Hasta pronto!

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

A Little More About Expository

Since I did not teach my usual expository workshop at SCWC in Irvine last month (the conference was great, by the way!), I thought I'd do a little recap rant, um, lecture about the subject here.

First, what is expository? Expository is everything that happened to your characters before page 1 of your novel, and everything that happens between the book's chapters (or "offstage") during the course of the book.

Nothing makes me quite so crazy as expository dialogue that simply states a bunch of facts about the character or situation; the spoken lines may be within quotes, but it is not written in a way that any human being would actually speak to a friend, spouse, or family member. 

Often these clunky lines begin with "Remember when we...?" and unless the person who's being addressed has dementia, they probably do remember when that happened, or the character who is asking wouldn't be asking.

This sort of "info-dump" is often found early in a novel and is the reason that I could eliminate—sight unseen—every first chapter of every first draft on the planet with no loss to modern literature.

To make this sort of thing work, you need to either keep the dialogue incredibly brief, or have your characters speak in "code" such as having a wealthy person say to their spouse "It's time to bang on the radiator" in reference to their early poorer days, instead of "turn up the heat, won't you, dear?" Do NOT get overly detailed and tedious by stating how they used to bang on the radiator to get heat back on East Fourth Street walk-up apartment they shared way back when.

If this memory is crucial to the plot or set up, have it happen in the character's thoughts, or at least have them recall it out loud to a stranger, not someone who was there, experiencing it.

Dialogue isn't the only offender when it comes to expository, of course. Writers have so much information stored up in their heads about their main characters that starting on page one they want to share (dump) it all with us right away. When this is included sparingly in thoughts or in descriptive prose, it can be very effective, but all too often it makes the novel feel old-fashioned and amateurish.

Remember that we only need enough info in Chapter One to read Chapter Two and so forth. The reader doesn't need—or want—to know everything about the book's protagonist or their present life situation right away; we want to "get to know them" just like we do with a new person we've met. Someone who tells you their life story in the first encounter is often viewed as a narcissist, or just a bore.

Portion out info slowly, like you were rationing hard to find staples during war time...don't use up all the butter on day one of the month. Make us wonder, keep us curious. We keep turning pages, after all, because of what we DON'T know, not what we know.

Authors should always self-edit their first (or fifteenth) draft as much as they can prior to sending it to their friends or Beta readers. Try to get as many eyes on the manuscript as possible before you start spending on an editor. 

Not only will it save you money and time, but we editors can do a much better job if we are not hired to simply improve something that is clearly flawed, but rather asked to make something good into something great. 

This should be obvious, but getting more eyes on a project is especially important when one is self-publishing!

Some tips: 

  • Look for lines of dialogue that begin with "Remember...?" or "That's just like when I/we once..."
  • Edit early dialogue down to its essence, so that lines contain only the most crucial info.
  • Be ruthless about cutting adjectives, especially when describing your main characters. it's enough to know that a character is in her thirties, red-haired and curvy. It's not necessary, on page one, to know that she is "green-eyed, auburn-haired, voluptuous, statuesque, and elegantly dressed." Less is more.
  • Beware of people looking in mirrors and summing themselves up. See above.
  • If someone must summarize events of the past, have them at least do it to a stranger; this often happens with characters in positions of authority, like parents, teachers, judges and therapists.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

A New(ish) Book, by an Author You May Not Know

 One of my favorite things about reading for a living is discovering authors. Sometimes, I discover an aspiring author while working on their first or second manuscript, and then I get the pleasure of watching others discover them, with some not-so-gentle prodding from me. 

Often, I don't "discover" a "new" author until they have written a dozen books, and already have plenty of fans. Such a case is Michael J Vaughn. Those of you with great memories may recall me gushing over MJV's book "Popcorn Girl" a few years ago, and he hasn't stopped writing or publishing his quirky, all-too-human novels.

I recently found some of his books on Kindle and was lucky enough to snag two of them for a bargain price. I loved the cosmic romance and gritty beach world of "Frosted Glass" and was intrigued as hell by "Figment" (I can't begin to explain this book so I won't try, but art is central to the plot and its incredible cover is pictured below; I wouldn't recommend starting with this book, as the many references to past works will just confuse you. Save it for an odd, tangy, flavorful dessert after a dozen other MJV titles.)

I am a huge Tom Robbins fan, and if you are, too, you may just fall for MJV. For me, seeing the ways in which a talented author can bend, fold, and even gently mutilate the parameters of novel writing and play with (and within and without) the rules of literature is a joy. 

His latest work is East of the Cookie Tree and it sets off with yet another of his beloved road trips. California is a favorite setting for his books, but so is southern Washington—you may find yourself in many lovely coastal spots in Oregon or in a dozen other locales. Having recently done some road trips to Washington and Oregon, I was charmed by the echoes of actual locations, as well as the feel of the places he captures. MJV loves people (at least his characters, maybe not humanity) and he enjoys having them enjoy each other physically, spiritually, emotionally, and more.

Art is another theme that runs through all this author's books, along with music in many forms, including popular and classical and opera. Did I mention there's singing? Even some karaoke—pick a song and jump in, it will be fun!

If you've already discovered MJV, which book of his was your favorite? I'd love to hear about it in the comments below. If you haven't discovered him yet, start with the new book, or if you have a romantic bent, try "Popcorn Girl" or "Frosted Glass."

Take care, stay safe and hasta pronto!

Monday, July 5, 2021

The City By the Bay, and an Editing Tip

I'm busy editing, but finding time to enjoy being back in San Francisco. Karl the Fog rolled in last night just in time to obscure the fireworks, but we still enjoyed sitting out in the cool night air seeing the "fogworks" and the lights of the city all around us. Oracle Park was lit up for the holiday too, though the Giants were in AZ. They are back home today, and I'm excited to finally be able to witness a 2021 home game later today. No need to get a ticket—I can see right into the ballpark from my boat; we have a great view of the city, too.

One of the joys of my work is reading manuscripts by first-time authors. And one of the most appalling parts of my work is reading manuscripts by first-time authors. I have posted quite a bit about the craft of writing, and given you all a few pointers here and there, but there's nothing quite so helpful as a workable, hands-on technique, and I have one for you in this post.

One of the difficult parts about writing a novel is knowing how much of your expository can be left for later—or left out, if it has already been said or implied. But as writers, we tend to forget, by the time we are working on Chapter 5, what we have already said, in Chapter 2.

If your friends or Beta readers tell you your book is "slow" at the beginning or that the opening chapters didn't "hook" them, what they are probably saying is that it is front-loaded with expository, meaning that there's too much information about the character(s) or the setting before the character(s) or the story itself has intrigued them. 

Authors tend to be excited, and rightly so, about their main character(s). That leads to a sort of transferred narcissism, the kind of non-stop "me show" that would turn you right off in person, from a live human being, but that we can be blind to when writing about our protagonist. This can be true about describing our setting as well—we're so excited to show the reader how much homework we've done about Bangor or Seattle or the Okefenokee Swamp, that we go on and on about it, ad nauseam. In craft circles, this is known as an "info dump" and it translates to boredom.

So, at the beginning of your next rewrite, try this tip: Print out the first two or three chapters. Then go through each of the chapters, armed with a yellow highlighter pen, and mark all the facts that readers need to know, anything that is integral to the story. Then look at the pages and highlight in pink (go over the yellow) anything that the reader doesn't have to know at that point; see how much of the page is pink—you need to move a majority of that later. Highlight all repetitions in blue so you can decide where to leave it for the most impact. 

Usually the answer to where to give a reader key info is...later. Remember, in Chapter 1, the reader only needs enough information to be able to understand what is revealed in Chapter 2, and so on. If the character's first job is crucial to a key plot point that doesn't come until Chapter 25, then we don't need to learn that fact in Chapter 1 or 2. (Obviously, don't do an "info dump" with that knowledge at the tail end of Chapter 24 either; find a spot for it to come out organically, when your protagonist is talking to someone about her work history or her past).

Look over the color map of those chapters. You will not only have a very clear idea what needs to be revealed when, you will have a clear visual diagram—all the non-highlighted paragraphs and pages—of how much of your writing is inconsequential details that don't always further the story. A lot of that can be eliminated, or trimmed way down, so it adds life and color to your characters and setting, without becoming a drag to the book's opening chapters.

Hope that helps a bit. Keep up the good work. Hasta pronto!