Inspirations… (Jan. 19, 2017)

womens-march-sperry-wow-webThe Women’s March on Washington is what is inspiring me right now. It started out as just an idea following on the surprising election results and has now grown, grassroots-style, into the largest protest and demonstration to take place in response to the inauguration. The march is for everyone, regardless of gender identity, who believes that women’s rights are human rights. The primary march will be held in Washington, DC, but there will be supporting marches in cities, large and small, around the world. Where I live, there are at least three supporting events within easy driving distance.

I was impressed with the Women’s March Global Mission for Equality, and I hope this signals the beginning of a powerful and effective worldwide movement. I only wish that education of girls and women was a plank in the mission statement, because I personally believe that education is the key to empowering women.

For those of us who enjoy self-education, I offer my favorite feminist reads to help you resist in the coming years:

  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • A Room with a View by E. M. Forster
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  • The Female Man by Joanna Russ
  • The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
  • The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper
  • The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall
  • The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant
  • Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
  • Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
  • When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
  • Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
  • The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue
  • The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

Recommended Reading: The Long and Faraway Gone

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The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney follows two characters–only slightly connected–who are both from Oklahoma City and are both struggling to get past unresolved mysteries from their youth. Wyatt, now a private investigator living in Las Vegas, returns to Oklahoma City as a favor for a friend to find out who is harassing a woman who recently inherited a bar; the trip brings up buried memories, because when Wyatt was fifteen and worked at a movie theater one summer, he was the only survivor of a mass shooting and robbery there, and has since struggled to figure out why. Julianna never left Oklahoma City; she is a nurse who is obsessed with what happened to her older sister, who disappeared from the State Fair that same summer. These two characters’ paths occasionally cross, but their stories are separate and are both engrossing. With three mysteries in one, this novel is understated but not slow-moving, with well-defined characters and a fascinating subtext about how we inadvertently touch so many other peoples’ lives as we go about living ours.

Hiatus…

I’m taking a hiatus from this website and all social media for an indefinite period. The Internet is not a healthy place for me to be right now.

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Some thoughts about immersion and book abandonment…

In lieu of a reading recommendation this week, I offer some unfocused thoughts about book abandonment. Many readers seem to think that it is a virtue to finish every book they start, even if they aren’t enjoying it. I used to think so myself, but as I have gotten older and more aware that time is getting shorter, I’m less willing to spend that time on a book that’s not doing it for me. I know my reading speed by now, I know how long it takes me to finish the average book, and I value those hours highly.

I highly advocate giving up on books–especially fiction–that aren’t doing it for you. It may be a case of the wrong book at the wrong time or for the wrong reader. I abandoned two books just this week, one in which I gotten about halfway and one in which I was a little over fifty pages in. (I confess that I did read the last chapters of both, just to make sure I wasn’t making a mistake; I wasn’t.)

The one thing I ask of from my fiction reading is immersion. I read because I want to explore other worlds of the imagination; I want to be taken away from this one, at least for a short while. Nothing does this for me like reading, but sometimes finding the book that does the trick is difficult.

There is no one quality that guarantees immersion. Chuck Wendig offers up twenty-five reasons why he stops reading books here, and all of these have something to do with preventing immersion. Little things can do it: an overload of errors; wooden dialogue; a singsong or monotonous style; overuse of one-sentence paragraphs. More often, it’s bigger issues. I’m not seeing anything new. The characters don’t come across as real people. The story is being told to me, instead of being shown in scenes that I can imagine in my head. The world of the story doesn’t come alive for me. I don’t feel like anything real is at stake in the story.

And there’s no predicting which books will end up being immersive. That’s why I always try to give a book at least fifty to a hundred pages to reel me in. (That’s about one reading session.) That seems fair. But if after that, I’m asking myself why I’m reading the book or, worse, looking for excuses not to read, I feel no guilt in putting the book down and picking up another.

What I love about Stranger Things…

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If you like the kinds of books I do and you haven’t been watching Stranger Things on Netflix, get thee to a television. This series constantly references Stephen King’s books plus tons of great movies by John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, and others we remember from the ’80s. And it has Winona Ryder! She is the ’80s for me.

Lots of people are talking about the nostalgic feelings that the series recreates, which it certainly does, but I think even better is that it hearkens back to a type of story that we don’t see so much anymore. It’s horror but not dark, in that the characters come across as real, human, and basically good people who end up working together against evil. This is a pervasive theme in Stephen King’s older books, and something I love about them. This show gives you characters you can recognize and root for. This is old-fashioned storytelling at its best.

Present vs. past tense: Which to use in your writing

Over the past few years, I have noticed that more and more writers are using the present tense rather than the past tense to tell their stories. I think this trend started in young adult fiction, but now writers of all genres are employing the technique. Some readers don’t like this and will refuse to read books written in present tense.

The present tense is not a grating style choice for me as a reader, unlike the recent trend of not using quotation marks. (That trend, thankfully, seems to be fading away.) I hated it when authors chose not to use quotation marks because it almost always threw me out of the story. I had to keep stopping to figure out whether someone was talking or not. It got to be so common that I wouldn’t even read a book that didn’t have quotation marks. This rule could be broken successfully, though. Cormac McCarthy famously doesn’t use quotation marks, and his writing is so good that there never is any question about what is dialogue and what isn’t. I broke my own rule as well, because I have read and enjoyed several of his novels.

Employing present tense is different, I think, because when done well, it can help draw the reader into the story. It is harder to write effectively in present tense than in past tense (for reasons that I’ll get into), but it’s not Cormac McCarthy-hard. Even more importantly, using present tense is quite often the right choice for the story being told.

To read a story is to be told a story. The storyteller differs from book to book, but someone is telling it, whether it’s a character, a disembodied narrator, or even the writer. Most stories are written in past tense because we are being told a story that has already happened.

This used to be a much more overt conceit. Many stories used to have a frame that related how the storyteller was telling the story and why. The storyteller might be writing the story down in a letter or diary, for instance. Readers needed this conceit for believability. As novels became more common, the conceit was mostly dropped, although it is still used from time to time.

A story told in present tense, though, is happening now. The reader experiences the events along with the storyteller. This makes the story feel more immediate and dramatic, almost cinematic. It’s like watching a movie: We believe we are watching events unfold as they happen.

The downside is that the present-tense narrator cannot know the future. In stories written in past tense, the narrator has the benefit of hindsight, which can be used to heighten suspense. Stephen King employs this technique quite often when he lets slip a character’s fate: “This was the last time he’d ever…” Hindsight also provides the opportunity to layer in meaning and character development, to interpret past events in terms of what came afterward.

A present-tense narrator is, like all of us, stuck in the here and now. A slip in this regard can derail the reading experience. I recently received a copy of Blake Crouch’s novel Dark Matter for early review. It’s written in the present tense, but early on, the first-person narrator reveals that he knows his own future. I won’t say this is the only reason I chose not to review the book–I really didn’t care for the writing style–but it was one of the reasons. Perhaps it wasn’t a mistake–perhaps the author had a good rationale for this–but I hadn’t gotten far enough in the story to trust the author on that.

Another problem with present tense is that it relates events as they happen, both the exciting and the mundane. For this reason, present tense is often a better choice for novels with lots of action. We don’t want to read about narrators brushing their teeth or sitting through work meetings. Even this limitation can be gotten around. I recently reviewed an indie book that employed the simple but effective technique of “fast forwarding” through the boring bits, again like a movie.

Authors should not choose present tense because it’s trendy, though, or because everyone seems to be doing it. They should choose the tense that works for the story they are writing. Present tense doesn’t seem like a good choice for historical novels, for instance, because they are presumed to have taken place in the past. Then again, Hilary Mantel uses it for her Wolf Hall novels, which I haven’t read, but who am I to argue with books that have received so many accolades?

Present and past tense can even be mixed, if done with purpose. Kristin Hannah does this in The Nightingale: The contemporary sections are written in present tense, and the historical sections are written in past tense. Things are happening to the narrator as she is telling the story, and the choice of tense helps convey that. (Take care when mixing tenses, though; incorrectly used verb tenses will trip up the reader.)

Present tense is another tool in the author’s toolkit. When chosen purposefully and employed skillfully, it can be an effective way to tell a story.

Quality of self-published books, revisited…

Recently, I wrote about the issue of quality in self-published books when compared to traditionally published books. I’m not the first or only person to have written about this (see here and here and here and here). I have also written about it on this blog many times.

On my latest post on this subject, a commenter wrote: “Writing fiction well is incredibly difficult. There are many areas that need to be mastered.” Truer words… Writing anything well is hard; writing fiction is much more so. Good writing is almost invisible to the reader. It allows the reader to slide effortlessly into the story. Errors trip the reader up like stones in the path; too many of them throw the reader right out of immersion.

The good news is that writing, like any skill, only gets better with practice. Perhaps this is how we should look at self-publishing: as a place to practice. As long as both readers and writers are aware of this–and readers who don’t want to spend their time or money on books that aren’t ready for prime time aren’t excoriated for that–I see no problem.

By the way, readers get better with practice too. The more you read, the easier it becomes to lose a connection with a poorly written book.

The self-published arena is mind-bogglingly huge. I’m not saying that every self-published book was written by someone just learning how to write. I am not talking about writers who have been doing this a while and who have established a readership. Their decision to self-publish is primarily a business decision. Their readers will find their books wherever they are. They don’t need me telling them how to produce a high-quality product.

Who am I talking to? I’m talking to writers who are learning and who aspire to become better at what they do so they can reach more readers.

If, as a writer, you want to be favorably reviewed–not by Joe Schmo book blogger, but by professional publications whose recommendations you can use to help sell your book–then you need to worry about quality. If you want to be considered for prizes, then you need to worry about quality. If you want to get your book into libraries–and libraries are a primary market for many children’s books*–then you need to worry about quality. If you want to attract readers who primarily read traditionally published books–who are looking for a great read and nothing more–then you need to worry about quality.

If you have such aspirations and you decide to self-publish, then you need to make your book the best it can be. You will be up against not only all of the barriers that all writers face, but also the stigma of self-publishing in general. Rightly or wrongly, self-published books in general have a reputation for low quality. Even if you in particular are an outstanding writer who pays scrupulous attention to crafting your books, you still have to contend with the fact that the majority of self-published authors do not. By some counts, up to a million books are self-published each year. Think about that.

In future posts, I will talk more specifically about common mistakes I see and how writers can improve the quality of their work. This is meant to be advice, not prescriptive. Take it or leave it. Note that comments are moderated and I do have a commenting policy here.

*Please, if you write for children, please use correct spelling and grammar. They are just beginning to learn the language. They deserve competent teachers.

As a review, here are my ten markers for a minimum baseline of quality fiction writing, slightly updated:

  1. Spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word usage are mostly correct. 
  2. Verb tense is consistent. 
  3. Point of view is consistent. 
  4. Character names are consistent. So are other facts given in the text.
  5. Sentence structure has some variety and complexity.
  6. There is a balance in dialogue, exposition, and action.
  7. Exposition isn’t given primarily through dialogue. 
  8. Characters have some non-stereotyped development.
  9. There is some plot and plot points make sense.
  10. The story is not overly didactic; the author’s voice does not noticeably intrude.