Recommended Reading: Revival by Stephen King

Recommended reading for this week is RevivalStephen King’s latest novel (and the second he’s published this year).

Revival Cover

Now, I’m a King fan from way back. I think this is the best book he’s turned out in a long time, maybe even since the early days. If you are looking for gore and scares, you won’t find it here. If you are looking for great characters, mature storytelling and an existential mindfuck of an ending, Revival has it. And it just over 400 pages, it’s even a reasonable length.

A note to writers: Maybe you aren’t ready…

One benefit of traditional publishing, which is lost when writers choose to self-publish, is that publishers can tell writers that their books just aren’t ready for publication.

Publishers don’t usually say this in so many words. Often the message comes in the form of a standard rejection letter or, even worse, silence. But the message is there, all the same: “Your book isn’t ready yet.”

Certainly, this can be a tough message to hear. No one wants to put so much effort into making something only to be told that they have to work still more. Still, that is the difficult truth that all writers have to accept. Perhaps writing talent is a gene that you are born with; I’m willing to buy that. But writing is also a craft, one that gets better only with diligent effort and regular practice.

Look at it this way. If you were just learning to cook, you wouldn’t expect to turn out a gourmet three-course meal worthy of serving in a fine restaurant right away. If you take up playing the piano, you don’t imagine you’re going to be performing in Carnegie Hall after only a few lessons. Good writers work at it, and their first efforts generally aren’t worthy of publication. This isn’t to say that they won’t be publishable someday, just that they need to work more.

Time to get personal now. When I was younger, I wrote a novel. It’s now languishing on floppy disks in my safety deposit box, not so much because I ever want to go back to working on it, but more as an artifact that I can look at and say, “Yes, I did that.” However, when I was finished, I knew in my heart it wasn’t ready for publication. I had what I thought was a unique premise, characters, a plot, a beginning, middle and end. My manuscript had no grammar or spelling errors. But I was honest with myself and knew it wasn’t good enough.

I could have continued working on it, and I am reasonably sure that if I did, eventually that novel or some other one would have been ready. It might have taken years, though, and to be honest, I just didn’t want to put in that kind of work. I didn’t have the drive to tell stories that would keep me going. Instead, I worked on my writing in many other ways, and every time I practiced, I got better at it.

Are you willing to be that honest with yourself? Or even better, are you willing to hear that truth from someone else: a member of a critique group, a mentor or a reviewer like me? Yes, it’s a lot of work, and yes, it can hurt, but this is what you chose for yourself when you chose to be a writer.

Because I don’t think you want to put your writing out there for the public to judge, even though you can, if it isn’t absolutely ready. A critique group, a mentor, a professional reviewer will likely give you another chance. The public probably won’t.

You’re not alone in this. Every writer, even the best ones, goes through a period of not being ready for publication. Here’s how they get to ready: they are honest with themselves about the quality of their work, they listen to feedback and use that criticism to make their work better and, most importantly, they persist. They keep writing until they get good enough.

So, before you self-publish that novel, ask yourself: Is it ready?

Read: Ira Glass’s advice for beginners (Zen Pencils version)

For writers who want to self-publish…

I’ve been reading a lot of self-published books lately for a freelance gig reviewing independently published books. I am not opposed to self-publishing. I think it’s terrific that technology is allowing more writers to get their work out there and have the opportunity to be read.

BUT… (you know that was coming, right?)

A lot of readers are turned off of self-published books and refuse to even consider reading them, and I think that’s only going to get worse. There are many reasons for this that I could get into, but the major one that’s been bugging me, that I see time and again in the books I review, is sloppiness.

Sloppy grammar, sloppy spelling, sloppy storytelling, sloppy characterization. It’s as if the writer is in such a rush to publish that s/he forgets to slow down and take care with this thing s/he is making.

Traditional publishing does provide one important thing that self-publishing does not: time. It takes time to get through all those gates the publishers are keeping. It takes time to prepare a book for publication. During that time, the writing can be polished, edited, corrected, cleaned up. It results in a better product.

Readers can be notoriously picky about little things like grammar and punctuation. Sometimes I think we readers are more particular about these things than many writers. You have to remember that we read primarily for enjoyment. A book riddled with errors does not make for an enjoyable read. A sloppily written book will not be worth the time readers have to put in, much less their money.

If you are a writer who intends to self-publish, and you want to make it big a la Hugh Howey or Andy Weir, you have to be more perfect than everyone else. I can direct some criticisms at Howey’s and Weir’s books, but at least they were free of egregious grammatical and spelling errors, which meant I enjoyed the experience of reading them.

The best advice I can give to writers who want to self publish is to reread your work many times and mercilessly eradicate all the errors you find. Better yet, invest in a thorough copy edit by a professional who really knows their stuff.

Above all, don’t be sloppy. If this is something you really feel you want to do, as a profession or even as a calling, then take your time and make your writing the best it can be.

In future posts, I’m going to be offering specific advice about the most common errors I’m seeing in the self-published manuscripts I’m reading. There are many ways to follow me (see the sidebar) if you’d like to improve your writing.

Review of The Martian by Andy Weir…

I added a new review to my virtual libraryThe Martian by Andy Weir. Mixed reactions.

Reading women in 2015…

Did you know that #readingwomen2014 was a thing on Twitter? I did not know it until a short time ago, but with the end of the year coming up, I don’t think we should stop reading women.

Why should we make an effort to read more women writers? If you were not aware, there is a lot of unconscious bias embedded in our culture that favors white, male writers (white males of all kind, in fact), often despite our best intentions. White men are more frequently published, reviewed and given awards. To overcome this unconscious but inherent bias, we have to consciously and purposely seek out books by women and people of color to read.

I hold myself up as an example. I actively read women writers often and count women among my favorite authors. Yet, when I pull up the stats on my LibraryThing record of books read, it is a depressing 63% male and 36% female (the remaining 1% is other or unknown). Certainly, I was an English lit major in college, which has skewed my reading toward white men from the start. But I have been trying to make up for that — apparently, not trying hard enough.

In 2014, I tried an annual theme read for the first time, but without a whole lot of commitment. I revisited the mystery genre, which I used to love as a child but have neglected as an adult reader. I read several classic and new mysteries, which I’ll discuss in a future blog post. Still, this was just for fun and probably didn’t even comprise the bulk of my reading.

In 2015, I’m committing to reading mostly books by women. I intend to read new fiction and classics, heavily skewed toward speculative fiction, which is my favorite genre. I also want to throw in some nonfiction and find out what women have to say about feminism, climate change and other topics close to my heart.

So, yes, I will be #readingwomen2015. I invite you to join me. Check here for recommendations.

When male writers show what they really think of women…

I’ve just finished two books that could not be more different, and yet they had one important thing in common. Both books, written by men, present an across-the-board indictment of women–all women.

Granted, Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon is a schlocky horror novel published in the 1970s. However, the fear of women expressed in the novel, and the resulting hatred of them, is so palpable that reading it felt icky. I wanted to wash my hands each time I turned the page. The story presents women as unfathomable to men, and ultimately violent toward and oppressive of them. Women are linked to an ancient mother Earth force that imbues them with the power to do whatever they want, despite the objections of some of the male characters. One of the “horrors” of the story is when the male protagonist loses control over his wife and daughter, and they begin acting independently to fulfill their needs and desires.

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson was published just this year, so it doesn’t have the excuse of dated values. This novel, about a social worker in rural Montana, presents all the women characters as weak, damaged, addicted, unable to fulfill their basic roles as girlfriends, wives and especially mothers. Unlike the men in the story–who despite being flawed are still essentially noble, striving to do the right thing and protect children–the women are unable to overcome the damage life has dealt them. Everything they do inflicts more damage, especially on their children. The male protagonist has also lost control over his wife, who cheated on him, and his daughter, who runs away from him. The daughter, however, is allowed one show of strength, but she is still young, and it seems like she is on the same path as all the other women characters.

My problem with these two books is that neither treats women as what they are, which is human beings. In each book, women are the “other,” portrayed as essentially different and opposed to men, wrong where men are right. Women are not mysterious and unknowable goddesses, nor are they automatons only meant for sex, reproduction and raising children. They are individuals, each with her own needs, desires, flaws and admirable qualities, just like men.

The worldview that these two authors are expressing is not one that I recognize as true, and therefore I cannot recommend either of these books. However, it does give me some insight into why misogyny and discrimination against women persists, even today.

Recommended Reading: The Bone Clocks

Today I am recommending The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell.

This one is going to make a lot of “Best of 2014″ lists. The book grew on me a lot after I was done reading it. I like that Mitchell is not afraid to play with the conventions of novel writing. I previously reviewed this book in my virtual library, so head over there for a longer analysis.