Doing Backstory Right and Other Good Reads

 

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I’ve been away much longer than I realized, in my quest to finish the third book in a new trilogy among other highly distracting activities. And I wanted to reassure my three undying fans I still live and breathe. Also have been catching up on my reading and have some nice reads for you.

The Shocking Truth About Info Dumps by Lisa Cron discusses how to do backstory right. And folks, she is spot on.

Scene Structure: Scenes as Segments and Capsules of Time by CS Lakin Good nuts and bolts on scene structure, especially good statements on time in writing.

Beware the Writing Rules Police by Anne R. Allen. Anne takes the writing rules police to task and kicks their butts.

Burnout, creativity, and the tyranny of production schedules by Elizabeth Bear. Hardworking author Elizabeth Bear makes a good case for taking pressure and time off from writing. I totally get what she is talking about here.

Really Going There by Annie Neugebauer makes a good case for the argument that our best stories come from the places we are terrified to write about.

Have a good week everybody – step away from the political arguments on FB – real life is much better for your blood pressure. 🙂

How many pages will you give an author?

There’s a blog that sometimes visit where the author takes the first page from NYT best selling books and analyses them to see if his readers would read past the first page. It’s an interesting exercise and he has a list of criteria that he follows to determine if it’s a page turner or not. And sometimes I agree with him on his analysis and sometimes I don’t.

In fact, this morning I read a post and I knew after the first sentence who the author was – because I read his books. Sadly, he didn’t fair well with most of the other commenters and it got me thinking about the whole concept of quick judgment.

The first page test

I don’t know when it happened but today it seems to be a given that if the first page of a book doesn’t slap you upside the head with a car wreck, dead body or exploding kittens that it is deemed bad – or at least not good. And God forbid that the author should tell you anything at all about the character because her wrestling with a twenty-armed octopus while solving world hunger should show you everything you need to know about our hero, right?

And writers seem to believe this because it seems that just about any book you pick up these days opens with some big confusing mess of action that you have to read twenty pages further to finally understand. Because that puts you in the moment. Or at least it’s supposed to. But does it really? In my case, it just puts me into a painful confusion from which I try desperately to escape.

And it’s not just this particular blog that seems to have this philosophy, you see how-to writing articles all the time about how you’ve got to grab readers from the first second. But that’s what they say about resumes too. And websites and movies. And well, just about everything.

So…what happened? Did we all just reduce our attention span down to that of a gnat? Are we all just over-active, hormone-laden 14-year-old boys who can’t land? Is substance a thing of the past?

The first 50 pages

Many years ago I saw an interview with John Irving, author of  The World According to Garp, among other best sellers. And he was asked how many pages he thought readers should give a writer before they decided to reject it or not. Irving’s answer was 50 pages. He went on to explain why and I honestly can’t remember his reasons but whatever they were they made sense to me.

And I have to say, that became my benchmark and has remained my benchmark for evaluating a book. Of course there are exceptions to that rule:

  • If the book is really badly written
  • If the topic or genre doesn’t interest me at all
  • If the writing is littered with typos, bad grammar

Things that would make anyone put down a book. But aside from that I try to the give the author a fair shake. I know that she sat in a room in front of a computer or notepad and spent hundreds of hours conceptualizing, plotting, writing, editing, rewriting, and doting over the story. So why shouldn’t I give her a mere 50 pages to make her case? That’s maybe an hour or two of reading – not a big commitment is it?

So what do you think? How many pages will you give an author before deciding to stop or keep reading? Why? What’s your criteria? Do you like books that start with so much action it takes your breath away. Or would you rather ease into the story? Feel free to expound in the comments.

Writer Chick

Words that only a writer could love

words
I’ve always thought that words were the coolest thing. As a kid (and now as an adult) my idea of a good time was reading dictionaries. For me, discovering new words – the weirder the better – was more fun than a box of bunnies.

I suppose that’s not much of a surprise – I don’t know any writer who doesn’t love words. Readers love words too. There’s a certain magic, a certain power in a well placed word – even if most your friends have no idea what you’re talking about when using it. In fact, maybe some of your friends and family have word shamed you – accused you of using a $20,000 word when a $3 word would do, right?

Following is a list of a few of my favorites:

Discombobulate: Don’t you just love the sound of that word? It conjures up pictures of machines deconstructing or things blowing up, right.
Definition: To upset or confuse.
Aunt Myrna was discombobulated by the food fight at the family picnic.

Fetching: This was once a fav in romance novels.
Definition: Attractive, pleasing to the eye
Her raven hair and bright green eyes fringed with thick lashes made her quite the fetching lass.

Balderdash: So Wodehouse, right?
Definition: Foolish words or ideas
According to the World Health Organization, the idea that one can contract Swine flu from eating pork chops is pure balderdash.

Peckish: A word you’re more likely to hear down south.
Definition: Slightly hungry : Irritated or annoyed
Let’s stop for lunch – I’m a might peckish.

Gumption: A word Jimmy Stewart could’ve uttered with a straight face.
Definition: Courage and confidence
What we need here is a little gumption – give those high and mighty bankers what they deserve. That’ll teach ‘em.

Drivel: Don’t you just love the sound of this word?
Definition: To talk in a very foolish or silly way
I’m so tired of TV, nothing but one-dimensional characters talking drivel to one another.

Drubbing: Now here’s a word you can sink your teeth into
Definition: To beat severely : To berate critically
After the drubbing the actor received from the NY Times critic, he cried like a baby.

Licentious: Sounds kind of dirty, doesn’t it?
Definition: Sexually immoral or offensive
Though 50 Shades of Grey was lauded as a romance, it was really a licentious tale of two very troubled people.

Licketysplit: You can feel the motion in this word, can’t you?
Definition: Fast. Quick. At great speed
Get cracking boy – time to move it – licketysplit.

Maw: I love this three letter word, it’s dark, it’s sinister and so easy to spell.
Definition: The mouth, jaws, or throat of an animal
His heart was a gaping maw of blackness.

So, what are your favorite words? Share them with us. Why do you like them? Have you been word shamed too? What happened?

Writer Chick
Copyright 2015

Book Thoughts and What do You Think About Books?

photo courtesy of morguefile.com
photo courtesy of morguefile.com

I think I came out of the womb loving books – I seriously can’t remember any time in my life when I didn’t love them. Let’s face it, life is a fickle mistress but books are always good and the most well-behaved children in the world.

I think a lot about books. Sometimes the thoughts are logical and cogent but just as often they are random – perhaps fired off by a dysfunctional brain cell screeching during its final death throes. Still… Recently there have been lots of memes about books around the Internet and these have inspired the following thoughts:

Should books be free?

There are arguments pro and con on this idea. Many argue that thanks to libraries they are free. Except that libraries pay for the books they stock and tax dollars pay for libraries, so not really free. See where I’m heading? There are also authors out there offering free books as a promotional tool. On the other hand, some people think that you get what you pay for. And some of these free books as this post points out aren’t even the actual bonafide books. Personally, I believe that if someone went to the trouble and torment (and yes I mean torment) of writing a book you should at least want to see them get paid for it. Because contrary to popular belief writers need money to eat and stuff like that. If Beyonce can be a millionaire, can’t I earn enough to pay my rent? Just saying.

Do you love the smell of books? What do books smell like?

One of the favorite arguments against eBooks is that they don’t smell like ‘real’ books. So that begs the question, what do books smell like? One person I asked said they smell like dust and paper bags, others go for the metaphor and say they smell like knowledge or imagination – personally I think they smell like equal parts of ink, paper, wood, dust and mildew. Now there’s an aftershave I want for my man. Also, if an eBook could smell like a ‘real’ book would you be more likely to buy it?

Are writers who use foul language in their books, hacks?

This is my own version of the question but there have been several blog posts scolding/warning writers not to use poor language because well you know, unprofessional much. I’m down the middle on this issue. On the one hand, I really do get tired of characters dropping the f-word every two seconds, which currently seems very popular with cable TV shows (maybe they just discovered the word?). And I’m not fond of characters who curse every time they open their mouths in a story. However, I also believe that books have to have some connection to reality and the reality is that people swear all the time. Poor people, rich people, highly educated people, high school dropouts, ethnic people, non-ethnic people, kids, adults, teens – we all swear. Sometimes it’s a habit and sometimes it’s to express an extreme response. I write murder mysteries so I don’t think anyone would believe a cop who said something like, “I’m ever so distressed by your rude and inconsiderate behavior.” If I wrote something like that I’d lose my fictional P.I. license. I think it’s impossible to have a hard and fast rule about this and would rather say a write should keep context in mind. If it’s appropriate in the context of the situation and the character than feel free to swear in your books writers.

Should books have trigger warnings?

This was a new one on me. Honestly, I’d never heard of it until I read this well-written and thoughtful post and it inspired me to write a long comment. But for me, the issue is similar to that of swearing. It’s a matter of context. If your subject is very highly emotionally charged, it might not be a bad idea to add a trigger warning somewhere in your book’s page or promotional material. After all 50 Shades of Gray was not a book about interior design, right. However, since apparently just about anything anyone says can act as a trigger, a writer can’t go around trying to figure out what might trigger someone she doesn’t know who might buy and read her book. Much as I sympathize with individuals who have had a truly traumatic experience the tendency in our society today for all people to yearn to somehow be victims causes me dismay. And too, reading reviews about books and what others say about the books should give you a bit of a clue as whether a story will trigger you. So, we’ll try to be more sensitive and you try to be more diligent. Fair?

I’m sure if I really tried I could come up with other recent thoughts about books but those cover it for now.

Do you think about books too? What do you think about books? If I missed anything but sure to let me know and feel free to share. Thinking about books should always be encouraged.

PS: Don’t you love that photo? Is he wearing the book as a hat or is he thinking with the book or is the book thinking for him?

Writer Chick
Copyright 2015

I Wish I Had a Book

I Wish I Had a Book

I wish I had a book today
A book to chase my blues away
A funny book, a silly book
A big fine book
For which I’d pay.

I’d rather read than go to school
I’d rather read than follow fools
I wish I had a book to read
From which my mind could greatly feed

A book of wonder, words and clues
With lots of colors and lovely hues
A book of mystery and romance too
That keeps me guessing
Until I’m through

I want a book to take me home
That frees my mind and lets it roam
That stirs my heart forever more
And makes me want to lock the door

I wish I had a book today
A book to take me far away
A clever book, a tender book
A lovely book
In which to stay

Writer Chick
Copyright 2015

Should You Leave the Boring Stuff Out of Your Story?

should you leave out the boring stuff in your story?

I read an interview not long ago (although now I can’t find the link) with James Patterson. Wherein Patterson explains how he sells a bagillion books a year. The ‘secret’ is that he leaves the boring stuff out of his stories. By doing so, his stories are fast reads, the action never slows and presumably the reader never gets bored.

While Patterson has other systems that enable him to churn out multiple best sellers yearly that as a reader I’m not crazy about, I tend to side with him on the boring stuff.

If you read or write, you know what I’m talking about. The passages we all skim or skip over entirely when reading a book.

  • Because we want to get to the juicy stuff.
  • Because the color of curtains or that the fabric came from some middle eastern blip of a country that employs child laborers because their tiny hands are just the right size for the intricate pattern interrupts the action.
  • We want to know where the bad guy is hiding.
  • Or if she’s going to say yes to the good guy or the bad boy.
  • Or how our hero is going to get out of the elevator careening toward the underground parking garage from the penthouse suite.

Curtains – schmurtains – gimme the action.

And Patterson isn’t the only famous author who proscribes to the philosophy of boring free stories:

Ernest Hemingway: “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.”

Elmore Leonard: “I try to leave out the parts readers skip.”

Mark Twain: “A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.”

Alfred Hitchcock: “Drama is life with the dull parts left out.”

Italo Calvino: “I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.”

Truman Capote: “I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

 

Is the Narrative necessary or in the way?

As much as I admire (and envy) Pat Conroy’s skills with prose (among others, say, Dean Koontz for example) as a reader I really don’t need to know:

  • The origin of the wallpaper
  • All about our heroine’s first period
  • The play by play on how our hero makes a sandwich.

“But,” you say, “we must have narrative. We must have a sense of space. We must know what the characters look like. We must know the character’s back story. Right?”

Well of course we must have a sense of those things. (Except, back story – very tricky thing, stops the action, takes us off the timeline – a light hand there methinks.) Otherwise our characters are floating free style in space with no anchors or landmarks.

But maybe inference is a better approach than full on assault. Perhaps finding one definitive aspect of a room so the reader’s imagination can fill in the blanks. Could your heroine be a tall, cool, blonde without my having to know how tall, her dress size, her dietary restrictions and the nasty fight she had with her sister when she was five, at the outset?

The whole idea in writing fiction is to show not tell, right? I think that some writers feel they must show the whole room, rather than the really important parts.

I also think that writers have an incessant need to use all their research. I mean, heck, they went to the trouble to research, it seems only fair to let them use it, right? I mean, it is kind of a bitch to spend weeks researching something and maybe only devote a few sentences to it. But then that’s what writing is about. Finding out what you need to know to write the story – it doesn’t necessarily follow that your reader needs to know it too, right?

If you’re not sure you could ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does it stop the action?
  • Does it make the story drag or go off in a direction not relevant to moving the story forward?
  • Will it matter to your reader?
  • If it wasn’t there, would your reader miss it?
  • Is it a necessary detail for your reader to know to follow the story?
  • Will it annoy your reader who is up past midnight reading your story to find out what happens next but she can’t find out until she reads the seven pages of description?

Even Best Sellers Might be Surprised

This week I finished a book by one of my favorite writers (who is famous and has written a ton of best sellers). The last hundred pages were riveting. Except for the parts that I had to skim through to get to what the fuck happened and who the hell did it. After I finished the book I actually wondered what he’d think if he knew that I skipped (easily) 50 plus pages of his novel because all that technical crap bores the hell out of me. I also wondered how much time he spent writing those unread, quickly skimmed pages. Maybe he could have finished the book a month early if not for those pages and the edits and the rewrites, etc. And his readers would have been none the wiser. Maybe not. It’s something to think about.

Only you know what your story is. What you want to say. What’s important to your characters. But your readers will decide is it’s important to them. Maybe a little less boring stuff and a little more action is just what they’re looking for.

Writer or reader, what do you think about leaving in or leaving out the boring stuff? I’d be interested in knowing.

Writer Chick
Copyright 2014

Think you can’t read a Kindle Book because you don’t have a Kindle? Think again

kindle readerIn the last few years, the popularity of digital books and novels has continued to grow and based on the numbers, it looks like they will continue to do so. 

Kindle and digital books have been a great alternate avenue for writers, especially indie writers who have not had  luck in following traditional routes in being published.  However, it’s a double-edged sword because while Amazon and other digital book retailers have offered an alternate path for publication, consumers who don’t own a Kindle or other digital reader may feel left out in the cold.

Amazon has taken care of all that.  You don’t need a Kindle to read a Kindle book because you can download any of several free apps  (applications) to read your Kindle book on the device of your choice.  Kindle has reading apps for:

Amazon also provides apps for Androids, Blackberries, Windows Phone and other tablets. And even if you don’t have any of the devices mentioned above, you can still read a Kindle book in the cloud – from your web browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, etc.)

In other words, Amazon has gone to great lengths to make reading a Kindle book as easy as possible for you.

So, if there is a book out there that you are really dying to read that is only available in digital format, don’t despair.  Just go to Amazon and download the free app of your choice and enjoy your new book.  You may find that you like the digital read so much that a Kindle reader might find its way onto your wish list.

Writer Chick

copyright 2013

 

 

Why do people love mysteries?

Are we all armchair detectives at heart?

why do you love mysteries?I don’t know about you but I have always loved a mystery.  Whether it was why Mrs Stefanski from down the street was so secretive about where she bought her spring bulbs or how my dog Rusty ended up in the willow tree, nothing has ever gotten my engines roaring like a mystery.

Maybe it’s genetic?

My dad was a diehard Mickey Spillane fan and various other mystery writers.  Both Mom and Dad couldn’t pass up a crossword puzzle without trying to work it and the whole family regularly gathered around the TV to watch shows like:

  • The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
  • The Avengers
  • The Saint
  • Twilight Zone
  • Columbo
  • Dragnet
  • The Fugitive
  • I Spy
  • Ironside
  • Mannix

So it could be that some humans just possess the mystery gene.  Anything is possible, right?

Maybe it’s just human nature

Personally, I think people love mysteries because it’s just part of human nature.  We humans are a curious lot and what could make you more curious than a mystery, whether it’s a story, a true crime or just something that puzzles you – a mystery sucks you in.  Curiosity has killed more than the cat.

Another part of human nature is that we like to solve things. Of all the creatures on the earth, I think humans are the only creatures that must solve problems, whether they are their own or belong to others. In real life, though that kind of behavior can get you in a big vat of boiling water. It’s much easier to read a mystery and try to solve the imaginary problem of whodunit – and when you do, you feel so clever too! It’s a win-win situation.

And lastly, I think people love mysteries because typically justice is served in the end.  The bad guy is caught and gets his or her just deserts, the loose ends are tied up and everything leads to a logical conclusion.  Again, in life you could seriously hurt yourself trying to get any kind of justice – but reading a book that’s not risky at all.  It satisfies our need to see things set right and nobody else even has to be involved.

Personally, I love mysteries for all of the above reasons and also because reading mysteries has helped me develop my own critical thinking.  It has taught me how to evaluate information, examination things below the surface and take random pieces of information and form a picture that leads to a solution.  Of course, this is my own belief and no scientists were harmed in reaching this conclusion.

Why do you love mysteries?

But how about you?  Do you love mysteries?  Why? Would you rather read a mystery over any other type of book?  What’s the best mystery story ever written?  I’d love to know what you think.

Writer Chick

Copyright 2013

It's Raining Books

I love books and can’t get enough of them. I have books everywhere, in baskets, on shelves, under the bed, in the bathroom, livingroom and kitchen and don’t have room for one more – yet, whenever I see a book I want, I get it and worry about storage later. One of the things I love to do with books is to pass them on. Though, I always retain copies of the books I love more than life, typically, when I’ve finished a book, I either give it to a friend, take it to the library used book store or donate it to a church, thrift store or other outlet that can use or wants books. To me, there is no greater gift than a book, they impart knowledge, experience, adventure, entertainment, and introduce whole new worlds to the reader. Seriously, what’s not to love?

Imagine my delight when my friend Curious C over at Idea Jump sent me to Hey Lady, Whatcha Reading to check out this a book give away.

The blog mistress, Trish, had this to say:

Dude, I’m not even kidding. Hachette Book Group USA is doing a Summer Reads Giveaway and wants to give away 14 books. For up to FIVE people. Doing the math…five times four is twenty, carry the two….that’s SEVENTY books they’re willing to part with. And send to you. For free. And all you have to do is comment here. More on your entry possibilities below.

There’s true crime, fiction, historical fiction, memoirs, romance, thrillers…click on the link to the book to get a synopsis.

Naturally, I didn’t even hesitate to put my hand up because, jeez, 14 brand new books, with 1 chance out of 50 is pretty darn good. So if you love books like I love books, get on over there and put your hand up too. It can’t hoit and cripes maybe you’ll win some groovy books.

PS: Happy birthday, dad.