Friday, December 23, 2016

Five Books I Read in 2016—and Highly Recommend.

It’s time for me to list five books I loved in 2016. As always, I leave off the bestsellers—those ten titles you’ve read about ten times in the last ten weeks of top ten books lists. (I'd love to talk about The Underground Railroad but I haven't read it yet!). I tried to keep it to works published in 2016, but made exceptions for two recent works I discovered this year.
I am also, as always, not including on this list the books I edited in 2015, but I can't help mentioning two of the excellent books I help to bring to the world—they'd make great gifts.
Gayle Carline’s latest, A More Deadly Union (Peri Minneopa Mysteries Book 4) is a good mystery and a whole lot more. Gayle is taking on some key social issues here, but she doesn’t allow any of it to get in the way of the fast-paced story. I enjoy working with her—she works so hard on her manuscripts, I get to really dig in, as I'm not distracted by superficial errors. And there's a dog in it!
Another book I edited this year is The Dining Car by Eric Peterson. Eric and I go way back, and it has been a pleasure to see his writing mature and evolve. I had such fun with all the food and drink references, and probably gained a few pounds doing "research"! So far, the critical reception has been phenomenal, which makes me happy and proud. Bottom line: Private railcars, haute cuisine, and finely crafted cocktails. Who wouldn’t love that combo?

So...On to my "top five" list for 2016, in no particular order:

1. Dete Meserve shows up on my Top Five Books List two years running with Perfectly Good Crime. Like her debut novel, Good Sam, this novel explores our society’s fascination with both crime stories and heart-warming human interest stories. Set in Los Angeles, Perfectly Good Crime has a protagonist you can believe in, even though most of us have never worked in television news. And, in spite of its timely insights into wealth, politics, and the media, the book is a fun read, with breathtaking descriptions of outrageously over-the-top mansions that rival anything from “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous.”

2. The best title on this list goes to The Awful Mess: A Love Story by Sandra Hutchison, and the book lives up to its name and then some. As much as I liked Mary Bellamy and related to her—she is an editor, like me, and a young woman, which I remember being—she is only the main ingredient of this book’s delectable stew of characters. Wait until you meet Arthur, an Episcopal rector with great charm and serious secrets, and Winslow, a small-town cop who's a part-time farmer, and full-time heartthrob. And then there’s Winslow’s dad, Bert, and…You see what I mean. Check it out if you like thoughtful romance!

3. Everyone who knows me knows I love theater, and one of my favorite reads this year was Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog by James Grissom. I had heard a lot about it on social media and I tried a sample of the ebook and was hooked. I’d shelve this rambling tome under “biography as memoir," since I learned almost as much about Mr. Grissom as I did about Mr. Williams. That might sound odd, but it worked perfectly. After all, Tennessee Williams was probably a very different person to everyone that knew him—he was, quite obviously, a theatrical character in his "real" life, as well as the second-best creator of living, breathing, believable theatrical characters, ever (Shakespeare, duh!).

4. The Popcorn Girl by Michael J Vaughn was a lovely surprise. The chapters are told by alternating first-person narrators Paul and Jasmina, and I never had that feeling such a novel usually produces: “Dang, it’s another Bob chapter, I can’t wait to get back to a Mary chapter” or vice-versa. It’s not often that a writer can make a character both lovable and an atheist, but Vaughn has done it; Paul is not only a person I would want to know, he's definitely a guy I would have fallen for, had I been Jasmina. I won’t tell you if she eventually does or not—that's part of the fun of this book—but I can say that these two characters (and the whole "cast") are so compelling I didn’t want the book to end.

5. The Wide Night Sky by Matt Dean is another winner. Dean is a former finalist for the LAMBDA Literary Awards and it shows, both in the assured way he deals with an eclectic array of sexualities and in his artful prose. His previous novel, The River in Winter, is also fine, and much more “political," if that's the right word, but I love the family dynamic here. I’m a sucker for dysfunctional families as long as there’s also plenty of love and this book maintains that balance perfectly. And...the ebook is currently FREE!



Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Expository Tips—Your Book is Not a Script!

Having just taught my second workshop in as many months on how to make expository more exciting, I’ve come to the conclusion that authors who write books, as opposed to screenplays, don’t realize how good they have it.
In writing a screenplay, writers only get to include two things—what can be seen or heard onscreen.
Screenwriters can write what a beach looks like, but they can’t mention how the sea spray feels, or the odor of sun-warmed kelp, or that the taste of salt on her lips reminds a character of summer vacations sailing on Lake Michigan. They can’t have a character reminisce or feel nauseated or hungry unless the character says exactly what they are feeling or thinking out loud—which often feels too “on the nose” or clunky.
Screenwriters can describe a character’s clothes and hairstyle, and how they walk or sit or gesture, and of course, they have dialogue to fall back on, in case it's needed to explain something particular or convoluted.
Screenwriters only go into character’s heads to the extent of trying to figure out what a character will do (what action they’ll take) to reveal what they are thinking or how they are feeling. Writing a script means being unable to write what characters are thinking or feeling, unless you want to write narration, which is considered dated and very much out of style (of course, some screenwriter does it right every now and then, but narration is almost universally viewed as something to avoid in screenwriting).
Now, just because you can go into character’s heads, don’t get carried away and start “head-hopping” from character to character in your book. Why not? Check out this post on the evils of head-hopping from Jami Gold.
And yes, you novelists and creative nonfiction authors can write "stage directions" in your books as well as screenwriters can, but remember not to go overboard with them—like explaining, in great detail, exactly how a character turned on a bedside lamp, down to which hand he used to twist the switch. Here's a timely post about stage directions from Nat Russo.
Bottom Line: Compared with writing scripts, writing a book is so freeing. You are not confined by such tough strictures, so celebrate your freedom and explore the sounds and scents and tastes of your scenes. Let your characters touch, smell, and taste—have fun exploring the world through all their senses!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

It's Almost Conference Time! Will I See You There?

Yes, indeed, it is almost that time. I’m about to dive into my stack of advance submissions for the Southern California Writers Conference (Sept 23-25, in Irvine) and I'm excited about the upcoming conference. Why? Because this weekend is fun!
I always have a great time at the SCWC—I meet new authors, which is always a kick, and I get to teach, which I love. This time around I'm teaching a workshop called “Backstory: Employing Expository like a Screenwriter,” plus doing two "Pitch Witches."
I also get to sit in on other workshops, which is always enlightening, because the people who run them are professionals... in other words, SCWC inspires me to be at the top of my game, because everyone else there is.
If you haven't been to a writers conference before, you're probably wondering, "Why should I go to SCWC?"
The biggest/best reason is to connect with a community of writers—and readers (because all writers are readers, no?). Writing is oftentimes solitary, so we need to meet and talk to others in our "tribe"—to hear people talk about going through the same things we go through; to learn from their mistakes, and gain insight from their successes.
Of course, you'll also meet and get to chat with agents, editors, and publishers—not to mention interacting with and learning from quite a few knowledgeable people who are successful, award-winning author-publishers.
The world of publishing is evolving fast, and it's important for authors to keep evolving, to keep their strategies always shifting, in order to stay on top of things. Going to SCWC gives you the cutting-edge tools to do that. The panels and workshops include subjects that span the world of today's publishing. Check out the schedule here.
And don't worry—there's still time to register, in fact, you can still save money if you do it before Sept 18th.
Hope to see you there...
hasta pronto!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Where Do I Belong? A Common Theme...

The theme of finding one's place in the world is a common one with writers. Whether our protagonist is a young person just out of school, or an adult at a crossroads, the "Who am I?" theme often strikes a chord with readers.
The trick is in the expository—how to tell enough backstory early on so that readers can understand where the protagonist is "coming from," and yet not give so much information that it's odd and awkward, and feels like an "info dump."
Two excellent recent examples in two different genres are Sweetbitter a novel by Stephanie Danler, and Perfectly Good Crime by Dete Meserve.
Sweetbitter is literary fiction that reads like a memoir; it could well be a Roman à clef but I haven't read enough about the writer to know that. It's the story of a young woman coming to the Big City (in this case, NYC) to escape a life that has stifled her, and to find out what moves her. She gets a job as a server in a swanky Manhattan restaurant and the rest, well, you'll have to read it yourself. Having waited tables in a couple of Manhattan hotspots myself, this book rings very true to the experience of serving—though my years "in service" (yes, sometimes it felt like indentured servitude) were in the 1980s and Sweetbitter is set in 2006.
Perfectly Good Crime is a mystery/crime novel, but Meserve transcends the genre by weaving in a subtle discourse on the current media, a complicated knot of politics and economics, and a love story. Set in Los Angeles, a city I know very well, it's about a young journalist who works for a local TV news show, and her attempt to figure out who is behind a unique series of crimes, while also figuring out her next career move and going though a profound life change. Meserve's previous novel is definitely worth reading, but you don't have to have read Good Sam to enjoy Perfectly Good Crime; you can read the two books in any order.
The beginning of both books gets us right into the action, with only a few oblique references to the events of each heroine's past. Some may find Sweetbitter to be a little too obscure when it comes to the protagonist's past, but for me it was perfect. The story begins when our main character arrives in NYC, the rest is background. Danler clues us in on expository as it is needed, not before. Perfectly Good Crime is the second in a series, but even so, there is not a huge "dump" of background information in the early chapters—rather, the backstory we need to know is skillfully seeded here and there, during the action of the book.
I highly recommend both books. If you only read genre novels, you might find that Sweetbitter is an intriguing and poetic change of pace that reminds you of being young and confused about exactly what kind of person you want to be. And if you only read "serious" literary fiction, perhaps you'd enjoy a fun, well-written mystery that deals with important issues but is uplifting as well as entertaining.
If you're lucky, Perfectly Good Crime will still be available on Kindle for 99 cents, as it is today...
hasta pronto!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Round up the Usual Subjects

Life has kept me busy lately, which is why my last post was over a month ago. Editing work and requests for manuscript evaluations are pouring in quite steadily, and my schedule of teaching/speaking gigs is filling up.
And then there's the boatyard saga. Suffice to say, the new engine is installed (though not hooked up or operable), the new thru-hulls are in, the new rigging's up, and the newly painted mast looks great. However, we have yet to tackle the usual boatyard subjects—painting and repairing the old girl's bottom and sides.
Today, though, I'm back at my desk, editing and sighing (repeatedly). I certainly get tired of correcting the same old errors, day in and day out. I won't bore you with clever tirades about missing commas (though you can find a good one here), or go on about obscure punctuation rules, because today I am talking about basics. Spelling.
There are certain words that almost every author I've ever worked with has misspelled once or twice in their manuscripts; these misused and abused words crop up in the work of the aspiring and the (nearly) expiring author. And there's a very good reason why: they are homophones—words that sound just like the word you meant to type‚ so they won't be corrected by spellchecker software, or easily caught by reading your work aloud.
Wikipedia has a long list of these commonly misspelled homophones here.
For today, I'm going to limit myself to three sets of misspelled words:
Peak, peek, and pique
Poor, pore, and pour
Teem and team
These seem to occur in my clients' work more than any others—perhaps because they sound so darn good, whether they are spelled correctly or not!
I suggest you search for these in your manuscript and see whether you've used them correctly. Peek means to look furtively; a peak is a mountaintop or metaphorical height; and pique is a feeling. You don't "pour" over documents, you pore over them, poor you...so pour yourself a drink! And there's no "i" in team, but there is an "a," though the teeming masses in the stadium might not know how to spell either one correctly.
That's my rant for the day—now, back to work...
hasta pronto!