When book bloggers hit the wall

Tobias Buckell writes about a book blogger who struggles with how to keep his reviews original after reading huge volumes of books. I write reviews for The New Podler Review of Books, so Buckell’s piece hit home for me.

1) When you get to a point where you’ve read an amazing number of books, you change. You’ve read so much that what may seem new or interesting to most (and even to the writer of the book you’re reading) is just a variation to you. Your expectations regarding the work change.

2) If you’re able to either unconsciously or consciously navigate the above, what you’re left with isn’t a raw, initial passion for reviewing what you love, but a more craftman’s-like examination of the book for an audience you may no longer really be a part of, but can remember being a part of. It’s easy to slip into this vein, by will or luck, because it does allow you to keep reading a ton while reporting back on the basics of what you read.

What those reviews are basically covering is “If you like X sort of thing, this hits X okay, with some additional Y and Z, if you also are into that.” Do they feel sucked dry of a bit of the reviewer’s authorial voice? Yeah, probably, because the reviewer has had to step back out of necessity in order to report back to a larger audience.

I see lots of queries at New Podler for well-written books. But lately I find myself passing over queries that I may have once grabbed simply because they sound like books I’ve already read. And when I do take a book, I feel like my reviews are “craftman’s-like” as Buckell described.

I still love discovering new authors and reviewing books. But how do I learn to see the unique wonder in each book I review, rather than its similarities to other books I’ve read? Buckell touches on the answer:

At a workshop not too many years ago a newer writer began to condemn a best selling novel, pointing out all its flaws and jagged edges. I listened for a long time, nodding.

“All those things are true,” I said. […] “But until you learn what the good parts were that excited the reader, you’re always going to be bitterly upset about what is wrong with that bestseller. Learn to spot what worked in that book, and you’ll be able to move forward. And you’ll be a lot less upset all the time as well.”

Good advice.

Posted in book reviews, novels, writing | 1 Comment

AmWriting: Seven simple steps for writing a novel

I love books on writing. I have over three dozen on my bookshelf right now, and I’ve checked out numerous writing books from the library over the years.

My writing process is a mish-mash of the techniques I’ve learned from all those books, so I in no way claim the following is original. It sits atop the shoulders of giants, so to speak.

1. The Question

I start with the Question — what is my novel’s core conflict in one or two sentences? Jim Butcher wrote an invaluable template that helps me find that conflict:

*WHEN SOMETHING HAPPENS*, *YOUR PROTAGONIST* *PURSUES A GOAL*. But will he succeed when *ANTAGONIST PROVIDES OPPOSITION*?

For example, the Question for MUSES OF ROMA would go like this:

When a high-ranking Roman official wants to defect to Libertus, former Liberti security agent Kaeso Aemelius infiltrates Roma to help the official escape. But can Kaeso succeed when Roman and Liberti agents want to stop the defector from revealing how the last thousand years of human history were built on a lie?

For me, it’s much easier to write this before I start my book than after I finish — while writing queries or cover copy — because I don’t have all the other plot threads I developed bouncing around in my head.

2. Who gets screwed?

The book’s main characters should be the people who get screwed the worst. I mean, who wants to read about characters where everything goes right in their lives?

My Question in step 1 comes with characters built in — Kaeso Aemilius, the defector, and Roman and Liberti agents. Kaeso is the protagonist and “Roman and Liberti agents” are nebulous antagonists (for now). I use a Character Sheet to detail their backgrounds, wants, inner conflicts, and traits.

3. Plot Points

I spend one to three pages outlining the book’s major plot points. Many of my plot ideas come from the Character Sheets, especially the “Conflicts” and “Change” sections. These plot points typically change as I write, but I like to get them down so I have some idea where the book is going before I start my main outline:

  1. Inciting Event — The event that gets the story rolling.
  2. End of Act 1 / Start Act 2 — The hero accepts the story’s “call to adventure” and makes a decision that turns his world upside down.
  3. Big Middle — Another suggestion from Jim Butcher – have something explosive happen in the middle of the book, something that turns the plot on its head and forces the hero to make decisions that further complicate matters.
  4. End of Act 2 / Start Act 3 — The hero figures out what he needs to do to resolve the book’s main conflict (see the Question) and sets out to do it.
  5. End of Act 3 — The hero resolves the conflict and is changed because of it (i.e., “I learned something today…”).

4. Scenes and Sequels

Many authors shudder at what I’m about to describe, but trust me — this technique changed my writing. This is another Jim Butcher suggestion, but I also found similar suggestions in Dwight Swain’s classic Techniques of the Selling Writer.

A well-constructed story is made up of Scenes and Sequels:

  • A Scene is where a character has a specific goal, he engages in some sort of conflict while trying to achieve that goal, but then fails to achieve the goal (or he succeeds, but his success creates a new problem that he needs to solve).
  • A Sequel is where the hero has an emotional reaction to the failure, reviews what happened, wonders what his options are, and then decides on a new goal.

So the order goes Scene/Sequel/Scene/Sequel/Scene/Sequel…until the final Scene where the hero resolves the story Question.

This is a gross oversimplification of the Scene/Sequel concept, so I urge you to read Jim’s web site and pick up Dwight Swain’s book for more details. Feel free to use my own Scene/Sequel template.

5. Write the first draft

The first draft is the easiest part for me because I’ve already done my “thinking” in the Scene/Sequel phase. I know exactly what’s going to happen; all I have to do is write it down. Some writers can’t imagine doing it this way (“I’d get bored if I already knew what was going to happen!”), but for me it is comforting and essential to have that Scene/Sequel map.

I typically average 1,000 words per day, which takes me about an hour (an hour is usually all I have!). To accomplish my word quota, I keep in mind Anne Lamott’s liberating advice from Bird by Bird — accept the fact that first drafts are shit. Your goal in the first draft is to just write it down and then fix it later.

6. Later

After celebrating my novel’s completion with an expensive steak dinner, I move on to the “fix it later” phase. This is where I fix plot holes, reign in and/or eliminate characters who don’t serve the story, and just ensure the whole thing makes sense. I tend to read the entire book out loud in this step.

7. Beautify and tighten the prose

There are actually two phases in this step: language edits and copy edits.

The language edit is where I read through the book again and make the writing as powerful, beautiful, and cliche-less as I can make it. I only focus on the language and not plot/character/etc. (which should have been addressed in step 6).

Copy edits are next. For this phase, I use another little book that transformed my writing: Ken Rand’s The 10% Solution. Rand provides a list of keywords and letters that tend to weaken prose, such as “of” or “-ly”. I search for those keywords and, in most cases, rewrite the sentences where I find them. The goal is to eliminate unnecessary words from the manuscript and reduce the word count by at least 10% (in my case, it’s usually 15%-20%). I never realized how bloated my writing was until I used Rand’s techniques.

And that’s it!

Simple, but certainly not easy.

What’s your writing process? If you’re not a writer, what’s your process for your favorite creative passion?

Posted in amwriting, books, writing | 2 Comments

Marcus Antonius?

I like Tor.com’s explanation best for the giant styrofoam head found floating in the Hudson River last week:

This past Thursday a giant styrofoam head turned up in the Hudson River. Our suspicion is that it fell through from an alternate 2013 timeline where the Roman Empire never fell.

My second favorite explanation: it fell off a Mardi Gras float in New Orleans and made it’s way up the East Coast via the Gulf Stream. I guess that’s more likely.

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AmWriting: Research is writing, too!

It helps that I love all things ancient Rome; I’ve spent almost as much time researching my MUSES OF ROMA series as I have writing it. From books to web sites to pod casts to multiple viewings of the HBO series Rome (both seasons), I’ve covered a lot.

Obviously I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the available material, but here are some of the resources I found helpful and/or interesting during my research.

The Rise of Rome by Anthony Everitt
Concise and entertaining history of how Rome went from a backwater trading post in 800 BCE to the world’s greatest empire in 1 AD.

Ancient Rome by Simon Baker
Looking for an overview of Rome’s entire history? This book covers the entire history of the Roman Empire, from its mythical origens to the abdication of the last Emperor in 476 AD.

Roma by Steven Saylor
It’s Everitt’s Rise of Rome meets a John Jakes novel. Roma follows two Roman families from the founding to the rise of Octavian Caesar Augustus. I took a lot of inspiration from this one.

A Gladiator Only Dies Once by Steven Saylor
Short stories about Gordianus the Finder, an ancient Roman private investigator. Great look at life in everyday ancient Rome.

History of Rome Podcasts by Mike Duncan
Better than the college history courses I took on the subject! Mike is passionate about Rome and he knows his stuff.

Nova Roma: Choosing a Roman Name
Lots of Roman names in my books, of course, and I would’ve been lost without this web site’s explanations of Roman naming customs and lists of common Roman family names, first names, and nicknames.

Posted in amwriting, MUSES OF ROMA, novels, writing | 2 Comments

Happy Birthday, Rome

The Eternal City of Rome is 2,766 years old as of 4/21/13…if you go by the day Romulus and Remus, who were conceived by the war god Mars and a Vestal Virgin, raised the city’s first walls.

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AmWriting: Three goals for my new blog series

My goal is to write a post each week about my experiences writing my current work-in-progress, the third book in my MUSES OF ROMA sci-fi/alt-history epic.  I’m going to call this series “AmWriting,” after the popular Twitter hashtag of the same name.

What do I hope to accomplish with these posts? Well…

Goal #1: I need content!

Coming up with blog ideas is hard, folks, so I need something to write about each week. I may detail my writing process, provide an interesting gem I learned from my Roman/scientific/etc. research, talk about marketing/social media ideas for authors, or simply whine about how hard writing is, and that I should just give up now, and that I feel like one of those American Idol contestants who don’t know how bad they are–

Whoa. I’ll save that for a future post.

Goal #2: Paying it forward

I’ve been studying the fiction craft for over ten years. I’ve learned a few things here and there. If any of my posts inspire one budding writer to start the first sentence of her first novel, then I’d consider goal #2 accomplished.

Goal #3: Buzzzzz…

I got the idea for this series from the CreateSpace Community blog, which suggested that writing about your experiences while writing a book is a good way to generate buzz about said book before it’s published. Whether I go traditional or indie with my MUSES OF ROMA series, any pre-publication buzz, such as it is, will come in handy.

So. I can’t guarantee every post will be helpful, but I’ll sure try to make it interesting.

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Balancing Productivity and Happiness

Micah Wedemeyer writes on Lifehacker.com that lost in the debate regarding telecommuting and productivity is personal happiness.

Even if it were true that telecommuters are less productive than office workers (a point he does not concede), so what?

If maximizing productivity for the company is all that matters, then you should never drink alcohol, always get a good night’s sleep but not too much, take an even measure of Adderall and caffeine every day, never have children, and take all sick relatives off life support. Ridiculous, right? That’s because workplace productivity is not the be-all-end-all of our lives. And for me, working from home provides the right balance of productivity and happiness.

It’s that balance that companies should focus on, not whether an employee works in the office or telecommutes. Lean too far to the “happiness” side and business urgency may be lost; lean too far to the “productivity” side and employees will burn out and quit the first chance they get.

Companies that get the balance right will have engaged, motivated employees regardless of where they work.

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Book Review: In a Season of Dead Weather by Mark Fuller Dillon

Originally posted at the New Podler Review of Books.

Grab a comfy chair by the fire, a hot drink, and a book of good horror stories.  Those rattling shutters outside?  Just the blowing snow.  Those shadows dancing in the corner?  Fire light, nothing more.  And the whispers behind your chair are your imagination.

Maybe.

That’s the feeling Mark Fuller Dillon conveys throughout his short story collection In a Season of Dead Weather. In most of the stories, it was never quite clear whether the “horror” was in the narrator’s mind or if it was real. The reader was left to interpret at the end.

And that worked for me. Each Lovecraftian tale was expertly crafted, with poetic and visceral language describing characters enduring the loneliness and isolation of a long winter in the country or the city. Dillon is a Quebec native, so he’s no stranger to maddeningly endless winters (I’m a west Michigan native, so I can sympathize).

Most of the stories were quite literary and a little confusing to me, a genre reader. But their narrative styles, descriptions, and situations were so unique that I found myself eager to read on just to hear the language rather than find out what happens to the characters.

In the first story, “Lamia Dance,” a medical student takes a break from his studies – and braves the snow – to attend a film festival where see a film that brings back haunting memories from his childhood. The film’s images of violence and anatomy seemed quite erotic to the narrator. “Lamia Dance” was either a story about being pushed into a profession that the narrator did not choose for himself…or about a budding serial killer.

In “Never Noticed, Never There,” Tom Lighden sees ghastly apparitions in terrible pain on the streets of Ottawa. He is the only one who sees them, as every one else simply walks past them without a second glance. Dillon implies that society has become good at ignoring the pain of others, as we are too busy with our own lives to notice.

If you’ve ever been stuck alone in the woods during winter, you’ll understand the characters’ bleak situations in “Shadows in the Sunrise,” “The Vast Importance of the Night,” and “Who Would Remain?” Blizzards keep the narrators from civilization, they lose time, and see clawing shadows. Is it madness, ghosts, alien abductions? The reader is left to wonder if it’s all real or if winter has claimed the characters’ sanity. While the three stories had similar themes, their unique characters and situations sufficiently differentiated them.

“The Weight of Its Awareness” had a middle-aged man revisiting a seemingly deserted, walled-off home that he originally tried to explore when he was eighteen. Grotesque sculptures now decorate the gardens, and a dark presence spies him from the home’s blackened windows and infects his mind. The story seemed like an extreme version of “curiosity killed the cat.” It was the weakest of the seven stories for me; although “weak” is a relative term since even this story kept me enthralled.

The strongest story for me was “When the Echo Hates the Voice.” Paul Bertrand is a brilliant, handsome young man who’s always the life of any social gathering and constantly seeks any excuse to be around people. The reason is that he cannot stand to be alone, for that is when the voices and faces visit him. Told by a narrator observing Paul, the story suggests a struggle between two personalities: one that seeks companionship and social reward, and one that seeks to keep us isolated from each other.

As I said at the beginning, I’m a genre reader and rarely read stories just for their styles and language. Dillon’s In a Season of Dead Weather is one of those rare works that can make even a genre reader like me want to take a second look at the literary. Highly recommended.

Available on Smashwords.com.

Posted in book reviews, books, short stories, Smashwords | Leave a comment

Telecommuter Blues

Last week Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer launched a brouhaha regarding telecommuting by mostly banning the practice at Yahoo (turns out that genuine abuse may have prompted the decision).

Now Best Buy has ended its ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) policy for corporate employees for much the same reasons as Yahoo.

I’ve been a full-time telecommuter for six out of the last ten years, so I thought I’d weigh in:

  1. Successful telecommuting requires managers to communicate clear, measurable goals that telecommuters must attain. If those goals are not being met — as with any office employee — then it’s incumbent upon leadership to follow up with the employee to find out what happened. If telecommuting employees consistently do not meet their goals, then fire them just like any office employee.
  2. Employees can “slack off” in an office just as well as from home. I used to work in an office cubicle next to guys who’d spend hours each day talking about their fantasy football line-ups; the ladies on the other side of me grumbled about the latest singer to get booted off American Idol. Working in an office does not stop “slacking.”

    It goes back to expectations and goals — if telecommuters are meeting and/or exceeding their goals, then why should it matter if they spend a five hours a day on Facebook? And if the goals/expectations are too light, then shouldn’t managers adjust them to fill out the employee’s day?

  3. Yahoo says they need “all hands on deck” for face-to-face collaboration. This is the flimsiest of their excuses, especially from an internet company. There are plenty of thriving companies today with remote employees who collaborate just fine. Again, if collaboration is not taking place among telecommuters, then that is a failure of leadership and imaginative use of existing technology, not telecommuting.
  4. However, telecommuting is not for every one or every job. Some people are more productive in an office setting, while others are more productive when they work quietly by themselves. Some jobs require office “face time,” while others can be done at home. It should be up to managers and employees to decide which situation fits the job and the person.

Telecommuting is a valid work option for managers and employees who agree to clear expectations and goals. Banning it for everyone is lazy policy and makes a company look desperate.

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USCF’s fancy new cards

My new US Chess Federation membership card came in the mail today. I’ve been a member since 2004 and they always gave us little, perforated paper cutout cards.

But now, behold, they come in plastic! So proud to be a card carrying nerd.

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