This weekend, I'm going to be volunteering at the first annual San Diego Writers Festival at our wonderful Downtown Library. Check out the festival's site and find their schedule, which is chock-full of events/talks/panels, here.
It sounds like a great idea, and I love what the organizers are planning—to make San Diego a destination for writers and those who want to write.
This is just one of the many talks and panels that will be offered that day—and it is all free!
I'll be participating in the "Ask An Expert" event at 11am, as part of the day's line up, and floating around as a volunteer during the afternoon. Look for the blue T-shirts, as we volunteers will all be wearing them.
I think it is going to be a lot of fun—I hope to see you there!
So, I've been a bit lax about blogging lately, but I have some pretty good excuses. Not in order of importance, but I am: working hard editing great books, including a natural history about our local desert to be published by Sunbelt Publications, which is very exciting; working on getting our house in North Park ready to rent (though Russel is doing most of the work); doing some minor "landscaping" on the property; spending as much time as I can with my mom at her assisted living place, before her memory fades completely and she doesn't know who I am; and helping out with projects on our boat Watchfire—mostly expanding our storage/work spaces (and yes, Russel is doing most of the work!).
Of course, I also have to find time for family, friends, fun, and some writing of my own. My wonderful writers group has been going strong for well over ten years and it is still keeping me focused and sane as years go by and I seem to get no closer to finishing my Baja memoir project. However, I was informed that my first chapter will be included in the upcoming A Year in Ink, volume 12 anthology, published by San Diego Writers, Ink, and edited by the always-exceptional Judy Reeves. Whoopeee! (I was also published in vol 11 of the anthology.)
To make me feel even better about my glacial writing speed, I heard Julie Moss speak at SCWC over President's Day weekend, and found out that her memoir took her over 35 years to write. So I have a couple more years to go before I have to start worrying...Her new book, Crawl of Fame, about her life as an Ironman Triathlete from 1982 to the present—co-written with my friend Robert Yehling—sounds like a true "winner" and is now at the top of a big stack of (mostly virtual) books on my bedside table.
Speaking of SCWCSD33, the conference was fabulous as always. I met new friends, hob-nobbed with old friends and met a few new clients to boot. I am particularly excited about working with David Reed, who is not only a talented writer, but a super-nice guy with a meaningful, layered story to tell. I've been watching with interest as he developed and honed his craft over the last couple of years; in fact, he won the "Most Improved" award at the conference!
Of course, I missed my Pitch Witch partner Marla Miller, who was healing at home from an accident, but the Pitch Witches show must go on. Heard some great pitches and queries and also some excellent writing at the Read & Critiques, especially from our 7 am "Early Bard" group.
More about the recent conference can be found in this wrap up, with the full list of awards, right here. Maybe I'll see you in SCWC Irvine in September.
For those who don't know, I am now writing the "Ask the Editor" column for the blog of the O.C. Writers Network. We open the Facebook page up to readers every month, and then I answer the question I can best help with. The following is taken from a post I did for them late last year, about how writing/publishing has changed in the past decades, especially as it pertains to “hooking” readers. Seth—the person who asked the question—mentioned a writer friend of his who keeps rearranging her book’s opening to satisfy those who say she needs to “get to it” more quickly.
Well, Seth, as to publishing and writing, I can only report from my own point of view, as an editor who works in many different genres (and whose clients’ books are successful with readers, get excellent reviews, and win awards). I won’t repeat what I covered in the last post here, about overdoing expository and description in the first pages and chapters, one of the chief reasons agents and editors pass on otherwise fine manuscripts.
Instead, I’ll focus on the “hook.” What hooks readers from the first few pages (often from page one), and keeps them reading?
In the days of yore, authors could take time to “bait the hook” as it were, to spend pages, often chapters, getting to the crux of what the book is about. (Some of this is because Victorian authors, like Charles Dickens—were paid by the word, so why not go on?)
Yes, today’s writers often hear that they need to hook people on page one, and that only action or drama—or laughter of course—will do that, and that it all has to happen right away!
But shorter and quicker is not always better. A big literary surprise in recent years was the success of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which many people (including some reviewers) found tedious and slow, but which I loved. I think the first line of the book hooked me because it is so mysterious: “While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.” I kept reading to figure out how that happened and why.
People read books about people, as all my clients and students have heard me say; we don’t read novels to read about ideas and concepts and philosophies, we read to hear about—and perhaps to better understand—people. So, a hook needs a character, hopefully your main character, doing something that reveals or illuminates that person to us. Perhaps the character is still living in the “Eden State” of a story—before the inciting incident—but it had best be an active, visual, and somehow exciting one.
What hooks us in almost every case is the same, in my humble opinion: characters doing or saying things that hint at what is lacking in their life (as in the Goldfinch example), or what is so perfect about their life—right before it all comes crashing down. So, if we want to show cruelty in a person, we don’t have to show them hurting someone on page one, but we could show casual cruelty: going out of their way to crush an insect under their boot heel, or throwing something at a pet that’s annoying them.
Of course, we can also show peace and calm “before the fall” as it were, as in one of my favorite openings, from Steinbeck’s East of Eden. The author describes the Salinas Valley with near-poetic lyricism, but two of the initial sentences are: “I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers” and “The memory of odors is very rich.” I think the reason Steinbeck’s opening hooked me is not because of the painterly visuals of the natural world, but because of the “I” in those first lines. Who is the person, and why was his childhood so memorable and “rich”?
O.C. author Gayle Carline opened her most recent Peri Minneopa mystery A More Deadly Union with a shootout, but the bullets weren’t flying just to make us go “wow, I wonder what’s happening here?” It was not action/danger/violence for its own sake; the injury sustained in the opening pages has a huge impact on Peri’s character arc, not to mention being an important step in the book’s plot, so the dramatic scene’s action was key.
Clearly, every genre has “rules” that need to be followed, even literary fiction. With a genre comes expectation. You can’t write romance and not introduce your main character in a way that tells us why or how she is “looking for love” or definitely NOT looking for love, which amounts to the same thing. Some genres have to open with a murder, or at least a dead body. But the hook should also relate to a book’s theme or story, in some way, no matter how obscure.
So, Seth, the question your friend needs to ask herself is this: What is my book about? If she can “pitch” the book to you in a sentence or two, she knows what it is about. And if she knows that, then the opening should be easy to decide on, because it will be a scene that tells us, most clearly, who the book is about and why we should care.
It’s time for me to list five books I loved reading this year, that were published in 2018 or 2017. As always, I leave off the big prize-winners and mega-bestsellers—the titles you’ve read about ten times in ten “top ten books” lists.
I will give a quick shout-out to Less, a quiet, lovely novel I adored, that is still not much heard of, although it won the freaking Pulitzer Prize! Anyway, it is a must-read, especially for writers of a certain age, like me.
So...On to my "top five" list for 2018, in no particular order:
The Bookshop of Yesterdaysby Amy Meyerson (2018) Though it isn’t a comedy per se, I did find myself nodding and smiling quite a bit during the time I spent reading The Bookshop of Yesterdays—time that went by far too fast. Though it takes place in my old hometown of Los Angeles (and environs), the book is truly set in an independent bookstore, and in the world of bookselling, among both writers and readers. So, yeah, what’s not to like? But this is no simple frolic through the shelves, with the author merely listing book titles like a name dropper at a Hollywood party; this book is a game, a puzzle, a literary journey through the life of a family and a literary community, and the story of a young woman rather belatedly coming of age, by discovering who she is, and what matters most to her.
Pursuit by Indy Quillen (2017) Every now and then you discover a character in a book who you wish was a real person—and your friend, or mentor—so you could go visit and learn from them. Such a character is Indy Quillen’s Fox Walker. A Native American tracker, Walker is completely of this modern world (he works for both police and federal agencies, after all) and yet, somehow, is not truly living in it. His penchant for wearing moccasins and deer-hide clothing is just the outer trappings of his deep-seated difference—his soul resides on another plane, one peopled by the spirits of the trees of the forest, the creatures who call the mountains home, and the earth itself. Two other equally fascinating characters come along (you’d better start with the first Fox Walker book, Tracker), but to tell you any more about them would ruin the exciting, wide-ranging, edge-of-your-seat journey.
First Corpse: the Appetizer by Carie Toler (2018) Sometimes you want to choose something that is just fun from the menu, and this light but suspenseful rom-com, set in “the city by the bay” is the perfect choice. Celebrity foodie Layne Stevens is a heroine some of us gals will relate to, many will want to become, and every man—and a lot of women!—will dream of meeting. Even though it starts off with a dead body (of course) and is filled with intrigue, this book will satisfy your hunger for a great fireside read, and there are some insightful ideas about diet and health for dessert. I predict you’ll savor every delicious bite, but you might want to keep some chocolate nearby to handle the cravings. The Space Between by Dete Meserve (2018) As my readers know, I adored this author’s debut novel, Good Sam and her follow-up, Perfectly Good Crime. Also set largely in Los Angeles, in a similarly affluent neighborhood as those featured in her previous books, The Space Between is a wholly different animal. One could categorize it as a mystery thriller, or even as literary fiction, but neither of those genres would come close to explaining this compelling contemporary story. The book’s protagonist is a respected astronomer, mother of a teenaged son, and a wife—in that order. What happens when her restauranteur husband goes missing rearranges every priority in her world and soon changes everything in her life.
Vita Aeternaby Jay Allan Storey (2018) I didn’t realize until I got to number five on the list that the first four authors were all women. Well, sorry to those who like consistency, because slot #5 belongs to Jay Allen Storey. I discovered this book through one of those services that sends you the free or bargain Kindle books for the day, and boy am I glad I did. I started reading it with a bit of trepidation, since most sci-fi—especially the dystopian stuff—is so hackneyed. But a skateboarding teenage protagonist in that bleak setting was irresistible, and off we went. So glad I took a chance on it. With its true-to-life characters and intricate cyber-details, this all-too-believeable, I-hope-it-isn’t-really-futuristic adventure is well worth the ride.
I am linking to the Kindle editions of all of these books, to make an electronic purchase even easier...I hope you will support these fine writers and their publishers. (NOTE: a couple of these books are even available for free as ebooks with Kindle Unlimited, if you have that service.)
Enjoy the great reads, and I trust you will enjoy your holidays, too...
Click here to see a post I did for the new "Ask An Editor" column that will be a recurring gig on the O.C. Writers network blog. It might seem kind of familiar to readers of my blog, as it is a reworked post from earlier this year, but it never hurts to hear writing advice again.
What can I say, the holdays are approaching fast and I am busy with lots of work and some family stuff and even a bit of fun...
I'll be back soon with Five Books I Recommend from 2018...