It’s time for me to recommend five books I read in 2019. As always, I leave off the bestsellers and best-known books—those you’ve read about ten times in the last few weeks of top ten books lists. But speaking of bestsellers, I enjoyed Where the Crawdads Sing, and I also have to mention Transcription by Kate Atkinson, because it is brilliant and so well layered and just a wow of a novel. I will keep all my recommendations to books that were published within the last couple of years…but I want to start by mentioning an important book that is coming up in 2020:
Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era, edited by Amy Roost and Alissa Hirshfeld. You can pre-order this brilliant anthology on Amazon or at the publisher’s site here. (My essay, “Viva La Raza” is included, but that isn’t the main reason to buy the book, now is it?)
A book I helped “birth” that is out now is The Last Getaway by Clay Savage. This book is much harder to describe than to recommend. It’s a fast-paced thrill ride, but it is also funny and oh-so-timely; the two men at the heart of the story—one, a light-fingered young black father from the ‘hood, the other a privileged white boy from Beverly Hills—must learn to work as a perfectly imperfect team. Those of you who read my blog know I've mentioned Clay as an author to watch for—now you can stop watching and start reading!
Here’s my Top Five list, in no particular order:
1. A great choice to gift to someone who reads books on Kindle (It’s currently .99 so the price shouldn’t be a problem—you can get a copy for yourself, too) is Supermen (For America) by Ken Kuhlken. If you or your Kindle-reading buddy love baseball, as I do, this gift will be a home run. If they happened to have grown up in Southern California in the 1960s and come of age in the 70s, then they will surely love the sprawling epic tale that begins with this winning book. There are a few sequels and you will want to read them all. Get them now while they’re cheap!
2. Learning about border politics is pertinent, since I currently live in San Diego or “the greater Tijuana area” as a friend of mine once quipped. But the border region of the southwest U.S. is key to the country’s future—what we are doing there, in the name of U.S. immigration policy, should be of interest to every American. A great book to start with is The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú. The author put his ideals in action not just by researching the border, and living on it, but by actually serving on the U.S. Border Patrol for a few years before writing about this book. The results are harrowing, unsettling, and poetic.
3. Racial tensions are also brewing in the Wisconsin town that is the setting of Jerkwater, by Jamie Zerndt. Native American fishing rights enter into the plot, but this is not simply a novel about that town, or any other “jerkwater” town, it is a novel about life—funny, tragic, and ultimately real. Told from three alternating POVs, Zerndt’s voice as the young Ojibwa woman named Shawna is as authentic as in the two others, who could not be more different. The story is as much about the place as the people, however, and feels as real as your own hometown.
4. I was surprised to learn how much one’s race had to do with getting evicted, which can screw up the rest of your life. Also, how much there was a whole (very profitable) system built up around evicting poor people from their homes and apartments and trailers. If you doubt that the cards are stacked against poor people in America, and most especially poor women of color with children, then read Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.
5. I like a quirky novel, and I haven’t read one as quirky as If You Tame Me by Kathie Giorgio in quite a while. Starting off with a woman of a certain age who is adopting an iguana, it swiftly brings you into the world of this woman and her nice, but not too exciting neighbor. He has pet birds, parakeets to be precise, and the lizard and the birds feature largely in this book, along with love, attraction, old friends, new politics, and a whole lot more.
Now, get going to a bookseller, or click the links to purchase some of these books on Amazon. Enjoy your end-of-the-year reading and the holidays...
Now, before you get all excited, what I mean is, no one should self-publish their book alone, with just software to guide them. You need a team to publish professionally, and whether you do that by going through the process with a hybrid publisher (Acorn Publishing, She Writes Press, etc), or you do that by finding your own team, don't go it alone!
One way to find your own team is to join a community like ChapterBuzz. There, you'll find ways to share your work as you go, as well as a vetted list of people who can help you with all the steps required to publish a book you'll be proud of. (Full Disclosure: I'm listed in the new ChapterBuzz directory, and I offer members 10% off my services there, but have not yet worked with anyone from the site.)
However, as you can see, I was the most recent "cover girl" for Books & Buzz, the ChapterBuzz community's online "magazine," which was pretty cool. I think the editor of B&B did a great job with our interview article, since my literary career, and my life in general, is pretty darn hard to encapsulate.
Well, August is three-quarters over somehow, while I have barely begun to think it is August. We have managed to squeeze in a tiny bit more vacation-ing along with work, lots of family obligations, and all the fun of everyday life on a boat (including some actual sailing), and then this week was “back to school” time for Professor Russel!
Luckily, September follows August and is one of my favorite months, because it contains one of my favorite weekends of the year, when I get to teach (and learn!) at the Southern California Writers Conference in Orange County. If you don't know about SCWC yet, click here.
The schedule for LA17 (in Irvine) is up and the workshops and speakers are listed. There is so much to look forward to: Not just Pitch Witches, but a Pitch Witch query class, my ever-popular (if I do say so myself!) expository class, and an early morning ("early bard") read and critique on Sunday. I'm even teaching a brand-new workshop on content editing—about what it is, exactly, and when writers need it.
My "Pitch Witch" Partner, Marla Miller with Yours Truly
Aspiring writers ask me all the time why they should go to a writers conference and I always tell them that you shouldn't go to just any conference, but that there are some very good reasons to go to SCWC.
1. You'll learn about writing & publishing & marketing, from successful writers, editors, and agents.
2. You'll get feedback on your work-in-progress or that manuscript you think is finished (or is it?)
3. You'll make contacts in the world of publishing that'll help you succeed in this ever-evolving biz.
4. You'll meet your “tribe” and make friends who will understand and support you (I sure have!)
5. You'll get out of your lonely writing room.
6. You'll have a blast!
I hope you can make it to Irvine this year—there's still time to register and to get a hotel room at a discounted SCWC price (if you book a room by Aug 29).
Yes, I've been on "vacation"—lots of moving and packing and unpacking going on, but not a lot of editing has gotten done. Now I'm back aboard "Watchfire" and ready to get back to my life and my work. Unfortunately, I've got Vacation Brain. V.B. is the fuzzy, vague, can't-quite-concentrate feeling that you strive for on vacation, but that you have to shuck like an oyster shell once you return to the real world.
So, here's what I have been thinking about, in spite of V.B.: transitions. Both in life and in writing. Transitions don't get enough love, and they certainly don't get much respect. In life we tend to gloss over other people's life transitions with phrases like "It's just a phase," "this too shall pass," "you'll get over it," and even "get over it!"
In judging an author's writing, editors and agents often say "the transitions were weak" but what exactly does that mean? In my experience, it means that either you took too long to get from plot point A to plot point B, thereby boring the reader, or that it happened too fast and left us wondering, so make sure you know which problem your text suffered from.
Sometimes transitions surprise us unintentionally, and then it isn't really the transition itself that is to blame, but all that came before it. (A surprise can be a good thing in some genres, but not a completely surprising surprise, if you know what I mean. We've all read those, where we say, "WTF? That character would never have done that!")
In order to improve your transitions, you must first find them. You can spot them by highlighting what they are not. Transitions are not usually whole scenes, they are the connective tissue between scenes. There is action/reaction in a scene (a "beat," if you will) and then the scene ends and, at some point, another scene begins. That connecting section is your transition.
Of course, rules are meant to be broken, and sometimes a whole chapter—usually, a very short one—works as a transition in a book. A great example, in a book by Ray Bradbury, was a one-sentence chapter which I'll try to recall here: "Nothing else happened the rest of the night." Great transition, but it won't work in too many books.
Sometimes a transition has to do some heavy lifting, like jumping through space and time, and, unless you're Zane Grey you don't want to use the cliched "Meanwhile, back at the ranch..." So, how do you make those leaps, from breakfast to break-up, or from colonial Bangaladesh to modern-day Bermuda?
The best answer I can give is to read. Read the greats, and see how they do what they do. When you find a great transition, jot it down or highlight it (easy on a Kindle or most other e-reader apps). Go back and re-read them and see which one moves you. Keep a list of them for inspiration. Next time you are stuck, refer to that list. You won't use the transitions word for word, of course, but they can certainly act as a jumping off place.
That's the best I can do with Vacation Brain. Hope it was a little bit helpful...Now for a nap...
One of the great things about being an editor is how many authors you meet in your everyday life. Not just the authors I work with, but those I meet at conferences, and at author events, and the many friends of friends as well. Today's post is about just two of those authors.
First off, how cool is it to have a client and friend like Dominic Carillo? Not only does he write intriguing books for young audiences (though adults will love them too!) but he has won awards for his books (likeThe Improbable Rise of Paco Joneswhich won a San Diego Book Award a couple years ago), and garnered plenty of acclaim and lots of "ink" about them.
His latest news is: one of his books, The Unusual Suspects, was just published in Bulgaria—in Bulgarian! Granted, Dominic lives in Bulgaria, but still...the book had to appeal to a publisher enough for them to negotiate the rights to re-publish it and get it translated into another language. Not a minor proposition, as I well know.
Nice, huh? I even got a mention in the Acknowledgments, in Bulgarian!
Another new book from an old friend is out this month. Girl Boner Journalis the companion to Girl Boner: The Good Girl's Guide to Sexual Empowermentwhich debuted last year. The books' author, August McLaughlin, is a podcast host, writer, speaker and all-around goddess of sexuality and good sense. She is someone I met once briefly at the Southern California Writers Conference and have stayed in touch with because I just love her chutzpah and style (and I applaud her mission of spreading knowledge about sexuality, too!).
The Journal is a sort of guided workbook that can help a willing reader to document and understand the process of exploring her sexuality, or lack of it. (Disclosure: I received a free ebook to read and review, which I am thrilled to do). In answering the compelling questions and reading the intriguing prompts, we can learn what we like and don't like, and what we want and don't want (both in bed and out of it!). Or, as August puts it, Girl Boner Journal will "help you take your sexual empowerment journey deeper." And, after all, who doesn't want that?
Speaking of fullfillment and happiness, Russel and I are celebrating thirty (30!) years of wedded bliss at the end of May, so we are heading off on a short land-locked adventure...to a hidden desert getaway to—you know—get away! It may be raining and cool on Memorial Day weekend, but don't worry, we'll be warm and cozy in the hot tub, or hiking out among the flowers and rocks.
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.