A good resource for writers…

I recommend that all writers, whether you intend to self-publish or publish traditionally, read the excellent and short reviews of self-published books that Jefferson Smith (and occasional guest reviewers) posts at Immerse or Die. Smith maintains that the most important quality of fiction is whether it enables the reader to become immersed in the story, an assertion with which I wholeheartedly agree. This is the elusive quality of suspension of disbelief, that ability to forget you’re reading about made-up places and characters, and to instead actually believe that what you’re reading could have really happened to these real people. This is why we readers want to read.

In his reviews Smith explains exactly why his immersion was broken (or less often, not broken) by the book he is reviewing. His clear and precise explanations have helped me pinpoint exactly what I disliked about the self-published books I have been reviewing. They should be very instructive to writers as what not to do.

Nothing will kill your story faster than grammatical errors and superfluous typos. Believe it!

Whittling down Mount TBR…

I’m finding myself getting very picky about what books make it on the To Be Read (TBR) pile. By the TBR, I mean that pile of books that I’m really, truly, gosh-darn-it gonna read in the very near future. Ideally, I want the number of books on the TBR to be fewer than the number of books I read in a typical year, so I have a fighting chance of working my way through it.

Right now, I have several lists going: a list of books I own and want to read soon, a list of books I own and want to read but maybe not right away, a list of books I want to get from the library, a list of books I want to buy from Amazon if the Kindle price ever drops to a reasonable amount, a list of books I’ve heard about and kinda want to read, a list of books related to other books I’ve liked that sound interesting but I don’t know too much about them. There are probably more lists, but I’ve forgotten them.

Too many lists! I spend more time managing the lists than I do reading. So I’ve decided to cull mercilessly,  with one simple test. Am I excited to read this book? If I’m not excited to read it, it goes off the list.

For instance, All the Light We Cannot See is available at the library in electronic format, everyone’s reading it, it’s getting great reviews. So I thought about putting it on hold. But the truth is that I’m just not that excited about it. It may be truly terrific, but I feel burned out on the WWII time period, and I’m also more interested in women writers right now. So I x’ed it off the list.

I reserve the right to change my mind, of course.

StationElevenHCUS2I was going to read something else next, but everyone is reading Station Eleven and saying good things about it, I already own it on Kindle, and it is very much exciting me. I love its cover and its premise! So despite my lists and reading plans, that’s what I started reading last night.

Using this excitement test, I earmarked many, many books from my TBR pile for gradual donation to the Little Free Library or immediate donation to the Big Free Library. Now my physical TBR fits in my bedside table and there are several books on it that I am excited about reading.

I don’t like having a big TBR. It makes me feel like reading is a chore and not a joy. Also, there will always be books available, and they will always be making more books (unless, maybe, the apocalypse). So if I get rid of a book and it turns out I really did want to read it after all, I’m sure I can get another copy when I’m wanting it.

A book does it have its moment, and sometimes that moment passes us by. Books that linger too long on the TBR seem to acquire a patina of sadness. I know I’m anthropomorphizing, but that’s what it feels like to me. Better that those books move on to someone who will read them and love them and fulfill their purpose.

I will likely keep making lists, though. I do love lists.

Here’s a video from Book Riot advocating the opposite point of view–i.e., just keep adding on to the TBR all you want as long as you have money, time and space for them. (And stop anthropomorphizing books, ha ha!) I don’t tend to agree, because the TBR has weight for me, but I do think I should be able to buy and keep any books I want because I am an adult. I even buy books I’ve already and gotten rid of if I find a particularly beautiful edition. We all love books in our own ways.

Tidbits…

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I saw the third installment of The Hobbit over the holiday, and I have to say that this has not been my favorite book-to-film adaptation. More is not always more, a tough lesson to learn. Anyone else tired of unending superhero movies and uninspired sequels as well? The movies just don’t seem fun anymore.

I did see Birdman over the break too, which I really liked. It pokes a lot of jabs at superhero movies and Hollywood sacred cows. Other than The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman is the only Oscar-nominated movie I’ve seen. I liked them both, so take note: They never give Oscars to movies I like.

Speaking of overblown movie award shows, I loved this joke by Tina Fey at the Golden Globes: “Steve Carell’s Foxcatcher look took two hours to put on, including his hairstyling and make-up. Just for comparison, it took me three hours today to prepare for my role as human woman.”

I didn’t watch the awards, but I did watch Amy and Tina’s monologue and thought it was great.

I just purchased and started reading a beautiful little book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I was struck by this sentence in the section on books: “The moment you first encounter a particular book is the right time to read it.”

Hmm. This strikes me as true, as I just cleaned out my books and earmarked for the Little Free Library or book sale donation all of those books I’ve owned for over a year that have gone unread. I figured the moment when I felt the energy to read them has passed me by, and if I ever do feel moved to read them, well, books are very easy for me to get.

But it’s making me re-evaluate the whole idea of reading by categories over a year. While I love being organized and planning my reading ahead, it removes the spontaneity. I think there is a balance to be achieved–still musing on what the right balance is, though.

Watch out, that writer’s taking an info-dump!

This is another entry in my ongoing series identifying common problems in self-published novels.

As a writer, you’ve got a terrific idea for an alien planet, a fantasy world or a dystopian future. You’ve worked out all the details, and you just know that no other writer has come up with something this creative or unique ever. (Hat tip: This is probably not the case, sorry.) You’re itching to write that novel (or more likely, series) and share your wonderful vision with hordes of grateful readers.

So what do you do to best communicate all the intricate, well-thought-out details of your incredible fictional world? You introduce a character who is new to the world so that character has to learn everything about it right from the start. Perhaps it’s a visitor from another planet or an explorer from another realm. Perhaps it’s a newly awakened coma patient or a time traveler from the past who discovers a radically changed future. Sure, this technique is a cliche, but good writers can get away with using cliches. Ursula K. Le Guin, for instance, often uses the premise of a visitor from another planet to explore her worlds. But she is a terrific writer, and she knows how to world-build in a way that captivates the reader’s interest.

Do you?

A common problem I see with more immature writers of science fiction and fantasy is the tendency to dump information all over the reader in the first few pages or chapters. It’s bad to do this in huge chunks of exposition, worse to do it in dialogue, with one character explaining to the new arrival exactly why everything is the way it is. Not only is this boring to read, but it’s hard for readers to get a real sense of the world when we’re told about it via giant chunks of information, rather than shown the world over time. Each new detail about the world should build on the previous so that we gradually feel that we really know this world. I guess that’s why it’s called world-building.

As a writer, it can be difficult to know when you’re info-dumping. After all, you’re a writer and you’re writing! Look how much you’re writing. Lots and lots of writing. That should be a tip-off right there. Are your characters making painfully long speeches in order to explain something? Are expositional paragraphs stretching down entire pages? If you’re unsure, let someone else evaluate it. Readers know info-dumping when we see it. Our eyes glaze over.

Another way to realize when you’re info-dumping is to outline the action taking place in the scene. If nothing important or exciting is actually happening right now, even though there are lots of words on the page, then it’s surely an info-dump. This is the key to why info-dumps are such a turnoff for readers–they bring the action to a full stop.

To avoid info-dumping, instead show us the world as your protagonist experiences it, in small increments, as needed to advance the story. Let the protagonist discover the world and figure it out as she goes along. If further explanation is needed, keep it simple and short. Trust the reader to work things out for herself. It’s more fun for us that way.

I can assure you, since most info-dumps occur within the first chapter or two of the book, many readers won’t tolerate them. They’ll put the book down and move on to something more interesting. If you want readers to actually finish reading your book, you must be ruthless about excising the info-dump.

TV Tropes has a good article on info-dumping and why it’s so painful to read.

Essay of the week: Having it all

The Complicated Origins of ‘Having It All’ – NYTimes.com by Jennifer Szalai.

Brown’s book now looks like a charming artifact from a more hopeful time. With “Having It All,” she wanted to reach women who might be ready for more — more love, more money, more stability and, inevitably, more sex — and were willing to work for it. Brown, who fought her own way up from a childhood of poverty in the Ozarks, tailored her advice to “mouseburgers” like her: women who are “not prepossessing, not pretty, don’t have a particularly high I.Q., a decent education, good family background or other noticeable assets.” The book is filled with precisely detailed instructions on everything a woman needs to know to “ ’mouseburger’ your way to the top,” including whether to sleep with your boss (“Why discriminate againsthim?”), what to eat (“You may have to have a tiny touch of anorexia nervosa to maintain an ideal weight . . . not a heavy case, just a little one!”) and how to please your man (“Don’t grab too hard” and make sure to “keep your teeth behind your lips”). Lena Dunham cited “Having It All” as an inspiration for her own recent best seller, “Not That Kind of Girl,” but the legacy of Brown’s book is less palpable in Dunham’s memoir (which isn’t so much sincere advice manual as over-the-top confessional) than in the phrase that has persisted as a burden and a cliché ever since it was printed in red on the cover in 1982.

Favorite Reads of 2014

I was going to do a whole “year in reading” post, but I got sucked into other things and now I find the year has already turned over. Happy new year!

Here are my favorite reads of last year. Many are relatively new, some are classics, all are worth your time.

The Sundial Cover

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson: After receiving a vision from their deceased father, the Halloran family and their various hangers-on prepare for the end of the world (gothic horror classic). I got this wonderful Penguin edition with introduction by Victor Lavalle.

The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns begins with a maternity nurse discovering that one of the newborns in her care has disappeared and has been replaced by a six-foot corn snake, and it just gets wilder from there (mystery).

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers: Mystery writer Harriet Vane returns to her college at Oxford and is drawn into an investigation of a spate of poison pen letters, vandalism, and other pranks; she must call on Lord Peter Wimsey to help her solve the mystery (mystery classic).

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler: Private eye Philip Marlowe is hired by a millionaire to track down a blackmailer and gets entangled with his spoiled daughters and a bunch of seedy characters (mystery classic).

China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh: In the 22nd century, when China is the dominant superpower and the US has had a socialist revolution, Zhang is trying to figure out what to do with his life (science fiction).

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: At one time, the artificial intelligence Justice of Toren was the brain of a massive starship as well as the crew members on-board and the security forces keeping peace on a conquered planet, inhabiting the bodies of human prisoners-of-war, called ancillaries, whose brains have been wiped clean and repurposed. But now the AI, called Breq, is confined to just one of her ancillary bodies, as she doggedly pursues revenge against the one who betrayed her while becoming embroiled in a complicated struggle for power over the galactic empire (science fiction).

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: Mitchell’s latest novel is a genre-bending epic spanning 60 years about the people whose fates are altered by an ongoing war between immortals (literary fiction).

In the Woods by Tana French: Investigating a child murder, Detective Ryan returns for the first time to his childhood home, where his two best friends disappeared in a still-unsolved crime (mystery).

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith: In the near future, climate change and perpetual storms have forced the US government to abandon the Gulf Coast, and those who remain live without laws or services (apocalyptic fiction).

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh: Tells the truth on every page. And there are dogs. They aren’t cute dogs but you can’t have everything (humor).

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons: Flora Poste moves in with distant relatives on Cold Comfort Farm and decides to fix everybody (humor classics).

Revival by Stephen King: Throughout his life, Jamie Morton has repeatedly encountered the Reverend Charles Jacobs and been drawn into his mysterious experiments with electricity, but toward the end of Jacobs’ life he coerces Jamie into participating into the ultimate–and most dangerous–of experiments (horror).

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: After learning that her colleague has died of a “fever” in the Amazon jungle, Dr. Marina Singh follows in his footsteps to learn more about the cause of his death and locate the reclusive Doctor Annick Swenson, who is developing a miracle fertility drug (literary fiction).

Top kids’ books: James and the Giant Peach, The 13 Clocks and Charlotte’s Web — all rereads.

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.