Friday, August 14, 2015

My 10 Favorite Adventure/Travel Memoirs

As an editor (and as a writer) I've always been drawn to true stories, and especially to people writing about adventures they have had or about their travels and voyages. Whether harrowing or humorous, these exciting memoirs are always my favorite reads, year in and year out.

Like all my "top ten" booklists, this one is quite personal and highly subjective. I had to leave out some classics like Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux, because it's been so long since I read it, I couldn't remember what I loved about it, only that I loved it. And I left out Into The Wild because it's not a memoir, it's the story of Christopher McCandless, told by Jon Krakauer, an excellent writer.

Readers may notice a number of these titles are about Baja California and boats. Well, I lived on a sailboat for many years, much of that time spent on and around Baja's Sea of Cortez, so I'm partial to stories about the area, and about sailing, too.

Anyway, here's my current list of favorite memoirs that involve travel or adventure:

Adrift: Seventy Six Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan

Almost An Island by Bruce Berger

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert

Into A Desert Place by Graham Mackintosh

Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles Through Baja California, the Other Mexico by C.M.Mayo

My Old Man and the Sea: A Father and Son Sail Around Cape Horn by David Hays

Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat

The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail
by Cheryl Strayed

Let me know which of these books are on your top ten list—and which of your favorite memoirs I should check out.

hasta pronto!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Backstory: What Came Before Page One

There's nothing that makes me quite as crazy as expository dialogue that simply dumps a ton of information about a character's backstory on the page, in quotes, but not in a way that anyone alive would ever speak.
If you're not sure what backstory is, it's quite simple: Backstory is what happened to your characters before page one. (Authors may also write backstories that are not intended to be included in their book, to give their characters more depth and reality, just as some actors write backstories for their onstage characters, but I'm not talking about that kind of backstory here.)
Exposition or expository writing is the vehicle for revealing a book's backstory to readers; handled well, it can be brilliant. But most beginning writers use it like a shoehorn, shoving ten pounds of information into a two-pound line of dialogue.
This "shoehorning" and "info-dumping" most often occurs early in a book, and is the reason that I could probably eliminate—unseen—every first chapter from every first draft on the planet, with no significant loss to global literature.
Often these clunky lines of expository dialogue begin with "Remember when I/we...?" Unless the person being addressed has dementia, they probably remember when that happened, or the charcater wouldn't be asking. So, make the memory brief and conversational, like having a well-to-do person say "Time to bang the radiator, darling," to their spouse as they turn up the central heating. Don't succumb to the urge to get all detailed/tedious, like "Remember back when we had our old walk-up on East Fourth and we'd always have to bang on the radiator to get any heat?" If the colorful anecdote is crucial to the backstory, then have the character reveal it in thoughts, or at least have them tell the story to someone who wasn't there, sharing the experience.
Dialogue isn't always the only offender when it comes to exposition. I so often see writers "dump" expository info in their descriptive text—which always makes the book feel like an old-fashioned romance novel—as well as funneling way too much backstory into their character's everyday thoughts and memories.
Remember that, in the early chapters, we readers only need enough info/backstory to get to the next chapter, not to the end of the book. Portion information out slowly, like it was war-time rationing—don't use up all the butter on day one. Make us wonder, make us curious, and you'll make us want to keep reading!
Below are a couple tips for those wanting to self-edit their first (or twenty-first) draft prior to sending it to their writer's group, beta readers, or an editor. I suggest getting feedback, rewriting, and self-editing your manuscript before spending time and money on an editor, and all of this should happen before showing it to a prospective agent or publisher, or god forbid, publishing it.

  • Look for lines of dialogue that begin with "Remember...?" Others to look for are "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 sensuous." Less truly is more.
  • Beware of people looking in mirrors and summing themselves up. See above.
  • Beware of set ups that involve someone summarizing the past to another person or group. This often happens with characters in positions of authority, like parents, teachers, judges and heads of companies. Look for lines that begin "You may not know what happened back then..."
Once again, expository writing is necessary and useful—a tool which, when wielded properly, helps propel a story along, fills readers in gradually on key backstory, and keep us up-to-date with what happens off the page. The trick, as with much of life, is using what is useful well, and using it in moderation.
I'll be teaching a new workshop on this very subject, called "Backstory: Employing Expository Like a Screenwriter" at this fall's SCWC (September 25-27, Irvine, CA). Hope you can attend; it's going to be a great conference.
hasta pronto!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Some Spring and Summer Must-Reads

I'm ready for Summer already, aren't you? I'm looking forward to some time on the sand, book in hand, with the sun in a blue sky and a cold blended drink nearby—hey that rhymes! I'm becoming a (really bad) poet.
I'm working today under cloudy skies, anticipating the much-needed rain that's been predicted, and thinking of things I'd rather be doing. (What is wrong with me? After all, I'm in one of the most beautiful cities on earth, I have plenty of work to do that I love, I'm my own boss, and I live on a sailboat—what's not to like?)
So, in order to distract myself from the work on my desk, I thought about some of the new books out for Summer that I'm looking forward to reading. Some are freshly published, and one comes out in July. Here they are, in order of release:
Wild Women, Wild Voices: Writing from Your Authentic Wildness by Judy Reeves (March, 2015).
I am a great admirer of Judy Reeves, not just as a great motivator, teacher, and mentor to writers, including myself, but as a master of the craft, herself. You always learn something (often about yourself) from her, and I always feel inspired to write after one of her classes or after dipping into one of her books. I can't wait to read this new one!
Orhan's Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian (April, 2015). This debut novel by a SCWC conference instructor (formerly a SCWC attendee) has had readers and booksellers buzzing for months. I'm fascinated by the history behind this story, set during 1915 in the Ottoman Empire. The book was recently chosen by the NYT for a piece in the Sunday Book Review.
Scents and Sensibility by Spencer Quinn (due July 14th). If you haven't read any of the "Chet and Bernie" series, you are in for a real treat. Narrated by a wordly yet innocent mixed breed dog named Chet, who works with his master Bernie, a P.I. solving crimes and catching "perps by the pant leg" this series is full of laugh-out-loud moments. Anyone who loves mysteries or dog stories will love them, and there are plenty of them to love. S & S will be number 8 in the series.
And last on the list, but surely not least, the final book on my "I've got to read it this summer" list is
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (due July 14). I am so excited to see what this amazing author's original story was like, before she adapted the storytelling to suit her publisher. And because—for goodness sake, people—she's Harper Lee, that's why.
I hope you're as excited about your Summer "to read" list as I am, and I'd love to hear if you have any of the books I mentioned here on your list.
By the way, I had a great time last Sunday, writing all day at the "Blazing Laptops" fundraiser for San Diego Writers, Ink. My heartfelt thanks to all of you who contributed to helping me support this fine non-profit resource in our community. Between the silent auction, the raffles and the many generous pledges, SDWI raised almost $13,000 toward their goal of $15,000. It's not too late to contribute, on their secure fundraising site, right here. 
I loved being back at at the Ink Spot in Liberty Station, it's been too long. I'll be teaching at SDWI again this fall, and I'll keep you all posted as to those dates. Until then...
hasta pronto!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

JennyRedbug needs YOUR help!

May was a busy month for me. I've not only been busy with work (see below), and spending time with my mom and the rest of my family—we even got some boat work shoe-horned in there. Russel has been designing and installing new cupboards and storage areas on the mighty sailing vessel "Watchfire 2" and I have had to watch, and give advice. Exhausting. Add to that our anniversary and my birthday and you can see why the posts have not been proliferating here.

Luckily my recent book-editing projects have not been exhausting—they've been challenging and exhilarating. I'm doing a line-edit on a timely and evocative Civil Rights Era novel by an author I met at San Diego Writers Conference. Also doing some content/structure edits on a travel memoir and evaluating a new genre novel by an excellent writer. The summer is booking up with new projects, too. I love my job!

You might have missed my last post—it was a guest blog on my friend Oz Monroe's excellent blog. Oz has a fun (scary) challenge for himself: He lets his Facebook friends pick a weekly topic, and the winning topic (by likes) is the subject he writes about. He calls the challenge, "Throw Oz Under the Bus." A couple of us have allowed ourselves to be "thrown under the bus" too, as guest bloggers—I was the latest. The winning blog topic for me was “A feminist perspective on masculinity in the 21st century.” (WTF?) Here's my post for Oz, based on that topic: Man up?

And now, my friends, it's that time of year again...won't you help me to support San Diego Writers, Ink (SDWI), an important non-profit resource in our writing community? Their yearly "Blazing Laptops" fundraising event raises a major portion of their annual operating funds, allowing them to offer great classes at low rates. I donate time to them every year, and I'll be donating a free book evaluation (value $500 to $1000) to the auction; I'll also be writing all day during "Blazing Laptops" at the SDWI Ink Spot in Liberty Station on June 7th.

Could you donate $5 or $10? We'd all appreciate it! My fundraising page is here.

Thanks for any help you can give SDWI, and...
hasta pronto!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Picture This: Good Writing Should be Visual

There have been many studies done on language concreteness—the fact that specific, vivid, definite words and phrases evoke mental images—and it has been shown to be an important determiner of reading comprehension. In a paper published by the International Reading Association, the authors write: ‘“snarling tiger” is concrete and image-evoking, but “policy concept” is abstract, less likely to evoke images.”
Though this conclusion—that some words are more likely than others to produce mental images—seems intuitive, many writers are still ignoring it, and not writing in a way that is most effective at producing word-images. I contend that all of those writers’ readers suffer because of it.
Case in point, a writer I was working with had written a sentence that went something like this: “She remembered how she’d sat there by the fire, as a young girl, having her hair brushed by her mother.” I brought up the concept of language concreteness and together, we changed the line to: “She saw herself as a young girl, sitting by the fire, her mother brushing her hair.”
“Saw” is visual, “remembered” is not—you can picture someone in the act of seeing, but can you picture someone in the act of remembering? And “a young girl” is something we can easily picture (though all of us will have a different picture), so the sooner we get to that phrase, the better the imagery-inducing effect. The mother comes in sooner, too, which is all to the good, as the girl having her hair brushed is a very general idea until the mother comes in—after all, the young girl could have been having her hair brushed by a sister, a friend, or even a teacher. We don’t have to wait so long before we can “picture” what is happening.
This of course, explains the war on “thought verbs” that I’m waging, along with Chuck Palahniuk and others. Thought verbs are not visual. And the current focus on eliminating so-called “filter words” is in some ways driven by the same concept.
One great trick for spotting all this thought-full filtering is to read your work out loud—or have someone else read it aloud. You'll hear endless iterations of your characters having “thought about” and “remembered” and “contemplated” and the like. Mark those words and phrases. When you go back and rewrite, you'll find ways to substitute verbs that make your writing much more active—and, in the process, much more visual.
So, get to reading and re-writing now—and hasta pronto!